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from the September 2009 issue

How Old is the Queen of England?

The old dog lumbers beside me, exhaling and inhaling laboriously and tracking my steps with her bowed head turned white with old age. Owls perch on the branches canopying the path, against the indigo background of the darkening sky. They give us sideways glances and emit long whistles like rubber toys. Their eyes are open in wonderment.

It's a familiar route. It begins at the breach in the concrete fence, shortly before sunset, and ends at the exact same place half an hour later. A twilight walk through the park. Except that this neighborhood park, which divides Tel Aviv's last remaining open fields—their fate sealed, they merely await execution by contractor—from the affluent suburbs of the northern city, happens to also be the Kiryat Shaul Regional Cemetery.

Our measured, levelheaded amble does not suit the other dog, a wild mutt whose blood boils in anticipation of dusky hideaways. She breaks away from us, gallops off to her canine business without glancing back, and disappears. Now the elderly bitch's arthritic legs set the pace. And really, what's the hurry? Around us lie thousands of former hurriers who now must learn the lesson of eternal rest.

After a few minutes we pass the lemon tree that grows out of the grave of Yitzhak Izmirli, may his memory be a blessing, and I take advantage of the opportunity to examine the fruit. It'll be at least another month until they ripen, and then I can make some jam. It is not out of stinginess that I exploit Izmirli's generosity—rather, it's the lemons' fine aroma and flavor. They remind me of what supermarket fruit has lost in return for an excessively long shelf-life.

We continue on to the grave of Hanan Hans Rubin, Michal's dad, display demonstrative indifference as we walk past the stone marking Israel Artzi, the school principal, circle around Adam Baruch (I imagine the writer lying down there with his iconic cap and cowboy boots), and visit the ophthalmologist Dr. Berar and his wife Sonia, who, unlike other couples in the park, do not share a double bed but lie behind one another, like two passengers in a train car. Finally we reach the children's section, where Moshe Yakovovski's sister Yael lies. Sometimes, among the tiny headstones, a stray jackal slips away with cunning shyness. But this time there is no jackal, and the owls too have disappeared.

The sky's blush has faded and it begins to blacken, and a lovely mid-July moon rises over the cypress trees. We begin our walk back.

The dog's footsteps grow heavy and very slow until her strength wanes and she stops still. This is irritating. I berate her in vain. I try to induce her with sweet words, but my efforts are futile. After all, the vet has long ago determined that the old dog is completely deaf. I give her a few encouraging pats on the back. This does no good either. Her cataract-ridden eyes beg me to leave her be.

Having no choice, I sit down on a flat gravestone and stare at the moon. O, cursed old age! I think. And then a rustle startles me.

"Good evening," says a woman's voice from the darkness. I lean back to one side. A dark shadow, with only a halo of white hair glistening in the bluish light, appears beside me like a ghost. "Excuse me, are you from around here?" the figure asks.

Usually, Are you from around here? is a question addressed to a hurrying passerby on the street as a prelude to a request for directions. But here, at night, among the graves, the phrase has a slightly idiotic ring. Still, I manage to grasp that the questioner has lost her way.

"Can I help?" I reply.

She takes a few small steps closer to me, then leans on an aluminum walking cane whose end splits off into four feet. Now I can make out a blue skirt suit, a string of pearls, and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses whose lenses reflect the dark treetops.

"I'm looking for something here, but I've manage to get lost myself now." Her features slowly coalesce out of the pieces I assemble from the dusk.

"If you'd like, I can help you get to the parking lot," I say.

It's hard to get lost in the Kiryat Shaul Regional Cemetery. Almost impossible to miss the main gate. The place is webbed with a grid of completely straight concrete pavements and asphalt-paved paths. Like a well-planned city.

"Is it far?"

"Ten minutes, more or less."

The dog suddenly regains her senses. She notices the strange woman and gives her a token bark. Going through the motions. Ever since she went deaf, her barks have become throaty screeches, like a mute's screams.

The woman pulls back. She had not noticed the dog before. "Does he bite?"

"It's a she."

"Well, fine then," she says with a smile. "For the person who has their leg pierced by a set of teeth, it doesn't matter if it's the teeth of a boy or the teeth of a girl, does it?"

"Anyway, dogs don't just bite for no reason."

"Yes, I know very well when dogs bite. Very well."

Behind her sits a partially-chiseled granite rock, a typical remnant of the dominant fashion among tombstone designers two decades ago. She holds onto the rock, which is almost as tall as she is, leans her hunched back against it and sighs. "And permit me to tell you, sir," she says in a soft voice, "that it's not very nice to bring dogs into a cemetery. Not respectable at all. It dishonors the memory of the dead, because dogs are unclean animals and the dead are consecrated."

I suppose she'd rather I take my cemetery walk with a pair of glatt kosher sheep. Besides, as far as I know, the dead themselves are considered untouchable, even when they're lying under two meters of dirt. That's why the observant perform a symbolic purification ritual by washing their hands when they leave a cemetery.

But my fighting spirit does not ignite, and I remain indifferent to the lady's religious interpretations. My mind, which until now has amused itself with refreshingly existential contemplations, shifts to bothersome practical thoughts. I now shoulder the responsibility for this stranger's welfare. I will have to lead her to the main gate. I will have to call home, tell my wife about the encounter, and ask her to call a cab. I'll have to wait for twenty minutes with the lady until the cab arrives. And then I'll have to retrace the whole cemetery with the old dog who can barely move her legs.

But as I stand there considering this course of events, another ghostly image emerges beside us. "Good evening, everyone," the figure says.

It is a tall young man, who in total disdain of the July heat (which does not let up even after sundown) and the seventy-five percent humidity, is wearing a blazer and tie. I feel a little sorry for this formal pair, although my sweat-soaked untidiness gives me a certain sense of inferiority.

"Finally," the old woman grumbles. "You disappeared on me for so long, I was very worried. I thought something had happened to you."

The young man gives a kind, forgiving laugh. "It was only five minutes, Dora. You see, I'm absolutely fine. But I wasn't able to find Lot Six, Area Three for you. I think there's no choice, we'll have to come back in the morning." The glistening channels in his gel-coated hair and the shimmer of his smiling teeth converse with the whiteness of the graves. Suddenly he remembers protocol and reaches out a firm hand. I shake it. "Attorney Kidron," he says. "Shoni Kidron."

I feel relieved. The burden of responsibility for the elderly woman has lifted at once. I am now free to continue on my way home. I lean down and tug at the dog's collar. "Okay, we're off."

"But perhaps this gentleman can help us," says the woman.

"Sorry, I have to get back. My wife is probably worried about me. My walks never last more than half an hour."

The dog labors onto her feet and wags her tail to signal that she is ready for the trek.

"Just one more moment," the woman says softly. "You may be rewarded for doing a mitzvah."

Although during our short acquaintance we have already managed to reach a principled disagreement, and despite the fact that I clearly have no compassion or affection for this lady, her tone of voice has a seductive cadence that I cannot resist. A sort of indulgent sweetness. Something that reminds me of my mother's voice, may she rest in peace, when she used to leave messages on my answering machine inviting me to Shabbat lunch.

"I brought my lawyer to see the plot I purchased from the Burial Society," says the elderly lady. "So they won't cheat me when I'm no longer here. So the lawyer will see the exact location with his own eyes, because I have no one to take care of me after I'm gone." She seems tired out from standing for so long. Who knows how many miles she's already walked, searching in vain for the lost plot. Her body hunches over, sinking into the walking cane. "I bought my spot ten years ago. It cost me a lot of money. About a thousand dollars. But I wanted to be near my son, Daniel, who is buried in the military section. He was killed in the Canal, on the second day of the Yom Kippur War." She digs through her purse, pulls out a tissue and wipes a tear from behind her glasses. "They have an area they keep for bereaved parents, near the wall that separates the military and civilian sections. But all the spaces were taken because there's always someone who has more money. Or connections. Eventually they found me a place on the other side, near the main path. Someone took pity on me. I paid him a few more liras. But I don't care. Honestly. The important thing is to be as close as possible to my Danny. And from the place they gave me you can still see the military plots if you lift your head up a little. It's not all that far."

The manes of the trees seem to wave lightly in the breeze coming from the sea. But down here with us the air is still. Sweat runs down my back.

"Every grave has an exact address," I explain. "It's all computerized these days. They even have a Web site…"

"There's no need, I remember exactly," she interrupts. "Lot Three, Area Six, Row Twenty-four, next to the path."

"Lot Six, Area Three," the young man corrects her.

"Are you sure?"

"That's what the note says."

"I remember that on the left side there's someone named Hershkovitz with a cactus. And on the right there's a rock just like this one."

And indeed, next to the granite rock is one empty plot. I take out a miniature flashlight attached to my keychain and shine it on the stone I'm leaning on. The name is Malkin. "Are you sure it was Hershkovitz?"

"Maybe Hershko. Or Hirshberg. Or Hirshfeld. Something like that."

I move the ray of light to the next stone. The name carved on it is Claude Butbul. Next to him is Menachem Havletzki, and the row continues with Goldschmidt, Katzman, Chen, Schwartzbard, Kalfon, Ben-Ami, Applebaum, Amitai, and Giller. There's no Hershkovitz. But the marvel of it strikes me: the cemetery is like a phone book engraved on pages of marble. Except that here, instead of being alphabetized, the names are arranged according to some hidden logic of fate, and the numbers represent years of birth and death. Only one rule is followed: a man always lies beside a man, and a woman beside a woman. So that no shame should ensue, God forbid, on the day the dead are resurrected.

"It's probably not here," I say.

"Why not?" asks the young man.

"Because this is a men's row."

"They couldn't have sold me a place among men," says the old lady. "They wouldn't have made a mistake like that."

"Well, we have no choice then, Dora," the young man sums up. "We'll come back tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," the lady grumbles. "Tomorrow, tomorrow. It's so easy to say."

The young man walks over to her, links his arm through hers, and she leans on him and pulls away from the granite rock.

"Just keep going straight downhill until you reach the main gate," I tell them.

They slowly plod away from me, walking very cautiously but steadily, and I watch them until their embracing figures disappear into the darkness.

"Come on," I tell the old dog and lightly pat her buttock. She lifts up, stretches her inflamed joints, and starts walking. The owls hover over us again in low circles, their claws ready to clutch. I look up at them and try to imagine the moment at which the prey is captured and hoisted into the air. I try to imagine the moment when the victim's will to flee forever is defeated.

We're very close to the hole in the concrete fence now, and I notice a strikingly lifelike statuette of a dog adorning one of the graves. How beautiful, I think. Not a general riding a horse, not Judah the lion's whelp, not a half-blind bust—a dog! Just an unclean dog. But as I get closer the stone statue begins to wag its tail. It's our untamed white mutt, who at the start of our walk, precisely at this point, had parted ways with us and charged off on her business. Now she sprawls on a flat headstone, limbs askew, cooling her belly. Her tongue flops to one side in a drooling, satisfied smile.

We pass through the broken fence, cross the road and walk into the house.

"I'm back," I declare.

My wife sits facing the television, her head drooping on her chest, a mug of lukewarm tea propped between her limp fingers. There's a quiz show on TV. "How old is the Queen of England?" asks the host. "A, seventy-three. B, seventy-nine. C, eighty-three. Or D, eighty-seven."

The dogs lunge at the water bowl and their lapping echoes through the house like a trickling stream.

"I'm back," I repeat.

Read more from the September 2009 issue
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