As Eshet entered the ward early Wednesday morning Doctor Mittlberg asked to speak with her. They would like to release Hanoch, he seems calm and they don’t see a reason to keep him here any longer. Eshet, who didn’t expect this, was caught off guard.
“If that’s what you think, Doctor, then alright”, she replied somewhat hastily.
“Alright then,” said Doctor Mittlberg, “we will arrange for his release”.
She went looking for Hanoch. He was sitting on the bed in his room staring at the window. The room was quiet. Hanoch didn’t move a muscle when she knocked on the door nor when she entered.
“Hi Hanoch,” she approached him.
“Hi Eshet,” he replied slowly while carefully turning towards her, his eyes bloodshot, as if he had just awoken from a deep sleep.
She smiled and said with an encouraging ton, “I just spoke to Doctor Mittlberg, they are ready to release you. You’d be coming back home to us”.
He gazed back at the window. “Not yet,” he said.
“Why not?” she asked alarmed. “What is it Hanoch, wouldn’t you like to come back to the forest, to the kids, to nature?”
“No,” he shot, unlike the Hanoch she knew. “I like it here”.
“Right,” her face turned sour, “but you know how it goes; they treat you for a while and then you are released and that’s it”.
Frozen, all except for his moving lips, Hanoch said, “I don’t wanna go home”, the final word accentuated.
“Well,” she hesitated, “it is not quite homey yet, we are still in the woods. But it is home, it’s clean and tidy and I’ve arranged the bathroom; no running water yet, we are using the container you set up”.
“Good,” he said as if he hadn’t heard a word she said. “What is it?” she asked again, softer.
“I’m just tired, that’s all. Don’t wanna get up, walk, move, I wanna rest, want to be taken care of. I’m exhausted”.
After a short pause he added, “And there’s another thing”.
“Yes, what is it?” Eshet asked curiously as she sat herself on the bed beside him and looked at his hands.
“There’s this woman I met here, Sarah,” he exhaled loudly and went on, “she’s also a patient here,” he was speaking quickly now and looked at his hands, or was it at hers? “We spoke one day and then she had a fit and since then I haven’t seen her”.
Eshet took a moment. “What do you mean, she doesn’t show up for the meals?”
“No,” he stared at the window again. “Haven’t seen her, not even in her room. I think they moved her somewhere else. I’m really worried about her”.
“Hanoch,” Eshet said carefully, on the one hand trying her best to empathize with him, on the other rather upset about his being indifferent towards her and the kids. She’s exhausted and they are still living in the woods. And who is this Sarah?… But then she came back to her senses; must be just a friend of his who is being treated here, no need to get jealous. And at the same time she had to come to terms with the fact that Hanoch is no longer the man she used to have, he will most likely not go back to where she would like to have him: a father, a leader, a beloved guide. Perhaps he was never really there to begin with. He never showed much interest in raising the kids or even caring for them. A constant floating presence in their lives and that was good enough for her, or perhaps she led herself to believe herself that that was “good enough”.
For a brief moment she saw him for what he really was: a tired old man. Like the old man from the story The Giving Tree about which she was still undecided whether it carries a positive message or rather a sadistic-masochistic one. Her children didn’t care for this story either; they said it was too sad and struggled to understand whether one should give and give until he has nothing left, whether humanity keeps on taking and taking on end, in other words, whether we are all bad to the core. The fact that the author had contributed some pieces to Playboy Magazine didn’t help her make up her mind whether The Giving Tree was a good or bad tale.
Now here lays Hanoch, all shriveled with hair of white and a body too skinny. And here she sits by his side, feeling thick, enormous, full of life yet ridiculous. Perhaps the end of their forest-dream marks the end of their story. Perhaps Hanoch was always in for the forest and for living in the unknown settlement. In for this unending transience. And she followed suit, whatever you say love, as long as we are together. Like a fine envelope he was to her, a raincoat for a rainy day.
What does she actually want from him? And what does he want from her? A long silence passed between them. She stared at the floor and he – at the window. Now what? What does one do now? She needs to go back, initiate, keep going, go back to the children and to work and dismantle once more this temporary home. Go back to the settlement or perhaps to a new place and a new beginning.
A burden started nesting inside her chest. “I should be going now, Hanoch”. And then she remembered Sarah and that she wanted to ask what had happened to her that landed her here. But she lacked the energy to bring herself to ask, and Hanoch anyway seemed like he was sealed in a box. And besides, she is expected back at the school now.
She contemplated for a moment whether to kiss him goodbye or just lay her hand on his shoulder. Suddenly all these gestures seemed embarrassing. She held on tightly to her bag, stood up and said, “Alright Hanoch, we’ll be in touch. I have to get back to the kids”.
And only when she was already out of the room did she realize that Hanoch hasn’t asked about them at all.
Translated from the Hebrew by Ron Segal