“White Curtain,” by Pesakh (Pavel) Amnuel
I recognized him immediately, though we had not seen each other for eleven years, having last met under very different circumstances. There was a change in him: he looked older, yet, somehow, better.
“Hello, Oleg,” I said.
“Hello, Dima,” he answered as if we had spent the day before as we used to, in years past, drinking and arguing about the cascading splice theory. “I knew you’d come. Sit. No, not on this chair, that’s for visitors. Sit here, on the sofa.”
I sat down, and the sofa squeaked in protest.
“Of course you knew,” I said. “You are the prophet.”
“I’m no prophet,” he said sadly. “Who knows that better than you?” He spoke more slowly than ever before, enunciating each word to the last syllable.
“Yes,” I said, not trying to hide the sarcasm. “Who better?”
“How did you find me?” Oleg asked.
“With difficulty,” I admitted. “But I found you. You were – “
“No matter,” he interrupted, “it does not matter at all, what I used to be. Why?”
“Why did you come? I don’t think you came just to make sure it’s me. You want something from me. Everyone does. Success? Luck?”
If there was irony in his voice, I did not notice it. I did not need luck. Especially not from him.
“Irina died last year,” I said, looking in his eyes. “We had been together for ten years, two months and sixteen days.”
He turned away from me to look at the curtained window. What did he see in that blank screen, that white expanse where all the colors of his life were mixed together? Himself, young, walking Irina to a discotheque? Or only Irina, on that long-ago day when yet another dazzling presentation he made at that morning’s seminar inspired him to believe himself irresistible to women? The day I watched, from the auditorium door, as he proposed to her with this new-found confidence, as she kissed the corner of his mouth and said that he was a little late because she loved another, and cast an eloquent glance in my direction, and he followed it, and understood. The day Irina and I left him behind, defeated and deflated, useless even to himself.
The day I saw him for the last time, until now. On the following morning Oleg Larionov, previously a promising theoretical physicist, submitted his letter of resignation. The dean, though loath to lose him, would have eventually allowed him to leave on good terms (he stamped the letter with “Approved at the end of semester”), but Oleg left without waiting for the response. He left without saying good-bye to anyone. He had been seen boarding the forty-three bus in the direction of the train station; except for that, no one had even an inkling of where he was going.
And that was all.
“Why did she die?” Oleg asked, his gaze still on the white screen-like curtain. Why did you not save her? was what I heard.
I could not. I could do nothing. My strength was in theoretical work, I excelled at splice calculations, perhaps not all, but up to a very high complexity, up to twelve branches of reality, that’s quite a lot, almost unheard-of for an analytical solution – but in reality there was nothing I could do. Irina fell ill unexpectedly, and died soon after. How soon? She was diagnosed in March, and in July she was gone.
“Brain tumor,” I said. “Could not have been predicted. There wasn’t a nexus of branching – “
“Theoretically,” he interrupted, and I could not decide if his words mocked mine, or were a simple statement of fact.
“I’ve been looking for you for an entire year,” I said. “And found you. As you can see. Do you remember Gennady Bortman?”
Oleg turned toward me at last. I had expected something in his gaze, a feeling, anything. But there was nothing. He looked at me as calmly as a doctor at a patient suffering from a cold.
“I do remember him,” said Oleg. “It’s a pity.”
“He stayed on the branch,” I said, “which you predicted for him. Was there anything he could have done?”
So much depended on Oleg’s answer. I did not want to think about my life. But Ira’s…
“Dima,” said Oleg and rubbed his hands together, an old familiar gesture with which he once rubbed chalk dust off his hands after a long presentation, adding it to the floor already littered with chalk crumbs. “Dima, he could have chosen any branch in his reality. The months he had until… Of hundreds of decisions, you understand, each time a new branch grew, but always in the direction…”
“In our reality,” I interrupted, “only your prophesy could come true. Your branch was stronger, more resilient.”
“Yes,” Oleg nodded, “My branch had higher probability, a million times higher.”
“In other words,” I said, and it was important for me to be clear, so very important that I searched for Oleg for a year, an excruciating year of living on memories, “in other words, for a million possibilities you choose, there may be one chance for someone else’s choice?”
“Maybe not a million,” he said, still rubbing his fingers, his gesture irritating me so much that I fought the urge to slap his hands. “Maybe ten million. Maybe a hundred billion. There is no way to measure, no statistics.”
“You’ve had years to compile statistics,” I said. “You set yourself up as a prophet to compile statistics, don’t try to tell me you didn’t! For God’s sake, don’t tell me you are disillusioned with pure science and became a practicing prophet only to help people!”
“I do help them – “
“Some of them! Oleg, I’ve hung around here for a week, I listen to people waiting for their turn, some for six months, they come every day, they wait and walk away and come back, and once in a while one of your secretaries will come out and say, “He won’t see you, sorry,” and it’s no use arguing back. And some, people you pick out from the crowd, you’ll see them right away, only them, predict a happy, creative life with luck in business and personal fulfillment.”
“Have I been wrong?”
“Never! You are one hundred percent reliable! This means you choose the necessary branch of the multiverse with an accuracy of at least ten sigmas!”
“Eight sigmas,” he corrected. “I have compiled enough records for eight sigmas, I need another three years – “
“The hell with that,” I said. “I looked for you so that – “
“It is impossible, Dima.” Oleg stopped rubbing nonexistent chalk off his fingers, put his hands on his knees and looked me in the eyes. “You know it’s impossible. You were the one who proved the theorem, according to which – “
“Yes,” I nodded. “I proved it. If in Branch N of the multiverse the world-line of object A is a segment of length L, this line cannot be extended within its branch by grafting it to other realities.”
“You proved it. And what do you want from me now, Dima? Ira does not exist in this here-and-now. You could not keep her.”
“I could not – “
“You could not hold on to her,” Oleg repeated. “And what is it to us that our Irisha – “
He said “our.” He still lived with the feeling that she had only temporarily left him for another, and would come back.
“Our Irisha is still alive in a billion other branches of the multiverse?”
“You could,” I said. “You are a genius at splicing. You can tie branches together and graft them, like Michurin grafted an apple branch to a pear tree.”
“And how did it end?” Oleg chuckled. “Michurin, Burbank. Lysenko.”
“Won’t you even try!” I yelled.
Oleg stood up and walked toward the window, as if to put as much distance between us as possible, as if my presence made it hard for him to breathe, to think, to live.
“I tried. All the time, I tried,” he said, his voice as hollow as if he spoke under water.
“Death in Jerusalem,” by Elana Gomel
The crowd is sprinkled with Arabs in galabiyeh, Orthodox Jews in dusty black coats, and young girls with navel rings. People jostle and push against each other. But Mor walks freely through the crush of bodies, buoyed by the roundness of her stomach, her gaily colored maternity dress glued to it by perspiration. People respect fertility in Jerusalem.
She is relieved when she reaches the old residential area of Rehavia. The ghostly echo of pre-war Europe lingers in the narrow alleyways lined with unkempt gardens. She opens the gate into the small courtyard where a rusted bicycle rests in the meager shadow of an ancient wisteria. The heat is killing her. Leaning against the wall to catch her breath, she closes her eyes and tries to cool off with a memory of blue steel and frozen candlelight.
The evening is almost bearable. This is the blessing of hilly Jerusalem as opposed to the humid Tel-Aviv where summer heat lies on the land like a rotting corpse. As the sunset fades to lilac, Mor takes a shower and gingerly lowers herself into the bean-bag in front of the TV. Channels flicker in a litany of war, famine, and disease.
She goes to bed early. Stretching on her back, she holds her breath, waiting for the baby’s kick and falls asleep, still waiting.
The scrape of a chair and a man’s voice saying: “May I?”
The morning was hot, cloudless and blue, as all mornings would be for the next three months. But the man who sat by her in the campus cafeteria smelled of rain and fog. He smiled: his teeth were white and impossibly even.
They talked until she was close to being late for her class. The language of their conversation was English as it immediately transpired that “May I?” was the full extent of David’s knowledge of Hebrew. He was from Toledo.
“I’ve been to Toledo,” she said. “They make wonderful swords.”
“Toledo, Ohio,” he corrected. “I don’t like cutting weapons.”
Was he some sort of pacifist? A pilgrim? Just a tourist? Mor did not care. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Just a millisecond before she absolutely had to rush to the classroom, he asked her whether she was free in the evening.
They met at Dizengoff Square, which is not actually a square but the wide pedestrian overpass above a perpetual traffic jam. Its revolving fountain wobbled in the grayish twilight, occasionally coughing up a thin jet of water. Pigeons and pedestrians thronged the overpass but there seemed to be a magic circle of quietude around David.
After a couple of drinks in a bar, they walked along the beach promenade, the black oily sea heaving beyond the fluorescent strip of sand. Moonlight dribbled from the tarry sky.
“I like your name,” he said. “Mor. Does it mean something?”
“It’s a kind of spice or incense mentioned in the Bible,” she said, searching for the English word. “Oh, yeah. Myrrh.”
“Really?” he sounded interested. “I thought it had something to do with death. You know, like mortality.”
“Mortality, morbid, moribund.” She shook her head. “You are right; it does sound like it belongs with these. Funny. I never thought about this. But it’s a different word. Mort, death in French. Just a coincidence.”
Her mother wanted to name her Hanna but Daddy objected. She insisted, and so there were two names listed on Mor’s birth certificate, even though she never used the other one. Another item to add to the list of grudges against her mother; another drop of sweetness to flavor her hazy recollections of the big burly man who had brought her to the kindergarten one fine morning and was dead of a heart attack in the afternoon.
The silence between them seemed filled with unspoken promises. Mor tried to think what to ask him next and could not. Job, family, politics? What difference did it make? She would be happy to walk with him in this velvety dark for an eternity, just listening to the roll of waves on the bone-white beach. But did he feel the same? He asked for her phone number but made no definite promise to call. When she drove him back to his hotel (which turned out to be the expensive Sea Crest), he politely thanked her for the perfect evening and left without as much as a peck on the cheek. She fought tears on the way back home and counted the crow’s feet around her eyes as she brushed her teeth. Next day, just as she resigned herself to another dating failure, he called.
When the phone vibrates on the kitchen counter, Mor stares at the flashing display and tries to remember who the caller is. Her memory is holed like cheese, some memories willfully expunged, some unaccountably gone. A school friend? A former colleague? Not a relative certainly. She has none. An only daughter of an only daughter; and her mother’s entire family buried in unmarked graves.
It does not matter. She needs nobody. She has her son.
Stroking her belly, she watches the phone quiver and jump like a living thing. When it finally calms down, she tosses it into the garbage bin.
They met every day for a week. Mor learned a little more about David: enough for her to decide he was the One. He was so reassuringly normal, untainted by the feverish madness of the Middle East. He was an accountant, he said, and indeed, he was very good with numbers. His parents were dead; his numerous siblings scattered over an amazing geographical range; and there was no mention of an ex-wife or significant other. He read all the right books and had all the right opinions. He liked gadgets. Mor, being an adjunct professor in the department of Life Sciences, listened to his techno-babble with an indulgent smile. The only negative she could find was that he was surprisingly indifferent to good food, despite the plethora of culinary temptations on every street corner. Rice-stuffed vine leaves, couscous, creamy hummus, freshly baked pitas, honey-almond cake – he consumed them as dutifully and apathetically as if they were medicine. Mor told herself that was a necessary counterpoint to her own indulgences that were beginning to show in her curves.
The Smell of Orange Groves
by Lavie Tidhar
by Gail Hareven
My Lousy Autumn
by Nitai Peretz, Translated By Jessica Cohen