Elisha Porat: In Vain Pursuit

            Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks

A. On the coast at Atlit

I saw him first standing over the sea. On a trip to the shore I made before the holidays, I arrived at the coast near Atlit. From a distance, even before I drew near the cove, I noticed the form of a man perched on a rock over-looking the water. His pose seemed a bit awkward, and I chuckled for a moment at the fisherman apparently frozen in the singular motion of casting a high arcing line. But he did not move. His arms remained stretched towards the sea and no tense line was visible amidst the waves.

I parked the car on a strip of rough ground away from the soft, sinking sand and walked to the ledge. I needed to find a nice, quiet cove for our company of friends. A number of families joined us each year for the holidays to pitch tents on the beach between Caeseria and Atlit. Now I had a clear view of the man. He was very thin, which made him look tall, and had brown skin. The tight black pants he wore came down to his ankles. Though I could not see his eyes facing the sea, I sensed even from behind that they were fine and dark.

He heard my steps and slowly turned around. With a smile on his swarthy face, he gave me a friendly greeting. "Don't mind me," I said. "I'm just looking for a nice, little cove where my friends and I can spend the holidays." "Welcome," he answered, "to you and your friends. The Bay of Atlit is a great place to pass the end-of-summer holidays." "Yes," I agreed. "We camp every year on this stretch of coast down to Caeseria. We try to find a quiet, out-of-the-way cove the hordes of other vacationers haven't yet discovered." "Here on the coast of Atlit, and nearby, too, you can hear wonderful singing of all kinds in the quiet hours," he said. He looked back to the sea and continued, "Do you hear it? Even now, you can hear the exquisite sounds of the psalms." He suddenly shifted on his ledge and his body began to dance as if of itself while he kept time with a tune so faint I could not make out the words. "Do you hear," he asked over his shoulder, "do you hear? The whole coast is singing, all the bay and all the sea are singing with us."

If he stays here on the rock, I thought to myself, the amusement he provides the children will make them turn up their noses at swimming. If we're really lucky, he'll surely show us some of his glories. I could already imagine the children laughing in scorn, hurling handfuls of sand at him, taunting him cruelly. "I thought you were a fisherman," I said aloud. "From a distance, it looked like you were casting a line into the water." "Me'ir," he said. "My name is Me'ir." "Nice to meet you. If you're still here on the beach during the holidays, we'll invite you to our vacation tent." "My pleasure," Me'ir replied. "I can see that you're good people. Yes, there still are some good souls in this country." He turned to me and gave me a great, guileless smile. "There are many good people with me here. They never cease entreating me, 'Come to us, lift up your voice with ours in song. Come sing with us.' I ache to be with them. I stretch out on the rock, spread my arms like wings to them and tremble before them from head to toe. Perhaps a small miracle will occur, and I'll fly off to the bay and the deep blue waters in the shadow of the fortress walls."

"We also have children in our group," I told him, "and they aren't very patient. I hope they won't pester you. It's hard to control children these days." "Don't worry," said Me'ir. "By the way, where are you good people from? From the kibbutz? Are you abandoning the fruit and chickens to grab a few days at the beach? Well, I know how to get along with kids, you have nothing to worry about. In children, too, the good must be brought out." "What about the noise of our cars and the commotion from our camp - won't they prevent you from hearing the sounds that come to you from the sea?"

"What can you do?" he said. "The shore does not belong to me, the sea is not mine alone, the Bay of Atlit is not my sole possession." He spread his thin wing-like arms above his body as if to embrace the sea, as though he wanted to soar above the gentle murmur of the bay. "You're no problem, you'll rest a few days here and then go home. But the army does maneuvers here day and night. The sound of shooting pierces the air, and I cannot hear the sweet strains of song. The soldiers leave the beach black and filthy. Weeks pass before I can sit again on my little rock and listen to my siren calls."

His description made me laugh. "You mean they're frightened by machine gun fire and exploding shells?" "Don't laugh," said Me'ir, "and don't think I'm ignorant of the military. I served in the navy." I suddenly remembered an accident that had nearly ended in tragedy a year earlier in one of the hidden coves. I was dozing in my tent, deep in a sweet afternoon nap, when the children burst inside in a panic and woke me up. "Come quickly," they shouted breathlessly. "Hurry, two people are drowning down in the cove! They don't know how to swim. Quick, they're already going under!"

Still damp with the sweat of sleep, I rushed from the tent and followed the children down the limestone steps. From the top, I caught sight of a young woman deep in the inlet slowly being swept out to sea. A young man, writhing on the opposite shore, shouted to her frantically. I sent the others to fetch a rope and some inner tubes, then dived into the water. There was some undertow, nothing serious. I swam to the girl with quick, powerful strokes, grasped her below the arms and slowly propelled her back to shore. Around us, whirlpools swirled and the sea hissed, but the woman's response to my motions made the rescue easier. When we reached the beach, I delivered her into the young man's arms. Danger lurks even in this hidden cove, I told him through the gasps wracking my body. One must be on guard everywhere against the evil power of the sea, which penetrates every crack.

I spurned his thanks and herded the children up the stairs. "She's still in a mild state of shock," I told them. "She needs rest. Let's go back to the tent." I went up after them, dripping on the stone-hewn steps....I cast another glance at the cove from high up. It sparkled in the light like a jewel. The wind spun eddies chasing one another across the surface until they vanished among the limestone fissures. I checked my watch. It was already late, and I had not performed my task. What was I doing, standing and chatting with Me'ir about swimming mishaps? I had to locate a cove, find a short, easy route on which the cars would not sink into the sand and attend to still other necessary details. "Well, Me'ir," I said, "so long and be well. I have to run now."

"Yes, yes," Me'ir assented. "Run, run. Don't get sidetracked. I must be going, too, for the voices of the sea are calling me again." He twirled on one foot and gyrated about the rock as though powered by a wind-up spring. All of a sudden, he spread his arms and his ankles flashed white below the straining black pants. He seemed to me to be going through a pre-flight routine. But a moment more and he would fly off to disappear from sight in the brilliant azure waters of the Bay of Atlit.

B. At the town square, in Ein-Hod

The second time I saw Me'ir was at the little town square in the artist's village of Ein Hod. I happened to be there with some friends, including guests from abroad. We strolled among the stone walls, cut through the thick foliage of the fig trees and peeped into the galleries. The artists, sitting in the shade of their walled gardens, sold their works and chatted with the visitors. A bit weary, we sat down at some small wooden tables on the veranda of a cafe fronting the square. Huge bulldozers and tractors rumbled nearby on the construction site of the new museum.

While our friends lounged at their tables, and the foreign guests studied their surroundings, I left to wander in the vicinity of the cafe. I chanced on the wall to a room, very close by but sheltered from view, plastered with an old notice. Out of curiosity, I stopped to read it. In its torn and ruined state, the poster inspired me to reconstruct it: An old exhibit, which had closed years before, dedicated to the memory of the late artist Me'ir. His woodworks, and other pieces impossible to identify on the weather beaten notice, would be displayed at the exhibit. Anyone desiring to visit after hours was invited to contact a well-known artist, one of the founders of the colony, for a private viewing. Other unimportant details followed. I was about to turn back to my friends and the din of the clanking tractors on the construction site when, at the bottom of the notice, on a shred of ripped paper, I saw photographs of statuary by the late Me'ir. The face of the man standing over the sea on the coast of Atlit suddenly came back to mind. The same dark eyes, the same arms spreading like wings at his sides, the same thin, taught limbs. It was as if I had returned to see his hands clapping high above his head, the movement that had misled me into thinking that he was a pleasure angler casting a line over his head into the sea below. The memory of that magic hour at the shore brought back to me our odd conversation and the questions he asked, the delightful tune he hummed and his dance steps on the stage made by the rock.

With an unsettled feeling, I told myself this was a new, fascinating angle that had to be pursued. I returned to my friends and roused them from their seats for a visit to the artist whose name was printed on the old poster. By good fortune, I told them, we could watch a family of artists at work in her home while our foreign guests might even find something they'd like to buy.

We skirted the excavations on the museum site and turned down a quiet lane to the village office, where the staff provided directions to the studio in which she gave lessons to young art students. They even offered to phone her so she would stay at home to await us. It wasn't every day that a group of shoppers like us came around, and she simply could not miss us.

The artist was, indeed, waiting at the gate to the yard, and very pleased to see us. While the others scattered among the paintings and metal works mounted in every corner of the yard and the house and even along the gravel paths in the little garden, I told her I would be grateful for any answers she could provide to some questions I had. "Please, go right ahead," she said, never imagining that I wanted to inquire about the late Me'ir. We went out to the yard and sat by a table inlaid with beautiful mosaics of her own creation. I asked her to tell me about the young sculptor Me'ir who, so far as I could glean from the remnants of the old notice pasted to the council hall, had passed away some years ago. She was surprised. Was I a reporter or an art critic for one of the papers? Perhaps an author at work on a biography? She was even more startled by my reply that I was neither the one nor the other. My only interest in Me'ir was to know who he was and what had befallen him, for we had met in such strange circumstances on his rock on the coast of Atlit. Something deep inside told me that that meeting was only our first; someday, we would meet again.

Me'ir's life had not been full. On the contrary, it had been broken, cut short before his time; yet, for all that, if a skilled writer could be found, a full biography would be worth the time he devoted to it. A distinguished reporter, or a reputable art critic who could try to write about his life and works, would find him a worthy subject. Meanwhile, I could not better spend my time than by proceeding to the council hall and entering the memorial room or, more accurately, what remained of that room after the terrible break-in. Once there, she would tell me, slowly and patiently, the whole story of that remarkable man.

I was thankful for her cordial answers to my questions but felt obliged to consult my companions. Our time was short and we still wanted to take in the famous workshops on the edge of the village. We had also promised our guests from abroad a stop at the picturesque Druse market in Daliyat-el-Carmel and an opportunity to observe the Druse carpet weavers. It was her suggestion in that case that we get together on a day when I was free. She insisted only that I tell her I was coming because she also very busy, with artist workshops and classes in Haifa, Tel Aviv and neighboring kibbutz settlements. I agreed to find a time when we could talk about him at our leisure, said I would call and wrote down some names and telephone numbers she supplied. Before parting, she remembered that were was something else I could see if I searched the newspaper archives of the time. She was thinking in particular of a literary journal that had been defunct for years. Yes, many years had already passed since then. She wondered again how I had come upon Me'ir's name and what had provoked me to learn the story of his life and work. I could not explain to her that Me'ir simply intrigued me. Nor did I know why. When the memory of our encounter on the coast had pricked me again, I felt as if his absent image had posed me a riddle. I knew somewhere within me that the solution was important, both to me and my life. I had to find it.

As we said goodbye, she remarked with a sigh that he would now be one of the great sculptors in the country had he lived. He had more talent than his soul could contain. Perhaps that was the cause of what had happened. Surely I knew the gist of it: the treacherous cove, a sudden whirlpool, an inescapable current. But she would enlarge on all this when we met. I mustn't forget to call ahead. And there were some documents, just a handful, no need to photocopy them as most were handwritten and didn't fill even a page of note paper. Copying by hand would do fine. Meanwhile, she would dig through the office at the old council hall to see if she could turn up additional evidence. Then we ended the conversation and she led me back to my friends.

C. In the memorial room of the old council hall

The artist was waiting for me at the village office. She immediately handed me an envelope of photographs and newspaper clippings. "That's what I found," she said, "and I'm sure there's more. You just need to poke around, but I'm not as strong as I used to be." I followed her to the memorial room inside the old council hall. The museum construction site hummed with workmen and machinery. "We're finally going to do justice here and show respect to art," she said, "so we won't forget those who have fallen."

The council hall stood empty, and even the walls seemed destined for removal. "Everything is in a state of flux at the moment," said the artist. "When the museum is finished, we'll have new township facilities, too. It's a joke to call this a council hall. No one has met here for years. There is no council anymore, nor any memory of the early days of the village."

The narrow memorial room contained an old desk, chairs and some dusty albums. "Years ago," she said, "we used to hold exhibitions of local artists here. People would come from all over the country. This room served as an incubation chamber for the village's artistic life. But it's been years since anyone has looked after the building. You can see how it's been left completely neglected."

We sat down at the desk. While she leafed through an album, I drew the copied pages from the envelope she had given me. The literary journal that had printed these articles had ceased publication years before and the artist who had written a glowing review of Me'ir's early works had died long ago. Me'ir's poems, printed in capitals lettered by hand, were written in a highly detached style. Strange poems, about the mysterious devotion of a lost lover or an elusive God, and antiquated verses of longing such as no one writes today. There were also some portraits he had drawn and photographs of his wood carvings. In the margin of the column appeared a photo of Me'ir himself in a dark dancing outfit, sweeping his wing-arms sideways just as I had observed on the coast at Atlit.

The second column of the page dedicated to his memory featured three poems by a young poet who since had made a name by her weirdness. In those long-gone times, however, she was still a novice, a beginner under the spell cast by the giants of that generation in their glory, still like a student preparing for an impressive solo recital. Her poems were utterly charming, enjoyable even now after the passage of 25 years, in the nature of silent hymns to one who had not prevailed though he had possessed everything necessary to succeed. But there was another privilege he had not conceded, the right to decide whether or not to go on, and he had decided. He made a cruel, malignant decision that left all those close to him mute with grief. The young poet refused to accept that he was no more and called on him in her lines to come back, to reveal himself in the deep sands of oblivion in which he had sunk, to return dancing his fluttering steps as wooden figurines and finely wrought etchings cascaded from his bosom.

At the bottom of the page was a dry chronology of his brief life - when he was born, into what family, what happened when his father died while he was still a young child. Next came an abbreviated list of the educational institutions he had attended until drafted into the navy, then the bare minimum concerning secret missions during his years aboard a ship in the coast guard, his art studies and the period of his apprenticeship that later would bear such ripe fruit.

The artist, watching me as I examined the page, commented that she could see how excited I was by the articles. "You can take the papers home with you. Here is another folder, but it isn't cheery." She flipped open a sheaf of reports and transcribed affidavits relating the sad story of the pillage of the memorial room in which Me'ir's works had been destroyed. According to the recorded testimony of the village guards, the break-in occurred in the wee hours one rainy winter night. No light was seen, and the guards, drinking to keep warm as they sat around a heater, suspected nothing. What alerted them was the unexpected bleating of goats coming from the old council hall. On arriving at the scene, they were shocked to discover what had been done to the hall, where the goats were trampling everything underfoot. Their description of the floor littered with droppings and straw was genuinely literary. I took out the notebook I had brought and copied it word for word. Had the goats devoured his etchings? If not, where were they? Had the starving animals gobbled down his wood carvings and the brooding portrayals of the crucifixion? If not, where was everything hidden? Aside from fragments of his heavy stone pieces, no trace of his lost creations was found. Was it possible that the artist's village harbored a secret admirer of his work who, in crazed fanaticism, had wreaked such terrible havoc on the exhibit housed in the memorial room? She read my mind and assured me that the Haifa police had not detected anything of the sort during their investigation. Here were the reports and copies of the letters the detective squad had delivered to the village council. A most unfortunate series of events, an unintentional entry by a local shepherd. They even raised the absurd possibility that the flock of goats alone had desecrated everything; untended by a shepherd, the goats had broken through the rotten doors that winter night and innocently laid waste to the holdings as they frolicked in the building. The realization that they were imprisoned within the walls had set the goats bleating in abject panic. That was when the village guards, responding to the noise, had discovered what remained of the exhibition in honor of Me'ir of blessed memory.

The document fascinated me. I liked the brusque, official language, the written accounts of the officers and shepherds who had been questioned as witnesses, all filtered through the nimble fingers of the police stenographer. We the undersigned hereby attest that no incriminating evidence was found, the suspects were released and no arrests were made - so the police put it. I copied this into my notebook and thought to myself that I might return to it someday.

The artist told me that not everything had been lost, not all the legacy had been consumed by the flock. It was lucky that he lavished gifts on his friends. From the time he was discharged from the navy to his final trip to Paris, it had been his custom to liquidate each artistic phase by giving away his works. He would tell his friends each time that the real period of inspiration was just beginning and everything he had done until them was as nothing. And the dances? I asked. Did anything remain of those unique improvisations? "There are photographs, of course," she said, "but nothing to be found here."

I collected everything in my briefcase. She was sorry that she could not give me any more. It was too bad that none of the young reporters or art critics had taken an interest in Me'ir's character. What an important service some talented writer could perform by making the effort to produce a short biography of him. "I would offer him every possible assistance. So few people still remember him." Even of his relatives, it seemed that but a few were still alive. She looked at me with imploring eyes. I evaded her gaze and stood up to follow her out of what had been the memorial room of the old council hall. Again we were assailed by the earnest activity on the museum construction site. She returned the keys to the village office and quietly voiced her hope that the new museum would find a small room for Me'ir. After we parted, I walked to the town square and then slowly made my way along a road that wound through an adjacent copse. In the distance, I saw the Bay of Atlit gleaming with blue light. The dark wall of the fortress cast a deep shadow over the water. On the scattered limestone boulders could be seen the forms of week-end fishermen arching their lines high overhead. For just a moment, they were frozen in place like carved images of the crucifixion.

D. The fish table on the esplanade, Tiberias

The last time I saw Me'ir was from my seat at the fish table in a restaurant on the water's edge. How did I come to a restaurant on the esplanade in Tiberias? I went there to get to the bottom of some other ancient affair. I had arranged a meeting in the new center with an old friend who had taken part in the incident many years earlier. He readily agreed to my suggestion and even invited me to his house located on the slope of the mountain, but everything after that went wrong. He didn't show up or even send word and the meeting never took place. I searched for him in the new business center, at his house and even in the grocery store near his home. I sought help from neighbors and went looking for his wife. I glanced at my watch again to make sure I had not mistaken the date of our meeting, then stood nonplussed before his house. A young woman passing by asked me who I was looking for. When I told her the name of my old acquaintance, she curtly answered, "Stay away from him. No good can come from business with him. All kinds of rumors are going around about him and what he's done. Don't fall into some trap he's setting for you." What exactly did she mean? Had he been hauled away for investigation by the Tiberias police? Was he suspected of criminal activity? He had been such a decent, honest fellow in years past.

So I went down to the city esplanade along the Sea of Galilee. Never mind the meeting that didn't work out. Forget the old story whose full details I would not be able to extract as I had anticipated from my long-time friend. To hell with questions that would forever remain unresolved. What counted was a glorious winter day in Tiberias for me to enjoy, an intoxicating, sun-drenched day resplendent with light, a day whose warmth drugged the body and infused every bright sight with a dreamy glow.

Along the way, I stopped at the table of a restaurant facing the new dock from which tourist boats set sail for the eastern shore of the sea. From my seat, I gazed in wonder at the bustle emanating from the pier. Boats arrived and departed. Groups of sightseers came ashore and went aboard. The Galilee glittered behind them in the wintry sun. Sea gulls cruised the waterfront and families loaded chests, fueled motors and rolled nets to put their boats in order for a night of fishing.

I was reminded of the Sea of Galilee as I saw it after the grim days of the Yom Kippur War. The management of the Tiberias hot baths had invited our weary battalion to wash away some of the cares of war. We arrived good and filthy, but a dip in the warm waters restored to us a taste of other times. The bath attendants pampered us. They saw to our every need and draped our bodies with old towels when we stepped from the pools into the cold outside. We gave ourselves to the sun that heals every wound. Seated on the shore, at the foot of broad eucalyptus trees opposite the baths, we contemplated the mountains on the eastern rim where smoke rose from the high ridges of the Golan. Every outpost could be seen, every road and every settlement on the Heights. Casting dry twigs into the water, we pondered the terrible war just ended and what would come in its wake.

A strange vision suddenly took hold of me. I imagined that I saw a tall, thin man with a dark face. His arms are spreading from his sides and black dancer's pants stretch to his ankles. He dashes and glides over the water, not in a straight line but in a zig-zag course, making a sort of twisting leap through the expanse of illuminated water. Now he is running towards the east before veering off and heading to the far southern shore. Now he is turning sharply, spinning around towards me, his face angled to the side under a veil of shade. I felt a moment of mild dizziness and had to turn my head towards my comrades wrapped in towels in their seats under the trees. "Do you see a man out there, fluttering over the water?" No, they answered, they did not, and they were sick of my lingering shell shock that took a new form each time. Again they tossed dry twigs into the water lapping the shore and quietly resumed their conversation, always the same questions: Whose fault was the war? Who had to pay for it? How would our stricken country change, and for whom were we giving our lives?

It all passed in an instant. The strange delusion vanished. Across the mirror of water, only drab ducks paddled and king fishers screeched. A speed boat buzzed in the distance. Still tingling with memories, I watched from my seat at the fish table as one of the sightseeing boats took on some buoyant tourists. Did I recognize the man greeting them at the gangway? Didn't I once know that face a long time ago? Wasn't that Me'ir, skipper of a navy patrol boat? I had lived through a number of tense, frightful nights ages ago under his command. Can a man be seen in two worlds at one time? Could Me'ir appear simultaneously in two eras? After his discharge from the navy, had Me'ir from the boat become Me'ir the artist who came to Ein Hod? That was what his friends wrote after he was taken. Where had I seen those tributes? In my copies of the literary journal given me by the artist who preserved his memory? Or had I read them in the commemoration album issued by the navy? I no longer quite remember, but the similarity of their faces so stunned me that I rose from my seat at the fish table and approached the gangway. The sunny expression on his face dazzled me. The same eyes, the same dark skin, the same cryptic smile, the same delicate, fragile wrists. Me'ir? Was it really Me'ir? "Excuse me," I trembled before him, my breath suddenly short. "Excuse me, is your name Me'ir?"

The man turned from the tourists with a smile and looked me over. "No, what's this about Me'ir? Might be a Me'ir on the next boat. She'll dock in just a few minutes. Ask over there." I looked him in the eyes. Wasn't there a Me'ir here who had served in the navy? I asked. "I don't know him," answered the man. "You're all mixed up. No such person here, and I don't have the time to help you look."

What had suddenly come over me? I got a grip on myself and slowly settled into my seat beside the restaurant table. How could I bother people because of an old demon who took possession of me years before? Even to me, his origin was by means clear. For what had I gone to Tiberias and Ein Hod and the Bay of Atlit? What was this Me'ir, who relentlessly hounded my dreams, as though I, and I alone, owed him and others a debt to redeem his memory from oblivion? If I met a strange young man who crossed his arms over the back of a bench on the town square in Ein Hod, what of it? Did it follow that he was in fact a herald whose revelation of good tidings only I was bound to proclaim? And if, sometime in the dawn of my youth, I bumped into an eccentric chief petty officer on a little patrol boat off the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, directly below the guns of the Syrian coastal batteries, was I obliged to pursue glimmers of his image all my life?

Indeed, life is but a series of such peculiar encounters, especially in the beginning, in our enchanted childhood. For example, take that nameless tractor operator clearing rocks from Givat Ram in Jerusalem. When I stood before him with a friend, dressed in uniform with the unit patch shining on my shoulder, he stopped the giant tractor, jumped down, flung a chunk of stone at my feet and said, "Out for a hike, eh? Decided to escape from the northern border, eh? Had enough of those pitch black ambushes, eh? No more strength for crawling exhausted through jungles of reeds, eh?"

Before we could collect our thoughts, before we could get a fix on what he was saying to us, even before we could see his face shielded by a broad cloth hat over a layer of sticky dust, he hopped back onto the giant tractor and pulled the levers. The tractor growled and dug its great blade into the heap of rocks.

Did he know more about us than we ourselves did? Did he see himself as a secret partner in our fate? Why have I not sought after him? His name, too, is not important to me, nor the history of his family or its fortunes in Israel. For many years, I have nursed within me an idle curiosity as to the identity of that man and the reason for his remarks. Still, unlike the matter of Me'ir and his brief life, I left him alone as he did me.

I sat at the fish table, I ate and drank, and then I desired to quit the city. What would I do with this man who pursued me everywhere? On my way to the Tiberias bus station, I remembered that the artist had spoken sparingly of his death and I had not asked further, as though we were of one mind from the start to say nothing of that sorry chapter. Besides, anyone who had merely heard of the incident knew exactly what it involved. But it is impossible in thinking of him to regard that final act as the definitive event of his life. For some reason, Me'ir's artistic side had not drawn me. Instead, other facets of him, opening doors in a host of directions, had riveted me, though they would not make a biography even were I to write about them.

And if I sat down and wove a tale from events that would shed light on his life, and my life, and the hidden paths that we must take, why would I seize on his sad story? The esplanade in Tiberias and the new ship dock are full of groups of merry tourists, each of whom has a story more entertaining, and less mournful, than Me'ir's.

It is only the bronzed face of the man at the gangway guiding passengers on board the excursion boat that leaves me without peace. Did he really say his name wasn't Me'ir?

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