The Soul Mate

A short story

A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua
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A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua

My only son has a soul mate I'm not fond of. But what can I do? They bonded in the army, and although they've been out for a while now, the ties have only grown stronger. Is such a friendship like a camel in the desert, drawing nourishment from its own hump? Does it persist only by force of their shared army experience, or does it draw sustenance from any new sources?

What is it about this friendship that threatens me? My son's soul mate is a civilized creature, gentle and refined, with the soft, caressing voice of a woman calling from the distance. Every time I find him in my son's room, he gives a start like a frightened deer and looks at me with eyes full of hope. Is it possible, I wonder, as I toss and turn at night, that this shy refinement, vacillating between hope and fear, is precisely what arouses my loathing? After all, it's only my own stubbornness that makes me refuse to forget the dark face of that village girl, killed on a moonlit night when young soldiers, the milk of basic training still on their lips, quietly encircled her small village.

My son and his soul mate both swear that it was only out of fear for their lives that they opened fire on a "shadowy figure" lurking near the entrance to the village. And although they haven't managed to explain until now - not to their officers, not to the investigators, not even to their fathers - exactly what it was about this "figure" that worried them, we are all being asked to believe that it was neither mischief nor a bestial instinct that made them spray the girl's darkened house with gunfire.

When they fired those guns, they hardly knew one another. They were two new recruits who happened to be on duty together. Who knows, I agonize, as the pale light of dawn caresses my window, whether this friendship would have endured and become so close if that young girl hadn't been killed in her bed?

True, we will never know which of the two held the gun that fired the fatal shot. The villagers hurried to bury the girl and refused to allow the enemy who shot her dead to saw her open and poke around in her body, in order to falsely accuse someone of who knows what, maybe murdering her for the sake of "family honor." And so, a few days into the investigation, the case closed. What can you do? In such matters, the enemy's wishes must be respected.

But instead of wrapping up the affair quietly, and faithfully abiding by their lack of faith in the honesty of our investigations, the bereaved family sent a photograph of the dead girl to one of our respected morning papers. So one morning, on the front page, in the middle of an article by one of our sternest "voices of conscience," the lovely dark-skinned face of a teenager in an embroidered peasant dress suddenly appeared, her hair loose around her shoulders rather than tied up properly in a scarf, her doe eyes continuing to smile trustingly at the world which was already lost to her.

Even an expert in human cunning like me is astounded by the quickness and efficiency with which our obstinate, muddle-headed enemy manages to produce pictures of its dead. Before the spilled blood has dried or been washed away, large, full-color photographs of the dead, framed in glass, are already held aloft in emotional processions and waved before the cameras. Sometimes it seems as if the young people in towns and villages across the border prepare large, handsome portraits of themselves and frame them ahead of time for carrying proudly at their funerals. Maybe their faces will scratch the surface of the heart somehow, as the enemy casts a weary glance in the direction of the TV set at dinnertime.

I left the newspaper on my desk. Not because of the photograph, but because my son's name was cited as one of the suspects in the killing. It's not exactly an honor, but how often does your child's name make the papers?

My son's soul mate noticed the newspaper on my desk, and asked to borrow it for a few days to show his ailing father the picture of the beautiful girl whose slumber was pierced by an anonymous bullet. But I wouldn't let the paper out of my study. "Is your father in such pain that he can't get himself his own copy?" I asked, but received no reply. A few days later, the paper disappeared. The soul mate swore he never touched it, but I have my suspicions. Altogether, who gave him the right to snoop around my study and look at the things on my desk, as if he were some kind of family member?

The newspaper is gone - stolen or destroyed. I could get a new copy, but I don't have the strength. I've tried to store the face of the dead girl in my memory, but not her name. There's a limit. If we forget the names of our dear ones who have been savagely murdered, why should we remember the names of casualties on the enemy side? But the name of the little besieged village I have committed to memory, if not for myself, then for the grandchildren someday. The trouble is that the more I correct the way my son and his friend pronounce the name of this village, the more they insist on mispronouncing it. It's as if they do it on purpose, coming up with a new mispronunciation each time.

Could they be thinking that this is a good way to rid themselves once and for all of the memory of the young virgin, who died in her bed, but for all we know might have had sweet dreams of becoming a suicide bomber tucked under her pillow? After all, the case is closed for good, no one has ever declared the "shadowy figure" on that moonlit night a figment of the imagination, and a firm friendship has grown up since then.

It's this friendship which has me worried. At night, instead of wracking my brain over more serious matters, I spend my time thinking of ways to break up their relationship, now that my only son has dodged my authority and gone to live with his soul mate in another apartment.

For that reason, I never tell them in advance when I'm planning to visit. I just call in on them at unexpected times. But because my son works as a security guard at the mall most of the time, in order to put himself through law school some day, the only one I find at home is the soul mate. This gentle, noble-minded creature apparently prefers to stick around at home. Maybe he's afraid that out in the street he might bump into a military investigator who hasn't given him enough of a shake-down.

Anyhow, there he is, puttering around in their little apartment in an apron, listening to a sublime piece of music. An industrious housekeeper, he washes floors, cooks, does dishes, launders and irons. When the spirit hits him, he sews on the buttons that fall off my son's clothes.

He greets me, choking with excitement. It is hard to say which is greater: his anxiety or his delight at my arrival. He hastens to spread a tablecloth and offers me a taste of the jam he is cooking up for my son. I refuse, not out of fear of being poisoned, but because I don't want him to get the idea that his mediocre talent at keeping house is any substitute for a bride for my son.

Is it any wonder that after such a visit, I wake up in a panic in the middle of the night, pull on a coat and hurry to the gate of the darkened mall to demand that the watchman answer a simple question: "Will you tell me, please: Is this soul mate of yours also your lover?" But my only son, a sub-machine gun and magazine lying beside a pile of "History of Jurisprudence" texts, wearily reassures me: No, Dad. The soul mate is only a friend. They won't always be living together. Like all soldiers who finish their tour of duty, this one also has the urge to cleanse his soul in distant lands. Except that this one's father is very ill, and he's waiting for him to die.

I'm afraid to quiz him about the father's illness, precisely because I can imagine the sorrow that caused it. But because such illnesses can't be relied upon to end in death, I try, on my next visit to the apartment, to encourage my son's soul mate to go off on his travels without waiting for his father's demise. "Over there, in those godforsaken countries across the sea, people don't know you yet," I say, pacing excitedly from wall to wall, pointing toward the distant horizon. "It will be easier and safer for you, even without the comforts of your music. If you sit here and wait for your father to die, who knows if the shadowy figure you missed that moonlit night won't remember you and chase you all the way to Himalayas."

The virginal blush rising in the cheeks of the soul mate proves like a thousand witnesses that my gun doesn't miss its mark. It doesn't take long before he packs a big knapsack, heaves it onto his back and sets off for distant pastures.

And with his disappearance, a great calm descends upon me. The moral world is restored and balance is regained, to the point where even my son decides to switch majors and study behavioral sciences instead of law. If you ask me, he would be better off learning how to defend himself in court if he ever decides to blast another "shadowy" figure to kingdom come. On the other hand, maybe the new faculty will teach him how to gain more control over his fears and urges.

And, of course, sitting in class, he is bound to meet female students with souls infinitely richer and more complex than that of his soul mate, who has not vanished entirely from the look of the colorful postcards he sends from time to time. "So what does your friend write?" I ask my son, treading cautiously. It turns out he writes very little on these postcards, most of them glossy photographs bearing the terrifying countenance of local gods and goddesses. "And his sick father?" I continue, seemingly offhand. "Didn't he recover after his son left?" Apparently not. It seems he got worse, and is now missing his son.

I don't miss him. I am fascinated at the moment by my son's love life. The place vacated by his soul mate is now being fought over by numerous female students, and very crafty they are. One of them has even moved in with him, in some hazy combination of roommate and fiancee. Despite all the exams and papers she owes, she has found time to give birth to a baby girl, presumably fathered by my son, since I am asked to baby-sit occasionally in the evenings.

This extremely tiny creature fixes her eyes on me with such a spark of cleverness that sometimes - I know it's just an illusion - I have the feeling she's giving me a furtive wink, as if we share some kind of secret. When she breaks into a fit of screaming and indignation, waiting for her milk, I carry her to the balcony and lift her up toward the moon so she can take comfort in its light. Indeed, bathed in its paleness, she stiffens momentarily, as if trying to remember something.

But what could she remember in that short life of hers? I wonder, as I pop the bottle into her mouth, fascinated more by this creature than by television, always full of death and destruction, and pompous windbags, of course. But the baby has no answer to my question yet, so I fill the silence around us with music, left behind by my son's soul mate. I don't miss the fellow, but it's been hard not to think about him lately. My son tells me that the father's condition is very grave, and his friend should be arriving any day now to say his final good-byes.

I wipe the drops of milk from the baby's lips, lift her into her crib and place a pillow under her head. Will she dream of her experiences in the belly of her mother, who has an exam tomorrow, and has gone off to search for abstracts of articles and books she has never read? My exams are over, but again I start to worry: What if the homeward-bound friend gets cold feet about seeing his dying father and he decides to land here, in this apartment, under the mistaken impression that his status has remained unchanged.

My breath catches at the sound of the key, which has roamed far and wide, crossing cities and rivers and swamps, trekking up and down mountains, only to be inserted once more in the keyhole of my son's door. But is this silent thing who stands before me the same soul mate of old, or it is some other nebulous being - boyish, delicate, slender, draped in a kind of embroidered oriental tunic, a face darkened from exposure to the elements, hair grown long, hanging loose around the shoulders, doe eyes, open wide and smiling trustingly at a world that has not been lost, but found?

Instead of a knapsack, the soul mate drops a heavy sausage-shaped sack at the foot of the baby's crib, looks at me eagerly, and in a voice that has grown even more colorful and cultured, soothes my trembling soul: "You see, I've come back to you alive."

"To me?" I cry in anguish. "Why me? Out there in the world no one is interested in you anymore?"

"No," he replies with a smile that might have been smug or sad. "They've already got enough self-styled gods and goddesses. They don't need a new one.

"And your father?" I continue anxiously.

"He passed away before I could say good-bye, and it's all your fault. You talked me into leaving and never said he might die. So now you take his place. You be my father."

There it is. The knife hidden in that damned hump of friendship. Now I know what was torturing me during those sleepless nights.

"Be your father, too?" I say in horror, scrutinizing the delicate features which have grown so dark, the long hair, falling around his shoulders, the embroidered peasant dress covering his body. "Never. One murderer son is enough."

He turns so pale, I fear for his life. Never imagining that I would ever utter that word - the real word - he is struck dumb. As he realizes from my silence that I will not change my mind, he slowly picks up the sealed sack lying on the floor, hoists it onto his shoulder and departs. Although he moves soundlessly, ever the gentleman, the baby wakes up and opens her eyes, not yet crying, but merely thinking things over, as if she has heard our conversation and is now trying to make some sense of it.

Translated by Gila Brand



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