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The Teachers’ Lounge: Stories

An original translation of new Hebrew fiction from Bernstein Prize-winner Dror Burstein, author of ‘Kin’

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The English Teacher

In a far corner of our school, actually in an area that was part beyond the school’s low wall and part in front of the wall, the vegetable garden stood. The subjects of agriculture and gardening were placed in the hands of the Bible teacher for lack of a more suitable candidate. The Bible teacher, who never missed out on an opportunity to tell us about the Master’s thesis he submitted to Ben Gurion University on the topic “Mockery and Taunting in Jeremiah’s Prophecies” tended to describe the act of gardening in biblical terms. “The grass withers, the flower fades,” he said at the sight of a dry anemone; “Trees bearing fruit yielding its own kind,” he gently rubbed his hands together while facing a large bed of weeds. “Then he waited that it should bring forth a harvest of good grapes,” he said and tore off a grape, that is a fig, and blessed it, rubbed it on his sleeve, and ate it.

I was appointed to take care of the field of weeds. This plot of land, almost half a dunam in size, was the pride of the previous Agriculture teacher, who founded the garden in an area that was expropriated, from the city of Netanya actually. He seized the area from the hand of lawlessness, he said. This is a pioneering and educational act. Have you heard about Yehoshua Ben-Nun? You’ll hear about him. The previous Agriculture teacher was also himself a Bible teacher himself.

In the plot of weeds we conducted experiments on weeds. This plot was left alone to grow wild, “like a motley throng that went out from Egypt.” Our teacher planned to perform observations and draw conclusions about the behavior of the vegetation in the plot. The conclusions were to be drawn not only in regards to the vegetation, but also in regards to the human species and everything. There is only one law, he decreed. He spoke about the term “The social garden bed,” which he heard from the previous teacher. He saw in the wild plot an echo of sorts of a primeval, nonstop struggle for survival. In the corners of the garden, he argued, right now, albeit at an unfortunate delay, a plant-theater of the First World War is taking place. Indeed the language of this theater has yet to be satisfactorily deciphered. But, he said and gestured with a thin hand toward an area of chrysanthemums, here before you is the Battle of the Somme. Don’t move, he warned, don’t interfere with the course of history.

I made a duplicate copy of the key to the garden during one of the weekends after working there. It’s with me to this day, and I wouldn’t be amazed if the lock is still the same lock from those days. Maybe I should go and check. But there’s no point. The garden itself, everything behind the gate, was destroyed some time ago. Torched and cleared and plowed and covered with asphalt. Presently there’s a parking lot in it, a parking lot no one parks in, completely empty. No one has ever parked there, because there’s no access road to the garden. The road serving the bulldozers was accidentally closed off when the last bulldozer made its way out of the garden, and it hasn’t been opened up since. Only the locked gate still stands there, securing nothing, not keeping anyone from entering, like a vague reminder of the plants that were turned to ash some time ago.

I found myself, nevertheless, in the plot of weeds. I said to the girl next to me something about the moon and the ants. I made up something about the mutual influence of the full moon on their sexual activity. The ants, I said, worship the crescent moon and fear the full moon. The crescent is a god for them, and the full moon—a kind of devil. The girl looked at me with skepticism. It didn’t look like the few ants we spotted corroborated my argument regarding their theology. “That’s a different kind of ant,” I explained. I pointed out Orion’s belt and explained to her the tremendous distance of the stars. I told her that the star at the belt’s center is among the farthest and largest that human eyes are capable of seeing. I pointed out the armpit star, Betelgeuse. I said to her, if that star was positioned in the place where our sun stands, we wouldn’t be able to see Orion, since the star would burn up the entire solar system all the way to Jupiter together with the Earth and all the eyes on it. Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m crying because of the star,” she said, “I remembered that my father told me the stars are like the moon. Only smaller, and farther away. Because of this you can’t see that the stars are also crescents. The light just—”, here she lost the train of thought. Suddenly I remembered that there was a blind person in her family.

I leaned on the stump of the fig tree. Her father was also a teacher in our school. Of English. He didn’t know English. But he translated T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” into Hebrew, and thus obtained his position. Later on it became clear that he merely updated the translation by Pavel Cherniak, who himself didn’t translate it from English but rather from Polish. Her father changed a few words in Cherniak’s translation, and the translation was published under his name in a literary supplement and afterwards in an elegant book. Cherniak had long since died, burned in a match warehouse in Netanya, and no one paid any attention to the interesting similarity between the two versions. When the thing was discovered, her father was fired from his position. Yet he was allowed to continue holding the title “English Teacher,” although he was demoted to the position of janitor. Churchi was his name. But his original name was Churchill, like the name of that same well-known British leader. He was ashamed of his name and cut off the last letters when he was fired. I’m not worthy, he said to whoever asked. His daughter was Ayelet Churchi—the letters had been removed from her name too, like from the names of all the family members.

We lay at a certain distance from one another in the shade of the fig tree. Indeed it was night and of course no shadow was cast, but I said something to her about the stars’ shadow. There’s light, there’s a body blocking that light, the tree for instance, or your hand, therefore from a scientific perspective there is shadow at night, too. Only it’s swallowed up, weak. But we cast them, and they are cast upon us. We lay there and looked at the garden and the stars. Her father, she said, didn’t recover. He, his whole life was English poetry. He translated many poets, but now there’s no chance that anyone will publish it. He put all his eggs in one basket, she said. Now the basket is shattered and broken. Stinks, he walks around the house and says, “Eggs is stinks.” Just like that. He doesn’t know Hebrew very well either. Yesterday I found him sitting on the porch looking at a piece of paper, she said to me. He said to me that he would like me to go the Burial Society and get a birth certificate for him with the exact Hebrew date. When he immigrated they didn’t know his exact birth date so they wrote January 1st of the year of his birth. I said to him, Dad, what’s so bad about a birth certificate from the Ministry of the Interior, but he got annoyed and said, No, you get a birth certificate at the Burial Society. You don’t know everything.

We fell silent. I buried my hand in my pocket. The constellation of stars that I had identified as Orion was, I now noticed, an entirely different constellation. I was about to tell her about my mistake, when she turned to me, and for the first time that evening looked me in the eyes. “Do you want to read a translation of a beautiful poem? I always have all his translations in my bag. It’s all I’ve been reading over the last year.” She turned onto her side and from her bag removed a small binder with pages in it. I watched her leaf through it and select the poem. She carefully removed the page from the binder. The sound of the binder’s round teeth snapping, when they were opened and closed, could be heard clearly in the garden. A bird, perhaps, leapt panic-stricken, from its sleep.

But I said no. I knew I was making a mistake, but I said no. The page remained on the ground, face down. If I had read the translation after she left maybe the next day I would have told her and everything would have been forgotten. But I left the page, its face in the dirt, and walked away myself a few minutes later. I heard the sound of her steps receding, trampling the path of the dried chrysanthemums—a hundred days later all of them were defeated in the fateful battle. Tall thorns overran them, slaughtered them, the sun and the drought attacked from the air. “Man, his days are as grass,” the Bible teacher hummed a Chasidic melody his grandfather, who had perished, taught him, as he gathered the dried flowers and scattered them in a long line, a path of sorts or a long, yellowish rug, which began in that plot and continued to the wall of the garden, upon which a mural of groundsels bloomed, always awash in sunlight and sometimes going up in flames, always in flames.

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The Teachers’ Lounge: Stories

An original translation of new Hebrew fiction from Bernstein Prize-winner Dror Burstein, author of ‘Kin’