Haim Kalinsky lies in an Israeli hospital, terminal lung cancer about to cut his life short. Across the street stands his son Daniel, unable to visit his dying father because of an excruciating decision Haim made during the Second World War.
When the Nazis marched into Warsaw, Haim awaited the inevitable. After his wife was deported, the German soldiers returned, sending Haim and his two sons, Daniel and Shmuel, to one of the extermination camps. It was there that Haim was confronted with the unanswerable question by one of the camp guards as they disembarked from the trains: Which son will you choose to live? With only a moment to decide, Haim instinctively pulled Shmuel to him, condemning Daniel to die.
Decades later, it is Daniel who has survived the brutality of the camps and Shmuel who has perished. Strangers to each other, Daniel faces tremendous internal conflict as he struggles to reconnect with his father in his dying days. In this haunting and powerful tale of a broken father-son relationship, we come to identify with Daniel’s long and tortuous journey back to his father.
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Death Had Two Sons
By Yaël Dayan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 Yaël Dayan
All rights reserved.
Yesterday he moved to a friend's flat across the road from the hospital. The old-fashioned long key turned once to let him in and he immediately registered the comforting emptiness of his new residence. The walls were recently whitewashed but everything else about the two rooms suggested a neglect and indifference which he found appealing. The floral pattern of the curtains clashed with that of the bedspread and the edges of the small carpet curled up under a small glass table covered with dust. He put his suitcase on the bed and sat next to it, carelessly drawing his name on the table's surface. The second small room had no furniture at all, and its large window opened to the street. He took off his sandals noticing the black dirt between his toes and hung his faded blue shirt on the door handle.
The suitcase was heavy with books and he moved it to the empty room, pushing the few dresses in the cupboard into the corner to make room for his one suit. There was a clean sheet under the bedspread and forgetting his dirty feet and sweaty body he lay on it.
Lying down he knew he was tired and he could feel each muscle relax separately, limbs grow heavy and the sweet sensation of the last few seconds before falling asleep.
Two large street lamps lit the entrance to the hospital and attracted summer insects. The lights were off in the large building and rows of windows were anchored to the dark hot night. An occasional ambulance emerged through the iron gate like a white sigh and with dawn the municipal sweeping-truck silently sucked in the dirt and sprayed the asphalt with water which evaporated immediately into a thin layer of mist.
There was nothing distinguished about the house Daniel moved into. A three-storeyed building, gray during the day and slightly whiter in the evening. A low stone fence separated it from the pavement and a cypress tree constituted the small front yard garden. Letter-boxes without names in the hall-way and children's writing scratched along the wall as you climbed the stairs.
He woke up. He scratched his chin, feeling the three-days growth of beard, and with what seemed like a tremendous effort propped himself up, letting his feet touch the cool tile floor, still not bothering to open his eyes.
Voices of children going to school indicated the hour and once again he reminded himself that he ought to get a new watch to replace the one Yoram was wearing when he died. He showered – not using soap simply because he did not find any in the flat – and unpacked his shaving kit. The small mirror in the bathroom was cracked, as he had expected, and he took a long time over his shave. What he saw in the mirror satisfied him. A mature face reflecting his thirty years accurately, sharp features, dark blond hair and gray eyes. He carefully removed a pimple from the side of his straight nose and enjoyed the otherwise smooth and healthy look of his pale skin. He was too tall for Rina's mirror, almost too tall for her bed, but he was not going to stay there long, not a day longer than necessary, and with this thought he walked through the empty room to open the window.
The children were gone and the street had assumed its mid-morning routine. In the café down below a few nurses were giggling – odd to see nurses in uniform away from the hospital corridors and realize how unaffected they were by the proximity of heavy breathing – and a steady stream of people went in and out of the door marked 'Out-Patients'. Two old beggars were sitting in front of the high wall surrounding the hospital, offering prayers for the sick for as little as a few piastres. Through the second floor windows, he could see a group of doctors making their morning rounds with the severe importance of divine judges.
Daniel pulled a chair to the window, arranged the books on the window-sill and prepared himself for a long watch.
As from tomorrow, this white group of men would stop in front of a bed in one of the rooms. They would pick up the temperature-chart tied to the iron bar and give the old man a professional encouraging smile. The name on the board would be Haim Kalinsky and he would be spending his last few days in the municipal hospital where he would die of cancer of the lungs.
Haim Kalinsky, his file would disclose, was born sixty-five years ago in Warsaw and had been a citizen of Israel and a resident in Beer-Sheba since 1960. A few lines in Latin would define the malignant tumour, advanced stage, first suspected two weeks earlier. At the bottom of the page the column headed 'Immediate Relations' would indicate that Kalinsky had one son, living in Tel-Aviv, and that his second wife and daughter could be reached by telephone in case of an emergency.
It was noon. The cypress tree looked weird, shadowless and the dry desert air hovered still between the morning dust and the afternoon breeze. A few days earlier Daniel had received the letter from Miriam Kalinsky. It was brief – what was there to say? – and informed him of the date her father would be entering the hospital. There was no need to refer to his grave condition. Although she did not think he would, she suggested he should visit the dying man. Following the letter, a conversation with Rina, who was excavating in the south and kept the flat in Beer-Sheba for week-ends, then a long and slow bus trip to the desert city which he knew so well, and now the window and the hospital across the road and the feeling that they would not bring his father in before dusk.
Those of the sick who could walk, stood framed in windows watching the street below. They had in common a jealous stare at everything that was healthy and fast and free, and the gentle expression of resignation to their light blue hospital robes, and their catalogued, filed and researched diseases. When Daniel felt he was being stared at he was embarrassed and covered his large torso with an old army shirt. Food was being served in the second-floor ward and he could imagine the lack of appetite with which it was being consumed. Smiling nurses now pulled the curtains one by one to allow the patients their afternoon sleep, depriving him of the view. The sun was above the old mosque sending cruel arrows toward the hospital windows and Daniel walked down to the café.
The 'Café Tikva' was run by a Rumanian couple. Mr Lipsky – or just 'Lipsky' to the customers – was short and thin and his white apron hung loose on his body. His wife had a small round head set on an enormous body which in turn was balanced on short and rather pretty legs. Her hair was curly and the yellow tint that helped its colour was not applied to her upper lip which boasted a thin but quite dark moustache. Two large fans seemed to produce only whirlpools of dust on the cement floor and the terrace, which opened to the street, was lit at night with two rows of painted blue, yellow and red bulbs.
Daniel walked in and ordered coffee and newspapers. Lipsky recommended the pickled herring and as he got no answer he brought it along anyway with fresh brown bread and onion rings.
Two doctors were reading evening papers in the corner and the sound of the fan was disturbed by an occasional sigh from Mrs Lipsky which held complaint of the sun, the dust, the heat, the Bedouins – everything that was not Bucharest.
At quarter-past six he saw them coming, Miriam's husband and Miriam and her father. She helped her father out of the taxi while her husband paid the driver and carried the small suitcase. By mistake they walked to the door marked 'Out-Patients' and then returned to the main entrance. Mr Kalinsky was wearing a suit, as if going to a funeral or a wedding – nobody else wears suits in Beer-Sheba in the summer – and Miriam had a scarf over her long dark hair. Her husband kept wiping his neck with a handkerchief and Daniel could not see their faces. Were they worried? relieved? hopeful? They disappeared just as the doors were opened to visitors carrying flowers, boxes of chocolate, or packages of fruit, and he imagined them going through the large reception hall which he knew well. They were filling in the forms now, he thought, and her father would be given a robe, light blue pyjamas and a small towel. They would take away his personal belongings to be returned when he left the hospital, and Daniel wondered what it was that he carried in the suitcase. A book in Polish probably, the Bible, reading glasses, perhaps some photographs.
They are climbing the stairs now, he thought, and the old man is being taken by the nurse to change. Miriam would look at the watch – is it time to feed the child? – and her father would return dressed in blue feeling awkward and shy in the starched wide pyjamas.
He was allotted a bed on the second floor; Daniel could see Miriam opening the window – the second from the left corner – arranging some things in the small bed-side cupboard. A few minutes later the couple left the hospital, looked up towards the window – where nobody was standing – and began to walk up towards the main road. It was then that Daniel waved and caught Miriam's eye.
She whispered something to her husband who nodded and waved and waved again to Daniel and walked hurriedly away. She climbed the few stairs, saying hello to Lipsky who was smoking on the terrace and entered the café.
They shook hands and Miriam ordered some tea. She was an attractive woman, though not beautiful. Her small nose and mouth gave her face a childish air which the mature experienced eyes belied. She removed her scarf to let her long black hair down her shoulders and with small rough hands fumbled in her straw purse for some cigarettes.
'I did not think you'd come,' she said. She had a way of staring at him which made him lower his eyes.
'How is he?'
'We don't know yet. When I wrote you it was after the first test. It's definite but they don't know how long he's got.'
'No. Headaches, weakness – nothing to make him suspect he was not well, or to make him see a doctor sooner.'
'He's lost a lot of weight.'
'Yes, that was why we insisted he should have a checkup. He was coughing and it wouldn't stop. We should know more by the end of the week. You'll stay won't you?'
'How much does he know now?'
'All or nothing,' she muttered. 'Who knows? He's not dramatic about it. We took him today and he behaved like a child. Shy and resigned. He knows what's wrong, he doesn't talk about it. He's seen the results of the test and he only nodded when we suggested it could be operated and removed.'
'Do you think he is a brave man?' This he asked himself really but again her look penetrated him and there was sweat on his palms.
'Either too much of a coward to face it – or the bravest, facing it in solitude, not sharing the fear. Perhaps we'll never find out. I have to go home now.'
He waited for her to ask him something. Couldn't she simply face him with it? Say, 'will you visit him?'
She asked him whether she could leave the child with him on Saturday because she wanted to come for the whole day.
'Of course. I live here, across the road. A friend's flat, third floor.'
'Very convenient.' She tied her scarf around her hair which made her look younger.
'Where is your mother, isn't she coming?'
'She's not well. Nothing serious' – she smiled now for the first time – 'but she has to stay in bed for a few days. We didn't tell her about the test, so she thinks he's in for a check-up – anaemia and so on.' She got up to go.
'Your cigarettes.' He gave her the packet and she smiled warmly again.
'He asked about you today. Shall I tell him you're here?'
'You don't have to.'
She said shalom to Lipsky and left. Daniel watched her small figure hurry up the street. The windows of the hospital were all lit now.
Daniel went back to the flat, showered again, dressed and walked out. He felt hungry, for the first time since he arrived, and strolled towards the centre of town. No air is more engulfing than desert evening air. Its dryness seems to brush the skin with rough warm hands and rest there a while before giving way to a new wave of caressing breeze. The moon was not up yet but the white sand seemed to reflect the last rays of sun until it enjoyed the incestuous encounter with the moon, for surely the surface of the moon must resemble those endless cracked white plains surrounding the city.
The town of Abraham looks like an incomplete crossword puzzle. Clusters of buildings and between them desert patches awaiting their turn to be built upon. Roads which end suddenly on a verge of a wadi bed and asphalt tracks disappearing under dune sand to reappear later, shining black against the white. The eucalyptus trees planted along the streets were fifteen years old but pale and underdeveloped. They looked pathetic, clinging to life, searching for water in vain in the depth of this salty womb.
Daniel approached the centre of the city which offered no skyline, no silhouettes. The houses merged with the scenery and only the minaret and a few palm trees jerked up, monuments to old times when the city was an oasis in the caravan path.
The popular restaurant in town was called 'Morris's' and he had no difficulty in finding it in one of the side streets branching from the main road leading south.
As if ten years had not gone by.
Was he really ten years older than the soldiers who crowded the restaurant? The laughing girl-soldiers with white headwear around their necks haven't changed, and the dusty jeeps parked in front could be his unit's. The menu was the same. Would he be surprised if Yoram and Rina were to enter through the glass door?
Heavy boots on soldiers' feet rested slumped under the tables. Did they still say to each other when down south on patrol, 'see you at Morris's'? Did they too, when driving north and reaching the plateau, associate the city's lights with cold beer and kebab?
The waitress had a comfortable lazy look about her and a strong French accent.
'Beer and kebab,' he said, uttering his thoughts rather than ordering.
'Yes, salad. With onions.'
He had no gray hair and his skin was smooth all over. He could still swim across the lake and climb any mountain. He felt a gentle tremble touching the hair of a girl for the first time and still enjoyed Winnie the Pooh, so where did the ten years go? The smell of tanks' oil and rubber tracks was fresh in his nostrils and the memory of the silence before an ambush still tensed his nerve-ends. The cold beer had the same bitterness on his palate and he could recite the Song of Songs. Could it be only the dates in the calendar that change, and other people? Was it supposed to happen suddenly with the shock of wrinkles and baldness and flabby flesh? The waitress brought the salad and some coffee and fruit.
Back in the main street he walked toward the police station and turned left into a dusty road. A few cars were parked in front of the bar's entrance and a large wroughtiron sign read 'The Last Chance'.
On high stools around the bar sat three men. Two officers and three girls were sprawled on mattresses which had been turned into sofas against the wall and two mangy dogs slept under an old clock which had stopped some time ago – its hands at quarter-past six. He joined the men and ordered a beer.
The man next to him was addressed as 'Doctor' by the bar owner, and Daniel turned to him.
'Are you a physician?'
'Yes. Municipal hospital. Still in the army though.'
Daniel introduced himself.
'Can I ask you a question – a professional one?'
'Of course. Are you sick or something? Everybody remembers their diseases when they meet a doctor.'
'No. A friend is. Could you tell me about lung-cancer?'
'Not my ward. I'm an orthopaedic surgeon. Still, what would you like to know? It's quite common, that is as cancers go. What happens is that the cells of the membrane lining in the air passages in a lung, or both lungs, undergo a change. This leads to uncontrolled cell growths – what you call a malignant tumour. The tumour invades and destroys the contiguous structure and finally blocks the air passages. It can also spread through the lymph channels and the blood stream, to other parts of the body, unless you operate on it early enough.'
'And if not?'
The doctor looked serious now, because the earlier description was given with the condescension accompanying a professional reading of fact to a layman.
'If not, the usual. Second-floor ward, treatment, cobalt radiation, drugs, morphine for pain and the long wait.'
Excerpted from Death Had Two Sons by Yaël Dayan. Copyright © 1967 Yaël Dayan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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