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Haim Watzman
Necessary Stories
War Stories: Fiction

Prospero underground: The crater (part 5)

'This whole country, we’re all hurting, we’re all horrified by what happened, and all we can think about is more death.'
Illustration by Avi Katz

(Continued from The Crater, Part 4. Part 1 can be found here.)

“Hey.” Gidi’s voice was low, and he realized that it probably couldn’t be heard. He wasn’t sure he wanted it to be heard. A bomb fell on Gaza. When the noise had passed, he said “Hey” again, a little more loudly, kneeling on the concrete to speak directly into the grate. “Still there?”

He heard what sounded like the movement of a chair, then the shuffle of feet.

“It’s Gidi.” He peered into the grate, trying to see the man on the other side, but that was hopeless. The man didn’t answer. “We, uh, spoke before.”

Another long silence on the other end, punctuated by the roar of warplanes overhead and the retort of artillery. “The friend of the terrorist,” the man finally said, as if speaking to an audience in a theater that was not there.

“The terrorist?”

“The one who tossed the grenade in here.”

“He’s one of my soldiers.”

“Doesn’t matter. A terrorist. Just like the ones over there.”

Tistom et hapeh,” Gidi shot back. Shut the fuck up. “I don’t care who you are, but you’re not going to talk that way about one of my guys.”

“Why did you come back?” He, too, was angry. Or pretending to be.

“I…” Gidi choked back the desolation rising out of his soul.

After a patient pause, the man said: “Whenever you’re ready.”

Gidi took a deep breath. “Happy birthday.”

A chuckle. “How did you know?”

So Ella Agasi had guessed right.

“How old?”

“Eight-six.”

“There was going to be a party.”

Two bombs fell on Gaza. Tanks roared through the fields.

“Yes. On Shabbat. The holiday. In the afternoon.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I made toys for the grandchildren. The ones who live here and the ones who were supposed to come from Mazkeret Batya.”

“You’re a toymaker?”

“A hobby. The ones from Mazkeret Batya didn’t come. The ones here are gone. I have the toys here with me.”

Four rapid, whistle-like hoots sounded from the top of the sliding board in the playground behind. Gidi turned and spotted the sharp-beaked bird with the plume of black-tipped feathers on its head.

Dukhifat,” the man said in Hebrew. Then, in English, long and drawn out: “Hooo-poe. In Arabic, hoood-hoood. That was my nickname when we founded the kibbutz. Hoood-hoood. They said that it was the way I talked.”

There was something in the way he pronounced it that was different from his other words.

“You know Arabic?”

He chuckled. “My mamaloshen, as the Ashkenazim used to say. In the Iraqi dialect.”

“I thought they were all Ashkenazim here.”

“Typical stereotype. Kibbutznik, Ashkenazi. Like most, not true. There were a few of us Iraqi teenagers among the founders. We didn’t have an easy time of it. We were ok as long as we pretended to be like them.”

Another explosion sounded. The bird hooted again and took flight.

“He’s looking for his mate. Maybe she got killed. Or abducted to Gaza.”

“The English accent?”

“Attended a British high school. Played Prospero and John Worthing in student productions. Wanted to be John Gielgud. You probably don’t know any of those names.”

“No.”

“Pity.”

“Fuck you.” He said it under his breath but the man heard it. “Listen, we need to get you out of there. This isn’t normal.”

“I told you. My wife, my daughter-in-law, and my baby granddaughter are in the tunnels in Gaza. I’m staying underground until they come back.”

Gidi tried to keep his anger under control, but it burst out. “You’re insane. Everyone at this kibbutz is in trauma. You’re the only one who’s locked himself in a bomb shelter. It’s hard, I get it, but come out, you’ll get some therapy.”

“Thank you for your concern. It’s none of your business. I’m an existential case, not a therapeutic one.”

“You’ll starve. You’ll get sick. You probably need medications.”

The man whistled. “I might be eighty-six, but I’m in perfect shape. And I have a phone.”

“Listen, there’s a war on,” Gidi yelled through the grate. “The ground operation is going to begin any day now. We have more important things to do than to look after a crazy old man.”

Gidi spotted Ella Agasi, walking down the road on the other side of the playground. She saw him and waved. He quickly turned back to the grate, pretending he hadn’t seen her.

“Something’s on your mind.” For a man whose family has been slaughtered, Gidi thought, he sounded obscenely serene.

“Stop it.”

“You started the conversation. So talk.”

Gidi slammed his hand against the grate. “What good will that do?” he shouted.

“What good is what you’re doing?” the man shot back.

“We’re fighting!”

“You’re playing games. Bloody games.”

Gidi put his mouth to the grate. “Fuck you.”

Silence.

“That’s what’s bothering you?” The man spoke calmly, each word precise. “I don’t think so.”

One response after another ran through Gidi’s mind, seeking to burst out, but he managed to hold them in. Except for one.

“They killed a soldier of mine. Over there.” He waved in the direction of the crater, even though the underground man could not see him. “A mortar charge landed right next to him.”

He heard the sharp intake of the man’s breath. “And where were you?”

“Right there.”

“Wounded?”

Gidi held out his left hand. The man, of course, could not see the bandage. “Yeah.”

“Close friend?”

Gidi shrugged. “Not particularly. But in the same reserve unit. You don’t see each other for months at a time but when you get called up it’s intense.”

There was a silence. The man seemed to be waiting for him to say more.

“I stand by the crater, the spot where he died, and no one seems to get it. People come by, say something, go on with whatever they’re doing. This whole country, we’re all hurting, we’re all horrified by what happened last week, and all we can think about is more death. Shusterman, Abadai, all of them.”

Three bombs exploded in Gaza, one after the other.

“‘This thing of darkness! Acknowledge mine,’” the man said. “Prospero. I mentioned him. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to my books.”

Gidi heard the man’s soft footsteps descending a staircase. There was a pause after a few steps, as if he had turned to look back, and then the sounds resumed until they disappeared behind the rumble of the war.

He knelt there for another minute, cursing himself for speaking from his heart to a stranger. Then, slowly, he rose. His battle vest, laden with cartridges, grenades, and canteens, weighed down on him, felt heavier than it had before. He turned and squinted, dazzled by the sun, as if he himself had just surfaced now from the subterranean chamber. Ella Agasi and Tzvi Barzel, the ancient soldier who had brought her here, stood on the other side of the playground, watching him.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out. It was Efrat. He pressed the red button. He turned his back on the two observers and walked away, toward Gaza.

For more of Haim’s fiction, including previous installments of his war stories, go to the Complete Archive of Haim’s Necessary Stories.
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About the Author
Haim Watzman is a Jerusalem-based writer and playwright. He is also one of the leading translators of Hebrew works into English, with more than 50 books to his credit. An archive of his stories and more information about his books and translations can be found on his website.
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