Sprinting up the hill he ducked to the ground as more bullets passed above him. He crawled on his stomach to the nearest large rock. Other soldiers were doing the same. He passed a dead soldier with a red ribbon tied to his shoulder, a sergeant whom he recognized. Finally reaching cover, he ducked behind the rock and tried to regain his breath.
Perhaps a dozen soldiers were sheltered behind large irregular shaped boulders. He heard a confusing babble of Yiddish and other languages he did not recognize. New recruits fresh off the boat. Avi risked a glimpse over the rock. He tried sighting with his Enfield rife and fired at a machine gun on the ridge. Nothing. The Arab Legion soldiers were well protected. The survivors on this hillside were not. A soldier was searching the ground with his hands, moaning that he couldn't see without his glasses. Others were digging gun emplacements out of the dirt with their bare hands. Avi started digging as well. The ground was rock hard. A stone tore a gash in his thumb but he ignored it. A fingernail shredded on the ground as dirt caked under his nails. Exhausted, he stopped digging momentarily. He wished his first visit to this hill, a lovely place, had been for pleasure. He imagined a visit to the Trappist monastery, to sample their wine, or a tour of the ruins of the Crusader fort on the hill above. The monastery was in plain sight now, only occasionally obscured by the smoke drifting from the burning wheat fields.
A sudden bang and his eyes opened wide. It was several seconds before he realized he was seated on a bus. It was traveling to Jerusalem on the Tel Aviv/Jerusalem highway. It was his day off. He must have fallen asleep with his head resting on his hand. It had slipped and banged into the window of the bus. The battle had been a dream. Why Latrun? He remembered having passed a sign for Latrun several minutes before.
But this was not his first dream of Latrun. He had vivid memories of awakening from the last such dream. At work one afternoon the previous week, he was awakened from a daydream as a loud crack, followed by a roar, erupted above. The tractor he was driving was weaving uncertainly down the rows of cotton, a confused drunk becoming more obvious with each step. A Phantom, the source of the noise, streaked overhead from the desert to the south. It left a white trail through the deep blue of the sky. No clouds to obscure it; not in the falca where the last rain had been three months before. The wide cracks in the ground before him and the irrigation sprinklers about him, spoke of the parched desert.
Over to his left Bedouins had been watching him. They were spraying pesticides onto the cotton, dressed in their long sleeve shirts, slacks, and hats, the women in long black dresses, unlike the Israelis, who wore shorts and short sleeve shirts. As he corrected the tractor's path they returned to their work.
As if on cue, the bus, which had been winding through the coastal plain, entered the Judean Hills and Latrun came into view. The abandoned British fort at Latrun had been seized by the Arabs at the beginning of the War of Independence. It had posed such a threat to Jerusalem supply convoys that at least five separate attempts had been made to capture it. None had succeeded. The fort was now part of the Armoured Corps Museum, clustered with tanks from Israel's wars. A few kilometers further along the road were the rusted remains of armored convoy vehicles that had been hit and abandoned.
Avi was always fascinated by the hills of Judea. He imagined ancient settlements under the pine trees, or in the valleys below, now dense with the minarets of Arab villages. His people had lived in this land for more than three thousand years. Warriors, Prophets, Farmers.
A passing pickup truck caught his attention. Several young men were sprawled in the bed of the pickup. A German shepherd dog sat beside them staring at the traffic. The young men reminded Avi of the volunteers who worked under him in the kibbutz falca. Sprawled out comfortably with their backs against the side of the truck, they were peeling the skins from oranges. He watched them split the fruit into small sections and begin eating, tossing the peels onto the road.
The truck disappeared from view and Avi leaned his head back against the seat. He began studying the people on the bus. The driver, a stocky man with a chai chain around his neck, wore the usual shorts and short sleeve shirt. The passengers were a mix of people; Arab men wearing kaffiyehs and women with their traditional folded head cloths, long-bearded Orthodox Jews and young people Avi guessed were tourists, or volunteers from other kibbutzim.
They were fully in the Judean hills now and the ride became bumpier. The bus belched smoke as it roared past kibbutz peach orchards. It approached an Arab village that spread from the valley up the sides of a hill. Avi watched a small Crusader church flash by, with a café beside it. A few Arab men sat at tables beneath ancient trees, coffees before them, watching as the bus drove past. TV antennae peeked out above stone house fronts. The town must have looked like this for decades, the small, incremental modifications like the antennae doing little to change its character.
Soon they were entering West Jerusalem. Avi exited the bus at a stop on Jaffa Road. The afternoon sunlight glinted off the limestone buildings. Both foot and vehicle traffic was brisk. Coming to King George V, Avi turned right.
His mother, a widow, lived alone in a flat off King George V. He nodded in the direction of the Mezuzah on the doorpost before entering. His mother sat on the sofa in the apartment's large sitting room. She smiled slightly as he crossed to her side and kissed her cheek. "How are you feeling this morning? Any better." Her smile broadened. "I expect I'll survive, if my Doctor does not kill me with all this medicine." He noticed that she had been watching a football game on the television. She was a rabid fan of the sport, and especially of Maccabi Tel Aviv. At times he found her love of the sport extreme. He had asked her to take some photos of his bride, Sarah and himself on their wedding day. They had been married outdoors on the kibbutz on a gorgeous June day under the traditional chuppah. Afterwards, when it was time for the pictures, he did not see his mother. Eventually he thought to check at a neighbor's cottage where some of the guests had left their presents and cameras before the ceremony. He found her, camera in hand, admiring a football the neighbor kept on an end table, autographed by members of the Maccabi club, including Giora Spiegel and Talvi. "Mom, when are you going to stop cheering for a Tel Aviv club; you live in Jerusalem" he teased her now. "You know perfectly well that your father and I lived in Tel Aviv for several years as a young couple. That's long enough to choose a team."
The mention of his father caused Avi to look at the photograph of his father, dead for nearly five years, on an end table beside the sofa. It was an old photo, taken at Latrun one Remembrance Day. His father had been a veteran of the War of Independence and had taken part in one of the assaults on the Latrun fort. In the photograph, he stood beside a Cromwell tank used in that war. He was smiling pleasantly at the camera, one arm around his wife's shoulder. He hadn't smiled so much in his final years, becoming cynical and ill-tempered as his body failed him and the world disappointed him. He had lain in bed in a hospital his final days, frowning at almost anyone who spoke in his presence. His classical records still sat in a corner of the room, crowding a small album holder covered by recent editions of the Jerusalem Post. While she did not share her husband's taste for classical music, his mother had been unwilling to give away the albums.
Upon the walls were other photographs. The third from the left was a picture of his first girlfriend, Rina, standing between her parents. He had known her since they were teenagers, having been schoolmates. She smiled at him invitingly. She must have been in her late teens when the picture was taken, when they were briefly infatuated with each other; or to be accurate, when she was briefly infatuated with him, since his feelings for her had stayed the same for years. Last he had heard of her, she had married an American and moved there. Not wanting to know the details, he hadn't asked for any.
Seeing the pictures, Avi felt as if a chasm had sprung up between his life then and his life now. One night you went to sleep, and when you awoke, the world had changed. People to whom you had once felt close had disappeared, either to pursue their own ambitions, or forever, like his father. And you were middle-aged.
Avi went into the kitchen and prepared soup for his mother. As she ate, he sat in a chair opposite her and they talked. She told him news of their old neighborhood, which childhood friends or schoolmates had changed jobs, moved, or died. The latter group had grown distressingly large in recent years. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer. Finally, when she began to look and sound tired, he decided it was time to go. He took the dishes into the kitchen, washed them, and brought her a fresh glass of water before saying goodbye. "I'll visit again soon" he promised as she kissed his forehead. He turned on a lamp in the window before leaving.
Outside the sun was low in the sky. Avi had arranged to meet a friend who had driven into Jerusalem to deliver produce. They would meet in the Jewish Quarter near the Western Wall. The friend would drop Avi at the kibbutz on his way home. With him would ride a group of volunteers who were in the Old City tonight sightseeing. It was no more than a thirty minute walk on a gorgeous June evening to where he had promised to meet the volunteers. He wandered slowly toward the Jaffa Gate. Traffic was light; the Israeli buses had stopped running at sundown and the Arab bus terminal within the Old City was near the Damascus Gate. Bright lights illuminated the Old City walls as Avi neared the Jaffa Gate. The falafel vendors were packing to leave. David's Citadel towered above. Once inside the Old City, Avi strolled past shuttered shops. Signs dangled above his head; some in Hebrew, others in Arabic, many bearing the logos of American corporations. The only people Avi saw were shopkeepers on their way home and occasional strollers. His footsteps echoed in the silence, in contrast to the usual din. TV antennae sprouted from the tops of ancient two and three story houses. As he approached the Western Wall, the silence was replaced by the sound of prayers, echoing in all directions through the cramped and winding streets.
The street on which he was walking emptied suddenly into the plaza before the Western Wall. Floodlights lit the plaza and the Wall. He saw a group of volunteers from his kibbutz standing in a corner of the plaza talking. Having arranged a ride home for himself with a friend from a nearby kibbutz, he thought to offer them a ride as well. Approaching he introduced himself to them and they agreed to go back together. After a short conversation, Avi led them away from the Western Wall to meet his friend.
The volunteers talked among themselves as they walked. He listened as one of them described an earlier visit to Jerusalem. "It was my first weekend in Israel. Several of the English volunteers were going to Jerusalem on Saturday. I asked if I could go with them. As it was Shabbat, the Israeli buses were not running. I walked with the English volunteers to a nearby Arab town to catch the Arab bus to Jerusalem. We walked on the road, careful not to wander off it; as there were still live mines in the open fields on either side of the road. Off to the right was an abandoned Jordanian fort, captured during the 1967 war. Anyway, once we reached the Old City, I went off on my own, wandering around the city; fascinated. But I lost track of time. Too late, I remembered that the Arab buses stopped running at sunset. I rushed back to the bus station and caught the last departing bus. I relaxed, figuring I had been on time. Not fifteen minutes later, I was surprised when the bus suddenly stopped in a northern suburb of Jerusalem. The driver told me this was the last stop; he had to be back at the bus station by sunset. I had a map of the Jerusalem area with me, and used it to set a course back to the kibbutz. I had walked several miles when I came to a fork in the road. I had gone beyond the area shown on the map, so it was no help. The sun had set; in the darkness I did not recognize any landmarks from the morning bus ride. Making a guess, I took the right fork and started along it. I hadn't walked a quarter mile when I heard a voice off to my left. As it came closer I saw it was an Arab; a shepherd. His sheep were spread out on a hill behind him. He did not speak much English; but he knew the word "kibbutz." I nodded yes to his question and he pointed me to the left fork. I took his advice and within thirty minutes was back at the kibbutz, where I collapsed on a bed in the cottage of the English volunteers, listening as one of them played his guitar and sang "Homeward Bound" and some Beatles songs."
The story reminded Avi of the time he took a day trip to Jericho to see the ruins of the ancient town and of Elisha's spring. Afterwards, while walking to the Jericho bus station, a couple of young Arab women approached him. They asked if he'd share a cab to Jerusalem with them. He agreed and they rode back together. When the cab driver dropped him off near Jaffa Road, one of the young women thanked him and handed him a single rose. Avi later wondered if his blonde hair and straight, subdued features had played a role in the friendliness of the women. Friends had often commented that Avi was an unlikely looking Israeli.
Avi's friend Mome was standing beside the pickup truck waiting when they arrived at the address Mome had given. Mome lived on a kibbutz near the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. He had come into West Jerusalem in the morning to deliver vegetables to market and had stayed for dinner at a friend's home. Another kibbutznik sat in the passenger side of the cab. Avi decided he'd share the truck bed with the volunteers, as three people would be cramped in the truck's narrow cab. He shook hands with Mome and introduced him to the volunteers. After speaking about their day for a couple of minutes, they lowered the tail-gate of the truck. Avi climbed in first and helped the others up into the truck bed. Last was a young couple. Avi put out his hand as the girl stepped toward the truck. She brushed her straight brown hair away from her eyes with a swipe of a hand and then grabbed his hand. Her cheeks broadened in a wide smile as he lifted her into the truck. The couple sat against one side of the truck while Avi leaned back against the other side. Watching them briefly, the thought occurred to him that his life was speeding up, like a tape fast forwarding ever more rapidly – try to grasp a moment, any moment, and it had already passed. He absently patted the crown of his head, rearranging the few hairs still growing amid the increasingly prominent bare skin.
Mome slammed the truck into gear. It slowly passed silent houses. As they entered West Jerusalem the scenery brightened, accompanied by the sound of traffic. Avi shifted into a more comfortable position and watched as the truck wound its way through the streets of the city; when the road crested a hill he saw West Jerusalem around him as a cluster of white lights, in the distance were the more scattered lights that meant a town or kibbutz. Above him, the stars shone fiercely down upon them, as they had for David and Solomon. The same sky, the same stars, the same cool mountain breeze on a brilliant June night. He relaxed, found his head nodding, and repositioned it.
He was sitting in the back seat of a cab. An Arab woman sat beside him. It was hot in the cab; he felt the heat of the sun on the back of his neck. The cab pulled up to a curb somewhere in the Old City. He did not recognize the street. The cab driver shouts at him that this is his stop. As he opens the car door, the Palestinian woman gives him a rose. He exits the cab. Realizing he has forgotten to thank her, he leans over and taps on the window to get her attention. She turns toward him. He starts as he sees that her face is deformed, features gone, as if blasted away. The cab pulls away from the curb. He starts walking in no particular direction and comes upon a burning car. Flames shoot up from the car. He walks past the car, faster now, only to come face to face with a foreigner who plants himself in front of Avi and begins to lecture him in American accented English. "Both sides will turn this treasure into a land of nightmares" the man says. Avi starts to protest, but the man is gone. He turns to search for him and sees dozens of young Arabs, children and teens, stalking him, both behind him and as he spins around to look, on either side. They are talking loudly, excitedly, and then begin to shout, demanding their land and homes back. Avi tries to argue "This land never belonged to you" but they will not listen, instead shouting even louder.
He awoke suddenly. Looking over the side of the pickup, he saw that they had turned off the main highway onto the road to the kibbutz. The truck slowed momentarily as it began the ascent of a small hill. He dream left him feeling discouraged. "All life is a great burning" he thought, "a burning of energy, a slow wearing down."
The pathway to his cottage was deserted. He stopped at his door, and unusual for him, touched the Mezuzah on the doorpost. Two young boys were in the living room; the sons of Sarah's cousin, who also lived on the kibbutz. Usually the boys would have been in the children's house at this hour. Sarah must have invited them over for the evening. The eldest, a serious and imaginative boy of four was sitting in a chair reading a book. The younger, a two year old with blond, curly hair was disassembling a toy. Avi picked the boy up and gently removed the toy from his hand. "This boy is going to grow up to be either an engineer or a mechanic" he said to himself, shaking his head at the child. The boy looked at him curiously and spread his open hands palms up as if saying "What did I do wrong?"
He crossed to the bedroom. His wife was busy making their bed. He watched her as she bent over to tuck in the sheets. Her back was improbably narrow; suddenly swelling into a melon like arc at her hips. Avi stepped behind her and placed his hands on her waist and his lips on the nape of her neck. She turned startled, and then smiled and placed a hand under his chin; gently lifting it away from her. She gave him a brief kiss on the lips and then said in a rapid fire staccato: "Glad to see you're home. How is your Mother? Good? I missed you. A brief pause followed by "Would you grab the pillow cases and bring them here?" "You are entirely too neat" he muttered, shaking his head. He placed a hand gently upon her nearest shoulder before crossing the room to retrieve the pillow cases.