The Flood

by Omer Friedlander
4 June 2020

Read time: 15 mins

On the day of the storm, the Natural History Museum of Jerusalem was flooded, its glass display cases shattered, and a procession of taxidermy animals could be seen drifting down Mohilever Street. Viktor, the museum’s security guard, watched as a group of men tied ropes around a floating elephant, struggling to pull it out of the current. Glittering beetles swam downstream, shining green and gold like jewels. Viktor scooped one up in his hand. It was still alive, its legs pushed against the palm of his hand and he nearly dropped it. Butterflies escaped through the destroyed roof and flew above the flood but were brought down swiftly by the torrential rain. The water was heavy on their wings, drowning their fake eyes, tiger stripes, colorful spots. They swooped and fell, lost in the water. The white canoes of bleached whale bones swept past.

Viktor was soaked, shivering. The wind stung his face. His boots were heavy with water. He made his way slowly, following the floating bear drifting down the street. All around, shop windows were broken, glass scattered in the street. The market stalls were dismantled. Watermelon rinds and orange peels were carried along by the flood. Soldiers tied a laundry line between two facing houses and used it to cross the street from one side to another. Homes were boarded up with plywood and furniture. An ambulance lay half submerged, a red Star of David barely visible, almost swallowed by the rising tide. A heavy man climbed onto a tree whose branches strained under his weight. A baby bundled in a blue blanket floated in a basket, its curious eyes open wide. An elderly woman sat on her porch with a fishing rod, pulling out dead birds from the current. Viktor kept following the brown bear which floated past on its back, its paws sticking out towards the sky.

When Viktor was young, everyone called him The Bear. He was a large, attractive man with thick knuckles and a copper-colored beard. His ancestors were the Nivkh people, fishermen, hunters, and dog-breeders. They worshipped the bear. When he met a woman, they called her The Bear’s Wife. In the only remaining photograph of the two, he stood over her, wrapped in an enormous fur coat. His hair stuck out at the ends and his beard was uncombed. She sat at his side, legs crossed, a slightly bored expression on her face. In preparation for the wedding, his family raised a wild bear as their own child for years. Viktor remembered the day his mother came back from the forest with the bear in her arms. It was only a cub, with a long snout and shaggy hair, five sharp claws on each paw. Outside, it was snowing. Enormous flakes drifted down, spiraling in the wind, covering the ground in a white bandage. Mother heated the bathwater on the stove. She filled the tub in the living room with scolding hot water, the steam curling up to the ceiling. She gave the bear a bath that night, while Viktor watched. She rubbed a sponge and coarse soap across its back and even tried to cut its nails with a clipper. The bear scratched her, along her shoulder. It wasn’t a deep cut, but it bled. The water turned red.

The bear lived in an iron cage outside the house until it matured. Viktor would go out into the woods with his father and hunt rabbits. They threw the rabbits into the cage and watched them being devoured. The bear’s muzzle was stained dark, flecks of meat scattered on the ground. Mother would sing lullabies to the bear every night, and it would fall asleep, its snores reverberating to the house. In the mornings, Mother would work on sewing the ritual costume for the bear.

When the day of the sacrifice came, Mother made a sweet jelly made of dried fish and fruit. Viktor chained the bear to a post outside, and fed it using the ritual spoon, while his father drummed on a log. Viktor dressed the bear in the ceremonial robes, fitted with pearls and woven with elaborate floral patterns, gold and silver string. His father came out with a bow and arrow, which he handed to Viktor. The bear stood up on its hind legs, its dark eyes watching him. It took three arrows to kill the bear. Afterwards, father cut off the head and skin, and hung it out to dry. He fed his wife bear meat in a broth the next day, at the Great Feast.

Soon afterwards, Viktor’s wife became pregnant. She complained of nightmares. She told him that she felt an animal clawing at her from the inside, rubbing its nails along the walls of her uterus. Viktor tried everything to calm her down. He gave her herbal remedy teas, kvass with raisins and mint, thick rye bread. He rubbed her feet before bed. He sang songs to her, stroked her enormous belly. When she finally gave birth, she screamed that it was killing her. She passed away, and Viktor held his child for only half an hour until it died, too. It was small and wrinkled, pale as an uncooked pierogi. He went to the backyard with a spade to bury the baby in the ground next to his wife and the head and skin of the bear.

Viktor followed the taxidermy bear down the flooded streets of the Talbiya neighborhood, past the Jerusalem Theater and destruction of the gardens, once blooming with bougainvillea and hibiscus. A boy kept pace with him, eyeing the bear. Viktor increased his pace, and so did the boy. The rain whipped his face with thousands of sharp stings. Viktor was not going to give up the bear to this street kid. The wind pressed against him, stopping him in his tracks, and he wondered how the boy kept going. The boy was quick, carried by the wind, he floated down. He grabbed the bear’s front paws and tried to drag it aside but was pulled by the current. Viktor watched the boy go under, disappear, and emerge a few meters ahead. Then, he was sucked in again. Viktor hauled him out, spluttering. The boy coughed and heaved, spat out water. Viktor watched the bear snag on an overturned olive tree, its roots searching through the air like fingers, leaves caught in its fur.

Viktor and the boy untangled the bear from the tree branches and hauled it aside into the shallow waters on the stone steps of a large, gated limestone home. The rain kept coming down. There was nowhere to go. The bear was too heavy to drag home and the roads were inaccessible anyway. Viktor could lift the bear’s body and the boy could crawl under the wet fur, with its terrible stench, or he could cut it open and let the boy sleep inside of it: at least it would provide shelter. He could sever the skin flaps, cut through fur and glue, remove the stuffing, let the boy crawl inside the hollowed-out bear.

‘Boy,’ Viktor said, ‘where do you live?’

Strangely, the boy took out the bear’s glass eyes and put them in his pocket. They left, walking towards Nachlaot and the marketplace. Outside the boy’s home, the garden was wrecked. The potted plants were drowning, their leaves and flowers torn by the wind, scattered on the ground. Brown puddles lead to the door. When they arrived, the boy’s mother started yelling. She cried and hugged the boy. Viktor turned to leave, but she stopped him. She resembled a flamingo, with her long legs and hooked nose.

‘Wait a moment,’ she said. ‘Come inside for dinner.’

Her name was Mika. She talked while she cooked, sprinkling paprika on the roasted potatoes, telling him how Yuval started collecting eyes made of glass, marble and painted wood, ever since his father lost his. They were vegetarians, which confused Viktor, but he did not complain. He ate the roasted potatoes and asparagus, the arugula and pear salad, the lentil soup. Viktor told them stories of guarding the museum. Once, an old woman tried to steal a gazelle horn. She took it off its hanging on the wall and tried stuffing it in her purse, except it wouldn’t fit. It stuck halfway out. Viktor called out to her, but she pretended not to understand him when he told her to stop. He had to grab her arm, and she complained to management, almost had him fired. Another time, a boy swallowed a small fossilized snail. Viktor had to perform the Heimlich until the boy spat it out.  Viktor’s favorite exhibit was the lepidopterarium where the scarlet swallowtails, monarchs, zebra longwings, paper kites and other butterfly species flew around freely.

Yuval sat in front of the television. On the screen, a skeleton took off its skull head and juggled it, tossing it from one hand to the other. Mika told Viktor about the one-eyed father. Ever since he lost his eye, he could not find employment. He sat at home, getting drunk and watching television out of one eye, thinking of crazy ways to make money. When one of his business ventures failed, selling Jaffa oranges individually wrapped in silk, he left. Sometimes, they got an orange wrapped in silk in the mail, together with a short hastily scribbled note. She always took care to hide these before her boy saw them. She tossed the oranges into the trash. She never ate a single one.

Outside, the rain kept falling steadily with the sound of rapid gunfire. The power cut out and the television fizzled to black. They lit candles and sat around the kitchen table.

‘Where does the museum get all of its glass eyes from?’ Yuval asked.

Viktor had no idea, so he invented the story of an old man who lived in the basement of the museum and painted glass eyes. Yuval was so excited, that Viktor made up more and more details about the old man. He had thousands of glass eyes in his study, arranged in rows. They shipped his eyes everywhere, to Idaho, Istanbul and Marrakech. He could paint human eyes, fish eyes, cat eyes and cow eyes. He even made a golden eye for a noblewoman in Tehran, which was painted with the sun’s rays. Each eye conveyed a different personality, a window to the soul.

‘Does the old man have a wife?’ Yuval asked.

Viktor shook his head. ‘He is alone.’

‘Do you have a wife?’ Yuval asked.

Mika shushed him. ‘That’s not polite. You don’t have to answer.’

Viktor brushed it off. After his wife died, he told them, he kept complaining to his mother of a rotten taste in his mouth. It was the taste of rotten meat, of dead bear. His mother treated him as a child again, bathing him, washing his hair. To make him forget the bad taste in his mouth, she told him stories about pomegranates, a fruit which he had never tasted before. They were sweeter than honey, riddled with red seeds. When Viktor arrived in Israel, where pomegranates could be bought in any grocery store, he hesitated. He did not want the magic of his mother’s story to disappear. What if he didn’t like it? What if it was not sweeter than honey? He never ate a pomegranate, he was too scared to be disappointed.

Mika insisted Viktor stay the night. He would sleep on the fold-out bed in the study, where all of Mika’s ex-husband’s failed inventions gathered dust. In the corner of the room, half-built machines and cardboard models of prosthetic limbs were piled up, dozens of glass eyes were kept in a bucket. Pasted on the wall were the plans for an Israeli breakfast machine with rotating mechanical arms which could, if successfully built, fry an omelet, pour Turkish coffee into a small glass cup, drizzle olive oil on a bowl of labneh cheese, toast pitta, even chop up a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots and parsley.

Mika sat on the fold-out bed. She told him that she wished that her husband, Alon, had died in Gaza. It would have been easier for everybody. She felt awful for thinking that, but it was true. Yuval was so obsessed with his father, with finding a glass eye that would be a perfect fit, that she could never say anything bad about him. It was during the Great March of Return, thirty thousand Palestinian protestors along the fence burning kites and tires, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. One day, the protestors released hundreds of birds. They were Grey African Parrots. They were very intelligent and could mimic human speech. Alon stared at the birds in the sky, and swore he heard one of them call him a Jew dog. As he stared up at the sky, dotted with birds like sunflower seeds, a rock hit his left eye and blinded him. It turned out that the parrots which flew over the border into Israel were part of an elaborate form of psychological warfare. They were anti-Semitic parrots, trained to mimic hate speech and deny the Holocaust. Mika kissed Viktor’s cheek, her lips were dry and chapped.

‘Thanks for listening,’ she said and left.

The next morning, Yuval was gone again. Viktor left the house to search for him. He told Mika to stay, in case the boy came back. There were a few stragglers outside. An Ultra-Orthodox man shouted into the rain, this is the second flood! Only the righteous will survive! Strange belongings floated in the water, tubes of lipstick, pencil cases, ornamental pillows. A large grey parrot flew by, screeching death to the Jews. At first, Viktor called out Yuval’s name, but soon his throat was too hoarse. Besides, no one would be able to hear it above the sound of the wind. He saw a tray of baklava from the market float past. Christian trinkets went by, wooden crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary.

Viktor saw his mother’s face in the water, her pale, bloated body floating towards him, her thighs marred with blue veins. Her mouth was a dark red hole, the wound of a split pomegranate. After his mother, his father came. The meat barely clung to his cheekbones. His unseeing eyes clouded over with grey swiveled back and forth. Finally, his wife appeared, clutching her stomach. Viktor shut his eyes, but the apparitions floated in the darkness. He kept walking, stumbling in the downpour, his legs taking him down a familiar path until he reached the museum. At the entrance, the patterned Ottoman tiles were cracked. He needed to get downstairs. Yuval could be there, searching for the old man who painted glass eyes.

He found Yuval in the basement of the museum, with all the discarded, misshapen animals. They started walking down the dimly lit corridors, staring at the strange displays. There was a lamb with two heads, a turtle with a broken shell, a chipped rhinoceros horn, the quills of a porcupine. Entire cabinets lined with beetles, birds and badgers. Inside of large cryogenic chambers, animal tissue, whale skin, eagle livers, and mammal blood are preserved, frozen, with labelled barcodes and numbered tags. In a large gallery space, supported by metal reinforcements, was a display of enormous meteorites. Floor-to-ceiling cabinets filled with dinosaur bones, fossilized ammonites, spiral-shelled nautiluses, tiny insects caught in amber.

‘Where’s the old man who paints glass eyes?’ Yuval asked.

‘He didn’t come to work today,’ Viktor said. ‘Let’s get you home.’

The boy stared at him, as if he had been betrayed, and his gaze reminded Viktor of the bear he had sacrificed. Those same dark eyes. Viktor imagined an arrow thudding into the boy’s chest, the blood soaking his shirt, the cracking sound his knees would make as they hit the limestone floor. He imagined their roles reversed. The bear sacrificing the boy. The animal dragging the carcass along the empty corridors, its sharp teeth biting into the boy’s neck. Viktor himself was the bear, and he ate the boy, and slept for the winter. The boy took his hand, his lower lip trembling, and they walked toward the exit.

Outside, two soldiers were assembled on the steps, their rifles pointed up at the sky. On the roof of the museum, a parrot perched, screeching: Send them to the gas chambers! Send them to Auschwitz! The parrot’s dark grey head was tinged with white, its tail flashed a bright red. Its eyes, which swiveled around, were surrounded by yellow irises.

‘Are they going to shoot the parrot?’ Yuval asked.

‘They’ll just scare him off,’ Viktor said.

‘No, they won’t. They’re going to kill him.’

The soldiers exchanged glances. Viktor tried to tug Yuval away, but he would not move.

‘Wait,’ Yuval said, ‘I could take him to Yad VaShem. He can learn about the Holocaust.’

One of the soldiers laughed. Without warning, Yuval threw a glass eye at the parrot, shouting shoo, but the projectile did not even come close. The bird stayed in place. It raised one foot into the air and called out: Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!

‘Please,’ Viktor said, ‘it doesn’t know what it’s saying.’

A shot rang out and the parrot spiraled down to the ground and landed with a dull thud. One of the soldiers put his hand on Yuval’s shoulder, squeezed. Sorry kid, he mumbled.

On the way to Yuval’s home, the heavy rain-shower became a light drizzle and the dark, heavy clouds dispersed; all around them, Jerusalem was coming to life, as people started leaving their homes and hide-outs, assessing the damage. A few children raced popsicle sticks down the flooded street. Scrawled in green spray-paint along a synagogue: We’re going to need a bigger ark. They came upon the house. On the front doorstep, a pomegranate was severed in two, its red seeds spilling out, each one perfect and unbruised.

 

 

Photo by Margarita Zueva

About the Author

Omer Friedlander

Omer Friedlander grew up in Tel-Aviv and currently lives in Brooklyn. He has a BA in English Literature from the University of Cambridge and an MFA from Boston University where he was the Saul Bellow Fellow in Fiction. He was awarded first place in The Baltimore Review Winter Contest and the Shmuel Traum Literary Translation […]

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