At the end of the war, I became immersed in constant slumber. Though I moved from train to train, from truck to truck, and sometimes from wagon to wagon, it was all in a dense, dreamless sleep. When I opened my eyes for a moment, the people looked heavy and expressionless.
No wonder I don’t remember a thing about that long journey. I ate what they gave out or, rather, from what was left over. If I hadn’t been thirsty, I probably wouldn’t even have gotten up to look for a slice of bread. Thirst tortured me all along the way. If some memory of that sleep-drunk journey still remains with me, it’s the streams where I knelt to gulp the water. The chilly water put out the fire inside me for a while but not for long.
The refugees carried me and supported me. Sometimes I was forgotten, and then someone remembered me and went back to pick me up. My body remembers the jolting more than I do. Sometimes it seems that I’m still in that darkness, drifting and being borne along. What happened to me during those days of sleep will probably be unknown to me forever. Sometimes a voice that spoke to me comes back, or the taste of a piece of bread that was shoved into my mouth. But aside from that, there is just darkness.
That’s how I arrived. The truck drivers rolled up the canvas. People and bundles tumbled out. “We’re in Naples,” the drivers announced. The sky was high above us, the sun blazed as it dipped into the sea, and the light was intense and dazzling.
I had no desire to push my way in to look for a bed in the sheds or to stand in line to get the used clothes that people from the Joint Distribution Committee were giving away. Everything around me buzzed with desire and a thirst for life, but the people looked ridiculous in their rushing about.
I could barely stand on my feet. At last I dragged myself over to a tree, sank down at its foot, and plunged into sleep.
It was a more diluted sleep. I could hear voices and the noise of the generators. I was borne along but without force. I felt the hard earth beneath me, and I said to myself, In a little while they’ll come and shake me.
At first that worry kept me from sinking into a deeper sleep, but, nevertheless, I eventually did so. In the evening a man approached, nudged me, and called out loud, “What are you doing here?” I didn’t open my eyes and didn’t bother to answer him. But he kept shaking me and bothering me, so I had no choice but to say to him, “I’m sleeping.”
“Did you eat?” asked the man.
“I’m not hungry,” I replied.
My body knew that kind of annoyance. All along the way people tried to wake me up, to shove bread into my mouth, to speak to me, to convince me that the war was over and that I had to open my eyes. There were no words in me to explain that I couldn’t open my eyes, that I was trapped in thick sleep. From time to time, I did try to wake up, but sleep overpowered me.
Waves of darkness carried me along, and I moved forward. Where are you heading?
I asked myself. Home,
I replied, surprised at my own answer. Only a few of the refugees wanted to go back to their homes. Everyone else streamed to the sea in trains and trucks. People knew what they wanted. I had just one wish—to return to my parents.
As I was being carried forward, a hand touched me, and when I didn’t react, the hand shook me again. I didn’t want to answer, but the pulling disturbed me, and so I said, without opening my eyes, “Leave me alone. I want to sleep.”
“You mustn’t sleep for such a long time.”
“My weariness isn’t done. Leave me alone.”
The man went away, but then he came back and prodded me again. My sleep was no longer deep, and I felt the man’s determination to draw me out of it, no matter what.
I opened my eyes and was surprised to see that the man, on his knees and wearing glasses, looked like my uncle Arthur. I knew he wasn’t Arthur, but still I was glad to see him.
“What are you doing here?” he asked softly.
“I came with the refugees.”
“From where?” He stretched his neck toward me.
I couldn’t answer that. The places where we had stopped slipped past me without leaving a trace.
The man stared at me and asked if I wanted something to eat. I was about to say, A cup of cocoa,
but I realized that would be a foolish request. Only at home, at breakfast, and toward evening at supper would Mother make me a cup of cocoa.
“I’ll bring you a sandwich and a glass of milk,” the man said. Without waiting for my response, he went off to get it for me. I wondered about the man who resembled my uncle Arthur, not only in his build and face but also in his movements, and I decided to ask him whether he was a communist, too, like my uncle.
He came back with a tray of food.
“Thank you,” I said. Since I had left the house, years earlier, no one had served me food on a tray.
“Hearty appetite,” said the man, another term I hadn’t heard since the war broke out.
I ate. The more I ate, the more my appetite grew, and I finished it all. The man watched without disturbing me. Finally, he asked my name.
I told him.
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“Sleep,” I said.
“I’ll leave you alone,” he replied, and went away.
I was by myself again, and I felt relieved. After the war, it was hard for me to be with people. Sleep was right for me. In sleep I lived fully. I needed that fullness like I needed air to breathe. Sometimes a dream floated up and threatened me.
Copyright © 2017 by Aharon Appelfeld. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.