Elisha Porat: The Bearded Man

      translated by Alan Sacks

During the deadly days of the war in Lebanon, I was posted with my unit to an army camp near Moshav Rosh Pina. Starting early each morning, I loaded trucks with military supplies. It was hard, exhausting work in the oppressive heat while the worry and tension gnawing at our hearts erased all memory of the pleasant routine of life before the war. Still, I was free in the evenings to drop by the moshav, walk its quiet roads and delight in its gardens. It was difficult to believe that a ghastly, brutal war raged just a few dozen kilometers away. I toured the modest fields and circled the fenced grounds. Beside fragrant flower beds, the residents read newspapers on benches outside their homes. Each time I looked, I was amazed at how this life of utter serenity existed a stone's throw from a highway groaning under its burden of military convoys.

One evening, I walked up the old moshav's road. The restored homes were very attractive. Every feature of the fences revealed the hands of those craftsmen who had cast the iron and given the gates their distinctive design. A woman, walking with her two children, invited me home to take a breather from our daily toil and the pressure of war. I gladly accepted and followed them to their hillside house. As we passed the gate, I asked where her husband was serving. Was he with the forces invading Lebanon or assigned to a support unit like mine? "Neither," she answered. "He's abroad, in one of the South American countries, acting as an agricultural advisor to local farmers." She had tried calling to tell him that war had broken out here but could never reach him. Meanwhile, he was better off in a safe place.

Inside the downstairs rooms, antique rugs covered the floors and metal ornaments hung from the walls and ceilings. I could see at once that this was the home of a family of artists. The children instantly disappeared on the stairs and in their places appeared a number of dark, thick-furred cats from the yard.

"Help yourself to some cold water in the refrigerator. I'll be back in a minute." While she went into one of the other rooms to change her dress, I poured a glass of ice water and sat in a carved rocking chair. After my eyes adjusted to the half-light, I saw a bearded man seated opposite me under the window. He was leaning back against the wall, his legs crossed under him and his hands folded in his lap. The beard jutting from his face was so unusual and so bushy that one might easily have thought it was a fake, an artifice glued to his skin as a sort of disguise.

"Hello," he said, without twitching a muscle. "I recognize you. I remember your voice. Do you remember me?"

I was taken completely by surprise and for a moment wasn't sure that he was speaking to me. I looked around for others who might be sitting along the walls but he was alone. "Do I remember you?" I asked. "Where should I remember you from?"

"We met once," he said. "Think back. It wasn't far from Nes Tziona. As soon as you came in the room with Rina and the children, I recognized your voice."

"Nes Tziona?" I was flabbergasted. What connection did I have to that place? I'd never been to Nes Tziona, only gone past it while driving south. Who the hell stops in Nes Tziona? What's there to look for around there?

"I'm Kobi," he spoke to me from the wall. "Kobi Tzvieli. My beard shouldn't fool you."

Kobi? Tzvieli? How did I know his name? And yet I felt there was truth in his words. We had met sometime. Even his voice sounded vaguely familiar.

Rina, wearing a comfortable house dress, returned to the room and switched on some recessed lights. Now I remembered him. Like lightning striking, my memory came back to me from some remote region. I was annoyed with myself for this rare and unforgivable lapse of recall. This must be Jacob, Kobi, Tzvieli, a poet and man of strange visions. So bizarre were his dreams that he had needed a period of hospital treatment at that institution not far from Nes Tziona.

Now I remembered his soft manner of speech, his mild stutter, his hands rubbing his chin. He would stroke all the harder while reading me his strange poems, look me straight in the eyes and ask if there was any point to his poetry or any true value to his writing. Kobi Tzvieli, whom I had met under peculiar circumstances at some literary affair where he had been infatuated like a child with a poetess who was famous at the time for her exhibitionistic verse. Kobi, who had sent me some long, imploring letters which I, turning my heart to stone, hadn't answered out of fear that he would make a pest of himself and saddle me with a friendship that I couldn't maintain. Kobi, who had conveyed his regards years before and of whom I would inquire, "So, how is he? Is he well? Is he getting along?"

I rose from the rocking chair and approached him. He too stood up. We shook hands and asked after one another. Rina was astonished. "Look, just look at what wars do. Now sit down you two, drink some coffee with me and we'll hear the whole story." I asked him if he too was here because of the war. Kobi said no. He was living here temporarily. His condition exempted him from military duty and he had never promised anyone that he would live forever in Rosh Pina. He had settled in with Rina and her husband, very generous people with whom he had been friends since childhood. He could leave the next day if he wanted, for any destination to which his spirit moved him. There were a number of artist colonies in the country; he had even tried living in some of them. Doors were open to him wherever he went and in each colony, he had made friends who enjoyed looking after him.

Most important, I should know that his life had changed entirely, always getting better. His poems were improving, too. Young writers understood the benefit of hitching their wagons to his rising star. Had I read his most recent book of verse published a few months earlier? It was a truly superb volume, and that wasn't merely his opinion but the view of a new generation of critics. He would show me the articles if I wanted. He had saved everything in scrapbooks that he took with him wherever he went. They were upstairs and he would have gone up for them but I said, "Not now, Kobi. Hold them for a more convenient time."

--------------------

Now I must calm down from the shock of our meeting and put everything in the right order. First of all, my visits to the institution near Nes Tziona, which initially I made as part of my work and later to satisfy my growing interest. I remember them as though they happened yesterday. I remember the dismal lawn hemmed in by old houses roofed in red tile and enclosed on all sides by gorgeous jacaranda trees blooming violet. I remember the rich red soil covered with a blanket of fallen blossoms and the wooden bench splattered with dried bird droppings so thick you needed a knife to cut through them. I remember the sweet scents of late spring, wafting over the institution's grounds, which permeated the patients and their guests strolling slowly, even solemnly, on the sidewalks. I had walked there, too, at Kobi Tzvieli's side as he talked. He was shorter and plumper than I, and our Mutt-and-Jeff dialogue, delivered while hopping over fresh puddles left by the last rains of winter somewhere deep in the orange orchards on the way to Nes Tziona, made me laugh.

Second, I remember our muted conversation, with his mild stutter and those attempts, which won my heart, to sidestep land mines of words and labyrinthine booby traps of adjectives while his searching fingers plowed through the heavy beard. He hadn't grown a beard before his commitment but shaving there became a nightmare for him. The water was always cold, the razors never sharp and he was constantly nicking himself. "Just like in the army," I told him, "during the first months of basic training." I suddenly recalled that Kobi was disqualified from military service and immediately shifted the subject of conversation. I remember that he really wanted serve in the army, in the vanguard where all his good friends from the kibbutz could be found. The authorities refused, however, and rejected him. He withdrew into himself and from that time never spoke much about the army.

Only about the war did he always have something to say. It was a wonder that he didn't let loose a stream of curses against the fighting in Lebanon. He was by no means the only one I had met in Rosh Pina who loathed the war. We had dropped by the public pool the day before for a quick swim. One of the boys insisted on asking the cashier for a complimentary pass, the kind soldiers are entitled to. "What soldiers?" the ticket seller asked. "Are you soldiers?" When we continued to demand our free passes, she rose from her seat and began to rebuke us. "What kind of soldiers are you? Do you know what you look like? If you're soldiers, what are you doing at the moshav's swimming pool while so many young men are being killed in the mountains up there? You should be ashamed," she spat at us. "You're a disgrace to the army, a disgrace to Israel."

In another moment, she would have swung at us with her puny fists. Behind us, swimmers called over had begun to run. A man, apparently her husband, burst in through one of the gates. He seized her by the arms, held her tight and begged her, in Hebrew, Yiddish and garbled Rumanian, to calm down. Then he offered us a weak apology. We had to understand and forgive her, he said, because she was a bitter woman who couldn't forget the past. Every bomb exploding on the border jarred loose old fears and she had been unable to sleep since the battles in Lebanon began. He had even asked her not to go back to the ticket window at the pool. So concerned was he about her that he had abandoned his own work to keep an eye on her from afar throughout the day.

"Ok, Ok," we said in confusion. Filled with remorse, we were ready to pay in full for our tickets. The cashier wouldn't agree. "I don't need your stinking money. Our children are dying all the time up there in the mountains, and you're not ashamed to live the easy life on the moshav or swim in the pool." She tried to escape her husband's arms and attack us again but he kept his grip and forced her to the other side of the fence around the pool.

Kobi Tzvieli didn't damn the war or those who had started it. I was glad of that. I was still disturbed by what the hysterical cashier had said and couldn't drive from my mind the kernel of truth in her tirade.

Third, I remember his cramped room, the bookshelf above his bed and the book of poetry by Noah Stern he read during those days in the institution. The few visits I made were filled with his words of longing for the perfect poem imprisoned against its will within the walls, its wings clipped, its legs fettered and throat throttled, the mirror image of the great poet Noah Stern's own history. He urged me to read his poems and the few words published about him in the literary journals. There was a humble librarian on the kibbutz with whom he was close and who was one of the select who had known his heart even before the break-down. It was the librarian who had pressed into his hand the works of Noah Stern. In the annals of world literature, there were many poets who had composed inside walls but for us there were only a handful, perhaps only one, so the librarian told him.

While we walked on the narrow pavements sunk into the red loam, we would always embrace the sweet smell of the orchards, which was a thousand times more maddening inside the desolation of the walls, and the darkness of the fruit groves he had known in the forests of his native land. He told me then how he would steal into the tangle of groves behind dense hedges of bindweed, flatten himself in the succulent grasses and drape his body over the trees' forked trunks. There, in his hiding place, he heard the constant distant drone of life on the kibbutz beyond his green barrier. Like a tiny insect, he cleaved to a citrus trunk and compressed himself to seem like one of the plain grasses of the orchard.

And fourth, I remember his dreams and the stories of his dreams. What he actually saw and what he imagined and invented, I don't know, nor the source of the craving to tell the story, a thirst by which he made himself free inside the walls as if he had returned to an ancient spring whose waters were too pure to bear any taint. Had he been a girl, I told him once when I wearied of his tales, he would have driven me crazy with accounts of American films, for he endlessly amassed the most minute details as girls liked to do. It was our good luck that his nights in the institution were so brief, cut short when he was awakened early to clean the facilities, or he would sleep and dream into the afternoon. It was our further good fortune that I visited so seldom, just once each season, and I reminded him of the heavy rain that had poured down on the lawn the last time I came by.

Kobi Tzvieli had looked up at me and said that he was grateful to me for even those few visits which, he knew, I wasn't obliged to make. Luckily for him, I was reliable and never forgot him even though he wasn't one of the patients whom it was my duty to attend, and he knew how the drive to the secluded hill not far from Nes Tziona wore me out.

--------------------

There was one dream that came back to him during those terror-stricken nights. It had a fixed order and a firmly predictable succession of images. First, he saw a sort of magnified relief map of the kibbutz, to all appearances an exceptionally realistic aerial photograph. The pictures revealed scenes of his childhood in the early days of the settlement. Remnants of jubilee exhibitions coalesced before his eyes. The green copse surrounded the map, which he called his dreamscape. Although it didn't always include the eucalyptus trees, other trees of various types, such as toothed palms and the prickly Parkinsonia, sometimes cropped up. Since his admission to the institution, the violet blooming jacarandas had multiplied. The copse in the dreams was the hiding place of his childhood that he had made his refuge, where he had erected his first tent camp on the holiday of Lag BaOmer and where the members of the kibbutz still held picnic roasts on a warm Independence Day. That was where he had slipped away that bitter day when he suddenly fell apart and no longer saw any purpose to his life.

In his dream, he watched as the sun, shooting bolts of color, rose over the copse, sank through the screen of fluttering leaves and set in a display even more magnificent. There the reddening rays assailed his eyes transfixed by the western wind, and there the gentle breeze of early evening dried the tears coursing unfelt down his cheeks. Deep yearning radiated from his heart through his body and a terrible longing spread through his limbs for the father who had abandoned him years before and the grandfather whom he had come to love in the pages of the family album.

Inside the forest, he inhaled the pungent aroma of eucalyptus leaves and, so his dream always went, built a fire over which a pot of nourishing eucalyptus broth simmered on a tripod. He believed with the innocence of youth that this was the secret of eternal life. What was required of a man to be happy? Some potatoes baking in the fire, eucalyptus soup and honeyed nectar suckled from flowers.

Sometimes, terror seized him in his sleep and his dream was shattered by the racing beat of his heart. Someone would menace the little white tent camp at the foot of the security building. How he loved to climb in his dream to the top of the concrete stairs rising to the vista visible from the building's high roof. He, Kobi Tzvieli, would raise the standard and rush forward to save the encampment from sudden fire or a bloody onslaught.

He would sprint to the great bell hung between the kitchen and the dining hall and, but an undersized child, helplessly leap under it until one of the members, taking pity on him, arrived to sweep him up on his shoulders and raise him to the bell-pull. "Strike it, son," the fellowould say. "Don't be afraid, ring the bell and summon the whole kibbutz."

To the pounding of hooves and the clop of horseshoes clacking on cement, he turned restlessly in his troubled sleep. Who were the riders? Who were these knights swooping down to cleave the little tent camp? Silver-helmeted warriors of the Arab Legion or bands of brigands, their heads swathed in thick kafiyas, from the neighboring villages? Or perhaps they were British paratroopers belted to the chin? These dreams beset him even during the months he spent within the walls near Nes Tziona. Even there, he twisted and turned on his bed until the crack of dawn. Who were these armies that set his bones to trembling and spoiled his night of sleep? He could think of nothing clear to tell the doctors, for nothing of the dream remained with him but a single, sharp memory, the memory of bearded men.

In the mornings, he would make himself a vow to grow a thick beard and never cut it off. It wasn't because the medicine had impaired his looks, or because the institution's food had made his skin yellow. A full, black beard, like that of his grandfather, one of the founders of the kibbutz, and of his father, a pioneer of the commune's industry. A real beard, as soft as the one his sister had loved to comb as a child seated on their father's knees. Her little hands, floating over his face, would graze the hair of his beard. She had kept the habit even as she grew older. To this day, he shivered with fear when forbidden scenes from those long-gone times unfolded before him in the dream. He saw his sister as an incorrigible seductress, climbing with obvious pleasure on their father's knees, running her hand through the tangle of his dark beard and doing wonderful things with her fingers. Sensations of sweetness such as he had never felt before suffused his body. Hadn't the institution's physician warned him that the time had come to root out his sister from the dreams? Hadn't the doctor threatened him that he must free himself from her and, at long last, annihilate the last shreds of illicit desire?

On the margins of this recurring dream, hazy, mystery-shrouded views of the old stable appeared. As a child, he had once under-taken an expedition of discovery to the shack beside the stable. There, among the horseshoe fittings and barn lanterns, an old mattress stuffed with seaweed lay across the floor. The floor of the tool shed was littered with log books for the horses and tattered harnesses. It was possible to poke one's nose through the gaps between the rotting wooden boards and see things, provoking sights, fit only for the dark. A group of children peeking through the slats called him to come see a girl, dazzling in the whiteness of her body, sprawled on the mattress. How closely she resembled his sister, and the man rolling on her in a grotesque motion reminded them of his father. Only the darkness prevented them from identifying the tell-tale beard. They came up behind him and forced him to squint through the crack. Through the tears of humiliation blurring his eyes, he couldn't make out who lay on the mattress, but what he saw there, a whirl of heaving bodies, forever came back to him at night.

Kobi Tzvieli, the bearded man of dreams, would wake then from the dream drenched in a heavy nocturnal sweat. He would spend the rest of the day in purification rituals of his own invention. He never succeeded in purging himself of the sickness of the dream infecting him until he had recounted it to me in every detail, to the last roll of the body and the final moan. Among the sights he saw in the dream, certain matters intruded that he didn't divulge even to the medical staff laboring to restore his health.

--------------------

The next morning, I was rinsing dishes under the water tanker when, through the clatter of plates tossed into the tubs, I over-heard the soldiers talking. "I never saw such a sight, it was really crazy. Did you see his eyes glowing? Did you see the way he flapped his hands? Did you see his bushy beard? I've fought in three wars, but I've never run into anything like that."

I turned off the faucet and approached the men eating break-fast. "What happened, who are you talking about?"

"Some nut is going wild down in the gas station at the Rosh Pina junction. He's brought all the convoys to a halt. The drivers have stopped to watch the show. Would you believe that one man could block the entire army?"

"That's impossible. The junction is swarming with military police. Can't they control one disorderly guy?"

"Oh no, the MC's are standing around enjoying the performance. It's really very funny. You'd think the morale branch had sent a showman just for us. That guy foams and spits and doesn't hear a thing he says. You have to go down and see him before someone gets steamed and takes him away."

I wiped my hands on my pants, muttered something to the KP staff and rushed down the hill. I glided down the path, I flew like a plane, I skipped over the basalt rocks and the spiked tufts of globe thistle. If someone was foretelling the future down at the gas station, I could guess who it was. If an insane bearded man was stopping convoys on their way to Lebanon, I was sure who they were talking about. And if no one had called me to save him, well, I had summoned myself. On my own authority, I was rushing to the rescue before the mob trampled him, the wild man down there, or he was arrested by the military police... or spirited away to a place I had no wish to see or remember again.

Even in Rina's house, where I had seen Kobi Tzvieli and his beard at home, fearful thoughts had come to mind, speculation that was an omen of doom. This man was destined for disaster. You could see it in his face. A heavy, gathering cloud of grief lurked over his head.

The gas station was a scene of total chaos. The junction was blocked and a huge crowd milled through the side streets. Clouds of dust were churned up and the whir of helicopters descending to a landing zone nearby deafened my ears. I crossed columns of tank carriers, slipped between giant trucks and made my way towards the center of the gas station and the rutted asphalt island between the pumps. There, I saw, was my friend Jacob inside a circle of grinning soldiers and police officers. Kobi, standing on the concrete curb dividing the gas pumps, raised his hands to the sky. People thronged forward from all directions, not just soldiers but residents from the moshav, to watch the unexpected spectacle. From a distance, I caught sight of Rina and the children trying to get closer. It even seemed to me for a brief moment that I saw the Rumanian ticket seller wailing on her husband's shoulder.

The soldiers lounging on their armored personnel carriers cheered him and clapped their hands. From the convoys' vehicles rang out jeers and catcalls mixed with hollow peels of laughter. Someone threw a water bomb at him, and suddenly he was pelted from the closest APC's with plastic bags filled with juice and fruit syrup. Kobi looked so strange, soaked by the water bomb, his beard dripping, a demonic gleam in his eye, oblivious to everything happening around him, that I wasn't sure whether he was the Kobi Tzvieli I knew from his days in the sanitarium.

I forced my way through to him. I pushed and was pushed, kicked and was repelled, but I kept on. I felt duty-bound to stop him before it was too late, before something horrible befell him. As I drew closer, I heard his cries: "I'm calling you from inside the walls, those lofty walls. Don't go there. That man will bring you nothing but tragedy."

"What man?" the soldiers in the APC's wanted to know. "Tell us straight out, who are you talking about?"

"That man," screamed Kobi Tzvieli. "That Noah Stern imprison-ed within the walls."

"What Noah? What walls?" they roared at him from the APC's. "Do you mean that Arik, that Sharon?"

"Yes, yes," yelled Kobi. "That's precisely who I mean. That Arik and that Stern." The soldiers laughed at him, but he felt nothing of their scorn. "By his hand, you will know only calamity a catastrophe, and you will rue the day you followed him to his misbegotten war."

A deep growl came from the direction of the police station. When I strained on my toes to see what was happening, I saw a number of club-wielding officers cutting a path through the crowd to the pump island, the small concrete pulpit on which the bearded man stood and ranted.

Though I also stubbornly struggled towards him, the teeming mob wouldn't give way. If I could take hold of him before the police, we could flee up the artists' street of the old moshav and escape through Rina's carved gates into the protective dark of the stone house. To my great consternation, however, they reached him before I did.

"It all began this morning," I heard voices in the crowd. "This guy off his rocker came down from the moshav, latched onto the drivers stopped at the junction and harassed the station attendants."

"What did he say to them?"

"He went from one to the next trying to convince them that the war wouldn't profit them and they should go back where they came from. `That damned man is leading you to hell!' He was calm and cheerful in the beginning, and even won over the drivers with his smooth talk. `You still have your skins today, but tomorrow some of you will fight in the next war. Don't you feel even a twinge of fear? If you don't stop and stand up to that accursed man now, then...' and so forth and so forth."

He might have gone on reasoning with the drivers at the gas station until he tired and eventually left in peace, but one driver, offended by his comments, lost his temper, swore at him, slapped him and plucked at his beard. And that's when the loony flared up and ignited a colossal disturbance at the junction.

The military police had already arrived at the pumps. Very, very slowly, they boxed in Kobi from behind. He never noticed them, perhaps because his eyes were shut and his ears plugged up by the awful drone of the helicopters. Only his dark beard danced in the breeze. He bellowed with all the might in this throat, "That Noah, that Arik, that Stern. From inside the walls, I'm calling you. Save yourselves."

It's his life that must be saved now, I thought as the police clamped their hands on him and whisked him away. How small and how light he suddenly seemed dragged between their arms. "All right, quiet now, you've shouted enough today. Come on, come along with us."

"But where are you taking me, you blind men?"

I heard his screams and answered him silently in my heart. He wouldn't have heard me even if I had shouted. They're taking you to the green orchards, Kobi, to the lawn beneath the blooming jacarandas and the filthy benches beside the narrow paths, a place you came to know years ago inside the high walls not far from Nes Tziona.

All rights reserved