Years of milk

Years of milk / Yaara Shehori

Publisher: Keter Books


Let us be clear: There will be no tears. Not one tear will be shed. Yes, children may appear here before you, or to be precise – girls, mainly. Girls who have disappeared, gone missing like a pair of gloves, and another glove. But people constantly vanish. Without a trace. This is no new matter. It is important you understand, this did not originate with us. And who is to say that they’re dead? No, this is not the issue here, we will not discuss atrocities. There might even be a happy ending, and very-very happy ending. And this is the beginning.”  

The children of a city that is rich with luxuries and lacking in necessities, had all vanished in one single day; an Israeli author on the trail of three American girls who had gone missing; and a broken coming-of-age story, of one long summer, a teacher, and her too loyal pupils.

 Years of Milk, Yaara Shehori’s first novel, is constructed of three novellas that will not cease to surprise the reader. With loose, bright, poetic, funny, and wild writing, Shehori gauges and maps the liminal space between childhood and adulthood. Like its use of language, the book’s protagonists move between imagination and realization, fantasy and realism.

The book was published in 2013 to critical acclaim and won several major prizes in Israel.

First chapter

I look at my face in the mirror. Move closer to find something like a shadow on the moon, like the mysterious face of the moon, truly revealed to us only in childhood. But these are my face. Not moon-like, chiseled, actually, with high cheekbones. A portrait from the Middle Ages, if I insist. Today I read in an old journal a column written by my favorite film critic. He described the face of my favorite actress viciously. Her lips, he said, turned thin and sharp like a knife. The simile is not especially original yet it stayed with me. I look: would my thin lips turn as thin as that too? I look at my face, inside, beyond, but this is only my face.

            Anyway, this is what I have accumulated thus far – a beloved actress, a regular critic. These are the things I collect today. One might assume I’m a property owner. That I have time to spend. Perhaps I do, and I forgot. So many unnecessary preferences, passions and dislikes. I know in advance how I feel toward so many things (tableware for twelve dinner guests, street signs, French poodles, winter coats for French poodles, waterproof capes, daffodils, buying flowers for the holidays, silk flowers, birthday celebrations after turning thirty, taxi fares, vulgarity, plat du jour, the chef’s table, the butter we made ourselves, the butter that does not exist anymore, tap water). It tires me to think about it. The years have passed and all that was left is a long, almost infinite list of whims and preferences. And what for? I once collected stones, but I collect clothes now. Whole wardrobes. And I am not the only one. Sometimes I think that all the women in town plan to be buried together with their possessions. We collect, sort, fold, hang and try on, squint our eyes in front of well-lit mirrors, organize our closets, throw piles of clothes on the chair and the couch.

            We live like catastrophe doesn’t wait at the door. Embarrassingly scratching herself, trying out words until we open the door for her and she falls in our arms and we fall in hers, even though she doesn’t have any, we suddenly discovered, crashed at last. We cover this kind of knowledge, blow some things and swallow others, our glazed eyes stare at the sun like mock electrical bulbs.

            We had something else to busy ourselves with, I’m sure. We used to have more, but in the meantime heaps of things were stockpiled where we were once quick and clever, flexible like Romanian gymnastics, even if, in fact, we never once lifted a finger. We moved from one side of the room to the other as if we had a real reason, not merely an excuse to show our feet in high-heeled shoes. And although I tend to like an elegant step, I still remember how walking had once a different purpose. Aesthetics was born from life and not the other way around. At least this is what I think, tough mostly I don’t have anyone to exchange such impressions with.

            I don’t speak out of despair, and not because of the pain. Rumor has it that someone in town comes and take people out of their homes and gather them. Sometimes, they say, they return and are swallowed up between us. But people don’t wonder off so quickly. And if they do, perhaps there’s where to go. But over all it is not wise to remember those who are already gone and there is no reason to speak about that which was lost. Because there is. So much. Sand like diamonds, diamonds like sand. I know we are being examined as we go and come. Our eyes are accustomed to  skipping the roadblock and the examiner’s body, each time we raise our hands in the air in a spoiled, lazy gesture, as if we were mocking the whole thing a little, then move on. And where do we go doesn’t matter anymore. But still I know that the sustenance is getting scarcer and only the clothes are more beautiful and complex than ever.

            Persimmons, for example, haven’t been around for years. And almonds and cherries. And it seems like everyone stopped eating cheese at once (soft or hard or blue), so it is impossible to know why they stopped importing it, was is because or against us. Carrots too. For some reason the carrots, orange and hard and plain as fingers, are nowhere to be found. And I did not notice when they disappeared. And the red strawberry once sold on every corner, a sign on each upside-down box, written in an unsteady, amateur hand, saying, Strawberry! 200 more feet, 100 more feet, here! Strawberries, anyways, are gone. I can comfort myself in that they were filled with chemicals anyway. That the existence of strawberries or carrot would not make any difference in my life. Bread is still around, though only in the form of thin, brittle-looking loaves, but the supply of potatoes is steady. Containers stand at the station platforms, filled to their tops and covered with canvas so that the potatoes are not exposed to light and quickly sprout. I am not asking for undeserved pity. We will never know a hunger as fierce as the Irish one. For us, the potato is the father of invention. You could fix anything from potatoes. And sugar-apples are in fact around too. A few weeks ago a shipment of them arrived. The newspapers said sugar-apples were the fruit du jour, the zeitgeist fruit. And so we were able to choose: to eat or not to eat. To stare at a sugar-apple like a still life, pick it up and let go, to feel the abundance between our teeth. We will not starve to death.

            Stray cats are gone along with the women who used to feed them on street corners. And what would they feed them? The meat stopped coming from out of town and milk is scarcely given. But all this is old news, and it seems like our bodies have become flexible, used to not consuming animal fat. The crows are gone too, but it seems no one cares for their absence. Only the pets prosper and are more well-kept than ever. Recently everyone owns barking gray poodles, all wearing collars and checkered, cheerful clothes. In this town, which destroys itself to death, poodles rule. There’s no difficulty finding premium dog food, but the cheap kind was forsaken. And I could go on and on: they continue to import lipsticks but hairbrushes are impossible to find. The kind of absurd thing that makes many women look like they got out of bed just now.

            Beer is gone too, vodka and cheap wine rarely arrive, which greatly reduced the number of  the town’s drunks. There are no more drunks at the crossroads. Sparkling wine is given scarcely, but  champagne from the Champagne region mysteriously arrives to the stores. It is recommended for purchase at the clothes stores, where it is wrapped in rustling rice paper. Rests among the fabrics.  We started drinking champagne every chance we can. No wonder many think life was never so good.

            In cinemas they show films which were shot three-dimensionally, as if the spectacle is about to swallow us into it. Perhaps they wanted to persuade us in the realness of the experience, make us shiver to the sight of a train arriving at the station. Sometimes we stage feigned excitement, excessive, as we watch the same films over and over again. But usually we don’t look at the screen. The cinemas is a place for quiet gathering. Some of us began knitting inside the cinema houses and the vogue spreads, even if I have never seen anyone dressed in anything she knitted herself. Many knit scarves, and more than once wool skeins are left, just like that, on the cinema seats. Clearly no one excels at knitting. I myself would have preferred to break my own nails, one by one.

            The dictionary seems to have also changed. The words around us chime and clatter like icicles, like glass shards, transparent and sharp and quick to melt or stab. Words shine. Pretty joined delightful joined beautiful joined awesome joined charming joined so charming. “I could have lived in this dress,” we say to each other, words for food transformed into the world of fashion. Blouses are crisp, the jacket fleshy, the shoes are ripe. All the words taste the same. We are satisfied only when the cash is registered. Only when the clothes are wrapped. We walk around wearing them in our velvet-covered rooms even though we are already sick with velvet, even though we’ve already learned that some pain even velvet cannot ease. And some words we’ve stopped saying, uttering. Perhaps they too are beyond our reach.

            Who knows, perhaps we’ll change our interior design in the foreseeable future, recruit the designers again. Apart from the advertisers and dressmakers, the designers are the only ones who are still being regularly employed. The schools were closed when they became pointless. We don’t dare asking how long will they stand empty. And what for.

Translated by Joanna Chen.