The brief, dull, by now all too-familiar sound followed by the shriek of ambulance sirens stopped the hearts of the Jerusalemites who heard it: suicide bomb. Among those thousands were numbered the protagonists of our story.
Perhaps because he lived alone, already on the edge of the abyss, the suicide bombings became an obsession with him. So much so that inadvertently at first, then consciously, he found himself at the sites of the bombings. Not immediately after they occurred – he did not want to see the carnage, but one day later. Only after a number of visits to the bombing sites did he himself think of them as his Via Dolorosa. Without being conscious of it, he tried to grapple with the fact that anyone was capable of doing such a thing. Not the committing suicide itself: a less than successful painter, he had flirted with the idea of suicide in his times of depression, though in truth, more as a thought or a metaphor than a course of action. But to murder others? And as many as possible? He could not grasp the concept. It seemed an evil beyond comprehension. And this led him to contemplate the very nature of evil. To try to put himself, as much as possible, in its presence, as if the waves of its manifestation could be best comprehended at the site of the evil itself.
And so, the day following each bombing, he would take himself from his small apartment located behind the market, pass through the empty streets save for the occasional anonymous passer-by, who in any event did not pay attention to him even to the extent of noticing his shirt unraveling at the sleeves and missing a button, and arrive at the site of the explosion: a pedestrian shopping mall, a restaurant, a cafe. And always the same feeling: a void deep inside him and a weakness in all his bodily parts and a bitterness that enveloped his soul. Standing there, mute, sometimes visual images assailed him. Once, it was the hellish right panel of Bosch’s famous triptych. At another time, Sequeiros’ Echo of a Scream. More than once on his return from such visits, there came to his inner ear the slow stately funereal march from the second movement of Schumann’s Quintet for piano and strings in E flat major.
On his fourth visit – what now had become for him a ritual – to the site of an eviscerated restaurant, he noticed a woman he had seen somewhere before, maybe even more than once. No, not some misleading deja vue, his painter’s eye was sure of the fact. They stood there, the two of them, in the darkness of mourning, silent as stone.
Then their eyes met. She, too, gave him a curious look, as if she were trying to place him. Before, she had been staring silently, as had he, at what had been the restaurant. He dismissed her from his thoughts; perhaps trying to fathom where he had seen her constituted too much of an effort coming so close upon his attempt to fathom the nature of evil. He walked slowly back to his neglected apartment, whose depressing presence served but to accentuate his loneliness and despair.
A few weeks later he heard the dull thud far off followed in a few minutes by the ambulances’ sirens. As usual after a bombing, he could not sleep. The next day he made his pilgrimage to the burned out cafe. He stood at the site in silence, staring without really seeing, deep in thought. Suddenly a movement caught his eye. A woman had arrived and stood near him. A woman wearing a black sweater and a gray skirt, like one of the women in Lega’s painting, The Visit, yet her face reminded him of that of the woman in Monet’s Camille, not beautiful, but whose visage reflected a quality summed up in one word: “character.” This woman has experienced life and it has not been easy flashed through his mind experienced in portraiture. This thought immediately gave way to another: it was the same woman he had seen at the site of the charred restaurant. Could it be that she was following him? But such a suspicion seemed out of character with the lines of her face, which were not those of a mentally disturbed soul.
Although a hesitant, shy, and cautious person, his curiosity got the better of him. Haven’t I seen you before . . . at the scenes . . .? he asked her. She didn’t answer, but nodded. Did you know the victims? he asked, although immediately he reasoned that it was unlikely she would have known the victims at all the sites where he had seen her.
No, she spoke for the first time, and following a brief silence added, Did you?
Her question indicated that she knew that he had visited the sites, too. He shook his head sadly from side to side. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to ask her why outright. After all, she hadn’t asked him. But the question nagged him.
Finally he said, half to her, half to himself, I am trying to understand the nature of evil.
After a few moments, she replied, I to identify with the victims.
So while I look for the nature of evil, he said, you search for the meaning of love.
I didn’t think of it that way, she said, but I suppose you are right. The thought of evil frightens me.
As does the thought of love frighten me, he did not say. What he said, hesitantly and to his surprise, was, would you like to go for a walk?
And so they walked slowly, seemingly aimlessly, down King George street to Terra Sancta, and then into Rehavia. He kept his hands in his pockets to cover the unraveling sleeves of his sweater, regretting that he hadn’t worn something more impressive. At first they were both silent. The silence was comforting. Just to walk alongside her was sufficient.
Then, I hope for peace, he began simply. Yet I fear even peace might not be enough. Demographics – how I hate that word. I fear the Jews might become a minority in our country –no more Jewish State, no more place where the Hebrew language and Hebrew literature and yes Hebrew painting can flourish. And I wonder if the price of the avoidance of it, it might not be necessary to … he stopped, self-conscious. All this time she had listened, without interrupting. They passed a cafe that had been bombed and now was now open again. To cover his embarrassment at his effusion of words and also the uncomfortable silence that ensued, he stopped opposite the cafe. Would you care for a cup of coffee? he asked her, immediately sorry he had, since he realized that the question at that site had reverberations. He felt uncomfortable and began in his usual way to upbraid himself for having invited her.
Yes, she replied, freeing him from self-abasement.
The security guard checked them closely before admitting them. They sat at a table in the corner. She sat herself so demurely that there flashed into his mind Seurat’s Seated Woman. He asked himself if being a painter was a blessing or a curse, since so often his real life found mental expression in terms of painting. After their coffees were served, he continued speaking in the same dark vein, perhaps because he had a listener, perhaps because of the very cafe in which he sat. Sometimes I think that if at the time of the Holocaust I had somehow seen its horrors, he said to her, and if there had existed a button that pushing it would cause the destruction of the world, I would have pushed it. He stopped, embarrassed at this sharing of his innermost thoughts, such a rarity for him. He sighed. Sometimes I feel as if I am heading for an abyss. He concretized this – or perhaps paradoxically tried to dismiss it lightly – by walking two fingers toward the edge of the table. She grabbed his hand, then embarrassed, released it. He, too, was embarrassed, though delighted that she had actually taken his hand. He had noticed her small, wide palms and the words had come to him: your hands blossom like the boughs of the gourd-plant. But what he said was, Is it only I who contemplate such dark questions?
For a few moments she said nothing, her glance fixed upon her coffee cup. And then she said, in almost a whisper, Maybe you need to get married. During the pause that followed, he wasn’t sure if what she said was a general observation or a hint at something more specific. Nevertheless, for the first time in a long time, he was filled with hope. The image of Gerolamo Induno’s The Kiss on the Hand came to him. He surprised himself by taking her hand and kissing it. Outside, evening descended upon Jerusalem, filling the streets with a soft golden glow.