Memory

Etgar Keret's latest short story collection, Missing Kissinger, is published by Chatto & Windus. His film Jellyfish, co-directed with his wife Shira Geffen, won the Camera d'Or at Cannes 2007.

www.etgarkeret.com

Terminal

Hans and I had nothing in common except brain cancer. He was a shrivelled-up old guy who spoke broken Hebrew and I'm a fat, overgrown sabra still on this side of forty. Even so, and although we were roommates less than a month, we felt like old friends. "Is because you and me, we both terminal sick," Hans explained. I loved his fractured Hebrew, especially when he called me "terminal sick", like I'm waiting at some busy airport about to take off for an exciting, different place.

We used to play chess. Hans was once on the Mainz University team and even won the university championship in 1935. "But now, because cancer in my head, I how you say, idiotisch?" Me? I was an idiot even before the cancer. Sometimes Hans would forget to move when it was his turn and he'd just sit there staring into space until I nudged him. "Pardon," he'd apologize and make his move quickly. I also had blackouts when we were playing, sometimes I'd even forget how to move the pieces, mainly the knight, and Hans would remind me with his usual patience.

Dr Arad says that forgetting is perfectly natural in advanced stages of brain tumours, which must've been meant to reassure me.

Everyone always says that the yekkim, the German Jews, are as dry as dust, but with Hans at least, that wasn't true. The guy was a straight-out poet. Once he said about Bergen Belsen, "That was day they take Anna and little Karl. I just not know what will happen next minute. I look at my watch and I know: five minutes more the tram come, forty minutes more I hug Anna, make little Karl to laugh, everything be in order. All of sudden, I am on bed, alone, not know anything what will happen. I want killing myself, only so I be sure of something."

Hans froze and stared at the wall across from him, and for a minute I thought it was another attack, he forgot what he was talking about. "Then I see him on wall," he went on, "mein Schatten, how you say, aah... shadow. I look at him and I know, my shadow he always with me. I know always what he is going to do, and him even the Germans they cannot take." Hans raised his hand and stared at its giant shadow on the wall making the exact same gesture. He looked at me and smiled. "Zauber," he whispered.

Hans was in worse shape than me, and when his urine bag had to be emptied, I did it. "Pardon," he'd always say, apologizing as if it was his fault he was sick. The truth is that Asher, the orderly, was supposed to empty urine bags, but that bastard only liked to drop in once a day, and he changed the sheets while he was here so he didn't have to come again. I always cursed under my breath when that shit finally showed up in the ward, and it was Hans who defended him. "Not to be angry, Zvi, he is junger Mensch, he has much life yet and we are at end."

Once, Hans asked me what the name "Zvi" meant. I didn't know how to explain it. Finally, I showed him a picture of the deer in the Israeli Postal Service logo printed on the envelope of a letter I'd received. "Ah, Hirsch, beautiful animal, but not many now, almost extinct." I told him that people with brain cancer who play chess are probably almost extinct too, and he looked at the drawing of the deer again, a gentle smile flitting across his face.

Funny, the whole time we were together I was aware that death could come and take me at any time. But I never thought that the same death could visit Hans too. It never entered what was left of my mind that a man who talks so funny could die. When it happened, I was really calm. I didn't cry, didn't yell, nothing. Asher came in. "What's the name of the old guy who died?" he asked. "Dr Arad needs it for the death certificate and the nurses lost the papers again. Wasn't it Hindisheim, Hindishtreim, something like that?" Remembering what Hans said about his shadow, I looked at the wall and raised my right hand high, like Hans. That sneaky little shadow rebelled and decided to put his hands around the shadow of someone else's neck. I couldn't even trust my shadow now. Asher grunted and screamed.

I heard other people's voices. I kept looking at the mutinous shadow. My right hand was still waving in the air. I want killing myself. Then my lips chose to utter a word I didn't know the meaning of. "Zauber," I heard myself whisper.

Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverstone.

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