Mona Lisa

Ayala Ben Lulu

Translated from the Hebrew by Karen Marron


The long, narrow kitchen is covered in red tiles from top to bottom. “Mom, you have to come to my school to talk to the principal,” I say.

“Again I have to go. Esh naamel lak? Esh?” she says to me. She turns off the faucet and wipes her hands on her dirty apron, turning to look at me from the sink.

I pull out the official letter inviting the parents of the student Ayala Ben Lulu to attend an urgent conversation with the principal.


“It’s the day after tomorrow, Tuesday at 12 o’clock. Mom, I need you to sign here that you read this.”

Mom runs her hands over her apron again, takes it off, hangs it on the back of a brown pleather chair and sits down. I’m standing over her.

“You need to get up and clean here, Mom. The table is dirty,” I say. A sketched moth is bumping against the fluorescent light. Mom pushes her chair back and stands up to get an old kitchen rag from the countertop.

“Wash it first, Mom. The letter is clean, look.” I hold the page in front of her face. “I can’t put it on a dirty table. Do you want me to bring them a letter covered with matbukha stains?”

Khiar! Dak si kilo for a letter,” Mom says. She bends down toward the cabinet of cleaning supplies under the sink, takes out a new pink cloth and throws the old rag into the trash. She turns on the faucet, dampens the cloth, wipes the stained Formica table and sits back down in her chair. A part runs through her thin hair. On the stove behind us, water is boiling in a pot. The moth has gone silent. I spread out the letter on the table in front of Mom, sticking my index finger in the place where her signature is required, and give her a pen. Mom takes the pen from my hand and brings it close to the letter. In a minute her hand will start to shake; it will catch the shiver that goes through her every time she has to sign her name. When the shaking subsides, she will aim the tip of the pen at the paper and will place it where my finger is waiting. Mom starts on the left and writes very slowly, her French name, “Rachelle,” in the French that she learned in Morocco. My finger, supervising, moves with each letter along the page.

Aywa safeh, now let me work,” says Mom and gets up from the table. Her heavy chest sags under the thin jersey of her housecoat, and its nipples twist like two blind animals.

On Tuesday morning, Mom calls the woman in charge of her at the municipality to let her know she’ll be absent. She stands in the dim entryway covered in wallpaper that looks like wood paneling, and she presses the receiver to her ear. Mom goes to the municipality building every day at noon. She has never seen anyone there. She cleans empty rooms, empties office trash cans of their leftover sandwiches and fruit pits, opens silent offices with a giant key chain. Sometimes there’s a light left on in a room because someone’s forgotten to turn it off, or a phone rings for a long time and then goes silent. She scrubs the toilet with a plastic brush and acid. Mom is thankful for her good luck: the clerks at the municipality don’t make too much of a mess, and their office floors are covered in soft carpet from wall to wall.

“Thank you very much, you’re a good woman,” Mom says to the woman in charge of her at the municipality; she bends all the way down to the low telephone table with the receiver still pressed to her ear, puts it down on the cradle and goes to get dressed in the bedroom. Mom calls me to help her with her bra. I pull the thick straps towards me forcefully and Mom’s body sways and leans back. “Don’t move,” I say, and pull the metal hooks together on her back. Then Mom combs her brown hair with a white plastic comb, and I open the drawer in her bedside table, take out a pair of tweezers and her red lipstick and shove them in my pocket.

I go to the Mishlav high school, the last resort for boys and girls who’ve been kicked out of every other high school in town. Mom and I leave the house and walk together. She threads her swollen fingers through my thin ones. Her wedding ring is sunk deep into her fingers as if a part of the flesh. She is wearing a floral jersey dress and clogs made of mesh and wood, walking very slowly. I’m pulling her with my hand like a little boy pulling a donkey with a rope. We cross the entire city, from east to west. We pass streets that are named after the heroes of Zionism: Ahad Ha-am, Herzl, Laskov, Yadin. On Katznelson, the long street that leads all the way to the school, we pass by small, well-kept houses with green lawns and colorful flower beds. Mom stops, breathing heavily; leaning on an iron gate, she looks at me with her blue eyes and says, incredulous: “Your school is far, aleish meshit to such a far school?”

I say nothing and look down at the sidewalk.

From the east, the sun burns the backs of our necks. We keep walking down the straight, narrow street until we get to the school. We cross the town’s last paved road. And there it stands: a building that looks like a military barracks at the western edge of town, temporary buildings one alongside the other, in a U shape in a fenced-off area. Behind them sand dunes all the way to the sea.

I push the gate open for both of us, and my mother’s hand squeezes mine. I take her arm and cradle it under my armpit. We enter. It’s recess. Outside, in the courtyard between the buildings, I see Pretty Ofra, who once showed me in the bathroom how she’d taken off her pubic hair with boiling wax. “Isn’t it nice? Touch it, it’s smooth like a baby’s ass,” she said, and took my hand in hers. The skin shrank and melted when I touched it, bald and crusty. “You burned yourself!” I withdrew my hand in terror.

Ofra is sitting next to Yossi Feigel, whose mother is a Yemenite and whose father is a Ukrainian basketball player. They’re sitting with Gabi Atedgi and Sima Brazani. Sima is wearing a ton of makeup; her father hit her again because she came home late. She’s sitting in Gabi’s lap, and he blows a heart-shaped smoke ring towards her every time she pulls on his earlobes and laughs.

“Hey, sexy!” Pretty Ofra whistles at me, and they laugh. “Want to hitchhike with me later to the beach?”

I smile and turn away from them, hurrying my mother along, pulling her behind me to the principal’s office. Mom almost trips.

“Slower, Ayala. Khalas, I almost fell.”

The principal’s office is crowded and cramped. Teachers and students are going in and out. A secretary sits behind a desk. Mom and I sit on two white plastic chairs, up against the wall, and she sighs and says, “Tehersu li rezhliya mil-mashia.” I stroke her soft, soft face and press my finger to her lips.

We are silent. I can’t stop messing with my chair. Making noise, moving around, shifting it so it’s closer to Mom’s chair. So there is no space between them, so they will be like one long bench.

The bell rings, and the commotion in the principal’s office stops suddenly. Outside, the sounds of doors slamming, running, quick steps, distant laughter. A terrible quiet spreads through the room. We continue to sit and wait in this silence that is outside of time, until the secretary calls us to go in. I panic and remember the lipstick and tweezers. I take them out of my pants pocket and ask Mom to look at me, and I quickly apply some lipstick to her pale lips. She smiles, embarrassed.

“She’s waiting for you,” the secretary tries to hurry us along, “this isn’t a beauty salon.”

“One more minute.” I close the tube of lipstick, take out the tweezers and tweeze some of Mom’s stray eyebrow hairs. “Too bad I didn’t bring blue eyeshadow, so the principal could have seen you have blue eyes,” I tell her.

The secretary’s patience runs out. She stands up, opens the door to the principal’s room, and waits. Mom and I cross the threshold. The secretary closes the door behind us and disappears. We are greeted by the unfamiliar chill of air conditioning.  Blue curtains cover the windows, so that the sunlight that enters the room is stifled, like a sob.

“Please have a seat, Mrs. Ben Lulu. Sit down please,” the principal says. She’s sitting on a black office chair and her right hand, which was resting in her lap, rises up and comes down hard on the dark wood desk. I hold Mom’s hand, and we both sit down across from the principal, on two metal chairs with coarse fabric seats.

“Hello, Mrs. Ben Lulu, I’m glad you came,” says the principal to Mom.

“Oh, hello,” Mom smiles at the principal awkwardly. On the wall behind the principal’s chair there is a wall hanging embroidered with the Mona Lisa. A thread has come unraveled from her right eye.  The principal takes off her glasses, leans back in the wide chair, folds her hands together and looks at Mom for a long time.

“Look, Mrs. Ben Lulu,” she says. “You are aware that despite the severe comments that Ayala has accumulated in her record, the Mishlav school was willing to accept her at the beginning of the year.”

“Yes, Ayala used to go to a school by our house.” She pronounces my name with emphasis on the ya, instead of the la, and I shudder.

“I keep on receiving complaints about her, and I’m starting to think that this school is no longer the appropriate place for her,” says the principal.

“Did she do something bad?” asks Mom.

“Just yesterday she lit a cigarette and smoked it in the classroom. And that is just one example out of many.”

“I didn’t smoke,” I burst out. “Gabi passed me the cigarette to pass to Feigel, who was standing by the window. They gave me a lit cigarette in the middle of class, I just got up to pass it on.”

“Please sit down,” the principal tells me. The Mona Lisa behind her looks at me. I want to get up and pull the thread from her eye, pull it so the embroidery unravels to reveal the woven skeleton underneath. The landscape with the blue river behind her has become a muddy path. I look down. I reach for Mom’s hand, which is in her lap. The principal keeps talking, her voice distant and muffled. My hand brushes over the back of Mom’s hand, my fingers squeezing hers until they find her wedding ring and grab onto it, turning it into the flesh, pulling it up until they reveal a pale, bloodless crack underneath, like the mark of a whip.

“She doesn’t behave at home, either, you think she behaves nice?” suddenly Mom is laughing. She jerks her hand out of mine under the table and pinches my cheek. “What can we do? Aywa, have patient with her, she’s a good girl.”

“Thank you very much, Mrs. Ben Lulu. Thank you very much for coming. I will ask the secretary to send you a letter summarizing this meeting,” the principal ends the conversation. She presses a button and calls the secretary.

We stand up at the same time and Mom tells me, “Be a good girl, naabi-bask. You’ll be good, right? But why did you send her to a school so far away?” Mom asks the principal, raising her voice a little.

I lead Mom back to our house, on the other side of town. Once again we cross over the whole city, from west to east. She is behind me, I hear the clunking of her wooden clogs against the sidewalk. The sun is pinned in the clear sky above our heads, and our short shadows on the sidewalk swallow each other up.

After we walk up Katznelson, Mom is out of breath and asks to stop and rest. We lean against a wall made of Jerusalem stone and I say, “Mom, you can continue on your own from here. Cross Jabotinsky Street and continue straight. When you get to Herzl you need to turn left, and there you’ll see the central bus station.” I gesture with my hand, to show Mom the way home, but she looks at me tired and confused. I continue walking with her. When we get to the central bus station, Mom smiles and says she knows the way. I give her two loud kisses, one on each cheek.

I start to hurry back to school. On the corner of Mohilever and Jabotinsky Streets I look back and see Mom standing there, lingering, still leaning on the pole of a bus stop.  I keep walking, almost running, without stopping until the end of the street that goes west, downhill to the school. In front of me, a shimmering barrier of heat rises from the black asphalt.


Click HERE to read the Hebrew version of this work in Granta Hebrew.

Ayala Ben Lulu is an Israeli poet, winner of the Teva prize for poetry. She holds a B.A. in psychology and an M.Sc. in history and philosophy of science and ideas. Her book “Shortened Childhood” (Pardes, 2013) earned the Israeli Minister of Culture prize. Her book “Taste of Daughter” (2016, Afik) won the Kesset Fellowship. In 2020 she will be publishing a book of prose with Kinneret Dvir Zmora Bitan as part of their “Side Wind” series, edited by Yigal Schwartz. Her prose manuscript was awarded a Toni and Stuart Young Fellowship by the Heksherim Institute. Ayala Ben Lulu works as an editor and a translator. She is a parent representative in the Tzachi Organization for special education. She is a member of the Tel Aviv leadership organization for parents of children with special needs.

Karen Marron is the production editor and a creative nonfiction editor of The Ilanot Review.




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