The Hill of Evil Counsel

Amos Oz

The Hill of Evil Counsel

The Hill of Evil Counsel


It was dark. In the dark a woman said: I'm not afraid. A man replied: Oh, yes, you are. Another man said: Quiet.

Then dim lights came on at either side of the stage, the curtains parted, and all was quiet.

In May 1946, one year after the Allied victory, the Jewish Agency mounted a great celebration in the Edison Cinema. The walls were draped with the flags of Great Britain and the Zionist Movement. Vases of gladioli stood on the front of the stage. And a banner carried a quotation from the Bible: PEACE BE WITHIN THY WALLS AND PROSPERITY WITHIN THY PALACES.

The British Governor of Jerusalem strode up to the stage with a military gait and delivered a short address, in the course of which he cracked a subtle joke and read some lines of Byron. He was followed by the Zionist leader Moshe Shertok, who expressed in English and Hebrew the feelings of the Jewish community. In the corners of the auditorium, on either side of the stage, and by all the doors stood British soldiers wearing red berets and carrying submachine guns, to guard against the Underground. In the dress circle could be discerned the stiffly seated figure of the High Commissioner, Sir Alan Cunningham, with a small party of ladies and army officers. The ladies were holding opera glasses. A choir of pioneers in blue shirts sang some work songs. The songs were Russian, and, like the audience, they were wistful, rather than happy.

After the singing there was a film of Montgomery's tanks advancing across the Western Desert. The tanks raised columns of dust, crushed trenches and barbed-wire fences under their tracks, and stabbed the gray desert sky with their antennas. The auditorium was filled with the thunder of guns and the noise of marching songs.

In the middle of the film, there was a slight disturbance in the dress circle.

The film stopped suddenly. The lights came on. A voice was raised in a reproach or a curt command: Is there a doctor in the house?

In row 29, Father immediately got to his feet. He fastened the top button of his white shirt, whispered to Hillel to take care of Mother and keep her calm until things were sorted out, and, like a man plunging into a burning building at the risk of his life, turned and pushed his way to the staircase.

It transpired that Lady Bromley, the High Commissioner's sister-in-law, had been taken suddenly faint.

She was wearing a long white dress, and her face, too, was white. Father hurriedly introduced himself to the heads of the administration and proceeded to lay her limp arm across his shoulders. Like a gentle knight carrying a sleeping beauty, he helped Lady Bromley to the ladies' powder room. He seated her on an upholstered stool and handed her a glass of cold water. Three high-ranking British officials in evening dress hurried after him, stood in a semicircle around the patient, and supported her head as she took a single, painful sip. An elderly wing commander in uniform extracted her fan from her white evening bag, opened it carefully, and fanned her face.

Her Ladyship opened her eyes wearily. She stared almost ironically for a moment at all the men who were bustling around her. She was angular and wizened, and with her pursed lips, her pointed nose, and her permanent sardonic scowl, she looked like some thirsty bird.

"Well, doctor," the wing commander addressed Father in acid tones, "what do you think?"

Father hesitated, apologized twice, and suddenly made up his mind. He leaned over, and with his fine, sensitive fingers he undid the laces of the tight corset. Lady Bromley felt immediately better. Her shriveled hand, which resembled a chicken leg, straightened the hem of the dress. A crease appeared in the tightly closed mouth, a kind of cracked smile. She crossed her old legs, and her voice when she spoke was tinny and piercing.

"It's just the climate."

"Ma'am—" one of the officials began politely.

But Lady Bromley was no longer with him. She turned impatiently to Father:

"Young man, would you be kind enough to open the windows. Yes, that one, too. I need air. What a charming boy."

She addressed him in this way because, in his white sports shirt worn outside his khaki trousers, and with his biblical sandals, he looked to her more like a young servant than like a doctor. She had passed her youth among gardens, apes, and fountains in Bombay.

Father silently obeyed and opened all the windows.

The evening air of Jerusalem came in, and with it smells of cabbage, pine trees, and garbage.

He produced from his pocket a Health Service pillbox, carefully opened it, and handed Lady Bromley an aspirin. He did not know the English for "migraine," and so he said it in German. Doubtless his eyes at that moment shone with a sympathetic optimism behind his round spectacles.

After a few minutes, Lady Bromley asked to be taken back to her seat. One of the high-ranking officials took down Father's name and address and dryly thanked him. They smiled. There was a moment's hesitation. Suddenly the official held out his hand. They shook hands.

Father went back to his seat in row 29, between his wife and his son. He said:

"It was nothing. It was just the climate."

The lights went out again. Once more General Montgomery pursued General Rommel mercilessly across the desert. Fire and dust clouds filled the screen. Rommel appeared in close-up, biting his lip, while in the background bagpipes skirled ecstatically.

Finally, the two anthems, British and Zionist, were played. The celebration was over. The people left the Edison Cinema and made for their homes. The evening twilight suddenly fell upon Jerusalem. In the distance, bald hills could be seen, with here and there a solitary tower. There was a sprinkling of stone huts on the faraway slopes. Shadows rustled in the side streets. The whole city was under the sway of a painful longing. Electric lights began to come on in the windows. There was a tense expectancy, as if at any moment a new sound might break out. But there were only the old sounds all around, a woman grumbling, a shutter squeaking, a lovesick cat screeching among the garbage cans in a backyard. And a very distant bell.

A handsome Bokharan barber in a white coat stood alone in the window of his empty shop and sang as he shaved himself. At that moment, a patrolling British jeep crossed the street, armed with a machine gun, brass bullets gleaming in its ammunition belt.

An old woman sat alone on a wooden stool beside the entrance of her basement shop. Her hands, wrinkled like a plasterer's, rested heavily on her knees. The last evening light caught her head, and her lips moved silently. From inside the basement, another woman spoke, in Yiddish:

"It's perfectly simple: it'll end badly."

The old woman made no reply. She did not move.

Outside Ernpreis the pants presser's, Father was accosted by a pious beggar, who demanded and received a two-mil piece, furiously thanked God, cursed the Jewish Agency twice, and swept an alley cat out of the way with the tip of his stick.

From the east, the bells rang out continuously, high bells and deep bells, Russian bells, Anglican bells, Greek bells, Abyssinian, Latin, Armenian bells, as if a plague or a fire were devastating the city. But all the bells were doing was to call the darkness dark. And a light breeze blew from the northwest, perhaps from the sea; it stirred the tops of the pale trees that the City Council had planted up Malachi Street and ruffled the boy's curly hair. It was evening. An unseen bird gave a strange, persistent cry. Moss sprouted in the cracks in the stone walls. Rust spread over the old iron shutters and veranda railings. Jerusalem stood very quiet in the last of the light.

During the night, the boy woke up again with an attack of asthma. Father came in barefoot and sang him a soothing song:

Night is reigning in the skies,

Time for you to close your eyes.

Lambs and kids have ceased from leaping,

All the animals are sleeping.

Every bird is in its nest,

All Jerusalem's at rest.

Toward dawn, the jackals howled in the wadi below Tel Arza. Mitya the lodger began to cry out in his sleep on the other side of the wall: "Leave him alone! He's still alive! Y-a ny-e zna-yu." And he fell silent. Then cocks crew far away in the quarter of Sanhedriya and the Arab village of Shu'afat. At the first light, Father put on his khaki trousers, sandals, and a neatly pressed blue shirt with wide pockets, and set off for work. Mother went on sleeping until the women in the neighboring houses started beating their pillows and mattresses with all their might. Then she got up and in her silk dressing gown gave the boy a breakfast of a soft-boiled egg, Quaker Oats, and cocoa with the skin taken off; and she combed his curly hair.

Hillel said:

"I can do it by myself. Stop it."

An old glazier passed down the street, shouting, "Perfes-sional glazing! America! Anything repaired!" And the children called after him, "Loonie!"

A few days later, Father was surprised to receive a gold-embossed invitation for two to the May Ball at the High Commissioner's palace on the Hill of Evil Counsel. On the back of the invitation, the secretary had written in English that Lady Bromley wished to convey to Dr. Kipnis her gratitude and profound apology, and that Sir Alan himself had expressed his appreciation.