Translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg
© 2009, Random House. All Rights Reserved.
August 8, 1895, aboard a ship bound for Jaffa:
I have resolved to record my words in this diary for fear, otherwise, of taking leave of my senses. Our small and narrow cabin in the depths of this ship imprisons my thoughts; if I do not share them posthaste I should best jump herewith into the sea.
The root of all my troubles and complaints is Her Ladyship, known legally and familiarly as Esther, like the Biblical queen – and regal she is. More beautiful than beauty itself: thin, tall and erect, high cheek-boned. Were I Esther's King Ahasuerus, I would certainly offer half my kingdom for a mere glimpse of those limpid eyes more blue than the sea.
The first I hear tell of her, she was a student of dentistry in Warsaw. I sought her out, caught the splendor of her countenance, and at once my heart was pricked by love's needle. This maiden would be the object of my affections forever, my beloved spouse unto eternity, a member of God's heavenly choir. The timbre of her voice was like the fluttering of dew over a garden bed of spices, her gowns layers of the finest gauze, her hair shiny and golden. Any man who did not fall to her charms had no right to call himself a man.
It was not long before I procured her agreement, then that of her parents, and we were joined in holy matrimony. My joy knew no bounds. And yet, scarcely a few hours had passed from our time under the wedding canopy when the first hint of Her Ladyship's true nature became apparent. We were standing in the bridal chamber, our first moments alone as man and wife, when I unbuttoned my waistcoat and placed my top hat on the bureau while Her Ladyship remained immobile in her white wedding gown.
"Come, let man rejoice with his wife," I said to her.
"Now is not the hour," said she.
"Do you feel nothing?" I queried.
"I wish to rest awhile," came her response.
She had scarcely finished speaking when, without waiting for the lantern to be extinguished, she began removing her clothing until every last stitch was gone, and then she walked about in her nakedness, her ivory breasts and soft pink nipples taunting my impatient eyes. Her Ladyship prostrated herself in the bed, turned her back to me and fell asleep at once.
On the morrow I drew near her with words of seduction and love, and yet again she was not of a mind to take part in the intimate relations I had intended. True, she was no longer tired or fatigued; rather, the cause was in the psyche. To hear her tell it she was sunk in the despondency of a new bride faced with an act of contrariness and change, with this shift from the impetuous recklessness of life in the singular to that of the conjugal, to be husbanded by a husbanding husband.
In order to avoid causing her grief or, heaven forfend, the famed melancholy of those who place themselves in the stocks of marriage, I suppressed my desire and left her in peace. Silently I told myself that I would wait to see when Her Ladyship's loving passion would awaken and she would come to my bed with reddened cheeks and flaming nipples, her body sweet and dripping juicily.
To my great misfortune, Her Ladyship stayed her course on the nights to come as well. On those evenings, before we made preparations to retire, she removed her clothing and moved about as a lady might among her eunuchs, her alabaster thighs succulent, her breasts two pomegranates full to the bursting. But if I made it clear to her that I wished to fulfill the pleasant obligation of a husband, she would dismiss me with all manner of excuses and fits of ill humor.
I began entertaining thoughts I shared with myself alone, such as perhaps Her Ladyship had given up her virginity to some other man in a fit of youthful frivolity and she was full of shame at the indiscretion, or perhaps she had fallen prey to the seductions of one of her fellow students of dentistry, whose desire was strong upon them. Otherwise, why would they enjoy mangling the flesh of their peers?
Three days had passed since our nuptials and she was still unknown territory to me. I hinted to Her Ladyship that it made no matter to me whether she be a virgin or not and that I wished she would permit me to enter her gates at last. Her Ladyship issued a brief and nervous laugh and said that a modern girl like herself would certainly be well versed in the ways of the world and the ways of a man with a woman.
"Well then," I told her, "show me these ways."
And she said, "Not at this moment."
"And why not?" I answered, visibly angered.
I determined that as far as her mind was concerned she was fit and ready for the act, even desirous and wholly wishful that it would take place, but with regards to the mechanics of the act her organs constricted and puckered and she was plunged into a state of great pain and asked to postpone the act by two days, or three at the very latest.
I squelched my fury and said, "My beauty, I will therefore come unto you on the morrow, Friday, be what may."
Her Ladyship held her tongue.
To myself, I pondered and wondered at these ways of hers. Perhaps the male sex held no interest for Her Ladyship, only the female. Indeed, this matter, for generations considered the realm of the perverse and the insane, had begun to take root among the women of Europe. I have even heard that in Berlin and in Vienna, women roam the streets crop-haired, holding hands in public view, their tongues engaged one with the other. While I was thinking these thoughts, Her Ladyship slipped the garments off her body in preparation for bathing and sleep, and at the sight of this purity – the sweet body of woman inviting acts of love – I banished these evil thoughts. Perhaps this was just bad luck: on the first day she was fatigued form the nuptials, on the second she was saddened by her new state of marriage, and now, a week later, her muscles had conspired to squelch desire.
On Friday, toward nightfall, I left Her Ladyship in our bed and went to the pantry to fetch a bottle of brandy, which I opened for the purpose of bringing human joy to her and to remove all obstacles to our love and conjugality. When I returned to the bedroom I found Her Ladyship lying prone and naked across the bedclothes.
"My dove," I cooed mellifluously.
To which she responded, in a cold and measured voice, "Do with me as you will."
I drew near, kissed her mouth. Her Ladyship parted her lips ever so slightly. I inserted my tongue and found her own blocking mine, as if to say, Thou shall not proceed.
Kissing a beloved to the depths of her moist mouth is one of the most beautiful gifts given to man. What a pity it would be to lose such a precious gift, but I told myself that not every woman is expert in the mechanics of kissing, and in fact it had already happened in the annals of history that the worst of kisses had turned into the best. All it took was a husband to instruct his woman and guide her in this most pleasant of tasks.
I began preparing for intercourse. Now Her Ladyship was pursed and clenched in her entirety: not only her lips, but her thighs, too, clung to one another like a besieged city guarding itself against an army of invading marauders. I touched my fingers to her hair and caressed her face, wishing to bring her to the path of desire. The body of a woman is created from a strange and different mold that one must learn intimately. It must be completely subjugated and only then speared. This subjugation must be brought about slowly, never in haste, first only in words, then in flirtatious enticements, then in sweet whispers, and only after that in hints of lovemaking followed by kisses and embraces and, at last, a long while later, the act itself, to its completion.
Her Ladyship, however, sealed her ears to my kind words and pressed upon me to carry out the act, then leave her in peace. Nor did she warm up to my caresses due to her excessive ticklishness. So, I went directly to her aperture, but I derived no pleasure at all, because that land that awaited me between her pursed thighs was desolate, a desert with no oasis, sevenfold more parched than the Sahara and the Negev together. So cleaved and recalcitrant was it that there would be no furrowing there without great effort.
As I lay atop her nakedness, attempting to know her, Her Ladyship moaned loudly. "Are these moans of love?" I asked her.
"No. Of pain," she replied.
In the month that passed from the day of our wedding, this was the one and only time that we conjoined. As each passing day pummeled me my wrath grew. For her part, Her Ladyship behaved as was her wont each evening: she peeled off her clothing, exposing her curvaceous body, but permitted no touching, reciting one among a number of excuses. Once she claimed to be unfit for the act due to feeling anxious and tumultuous in light of bad tiding of anti-Semites making life bad for Jews; another time she had grown sad due to gray clouds in the sky; on a third occasion she was, sexually, entirely ready but her pubis was attacked by a worm of some persistence, or a rare redness, or a creeping fungus, and she ordered me to squelch my desire forthwith.
At present, we are sailing toward a new life in the Land of Zion, where we shall live by our ideals among farmers and vine-growers on our ancient land, the land of the Jewish People. If ever a man hoped that a sea breeze would cause a woman to weaken and become submissive to him, her soul receptive and desirous, he was deceived and deceiving. Her Ladyship has been completely preoccupied with her seasickness; thus, it has been nigh impossible to approach her on any matter. Even a request for the slightest smile is out of the question as she is nauseous and convulsive.
We are housed in a small cabin on board this ship, and Her Ladyship can observe every movement made by her husband. She does not find fitting those acts committed on himself by himself, so that he must abstain from engaging in them.
And what is it that motivates my days and energizes my nights? The golden hope that once we reach Jaffa, the warm clime of Asia will exert a positive influence on Her Ladyship. I have heard tell of the exceedingly juicy oranges there and of bathing in the sea in the month of August, and how these are good for awakening passion and bringing moisture to the most arid of dry patches.
There are few women on board, and no beauties at all in the manner of Her Ladyship. Today, in the afternoon hours, I committed an impropriety. A cook, no longer young, even aunt-like, with wispy but pleasant hair, was serving food to the passengers. As she leaned forward to ladle potatoes onto the plates, it was possible to glimpse that pale slit between ample, overflowing breasts. Once I had viewed them I could not remove them from my mind. I went to her, kissed her hand and dispatched my fingers to her breasts. All at once my cheeks reddened and my gullet and palate were filled with a disgusting reflux at this sickening act. As for the cook, she gazed at me with calf eyes full of astonishment.
Thus I understood that I was going mad. I took up my pen and paper and began to write.
Today, when Mother took to her bed early and a lazy summer breeze spread jasmine petals at the entrance to our house and the frogs sounded their full-throated croaks among the densely leafy green trees of the orchard, I lay down the stories I am writing and went to Amina's narrow room to find a living person to whom I could unload my searing, soul-consuming secrets, and I found our servant in her changers, and she seated me in her lap and kissed my cheeks and asked in a sweet whisper, as if sharing a secret, whether my mother had told me about the true goings-on of our estate.
I informed her that Mother never reveals a thing to me so as not to awaken my anxiety, since she is always hugely afraid and fearful for my health, which makes her forbid me from all manner of things like riding a mare or a bicycle which might lead me to fall and break a leg or be attacked by Bedouin bandits or harassed by evil-minded children, and our old maidservant Amina regarded me all the while with special attention, wrinkles furrowing her puckered face, and she leaned toward me and asked in a hoarse, hushed voice if I knew about the pleasant biara, the orchard pool on our estate, whose well-water is cool and from which run many culverts that travel the length and breadth of the estate, bringing water to the orchards and groves and deep, rounded tree beds, and I told her that I knew nothing about all these, so then, in the light of a lantern that cast long, dark shadows on her face, she revealed to my ears a secret that my mother and father had been keeping from me, namely that in that pool on our estate, in the deepest depths, among the reeds and beneath the flower stems, the water lilies, the frog eggs, there lives a green-eyed genie with smooth black skin who draws down to his lair the souls of the dead and tempts every small, innocent child wishing to enjoy the cool water to slip between the tiny waves, so that it behooved me to stay far away from the pool, never to approach its seductive waters, and when she had finished her story she planted a venomous kiss upon me and dispatched me to sail off to my room and dock in my bed, an old woman's laugh lines of bewitchment etched on her face.
I did not, however, ascend the stairs to my room to sink into sweet, sweet sleep, but rather I gathered my courage and took the path marked by white stones to the hidden footpath which was, at night, more difficult than ever to find, and barn owls screeched in my ears and ravens cawed noisily from afar, and I drew near the pool in a state of juddering screams, telling myself that Amina was sporting with me, that her words were nothing but fictions, stories, a fable for frightened, gullible children, and how would I ever succeed in wrapping myself in a mantle of manliness if I did not know to govern my spirit in trifling matters such as these, and I approached the edge of the biara, and every small lapping noise from the rippling water sounded to me like the shrieks of one thousand witches, and every sparkle from the reflection of mute stars seemed to me to be the gleaming gaze of the green-eyed genie.
And lo, my breathing returned to normal, calm, and a smile rose upon my lips and I even dared to dip my fingers into the darkened waters, and the feeling was pleasant and curative, and I picked up a small, slightly sharpened stone and tossed it into the depths of the pool for the purpose of provoking the genie and blinding his eyes, and I stood to my full height and filled my lungs with the cool night air, and then, when I turned my back to the pool and made my mincing way away from there I froze at once in my place, for a low, hushed noise caused the water to tremble and my nightshirt to quiver, and it was the muffled sound of an evil genie feasting on the bodies of small children and lapping at their blood, reviving his devilish soul, and I dared not avert my gaze, but the evil, quivering sound continued to throb inside me, and in spite of the petrification that had taken hold of me and welded my feet to the ground, my gaze slowly drifted in the direction of the black pool crowded with water lilies and tadpoles and the eggs of tadpoles floating there, and various reptiles and strange beasts in residence, and I was at once a mass of shivering and quivering, for a pair of smoldering, spark-shooting green eyes glared at me, and that low, muffled ewhispring in my ears, Salah, Salah, your demise will come from this pool.