A few years ago I was watching TV when suddenly all the pixels coagulated inexplicably to form a prisoner serving a life sentence. I know that in a sense we’re all prisoners, and life is life, but for him it was especially so. He entered the prison infirmary, where they kept the dead bodies before taking them for burial, along with the dirty laundry. I mean, the laundromat was close to the cemetery, so why make two trips. Dying doesn’t happen that often, but dirty laundry does. They’re impressively economical. They even bury them in pairs, imagine that. In a double coffin. I knew that prisoners lived in a jail, but I never once thought about them dying in there. I suppose it’s possible. It was in America, where there are endless possibilities. Everyone knows that.
What’s so economical about a double coffin, you ask? What do they do with the corpse till a second one arrives? I don’t know the answer. You shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV. It’s all just carnal flesh, except that men breathe from their chest and women from their abdomen. When they’re breathing at all. He was a tough guy, the prisoner, played hard to get. But the hardness in his eyes softened the heart. Love is like that. He opened one of the coffins, stepped inside, and lay down next to a fresh corpse. It was clearly fresh because there was no stench—they hadn’t explicitly said so, but it was understood. Then a friend swiftly closed the lid over him with a hammer and nails. Thump thump thump. It takes guts to do something like that, but prisoners can be so desperate. The next day the coffin was driven to the cemetery. The camera was inside the coffin, but even without seeing a thing the movements could be felt. He was lowered into a pit; he could hear soil being heaped on top. The screen went completely black. Cut. Imagine that, in a double coffin.
I can no longer remember the prisoner’s marital status, or even his crime. Maybe he hadn’t committed a crime. He got caught, so what? He may have had a fiancé. I mean, at the very least he should have had a fiancé, otherwise it wouldn’t be as compelling. The prison’s laundry truck driver—a prisoner too, but the kind you can count on—got half of the payment up front. He was meant to get there an hour later and dig him out of the ground, but time passed, and no one showed up. The television screen was black, but once in a while the prisoner’s face was kindled by the flame of a lighter, which lit up his wristwatch too. He couldn’t ignite the lighter often, it used up the oxygen. Each movement of the second-hand wiped off an hour of life. An hour passed, then two. You could hear the prisoner’s breath becoming heavy; his face was awash with beads of sweat, his eyes were full of fear, and where had the hardness gone. I truly don’t know. And again, the lighter illuminated the watch, showing that three hours had passed. Oxygen was running low and panic swept over his gaze. Or it could have been madness. Like a contortionist, the prisoner turned his body and lit up the face of the corpse lying next to him. He recognized the dead—it was the truck driver who was meant to pull him out of the grave. Cut. Imagine that, out of all people.
Tonight I dreamt about this life-term prisoner and woke up drenched in sweat, breathing heavily. Both of us. You from your chest and me from my abdomen. I would have given anything to save him. You, I can’t save. Like a contortionist, I turned around and gazed at your face. I recognized it in the dark without a lighter, and you looked terrible. A worn-out body, patched up with tissues of slowly dying cells. Love is like that. There’s dirty laundry all the time but dying only happens once. You were meant to set me free, and now I’m buried here with you.
Translating Hebrew into English challenges us to translate culturally-specific gestures into text since many Hebrew phrases are expressed both through words and in the body. As a translator, Hebrew often seems to me like a very physical language. Can you imagine the phrase “ככה זה,” “that’s how it is,” without the typical Israeli shrug? ככה זה באהבה, says the narrator of Dirty Laundry, Omer Berkman’s short story. This dynamic is why I could relate to Berkman’s narrator, who closely studies the body language and facial expressions of a fictional character on TV, ‘translating’ them to the reader. It is unusual for a story to rely so much on another form of media, in a sense creating fiction within fiction — an ekphrastic move from the visual into the depth of personal language.
This short story first appeared in Hebrew in HaMusach [Hebrew for “garage”], a Hebrew-language literary supplement featuring contemporary writers, and I am happy to present it here to an English-reading audience. The Hebrew original is available at: https://blog.nli.org.il/mussach-91-katzar/