She clapped me on the back and said that I had not changed a bit. The gray in my hair merely added to my charm and vitality. How was it that I did not remember her, Sarah, the brave Yemenite woman from the Jerusalem ETZEL battalion? After all, it was I who had crouched below her while she scaled the wall to set the explosive charges. Had I forgotten that as well? Did I not remember the mad, panicked flight from the wall when so many had been wounded? And the damned cease action order, the cause of all that grief, had I no memory of that either?
I was stunned. More than once, people had mistaken me for someone else and hailed me to say hello. Out of politeness, I had returned the salutation. Later, I would crack my head half the day trying to recall, who was that, when had we met, where do I knew him from? Of course, I cannot speak of their forgotten names and discarded noms deguerre. But a sapper in the Jerusalem ETZEL battalion? Nothing in the world could be easier to disprove, for I had never served in the Palmach or in the Hagana. I had been but a boy then, and called into the Israel Defense Forces only in the 1950's when I reached the age of induction set by the Defense Service Act of 1949. While in the army, I had served in a rear echelon unit of which I prefer not to say very much. To this day, I am somewhat ashamed of what I did in that unit while the cream of our youth spent their days in trenches on the border.
Here was another case of mistaken identity. Besides, she had aged me by a full decade. I forgave her for that. Many people wrongly think me older than I am. But where did she come up with these bizarre recollections? Breaching the walls of the old city - I? A bitter rear guard action and bloody pull-back - who me? The fallen comrades, the damned order - was I in all that? The slim volume of our history surely included the whole story. But what had I to do with any of this?
As often happens to me, my thoughts came too late. I wanted to answer her, but she had already vanished into the crowd of travelers waiting in the station. I edged out of the jam-packed line. Although I knew that I was wasting my time and delaying my trip to the coastal region, I had to lean against the station wall. I had to survey the passengers' faces and gradually tame the turmoil that Sarah the courageous Yemenite had visited on my peace of mind.
I remembered a similar incident that had occurred some years earlier. I was walking on a street in Tel Aviv on some petty shopping errand when a man my own age suddenly accosted me and insisted that I was a long-lost friend. For all my protests that I was neither his friend nor the friend's cousin, indeed, I had never heard of them, the fellow beseeched me with a desperate loss of faith that I found deeply touching. "It's not possible, it just isn't possible," he repeated. "The same thinning hair, the same stubble, the same two-day growth never touched by a razor." When I tried to convince him that similar faces can be misleading, especially if you hadn't seen them for many years, he burst out, "It isn't just the face or the body. You speak just like him. The same hissing diction, the very same hoarse voice. The same twitch on your face and exactly the same twist to your curling lips."
I had felt very uncomfortable then. With difficulty, I separated from my misguided admirer. Had we not entered a shop where I was known and one of my old friends worked, I would not have managed to shake him off. He was so dependent on me, he begged so for me to recognize him and share with him the distant years of our friendship, that it felt awful to break away and tell him again and again, "I don't know you. We've never met. I don't know what you want from me." I was truly sorry for his pain when I saw on his face how he gradually bowed to the truth and began to admit to me and to himself that a sad mistake may have been made. In the end, we became such good friends that we exchanged addresses and telephone numbers. Smiles, slaps on the back, some words of encouragement. "It's nothing, these things happen. No one these days is immune to mistakes. This was a sad, little mistake. There are much more painful errors."
But the words of Sarah the Yemenite went straight to my heart, kindling a storm that could not quickly be calmed. A man finishes a grueling week of studies in Jerusalem, then rushes to the bus station for the trip to his house on the coastal plain to make Shabbat with his wife and his children and the oaks in the yard; how is it possible that while he is hurrying home, and his mind is already somewhere between the lawns and the red tiled roofs, a plain Jerusalem woman stops him, cloaks him in an imaginary past and wrongly takes him for an ETZEL lad who crouched below the wall to the old city and boosted to his shoulder the brave sapper who would toss an explosive charge above the barricaded gate? Why didn't I hasten to answer her, "Sarah, you are mistaken. I am not the boy you knew back in '48. I'm not even from Jerusalem. I'm from the plain, from a village near Hadera. I'm finishing my required subjects, that's all. Don't turn my world upside down. Let me go in peace to my little house among the orchards." It seemed to me that I saw the shadowy image of the Jerusalem woman slipping away like a furtive gust of wind through the bustling station's teeming platforms.
The rewriter asked my name and inquired into my age and line of work. She was amazed that a man like me would forsake an established life in the plain to dart between Jerusalem's yeshivas and seminaries in search of balm for the wounds festering in my soul. Still, the story I had submitted was very fine and she believed I ought to continue writing despite the demands yeshiva society made on my time. She found in my story something protean yet powerful. "Now that we meet in person," she said, "I see in you the same contrasting qualities of putty and steel. Your appearance bears an astonishing resemblance to the language of the story." For my part, I was more than a little surprised by the familiar tone she adopted. Dumb with confusion, I sat across from her and felt the first twinges of a powerful and mutual attraction.
After a long conversation battered by the surrounding din, we left for the bus stop below the house. She was going to her home on the edge of Jerusalem while I had to return to my little dormitory room. The volume I was studying lay open on my desk, beside it the notebook in which I scribbled thoughts my reading provoked and observations drawn outside the confines of the volume's densely printed pages. We boarded the late-night bus and sat side by side. As if by chance, her shoulder brushed me, then she half swung her body to me and her thighs pressed hard against my own. I don't know where I found the courage, but I took the plunge and wrapped my arms around her shoulders. It was clear at once that we were headed to her small apartment on the city's outskirts. The volume open on my desk and the notebook at its side would await my return, perhaps that night, perhaps at dawn, perhaps not until the following day if things went well between us.
We got off at the last stop and, locked in passionate embrace, made our way to her door. How astounded I was by her request to make love in deathly silence. How I marveled at the efforts she made to choke back her moans. How sweet were the fingers she placed on my lips so I, too, would not cry out when the final ecstasy possessed me. Afterwards, we rose and dressed and returned to the building doorway, where the hot-blooded copy editor showed me a little hutch of white rabbits the tenants permitted her to keep. She drew me behind the building, to the small inner yard where some flower beds she tended gave the Jerusalem night a sharp scent, and a few vegetables, mangled by the neighborhood children, eventually fed to the rabbits.
I asked her to explain the silence on which she insisted in bed. She had a roommate, she said, a fine young woman studying social work at the university who was about to marry her sweetheart and leave for a job in one of the development towns in the south. Out of a deep sense of pity, she would not sully for this splendid young woman whatever life in the big city had not yet spoiled. For some reason, I remarked that I understood all the nonsense if that was the case. Her explanation justified the strange precautions she had taken to assure our silence, even if we had been forced to make love like mice. But I never imagined that she would ask me to slink out of the building without a sound. Nor did I know that she would beg me to postpone the shower I craved till a later hour or, better yet, until returning to my cubby-hole in the dorms.
Her final words enraged me, just as her efforts to preserve the hush of her bed had roused in me a secret fury. I rose from the bed, dressed hastily and told her, very loudly, that one could hear the same thing in the other tiny apartments in that crowded building. I was no longer a boy, it was years since I had indulged in one-night stands. I had long since wearied of ridiculous affairs like these. Her behavior reminded me of an incident buried in my youth.
Rising to her feet, the copy editor seized me and implored me to lower my voice. But I was drunken with anger you might say and loose with my words. "Listen," I persisted like a stubborn child, "I once went for a walk with my girlfriend in the hills of Jerusalem. As darkness fell, we arrived at a small, forgotten kibbutz called `Ma'aleh HaHamisha.' It was almost off the map, so it seemed to me. The houses gripped a cliff to avoid sliding down the steep slope. Encountering the kibbutz chairman, were quested a room for the night. `By all means,' he replied,` we have a guest cabin. Here is the key, here the water pitcher, there the kerosene lamp in case the electricity is off.' He led us to the cabin and opened the door to the middle room. Then he wished us good night and went on his way. The two of us, hungering for love the same as you and I, did not even wait for the echoes of his footsteps to die on the pavement. We fell on each other at once, sank to the ratty mattress spread on the floor beneath us and rolled around to the sound of our cries of passion. We utterly forgot where in the world we were."
The rewrite editor watched me with darkening eyes. Had I not been so big and strong, she would simply have taken hold of me and sent me flying through the window. I already heard the voice of the pure social worker calling, "Who's there? What's all that noise? Ilana, is that you? Do you need help?"
"Just a moment," I shouted across the door to the unseen mob that no doubt had gathered outside to hear my tale. "One moment, let me go on with the story. Suspicious rustlings stirred on the other side of the cabin's walls. My beloved thought we should peek outside, perhaps mice were nibbling on the thin wooden slats. But I was brave lad in those days and said, `Give me the lamp, I'm going outside to look.' I grabbed the lamp and flung open the doors to the rooms on either side of us. None of you will believe what my eyes beheld."
"Ilana, is that you? Ilana, has something happened? Do you need anything?" the roommate called to us. The copyeditor answered, "No, no, everything's OK. You can go back to your room."
I raised my voice like a street corner preacher, turned to the window, opened it wide and shouted, "You won't believe what my eyes beheld. The two other rooms were full of drunken kibbutz workers sprawled naked and sweating, all of them squinting through cracks and holes in the splintered partition. They were panting with desire to glimpse my girlfriend lying nude on the tattered mattress. `You damn perverts, what stinking corpses you are,' I waved the lamp at them. `You dirty Peeping Toms, you vermin, you filthy swine.' I choked on the fury lodged in my throat. I kicked their sweating bodies and threatened the surprised workmen, in a voice not my own, `I'll burn this cabin down on you!'"
Suddenly, I was baffled by my boisterous behavior. I burst half-dressed out of Ilana the rewrite editor's apartment. To her stunned look, I streaked past the fine young roommate and down the stairs. The chilly air outside lashed at my chest. I stopped in my tracks, sniffing the scents of a wadi and the resin aroma of a copse of pines close by. The block was pitch black, swathed in wisps of mist and low, sodden clouds, and the night breeze carried distant sounds. I completely lost my way. I didn't know how to get out, which direction led to the city and which to the road. Cursing the absurdity of my situation, I began to walk briskly along an unfinished street until a gap suddenly yawned beneath my feet. I saw that the road and the street had come to an end, with the city nowhere in sight. I craned my head heavenward in search of help, but the low wisps of cloud obscured the stars. I was forlorn, I had no idea where in the world I was.
Then I saw lights in a window nearby. I gave up, knocked and asked for help. The door opened and Miss Sarah, the courageous Yemenite, appeared at the threshold in some sort of night gown. She recognized me at once and said, "A Palmachnik like you lost in the night? What about those scouting courses you took years ago? What about those those long nights you spent on orientation hikes? We didn't go astray like this back in '48."
I told her my strange account. "Its nothing, Palmachnik," she laughed. "Everything will be just fine." She took me back to the street and directed me in the clipped manner of those early years. "Turn right here, left here, then go straight and you're back on the main road into town. You can get a taxi there." I thanked here and vowed, "Miss Sarah, we will meet again. Meanwhile, many thanks. But I was not with you there, in the Jerusalem ETZEL battalion. It was not I who kneeled down so you could throw the explosive packs." She laughed again. "It's nothing. Each of us must hide from someone. And each of us must mold his past anew with his own hands. I wish you good night." Then she vanished into the blanket of fog.
"Hello, Palmachnik," one of them approached me, "have you already forgotten? I'm Sarah, from Jerusalem." I rushed to her in joy." Hello, Miss Sarah," I said, "what brings you down from the lofty mountains of Jerusalem to the low plains of Hadera?" Sarah explained that she and her sister were attending a family wedding in the Nahali'el quarter of town.
In all her years in Israel, however, she had never been to our hamlet and was especially glad to run into me as they had just lost their way in the streets. From many kind people, they had learned how far the Nahali'el section was and feared, much to their sorrow and shame, that the moment of the ceremony had nearly passed.
I gave them a hand, slowly leading them through Hadera's narrow streets north to the Nahali'el quarter. "You and your sister have nothing to worry about," I told Sarah. "Heaven was smiling on you when you found me. It is my pleasure to guide you on my free hour right to the hupa." The two overdressed Yemenite ladies from Jerusalem trailed behind me like a pair of infants toddling to the playground. Sarah extolled the virtues of Jerusalem in disparagement of the villages of the plain, which were not only a journey of many hours from home but also as alike as twins. From Nahariya to Kiryat Gat, the same avenues, the same shops, the same bus stations. Suppose you close your eyes, surrender yourself to the swaying of the bus and catch a short nap; if you wake up and find yourself riding on the main street of town, you simply cannot tell whether you are in Gadera or Hadera.
I laughed in agreement, then I reminded her of old memories, of that night when I had wandered bewildered and lost in her neighborhood floating within an oasis of clouds.
She nudged her sister and asked, "Do you remember? Do you remember how I told you about the strange young man I met one night?"
"Is that him?" asked the sister. "The one you said seemed risen from the grave to bring back to life the days of the siege and the battle for the city?"
"What's this, Miss Sarah?" I jumped in. "Are you so quick to kill off your acquaintances?"
Sarah went pale and stopped. Some things were not to be repeated before strangers, she instructed, just as there were matters better left unsaid even between sisters.
Her sister, humiliated by the indiscretion that had slipped through her lips, tried to make up for her blunder. Unmoved, Sarah begged my pardon. Anyway, what was my name?
Here we had chatted politely all this time and they had yet to hear my name. Soon we would arrive at the wedding and she still would not know who I was before I disappeared again.
"Abshalom," I said. "My friends call me Avsha for short."
The two sisters gasped in surprise. Clinging to one another, they stared at me in fear. "Abshalom? Are you sure? How can this be, Abshalom?" Sarah demanded. "Tell the truth, what do you know? Tell me the truth," she suddenly raised her voice, "enough of this strange game you're playing with us. Who are you really? Were you or were you not in ETZEL's Jerusalem battalion? Did you or did you not stand below me the night we broke into the old city? Is that you, Avsha, from the battalion's sapper platoon? Tell the truth, are you Abshalom who was killed later in that battle on the hill near Bet Shemesh? Are you Abshalom the living or Avsha the dead playing tricks on us?"
"But Miss Sarah," I squeezed her hand hard, "I am Abshalom, but most certainly not the one you and your sister believe I am. I've already told you I was a boy during the War of Independence. I was drafted into the army only after the Sinai campaign in 1956. I can show you photos and documents. What is it with you two ladies? Have you stuffed your heads with superstitions? Whoever heard of the dead rising from their graves to stroll at liberty through the Hadera market? Look at me, ladies, come a little closer; do I really have the face of the resurrected? Now let's go a bit faster, or you'll miss the wedding in Nahali'el."
They huddled still more closely, clasped one another by the hand, lowered their gaze and followed me like docile sheep. From time to time, they threw me a suspicious glance, evading my face but studying me from my balding head to my sagging belly. I could not restrain myself and asked myself aloud, "How is it possible to make such a mistake? How can someone, right in the middle of the street, suddenly take another for a young fellow who died so many years before? Had he aged exactly like me? Tell me your opinion, ladies, did his hair turn white like mine? Was he losing his hair like me? Were his muscles going slack like mine? Look, he was a fearless sapper in the first wave of attackers, not a goldbrick like me wasting his time in the army behind stands of waffles and soft drinks. Had anyone ever heard such a crazy story? And the similarity of our names? - there are a thousand ways to account for that, and another thousand to explain the resemblance of our nicknames. So what if every Abshalom in the country is called Avsha by his buddies?"
We passed between the little houses of Hadera and soon heard sounds of rejoicing rising from a yard in Nahali'el. I directed the wayward sisters to the garden gate but refused their invitation to enter and join in their relatives' celebration. "This is it for me," I said. All in all, it was I who should feel indebted to Miss Sarah, for rescuing me from a tough spot that night. Sarah pressed my hand and said, "Enough, Abshalom. Don't mention Jerusalem, say nothing of that night. Every word you speak only makes me more confused. And my sister is of no help in clearing up the mystery. You see before you a foolish woman. On those nights when the ETZEL battalion went into action, she clung to our parents' legs, may they rest in peace. Every shell exploding in the city scared her out of her wits."
I bade them farewell. I saw how Sarah urged her sister to hurry along so they could inform the celebrants of their arrival. But her sister, not to be rushed, halted at the latch to the gate. Then she glanced back at me to see if I was still striding to the sidewalk or would suddenly spread secret, dormant wings and soar to the foot of Jerusalem's walls, beneath the old city's barricaded gate.
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