Tuesday, December 07, 2010

half told tales

Hawthorne had "twice told tales". I have here tales that have never been told yet and which, even as I present them, are only "half told tales" - they have beginnings, perhaps a little bit of a middle, but no endings at all. They remind me of books for children and youth that were popular a decade ago where you chose your own ending out of three or four alternates. Though I can't even offer you that. There are no alternate or optional endings for the stories below - except the endings you might conjure up in your own head.

Even though I do finish a pretty high percentage of my writing projects, I'll never go back to these. Why they were abandoned, I can't say. As I look them over, they have potential. But I won't return to them. They were long ago and I am in a different place now as a writer.

Why post them, these half told tales? Because - they are good so far as they go and there are some neat things in them.

In the first half told tale, a woman is fed up with the sentimentality and dishonesty of most religious Christmas cards and is determined to find ones that depict the real story of what happened in and around Bethlehem. There's some fun dialogue between herself and her husband and some equally fun ideas that bounce around in her head. So I give you what there is and it may inspire you to fill in the blanks. Not only in the story, but in real life.

In the other half told tale, we find ourselves in Israel, on a kibbutz, in the mid-70s. It is based on my own experiences as a young man. I post it for the depiction of an old man who wore a blue tattoo on his forearm - he had survived a Nazi death camp. I keep what I have of the story because I don't want to forget him, or that kibbutz, or how that old man challenged me to a race - a race of picking oranges.

But the ending to that race I cannot offer you. If you buy me a coffee some day, somewhere, however, I can tell you what happened in person, like a storyteller from a thousand years ago would have done it.

If that's worth it to you, I prefer mocha nut latte with a dark roast.

Then at least one half told tale will become a whole told tale for one person.

The First Noel

by Murray Andrew Pura

Virginia was 54 and had read the Christmas story many times, had seen it acted out in Christmas pageants and in films, had sent out thousands of Christmas cards during her lifetime. So it was with a shock that she picked up a modern translation of the Bible and read the Christmas story that snowy December 1st. Angrily, she threw the new Bible across the room and went back to her old and trusted translation. But she could no longer read the Christmas story the way she had always read it. Though the language was different she could plainly see that her old Bible told the same story the modern translation did. She just hadn’t paid attention. “You get so used to something,” she told her husband that night at supper, “you don’t see it anymore.” After he was in bed she sat up and read the story of the nativity again in both the old and the new translations. She was still disturbed by what played out in front of her eyes. “What a story,” she grunted to Dash, the ten year old Malamute asleep by her chair. She got up and looked out the front window at the snow blowing in white waves along the street. “Some Christmas story,” she complained to her ghost in the black glass.
The next day was her day to help at the pre-school. Morning and afternoon, while children crawled in and out of her lap and over her head and back, she thought about what she had read in the Bible. That evening her husband and her sat down to sign Christmas cards, the yearly ritual. “I’ll do the first 20 on the list tonight,” he said. “No,” she replied. She was looking at the cards neatly stacked in front of her. “No?” responded her husband looking at her. “What do you mean no?” Virginia picked up the top card and showed it to him: “Look at this!” He saw a card with Mary sitting sweetly on a donkey while Joseph led the beast by a halter rope. He shrugged. “So?” “Bob, it’s ridiculous,” she said. “Mary is in her third trimester. She’s about to deliver her first baby. It’s a hundred miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem and this fool has her bouncing up and down on a donkey. No wonder she had contractions by the time she reached Bethlehem. No woman is going to look like cherry pie sitting on a bouncing donkey for a hundred miles when she’s hours away from having a baby. And she wasn’t even a woman. She was a teenager. I can’t send a card like this.” Bob looked at her. “Well, what kind of card can you send?” he asked. She flipped through the stack. “None of these. I’ll get some new ones tomorrow.” “Fine,” he said, standing up. “Do you mind if I watch the hockey game?” Virginia did not answer him. She was going through the cards one-by-one with a look of horror.
Mary. Blonde and blue-eyed and milk-skinned. The three wise men. In crisp clean robes after a thousand mile journey across a wild desert, as if they carried their own laundromat with them. And no guards. No servants. No caravan carrying food and bedding. Just a walk in the park to cross a barren wasteland full of bandits and howling winds and jackals. And Bethlehem. Looking like a cheerful village in the glen when in reality it would have been crammed with people and booming with shouts and laughter and drinking. Jesus. A few minutes old and already sporting a full head of freshly shampooed blonde hair. Mary. Looking as if she’d just stepped out of the bath and towelled herself dry. As if a friend had blown dry and brushed out her long silky hair. Ready for a jog along the beach at the Sea of Galilee. And the cattle in the stable. All apparently smelling like roses. Coats gleaming. As if they were ready for the livestock show at the state fair. The hay. Also blonde. Not a straw out of place. No manure. No stink. Pristine.
“A charmed life,” Virginia muttered to Dash who had wandered into the room to find out where she was. “But not real life.”
The next day was Saturday. The snow had stopped and the sky was a flashing blue. Bob was up a ladder stringing icicle lights along the eavestrough. “I’m off to buy some proper Christmas cards,” she called to him as she backed the car down the driveway. “Whatever,” he called back. He was trying to shake a tangle out of the line of cord and bulbs in his hand.
She had planned to be back in an hour to start some Christmas baking. Shortbread. But the first mall she drove to only had stores that sold cards with poinsettas or snowmen or red cardinals. The next mall offered wise men in permanent pressed robes and shepherds who had just showered and had their outfits tailored by Calvin Klein. A third mall offered more California blonde Marys and snow white Jesuses and stalwart Josephs who had everything under control. A fourth mall had lots of holly jolly angels with rosey cheeks and golden robes and silly white wings. “Would they frighten you?” Virginia asked a woman looking over the cards next to her. “What?” responded the woman glancing up from a roaring Santa Claus. Virginia showed her the card of singing angels: “Scare you to death, right? Make a sheep rancher run for his pickup and the open road.” The woman stared at her and managed to push a small laugh through her small nostrils. Then she stepped quickly down the row to look at a Rudolph card that made the reindeer’s nose light up and the famous song start as soon as she buried her head inside.
Virginia’s last hope was the large Christian bookstore. “Okay, Charms,” she murmured as she whisked along the highway to the turnoff, “please, please don’t let me down.” She thought: All those people think they have parking space angels. Well, why can’t I have a Christmas card angel? But Charms was worse than all the other stores put together.


The Orange Grove

by Murray Andrew Pura

Yasser is hanging. There is no wind. He is hanging in a straight line and there is not even a breeze.

Salaam is on the ground. The blanket is pulled up to his chin. It is night.

Rima is reading out loud. Her lashes are long and black on her skin. She is looking down and I find myself wondering about her eyes.

The grapefruit have the thorns and to get in at them you rake your arms, maybe even cut your face if you are not careful. The oranges do not have the thorns but to take them you must use a pair of steel clippers. The grapefruit, you take a hold of one of them in each gloved hand and with a sharp twist free them from the tree and drop them into your canvas bag, a long bag with a shoulder sling. For the oranges you use the same bag but the gloves you stuff in your pocket. You hold an orange in your bare hand, snip it off the branch with the clippers, and if you are any good at it, cut three oranges away from the tree and clutch them all together in the one hand before you drop them into the bag. I learned to do this. It is as well I did, not for the sake of work efficiency so much as for my sake, because soon after I arrived in Israel the face and hands taking oranges away from the other side of the tree were Daniel’s.

I came to Israel at the end of it all. A Greyhound out of Pincher Creek. An airplane out of Halifax. Suddenly hitchhiking in the Scottish rain. I was full of energy then. A huge red maple leaf stitched onto my backpack, money belt stuffed with travelers cheques cinched under the waistband of my jeans.

I made it to Tel Aviv six months later. After Holland and Germany and Iran and Afghanistan and Nepal. After I had spent all my money. They chose a kibbutz for me, called me a volunteer and put me on an Egged bus. It took me close enough to my kibbutz to hitchhike one last time and flop down on a cot.

Daniel spoke with me many months later, sitting in a chair in the dark of his home, a dark full of clocks and books and photographs and the hundreds of other items kibbutzniks cram their small houses with.

“Why all these countries, all this money you spend to go everywhere, so what? You get sick and you get poor, what good is it? You don’t like Canada?”
I shrugged. “I was bored.”
“Such a luxury. To do this. You Americans, you look, you look. Stay where you are. There is plenty to do where you are.”
“I’m not an American.”
“Yes. And not a Jew. So you come here. Now.”
“I didn’t know there was going to be a war.”
“Listen. I heard some of the volunteers, some of your friends, a week ago, they are talking by the dining hall. They want to see a war. They have never experienced a war, they are saying.”
“I wasn’t with them.”
“I think you are all the same. You are bored to death. Better than war, you should suffer. That is what you should experience.”
“Jews are not the only ones who have suffered.”
“No. Maybe we are too proud of it. But suffering is what makes us human. An animal knows pain. A human knows pain and that it is unfair, unjust. So the human agonizes. I think that this suffering is a gift from God. It makes us tragic.”
“I thought kibbutzniks didn’t believe in God.”
“Who says this?”
“Everyone says it. One of your own girls, Orna, the other night, she told me that kibbutzniks were realists, ‘We do not believe in such things. What we accomplish we accomplish with our hands and our brains.’ God died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The Jews who believed in God died at the same place waiting for him to do something.”
“All right. I know many Israelis think these things. And God knows I am not one of those with side curls and old books. But I say what is real is not just what we think we see or what we think we hold in our hands and that is it, finished. Now, here, in this room, tonight, in the orchard out there, in Tel Aviv, God is doing something and it is very quiet.”

Daniel could say these things, not just to me, but to any kibbutznik, to any Israeli, because he was tough, he was a hard worker, he had helped build Israel after the Second World War. He could say it because of where he had come from and what he had come out of. His brawny arms reached through the leaves and twisted away the grapefruit, ignoring the thorns stabbing at the small blue numbers tattoed on his skin.

When did I first see Daniel? Maybe several times the first three days I was on the kibbutz. Maybe in the dining hall, or on my way to the trucks that drove us out to the orchards, or maybe on Shabbat as I wandered about the gardens and the fields. But I did not stop and look at him until the day I was leisurely picking oranges with a boy from Argentina.

We are going down a row in teams, leapfrogging from tree to tree, two persons to each tree. We are dropping the oranges into our bags, emptying our bags into the crates that carry the oranges to Europe, talking about very little, when there is a shouting behind us and a crashing of twigs. I turn to look and I see legs running from tree to tree, leaves whirling into the air, I hear the rumble of oranges in the crates and again and again a loud voice snapping commands in Hebrew. There are curses in English and Spanish and Dutch, more running legs, then silence. The Argentinian boy twists his lips. “That is Daniel. He is crazy.”
“What do you mean? Daniel is the one shouting?”
“Yes.” He stops to peel an orange. “I worked on his team once. You are never fast enough. There are always more oranges to pick. There is always some kind of deadline. He comes from Poland. He has been with the kibbutz since the beginning. I think he is here too long. He is old and senile. Look at how he makes them run. What is the point in that?”

I took a closer look at Daniel during coffee break when thermoses and cookies were arranged on overturned crates. He was short and tightened a wide black belt at his waist. I could see his stomach was firm. His face looked as if it had been shaped out of coarse white sand. He was bald and hid the top of his head under a grey peaked kibbutznik cap. He rarely smiled. His eyes moved over everything. He would sip coffee and scrutinize each face, as if to make sure no one ate or drank too much. His sleeves were rolled up just above the elbow. After ten minutes he jerked his head at his team and they followed him away from the clearing into the trees, tugging on their bags and pulling clippers out of their pockets. Our leaders rolled their eyes. We stayed at break at least another five minutes. But on a different day I saw Daniel glance at the leaders with narrow green and white eyes. They clapped their hands together and screwed the tops back on the thermoses. “Yella, yella! Hurry up, hurry up!”

We did not always work on the same teams from week to week or even day to day. So I knew the time would come when I would be placed under Daniel’s leadership. I made up my mind to be ready for that day. I started by learning to hold two oranges in my hand before I dropped them into the bag, then three and sometimes four. Once or twice I practiced stripping a tree as fast as I could and running to the next one. That is when Rima saw me. She looked at her brothers and made a face. Lovka, the head of the volunteer program, was showing the three of them the orange grove.

“Steven,” Lovka said. “Wait a moment before you chase the rest of the oranges. This is Salaam and Yasser. And their sister Rima. They are from Toronto.”
“Hello,” I said. We shook hands.
“They will be sharing your cabin with you. You have been a bachelor long enough. Yasser and Salaam. Rima will be down the row with the Norwegian girls. What are their names?”
“Suzanne and Britt.”
“All you Canadians can take good care of each other.”

I watched Lovka lead them between the trees. Rima’s black hair went down her back in a single braid. It was knotted at the top with a white cloth. Her hand had been the last one I shook and I raised it to my face. The scent was lemons.

The cabins the volunteers lived in had been the homes for the first settlers during the 1940’s. Now all the Israelis lived in new houses with rose bushes and lawns thick with grass. Lovka had placed two more beds and closets in my cabin. I came back from a shower after work and shook Yasser and Salaam’s hands again. I stretched out on my bed while they hung clothes.

“So Lovka took you shopping,” I said.
“Everything is too big or too small,” complained Salaam.
“Or blue,” said Yasser.
“Did you fly in from Toronto, Yasser?”
“No. We did some travelling first.”
“Greece. Italy.”
“I was all over the place too. Even Egypt.”
“What did the Israelis say?”
“Just asked what I was doing there. I told them I rode a horse and looked at the pyramids.”
“No problems?”
“We came here from Beirut,” said Salaam. “There were a lot of questions when they saw that stamp in our passports.”
Yasser shrugged. “It was no big deal.”
“It was no big deal because we’re Jewish.”


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