A few weeks after my eighth birthday, my grandmother took me to visit her friend Naomi. The rooms Naomi lived in could have been called a flat, I suppose, but it wasn’t a flat in a modern block. It was in a part of Jerusalem where the houses were built around a central courtyard, and four or five families shared the building.
In this courtyard, there were pots filled with geraniums outside one door and some watermelon seeds drying on a brass tray outside another. A small sand-colored cat with limp, white paws was sleeping in a patch of shade. Naomi’s rooms were on the upper story of the house. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon, all the shutters were closed. Perhaps everyone who lived here were old and taking an afternoon nap.
The sun pressed down on the butter-yellow flag stones of the courtyard and the walls glittered in the heat. Suddenly I heard a noise in the middle of all the silence. A cooing, a whirring of small wings. I turned round to look and there almost within reach of my hand was a white dove sitting on the balcony railing.
“How lovely!” I said to it. “You’re a lovely bird then. Where have you come from?”
The bird cocked its head and looked exactly as thought it were about to answer. Then it changed its mind and in a blur of white feathers, it flew off the railing and was gone. I leaned over to look for it in the courtyard and thought I saw it just there on a step. I ran down the stairs after it. But it was nowhere to be seen. A girl of about my age was standing beside a pot of geraniums.
Where had she come from? She wore a white dress, which fell almost to her ankles. I thought, “She must be very religious.” I knew that very devout Jews wore old-fashioned clothes. “Have you seen a white dove?” I asked her. “It was up there a moment ago.”
The girl smiled. She said, “Sometimes I dream that I’m a dove. Do you believe in dreams?”
“My name is Tsipporah, which means ‘bird’, so of course I feel exactly like a bird sometimes. What do you feel like?”
I didn’t know what to say. I was thinking, “This girl is mad.”
My name is Rachel, which means “yew lamb”, but I never feel wooly or frisky. My cousin is called Ariy which means “lion” and he’s not a bit tawny or fierce. I said, “I just feel like myself.”
“Then you’re lucky,” said Tsiporrah. “Sometimes I think I will turn into a bird at any moment. In fact, look! It’s happening. Feathers, white feathers on my arms!”
I did look. She held out her arms and cocked her head, and I blinked in the sunlight which all at once was shining straight into my eyes and dazzling me, but in the light I could see, I think I saw, thought it’s hard to remember exactly, a flapping, a vibration of wings and the crrr crrr of soft dove sounds filling every space in my head. I closed my eyes and opened them again slowly. Tsipporah had disappeared.
I could see a white bird over on the other side of the courtyard and I ran towards it calling, “Tsiporrah, if it’s you, come back! Come back and tell me!”
The dove launched itself into the air and flew up and up, over the roof and away, and I followed it with my eyes until the speck that it was had vanished into the wide pale sky
I felt weak, dizzy with heat. I climbed slowly back to Naomi’s room, thinking. Tsiporrah must have hidden from me. She must be a child who lives in the building and likes playing tricks.
On the way home, my grandmother started telling me one of her stories. Sometimes I don’t listen properly when she starts on her tale of how this person is related to that one. But she was talking about Naomi when she was young and that was so hard to imagine that I was fascinated.
“Of course,” my grandmother said. “She was never quite the same after Tsiporrah died.”
“Who,” I asked suddenly cold in the sunlight. “is Tsipporah?”
“Naomi’s twin sister. She died of diphtheria when they were eight, a terrible tragedy. But Tsiporrah was strange. Naomi always said her sister could turn herself into a bird just by wishing it.”
Now, every time I see a white dove, I wonder if it’s her, Tsipporah, or perhaps some other girl who’s stretched her wings out one day, looking for the sky.