That day, the complacent city received three warnings. No one bothered to take notice. The city listened only to itself.
At the seashore, just before sunrise, a teenage girl met an old man. A westerly wind played with the water and with a grey beard and with some golden curls. On the promenade, a street sweeper passed, unnoticed.
“Child,” the old man said, his hand reaching for his worn cap, which was slightly smaller than the measure of his head. Surprisingly, this did not make him look ridiculous, only slightly older. The girl looked at him, dazzled, as if she’d opened her eyes for the first time in her life, and did not answer.
“Child,” the old man said in the pleasant tone of someone not used to any kind of pleasantry, either given or received, “is not this too early an hour?”
The girl said, “Soon it’ll be too late.” She did not look bitter when saying this. There wasn’t a hint of drama in her words. It was merely a statement of fact.
“I would have liked to argue the falsehood of your words,” the old man said. “To delve into the expression ‘too late’ and prove that no matter what the circumstances, it cannot be true. To say that always, always there is something that can be done, always there is hope. But if I do so, I shall be lying.”
The girl stared at him.
“I shall be lying,” the old man repeated, looking eager to add some drama to the conversation. “It is always too late. This way or another, no matter what you do, no matter what we do, it is always too late.”
“Yes,” the girl said. “No.”
She closed her eyes and turned away from him. “No matter what you do, no matter what we do, it’s always too late,” she said, “but there is one thing that’s going to happen just in time. Right now.”
The sun rose. Slowly, majestically, it floated above the eastern city line, illuminating the old man and the so-called child.
The girl smiled.
She opened her eyes and turned her head straight to the east, and a ray of light which passed, most improbably, through all of the buildings of the city separating the sunrise from the seashore; the city’s western border flooded her with light, made her swim in an ocean of happiness, a spring of magic, a sea of tranquility.
“This is the last day,” the old man said, ignoring the sun.
“Every day is the last day,” she said.
The old man turned to look at her. “You know,” he said quietly. “I was sent here to warn you, but you already know.” He smiled at her sadly, turned around, and disappeared into the sand, leaving her behind, alone.
He had no way of knowing that she was drugged out of her mind.
Early that morning, a slight tremor passed through the city. The head of the Tel Aviv Shalom Tower, once the tallest building in the Middle East, bobbed a bit, as if bent by the sea breeze. Several trashcans overturned, and their contents spilled over sidewalks and around the legs of the early risers and those who hadn’t yet gone to sleep. Police units passed lazily in the quiet streets, the cops inside drinking their first coffee of the day and reporting that all was quiet. The sand at the seashore shivered a bit, giving rise to millions of tiny waves, which were swallowed by their bigger brothers from the depths of the sea, and promptly vanished.
The sun was at its zenith when, by the Disengoff roundabout fountain, a lady met a peddler.
“Honorable lady,” he said, “please allow me to offer you my sincere condolences.” His clothes were very old, as if they belonged to some long-forgotten period of time that may or may not have existed. His too-large hat belonged there, too. He did not sell anything except for the truth, and that had no price tag.
“Excuse me?” said the lady, who up until that moment had been busy sending a message on her mobile phone.
“Today is the last day,” the peddler said, rising to his full unimpressive height and taking his hat off in an archaic gesture, part a show of respect, part a gesture of mourning. “I share your loss, and the loss of the people.”
The lady finally raised her head, looking at the peddler for the first time, noticing that despite the age of his clothing, he himself was quite young, much younger than she was, in fact. A teenager, almost. She gave him a menacing look. “What are you trying to sell me, you?”
“Not a thing, my honorable lady, not a thing. Last days aren’t meant for that. We may, perhaps, indulge in memories of the past, or, if you so choose, run away from here to another place, another future, but not—”
“Whatever it is, I’m not interested,” the lady said. Sparkles of light from the fountain’s spray shone on her face, making her seem almost angelic, an appearance that did not match her expression at all.
“Listen to me, if only for one moment,” the peddler said and took one step toward her, eagerly. “Tell your friends, tell your acquaintances—today is the day!”
“Leave me alone!”
The phone chirped. The lady gave it a quick glance.
“Only three warnings, so we were told, and one already given, and this is the second one. Pay attention! Until the dawn of tomorrow, your city—”
“Go away! Go!”
The peddler retreated. “It is my duty to obey,” he said.
“Don’t you dare follow me! I’m calling the police!”
“If only you could find it in your heart to—”
“Don’t speak to me!”
The peddler’s mouth shut in the middle of a syllable with an audible snap. Pain appeared in his eyes. A thin trickle of blood flowed from the corner of his mouth.
“Go away!” the lady roared.
He turned around, stepped into the fountain, stood in the middle of the spray cloud for a moment, then turned around again, a little man with a big hat, a kaleidoscope of sunlight and spray, a transparent ray of water standing in the air, collapsing, and then he was gone, like a mirage, as if he were never there.
The lady didn’t bother to look, already on her way to some other place, dialing someone, somewhere, anywhere.
Come noon, a soft movement nudged some of the bridges crossing the busy Ayalon lanes, the main artery of the city’s traffic. The pedestrian overpass leading to the Azrielly train station, from which one could watch the cars stuck in the permanent jam on the road below, hummed to itself, as if remembering an old song, the steel support beams reverberating to some awkward rhythm. Only three people noticed this. The first, a musician who worked at a gas station for a living, felt the alien tempo rising in his legs as he walked through the passageway; he set his steps to fit it, and a rare muse came to him. That very evening he composed a new song that no one would ever hear. The second, a young and successful publicist, noticed the momentary unnatural slope of the sidewalk, but her mind was immediately distracted when her phone rang. The third was a small girl, and her mother refused to listen to her.
It was late in the evening when, in one of the smoky bars on the border between the fashionable center of the city and its neglected southern region, a writer met the woman of his dreams.
“There is another city, underneath,” she explained. “A place for all the wretched and the poor, which you’ve run over. We did not disappear. We did not turn to dust, blowing away never to be seen again. We are waiting, down there.”
“That’s a great metaphor,” said the writer, who was already used to receiving story ideas from acquaintances and strangers. His usual response to any man making such a suggestion was a quick termination of the conversation. His usual response to women doing so was quite different.
“Lower Tel Aviv,” he added, “with the foreign workers, the beggars and all that. Not bad. It can be a good background for a story.”
“It is not a lower city,” said the woman of his dreams, and the movement of her head made her sand-colored hair flow in weird, airy waves. “It’s an Under Tel Aviv, a grey Tel Aviv without day, without night. And we, its inhabitants, do not have anything to do with the poor of your city. Their fate will be the same as yours.”
“So you’re actually talking about a political novel,” the writer said. “The occupation, the exile of the Palestinian people and all that. Listen, it’s still an okay idea, but I think it’s gotten a little bit old. Maybe you could put a love story in the middle of it—I know they’ve already done that in several novels recently, and even in that film, whatsitsname, but let me tell you, as a professional writer,” he gave her the best of his lusty smiles, “Love stories always work.”
The response he hoped for was an admiring smile or a well-honed wink. Or maybe even an expression of contempt, which would serve him as an excuse to continue the conversation and explain what he really meant to say, to prove that he was a sensitive person, an artist, someone with a special awareness, that he was talented, unique, or at least worthy of a roll between the sheets. But he couldn’t find any of that, anything familiar, in the black eyes of the woman in front of him.
“No,” she said. “You are talking about matters of Above, and today is their last day. Tomorrow you will no longer be here. Tomorrow we shall come—we, the people of Under, and our city will overturn your city, and you shall be the wretched of the under-city. Or maybe you will not be at all.”
The writer could not think of any answer to that. It occurred to him that she could be an actress, practicing some weird play upon him. Or maybe a political activist, probably an ultra left-winger of some sort. Or maybe just a disturbed person. It’s not as if there was a lack of any of those kinds, and many others, in Tel Aviv. So instead of answering, he kept quiet, a bit curious as to what would come next.
“We are obligated to fulfill every whim of yours,” the woman said. “Every one of you, like a king he is among us, and we are thousands upon thousands. But no more. Tomorrow you shall all go down, and we shall rise.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“We are obligated to warn you,” she said, her gaze drilling into him, burning him with its blazing need—or maybe the beer only made him think that way? “That was the wish of one among you. Three warnings. We cannot disobey.”
The writer understood, or thought he did, what he was being told. Courting games, weird as they may be, were his bread and butter. “All right, then,” he said and took hold of her hand. “Let’s go to my apartment.”
She followed him. She could not disobey.
That night, the city that never sleeps suffered from insomnia.
A bit after midnight, a bicycle, which had been tied to a tree at Nordau Avenue, disappeared. Nobody took any notice of it.
Near two in the morning, a rock band finished a show in an underground club somewhere in the south. It was a rather sudden finish: all the lights abruptly went off. Everyone in the audience pulled out their mobile phones and tried to illuminate their surroundings. The band was no longer there.
Gradually, the sixty people in the club started noticing that their number was decreasing, and forty people shouted, and twenty people tried to break out of the club, and then nobody was left. The club’s security guard, who was standing outside smoking a cigarette, saw the whole building fold into itself like water in an emptying sink, until the darkness came and took him, too.
Sometime after three a.m., the new central bus station sank and was gone, and with it a considerable number of shops and buses and other vehicles, and a large but unsurprising number of foreign workers who slept, as they did every night, in its dark and filthy corners. Nobody noticed it except for one police switchboard operator, whose conversation with one of the units was cut off in the middle. Another unit, arriving at the area several minutes afterwards, transmitted a confused report about a huge swamp in the middle of the city and then stopped responding. The operator tried to draw the attention of the duty officer, but in vain—he was already busy with other calls, reports of even stranger phenomena.
A little later, a hidden hand started pulling down the Disengoff on Ibn Gvirol junction and both streets went, like shoelaces tied together, after it, leaving trails of confusion behind them. The National Theatre, the Disengoff Center Mall, the Disengoff roundabout and the municipality building were all dragged from their places, sideways, then down. Nearby streets started moving, too. Some night birds emitted hoarse cawing sounds by way of protest, wondering how much of what they saw was the result of excessive consumption of cheap alcohol. Except for them, nobody made a sound.
To the west, closer to the sea, hotels released themselves from the harsh grip of the ground and began flying gently into the air, followed by the road. Soon they became silhouettes, and slowly darkened in the light of the moon, then faded and were gone.
Houses danced around themselves, drowned, melted, blurred, started dancing or running, went for a night swim and never returned. Streets became entangled in each other, blended, mixed, rolled, bubbled, stretched and got narrower and narrower until they disappeared. Huge flocks of white boilers and antennae blinked between existence and dream, as if fighting each other for the best and most beautiful final moment. People, in their beds and in pubs and in dens and in hovels and in security rooms, wrapped with blankets on benches, staring at television screens and computer screens, glowed, then flickered, as if their reception in the antenna of reality had been interrupted, and then disappeared.
One teenager, on the seashore, stood and turned her gaze to the east, where the sun should have risen through the shadows of the buildings, which had already ceased to exist. She did not notice the liquid disappearance of most of the city’s skyline. Small waves licked at her bare feet. And the dark shadow of what used to be the city grew, and wrapped around her, and a moment before the sun rose there was already nothing there.
A moment later, in that place, another city appeared.
Neither night nor day, just an indecisive greyness, a fog without cloud, dominated this place in which suddenly, out of the ground, a bicycle appeared, and a tree, and a building, and a road, and a club, and a central station and police units and hotels and houses and brothels and boilers and antennae and streets and a whole city, with its multitude of people. Water condensed in the air and dripped in big drops on walls and roofs, a washing that did not make anything cleaner, that only turned the remains of sand and dirt on the roofs and the streets into mud, brown lines leaking down on every wall. Hesitant winds blew from nowhere to nowhere.
The old people, who were used to gathering early every morning on the seashore to get some exercise, were quite surprised to find the sea was gone. That did not prevent them—after the necessary time for discussion and the relating of similar incidents from their past, which had never happened—from completing their morning ritual.
That non-morning, a writer woke up, rather late, alone in his bed. Grey murky light flooded his one-room apartment, matching the black and white drawing hung on a wall, in which a naked woman was dancing on the seashore at the time of sunrise or sundown, but clashing with the inactive computer screen nearby. The air was moist and cold, as if a serious European storm had passed through the Middle East, smothering the remains of summer beneath a heavy coat of dampness. He wondered where the woman of the night before had gone.
Memory: the moment before he fell asleep, exhausted by the sport that he had demanded and received without argument, it seemed to him that he heard a noise from outside, like a drawing, or suckling. Or squashing. Or was it a dream? Or—what a strange thought, he told himself—maybe he hadn’t fallen asleep at all?
Memory: “We cannot disobey.”
He glanced at his deliberately old-fashioned spring-wound wristwatch, which he wore to display how subversive he was. Eleven o’clock. Time for him to get up, to do something. Write something. He had promised to deliver a story to a magazine—on time this time—but it had been quite a long time since he had written anything, and even his publisher would not speak to him anymore. He had some story beginnings, written several months ago and untouched since. He should continue, write. Maybe he would go to have a coffee first.
No, he told himself and got out of bed. Self-discipline. First I’ll write, then the rest. There’s plenty of time. And there’s nothing like that feeling, sitting somewhere when you’re free, with no worries, no stress, knowing that you’ve just finished writing a story. He knew exactly which abandoned beginning he would start working on. He could already see in his mind’s eye the rest of the story. He sat by the computer and pressed the power button.
A moment later, he was heading downstairs, on his way to the local café.
Outside, just as in his room, everything was grey. The weather was… in fact, it wasn’t. He lifted his head, looking for the sun, but could not find it. Nor were there any clouds in the sky. Only greyness. Some pedestrians around him also looked up, briefly, then remembered some more important business and hurried away. Some of them pulled out mobile phones, glanced at them for some time in confusion or anger, and then returned them to their pockets. Some of them talked quietly to each other, but no one was using a phone.
Memory: “Three warnings.”
The street had a strange quality about it. Not only the grey illumination. A slight slope that wasn’t there yesterday, or the width of the road had changed, or the cracks in the cement. The road signs looked like a forest of sailing ship masts that had been frozen in the middle of a storm, each slanted in a different angle. Even more than usual, that is. Of all the cars parked in the street, not even one was parallel to the sidewalk.
The café was nearly full but strangely quiet. Some customers mumbled, almost whispered to each other. On regular days, they had music playing in the place—usually an album by some obscure jazz band of which one of the café owners was a member—but not today. Over the silence of the speakers stood the absence of the hoarse scream of the espresso machine, which was in the corner, abandoned and quiet. The writer found an empty table and sat down.
“A big café-au-lait,” he said to a passing waitress.
“Nope,” she answered. “Didn’t you notice? Power’s down. Got only black coffee today.”
“What, here, too? Did you try to call someone about it?”
“No power all over the city,” the waitress said, probably for the hundredth time that morning. “No phone either.”
“Ah,” the writer said. “So how do you make your coffee?”
“On the stove, y’know. Black.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, please bring me one. Two sugars.”
Strange, he said to himself as the waitress cleaned his table, I wonder when they’ll get the power back on. What can I do, meanwhile? He had a glimpse of an idea. “Excuse me,” he said to the waitress, “do you happen to have a pen?”
She did. She also found him some sheets of paper. Two hours later, he had already covered four of them with most of the body of a new story. Around him, the owners of numerous mobile phones and portable computers waited in vain for their normal lives to return.
Memory: “Under Tel Aviv.”
A devoted bicycle rider worked himself into a fit of rage upon discovering that the bicycle-only trail, which conveniently connected his apartment at the northern part of Ibn Gvirol Street to his workplace at Rabin Square, had jumped in its entirety to the other side of the street. The other side, he remembered, was extremely uncomfortable for riding. When he finally got over his temper and drove on, sticking to his favorite side of the street despite everything, he found out the hard way that it was not his favorite anymore.
A lady in her fifteenth-floor apartment in a handsome building in Ramat Aviv was begging for her life.
“Come back!” she screamed. “Come back, I said!”
Tears covered her face. Her wild, plucked hair showed no sign of the five-hundred-shekel haircut it had received only two days before.
“You’ve got to come back! I can’t live like this anymore!”
The screams went on for hours. Before the screams, there had been a short period of quiet desperation, and before that, a long span of confusion. But under it all lay a clear and horrible understanding, which the lady could not come to terms with no matter what. The understanding had been there, in fact, from the moment she had woken up that morning.
“Come back!” she roared and drove her fist at the innocent wall. “C-o-m-e b-a-c-k-!”
The moment she had opened her eyes, she knew that something horrible had happened. The moment she glanced, the way she did every morning, at the screen of her mobile phone, and read the two words, which appeared on it.
Two words: “No reception.”
Somewhere on Rothschild Avenue, a young rock band built an improvised stage, then climbed upon it and performed all the songs that its members knew how to play, and then some that they didn’t. Most of the songs had been written by much more famous bands. The players used acoustic instruments only, thus avoiding the need for electric power. People gathered to watch. For many of them this was the first time since the transition that they had seen a machine or instrument actually working. The band received the most enthusiastic applause it had ever heard.
As far as the lady on the fifteenth floor was concerned, “no reception” was the most horrible thing in the world. She depended on her mobile phone in the same way that a person depends on his left foot. The phone was a part of her. The lack of reception was a sort of blindness. After several hours without recharging, without power, the phone turned off, was effectively amputated. So was the backup phone. There was nothing now to connect the lady to the outside world. She was the last person on earth. She sat alone in her room.
There was a knock on the door.
No radio transmission greeted the drivers of the thousands of cars now stuck in the biggest traffic jam in the history of the city. The Ayalon Lanes were practically blocked, and the gas stations were dead. After several hours of this, a message started trickling all along the lanes, carried in the enraged voices of drivers and passengers, in the sounds of blows on tin and asphalt, in the cries of rage and shame and pity: There’s nowhere to go; all the exists are blocked; There’s no leaving the city.
She stood in the middle of her grey-washed living room. There was another knock on the door. She stared at it, her head empty of thoughts. The door handle moved. The door opened.
Enter: the irritating neighbor from the apartment next door. Uncombed, inelegant, disorderly, his face plain, stupid. A weird, silly man. There could never be any common ground between him and her, not at all. Obviously a person lacking appreciation of anything important, no esthetic sense. Playing annoying music at ten in the evening. His unfortunate looks almost returned the lady to the ground of reality.
He said, “Is everything okay?”
“What are you doing here?” the lady asked. “What do you want?”
“I heard someone yelling.”
“No,” the lady said. And then, “Yes. How is that any of your business?”
“I just wanted to see that everything’s all right, that’s all.”
The lady wanted to fling some horrible insult at him, but couldn’t think of anything. Then she said, “Do you know when the phones will come back?”
“No,” the neighbor said. “In fact, I’m not sure that they’ll return at all.”
“What are you talking about?” the lady shouted. “What do you mean, they won’t return? They will return! Of course they’ll return! Do you hear me? You will come back! Come back, come back, come back…” and she started to cry.
The neighbor stood there and watched her for a moment, and then came closer, took hold of her shoulders and pushed her gently toward the window. He said, “Did you look outside? Did you see what’s going on out there?”
She looked, and for the first time she also saw.
The city lay, alone, on an endless grey plain. There was no sea to the west, there was no land to the north and east and south. The roads coming out of the city faded slowly, as if into a fog. In the bright cloudless greyness, traffic dwindled at last, and the roads were filled with people returning home on foot, abandoning their useless cars. In the sky, there was no sign of sun or moon or stars.
At the hour in which the sun was supposed to be at its zenith, the moisture that collected on the walls and in the cracks and slits and on the boilers and antennae and doorposts and began dripping down, and every window in the city got its own first rain. Some of the residents, those who had found there was no longer water in the taps, started hanging buckets, bags, jerry cans and other containers under the windowsills and eaves.
The writer was still at the café when the time which was not an evening arrived. It occurred to him that he could really use something to eat. He tried to draw the attention of a waitress, but she was busy humming a tune. He called her, asked for a menu, and received a wry smile in return. “There’s nothing to eat here,” she said, and continued humming. He rose, thinking of having dinner at home, remembering last night, fluttering over the image of the woman with whom he had spent it, toying with the idea of incorporating her, as a main character, into a short story he would write:
…a mysterious woman from nowhere changes the fate of a lonely Tel Avivian bachelor, carrying him to far-away worlds rich with allegorical meaning, symbolic significance, and maybe some side characters with strange names—or maybe they would remain nameless, to add to the sense of mystery, of dislocation, of alienation—to build the illusion that it was a fictional story and not a thinly disguised actuality, and the more, the better. He sat down, took a pen and several more sheets of paper, and wrote and wrote and wrote.
A teenager, on the erstwhile-seashore, waited for sundown. The sand under her feet was damp. Sometimes she thought that she had been waiting for only a few minutes, and at other times she was sure she had spent her whole life there on the sand. Slowly, gradually, the drug’s influence faded, and the world returned to its usual greyness—or, in fact, to a new one. She was sure that it looked like this because of the drop, the fall from being high, the depression that followed the bliss. But the sun did not go and did not come and did not set and did not show.
There was some violence, still imperceptible from a distance.
The lady, in her high castle, saw all this and started to laugh. A hysterical, screeching, high, thin laugh of desperation. A laugh that brought her to the verge of strangulation. She squirmed, hit at the walls and herself, kicked the table and the sofa. The irritating neighbor just stood and watched and did not try to stop her. He was waiting for her to exhaust herself. Then she reached him, roaring and shouting and dancing in fury, screaming her frustration in his face, hitting him. He grabbed both her hands. For a moment it looked as if he were going to hit her, but no. He made her sit on the sofa, brought her a glass of water, carefully collected the shards after she’d dropped it, brought her another one, made her drink, made her sit and stop moving, trembling and wide-eyed. She cried and cried and cried.
When the remaining working clocks showed midnight and still no change was to be seen in the grey light, the city started moving, lost its indifference. Crowds of horrified people flooded the streets, running here and there without a clear destination or purpose. Riots erupted. Supermarkets and grocery stores were burgled, hysterical or greedy looters fought angry store owners and feeble policemen. Gas stations became destinations for pilgrimage. Bicycles were stolen, even more than usual. Street signs and traffic lights were damaged and destroyed, street lights were knocked over, trees were uprooted, shop windows were broken, tires were slashed, stolen and burned. The Disengoff Center tower was dressed in orange flame. The city roared in fear and hit at itself, and would have continued doing so until the light of morning, only there were no mornings anymore.
Some time passed.
Singles, couples, groups, the residents started returning home, sometimes with loot in their hands. Others fell asleep where they were. A few had lost consciousness in fights, accidents or just out of plain fear. Some lost their sanity. Some lost their lives.
The city slowly relaxed. For some time the streets were abandoned, residents peeking out through their windows at the dirty puddles, broken glass, broken furniture, everything quiet and grey, no longer menacing.
A girl, on the sand, started dancing.
One more month, one more year, and it was still the same season, that was clear.
There was nothing left in the grocery stores and the supermarkets. Gardens appeared all over the city, some of them born from lost seeds carried by the wind, some emerging without any logical reason from the cracks in the cement and asphalt of the stirred and shaken streets. In the beginning there was just shrubbery, and then came vegetables, and then even some trees, which refused to grow to their full size due to lack of sunlight and were twisted by the weight of the dew, but still gave some very edible fruit. And finally—flowers. Small, dark blue or grey, flooding the sand plains of the north, and the south, decorating the breakwaters of the west, the lower parts of which remained as dry as the surrounding sand, their tops always slightly damp with the water condensing on the cold stones.
Damp fires raised black and sticky smoke. They began in the south, then, like an ink stain spreading on white paper on its way to becoming a Rorschach test, north and east. Thousands of people warmed themselves by the fires. Street bands, street theatres, underground shows, acrobats, dancers, peddlers, beggars, guerilla advertisers, soft drink sellers, cats, dogs, all circled around them, migrated between them. The city slowly turned into a huge amusement park, ornamented with colorful junk and twisted trees.
Residents died, some of them through violence, some through cold or lack of food. Residents were born, some in the mostly abandoned hospitals, most near the warmth of the fires. Residents suffered from shock, stopped responding, stared endlessly at the new empty sky with opaque eyes, locked themselves in frozen apartments. Residents hid, rebelled, disappeared, split.
The rest simply got used to it.
Right beside on of the big fires, standing on a small metal stool, a writer was publishing his new book for the third time this non-evening. It was a collection of short stories about the Tel Aviv that Once Was—the sun, the heat, the sea, rented apartments, clubs, pubs, girls, boys, girls, boys, lots and lots of healthy sex, boisterous and unashamed.
The audience was quiet, and that was probably the greatest difference between the residents of the city in their current condition and the people they were who-knows-how-long-ago, under the sun. Children, men, women, small babies, all sat on the cracked ground and listened. Except for the occasional sound of wood crackling in the fire, the silence was perfect.
As he was publishing, it occurred to him that his stories included no shred of the past-city’s shortcomings—the horrible humidity, the poisonous yellow haze that covered it every few summers, the pollution, the traffic jams, the lack of decent parking, the preposterous cost of everything, the dog turds, the indifference of the people. The more he read the more he realized that these stories, as good as he thought they were when he had just finished writing them, were empty of real content, said nothing at all.
Maybe he needed them as a consolation for something he had lost—though in fact, since the transition of the city, his personal state of things had improved considerably. He did not suffer from writer’s block anymore, and he was invited to publish more and more. But, for some reason, only stories like these. When he tried reading aloud some of his other stories, those that took place in strange places, that had imaginary women in them, and bizarre metaphors, and imageries which were not connected to the once-upon-a-time-city, the silence of the crowd became cold and estranged. Nothing was ever said to him, but the feeling was very strong.
And now the words were flowing easily from his mouth, standard, normal words, familiar, on the verge of repulsiveness. Despite that, he felt calm and unhurried. That’s life, said the feeling, and it isn’t bad enough to do anything about it.
He finished reading a story, smiled mechanically at the audience. There was a bit of clapping. He climbed off the stool and went over to the fire to grab himself a hot potato. From the corner of his eye, he noticed several people in the audience who wanted to get over, come and talk to him, compliment him, probably. He preferred to avoid such conversations but never—in this new existence, at least—refused them. Still, they can wait, he thought. I need just a minute alone, so that I don’t come apart at the seams.
Behind him, without a sound, appeared the woman of his dreams.
A lady, in her fifteenth-floor apartment in a handsome building in Ramat Aviv, boiled some water over a small fire of wood shavings and small twigs. Dew dripped slowly from the window for a very long time, stubbornly fighting the dust and dirt, which had accumulated there during the past not-really-months, but she did not grant any of that even a single glance.
She hummed to herself, distractedly, a quiet tune. After some time she lifted the pot, carried it through the new opening in the wall that had once separated her apartment from that of the neighbor, put it in the kitchen, then went on to take care of the baby.
It was a good life. She had overcome many, many problems, and had even found love, and all this without having crossed even once the borders of the fifteenth floor. The world outside may do as it saw fit, riots in the street, throats slit—she had a life of her own. She had even gotten used to the recurring dreams, the small spots of pain, the sight of a small man with a big hat disappearing into a fountain.
The sound of steps came from outside, followed by the neighbor from the apartment next door. Uncombed, beautiful, majestic, a savior and a father, and in his hand a fresh bundle of twigs that he had brought from the outside world, fifteen floors away. She smiled at him, and they both turned to look at their son. They still could not decide what name to give him.
“Maybe ‘happiness,’“ the father said.
“That’s a tree-huggers’ name,” the lady said, but with a softness that no one who had ever spoken with her on the phone would have suspected. “There are no such people anymore.”
“It’s the other way around, we’re all tree-huggers now,” the father said, and glanced meaningfully at the bundle of twigs in the corner.
“But not like these.”
“Not like these trees?”
“Not like these huggers,” she said, and her eyes said, don’t get smart-ass on me, but kindly.
“Well, have you thought of a good name, then?”
“No,” the lady said. “But, you know, I think… that is, I’m not even sure that we have to give him a name.”
“What do you mean?” the father said. “Of course we have to. How can he do without a name?”
“That was true, once,” the lady said. The word “once” was pronounced in a somewhat different way from its usual sound. A pronunciation which meant not “at this or other time in the past”, but rather “at that particular time in the past, before we got here.” A pronunciation which, unknown to the lady, had spread all over the city and was common to every living person in it. “Today, however, I see no reason, no need for a name.”
“But—” the father said, and then there was a knock on the door.
Hesitation. Silence. Not fear, but lack of understanding. Who would want to—who could—come here, here of all places, to this home of a lady and a neighbor and a baby, to this improvised flat?
The door handle moved. The door opened. In the door frame, they saw the shadow of a peddler and a hat.
A teenager, thin as a stake lay on the sand and waited for the day to start or to end. She wasn’t surprised by the sudden gust of air, or the appearance, out of nowhere, of a weird old man. Far away, the wind whistled in the breakwater that hadn’t broken anything for quite a long time. The girl reached out, gave the old man her hand. He gave her a surprised glance, as if she had gotten the better of him. As if he had planned a whole conversation that would have led to him asking her to give him her hand, and which had been cancelled out by her single movement. He stepped toward her, one step. He smiled. And afterwards, they both said many, many words, but not on the sea-less sand. Not there. The sand was left in silence, with no old man, no girl that could have been his daughter. And no one listened anymore to the whistle of the wind in the breakwater.
The writer turned around, tossing a hot potato between his hands, and noticed her.
Noticing and recognizing another person is a long and tedious process. At first the other is just a shape screened on the retina. Then the brain decodes the image and decides that it’s probably a person, and immediately after that—it’s the oldest trick in the book—this person’s gender. Then come some other details, and at last: is that a stranger, a friend, someone you’ve met before? All of this takes place in much less than a second, or much more.
The writer felt as if he had skipped the whole tedious process. The very moment he noticed the woman standing by him in the firelight, her sandy hair, her black eyes, that certain glance that burned into him, he knew. Immediately, he knew. As if his brain had told his eyes what to see, as if the knowledge was already there inside, waiting for the right moment to float to the surface and reappear.
The hot potato stayed in his right hand, causing a burn that he never felt.
Looking at her, he suffered a long and painful recounting of all the unpleasant thoughts that had accumulated in his mind since that last night, since then. Had she really wanted to spend the night with him? Or maybe, since her warning was real, her declaration of having to obey his wishes was also true? But why did she tell him of that, anyway? She had to warn him, she did not have to tell him anything about herself. Did she want that night with him? Did she really want it?
And if not…
He said, “I’m sorry.”
He said, “You see, I didn’t think that you really…”
He said, “How could I know? What would you do in my place? Who would believe such a story? An under-city…”
He said, “I know that what I’m saying doesn’t matter. I know that. I don’t know what to do.”
He said, “It’s just… I don’t know what to say.”
She said nothing.
He said, “Say something,” and then it occurred to him that maybe she still had to obey his every whim, so he added, “please.”
She said, “Come with me.”
He followed her. He could not disobey.
The peddler stepped inside, into the apartment, and stopped. He raised his hat in a mechanical, ungraceful gesture. When he put it back on his head and lowered his hand, his face was revealed. The remains of a trickle of blood were still visible on the edge of his mouth.
“Honorable lady,” he said.
“You!” the lady said, in a voice she hadn’t used since the last time the sun had shone on her face.
“Excuse me,” said the neighbor, the father. “Do you know each other?”
“I… he…” the lady said.
“Pardon me, sir,” the peddler said, strictly and quietly, “but I need to have a word with your wife.” And he stepped forward, one step.
“Leave me alone!”
“I fear that I cannot.”
The baby started crying. The lady shot a frightened glance at it, and then turned to the peddler again.
“Sir,” said the peddler to the father, “please stand still.”
“Leave him alone!” said the lady, who felt something passing between the two men, and turned to her partner. “Do something!”
But the father did not move.
“What have you done?” roared the lady. “What have you done to him? Leave him… leave us… leave me alone! Leave!”
The baby cried and cried and cried.
“Shhhh,” the peddler said, gently, quietly.
The baby fell silent. She fell silent.
“Come,” the peddler said, and took hold of her hand, and she did not resist him, didn’t utter a word of protest or make a sound.
A murmur of wind passing through a closed window, playing with leaves of a dead tree, scattering the hair of a bald man, whirling the smoke of a long extinguished fire, hurrying the waves of a sea gone dry.
In a flat, a neighbor and an orphaned child were crying.
Day, and under it a vast forest of needle-shaped towers, cylinders, spheres, cells, chains of vertical bubbles floating one above the other, never touching but somehow connected, and here and there, far, far away, people, women, men, children, moving in strange patterns but still those of a city, and everything is green and brown and orange and rich yellow. It seemed to him that he was looking into a living cell through a microscope, just the way he had in elementary school so many years and one non-year ago, but the picture was slowly changing, and suddenly he became aware of the enormous scale of the structures—the things—the bodies—and the forest went up and up, and the sunlight glowed on the…
The forest climbed, up and up, floated toward him, and the writer finally understood that it was he who was moving, descending. And then, far away, he noticed a borderline, the end of the forest, and beyond it—a blue glare; it took just a moment for the image to register, and he knew then that he was looking at the seashore of Tel Aviv. Between the sea and the forest—bright yellow sand, as if nothing had changed, as if in a moment it would be filled with elderly people having their daily exercise and swimmers and parents and children building sand castles.
A hand touched his hand, waking him from his stupor.
“That’s our city,” said the woman of his dreams, “Under Tel Aviv, which is now Upper Tel Aviv.”
“I…” the writer said, “it’s beautiful! It’s wonderful!”
A big smile lit his face. That was the realization of his best, most misunderstood and unappreciated and rare stories, those which, by their quality, compensated for their lack of quantity. He felt elated. He felt like crying. He felt like flying.
The woman said, “It’s dying.”
A kaleidoscope of sunlight and spray and shadow, and a lady and a peddler appeared on a bright green meadow. Around them, great and mighty towers rose, soft-colored tendrils casting giant shadows, under the bluest of blue skies.
The lady, silent, did not look at any of that. Her head was lowered, and she stared at the ground.
“Look,” the peddler said, and immediately she raised her head. “Look at our fair city in the sunlight.”
She started noticing some details, stains of murky red upon the green, dry white in the middle of the yellow.
“Your own sun, the hard, the cruel one, the source of your life, the life of all your people. But not so for us.”
The lady did not reply. Her mouth was not blocked, and neither was her mind. When the peddler had silenced her, she had simply lost the will to speak.
“These are our last days,” the peddler said. “You were brought to share our sorrow, maybe to save us.”
This time he looked directly at her, expecting an answer. When he did not receive any he added, “You may speak.”
The lady opened her mouth to scream.
“Quietly,” he added.
“Please take me back there,” she whispered. “Please. I want to go back home.”
“That home is ours,” the peddler said. “And yours—here. Just a coincidence, bad luck, doing the deed too hastily, too eagerly…”
“You were given three warnings,” he said, “and of those three not one was received. To three children of your city we have revealed ourselves, and with those three we may turn the wheel, return the city, make it real.”
“Everything will be as it was,” the peddler said, “as if nothing had happened. As if no time has passed since then, since that time and this time.”
“No!” the lady said, as loudly as she could through the peddler’s ban on her mouth.
“Please,” the peddler said. “I beg. We beg.” He kneeled before her, lowered his head, silent and sad in his poor clothes. And so they stayed, maybe for seconds, maybe for hours. The sun shone without mercy on him, on his hat, on the grass, on the towers.
“We’ve dreamed of the sun,” said the dream woman, “for ages and ages. And now she’s burning us, our city, and we’re helpless.”
Around them, the forest continued to rise while they sank deeper and deeper into it, and stains of rust appeared on the towers’ trunks, few at first, then more and more, and the tendrils were full of holes, and solid walls became perforated and airy and crisp, and broke.
“Is there a way to return it?” the writer asked. “That is, make Tel Aviv return to where it was before… that is, where it once was?”
“Some say,” she answered, “that if the three who were warned, the sons and daughters of the other city, the chosen ones, could be brought here, and convinced to… but that’s just a daydream, a false hope.”
“Convinced to do what?”
“To abandon their previous lives.”
“I thought that in your world we had no choice but to obey you.”
“Convinced,” she said, “without force, without coercion.”
“No problem,” the writer said. “I can do that.”
The woman of his dreams looked at him in a way that made him feel stupid, but not enough to make him regret his words. He added, “Really!”
He wanted to hold her hand, but something stopped him from doing so. Probably, he thought, there’s still a force applied on me, coercion.
The lady was crying quietly, almost pleasantly.
“I can’t make you do it,” the peddler said. “You can choose it only by your own free will. Without your will we’re lost.”
“I beg you!”
“I cannot. Already I do not have the power to return there, to the place where the under-city I loved used to be. And when I die, which will be soon, all the rest will die too, and only you and the two others will remain, and perhaps some hint of our city.”
Slowly, she stopped crying. She looked at the twisted buildings, plagued with decomposition and mold, at the yellowish haze seeping out of the ground. There was a long, long silence, with only the faintest whisper of sea-wind in the background.
Time passed. The sun passed the zenith, moving west in a fierce blue sky. The peddler remained on his knees.
“So my choices are, either I get stuck here without anything and spend my life alone, or I give up the life I’ve had since… since once.”
The peddler didn’t answer. The lady considered it. She thought of the baby. She thought of its father, the loved one, her beautiful one, the strange one. She told herself that even if the past non-year ceased to exist, she still knew exactly where he lived.
She lowered her gaze to the peddler. She said, “You made me do it. Now make me free.”
The peddler hesitated. Then he said, “You are a free woman.”
He had never told her what would happen once she became convinced, her mind set and sincere and steady.
She said, “I’m ready.”
On the sand, under the sun, in front of a wall of pearl upon which nasty green had spread in an evil whirl, an old man appeared, and then a teenage girl.
She looked around her and smiled. “We’ll save you all,” she said.
A silent city, without movement, people wearing hats in the windows of the shoelace-buildings, dream women in green bubbles, now white-speckled, cloudless skies, faceless children, and between them vast dark canyons. And in contrast—three of the opposite city, and three companions.
“Imagine that you are one of us,” the dream woman said, “and make it real.”
“Forget your husband and the baby,” said the peddler, “or we’ll all die. That’s the deal.”
“Dance for us,” said the old man, “in front of the sea, make it feel.”
A minute passed, two, then hours. The sun moved west, toward the water, above the towers. It shone on a girl and a lady and a writer. More hours passed, and it started to get darker. Sundown, orange and pink and deep blue, all reflected in the water as the darkness grew.
Not a hiss, not a sign, not a cry. Only very few stars in the sky.
On an empty seashore, only water and sand, with no building in sight, nor forest, sky bright; in that place where nothing remained to which one could cling, three people wake up, realizing—knowing that they’ve lost everything.