The baby was sleeping when the front door slid open. Rachel was in the kitchen baking a cake, rummaging in the cupboards for icing sugar. She caught the movement out of the corner of her eye and when she turned, the door gaped wide. If she stepped closer, she would see rubble around the other half-finished houses, the framework from construction throwing long shadows onto the street. Parked cars on the roads, hulked like sleeping creatures. Rachel stood very still. Her pulse beat in her wrists. It was the wind, must be. She sometimes didn’t close the door properly after she took the rubbish out and it swung open, banging against the frame. She thought of Yossi’s little chest, rising and falling in his cot upstairs. It was just the wind. Something told her not to go and close the door.
The air conditioner hummed, ruffling the pages of the recipe book on the counter. She wanted to phone Kobi and wake him up, just to hear the sound of his voice. But it was the middle of the night. She was being ridiculous. She needed to finish the icing while the cake was rising.
She turned back to the oven and there was a flash of something reflected in the black glass. She looked around and there were two men in the entrance, watching her. She closed her eyes but when she opened them, they were still there. They wore black balaclavas and it made the whites of their eyes too bright. Their knives bounced crisscrossed light on the walls.
The taller and bulkier one stabbed a hand in the air. He said something to her but she couldn’t hear above the noise, over the rushing in her ears. He moved his arm, urging her to come towards them, and after a while, he went to get her. He pulled her roughly out of the kitchen, positioning her next to the dining room table. She smelled his aftershave, which was too sweet, like peppermint. Her arm throbbed, even after he’d taken his hand away. The room shivered.
‘Stay here,’ he said.
She gripped a chair. The man’s eyes flitted about the space; the bare walls, the shiny white tiles, the wooden stairs rising behind them to the bedrooms. Kobi jokingly called their place ‘The White House’ because of the pillars outside, how it stood out amongst the other houses, obscured by scaffolding. Kobi, who had brought them here, to the middle of fucking nowhere and who was right now sleeping in a five-star hotel. She pressed her toes into the floor, clammy under her feet.
The other man wandered around the kitchen, peering into the oven. His clothes sagged on his bony frame.
‘What are you making?’ he called, but she had forgotten.
A honey cake, maybe, for Rosh Hashanah? She couldn’t even remember what day it was, what month it was. She opened her mouth to answer but she couldn’t reply. Kobi’s espresso cup was still on the coffee table from the morning, a ringed stain on the wood. Yossi’s brightly coloured playmat was unfolded next to the sofa, the book she was reading splayed open, face down. The oven whirred, glowing. All in black, the men looked like cut outs, too grim and faceless to be real.
‘It smells good,’ the skinny one added, pointing at it with his knife.
She didn’t register the strangeness of what he’d said. The baby monitor was on the sofa. She could see Yossi’s pixelated shape, still sleeping. He slept through doorbells, dogs barking, the construction of the new houses on the moshav. If only he would stay like that. But Rachel’s breasts had an achy tingle. She could feel them swelling, filling with milk. He would wake up soon, to eat.
The taller man was still searching the house. As an estate agent, she knew that look. Her eyes swept over buildings in the same way. But the joke was on him: they had just moved in and didn’t even have all their furniture yet.
‘Watch her,’ he said, and clattered up the stairs. She risked glancing behind her. He had that slope to his shoulders, as if he was trying to make himself shorter. The way he scratched at the side of his face, then his knee. She had seen it before. She stared. He passed Yossi’s room on the first-floor landing, and she held her breath until he kept on going. A little shiver ran from her toes to her stomach.
‘So, how have you been?’ a voice said.
The skinny one was standing right in front of her. She hadn’t noticed him moving. His eyes were pale and glassy. Aside from a hint of grey, they were translucent.
‘It’s been, what, six months?’
She gaped at him. There was a silence, except for the sound of her breathing.
‘Don’t tell me you don’t remember?’
He stepped closer. His shoes were inches from her bare feet. Above them, cupboards banged open and shut. He pulled off his balaclava, smoothing down his hair so it didn’t stick up. He was in his sixties, with a shock of curly hair he must have dyed black. She realised now that he was wearing hospital scrubs.
‘Doctor Zemach,’ she said. Her skin prickled, the hairs on her arms standing up. If she hadn’t been holding the back of the chair, she might have fallen forwards.
‘Finally,’ he said. He smiled to show her slightly disordered teeth. He craned his neck to look around.
‘Nice place. What made you move to the desert?’ he asked.
She cleared her throat, wet her lips with her tongue. ‘Space,’ she managed.
He nodded, agreeably. ‘You get more for your money out here,’ he said. ‘But don’t you miss Tel Aviv?’
Her throat was so dry she couldn’t force out another word. What was he doing here, armed, in her house? He couldn’t be real. She wanted to stretch out and touch him, to check, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
‘Couldn’t pay me to live here,’ he said. ‘All that sand. Gets in your shoes.’
She nodded. Her head felt heavy on her neck. She had a sudden image of Doctor Zemach leaning over her, her legs in stirrups, a gown hitched over her hips. It looked like he was wearing the same hospital scrubs. Had he come straight from the hospital? Did he work nearby, in Be’er Sheva, as well as Tel Aviv?
‘Do you really think I’d do that drive to Be’er Sheva?’ Doctor Zemach asked. He clenched the knife handle. ‘You’re not listening; I already told you I can’t stand the south. When will the cake be ready?’
‘Twenty minutes,’ she said. Her voice was thin and high, not like hers at all. She had to be dreaming. She could reach over and take the knife from him, or walk past him to get to her son. But his legs looked solid, planted wide apart. He stood with his arms folded, assessing her.
‘Very unusual,’ he said, after a long moment. ‘Do you usually bake in the middle of the night? Or just when Kobi’s away?’
‘When I can’t sleep,’ she said. She shouldn’t be surprised he knew Kobi was away. They must have been watching the house. The lights were hurting her eyes. She was getting a headache.
‘I was the complete opposite,’ Doctor Zemach said. ‘When mine were young, I was out like a light.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘I snatched every second of sleep that I could.’
‘I can imagine,’ she said. She stamped down panic, wriggling in her stomach.
He twisted his head, surveying the living room. The dishes from dinner were still on the table, the packets of flour and sugar leaving trails on the worktop. One of Yossi’s rattles was wedged between the sofa cushions and the laundry spilled out of the basket, unfolded. The Shabbat candles were unlit in their holders. Before Yossi, she had folded her clothes according to colour, remembered to light the candles every Friday, instead of letting one sleepless week bleed into another. She had gone for an interview last week, in Be’er Sheva. The thought of bright lights and swivel chairs and answering her phone without Yossi wriggling in her lap caused a sharp, pleasurable pinch in her chest.
‘How’s the little one?’ The doctor said, turning to face her. ‘How old is he now? Two months?’
‘All that work to get him here. It was all worth it, wasn’t it?’ He didn’t wait for her to answer. ‘We did nine rounds with you, if I remember correctly. You were so determined.’
Of course it was worth it. What kind of question was that? And she had been determined. Month after month. She didn’t take breaks. Injecting herself and going into the clinic early in the morning, or late at night. Feeling that painful tug in her groin whenever she walked or climbed stairs, showing a listing to a client. She didn’t sleep then either, as she waited for the result, pretending to go about her life. Rachel loved to feel Yossi’s fluttering heartbeat under her fingers, seeing the tiny blue veins on his eyelids. Holding Yossi was the best thing in the world, until it wasn’t. Sometimes, she couldn’t stand to pick him up. Sometimes, if she was in the shower and Yossi started crying, she didn’t jump out immediately. Sometimes, she accepted job offers in Be’er Sheva, took tours around nurseries. Stayed up all night baking, even though the cakes never turned out right. But at least then, she could snatch some time to herself. She had some time to actually think.
The smell of sugar filled the room. Upstairs, she heard a machine whirring. It sounded like the printer. She lifted her head but Doctor Zemach reached across her, grabbing her bag, unzipped, on the dining room table. He turned it upside down. Her life fell out of it: loose coins, her bunch of keys, nursing pads, a lipstick. They showered the table. She flinched at the sound. He groped inside her purse, thumbing through the cash, his lips thinning as he concentrated, in the same way he had studied the ultrasounds. He slipped the cash in his pocket and unhooked the car key off from the rest of the bunch.
‘Kobi’s done well for himself, I see,’ the doctor said, pocketing that too. ‘I suppose you need a 4×4 around here. What does he do now? Where is he, exactly?’
‘Frankfurt,’ she said. ‘Consulting.’
Immediately, she cursed herself. She should have said Kobi had popped to the shops. Not that it would have helped: the doctor seemed to be able to read her thoughts. Again, she willed herself to walk past him, out of the front door. But what if she wasn’t dreaming? She considered the possibility she was part of some elaborate prank, one of those TV shows where the husband jumps out of a cupboard with a camera, falling about laughing. But if she was wrong…Rachel eyed the doctor’s hand, holding the knife. What might he do to Yossi? Ever since Yossi had been born, she had been terrified of blankets sticking to Yossi’s face and smothering him in his sleep, of his heart stopping for no reason at all. She’d got used to waking up suddenly, close to tears. She had dreams of Yossi turning into a crab and scuttling away where she couldn’t find him. Once, she was at the top of a flight of steps and he fell out of the buggy, his head and body made of concrete, and he smashed into powder.
But in the day, she felt a desperate need to escape. She wished she felt confident enough to drive to Tel Aviv with Yossi in the back so she could actually meet her friends for coffee. Next week would be Yom Kippur and she dreaded the idea of walking round and round the moshav, killing time until Israel came back to life again. She dreaded being with her own family. What kind of mother was that?
‘Not a very good one,’ the doctor said. ‘After all that effort I put in.’
A door banged above their heads and when she looked up, the other man was clambering down the stairs, holding the other set of car keys, her grandmother’s choker snaking from his fingers. He clenched a folded sheet of paper.
‘Ron,’ he said. ‘I did a sweep. Go and see what else there is.’
His shoulders were hunched up to his neck. The man passed the doctor on the stairs, coming closer until he was towering above her. He was breathing hard. Rachel took a step back.
‘I searched the house,’ he said. ‘I turned the whole place upside down.’
Her heart hammered. She knew his voice, the slow way he spaced out his words when he was trying not to lose his temper. She knew those eyes too, the green irises, flecking the brown.
‘I went through your emails,’ he said.
In a moment, he would pinch the bridge of his nose. She thought she might cry, or scream, but to her surprise, she stayed completely silent. What was he doing here? Sweat under her arms, on her forehead. He pulled off his balaclava and he blurred double in front of her eyes.
‘What’s this?’ He thrusted the paper at her. ‘You’re sending him to nursery?’
‘I was going to tell you,’ she said, ‘when you got back from Frankfurt.’
Kobi breathed in once, his teeth clamping together. He pinched his nose. There were sudden tears in her eyes. He had found out and flown back early to punish her. This wasn’t a dream, but Kobi’s way of making sure she did what he wanted. If she reached out and gripped his hand, he might forgive her. But fear slipped up her throat and her hands shook and though she willed herself to, she couldn’t.
‘He’s supposed to start after Yom Kippur. That’s in a week.’
His eyes latched onto hers. She watched the rise and fall of the pulse in the base of his neck. A little shiver ran through her.
‘He’s only four months,’ he said.
‘I got a job.’
‘A job? Why?’
The oven pinged. The sound made her jump. Kobi stepped forwards and gripped her shoulders. He held the knife inches from her neck. His fingers dug into her skin.
‘Why?’ he repeated.
A wail moved through her body, clawing from her chest. Kobi’s head whipped around, his body stiffening, and after a moment, she realised it wasn’t her crying, but Yossi.
‘Look what I found,’ a voice said.
Doctor Zemach came down the stairs, holding her son. Her stomach heaved and she tasted bile. She stood very still, feet fixed to the tiles. A hard ache in her breasts. Yossi sobbing, wanting her. Coughing on his own tears. Rachel’s ears buzzed.
‘Give him to me,’ she said.
Doctor Zemach ignored her. He reached the bottom of the stairs, hoisting Yossi over his shoulder.
‘Are you ready to go?’ he said to Kobi, who nodded.
‘Give him to me,’ Rachel said again.
‘I thought you didn’t want him,’ the doctor said.
‘I never said that.’
‘You’re going back to work.’
This, from her husband. She felt a stab of anger, throbbing like a headache. Her belly felt like it was burning. She swiped for Yossi, trying to snatch him out of Doctor Zemach’s arms, but he took a step back. He passed Yossi to Kobi like he was a football.
‘Wait,’ she said. ‘Let’s sit down and talk about this.’
She could hear the trembling in her voice. How she was begging. Yossi’s sobs punctured the air. She couldn’t remember any prayers, only the shemah, and she ran through it in her head. Her anger was so fierce that for a moment she couldn’t see. She wanted to scratch out the doctor’s milky eyes. Kobi headed towards the door, holding Yossi to his chest.
‘You’re not leaving,’ she said. She raced after him, grabbing his shirt sleeve. She half expected her hand to swipe through him, like a ghost. But he smelled the way he always did, of cigarettes, and behind that, his peppermint aftershave. He glared down at her. She tugged at his hand. ‘It will be better for all of us,’ she said.
Kobi gave a short, hard laugh but his outline quivered, his black jeans lightening like they had been over-washed. His skin greyed, leeching into yellow then white, until only his eyes were visible against the walls. The knife clattered to the floor, the blade shimmering. Then Kobi bounced back, the colours brighter than before.
‘That’s bullshit,’ he said.
But he hesitated. He bent and picked up the knife and tucked it into his jeans. He glanced towards the kitchen.
‘Maybe we’ll stay for a piece of cake,’ he said.
‘Cake,’ he said. ‘It’s ready, isn’t it? Ron, we can stay for cake, can’t we?’
‘Sure,’ the doctor said.
Yossi’s voice was hoarse from crying. Rachel’s legs were rubbery but she forced herself to open the oven, which blasted her with heat. The cake had risen beautifully. She could smell the honey in the back of her throat. She slid it onto a wire rack, pulled out some plates, and placed them on the table.
Kobi leaned forwards and sliced the cake with his knife. He wiped the blade on his t-shirt, then prised a rectangular piece onto each of the plates. Kobi picked up a fork, struggling to eat with Yossi over his shoulder.
‘Give him to me,’ Rachel said. ‘And then, please go.’
‘We’re not going anywhere,’ Kobi said, but he handed Yossi to Rachel and took a bite.
Yossi’s warm little body on hers. His tears and snot on her neck, the sour, milky smell of his head. His polar bear babygro that she had struggled to put on, flailing about after another nappy change. The dark wisps of hair, the sound of his crying quieting into whimpers. His nose snuffling against Rachel’s chest. Rachel pulled up her t-shirt and Yossi’s mouth seized her nipple. A feeling like letting out her breath after holding it tight. She felt the milk draining from her. Her knees were shaking so hard they rattled the underneath of the table.
Kobi reached over and cut himself another piece. Outside the kitchen window, the sky lifted from blue to pink.
‘So, you’re really sending him to nursery?’ he said. ‘He’s so small. Did you hear about the toddler that choked on a grape? Are you going to stop breastfeeding?’
Rachel’s mind raced through terrible possible scenarios.
‘Well? Is it really worth it?’
Rachel opened her mouth and closed it. The three of them sat at the kitchen table. It was cramped, breastfeeding, her elbows nearly knocking Kobi’s, but she could manage. The doctor took some crumpled notes from his pocket and slid them towards her across the table. Kobi clinked her grandmother’s choker down in front of her, then flicked over the car keys. The cake would have tasted better with icing. Rachel forked some into her mouth, and chewed.
Nicole Hazan is British and Israeli, and has lived between the two countries for most of her life. Her father and his family were born in Iraq and later emigrated to Israel. From 2021 – 2022, Nicole studied UEA’s MA in prose fiction, where she graduated with distinction. Her short fiction has appeared in New Letters and Jewish Fiction, among others. She lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and four year old twin daughters, and is working on a novel.