Translated from Hebrew by the author, Lavie Tidhar. The English language version of this story was originally published in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow.
Shira n. (Hebrew: שִׁירָה)
- Singing ; Poetry ; (Biblical) Song
- A contemporary girl's name
Nur remembered a paragraph from one of Tirosh's poems, from the single book he published, two years before the twentieth century came to an end: "The morning rises: another train station. The skies are a dark blue and the streetlamps are lit; people, like the sunken chests of ancient treasures, sit in their depths. It is too early to begin a rescue operation: for a short while, before the sun rises, we are alone." She didn't like the imagery, did not find in it the originality required to make the poem anything other than minor, but still … she thought about it now, because in his way, Tirosh had captured, in the poem, a certain essence of what it meant to travel alone.
Damascus Station had an official name that was not used; for the city's residents, at least, it had only one name, a linguistic combination that made those few who protected the language grow angry every time it was used: Dimashq-Central. Through the station's transparent dome, the sky appeared almost purple, and the cold air-conditioned atmosphere raised expectations for another day of khamsin. Nur thought she'd be glad not to be in the city during the heat wave but now, before boarding the train, a ticket in her hand and a small, friendly suitcase following her devoutly, she no longer knew how she felt.
Even at such an early hour of the morning there were people at the station, and a few shops were open. Nur bought the morning edition of Al-Iktissadiya and then, on her way to the platform, discovered a small branch of Steimatzky. She had once read that one of the first branches of Steimatzky, that conglomerate of Hebrew booksellers, was in Damascus, in the early years of the twentieth century, an interesting fact without much practical use, one of the many she had collected at the university. Still, something in the historical connection attracted her, and on the spur of the moment she entered the shop.
Unlike the large bookshops in the city centre, this one was in effect a hole in the wall, dark in the way of secondhand bookshops and with the same dry smell in the air. An employee who seemed no more than eighteen napped behind a counter, and the shop was otherwise empty. Nur went straight to the poetry shelves. The books appeared not used but merely old, as if they had been sitting on the shelves for a very long time without buyers or readers. But most of the poetry was modern, a poetry-of-After, and Nur was never able to get excited over modern Hebrew poetry. Poetry of the end of the twentieth century, of the Fin-de-Siecle, was her interest, and within it her dissertation focused on that unknown poet, Lior Tirosh, whose only book, Remnants of God, she had found by chance in the flea market of Damascus and of which she had not since seen another copy. If only she could use the database of the Hebrew Library in Jerusalem … but of course, the Small Holocaust prevented that years ago.
She left the shop without a book and went to platform eighteen, the terminal for Haifa. The train was a many-eyed, silver bullet. Dark windows seemed to her like mirrorshades. She found her carriage and climbed on board.
At this early hour the number of passengers travelling to Haifa was small. Nur sat by herself in a seat by the window and waited for her journey to start.
The suitcase followed her to the train and now waited politely by her feet. Nur motioned for it to come closer, and took out the book. It was this book that pushed her to go to this city, which she had never before visited. A book no one knew but her, or so it had seemed since she found it, while working on the completion of her thesis, "On the Vision of the Small Holocaust in the Work of Lior Tirosh."
Remnants of God. The title, as ostentatious as it was, seemed to her merely a sign of youth, the sophomore title of a young—though talented—poet. Nur found it in Ismail Emporium, a secondhand bookshop by the university. A slim volume in hardcover, and the date, in Roman numerals as ostentatious as the title, was MCMXCVIII. The name of the poet was unfamiliar to her, and the mark of the year—was that really a first edition, a poetry book from before the Small Holocaust?—made her shiver, and bargain almost angrily with the bookseller. Ismail, in the end, gave her the book almost for free—"Who buys Hebrew Poetry, who? Only your crowd at the university, and you don't have money anyhow"—and Nur took it to her small room in the university buildings and began to read the poems.
They were a mixed assemblage. Many of the poems formed a sort of travel journal, with date-marks from Europe and Africa. Tirosh travelled a lot while writing the poems, and wrote about the places he'd been. There were also some love poems, and some poems in a more surrealist style. The poems of a young poet: he was not a Yehuda Amichai or a Dan Pagis, but he had promise.
She kept returning to the poem that was, perhaps, the silliest, “Little God,” but, that nevertheless successfully combined for her two of the subjects that had preoccupied Tirosh in all of his poems:
In the skies the weather forecast was written with a spit-wet finger
On the radio the winds blew from station to station
Little God sat on a rock, catching yellow fish.
The weatherman said to expect a heat wave
Little God took off his clothes
Jumped in the water, amongst the yellow fish he swam
His little penis piercing the water layers without resistance.
The sea danced to the sounds of sunset
The winds calmed down, gone home to sleep
Perhaps watch a film
Little God stayed alone in the water
Happy among the yellow fish
Soon he may come out
Develop lungs grow hands
Stand erect, maybe even
The poem showed Tirosh's continuous engagement with the question of the existence of God, of the struggle between religion and the science he seemed to have believed in. The combination of God and evolutionary theory in a poem that drew on an English Nonsense tradition for its purpose was of little significance, perhaps, but interesting for Nur. In another poem he wrote: "God is a teacher in Malawi / Had hardly finished High School / He doesn't know what are vibrations / Or who is Neil Armstrong / But knows when to punish and when to reward."
The doors closed with an exhalation of air, the suitcase retreated behind Nur's legs and hid there, and the train was on its way, passing out of the transparent dome of Damascus Station, its face towards the distant sea. Nur put the book on her knees and watched the streets of Damascus wake. Tall office buildings hid the sun. The streets began to fill with people. There was a tension rising inside her, a reluctance to leave her city behind. Nur did not like to travel; she liked to read. And perhaps, she thought, returning to the subject that had occupied her in the last few months, perhaps that was why she liked Tirosh: he travelled, she felt, for her sake.
More than the other poems, however, it was the obviously political writing that interested Nur. Despite their small number they had a power, a combination of passion and anger, on the one hand the desire to get involved and, on the other, it seemed to her that the poet had wanted to stand with his arms crossed and say, "Not playing," an image that never failed to make her smile.
One of his quieter poems was "I, Jonathan":
In Sweden, the Arab-Israeli conflict is reduced to the television screen.
In Sweden, it is cold, the last of the Vikings emigrated to Valhalla many years ago.
In Sweden, it is cold and quiet.
Magdalena rolls on the tongue the foreign words:
"Shalom," "Home," "The Western Wall"
Outside the snow falls, oblivious.
The descendents of the Vikings do not want to fight.
Neither do I.
From here everything seems blurry,
Like a dream
(like a violent video movie,
Like an original story by the Brothers Grimm)
It is cold and quiet and peaceful
And I tire of metaphors,
Tire of death.
The Vikings will no longer set out to conquer new lands.
Magdalena is restless
She wants to go out, drink, dance.
I, a descendant of Absalom and David,
Still hear the King's battle cry
The crying of his son in the oak.
And, in the distance, Jonathan
Looking for love
Who would go time after time
To seek his death on the battlefields.
Nur stretched her legs and settled deeper into the book. From here everything appears blurry, Tirosh had written, and though Nur would have preferred the poem without the lines that immediately followed, the forced similes of movie and story, the clear language and the final metaphor attracted her in their simplicity. She could have written her entire thesis on these poems without a qualm, but it was the cycle of poems that closed the book, with its cryptic notes and hints of the future, that called her at last from the depths of the past and caused her to sit on the empty train at this hour in the early morning, on her way to distant Al-Khaifa.
Nur opened the book on page seventy one and began to read that last, strange poem …
Tirosh once wrote a cycle of haikus about his trip through Europe. "The Mediterranean waves / in a temper / after two months of parting," she remembered (Tirosh did not pay much attention to the number of syllables, regrettably, and the poems were not true haiku), and looked through the window: the Mediterranean looked calm and inviting, a distant flash of bright light was probably the enormous golden dome of the Baha'i temple, and the green mountain in the distance was likely the forested Carmel. She put her face to the window and gazed, fascinated, at the approaching city. Haifa, who some called the Replacement City, was busy with erected mosques and synagogues and churches, but soon the train was past the religious quarter and into the city proper: Nur grew up in a neighbourhood whose residents were mostly descendants of the first aliyah to Syria after the Small Holocaust and now, in the slow journey through the city, the many signs that advertised new books in Hebrew brought her an unexpected pleasure.
The train slowed and finally stopped underneath a different dome, at a platform that announced itself energetically as the International Terminal. Nur rose and stretched, and the suitcase ran excitedly across the aisle like a rabbit released into freedom. Together they got off the train, and Nur found herself before a crowd of strangers, all but one calling names that weren't her own.
"Nur? Nur Husseini?" A woman in a summery dress approached her, hand outstretched. "You're Nur? From Damascus University?"
"Nu, so who would I be, Golda Meir?" the woman winked at her and Nur laughed. "Very nice to meet you."
"You, too. Are you hungry? Do you want to stop and drink something before we go back to the flat? Don't worry, I prepared the guest room and a whole pile of poetry books I want your opinion on. How was the journey? Did you bring newspapers?"
Nur said that no, she wasn't hungry, that she would be glad to go straight to the flat, that she was grateful for the hospitality and would be happy to read the poetry books, that the journey was fine and that if Shulamit wanted a paper she brought with her a copy of Al-Iktissadiya which she hadn't read and was not going to anymore.
Without noticing, while talking, Nur found herself in the complex network of the Carmelit, Haifa's ancient subway, made simple under Shulamit's guidance, and then they were no longer inside the Carmelit but outside, in the cool air of the mountain Nur saw from the train, and the Mediterranean was spread below them like the map of another world.
"Welcome to Haifa," Shulamit said.
Her flat was on the third floor of an apartment-block built, so she said to Nur, in the last years before the Small Holocaust. At this point, upon using the term, she stopped and looked at Nur with an examining gaze. "It is hard for my generations to use those words, at least in public," she said. "If you talk to people in the street, you'll see we hardly ever refer to the destruction knowingly. People say "Before" or "After," without saying what."
Nur nodded; it was the habit in the neighbourhood where she grew up, and at the university, which many Palestinians attended. Of course, she thought now, sitting on Shulamit's flowery sofa with her face to the small balcony and to the breeze blowing in from the Mediterranean Sea, the problem was with the expression itself: the Small Holocaust, as if it was not important enough, painful enough, as if the event was almost insignificant. People did not know what to call the wound that had erupted in their history, did not how to define in words what had happened, and instead denied its existence with their silence. There were those amongst the orthodox Jews who called the event "the Third Destruction," and the academics still referred to it as "The Small Holocaust," but to most people there was no name for the event that brought with it such devastation—but also led to the growth of a new and unexpected flower: peace.
Tirosh, who chased peace without success between the pages of his slim book, refused to identify with one side or another; Tirosh's criticism, Nur thought, was of human nature itself. "There are words I do not like," he once wrote." especially 'inevitable', when coupled with 'war'."
More lines rose in her mind. "What, after all, has happened," Tirosh wrote in his poem "Shalom, Friend," whose title itself, so Nur argued in her thesis, ridiculed a collective ritual of mourning, "the prime minister was murdered / It isn't the first political assassination in history;
And I, I don't belong to the children crying in the Square,
More to those who smoke marijuana on the beach
In Malawi, perhaps those who
Wander in an acid trip
(Hebrew is not a suitable language for writing
About drugs). People here prefer television,
News and terror attacks.
She wondered what it was like, growing up in the world Before. In her world, the world that came After, television and terror attacks were things that belonged to another time, and the news in Al-Iktissadiya tended to the economic and scientific alongside large parts devoted to entertainment and even, here and there, to literature. In fact, the editor of one of the networks, whom she met at some book launch about a month before, had already expressed interest in publishing her thesis. She told this now to Shulamit, who returned from the small kitchen carrying on a tray a carafe of lemonade full of nana—mint—two tall glasses and a plateful of cookies. "From the shop," she said and poured Nur a glass of lemonade. "I still remember my grandfather baking us cookies, but I didn't inherit his cooking ability, or the interest.
"I'm sure your work will have plenty of readers," she added. "I read the copy you sent me and it seemed interesting, a little esoteric for my taste maybe, but interesting. What are you going to do first?"
Nur sipped the cold drink and smiled. She had liked Shulamit almost immediately, and felt much calmer now than she had as she was leaving Damascus. "I thought I'd start in the New National Library, try and find something in the archives that still hadn't been through sorting and scanning. Then the Book Museum, the Haifa Museum, the National Museum, do the same thing, and then look in the secondhand bookshops—if there is one place where I can find something new by Tirosh, or even information about the man himself, it would be here."
Shulamit nodded. "A good plan," she said. "I'll arrange a few meetings for you—there's a collector of poetry books I know who might be able to help, and I thought you could also go out of town, there's the archive in Akra and some others." A smile framed her face; Nur thought it was a pleasant face, open and comforting, and the thought raised in her a smile in reply.
"It will be a lot of work for you to find anything," Shulamit said.
"I know," Nur said. "But the chase is part of the fun."
Shulamit nodded in agreement, and they sat comfortably and drank lemonade, and discussed poetry.
At the end, it took Nur less than seven hours to find the start of the thread in the maze, and it happened by chance, not in a dusty archive but at the dinner table.
"I invited a few people to meet you," Shulamit said. "I hope that's all right? I thought you could rest a little, I'll order dinner from the Indian restaurant on the corner—these are all interesting people, and they all really want to meet you."
Nur said that as far as she was concerned, it was perfectly fine, and that she'd be happy to meet Shulamit's friends. After a two hour rest in the guest room—which was indeed comfortably prepared for her, and was airy and spacious besides—she washed, and admitted to herself that she did not feel bad at all. The morning doubts had passed and in their place an expectation remained, accompanied by an unexpected feeling of confidence. In the coming days, she felt with a certainty that surprised her, she would meet Tirosh: it was as though he waited for her, somewhere in the twisting streets of the city that sprawled below.
First to appear was Keren Nevoh, about forty, pretty, a lecturer on the Renaissance at Haifa University. She switched between Hebrew, and a Lebanese Arabic that Nur found hard to understand. Eduard Abdallah—"But call me Eddie"—was thin and tall and talked enthusiastically about the mining initiatives in the asteroid belt. The last two guests appeared together. Shiri and Michal Livnat, identical rings on their fingers, holding hands. Michal explained with a shy smile that they had just returned from their honeymoon in Turkey. Shiri, it turned out, was a young poetess who worked in a combination of light sculpture and spoken poetry; while Michal, the quieter of the two women, was a project manager for a medium-sized wetware company in Tel Aviv.
Keren volunteered to go with Shulamit to get the food and Nur remained to talk with Eddie, Shiri, and Michal.
"So what's your thesis about?" Shiri asked. "Shulamit was pretty mysterious when I asked. She didn't volunteer too many details." She looked at Nur expectantly, and Nur felt sudden embarrassment. She didn't talk much about Tirosh's work and now, with an audience of listening Israelis, was unsure what to say. She explained about finding the book, about her interest in the years that came Before. About Tirosh's political poems, and about his other poems also, the few love poems and the travel journal that read like a lyrical diary. She discovered in herself a confidence while she spoke, a passion for the subject that had never left her. She almost didn't notice the passage of time, and was surprised when Shulamit and Keren returned, laden with food.
"Did you tell them about 'Song to Myself'?" Shulamit asked. "Tell them, tell them. It's fascinating." As she spoke she prepared the table, laying plates heaped with food on the tablecloth.
"Isn't that the title of a poem by Walt Whitman?" Shiri asked.
Shulamit nodded in agreement. "Yes, yes, this Tirosh liked to quote. The entire poem is some kind of an attempt to rewrite Whitman in Hebrew. In my opinion," she said, and looked at Nur, who laughed and said that she was right, Tirosh was heavily influenced by Whitman in the poem, but that he combined in it a larger number of references to other works than in any of his other poems. "For instance," she said, "the Hagadah, the Bible, and other Hebrew poets from that period, like Yehuda Amichai and Chana Senesh."
"What's the poem about?" Eddie asked, and his expression seemed bothered, as if he was trying to remember something he had forgotten.
"That's it, that in Nur's opinion Tirosh is talking in the poem about the Small Holocaust," Shulamit said with an undecipherable look.
"I don't understand," Michal said. "It was written Before, wasn't it? So what, you're saying he predicted the future?"
"'And lest I forget you, Jerusalem?'" Nur quoted. She felt a tightness in her throat, and the atmosphere in the room changed, became attentive, almost tense. "'The city is built on a thousand years of shit and death, a Troy of / holy destruction, a bastard daughter to a multitude of religions / worshipping death.'" The food sat on the plates. "'I let the dead bury the dead / in large mounds of dust / let the living take care each of himself / All are the same in sleep and in death / each man and his unique oblivion disappear in a final aktzia / into the darkness of memory.'"
She fell silent, played with a fork nervously.
"Go on," Michal said. She held on to Shiri's hand like a shield. "Please."
"I don't understand," Keren said. "Just because he writes like this about Jerusalem, it doesn't mean …" she turned her head to Shulamit, who sat at the head of the table, as if asking for help.
"He wrote more than that," Shulamit said. "I don't remember how it goes, Nur …?"
Nur made herself put the fork down on the table. "'Let the sun rise,'" she quoted, feeling sweat now despite the cool breeze blowing in from the sea, "'let the atom bombs fall in a splendorous bounty of cataclysmic mushrooms / let the morning shine on a brave, new world / let the nuclear fallout spread like a sea of shibboleths.'" She skipped several lines and said, quietly, "'let us fade like a blessed match, that burned and consumed hearts.'"
"The Small Holocaust wasn't nuclear," Eddie said. "But I see what you mean. He wrote as if one was the product of the other. As if some kind of holocaust had to, even should have, taken place."
Nur nodded without words, grateful for his understanding. Shiri smiled. "Let the sun rise," she said, "That's Rotblit's Song of Peace, isn't it?"
"Yes," Shulamit said. "And that last line is from Senesh. I said he liked to quote." She stretched in her seat and began to serve food. "Keren, toss the salad, will you? Eat, eat, before it gets cold."
Nur and Eddie stood on the balcony and looked at the city's lights. The sounds of conversations and traffic and competing music emanated from below.
"The entire meal something's been bothering me," Eddie said. "Like I've already come across this name once. Lior Tirosh. I have no idea how, it's not as if I read much poetry, not to say in Hebrew, but I know I came across it somewhere."
He fell silent and looked at the view. "It's different in space," he said suddenly. "In the halfway point between Earth and Mars there are two days of weightlessness, and then you can float in perfect silence and look out on the entire universe. It can change people's perspective." He laughed. "Even though most of us remain the same, whether we're in space or not."
Nur, who enjoyed the food and felt much better when the conversation moved from her work to other subjects, looked at the slopes of the Carmel and said, "Things aren't bad here, either."
Eddie laughed. "Your Tirosh, he didn't sound like a happy person, from what you quoted."
"He cared," Nur said. "That's what I like about him. The poetry sometimes fails, sometimes he can't say exactly what he means. But he cares. Besides," she shrugged her shoulders and smiled, "of all the travelling and the marijuana he writes about, it sounds to me like he didn't particularly suffer."
She tried not to rise to Eddie's comment about recognising Tirosh's name. Did not want to be disappointed so soon into her journey; but she felt the stirrings of excitement taking root in her heart.
"If I remember," Eddie said, "I'll call you straight away and let you know."
Nur raised her wine glass in salute, and Eddie raised his grape juice against her.
"Cheers," he said.
"Le'chaim," Nur said, and they both laughed.
Eddie called when Nur and Shulamit sat down with their coffee in the morning.
"I remembered," he said in victory. "I knew I recognised the name from somewhere."
"Where from?" Nur asked. She felt peaceful; since last night she was convinced that the contact would come, and now was not surprised.
Eddie sounded embarrassed. "Look, I have a friend who would know a lot more than me. I spoke to him and he'd be glad to meet you." He gave her the address, in Hachalutz Street, in the old quarter of Hadar.
"Thanks," Nur said, turning to Shulamit with a question in her eyes. Shulamit shrugged and whispered, "Haven't a clue."
Eddie hung up—hurriedly, Nur thought—and she got up and put her coffee on the table. There was no point waiting; she decided to leave immediately and meet Eddie's mysterious friend.
Shulamit wished her luck and gave her a map of the Carmelit; and in a short time Nur had left the apartment and walked to the nearest station. She found her way to Hachalutz Street Station and there, surrounded by the smells of frying falafel, shawarma, and roasted eggplant, which made her suddenly hungry, she walked up the street in search of the address, which turned out to be an apartment above a darkened bookshop that looked as if it had never been opened.
She rang the bell. "Mr. Katz?"
She waited, heard slow steps coming down hidden stairs.
The door opened slowly.
Mr. Katz was small of stature, with short silver hair and a dignified expression, like that of a lecturer on tenure.
"Nur?" He didn't wait for an answer but began climbing back up the stairs. Nur looked at Mr. Katz's back moving away, painfully slow. As they said in the neighbourhood … nu. She shrugged and smiled to herself and followed him up the stairs.
Mr. Katz's apartment was a temple of books. Old books hid in glass cabinets, were piled on the floor in-between, sat in boxes, winked behind flowerpots, rested on the windowsill; and on the walls … there were yellowing posters there: of monsters and spaceships, djinns and bronzed Amazonian warriors, weird creatures and the views of strange, other worlds …
"Mr. Katz?" Nur didn't know what to say. "You're not a poetry collector, are you?"
"Poetry?" Mr. Katz turned and faced her. "Poetry?" The hand that held the coffee spoon shook. "My dear, I have not read poetry since I was forced, at the age of eight, to recite Bialik's A Bird's Nest in front of the whole class. No, Ms. Husseini," he stretched as high as he could—"I collect science fiction."
"I don't understand," Nur said. They sat by a table laden with books and drank coffee. Nur bit on a cookie. "Eddie said you'd know about Lior Tirosh."
"Lior Tirosh," Mr. Katz said excitedly. "Of course. You say he wrote poetry too? Interesting. Very interesting. I'm very glad to meet another person who's interested in Tirosh. Fascinating."
"You say he also wrote science fiction?" Nur asked. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry; she didn't know what to expect, but … she refused to admit to herself that she was disappointed.
Mr. Katz's hand reached under the table and returned with an ancient-looking magazine; he laid it gently before Nur. "Groteska number forty-eight," he said fondly. "The longest-running magazine in the history of Israeli science fiction." He said it with the importance reserved for lecturers on the ages of the Enlightenment or Ancient Greece. "The only one to come out both Before and After. Sixty one volumes, a mixture of translated and original fiction." He smiled, as if to himself. "And, of course, Tirosh's stories."
Nur opened the pages of the magazine. The table of contents included, amongst story titles such as "War in Zero-g," "The Wolfmen of Tel Hannan" and "The Passion Knights of the Purple Planet" (to which, she noticed, was attached a detailed illustration) a story titled "Where All the Waters Meet" and next to it, in small letters, the name of the author: Lior Tirosh.
Nur felt dizzy. Up until now she had expected to find it had all been a mistake, that there were two people called Lior Tirosh, and that here was simply the wrong one. But she recognised the title of the story as a line from T. S. Eliot's poem, "Marina". In hands that have become suddenly greedy she turned the pages until she reached the story. She read it, the coffee cooling beside her, a lone cookie floating on the murky liquid.
The story told of an escaped convict, a murderer, who arrives by spaceship at a solar system where, in a giant asteroid belt revolving around the sun, lives a race of bee-like creatures. The queen of the aliens is telepathic, and in her conversations with the hero she is revealed to him not as a ruler but as a sex slave, her only role that of producing offspring. The human hero and the alien queen fall in love and try to escape. They fail, and the hero remains, as a punishment, in eternal sleep on a wandering asteroid; doomed to meet his lover only in dreams, in the place where, as Eliot wrote, all the waters meet.
Nur discovered her throat was dry. "How many stories did he write?" she whispered.
"I never counted," Mr. Katz said apologetically. "He appears in about half the volumes of Groteska, in all the volumes of Scanners in the Dark and The New Adventures of Captain Yuno, in one or two issues of The Tenth Dimension and of Travels Through Space and Time … I'm afraid you'll need to go over them one by one. It's also worth checking the other magazines, and there were also some original anthologies." He stood up. "The apartment is yours," he said. "I have to go open the shop. If I don't have a choice I might even sell something."
He smiled, wished her luck, and turned to the stairs.
Nur remained alone in the apartment, surrounded by books like walls.
She didn't know what she was looking for. A hint as to Tirosh's activity, perhaps, who seemed to have abandoned the writing of poetry after the publication of his first book and turned instead to writing stories that found a home only in the yellowing pages of the science fiction and fantasy magazines. An ex-boyfriend tried to interest her in science fiction once, and gave her the Al-Qaeda series of an American writer called Asimov, as well as some of the books from the Egyptian New Wave, but she had never been interested in that kind of writing: she preferred poetry, and autobiographies.
Tirosh, she discovered, was indeed productive. His stories returned again and again to the subjects dealt with in his poetry, and if he did not document the places where he had been then he did the places that existed elsewhere, in his imagination. He returned again and again to human nature, to war and peace, addiction and pain, God and religion, the need for belief and for absolution.
She moved her chair as the shadows migrated across the room, and read. Occasionally she prepared a cup of coffee. And read. Hours passed, and with them the day.
The room had turned almost entirely dark, and rain began to fall outside, when she found the story. She turned on the light. And read.
It appeared in volume thirteen of Groteska and was called, simply, "Shira."
In the story, Nur read, a woman wanders across the Middle East, restless and without direction. In a secondhand bookshop in Damascus she finds an old Hebrew poetry book whose title is Remnants of God. The poems awake in her something she does not understand, and on a spur of the moment she goes on a train journey towards Israel. A kind of holocaust has taken place in Israel's past; Tirosh avoided describing it in detail, but hinted that Jerusalem no longer existed, and that the nature of its destruction and the amount of pain it had caused brought, after a few years, to a peace born of shared victimhood, creating in this way a new Middle East that collectively mourned Jerusalem.
In the story, the heroine arrives in Haifa—which Tirosh called "the Replacement City"—and on a dark and moonless night meets a strange man who may or may not be the author of the collection of poems she found. They spend the night together, and in the morning the mysterious lover is gone. The ending was left ambiguous on purpose, the story ending the way it began, at a train station in the beginning—or perhaps the end of—a journey, leaving more questions than answers.
Nur felt herself disappearing inside Tirosh’s fiction, and shook herself with effort. She thought about the maze he had created for her, of the route she followed … became lost in? "In your subjective time," Tirosh wrote in Remnants of God, "like a tourist in Daedalus's maze, I am lost. Still charmed, looking in all directions. Not yet knowing that the thread is missing. And that you are built into the maze, and that there are no exits and no entrances." As if in response to the weight of the words in her head, light steps sounded climbing up the stairs and she looked to the door with relief, expecting Mr. Katz's lined face. She was about to call his name.
But the face that appeared in the open door were not Mr. Katz's. The man who stood in the doorway was of an average height, with dark, curly hair that began receding across his forehead. He had a nice smile, and he looked at her for a long moment with a gaze that made her blush.
"What's the story?" he asked.
The question, with its dual meaning, made her smile.
He smiled back. Lines had begun to collect at the corners of his eyes, but the eyes themselves were clear and scrutinized her for a length of time. On the spur of the moment she rose and moved towards him, pulling him into the room through the open door. Nur, she whispered to herself. What are you doing? But in her heart she knew that the only way out of the maze is to walk it, until reaching the end.
"'Venus rises from the sea,'" he said, and leaned towards her. "'Perfect every time she is revealed / Born anew into an old photograph.'" He knelt by Nur's side and held her hand. "'She brings with her the scent of salt,'" he whispered, the smile retreating to the corners of his mouth, "'of drowned ships and ancient time / Venus calls in foreign tongues / cries only she understands.'"
"'She brings with her many things,'" Nur whispered, the words of the poem rising in her mind. "'But mainly memories / no matter, she will hold, calm, stroke …'" she fell quiet, looking into the eyes of the stranger before her.
His face was close to hers. His breath was warm, and he smelled of aftershave, and a little of sweat. "'The clocks move slower, tonight,'" he said.
"Who …?" Nur said. She didn't know what to say, what to ask. She looked into his eyes; he had long lashes and eyes that were sometimes green, sometimes brown. He shook his head; a no without words.
"'What do you teach me,'" he said into the stillness of her face, his lips close, so close she could almost feel, taste them. "'To hold hands in a crowd / your voice in the dark against my body, the nature / of thoughts is that they pass, I can't / commemorate you, in poem or / story or image / or memory / for its nature is to pass to fade to die …'"
"'And finally forget you,'" Nur whispered. "'Perhaps that composition called synesthesia, where the senses mix and merge, and sound becomes movement becomes taste/scent becomes touch/look,'" she bent close to him, unable to remove her gaze from his face, "'all the things that needed saying have been said.'"
"'And a confusion of the senses, you said,'" he whispered, and leaned to kiss her, "'is the most beautiful hell …'"
Nur tasted his lips. She held him, passed her fingers through his hair.
She undressed him slowly, stopping to breathe his body into her, to taste his naked skin; to preserve him in her mind.
"'I try to explain to myself the movement of the moon in water,'" he spoke into her shoulder and she shivered and pulled harder at his shirt, almost tearing it, "'in the darkness your nipples were coloured dark, and your lips had the taste of light to them.'" He kissed her neck slowly. "'Outside the rain fell, and in your movement of undressing there was the movement of the moon in water, your eyes drowned in flame …'"
Nur held him. "No words," she said.
He smiled, and they kissed. "No words," he agreed. The rain knocked on the window.
Already, your reflection fades.
Your image (breaking in the shop windows, in the fountains,
In the Seine) disappears. The same moon shines on both of us
In two different places.
Your name is missing from all the telephone directories.
She woke up in Shulamit's guest room. The sun shone through the window, and Nur felt as if she had woken up from a long dream; a dream that lasted months and years.
By the side of the bed was her creased copy of Remnants of God. She opened it.
In an unclear handwriting it said, "We'll always have Haifa". She laughed and threw the book on the bed.
In the living room, Shulamit welcomed her with a coffee.
"Nu, did you find your man in the end?" she asked.
Nur smiled. "Maybe I just stopped looking," she said.
"The morning rises," Tirosh wrote. "Another train station." Nur stood on the Damascus platform of the Haifa train station, the suitcase at her feet like a loyal puppy.
The train arrived at the station and the doors opened. Nur climbed on board and sat by the window, and waited for her journey to start.