Published in "Adam International Review"
("Adam"'s short novel award)
Apart from the general background of the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the Kafr-Kassem incident, all the characters, situations, military operations, and defense establishments in this story are fictional.
Past midnight and very quiet.
My wife and son have long ago fallen asleep, and there is only the ticking of the clock in this kitchen and, like an echo through the open window, the chirping of a cricket in the grass outside.
A little additional music is made by my pipe which needs cleaning: contented bubbling, a sigh, occasionally a muffled whine like a puppy having a bad dream. Her mother must have been a flute.
Hanging from a row of hooks which I have fitted to one of the shelves, pots and pans are sleeping upside down like bats. It is a nice little kitchen and a happy home; my wife is a good and desirable woman, my son a sweet little boy, and I myself a rather decent husband and father.
One day within the next fortnight I am going to kill a man; in cold blood, with all the details worked out, making it look like an accident. I do not particularly dislike this man. We go fishing together, and, like myself, he is a father of a family. He could go on living; it doesn't seem to occur to anyone else that he should die, and nobody would blame me for not having killed him. Except myself.
It is something that started a long time ago, before the Sinai campaign, when I was still a bachelor. Or perhaps even before that, during the war, when my father was shot in the snow. Or perhaps even earlier. I don't know.
The cricket has stopped and my pipe has gone out.
Only the clock is ticking now.
* * *
Having returned from work, I give my mother a kiss on the cheek and go to take a shower while she's making coffee in my landlady's kitchen. Since this morning, Mama has tidied the room up, and later I may have difficulties finding something because she can't grasp the order behind the apparent mess reigning there between her visits.
She comes for a weekend, or for a couple of days in the middle of the week, about once a month from Haifa where she lives with my sister's family. I was a Haifaite too before my army service; having completed it, I got an interesting job as a technician with the Ministry of Defence in Tel-Aviv and rented this room. I spend a weekend in Haifa with them now and then and always feel a little pang of regret at having left it; a white town scattered over the Carmel slope, peaceful and sunny, the bay blue by day and glittering with a thousand lights at night. I paint in my spare time, and Haifa always offers lovely views and unexpected little spots around the corner. Compared to it, Tel-Aviv is downright ugly, unplanned, haphazard; drab grey concrete, heat, hurrying crowds, noise, rush, illegal currency deals in the doorways of Lilienblum Street, coast polluted by sewage. And yet there is something here - a ferment, a fever, an excitement in the streams of people by day and in the brightly lit cafes at night which is missing in Haifa and which I find strangely alluring.
My mother and I settle down to sandwiches and coffee and start talking. She arrived late last night and I had to be at work early in the morning, so this is our first opportunity for one of our long talks.
First about the mess in my room. She has discovered several pairs of socks,two of them unmatched, which need darning, and is planning to start on them right after the coffee. She does not know it yet, but this is not an evening for darning socks and I shall have to send her back to Haifa tonight. The war seems to be for tomorrow or the day after, and she should be safely back with my sister before it starts. The mobilization has been kept as secret as anything can be kept secret in Israel, and they are doing most of it at night when those who have to be called up are at home and there are not too many curious eyes in the street; they are likely to come for me tonight and I don't want her to get more scared than necessary. But there are still a couple of hours of daylight left - plenty of time to break the news to her gently and reassure her.
Mother is in her late fifties and this is going to be her third war. During the first one she had been reasonably sheltered, a young daughter of a prosperous family. When the second world war broke out she had a husband and two children, me and my sister Rachel. Shortly after the Germans came we went into hiding in a village and remained there till the end of the war. One day my father went out to get some food and didn't come back. He was detained by the Germans during a round-up in the market place of the small town a few miles from the village, identified as a Jew, and sent with a group of prisoners, on foot, to a neighbouring town where there was a railway station, to continue to a concentration camp. My father had a cold when he left us and it was midwinter. After the war we heard from a survivor from the same group that by the time they set out on foot my father seems to have developed either bronchitis or a pneumonia and was running high temperature and walking with difficulty. They were going on foot through snow under escort. My father fell twice and got up and continued. The third time he did not get up and was shot, about half-way to the station, where there were trees on both sides of the road. The survivor, who coughed a lot, promised to go there with us when he was better and show us the exact spot - perhaps we could find a grave nearby - but he died of tuberculosis shortly afterwards. So before we left for Israel my mother and I went to the town where the marketplace was and hired a man with a horse and cart to take us to the stretch of the road with trees on both sides of it- it was about two hundred yards long- and looked carefully but could not see any grave or mound anywhere, and the driver also said he didn't know of any. So we got off the cart and walked slowly along that stretch of the road, with me saying the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer a son says on his father's grave, several times in succession.
Compared to the two world wars this is going to be a minor one, just Israel and the Arabs, except that for the first time her son is going to participate in it, although she doesn't have to know it yet.
Having mentioned the mess and the socks she sighs a little and I can see the turn the conversation is going to take. You know, Ari, I would so much like to see you with a happy home of your own; a nice understanding wife, you could go on painting in your spare time just as you do now, you might even find it easier. Of course, Mama, these are my plans too; at twenty-five one is not exactly an old bachelor, is one, and one should have a little patience until the right girl comes along, otherwise, you know, there is no end of trouble. Yes, yes, of course, I am not trying to rush anything, everything in its own good time.
"And how is Leah?" she asks, pretending having changed the subject. "Do you see her often?"
"Yes, I do, but please give it time. Leah is a very nice girl and I like her a lot, but to decide on lifelong matters takes a little longer, you know."
It so happens that I have already decided to propose to Leah, am quite confident that she will accept, and was even going to hint at something of the sort to mother tonight, but now there is this war to be got over first. Mother herself brings the subject up. Is there any tension on the borders or anything of the sort? Their neighbour in Haifa was mobilized last night, as well as a young girl across the street. If they take girls,isn't it rather serious?
I nod non-committally and refill our cups. She doesn't even suspect the scale of the mobilization. We have smaller ones quite often, whenever there's a border incident, and people are used to them. This one is something else; not only men and women, but jeeps and buses as well. Judging from rumours at my place of work - and the Ministry of Defence is a good place for such rumours- it can start as early as tomorrow and most probably no later than in three days' time; we have calculated it from certain arrangements and equipment that have to be ready by a certain date and hour at the latest.
You see, mother, I don't think it's anything REALLY serious, but maybe the Secret Service had heard something, or, just for political reasons, Israel is trying to scare a neighbouring Arab country for a few days. (At work, we still don't know whether it will be an attack on or by Israel, and which Arab country will be involved; our guess is Jordan.) Whatever the case, the mobilization does look a bit bigger than usual and, you know, perhaps it would be better for you to be with Rachel and Max and the children in Haifa in case something really does start this time, especially if it's on the Jordanian border. I unfold a map and show her that a stretch of the coastal strip in Israeli hands along which the Tel Aviv-Haifa road runs is only ten miles wide and thus within the range of Jordanian guns, and returning to Haifa might be unsafe if shooting starts. But they are a family, she says; perhaps I could be of more use to you here , you know, cooking and shopping; there might be shortages and long queues at the shops and you would be at work. They won't call you up if you work for the Ministry of Defence, will they?
Probably not, I say, but even if they do they wouldn't send elderly reserves to the front even if they happen to be paratroops; most probably guard duties somewhere nearer home. But even if I am not called up, up place of work is likely to keep us there day and night, sleeping on the premises, and they would be feeding us as well, so you wouldn't be able to help me much. I finally persuade her to return to Haifa later that evening, and we turn the afternoon snack into a light supper by the addition of scrambled eggs. I promise to come for a weekend in Haifa as soon as this is over. There is some more small talk but the silences are longer and sadder. I may have overestimated my mother's credulity and now both of us seem to be playing the same game: not letting the other one know that one knows that this may be our last meal together and the last time we see each other. Mother knows that she is welcome here and that I wouldn't send her back to Haifa without a good reason. And if she is talking casually about shirts and socks again it must be because she thinks that even if I do come back alive and well, this might still be my last evening in this comfortable room with books on the shelves and my paintings on the walls for a long time and she doesn't want to spoil it for me. She discovers a packet of mint drops in her handbag and gives them to me. But you like sucking them on the bus, I tell her. No, no, you take them, Ari; you're working hard these days and the middays are quite hot. I know she is thinking about the desert and how nice mint drops would be if I found myself there.
The dusk is falling and I switch on the table lamp. Its soft light brings out the wrinkles in my mother's face and the silver in her hair, and I feel great love and tenderness for her. It's not just because she had borne and loved and raised me, even with all the dangers and hardships of the war; that is natural and mothers should not claim too much credit for it. It's also because of something that happened shortly after the war, in Poland, by a radio receiver. We were gathered around it - my mother, my sister, myself, Aunt Sarah, Uncle Romek, and my two cousins, Eli, a little older than me, and Joe, a little younger. We were listening to the news of the executions of the top Nazis at Nurenberg. When we heard about Goering's suicide shortly before they entered his cell - he had somehow concealed a cyanide capsule - Joe swore and said "Escaped, the bastard." A few days before, my mother had returned from a trip to her home town where she had learned how her old parents and most of her brothers, sisters, and their children have died at the hands of the Germans - some sent to extermination camps and some shot outright in the nearby woods. Now she quietly looked at Joe and said:
"You know, it can't be very pleasant to sit in a prison cell and wait to be taken away to be hanged."
I heard it with mixed feelings that evening. But ever since, for me, there have been two separate dates on which the war was lost: by Germany when they signed the capitulation, and by the Nazis when my mother said that about Goering.
I put her on the Haifa bus and we keep waving till the bus turns the corner. Then I go to see Leah, hoping that they haven't called her up in the meantime because I am planning to sleep with her tonight. She is home and glad that they they haven't called me up yet.
There is added spice to lovemaking on the eve of a war, and afterwards we lie side by side smoking cigarettes and a delicious cool breeze comes in through the open window cooling our bodies. Leah looks very beautiful naked in the dark, and after a while we make love again and fall asleep in each other's arms.
* * *
Twenty-four hours ago it was nice and warm in bed with Leah. Now I am lying in a shallow trench in the sand of this desert which I have never seen before although there's a lot about it in the Bible and it was never far away. It resembles our Negev but is wilder, emptier, more jagged; hotter under the sun and colder at night.
We have been dropped here from Dakota's in the last light and are to attack the road junction at dawn after our planes have softened the place up. So far there is nothing on the radio about all this (we have a few small transistor sets with us) except an Egyptian communiqu–, very brief, that some Israeli troops have been observed in the Sinai desert. It didn't say how many, where, and how they got there. The bulk of the force is crossing the border tonight and we are to secure the junction and hold it until they reach us by road. Tomorrow all hell is going to break loose, not only here but at the United Nations as well; what we've been briefed on looks like a full-scale war. The hours until dawn may well turn out to be our last quiet ones for a long time, that is for those of us who will live that long. Out of our platoon, one has already been killed and two wounded this afternoon.
They came for me early in the morning, just as Leah was leaving. There was an army lorry waiting in the street. I quickly changed into my field uniform and paratroop boots right there in the flat, grabbed the sidebag with a few things I had thrown together the night before, including mother's mint drops, and got into the lorry. We collected a few more people in the vicinity, and an hour later were at the airfield. I have never seen things go so fast in the army before. They said "Stretch out your arms" and threw a ready-assembled webbing with eight Uzzi magazines, four handgrenades, and two flasks of water over my left shoulder, a small backpack with field rations, mess tin, and a sleeping bag over my right one, slammed a helmet on my head, shoved a parachute into my arms, and pushed me out of the store door saying "Group eight, by those Dakotas over there, mind how you cross the runway."
Old friends and some new faces; the slapping of backs. A few minutes later we are lined up for a briefing.
Our brigade commander speaks in a quiet level voice, using simple military words. What he says takes a little time to sink in, and then a little more time to believe; at first there is a temptation to think that this is just another excercise, with us going to be dropped somewhere in the Negev, and that all this about the Sinai desert and the road junction to be captured at dawn is just a trick to make us take the exercise more seriously. But as he goes into details the disbelief evaporates. It is the morning of a warm day, but perhaps because our platoon is lined up in the shadow of the Dakota's wing, the breeze blowing along the runway suddenly feels rather chilly. The relaxed posture of the ranks at ease somehow stiffens into rigid attention.
A few moments' silence; then someone in the back row breaks into a popular song:
"Why haven't you said so,
Why haven't you told me,
Why haven't you mentioned it befo-o-ore?"
There was some laughter and the officer smiled. Then we waited. The sun climbed up and started beating down on the runways and the planes, and we stayed in the shadow of the wings. Our breakfast came - field rations, plenty of hot coffee, and water to refill our flasks to the stopper. Then we waited again. It wasn't bad planning; on the contrary, everything was ready hours in advance; but the waiting was not pleasant, even if we knew it was to our advantage to be dropped there just before dusk, without giving the Egyptians enough time to see what's going on and perhaps to attack before we were ready.
In the afternoon, command cars with pilots showed up, dropping two by each plane. The inside of the metal Dakotas which had stood the whole day in the sun were like ovens, and our uniforms got soaked with sweat within minutes of our boarding the planes. There was a roar of engines all along the runway, the pilots warming them up and testing them at full throttle with the brakes on. Then a Dakota went by, still seemingly sluggish and straining but with its tail already up, then another and a third. I looked at my watch and then at the runway again; they were taking off at thirty seconds' intervals. Then ours moved out onto the runway and began to roll, faster and faster, with the engines at full throttle; the floor tilted to level, there was a bump against the concrete runway, another, the beginning of a third but this was cushioned off by the air under the wings. We were in the air. The runway, smudged by the speed, was still right below us, but the great wheels were withdrawing into their nacelles.
We are going low, fifty, sixty feet perhaps, obviously to keep below the radar. There is a slight draft through the plane and one is not hot any more. Everyone is looking out of the windows. There are the fields with the water sprinklers, a couple of villages, a small town. Then the fields thin out and we are going into the desert.
There are no border signs or fences and no change in the landscape, only a sharp cut at one's heart as Israel falls behind. The engines suddenly sound more sinister and the haze on the horizon ahead takes on a poisonous hue.
I am not thinking about anything in particular. I check my bootlaces and retie one of them. Then I readjust the double chin strap of my helmet and blow a few specks of dust off the rear sight of my Uzzi.
Behind the window, the desert is still the same. We pass a small Bedouin camp - low tattered tents, a few black-robed people outside looking up, sheep and camels sluggishly beginning to scatter at the roar of our engines, then empty desert again. Whenever there's a tree or a hill ahead, the pilot raises the nose slightly and then slides back again to what looks like the height of a double-decker bus. Then the nose go up again although there is no tree or hill ahead, and the ground keeps falling away.
We are climbing.
It can't be far. Any moment now we should appear as little luminous specks on the Egyptian radar.
Still nothing to be seen from my window; desert, rocks, patches of sand; they're not likely to drop us onto rocks.
The other Dakotas are to the left and right of us now, in a straight line, also climbing. About half a mile behind goes the second wave, a couple of hundred feet higher so as not to cut us up with their propellers when we jump, and behind them and once again higher, the third wave.
Little silvery specks, at a great height, coming from the same direction and overtaking us: our fighter escort.
Going level now.
Once we land, each of us is dangerous and difficult to kill. But until we get out of that door, a single anti-aircraft shell or rocket can do away with the whole lot: a plane, twenty paratroops, and two pilots. We are wedged between the apprehension of the jump and the desire to cast off this metal shell which makes such a good target. The buzzer in these planes is very loud and has a nasty jarring ring to it. You sort of get used to it but you never like it; or perhaps you don't like waiting for it to ring.
We are aware of the metal floor under our feet, of the thin walls we are leaning against, of the weight of the plane.
They are opening the door.
The young blond parachutist, a newcomer to the platoon, sitting on my left looks at the open door, blinks a couple of times, and looks at me. He seems perfectly calm and relaxed, only, in spite of the fact that we had shared a tin of corned beef at the airfield, looks at me as if seeing my face for the first time.
Surprising how still the inside of the plane can be in spite of the engines and the open door. Only two sounds can break the silence: the buzzer or an explosion.
The plane is banking.
This means a little more time; we won't jump from a turn.
No, it levelling out again; it was just a slight correction of the course.
We are getting up and hooking our lifelines onto the steel cable under the roof, testing the attachment by strong jerks.
A helmetted silhouette is framed in the door then gone, with the lifeline straining in the wind against the door edge. Another, gone. Another. Now the door is in front of me and I duck out of it. The slipstream hits me. The desert is before me now, the whistle of the wind grows, I am beginning to tumble over, a soft but powerful blow in the shoulders, and silence.
A quick upwards look at the canopy - everything O.K., no holes, no crossed lines. The round nylon sail, some twenty-five feet in diameter, always looks surprisingly small so high over one's head, and one is always pleased at the perfect form of it, like a semi-transparent flower in the sky.
The planes can still be heard, but far away now. From time to time, a parachutist calls to another. I am looking the ground over, knowing that it is only for a minute or less that it presents itself to me like a map. Before me and slightly to the left I see the crossroads and the army camp; we must have passed right over them while lining up for the jump. They look very peaceful and there is no movement there although we must have been observed. The ground below is mainly sand with some rocks here and there, and is now coming up fast. I keep my feet together, hit a soft patch of sand, roll over once, get to my feet, and release the harness. It is a nice hot afternoon with a light breeze and the smells of the desert.
Group eight, our officer is calling, group eight, over here. So far it looks like another practice jump. I take a swig from my water flask and light a cigarette as I walk rowards him, a few yards from the blond parachutist. There are two or three short bursts of automatic fire far away, somewhere among the sand dunes in the direction of the camp, most probably one of our groups firing some sort of warning shots. The blond parachutist stops as if listening, then shouts in a loud, outraged, and puzzled voice "Abba, lama davka ani?" ("Father, why does it have to be me?") - I am sure I hear a couple of amused chuckles from the other parachutists - and falls. When we reach him he is dead, with a large bloodstain still spreading on his chest. A few more bullets whistle overhead. There is some slight movement on a distant dune near the camp, most probably an Egyptian patrol or outpost, and those of us who carry rifles open fire. Our two light machineguns are also set up and firing, and the two-inch mortars kick up a few sprays of sand on the dune. I also take careful aim and send a couple of short bursts from my Uzzi at the dune, mainly to feel that I am participating; you can't hope to hit anything at that distance with a submachinegun and the most you can contribute is the demoralising effect of bullets whistling off the mark. Keeping under what cover there is, we advance to the top of a dune which offers a better view of the camp, and dig in. This seems to be all for today; the Egyptian patrol has withdrawn, and a little later the dusk falls. Dusk is a very brief affair in the desert; one moment, a thin rim of the sun is still visible over the horizon; as soon as it disappears everything grows gray and a little later the night has fallen; there is no haze or mist to retain the last light. The passage from heat to cold is almost as rapid, and before long we put on our sweaters, windcheaters, and woolen stocking caps. When the sun rises in the morning it will be the reverse, and I mustn't forget to take all this stuff off again as soon as our planes show up; wearing it into the attack would be adding discomfort to everything else.
This wait is very restful. The soft sand conforms to one's body, and one has just to be careful to keep it out of the gun; tomorrow is no time for malfunctions.
Nobody talks; when you can't see, you listen. Sounds in the night carry a long distance.
I have always liked nights in the desert. Lighting a cigarette happens to be a taboo tonight, but an old soldier with a sleeping bag or a blanket knows how to have his smoke without the sharpest-sighted officer noticing anything from a few yards away. You can also lie on your back and watch the stars, at their brightest and most shimmering in the desert, and after a while you get a feeling that you're lying on something which is slowly drifting through space among the stars.
There is a slight rustle among the few sparse blades of dry grass in front of my trench; some small animal. I turn my head very slowly, so as not to scare it, and see a small jerboa sniffing for something to eat. The little rodent shares with the gazelle the distinction of being the most graceful creature in the desert; the size of a rat, it is sand-coloured with white belly, rabbit ears, and huge black eyes. The tail is thin, longer than the body, and ends in a black-and-white brush. It takes a few leisurely hops towards me on its long hind legs, its tiny front ones almost hidden in the fur of the belly, sniffs at the barrel of my Uzzi, and, finding nothing of culinary interest, hops off into the night. It cares no more about this war than our war ministries in Tel-Aviv and Cairo about a jerboa being caught by a fox.
The east seems to be a little less dark than the rest of the horizon, but it may be only my imagination. Whatever the case, the night is mortally ill, has been from the start. There is a spot on the eastern horizon where, visible or not, the cancer is firmly embedded and growing, and will finally spread and annihilate the night.
There must be, at this hour, waves gently lapping against the sides of a boat fast asleep in some remote peaceful harbour; lovers in moonlit orchards under the heavy fragrance of ripe fruit; warm bedrooms, mists of dreams over soft pillows, and a child's regular breathing from a cot.
There is a dull thud from behind, another, a third; whooshes overhead, like sudden gusts of wind, and, a few seconds later, an equal number of distant explosions in the direction of the camp. Our light mortars have opened up for a pounding preliminary to the attack. And now we hear the planes coming.
It is dawning.
* * *
Tel Aviv streets again, as if nothing has happened. Have flown in this afternoon in a plane full of returning soldiers, once again a Dakota. Borrowed a newspaper from someone, the first I've seen in a week. Detailed descriptions of the various battles of the short war which had just ended. Political articles. Pressure on Israel to withdraw. The Prime Minister's short statement about full investigation of the Kafr Kasim incident and compensation to the families. No details about what happened there. It's an Arab village in Israel, just this side of the Jordanian border; most probably something with a trigger-happy soldier during a curfew at night. Praise for the population for their behaviour during the war. In the plane, privates, NCOs, and a couple of junior officers unanimously adapt a devastating condemnation of the British and French high commands. If you start something of the sort, then go ahead and do it fast and properly. The initial bombardment which knocked the Egyptian airforce out was great; but after that, God help them: on the first day, the troops are boarding the ships; on the second, the ships are on their way; on the third, the ships are approaching Egyptian coast; on the fourth, the troops are landing; by then, the United Nations votes and everything is lost.
An army lorry takes us from the airfield into town, and I turn a corner and walk along the little street where I live. Here is the spotted cat sunning itself on the low garden wall. The same sun had helped to decompose the bodies of the Egyptian soldiers killed in the air raid prior to our attack. I had seen three or four dead bodies before, of relatives and friends, but always one at a time, aloof, dignified, and properly laid out for the funeral. But a lot of dead bodies in the dust and rubble, all dressed in identical drab khaki uniforms, lose their individuality and somehow become standard, interchangeable, dispensable, and cheap.
When our planes finished, we advanced in a leisurely and irregular line upon the scorched and blasted ruins of the camp. The small-arms fire that was opened on us all at once at close range came as complete surprise, and we hit the ground, into any little hollow or just flat on our bellies in the sand. I took a flying leap into a small depression in the ground, with a little tuft of dry grass in front of it, for whatever camouflage it could offer. My first thought was that the airforce botched the job completely, leaving not only enough Egyptians alive to oppose us, but leaving them with sufficient morale and organisation to hold their fire until, as the saying goes, they could see the whites of our eyes. One couldn't know how many of us were hit, but there were some cries of "Medic!","Medic!" The only thing to do now was to withdraw a little way back, to some better line, and ask the airforce for a repetition, hoping they'll do better this time.
I glanced back over my shoulder, trying to guess how and where to our officer was going to organise the retreat and how many more are going to be hit because of the fucking pilots who couldn't do a proper job the first time. It was tricky because there was a risky flat stretch of some twenty meters behind us, and only after that some low dunes.
Oh, no, please, God, not another idiot. He must be over thirty and looked so intelligent and professional till now. He still has a little time to reconsider because he must know that no seasoned soldier in his right mind is as much as going to lift his head at such idiocy. There are a few clicks of bayonets being fixed and I draw and attach mine as well out of the old army habit of not disobeying stupid orders if it can't be helped. The Uzzi bayonet is a lovely little one, more like a sports knife, and a lot of them are disappearing, with the paratroops getting coutmartialled and fined five pounds for the loss of army property, a small price for a lovely souvenir.
All of a sudden there is a light breeze on my face and I have a better, more elevated, view of the camp, and only then I realise that I am running forward firing my Uzzi from the hip, and that others on my right and left are doing the same, with now and then someone stumbling and falling. It was then that I first heard, and even participated in, a real battle cry of infantry charging under fire with their bayonets on. There was even the thought that I was lucky to take part in something of the sort before it passed into history altogether. It is a long, sustained, rolling "a-a-a-a-a-a-a-y-y-y", going down and welling up again, never really stopping, done at full throat to feel less alone and give oneself some courage and transfer some of the scare to the enemy.
A few more of us fell and we ran even faster to get it over with and reached the outskirts of the camp, taking cover and pouring increasingly dense and accurate fire into the resisting centre. By the time handgrenade throwers were sent crawling forward there were some shouts on both sides and we saw the white flag - a towel tied to a broomstick as it later transpired - waving over the ruins of a wall. Everyone heaved a great sigh of relief because we had been rather nervous about the obviously forthcoming hand-to-hand combat. The prisoners were crowded into one of the barracks and put under heavy guard. One of them pointed timidly at my water flask and I uncorked it and turned it upside down to show him that it was empty. I was cheating; I had another, full flask, on my other hip, but not knowing who would reach us first - our forces moving from the border or Egyptian reinforcements - I was unwilling to share it. The Egyptian has done with the fighting, I perhaps haven't. I felt uneasy about it and decided that if our force gets here first with supplies, I will seek the prisoner out and let him have a full flask and some cigarettes as well, perhaps even confessing my little deception and explaining my reasons for it with the help of someone who knew Arabic.
All over the camp the ground was torn up and charred and there were dozens of bodies, dusty and often bloody, some relaxed as if asleep, some dramatic, with the head thrown back or a hand pointing to the sky, and still others in unnatural or even ridiculous poses. Our soldiers were taking their badges and an occasional pistol as souvenirs. I collected several letters, documents, photographs, and a couple of amulet-looking things, paper folded several times to the size of a large postage stamp, sewn into a piece of linen and worn on the neck or, with a loop, on a shirt button. The photographs showed families very much like our Oriental ones, and the little rectangles really did turn out to be amulets, with quotations from the Koran. A few hours later there were already clouds of flies over the bodies, and the next day they began to smell and nobody went near them any more.
* * *
For a few days there is no further mention of Kafr Kasim in the papers. Then another statement, not much longer than the first, that the incident would be fully investigated and the victims' families compensated. When the full story finally breaks through, preceded by rumours and some official attemps to keep it quiet, many don't believe it at first.
There were forty-three people killed on the eve of the war, many of them women, children, and old men. Curfew had been proclaimed during the day when they were working in the fields and couldn't have known about it. That must have been when we were getting into our Dakotas. Returning in the evening, singly and in groups, they were stopped at the entrance to the village, questioned, lined up by the road, and shot. A man has been shot together with his little son, and a lorryload of women and girls who had been singing as their lorry was approaching home. The accused, several soldiers and two officers of the border guard, are under arrest and will go on trial.
I find myself clinging to those arrests and the forthcoming trial because to me this, and not the number of victims, makes the main difference between Kafr Kasim and what the Nazis did to the Jews. There, it had been organised by the authorities; here it is a crime. Yet the vision persists of soldiers in the night, wearing the same uniform I have worn jumping into the Sinai with our brigade; they are lining women and children up by the roadside and shooting them with Uzzis like the one I carried into the attack. The fact that I was fighting and risking my life while they were doing this in Kafr Kasim, and that I would have never participated in anything of the sort and would have done my best to prevent it had I been present seems to clear me personally, but I have heard such arguments in another context elsewhere, and am tensely waiting for the trial. There will be prosecution and defence, consultation of paragraphs, definitions of responsibilities, arguments and counter-arguments about what a soldier should and should not do under certain circumstances; however just the verdict, the deed will somehow be diluted by all these procedures and paperwork. Man has been killing man, sometimes an innocent and defenceless victim, for such a long time that the blood dries first into a case file and then into a history page. Ask someone how many Armenians were killed in Turkey half a century ago and he might not even know there were any Armenians killed there. Ask a non-Jew in a far country how many Jews were killed by the Nazis and he might not remember. Ask a Jew who survived a concentration camp about the number of Gypsies and he won't know either. And one day, in a few years' time, I might ask "And how many in Kafr Kasim?" and discover that the village has sunk into oblivion as well. But I shall remember it, and I want to understand more about killing; there is no law forcing you to forgive what you understand, or to approve of what you forgive. This instinct to kill may be more deeply seated and more common than one suspects. And how many of those who never kill are really good and kind? Man must instinctively feel that an area, geographical or mental, where indiscriminate killing is going on, is a dangerous one for those within its boundaries. Therefore he will not contribute towards the creation of such an area around himself and his family, and, if unable to prevent it, will do his best to get out. It's like the smell of carrion which is instinctively repulsive to him; there are dangerous bacteria floating in the air, and the smell may make him vomit, getting rid of those that might have gotten into his mouth and throat. And when, in spite of all,he still does take part in the killing? There must be a belief in immunity, either the well-known "it can't happen to me" optimism, because nobody can really imagine himself dead, or shortsighted confidence in the safety of the killer of defenceless victims; a gas mask against the carrion smell.
The trial begins. There are eight accused, thwo officers and six NCOs and privates, some charged with the actual killing and some with indirect responsibility.
Two public opinions: the first, too widely held for my liking, that the soldiers were carrying out orders and are therefore not guilty; the second, that whatever the order, one is responsible for carrying it out or not. No frontier guard from any other Arab village on the border where the curfew was also proclaimed is blamed for not having killed the returning villagers there.
The trial ends. All the accused are found guilty and given long prison terms. (In practice, there is no death penalty in Israel; an Israeli officer hastily executed on charges of treason during the War of Independence and, some years later, Eichmann, were the only two cases.)
When the sentence is announced on the radio, I am in my room alone, and remain motionless for a while. Then I pour myself a large drink of vodka and, standing up, raise it to something or someone behind the darkening room.
They have killed, very much in the Nazi manner. Israel has arrested, judged, and condemned them. My fears were unfounded. And, as I sip my drink, a great load is slowly sliding off my heart.
* * *
I married Leah a few months after the Sinai Campaign and we have been very happy since. We live in a small house with a lawn in front and a couple of trees at the back and have a sweet little son running around the place. My old scooter is still in front of the house but with a sidecar added to take the family on picnics and to the beach. One day we shall sell it to make a deposit on a small car, but this will have to come after the washing machine. My work continues to be interesting and satisfying.
One corner of the house serves as my studio. As my mother predicted, I haven't stopped painting after marriage; I even had a kindly reviewed exhibition in a small gallery and sold a few pictures.
Most of them are of fish. I am neither a realistic nor an abstract painter, and fish lend themselves to almost any inclination, in form, composition, and colour, while still remaining fish. One reason for my painting them is that I have been greatly involved with the sea ever since my arrival in Israel, and am a keen swimmer, fisherman, and skindiver.
My first brief meeting with the sea occured shortly after the war, in Poland. It was the Baltic and I went there with a group of boys on an excursion. It was a disappointing experience. The weather was cloudy and the beach muddy. Insisting on tasting the sea, I went up to the edge of the water, ankle-deep in mud, dipped my fingers in the water, and licked them. It was less salty than I expected, and the floating weed looked like tired cabbage leaves. There was no wind and the horizon was hidden in fog. My shoes were muddy and my socks wet. We looked for amber among the seaweed on the beach but didn't find any.
But then we came to Haifa and there was the Mediterranean. Everyone went to the beach in summer, and some would also fish, but to me, gradually, the sea became much more than that. I ended by understanding and loving all its moods and colours, especially after I had acquired my first diving mask and it opened my eyes to the submerged world.
Nowadays, through photographs, films, and television, the bottom of the sea is familiar to everyone. But I still remember the intense astonishment with which I first saw it, and how behind this astonishment there stirred a vague but almost immediate sense of recognition, of having been here before. I sometimes wonder whether the paradise we are supposed to have lost early in our carreer was really a terrestrial one, or whether there is a deeply embedded memory of much earlier days, of effortless floating through a greenish-blue world, later abandoned for the heat, sweat, thirst, and toil of the dry land.
You glide almost effortlessly along the surface over the rocks and valleys, and come to an underwater amphitheatre with a sandy bottom, and the water is speckled silver, one huge cloud of tiny fish, all gliding in the same direction. If you don't make any sudden movements, you can float right in their midst, in the silence of the sea.
In the shadow of a rock near the bottom, a darker shadow is lurking: a carnivorous fish, one of the hunters of the sea which follow the flock and feed on it. Not for them the gentle gliding in the open and nibbling at seaweed. You can't get close to them; if you try, there is a sudden streak and the fish isn't there any more; only a little disturbed sand is settling back to the bottom.
The fishes of the sea come in all sizes, shapes, colours, and patterns, and each has a personality of its own. The blennies are ugly but likeable little brats with small eyes, peeking out from the holes in the rocks where they reside. The scorpion fish are ugly, spiny, and rely on their camouflage and poisonous spines to be left alone. Then there are fish with zebra stripes, and multicoloured ones, and the silvery mullet grazing among the seaweed, and sea-perch and bass. The predators often have mouths which seem huge enough to swallow prey their own size.
Then there are the various crabs, lobsters, and shrimp, encountered mainly in crevices, caves, and under the rocks. The funny little hermit crab with its soft belly picks an empty shell to live in, with only the front of its body protruding. The prized blue crab enters very shallow water in autumn and can be speared by the dozen with a sharpened stick and roasted over a fire on the beach.
Anchored to the rocks are little animals which look like fragile flowers on thin stalks, into which they disappear at the touch of one's finger. Then there is an almost motionless creature which looks like a cucumber, and swimming shellless snails in the form of hares. Transluscent blue medusas hang in the water like silent bells. Sea horses cling to the seaweed with their tails, and colonies of black sea urchins slowly move their spines.
I have left the octopus till the last. The other sea creatures, once you come to know them, are all of a piece: beautiful or ugly, clumsy or graceful, fast or slow, funny or frightening. The octopus is all these and more. In my own experience, I was to meet only one specimen large enough to be dangerous if provoked and irresponsibly handled. The average ones have a body the size of a mellon and tentacles about twice that long. To someone without special interest in marine biology they can look quite repulsive. They are too much a part of the darkness of the caverns in which they lurk. They can change colour from white through various yellows, reds, and browns, plain or mottled, to almost black. They can blend so well with rock and seaweed that one suspects them of sorcery, of being capable of changing into those things. They can walk on their tentacles, crawl like snails, or use jet propulsion to drive themselves through open water like rockets, setting up black smoke screen when pursued. Their eyes - and they are molluscs - are built like human ones, and it has been discovered that they build shelters of flat stones, with removable roofs or doors.
I sometimes wonder why H.G.Wells's intelligent, murderous, and inhuman Martians were modelled on octopii.
* * *
"The Jerusalem Post", 10 November, 1959
"KAFR KASIM NCO TO BE FREED TODAY
TEL AVIV.- Shalom Ofer, the No. 3 accused in the Kafr Kasim case, is to be released from prison on Tuesday morning (today).
Ofer, on the eve of the Sinai Campaign, was a Lance-Corporal, stationed with two privates at the entrance to Kafr Kasim. It was he who was charged with the actual killing (as distinct from indirect responsibility) of most of the 43 villagers.
Originally sentenced to 15 years, Ofer had his jail term reduced to 10 years by the Military Appeals Tribunal, and to seven years by the Chief of Staff. Excercising his prerogative, the President further reduced the sentence to 4“ years, and the Probation Board on Monday decided that he need not serve the 1“ years still remaining.
On being informed of the Board's action, Ofer said that he would marry his girlfriend who had waited for him during the three years he was in prison. They intend to live in Sheikh Munis, near Tel Aviv.
Of the other seven men found guilty of the Kafr Kasim killings, only Shmuel Malinki and Gavriel Dehan, the two officers involved, are still in jail."
* * *
I bought the paper on my way to work and read it over a cup of coffee in the office. The item was in small print, easy to overlook. I reread it slowly, and then it took a little more time to sink in properly. I remember that my first reaction was "scram", followed by the question "where to?"; but to this I already knew the answer. There was nowhere to run away to. I had my back against the wall.
If Israel, a few years after the Nazis have murdered every third Jew in the world, which was practically every Jew they could lay their hands on while they had the chance, was capable of doing such a thing, then surely so were all other countries. There was nowhere to run away to. Something dark, murky, and awful was settling over me as I sat there over my cup of coffee with the newspaper in front of me. Perhaps my hopes for a just society were simply youthful illusions which had to go sooner or later. After all, such massacres have been going on since the beginning of time. Moses stood in the gates of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord's side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.
Yes, but... he had little choice. The budding nation's unity, discipline, and religion were at stake. Even today, in an emergency on high seas, the captain has the power of life and death over everyone on board, and in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai the situation was very much the same. One might also say that it was a family quarrel: Jews killing Jews. It was not murder of defenceless minority.
Then, in 1948, an armed Jewish unit of the Irgun and Lehi organisations entered the Arab village of Dir Yassin and killed over two hundred of its inhabitants - men, women, and children.
Yes, but... it could and has been argued that these were numerically small organisations with strong terrorist tendencies, unrepresentative of the majority of Israel's fighters for independence.
Then, on the eve of the Sinai Campaign, soldiers of the Israeli army did a similar thing in Kafr Kasim. After the just trial and the heavy sentences, the President, the Chief of Staff, the Military Appeals Tribunal, and the Probation Board cooperated to have most of them released within three years.
And there was no "yes, but" this time.
I have been cursed with a heart through whose walls the ticking of man-made clocks does not penetrate. And inside, in a dreadful silence, the worm is gnawing at the bodies of six million and forty-three dead.
According to the Bible, long long ago, before Kafr Kasim and before Dir Yassin and before Hitler and before the Turks and before Mount Sinai, God flooded the earth to destroy mankind for its sins, and then backed out and admitted his mistake: "I will not again curse the ground anymore for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth."
* * *
The idea of tracking down one of the killers and executing him must have been there right from the start, as soon as I read the paper. It must have come together with the impulse to run away and the realisation that there was nowhere to run away to, that I had my back to the wall and had to fight it out right here, where I was better entrenched than anywhere else in the world. At first I imagined myself standing trial, stating my reasons clearly and fearlessly, saying thatI did it to wash off the stain on Israel's honour, and, if found guilty, provocatively demanding the same punishment the other murderers had got: up to three years in prison. Then the idea of going to jail began to pale; it might turn out much longer than three years, what with my having taken the law into my own hands and now accusing the highest authorities, starting with the President, of condoning murder; and I began to consider making the execution look like an accident and thus avoiding arrest and trial altogether. I would know that justice has been done, and I might even disclose it one day, but there was no need to go to jail right away. Having finished reading the newspaper, I crumpled it up and threw it into the waste-paper basket. I was already covering up my traces, not wishing anyone to know that I've read the paper that particular day. Yet the realisation that this was most probably a Walter Mitty project was very strong from the start, and although I thought about it a lot in the days that followed, I don't think I took it very seriously. The tracking down of one of the killers and the preparations for the assassination would take frequent absencesfrom work and home which I would be hard put to explain. There were other, less drastic ways open to me, for example writing to the press;voting, at the next elections, against the party which was in power when the Kafr Kasim murders occured and the pardon was granted; or even printing and distributing leaflets. After several weeks' hard thinking, the plan has settled in my mind as something which I would certainly do if an opportunity arose, while knowing that it was entremely unlikely to arise. I was familiar with the theory of probability and even calculated the chances with the help of my slide rule; they were practically nil.
Of course I knew all the stock sayings: it's a small world; in Israel everyone knows everyone else; life is stranger than fiction; and so on. But the part of me which wanted a quiet life above everything dismissed them with a disbeliever's snort, as almost superstitions.
I should have known better.
* * *
One day, early in spring, as I was fishing from the rocks in Tel-Barukh, slightly north of Tel-Aviv, with Mishka, an old friend from my place of work. We both preferred spearfishing but the sea was too choppy for that, and, casting from the rocks, watching the sea, and chatting with Mishka was also fine, and in due course we managed to hook a few sea-bream each, not very big but enough to fill a frying pan.
"You know who we should go with?" Mishka said; "Carmi, a new guard at "N". He knows the coast like the palm of his hand, at what spot at what time what fish can be taken on what bait. I don't understand why his wife hasn't divorced him yet because when he's not at work he's out fishing, day and night, fair weather or foul. I had a long chat with him a few days ago, when I was there, told him about us, and we said we would go together one day."
"Does he do any spearfishing?"
"No, just rod and line."
"Maybe we could teach him in exchange."
"That's a good idea."
"N" was a mechanical workshop with a large store; a small, semi-military place most of whose employees were civilians. Their large junk store was the main reason for our visits; you could occasionally find there a ready-made part which would otherwise have to be designed and machined, or traced down in a catalogue and ordered at much higher cost and with annoying delay. We would repay "N" by doing some precision job for which they were not equipped, or something of the sort.
About a week later, two technicians from "N" whom I knew slightly were having lunch at our canteen, at the table next to mine. They were talking about cost of living, prices, and comparing government salaries to those in private enterprises.
"How much for example does a new guard like Carmi get?"
"He's not typical," his companion replied. "To start with they are frontier guards which is the army, so they get their uniforms and meals free and so on. Carmi, by the way, is a special case; he was one of the Kafr Kasim ones and only got out of jail a year ago."
I was sitting there with a pocket book propped against my bottle of orange juice and raising a spoonful of soup to my lips; the spoon's movement continued uninterrupted, and I went on eating slowly and keeping my eyes on the book, even turning a page to appear absorbed and not overhearing what was being said at the neighbouring table.
My bluff has been called.
Carmi is a common name and failed to ring a bell when Mishka mentioned him at the beach. At home that evening, after Leah and the boy had gone to bed, I took out and checked the yellowed newspaper cuttings. Carmi had killed four people, one of them a woman, and originally got twelve years.
* * *
First meeting with Carmi.
I arrive at the gate of "N" on the usual junk mission; we need a small compressed-air bottle with a needle valve - something I remember having seen there on one of my previous visits. There are two watchmen at the gate, wearing the uniform of the border guard, neither of whom I have met before. One of them, a young man, comes up to me while the other remains behind the glass window, entering something, probably the number of my scooter, in the diary. It is easy to identify Carmi as the young one, because the other one is wearing the campaign ribbon of the Sinai Campaign on his uniform.
I introduce myself, show my pass, and explain the purpose of my visit in a friendly casual voice, trying not to show any special interest in the guard. He is short and skinny, with narrow shoulders, a good foundation for an inferiority complex which may have had something to do with the massacre. He inspects my pass carefully, returns it, and nods with great seriousness, rather greater than the occasion calls for; once again the wish to appear more important than he really is.
I make as if to restart the engine, then, taking my foot off again, ask: "Oh, is your name Carmi by any chance?"
"No, it's Ben-Yoseph. He's Carmi," he says, pointing to the man in the hut, who, seeing us talking about him, comes out and joins us.
I introduce myself and we shake hands. His is strong, friendly, and warm, and he wears a wedding ring. He seems to be in his thirties, and looks perfectly normal and human, not without a touch of kindness in his face. I become even more convinced that recognising criminals by their appearance is a hopeless proposition. So few people actually kill, and so many are capable of it under certain circumstances, that most attempts at visual classification are doomed. Too many criminals, murderers, and concentration camp commanders looked like artists, scientists, and even priests, and vice versa.
"I hope I am not disturbing you, because this is a private matter," I say. "I am a friend of Mishka, who was here a fortnight ago; we go fishing together, and he told me about you being an expert."
"Oh yes, " he says and smiles. I get off my scooter and we stand there talking about fishing. He is impresssed by my knowledge of the shore fish, although his own, for someone who has never visited them in their own habitat, is even more impressive. I ask him what bait he uses most frequently, and he says salt herring, the common, not too soft kind, which you buy out of a barrel. I had never heard of this as bait and have always used shrimp or strips of fresh fish or octopus, and, failing that, snails or limpets collected on the spot. He says all these are fine, not forgetting chicken entrails, preferably a bit high, but the salt herring sends out an oil slick which attracts fish from afar. I say I'll try it at the first opportunity, and that we must go fishing together one day soon. What strikes me during the conversation are his hands realistically miming the slicing and stripping of the herring.
He is the first one to mention spearfishing, having heard about it from Mishka. I speak about it enthusiastically, saying that he must try it and is sure to find it exciting, without overdoing the enthusiasm. Spearfishing may play an important role in my plan, and he has to be lured into it slowly and surely, without suspicion.
* * *
Thus Carmi has been served to me on a platter and I rejected the open killing. It would have been easy: drive up to "N" with a pistol in my pocket and shoot him at point blank range. Two pistols in case one jammed. (I had a small-caliber revolver of my own and could easily swipe a .45 Colt from our weapon store.)
If I have really decided to kill Carmi making it look like an accident, it is sparing myself not only the trial and the jail sentence, but also the reputation of a killer. There is no knowing what Leah's and my mother's attitude to it would be, and, not least, that of little Raffi when he is bigger; it is one thing to condemn murder and another to appoint oneself executioner. But even if it looks like an accident, there will still be me who will know the truth, and the question of how I myself will react to it and how it will affect me in the long run. But perhaps I am not really planning anything of the sort, just cheating myself, putting things off until I find a reason not to do anything at all.
Mishka, Carmi, and I go fishing together about once a week, and usually bring home nice catches. As far as anyone, including Mishka and Carmi, can judge, we have become good friends. The weather is getting warmer and soon we will be able to go spearfishing. Carmi is very interested and looking forward to it. And now Mishka is beginning to disappear from the picture; he has a new girlfriend with whom he is much more involved than with his previous ones and I can smell marriage in the wind. That'll leave me alone with Carmi and the sea.
The day finally comes when Carmi and I cut the engines of our scooters - he also has one - and roll to a stop by a lovely small rocky cove in Cesarea, just outside the ruins of the ancient city. I have brought him here for his first lesson in snorkelling. The sea is quiet and clear, ideal for diving.
"The mask first." I tell him, "over your eyes and nose, that's it. You breathe through the mouth. All right. Now, the snorkel; it goes under the mask strap, and you hold this mouthpiece in your teeth, not too tight, with your lips over the plate; keep breathing through it, that's it; any problem? Fine, now just lie down in the water and start swimming; you're breathing through the tube."
Carmi swims slowly over the rocks, never raising his head, drifting to a stop from time to time to examine something particularly interesting. He stays in the water ten minutes, fifteen, twenty - I am already timing things - although the water is quite chilly. The bug has bitten him. I remember my own first time with a mask and snorkel, in Haifa, some years ago. You're suddenly different and rich, forever. Finally he climbs out, shaking with cold, dries himself vigorously with a rough towel, lights a cigarette, and sits down next to me. "Ari," he says, "this is fantastic," staring at his mask with disbelief. "A piece of glass with some rubber around it, you see it in shop windows all the time, not much more expensive than a couple of cinema tickets, and you don't even guess what it can do; fantastic." As soon as he has warmed up a little he goes in again. An hour later he can already dive to a depth of some three meters, and rounds off the day by spearing a small sea-bream with my gun. He is bubbling with enthusiasm for the new sport and is grateful to me for teaching him.
* * *
Midsummer, shortly before the summer vacation. All the technical work on Carmi's scaffold is completed.
There is no fixed date on which he is going to die. It is almost certain to happen during the fortnight when we shall be spearfishing together almost every day. I have to bind my time until the sea is clear and quiet and there are not too many people on the beach. On the other hand it should not be delayed longer than necessary. So far, there is no proof that I know about Carmi's connection with Kafr Kasim. The sword of Damocles suspended over my supposed ingnorance is that any day someone might mention it to me, and then the accident might look less like an accident.
There is one danger in my scheme, although a very unlikely one: that instead of my gun going off accidentally, Carmi's might. He would then go on trial for criminal negligence and manslaughter and most probably spend some more time in jail, but I wouldn't be there to see it. This, however, is very unlikely. I have taken all the precautions by teaching him the importance of the safety catch, and slipping it off only when the target has been chosen and after making sure that there is nobody in the line of fire. Actually, him being a soldier used to weapons, there was little to teach him.
He unwittingly cooperated by putting himself at a disadvantage through his choice of equipment, sometimes against my advice. I am using a small light mask covering the eyes and nose only, and a separate snorkel with a straight open tube. The snorkel fills with water during a dive but you can clear it by a strong exhalation upon surfacing. It is the standard combination. Carmi chose the large round mask which covers the mouth as well and has the snorkel let into the upper part of the rubber flange; the upper end of the tube has a ping-pong ball float-valve to close it underwater. Such a mask is more comfortable when snorkelling on the surface in calm water, but one fogs the glass quickly by breathing on it. Being larger, the mask is also more easily dislodged by waves or by a bump on a rock, and, once that happens, one's sight and breathing are interfered with simultaneously.
Then there are the swimming fins, the "frog feet". Carmi couldn't get used to them and prefers to dive barefoot, although fins take most of the effort out of swimming and make one much faster in the water. On the other hand he took readily to the weight belt which makes one less buoyant and reduces the effort of diving and staying down. Properly balanced, you still have some flotation left; but fill your lungs with water while below and you stay below.
I had a light short speargun when I started teaching Carmi and he bought a similar one. Its range and power are limited but it is more suitable for hunting among the rocks and caverns where the shooting is done at short range anyway and where a longer gun would be unwieldy. It was only after he bought his that I started saying that ideally one should have two, the second a long powerful one for longer shots in open water. I finally bought such a gun, but pretended dissatisfaction with it and rarely took it to the beach when with Carmi. But I did take it every time when I went alone, for target practice. It is a deadly thing, four foot long, with twin rubber cords which you can only stretch one by one, for maximum range and power. Because of its length it is also very accurate.
Soon I could hit, ten times out of ten, a palm-sized circle of pebbles or shells, at a distance of about three metres.. I also tested the gun at that distance on a piece of board about one inch thick, the penetration of which was considered to be equivalent to a lethal bullet or fragment.The spearpoint went right through it.
From above, the choice is either the back, the head, or the neck. Much of the chest, however, is protected by the shoulder blades, the rib cage, and the spine. The head is better, but there is the round skull; the spear would go through it and into the brain on a center hit, but a little aside it might easily glance off. The neck is a smaller target but here it's either miss or kill; the vertebral column, the throat, the jugular veins. If death is not instantaneous, the shock or loss of conciousness and the sea water should do the rest in a very short time.
But all this applies to comparatively long distance, while it will most probably be done at point-blank range, just far enough to let the spear come up to speed.
Having completed my target practice a few days before the summer vacation, I resharpen the point of the long spear which got slightly blunted during the practice, and replace the twin rubber cords, still in good condition, with a brand-new pair.
* * *
The summer vacation starts tomorrow.
Today Carmi couldn't come and I am at the beach alone. Tomorrow will have to be a family day; Leah is beginning to look askance at my spearfishing with Carmi. Any day after that if the circumstances are right.
The little bay is deserted; white sand, turquoise water, and pale blue sky. Everything is golden uninterrupted peace. I wonder whether I shall ever recover it after having killed Carmi.
A man and a woman appear from behind the rock on the right and walk slowly along the surfline, talking. Or rather the man is talking, explaining something seriously and competently, and the woman is, or pretends to be, interested, and nods from time to time. The man looks like an intellectual while she is rather the blond sexy type. They wear wedding rings. Such couples are often happy together. She gives me a glance as they pass, and after a while they disappear behind the rock on the left on their way along the beach.
Appearances can be so deceptive. They looked like a married couple, but were they married to each other? Was the man telling her something interesting or boring? When she looked at me, was she looking absent-mindedly or with concealed interest? Was she virtuous or a slut? What were their professions, and what sort of lives did they lead?
And she, in her turn, has seen a suntanned young man, obviously our for an afternoon's spearfishing. On the sand next to me lie the mask, snorkel, fins, weightbelt, the long speargun, and a dark-brown four-pound grouper with its large mouth open. It does not look at all like a court of appeals in session.
Carmi also has a family. I visited him at home a couple of times and have seen a good quiet wife going softly about the house, making coffee for us, and a cute little boy climbing on Carmi's knee and pressing his cheek against his father's face. I see Carmi putting his arm around the child and holding him tight, and I ask him "Does this give you the right to kill those of others?" And, against the blue sea, he is silent.
Then my mother is turning the knob of the radio receiver and is sad because a man was to be hanged, and he sat in his cell, and broke a cyanide capsule between his teeth shortly before they came to take him to the gallows.
And now my father is sitting on the low rock next to me, which sort of puts me at his feet. He is wearing the long flannel nightshirt he had worn to bed, in hiding, when he caught that cold shortly before he went to the market of the little town to try to get some food for us. The hair on his temples is white - it started greying while he was still young and made him look very distinguished - and for some reason his nightshirt ends in a stiff old-fashioned collar and his hands are resting on the handle of his pre-war walking cane. We seem to be having one of our long informal talks.
"You must be a human being first," he says, "and everything else afterwards. So few people are human beings nowadays, Ari; I am a lawyer; I know."
"Is it true," I ask him, "that whenever someone from your home town of Ustrzyki Dolne asked you to handle his case against someone else from Ustrzyki Dolne, you would always refuse, saying you were sorry they couldn't both lose the case, to teach them not to drag each other to court?"
He smiles and nods.
"Was it ever a case of murder?"
"Murder? In Ustrzyki Dolne? No, never; little things like business, partnership, contracts, bits of land."
"Carmi," he says slowly. "You know, when they took me away from you and started leading us along that road and shot the first man who fell down and couldn't get up, a few snowflakes drifted into my heart and forgot to melt. There is a law in the Bible which curtails the legislative rights of a man with damaged sexual organs. Perhaps there ought to be one preventing people with frostbitten hearts from judging such matters too. But, Ari, why does it have to be you?"
"Abba, lama davka ani?"
He is puzzled, trying to remember whether this question in Hebrew happens to be some old private joke between us, and, unable to recall it, shakes his head, still puzzled. The surf behind him looks like snow now, and my father is slowly dissolving in it. When I get up, I am alone again. I have the uncanny feeling that the sea is trying to tell me something, in a language which I am on the point of understanding but, in spite of all my efforts, fail. I enter the water, and the gentle warm sea washes around my ankles, reaches to my knees, takes me caressingly by the waist,and I stop and say to the blue surface pulsing slowly over the dark rocks of the reef ahead:
"A man is going to die here in a few days' time. Please help him to die as easily and painlessly as you can."
* * *
When we arrive on our scooters, there is only one car parked at the beach, and the couple who came in it are sunbathing on the sand. They are a few years older than Carmi and me, and have no skindiving equipment with them. "Please don't shoot all the fish in the sea," the man says with a smile. "No," Carmi grins back, "only as much as we can carry."
We put on our gear, check our guns, and wade in. I am carrying my long gun. The surface of the sea is like glass, and the visibility under the surface, perfect. We see fish already, but this close inshore they are rather small. Another car arrives at the beach. A small family get out of it and start stretching a canvas awning between the roof of the car and two poles stuck into the sand. They don't seem to have any skindiving gear either.
Carmi and I pass the farthest rock jutting out to sea. There are no fishermen on the rock today. There are more fish near the rock, still rather small. Our usual place is a submerged reef a hundred meters offshore; it comes almost to the surface from the depth of some five to ten meters, and we strike out towards it. The sandy bottom over which we pass grows gradually deeper; after a while we see a darker mass ahead, and reach the reef. Larger fish are swimming in the canyons, and Carmi begins to dive, and spears, on his third or fourth attempt, a medium-sized sea-bream. He surfaces, attaches the fish to the stringer on his weightbelt, and reloads his gun.
For appearances' sake I also go down and spear a sea-bream, slightly larger than his; a long accurate shot which earns me a thumb-up compliment from Carmi. I reload the gun, checking whether the point is fully screwed on, and stretch both rubber cords to the farthest notch. Carmi goes down to look under an overhanging rock. There is nobody in the water but us, no new arrivals on the beach, and no boats anywhere near.
I release the safety catch. Not on this dive, because his head and shoulders are screened by the edge of the rock. One of the next, perhaps the next one. My heart is beating strongly but otherwise I am quite cool. I have passed some point of no return and now I know that I am going to do it.
Carmi is still down there and I dive to see what he is doing. It must be something interesting because he has been down for about half a minute and will have to come up for air soon. I grip the ledge of the rock about a yard away from Carmi, look under it, see him involved with an octopus, then let go of the ledge and return to the surface.
I have the whole picture clear in my mind, both what is happening and what must have led to it. The octopus is not a giant as octopii go, although for this depth and distance from the shore it is quite large. Its body is about the size of a man's head, perhaps slightly larger, and its tentacles about the length and diameter of a human arm although, as Carmi is now discovering, much stronger size for size and, with their rows of suction cups, better suited for underwater grip.
Carmi practically missed twice, once with his gun and once with his diving knife. He had sent the spear through the octopus's mantle, the equivalent of a light flesh wound in a human, in no way disabling to the mollusc. I don't think he touched the octopus after that, and the octopus certainly did not counterattack. Carmi somehow got his left hand within the range of the tentacles, probably trying to withdraw the short spear, and was caught by the wrist. He then used his knife with his right hand, once again wrongly, plunging it to the hilt into the base of a tentacle with the width of the blade parallel to the muscle fibers, leaving the tentacle unsevered and fully capable of doing its work. Had he cut it off, there would still be seven left. The only instantly vulnerable spot in an octopus is the brain, approximately between the eyes.
What I saw was the octopus with half its tentacles wrapped firmly over an outcropping of the rock, which made it practically impossible to dislodge it, and the rest over Carmi, in a desperate panic grip: one coiled around his arm, another around his neck, and the third dislodging the mask. It was the equivalent of being tied to the rock with rubber ropes the thickness of one's arm. There was also some blood in the water; perhaps, in his struggles, Carmi has cut himself on the protruding point of his knife or spear. Blood seen through the greenish-blue filter of sea water loses its vivid red colour and looks dull orange, almost brown.
Carmi, with his mask to one side of his face, was making frantic and uncoordinated movements to tear himself loose from the octopus. His left arm was free but there was no rock projection on that side and his hand was groping blindly against smooth stone. As I looked, his movements grew slower and then stopped altogether. The octopus adjusted his grip and held on.
I closed the safety catch of my gun and floated above the rock, watching Carmi die. It has been almost too easy, something almost out of a Greek legend, with my role reduced at the last moment from that of an executioner to a simple guide who had led Carmi to the cave where the creature was hiding. And there are places - the desert, a battlefield, the sea - where death loses much of its terrifying aspect, is rather in keeping with the surroundings.
I raised my head and looked around. Nobody has entered the water in the meantime and there were no new arrivals on the beach. The peaceful surface of the sea, the white sand, and the picnic party on the beach were something out a travel poster. There was no change under the surface either and I was calculating leisurely. With the supply of oxygen cut off, it can take as little as three minutes to die. Residential air in the lungs can make it a little longer. If I left Carmi down there for a quarter of an hour, and then stretched the trip to the shore with his body in tow for another quarter of an hour, he would be past all help. I set the bezel ring of my diving watch to twenty minutes and began to wait.
A little later I raised my head and looked around again. No change. Over a mile away the sail of a small boat was going the other way. Below me, passing occasionally over Carmi, fish were patrolling the reef.
I went down again to look under the ledge. Because of the water between us, Carmi's body was of a slight greenish hue. He was motionless now. The octopus was still holding onto him. The wounded tentacle was moving slowly, probably trying to find a way to get rid of the sharp thing stuck in it. Two thin whiplike tips of other tentacles were crawling like worms over Carmi's shoulder and neck, exploring. The movements of the creature, now dark-brown in colour, were totally inhuman: slow ripples passing through the skin, the body swaying slightly from side to side; a dark alien thing which, though stationary, somehow seemed to creep and flow over the human form in its grip.
It wasn't until I saw the spear protruding squarely from between the octopus's eyes that I realised I had fired. For a moment, all movement stopped and the scene took on an aspect of a still photograph. My first feeling was pride in my marksmanship: at three meters, almost without aiming, right between the eyes.
Then the octopus spurted a great cloud of ink and let go. Dropping my gun, I went down in a vertical plunge towards the uncurling tentacles with their rows of white suction cups, and, with one hand on the handle of my knife just in case, passed the other one under Carmi's arm and rose with him to the surface. Spitting out the snorkel mouthpiece I gave two long shouts of "He-e-e-e-elp!", then replaced the snorkel and began to tow Carmi towards the shore. Upon the second shout I saw the two men on the beach get up and run towards the water. They met me half-way to the shore; one took Carmi under the chin, to keep his face out of the water, and the other under an armpit; they were good swimmers and we reached the shore within a few minutes. We put Carmi on his back and one of the two men began to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, while the other sent his wife in the car to get a doctor or an ambulance. The second wife looks scared, and is glancing over her shoulder at the children, obviously worried how they might react to what could turn out to be a dead body. She comes up to me and asks whether I am all right. I say yes, thank you, just need a little rest, and I walk a dozen paces aside and sit down by the water, looking at the sea.
By my watch, twenty-three minutes have passed since Carmi was grabbed by the octopus, and he has been out of the water for only the last two minutes or so. His chances seem to be fifty-fifty; any moment now his chest may heave and he will start vomiting sea water; or the artificial breathing may go on for another half an hour, one hour, a doctor will arrive, and it will all have been in vain.
In the first case, I still don't know what has happened; whether Carmi's life has been spared or his execution merely postponed; whether I have interfered with the octopus because it was meddling in business not its own, or whether it suddenly became a symbol of something worse and more dangerous than Carmi, and had to be killed first, or instead.
There is a great silence inside me, and I am letting my senses flow without thinking. The beach and the sea are very peaceful and beautiful, like the day before yesterday when I was here alone, and I feel very close to them, almost a part of them. A fish jumps, and a white gull dives at it and misses. Born on land, I have been both of them; with my mask and snorkel I have sliced through the clear water under the surface, and, in a light glider, I have soared on the uprising air currents born of these sands and sun. There has never been anybody on this beach before me; my heart is a ship with eyes painted on its prow, and everything is to be discovered yet, even time; these sands have never known the inside of twin glass vessels connected by a narrow passage. And, once again, the sea is speaking to me, trying to tell me something, and I am on the point of understanding it. It has to be done through all the senses, on several planes at once. The rhythm, the lapping of the waves on the sand, is vaguely familiar. The wavelets are smooth and gentle, more like those of a lake shore, or water receding after a flood. The waves deposit a single white feather at my feet, and I pick it up looking for traces of wax, but there is only a smear of tar from an oil tanker.
A ship. This rhythm, the lapping of water on some deserted shore after a flood, and a ship. And I recognise it now. The sea is repeating, over and over again, a line from a poem I have read long ago and almost forgotten.
"Cargo dumped on the Ararat, and the ship taken under and past the rainbow."
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
You are welcome to print-out this material for your personal reading, but it is illegal to modify or sell it