To Smell the Taste of Lemons

By Sami Berdugo
Translated from the Hebrew by Rona Beresh

Fani asked me a few days ago why we called our daughter Tzila. She doesn’t remember that names are not important to us, not even that of our little girl. After we married we waited many years for Fani’s stomach to swell and make us a family. We wanted to stop gazing at others; we wanted to keep our house shining when it had little kids in it too, but only Tzila was born for us and brought into our life a spirit that isn’t similar to any other. On the day she was born I heard the name Tzila in the hospital. I went to Fani’s bed to tell her about this name and the voice that emanates from it. “Yes, I know a name like that,” she said to me quietly.

When we entered our house with the baby for the first time, Fani put her on the mattress in the bedroom and said to me, “Look how Tzila opens her eyes wide and doesn’t stop moving her head.” And thus this name stayed with us, and we continued to say it all the time and see our daughter jump every time we called her.

Now I don’t answer to Fani. I stopped telling her how she doesn’t remember anything. Because her memory slipped away from her, and the tremor that she has in her hands and head is a part of our past years together. At home I remember for the two of us. I sit next to Fani and almost hug her shoulders, my fingers stroke the soft wool of the scarf that she knitted, and afterwards rock her body a little on the sofa. I see that she will continue to feel the heat that emanates from me and into to her, and I give her answers without words, just so the two of us will relax and wait patiently for Tzila to come home already.

Usually, Tzila comes back after five o’clock in the evening. After she finishes work she travels half an hour in the bus and gets off at the last station, walks five minutes on foot, and arrives at home. Sometimes she stops in the city, to buy new shoes, for example, or wool for Fani’s knitting. She doesn’t like to have too much clothing and remains with the little that she has and does laundry and ironing for her elegant blouses that she wears. Fani doesn’t ask why all of her shirts have buttons, the kind that are close to the stomach and emphasize it strongly. She feels confident that Tzila knows what she is doing, even though we wonder how she came out so huge and tall, a little bit round and with wide arms, not really similar to the two of us.

Tzila is already a grown woman, and Fani knows this too. In the morning, before she leaves the house, she stops in the kitchen and sees us drinking tea and eating a soft-boiled egg, and then we see again how big Tzila really is. She is smeared around her eyes often with the color blue that stands out on her white skin. The glasses that she wears don’t conceal anything. We adjusted to them and to the redness of her lips that is really lustrous to us in the eyes in this early hour of the morning. I almost forget how Tzila looked once, and when all the change happened in her body and ours. I laugh to Tzila, talk to her in pleasant politeness and ask her, “When will the day come?” Tzila takes her purse from the hanger of the corridor and places it on her side, after she passes her hand through her black hair and turns to us and says, “Mama, Papa, I will come today as usual,” and runs quickly to the door. Fani is relaxed in the morning with her tea. After five minutes she gets up to wash the dishes.

Now in front of us is the whole day at home and in the small yard, until Tzila returns from work, and then we will see how our day will continue, and what Tzila will tell us about the city and about the people that she sees, about those that are similar to her and dress like her—how she talks to them and laughs with them about the party that will be on Friday in the evening that maybe she will go to and there she will see everyone and also her good friend that we know. Fani and I remember that they call her Ricky, and we know that her name comes from Rivka, just like Tzila told us and also joked with us that Ricky really gets annoyed when she’s called Rivka, and everything is because of the stress she has with that engineer that she found and that she will soon get married to.

Things like this Tzila can tell Fani and me after she returns home. Meanwhile, until she enters, the food is already ready in the kitchen, and from there comes a pleasant aroma that wakes my stomach and Fani’s, but we wait a little more, because Tzila needs to come back and eat with us, in the evening we are used to this. Tzila sits next to the kitchen table in the middle and eats all of the food with a lot of appetite and talks quickly while eating. She has a big appetite at this time, because she doesn’t eat lunch at work and saves her stomach for Fani’s food in the evening. Fani always prepares us soup. Today I saw that she fried some chicken breast and put on top of it cooked and charred onion. The smell of the onion spread throughout the house until now, and I feel hungrier. I can control my stomach, but Fani can’t wait a long time, because at quarter to six she has to eat, because of the pills that she takes. Tzila knows this, and always rushes to return home, so that we will get to eat first of all, and only afterwards move to the salon and to the rooms and to see how the evening will continue after she showers and maybe sits to watch the news with us, and it won’t surprise us that she gets ready to go out tonight, without saying to where and with whom. Fani is only bothered by the small fears, and I will feel curious like fire, just to know a little of what is happening to our daughter during the hours that we are not next to her.

I don’t think Tzila has secrets. She organizes her life well and knows to keep her lines straight. She always looks at me and at her mother to see and know how everything will remain okay. We didn’t teach her to do this, but she received on her own the forces of a strong spirit, that even if she whines, she always knows how to manage. I see how her life is in a nice storm, and I wait to see that there won’t be any changes. Tzila is a big woman and catches everything in her arms. At home she asks how we are and how the day was, and we ask her about work and her good friends. She talks to us quickly and always reminds us of Ricky in her stories. “We only really know Ricky,” Fani says quietly to Tzila, and I remind her of the time Tzila brought her to us, and Ricky sat with us in the salon, and drank tea and ate cake that Fani baked.

We had a nice time with Ricky. She talks more faintly than Tzila, and she has the politeness of a thin and delicate woman. After she left, Fani asked Tzila quietly where she found her engineer, and how they are getting married so fast. “Mama, this is how she is going to end her life,” Tzila answered to her and got up quickly, before we found out more things, and Fani gave me the relaxed head signals, and I said to her, “Da-da-da, everything is going to be okay.”

Our daughter thinks about us and pays attention to how we change. She knows about Fani’s illness and about the usual worries I have at home when I stay with her. I take care of Fani well and make sure that it will be pleasant for us all day. Sometimes Fani goes over the buffet with a soft rag and cleans the dust in the salon. Just like that, stam, she illuminates everything and strokes the little animals on the china, and also watches them through the little mirrors. Afterwards I go and put toffee candies on glass saucers. Sometimes I give one to Fani and take one for myself, so that there will be a sweet taste for us in our mouth. Before the afternoon we can sit on the chairs in the yard, to be close to the lemon tree and to see how strong this tree is and what beautiful fruits it bears. I see its green leaves and try to smell their aroma, and Fani holds wool in her hand and rolls balls, and I look and see if there are leaves on the ground and remember, without wanting to, how when Fani is inside and doesn’t hear, Tzila cries under the lemon tree and puts her head on my shoulder.

That’s what happens to her lately. That she cries and says to me, “What is going to happen, papa, how will it be with mama, she is finishing, papa, and life, papa, your lives.” “What are you afraid of, Tzilinka?” I say to her, and she hugs me, and I feel how her body is large and full of living and healthy flesh. I say to her, “Dai, Tzila, enough,” and think about the years when my daughter was small, and in my heart I feel some kind of long pinch that shows me the old and lengthy years of mine and Fani’s, that quickly-quickly distance from Tzila and soon will leave her alone. I don’t like this pain in my heart. It brings out tears from me that Fani sees right away and can shake immediately from fear and think that here our day has come. “Everything is okay, Fani,” I say to her and take her to the sofa. “Everything is okay with Tzila,” I continue to relax her, and her eyes run to me, and her head is even faster, and all she says is “yes, yes” and doesn’t relax. Together we are fearful on the couch, and I watch the little window and see through it the lemon tree and the beautiful lemons, and I want to tell Fani that maybe we’ll go outside to the yard and pick the lemons, because only that way will we be able to touch them and smell their taste that we know. But I wait and rock myself on the sofa, and don’t look at how Fani finished with me, so Tzila won’t see how it happens to us and say shalom ima, shalom papa.

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