Tutim – a short story by Lavie Tidhar

Tutim – a short story by Lavie Tidhar

In the middle of the night the telephone rang. Lior Tirosh picked up the phone and a voice said, “Run.”

Tirosh stared blearily at the ceiling. A black cloud of mould had spread gradually over one corner of the room. It had began as a mere speck of dirt, some long while back, but now it had extruded aggressively outwards, had colonised and settled and stayed. The last time he’d spoken to his landlord, Yossi, the man had told him to use hot soapy water to gently wash off the mould. But Tirosh never did. In many ways he was a lazy man, not given to undue intervention in the little injustices of life. It was easier to let the mould grow than to try and combat its spread, knowing that anyway it would just come back, that one day, whatever he did, the mould would grow to cover the entire flat and, later, extrude farther, until first the city and then the entire Syrian-African Rift Valley would come under its sway. In such a world, Tirosh thought, still, perhaps, in that uncanny valley between wakefulness and dream (for he was usually a deep, if late, sleeper), the mould would eventually develop intelligence, and with it a sort of symbiotic relationship with the humans, whom it would enslave. In such a world (now so vivid in Tirosh’s mind that, for a moment, he all but forgot the strange telephone call he was in the midst of), a person would be marked from birth with the Black Sign of the fungus, perhaps on the forehead or – like the small round scar of a smallpox vaccine – on the arm, close to the shoulder. The Pax Fungi would then herald a never-before-seen era of peace and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond, until it extended across the entire planet. It would be a golden age never before seen in human history, and would – “Are you listening to me, Tirosh?” the voice demanded.

Outside, Tirosh could hear the creaking, halting sounds of a street sweeper as it crept along Hatkuma Street, which is to say, the Resurrection, right up to the intersection with Hatchiya, which is to say, Rebirth Street.

This was not out of the ordinary. Tirosh had first moved to Tel Aviv from the periphery. He had grown up on a kibbutz up north, a lonely child immersed in books for too long a time for his own benefit, like a Catholic child baptised forever in cold, if holy, water. Back then, he lived for a time in an apartment which sat on a confluence of streets all named for ancient pogroms. Blood libels and dead Jews haunted him on trips to the greengrocers and the local kiosk until, at last, he’d fled, past countless peeling Bauhaus contraptions that littered the sandy grounds of Tel Aviv like candy wrappers or empty, discarded packs of cigarettes, south to Jaffa.

“Who is this?” he said, sleepily.

“You have to leave,” the voice said. “They’re coming for you now.”

Tirosh sat up, suddenly awake.

“It is no longer safe for you there,” the voice said. “Go. Take nothing with you.”

“Not even poems?” Tirosh said.

“You don’t understand,” the voice said. “They are coming for all the poets.”

He – it was a man, with the slightly hoarse voice of a smoker – halted on the line. Behind him Tirosh heard the screeching of police sirens passing nearby, and a man shouting, and the sudden, startling sound of breaking glass.

“Run,” the voice said, again, and then the line died and took him with it.

Tirosh stared into the darkness. So it had come to this, he thought, chilled. He got up without turning on the lights. He dressed quickly, in dark jeans, and running shoes, and a faded, ancient T-shirt from the Witches concert at the Arad Festival in ’94, which was a year before the festival was shut down following the death of two girls and a boy, who were crushed to death in the crowd during a Mashina concert, and three years before the death of the Witches singer herself, Inbal Perlmuter, in a car accident. Tirosh had been mildly in love with Perlmuter at the time, though from a safe, platonic distance. Now he picked up the bag he had had waiting, prepared, by the bedside. It contained what little cash he had, a change of clothes, phone tokens, a copy of his first published collection of poetry, Remnants of God, and a copy of the single issue of the magazine he’d edited with Shimon Adaf, Echo, before Adaf was taken to one of the concentration camps they had built in the Galilee to house writers of the fantastic. He also packed three pens, a blank notebook, and the completed manuscript of the book he’d been working on for the past two and a half years, The Death of Hebrew Poetry.

When he peered out through the blinds he saw an unmarked car slide silently into a parking bay across the street and three men come out. They wore civilian clothes and moved swiftly and efficiently across the road, not hurrying, and he even thought he recognised one of them, a minor literary critic, or so he had styled himself back in the day, a mevaker, which could mean critic or visitor, and Tirosh would say, savagely, that the man was only a visitor to literature, not even that, someone who stood far away and looked out to literature and did not know it, like Moses at the summit of Mount Nevo, looking over the promised land which had been denied him. Now the man worked for the internal security service, the Shin-Bet, in their new Fourth Directorate. The other two men Tirosh did not know.

He left the flat and took the time to lock the door behind him. He used the back exit and, like a pencilled line of poetry on a scrap of paper, rubbed off yet still faintly visible, he slipped into the night.

In The Death of Hebrew Poetry, Tirosh makes several assertions that are now considered treason. In the manuscript, he asserts that the history of modern Israel is a fiction, “an elegantly wrought, collaborative narrative,” and calls it “a post-Holocaust novel in which the Nouveau Juif, nicknamed the Sabra as if he were a superhero who always keeps his mask on, is a liberator, the Thulian reincarnation of one of King David’s Gibborim, that is to say, heroes, brought forth to the present day.”

This literature, in what Tirosh identifies as a masterstroke of Hebrewized Newspeak, is adamantly referred to as Realist fiction by its collaborators, and its purpose is to negate the existence of a competing narrative called Palestine. It is for this reason, Tirosh argues, that so-called fantasy fiction never took hold in Hebrew. For if Realist fiction is fantastical, what use is fantasy?

And it is for this reason, indeed, that the first to go were, like Adaf, the fantasists. They were too suspect. Too out of touch with the ruling narrative. They worked alone and often in isolation, communicating with each other furtively, publishing in little magazines of no significance, to a small community of readers who saw in their writing nothing but mindless escapism. They were the first to go, Adaf and Keret and the others, to the new camps in the Galilee, but not Tirosh. Tirosh had always used a pseudonym for his stories. He had thought himself safe.

Until now.

“A poem,” he says elsewhere in the manuscript, “is a terrorist attack.”

“Eastman,” he said. He was standing in a public phone booth on the Charles Clore promenade, which had once, long ago, been an Arab village called Menashiya, now itself, like Tirosh, just the faint outline of an erased inscription. Tirosh was feeding the phone tokens. It was not yet sunrise but the sky was lightening over the sea, and he could see a lone seagull swoop, then dive sharply towards the waves. “Eastman, it’s me.”

“Tirosh?” the publisher spoke in a whisper down the phone, and Tirosh pictured him hunched over his desk, in the cubby-hole that passed for his office, which was crammed every which way with books and magazines whose cheap pulp paper smelled like wet dog and whose pages whispered with fluttering moth wings. “You can’t – I mean, you’re at large? – I mean, they’ve just been here, Lior. They were asking about you!”

The words chilled Tirosh. “What did you tell them?” he whispered.

“What could I tell them?” the publisher said. “I don’t know where you are!”

“Listen, Eastman,” Tirosh said. “I’m calling about the money you owe me. I need the money, Eastman. I need the money to buy a way out of here.”

“Are you crazy, Lior? The borders are closed! The airport is watched! There is no way out!”

“There’s always a way out,” Tirosh said, darkly. “Listen, Eastman. About the money you owe me. The last book I did for you. The Vampire Hunters of Venus Alpha. I need it.”

“Are you crazy, Tirosh? What money? What book? I don’t do this kind of thing anymore! Do you think I want to end up in the camps like your friend, what’s his name? The book was pulped! Destroyed! I only do government-approved publications now, no fantasy, no mention of Arabs, no nothing! Don’t you understand, Tirosh, they’re – they’re —”

“Eastman? Eastman!”

The publisher made a gurgled sound. His heavy breathing filled the white static noise of the telephone.

“. . . here.”
The line went dead with a soft, terminal click.

Tirosh’s targets in The Death of Hebrew Poetry are manifold. He calls Amos Oz “the prissy Madame of the whole damn brothel”, Yehoshua “a writer with both the face and talent of a prune, and the historical comprehension of the parrot in a Monty Python sketch”, and says of Amichai, in reference to his most famous poem, that “God may feel mercy for the kindergarten children but he does not extend that same compassion to Amichai’s poor, hapless readers.” He is dismissive of Zach (“I am not sure which scent is worse,” he wrote, “the fumes of cheap wine or the desperation”), and he is mostly indifferent to Alterman.

“Between every line they ever wrote,” Tirosh said, “there is a deafening silence.” Tirosh skulked. He walked away from Jaffa along the promenade, passing the grand hotels and the Hassan Bek mosque, which stood forlorn against the gathering daylight, a sole testament to the area’s previous Arab inhabitants. Everything else had been razed, erased. Tended grass grew where once houses met. What had Mahmoud Darwish written, back when there were still Palestinians? Something about a country where one saw only the invisible.

Tirosh came up the incline towards the Carmel Market. Already at this early hour stalls were set up with fruit and vegetables from the Galilee and the Golan Heights and the shining new agricultural super-farms of the Jordan’s west bank. A Home for Every Family, posters proclaimed, showing the virginal, unspoiled fields, workers saluting stiffly into the rising sun, their rosy-cheeked children running, laughing, in fields of wheat. New cities being built across the horizon, high-rises reaching for the perfect blue sky. I would escape to the West Bank, Tirosh thought, I would marry and have two children, a boy and a girl, and go to synagogue every Friday and bless the Shabbat, and work in something obscure to do with electronics, and tend to my garden in my spare time. I would grow cabbages and carrots and celery, I would only grow vegetables beginning with a C. And I would never write another line of poetry, because poetry is dead. I would stop fantasising, because fantasy, I finally understand, is for children and the intellectually challenged. And I would change my name, to something silly and meaningless like Tidhar, which is a sort of Biblical tree.

He walked along the stalls when a man bumped into him carrying a crate of kohlrabi and jumped back, startled.

The man looked at him nervously and something in his face niggled at Tirosh’s memory. Then it came to him and he said, “Samir!” in a rush.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “You must be mistaken.”

“Samir, it’s me, Tirosh! Don’t you remember me! What are doing here? I thought you were all…?” then he stopped, embarrassed.

“My name’s Zamir,” the man said. “I am a porter in the market. You don’t know what you’re talking about, mister.” And he patted the yarmulke he wore on his head. The gesture was protective.

“I’m sure it’s you,” Tirosh said. “You used to live next door, your dad ran the kiosk, you never celebrated with the rest of us on Independence Day.” And he looked at the man curiously.

“Tirosh?” the man – Samir, Zamir – said. “The poet?”

“So you do remember!” Tirosh said, delighted. It was always an intense joy for him to be recognised.

The man shied back. He put down the crate of kohlrabi and pointed a thin brown finger at Tirosh.

“A poet!” he shouted. “A poet! Get him! Get him, Jews!”

Tirosh saw heads turn, look over, slowly, sleepily. The reality of the situation suddenly settled upon him, like dust, making him choke.

“A poet!” Tirosh cried, wildly, pointing, along with the porter, in the direction of the car park and the sea. “A poet, he went that way! Get him!”

A slow-burning roar built up around them as porters put down boxes and sellers fine-tuned their pitch into barks of outrage and hatred. The assembled individuals were forming into a mob, and as a mob they began to stream down the market pathway, in what in Hebrew is called an alyehum, a communal uprising of indignation and rage.

Tirosh and Samir pressed into the shadows as the horde stormed down the hill in search of a poet, and Tirosh thought, shaken, if only poetry books ever garnered such an enthusiastic response, poetry might have still been alive.

He glared at Samir and the man shied from him and then, shaking his head slowly, with frightened eyes, the porter ran from Tirosh as fast as his legs would carry him. Tirosh, seeing the path clear, ambled up the road until he was free of the market and onto the intersection of Allenby and King George. He felt safer here, with the dead king and his general. He fled down the street, as the sun rose and his shadow fell longer and thinner, like a blade.

“Our heroes are dead,” wrote Tirosh. “We celebrate suicide by worshipping the dead of Masada: in the shadow of their mass grave we swear in our soldier-poets, even as we pretend that human life – by which we mean of course only our life – is sacred. We have lied to ourselves so much that we are lost, like the Hebrews in the desert. Poetry, seeking truth, cannot flourish here.”

He closes the book with an epitaph.

“Hebrew poetry is dead,” Tirosh wrote. “It died a long time ago and didn’t know it.”

As Tirosh wandered towards Dizengoff he realised how childish his manuscript was. Words changed nothing. They were like the cockroaches that cohabited his flat with him. They came out at night, through the cracks in the walls, and he, Tirosh, killed them, with thick heavy volumes of the Bible or Adaf’s Sunburnt Faces or Shimon Peres’ The New Middle East, smashing the hard covers on the black carapace of the insects until they died. But there were always more, and all the words and all the books in the world could not make a difference. “Fuck words!” he shouted, suddenly joyous with the realisation. “I renounce! I renounce!’ He opened his bag with fingers shaking with hunger and excitement. “Burn them!” he cried. “Burn them all!” His fingers found the thick wad of manuscript pages and he pulled it and tossed it in the air. The pages flew high and then fell everywhere, a flurry of meaningless words on a page. “Burn them!”

Passersby turned and stared. Then a manic joy took hold of the crowd, and by ones and twos, some pulling along their children, some on their bikes, others with prams or shopping bags, they came, congregating around the fallen pages. A stone arced through the air and smashed the window of a bookshop. In moments the crowd turned and the looting began. The riot spread and shops were pelted and destroyed. Where Tirosh stood a vast edifice grew by degrees: books piled high and kindled with chair legs and broken sofas, beach tennis rackets and wooden dolls. Policemen came and stood, watching. Then someone doused the pile with gasoline and tossed a match.

Tirosh watched the fire burn. The flames billowed upwards as though they could devour the sky. In the black smoke that rose from the funeral pyre Tirosh imagined he could discern words, good words and bad. Like black butterflies they rose out of the hissing sputtering ink and faded, slowly, in the air. Tirosh stood, sweating, and watched the flames reflect in the policemen’s mirrored sunglasses. He felt a giddy excitement.

He was free.

From somewhere on Gordon a group of men approached pulling a struggling youth between them, beating him savagely with their fists when he fought back. He was really not much more than a boy. “A poet, a poet!” they cried, and the mob said, “Burn him, let him burn!”

“No!” the boy cried, “No!” but the word had no meaning. Tirosh knew him slightly, from another time.

“Let him burn!” he said.

The boy, crying, was dragged to the funeral pyre. His screams turned into a single word, repeated over and over, and it took Tirosh a moment to discern it, to taste its shape.

“Tutim!” the boy cried. “Tutim, tutim!”

Tirosh sighed, for even with approaching death the boy could merely repeat the words of another. Strawberries, he kept shouting, strawberries, quoting the late poet Yona Wallach’s most famous poem.

“Tutim, tutim!” Tirosh said. The crowd took up the meaningless sound like a holy chant. Their roar was deafening. “Tutim, tutim, tutim!”

Tirosh watched as the boy was carried to the flames.


This is an extract from Art & War: Poetry, Pulp & Politics in Israeli Fiction by Lavie Tidhar and Shimon Adaf. The second part of the book contains two short stories, one by each author. Both were written in the summer of 2014. Following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June, a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped in retaliation and set on fire; two of his murderers were similarly underage. On the 8th of June the Israeli army began an intense rocket bombardment of Gaza, followed by a ground assault, in response to Palestinian rockets fired towards Israel. The operation led to the death of over 2000 Palestinians, and 72 Israelis.

Both stories are haunted by the image of the burning boy; both struggle with the futility of poetry. They represent a conversation; and each author appears as an aside in the other’s story.