MOTIVATION OF THE PEARL OYSTER
Here and there, among the short brownish seaweed lazily swaying in warm shallow water, a small oyster sits anchored to a rock.
It would be gross exaggeration to call anything around here (the Mediterranean coast of Israel) oyster beds. The number of the creatures and the distance between them just about suffice for the sperm of the males, drifting with the current, to find and fertilize enough of the sixteen to sixty millions eggs released by each female during a breeding season to let enough tiny larvae survive their initial drift and finally anchor down to maintain (a favourite expression with officers and politicians) a presence in the area.
The oysters lead a comparatively safe life, because out of their two main groups of enemies - marine predators like whelk or starfish, and man - only the former are active here. Long ago, when the Bible was being written, shellfish, together with a few other creatures, got themselves onto the non-kosher list, and even if there were enough of them to be harvested commercially, the rabbinate would step in and do something about it, like the trouble they gave those daring to raise pigs in the Promised Land.
Occasionally, a skindiver with taste for non-kosher delicacies picks a few to wash down with wine in the evening or to swallow right there on the beach, but that's about the size of it. There is no record of a valuable pearl having ever been found in these waters, and no large-scale slaughter of oysters in search of one has ever been organised.
Natural pearls are rare and something of a freak anyway. While every oyster secretes mother-of-pearl to coat the inside of its shell with, it takes a tiny speck of something that got under the mantle to start a pearl growing. From the outside, an oyster pregnant with a pearl looks just like any other. Inside, there is irritation, perhaps even suffering, and increasing heaviness.
Points to investigate:
1) The attitude of other oysters to a pearl-bearing one; how many envy it; how many consider themselves lucky to be normal; and how many resent this unnatural activity which exposes all of them to wholesale slaughter;
2) The pearl-bearing oyster's attitude to other oysters;
3) To what extent is such an oyster compensated by the hope that people will wear and admire the pearl long after its creator is dead;
4) What if the pearl is never found and, having rolled out of the shell after the oyster has died and decayed, sinks into the sand and is never seen again?
What, anyway, of that land race which finds beauty in the abnormal growths of molluscs and wear them for adornment?
And, pearls apart:
6) The love life of the oyster, without courting, choosing, or even meeting its mate; without the joys, sorrows, and responsibilities of parenthood; perhaps even without feeling anything beyond mild relief while releasing the eggs or sperm into the current;
7) And do they know what death is; if so, do they fear it; or do they fear it without knowing what it is; do they ever associate a slight change in water flow around their shell or a slight pressure on it with the first investigating touch of a whelk or a starfish?
* * *
I had read about those pearl oysters - and treasure buried on desert islands, and pirates, explorers, hunters, and fishermen - long before my first dive, progressing, over the years, to Hemingway and Conrad, and then discovering that Mann, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, and some others provided no less fascinating adventures on dry land. Reading was my first great love, and has remained so along my later ones, and the opening of a good new book has always been like the weighing of the anchor at the start of a voyage of discovery.
The authors live on my bookshelves; and when I have a quiet hour to myself and nothing new to read, I often take down a book - almost any book of theirs - open it at random, and, with my feet on another chair and a drink or a cup of coffee within easy reach, am off; not exploring because I have read the book already; rather revisiting old friends and well-loved places. Most of the authors are already dead; God bless their souls, whatever nasty or perverted things they may have done on this earth when not writing, and grant them eternal rest, Sire, et clarte perpetuelle.
I often think of them as the rarest and most glorious pearl oysters of them all. Their flesh had rotten long ago and their shells are washing in the surf somewhere, but their marvellous pearls keep casting their glow into my pearlless but still inhabited shell. Had I been a patient in a mountain sanatorium, I would have tried to declare my love to Clavdia Chauchat in similar French; I have peered, over the brothel piano, into the cutout of Zoe's dress; and for all I know I may be falling in love with a woman who isn't even my type (Ariela, our secretary).
Some of the writers have made brave, if not fully successful, attempts to overcome a certain shortcoming of the human language. The workings of our brain are simultaneous, multifaceted, and instant, a bit like those multiscreen projections but much more complicated, receiving new information, storing it, calling up anything related to it, however remotely, and arranging it into new perspectives, combinations, knowledge, decisions, and dreams. Speech or the written text are linear; they can only present a small part of what there is, in a trickle, word by word and sentence by sentence. It is the most difficult translation of all. All the more honour to the writers on my shelves who have attempted it and achieved some success, however limited.
How I would have loved to see what they would make of Ariela, or of the lagoon of the Blue Bay at sunset.
* * *
On my desk at the office, there sits a large conch shell. Officially it is a paperweight and, as such, is understood and accepted by all. Nobody knows what it really is, because nobody has ever caught me alone in the office, just about fed up with the things you sometimes get fed up with in an engineering office or in life in general, picking it up and holding it to my ear. Through some acoustics of its inner form you can hear a hum like the distant sound of the sea and surf. (Could it be the ghost of the long-dead mollusc haunting its former home?) And while my diving watch merely reminds me of the sea, and the Haifa Bay, seen from the window, is distant and hazy, the shell serves as a private telephone directly connected to the beach, and it soothes and comforts me when things get too dry, or when Ariela smiles more sweetly at someone else.
This diving watch is something each of us scuba divers has acquired at some early stage of his salty career - stainless, pressure proof, heavy and black, with luminous hands and a notched bezel ring for marking elapsed time. It is not only a specialised timepiece but also a badge of the fraternity, worn in the sea, in the bath, and at the kitchen sink. Many non-divers also buy them, for their sporty appearance, without needing the pressure resistance or the bezel ring; as a matter of fact not always knowing what the latter is for. Our watches can be told from theirs by the honourable scratches and scars acquired through repeated contact with sand and rocks, and they wear them with pride, like German students of old wore their duelling scars.
It is best to refrain from glancing at one's watch during conferences with the boss because he hates people glancing at their watches, especially when it's him who is speaking. Of course there is the old trick of glimpsing time from someone else's wristwatch, particularly easy when he is passing a catalogue or pointing something out on a technical drawing; with added spice if it happens to be the boss's own watch.
* * *
With Ariela, it's like this:
When, in the middle of a long meeting in the conference room, our brains and throats get dry and she walks in with the coffee tray, an audible moan of delight passes over the long green table like a breath of wind over a field. The coffee, the chocolate-coated biscuits, and the sight of the tops of Ariela's breasts in the generous cut-out of her dress revive us for another hour of machinery, technical drawings, catalogues, and plans.
Like most men in the office, I have been sweet on Ariela ever since she joined us, and, like all the others (to the best of my knowledge) without success. Of late, she may have been looking at me with just a little more sympathy than before; but that could also be some general glow of kindness towards all mankind fuelled by a successful love affair outside the office, in which case one's chances would be even slimmer.
I often refer to Ariela in my thoughts as "une jolie petite bourgeoise avec une tache humide", a paraphrase easily traced to "The Magic Mountain". Of course Clavdia Chauchat refers to a tubercular "moist spot" on one of Hans Castorp's lungs, while Ariela's lungs seem to be in perfect order and the moist spot of my reference is situated elsewhere, on the assumption that Ariela is free and uninhibited in her lovemaking, and gets wet down there quickly, perhaps even at the mere thought of it.
She is not a great beauty although undoubtedly pretty, and with a sweet smile in spite, or perhaps because of, slightly uneven teeth. (Proust: "Let's leave beautiful women to men without imagination.") Her hair is light but not quite blond, and her figure is full and round, very much to my taste although many men nowadays prefer skinnier women. She has a measured swaying walk and a leisurely melodious voice, and is very neat and a good secretary, although for some reason I always imagine her alone at home in her little flat as just a bit slovenly, wearing a slightly crumpled dressing gown, barefooted on the carpet onto which a stocking or something of the sort had been carelessly dropped.
To the best of my knowledge I have never fallen in love with her and never made any serious effort to seduce her. In spite of the injunction not to fish in the typist pool, secretaries and typists are considered by many as God-sent manna from heaven. You can court them during office hours, and even have sex on the premises after everyone else has left; or, like Ariela, they may have a little flat of their own; and if not, there are always those little hotels or, if the worst comes to the worst, the back seat of your car parked in some secluded spot. There are even cooperatives of several men permanently renting a room in a hotel, taking turns bringing their girlfriends there.
I was never a great enthusiast of such office affairs, or affairs with single girls in general. If a girl happened to be simply after healthy sex with someone she has taken a fancy to, I would be as ready as the next man. But for a married man to make a single girl fall in love with him was, in my opinion, unfair. She would want to be with him as often as possible, while he would have to divide himself between her and his family. Financially, too, a married man could not offer her the restaurants, nightclubs, concerts, and theatres the single one could. And, finally, he could not offer her marriage, while delaying her chances of such an offer from elsewhere. It was all very unfair, as I once explained to Ariela in one of our long talks - we were discussing just such an affair then going on in the office, between the chief accountant and a typist - and she agreed, perhaps with just a shade of impatience, and changed the subject.
But I did notice the almost imperceptible annoyance, and thought of several possible reasons:
Ariela could have been engaged in just such an affair with a married man just then, and I might have touched a raw spot;
She may have felt too independent to allow a married man to reserve for himself the decision to start or not to start an affair with her; could have been confident of her power to drag him into it if she wanted to, perhaps even taking him away from his wife altogether;
Or perhaps she took my lofty principles for plain cowardice, even double cowardice: that of a henpecked husband, and of a senior engineer afraid to rock the office boat; because some bosses, even though themselves uninvolved with their secretaries, regard them as protected game and retaliate against poachers with malice and might.
On the other hand she could not complain of any indifference on my part. I always complimented her on a new dress or hairdo. If she wore something with a generous cutout, as she usually did to display the tops of her lovely breasts, and we were alone in the office, I would always lean over and give a deep tortured sigh (it came quite naturally); a primitive compliment but a compliment all the same, which she took with a mockingly shocked stare while a shadow of a smile played on her full lips with the slightly upcurled corners. It is believed that in some cases such little compliments and signs of attention over a long period may have the cumulative effect of a massive single assault, like a sea wall finally crumbling under wind and tide instead of a cannonade.
Some turning point with Ariela may have come when I told her the secret of the conch shell on my desk and let her hold it to her ear. An old and enthusiastic skindiver, I have always been telling Ariela - who has never even snorkelled - and just about anyone else who would listen about the wonders of the sea which one could observe even in quite shallow water with the simple mask and snorkel, and when I mentioned it again during the conversation about the conch shell, she herself suggested that we go together one day.
* * *
The Green Bay which we, members of the little skindiving club situated there call by its original Arab name of Khalidj Akhdar, is actually no more than a small cove, sheltered on both sides by rocky promontories, less than an hour's drive from Haifa. There are three or four fishing boats on the beach when they are not plying their trade at sea, a couple of huts where the fishermen store their gear, and a slightly larger hut housing the Green Bay Diving Club, easily the smallest and shabbiest on Israel's Mediterranean coast, but we don't mind; we rather like it this way. A plywood partition divides the hut into two parts. The front one is the clubhouse proper. There is an old desk and sofa, a couple of dilapidated armchairs and a wobbly coffee table, all of it picked up in the street. The ashtrays, of course, are large shells. Faded colour illustrations of tropical fish, cut out of skindiving magazines, decorate the walls. The place of honour is occupied by a dusty carapace of a huge lobster, contributed by Alex and Cobi, the club's owners and managers. (Profits are meagre, and they earn the bulk of their living elsewhere, Alex as TV repairman and Cobi as accountant.) They must know where the carapace came from but are somewhat evasive about it. Had they caught the lobster themselves, they would have eaten it. Evil tongues have it that they found the lobster on the beach after a storm, in too ripe condition for human consumption, and placed it in an ant nest until the carapace was cleaned, while others mention a pawnshop in the town whose owner, an explorer or hunter manqu“, has a weakness for stuffed animals and birds. A few old wicker deckchairs which the weather can't damage any more, and which no one will steal, outside on the sand, complete the furniture. The back part of the hut houses the air compressor, a work bench, a set of tools, and various odds and ends.
The bay itself has an interesting rocky bottom with stretches of sand and a good selection of marine life. Farther out, but still well within scuba depth, a wreck of a small barge lies on the bottom, with a large grouper living in the stern and a moray eel peering out of the hold. A reef protects the bay, making it into a sort of lagoon, so that even with surf breaking on the reefs, the inside remains quiet and clear, perfect for snorkelling and initial scuba training. With a predominantly rocky beach and accessible by a dirt track only, the Green Bay has escaped the summer crowds, while in winter and the colder parts of spring and autumn, when the water is cold and a wet suit has to be worn, it is practically deserted. May it remain so as long as possible.
* * *
When I took Ariela there that Friday afternoon, straight from the office, it was late spring, with the water still a bit chilly but the sand nice and warm under the sun.
"How do I look in a bikini?" Ariela asked. "But truly."
"Truly," I said, "cross my heart and hope to die, you look wonderful, Ariela."
"I am not too fat for a bikini?"
"Ariela, you're not too fat for anything, and please stop fishing for compliments. There may be some perverts attracted to skinny girls but I am not one of them thank God. You are everything a real man needs to turn his thoughts to wild orgies and wine drunk from between full and obligingly pressed together breasts."
"Thank you, kind sir. To repay the compliment, may I mention the particular blue colour of your eyes when the sun strikes them at this angle?"
"I know all about it, Ariela, but I am so glad someone noticed."
We got waist deep into the chilly but bracing water, and I showed Ariela how to put on the mask and snorkel. Then we slowly swam side by side across the lagoon, with me pointing out the funny little blennies hiding in holes in the rocks, a hermit crab with green legs and red pincers peering from its shell, mullet and sea bream feeding on the bottom, and peacock worms like flowers, and Ariela had fun touching their striped crowns and watching them disappear into their tubular stalks with the speed of a camera shutter. Then I spotted a small stingray camouflaging on the bottom, prodded him with my snorkel, and it took off with graceful undulations of its flat body like a bird flying. By then we were both a bit chilled and decided that we deserved a cigarette on the sand.
The sand was lovely and warm, and Ariela, shivering slightly, stretched out on her belly with little squeaks of delight, rolling her towel into a pillow and asking me to undo the strap of the top part of her bikini so as to get even tan. This partly exposed her breasts, slightly flattened by the sand but still round and full. I stretched out on my back at right angles to her and rested my head in the small of her back. She did not say anything. It was peaceful and warm like this, with the waves lapping a few paces away, and we lay there enjoying the silence, the sun, and our cigarettes. There was nobody on the beach or on the low cliff above it where my car was parked, and we were screened from all directions except the sea by the large boulders around our patch of sand.
At first there was only the lazy peaceful warmth and, after I stubbed out my cigarette in the sand, almost a temptation to drift off to sleep; but this soon gave way to an erection, to hide which I rolled over onto my belly, which brought my cheek and a corner of my mouth into contact with Ariela's skin. I slowly passed my hand along her back and she still did not say anything. I went on caressing her back, and after a while the casual contact of my mouth with her skin developed into a full kiss, repeated higher and higher up her back until it nested in the corner of her shoulder and neck, while my hand slid down and cupped her breast. She lifted her shoulder to give my hand more room, and then slowly rolled over, leaving the top of her bikini in the sand, and with her eyes closed, put her arms around me, and we kissed. It was a very long kiss which started gently enough but soon brought on the pounding of blood, opening of lips, play of tongues, quickening of breath, tightening of embrace, and the kneeding of breasts. My erection pressed hard against her pelvis, and she began a slow rhythmical movement of hips and moaned slightly. I lowered the bottom part of her bikini; my hand passed over smooth silky hair and found her warm and wet between the legs. She tugged at my bathing trunks and, as soon as they were down, guided me in and closed her legs around me. I ejaculated almost at once but remained inside her with my erection unaffected, and after a while we started again and came together in a lovely long climax.
There was still no one on the beach or on the cliff above, and no one showed up for the rest of the afternoon. We went for another swim and then made love again and, when dusk began to fall, sat on a rock and watched the sun go down into the sea in all its glory, huge, red, and flattened by the horizon. Ariela looked very lovely against the darkening sea, and we went back to my car with our arms around each other and without saying much. Things were very simple and there wasn't much to say.
We met twice in her flat that week, but her mother, who lived in Tel Aviv, was coming to spend a few days with her, and we discussed alternatives. Ariela was against a smart hotel, saying that it was too formal and expensive and that one always ran into acquaintances or relatives there. She did, however, express a mischievous interest in those shabby little hotels on the waterfront, and I said I would arrange something for Monday night.
Of such little hotels, I remembered one from my bachelor days; I would occasionally go there with someone whom, for some reason or other, I couldn't or didn't want to bring to the little flat I rented in those days. The hotel - it was called "Hotel Splendid", a gross exaggeration - was still there, but I wondered whether it has retained its character of a shabby but quiet half-hotel, half-brothel. In those days it was under the management of a Mr. Eckstein, who did not keep girls on the premises but could arrange something by phone or messenger if you had the inclination and the means. The hotel enjoyed a good reputation; Mr. Eckstein was esteemed for his discretion and good manners towards those who appreciated them, while he could be quite firm in an emergency. He was on good terms with the authorities and The Splendid enjoyed practical immunity from the police raids which plagued its neighbours. Mr. Eckstein was elderly when I was still a bachelor; soft-spoken, bespectacled, with an intellectual face and perfect manners, he could have passed for a university professor in different surroundings. His daughter was married to a building contractor, and his son studied business management in the United States.
As for an excuse for my absence from home of an evening, I had long had one: my occasional night fishing with rod and line. I preferred spearfishing but have never given up the rod, and would spend an occasional evening and a part of the night angling in Blue Bay or on the old pier near the docks. In spearfishing, you usually know what kind and size of fish you are likely to come across; angling at night is more of a gamble and the range of surprises is greater. If other fishermen are there, it is also sociology and folklore; what yarns are spun, what theories about bait and fish habits swopped, leaving alone the old arguments about tackle, until something decides to bite.
An occasional visitor to the pier - without a rod - is Shayke Rabinovich, Haifa's poet maudit, the nearest Israel was able to scratch to Franœois Villon. He is of medium height, skinny, sports a heavy moustache like Gorky of Nietzsche, and knows just about everyone. He grew the moustache during his army service - with the infantry, wounded in the leg during the Six-Day War, a slight limp since then - and gained wide renown and notoriety while still young. Many of his poems were erotic and very explicit, and drew fire from the religious, the elderly, and the bourgeois; but he has never been short of lady admirers since, from society hostesses through beautiful but bored married women to schoolgirls fascinated by his love poetry. Other, lesser, poets gradually got teaching jobs, reviewing assignments, grants, fellowships, and, after a while, prizes. Shayke Rabinovich lived on in his little cubbyhole near the port, too abrasive and uncompromising for anything of the sort. Today, two decades later, in spite of some lines in his face and some grey in his hair, he looks - and lives - very much the same. The royalties on his few collections of poems are a joke. He does occasional literary jobs which do not compromise his integrity and do not disqualify him from drawing the dole. A beachcomber, he often tries out his new poems on the fishermen, the waiters in the restaurants, and bathers on the beach.
One of the fishermen, a superstitious old man from Morocco, does not like him, and surreptitiously spits thrice when he turns up. Once, when Shayke Rabinovich was with us, sharing a bottle of arak someone had brought along, nobody caught anything. Worse, another night when he showed up, the old fisherman got home about midnight to discover that his father had suffered a fatal heart attack. Since then he took to spitting even more vigorously, calling Shayke Rabinovich behind his back "Malakh Ha-Maved" - The Angel of Death.
My family was thus used to my fishing, from which I would return late at night or even in the small hours, sometimes with fish and sometimes without, as fisherman's luck would have it.
* * *
The lobby of The Splendid looked just as I remembered it when I walked in there early Monday evening with my rod and creel. It was empty except for Shayke Rabinovich just coming down the stairs with a very handsome expensively dressed woman with a wedding ring. We nodded slightly, and the woman gave me a sharp worried look, relieved that I wasn't anyone she knew.
An older but otherwise unchanged Mr. Eckstein raised his head from the paper he was reading and said with a welcoming smile: "Good evening, Mr. Eli; and how have you been?"
I was amazed at his memory; it was years since I last called at the hotel under this name, a false one.
"Very well; and you, Mr. Eckstein?"
"Can't complain, although one is not getting any younger, and it's sometimes difficult keeping up with the times and the competition. By the way, we have airconditioning in all the rooms nowadays, should you ever need one again."
"It so happens that I need one tonight, not right away, in about three hours' time. Do you have a vacant one?"
"Certainly, Mr. Eli; I'll let you have number twelve, on the second floor; it's a corner room, very quiet and comfortable. Would you like to go up and see how you like it?"
I took the key and climbed the stairs. Number twelve had two windows, one giving out onto the moonlit sea and the other onto a quiet street where a prostitute had already taken up position under a street lamp and was lighting a cigarette. I drew the curtain and switched the airconditioner to night cool so that the room should be nice and pleasant when we came here with Ariela. Then I switched on the bedside lamp, drew back the cover of the double bed, and looked at the bedsheet. It was freshly laundered and spotless; Mr. Eckstein's German heritage. Then, with a malicious smile, I pulled back the sheet and looked at the mattress itself. Although this too has been recently cleaned, some old stains in various stages of fade remained, especially about the middle.
Ah, those mattress stains in those little hotels; je dirais quelque jour vos naissances latentes. Some of them are recent, others faded through repeated cleanings. Very few, if any, come from lonely masturbation, wet dreams, or prostate trouble. The stories they could tell; but they keep quiet, and only the sea is murmuring outside the window.
The bed springs creaked slightly as I sat down on it to light a cigarette, and I remembered a poem by Shayke Rabinovich, about just such a bed in such a little hotel - he was an expert on those little hotels - where he says "our bed is a rusty cricket that sings of our love in the night". Afterwards there is the sea heard through the open window, and in the last stanza a greyish iridescent drop of sperm on the girl's thigh reminds him of a pearl. I locked the room, returned the key to Mr. Eckstein for the time being, paid in advance, and set out towards the old pier. It was deserted except for the old slightly deaf pensioner who is almost always there on his little folding stool, stooped over his rod. We said hello, wished each other good luck, and I continued along the concrete path over the boulders, past the light surf and onto the end of the pier.
The sea was quiet here, with only a gentle swell lapping against the pier. I assembled my rod, baited up with a strip of octopus, and cast as far as I could. The sinker sank to the sandy bottom, and the tug of the swell on the line slowly began taking it to the right, towards a line of submerged rocks where, on the border between rock and sand, fish were likely to be prowling in search of food. The sinker was stirring up a little sand as it dragged along, and, drifting with the current, the microscopic things in the sand and the smell of the bait were suppose to be signalling to the fish that something edible was stirring there.
On the left, a sardine boat was putting out to sea, towing a small dinghy with a bright lantern in the stern. One could make out the fishermen, one of them steering, two others busy with the pile of nets amidships, while the lantern made a large translucent cone of green light in the water under the dinghy.
There was nothing but the slow gentle tug of the swell on the line. I lit a cigarette. Another boat showed up, on the right this time, returning from the sea. It was an inflatable with an outboard engine, not the best type for fishing because it's low and wet, although the low rounded gunwale makes it easier to pay out and haul in the nets; and, of course, it can be deflated and stored, saving the cost of anchorage and the risk of theft. It passed close to the pier, almost snagging my line, the engine purring at low throttle.
"Yesh dagim?" ("Any fish?") the man who was steering called out to me in the guttural Hebrew of an Oriental Jew. I spread my arms in a gesture or resignation not yet deprived of hope. He laughed, a short, slightly strained "ha-ha", politely trying to keep out of it any hint of superiority of a boat and net owner over an amateur angler on a pier, and added "be'hatzlakha" ("good luck"); I said "toda" ("thank you"), and the boat went on towards the beach.
There came a slight tug on the line not caused by a wave, and then, for a while, nothing. It was not some small fry; those usually bit with a sharp nervous toc-toc-toc, afraid that some larger fish will deprive them of their meal at the last moment. Another tug, a little more determined this time, and again nothing. Then, without any additional warning, the line began to go out under a powerful steady pull, with the reel screaming. I struck hard, twice, although the fish seemed to have hooked itself, and the line kept going out against the properly set brake: just under the strength of the weakest knot. With about half the line gone from the reel, the fish finally stopped, and I started reeling it in. From the length and power of the first run , I could make a rough guess about the size of the fish: anything up to half a meter, with my chances of landing it quite good. After a while it made another run, not as long and powerful as the first, and, after I reeled it in some more, a third, much weaker and close to the pier. Finally I swung it out of the water - I had not brought a gaff of a landing net - and it gleamed dull silver threshing on the pier, a surf bass of about the size I expected. I slipped it into my canvas creel and then unhooked it. It threshed in the creel for a while and then grew quiet, and I rebaited and cast in the same direction as before; surf bass often travelled in schools.
I lit another cigarette. The evening was turning out well; I had an unbeatable alibi that I had been fishing, with a good chance of another fish or two before it was time to pack up and meet Ariela.
There came another strike, similar to the first: the same light, investigating touch, an interval, a stronger pull, another interval, and then the first long run, in the same direction and taking out the same amount of line. I seemed to have located a school.
Then I heard something like a distant echo of my whirring reel or the sound of an old sheet being torn from the direction of the beach. It could have been the old pensioner also reeling in a fish; but I think I knew from the start what it really was.
It is curious how the workings of one's brain sometimes translate themselves into action without one being aware of it at the time. I first heard the noise between the first two runs of my second fish. When I finally reeled it in, coolly and expertly, and bent down to grab it under the gills, I was surprised to find myself on one of the lowest boulders of the sloping flank of the pier, just above the water, with something uncomfortably pressing against my stomach. I could not remember taking my diving knife in its plastic sheath out of the creel and tucking it into my belt, nor climbing down the boulders while keeping the line tight and reeling in the fish. Because, from my basic training, two short wars, and reserve duty I knew what else sounded like a fishing reel or a linen sheet being torn: distant massed automatic fire of small arms. What I did was perfectly logical: I wanted to be armed, be it only with a knife, and off the skyline, so as not to be sillhoueted on top of the pier by the bright moonlight; it's just that I could not remember doing any of it.
As I listened, two handgrenade explosions clinched the impression. The volume of the fire and the handgrenades made it unlikely to be some minor conflict between local criminals and the police.
There were no bullets going overhead; the fire seemed to be directed inland and, having reached its peak with the handgrenade explosions, went down. By the time I slipped my second fish into the creel, only an occasional burst or a single shot could be heard.
I sat down on the boulder and lit a cigarette, carefully hiding its glow with my cupped hands. I now had an uncomfortable decision to make: stay on the pier or get off. If another boatload showed up and, instead of smoothing their way to the beach with Hebrew phrases learned in preparation for a well planned raid, decided to land on the pier and found me here, I was done for, knife or no knife; they had Kalashnikovs. If I walked back, a trigger-happy soldier or policeman might mistake me for an infiltrator, shoot first, and ask questions afterwards. Getting into the water and swimming to the shore might be best, but wading out would be risky, and if I didn't get shot I would arrive at the meeting with Ariela dripping wet. I finally decided to walk back, with my rod over my shoulder and smoking a cigarette to look as much like a fisherman as possible, and set out feeling rather chilly although the night was warm.
The old fisherman was still there on his little stool. Being a bit deaf he either did not hear the shooting or didn't realize what it was, and I decided not to tell him. My decision to get off the pier might have been wrong and I did not want to take anyone with me. He asked why I was leaving so soon. I told him I had to meet someone, wished him good luck, and walked on. There were now the flashing blue lights and sirens of ambulances and police cars on the esplanade.
As I was nearing the beach, a bright flare went on in the sky and remained there burning brightly, swaying a little under its parachute, illuminating the beach and the houses with its eerie light. Before it burned out another was sent up, and from then on at least one parachute flare was kept over the area, and sometimes two or three together.
I reached the esplanade without mishap, grateful for the flares whose blinding white light gleamed on the fiberglass rod over my shoulder and made it more difficult to mistake me for an infiltrator. Small groups of people stood there discussing the attack and listening to the infrequent shots. They told of four or five terrorists in camouflage uniforms who had run out onto the esplanade firing Kalashnikovs and throwing handgrenades, and were now holed up in some building a couple of blocks away, shooting from the windows and possibly holding hostages as well. Several passers-by had been hit and taken to hospital; it was too early to know whether anyone was dead.
"Are they anywhere near that cigarette kiosk on the corner over there?" I asked. I was supposed to meet Ariela there in half an hour.
"No, the other direction, about two blocks down."
I took the reel off my fishing rod and put it into the creel, and then took the rod apart and slipped rubber bands over the ends of the sections to hold them together. A police car went by, its light flashing and siren wailing, followed by a lorry with helmeted soldiers in full battle kit and an ambulance.
This, I thought, is how you can go out for an evening's fishing or to meet a girl and end up on a mortuary slab. The young Palestinians who had asked about my luck and were now firing from the windows of a house in downtown Haifa believed that this was the way to regain their lost homeland, as did the Irish and the Basques and the Armenians and God knows who else, assembling bombs in a hideout in town, crossing borders at night, landing in small boats from the sea, operating from airports they did not build, smuggling explosives they did not invent onto planes they wouldn't know how to fly, probably grateful to civilisation for her blessings, getting a lot of publicity, and killing a number of people which was miserably insignificant compared to road accidents so long as it wasn't you or someone you loved.
A few minutes after I reached the kiosk Ariela also showed up, wearing a light summer dress and carrying a canvas bag. As we kissed, I ran my hand over her back and felt that she was not wearing anything under her dress, and she smiled mischievously at my investigating touch.
"What's happening?" she asked. "Where is everyone going?"
I told her as much as I knew, and we decided to have a careful look. A couple of blocks down a crowd had formed and a line of police with linked arms was keeping it in check and trying to talk it into dispersing. The sporadic shooting was going on somewhere behind the corner. New arrivals were being offered generous though somewhat conflicting information: the infiltrators had come in a boat/ several boats/ swam ashore from a submarine. There were three or four of them/ half a dozen/ at least twenty. They had landed exactly opposite the hotel they were now holding/ higher up the beach/ lower down the beach.
"What hotel is that?" I asked.
Ariela looked at me and I nodded grimly. She gave a little almost silent whistle and passed the back of her hand over her forehead as if wiping off sweat.
The crowd was getting denser all the time. There was an army jeep with a field radio and a tall antenna parked nearby and snatches of orders and reports were coming from it: something about a platoon moving into position, another on its way, hostages, and negotiations. Somebody stepped on Ariela's foot and she said "Ouch".
"Let's get out of here," I said. "This is going to go on for hours, maybe even a day or two. If past cases are anything to go by, they'll pretend to negotiate, drag things out, and then, after they got the infiltrators tired, sleepy, and relaxed, they'll attack; and when they do, we shouldn't be around anyway."
"Yes, do let's get out."
There was a telephone booth nearby, and I called my wife.
"Darling," she said, "are you all right? The radio is full of it; are you anywhere near?"
"I am perfectly alright, and no, not anywhere near, and not stupid enough to get any closer. I even got some nice fish for tomorrow's dinner."
"Thank God. Look, are you really far enough? They say they have mined the hotel and are threatening to blow it up if their demands are not met."
"Blocks and blocks away. It's really perfectly safe."
"Are you coming home now?"
"I...er... you know, seeing I am already here, I'd like to stick around a little longer, if you promise not to worry about me."
"All right, I promise; but do be careful, will you? I am off to bed now; I've had a hard day and am just about finished."
"Good night then, darling."
"Good night, and be careful."
I took Ariela into a dark doorway and held her tight. She was soft and warm under her thin dress.
"Ariela, there are other hotels around here, you know?"
She looked up at me with some hesitation, her eyes very large in the dark, and felt my erection against her pelvis.
"All right," she said quietly.
We got a room in another shabby hotel in one of the side streets. There was no need to switch on the light because the moon, the parachute flares, and a neon sign across the street provided enough light for our needs. I was somewhat surprised to see Ariela tearing off her dress with impatience, biting her lip, breathing fast, and kicking her shoes off, and then was infected with similar urgency. We made love wildly, skipping the preliminaries, and afterwards lay side by side, covered with sweat - there was no airconditioning in this hotel - and lit cigarettes.
"Good God," Ariela said quietly; "I feel like a pervert, doing this with people maybe dying two blocks away."
I held her tight, and after a while we made love again, and then slowly drifted off to sleep.
* * *
I began to wake up to a noise once again like that of a bedsheet being torn, only it went on longer than the length of a sheet would allow, growing in volume all the time. Then a tremendous explosion shook the area, followed by more automatic fire. The sky beyond the window was still a pre-dawn grey. In the street, people were running in the direction of the explosion, worried about what they might be missing. Ariela and I dressed, left the hotel - I had paid in advance - and also went in the direction of Mr. Eckstein's hotel. By now the shooting has stopped. The crowd was much larger than before, overflowing into the small square in front of the hotel, and the police had problems holding it back. There was a sharp smell of explosives and gunpowder in the air. The second floor of The Splendid looked badly wrecked; some smoke was still coming out of the windows, and, although the shooting had stopped, some helmeted soldiers with rifles on the ready or carrying stretchers were still running into the building. We learned from the people who had been there that, after protracted negotiations and with the terrorists seemingly relaxed, a commando unit attacked the building and quickly overran it, but not before they had set off explosives on the second floor. It was too early to know about victims.
The first stretcher was carried out of the building and into an ambulance: a bloodstained woman in her thirties, moaning and wailing. Another stretcher, with a man in a similar condition, followed. We counted five stretchers with civilians and three more with soldiers, an officer at the entrance to the hotel identifying the soldiers as they were carried out, and the ambulances making off as soon as they were filled. The next stretcher emerged from the hotel flanked by four soldiers with rifles on the ready. There was an ugly forward surge of the crowd, checked with difficulty by the police; the young man on the stretcher wore an unfamiliar camouflage uniform and canvas-and-rubber commando boots.
Then there was a lull. The next stretcher was carried to the ambulance without hurry; the body on it was covered from head to foot with a blanket. The officer stopped the stretcher, lifted the blanket briefly, and, seeing that it was a civilian, waved the stretcher on. For a brief moment I had seen the face of Mr. Eckstein, pale and without his glasses, staring vacantly into the dawning sky over his hotel.
Four more stretchers with fully covered bodies were carried out, and then a dazed couple - a refined middle-aged man and a heavily made up woman with large breasts came out of the hotel and were directed to a police car, obviously to give evidence at the station.
"Oho," someone said, "there will questions to be answered at home after this raid."
The next person to leave the hotel was a young woman with a dark Semitic face, staggering slightly and supported at each elbow by a soldier.
A murmur went through the crowd.
"Look at her; another Leila Khaled!"
"A fucking woman terrorist!"
"Tear her cunt out!"
There was the beginning of another surge. The woman understood what was happening before the soldiers or the police did. She stopped dead in her tracks and screamed at the crowd, in good Hebrew with an Oriental accent, fear, outrage, and hysteria rising in her voice:
"You're crazy! I'm Jewish! It was me who translated the negotiations!"
Shamefaced, the crowd drew back.
"What bloody people!"
"It's Shoshana; I know her; she works around here nights."
"They are not that dumb; if they caught any they must have taken them out the back door."
Then I heard something being done by the book, from the roof of the hotel: a short burst of three or four rounds; then a brief pause to correct the aim because the barrel climbs during a burst; another short burst, correction; short burst, correction; burst. The head and shoulders of the man who was firing were showing above the edge of the roof. I pushed Ariela back - she staggered a little - and stepped in front of her. This was not as brave as it sounds because there were still several rows of people in front of us. The man on the roof threw away the empty magazine and started inserting a new one but he never finished because the soldiers and police sent up a veritable cone of lead converging on him. One could clearly see a semi-circle of the wall just below him disintegrating into brick dust while he slowly lowered his head onto his arms as if tired. Then two bazooka rockets hit the ledge, and his body slowly slid down, hung for a few moments in precarious balance, and fell, turning over in the air once and hitting the pavement with a dull thud.
"Damn it," a man on my left said, "I've been nicked. Nothing serious; a bit of plaster, at most a couple of stitches, will take care of it."
There was a small skin wound above his elbow, about a bullet's diameter wide and four or five centimetres long, with blood slowly beginning to ooze from it.
"Stretcher! Stretcher!" someone behind us shouted.
"Don't be silly," the wounded man said over his shoulder, taking out a handkerchief; "it's nothing."
I got pushed from behind.
"Step back", the same voice said frantically; "Stretcher! Stretcher!"
I turned around, already half-knowing what I would see.
Ariela lay on the ground with her eyes closed and a peaceful look on her face. There was a small bullet hole in her summer dress, just above her left breast. Entering at that spot from the direction of the roof there was almost no chance of the bullet missing the heart.
I was pushed again, from the side this time, to make space for an army doctor followed by two soldiers with a stretcher. The doctor knelt by Ariela's side, felt for pulse in her neck, then lifted one of her eyelids and lowered it again. He looked at Ariela for a while - more of a compassionate look than a medical one - and nodded to the two soldiers. They put Ariela on the stretcher and covered her with a blanket. I was still hoping they would leave her face uncovered but they didn't.
I tried to follow the stretcher into the ambulance, but a policeman stopped me.
"Please clear the area", he said. "There may be more of them still hiding somewhere, and every time something like this happens the crowd gets in the way and these are the results." He jerked his thumb in the direction of Ariela's stretcher.
"But I was with her," I said.
He looked at my creel and rod, and I could see that he did not believe me.
"They are taking them to the Bat Galim Hospital', he said. "There's a taxi rank just around the corner. Now please do start dispersing."
* * *
We have a new secretary; plain, much older than Ariela, and very efficient.
Ariela's black-framed photograph hangs on the wall of the conference room, and her signature or initials still figure on many letters in the files. But there already is a new engineer in the office who did not know her, and when somebody says "Do you remember when the boss said what do you do with such a customer and Ariela said..." he is hearing it for the first time, as a joke and not a personal memory.
The large conch shell is still on my desk, posing as a paperweight. When, alone in my office, I put it to my ear, the sound of surf comes through, distant and clear; but sometimes there is also something else behind it, like a bedsheet being torn, or a lone dog howling in the night.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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