The People, Food for Kings


The People, Food for Kings

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Yitzhak Laor

Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu


For soldiers the world is open but the country is shut and locked. And don’t be deceived by the stars,  it’s impossible to follow them and impossible to lay your head in their lap and be stroked and scratched and no matter how far you follow them,  in the end you’ll only tire yourself out, sweat, catch cold, get a fever and return to your barracks, surrounded by barracks, surrounded by a fence, surrounded by other army camps, surrounded by fences, surrounded by borders and countries and borders and armies, so you might as well calm down and relax, like a louse. This time too the Sabbath draws to a close, and at the sides of the roads, in the twilight, and afterwards too, in the dark, soldiers moved, like shadows, crowds of soldiers, on foot, in cars, in buses, as if a war was going to break out the next day, or as if a state of emergency had been declared in the afternoon, but there was no war and no state of emergency, and no brawl going on at the end of the world that everyone was running to see without knowing exactly who was fighting whom and whose side they were supposed to be on, but an ordinary Saturday evening, with that pre-sleep, pre-war, pre-rain look. They move slowly, like rainwater in canals, twigs carried in different directions, no coordination, no rhythm, no order, no organization, ants scattered and seeking their anthill, and by the end of the evening they all reach their destinations, deep at the end of the pit, in pairs, in trios, in flocks, columns whose movement and composition and shape change from minute to minute, and after a while they are no longer even they themselves (and we shouldn’t even say ‘their movement’, for these words have no meaning here apart from the desire to attribute form or movement or beauty to ‘them’), and they go inside, into the bowels of the earth, or the darkness as it were, into the bowels of the darkness, not to its end, but to the corner destined for you, which is not the end of the pit, but only one corner of the pit. Sometimes they change feet, secretly, so no one will see, a kind of dance step, glancing quickly at the person in front of them, or casting a glance backwards, where someone is straggling, and without exchanging more than scraps of information, a limited inventory of syllables and vocal signs. For a while they walk together, spread out, separate without a word, and attach themselves, without a word, to other hurriers, who have separated from other groups in other directions. Is there a place from which all these sweating men look as if they are walking, all of them, to the same place? Sometimes a single soldier stops, a solitary little soldier, walking alone, next to the road he stops and stretches his arms out to the sides, without paying attention. Before this he imagined a certain rhythm in his mind, and then he stumbled, like a dancer he misses the step, over and over again.
Maybe it would be better to follow one soldier, his journey, the sharpness of his movements, a sudden longing (for another direction) which seized him at the sight of the car stopping to take him in the direction where he has to go (dusk falls like a hunter’s net over the ground, that fat despairing bird), and when he arrives at the gate, he hurries to retrace his steps, fleeing from that gate, as if he is hurrying to some other place, perhaps he has forgotten something, and afterwards he slows down, stops, a dance step, to the sound of a distant, inaudible drum, and only the hated beret, very heavy, flattens his face, makes him ugly, if only some big fat woman, some tall woman driver would come and give him a ride. (Better not to follow him in fact. The eye loses sight of logic. Why does he go and come back? the editor asks the narrator.)
And in the middle of all these flocks and individuals returning to their camps, an old Desoto cab stops from time to time next to a group of soldiers, a woman gets out, scrutinizes the soldiers, someone recognizes her, nods, or says: “He’s not here, lady,” and she looks disbelievingly at their faces for another minute, and gets back stooping into the cab. Everybody knows that cab. In every corner they’ve already seen it, talked about it, they’re sick of talking about it already. And someone, let’s say he’s called Raffy, lands up in a whole crowd of silent soldiers, standing at some junction (they’ll soon separate, break up) and he immediately thinks to himself how everybody’s going back together and only he’s alone and already he envies them, and if he wasn’t stationed at the base where he is stationed they would talk to him.
A secret research project undertaken by the medical corps states that if the proportions were reversed, if the soldier were at the base only one day a month, in order to whitewash the walls, pass on parcels of underwear, unload parcels of flags, stand under the flagpole, salute, run back to his room, return at a run to the flag, to and fro, and afterwards, for the rest of the month, he stayed at home, his mental state would improve no end. The project made use of data collected at the armour base which almost encircles our base. To which, by the way, the soldiers were siphoned off in an organized fashion from Beersheba, in convoys of big trucks, which brought them to the camp from all points of the compass at exactly the same time. Again and again the soldiers were taken out on leave, both sudden leaves for which they had to be ready in two minutes, and regular leaves for which the preparations took a long time (precisely these were suddenly cancelled from time to time, in announcements over the loudspeaker). To there they were also suddenly returned from leave, sometimes only a few hours after they arrived home, returning by foot, in organized transport, thumbing rides, by indirect and circuitous routes (the Beershebaites, for example, had to get back via the Major of Haifa, and so on). This was the reason too, why they instituted the famous baptism of screams which has already been written about in the weekly IDF magazine, Bamachaneh, the friend of the lonely. Every Saturday, a few minutes after the trucks unloaded them, and before they could burrow into their rooms like hairy maggots, they had the right to scream, and hit anything they could lay their hands on, until the siren sounded and the week began. On our base the soldiers had given up the vain exercise of going on leave long ago (even though the punishment of confinement to quarters continued to play an important role, and was even extended during the period in question). Every Saturday evening, when the screaming started, the kicks, the stamps, the longings, the curses, the bangs, the yells, the pleas, the roars, the gurgles, the growls, the laughter, we felt like complete idiots: we, the first in the army to forgo the right to go on leave, because of the sinking weight of coming back to the base, we sit in our rooms, completely hidden, and precisely then, the darkness covering us which sometimes, for a moment, gives the body back its original smell, its old, familiar sensation is traversed by a wailing ship, heavy, sharp and inundating.
The end of the chasm between our base and the armour base was a monument in the shape of a huge tank in memory of the soldiers and officers of that base, who perished, down to the last man, in the same week, in the same valley, at an average age of nineteen years and three months, whereas our little base is still standing. Only the most secret papers in the General Staff will stress, in handwriting, in minute detail, the real difference between the two bases, for although the soldiers of the armour base and its officers will die to the last man, precisely their deaths will be immortalized, from generation to generation, with multitudes of children adopting the dead tankers as their parents, each child adopting a dead tanker, listening to him, studying him, learning him by heart. On the other hand, argues the narrator, who belongs, like all narrators, neither to the House of Hillel nor to the House of Shamai, but to the House of Josephus on the other hand, there is a certain injustice in this discrimination.
Now it is already evening. And at this hour, when the journey is already over and the birds land in the nets, sniffing their snuggling warmth, smoking a damp cigarette before dropping off, one more recovery, one more deal before giving themselves up to sleep, and at this hour, in other words, between half-past seven and five-to-eight, someone yelled in the always-dozing camp, in a terrible voice he yelled, and only once: “Everyone to the mess, hurry up, ” and the yell tore the air, all evening it punctured it (and the reader is advised to imagine this cry, which was only voiced once, throughout the chapter, as if the defenders of a beseiged and attacked city were being called to arms, “Everyone to the mess, hurry, hurry”). Then too, at the same hour, everyone came out for the first time, suspicious, hostile, lazy, and then too the rumour passed among them that Franzi the CO, from whose wallet in the jacket on the wall they would steal money, was dead, and afterwards also the rumour that Sergeant Avram had taken charge, and afterwards there was a fight between the sergeant and Raffy, and all this deserves a proper scene, reported in this or that language, through the eyes of this one or that. “Soldier so-and-so emerged from his room and asked: ‘What’s up?’ ‘The CO’s dead,’ replied someone from the darkness, ‘Dead? What do you say?’ ‘What you hear,’ and so on and so forth, but all this was said in the darkness, in a crowded line, under the branches of trees even darker than the darkness. On the cold concrete pavement, on which were scratched, from the cold showers to the cold mess room,  five-lain hundred metres, the names of hundreds of soldiers and their loves, real and fictitious, with their epithets from “princess of my heart” to “fucking whore”,and the names of dozens of sergeants and their loves and their epithets, and officers who had also served here, in the days when the pavement was laid. (They too had waited in line to engrave their names, and but for the fact that the narrator too groped and sniffed like a single nostril in a dark and snorting stable, we would have had to take up a notebook and pen now, and copy the names from the pavement, perhaps even find out where they are living today, for what good did it do, that careful and industrious engraving, five hundred metres long, why did they take the trouble?) Everything drowns in the sounds of the night, a distant radio changes stations rapidly and falls silent, and a distant plane among the stars, or is it the sputnik tied to the earth like a giant kite, and the armoured corp truck is already bringing the first of the soldiers returning from leave. In a minute they’ll begin screaming there, and accordingly we want to get back quickly to our rooms. Our smells are the same, one smell the same as another, as the smell of the place, the smell of the uniforms, which is the smell of the blankets, which is the smell of the work details, which is the smell of the mess, which is the smell of the food, which is the smell of the tea, which is the smell of the pots, which is the smell of the filth in the showers, which is the smell of the latrines. And what is the point of describing the scene of their emergence from the barracks, when it is already over? Until his demobilization every soldier goes through on average five or six COs.
Almost at the end of this evening of terror, obedient as a duty prisoner, she covered herself with a sheet (a shroud, the image passed before her eyes, and her body — sixty-seven kilos she weighed— wasn’t her body in that hallucinatory flash, but for some reason the small and skinny body of her father, and then she shook her head, maybe it was only a shivering fit, and it all disappeared). And over the sheet she spread, lying down, a slightly mouldy blanket, and with all the business of covering and spreading she forgot for a moment, the blood settled down in the blood vessels, a kind of repose, and she forgot for a moment her urgent desire to see him this evening again, and to let him see everything he wanted to see, because that was all that seethed inside her all day like madness, beat in her head and stomach and thighs, fear and tension and lust, for him to see everything he wanted to see, to touch her eyes and everywhere he wanted to touch. And instead she now thought, on one of the times when she separated herself from the desire and decided to go to sleep — she did this several times and it’s hard to say which is the one we’re talking about now— she thought how her smell would be like the smell of the blanket. And she banished these self-pitying thoughts too, for the sheet was cold and her whole body shivered with cold, but this way at least she visited all the parts of her body and snuggled down under the load of blankets and covers, and afterwards her hands would warm her cold flesh, and she would fall asleep, and in the morning everything would be pure again, and she wouldn’t be seduced by the filth of the fantasies any more. And when her day came, the man would come too and mount her, and she would wait for him to do whatever he would to her, and everything that had happened in the night and today and this evening only happened because she didn’t let things take their course and she tried to hasten the end. And at the very same time, at those moments which need so many words for their flashes of pictures at those moments, without her knowledge (the window of course was covered this evening, and she was sorting out in her head the letters which she had seen and which were important from the letters which she had read and which weren’t important), exactly at that moment the soldiers of the base were moving outside on the “ice path,” which was sprayed by a sickly yellow light from the single lamp standing at its centre, around which moths revolved like electrons. And suddenly, at one of those times mentioned above, she regretted having gotten into bed so early and switching off the light and giving up, because of the fear of the expectation which leaves you alone in an empty house.
And the man for whom she was waiting was soldieriko , who was standing, at precisely this moment, in the shower, naked and shivering, taking advantage of the hour when there was nobody else there and it was possible to get undressed without being seen. For five minutes already he has been shivering there alone in the light of the single bulb, with a moth casting a revolving shadow, and as he stands rooted to the spot there is a kind of speed in him which he can’t stop or evenslow down, a kind of unrestrained inner rhythm. Only now he has finished vacillating about whether to take off his underpants, and now, completely naked, his testicles shrunken, he vacillates again, in a kind of motionless running on the spot,  about whether to get under the water quickly and quickly-quickly soap himself and run back and climb onto the bench, shivering and teeth-chattering, and dry himself with the wet towel (which two minutes ago fell into the water on the muddy floor) , and get dressed again, half wet; or whether to get dressed right now, without standing under the water, so cold after the regular showering times, crowded with hairy, shivering soldiers. And all this without feeling anything, except for the cold, and the defence against the cold, and the unenthusiastic wish to bathe, and the willingness to renounce this wishbecause of the cold and possible peepers, and everything was like a defence against the cold, biting his lips to protect himself and not saying a word, for soldieriko had rationed himself to ten words a day and no more, but nobody knew this, not even Orit. It’s hard to understand the reasons for this rationing. All we can say is that his suffering was greater than the suffering of his fellows. We can also say that today he had already exceeded his ration, and consequently he had decided to save words in the days to come to make up for it; and we can say, too, that soldieriko had long ago come to the conclusion that you had to learn to save, on the one hand, and on the other hand that there was a big surplus of talk in the world in general, and in Israel in particular, and therefore soldieriko is a very complicated hero for any narrator, not only because of his strange reservations about sexual intercourse, but mainly because the original intention was to describe through him the history of his mother, who had been removed almost forcibly from a Christian convent after the Second World War, and never recovered from the abduction-rescue. But owing to the monastic taciturnity of the son, the narrator is unable to fulfill this obligation given to a number of foreign publishers (in return for royalties almost half of which have already been taken from him by the local publisher) eager to read our soldiers as their victims.
On exactly the opposite side of the pavement, at the entrance to the mess room, stood the hated kashruth supervisor, his heart full of foreboding: they would come and melt the yellow cheese, and while it was still hot they would spill it onto the frozen chickens in the fridge, and they would pour the yogurt into the watery meat soup, ready in the fridge for the next day. And in fact all this was already happening and he was drowning in anticipation at the door, wishing they would come already, and he wouldn’t even run away, but stand and look, because he was sick of living anyway. Lord, how are they increased that trouble me! Many are they that rise up against me. Would he eat too? No. Certainly not. He would rather die. But if they forced him, if they tied his hands, pinned him to the wall, held him down, ten of them, pushed it into his mouth, meat and milk and meat and milk, he would eat too, because what else could he do? And afterwards he thought of where he could run to, and for the first time he envied the big man who had been living for years in the old tunnel underneath the base. Everyone back to your rooms. What have we got to do outside? (At an hour like this you sit on your bed, scratch two tits on the wall, big, if possible, pink, pink, or a demob date, curses; an evening like this, you suddenly want to betray a distant friend, or you wet a piece of paper with your spit and shoot it at the ceiling.)
 Into this evening Raffy arrived from his leave, like an arrow into the cold flesh of a huge stinking beast. Every week he went home, not so much for love of home nor for hatred of the base, but out of the need to tend the hundreds of pustular sores that covered the skin of his face and chest and back. And it was by these that somebody had recognized him the week before in the armoured corps truck, in spite of the black beret he was wearing (he had a red beret and a blue beret in his knapsack as well). And even before the truck stopped at the banging of the soldiers on the window, he was thrown out of it, and ten tankers spat on him and yelled after him, “Get lost trash, get lost trash.” But this evening he arrived on his own steam. As soon as he entered the base he heard about the CO’s death. Furiously he heard that the sergeant had appointed himself to the temporary command of the base. He had hated the sergeant for a long time. Every now and then he warned the CO against the things he did, even though he had no proof. Now, at exactly these moments, as the soldiers crowded next to the mess room, ashamed of being outside when the screams of the tankers began to splutter, Raffy’s soldiers, quickly and as one man, in accordance with the agreement they had come to in countless secret meetings, marched towards the showers —in the opposite direction to the other, slow soldiers quickly they marched round by the side path —happy at the permission obtained in advance to shoot in the air. Meanwhile he himself tried to hold forth hoarsely in front of the mess room, pushing aside Sergeant Avram, who was weakly calling on the soldiers to go back to their rooms, now that everything had been made clear to them. And that’s actually everything that happened this evening outside. First Raffy’s soldiers went quickly, quietly, as their clandestine commander had taught them in the maneuvers he conducted both in working hours, in the stores, and on the hill behind the camp, in secret. If worse came to worse, they could always claim that he had incited them, and the whole business of seizing the showers seemed like an enjoyable lark to them, if also illogical. And altogether it would have been preferable to seize the kitchen, or the girls’ barracks, but then, exactly when they were cocking their weapons to shoot into the showers contrary to their orders, or a little in excess of their orders, the tankers’ roars broke out (the reader should imagine the terribleness of the screams), and the raiding party stood abashed, and one of then said then in a stranger’s voice, strange even to himself: “We’re full of shit.” And on the other side of the wall, in the shower itself, stood soldieriko,  and he heard voices and thought how quickly your balls shrank in the cold, and for a second he also thought of the colour of his testicles, and he heard the roars too, and he got dressed quickly, without drying himself, and stood barefoot and clothed, with his shoes in his hands, but he still said to himself: Maybe I’ll jerk off a bit with soap. By the way, soldieriko wasn’t a dummy, although he had learnt the pleasure of utter, dumb stupidity during his military service. A man is born a total dummy, after all, who doesn’t even know the difference between one orifice and the other, never mind the difference between an orifice in his own body and an orifice in someone else’s body. And afterwards, with a lot of effort, he is moved to and fro, run ragged, seduced with the help of orifices real and imaginary, and still expected to nod his head and add his voice to the goading of the dummies, and to thank and praise and extol, and see dummies running, and be happy that he too can run/ perform /obey like them. And soldieriko too, after all, could have been utterly dedicated to pulling nails, let’s say, from the walls of a storeroom, let’s say, but then, after a week of work, entirely devoted to the extraction of nails, and after he had already developed methods of his own for rapid extraction, and in spite of all his cynicism and the hostility he feels towards action in general, and his own actions in particular, in the depths of his heart he already takes a little pride in the speed with which the nails are extracted. And his competence improves, and afterwards he even speaks of his ability, his speed, his efficiency, to himself of course, without deviating from his daily ration of words. And gradually he is transformed, inside himself, into a very rapid extractor, and we can already speak of satisfaction, even pleasure, a pleasure which can be savoured and around which imaginary competitions can be held. Merchandise can be collected and sorted by size, length and thickness, meetings can be arranged with merchants and deals can be made, and already he can feel the money in his pocket, and money in his pocket turns into balls in his pants, and even more, and everything connected with pride and the correct posture. And precisely then, at the end of one day of extraction, he is already sent, together with a few others, each of them silent, reserved, guarded, to fill in for somebody somewhere else, to load a thousand jumbo packs of shaving powder onto a truck destined for the army chaplains base in the north.  And the nails are already remote and cold, insulting, unknown. And in spite of the dejection, in the depths of his heart he nourishes a kind of desire by now — a weaker, almost dreary desire — to learn to arrange the packets of the famous shaving powder in a certain order, simpler and more economical. Or perhaps we’re really talking about gunpowder here, little packets of dynamite, and you haven’t got a hope soldieriko; they’ll transfer you again and you’ll be wounded again. And you’d better turn your mind to other places, beyond the actions of hand and back and foot, says soldieriko to himself already in the first hour of work, and what’s the wonder that his friends hate that smile always spread over his face. And this is precisely the reason why you can see all the non-permanent soldiers prowling about every day after work, alone, next to the fences, even outside them, sometimes talking to themselves, like actors rehearsing their part before a performance. Happy are the fortunate few who work in the cleaning materials stores, who often talk about the detergents even in their rooms, because they live together and work at the same work all the time (here a special expertise is apparently required), and they hang around together after work, eat together in the mess, go out together to Beersheba, and visit exactly the same whore every week. And it is also said of them that instead of paying her money, they bring her a basket full of various cleaning materials, and they talk, both among themselves and to her, about their work, their efficiency, the advantages of their work over the work of the others who haven’t got steady jobs. And they talk of course about the detergent shop they have, or will have, in housing project 4, after they open a special shop for detergents. But their activity and their jolliness and their distinctive colouring (they peroxided their hair with one of the cleaning agents, something which began as an accident and turned into an almost daily cosmetic occupation) were definitely exceptional, and they too preferred to remain on the base on Saturdays, and they too were relatively subdued. Afterwards soldieriko decided to walk as if on live coals barefoot, on very cold feet, to his room, and there to dry his feet on the bottom of his sheet, and he thought to himself too that one day he would disappear. He would squeeze more money out of the Arabs who stole into their abandoned village, and then he would disappear. The best would be to disappear into a place where you could see and not be seen. That was the best. “And seeing isn’t interesting either,” he said. And if there’s an important question here, we can formulate it thus: What is the light that gives soldieriko (who is still treading in the shallow mud on the shower floor and decides not to run barefoot to his room) the illusion that exactly a light like this (like the light inside him) is burning in the place to which he wants to fly to transfer?
And under cover of the screams of the tankers who had concluded a back-breaking week with a weekend of well-soaped rest, Raffy slapped the sergeant, after two or three mutual shoves and exhortations. Afterwards the sergeant retaliated with a hesitant slap. After that there were a few punches. After that one of the two hurried to the pavement, where a rusty iron bar had been lying for years, obliging us to make a detour round it on our way to the mess, and he swung it over the other. After that they knocked each other down and lay on the ground, and hardly any of the soldiers standing round knew who the other one was, apart from the hated sergeant. One of them was already bleeding, and Raffy suddenly succeeded in biting a piece of the sergeant’s ear off, and he didn’t dare make a sound, and only after a couple of seconds, with the big spurt of blood, he let out a horrible scream which was swallowed up by the yelling all around. And in the middle, between the blood spilling onto the pavement here and the yells of the returning tankers there, most of the soldiers of the base stood in the dark, as if before a work of art in a museum, and afterwards they turned to their rooms, alone and in pairs, silent, stealing away, leaving the two next to a little pool of blood like soup. (Behind the burning blanket in a distant window lie sixty-seven kilos, and places which contain nothing, between the breasts, between the legs, between the lips, in the middle of the bum. All these places don’t belong to her weight, on the contrary, but they belong to your lust. Oh what pleasure you could get out of rolling around with her, being kissed, stroked. The light reddened in the blanket on the window, like a dragon with a terrible neck the window reddened; your thoughts are focussed on her naked flesh, even though there is no real information, at this moment, regarding the dimensions of the mail clerk under her uniform, whether she has a big bosom or a small one, broad nipples or little prickly ones, pink or brown. Why not knock now, with nobody looking, with the yelling, the dispersing crowd, on her door, steal inside, and ask her, or even not ask, pull it out, without ceremony, your throat already full of phlegm and the words drowning, Want to fuck? And a certain soldier, in the dark, perhaps the soldier who exists by virtue of his consciousness suddenly flaring like a firefly, his trousers bulged a little in the cold darkness, and suddenly he felt hot in his cold clothes, and he decided to move, and he moved, turned his back on the big crowd, walked towards the window reddening beyond the blanket, stopped, and then gave up, it’s not clear why. And the mail clerk didn’t even know, she’ll never know, that a certain dirty mind told itself a few moments of her life in which she squatted naked and humiliated on her heels, as if she was peeing or something like that, and he didn’t even get undressed, but undid his trouser buttons and whipped out his gigantic hallucinatory prick, like the fire hose in the yard.  But afterwards, without a real mise-en-scène, he abandoned the arena of the previous scene and kissed her eyes in the new arena, and stroked her hair and embraced her, and told her, “I love you so much,” and uttered obscenities and said to her, “Darling, I love you.” Afterwards he returned to the group, perhaps he thought someone had called his name, perhaps he panicked, or suddenly remembered how unattractive she was, and the warmth went away, and perhaps his little prick stuck to his cold thigh and the warmth went away.)
Now throaty sirens joined in, and the screeching of monkeys, or tigers ( what’s  that like?),  and muffled basses in the voice of geese (but much deeper and longer, kahkah kahkah kahkahkah, over and over), and in unison, for long minutes, also banging on tins, empty jerrycans, with hoes on shell containers whichareunbeatablforhollowbooming, and sceaming, howling, yelling, roaring, bawling, wailing, sobbing: rhythmic syllables,  throat clearings, artificial smoker’s coughs, Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy, death to traitors, long live the armoured corps, we want to show them we want leave more leave, let us smash the Egyptians, give us cunt, let us stick it up your arsehole, death to the pen pushers, death to the air force, death to the paratroopers, death to the Arabs, long live the army. And their eyes flash and their throats are hoarse, and their bodies fill with dusty breath as if they are floating on swelling water, and some of them even weep, when nobody’s looking, wild weeping, and there are even cries concerning the settlement of the wilderness, the greening of the desert. After this they will calm down for the rest of the week, for we are speaking, after all, of nice youngsters, and every Wednesday they gather to sing nice songs under the direction of a gifted soldier who teaches them to sing in two voices, and even more. And then too we hide ourselves deeper, and a stiller silenter voice makes us tremble, each of us with his own still silent voice. Once a taxi (a Desoto) arrived at the gate and a soldier smiled at the woman who got out of it and said to her: “Don’t you remember me? I told you near Hadera that we didn’t see him near Haifa, don’t you remember me?” And the woman nodded her head heavily, shrugged her shoulders, looked at someone who was sitting inside, went back to the taxi and told the driver to go, and he went.
Every Saturday evening, a little before eight o’clock, she refuses to feel the fear of those screams. But already at seven the wariness begins, the prowling round the room, to fall asleep, not to fall asleep, to sleep, not to sleep, in order not to wake up in anger.  And she doesn’t want to listen either, and it’s impossible to close her ears, or to map these screams, or to ask contemptuously where those pathetic whistles are, for example. But then suddenly a whole group on the far side of the camp joins together in a strange kind of locomotive, in a quickening rhythm ya ta ta ta ta, ya ta ta ta, ya ta ta ta, ya ta ta ta, and on another side someone roars like a pervert or an ecstatic lunatic aaach aach aaach aaach. And always some new roar rises, short, perhaps of fear, or like somebody’s last roar, and her room is sealed, because her greatest pleasure is to seal her room, to lock the door and cover the window with a blanket and not to go out. Because objects you bump into in the dark are terrifying, the touch of chill metal is terrifying too, a cold sweating monster, a hand when you don’t know who it belongs to is frightening, a body in the dark is frightening, standing guard is frightening, the religious are frightening. And after every touch of a barrel in the yard, an unfamiliar tap, dripping into a barrel, a puddle, a cold stone, you have to wash your hands, everything’s disgusting here in the dark. Outside is the army and inside is her room, her hiding place. And experience has taught her not to look outside, and she waits patiently, because he said that he would come at eight. Outside a radio goes on and off, comes to life and dies.  Earlier she spread the tablecloth that she keeps only for the evenings when she is quite alone, when her roommate isn’t there, with two red mushrooms on one side. And when the screaming starts, she thinks, too: It’s a good thing my parents aren’t here because they’d be frightened, perhaps not frightened, but full of worry. All her life she protects her father, and her husband will have to protect him too. And what if her husband joins in those screams, and afterwards leaves her naked and goes away laughing? When he comes, they’ll go out to the road to walk hand in hand, and if he suddenly tells her to show him her breasts, she’ll laugh and say that it’s a lot less wicked than he thinks. She’ll sit naked opposite him and her legs will even be parted and he’ll look, if that’s what he wants, to see, in the light. He’ll sit with her and get to know the things in the room. They’ll be his, everything in the room will be his, the cookies, the coffee, the secret story of her life, including her herself, and he’ll be one of the family. She passes through her mind all the signs he gave her all the long evening in his room: she stood at the door and her heart beat and beat until her hand knocked at the door, and he opened it. He shrugged his shoulders, he didn’t understand, and she shook her head, that no, it wasn’t a mistake, but he shrugged his shoulders again and he didn’t invite her in. Perhaps she had startled him from his bed.   And afterwards she said to him in a bleating voice like a lamb that he should invite her in, and afterwards he sat and she stood, and afterwards she sat down next to him, and he shrank, and they spoke very little. Mainly she asked questions in a tiny, piping voice. And all the time she was very nervous, not nervous, but coaxing, trying, again and again. Imagine, she said, in one of these coaxings oh how her armpits sweated that we woke up in the morning and outside, in the familiar place where there were only trees and grass and a few huts and a fence and a flag when we fell asleep, in the morning, outside, all we see through the window is the sea and a ship at anchor. And then he actually smiled, and he shrugged his shoulders again, because he didn’t know what she wanted. But because of that smile, which she interpreted wrongly, she asked him to tell her about himself, and then soldieriko was silent again, and he was very mean to her, and he said that there was nothing to tell about himself and he had nothing to say. And afterwards she touched him, as if by accident, and her hand was sweating. The heart, she lies in bed and thinks, the heart is like a fish, it never shuts its eyes.
Afterwards, on one of the times when she lay down in bed in the discipline of hiding, Orit, in other words the mail clerk of the base, rose and put her teddy bear back in the locker, from where she takes him to bed only on the evenings when the Hebrew teacher is absent. Then she got quickly back into bed, looked at it with a new kind of estrangement and said to it very quietly: “One day I’ll pull off all your buttons.” (Even her shirt she had to open herself, and one of the buttons got torn, and this morning she hurried to mend it, so her roommate wouldn’t ask. But he wasn’t in the least interested in her bosom, even after she undid her bra herself. All evening she remained with the drooping bra and a breast peeping out, rubbing against the tickling bra, yet in spite of everything she is filled with joy. In spite of the night before, in spite of the dull, unpleasant petting, and despite the feelings of guilt and disgust, when she ran out, without him saying anything to her, and without her saying anything. And she went back to knock on the door and apologize for running out like that, but she had second thoughts and fled as swiftly as a shadow).
And on one of the times that she lay under the blankets, in her uniform, she decided that she wasn’t waiting for him at all. But then she realized that all evening she was listening only for footsteps, if there would be footsteps on the wooden floorboards fronting the hut (the soldiers moving outside like blood corpuscles she doesn’t hear at all).  And the evening turns its face, back and forth, like a watchman next to a torch. From enchantment to sober reality. One minute she decides to go to sleep, and the next to wait. Everything will be bestial again like yesterday, but it’s only a kind of down payment, until they’re both practised in love and they forget everything and live happily ever after, without sex even. And maybe he’s sexually knowing and despises her sexual ignorance, and maybe he’s ignorant and despises her knowingness. There’s something beautiful about his hostility. Let him call her a whore, what does she care?
When did she decide to pursue him? Once, for the very first time, she stroked her stomach with the tips of her fingers, the very tips of her fingers, she barely touched her stomach and after her stomach, her pubic hair, right at the top, and when she wanted to go down a little further, with her cold hand, wanting to bring the warmth of her stomach inside her, deep inside her, perhaps to fish, to delve, to pluck, precisely then, seconds after stroking her stomach, the hesitation, the rigidity of her body, the fear of making a superfluous sound, precisely then there was a soft groan, not from her throat, but from the other side of the room, under the window, from the throat of the Hebrew teacher, perhaps she had renounced something in her dream, agreed to something unwillingly, and this groan in the darkness and the breathing and the crickets and the distant hooting alarmed Orit very much, you might say out of all proportion. But it really did deter her, convict her, and her heart suddenly pounded wildly, and consequently she quickly returned her hand to underneath the nape of her neck. Her hands trembled, and instead of being glad that she hadn’t been caught, she began to cry, softly, in order not to wake her nosy neighbor. She bit her lips and her tears bathed her nose and her cheeks, and her neighbour really did wake up and said very drowsily: “It’s not a donkey, Orit, it’s a lion.” And Orit sniffed and replied: “I know,” and she swore to herself not to be so alone, and the Hebrew teacher dove again into the corals of her dream and its seaweeds and murmured: “It’s not a donkey, it’s a lion.” (Once every eight nights, the unbalanced tanker Ariyeh patrolled the armour base fence, and when he was as close as possible to the girls’ barracks in our base, at about midnight, he stood still and brayed like a donkey, long and loud.) And Shlomit said suddenly, in a different wakefulness, as if she had decided to return to the surface of the water and take care of her roommate: “Why aren’t you sleeping? You have to get used to that creep.” And Orit said to her: “Right, you’re right.” But she lay perfectly calmly, looked out of the window, listened again to the slightly retarded soldier, listened to his greatcoat trailing in the thorns or his boots tramping. (His parents had fought bitterly for his enlistment, and indeed, after a two year battle, which had been written up in the newspapers, they had succeeded.) Then too she decided, as mentioned above, to do everything she could so that at long last she would have a boyfriend, the desired soldieriko, her beloved so that she would finally catch up, if very belatedly, on everything she should have learnt in high school.
She waits. The seconds are ants crawling in her body, a living clock. Ants scatter from her heart to her limbs and her belly and her back, a clock of seconds and fractions of seconds and fractions of fractions of seconds. (And what seems to her now as deep as the sea, will seem to her a year from now, even less, as deep as a plate of soup; sometimes, even after two months, a tattered letter full of suffering comes back, because the addressee has already moved somewhere else, and nobody in the unit remembers her any more, and there is already someone else in her room, in her job, and nobody reads the letter which is as deep as the sea or a plate of soup. Every day a group of soldiers waited outside her office. They always arrived at the same time, and dispersed not long afterwards. They spoke quietly anyone who couldn’t find a seat,  remained standing and after the mail was distributed two or three of them would come up and ask: “You’re sure there was nothing for me?” And they’d go off, shrugging their shoulders, not angry, because Orit was polite and smiled understandingly, and some of them came every day, but they never received any mail and they also knew that nobody had written to them.)
She gets up and goes to the window which is covered with a brown blanket. The greatest pleasure is to stand behind the blanket and imagine distances, even snow, like a blind person, and when people make a mistake in her name she’s glad, nobody knows who I am, nobody knows who I am, even in the mail group they don’t know. Afterwards she leaves the window to wait on a chair, and after that she stands up and goes to sit on the bed. Maybe he was disgusted by the smell. She would burst into his room and embrace him. No name is my name. Not the one my mother and father gave me, not the one they called me at school, and even when I call myself by my name, even then. And the stain he left on her skirt, which she also hurried to wash out this morning with water, a lot of water, but the stain remained, and what if her roommate recognized it? And every hour she went to see if it had dried, if it had disappeared, and the stain really had disappeared, but the nausea came back, like at night, when she returned to her room and found it on her skirt, like a big gob of spit. The mail clerk hurried from her bed to the light switch and turned off the light, and remained drowned in the darkness and immediately, quickly, saved herself, flooded the room with light and turned if off again. And she turned it on and off, on and off, quietly, to banish the stinking sights of yesterday evening (and how come men, when they’re pleased with themselves, feel big, even if they’re really small, and women, when they’re miserable feel enormous)? And she’s still next to the switch, and there’s a kind of noise inside her, and she turns it on and off on and off on and off, as if she’s signalling to a ship on the shore, but there’s nobody to see the light. Afterwards she lies down on the blankets, I’ll wake up in the morning, without humiliating myself any more, a sheet and a blanket will cover her, up to her chin. Why does she want to be loved? So that she’ll be seen without being seen, forever. And then, for some reason, she got up again (usually she lay alone in the room and read, how many books she read, Virginia Woolf, for instance, in English) and took off her shoes and soaked them in the basin, so that she wouldn’t be tempted to put them on and go out tonight, so that she would go back to bed, so that she wouldn’t be able go out. On any account, she would make such a fool of herself if she went to him after waiting for him all this time. And afterwards she went back to bed, and she got up and undressed, and she soaked her clothes too in the basin, and she fell onto the bed panting, not crying. Disgust and pride mingled like the scents of spring and rain and a nearby rubbish dump, or the carcass of a poisoned dog, and then, in bed, even before the screaming began (how long had she been waiting for him?), the mail clerk filled with pride, not disgust. For women, she said to herself, know all their lives how to extract from disgust the most wonderful things. And a great joy flooded her, and for some reason her father’s tears rose in her, the time someone recognized him in the street and he ran away (in the end it turned out to be a mistake), and suddenly he now seemed wonderful to her, admirable, and all the petty resentments vanished. And she didn’t care either if he didn’t come tonight. Let him not come, and perhaps she even fell asleep, until the screaming. Precisely then, apparently, soldieriko her beloved stood shivering, held out his hand to touch the water and shrank, shot out his hand again, as if a flailing snake was falling from the ceiling and not a jet of cold water, and afterwards, as you no doubt remember, he dressed without drying himself, not because of the screaming, but because of the talking outside.
Orit was convinced that the army didn’t really want her, without knowing her, without taking an interest in her, and in any case, the army had detailed her to be a mail clerk for twenty months. She was neither sad nor glad, but performed her duties like an elevator. Indeed, deep inside her everything was dead, thanks to the army, and it was only with the loosening of discipline on the base that she had begun to think of a boyfriend, of sex, of love. And all that frenzy, part of which has been described here, definitely stemmed, like a fire lit by a match in a thorn field, from her soul. When she was still ashamed of her lust, but played with the idea of approaching soldieriko, talking to him, perhaps inviting him to go for a walk with her on the road to Jerusalem, to cross the border and run back again, she also thought, to the same end, of holding back a letter addressed to him. And that same night, to the sound of the close proximity, the breathing through a nose slightly clogged with dust of her roommate, a white envelope was already gleaming in her imaginary drawer, as if it were a precious jewel. Afterwards, one night later, the letter had already swollen and grown into a whole bundle of letters, all his letters, waiting for him to come and take them, but not before she waved them in the air: Hop! Hop! Jump! From so many days without a letter he would have ants in his pants, and in the end he would come and ask, he would sit outside with the silent mail group, and then she would see him from close up, and one day, he too would come up with the rest of the pests, and ask her if she was sure that no mail had come for him. This is how she started reading letters. This is how the crime came into being, the first-born son of lust. And can it really be said that there is any connection between all this and her hesitant participation in the great and complex project, directed by a new soldier, Rachel, of constructing a beloved called “Sigal” for Sergeant Avram, whose “Sigal” letters she opened whenever they “arrived” without Rachel’s permission. And every day at his request she notified him of the arrival of these letters, which were apparently written by the new girl, or that there was no letter for him (an announcement which cast him into a deep despondency, in the wake of which he would make haste to react in a long letter full of suffering, which was opened by Orit very carefully, and closed very carefully, and innocently handed over to Rachel and her assistant, the anaemic switchboard operator).
Let us return to those first moments of joy, when Orit sat for long hours in her office and learnt, with a joy that knew no bounds, how to open letters, simply in order to discover the pet name by which soldieriko’s mother called her son. (At this stage the mail clerk did not yet know about the mother’s double life, about her prolonged silence, about her desperate dependence on his father. If she’d thought at all about his parents, she probably thought the complete opposite: that his father was dependent on his mother, that the burden of the father hung round the neck of the strong mother.) On her desk, when nobody saw her, after she had taken care to reach out her hand and close the green shutter of the office window, whose paint was peeling leprously, and she’d also locked the door, very quietly and gradually, in case of passers-by, but no one passed by, the offices had been deserted since noon, only a bird chirped, only a door slammed, and she wondered why she was locking the door at an hour like this. And then, stage by stage, she practised opening and closing envelopes. Oh how frightened she was, how pleased, how different this pleasure was from the sorrow that had seized her at other moments, at the moments of longing. (By the way, she always nervously returned money to the envelopes, and only at a later stage did she begin to notice the lively commercial traffic taking place on the base.) And when she had concluded the stage of the initial preparations and executed a few insignificant break-ins into the envelopes of other soldiers (and discovered the blackmail letters Raffy was in the habit of sending to the CO, for example, under a false name, of course, and under his own signature he would send the same CO letters informing him, of vile plots against him, and perhaps exactly the opposite, someone else forged Raffy’s letters; and letters to the newspapers, written by Raffy’s six soldiers in collaboration denouncing Menachem Begin the hated leader of the opposition, and letters in his favour, signed by Raffy himself. And on one of his leaves he actually went to Begin’s office and pleaded to be let in to see him, in order to tell him how upset he was by the letters against him being printed in the press, and once he even saw Begin from outside the door, but he was only allowed to leave a personal letter). She wasn’t curious. Above all she was looking for gossip about soldieriko. She also liked other romantic subjects. Nevertheless she was happy to see that nobody remembered her humiliation and reported it in letters home or to other people, because that, of course, is the most stinging part of every disgrace. Here on the base she was already lost, and soon everyone would know, but outside?
But soldieriko, to cut a long story short, did not receive any letters, to her astonishment, and how had she never noticed this before? (In spite of her timidity,  she now displayed activism and courage, in complete contradiction to everything that had characterized her up to then, for she had always hidden in her room or trailed after the other girls, and now all of a sudden she prowled about all by herself, like a cat looking for a possible place to litter.) The best thing she learnt from reading so many letters, was that the base was full of misery. She was really surprised to discover how many unhappy soldiers there were around her. However, she continued to hold to her old position, as if her unhappy family was unlike any other unhappy family, and in any case, the unhappiness of her family really made her sad, and perhaps this was why she saw it as a different unhappiness, in spite of its great similarity to all the others.
In near despair one day she wrote him an anonymous love letter, in order to give it to him when he came. She wrote it again and again, full of a new kind of happiness, the happiness of talking, chattering even, and she began searching all over the camp for him in order to give him the letter. Sometimes she was so ashamed of this running around, of the strange looks that followed her, that she fell on her bed and moaned a strangled moan (if her roommate wasn’t there at the time). One day she appeared in front of three whitewashers. They, for their part, were ashamed of being seen like that by a girl suddenly appearing in the stores with them stinking in stained loose clothes, in which the body loses its borders and the soul shudders at the change, hammering from inside: I’m not me, I’m not me. The moment she appears, one of them hurries to smell his sleeve, under the armpit of the whitewashing hand, the moment she appears in his field of vision. Then he quickly takes hold of the brush again and flings the whitewash on the wall and throws himself into slapping it over some stain. At exactly the same time she comes closer, in spite of whatever it is that is gripping her inside, close up to one of them, although she has already seen that none of them is soldieriko, but there is no way back. Or rather, there is a way back but she can’t simply withdraw without saying something, dropping some remark, something non committal, and then leaving, mumbling something, as if she had brought mail for somebody else. And all this happens quickly, again and again, and also the overcoming of the shame and the way she gets used to the shame and the terrible name she will soon have. And in any case she has to go up, look into their faces, make sure that he isn’t there and turn her back. And again, perhaps even the next day, depending on the pain spreading inside her like poison, again she turns up like a stray dog somewhere on the base, stares at them, and they stop working, and again she mutters something and quickly retires.   But now one of yesterday’s whitewashers happens to be among these three, and he remembers seeing her yesterday and the shame he had felt at his clothes then. He had hated her the moment she appeared, and asked in a low voice: “Who’s she?” and someone answered: “Rina, Kishon’s secretary, ” and someone else said: “It’s the mail clerk.” And now he shrugs his shoulders in surprise or impatience, and in their hatred they begin to destroy her, to talk about her body, her big breasts, one big breast, they say, one little one, breaking off a piece of the big one, talking softly and occasionally out loud, crushing her bum, how about sticking a finger in her, in her mouth, between her teeth, make her scream, oh what lust, boredom, shame, tiredness (or does she only imagine these obscenities?), .  And several times in her prowlings they only shrugged their shoulders and nobody said anything, but she is already escaping without looking back, and disappearing round the next bend, even if her way lies straight ahead, and soon they will call her by her name (this is the most frightening thing of all). And then, when she tries to calm down, and in her fear she also empties of him, cools down, she doesn’t know what to do with herself, and she begins to think of him and long for him and look for him.  This isn’t a story for adolescents, who don’t know that sudden emptiness, the burying of longings in eating, drinking, sleeping.
Gradually she became familiar with the base, its sights, the landscape of slow, taciturn work. Always, wherever she searched, even if she peeped into the window of an office, or behind the wall of a storeroom, she saw little groups of soldiers, someone working, someone giving advice, everything quietly, hands on their hips, or in their pockets, if it’s very cold. Someone bending down, standing up, how to extract a rusty nail whose head has already crumbled between the teeth of the army pliers, or someone trying to lift a board made of layers of tar and thick material and peeling whitewash, three people next to him giving advice, offering help, after the cigarette they’ll help, too. So detached were they from one another, so monotonously did they repeat themselves, or their friends, that in the end Orit too became convinced that they really had some common task, some subject in installments, with which they were all occupied, intimately acquainted with its details, a secret service, which they performed gratefully, or guiltily, or in great fear, keeping the secret, male solidarity, which we do not possess. There is a bond between them. The bond is secret. The secrecy endows them with a beauty which they do not possess when you look at them without assuming this stubborn bond. On the surface of the base they worked a little, idled a little, swore a little, but underneath, in secret, in tunnels, they smuggled in deserters, fed them, clothed them, that’s why they stopped going on leave. And she had known/seen this long ago in a sweet dream, long and detailed, in which they lived in all kinds of alcoves and tunnels and caves, on this base and around it, tens and perhaps hundreds of soldiers, including deserters from the armour base next door, and all the soldiers who had disappeared or been killed since the establishment of the state, some of them already very old, grey-haired, and some of them not knowing Hebrew yet, and some of them who had already forgotten it. And her father too lived there with her mother in exemplary tranquillity, without doing anything, and the soldiers of our base serve them, in her dream, or in reality, with a kind of diligent devotion, keeping the secret from the whole world, because they know that one day they too will disappear into the marvellous bowels of the earth. (As for her unsuccessful searches it was a technical matter: soldieriko had no steady place of work. Even when he worked for two days running in the canned goods stores, the other soldiers, who were working with him, didn’t know his name or where he lived, unless he was working with his neighbours from the same hut, whose names and quarters were not known to the others either.)
Once, when she resumed her prowling on a cold and empty day, someone stood up the moment she arrived, opened his fly buttons, quickly, before she could escape, took his prick out of his spotted trousers, and began to pee opposite her with his legs apart.   He didn’t even turn his back or side, and he didn’t take his eyes off her. Orit panicked, but she was unable or she didn’t know what to do at that moment to tear her eyes away from the yellow string descending from the tip of his fleshy prick and collecting in a foamy pool below. He didn’t stop, he even looked at her with his mouth half open, not laughing, the opposite, he was rather excited, as if he had just realized an old dream, and the others looked at both of them and laughed in embarrassment, and afterwards even very loudly. Suddenly, only after he had put it all back with an expression of triumph, as at winning a game of cards, spread over his face, Orit fled, locked herself in her office, and the sight would not leave her, a red penis which he held between two fingers (thumb and index finger) as if he was afraid of being dirtied by this flesh, while the other three fingers hung in the air like a big butterfly. How she was deteriorating. Little by little they were hunting her down. And therefore she cried. But afterwards she found her way to him, and this was past history, soon to be forgotten.
At five to eight, after she had already wet her shoes and her clothes in the basin, at five to eight the screams begin. At the sound of the yelling she first lies on her back and says (to herself): I can’t hear. She looks at the ceiling, trying to remember Mozart’s string quintet, K 515. Then it becomes impossible to go on lying on her back like that, and she curls up in the blanket and tries to listen to the quintet, but its sounds aren’t there in these murky waters. And afterwards she whimpers with the self-indulgent whimper of someone whose pleas are ignored, and she blocks her ears and closes her eyes and clenches her teeth very hard and nothing helps. And then, perhaps a few minutes pass, she too begins to scream with them, loudly, fearfully, sitting up in bed, leaning forward with her eyes wide open, her fingers stuck deep in her ears. She screams and screams and screams and screams. And Raffy’s soldiers too decide to return to their rooms. How softly they talk now (human beings know how to live with the most stinging failures of their lives, as if nothing has happened and everything is as usual, they swallow the insult so no one will see, they or the world, end of story). Hearing their quiet voices, soldieriko imagines that they are coming to shower, and he hurries to put his clothes on his wet body. He waits, the shots and the yells didn’t disturb him as much as the exposure of his body, and after it’s all over, he emerges from the shower and suddenly encounters the Hebrew teacher. He says exactly ten words to her: “Ma’am, I want to learn reading and writing with you.” The Hebrew teacher says fearfully to herself: Who is this character? And then she says to herself in revulsion: You know how to read and write very well, and she runs away from him to her room. And while she is still outside she hears her roommate screaming and screaming. She is alarmed, for perhaps she is being raped in there, or something. Come what may, she goes quickly into the room and sees the mail clerk stop screaming, take her fingers out of her ears, tremble, fall silent, and immediately after that she bursts out crying, bitter weeping, with tears. In the armour camp sick bay, in a veil of Lysol, lie two casualties of ours: Sergeant Avram, who has had a piece of his ear torn off through no fault of his own, and Raffy, whose head has been beaten with an iron bar. Raffy demands again and again of the medical orderly to bring the commander of the base, Colonel A. because he has information about a certain deserter who ran away and the whole country is searching for him and only he knows where he is. But the orderly smiles and says: “Take it easy, mate, you received a blow to the head.” And Raffy is offended and turns his head to the side, but there his eyes meet the ear-bitten sergeant, lying on his whole ear and groaning faintly in his sleep, for in one day he had lost his adoptive father and a part of his ear. Night, stillness, silence. All the soldiers have already returned to all their bases, washed off the happiness of their leave. They have all wriggled into their holes, pinned themselves to their beds. The Hebrew teacher, for example, is sick and tired of her parents. Her aunt’s son from the kibbutz treats her very nicely, and if he wasn’t her cousin she would have put out for him long ago. Orit, graduate of a religious high school on the one hand, and a little like the Spanish Marranos on the other, cannot bring herself to recommend so depraved an act. It wasn’t this cousin from the kibbutz with whom Shlomit went happily to bed some time later, all night and maybe two, and almost howled with joy, afterwards when she was alone, for she suddenly discovered how wonderful it was to go to bed with a relation whom you knew when he was small, and he knew you, when you were small, and all these years only your sexual organs grew and everything else remained the same, deep down, as in the best days of your lives. Afterwards she was very unhappy on his account and afterwards she also got pregnant and she couldn’t even say which of all her pupils was the father, and consequently she was discharged from the army (and she wanted so badly to contribute to the army and the state). Little by little all the hopes of becoming something in life, something useful, a volunteer, would crumple and fade, and she would drag herself pregnant down the streets of the city. She would bring up her child all by herself, transparent to gossiping tongues, with the help of a lot of lies, pretense, fraud, versions and counter versions of the truth (they would say that the father of the child was an Arab, for example). She would always tell everybody how she had been widowed in one of the wars, or one of the heroic reprisal raids. She would always live in fear of the truth coming out. Oh how similar her miserable fate would be to the fate of Orit’s miserable family. But this she would never know, because after they parted here they would never meet again (and before they parted Orit would not tell her the story of her family, and she for her part would not know how bitter her fate would be). In spite of the small population of the country, people got lost in it. From the windows heavy breathing rises, and the mail clerk too gradually drowns in blessed sleep, not yet knowing that the CO is dead, and everything she has been through this evening seems to her like one long weeping, even though she only wept for one minute. Shlomit can’t fall asleep a very beautiful, if short, girl, dissolving a deep pain, words, more words, more words, more words. Every now and then she halts the flow of words, waits,  and then asks, in a panic she asks: “Do you think I’m crazy,  too?” and the mail clerk, half asleep, answers her (what she always answers to this question): “Of course not.” And afterwards the fear, the silence, the thinking to herself, the decision to repeat only one more thing, in a kind of pain which she doesn’t allow to burst out: “I shouldn’t have said all those things, right?” Two hours, or more, have already passed since the yelling, and silence fills the world. All the soldiers are breathing in all kinds of rhythms, no one dictates the rhythm of sleep, in the meantime, and only the Hebrew teacher talks and talks,  stops and talks, in an anxious undertone, and asks. And all this time she is only waiting for one sentence of intimacy, of friendship, for whose sake she would be prepared to abandon everything she believes in. But all she gets, in the meantime, is a kind of sleepy hum of yes, no, right. And again she tries to wake her roommate, and again she talks, and again she is filledlain  with rage and suppressed tears fermenting and souring inside her, like some rotten plum, for the mail clerk despises her the more she talks, and so she wants to keep quiet, but when she keeps quiet she’s afraid her roommate will only remember the last foolish things she said. And again she builds and again she destroys and again she builds, and she can’t go to sleep tonight (but there are lots of nights when she sleeps like an animal). To tell the truth, the mail clerk too thinks to herself, occasionally, that perhaps she should tell the Hebrew teacher a few secrets, or make friends with her,  but afterwards, on the verge of confession, she holds back. And in the window there are tens of thousands of stars, millions of stars, how deep the sky is, and Shlomit suddenly smells, in one breath of the great gentle wind, the sea, to such an extent (the mail clerk is already sleeping like a shoe in a very big pile of shoes). To rest, not even to sleep, to rest from running around like a cat, escaping without being seen, because who looks at her anyway, she’s so short; and there’s only one more thing she wants to say, even to wake Orit to tell her:  Soulmates we’ll never be, but we’ll be friends, and you’ll call me Shlomit, not Shulamit.
The little base grows even smaller, shrinks, like a deflated rubber dinghy, flooded by night.  And only the little soldier next to the window, on her back, breathes deeply, doesn’t want anything, not love, not to masturbate, not to be transferred to another base, not to stay on this base. She’s floating on the surface of the water, quiet at last, rising to the clear star studded heavens, drifting on the current, completely awake, her heart brimming over, wanting to cry, not from sorrow and not from happiness either.   But this is happiness, because what’s lost is lost, and the happiness returns for a brief moment: floating under the ceiling of the infinite world, where the soul fills the body, acknowledges it, knows it, like blood, and it fills the world, but leaves a lot of room for the heavens and all their hosts.  And she tries to look at one star only, to clasp one star only to herself and thus to rest, but there are millions of stars there, billions, and everything that has breath praises, and she doesn’t care if she doesn’t sleep. As Homer says: Now the rest of the gods, and men who were lords of the chariots slept night long, but the case of sleep came not upon Zeus who was pondering in his heart.
And anyone who protests at the lack of order in this story beginning with a hero and shifting to a heroine and getting stuck in the end with the insomnia of an unhappy girl soldier, who is upset and doesn’t know what’s going to happen, who is always filled with a sense of disaster, of everything about to collapse, until she collapses herself because women seem to him comic or sentimental subjects, can try to conclude it differently: it is Raffy who can’t fall asleep. In the sick bay of the armour base he remembers that his soldiers are waiting for him at the showers, ready for action, to take power in the lax and lawless base. He carefully puts on his uniform and sneaks out of the sick bay and into our base by hidden paths, straight to the empty showers. From there he steals like a mole to its hole, at the end of an evening which began somewhere on one of the pitted roads. He tries to walk in a rhythm he decides on, his own rhythm, which he invents, but he keeps getting confused, like a dancer missing a step. Disintegration makes big things small, and small things big. Like the disintegration of a carcass he says to himself, the jaw grows so big and the eyes so small, invisible. He decides to wake one of his soldiers on the way. But the soldier is asleep, or pretends to be asleep. Raffy believes in obedience. Obedience means whole-hearted devotion, it means study, idealism, perseverance. It was not absurd, in his opinion, at a certain moment, despite his very low rank and his occupation in the army, which was marginal and lacking in any formal skills whatsoever, for him to seize power, here on this base, or on any other base. Accordingly he took care to prepare his soldiers, a small and select group, for this eventuality. There was no mercenary motive here or any wish for personal advantage. On the contrary. Ahead of him lay a difficult future of public life. He had to be spotless. The wound on his head was bleeding again and the tetanus shot in his bum was hurting, and at the very same moment he longed to be both a commander who was obeyed, and also one of those who obeyed him, to carry out with utter devotion the wishes of someone else, superior, great. How moved he was by the sight of Menachem Begin, who was also only a corporal, but nevertheless the commander of the generation. And great days awaited us all under his patronage, Raffy sensed.  ow he had longed to burst into his office then and say to him:
“I’m sorry, it was me who organized those letters against you, but I didn’t mean it, I only wanted to touch you, even if you rebuked me, but forgive me.” And how he longed for someone to say to him: “Take your boys and go, go, take you boys and come, come.” And how much serenity filled him when he thought that this commander, who would give him orders, received orders himself, and so on up the ladder and so on down the ladder. Raffy didn’t want only to give orders. Certainly not. Before he fell asleep Raffy remembered the sight of the star-studded sky, which had moved him before on the road to the camp. For a moment the clouds had parted and revealed all its beauty. For a moment then he wanted to follow the north star, never mind where, perhaps to wherever his feet bore him.


Copyright © Yitzhak Laor. English translation rights © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Yitzhak Laor, poet, novelist, essayist and playwright, was born in Pardes Hannah, Israel, in 1948. He received his PhD in theater and literature from Tel Aviv University, and writes editorials and literary reviews for the Hebrew daily Haaretz. In 1972, Laor was jailed for refusing to serve in the occupied territories, and his leftist opinions, expressed in his work, have continually nettled Israel`s mainstream establishment. In 2005, Laor founded and became editor of Mita’am, a Review of Literature and Radical Thought, which was a major arena for intellectual debate. Laor has published many collections of poetry, as well as novels, short stories, collections of essays and one play. Among his literary awards: the Prime Minister’s Prize, twice (1991; 2001), the Bernstein Prize for Poetry (1992), the Hebrew Literature Award (1994), the Moses Award (1998) and the Amichai Poetry Prize (2007).

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