These Were the Days of Stefan Gart's Life

Published for the first time, a story by Lea Goldberg from 1939 that reflects her feelings about the gathering storm in Europe.

1.

To wake up into the full, hot day. To have missed the chill of early morning, the touch of its breezes. Broad white stairs to the boulevard of young trees in the park. The silver strands in the branches of the cypresses are the silver strands of youth. Stefan Gart, the aging poet, walks haltingly. He leans on the terrace railing, standing and looking out toward the park. And listening: How heavy the silence is. How thick. If only a breeze in the flutter of a leaf would stretch it open. How dense it is. How difficult!

He shuts his eyes - the sound of an explosion beyond the sea. In Europe. Helplessness and a crash. How can he forget? He, the roamer, loved the bends in its paths. During the days, he passed through its fields and at night he would sleep at the inns. And he sang to it - in its own language. And they are saying: War. All its blood is crying out to him from beyond the sea.

And now this dense silence. Smash it, gnaw its flesh with his teeth.

Or perhaps there is no absolution?

For perhaps he must love this morning. The way he had loved that morning in the glowing foreign place. In August. In the year 1914. With the dog, Dolce.

And the little girl, slim-necked and green-eyed. And with the happy blue volume, the innocent volume of tercets. (1)

And at that time he was young in years and captivated by the days and the nights. Twenty-five years old. And here is the house - his son's house. The home of his son, the little doctor.

Stefan Gart tests the taste of a new word in the lexicon of his emotions: homeland. The taste is bitter and foreign.

He is alarmed: homeland.

Like shackles on the roamer's failing legs.

Forgive, lord of the universe. My grandfather was a Jew from Galicia.

Stefan Gart gazes at the dome of the sky - it is so very clear and spherical, rounded. Like glass on cheese. Like glass on stinking cheese. And we are imprisoned under it.

***

The path from the small house glides down to the periphery of the agricultural village, curving and meeting the road and arriving at the whiteness of the walls of the cold and indifferent building, like a tombstone on a fresh grave - the hospital.

Now his son is working there. His son Josef. Stefan Gart's eldest. And Stefan Gart can see it from here: The clean, straight house. That is the way his son is. Clean, straight, dry and short of stature. Clean of soul and clean of hand. And pure he is not. He is a quiet citizen, Stefan Gart's son. Anna-Marie's son.

Oh, God! - And Gart does not object - I have sinned in my words and my heart. After all, I have always wanted my sons to be like that: healthy, uncomplicated, innocent of ambition, like every honest and ordinary person. And here I have one. And now I can't. I am choking in the face of his shiny health.

And there is no way out - I have no way out. Family life in its cleanliness. And this house is pretty and neat. The irreproachable fulfilling of an obligation. How he welcomed me - a measure of joy for a measure of surrender. And all is written. And yet why is it I am certain that he wakes up at night and recalls the number of sugar cubes I put into my glasses of tea that day? God, why? And he loves me and he is proud of me. He is proud that I am his father. Anna-Marie's son! And he thinks of me as clean inside. Like him ...

This is my paternal visit. The prodigal father has returned. Listen: He hasn't recanted. Listen: I am life's discarded lover. And nothing more. Europe has despised my love. And here, in the city, one gaunt little woman, her hair shorn, her breasts tiny, said to me that I have grown too old to love. So I have come to you, because Veronika cast me out, to the love of your son, Anna-Marie's son. And thou hast been commanded: Remember and observe this: Honor thy ...

Know: I have drunk my fill of life, its living flesh and its abundant spirit. And more than anything in the world I have loved to awaken early to the scent of the bookworm on the bank of a river, my clothing sodden with the smell of perspiration and perfumes before dawn.

This is your father - my firstborn son Josef, the son of Anna-Marie, of the laved soul.

Stefan Gart's head hangs very low, chin touching chest here. And on his nape presses, like an iron yoke, that troublesome thought he does not want to think:

The boy Ernst, a rebellious and intractable son, my youngest, Ernst - is there, in the detention camp. They will decapitate him like a dog - my boy. And in the distance, the whiteness of the hospital, like a tombstone on a fresh grave.

***

Here comes Stefan Gart's daughter-in-law, approaching the white stairs. In her hands is a basin full of laundry. A bright greenish kerchief comes down over her rounded forehead to her too-pale eyebrows. Gart watches her light and rhythmic step, the movement of her hips, and senses the threatening contrast between the solidity of her thighs and the slackness of her sloping shoulders. And he is captivated by the female magic of hard, motherly housework, even in the absence of a child.

And he thinks: How can she with that husband ...

And he doesn't complete the thought and, embarrassed, he recalls that he is her husband's father. She lifts the basin onto the steps of the house. She places it in front of her and kneads the laundry. Gart sees how large, heavy and pulpy, how red her hands are on the dazzling whiteness of the laundry.

She feels his gaze and tries to conceal her hands in the laundry or close to her body beneath her apron.

And for some reason he feels very sorry for her and his heart is pinched with a sudden and compassionate affection. He says: "Here ... "

Then her big green eyes hang on him, and the green of her kerchief is reflected in them, like reeds in neglected pools - gradually they fill with fear.

Why is she afraid of me? - thinks Gart.

And he wants to barricade himself from her fear - with conciliatory words. And he stutters: "Are you very tired, Hannah?"

She whispers: "I will go up to hang the laundry on the roof. It is getting hotter. Please go inside, Father, into the house."

Gart's back stoops and he enters the house.

"Father! Did you hear that, Veronika? Listen - listen hard, Veronika - she says to me: 'Father.'"

***

Why has he hoarded all his books, his son Josef, Stefan Gart's firstborn? And who needs them in this room? Here they stand and gather dust - unnecessary and just a bother to Hannah.

Today they are regarding Stefan Gart like a battalion of enemies, alien and accusatory. Why are they pursuing him?

Yes - he knows that half of them are just craft and keeping busy, yes - he knows the deception there is in error and impotence, the prettifying that conceals from the eye the abysses that gape between word and emotion - and they aren't asking anything of him now. And they are alive, living their life and not coming back to him. Even the printer's errors in them are alive of their own accord. And they can no longer be suppressed. Poetry and prose, novellas and essays. Why are they pursuing him?

The childish warmth is still preserved only in the naive blue volume of tercets.

Stefan Gart takes it from the shelf and pages through it. And his eyes encounter a certain poem that he had forgotten 25 years ago. And he is amazed:

That youngster who wrote it was a great poet. How have you come to lose yourself, Stefan Gart? Don't think, don't think, don't think.

And he lays the blue book down on his son's desk. And there in a frame - a small but very clear picture - Anna-Marie, mother of his sons, Anna-Marie, Stefan Gart's wife.

She died five (five or six?) years ago. When he was on expeditions in London.

Here is her face - neither ugly nor beautiful. Only the mouth is too thin, pursed and narrow. The nose is very straight and the eyes are without pride, without magic, without warmth, and this is the stupid expression of the eternal effort to be free of sin and respectable, and worthy of all glory and praise. How small your face is, Anna-Marie.

Without a doubt I was a very bad husband. Without a doubt I cheated on you many, many times. Without a doubt I insulted your dignity, your habits. And more than once I left you with your suffering. But you, Anna-Marie, how you knew how to comport yourself among people like a victim, like a sacrificial lamb, how you knew how to be an obstacle to me, to surround me with pettiness, to trip me up with a triviality, to hate all my poems, to adorn yourself with my name and to teach my son Josef to be different from me.

Ernst escaped from your hands, Anna-Marie, and dropped from mine.

And he thinks: For 26 years you were my wife, Anna-Marie. How did that happen? How ever did that happen? I never loved you, Anna-Marie. Only long ago you were naked, pink-skinned, black-haired. And again he looks at her picture and something in him cries out: Help! And he is embarrassed, helpless and ashamed.

He says aloud: "You were black-haired, Anna-Marie."

And now he knows that at their last encounter she was a redhead. Perhaps she had been a redhead in their previous encounters. And he hadn't even noticed, hadn't asked when the change had taken place. Only now does he know that one day she dyed her hair - and he hadn't even noticed. And he addresses the picture: "You suffered a lot, Anna-Marie." And for the first time in his life he has said this without anger.

***

Through the slats in the louvers the sun filters in, the day is heavy and hot. It is heavy and long. One's eyes look toward evening and one's hands have grown very old.

2.

Evening adhered to the walls of the house. In the silent circle of the lamp three heads bent over plates. A dead, yellow electric halo - only at its edges trembling with shadows from the quivering of the twining plants that climb on the railing of the veranda. The talk is clenched and sparse. His son Josef's mouth is so heavy. Heavy, too, is Stefan Gart's gaze. They chew, and their immobility is in the light. Only Hannah rises from time to time. She passes beyond the boundaries of the light - returns, in her hand a jug, or a cup, or a dish. Now her arm is embracing a bowl. Her other hand holds on to the back of her husband's chair and looks beyond the border of the darkness and says: a car.

The two men turn their heads toward the distant road, toward the way that is lost in the dark, toward the hospital.

Headlights. Headlights of an approaching car.

And Stefan Gart's face is alive again and he looks at Hannah and smiles, and he laughs inwardly at his soul as well: "Has hope not expired yet, old man? And will a guest come, Stefan Gart?"

But his face has suddenly broadened out, and his breath as anxious as a gazelle - only his son's face is as bleak as it had been. And he says quietly: It's not possible.

For a moment the car stops, somewhere far off at the edge of the village, and again the headlights appear and they are coming up the one road, the road to their house and their lamp.

Hannah blurts: "To us ... " As though letting earthenware dishes drop.

And the car has already arrived. And the headlights have already been extinguished and a voice is already coming from it to the veranda.

"Does Stefan Gart live here?"

That voice! A friend's voice. How it rings out in Stefan Gart's life like a bell, from the days of his youth, even before it broke and became a man's voice. Stefan Gart would never mistake it, would never forget that voice!

He leaps from his place and runs down the steps, fleet of foot, and he doesn't feel the tendrils of the vines that capture his sleeve and tear at him, as though he had undone the shackles of this evening.

And now they stand there shaking hands, Stefan Gart and his friend - the great doctor.

So different. Stefan Gart is broad-shouldered, tall, and the silver is abundant in the chestnut of his hair, and his head is a bit cocked toward his left shoulder, as though he were listening to the beat of his own heart. The other, the doctor, is skinny and long, and his shoulders droop and his skin is so stretched over his bones, around his intelligent eyes, and he has a gray mustache that covers his lips a bit, and his bald head tilts forward, as though listening to the other person's heart. They shake hands as they go up to the veranda and as they walk their eyes examine each other -

And the daughter-in-law and the son rise to greet them.

Josef the little doctor - as befits him - with much respect for the great doctor; and Hannah helpless, as though desperate, as though she is a member of an underground and can't be reached, because she had been the first to see the car.

And Gart explains: "They are my son and my daughter-in-law."

And Gart says: "It is so lovely that you have come." And he looks at his watch and exclaims: "So late!"

And his friend the doctor smiles a smile of sadness and apologizes (why is he apologizing?) - "At the hospital here there was - someone - I wanted him to live. I drove out to see him, because they asked me to come to him ..." And he finishes: "And he died."

***

It is late, after the meal. Under the lamp. The two of them. And in silence. Cigarette smoke in the electric light suddenly turns yellow as amber. Fatigued smile lines around the friend's mouth, beneath the gray mustache. And all at once he remembers: "Yes, I've forgotten!"

And he takes out an envelope that is all azure like the threads in the fringe of a prayer shawl and he gives it to Gart.

"Stefan Gart" is what is written on the azure envelope.

It is that energetic, agile, masculine handwriting. And Stefan Gart knows that this is a woman's handwriting. And he knows every fingernail on that woman's hand.

And he does not thank his friend. And he puts the envelope that is all azure into a pocket of his jacket and he thinks: I will read it alone at night.

An ugly yellow moth in flight bumps into the kerosene lamp, falling onto the guest's shoulder.

The gray mustache lifts a little. And the bald head leans over a fluttering wing, the thick, ugly moth's wing. And his very circumspect eyes are on the moth's wings. But why is he speaking as though he is looking at the sky?

"Stars at night, a hailstorm of stars." Stefan Gart smiles: "You are the poet." His friend laughs: "I'm just a doctor," and looks up from the moth's wings and says: "But I do love the night, the tenderness of the night at the beginning of the month of Tishrei, here, bei uns."

Stefan Gart hears: Here, bei uns. In our place.

And he feels very bitter. He says, "Medicine doesn't need language. And it's comfortable for you to say: here, bei uns." And he wants to say other things, and he wants to tell his friend:

- Look, I have introduced my son to you; indeed he too is a doctor, but why is it that you are great and he is small? Look, you say "here, bei uns." Maybe in this tiny country only giants are allowed to live, because it is small and its project is large, and therefore, why is my son Josef - a midget? And he wants to pour forth his supplications: I am not too old to understand these things, I am not too old to say "here, bei uns," but why have I come here, a beggar, to stand at my son's threshold and seek charity and he is poorer than I am?

And he says nothing. - Just not memories, just not the past.

- Please!

His friend looks at him with a cold and inquiring eye and asks:

"Suffocation? And pressure in the chest? And a feeling of fear?" Stefan Gart hesitates.

Should he admit it? And he remembers the envelope that is all azure and he lies: "No."

The guest shakes his head slowly. And his dry, warm hand rests on his friend's shoulder. He says: "It's late. I'm tired. And you too, you'd best go to bed and get some sleep, Stefan."

And Stefan Gart rests his loving gaze on him: because he isn't accustomed to hearing his friend say his name - Stefan.

The guest is a bit embarrassed. And both of them smile.

***

And the flowers of the night - saturated - and heavy, in the white oleander in the crown of its blossoms, in the last of the citrus blooms. This pale, smooth moon, this moon over the stiletto of the cypresses, the moon does not permit sleep.

Impotence and old age. Old age is barricaded into an elongated letter in an azure envelope.

He will not open it. No, no. Perhaps tomorrow, in the light of day, perhaps tomorrow, in the light of the silence, but now he will not open it.

And he can't sleep. And he sits and looks out the window. And he lies down, and doesn't sleep. And thinks: Veronika. And glimmers: Berenice. And shouts: Whore!

***

And at the end of the watch with the setting of the moon, he casts a spell on himself with an incantation of grief: This land, for which Moses the man longed And saw large and wide from the top of Nebo, This land that contained the grief of a foe, This land that was wide as the world for Jesus the youth - Why does it oppress me like an alien boot? Why? Poor am I, poor am I among the thousands of Israel. A beggar am I, ungrateful am I, seeking charity on the doorsteps of my son the midget. And as he falls asleep one of the Black Guards comes down to him and says to him: Rosengarten. Stefan Gart hangs his head: Yes. Rosengarten. My grandfather's name was Shmuel Rosengarten. And that is my name. So what?

***

Very early in the gray of the first light he wakes up and does not know what happened. Only his lips are still whispering supplications: Ernst. The boy Ernst. Don't send him to the slaughter, the boy ...

And hanging over him like the blade of a sword is the word: War.

3.

Like an old picture on gesso and gold, the dark cypresses on the gold in the morning. A dusting of orange in the silver of the olive trees and azure reflected on hilltops. Very far off, in the folds of the mountain - the flock. Erect and black-robed is the shepherd, and the backs of the sheep are red.

And everything is on a base coat of gesso and gold - like an old picture.

The dreams of the night have sunk, the glimmerings of dawn have set. The morning is clear and tranquil.

Stefan Gart is jocular with his guest: "The morning is beautiful, here bei uns."

The guest sips from the cup. The caution in the guest's eyes. They are unquiet, the guest's eyes. He answers curtly: "Beautiful."

And he asks: "How did you sleep last night, Gart?"

Stefan Gart regards him with a bit of concern: "It seems to me that you are in need of rest. You have neglected yourself, Doctor."

The guest smiles, and sinks his eyes into the newspaper. "Me? I'm as sturdy as a skeleton - nothing can happen to me." And his eyes are on the newspaper. And his lips whisper: - War.

He finishes the tea and goes down to the car and says goodbye. And he shakes his friend's hand: "We'll see each other again, in this beautiful world. Just don't think too much, Gart."

And he takes a last look at the gold spilling into the azure, at the white house, the steps, the dark, erect cypresses. He sits down at the steering wheel and hands the newspaper to Gart, shaking his head over the news in the paper:

"The snare is broken and we are escaped." (2)

***

The day lay supine on the steps of the house. The day was lazy and hot. The house is empty. His son Josef has gone to his patients. And his daughter-in-law has gone down to the village to do the shopping. In the room where the guest had slept, near the extinguished lamp, the blue book of tercets lay open. And Stefan Gart thought almost scornfully: He's still reading poems.

Nevertheless his heart warmed. And there was gratitude in his heart. Because his friend had chosen this innocent book, the blue book of tercets.

Suddenly his heart is awash with compassion: for himself, for his son, for this house, for Hannah, for the whole world, the world of beautiful colors and enchanting sounds, this sinking world.

And he doesn't think about Ernst any more, and he doesn't think about the envelope that is all azure. And were he to think - he would, no doubt, forgive.

But he does not forgive and he does not ask forgiveness. He lies on the wide sofa and suddenly his heart became very quiet, and he dozed off and slept a sleep of forgetting and reconciliation - until evening.

***

Suddenly he awoke and in a dark blue window one star trembled. And he was alarmed and it seemed to him that he was the only person in the whole world. Abandoned in his old age - he has no god and no woman. Only this bright star in the window and nothing more. He lies there and looks at the star - should he get up?

And he gets up and he doesn't comprehend: I slept like this all day and no one came to wake me up for a meal and no one saw that I wasn't there. And had I died, they would have forgotten to bury me.

So this is where you have banished me to, Veronika. I will not read your letter, my dear tigress Veronika. It is here on my breast, it is in my pocket, here with me. He takes out the envelope and he sees it quite well by the light of the single star. Because it is all azure like a sacred thread. His hand feels around on the table and he finds a cigarette and matches. He lights the match to bring its flame to the cigarette and changes his mind but he does not extinguish the match. He picks up the envelope and illuminates the masculine handwriting and again he reads: Stefan Gart.

Then he sets the edge of the envelope that is all azure alight. It is hard to set fire to the thick paper with a single match. The match goes out. And he lights a second match. Now the envelope is burning, very slowly, from one edge to the other.

Perhaps, thinks Gart, perhaps this letter says, "I loved you, Stefan, come back to me, console me for my wickedness. Come back, come back and I will cling to you" ... And I am the coward!

The fire singes his hand and he throws the burning paper into the ashtray. And now there's just a small heap of ash. And the great release comes, the great well-being. Just for a moment.

And then he sits in the dark facing the heap of ash - like a juniper from a burnt forest.

***

And he gets up and he goes out to the dark hallway. A ray of distant light spills in at him from one of the doors. He walks toward the light, and here is the kitchen. Hannah is bending over the floor near a glistening bucket and in her hand there is a thick gray rag.

The yellow electricity shines in the yellow of Hannah's hair. And she bends over the bucket and the rag like the figure of a mysterious handmaiden from the Scriptures.

Stefan Gart leans on the kitchen doorpost: "You are working so late at night, Hannah."

She raises her pale eyes - her eyebrows - to him, and her hands are on the bucket.

"And Josef, Hannah?"

Now her shoulder trembles. "I had thought you had gone into town, Father ... and you are at home, and you haven't eaten? Your bread is set out on the table on the veranda. Please go and eat, Father, for it is almost midnight."

Gart says: "I am not hungry."

And he continues to watch her working hands. Heat rises from her hands. He thinks: - I am eating their bread. And their work is at night.

"And is Josef sleeping, Hannah?" Hannah relates: "Josef has gone to the next village, poor man. Even at night he gets no rest. A child is dying in the next village. And bei uns there was someone, a watchman, who was hit by a bullet, accidentally, and he couldn't get to the hospital - they brought him here, to the kitchen, and they have just taken him away to the hospital with the help of the nurse. This is his blood that I am washing away."

Gart sees - only now he sees: bloodstains on the kitchen floor. And his heart cries out: People, living people!

And like a sorceress from the Scriptures Hannah bends over the blood.

And he remembers an old poem, a poem by a poet who wrote in his language, and it seems to him that there is healing in that poem. And it seems to him: Now she will understand.

He asks her: "Do you like poetry, Hannah?"

Agonies of exhaustion in her eyes: "I have no leisure for poetry."

But he does not hear what she says. The sorceress bending over the blood, who can understand incantations better than she? He leans on the doorpost and very, very slowly, as though casting a spell, he recites to her the verses he loves most. As though stringing beads around her neck as she bends over the bucket.

He finishes and is silent. And now he hears: Into an abyss of hostile silence falls the last word of the poem. In Hannah's upraised eyes amazement, fear and scorn wrestle. And her lips mumble:

"Please go, Father, to eat or to sleep." And he goes.

***

He goes, he walks, To the blue night garden, To the valley, to the hills, to this earth, he goes, he walks. With careful delicate hands the night Carries his star Above him.

And he walks. The path slides, the path plummets, the brambles grasp his clothes, prick his legs. Stand still! How can I stand still when I have promised to love you tonight, foreign earth, my alien earth, my homeland in the nights.

I will not return to the home of my son the midget, I will not go to the fear in Hannah's eyes. I will not turn back to the avalanche beyond the sea lest I turn into a pillar of salt. There my only son is bound for sacrifice - the boy Ernst ...

And if thou dost not respect my good offering, respect my bad offering - the incense from the love of Veronika rose heavenward. And now I have nothing but this earth and its thorns. Perhaps it will pierce my breast with a last poem, and become one flesh and one poem with me.

And the path springs up, and the path gets lost and there is no path. Only crevices and thorns and one star above - and the voice of a man from the darkness close by:

"Hey, who's that there?"

The silence congeals on the roamer's lips.

And if he says to him: Stefan Gart? And what do the people of the night watch know, what is Stefan Gart to them?

A stone rolls down, the stone is pursuing him. The stone falls and goes silent. All the stones are silent. Stefan Gart goes, he walks ...

"Hey, who's that there?" A single shot in the night. The corpse of an aging man in the night. A song was not sung in the night. Death is easy at night.

The star is high above the valley, the gully is deep against the altitude of the star.

(Zichron Yaakov, September 20, 1939)

Translated by Vivian Eden