“For all living things in nature must unfold in their particular way and become themselves at any cost and despite all opposition.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
“I brought something home for you from the Golan,” Daddy said.
“Israeli chocolate?” It was my favourite food.
“Fresh figs,” Maman guessed.
“A goatskin tent like the Bedouin live in,” Etienne said. “Or one of the knives they use for skinning.”
Daddy shook his head “no” after each guess.
“A day pass to the spa at the Tiberius Hotel?” My mother’s face lit up with hope. She’d been preparing for Daddy’s homecoming from his peace-keeping mission for days, washing sheets, scouring the apartment, preparing a meal of roasted chicken and Israeli couscous. That morning she’d woken up early to curl her hair. She’d knocked on my bedroom door to ask if the cream she’d put under her eyes covered the dark circles she had from reading late each night.
It had been two months since we’d left Canada for Israel, so she was used to Daddy’s frequent absences. But I could tell that these peace-keeping missions on the Golan Heights were hard for her.
Daddy reached into his large wicker picnic basket and pulled out a pickle jar filled with grass and leaves. He held it up so that my brother, mother and I could see. Etienne and I inched closer, while Maman recoiled and sank back into the couch, as if afraid that my father might drop this treasure into her lap. A large black insect slithered into view.
“It’s a rare find,” Daddy said, “a Middle-Eastern millipede.” He set it down in the center of the coffee table. We watched it ooze black slime all over the leaves and grasses.
“Let’s take it out.” Etienne reached for the lid, but my father pushed the jar out of his reach.
“It could spray a chemical into your eyes, or spread poison on your skin. We have no idea.”
“I’ll take it to school on Monday,” Etienne said. “Show it to Roberto and Johan.”
“This is disgusting and dangerous,” Maman said. “It has no place in our home.” Before Etienne or Daddy could stop her, she grabbed the jar and walked out on the porch.
“Hey!” Daddy called. “What are you doing?”
She unscrewed the lid and threw the many-legged monster into the grassy Galilean valley.
“No one will believe me now,” Etienne said, heading for his room. The bed squeaked as he flopped his weight onto it.
“What other surprises did you bring back from the Golan?” Maman asked. “Besides dirty laundry and dishes?”
“I’ll tell you at supper.” Daddy carried his wicker basket, the size of a large camping cooler, into the kitchen, then headed for the bathroom. “I haven’t had a bath in ten days. Being the woman on the Observation Post wiped me out.”
It was hard to imagine Daddy as a housekeeper. But twice a month he would head out for a stint on the Golan with another United Nations officer. On one trip he would do the “female” chores, and his partner would do the “male.” Then the next time, they would switch. When it was my father’s turn to be the “woman,” as they called it, he had to provide the meals for the week, while his partner observed the no-man’s-land that divided Syria and Israel.
I leaned against the wall in the hallway and watched my father arrange the contents of his shaving kit on the small counter next to the sink. “We ate like kings, though,” he said.
“Thanks to me,” my mother called from the kitchen. The men were competitive about who could provide the best meals. Preparation for my dad’s biweekly trips involved advance baking and shopping, as well as extensive coaching from Maman, since she did all the cooking in our family.
“Did you see anything?” Etienne looked up from his magazine.
“Nothing much,” Daddy said. “A few Druze. A bunch of Bedouin shepherds.”
“So you watched the Bedouin while they watched their sheep?”
“More or less. It was pretty quiet out there.” My father ran the water into the tub and shut the bathroom door.
Etienne slipped outside, probably in search of the critter. I wandered into the kitchen to see what Maman was doing.
She squirted dish soap into the sink and rolled up her sleeves. “Help me empty this,” she said, pointing at the hamper.
I pulled out half a dozen empty bottles of wine and threw them into the trash, then reached for a dishtowel and positioned myself next to my mother at the kitchen sink. She reached up to tuck a loose strand behind her ear. The steam from the sink had made her hair limp and straight, without a trace of the morning’s bouncy curls.
Later that afternoon, I was playing my recorder in my room when Maman suggested that Etienne and I walk up to the Herreras’ house to see if they were home. The Argentinian family whose father also worked for the U.N. had a girl and a boy twelve and fourteen, the same ages as me and my brother. I could hang out with Maria while Etienne and Roberto spent time together.
“It will be good for you to get out,” Maman said. I wondered if she might be trying to get rid of us.
The walk would take us half an hour or so. Etienne knew the way, since he went there every few days after classes to meet Roberto. But the few times I’d visited Maria, I’d always gotten a ride.
I stuffed my recorder into my backpack along with my Judy Blume novel. As for the recorder, I wanted to showcase my skills with Maria, who played classical piano for her mother every afternoon at teatime. Last visit, Maria and I had made a deal: I would teach her some basic recorder and she would show me how to play something on the piano.
“Stick together,” Maman said. She gave us each a few shekels.
We used the money to ride the crowded bus as far as it could take us, then walked up a flight of steps that gave us a view of the lake and town tucked into the hill below.
I lifted my face to the breeze and raised my arms to let the wind go through my clothes and cool me off.
“Watch for scorpions,” Etienne said. “They’re all over the place.”
I looked down at my sandaled feet, ready to bolt, but Etienne was peering intently into the tall grass, parting tufts as if hoping to tease them out.
“Let’s get going.”
“No.” Etienne squatted on the step, his eyes fixed on the grass. He pulled a piece of honey candy out of his pocket, unwrapped it, and laid it on the cement. “You want to see something cool?”
Daddy had warned us about scorpions, how the poison in their stingers could kill a child. “It goes directly into your blood stream, like snake venom, and kills you within an hour,” he’d said. Since then, we always shook out our shoes in the morning before putting them on.
Etienne pulled out his red Swiss Army pocketknife. “They’re attracted to sugar. But Daddy told me what to do when I find one.”
My stomach tightened with the familiar jealousy, like a coiled snake inside me. For the thousandth time, I wished I’d been born a boy, and that I was athletic and confident, with Etienne’s dark skin and good looks. I wondered what else Daddy had told my brother, and why he hadn’t bothered to tell me. All those father-son fishing trips in Yellowknife still rankled. I wanted to be my father’s chosen companion, and the keeper of his secrets.
“Here it comes.” Etienne parted the grass at the edge of the step, and a yellow scorpion skittered out. I ran up a couple of steps to watch from a safe distance. Etienne waited for the deadly insect to make its way to the candy, then pulled the tiny scissors out of his knife set. With a steady hand, he clipped the end of the insect’s tail. The ball of venom fell off and rolled into the grass. “Without his pistol he’s just a play thing.” Etienne grinned at me, then stuck out his finger and let the scorpion climb onto his arm.
“I want to go,” I said. I’d forgotten to wear a hat, and the sun was making me dizzy. “You’re grossing me out.”
“But it’s so cute. Maybe I’ll keep it as a pet.” Now the scorpion was climbing up his shoulder. Soon it would be in his hair.
Etienne stood, shook the scorpion free and watched it land on its back on the cement step. Just as it was righting itself, he lifted his foot and crushed it.
“Now I’m ready,” he said, and ran up the steps until he was way ahead of me. I watched his back as he took the steps two at a time. One of his legs was shorter than the other, and he was supposed to wear a shoe with a raised heel. He hated it. He said it make him look like he was handicapped.
“Just be glad you have two legs,” my mother told him. At fifteen, she’d been diagnosed with polio and was told she would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. I’d often wondered what would have happened if she hadn’t stubbornly insisted on training her legs to walk again during the six months she’d been hospitalized. Would she have married my father? Would Etienne and I have been born?
Maybe my brother had outgrown his special shoe, or it hadn’t made it into our luggage, but I realized that I hadn’t seen him wear it even once since we’d arrived in Israel.
I wanted to race after him and pass him on the stairs, to gain the upper hand somehow, even though I needed him to show me the way to the Herreras’. I hated having to walk behind, to be younger and less competent. I hated the way the blood would rush to my face whenever I did physical activity. It took a long time for my colour to return to normal, beginning with a circle of white around my mouth. It was hideous. I longed to exchange the fair complexion I’d inherited from my father for my mother’s and brother’s dark, tanned skin that could make them pass for Israelis.
When we got to the Herreras’ house, Roberto was waiting for us outside, a skateboard tucked under each arm. “Let’s go up to the big parking lot,” he said to Etienne. “Maria is in the house,” he called to me over his shoulder.
Three hours later, Etienne and I headed back down towards the Orthodox quarter. I played the first four bars of “Für Elise” on an invisible keyboard while I hummed the notes. “I wonder what Daddy’s second surprise is going to be,” I said as we neared our apartment. “Maybe we’re going on a trip to Damascus or back to Jerusalem.”
“Maybe we’re going home.”
“I doubt it. We’ve only been here a few months.”
The announcement came while we were eating our dessert. “I’ve hired a music tutor.” My father cleaned the ice cream off his mustache with the edge of his napkin. “A Belgian captain I met on the Golan. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“Music is part of a comprehensive education,” Maman said. “It will add to your homeschooling.” She looked at my father as if he was a magician with a sleeve-full of tricks.
Etienne groaned. But I was delighted.
In Yellowknife, my brother had played the trumpet in the junior high band. I had learned the recorder at school. In Grade Six, I’d been the only alto player in the recorder ensemble. My teacher had praised my musical ability and taught me the alternate fingering and scales.
“The trumpet is a fine military instrument,” my father declared, in response to Etienne’s displeasure, “often used as a call to arms, to sound the alarm or to mourn the dead in battle. I’ve asked Capitaine Latulipe to teach you to play Taps.”
“Day is done, Gone the Sun,” I sang. “From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh. We used to sing it at the end of the day at Girl Guide camp.”
“Yeah,” Etienne said, “and at Scout meetings.” He looked at the door as if considering his options.
A few minutes later, there was a sharp knock and my father rose to answer.
The tutor, a thin man with pouched eyes who spoke feathery European French, worked with my brother first. He entered Etienne’s room and shut the door behind him. I wanted to listen in; I’d hoped we’d be taught together, so that I might learn the trumpet, too, and perhaps even play a rousing military march to please my father.
After half an hour, it was my turn. I laid my newly polished instrument out on my bed, alongside the creased paper that showed the alto fingering.
The tutor sat down beside me and waved an impatient hand. “Joue moi la gamme de do.” He closed his eyes.
It took me a minute to understand. Play me the scale of Do. “Do?” I asked. I glanced over at the fingering chart. It had fluttered to the floor when he’d sat down on my bed.
I searched for Do, but saw only letters: C,F, Bflat, D.
“How many sharps or flats?” I asked in English, since I didn’t know the musical terms in French.
“Quoi? Do. Joue Do.” He pulled a metronome out of his shirt pocket and clapped to the beat. “Un deux trois quatre. Keep this speed,” he said in faltering English.
My stomach did its familiar nervous squeeze. I felt my face go red and hot. The tutor stood up from my bed, brushed his pants as if to rid himself of any invisible pests that might have landed on him and walked out the door.
“I cannot work with her,” he said to my mother. I could hear them talking in the hallway. I was too disappointed and embarrassed to leave my room.
“I don’t understand,” my mother said in French. “She loves her instrument so much.”
“She lacks even the most rudimentary skills. And her instrument is not orchestral, but folklorish.”
There was a pause, and then my father’s voice. “Would you like a glass of wine? Un digestif?”
“Non, merci,” the tutor said.
I wanted to put my bedspread over my head and cry. But instead, I picked up my instrument and played the Irish ballad my grade six class had performed for the graduation ceremonies. My fingers were shaky, and the high C wobbled a bit, but the familiar melody helped to release the knot in my gut. I closed my eyes and played it again, this time from memory. I pictured Catherine beside me and Mrs. Avery at the front, with her impossibly high heels and her conductor’s baton, which she would forget to wave half-way through the song , explaining to us later that it was because the music had overwhelmed her with the strength of its beauty. “It’s why we play,” she liked to say. “Music is transformative.”
“My son is not so keen on lessons,” my mother said to Capitaine Latulipe. “He’s the athlete in the family. Our daughter is the…”
“I will do as the Major requested,” came the answer. “I will teach the boy.”
I waited for Maman to ask him to give me another chance, or at least to comment on the beauty of the melody I’d played. But there was only the sound of a man’s footsteps on the tiled floor, the door opening and closing and wine being poured into a glass.