“Foreign-ness” by Maya Tevet Dayan

Maya Tevet Dayan


“I’m not obsessed,”
Violette says, “just really passionate
about you trimming your side of the hedge.”
In translation from Canadian: she is about to report us to the city.
My husband responds immediately: “Gladly!”
The sorrow of the penalty starts sprouting in his throat.
He would gladly trim Violette’s head 
instead of standing on a ladder
with a rusty pruning hook in four degrees Celsius.

From the top of the ladder, Violette’s yard unfolds
precise as a map. Two tanning chairs dripping
of April showers, rows of flowers saluting 
the grass. My husband waves the pruning hook 
to say hi, as Violette appears with the black dog,
screams “Cody!” and apologizes for the umpteenth time:
“The dog is deaf.”
At home, my husband whispers to me, “The dog can hear fine!
I’ve heard her speak to him in a regular tone.”
The thought sticks to my mind,
why pretend a dog is deaf?

My husband is an avid believer in conspiracies; traffic jams
are an economic plot run by governments. Russian oligarchs 
keep the state of Israel from collapse. Clouds
are chemical trails that will bring humanity to destruction.
“Trust me,” he whispers,
“she’s out to get us.” Through the trimmed trees,
Violette can see us better now—
red poisonous mushrooms popped up after the rains.
The bushes grow wild, the girls’ toys
still scattered on the garden path since summer.

I’m missing Sasson and Galila, my childhood neighbors 
who lived across a tangled fence that no one ever trimmed.
At lunch, I ate chicken and potatoes with their daughters
right out of the pan. I helped sort folded laundry into their closets,
I knew Galila’s lingerie drawer and her fights
with Sasson. They screamed like crows
and made up like rabbits—mouth, tongue,
all of it. “That’s what a happy marriage looks like,” Galila said.
“Not a single day goes by that you don’t want a divorce.”

The day we moved here, Violette extended her hand to me
tall and wrinkled
and introduced herself: “I’m separated,
don’t feel bad about it.” I agreed.
“Good,” she said, “when you’ve had enough 
 you’ve had enough.”

She introduced the neighborhood: her three dogs,
the raccoon that tips the garbage pails, the rats,
the squirrels that nibble at the rooftops. She told me
what calms her: gardening and spreading traps for the squirrels.
She has to calm down. Her husband
still hasn’t removed his things from the house,
the neighbors won’t stop sighing 
about the separation,
and her daughter stopped eating.

My best friend in high school stopped eating. Retreated
quietly from meals
while we gossiped, studied, watched movies.
Her body shrunk
as though offended. Why did she hide it? 
Why from me?
Still, I nod in understanding
every time Violette tells me
about her daughter. In my mind, she is dark skinned
like my friend, black hair, thick lips. Violette’s daughter
lies on the carpet in her room in Raanana,
leaning over our history notebook,
always in those 501 Levi’s jeans from the ’90s.

Galila said: “Those miserable girls 
whose jeans hang on them like on a scarecrow.
Be proud that you have something to grab!”
And when I slouched, she announced,
“It’s those with flat breasts that should be ashamed!”

Violette and I talk about gardens, never about “territories.”
About animals, never about “terror.”
When she leaves a note on our front door
with the Baptist church logo,
I don’t tell her that I was born
where the Jordan River extends from the Sea of Galilee,
where John the Baptist cast water on the head of Christ,
and how, as children, we peeked at the pilgrims
coming out of those same waters, with their sheer gowns: bellies
bosoms, hips, thin bums
and big bums.

The note said: “I have Build-a-Bear teddies for your daughters.”

My daughters don’t play with Build-a-Bears.
I thank Violette for her good intention. 
She figures I’m excited about the teddies, hands me 
a heavy sack and apologizes:
“My daughter demanded all the accessories.
She never took no for an answer.”

In a better world, Violette’s daughter 
would have taken no for an answer, felt shame
for being as thin as a scarecrow, eaten something right out of a pan 
and babysat my daughters. 
Instead, she is my dark-skinned friend from high school,
and I’m walking on eggshells speaking to her mom. Weary
but not sure of what.

I allow my girls to go to Violette’s house
to pet the dogs. I stand behind the trimmed trees 
and listen. I pray she doesn’t ask them
about the teddies we gave to charity,
and that they’re not too loud, too Israeli.
She might tell them something that sounds nice
like, “Maybe you want to be 
more quiet.” In Canadian want means have to.
My daughters get that by now.

What my girls really want is to play
every day with Violette’s dogs.
What Violette wants is for her husband
to get his things out of the house.
What my husband wants is to crack
her internet passwords.
“What for?” I ask. “We have our own wifi.”
“For fun,” my husband says. 
“It’s easy to guess dog-owners’ passwords.”
I ask him if he has nothing better to do.
“There you go!” he cheers. “Curby111, Gina222, Poppy333.”

Galila said: “Love is something 
you give a man anyways. 
So you may as well give it
to a rich man.”

Violette gave her love to a rich man. She says
he didn’t do badly in business. 
She lives in an aubergine-coloured house
four stories high, with a wooden balcony and a waterfall
in the yard. She arranges pebbles
in the shape of a stream. Places a bench. Shoves gas
into holes in the garden, runs after a mole-rat
through the thick fumes ascending from the ground,
measures the heights of trees with a ribbon.
The two wrinkles between her eyebrows deepen
like dimples in the soil.
The three short dogs follow her
like a gaggle of goslings.

I read that goslings always follow
the first creature to move in front of them when they hatch.
It’s usually the goose. Her march imprints them,
like a secret password, like hypnosis. 
The goose never needs to look back.
Water imprints the salmon, who always return to their native stream
in order to spawn. 
Foxes, guinea pigs, chickens—all imprinted
to identify the one who brought them into this world
and to survive.

In late spring, I see Violette’s daughter for the first time
stepping out of their gate, floating onto our street
tall and thin as a lone ghost. 
Her hair is long and ginger.
Her face fair and blurred like the afternoon moon. 
If she were to step out now 
from the Jordan River,
through her gown you’d see twigs and branches.

Sometimes an imprint goes wrong. 
A row of goslings follows a human. A kitten nurses 
from a female dog. I once had a lover
whose palms imitated my hand gestures
as he spoke. When we broke up he said, “How can you leave
when you are already imprinted in my body?”

Galila said: “Don’t ever feel bad for men; 
they’ll never feel bad for you.”

Violette doesn’t feel bad for her husband. She speaks of him
and the words whistle from her mouth in a whisper,
like a match before fire ignites. 
She does feel bad for the cyclamen flowers
and spreads ice around them when the air gets warm.
She shifts rocks in the garden from side to side,
and at the start of summer, she plants
right in the Canadian chill
a palm tree that arrives on a boat from Madagascar. 
“I’ve tried everything,” she says.
“The girl won’t eat.”

I wonder if anyone ever researched 
what came of mothers 
whose offsprings were imprinted by others.

My daughters return from Violette’s with a bouquet of purple flowers.
They tell me they’re called dahlias. They distinguish between the leaves
of silver maple, red maple, and sugar maple.
They tell me the raspberry bushes need lots of light,
and that’s why Violette asked us to trim the fence.
Their botanical knowledge expands
like an ocean between my childhood and theirs.
I ask my husband if we shouldn’t go back to Israel.
Risk the chemical clouds, the terror,
the high gas prices, the crumbling democracy
so that our girls will eat chicken at the neighbors’.
My husband reminds me that we don’t even eat chicken
and asks what it is I actually want.

“You want your husband to come home with cheer,” Gallila said. 
Sasson always honked three times
when he slid into the parking lot of their home.
Gallila said, “That’s what a happy man sounds like.”

One summer night, Tim is standing at my door.
Violette’s separated husband.
His head high, his hair white, like a cloud in an unconspiring sky. 
He has just removed his things from the house. He smiles softly. 
He nods and shakes the girls’ hands. 
He lingers on the family photos on the fridge.
Suddenly I feel bad for Violette. It’s too late.
He’s going back to his birthplace in the east. His car is packed. 
He’s standing at the entrance to the kitchen, looks at the onions
frying in the pan, and asks, “Maybe you have an idea for me 
to help my daughter?” 

My friend’s parents hospitalized her.
I haven’t seen her since. Did she ever eat again?
Tim’s eyes hang on to me as if I was a last resort. 
I want to imprint my girls, if it’s not too late,
like goslings, like salmons, foxes. Like Galila imprinted me.
I want them to hear the inaudible sound 
of our blood, to identify the smell of my palms, to belong to me
in the endless foreign-ness of this country.

Tim bends over the kitchen counter and writes his number on a note.
Then signs: “Tim, Amy Anorexia.”
He says, that way you’ll remember me. He’s right.
I remember him even when I forget
other things. I remember the note
and his floating walk towards the door
in tall steps, careful, as if in a moment he’ll trip
over a pulled rope in the hall, and how instead of extending
my hand to him, I held onto the wooden frying spoon.
I remember all of those, and his embrace,
all that height
folding above me like a stalk, and the question 
he asks before leaving
standing in front of me and waiting for an answer:
“What is with you women? Why do you all at once
stop being happy?”

from Rattle #66, Winter 2019
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Maya Tevet Dayan: “I wrote my first poem the night my mom died. She was 64. I picked up my phone to call her, to tell her the news, that she had just passed away. Instead I sent her a text which came in the form of a poem. After a year of texting poems to her mute phone I published my first poetry book, a one-sided dialogue with my dead mother. That year we left Israel and moved to Canada. Orphanhood made me feel like a stranger in my own home. I thought it will be easier to be a stranger in a place where I don’t even expect to belong. That I will feel less orphaned in a country my mom had never even visited. Being in Canada was supposed to make the distance from her more logical. It didn’t. Poetry is that ocean of fire I step into every time I’m desperate for some logic. It’s obviously hopeless. But for those moments when it seems to almost work, I keep on trying.” (web)

Rattle Logo