By Stewart Bresler
Jericho Vicinity, January 1991
Our base was situated in the northern Judean Desert on the outskirts of Jericho, equidistant from the refugee towns and the Jericho city center, and in relative proximity to the north tip of the Dead Sea, which means we were over three hundred meters below sea level, or more than two hundred meters lower than Death Valley. It was January 1991. During the day the blinding sun brought needed warmth to hard-baked earth and the ragged-edged canyons scorched white. At night the temperatures plummeted.
This was my annual military reserve tour of duty in the Israel Defense Forces, called miluim in Hebrew. We were deployed for thirty-three days, concentrated on the Allenby Bridge, a bridge that crosses over the Jordan River between Jordan and the West Bank territory occupied by Israel. Since December 1990, the checkpoint had been teeming with Palestinians and other refugees racing with time to flee Iraq and Jordan ahead of the imminent start of Operation Desert Storm.
We were about two weeks into the reserve tour, and at first there was nothing notably different about this Thursday night. We were inside a one-story, narrow army mobile shack lined with bunk beds that had been trucked into the base along with thirty others and plopped down on a stretch of flat dusty ground. We were going through the motions we had quickly settled into after the first few days on the base.
Parsi was lying on his cot in his sweats and a tee shirt smoking a cigarette. He was medium height, extremely muscular and wiry thin. He was an Iranian Jew, born in Israel to immigrant Iranian Jews. You might think it derogatory for me to refer to him as Parsi, which simply means Persian, or Iranian in the modern vernacular. He did have a proper Israeli name. Gilad. But nicknames are a way of life in Israel. And this one stuck on him long before I met him in miluim.
The captain, Doron, was sitting on an overturned orange crate in the middle of the bunk, not far from Parsi’s cot. He was in shorts after playing basketball. A knee brace was wrapped around his leg and his tee shirt was sweat-stained. He was chewing on extra-strength green mints that he guarded vigilantly in his pocket, and popped them in his mouth at the same rate that Parsi lit his cigarettes.
Parsi looked at Doron. “Hey, I got an idea. I’ll ask you a riddle, and if you can’t guess the answer, you pay for all my morning coffee until we finish our stretch here.”
Doron smiled and shook his head no.
“Of course, if you figure it out, I’ll buy you morning coffee for the entire stretch.”
Doron still shook his head no.
Parsi smiled until all of his white gleaming teeth showed. “C’mon. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. We'll make it just for tomorrow’s coffee. Plus, you can talk to whoever you like for help. And I’ll give you until morning. Not that it will matter. None of these peabrains will figure it out.”
“All right. But only for tomorrow’s coffee.” There was still a shade of reluctance in Doron’s voice. He wasn’t agreeing just to shut Parsi up. The captain had this thing about betting, even for one morning coffee. He was a pretty square guy when it came down to it. A family man. A good father figure. Four tight corners and straight-up morals. He had the Eastern European look, a white roundish face with big, freckled cheeks and a pudgy protruding nose. And he kept his hair cropped short like regular army, even though he was only reserves.
Parsi was about as different from the captain as you could get. First of all, Parsi had a big mouth. I don’t think he could stop himself even if he’d wanted to. Most of it was harmless stuff. But sometimes there was just no way to turn it off. Second was his looks. Parsi’s dark Iraqi complexion was smooth from his chin to his forehead. He had a long, chiseled face, thick black hair cut short, and a matching pair of thick black eyebrows. He could have had any one of the desirable and attractive young women on the base.
Hearing Parsi jabbering away at night in the barracks was not unusual. The difference was that tonight none of Parsi’s tight circle of gangbusters were here. Tonight the only people in the bunk were the captain, Moti, Yair and I. Without his cohorts mobbed around him, Parsi’s demeanor was toned-down, approachable, even a shade thoughtful.
“Sure,” said Doron.
Parsi made a dramatic pause. “He who builds it, doesn't use it. He who sees it, has no use for it. He who doesn’t see it, uses it. What is it?”
Moti took out a pen and wrote it down on a sheet of newspaper that had been lying on the floor. Moti was the tallest among us, and built big to match, but he had a serene face set behind silver, steel rimmed glasses. He was also very religious and wore a knitted kipa on his head. I’m not saying this as a plus or a minus. He didn’t dress differently than us, or speak differently. He just observed religious rituals closely.
I was propped up with my back against the wall, thinking about the riddle, but nothing was coming to mind. The captain jammed his thumb to his temple. Parsi had a cocky grin splattered across his face.
“I don’t care who you talk with. You got until tomorrow morning.”
Yair was lying on his back reading a section of the newspaper. He was a little smaller then the rest of us. His eyes were dark, and bright with intelligence. He had grown up on a kibbutz in northern Israel and still lived there. He put the paper on his stomach.
“Well, let’s see.” Yair murmured. “A blind man uses a cane. Now that could —”
“Wait a minute, cow milker,” Parsi interrupted. “The cane can be used by someone who sees it. If you see it than you have no use for it.”
Something in the small exchange between Parsi and Yair must have clicked the right digits in the captain’s mind. Before anyone could even think of another answer, the captain spoke up.
Parsi looked a little shocked. “I don’t believe it. That’s right. Actually the answer is a coffin, but that’s more or less what you said. I don’t believe it. You’re such an asshole. I swear that you are the first person I know that has ever guessed the answer in such a short time.”
Doron smiled, as happy as can be. At first I wondered if Parsi was just trying to butter up the captain. You know, set himself up for a favor he might want in the next few days. Maybe a night off. Or a different work detail. But something rang true here, and I had the distinct impression that Parsi was honestly impressed.
“You jerk,” said Parsi to the captain. “It’s not the bet. I don’t care about the coffee. I just can’t believe you guessed the answer. You know that most people, and I’m serious now, most people, it takes them a few hours or more. And that’s only the ones that guess the answer. I can’t believe it!”
Parsi continued laughing to himself. The rest of us were laughing too, though our laughter was different from his. We enjoyed how Parsi had been taken down a notch by Doron. But Parsi was oblivious to our amusement, which was very unusual. Normally he would never let something like this get this far without loudly shoving back into the fray. Yet here he was, still laughing to himself. Not looking at anyone in particular. Just laughing, oddly. Then he suddenly stopped. A peculiar expression crossed his dark complexion.
“You know what,” said Parsi. “I got another one. I mean this one you’ll never guess. What do you say? Double or nothing on another riddle?”
“What does double or nothing mean?” asked Moti.
Parsi shook his head. “I didn’t mean for two morning coffees. Double or nothing means coffee plus a snack. It doesn’t matter anyway. This one you won’t get. I don’t care who you talk to or who you ask.”
Then, barely perceptibly, like the cadence of a regular beat followed by an unexpected syncopation, Parsi paused, as if he were having second thoughts. And just as suddenly Parsi continued on. Only now the pace was quicker and the tone seemed a bit more somber.
“Actually, you may figure out the answer. But if you get the answer, it will come to you in the middle of your sleep. And that's the only way it’ll come to you. You’ll wake up and it will be like some voice spoke to you in your dream. But I want you to wake me up and tell me the answer. You got that? I don’t care what time it is. I want you to get out of bed and wake me up, and tell me the answer.”
“Okay, okay,” Doron agreed. “I’ll yank you out of bed.”
Parsi looked like someone had flipped a hidden switch on the side of his head. The blustering front was gone, and an expressionless face stared up at the bunkbed above him.
“What is it that is both alive and dead?”
We waited for more, but nothing else came out of Parsi’s mouth.
“What?” said Doron. “That’s it?”
“Yeah. That’s it,” said Parsi, and he puffed on his cigarette. “What is it that is both alive and dead?”
You could hear the buzz of the fluorescent bulb overhead. My brain raced in all kinds of different directions. Everyone else in the room appeared to be doing the exact same thing.
“A dream,” said Yair.
“Nope,” said Parsi.
“A spirit. Or a soul,” I barked.
“A seed,” said Doron.
“No. Look, it’s got to be alive and dead. But really alive. A dream is never alive; it doesn’t breathe and live. The same is true for a ghost. And a seed isn’t dead. If it were dead, then no life would come out of it. It’s something that is dead, but the moment you want it to be alive, it lives.”
Something was way off with Parsi. The first riddle had had a very specific answer, and Parsi had been the smart-ass talker we’d all come to know. But the way Parsi talked now, I was wondering if this riddle even had an answer, and if Parsi had posed this riddle because he himself was lost in the question.
Moti was the only one that didn’t seem to be doing much thinking. He sat very still. A small smile crept across his face. “I’ve heard this before.”
“You there, you religious plank of wood with a hat on,” Parsi pointed his long finger at Moti. “You scare me.”
Moti’s expression didn’t budge. “I remember something like this in my religious studies. I don’t remember exactly where it fits in, but it has something to do with religion.”
Parsi sucked in his breath. “All right. I’ll say one more thing and that’s it. It’s connected with religion.” Parsi stuck his cigarette back in his mouth and looked coolly at the ceiling.
“There’s some portion in the books of mysticism that deals with this,” said Moti. “We studied some things that touched on this. But we never dug deeper.”
“Lucky you,” said Parsi. He took a puff and sent the smoke shooting out into the middle of the room.
“Well,” persisted Moti. “Isn’t it connected to the mystical?”
Parsi hung his hand over the side of the bed. The smoke from the cigarette trailed away thinly from the motion. “Yeah, it has to do with the mystical. But I don’t want to talk about it. Look, I gave Doron a riddle. He can talk to you as much as he wants. But me. I’m off limits. These lips are shut. Just one last repeat to Doron. If you get the answer, it will come to you in your sleep.”
We sat there in the run-down barracks with light bulbs dangling from the ceilings, and kept thinking about the riddle. Doron and Yair tossed out some more thoughts. Moti was silent and thoughtful. And for a time, Parsi was true to his word, lying on his back on his bed, smoking his cigarette, and not watching anything in particular.
Suddenly Parsi sat up. He snuffed his cigarette out on the side of the bedpost and tossed it into the trash can.
“You know, Moti,” he said. “I want you to know that I don’t make fun of the religious stuff. I know that this is a riddle. But I take all of this stuff seriously. Let me ask you something. Do you believe in God? I mean really believe?”
Moti looked up at him for a second or two. If the question surprised him as much as it did me, he didn’t show it.
“Yes, I believe.”
Then Parsi turned his attention to the captain. “What about you, Doron? Do you believe in God?”
Doron half-smiled, and although he didn’t utter a word, his silence was confirmation that his answer was no.
“Well, let me tell you something,” said Parsi. “I believe in God. I mean I really believe in God. You know what? It’s not even a belief. I know that God exists. I know beyond a doubt that there is a god. Let me ask you something else, Doron. Have you ever been to a séance?”
This time the captain had no problem speaking up. “No.”
“I’ve been to séances,” said Parsi. “I tried them for a while. And I know they are not bullshit either. There are things out there …”
I have always felt that sometimes we trap ourselves without knowing how or why. Things which we had no intention of talking about are suddenly brought to the surface. Things which we thought were buried away find themselves coming out. We are not even aware, I suspect, that we are bringing them out ourselves.
These are things that have to get out. And all of our conscious efforts to keep them buried cannot stop them from escaping. Somewhere inside, I think, we know that bringing something out into the open and sharing it helps make the memory less overwhelming. It starts to turn it into something we can deal with. The first time is the hardest. But after the first time we let it out, the second and third times are easier.
I suppose it is a healing process. In a way, it is a natural process. A very human process. But it doesn’t just spurt out. The right conditions must be met. The right mood. The right people. The right feeling. And I suppose that when things have to get out, and the circumstances are very nearly there, we find a way of tipping the scales ourselves, without even realizing what we are doing.
Parsi began slowly. “You know my father was really overweight. He had a huge body. You wouldn’t know it looking at my build, right? He worked down at the Dead Sea Works in those factories along the Dead Sea. He would drive down and work a few days, and then he would be back at home for a few days. That’s how they work down there. On shifts. We have an apartment in Tel Aviv. It’s a big apartment with five bedrooms. We have a pretty big family. I have five sisters. Now all of them are married. Every one.
“You know the area of the city not far from the market. That’s where we live. There’s a lot of characters in the neighborhood. Everyone more or less knows everyone else. Two years ago, my father was killed in an accident, when only me and my youngest sister still lived at home. My youngest sister didn’t get married until a few months ago.
“One of the cranes for loading and unloading fell back into my father after a support beam twisted and collapsed. I’m not sure exactly how it happened. The crane clipped my father in the chest. He died instantly. Probably had enough time to realize what was going on and then it was all over.
“They brought him to the hospital in Tel Aviv and called my mother. She broke down. She stayed at home in shock all day long, and when I got home she was a mess, just crying and trying to make a sentence. But only gibberish was coming out. She gave me a slip of paper with the name of the department in the hospital where my father was, and I calmed her down as best as I could and went to the hospital.
“She never told me he was dead. You understand? I should’ve known just from the name of the department. But it was some real fancy name. I mean they didn’t just say it was the fucking morgue. They gave her some long official-sounding hospital name that ends with ology. And me, I left the house thinking that my mother had gone hysterical over some construction accident.
“When I got down to the hospital I asked at the desk for my father. I was asking them for the room where he was recovering and showing them a paper with the word morgue written on it. It took them a few seconds, but they finally figured out that I didn’t know my father was dead. And that's how I found out. They told me my father was dead at the fucking information window.
“It took a couple of hours for everyone to get to the hospital. We all went down to the morgue. The doctor showed us where the body was stored. It was so strange in there. Just like you see in the movies. A bare room with cabinets along the wall, and this guy is pointing at one of them and telling you your father’s body is laid out inside. No one was moving forward to open the cabinet and look at the body. I mean everyone was just looking at me, expecting me to go forward and do it. I didn’t want to do it. But you know how it is. Everyone’s standing in a group. No one is volunteering, and you think that you are big enough to take it, so you say to yourself, ”All right. I’ll do it.” And the next thing you know, you’re stepping out in front of everybody and moving toward the cabinet door. And then it’s too late to turn back, so you just go ahead and do it.”
Parsi’s face seemed to drift away.
“You can’t imagine the state the body was in. I tried to stay cool, but this was like walking into a meat factory and seeing your father sliced open on the rack. His chest was split down the middle and almost falling over the sides, as if someone had sliced him clean open. And his arms were twisted into wrong positions. I must've been white looking at him on the slab, all mangled and ripped open.”
Parsi turned his eyes back to the captain.
“I don’t even remember who closed the drawer. We just got the hell out of there. It was all so fast. I couldn’t get the picture out of my head of my father carved up on the morgue table.”
Parsi took in a deep breath. “Sometime later, I began to wish that I had talked one last time to my father. He’d died down at the Sea Works, and the whole thing had just slammed into me. No chance to say good-bye. Nothing. And then after a while, I wasn’t just thinking, I wish I had talked to him one more time. It became, I want to talk to him one more time. I started talking about it to my friends. Man, I guess they thought I was just talking at first. And I suppose I was. But then it really became an obsession. I mean, I knew about all these cults and things that people get into. And I got to the point where I decided if it was out there, then I was going to go find it.
“I started looking for people involved in communicating with spirits. It wasn’t too hard. The people that are into mysticism make cassettes that you can buy and listen to, and then there are plenty of lectures. Reincarnation. Spirits. Former lives. Not witches, but supernatural things which mystics claim are part of God’s work and part of his reign on earth. The trick is discovering how to become connected to them so that you can see what is invisible to the eye. And once you find the people who are into this stuff, it isn’t too hard to get their names and the places where they meet.
“It really was an obsession. I mean, I would hear about a lecture and I would go. I’d drag my friends with me. And if you can believe this, they would come. They went just because of me. Because they thought it might help me. I know they thought I was over the edge. Do you realize how much of a friend they were to put up with all this shit? Imagine that it’s Saturday night and everyone is itching to go into town. But I’m sitting there telling them that first I have to go listen to this freak or thatmystic speak about communicating with the dead. And they’re telling me all right. And we all go over to the lecture for a couple of hours.
“Did you know everybody goes to heaven? I mean there is a sort of hell, but it’s not a final destination. Heaven is set up so you pass through seven stages or levels. Hell is only one of the seven stages you have to pass through. And once you’re done with it, you move onward. And everyone goes through that stage. There’s no escape.”
Moti interrupted, “Yeah, I’ve heard this before.”
Parsi looked at Moti for only a moment and then he pressed on. “Hell is like being in a movie. You have to sit there and relive all the bad things you did in your lifetime. I mean it’s only for about four or five hours that you go through this, but they say it is the worst possible torture you can imagine. And for people that have been really evil, the stage takes longer to go through. I’m telling you that I'm scared shit of this. That’s why I try never to do anything bad. I mean I know I poke fun at people, but it’s not meant to be bad. And if someone takes it wrong, I’m telling you guys, I feel horrible. It just frightens the hell out of me.”
I couldn’t believe Parsi was breaking down like this in front of us. And yet, looking at him, baring himself while sitting on the edge of his bed, a bed neatly made up with fresh light-yellow sheets from home and a pillow from home completely unlike all the other beds in the bunk with their army blankets and sleeping bags, it also seemed very much in character.
Parsi took a moment before continuing. “Eventually I fell in with some people doing séances. There was one woman who was supposedly really powerful. I was mostly a spectator. I mean, they weren’t trying to conjure up my father. They were trying to reach other spirits. I went to see what happens, to see if it was even possible.
“They were pretty hair-raising evenings. There were feelings and things going on during the séance that I swear weren’t normal. There was no conversation with a dead person or any sort of tangible dialogue going on. Not, at least, in the sense of what I was looking for. And so the idea that I would be able to speak with my father using a séance began to fade.”
Parsi stopped. His breathing became slower. “But there was another way. There was this guy who lived in the neighborhood. He’d been one of those really advanced kids. A child prodigy. He had excelled in everything in school. Then he started getting into mysticism, until he got deep into Kabbalah. He was probably only fifteen or sixteen when he started, but it turned his head upside down. This kid had everything going for him, and you wouldn’t believe the way he looks now. He wanders around grubby, unshaven, and wild-looking. His hair is crazy and uncombed. I don’t know how he makes a living. You look at him and you see a guy completely lost in his own little world. And his eyes seem to stare somewhere, but never anywhere in particular.
“In the neighborhood everybody knows who he is. They don’t make fun of him. People are afraid of him. I asked my friend one day what he thought of asking him about talking to my father. He told me I should stay away from him, that he was completely mad and the farther away I kept myself from him, the better. But instead of scaring me, it got me interested. I mean, I was scared in a way too, but I was still obsessed with the idea of talking to my father.
“So I see him walking on the other side of the street past the grocery store one day, and I run across the street and jog up to his back. Then I slow down and tap him on the shoulder. He turns around and stares at me with those wild eyes. They look at you, and then again it’s like they look through you.
“Anyway, I tell him that my father died several months ago and I ask him if it’s possible for me to talk with my father. He says to me ‘Yes, it’s possible.’ So I tell him I want to do it, that I want to arrange a meeting with my father, and I want to know if he can do it. I mean, I’m standing there in the middle of town, on the sidewalk in front of shops with people and mothers and kids walking by, and I’m talking with a guy about arranging a meeting with my dead father. And to top it off, I’m trying to act cool, as if I know what the hell I’m doing. I think I was trying to convince myself that this was all a joke. That this freak couldn’t talk to the postman, let alone set up conversations with the dead.
“But the guy thinks about it for a few seconds, he’s looking off into space, and then he says ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ Then he starts asking me a ton of questions, writing down all the answers, and I’m standing there on the street corner, spilling back every detail that the guy wants. He asks me where the body is buried, the name of the graveyard, the full name of my father, the date of his death, what's written on the tombstone, my full name and date of birth, where I live, what day I will be home next week, and if any siblings carry the same name as me.
“And after all these questions are over, this guy’s eyes meet mine. He tells me he’ll request the meeting for the coming Tuesday at seven o’clock in the evening. I tell him okay, and the guy turns and walks down the street.”
Parsi stopped talking. His eyes widened and his voice grew tense. “I stood there for a while, watching him walk away until he disappeared. Then I guess I went back across the street as if everything was cool. As if it was all part of a normal day. But you know what he does? You know what the guy has to do in order to set up the meeting?”
Parsi couldn’t go on. We were all looking at him and waiting.
Then Moti spoke up. “I think that first the intermediary must obtain a piece of cloth from the buried body.”
“That’s it!” cried Parsi. “He’s got to have a conversation with the dead person, to ask if he’ll come to the meeting, and in order to make contact with the person, he needs a piece of the cloth that the person was wearing when he was buried. The freaking guy went to my father’s grave, exactly where I told him it would be. He dug down and pulled a piece of clothing off my father’s corpse. He sat there on the grave with the cloth in his hand and talked to my father, explaining to him that I had requested a meeting with him, and if he agreed, the meeting would take place on Tuesday evening, in my room at home.”
Parsi was talking wildly now. “And you know how he comes? I mean the dead person. Do you know how he comes to the meeting?”
I looked over at Moti. He had his head leaning against the wall of the bunk. There was a thin, knowing smile on his lips. But before he could answer, Parsi shot on. “He comes and talks to you perfectly normally, but he appears in the exact form that he was in when he died.”
It took me a second or two till the meaning of this sank in. Then I remembered his father’s accident.
Parsi continued: “The next day I’m out on the street in front of my apartment building, and the guy comes walking around the corner. He just walks up to me like nothing, and tells me okay, the meeting has been arranged for Tuesday at seven, and then he walks away. I didn’t even get in a hello or goodbye.
“At first I shrugged it off. For a few hours, maybe half a day I just kept trying to forget it, thinking that the guy is crazy. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And the more I thought about it, the more I kept seeing my father split open on the morgue table. And I kept envisioning him propped up in a chair, carved down the middle, his arms flung off to the sides. And this huge, split open carcass is talking to me with my father’s voice.
“It got so bad that when it came time to go to sleep, I would lay on my bed for a few hours, wide awake, staring at the ceiling. And I could barely sleep after that. I was tossing and turning all the time. Then all of a sudden it was Friday night and the meeting was only three nights away. I’m telling you I began to panic.
“All Friday night I sat up in the living room, watching and listening to the sounds in the house. Every creak that seemed to be just the least bit out of the ordinary got my heart and brain racing. On Saturday I started to get real nervous, so I went out and started searching for the guy. I wanted to stop it. I’d had enough. I didn’t want to talk to my father anymore. Not that way. I just wanted the whole thing to stop. So I walked around all day searching for the guy. But he wasn’t anywhere. On Saturday night I sat in the living room all night until I just collapsed in the chair. But early the next day I was right out the door, looking for this guy.
“I must’ve looked pretty crazy. People were beginning to ask me if I was feeling all right. I crisscrossed the city in all sorts of crazy patterns looking for the guy. But still I couldn’t find him. Sunday at work was a blur and I don’t even know what happened Sunday night. I was yelling at my mother. I was pacing like a madman. I was smoking cigarettes one after the other, and forgetting where I’d put them after I lit them. And all night long, I kept thinking about my father’s corpse sitting in my room talking to me.
“On Monday morning I couldn’t stay at work. I just left. And finally, after about an hour and a half I saw the fucker. I ran over to him and it took everything I had in me to stop from reaching out and shaking him by the neck and screaming at him to cancel the meeting. I tried to appear calm, and I told him to cancel the meeting. To just forget about it. The guy paused, and stared off to that faraway place of his. I almost smashed his fucking nose through the back of his head. Finally he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Okay, it will be cancelled.’ Then the creep walked off. Just left me there. Like he did the first two times. Before I knew it, he was gone.”
Parsi’s eyes were watery. His whole body was as tight as a coiled spring, but the words kept pouring out. “At first I felt this huge wave of relief come over me. You know, the panic is over. Everything’s all right. Then I swore to myself that I’d never go near those lectures again. But after about an hour of this relief, I get this crazy thought. I mean what if he can’t stop the fucking thing from happening once it’s been set? Or worse, what if he didn’t intend to stop it at all? In a fraction of a second the panic steam-rolled right back over me.
“It sounds ridiculous, but on Tuesday night I didn’t go home. I slept over at my friend’s house. Then on Wednesday I was frightened even to walk in the front door after work. And I remember getting to the door of my room and pausing before going in. I sort of peeked around the corner first. And when I saw my room was empty, that my room was exactly how I had left it, I finally went in. Later that night, I lay in bed thinking about the last few days, and how crazy I’d been. After an hour or so I drifted off to sleep.
“Nothing happened that night. Or the next night. But a few nights later, I woke up in the middle of the night and I heard my father snoring next to me in my bed. I’m telling you I heard my father snoring right there in my bed, while I was lying in it. I sat up. I looked around. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t see him, I didn’t see any indentations in the bed, or on the other pillow. Nothing. But when I leaned my head down I could hear my father’s heavy breathing. And every now and then it was like a big snore would rip through the whole room. I went along the wall of the room to the door, all the time staring at the bed. Then I just got the hell out of there and went into one of my sisters’ empty rooms. I pulled the covers over me and slammed the pillow over my head. For the next few nights I slept in my sister’s room.”
He stubbed out his cigarette and, without pausing, pulled another one out of his pack and lit it.
“You know how, after you live with people for a long time, you can start recognizing them just by the way they walk? You know, you hear the footsteps, and you know immediately if it’s your mother, father, or which sister, especially at night when people get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom or the kitchen. So one night I wake up, I hear the floor creak, and then I hear the footsteps of my father. He was walking down the hall. He walked right past the room I was in and kept walking to the kitchen. Then I didn’t hear his footsteps anymore. But there was no mistaking them. Those were my father’s footsteps. I would know them anywhere.
“About a year after my father’s death, those things, the snoring and the footsteps, just stopped. They all went away and none of that has happened since. I don’t go near the lectures or anything anymore. Nothing. I keep my distance. And the reason is, I’m afraid I’ll believe in it too much. I believe in all of it. You understand what I'm saying? I’m afraid that if I start, I’ll never find my way out again, and I’ll end up like that guy in the neighborhood.”
Parsi stopped talking. He sat there looking at Doron, and then he looked down at the floor and put out his cigarette. Yair stirred in his bed. I stretched my legs.
“I’m telling you, all that stuff happened,” said Parsi. “It was real. The snoring, the footsteps. All of it.”
Moti shifted his position. His face had a thoughtful expression. Yair scratched his head and stared up at the ceiling. Doron kept looking at Parsi, but it was clear the story was over.
“How long ago did you say your father died?” I asked.
“Two years ago.”
“And when did you stop having these things happen?” I asked.
“A year ago.”
I’d been hypnotized by the narrative. Completely spellbound. But when he got to the part about the snoring and the footsteps, something in my head clicked, and I remembered my own past, when after my mother had died the house had seemed to be haunted by her. In the middle of the night I would sometimes wake up thinking she was calling me to come help her.
“You know,” I said slowly, “I think that this is sort of normal.”
Parsi laughed out loud. “What! You think I’m normal?”
I didn’t believe that the snoring and the footsteps had been real, but I did believe that Parsi had experienced them in some way. And that, as with me, all that had gradually faded and disappeared as time went on, leaving only memories and feelings which surfaced from time to time.
“Yeah,” I said slowly. “I think these things happened to you because of the strength of your love for your father.”
Doron stood up, grabbed his towel and bathroom bag, and went to the shower. Yair picked up the newspaper and started to read. Moti and Parsi both stretched out on their beds, rolled over and went to sleep. I soon followed.
In the darkness of that starry night, the first SCUD missiles were launched from western Iraq and flew overhead, landing in various places around Israel. I woke up to somebody shaking me, and we all raced to the mess hall that had the television. The place was packed. Things got hectic for the next hour, and sometime not long after, in the hour before dawn, as a crackle of light lit up the eastern sky, I was back in the bunk grabbing my gear and getting ready for a briefing. I saw Moti getting ready too, and then I remembered.
“Hey, Moti,” I called out.
“So what was the answer to the riddle? You know, Parsi’s riddle?”
Moti shook his head as if I was nuts. “What?” He went back to getting his gear ready.
I went back to getting ready as well.