My grandfather sat on a divan, back stiff and eyes tight-shut, when the news arrived. At the age of seventy, his body still preserved the womanizer's tensile, proud, virility. He dyed his hair jet black. Original Moroccan music, wistful and lusty, the desert's guttural refrain, poured forth from a patinated gramophone. The yearning tarred his cheeks with bloodied brush, a capillary network that poured into his sockets.
Now, facing him distraught, my father was reciting gingerly the information about his little sister, confessing abject failure as the clan's firstborn. His elder sister died in youth but even had she lived she wouldn't have qualified to supervise the brood due to her gender. It was my father's role to oversee his younger siblings, especially the females, the thus preserve the honor of his kinfolk.
Being a melancholy and guarded man, he blamed them for conspiring against him. He envied them instead of loving. He kept strict ledgers of help received and given. He felt deprived, begrudging their successes. They drifted apart and my father turned into unwelcome recluse, visited only by my tyrannical grandfather. On such occasions, my father was again a battered, chided, frightened child.
That day, with manifest obsequiousness, he served the patriarch with tea and home-made pastry arranged on brightly illustrated tin trays. My grandpa muttered balefully, as was his wont, and sank his dentures into the steamy dough, not bothering to thank him.
As dusk gave way to night, my father fetched the grouser's embroidered slippers and gently placed his venous, chalky feet on a dilapidated stool. He wrapped them in a blanket. Thus shoed and well-ensconced, the old man fell asleep.
These loving gestures - my father's whole repertoire - were taken by my grandpa as his due, a pillar of the hierarchy that let him beat his toddler son and send him, in eerie pre-dawn hours, to shoulder bursting wineskins. This is the order of the world: one generation serves another and elder brothers rule their womenfolk.
"Whore" - my grandpa sneered. His voice subdued, only his face conveyed his crimson wrath. My father nodded his assent and sat opposed, sighing in weariness and resignation.
"Whose is it, do we know?" - my grandpa probed at last. My father snuffed the ornamental music and shrugged uncertainly. My grandpa rubbed his reddened eyelids and then slumped.
"We need to find him and arrange a wedding" - he ruled. My father winced, propelled by the incisive diction into the grimy alleys of his childhood, the wine tide and ebbing in the pelt containers, the origin of his recurrent nightmares, nocturnal shrieks, sweaty relief when nestled in my mother's arms, his brow soaked, his heart in wild percussion.
"Today it's different, Abuya" - my father mumbled, using the Moroccan epithet. My grandpa whipped him with a withering glower.
"I will depart tomorrow" - my father whispered - "But I don't wish to talk to her."
"Don't do it" - consented grandpa, his eyes still shut, waving a steady hand in the general direction of the decimated music - "Just salvage our dignity and hers."
The next day, father packed his crumbling cardboard suitcase, the one he used when he fled Morocco, a disillusioned adolescent. He neatly folded in some underwear and faded-blue construction worker's sleeveless garments. On top he placed a rusting razor and other necessaries.
I watched him from the porch, he waning, a child size figure, going to the Negev, the heartless desert, to restore through a defiled sister the family's blemished honor. He stood there, leaning on the shed, patiently awaiting the tardy transport. The bus digested him with eager exhalation.
He has been away for four days and three nights. The fine dust of distant places has settled in his stubble. He wiped his soles on the entrance rug, removed soiled clothes and gave them to my mother. He slipped into his tunic and his thongs, uttering in barely audible relief, then sank into an armchair.
My mother served up scolding tea in dainty cups. He sipped it absent-minded, dipping a sesame cracker in the minty liquid. Having reposed, he sighed and stretched his limbs. He never said a word about the trip.
A few months passed before his sister called. She phoned during the day, attempting to avoid my father, who was at work. My mother spoke to her, receiver in abraded hand like hot potato.
We were all invited to her forthcoming wedding. She was to marry a Northern, elder man of means. He will adopt the child, she added. Still enamored with her elusive lover, she admitted, it wasn't the hideous affair we made it out to be. These days and nights (too short) of lust and passion in the wasteland have yielded her a daughter, a flesh memento of her paramour.
My mother listened stone-faced. "We cannot come," - she said, her voice aloof - "my husband won't allow it." But we all wish her happiness in newfound matrimony. In the very last second, as she was replacing the handset in its cradle, she whispered, maybe to herself: "Take care of you and of the little one."
She subsided on the stool, next to the phone, and scrutinized the blank wall opposite her. I busily pretended not to notice her tearful countenance.
When my father came back from his excruciating work on the scaffolds, my mother laid the table. They dined silently, as usual. When he finished, she cleared the dishes, placing them in lukewarm water. "Your little sister called" - she told him - "She is inviting us to her wedding up north. She is marrying a wealthy man rather older than herself, so all's well that ends well. At least she won't be destitute."
"None of my concern" - interjected my father gruffly, heavily rising from the chair.
The following day he traveled south, to meet my grandpa. He then proceeded to see his other brothers and his sisters. That over, he returned, called in sick and remained at home for weeks.
When his youngest sibling, my uncle, came to visit, my father embraced him warmly. He loved them all but only this Benjamin reciprocated. My father pampered him and listened attentively to his seafaring tales, echoes of distant places, among the glasses of scented Araq, a powerful absinthe. They munched on sour carrots dipped in oil.
At last, my father raised the subject. Retreating to our chambers, we left them there to thrash the matter out through the night. Their voices drifted, raised and then restrained. My father shrilly argued but his brother countered self-convinced. He packed and left in the early hours of the morning.
My father entered our room, defeated, and tucked us in unnecessarily. He turned off all the lights, a distended, dismal shadow, and surveyed us, his beefy shoulder propped against the doorframe.
My mother instructed us severely:
"If daddy's youngest brother calls, don't answer. Nor he neither his wayward sister are part of our family. Your father excommunicated them forever and cursed their lineage. They have disgraced us. Now they are perfect strangers."
I liked my uncle - boyish and outgoing, hair long, and smooth, and often brushed and dried, his clothes the latest fashion from abroad. He was a seaman. His visits smelled of outlying cities and sinful women thin-clad in bustling ports. He carried stacks of foreign bills stashed in his socks and bought my mother foreign, costly fragrances (she buried them among her lingerie until they all evaporated).
At the bottom of his magic chest lay booklets with titillating tales of sizzling sex and awesome drug lords. I waited for his visits with the impatience of an inmate. He was the idol of my budding willfulness and nascent freedom. I resented our forced estrangement.
And so began my mutiny. Lured by the siren songs of far-flung lands, of sexual liberation, and of equality, I traveled to my grandma's home, an uninvited guest. My uncle, whose name now we could not pronounce, was there. We strolled the windswept promenade of Beer-Sheba, kicking some skeletal branches as we talked. He treated me as an adult.
Then it was time to return. My father, aware of my encounter, regarded it as treason, another broken link in the crumbling chain of his existence. To him, I was a co-conspirator. I shamed him publicly. He felt humiliated in his own abode. He didn't say a thing, but not long after, he signed me over to the army as a minor. My mother tremblingly co-signed and mutely pleaded with my father to recant.
But he would not. Immersed in hurt, he just imploded, blankly staring at the television screen. He took to leaping anxiously with every phone ring, instructing us in panic to respond. He didn't want to talk to anyone, he promised.
When I enlisted, he accompanied me to the draft board. Evading any contact, he occupied a tiny, torturous wooden stool. He didn't budge for hours and didn't say a word and didn't kiss farewell, departing with a mere "goodbye". I watched him from the bus' window as he receded , stooped, into a public park. He collapsed onto a bench and waved away the pigeons that badgered him for breadcrumbs. Finally, he let one near and kicked her with his shoe. They scattered.
I didn't visit, not even on vacations. I found father-substitutes, adopted other families as home. At times, I would remember him, a tiny, lonely figure, on a garden bench, surrounded by the birds.
One day, my service in the army nearly over, my mother called and said: "Your father wants you here."
At once I felt like burdened with premonitory sadness, with the belated anguish of this certain moment. She told me that my uncle died in shipwreck.
"His cousin was with him to the end. He clung on to a plank all night, till dawn. He fought the waves and floated. And then they heard him mutter: what's the point and saw him letting go and sinking under. They say he drowned tranquil and composed."
I alighted from the belching bus before it reached my parents', traversing accustomed pathways, touching childhood trees, pausing in front of the boarded cinema house, a fading poster knocking about its peeling side. A titian cloud of falling leaves engulfed it all. The sea roared at a distance as if from memory.
I knocked, my father opened. We contemplated one another, vaguely familiar. Alarming corpulence and evil hoary streaks. Time etched its brown ravines in sagging flesh, the skin a flayed protection. He spread his arms and hugged me. I cautiously accepted and dryly kissed his stubble.
He ushered me inside and sat me by my brothers. I greeted them in silence. My father helped my mother serve refreshments, peeled almonds and solid confitures. We sulked in mounting discomfort.
Sighing, my father rose and climbed the spiral staircase to his room. He soon returned, clad in his best attire, his synagogue and festive uniform, the suit he wore in my Bar-Mitzvah.
Like birds after the storm the house was filled with curled rabbis. Flaunting their garb, grimly conferring with my father, they eyed the table critically.
"There's more!" - my mother hastened - "There's food, after you finish."
"Are these all your children?" - they demanded and my father, blushing, soon admitted that my sister wants no part in the impending ceremony. They nodded sympathetically. They linked their talliths (prayer shawls) into a huppah (wedding canopy) and ordered us to squat beneath it.
They blessed the house, its inhabitants and future monotonously. My father's face illuminated, his eyes aglow. He handed each rabbi and each cantor a folded envelope from an overflowing pocket in his vest and poured them Araq to warm their hoarsely throats. They gulped the fiery libations, chanting their invocations as they swallowed.
With marked anticipation they assumed the better seats around the table and plunged into my mother's dishes. She waited on them deferentially. Burping aloud, the food devoured, they broke into a vigorous recital of pious hymns.
Night fell and my father entered the guest room and settled by my bed. He drew the covers to my chin and straightened wrinkled corners.
"We blessed the house," - he said - "to fend off a disaster."
I asked him what he was afraid of. He told me that he cursed his brother to die young and now that he did, my father was anxious.
"You loved him very much" - I said and he averted his face.
Waves clashed with undulating ripples to deafening effect.
"There will be a storm tonight" - my dad said finally.
"I guess so" - I agreed - "Good night. I am bushed, I need to rise and shine early, back to the army."
I turned around to face to the naked wall.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER
This part is meant only to provoke thoughts. It is not a substitute to independent thinking, criticism, and analysis.
How many narcissists do you identify in this story?
How did the grandfather's pathology affect his son's and grandson's mental health?
To what extent is the grandfather's mental health problems due to his cultural background?
Are narcissists superstitious? What is the possible connection between these two traits - narcissism and prejudice?
The grandfather is a misogynist (women-hater). Can we say the same about the other male figures in this family?