The Madonna Lily — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
My flight arrives in Frankfurt at five in the morning but the connection to Tel Aviv isn’t until ten. The concourse where the plane from Boston lands is labeled Z, for good reason—it’s the ends of the earth, if Der Flughafen Frankfurt am Main is the whole world, which in my sleep-deprived state, it seems to be. Keeping my bleary eyes on the signposts and following them like a lost wanderer follows a will o’ the wisp ever deeper into a swamp, I set off through the alphabet for C Concourse, where lies the segregated gate, with its own separate security screening, at which the Frankfurters confine travelers to Israel. After walking down endless corridors, circling two roundabouts with domed skylights that I suspect are really one and the same, and taking a train to a place that presents the same signs I saw at my point of departure, I realize that this airport, like the world, is comfortless, stark, and largely vacant of human souls. Also, there is no place to get coffee, and a woman on a business trip needs her coffee.

I make a mental note to consider an essay arguing that Einstein drafted his theory of Special Relativity in these corridors; I notice that as I try to pick up my pace, the carry-on I pull behind me and the laptop on my back gain mass, and the clock on my phone slows down. Yet, according to the signs, I am no closer to Concourse C than when I started out. Then, like Bilbo Baggins catching sight of the Last Homely House, I spy, just off the corridor I am tramping through, an alcove thoughtfully provided by the mad architect who designed this distended monstrosity. The alcove is furnished with a hub of what look like beach chairs set on low pedestals and upholstered in imitation leather. It is silent and empty, and the thought of being able to recline at an angle of less than seventy-five degrees is more salaciously tempting than anything else I have seen this morning. I’m an organized person and my travel philosophy is always get to my gate first, and then rest, but I have so much time that there seems to be no reason not to stop for a brief nap. So I choose a chair that faces away from the corridor, place my carry-on underneath and my backpack for a pillow, and lie down. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice, on the next chair over, the long stem and closed buds of what we call in Hebrew a shoshan tzahor. It makes no impression. I quickly lose consciousness, and when I come to, I scream.

I am not one to scream in public places, but as I open my eyes I find myself facing a man in a pink Tinkerbelle costume with a flute to his lips. He is playing “Il Mio Tesoro” from Don Giovanni, which I happen to know it because my father used to sing it to me. This man does not look like my father. He has a week’s growth of reddish beard and blue eyes. By the way, men with red beards should not wear pink.

He nods and smiles and keeps playing. As he finishes the piece, he raises his eyebrows and eyes the seat next to me. I follow his gaze and see, next to the lily, a large latte with steam wafting out of the little hole in its plastic lid. After a moment’s hesitation, I decide that, while it would be really awful to be raped in a German airport corridor by a thirty-something flutist in a fairy costume who has slipped something into my brew, I really do need that coffee. So I sip as Tinkerbelle finishes the aria with a flourish and launches into something Baroque and suitably minor-keyed.

I wonder what my husband will say about this but then I recall that I have not met him yet. Feeling slightly more conscious than I did after getting off my transatlantic flight, I check my phone and see the minute change and note that I still have plenty of time, hours in fact. I should probably try to get some work done. The Bach or whatever is soothing.

I do marketing and public relations for a Haifa-based start-up that has developed a platform for smartphone apps that enables them to plagiarize code from other apps to program themselves to provide functions tailor-made for individual users. I take the word of the two close-cropped tech whizzes in black t-shirts who set up the company that this is important. Until two years ago they were officers in an IDF cyber unit, so they should know. I studied to be a best-selling novelist but didn’t get hired in my field. I’m pretty good at my alternative profession, though. The two cyber officers plucked me from another start-up by offering half again as much per month, and that previous startup had hired me away with a similar raise from a lethargic big company that did not appreciate me. The cybers in black t-shirts value me to the point that they sent me to Boston for preliminary talks with representatives of a major social media company (which must not be named) that might just buy us out for millions of dollars. The boys also gave me stock when they hired me, so I have a hand in the pot.

A buy-out could provide me with the means to spend an entire year working on a novel, if I can think up a plot. Plots are my weak point. I think up these fantastic characters and then they just sit around and nothing happens to them. I told my gray-haired mentor at Bar-Ilan that it’s a thing now, novels in which characters don’t do much and spend a lot of time alone in bed. The mentor listened sympathetically as he made one large red X after another, on page after page, and said that if that is the thing now, it is a thing he doesn’t like and will never sell. But Oblomov, I protested. Exactly, he said, holding his pen in the air and looking me up and down. It’s been done. If I live frugally, there might even be enough money for some upmarket semen and another year of pregnancy and maternity leave. It’s so unfair. Men don’t have to pay for semen, they can produce it as they work with one hand on the keyboard. I know, I have seen it done when they think no one is looking.

By this time, and with these thoughts, I have withdrawn my laptop from my backpack. I open up my report on my meetings and type in a couple sentences and then realize that Tinkerbelle, still playing in A or whatever minor, has circled around so that he can see what is on my screen. I snap it shut. Could decadent German musicians at airports be the latest in industrial espionage? I eye him suspiciously; he nods gracefully and returns to his original spot. He waves his flute as he finishes the piece and then smiles serenely to himself, lowers the flute, shakes his free right hand and rubs his lips with his fingers. Then he removes a handkerchief from his décolletage, wipes his forehead, returns the handkerchief, and raises his flute to his lips once again. I look around; the corridor is empty; the music seems to have attracted no one, as if no one else can hear it.

I think it’s Debussy; my father used to whistle it as he put me to sleep. He was quite a whistler. It’s very good lullaby music, as it is very quiet and calm and it doesn’t really go anywhere, it just is.

I wake up when my laptop crashes to the floor. Tinkerbelle and his flute are gone. So is my carry-on, I realize in a panic. I jump out of the beach chair and pick up the computer; I open it up and find that its screen is cracked from the top left to the bottom right corners. I turn it on and it still works, but the crack runs through my report.

I’m furious at myself for falling for such a ploy, for allowing an itinerant musician to lull me into lowering my guard so that he could rob me. I need to go to the bathroom, too. With the laptop on my back again, I follow the signs, which lead me down a long and bare corridor, up a flight of stairs, and halfway down yet another stark corridor. I do what I have to do and make myself look presentable and set out again for Concourse C, where I hope I will find a police representative, or at least a security agent, to whom I can report the theft of my luggage. Could it be that I overshot my destination? I find myself passing the turn-off to Concourse A, and then many long minutes later to Concourse B. I plod onward. The corridor goes on and on, but I sense I am getting close. The signs direct me to turn left and I see a security checkpoint a couple hundred meters in front of me. Standing at the corner where the corridor turns is a uniformed policewoman with dark hair done up in a bun. I go up to her and begin to tell her about my carry-on; she seems confused at first but then her face lights up. So this must be yours, she says, pointing at a small suitcase at her side. A Madonna lily lies across it, its cascade of pink flowers in full bloom. I nod, stoop down, pick up the flower, and open the suitcase to make sure nothing has been taken.

When I get to my gate, I see that the last passengers are already leaving the gate area to board the plane. The security agent gives me a grim look; as I place my belongings in the trays that run through the machine that looks inside them, I mumble that I fell asleep. I also tell him that, no, the carry-on has not been in my possession the whole time and that it should be carefully examined. A woman at the far end digs through it with latex-gloved fingers, checks it with those sensory papers they use, and waves me on. At the far end I collect my belongings, slip on my shoes, and walk quickly down the sleeve into the plane. Only when I am settling into my seat do I realize that I left the lily behind, and that I neglected to smell it.

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Necessary Stories, a collection of twenty-four of the best of Haim Watzman’s short fiction, is now available as an e-book, paperback, and hardback on Amazon. Available on other platforms as well. More information on South Jerusalem

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