They say she is crazy.
She had come in a May morning, when the dawn still had the sharp smell of night bombings and the sky above the hill was stained black.
Gabriella stood there, in the middle of the road, staring at the barred shop-window of an old shop that had belonged to Abou Farouq, the hairdresser. He, too, had left a few months earlier, piling his wife, children and canaries onto a wagon; they saw him cry for each nail he hammered into the wooden planks that put an end to the work of a lifetime. But by then Jerusalem had become a cemetery that did not want to bury anybody who turned their eyes to Mecca.
Who knows how Gabriella had managed to reach the alley, that time. I had often wondered about that. Bab al-Khalil’s gate was still shut at that time, but she had managed to enter from the side street, holding a hammer and an aviary full of multicolored canaries.
Slowly, she had started to remove the planks and, as the road began to fill with people and daily activities, the shop had opened and the cage of twittering canaries was visible in the window, just like when Abou Farouq was still there.
At first, everybody was surprised, but in Jerusalem the time of astonishment lasts as long as a flash of lightning in a storm: it is the only way to deal with fear. And Gabriella Rosenberg was actually Jewish: it was normal for her to be able to take over an Arab’s shop. She will surely start some new business, people thought.
But this had not happened: Gabriella had kept the shop as it was, with the wooden hairdresser seat, a round mirror on the wall and the canaries in the window. The only difference was that she gave private violin lessons, in there.
She was a good musician, even though her melodies sounded as if they were filled with endless melancholy. Maybe, the violin’s heartbreaking soul was to blame.
They say she had been a promising violinist as a child, but then she and her family had to run away from Germany, just before the European cruelty started to feed the concentration camps.
The Rosenbergs had arrived in Jerusalem when the city still had a flicker of hope left. That was when Gabriella met Nabil, the son of her Arab neighbors. They had got married against everybody’s opinion. Against everything.
“Mom, what are you looking at out of the window?” the sleepy voice of Irene, standing in the doorway, pulls me from my thoughts.
“Nothing, honey. I was checking today’s weather.” I walk away from the window closing the curtain. I do not want Irene to see now. “I have made you some tea. Eat some breakfast, baby.” I pass her a cup and a piece of cake, on the table.
“Later, mom. I have to give water to the canaries first. They are all perched around the fountain. You should see how beautiful they are!” she tells me cheerfully, running to the sink.
“All right Irene, but hurry up or your tea will get cold.” I sigh as I watch her leave the kitchen.
Every evening, coming home from school, Irene would stop at Gabriella’s shop and sit in the window, next to the canaries, to watch her as she gave violin lessons before sunset. Maybe that is why Gabriella gave her the birds last night.
They say she went mad after he was forced to escape with his whole family. Insanity for love. But before tonight she had never done anything that could be regarded as dangerous. Yes, she gave violin lessons in an old hairdresser shop and every evening, at sunset, she set free a canary at Bal al-Khalil’s gate, always playing the same aria, Bach’s Chaconne.
The municipality had offered her financial support many times so that she could renovate the shop. It was the only one left in the street, with that lost look. All around, everything was sparkling again and business was picking up.
Next to Gabriella’s shop they had even opened a bank. The director had tried to convince her by promising her a music school that would be worth its name. But she had always refused. She is crazy, poor girl, people thought, but she will not last very long. They said that she could not resist any longer.
Last night she knocked at my door.
“Good evening, Mrs. Lubin. Is Irene here?” she asked me. She had a strange big aviary with her. Inside stood a perfect miniature house made of concrete, with a few steps and a porch. All around, there was grass, real grass, with a small fountain in the middle. A poplar sprout stood nearby. A real poplar. Inside the cage, about ten canaries chirped tirelessly, probably scared by that anomalous confinement.
“Of course, Miss Rosenberg.” I looked at the cage and did not know what to say.
She talked to Irene for a long time, there, still on the threshold. My kid just lit up as she watched that locked up house, and sometimes agreed nodding thoughtfully.
Then Gabriella left, leaving the aviary on the doorstep.
“It is mine. She gave it to me.” Irene told me.
Last night, Abou Farouq’s shop burned down.
Gabriella’s shop burned down.
They say she is the one who did it. Because she is crazy. They say that last night she was taken away, to Haifa, to some relatives. They say that there is a clinic where she can be treated, there. Who knows why she did it. However, if I think about it, fire can sometimes protect memories, because nothing will ever be the same afterwards. Even if you restore it exactly like it was.
“Mom” Irene is back. The canaries’ fountain is full now. “Tonight at sunset we have to set free a canary at Bab al-Khalil’s gate.” she tells me in a serious voice. “I will have to do it every evening until Gabriella comes back. I promised her. She had to go on a journey”.
My astonishment lasts less than a storm’s flash. “All right, honey.”
Gabriella may be just mad, but tonight, at sunset, a bird is going to fly again beyond Bab al-Khalil’s gate. It will be a flight without melody. Maybe, all is not lost.
Translation by Valentina Ornaghi (edited by Camilla Girardi)