Translated by: Dalya Bilu
It was the third time we were going into Lebanon, and I wanted to go to the collection point with Barazani. I arrived at his metal shop and pushed open the door. A clot of dust blocked my nose. A sharp whisper cut the air: the notice hanging on the door had torn. The shop was quiet, but muffled voices came from the far end of the room.
I sat down on an inverted crate and waited. I didn’t like going into the back, into the storeroom, alone. Barazani had only taken me in there once. There were various coins arranged on the shelves-of an old glass-fronted cupboard. From the Bar-Kochba period, from some town in Germany or Italy, where they had once used Jewish money from Persia, Iraq, from the British Mandate, and coins dating from the first years of the state.
Next to me there was a low table. It was covered with a sheet of cracked glass, underneath which were notes, newspaper cuttings, and dusty pictures of soccer players. On top of the glass used and new football pool forms lay scattered, some of which had various calculations scribbled over them in pencil. On the corner of the table stood a pile of old records with a half-full cup of coffee on top of it. There was no steam rising from the coffee. Yonati Barazani, as usual, had forgotten to finish it. Torn, oily rags and dirty, sweat-soaked clothes were strewn over the floor. I was thirsty. But Barazani emerged from the storeroom and said: “Let’s go. The car’s outside.”
“What do we need the car for?” I said. “Everyone’s waiting in the municipal park, it’s less than five minutes walk from here.”
“I’ve decided to take the Volvo,” said Barazani. “Like in the good old days.”
“You’re crazy,” I put my suitcase down on the floor. “Lebanon’s not the good old days, when you could drive to maneuvers, or even to the front line, in your car. No one’ll let you in.”
“Bullshit. Last time I found a way.”
“Look here, Barazani,” I said quietly, “I’m telling you you can’t do it, and don’t forget I’m your platoon sergeant.”
“Don’t give me that crap. If we only did what we were told, where would we be today?”
“I’m not joking. We’ve got enough problems as it is.”
“Everything’s ready. I went to the stores yesterday. All our stuff’s already in the boot. Come on, gimme your case and stop acting like a kid.”
Barazani was the oldest soldier in the company. About forty nine years old. A moustache, black hair, white hair. His face was brown, strong, and lined. He picked up my suitcase, turned towards the door and said: “Who the hell’s gone and torn my notice now?”
It was a notice advertising the Betar Jerusalem soccer team’s matches for the next few weeks. He tried to mend the tear, then he pointed at the notice and said: “I can do without the game two weeks’ from now. It’s a weak team and there won’t be any problems, even if it’s an away game, But this coming Saturday – make a note of it! I’m getting leave. We’re playing Hapoel Kfar-Saba and we’ve got to get back the points we lost in the last round.”
I knew that he was actually ordering me to give him leave. Barazani was a fanatical Betar fan, he contributed money to the club, brought rattles from his shop to the games, came home hoarse and voiceless after every match. The only thing he didn’t believe in, he told me once, was “that business of letting doves loose. Doves don’t mix with football.”
“Why not?” I asked. There was a heap of old programs and blueprints, rusty screws and pipes next to the door.
“Because they don’t. I get into arguments about it in the club too.” He pushed the pile of rubbish out of the way with his foot, and a torn, open magazine hit my suitcase.
“You’ll get leave,” I said. “But now let’s go to the park and get on the bus like normal human beings.”
He locked the shop door, descended the stone steps to the sidewalk, opened the boot of the car and shoved my case inside. Our weapons, which were lying there, he transferred to the back seat of the car. “Without prior conditions,” he said. A police siren wailed in the main street. There was a smell of oil mixed with onions, garlic, and spices coming from the felafel stand. Yonah paused for a moment at the stand, looked at me and said: “Let’s flip a coin. If you win – we won’t take the car. We’ll go by bus.”
I knew him and his coins. He was an expert at flipping two-mille coins from the Mandate period. He knew exactly how to swoop his hand, catch the coin, and win. I took out a cigarette, lit a match, and said: “If you say so!”
He rummaged in his right pocket and asked: “Tree or Palestine?”
“Pali,” I said.
He went on rummaging in his pockets, and finally produced a greenish, copper-coloured coin. He span it round in front of my eyes. His lips were pursed. He snapped his thumb and flipped the coin into the air. The coin flew up, turned over, almost hit a branch of the tree in whose shade we were standing, and began spinning down. I saw his lips tighten. His gleaming blue eyes following the progress of the coin. His back was hunched, his hand stretched out, taut. About half a meter before it reached him, Barazani swept his hand out in an arc, like a reaper, waited, and clenched his hand around the coin. There was a silence. His face was tense and guarded. He straightened up. He opened his fist. Seven leaves peeped through the greenish mould covering the surface of the coin.
“Okay,” said Barazani, “We’re taking the car.” It was tree.
A cold wind blew through the alley. We got into the Volvo. He put on the heater and the car turned into th main street and approached the collection point. “What’s up?” I asked.
“Go and see if they’ve all shown up.” The way he was always trying to run my life for me was annoying, but I couldn’t be mad at him.
Two of the buses had already left. The last one was still waiting for late-comers.
“I guess everyone’s here,” said the company master sergeant. “We’ll pick up a few men up on the way and in Nakura. What about you guys?”
“We’ll get there in the Volvo,” said Barazani.
“You’ll have to leave it at Rosh Hanikra.”
Barazani said nothing.
The CMS mounted the steps of the bus, counted the men again, and said: “Apart from Shlomi everyone’s here.”
“Shlomi’ll be late,” I said.
“How d’you know?”
“As usual. Problems with his girlfriend.” But even before I reached the end of the sentence I saw him. He was running down the street, his pack bouncing on his back. Occasionally he stopped, looked behind him, and began running again. A brown boot, hanging by one lace, dangled from the pack.
At the bottom of the front window, over the dashboard, was an old family photograph. Barazani with fewer lines on his face. Black hair. His wife plump, long frizzy hair, her lips thick and dark with lipstick, her face smooth and fair. Three children. The oldest, a boy of thirteen, straight blond hair falling over blue eyes. His daughter, in a red plaid dress, was hugging her little brother, who was plump with a round face and curly brown hair.
Barazani looked at the picture, and the car skidded to the side of the road. The wheels bounced on a row of stones, and when they steadied on the road again, Barazani took out a cassette and inserted it in the cassette player. It was a cassette of dance music from one of the army programs. He looked at the picture again. The glass misted over and I turned on the windshield wipers for a moment. Barazani turned them off and indicated his older son in the picture. “Seventeen and a half already,” he said. “In six months time he’ll be going into the army, goddammit. It’s him who records these cassettes for me. And look at Shlomi. Out of the army for a year already. And don’t tell me he doesn’t look like a kid to you still with that hair in his eyes, always turning in up in the same old pair of pants?”
“Come off it,” I said to him. “Shlomi’s been out a year already and he hasn’t even found a job yet. Trouble with his girlfriend all the time.”
“And we haven’t got troubles? That’s exactly the reason I like him.” Barazani laughed loudly. “So what if he roots for Hapoel Kfar-Saba, who took the cup away from us in ’75. I’ll still get him for that.” He took a cigarette out of the packet tucked into the pocket of his khaki shirt.
“He doesn’t remember a thing about it. He was still a kid then.”
“That’s just why he remembers. No kid would ever forget a game like that.”
I pressed the cigarette lighter on the dashboard, took it out and checked it, and when the delicate coils turned red, I raised it to the cigarette in his mouth. Barazani inhaled deeply and coughed, and I put the lighter back in its place. “Pick up your foot,” he suddenly yelled. Ash fell from the cigarette onto his trousers. Smoke blurred his face and stung my eyes. “Can’t you see you’re treading on my program?” It was a purple photocopy, and I picked it up and threw it onto the back seat. It fell onto weeklies, old sport magazines, an empty plastic carrier bag from a department store, and an open wooden box. Inside the box, among the screws, pliers and screwdrivers, were a few beer cans, some empty and some full. Barazani leant over and picked up one of them and offered it to me. “Have a beer,” he said.
We arrived at the Rosh Hanikra border post and got out to get something hot to drink at one of the stands. Trucks and commandcars, tanks and M-113’s were crowded onto the parking lot on top of the cliff overlooking the sea. Soldiers milled around and disappeared into the narrow lanes between the many vehicles: private cars, jeeps, officers’ Landrovers, and big Mercedes with green Lebanese numberplates. An MP was passing down the lanes and checking the entry permits. We came back from the kiosk. The MP stopped, and when Barazani walked past him he said: “Where’s your permit?”
“Hang on a minute,” said Barazani. He opened the car door, rummaged around in the glove compartment, and then, after making sure that the MP wasn’t looking, pulled his call-up papers out of his shirt pocket, straightened up, and held them out to him.
“That’s your call-up papers. That’s not what I meant. Where’s your permit?” The MP leant against the car. His eyes were webbed with sleep.
‘What? You mean that’s not it? Our company commander told us to meet them on the Kasmiyyeh Bridge. I gotta get moving. This is the tenth time I’ve gone through here.”
“But that’s not a permit. Anyway, you know private cars aren’t allowed in. “The MP scratched the ginger beard fringing his face. His battledress blouse was old and there was a pale patch on the sleeve.
“Every day you change the goddamn rules here,” said Barazani. Cars were honking behind us. “This ain’t the first time I’ve gone through here.”
“Move aside,” said the MP.
“How the hell am I supposed to move here?” said Barazani. Cars and buses full of soldiers were blocking our way in all directions.
“Move aside,” said the MP again. He signalled to the driver of the jeep behind us.
“I want to talk to the checkpoint commander, ” said Barazani. The cigarette in his mouth was getting shorter, the ash was getting longer and it almost touched his lips. Barazani took another drag. The ash reddened and fell onto his trousers and his old shoes.
“It won’t help you,” said the ginger MP. “At the checkpoint they check again, and they won’t let you through.”
“Let me try,” said Barazani.
“So they can say you made a fool of me?” said the MP.
In spite of the cold wind that was blowing, I thought I could see beads of sweat glittering between the lines on Barazani’s forehead. He took the packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, but it was empty. He threw it away, suddenly smiled, laughed, and said: “Okay. You have to do your job. So clear the way for me at least, so’s I can get out of here.” He came up to me and said softly: “It won’t work. We’ll have to go back.”
“Let’s wait for our buses,” I said.
“By the time those buses get here we’ll go crazy. If they want us to screw them, it’s their own lookout.”
He went back to the kiosk for a minute, to buy cigarettes, and I rummaged idly in the glove compartment. A scrap of a newspaper article, carelessly torn off the page, was stuck onto the inside of the compartment door: “A few days after the war, among the crowds of Israelis flooding Hebron was a well known Jerusalem antique dealer. Next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs he got into a cab and asked the driver to take him to an antique shop. The cab drove through the alleys, and after a while it seemed to the Jerusalem dealer that they had left Hebron behind them and were already in the heart of the Judean desert. He panicked and asked the cab driver: Where are we going? The Hebronite looked at the elegant Jerusalem antique dealer and said: I didn’t think an ordinary antique shop would interest you. I wanted to take you to the place where they make them.”
Clouds accompanied the foam of the waves advancing in the sea, opposite the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra. But what with the heating and the parka and the smell of smoke filling the car I was hot. I was sweating. There was no point in getting out of the car and waiting for the buses. They always drove slowly and stopped at kiosks at all the junctions. There weren’t all that many alternatives. Barazani had won after all.
He got into the car, lit another cigarette, and switched on the tape again. There was stubble on his cheeks. Lonely late-night tunes filled the car. We returned to the Northern Road intersection. And , even before we passed them and left them behind them, I suddenly felt homesick for the green fields, for the straight avenues of trees in the orchards, for the round, concrete reservoir sticking up on top of the hill. Near Hanita we turned off the road and drove back towards the border. The fence there was completely broken down. An occasional solitary car passed us on the road, with a train of dust accompanying it and then dying down, falling and covering the low bushes. I looked again at the photograph of Barazani’s firmly stuck in front of us, and it too seemed to be covered with dust. In the distance, on the crest of a hill, was an Arab village whose name I didn’t know. In the abandoned school to the right of the road children were driving an old car. They zigzagged jerkily between the trees and a broken basketball pole. The songs were slow. Barazani hummed something. The jolting motion put me to sleep. I dozed off.
“La-Comparsita!” I woke up to a yell which filled the car. My feet were sweating, I stretched, yawned, and looked at Barazani. He turned his head towards me, blinked his eyes and laughed. His cheekbones stuck out, his lips were clamped shut. Again he looked at the picture in front of him and cleaned the dust off it with his finger. The cassette stopped playing. The windows were closed. The heater gave off an exhausting heat, and I too lit a cigarette.
“I like old tunes,” said Barazani.
“And I don’t even know them,” I said. I didn’t yet know ten that La- Comparsita was an old tango, from the early forties, or maybe before.
A reconnaissance jeep came speeding towards us. In the wake of the column of dust it raised came an old military ambulance. A safari command- car, with helmeted soldiers sitting back to back, drove behind the ambulance. There were black and grey clouds in the sky, and a north wind beat against the windshield in dry waves.
“An ambulance means there’s still hope,” said Barazani.
“Where do you get that from?”
“They took Yoel away by helicopter.”
“Yes,” I said, “and it was too late. But there isn’t always a helicopter available.”
A few drops of rain fell. Heavv drops. They fell on the dust that covered the hood. Barazani mumbled something, his eyes fixed on the road, and it sounded to me as if he was yelling again: “La Comparsita.”
We crossed a low bridge. Barren cherry trees grew thickly on either side. Barazani bent down and pulled the M.16 out from under the seat. The car swerved off the road and he stopped for a minute. A bird crashed into the front of the hood and went on flying.
Barazani put the M.16 down next to him and opened the window. The bird flew over our heads and he said: “Put your Uzzi on your knees.”
I didn’t answer, and he said:”‘It’s no joke. Put it on your knees.”
In the distance I saw the green domes of the mosques of Nabatiyeh. The Uzzi was lying on the back seat, among the newspapers, the photocopies and the parcels. I turned round and pulled it towards me. When I turned my head back the picture of Barazani’s family loomed up in front of me again, with the straight blond hair of the oldest son.
“He really does look like Shlomi,” I said suddenly. A dark oil stain spread over my trousers, above the knee, because of the Uzzi. Barazani too looked at the picture and grinned.
A terrible stink assailed us. We were in Ansar. We passed the checkpoint on the outskirts of the village. We drove round the prison camp. But the wind kept on blowing the smell of the sewage running through the camp into our faces.
A half-track drove past us. We shut the Volvo windows and Barazani said: “Maybe we can drop in on Nabatiyeh and do a bit of shopping.”
“We should stay put and start getting organized.” I said.
“You’ve got time till they arrive. Just getting out of the bottleneck in Nakura takes hours. Look at my shoes. I have to pick up a couple of pairs here.”
The camp commander, a grey haired guy with a thin, grey moustache, was walking round between the huts, and when he saw us he said: “Hi, Barazani. I see you brought the Volvo again. One day you’ll get it in the neck. Hide it in the back. Behind the detention tent.”
Where’s our billet? ” asked Barazani.
“Over there, at the end of the camp. In the precast blocks.”
“Blocks, shmocks. Is there anything hot to drink?” said Barazani. We drove there. Barazani walked around between the precast huts and in the end he stopped next to the one before the last. “We’ll take this one. It’s at the end and not at the end. And we can park the car between these two shmocks.” He got into the car, parked it, and opened the trunk.
The buses arrived.
Shlomi got out first and ran towards Barazani’s car. As soon as he reached me, he said: “I have to get leave on Saturday.” He was panting. His eyes were red. His hair was wild and covered with a thin veil of dust. The M. 16 was hanging carelessly from his shoulder. He was holding a newspaper in his hand.
“Hold your horses,” I said. “We’re not organized yet, wt haven’t moved into our rooms, we haven’t done anything. And you’re already talking about leave.”
“I’ll do whatever you say. But I’ve got to get leave on Saturday,” said Shlomi. His face was shrunken and his hair ravaged by the wind.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. But he was silent. When we were in Lebanon the first time, too, he had asked for leave. Then he had a story about problems with his girlfriend, and it was true. She was in France at the time, and it really was a problem.
“Is she back?”
“Long ago. And I have to get leave. Believe me.”
“I heard you,” I said. “But you’re not the only one. We’ll take you into account.”
He wanted to go back to the bus, to get his pack, but everyone got off at once, pushing and shoving, and he stood to one side, next to the pile of gear they were beginning to unload from the top of the bus. The wind ruffled his newspaper. He tried to fold the pages but they creased and one of them tore. Packs were thrown down anyhow on the ground. Someone asked in a yell if they couldn’t put them down properly, so they wouldn’t get dirty in the mud, but nobody paid any attention to him. Only Shlomi went up to him, took a cigarette from him, succeeded in lighting it with the third match, and removed it from his mouth. He held the cigarette with his two fingers as if it was the first cigarette he had ever smoked in his life.
Barazani got organized in the room. He found an old ammunition box and stood it next to his bed. Then he took a tattered notebook out of his pocket and began making various calculations about the coming Saturday’s football games.
“Filling in the football pools?” I asked.
“It’s got nothing to do with the pools,” he said. “The pools is a different system altogether.”
Afterwards we cleaned our weapons and in the evening we went on our first patrol. When we drove through Nabatiyeh, Barazani said again that he wanted to buy shoes.
“You’re out of line,” I said.
“How can you go out on patrol in civilian shoes? You should have worn boots.”
“Boots don’t fit my feet,” he said. The shoes he was wearing were scuffed and shabby, and the uppers were coming apart from the soles. Tiny thorns were sticking to his socks and the hems of his pants.
The next morning we sent details to man the checkpoints and the rest of the men were allowed to sleep till noon. Barazani woke up early and drove to Nabatiyeh to buy shoes for the children and himself, and slippers for his wife. In the distance, on the roofs of the houses, I saw black flags and big pictures of some Imam of theirs who had disappeared in Libya, and I remembered the way they had whipped themselves in the streets the year before.
“It’s some holy day of theirs” I said to Barazani. “You shouldn’t have gone there.”
“Look,” he said. “As long as they’re selling, I’m buying. The shoes are comfortable and they’re cheap too.” Shlomi also got out of the Volvo. He was carrying a blouse embroidered in red, green, and white.
“He needs leave on Saturday too,” said Barazani.
“He told me. But there’s no end to it. Anyway, this time I think they’re going to do it by company. Is anything wrong?”
“You mean you don’t know?” said Barazani. Shlomi went into the room, and Barazani and I stood next to the Volvo.
What can already be wrong with her?”
“Let’s not talk about it.”
A commandcar carrying prisoners with wispy beards drove past on the red, muddy dirt road in front of the camp. Planes flew overhead. A little rain fell, but the wind kept blowing, and the stink from the sewage canal of the prison camp reached us in waves.
In the night the CMS arrived and asked us to evacuate the room. They wanted to set up the company commander’s office in it. Barazani refused, but suddenly he started laughing and blurted out: “Tree or Palestine?” “Pali,” said the CMS and sat down on the yellow ammunition box next to Barzani’s bed. Barazani took a coin out of his pocket, flipped it high in the air, crouched down, reached his hand, and when the coin approached his chest I saw his tense face and I knew that the CMS had lost. Barazani caught the coin, opened his fist and said: “Tree! You’ve had it!”
The CMS stood up and leant against the door frame, his lips twisted, and Barazani said: “Never mind. You lost, but we’ll do you a favour and get out anyway. The CC’s the CC whichever way you look at it.” The CMS was silent, and a soldier arrived at a run and said: “The deputy CC said it’s okay. They’ve found a better place.”
In the evening Shlomi went off to phone, and his unintelligible shouts reached the big Indian tent which served as a mess-hall and bordered the operations-tent. I was playing cards. Barazani was drinking coffee and working out his calculations about the soccer matches on Saturday. He wrote things down on the margins of a newspaper and glanced occasionally at his tattered notebook. Afterwards he stood up and walked around with the coffee cup in his hand. Then he returned to the table and said: “There’s nothing for it, they need my voice there on Saturday. I have to get leave.”
A commandcar drove past on the road. There was the sound of an explosion in the distance. Nobody moved. Only the soldier on guard at the entrance to the camp lowered his gun from his shoulder. The big oil stain on my pants was caked with dust.
On Thursday, by the time the patrol force set out, and the two checkpoint details took over from the previous shifts at the camp intersection and the exit from Nabatiyeh, it was already ten p.m. The generator hummed. No one had gone to sleep yet.
We sat in the Indian tent. The CMS, the cook and the CO’s driver were playing cards, and the CMS asked me if I wanted to take a hand. “In a minute,” I said. Two young soldiers were sitting next to a dangling naked bulb, drinking beer, reading parts of yesterday’s newspaper, and arguing. “The place for history lessons is the university, not here,” a tall soldier said to them. His hands were stuck in an oil-stained parka. He stood at the entrance to the tent, looking at the black orange grove covering the opposite hill. Then he turned round, took a letter out of his pocket and gave it to Barazani.
Barazani was sitting on a long wooden bench. He already had a bunch of letters and football pool forms he had been asked to deliver in Israel in his hands. Only three people had been given leave, and Barazani, in view of his veteran status in the unit, had been granted a special pass as an exception. He had promised to bring back special stands for the checkpoint machine guns from his shop, so that they wouldn’t just sit there on the ground but would be ready for firing. The old-timers remembered that in the Six Day War, during the alert before the war broke out, Barazani had organized similar stands for the company machine guns on the commandcars. “Convenient for sitting, observing, and for reacting efficiently,” said the CC, justifying the pass to himself. “All for some lousy soccer game,” I said to myself, and saw the tattered notebook sticking out of Barazani’s pocket.
Shlomi sat down opposite me. He didn’t touch the coffee in front of him, and he tried to persuade me that he had to go on leave. I said that I didn’t have anything against him going, but it had already been decided that he wasn’t going. “Think about the guys who’ve got families,” I said.
“They’ve got families,” he said quietly. “Right.”
I didn’t know what to say to him. “Speak to Barazani,” I said.
“Barazani’s not part of the quota,” shouted the CMS, raising his cards to his eyes, “he’s an exception.”
“So what,” I said. “You can substitute one exception for another.”
“Impossible. That would mean four men going on leave.”
“Barazani’s not a human being as far as you’re concerned?”
“The CC wants you,” the company clerk arrived and said to the CMS.”
“We have to bring the inventory up to date.”
“So bring it up to date, dammit. Can’t you do anything without me?” But he shuffled the cards in his hands together, slammed them down on the table and left the tent.
Barazani shoved the letters and football forms into the pocket of his parka, stood up and went over to Shlomi, and said to him: “You want to go instead of me?”
“No,” said Shlomi. “I don’t want anyone to give up their leave for me.”
“It was decided that only three men are going,” I said. “You can go next week.” I kept quiet for a minute and then added, “Go call her and get it over.”
“I call her all the time,” said Shlomi, “I can’t talk to her on the phone.”
“It was decided that only three men are going,” the tall soldier repeated, “and that’s why only four are going.”
“You’ll go next week,” I repeated to Shlomi.
He kept quiet and then blurted out: “Next week’s too late.”
“Goddammit,” I said,” You’ve only just been discharged. Have you forgotten what being in the army means already?”
“I haven’t forgotten. In the army I’d have gone AWOL. Here on reserves with all these old men I wouldn’t feel right.”
“I’ll talk to the CMS again,” I said.
I went over to the operations-tent. The CMS was busy fixing the inventory and bringing it up to date. I could never understand what was so difficult about adding up the number of soldiers in the unit and getting one clear result. The clerk copied the lists, the CMS corrected them, erased, added on, changed the order, and then the clerk copied them out again. By platoons, by squads, by the alphabet, by rank. And whenever he was asked how many men there were in the company, as of now, the CMS would reply, “About 79, 1 still have to check.”
“Get off my back,” he said when I mentioned Shlomi.
“He’s a kid.”
“So let him have his candy first,” I said, “and then he can wait until his turn comes round again.”
“From your platoon Barazani’s going. It’s your headache. I don’t give a shit who goes. just let me know so’s I can bring the inventory up to date.”
I went back to the mess-tent. Barazani was roaming round between the tables. The wind blew through the tent flaps and covered his suitcase with pale dust. Shlomi stood next to the pole supporting the tent corner and his head rubbed against the canvas. The two soldiers who were reading the newspaper were still arguing: “We should never have moved in here in the first place.”
“What difference does it make? Now we’re in up to our necks. Even if we withdraw.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s not supposed to mean anything. But that’s the way it is.”
I didn’t want to talk to Barazani, but when I sat down he came up to me.
“What’re we going to do about Shlomi?” I said.
“Let him go. What difference does it make? Who cares?”
“I can’t. It’s not just ongoing operations. There’s an alert on too. They say we’re gonna stick it to them good and proper tomorrow night.”
“As long as we don’t stick it in too far. Afterwards we’ll have a hard time getting it out again.”
“They say it’ll be the last push.”
“Every day they say something different.”
“I dunno, but it looks like they need everyone. To stop up all the gaps.”
Barazani said nothing. He had a folded, creased sports magazine in his hand. He tore a little strip of paper from the margins. “Nothing’ll come of it,” he said. “Don’t you know them by now? They’ve always got some reason.” He bent over his suitcase and tucked the magazine under the handle.
A cloud of dust rose from the corner of the tent. Shlomi approached me and said in an undertone: “Did he say something to you?”
“Enough!” I yelled. “You can’t go. Only if somebody else lets you go instead of him. Forget it.”
There was a noise of M-113 engines outside. The patrol was back. “The checkpoints’ll have to be relieved soon,” I thought. A strong wind beat at the tent flaps. It was cold and dry. The CMS returned and resumed his place at the card table. The tall soldier yelled into the telephone. Shlomi stood at the entrance to the tent, huddled into his parka.
“To hell with it,” said Barazani suddenly. “It’s him or me, right?”
“It doesn’t have to be,” I said.
“So let’s flip a coin.” He stood up, suddenly laughed, and said: “Let them manage without me.” Then he turned to Shlomi standing at the entrance to the tent. “Keep smiling, Shlomi,” he said in English, “and don’t take everything to heart. So what side do you want: tree or Palestine?”
“Damn,” said Barazani. He rummaged in his trouser pockets and in the end came up with his old coin. A two-mille coin from the British Mandate.
Everyone was watching and gradually they got up and drew closer. Even the card players laid their cards face down on the table and got up to join the circle. I knew what the outcome would be, but I kept quiet. The CMS touched Shlomi’s shoulder and said: “Why should he flip the coin? You do it.” But Shlomi pushed his hands into his parka pockets and he didn’t say a word.
Barazani’s eyes darted round anxiously. He looked from side to side, wiped the spit from the corner of his mouth, and moved the coin around inside his fist.
“He’s cheating,” called someone. But Barazani had already flipped the coin high into the air with his thumb. I knew what was going to happen, and probably the oldtimers who knew Barazani did too. I saw his tense face when he crouched, his hand on a split-second alert next to his knees.
Shlomi stood outside the circle. The coin fell, and when it was parallel with Barazani’s chest, but before it could touch him he reached out and snatched it. His head thrust forward, his eyes darting round his audience. He turned around, and when he saw Shlomi he opened his fist in a flash, and said: “Pali, goddammit, you’ve got leave.”
There was a noise in the tent. In the distance a few bursts of fire were heard. Flames spread over one of the hills. Shlomi laughed, grinned, and ran to the phone. “Hello, hello,” he yelled, and I heard him say, or maybe sing: “I just called to say I love you, I just called to say how much I care.” But when he put the receiver down he went back to the tent pole and fine clouds of dust rose from his footsteps. Barazani went up to him and gave him the bunch of letters and football forms that was in his pocket. Shlomi smoked a cigarette. Somebody else was whistling the tune now.
On Friday, at four a.m., they drove off.
Barazani got onto the half-track setting out on morning patrol. He was wearing the new shoes he had bought in Nabatiyeh. The other pairs he had left on the shelf in the room, lined up according to size.
He was standing behind the company machine gun, broad, sturdy, unshaven, his eyes burning in the wind, with the old balaclava he dragged with him from reserve duty to reserve duty covering his head and forehead. It was cold, and the men were all huddled in the faded parkas that were handed down from intake to intake and were full of oil stains.
They drove out of the gate of the camp, and before returning to the room I went back into the mess-tent. My lips were dry from the wind, and I needed something hot to drink. There was a jug of tea standing on one of the tables, and I took a few sips. Next to the tent pole I saw Shlomi’s pack. There was a grey sweater tied to the buckles. Inside the folded sweater was a packet with the letters and football forms peeping out of it. I looked around, but the tent was empty.
I went back to the room. I couldn’t close the shutter. The wind beat against it and the hinges creaked. I didn’t fall asleep and at about six a.m. I went outside. A soldier came running out of the operations-tent. I went inside and heard over the radio that a grenade had been thrown at a half-track, shots were fired and there were casualties.
The CMS called the doctor. The ops officer ordered a helicopter to evacuate the wounded. We drove to the scene. Barazani lay on the hood of the half-track without moving. The doctor said there was no pulse and that he had been killed on the spot.
The medic took care of him. He straightened his legs and laid his arms along the sides of his body. He opened Barazani’s clenched fist. A coin rolled out of it onto the hood and fell on the destroyed road surface. I bent down, picked up the coin, tossed it from hand to hand, and when they let off a smoke grenade to show the helicopter where to land, the smoke spread over us all and rose broad and spiralling into the sky. I blinked my eyes which were full of tears, and looked at the rusty two-mille coin from the Mandate period, and at the word written on it in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Both sides of the coin were the same. Palestine.
The helicopter descended noisily. Grains of sand, mud, leaves, scraps of paper, dust and dirty plastic bags flew into the air. “But there has to be another coin,” I shouted at the medic who had emptied the pockets of Barazani’s torn and charred uniform. He was standing next to me, looking at the approaching helicopter, his eyes blinking and watering in the wind. “Here,” he said in a hoarse, weak voice, and held out the other coin.
It was the other side of the coin. On both sides of the greenish rusty copper was a slender, upright olive branch, with seven leaves spreading from its sides.
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
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