*This story is based on an experience she had when she visited her grandparents in a transit camp in Israel in 1958.
First, it was the smell. Of motors and tarmac and black oily puddles shining like onyx mirrors. When I grew up, I learned its name, and held my breath against it each time I filled petrol. How ironic, that it was the smell of petrol, that which propels, that first greeted me in the new land.
Then it was the night. So black, so thick, it hovered, wary, brooding. It breathed hoar frost across the wet, puddled tarmac like a heavy, heaving beast.
Sharp shards of light sprang up at us here and there out of the dark like the flashing teeth of a mad dog leaping against its metallic chains, biting into the night.
A prickly veil of cold condensed across our faces. It pressed into our cheeks like fine needle-points. It pierced our nostrils and burned our eyes. And as we walked, lopsided, carrying cases across an endless expanse of wet concrete, our footsteps echoed, small and alone, like sad, lost door knocks.
A lone cab. The smell of ashtrays back home. Mother in front. The driver tosses the crumpled paper back into her lap.
No! Bad. Bad. DARK. Dark. No!
Go you. Hotel.Is good.
Morning. Me take.
Fueled to full throttle with the rights of a paying tourist, my mother tosses the paper back again, a crumpled address for a crumpled hut in a crumpled transit camp, where neither light of man, nor moon nor star will ever shine.
The cab groans like a wonky record over every pothole and stone along the way. Through the grimy window, a monotonous moving dark. No defining line or light. No perspective, no horizon, no borders. This land weeps no stars.
My mother’s cry. Shocking in the night. A sudden stop. A jerk.
My mother’s window lowers with intermittent creaks, like small gasps for air.
Her words, in the tongue she never shared with us, tumble toward a teenager in a white shirt, spat out by the night. He shares her language. Words fast, urgent, and like an oracle, he points.
A sudden torch. Light on a makeshift doorway. Crooked palings. It angles open.
An old woman in a long white cotton gown, poorly sewn, white rags round her forehead, waddles and squawks toward us, the light of her torch flailing back and forth across her path. She steps, unbalanced, urgent, and when she nears the cab, screeches, arms reaching out to us. As her torch swings downward a moment, her feet are caught in light. Rough. Swollen. Bare.
A sudden suffocating embrace from this bag of white weeping rags, and I hear the taxi rev up and fade away, a trail of silence in its wake.
My mother and grandmother huddle. They jabber in their own impenetrable language, squirreling secrets from the night, savoring the lilt, the laugh, the silences of their exclusive tongue, discarding husks I cannot catch.
They move towards the hut. In the swim of their language, they let go of my lifeline, my grandmother’s white gown receding, a small flag on a foreign shoreline.
As they disappear into that crooked, cavernous doorway of the past, I trail further and further behind.
Today I sit in the comfort of a nursing home in Australia. The transit camp, now a museum, tethers its past in well-lit glass cases that nobody views.
I speak Spanish to the Brazilian nurses, Swahili to the African, French to the Dominican, English to my children, Hebrew to the rabbi, Latin to the priest.
But language is never enough, and love has been a little white mouse that creeps round and round the skirting boards of my life.
I am now, always in transit.
And always, I trail behind.
Anita was born and lives in Melbourne Australia. She has worked variously as a journalist, academic and celebrant. She now gives her time to making art and to writing. She attributes her love of words to her father, who was a wonderful raconteur, her love of aesthetics, to her mother, who had a keen eye for color and form, and is grateful to both, for keeping the doors open to Judaism.