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Ladybirds On The Beach
written by: Michal Reibenbach
Upon arriving in Israel, together with your mother, father, two younger brothers and a maiden aunt, you all attend an Ulpan (a Hebrew language education project). It’s situated on a red sandy waste-land ten minutes’ distance from the sea-front in Netanya. The Ulpan consists of a collection of tiny flat-roofed cottages which stand tidily in two long rows, they are painted a dark green color but the paint is splattered over by red sandy soil. There isn’t a single tree in sight. The weather is pretty ghastly, constant searing heat-waves; and heavy sand-storms in which visibility is zero. You are fortunate in that there were several South African girls about your own age studying at the Ulpan. You sometimes go sauntering off together with them into town and hang out. Before too long, you are dating. On returning to your lodgings in the evenings, in the pitch black darkness, you don’t notice your father. He is waiting for you in an ambush outside beside the front door. All of a sudden without saying a word, he pounces on you and begins to whack you. Maybe he doesn’t want the rest of the family to witness his cruelty. You scream in fright and in pain. You don’t understand why he is so angry? One evening he waits until you’ve walked into the cottage before he begins to wallop you. You are so angry for you can’t fathom out why and what gives him the right to beat you? In the past when he’d been abusive, you’d at less had some inkling as to why. You retaliate and hit back at him. Your reaction further enrages him. He removes one of his shoes and whacks you repeatedly. Wildly you strike back at him. He falls over and looks up at you from where he’s fallen, you are his enemy. His face reddens, his wild eyes hold total anger, tiny bubbles of froth form in the corners of his mouth, ‘You just wait…’ he screeches as he rises. Fumbling with his belt as he lurches towards you, he removes it and whips you repeatedly. During this brawl, although the rest of the family are sleeping, your aunt who is sitting on her bed in her bedroom bears witness to the whole scene through the open door. Eventually, she intervenes and cries out, ‘Stop it, stop it!’ Only then does your father finally stop his onslaught.
‘Your mother is pregnant, I want you to stay home and help her,’ he says all out of breath. It is now at long last that you understand; with another child on the way, he’s under a lot of pressure. You suppose he has to blame someone.
The next day while you are ‘hanging out’ with some of the other girls from the Ulpan; one of the South African girls upon seeing the bruises on your face inquires, ‘Where did you get those bruises?’
‘My father beat me,’ you answer nonchalantly, for you don’t expect her to believe you and certainly don’t expect her to help you, after all, you hardly know her. Unbeknownst to you, the girl’s father is a doctor; later she describes to him the bruises she’d noticed on your face, along with your explanation as to how you’d come by them. As a result of her father, being a conscientious doctor, he’d felt it was his duty to confront your father. The next day, when you are once again ‘hanging out’ with the girls; the South African girl informs you, ‘My father had a word with your father and explained to him that here in Israel it’s forbidden to beat one’s children.’
You are completely taken aback as well as touched, she is the first person in your life to ever help you in this way.
‘Oh really, thank you so much for believing me and for your kindness,’ you exclaim.
Since these news spread through the Ulpan like ‘a swarm of locusts’, you have now become a big problem for your father. A couple of days later he announces to you, ‘You can’t live with us any longer, so I’m going to send you off to a kibbutz.’
You know nothing about life on a kibbutz, but all your new friends inform you that a kibbutz is a terrible place. While you are waiting to be transported off you become depressed. Since you don’t relish the idea of sitting in the classroom with your father, instead of attending classes you go down to a deserted beach every day. There you sit on the glittering sand, hugging your knees; gazing out onto the sea and into the hazy horizon while nursing the misery you feel within. Occasionally you think about wading out into the ocean and drowning yourself. You feel abandoned, unloved. You ache for someone to fill the bottomless pit inside of you. Once while you are thus occupied a whole swarm of ladybirds lands on the beach; and there they collect in the shade of a rock. They fascinate you and you cling to their beauty for a while. They are like a gift sent to cheer you up.
One fading afternoon your aunt comes looking for you, ‘Anna, I have to talk to you about something--it’s getting dark, let’s walk back to the Ulpan together.’
As you are both slowly ambled back dusk begins to fall. On your way, you pass through some tall derelict, ghostly-looking walls of some large buildings that are now in ruins. You wonder if they might have belonged to factory-buildings at some time.
‘We’ve received a letter from Granny, and it’s come to our attention that you wrote to her complaining about being miserable,’ your aunt says accusingly to you. She doesn’t wait for a reply but continues, ‘Listen you can’t write things like that to them.’
‘They’re my grandparents, I can write whatever I like to them,’ you answer indignantly. You’d merely written that you were unhappy and that you missed them; it seemed harmless enough. ‘You can write to them, but only about good things, don’t distress them with your problems; they’re old people, it’s cruel.’ By now your aunt has raised her voice in frustration, and her voice echoes through the ruins. Night is falling rapidly, the air around you feels warm, close, laden with humidity.
‘I don’t have anything good to write to them, do you want me to write a pack of lies?’ You challenge her.
‘Yes, write a pack of lies, use your imagination, make up some happy events,’ she answers.
You feel defeated and walk on in silence. Your aunt has closed an important door in your life, your beloved grandparents. Nearing the Ulpan she says, ‘Wait here for a while, I’ll go ahead and persuade your father not to be angry at you. I’ll explain to him that you’re sorry.’
‘Alright,’ you answer sullenly.
She plows off ahead and is quickly swallowed up by the darkness. You sink down onto the soft, red, sandy soil and as you crouch on bended knees you think to yourself, ‘No one must know that my family isn’t perfect. I’m not allowed to complain. But I’ve broken the rules, I complained to the South African girl and now I’m going to be punished, sent away.’
All of a sudden you hear the mournful wailing of a siren and you think in a frenzy, ‘Is the country at war? I remember seeing a sign with ‘air-raid shelter’ written on it and underneath the writing, there was an arrow, but I don’t have the faintest idea where the shelter is? In any case, it’s too far away and I won’t be able to find it in the dark.’
You nervously remain where you are. Then you hear the terrifying blow of an explosion. The ground beneath you shudders as a missile hits a building a short distance away. A red and violet fire goes soaring up in the darkness, trailing off into a pillar of smoke and dust. You feel yourself amid a mass of terrifying sensations. Your body begins to shake like the vibrations of a humming bird’s wings. All thoughts of self-pity vanish, they sail up and away into the sky which is freckled with stars. In their place bloodcurdling thoughts engulf you and you silently pray, ‘Please God don’t let it be my family's cottage that’s been hit!’
You scramble to your feet and bolt across the sandy soil like a hunted deer. Your heart throbbing in your chest with fear. As the Ulpan cottages loom in sight upon discerning that it’s not your family's lodgings which are blazing but some other unfortunate wretched souls’ cottage close by, you feel an immense wave of relief washing over you.
She has two boys and six grandchildren.
Lives in Jerusalem.
The author has had stories published by Cafelit, Literary Yard, Grant Hudson's Anthology, 'Miracles' and Spillwords.