By Leah Damski
They had shrieked back and forth at each other all afternoon. The old lady and her granddaughter had squabbled all summer about coming home late in the evenings, her too short skirt barely skimming her knees, or spending too much time with the Israeli Arab boys.
Savta pinched the corner of the last dripping towel and released the clothespin, securing it to the line. The water dripped down from the clothes onto some dandelions. Rachel liked to collect these dandelions and other attractive weeds by the handful, but she never would help Savta pick vegetables from their garden. Wouldn’t so much as bend a knee. Now Rachel was moping around aimlessly.
“Those dandelions are getting tall, a real sunny yellow,” Savta said, coming into the house, hoping for a response but focusing on her dirty hands like she didn’t care either way. Rachel blew past her and let the door slam behind.
“I can’t stand this place!” her grandaughter screeched. She scooped up a handful of dusty sand from the desert ground and threw it at the clean laundry, still trickling. The chalky air blew it away before it reached the clothes. Then she turned toward the rippling mirages of heat and headed into town, swinging her arms back and forth. She spewed a spray of frothy saliva at the garden. Rachel stopped to enter the combination into the padlock on their rusty chain link gate. When it snapped open, she whooped loudly and clicked her heels in the air with triumph. Her long, dark hair, unruly in the breeze, a barbaric image to Savta, watching from the window.
As she relaxed in front of the fan in her living room, Savta thought about the garden that would soon need harvesting. The clusters of green tomatoes beginning to swell on their stems. From their stems, waxy eggplants started to weigh heavily. It seemed it was always about the garden these days. Rachel or the garden.
If Savta was pleased or perturbed, Rachel ignored it. If Savta had cooked her favorite meal, or the ones she detested, it didn’t seem to matter. So when they sat down for pita and Israeli salads that night, Savta capitalized on the rare moment. “Your parents would’ve wanted you to be happy. Can you try to behave?”
Chewing, Rachel stared for a moment before blurting out, “I’ll do whatever I want. I could set this rat hole house on fire, torch the garden and that piece of junk you call a truck, and leave you with nothing!” Rachel’s face flushed with the power she had given herself. She rose to stand over her grandmother. A tower of threat.
But then her face softened. She ran blindly out the door, as if needing to escape the shame of her emotion.
Savta tried to distract herself from this most recent exchange. She went into Rachel’s small room, with its stale smell and sparse feel. On the nightstand was a lone photo of her daughter and son-in-law, gone now almost a year, with Rachel standing between them. It was taken a few years before, when Rachel was about twelve. The three of them had gone on a trip to America to tour the west coast. The russet terrain of Grand Canyon loomed vast in the background, threatening to swallow up the happy little family.
Savta smoothed down Rachel’s narrow bed and shook her head at the stack of music CD’s on the dresser.
Outside, Savta watered the garden and yanked a few weeds from the ground, hurling them off to the side. She then went to get her pocket book for a short ride to the market in town.
The density of the air had broken but in it was trapped the crisp green scent of garden vegetables. Savta looked down the long dirt road toward the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, shimmering in the heat. Though the inhabitants were generally peaceful, the Israelis and Arabs tend ed not to mix. Except Rachel, who had befriended a few of the teenage boys. Savta pushed some silver strands off the dark leather of her forehead.
She climbed into her rusty green 1950’s pick-up. It held special sentiment since it was a wedding gift from her parents for the new bride and groom back in 1963. The truck was reliable. It always had been. But when Savta was in labor with Rachel’s mother, the contractions were coming faster than the wheels could get them to the hospital. Savta gave birth to her in the back seat of the truck. It had been part of so many memories over the years. Her only vehicle in all her sixty-three years, Savta claimed it would easily outlive her.
As she headed down the pebbled road to the market, dust kicked up underneath the truck wheels, leaving a cloud in her rearview mirror. She thought of the car accident Rachel’s mother and father had been in. It was on a road much like this one. An explosion out of nowhere. Some random terrorist attack. The Gaza roads were always risky but things had been quiet.
They must’ve tried to duck down in their seats, in a foolish attempt to preserve themselves. But what did it matter? Savta hadn’t seen her daughter in years before that. There was no love with that wild one either. And now there was Rachel, to bring the pain into the next generation. She felt a fleeting stab in her chest.
“Ima! Ima!” Savta heard as she pulled into the parking lot next to the market. She looked all around in a brief moment of urgency. But no one called her that anymore. A dusty faced Israeli girl ran behind the truck towards her mother.
“Must be talking to someone else,” Savta chuckled, patting the seat next to her as if she were talking to the truck. She eased the door open and went into the market to pick up a few essentials.
Heading home, Savta spotted some locals riding horseback along the roadside up ahead. On one horse, it looked like Rachel’s hair bounding wildly, jolting into a ripple with each trot. Savta slowed down beside the horses and saw Rachel’s arms encircling the waist of a shirtless, Arab boy, about nineteen or twenty. The other two horses carried boys about the same age riding alone. Savta pulled to the side of the road cutting them off and spooking the horses. They all stopped short, then regained control of the animals.
The boys were laughing at Savta. So was Rachel. She had that same raspy, cackling laugh her mother did. Savta recognized their stench of hookah smoke and booze.
They took off galloping and turned down the road towards the Judean hills. Savta sped off after them, honking wildly, the truck bouncing over rocks and small bushes. She knew that in another minute, they’d reach the hills where the horses couldn’t pass. They all stopped at this point, and a breathless, disheveled Savta got out of the truck as if the pulse of her being had leaped to life. She swung the creaky truck door shut, yelling, “She’s only fifteen.” She walked over to the horse and reached her arms up to help Rachel off, as if she were claiming an object that was rightfully hers.
Rachel hung her head and kept her eyes on the ground while she dismounted. A dry desert breeze blew dust around their faces. It seemed like there was no one around for miles.
Savta pointed behind her. “Get in the car, young lady.”
The guy Rachel had been riding with cleared his throat then spit out a yellow gob that landed inches from Savta’s feet. He said something in Arabic to his friends and pulled an apple and a pocket knife from a small bag hanging from the saddle. He began slicing it, all the while keeping his eyes on Savta, like in a no-blinking battle. He tossed the apple core at the car and signaled to his buddies. They turned their horses around and headed back down towards the road.
The truck crept over the tricky terrain but this time Savta was going much more slowly. Rachel just hunched her back and stared out the window at the vast rocks and hills.
When they got back on the road, Savta looked over at Rachel. “This road reminds me of the one your parents were attacked on.”
Rachel was cleaning out dirt from under her nails. Her head moved slightly, almost imperceptibly towards Savta, but she said nothing.
The truck was idling along when they began to hear bellicose whoops and militant yelling of sorts. In the rear view mirror, Savta could see the three guys on horses charging full speed towards them. When they had almost caught up, they could see the guys waving their pocket knives in the air, chanting with aggression. One guy got within reach of Rachel’s side of the truck and held the knife up to the window. Rachel looked terrified.
“Savta!” she screeched. Savta said a quick prayer and sped up to the car’s limit of fifty miles per hour. When this didn’t deter them, she braked hard and swerved off the road toward an old abandoned settlement made up of one-room, crumbling stone houses. The car had never been driven this roughly. And they were about to run out of gas, so they left it by the entry road and ran towards the settlement. The hostile shouts crept closer in the distance. The sun hung in limbo, poised for its descent and a relief of cool air set in. The jangling throb of running beat in Savta’s ears.
Rachel and Savta headed for one of the two dozen abandoned stone houses to hide from the boys. Savta knew that they sometimes built secret bomb shelters under some of these houses.
Exhausted and sputtering from the dusty interiors, they checked each one. Running out of strength, the clopping hooves coming into earshot, they tried a final house. Rachel lifted an old straw carpet from its dusty floor, revealing a latch and wooden door that would take them underground to safety.
Savta thought she heard Rachel mumbling a prayer. The clopping slowed then stopped. Glass smashed on the ground nearby followed by a triumphant howl. The boys were milling around checking in each house. They creaked open every front door, poked their heads in, then slammed each one in frustrated defeat, cursing in Arabic.
When they opened the door of the house where Rachel and Savta were hiding, Rachel grabbed Savta’s hand and Savta slowly raised her finger to her lips. They froze and held their breath. Dust fell through the cracks of the wood trap door onto their heads as one of the guys passed over them. He took a swig of a drink. They could smell the alcohol from under the floor. He belched and left, shouting something to his friends.
The boys continued their whooping and eventually the clopping sounds resumed, fading into the desert night.
Savta and Rachel waited a few more minutes before allowing relief to overcome them. They emerged from the shelter and into a cool, starry separation of sky and earth. The distant Judean Hills shouldered the dark sky above. There was a smoldering in the air that intensified as they headed towards the entry road, not sure if they were shivering from cold or residual fear.
Savta’s precious truck was all ablaze, sending sparks flying and smoke barreling upwards. She cupped her hands over her mouth then pulled Rachel away by her shirt, backing quickly away from the truck. They ran until they were about 200 yards away and then they slowed down, pacing themselves for the long walk home. Clouds moved quickly in from the west, coasting across a full moon.
“I’m sorry,” Rachel said quietly, looking down at her white cloth sneakers. The smoke from the burning truck seemed to be following them.
“Well, let’s not linger on things.” They turned to each other. Though the moonlight was dimming, they’d never seen each other quite so clearly.
There was a huge explosion in the distance behind them. The sky flickered and the ground shook. Neither looked back.
Copyright © Leah Damski 2011
Leah Damski’s work has appeared most recently in Literary House Review, The Shine Journal, and The MacGuffin. An MFA in Fiction candidate at Columbia University, Leah has just completed a novel about the unique inhabitants of a Jewish block in Brooklyn.