Early in the Summer of 1970
I believe I must once again explore the moment when I first learned of his death.
A summer morning, the wide sky, June, the final days of school. I rise late, vaguely dazed, straight into the depths of light; I don't listen to the news, don't look at the paper. It is as though I had lost my sense of time.
I get to school late, vainly search the dim green air for a fading echo of the bell. I start walking through the empty playground, across the squares of light and shadow cast by the windows, past the drone of classes at work. And then, surprised, I discover that the principal is running after me, calling my name from a distance.
But by then I have nearly arrived at my class of seniors, whose muffled clamor rises from the depths of the empty corridor. They have shut the door to disguise the fact that I am not there, but their excitement betrays them.
Again the principal calls my name from the other end of the corridor, but I ignore him, open the classroom door on yells and laughter which fade into a low murmur of disappointment. By this time they had been sure I wouldn't show up today. I stand in the doorway waiting for them to sort themselves out, wild-haired, red-faced, in their blue school uniforms, scrambling back to their desks, kicking the small chairs, dropping Bibles; gradually the desk tops are covered with blank sheets of paper, ready for the exam.
One of them is at the blackboard erasing obscenities and a distorted likeness of me. They look me straight in the eye, impudent, smiling inwardly, but silent. For the present my gray hairs subdue them.
And then, as I walk softly into the room, the exam questions in my hand, the principal arrives, breathless, pale. All eyes are fixed on him but he does not even look at the class, he looks only at me, tries to touch me, hold me. He, who has not spoken to me for the past three years, is all gentleness now; he whispers, almost begging: “Just a moment . . . never mind . . . leave them . . . you've got to come with me. There's some sort of message for you . . . come. . . .”
For three years now no words have passed between us, we've looked at each other as though each of us were made of stone. For three years I haven't set foot in the faculty room either, haven't sat on a chair or had my morning tea there. I slip into the school grounds early in the morning, and during recess I wander up and down the corridors or around the playground—summers in a large, broad-brimmed hat, winters in a greatcoat with the collar turned up—floating back and forth with the students. I make my trips to the office long after school is dismissed, leave my lists of grades, get a new supply of chalk.
I scarcely exchange a word with the other teachers.
Three years ago I was due to retire, had resigned myself to the inevitable, and was even toying with the idea of writing a small handbook of Bible instruction; but the war broke out suddenly and the air about me was filled with the rumble of cannon and distant cries. I went to the principal to say that I was not going to retire, that I would be staying on until the war ended. After all, now that the younger teachers were being called up one by one he would need me more than ever. But he saw no connection whatever between the war and me. “The war is all but over,” he told me with a curious smile, “and you deserve a rest.”
No rest came, however, but a fierce summer, and flaming headlines. Two of our graduates, very young, were killed, one a day after the other. And again I went to him, deeply agitated, hands trembling, and informed him in halting phrases that I did not see how I could leave them now—that is to say, now that we were sending them to their death.
But he saw no connection whatever between their death and me.
The summer vacation started and I could find no rest, day after day in the empty school, hovering about the principal's outer office, waiting for news, talking with parents, questioning them about their sons, watching students in army uniform come to ask about their final grades or to return books to the library, sniffing the fire-singed odor in the far distance. And again, another death, unexpected, a former student quite a bit older, much loved in his time, from one of our first graduating classes, killed by a mine on a dirt-track. I went back to the principal again, shocked, beaten, telling him, “You see,” but he tried to brush me off; he had ordered my pension forms prepared, had already planned a farewell party—which of course I declined.
A week before the start of the new school year I offered to work for nothing if only he would give me back my classes, but he had already signed on a new teacher and I was no longer on the staff.
School opened. I arrived in the morning, carrying a briefcase, books, chalk, ready to teach. He spotted me near the faculty room and made anxious inquiries: What had happened? What was I doing here? But, on the spur of the moment, I did not reply, did not even look at him, as though he were a stone. He thought I had gone out of my mind, but in the turmoil of the new school year had no time to deal with me. And meanwhile my eyes had discovered the new teacher, a thin, sallow young man. He entered the classroom, I lingered a moment and entered on his heels. “Excuse me,” I said with a little smile, “you must be mistaken, this isn't your class,” and before he had time to recover I had mounted the platform, taking out my tattered Bible. He stammered an apology and left the room, and as for the dazed students who hadn't ever expected to see me again, I gave them no chance to say a word.
When after a few moments the principal appeared, I was deep in the lesson, the class listening, absorbed. I would not budge.
I stayed in the room during recess, planted in a crowd of students. The principal stood waiting outside, but did not dare approach. I would have screamed, right in front of the students I would have screamed, and well he knew it; there was nothing he feared as much as a scandal.
By sheer force I returned to teaching. I had no dealings with anyone but the students. For the first few weeks I scarcely left the school grounds, I haunted them even at night. And the principal followed in my wake, obsessed, dogging my steps, talking, appealing to me, holding, stroking, threatening, reproaching, invoking common values, good fellowship, our many years as colleagues, suggesting that I write a book, prepared even to subsidize it, sending delegates to intercede with me. But I would not reply—eyes on the ground, or on the sky, or on the ceiling; frozen like a statue on the street corner, in the corridor, in the empty classroom, by the gate to my front yard, or even in my own easy chair at home, where he would come to talk to me in the evening. Till at last he gave up in despair.
He had meant to drag me into his office, but I did not wish to move out of the range of my students. I stepped a few paces into the corridor and halted, and before the attentive gaze of the students I wrung it out of him.
Some five or six hours ago—
In the Jordan Valley—
Killed on the spot—
Could not have suffered—
Haven't broken it to his wife yet, or to the
I am the first—
He had put my name on the army forms and for some reason given the school as my address.
Must be strong now. . . .
And then the darkness. Of all things, darkness. Like a candle, the sun going out in my eyes. The students sensed this eclipse but could not move, were unprepared for my needing help, while the principal talked on and on as though he had rehearsed this piece of news for the past three years. Until suddenly he uttered a little cry.
But I had not fainted, only slumped to the floor and had at once risen to my feet again, unaided; and the light, though still dim, returned to me again, in the empty classroom, seated on a student's chair, people thronging the room, teachers rushing in from nearby classrooms, curious students, office workers, the janitor, people who had not spoken to me these three years. Here they were all coming back, some with tears in their eyes, surrounding me, a whole clan, breaking my loneliness.
He had returned from the United States three months earlier, after an absence of many years. Arrived with his family late at night, on a roundabout flight by way of the Far East. For six hours I waited at the airport, thinking at the end that they wouldn't arrive at all, that I would have to go back as I had come. But at midnight—by that time I was dozing on a bench in the corner—they came, emerging from the obscurity of the runway, not as if from an airplane, but looking rather as though just back from a hike; rumpled and unkempt, heavy rucksacks on their backs, in one of them a white-faced toddler who looked at me with gentle eyes.
I hardly recognized my son in him. Bearded, heavy, soft—my son's hair was already sprinkled with gray, and in his movements there was some new slowness, a tranquility. He, whom I had already given up as a confirmed bachelor, coming back a husband, a father, almost a professor. I was dazzled by him. Then he brought his wife forward, in pants, a slim girl, enveloped in hair, in a worn, tasseled garment, one of his students presumably; and then she leaned toward me and smiled, her face clear. Very beautiful. At that moment anyway I found her so beautiful, touching me with cool transparent fingers.
My heart overflowing, I rose at once to touch them, kiss them, kiss the child at least, but he was too high for me, hovering up there in the rucksack, and as soon as I touched him he started talking in English, and the slim girl student joined in as well, a shower of words, in two voices, pouring their incomprehensible English over me. I turned to my son for illumination, and he listened with a smile as though he, too, could not take it in at first, then told me that they were amazed by the resemblance between us.
And afterward the customs check, a long, remorseless affair, as though they were suspected of something, myself looking on from afar, watching all their parcels being taken apart. And when at last we started on the journey home, in a dark taxicab, through a gradually lightening spring night, the baby was already drooping with sleep, like a plucked flower, huddled in his rucksack between the two of them on the front seat; while I, behind them, amid the luggage—a guitar, a typewriter, rolled-up posters—watched the loosely-tied parcels softly fall apart.
My son fell asleep at once, enfolding his sleeping son, but my daughter-in-law was surprisingly wakeful. She did not look at the road or at this land she had never seen before, or at the stars or the new sky. Instead, her whole body turned toward me, sitting in the back; her hair tumbling over my face, she fired questions at me, asking about the war: what do people here say, and what do they really want, as though accusing me of something, as though in some furtive way I enjoyed this war, as though there existed some other possibility. . . .
That, or at least something like it, for I had great difficulty understanding her, I who never learned English, but picked up what I knew from the air—literally from the air, from English lessons wafting in from adjacent classrooms while the hush of an examination lay on my own, or while pacing empty corridors waiting my turn to enter the classroom.
And I strained to understand her, exhausted as I was from the long night's vigil. My son sleeping on the front seat, a heavy mass, his head nodding, and I alone with her, observing the delicate features, the thin, eyeglasses she had suddenly donned, such an intellectual, maybe this New Left thing, and for all that a trace of perfume, a faint scent of wilted flowers coming off her.
In the end I opened my mouth to answer. In an impossible English, an astounding mixture which I myself concocted, laced with Hebrew, obeying no rules, and she momentarily taken aback, trying to understand, falling silent at last. Then, softly, she began to sing.
We arrived at my place, and though worn out they showed the sudden efficiency of seasoned travelers, shed their sandals by the door and walked about barefoot. Swiftly they unloaded their luggage. They picked up the sleepy child and quickly, both together, undressed him, put him in some kind of stitched-up sheet like a little shroud, and laid him on my bed. Then, as though suddenly discovering the immensity of their fatigue, they began to undress right in front of me, moved half naked through the small flat, dawn breaking. They spread blankets over the rug, and I glimpsed her bare breasts, very white, and she sent me a tired smile, and all at once I lost my own sleepiness, all desire for sleep. I shut the door on them and began to wander about in the small area left me, waiting for the sun's first signs. They had fallen into a deep sleep, and before I left for school I went over and covered their bare feet. At noon I returned very tired and found them still sleeping, all three of them. I had lunch by myself, lay down beside the child who was wet by now and tried to get some sleep, but failed. I got up and began to search through their luggage, to see what they had brought, a book perhaps, or a magazine, but after a few minutes my hands wearied.
Toward nightfall I could bear their silence no longer. Softly I opened the door and approached them. They lay apart, submerged, catching up on the time they had lost in their journey ’round the world. Once again I bent down to cover my daughter-in-law's feet, but I turned back the blanket under which my son lay.
Little by little he awoke, naked, hairy, heavy, his breathing labored, opened his eyes at last and discovered me in the half-light standing over him, looking down. He gave a brief start as though for an instant not recognizing me. “How are things with you?” he whispered from the floor.
“Still at school, every morning, the principal doesn't say anything,” I whispered in one breath.
For a moment he was puzzled, even though I used to write to him about everything, devotedly, all the details. Perhaps he never read my letters. The silence grew, no sound except the breathing of the young woman by his side who had thrown off her blanket again. Little by little he recovered his composure, slowly pulled the blanket over him self. His eyes smiled.
“And you're still teaching Bible there? . . .”
(Already he had nothing to say to me.)
“Yes, of course. Only Bible.”
“In that case,” still smiling, “everything's as usual.”
“Yes, as usual,” and another long silence. “Except of course for my pupils getting killed,” I spat out the words in a whisper.
He closed his eyes. Then he sat up, huddled in his blanket, his beard wild, picked up a pipe and thrust it in his mouth, began to muse, like an ancient prophet, explaining to me that the war wouldn't go on, hadn't I noticed the signs, couldn't go on any longer. And now his wife woke up also, sitting beside him, draping herself, like him, in the blanket, offering me a smile full of light, ready to make contact, join the conversation, explain her viewpoint right then and there, without pausing to get washed or to have coffee, her eyes still heavy with sleep, in the shimmer of spring twilight, in the littered room filled with their warmth.
Striding through the corridors to the office, a little mourning-procession, I in the middle, like a precious guest, a captive. And classroom doors open a crack as though under the pressure of the studies within, and teachers’ faces, blackboards, students' faces, the entire school watching me as though discovering me anew.
The principal insists on accompanying me home. Abandons the school, his humming empire, and takes my arm in the street, carries my briefcase, my jacket, the tattered Bible. There are tears in his eyes, as though not my son but his had fallen. At every crossing I try to detach myself. That's enough, I say, but he insists on tagging after me as if afraid to leave me alone. At my gate, under a blue morning sky, we come to a halt at last, sit down like two large gray moss-grown rocks, with the words of condolence that he does not believe in and I do not hear hanging above us like a vapor.
Finally, silence, his last word spent. I collect my things from him—jacket, Bible, briefcase—urge him to return to his students, but still he refuses to take his leave, as though detecting signs of a new collapse in me, in my silence. I stretch out my hand and he grasps it and does not let go, seizes me in a tight grip as though unable to part from me ever again.
I leave him by the gate, enter, and discover an unfamiliar kind of light in my flat, the light of a weekday morning. I let down the blinds (he is still standing by the gate), undress, and take a shower, knowing that people will be coming close to me this day, touching me. For a long time I stand naked under the streaming water, my head throbbing, trying to tell his wife of his death in broken, water-swept English. I cleanse and purify myself, put on clean underwear, find a heavy black suit in the wardrobe and put it on. I peer through the blinds and see the principal still standing by the gate, rooted to the spot, sunk in thought, detached. And then I tidy up the room, disconnect the telephone, let down the remaining blinds and all of a sudden, as though someone had given me a hard push, fall down sobbing on the rug where they had lain that night. And when I get up it is as though the darkness had spread. My temples ache. Softly I call to the principal who is no longer there, who has departed and left the street empty, open to all.
Afterward, supper on the porch, on a spring evening filled with scents, under the branches of a tree in flower. The three of them sit there, pink-cheeked, gorged with sleep, and I, very tired, knees trembling, bring them bread and water. From their knapsacks they have produced cans left over from their travels and have spread a meal for themselves as though they were still camping along the road—a pause between two way stations. And the toddler still in his white shroud, sitting upright, clear-eyed, prattling endlessly, arguing with the crickets in the garden.
My son, engrossed in his food, displays a sudden ravenous appetite—rummages among the cans, slices up bread, his eyes moist. In vain I try to sound him out about his work, what exactly is he researching, what he intends to teach here, whether he has perhaps made some new discovery. He sits there and smiles, begins to talk, flounders, has difficulty explaining, doesn't think I'd understand. Even if he gave me something to read on the subject, he doubts that I could follow it, especially since it is all in English. It is a matter of new kinds of experiments, a cross between history and statistics, the methods themselves so revolutionary. . . .
He goes back to his food, his beard filling with crumbs, his head bent, chewing in silence. And I sink down before him, drawn to him—over twenty-four hours without sleep—and begin to speak to him softly, desperately, in a burning voice, about the endless war, about our isolation, about the morning papers, about the inattention of my students, about the bloodshed, about my long hours in front of the classroom, about history disintegrating. And all the while the child runs on, in non-stop English, babbling and singing, beating with his knife on an empty tin can. The night fills with stars, and my daughter-in-law, wide-eyed, restless, smiles at me, does not understand a word I say but is nonetheless very intent, nodding her head eagerly. Only my son's attention wanders, the familiar absent look in his eyes, unhearing, already elsewhere, alien, adrift. . . .
The night grows deeper and deeper. Every hour on the hour I turn on the radio for the news, and the announcer's voice beats harsh and clear into the darkness. My son curses at someone there who doesn't see things his way, then gets up and starts pacing in the yard. The child has fallen silent, sitting bent over huge sheets of paper, painting the night, me, the crickets he has yet to see. My daughter-in-law, at my side again, has still not despaired of me and my English. She talks to me slowly, as if I were a backward pupil, her summery blouse open, her hair gathered at the back, a black ribbon encircling her forehead—still very much the student, of the kind I might have fallen in love with many years, aeons, ago, pursued in my heart, year after year.
And the night draws on, like a kind of intoxication, and the dew begins to rise. Then in a sudden burst of enthusiasm she decides to sleep outside, brings blankets from the house and covers up the child who has fallen asleep with his head on his papers, puts a blanket over me as well, and over her husband, and curls up in his lap; he then, already puffing at his pipe, and thinking his own thoughts, he whose heart there is no knowing, exchanges a few rapid sentences with her in English, kisses her with frightening intensity.
I try to talk them into staying with me another day, but they cannot, must start getting organized, find an apartment, a nursery school for the child. I take leave of them, pick up the radio and go inside, get into bed and fall asleep at once. And at daybreak, half in a dream I see them loading their bundles into a black taxicab, on their way to Jerusalem.
And shortly afterward among the Jerusalem hills, drenched in a hard, painful, impossible light, I make my way to my dead son's house in a former border slum which has been raised up from the dust. Cobbled alleys have been paved over, ancient water holes connected to the sewerage, ruins have been turned into dwellings, and in the enclosed courtyards babies crawl. I find the place at last, touch the ironwork door and it opens, and I lose my breath because the news has caught in my throat. Softly I enter an apartment turned upside-down for cleaning—bunched-up curtains, chairs propped up on tables, flowerpots on the couch. Broom, dustpan, bucket, rag, strewn about the room. The radio blares Arabic in a great lilting chorus and drums, heroic songs. An Arab cleaning woman, very old, is wildly beating a red carpet. His wife is not there, nor is the child. My strength is ebbing, I stumble over the big tiles worn smooth by generations. And from great depths, through the loud singing, I try to dredge up forgotten Arabic words “Ya isma'i . . . el wallad . . . ibni . . . maath . . .” (listen . . . the child . . . my son . . . dead . . .).
It is amazing that my cry does not frighten her, that she understands at once that I belong here, that I am entitled to be here—perhaps she perceives traces of others in my features. Slowly she approaches me, carpet-beater in hand, an old crone (where did they dig her up?), her face crumpled, deaf apparently, for the radio is still going full blast. Again I shout something, point to the radio, and she goes over to it at once, stoops by an elaborate device, turns the knobs till the singing dies down and only the sound of drums still rumbles from some hidden speaker. Then she turns back to me, a withered monkey, bent, swathed in skirts, her head covered with a large kerchief, waiting.
“Ibni . . .” I try again and fall silent, tears choking me. I begin to move through the apartment, among upturned chairs, dripping flowerpots, cartons (still not unpacked), transformers, records, exploring amid this American clutter the apartment I never knew, and she in my wake, with the thudding drums, barefoot, still holding the carpet-beater, picking things up from under my feet, moving chairs, letting down curtains, and increasing the confusion beyond repair.
I reach the bedroom and find the bedding in disorder, long dresses strewn about, the imprint of her body on the sheet, the pillow; and in a corner still the unvarying cartons, one on top of another.
The place will have to be arranged for mourning.
I sit down on the bed, studying the vaulting lines, begin to figure out the structure of the building; the old woman is by my side, concerned that I not be left alone, wanting to help, to serve me, hoping I might lie down, perhaps, so that she might cover me. Once more I try to explain very softly.
“Ibni maath . . . walladi. . . .”
Finally she understands. “El zreir?” (the little one?) she asks, as though I had many sons.
I stand up in despair and try to send her away, but she has already grown attached to me—such faithfulness—because I am such an old man, perhaps; she awaits orders, apparently used to never understanding what is said to her in this house, but totally overcome when she sees me begin to tidy up the room—folding the bedclothes (I discover a telephone among the twisted blankets and disconnect it), spreading a rug over the bed, returning clothes to cartons and discovering in one of them a horde of diapers, great new stacks of them in transparent wrappers, as if they had planned to beget an entire tribe.
And in the next room still the beating of drums.
The old woman is restless, fidgets about, wanting to help and not knowing how, begins to speak suddenly, or to sob, or scream, repeats the same phrase over and over, tirelessly, till I understand. She thought I had meant the child.
“La, la, la zreir” (no, no, not the little one). I lean toward her, breathing the scorched smell of dead bonfires in her clothes, “Abuhu . . .” (his father . . .).
But at this she seems stricken tenfold:
“Eish abuhu . . .?” (how, his father . . .?)—stunned, unbelieving, taking a step backward.
But I am seized with a sudden anxiety for the child, want to look for him, want to bring him back home at once. Instantly she grasps my intention, and pulls me to the door; on the doorstep facing the little alleys, gesturing and yelling, she shows me the way to the nursery school.
A room swept with sun, smelling of bananas—the story hour; in a circle, tiny chairs, arms folded, all in blue. I haven't identified him yet—all of them very still, listening raptly to the slow, confident, melodious voice of a little teacher. It is years since I have known so deep a silence among children, had not imagined them capable of it.
Dropping into all this, me, in black, flushed, stepping over piles of huge blocks, still trying to spot him. Something cracks in me, here of all places, and I want to sink down beside the little towels hung up in a row, under the paintings scattered on the wall. Then the short cry of the teacher.
A misfortune in our family—
But she, pale, misses the name, thinks I am rambling, thinks I belong at another nursery school perhaps; but then he stands up, rises like a slender stalk from his place, arms still folded, very grave, silently admits to the connection between us, listens to the teacher who has suddenly understood, has gone over to put her arms around him, addresses him in English, picks him up, lifts him out of the circle.
At once the little lunch-box is hung round his neck, a blue cap placed on his head; he asks for something in his language and is immediately given a painting he made that morning, and through the mist that veils my eyes I see—the page is filled with a red sun showering sparks in all directions. His little hand in mine, my fingers closing over it. They have given him to me, though I have told them scarcely anything and could have been any old man entering a nursery school and wanting to take away a child.
Back in their apartment. Soundless, barefoot, the Arab woman pads about the kitchen. The child is with her, eating an early lunch. Now and then a few soft phrases reach me, she talking in Arabic, he answering her in English. Distant noises from the open windows. We are waiting only for her. Everything will be turned upside down here in a day or two, people will fill the rooms. In a month or two nothing will remain. She will stow the child in a rucksack and go back to where she came from. I find his study, go in and shut the door. It is dim and cool in here. Stacks of books on the floor, the desk littered with papers. He left everything as it was and went to the army. Confusion of generations. I walk around his desk, lightly touch his papers. Who could make order out of this chaos—it is fifteen years since I last inspected his school notebooks. Vainly I try to let in some light, but the blind is stuck, refuses to open. I come back to the desk. What had he been working on, what was he planning, how do I link up with all of this? I touch the first layer and at once telephone bills, electric bills, university circulars, come fluttering down. I peel off a second layer—accounts, thick unfamiliar magazines in English, pictures of men posing for advertisements, some half naked, all of them long-haired, fat and lean revolutionaries displaying unusual ties or striped trousers, small electrical appliances of doubtful purpose. Suddenly I find a pipe of his, the smell of unknown tobacco. Tokens of my son's mystery. Son, child of mine. Another dizzy spell. My eyes grow dim. I return to the window and try with all my might to pull the blind loose. Motes of light, a thin current of air; through the slats I catch an unfamiliar view of a valley, and beyond it some new university buildings. I return to my rummaging in his desk: transcripts sent by colleagues; tables of statistical data. These also I shall have to try and read. Notes in his handwriting, titles of books. New ideological manifestoes. I stuff some of this into my pockets. And now something genuinely his, a sheaf of papers in his handwriting, half in English, half in Hebrew, entitled “Prophecy and Politics.” A new book perhaps, or an article. I pull open drawers, perhaps there will be a personal diary as well, but they turn out to be almost empty. More pipes, a broken camera, old bottles of pills, and snapshots of his girl-wife—by some trees, by a hill, a car, a river. And behind the pictures, in a far corner of the drawer, I find a sharp little penknife, inscribed with the word peace.
The front door opens, and the house fills with the sound of light steps and with her laughter. The child's singsong, then the hectic whispering of the Arab woman. Now light streams in at me from the opening door. And she—in a light dress, still hot and sweaty from walking, her bag on her shoulder, sunglasses covering her eyes, very much the tourist. She stands there surprised at the depth of my intrusion, attempts a smile for me at once, but I am buried in the chair, behind the desk, black-suited, heavy, the knife between my fingers.
She takes a few quick steps toward me but suddenly stops, having sensed something; dread seizes her, as though she perceives the marks of death upon me.
“Something wrong—” her voice trembles, as though it were I on the point of death, concealing a mortal wound beneath my garments.
And I straighten up, drop the knife; a burst of hot light hits me; I begin to move past her, mumble the morning's tidings in an ancient, biblical Hebrew, and know she will not understand—the words dart back at me. I am filled with pity for them, stroke the child's hair, incline my head before the old Arab woman, and am drawn onward to the hot light in the rooms, through the still open front door, toward the looming valley, to the university. I will have to enlist their help.
In a straight line, almost as the crow flies, I cross the valley toward the university, and in a tangle of thicket, at the bottom of a teeming ditch, for a moment I lose sight of the sky. Suddenly I think of you and you alone, ardently, hungrily. My son killed, mine only son. Out of the depths I cry, noon is passing, the Sabbath is near, and in Jerusalem they still know nothing of your death. Your wife has not grasped the news. I was wrong, I should have let the authorities perform their duty.
Rocks here, and a very steep slope, and bushes growing out of an invisible earth tangling underfoot. Who would have imagined there could be such a wilderness so close to the university?
At last I have seen your papers. You were mistaken to think I would not understand, I understood at once, and I am inspired, inflamed, in despair. You came back a prophet. I am at one with you, son of man, I have filled my pockets with your notes, I shall learn English properly, go up into the mountains and wait for the wind.
I crash through the barbed-wire fence surrounding the university, behind one of the marble buildings, a gnarled branch in my hand; it is a long time since I have been here, and I am confounded by the complex of buildings. I start looking for your department, wander along corridors, among cylinders of oxygen, dim laboratories, small libraries, humming computers, while the campus empties before my eyes.
Outside the main library, defeated, I accost a hurrying, book-laden professor, but he has never heard your name and, embarrassed, he shows me the way to the faculty offices. There a flock of clerks, on the verge of leaving, listen attentively, advise me that the switchboard is already closed and they are not authorized to handle such matters, perhaps I had better go to the police. And suddenly I realize that they take me for a madman, or for one of those perpetual students, a crank trying to draw attention to himself—in a black suit, dusty, clutching a branch. The branch in particular seems suspicious.
I throw it away at once, in the middle of the square, and hurry back to the faculty building, into a lighted lobby with tiers of balconies. On the topmost balcony a stout porter moves about letting down the blinds. From down below, shouting, I ask him about you, and he has heard your name, knows you by sight at least. “The professor with the wild beard,” he says, and comes down, jangling his keys, then takes me up to your office at the end of a corridor. On the door I find a long list of students who want to consult you, next to it a typed notice of your absence due to reserve duty, and down the side a list of books you have assigned pending your return. I turn all these papers over and across the blank expanse write a first death notice, my beloved. The porter reads over my shoulder and at once brings me additional thumbtacks to fasten the papers to the door.
We descend the stairs, and I tell him all about you, our steps echoing in the empty building. The dusky light is pleasant, gentle to the eyes; I hang back, wavering, I would linger here awhile, but the porter, suddenly impatient, turns me out firmly, back into the sun.
From a great distance, beyond the summer clouds, as from an aerial photograph I look down upon myself. A tiny speck, abandoning the pale cubes of the university buildings and rolling slowly through a great splash of asphalt. An intersection. And all about—the heart of the government, a pile of offices, the red-hued parliament, the sheer white museum, pine trees like soft moss, hills eroded at the edges, blasted rock, ribbons of road one on top of the other. A black dot comes spewing smoke from the east, stops beside the speck, and swallows it.
It is an old taxi, some charred relic, and I drop onto torn and sweaty upholstery and give the driver my directions.
South. Through the stifling air one sees the stubbornness. Cemetery Mount, twisted lines of graves like a wild scrawl, and on all sides more buildings, housing projects, scaffolds, cranes. Houses coupling with houses. The Kingdom of Heaven by dint of stone. The driver—an unshaven boor, ageless, cracking sunflower seeds—hums beneath his breath, peers at me constantly in his mirror, ready for talk. But I shut my eyes.
The taxi worms its way down the slope, leaving a thick trail of exhaust behind it. The hospital comes into view. A red rock was dropped there once and became a windowed dam, hushed in the midday air: a small helicopter hovers above it like a bird of prey.
I doze, dream. The car rattles, its doors shake, the windows slide down. The hum of the springs sends the driver's spirits soaring and, having given up on me, he starts singing aloud, unashamed, banging vigorously on the steering-wheel.
But I am on the heights, scanning the view. Long valleys stretch from Jerusalem to Mount Hebron, pouring themselves out, delving into the bare eternal hills. Olive groves, stone fences, flocks of sheep, the beauty of it, ancient kingdom unchanging for thousands of years, and in the same glance, higher up, the sea is revealed and the mouth of the desert. This fearful land seizes me mightily.
I touch the driver lightly, and his singing is cut short at once. I begin to talk. He does not understand at first, thinks I have gone out of my mind. But over the short distance remaining to the hospital I succeed in telling him the essentials.
Yes, at thirty-one—
My only son—
They were waiting for me, as indeed they had said they would this morning; in the heart of the tiled compound, in the heart of the mountains, an army chaplain, burly, his beard red and savage, a prophet clad in khaki stands against the sun, waiting. When I arrive in my taxi he spots me at once, as though tragedy had marked me out already, hurries to catch me before I vanish through one of the glass doors gaping on all sides.
“You the father?”
“I am the father.”
He is astounded. His eyes burn. How can it be? How could they have let me come alone? For it isn't merely a matter of identification but of the final leave-taking as well.
I know, but have no answer—only cling to him with speechless fervor. At last a real rabbi, a man of God at my disposal. Silently I attach myself to his sweat-stained clothes, lightly touch his officer's insignia, and he, surprised at my clutching hands, surprised too at my weakness, palpable through my hot clothes, puts his arm around me in embarrassment, his shoulders sagging, tears in his eyes, and slowly, in the same embrace, he turns me toward the sun's radiance pouring out of the west, and softly pulls me inside.
An enormous, empty elevator; at once we sink slowly to the depths, no longer touching each other, he beside the panel of buttons, I in the far corner, an empty stretcher between us.
He listens, his head to one side, his face blank, his eyes extinguished. I am apparently talking again, not listening to myself, mechanically, probing the pain, the words happening far away, on some vague horizon, words already spoken several times today: thirty-one years old, almost a professor. Only son, though saw little of him these past few years. Only a few months back from the United States, grown a beard, hardly recognized him. Beloved son. Now he leaves his wife, an American, young, obscure. Leaving a child. Leaving manuscripts, unfinished research, cartons scattered through his house. Enough to drive one mad. Our children getting killed and we are left with their possessions. . . .
I am still speaking of him as though he were far away, lying in some desert somewhere, as though he weren't a couple of yards from me, as though I weren't moving toward him in a slow but certain fall, arrested at last with a soft jolt that kindles the chaplain's eyes anew. The doors part automatically before us.
He grabs me. I must have shown signs of wanting to slip away. He leads me through lighted corridors, a basement filled with the breathing of engines. In the passages sudden gusts of wind assault us. In a small office people rise to greet us, doctors, officials, bow their heads when they see me enter, close their eyes for an instant. Some retreat at once, begin to slip off, some, on the contrary, are drawn toward me, want to touch me. The chaplain whispers: “This is the father, he's come alone,” and I, terrified, start mumbling again, the familiar litany. At once someone steps nearer, to listen, and a hush falls.
There is a wonderful gentleness in their attitude toward me, the way they place me in a chair, put a skullcap on my head, the swiftness with which they extract the identity card from my clothes, make a note of something, open a side-door; when they help me up I feel weightless, floating, led by their hands into a chamber with a bare concrete floor, hospital screens everywhere, the beating of white wings.
There is the unmistakable sound of rushing water in the room, as from underground springs.
The child. This curse fallen upon me.
Someone is already standing beside one of the screens, draws a curtain aside, turns the blanket down, and I am still at a distance, suffused with a dreadful curiosity, my breath faint, fading, heart almost still, slip from the hands holding me, glide softly, irresistibly, to look at the pale face of a murdered youth, naked under the blanket, at thin lines of blood encircling blank, half-open eyes. I shrink back slightly, the skullcap slips from my head.
A deep hush. Everyone is watching me. The chaplain stands motionless, his hand in his lab coat, any moment now he will produce a ram's horn, blow a feeble blast.
“It isn't him . . .” I whisper at last with infinite astonishment, with growing despair, with the murmur of the water flowing in this cursed room.
Someone turns on more lights, as though it were simply a question of light. The silence continues. No one, I realize, wants to understand me.
“It isn't him,” I say again, say without voice, without breath, gasping for air, “You must have made a mistake. . . .”
At last they understand, and they are amazed. The chaplain falls upon a scrap of paper attached to the stretcher; he reads the name aloud.
“Only the name is right. . . .” Still whispering, I step back, and in the deep silence, the murmur of unseen flowing water, the sweet smell of decay, I return to the office which has already become my oasis.
Behind my back the chaplain begins to curse at someone and the group falls away.
Friday afternoon, and though I see neither sun nor mountains, I know—we are on the outskirts of town, deep in the vault of a hospital that leans heavily into a wild, plunging wadi. The people around me want to go home, the nearer the Sabbath the further the town draws away from them. They had waited for me patiently, knowing the ceremony would be brief, a few seconds—enter, look, weep, part; sign a paper perhaps, because somewhere the evidence must be entered. I am not the first to come here after all, nor the last.
Now I am delaying them. How distressing to see people enter the room with lowered eyes, like guilty convicts. And when they see me sitting in the corner words fail them. Such a terrible mistake. Behind the walls I hear the whirring of bells, frantic telephoning. They are trying to sort out the confusion before I begin to nourish false hopes.
But I nourish nothing. I straighten up suddenly and stand on my feet, watching the others in silence. It is just a truce, I tell myself, a little cease-fire. They are dismayed at my rising, believe I am about to turn violent, are already resigned to it, but I am nothing of the kind; I start moving slowly and dazedly about the room, from one wall to another, like a dog, find a plate on a desk with a few stale biscuits, take one and start munching. I have eaten nothing since morning.
It sticks in my throat, like chewing dust or ashes, dust mingled with ashes. I begin to retch.
They have been waiting for this, they are ready, apparently they are accustomed to it. They sit me down at once, clean me off, offer smelling-salts.
“It isn't my son . . .” I mumble, my face drained of blood.
Again the chaplain appears, looking very somber, his eyes glowing, desperate, his beard unkempt, his cap awry, the badges on his shoulder shining; in a low voice he invites me to return to the chamber of the murmuring water.
Now I am confronted with three screens. The light is glaring, they have turned it up full thinking again that it is a matter of light, that by means of light I shall be convinced. Never has such a thing happened to them, and they suspect some fearful muddle may be at the bottom of it. And again I stagger. The shed blood. My son. This curse. And again my breathing grows faint, fades, my heart still. I glide softly from stretcher to stretcher, lost faces, young men, like the faces in my class, only the eyes closed, rolled slightly upward.
They take me back to the first stretcher again, as if really resolved to drive me out of my mind.
“I'm sorry. . . .” I falter and collapse against the chaplain, against the open water channels running along the walls that my eyes detect at last.
I believe I must explore again the moment I first learned of his death.
Summer morning, the sky torn wide from one end of the horizon to the other. June, the final days of school. I rise late, languid, faintly dazed, unaware of time, straight into the glare of light.
I climb the school steps after the bell has died. An echo still lingers among the treetops, in the dim green air. I walk through the emptying corridors, among the last stragglers hurrying to their classrooms, make my way slowly to my senior class, sense their nervousness already from afar, their restless murmuring.
Those huddling in the doorway spy me from a distance and curse, then hurry inside to warn the others. A last squeal from the girls. I am already in the doorway, and they stand tensely by their seats, the white sheets of paper spread on their desks like flags of surrender, their Bibles stowed away deep inside.
I greet them, they sit down. I call one of the girls and she approaches, long-haired, delicate, wordlessly takes the test papers from me, passes noiselessly between the rows distributing them. The silence deepens, heads bend. The frozen hush and excitement of a first quick appraisal.
I know; it is a hard test. Never before have I composed such a cruel examination.
Slowly they raise their eyes. Their faces start to burn, amazement seizes them. They exchange despairing glances. Some of them raise their hands, but I, standing over them high on my platform, cut them short with a gesture. They are dumbfounded, they fail to grasp my purpose. I silence them before they can utter a word, each of them forlorn in his seat. And suddenly, as though it were simply light they needed, someone gets up and pulls the curtains. But it is no help; the light trickling in only exasperates them further. They try writing something, nibble at their pens, then give up, a few already tearing up their papers. Someone rises and leaves the room with face aflame. Another follows, and a third; suddenly it seems they are rebelling.
At that moment the quick steps of the principal are heard, as though the news had reached him. He opens the door and enters, very pale, out of breath, does not look at the class but makes straight for me, mounts the platform, takes hold of me; for three years we haven't spoken and suddenly he clasps me to him hard, before the eyes of the astonished pupils. Whispers to me: Just a moment . . . leave them . . . never mind . . . come with me. . . .
One course of action: don't insist. Release these people, give them time; don't struggle against the waning sun, let the Sabbath descend in peace, let the rabbi go home. Depart for the time being, come down from the mountains, arrive in the evening, steal softly through our shadowy street. Enter the house through the back door, undress, don't think, don't speak, wait, the telephone disconnected, the door locked. Make the bed, try to sleep; wait for a new, more authoritative message.
A second choice: demand, shout, rend my garments. Assail the chaplain, the others, insist on immediate verification. Organize a search party, a procession through the streets of Jerusalem on Sabbath eve, from one hospital to the next, comb the cellars, descend into hell, find him.
Yet another choice: do nothing. Simply continue lying on this stretcher, covered with a blanket, in this hospital, in one of the small rooms. There, someone is already holding a glass of water to my lips.
I open my eyes. It is the chaplain, a wild, woebegone prophet, surrounded by doctors; he puts a glass to my lips with his own hands, with infinite tenderness.
He feels they owe me some explanation.
But he has none.
Groping in the dark.
Can't think of the words.
Nothing like this has ever happened to him.
The people here are also baffled.
Something very deep has gone awry.
Telephone calls will solve nothing, he knows. What must be done is to return to the sources: to the company, to the regiment, maybe even to the platoon itself.
My suffering is great, but who knows, perhaps out of it a new birth may come.
No, he had not wanted to use that expression, it is too weighty. He is very much afraid of raising false hopes.
There is a wonderful midrash, full of wisdom, only he's loath to trouble me now.
Such violent times, appalling.
Runs from one funeral to the next.
Nights, he sits at home composing eulogies.
And he bends over me: staying here, on this stretcher, rolled up in a blanket, serves no purpose. We ought to go to Jerusalem. If possible before the onset of the Sabbath.
He suggests therefore that I get hold of myself, that is, if I still have the strength left. That I remove the blanket, get off the stretcher. They won't leave me to wander about alone any more.
My status, incidentally, is dubious from the standpoint of religious law as well—should my garment be rent or not? To be on the safe side, to ward off false optimism, and again, before the Sabbath sets in.
He takes a small penknife from his pocket, removes the blanket from me, and as I lie there, with everyone looking on, he makes a long tear in my coat, next to my heart.
We start the ascent, out of the depths, in the same elevator and at the same slow speed, stumble out into the same compound and find a different light, different air, signs of a new silence. And as we climb up out of the valley, out of the heart of the mountains, the sun climbs with us, caught on the roof of the chaplain's small military car. He drives zealously, sounding his horn to the heavens, his beard blowing, the steering-wheel dug into his stomach; he hurtles in between near-empty buses, trying to overtake the Sabbath which descends upon him from the hazy eastern sky.
There is something desolate about the summery streets of Jerusalem vanquished by the Sabbath's might. I think of my house, of our street at this hour, decked in greenery, with a heavy perfume of blossoms, a swish of cars being washed, the water murmuring along the curb. Suddenly, there is a hint of autumn, clouds caught in pines and cypresses. We burst at a gallop into a large empty military camp spread out over a hill. At just that moment the Sabbath siren rises from the town like a wail. The chaplain stops the car at once, turns off the engine, lets his hands drop from the wheel, listens to the sound as if to some new revelation, then goes to find the person in charge.
But there is no one, only barracks with boarded-up windows, stretches of cracked and barren concrete, and small yellow signs with military post-office numbers. The army has migrated to the front lines and left only whitewashed remnants behind, and legends on blank walls: COMPANY A., MESS, QUARTERMASTER, SYNAGOGUE.
Torn, sagging wire fences, and weeds rustling underfoot. I trail behind the chaplain who walks around the barracks, knocks on imaginary doors, recedes from view, becomes lost and then reappears, his beard shining through the trees.
And I, who never served in the army, and in the War of Independence merely stood beside the roadblocks, double up at last on a rock in the center of a crumbling parade ground, the torn flap dangling on my breast, and the smell of ancient armies all around.
This sad hush around me—
And then, as though sprung from the soil, people collect about me, hairy half-naked soldiers, their shoelaces untied, carrying towels and tiny transistors purring Sabbath songs, weary drivers emerging from one of the barracks on their way to the shower. In the middle of the parade ground they silently surround me, and once again, dusty and tired, I tell the same story: thirty-one. Informed of his death this morning. Lecturer at the university. Left a wife and child. They know nothing yet. Came to Jerusalem myself to identify him, and then found—it's not him. . . .
The towels crumple in their hands—
“What do you mean, not him?”
“Not him. Not his body. Someone else's.”
“How should I know?”
“And what about him?”
“That's what I'm asking. Maybe you know someone who could help.”
They tremble. Something in the story has shaken them, hairy men with towels and soap-dishes, they silence the transistors at once, forget their shower, take me by the arms and raise me up, supporting me, cursing the army. Never in their lives have they heard of such a thing happening. One of them recalls having seen the jeep of the company's intelligence officer under a tree somewhere, and at once they take me there. In a grove, beneath the foliage, beside a locked barracks-turned-storehouse, the jeep stands, loaded with machine guns and ammunition, its front wheels grazing the door. They try to break down the door but fail, break a window, and peer into a dim room filled with boxes of ammunition. There in the corner a camp-bed. Someone leaps into the room and wakes up a boy in khaki, a lean officer, curled up like a fetus, in his clothes, shoes, a revolver on his thigh, asleep amid the explosives.
He wakes up at once, opens his eyes, and says nothing. They speak excitedly to him, shouting, pointing their fingers at me, standing fixed outside, by the window, like a frozen figure. But he does not look at me. He sits bent over on the bed in his crumpled clothes, indifferent to the general excitement. Only when the confusion of voices dies down, and the wind is suddenly heard whispering in the pines, does he begin to speak to me from a distance in a slow, quiet voice.
“What's your name?”
I tell him.
I tell him.
“And it's not him?”
“Who brought you here?”
His eyes darken, a lengthy silence, and at last very softly:
And what do you want?
To find him. . . .
He does not react, it's as if he'd fallen asleep again. He gets up, tired, dreamy, but suddenly, assuming the air of a general, he folds up the blanket, opens the door which he had locked from inside, goes out, and vanishes among the pines, into their soft whisperings. The drivers follow, find him by a rusty tap half buried under a drift of dead pine-needles, holding his head under it and letting the cool water splash over him. Then he steps aside, not looking, letting the drops trickle off him. Now the drivers are ready to hit him. But with the water drying, his eyes quickening, his head bent, he has made up his mind already, and in a quiet voice starts giving orders to the astonished men. He sends one to find the wandering chaplain, orders another to bring the jeep around and fill it with gas; the others have already seized me, lifting me up as though I were a paraplegic. They clear a place for me in the jeep, wedging me in among a greasy machine gun, cartridge cases, and grenades, put a helmet on my head, and secure the strap firmly under my chin.
Someone switches on the field radio by my side and it stirs into life with a thin shriek. Then, as though of its own accord, slowly, imperceptibly, the jeep begins to move. From somewhere, at the last minute, they have come up with the chaplain, also sweat-drenched, lost, burnt out, dreaming of his Sabbath. He too joins the slow procession, lagging a little behind. They are taking me away from him and he yields me up, gives the journey his blessing. What is to be done? He has found no one at headquarters, tried to get in touch with his superiors and failed. But he has left instructions behind, written out a detailed account.
He trudges behind the slow jeep, through the trees, the field radio humming. What else? What else is bothering him? It appears that something has turned up after all, the dead man's service file, lying on a table. And a sudden thought strikes him—maybe it's all a mistake, maybe only the name is the same but it's not my son. And maybe it would be wise if, before going down into the desert, I took a look at the picture at least. And he pushes a small khaki folder into my hands, and the men crowd around to look at it with me. I open it to the first page and find the picture of a slim boy, just out of high school, fifteen years back, my son, in khaki shirt, cropped hair, gazing at me with obstinate eyes.
The time is half-past-five in the afternoon. A tall antenna scratches the last of the sun over the treetops. A hesitant jeep crosses Jerusalem in search of a missing person, someone to nullify the purpose of its journey, and meanwhile an orange-red Jerusalem Sabbath is trampled under dusty wheels.
Passers-by stop to gaze at the elderly civilian, dressed in black, helmeted, his eyes red with weeping. There is something in the way I grip the machine gun that seems to menace these Jerusalemites—the Jews in the western half first, then the Arabs; as if I intended to mow them down, I who do not even know where the trigger is.
I ask the little officer.
He shows me.
I finger it.
And then the final collapse into Sabbath beyond East Jerusalem, the last signs of green dissolving, and the stark white of bare stone houses, of pale powdery soil at the roadside, bluish smoke from invisible fires in courtyards, and near them Arabs, glancing up and away from us. At last, my solemn and fully-armed entrance into the Jordan Valley, where I have never yet set foot. I look for signs of a dead, distant, biblical deity among the arid hills flanking the road, in the sun-cracked face of an elderly soldier raising the barrier.
Now, I have been waiting for this, I know, I know, a great burst of speed, a resurgence. The jeep spins forward, and the officer, as if wrestling, his lips set tight, eyes narrowed, starts driving wildly, greedily. I cling to the gun in the face of a great sweeping wind, thrust my hand into my clothes and start weeding out papers—bus tickets, old receipts, lists of students' names, notes from my son's desk, the draft of a speech, a copy of the morning's examination.
And then, at last, the army proper, in the failing light. The sad pellucid desert light dying over a camp of tents, barracks, tanks and half tracks, and immense towering antennas, and smoke spiraling from a chimney. Old, scorched soldiers in outsize overalls raise still another barrier before us, as though the desert were carved up by barriers. People crowd around, they were expecting us. They even run after the jeep.
“The old father's arrived!” someone shouts, as if I were a sacred figure.
Before long they have unloaded me, detached me carefully from the machine gun, loosened the cartridge-belt that has coiled itself around me, removed a bullet which I have inserted into the barrel by mistake. Then they lower me, dusty and old, my helmet askew, and lead me in the gathering darkness to their commanding officer.
Suddenly, far in the distance, beyond the hills, shots resound.
My heart freezes.
Such warmth in the touch of their hands on my body, such is their joy that a really old man has come among them, in a helmet, a civilian in their desert night. They dare to whisper, as if it were a sinful thought: “He's not been killed,” “It isn't he,” “You've been misled. . . .”
But the commander's voice asserts itself, carries firmly through the newly-fallen darkness, and although I can't see his face, listening to a voice I've heard before somewhere, a former student, doubtless, I nearly identify him, impossible that I should not—
The encounter took place at night (he says) and the body was transferred to the hospital before dawn. The men hardly know one another. Some of them haven't been with the unit for years. The clerk was given only an identity-tag to go by, and that's what set the documents moving. He never looked at the dead man's face. They just assumed everything was in order, up until about an hour ago, when the phone call came from headquarters in Jerusalem saying we were on the way. At once they put their entire radio network into action. The men are scattered over a huge area. They inquired about the name right away, was there anyone answering to this name, and then, just a while back, someone was found. A man of thirty-one, from Jerusalem. His serial number, too, corresponded to that of the dead man. That is, the tags must have got switched somehow. And they'll still have to get to the bottom of that. They asked no more questions, did not want to alarm him or tell him his family had already been informed. But they are certain it is my son. Bound to be. And so long as I'm here, maybe I'd better see him with my own eyes after all. That way everybody's mind will be at ease. And better before the night is through. Look, he's with the patrol, they'll be here soon, and they've already arranged for them to be waiting a little distance from here, so if I've come as far as this forward position . . . maybe I should go on just a bit further . . . that is, if I have the strength . . . Here, get up on this armored car. . . . The word had come down from command about my pluck, considering. . . .
Suddenly it strikes me. He is afraid of me. This silence of mine, the endless patience, the way I stand there facing him, limp, demanding nothing; the passivity with which I still wear the crushing helmet on my head. Something has gone wrong within his sphere of command and he is alarmed by the tyranny of my silence.
And again, from the distance—long volleys, strung out, echoes splintering.
This time it is a heavy half-track they take me to. They open an iron door, install me, seal the armored slits. Two or three soldiers clamber up and sit beside the machine guns, someone bends over the field radio and starts muttering.
With infinite slowness, lights extinguished, tracks churning, me cooped in an iron hutch, dark except for the glimmer of a tiny red bulb—I understand. We are returning to the Jordan, they want to send me over to the other side, take me to the source. All that has happened has been prelude.
Suddenly we stop. The engine falls silent. Someone lowers himself and opens the iron door from outside, releasing me. A junction of dirt-tracks, desert and yet non-desert, reeds and shrubs in a narrow ditch beside the road. And silence, no shooting, and a light breeze, and a star-studded sky. We wait. Crouched low upon stones beside the track, in the thicket. And once again I find myself delivered into new hands. Someone neither young nor old. An intelligent, sympathetic face, watching me intently, smiling. Something about me seems to amuse him, the helmet perhaps. I attempt to pry it loose. The smile persists. It turns out to be my age that bothers him.
“Seventy years old.”
Sabbath eve. Matches flicker on the half-track, cigarettes are lighted. The soldiers are talking in low voices, cursing softly, calculating the number of Sabbaths still remaining to them here. The field radio splutters feebly, someone distant signaling, “Can you hear me? Hear me?” but no one takes the trouble to reply.
What do I do?
I tell him.
He smiles. He had thought as much.
“It's my Hebrew,” I say quietly.
What about it?
“Some rhetorical flourishes still left, perhaps.”
No, he smiles, not at all, but the eyes, the expression in them. He used to have a history teacher with just the same look.
“And he looked like me?”
“Despite the difference?”
“Between history and Bible.”
“Why a difference?”
And I rise, the torn flap drops from my heart, I begin to explain with quiet fervor.
Then out of the vastness a murmur arises, and from the east or the west or the north—I have lost my bearings—the patrol arrives, shining, in a cloud of dust, two or three armored vehicles, with growing clatter, in the darkness, now and then casting a strong beam of light at the edges of the road, then playing about the arid hills and toward the sky.
And there, in that booming clatter, my son must be too. A thirty-one-year-old private whose desk is piled with research notes is now stuck in a half-track, beside a machine gun or mortar, flashing a beacon at me and aiming his gun my way.
Their beam falls on us.
Someone fires a shot in our direction. They have forgotten who we are, take us for infiltrators. Except that everyone begins to shout with all his might.
They would have killed us.
They pull up at some distance, two half-tracks and a tank, engines roaring, and the valley stirs into life. Vague night-shapes, the faces indistinguishable. The officer beside me goes to look for the man in charge. And I, in my darkness, rooted to the spot, scan the dim silhouettes and suddenly give up, convinced it is all for nothing, tremble in every limb, ready to admit to any identification at all.
A few of the soldiers jump off to urinate on the chains, and all of a sudden I discover him among them—heavy, long-haired, somnolent, lonely, urinating alongside them.
Invisible, I make no move, watch him from a distance, knowing that his clothes must be foul. As a boy he would come home like that from hikes lasting a day or two, as filthy as if he had crossed a desert.
They have located him. The commander calls his name. He turns, buttons his pants, and comes over, a lumbering shape, Strangely enough he is not surprised to find me, his old father, late at night in a steel hat a few paces from the River Jordan.
Two officers take hold of him. The half-track engines fall silent. Suddenly there is a deep hush.
“This the one?”
“This is the one.” I touch him lightly.
He smiles at us, his beard ragged, understanding nothing, very tired; he stands before me hung with grenades, the rifle dangling from his shoulder like a broomstick.
How to explain it to him.
“Anything wrong at home?”
How to tell him that I had already given him up, barged into his room, upset his papers. That I had planned to collect them into a book.
“You were reported killed. . . .”
Not I, but someone else has said it.
He does not understand, how could he, stooping a little under his gear, his helmet pushed back, his face inscrutable, his eyes holding me, like the eyes of his son, like my own eyes gazing at him. He used to look at me just that way when he was small, after a spanking.
He is asked to show his dogtags.
Gradually a crowd of soldiers collects around us.
He begins searching through his pockets with surprising meekness, takes out scraps of paper, shoelaces, rifle bullets, bits of white flannel, more flannel, sheds the flannel scraps like pieces of paper, but the dogtags fail to turn up. Lost. Though they were attached to his first-aid kit.
“Where's the kit?”
He gave it to the medic after the skirmish. It follows that he gave him the tags as well. I begin to suspect that he, too, had considered disappearing, here beside the Jordan, or perhaps it was all intended as a sign to me from afar.
They summon the medic.
From the darkness there comes a scraggly little fellow, middle-aged, embittered, smoking greedily, who does not remember a thing. Yes, some people gave him their first-aid kits, but of the tags he knows nothing. He found tags on the dead man and put them around his neck. It was pointless to bandage him in any case—halfway through he had realized that the man was dead, but he finished the job anyway. No, he hadn't identified him, doesn't know who he was. Knows hardly anyone here in fact. He himself belongs to a different company entirely and was assigned here by mistake. He wants to get back to his own unit. Why have they stuck him here in the first place? He misses his buddies, and besides, they're getting their discharge soon, and then where will he be?. . .
They get rid of him.
Little by little, in the gathering darkness, understanding comes to my son. His face lights up, his eyes clear, his body straightens. He adjusts the rifle and comes to life. And I who feel my collapse imminent want to climb onto him.
“This morning, at school, the principal informed me,” I speak to him at last. “It's been a mad day. . . .”
The circle around us tightens, the men cling to us. The story of his death and resurrection thrills them. They shower the two of us with jokes, want to hear all the particulars. We both stand trembling, smiling weakly.
The officers start to break it up, sending the men back to the half-tracks. The night deepens, the patrol should be on its way, there is still a war on.
Suddenly we are alone, both of us in helmets but me unarmed, with only the torn flap over my heart.
“How are you?” I whisper rapidly, with the last of my strength.
Only now does he look at me, astounded that I have pursued him this far, and cornered him at the very border.
“You can see for yourself . . .” he whispers with something of both despair and bitterness, as though it were I who had issued the call-up orders. “Such a waste of time . . . so pointless. . . .”
How is one to provide some hint of an answer, some meaning to it all, and moreover on one foot as it were, in the shadow of the vehicles that now are starting up their engines again, before he disappears into the vague nighttime blue of the desert, and before I myself fall into a deep slumber in front of his very eyes?
No dreaming yet, but asleep. My heart, I mean, is asleep. I am nodding on my feet, with weakness and hunger, and I grow smaller and smaller under a star-tossed sky with the moon rising in the east. The clouds begin to move, the scene shifts and consciousness fades. Little by little the senses too are extinguished. I do not hear the shots flaring up again in the distance, do not smell these rushes or the desert mallow; whatever I am holding in my hand (a stone or a branch) drops soundlessly to the ground; it is from a figure already blurred that I take leave, fluttering my hand in defeat at the beam of light cast by one of the half-tracks, and yielding my body to anyone willing to take it (a different one again, very young) and place it back on some tank, shutting the steel plate upon me. Once again beside a red bulb, without headlights, in the dark, I begin the journey back.
It was then that I noticed for the first time that I had lost the biblical texts for the exam. Entire passages. I would not have passed a single test, not the simplest one. The last verses were slipping down, ground to pieces by the creaking chains.
After this Job opened his mouth, and cursed his day—
A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shig ionoth—
A Psalm of David when in the wilderness of Judah—
In the year that king Uzziah died—
To the Musician upon Shoshannim—
The Song of Songs—
Still I am not allowed to dream. By the light of a clouded moon, at the forward position. I notice a civilian car, its headlights burning, its engine humming softly, no one inside. Next they are taking me, almost by force, toward one of their huge tents, and there, by the light of one pale bulb, among field radios, twisted telephone cables, and nude photographs stirring against the tent-flaps stands my daughter-in-law between the rows of beds, surrounded by signal corpsmen who are gazing enchanted at the young woman with windblown hair who has turned up at nightfall in their tent.
“He not killed,” I tell her at once in my broken English, grimy, on the verge of dreams.
But she knows already, and all she wants now is to fall upon me, wild with excitement, having been certain all along that it was nothing but my own private delusion.
But I forestall her, and dumbly, drowsily, through a thousand veils, I take two steps, trip over the cables, rub against the pin-ups, fall on her, kiss her forehead, stroke her hair, and a delicate smell of perfume steals into my first dream, the cool touch of her skin, smooth, without warmth.
This New Left of theirs—
And then she breaks down. The soldiers are stunned. She is on the verge of tears, but first says something in rapid English, repeating it more slowly, unexpectedly casting about for Hebrew words as well, and at last crying silently, making no sound.
Only now do I become aware of an old signal corpsman in a corner of the tent, bent over a field telephone with someone very distant at the other end trying without much hope to ascertain the dead man's true identity.
Again someone comes for me, leads both of us to a tent at the far end of the camp and offers the rumpled beds of soldiers out on patrol, to sleep in till morning. Then they bring food in mess-tins, and a bottle with some left-over Sabbath wine; lighting a candle on the floor, they leave us to ourselves, my daughter-in-law and me, in the translucent darkness of a single quivering candle, in the close air of the Jordan Valley.
Crazed and exhausted with hunger, I am stupefied by the smell of the food. And thus, seated on the bed, the dishes on the floor at my feet, without looking at her, without strength left to speak English, I stoop and eat like a savage, crouching over the food, with a bent fork and without a knife, sleepily devouring army food that tastes wonderful to me, mingled with the smells and flavors of gunpowder, saltpeter, desert dust, sweat; I set the bottle to my dry lips and gulp down the cheap wine, sweet and tepid and reeking of rifle grease and tank fuel. I get drunk instantly, as though someone were striking at my insides with dull, faraway blows that grow sharper and more intense.
Shots. Human beings shooting at each other again. I wake up, find myself lying on the bed, the helmet that I had grown as accustomed to as a skullcap taken off my head, my shoes removed. The moon is gone, the candle extinguished and the darkness grown deeper. A new wind has started up, gently beating against the tent flaps, bringing a current of cool desert air. Without raising myself, heavy, my face sticky with traces of food like a baby's, I make out her profile; sitting up on the other bed, her long hair in wild confusion about her, a battle jacket over her shoulders, her face open, feet bare, sitting and sucking on a cigarette. Half the night gone and she still awake. Hasn't touched the food. Her head turned toward me, gazing at me in fascination, in wonder, and the dread that propelled her through several barriers last night in order to reach this place deepens, as though by my own power I had killed him, and then brought him back to life, as if my intention had been to indicate to her a possibility. . . .
The firing continues. Single shots. They seem to have changed direction. But I myself grow more and more accustomed to them. She is not frightened either, does not stir, even though now he might really get killed, somewhere out there, on his half-track slowly grinding down a trail.
I must still return to that moment when I first learned of his death. Summer morning, the sky cut vertically, June, final days, I rise late, dazed, as after an illness, straight into the sun.
The bells are ringing and I am swept slowly up the stairs in the turmoil of students who suck me upward in their current, into the corridors. I move alongside the open classroom doors, past weary teachers' faces, arrive at my class and find them quiet, aloof, long-haired, their Bibles dropping to the floor. One of them is at the blackboard covering it with flowers, dozens of white crumbling flowers.
I mount the platform and they look up at me. The room is dim, the curtains drawn. And I realize—I am not important to them any longer, I have lost my power over them, they are through with me, I already belong to the past.
How well I know that look; yet I never feared it, for I knew—they would come back in the end. In a few years I would find them around, with their wives or husbands, running after their babies with a faint stoop, and when I would meet them in the street—self-conscious, holding their shopping baskets—I would regain my power over them. If only for an instant, for a split second.
But these last years the parting grows difficult. They are off to the deserts, far away; I mean, this supple flesh, the erect heads, the young eyes. And there are those who do not come back. Several already. A few disappear. And something withers in me. I remain troubled. This pain of theirs, the advantage of an experience in which I have no share. And even those who do come back, though they walk with their children and their shopping baskets, there is something veiled in their eyes, they stare at me blankly, almost ignore me, as though I had deceived them somewhere. I mean, as though I had deceived them with the very subject matter itself. As if everything we taught them—the laws, the proverbs, the prophecies—had all collapsed for them out there, in the dust, the scorching fire, the lonely nights. All of it had failed the test of some other reality. But what other reality? Lord of Hosts, Lord God—what other reality for God's sake? Does anything really change? I mean, these imaginary signs of revolution.
I am seized with unquiet, start handing out the test papers, pass between the rows myself and lay them on the desks. And the silence around me deepens. They read, heave a little sigh, then take out clean sheets of paper and start drafting their straightforward, efficient, unimaginative answers in that bald, arid style that may suddenly, unaccountably, take a lyrical turn, only to dry up again and expire in the desert.
They will be the death of me—
And there is my son, returned from the United States, clumsy, long hair, such a gentle professor, no longer so young. Has brought along a campus-girl, a slender student, cloaked in a worn and tasseled garment, and on her shoulders, strapped into a sort of rucksack, a small pale child who speaks only English. They alight from the plane and look at me as though bringing some new tidings, revolutionary, of some other reality, wonderful and as yet unknown. . . .
Suddenly I feel tears springing to my eyes. Still wandering between the desks, past the Bibles on the floor, I stoop and pick one up here and there. The students follow me with their eyes, already longing to chat, or at least whisper a word that they believe might help them, might add another fraction to their grades, even though they are about to abandon it all so soon, leaving empty classrooms behind them, a pile of chairs in a corner, a clean blackboard, traces of their names engraved on their desks as on tombstones.
And all of a sudden I long for a different parting, one that will be engraved on their hearts for all time. In a whirl of emotion I cross to the windows and jerk the curtains aside, spattering my students with heavy splashes of sunlight like drops of blood. I go to the door and open it wide, stand on the threshold, half-turned to the corridor away from the class. And I know the suspense they are in. Am I setting a trap? Am I here or am I not?
And then I see the principal from afar, striding sadly and pensively along the empty corridor. He approaches slowly, heavily, like an old, obsolete tank. Something has aged in him these past few years. In a year or so he too will have to retire. He lifts his head and sees me standing in the doorway, lowers it again as if I were a stone or a spirit. He assumes I do not want to talk to him. As if three years were not enough for us. And in the room the whispering swells, and the swish of papers. They are already exchanging answers with one another. But I do not move. My face is turned to the corridor window, the display of summer, bright and full. The hills of Judea in the distance, the hills of Moab, and all the rest. And the image of the students behind me is reflected in the glass as well, fused with the landscape, on a patch of blue, on the treetops, faraway antennae, the hum of aircraft.
The principal stops beside me. For the first time in three years. Very pale. He must break the silence at once.
Five or six hours ago—
In the Jordan Valley—
Killed on the spot—