From a short story appearing here for the first time in English
Translated by Jessica Cohen
More than half a kilometer lies behind you and still you show no physical signs, your pulse holds steady at a moderate rate, you sweat only lightly, and although you are wearing heavy army boots instead of your running shoes, and the cold and hunger will doubtless take their toll further down the road, you will probably keep running like this, without stopping even for a moment, and your footsteps will be audible on the asphalt throughout the night from here all the way to the lights of Jerusalem, and you can listen to them with the relief of knowing they are your own feet, and the familiar tranquility of running—or rather, the familiar oblivion of running—will ease the burden of the next few hours, the fear of what lies hidden in the villages on either side of the road, and the damp, sticky coolness of the wind, and the burn of the smoldering red ember in your gut, and you know how the precise rhythm of your steps will translate into syllables and words and melodies, you know this from the hundreds of races and meets and runs, and although the conditions tonight are especially harsh, harsher than ever before perhaps, still your victory is assured, because tonight you will conquer the urge to run, or at least, with the sharp knife of night air that rips through your lungs, you will dismember the viperous tuber that has impelled you to run for over three years now, and all you must do is stick to the confident, manly beat of five and slide yourself, head and rifle, down into the stupefying motion of shin and thigh, using the centrifugal force to drown the needle-thoughts and the pin-thoughts and the rhythmic beat of the ember, so that the sight of her merciful-blue eyes or the memory of her fingers singeing your skin only ten minutes ago might surface in the watery expanse of your mind and float away, and you will grip the road with your feet again and again, propelling your body ahead with a broad but measured step, and maintain your breath to the beat of five so that you will not stop even for one moment on this long road that winds among Arab villages and tiny green plots and grapevines, and onward through the village of Sho’efat that sleeps with its eyes open, and you will run further down the narrow, pitted road to Jerusalem, which will blink at you in bewilderment with its nocturnal amber stoplights, and silently you will glide along the treeless boulevards of stone, and you will weave through the city like its walls aglow in the dark until you find the riverbed that leads to the sea, and even if you go less than half the way, it does not matter because tonight you are both the runner and the finish line, and the results are predetermined, yet still you will keep running as hard as your lungs allow, and in the past few minutes you have covered over one and a half kilometers, and at first, when you had just left the boy’s home, you moved in total blindness, staggering on your dizzy, disobedient feet, but then they found their natural rhythm and supported your body from below, and you were carried along like an animated being shedding perfect tears of glass, on your strong muscles that rescued you efficiently from the core of anguish that needed three people to bear it, and awakened your lungs to the rhythm and your blood to the beat, and it was they who led you confidently past the headquarters’ huts and the roll-call yard and the mess-hall, and from there, skipping quietly and mechanically over the slack rope at the camp’s entrance, to the main road that leads to Jerusalem, and it will take several minutes to accustom yourself to the idea that it is your body that is now exposed to the night winds and the odors of gasoline and burnt rubber that waft up from the road rushing beneath your shoes, and to the faint whispers coming from the villages that huddle as you pass them by, but this thought is obstructive and weakening and you will banish it from your heart and continue to run along the yellow line on the side of the road and fix your gaze on the drops of yellow that dance through the damned tears until you no longer know whether they are the village lights or only the stripe refracted in your tears, and in fact it is of no importance so long as you can flood them with rhythmic barrages of the blueness of the boy’s cousin’s eyes when she looked at you, and that was what sequestered you from his room only moments ago, wading through the turbid nightmare that erupted inside your head, fleeing, seduced like a moth by the lights, sacrificed with every step on the altar of the keen magnet that patiently waits behind you and inside you always. Foot road shin breath pause, air inhaled and compressed, one two three four five, breathe, everything is under control, including the usual stab of pain, run, launch words into the air and fly on them, or even just meaningless fragments of syllables, like the ones Yoash emitted in his final attempt to trap you, or perhaps the boy’s secret words that had no fixed meaning, and the more you keep speaking into yourself the more the foreign voices from outside will die down, the bitter bray of a donkey or the distant engine of a car, and you will be able to hear her voice better, even the loathsome giggles she emitted at first, so long as you understand her eyes, even if the cost is the rhythmic pain of the ember that has glowed in your innards for the past three and a half years, whose pale radiance you sometimes imagine you can see through the layers of flesh and skin, from that spot where it began to whisper many years ago, though only your mother’s X-ray eyes noticed, for she told you explicitly when she turned off the engine outside Yoash’s house and looked at you in the rearview mirror that even though she and Yoash believed this was merely a temporary crisis, it was still best to try and make good use of this unpleasant situation because, after all, we are thinking-people, and we must vigorously confront any obstacle or confusion we encounter and remove its sting by profoundly, and sometimes painfully, scrutinising the facts and the deeds, and it is possible, and please bear in mind that she does not say these things decisively, that your developmental pace up to now, all your accomplishments and successes throughout your fifteen years, have come too fast, perhaps, and have posed a certain danger to your true inner rhythm, to your personality structure, and she has guessed these difficult things, she has known them, she has preserved them in her mind for many years without wanting to utter them, but then this temporary, foolish crisis came along,
The familiar tranquility of running—or rather, the familiar oblivion of running—will ease the burden of the next few hours, the fear of what lies hidden in the villages on either side of the road
and with it the time to say these things, and she will tell you one more thing now, because this evening she sees you are willing to listen, which might be a sign of things to come, so she will tell you that life, son, is a long-distance run, and you have perhaps not paced yourself correctly, and so you have stumbled a little, and how fortunate that you have parents who love you and care for you and understand you, who are willing to give you any assistance, and if you let us help you, we will, and so now get out of the car and go into Yoash’s house and do not cheat him and turn off the light he leaves on for you, because I will be sitting here in this car just like I have done every Sunday and Thursday for the past year, week after week, from now until nine this evening, one whole hour, and I will wait for you to come back and I will watch the house, and I do not want to see the lights go off as soon as you go in, not only because it is unfair to Yoash, who believes there is a light on in the room, but because the light will force you to think, son, to be alert and vigilant, and that is also part of the profound scrutiny which I spoke of, and now go, I will wait. She is sleeping now, my mother. Every night at exactly midnight she covers her typewriter. Then she stretches, and from my room I hear a short sigh of pleasure. Now will come the rhythmic breaths.Ten sit-ups to strengthen her aching back. A few seconds of relaxation. Here come the dull clicking sounds. Sitting in her study, she cracks the joints of every finger. Father calls it ‘driving the nails in the day’s coffin,’ but she says it’s just the daily maintenance of her work tools. Everything that happens from then on is predictable too, and for that reason transfixes me: the hum of the electric toothbrush, the deep gargling of water in her throat, the decisive nose-blowing, the final rituals of the night. At twelve-thirty she is asleep, utterly indifferent to the staccato echoes of her routines still oscillating between the walls of the house.
All your accomplishments and successes throughout your fifteen years, have come too
fast, perhaps, and have posed a certain danger to your true inner rhythm, to your personality structure
Years ago a radio interviewer asked her if she wrote in the wee hours of the night,‘which are so felicitous for contemplations.’ Mother told him nights were for sleeping. In my room I would count by my heartbeats the time that passed from the moment they wished each other good night until I heard the sounds of her gentle snoring. Then Father would turn the light off and roll over in bed. A few hours later, on my way to the bathroom, I would look at them. Two pale beans in their pods on either side of the bed. I could have gone in and slept between them and they would never have sensed me. Me and another child. But always, as I stood there in wonderment, my mother would suddenly growl at me in the dark to go back to my bed at once. She always saw me, and I was never surprised—she had said more than once, after all, and often promised: Mother will see you wherever you are, son.
Now you must pretend, you must imagine, that this is a race—let’s say, the race for the Chief of Staff cup that will be held in a week, or next month’s inter-command track and field event, and in any case the silence around you is extremely sharp, the roar of the crowd and the chatter of the politicos and the grating songs over the loudspeakers all fade away after the third or fourth lap, replaced by the blood drumming in your ears, and the delicate pearls of thought shine their light, the events observed from their insides, the embered whispers, and all that time your feet drum a regular beat, and on the fifth step, where the inhalation ends, there will always be one breathless second, and again the five exhalation steps, and now too, in the lucid quiet around you, there is no one to surmise that this is not one of your public runs, that the low, tangled bushes are not coaches squatting by the side of the track, that the pale rocks are not referees or slightly bemused overweight clerks, and how fortunate that thus far, and it’s already been more than fifteen minutes, not a single car has driven past to violate the darkness, and you can keep running in peace, engulfing the night with your transparent web, like you used to do when you had only just learned of the serenity that comes with running, and together with your father you would spin around your childhood neighbourhood, make its streets gallop beneath your shoes, envelop it in the thin mesh of fibres you secreted from your brain, and after you had left him, tired and chuckling and defeated, at the doorway to your house, you would assail the side streets and the alleyways again like a silent bat, traverse the yards and the men and the women and the children, suffocate in the dense bubbles of their dreams and their strenuous groans, and not for a single moment did you wonder why you did this over and over again or what the meaning of this new pleasure was, except that every night, at an almost fixed time, you were once again unable to tolerate the tapping of the typewriter and the drumming of your father’s fingers on his lap while he listened to his choral LPs on headphones, and you had to get out immediately, you had to run even before you had finished tying the shoelaces of your sneakers properly, to conquer your secret routes again, and this thing that you were unable to explain to your mother when she wondered, and wondered again, and said that although she did not discount healthful athletic activity in and of itself, for some reason your new physical enjoyment, your physical addiction, if she were being accurate, seemed to her the furthest thing possible from healthful, and while she did not wish to judge in matters she did not understand, she had to tell you that there was a certain brutishness in the pleasure you derived from moving your feet, but, as she said, perhaps she simply did not understand it, and if you could ever manage to explain yourself clearly without stuttering, you might convince her, because, after all, you know she always admits her mistakes.
Here comes the first car, floating silently round a distant bend, its headlights striking the sky and the hills, and you must slow down a little and be prepared to slip onto the side of the road, where you will freeze like a stone or a rusty piece of iron junk, but for now, as long as it is distant, as long as it is silent, it’s best to keep running because the night is short and the work is plentiful, and the light of day, this you know already, will destroy you with its evil rays, its warmth will dissolve your nocturnal powers and thwart your painful sallies from the misty night into the inner darkness, where you are still allowed to maintain that which exists and the reddish ember does not trouble you with unfamiliar burns, because in the past three and a half years you have kicked it onto hundreds of asphalt strips and race tracks and sandy beaches, and you have dulled its sting along the imaginary elliptical line you ran around in stadia and huge sports arenas, and you have diluted its pungency in your classmates’ seething whirlwinds of joy, and the proud cheers of unfamiliar soldiers from your camp, and the slaps on the back from fellow athletes, so that you can now deceive yourself, you can believe that within you there lies a darkness almost like the one that teemed between your father’s hands when he allowed you to peek excitedly, or like the kind in the boy’s closet, where he took you so that you could teach him the double-mirror game, and even as your glazed reflections danced in front of you, turning you both into an intangible vision, even then you did not ask him what was troubling him, and in fact you never asked him a thing, because you knew very well how injurious the tone of the question would be, having spent the last three and a half years in a furious and exhausting effort to defend yourself against the stinging questions they dug into you, and even now you cannot rid yourself of those impenetrable tunes, which you gratingly repeat to yourself to the beat of five every time you run, what’s happening to you, what’s gotten into you, where did we go wrong, who is to blame, and over and over again those words, that slashing motion, alighting from the lower depths of guile and reaching upwards, where they ram into your refusal, stubbornly gather the shards of their fall and glide upwards again, this time carrying demanding hostility, you are to blame, only you, you hide, you lie, and for a deceptive blink of an eye they let you be, the kind and merciful people, and consult with one another, and they are so impertinent that they do not hide their intentions from you, they genially explain their methods and approaches, all with the friendliest and lightest of
It’s best to keep running because the night is short and the work is plentiful, and the light of day, this you know already, will destroy you with its evil rays, its warmth will dissolve your nocturnal powers
attitudes, as though you were their partner, fighting on the same side, because what do they want, after all, they do not wish to harm you, or to hurt you, God forbid, their only desire is to help you, to lance the distress you harbour and allow it to trickle out so that you can go back to being as you were, and again and again they sigh involuntarily when they remember the child you were, such a talented boy, who won over the hearts of adults and children with his special wit, his sense of humour, which was not at all childish, and with his wondrously quick mind, but that is not what we are discussing now, not at all, and that, they tell you audaciously, is something we will surely come to as we continue our interesting conversations with you, and at this stage we are willing to settle for the bare minimum: that you talk to us, that you give some clue about what happened to you or what it is that you fear so much, and in fact, that you stop walking among us like a bitter and burdensome riddle. But pay attention, the yellow headlights are emerging around the bend too quickly, throw yourself to the side, be careful, you almost hit the rock, nicely done, and now keep running, do not stop even for a moment and do not look back, carry me, feet, one two three four five inhalation, one two three four five, like a silent glowing owl the Mercedes cut through the night, and in the illumined chamber you saw a fat Arab man with a cigar in his mouth and next to him a woman, not young, perhaps a little tipsy, who laughed inaudibly, and now the single molecule of light has melted into the mountains like a hovering firefly, leaving in its wake the odour of burnt gasoline and cigar smoke and women’s perfume.
Excerpt from Runner (title story from the collection Runner, 1983)
David Grossman was born in Jerusalem on January 25, 1954 and studied philosophy and theatre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is one of the leading Israeli writers of his generation, and the author of numerous pieces of fiction, nonfiction and children’s literature. His work has been translated into 25 languages around the world.