By: BETHANY BALL
From What to Do About the Solomons?
Now it is just a question of what to do with Guy Gever. For extra money he works in the evenings to frighten the birds that eat the crops in the fields around the kibbutz. At night, he hunts the porcupines, the dorban, and sometimes the tiny kipod, the hedgehogs, with his brothers. But now people think he has gone mad.
Before harvesting season begins, Guy Gever drives his pickup truck into the middle of the wheat. In the center of the field, he arranges the sticks and branches he pulls from the back of the pickup. He arranges and rearranges them until the sun comes up. He spreads birdseed all around. The birds come from the Kinneret to the north and the Dead Sea to the south. They fly over Americans and Africans in white robes baptizing themselves in the Jordan. They come from Syria and Lebanon, but not the West Bank or Gaza, where there are no birds.
Guy Gever stands in the middle of the field and counts and names each bird as they come. A helicopter flies overhead and bathes them in a shower of pesticide. Someone calls the police. He can see them coming over the highway. He hops into his truck and drives off. For a few days no one knows where he’s gone.
Later that week, a group of kibbutzniks sees him stacking cypress branches off the side of the highway, on their way to Hamat Gader, the hot springs. Come on, Guy! Come with us, they shout. Leave the bush in the ground and the sticks on the trees and take a rest.
I have had enough leisure, Guy Gever says. He climbs into the back of the pickup truck and salutes them. Now I must work.
Guy Gever’s father-in-law, Yakov Solomon, runs his hands through his still black hair and nods. He strokes his sideburns. The parliament of old men, the sabras, sit around a barbecue pit with a bottle of whiskey and discuss Guy Gever. They pass the bottle and pour drabs into dusty tea glasses. Yakov sets his glass on the ground, wedging it into the dirt. He crosses his arms high across his narrow chest. Yes, Yakov says. This is true. Guy Gever has had enough leisure time. I should know. I bought his cars, financed renovations on houses I paid for, and covered all medical costs for Guy Gever’s son. When my children want money, they come to me. When their children need money, they come to me. The men nod. They defer to him, to Yakov Solomon, the most powerful man in the Jordan River Valley. I paid for their bar mitzvahs, their educations, and their therapists. I’ve paid for six weddings, five divorces, the funeral of one daughter-in-law’s father, and countless birthday celebrations. Now I must pay for Guy Gever’s madness?
The men nod and grunt and drink to Yakov Solomon.
Guy Gever hears about the parliament from his younger brother, Itai, who heard it from Elon, who is the son of Yakov’s middle brother Ishke. Guy Gever squats down to the ground and spits. He draws a woman in the dirt with his finger. He stands up and shouts, That man! For ten years I’ve been Yakov Solomon’s slave. Why doesn’t he die already?
And leave everything to you? says Itai, who is lo gamur, not finished, funny in the head. That would be something.
Yakov Solomon and his wife, Vivienne, drive from the kibbutz to Jerusalem to meet their children. Vivienne tells her husband, We must keep this very quiet, for Keren’s sake, and for the children. We mustn’t tell anyone. Guy will never find a job again. Who does he think he is? An artist? Phoot! He has gone mad! We must hire a private doctor. Send him to America, perhaps. Aliza tells me in America they have more mental hospitals than regular ones!
Yakov listens to his wife with increasing irritation. He presses his foot hard on the accelerator. He goes too fast, but he is nearly seventy-five years old, and anyway, he is going to die eventually. Better to do so in a blaze of concrete, steel, and light. I’m done with Guy Gever and all the rest of them! I should have cut them off years ago. The jobs! The connections! The money! Offer them a finger and they want the whole hand!
Yakov, Vivienne says. You were the one who said, “Keep the seeds in your pocket and give them to the birds one by one.”
Yes! Keep the birds close so they don’t fly away. Spit flies from his mouth. But now, they can go fuck themselves!
At dinner in a newly opened Jerusalem restaurant with his son Dror and daughter Shira, Yakov Solomon rails against Guy Gever: I always knew he was trouble! What will I do now? What can be done? I can’t even grow old and die in peace!
Dror asks, What do you mean what will you do? It’s not for you to do anything! Let them sort it out on their own.
It will all fall on me! I will have to support Keren and the children and God knows who else!
Dror says, Why? They are grown-ups! Guy Gever is a grown man!
Ach! cries Yakov. He yanks on a bit of hair. You don’t know what I’ve done for that man.
What are you saying? Dror shouts. I know what you’ve done for him!
Dror’s sister Shira puts her head in her hands.
Dror says: I come to the kibbutz once every month and you only ever sit with Guy Gever. You completely ignored us all these years. You elevated Guy to a god. You could never see his faults. We saw them. Only you and Keren were blind to Guy Gever. He’s been crazy for years!
Yakov grows cold. He sits with his arms crossed high over his chest and pulls on his moustache. Children play in the courtyard around the restaurant. A dog barks and another distant dog answers. Dror’s wife leans toward Dror and murmurs words no one at the table can hear. I cannot imagine, Yakov says, at your age, to be so jealous. Such a childish emotion is jealousy.
They sit in silence.
Dror smiles at his father. You are an irascible old son of a bitch.
But Yakov is no longer listening. He nods and stares out at the street lamps. One blinks on and off. Yakov strokes the whiskers on his chin. The coarse hairs soothe his fingers. Yes, it’s true, he thinks. Of all my three sons, it was Guy I loved the best. The one who was not my son. The only one I could talk to. Now, it has all gone to shit.
The next day, Yakov and Vivienne share a late breakfast with Shira. She is the fourth child. The baby until Marc came along. At Café Mitzrachi near the shuk, Yakov and Shira eat their omelets and salad and hatch a plan.
Watching Shira, Vivienne chortles to herself. They are made for each other, Shira and Yakov. He’s sired the perfect mate for himself. Vivienne sits silently. If she spoke, it wouldn’t make any difference. As the Solomon matriarch, almost no one talks to her anymore. Only Guy Gever ever thanked her for the Friday meals she makes. What a joke it is: The two least stable in her family, Yakov and Shira, deciding the fate of a man who has lost all reason. If only Ziv were here, the oldest. Or Marc, the youngest.
Of all her children, Ziv is the most rational, and the kindest.
Let us not talk of Ziv, Vivienne thinks to herself. Living with another man in Singapore.
Vivienne prays daily. She once prayed for sanity and peace, but now she prays that Guy Gever will give up his ridiculous artistic pretensions and go back to work. Vivienne prays that everyone will grow to be as wise as she is. She touches her hair and thinks of having it hennaed.
Guy Gever drives his truck all the way to Sfat in the north to see a specialist. Guy’s wife, Keren, sits beside him. The hospital is modern cement and crumbling. It is my family that is crazy, Professor, he says, very quietly, very controlled, to the inscrutable doctor with the stone face. The doctor nods and scribbles his notes.
When they return to the kibbutz, Keren tells her mother what the doctor has said: He is enjoying himself. He enjoys doing whatever he likes.
Later, on the telephone, Vivienne tells Shira, Guy Gever has always enjoyed doing whatever he likes! Who has been raising the children? Who cooked every Friday dinner? Who did Keren come crying to when Guy was out gallivanting with that Russian’s wife? Who supported him through school?
Yes, Dror says, three days later, sitting in a restaurant outside Tiberias with his parents and Shira. And who paid all the bills?
And yours too, Vivienne says.
Dror opens his mouth and then shuts it again. Vivienne and Yakov say nothing. Everyone sits very still on the patio outside the restaurant. The Kinneret is quiet. Seagulls fight over a container of fries someone has left in the small stones of the beach. The lights of Tiberias glow in the distance behind them. The Kinneret—the biblical Sea of Galilee—is gentle on the shore. In years of drought, the sea recedes and leaves a vast beach. This is a year of drought.
Vivienne squares her shoulders and sits up tall. Her hair is a beacon of the brightest red. None of you children have ever really supported yourselves. We are always here. We are your safety net.
Except for Marc, she thinks. Her favorite son. In New York. And Ziv.
Vivienne thinks of Ziv, and winces. Ziv was the most beautiful and intelligent of the children. The firstborn son. The perfect combination of Yakov and Vivienne and then—
What is it, Ima? Shira asks.
Rien, Vivienne says. Nothing of any matter.
The fields are shorn. They burn in the terrible late spring sun. Guy Gever has spent a week laying pulled-up shrubs along the median in the center of the road that leads to Beit She’an.
Yakov calls Marc in America. He says, Come back to the kibbutz. Go sit with Guy. Talk to him.
Abba, says Marc, Guy never liked me. We don’t know each other that well. By the time Keren married him, I was already in the army. Have Ziv come from Singapore. He is the oldest. He was always the peacekeeper.
Never mind! Yakov says.
Marc hangs up the phone. Guy is of another type altogether, Marc thinks, sitting in his New York office. Guy and his brothers, running around the fields all summer long, shooting wild porcupine—a Gever speciality—skinning them and then roasting them on spits. During Shavuot, the harvesting festival, when the children would go at night into the wheat fields alone, Guy Gever and his friends would impale the heads of slaughtered cows on stakes. Marc stumbled over one when he was ten, and the image of it, with its filmed-over eyes, and terrible mouth hanging open, still greets him in the night. Those menacing fields of the Shavuot holidays! Those Gevers! They are the joke of the kibbutzniks. In the army, Marc was a commando and Guy Gever, a what? A thug in Gaza!
Guy Gever drives up to his house in his pickup. He has just returned from the Valley, where he has been digging up the small ancient trees.
No, Doctor, Guy says to himself, the bushes don’t talk to me. I don’t hear voices. I am not Moses! I am not Yeshua! There is no burning bush! The soil and roots and trees guide me where to place them. They vibrate in a particular way. The art of placement is divine. Like the Kotel is divine. Like Stonehenge. Like Petra.
He stacks the branches around the house he shares with Keren. He piles the cypress as high as the windows.
Keren lies in bed with a migraine. She hears the rumble of the truck, and the joy she felt for the last twelve years of marriage is replaced with dread. The sleeping medicine she took gives her strange dreams. Bondormin, it’s called. She imagines that Guy has walled her in. She hears sounds outside. She sits up in bed and reaches over to push aside the curtain but sees only her reflection in the dark glass. Her eyes refocus and she sees cut cypress branches pressed against the other side of the window. Keren gasps and claws at the glass. Keren, she hears. She turns from the window to the door of her bedroom, and Guy’s face, his strange feral face, hovers over her. Keren screams.
Guy gently takes hold of Keren’s hands and pulls her up to sitting. Oh, Keren, he says. Don’t you love me anymore? She melts a little, and relents to his hands. He hasn’t spoken to her so gently since her thirtieth birthday, when they’d gone to the tzimmer with the hot tubs and king-size beds and decided that they would try for another baby. Their youngest child is already seven years old. Wouldn’t she like another? He holds her hands and leads her past their living room to the outside patio. She starts to speak but he puts two fingers over her lips and kisses her.
The moon is so high it looks electric. It illuminates the cypress trees that stand guard in the kibbutz and in the fields beyond.
Keren is (?) in her nightgown. It billows around her ankles. The hammock swings on the porch. They stand together on the front patio. It is a perfect, dry Jordan Valley night.
Keren’s sister, Shira, takes a bus back to Jerusalem. Avi Strauss, the handsome, fat producer of the comedy news program Hamesh, waits for her outside the bus station. He leans back against his black chauffeured SUV. He’s left his cane inside the car. He wants to appear virile. Shira is touched.
They drive into the heart of Jerusalem, into the Old City and the restaurants in the Christian Quarter. The driver parks beside an old establishment restaurant. Inside, there are sheikhs and wizened ex–prime ministers. Shira has gone there many times with her father. The last time she was there with Avi, they saw Ariel Sharon, that old walrus, and Avi had hissed at him. Sharon had laughed and sent over cognac.
Now, seated at the table, Avi Strauss looks at her, cups her face in his hands. He is almost seventy years old. Shira is twenty-five. Shira is in love. She feels like a very young girl, like a teenager before the army. Young women, Avi says, get the best of old men. We are our most charming trying to impress them.
In his apartment in the Russian Compound neighborhood he is very full, and farting. He looks at her apologetically. She would like to have a child. She will try and get pregnant. He would marry her if not for his wife and their four children.
Alas, he cannot perform. Tonight is not the night she will conceive. Flooded with sympathy, she pats his hand as they lie beside one another in his bed. Tomorrow night. Tomorrow night I will make up for it, he says. She knows he will. His large bloated belly is like a third person in the bed. He goes down on her. He tells her, I won’t inflict Viagra on you.
Two years earlier, at a film premiere at the Ambassadors’ Club, he had seduced her by saying he would make a television show for her to star in. He knows people in America. She fell for him, though she knows now the show will never be made. A year from now, he will finish a movie that will win at Cannes. Shira will have a small role for which she will be paid handsomely—more even than the lead actress. He will break up with her, take his wife and nearly grown children across the world, and die in the bed of an underage stripper somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.
Guy Gever and Keren make love in the hammock. They hunker down low into one another, putting all their weight into the fabric at the center of the hammock so it doesn’t pitch them out. The frequently beaten eight-year-old who lives next door and is up all hours of the night watches from his window. Guy wonders if the eight-year-old is his son. Did he ever fuck his mother? No, but he wanted to. Guy would like to adopt the child and take him to Petra, in Jordan, where the red rocks are. He had been to Jordan once, on a secret military mission for which he’d been the driver. A relief after all those months in the territories, and the red cliffs have haunted him ever since.
Dawn comes and Guy and Keren wake up entwined and stiff in the hammock. Morning dew and sweat have made them damp. Guy agrees to go again to a doctor. He shakes his head. But I’m not crazy, he says. I am an artist. Must everything be work and war and commerce?
This time the doctor’s office is located in a Druze village. This way, no one in the kibbutz will know. The neighbors will not know. The doctor is supposed to be very good. He is revered by the Christian and Druze communities.
Guy Gever and Keren drive together through the hills and up the lonely canyon roads. The building is low and modern on the outskirts of the village. The doctor reads from a standard questionnaire: Do you think you are the Messiah? Do you hear voices?
What number question is that? Guy asks the doctor. The doctor has blue eyes and is named Josef.
Sixteen, the doctor says.
Guy Gever watches the doctor’s finger slide across the paper as he makes his little notes. Sixteen is a crucial number, Guy thinks. In every pile from this point onward, there will be sixteen branches of eucalyptus tree.
A rash of suicides, Vivienne says out loud. She has just heard the story of Maya’s attempted suicide from Aliza next door. Maya who has come back to the kibbutz from Amsterdam after finding neither fame nor fortune. First, there was the boy who jumped from the silo. Then, the girl who set herself on fire outside the dining room. Another boy who killed himself on a moonlit night hunting boar. No one knew if it was an accident or not. And now Maya.
Yakov, in the next room, shouts to her over the television news. That is not a rash! Those suicides had ten years at least between them.
Vivienne wonders if Guy Gever will kill himself. He is a good shot. For years, not a night went by that trucks filled with Gever men and their cronies had not taken off into the valleys, near the ruins around Beit She’an, to shoot the wild birds.
And Keren wonders, Who am I?
She walks, and she wonders about the way she walks. How does her speech come out? How does an organic material, the weird flesh of the eyeball, allow her to see? When did her gait acquire this rhythm? This quality of sound as she pads across the tiled floor of the house that she and Guy have just remodeled.
She sits in the garden chair on her and Guy’s patio and crosses her legs. The plastic of the chair bites into the back of her thigh. The neighborhood children play on the lawn. Her son is just returning from school. The boy who lives next door stands shyly off to the side of the children on the lawn, not daring to join. Vivienne sits on the bench and watches Keren and Keren’s friend Sagit, who joins them for a cup of Nescafé. Since the children are bigger now, Keren hasn’t much use for her mother. Vivienne wishes to be her ally, her confidante. Like when Keren was a child and she helped Vivienne with her younger siblings.
The children beg for cartiv, Popsicles.
Keren’s friend Sagit explains to Keren why she still breastfeeds her four-year-old and insists on carrying him around in a sling.
In Africa, Sagit says, the children’s feet don’t touch the ground until they are five years old.
So that’s what I did wrong with my children, Keren says. Her lips grip like a vise onto the cigarette in her mouth. She has taken to smoking again. Is that what you mean?
Guy returns to the house that night. Keren sees the pickup truck approaching. She stiffens. Their two children mill around with their friends, kicking a soccer ball between them. When they see Guy, they brace themselves. Vivienne watches and waits. Men have always gone crazy. They are the more fragile sex. Even Yakov had his bad time when he found out about Ziv. Guy is clean and carrying flowers he picked from the neighbor’s yard. The neighbor, Mrs. Benjamin, the Englishwoman, comes out shaking an umbrella and shouting in English. This makes them laugh. Mrs. Benjamin did three ulpans and still can’t speak Hebrew. The Gevers know no English.
Guy gets down on one knee in front of Keren. The two Gever children and neighbor child edge away from him, and Guy turns and shouts, Lech mi po! Get out of here! He rips the flowers, pulls the petals off the pretty stems and tears the bald heads off. He holds the petals in his hand. What a work of nature those petals are!
Abba, Yael says, you have to go. You’re not well. You’re frightening us. She is so beautiful, at eleven years old. She is the oldest. Born to Keren just nine months after she’d finished her army service.
Look, girl, Guy says, crossing the patio. This is my house. I’m not going anywhere. It’s all of you who must leave. Only she can stay. He points at his mother-in-law, Vivienne. She’s the only one who was ever nice to me! She is the only one who understands what it is to have an artistic soul.
Vivienne turns her face away and walks quickly off the porch and into the darkness.
Guy Gever screws up into a rage. He begins to shout. His son, Ari, tries to calm him. He is so small and helpless. Yael threatens to call the police.
Ima, the children cry.
Keren can’t think. She grabs the children by their arms and hugs them close. She says: Everyone out—please go. Go to your savta Vivienne’s house and she will make you dinner, she says to Yael. Take your brother. Everything will be calm. Don’t worry.
Guy smirks at them as they leave. He grabs another handful of Mrs. Benjamin’s petals from the cement of the patio and sprinkles them over each child’s head as they pass. This, he says, is the blessing of the father.
Keren is shaking. Guy Gever grips her hand and leads her into the house, to the bedroom. Keren sits on the bed. He hums a song, a love song from fifteen years ago, when they were young. We were going to try and have another baby—do you remember? he says. It is time, he says. Ari is already seven. Two children is not a proper family. Keren falls to the bed and moans, covering her face with her hands.
You must go, Guy Gever. You must go. You can’t stay here and frighten everyone like this! You must go somewhere until you get well. Or you find yourself. Or whatever it is you need!
He freezes, hardens. Where will I go? I have no money. I have no job.
I don’t know, she says. She looks up at him.
He sits on the bed beside her and considers it. You have to give me money, then. Money to eat. Money to create. Money for shovels and rakes. Perhaps a pair of gardening gloves. My hands are so rough now.
She’s got twelve hundred shekels hidden away in the laundry room. Money she’d taken from the account two months ago when he’d started to spend so much of it. Before he’d quit his job in Beit She’an. She goes to the laundry room, returns, and hands the money to Guy Gever. He kisses her hard on the mouth, backs out the door. He rips up the bills, one by one by one, kicking them into Mrs. Benjamin’s flower beds. The door closes with a bang. Who needs money? he says. The whole world is my canvas. Trees and shrubs are abundant. They are here for me to work with. I will take care of all of us. You don’t believe me now, but you wait and see.
Keren does not believe him.
Guy Gever is on the main road by the tree. He stacks the bushes he’s ripped from the neighbor’s patio one on top of the other. It is obvious to him, if to no one else, that they are sacred shrubs with a high spiritual vibration. They are the bushes his forefathers walked beside and prayed beside, and they were longing to be freed from the earth. He will strap them to his back and take them to Moses, who waits on the other side of the Red Sea. They will speak to him as they did to Moses. Their roots have been under the ground for so long, doing their dark work.
Maya heads out to the grove of pecan trees with her bag and her iPod. She walks through the wadi, along the path to the Yam Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. She has walked this path so many times. The water bends the light of the moon. The peacocks howl in the night. She hears shotgun fire. Crazy Guy Gever and his hunting friends chasing poor animals through the fields. Shooting birds from the sky and rabbits in the ground. Nothing ever changes around here.
The trees lean down to her, caught in the wind. If she could grip the tip of one of them, it would launch her into the sky.
She swallows the tranquilizers and sits down heavily on the small rocks of the shore. She pulls off her sandals and stretches her legs until they meet the quiet water. She sees the lights of Tiberias across the sea. Soon she will get up and wade in. What to do about Maya? Maya will take care of herself, thank you very much.
Oh, the voice says, so you’re giving yourself a little mikvah, is that it? The Ethiopians have set up a perfectly good one just down the hill, you know. It’s very clean. They are devout, the little cushim. I hear they steal chlorine from the pool shed.
Hands reach under her arms and pull her away from the shore. She is dragged into brush, hidden from the shore and the path. Did you come all the way from Amsterdam to drown yourself? Have they no water in the Netherlands?
Maya had, in fact, once been baptized by born-again Christians. They’d dosed her with methadone, prayed over her in a caravan, and nearly drowned her in the Amstel.
Maya looks behind her to see Guy Gever, who turns a finger clockwise around his ear. We are the crazy ones in the kibbutz. You and I.
She shakes her head. She is nothing like Guy Gever.
You want something in you killed, but you don’t want killing it to kill you, yet you’re willing to kill yourself in order to kill it if that’s what it takes. Is that right?
Maya blinks at him.
That’s no good, now is it? Life is heaped up full of disappointment. You have to be crazy enough to keep carrying one boulder up the hill after the other. To fill your pockets and the back of your truck with branches and sticks. To spend hours sweating in the sun making sculptures and then setting them on fire. Guy takes off his filthy shirt and dries her face with it. “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God, who gave it.” I dig up the dust and give the spirit back to God, but what you need, Maya, is an anchor. Guy Gever stands up and cuts the boughs of a pine, with the large hunting knife he keeps strapped to his leg. He lays the boughs down on the dry ground. Here you go—this will be soft-like. Lie down here and I’ll show you what I’m talking about.
She lies on the ground while Guy Gever works. It is nice, finally, to have someone fuss over her. He builds a low wall the length of her body. I will be right back, he tells her. As he walks away, he wonders, Should I just shoot her? He has his pistol in the truck, under the seat. Should I just shoot her? He heard about all her problems in Amsterdam. Before his mother died, she was best friends with Maya’s mother. Over the years, Guy has heard about Maya’s drug addiction, abortions, and divorce. And worst of all for her mother: her brief conversion to Christianity.
Should I shoot her?
Maya lies on the soft boughs, near sleeping; her jeans are wet and cold on her skin. She half listens to the forest around her. It drones on above her.
Guy Gever returns. Glistening with sweat, he hoists a large, flat paver from his shoulders and sets it carefully on a pile of cement blocks, so that her body is only a third or so covered. The paver is warm. It retains heat from the sun. Don’t want it to crush you, he says. I made that wall strong. You need to be anchored, otherwise you will fly up to the sky. You need to stay here and make your art, Guy says. Trust me, you want to stay here a little longer among the living. You will find your way. He laughs and disappears again. He returns again with another paver and sets this one over the top half of her body. He grunts as the paver settles on the blocks. Inside the tomb Guy has built, Maya is passed out and snoring.
Guy Gever stands a moment, swaying slightly over her. He has cared for her well. With his cell phone he dials the number for his uncle who mans the front gate. There is no answer, so he leaves a message with Maya’s whereabouts. Then he walks away, scattering a handful of sunflower seeds and his cell phone into the sea.
Now who’s crazy? Guy says. After all, only a maniac can stop time.
He knows the direction to go. Guy leaves his truck by the side of the wadi, and heads to Jordan, to the red rocks of Petra, on foot.
Bethany Ball received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book What to Do About the Solomons will be published in April by Grove Atlantic. She was born in Detroit and lives in New York with her family.