Gidi, helmet in hand, stood at the edge of the small crater the mortar shell had carved out when it shrieked down from the sky. Gidi had been standing not far away, grinning as Dvir belted out a rude song of his own making. Tall and supple, his arms open wide before an imaginary audience, Dvir shielded Gidi from the worst of the shrapnel, saving his life without even knowing he was doing so.
The crater was just off the sidewalk that ran between two rows of gutted, scorched, blood-splattered two-story houses at Kibbutz Hoshea, where their reserve unit had been stationed after the army’s fuckup of October 7. It wouldn’t be here, this crater, if the assholes in the high command had done their job and protected the people living in the communities near the Gaza border. And Gidi would not have heard Dvir singing the song. Now the pieces of his shattered body were in a grave at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery. Some of his blood still stained the sidewalk. Gidi rubbed his bandaged left hand against his bandaged cheek. Both itched like crazy. Fighter jets roared overhead.
An explosion, and another. The booms were distant, from over the border in Gaza, but he clamped his hands behind his neck and his arms over his ears, as if the bomb had plummeted straight down on him. But he didn’t close his eyes. He forced himself to keep them on the crater.
“Die, die all of you!” a voice shouted from within the house just ahead to the right. It was loud and angry, but also nearly monotonic, the rote response that the platoon had adopted to each bomb. A tremor of anger ran through Gidi at being disturbed, but he suppressed it out of duty to his soldier. A figure appeared in the doorway, his battle vest buckled over an overfed belly so that it looked two sizes too small. Behind a sparse growth of black beard that seemed almost like a camouflage pattern against his dark face, Abadai surveyed the death and destruction on all sides. With grim determination, he raised his M-16 with his left hand and stepped forward. His boot encountered a fallen iron beam and he tottered, tried to steady himself against the door that swung on one hinge to his right but, like a bruised reed, it could not hold him. He fell flat on his face.
Gidi sighed and went to help. Cursing under his breath, Abadai grabbed Gidi’s extended arm and pulled himself up, adjusted his kneepads, and embraced his rescuer.
“Great to have you back,” he said solemnly to Gidi’s shoulder. His head pressed painfully into his rescuer’s wounded cheek. Then he released Gidi and held him at arm’s length. “Shusterman’s been a real dud as substitute sergeant. How’s my man doing?”
“It hurts” Gidi rubbed his cheek.
“No pain, no gain.” Abadai looked beyond, to the crater. “Too bad about Dvir. What a fun guy he was.”
Two more explosions, and then, just as they took a breath, a third. Then the rumble of the tank battalion practicing for the invasion in the field beyond the fence.
“When are we going in to kill the animals who did this?”
Gidi shrugged. “Not up to us. Our assignment is to guard the kibbutz.”
“A little late for that, brother.” Abadai opened his arms and slowly rotated his body to take in the destruction all around. “Everyone’s dead or captured. All we’re doing is looking for bodies. Whatever’s left of them. Did you see the archaeologists? There’s the loser.”
The last sentence was directed in the direction of a skinny soldier with a wispy beard the color of the sand dunes beyond the kibbutz fence. He had a large knitted kippah on his head, white with a blue zigzag pattern around the perimeter, short sidelocks curled behind his ears, and tzitzit fringes dangling below his belt.
“Looks like he’s just out of basic training, but he’s got three children,” Abadai muttered.
“Hey, Gidi. Hey Abedi.” Shusterman addressed Abadai with his real last name, accent on the second syllable, instead of with his army nickname, accent on the final syllable, which referred to his beefy physique and tough-guy attitude. “What’s up?”
“We’re planning the invasion, kid.” Abadai spoke in a sort of singsong as if speaking to a small child. “And you should get back to wherever you just were.”
“Nothing going on there.” Shusterman stared reverently at the crater where Dvir had been hit. “Did you make it to the funeral, Gidi?”
“The doctors didn’t want me to go, but I told them that I’d climb out the window if I had to. I was supposed to go back to the hospital, but I came straight here.”
“He was a real hero.”
“The shameful thing,” Abadai declared, “is that he was just standing around when a mortar shell hit him. Not shameful for him, he was doing his job. That’s our job, to stand around here. When we should be inside, fighting.”
The other two men nodded.
“You know what I’m going to do to the first Hamas guy I see?”
“Only what I tell you to do.” Gidi eyed his soldier. “Assuming we don’t leave you behind here to guard.”
Abadai puffed up his chest, but before he could speak Gidi punched it lightly and all the air rushed out in a large burp.
“I was walking by the old bomb shelter over by the park over there,” Shusterman told Gidi. “And I think I heard a sound inside. Like someone was inside moving something around. I called through the grate, but no one answered. I tried the door. It’s bolted shut. We should check it out.”
“Probably just someone from the kibbutz getting something out of storage,” Gidi suggested. “But we’ll see.”
“Rifles at the ready.” Abadai slipped a grenade out of a small pouch at the front of his vest. “My money’s on it being a Hamas sleeper cell waiting for a signal to slaughter us.”
Gidi called Rotem, the platoon commander, to update him and get his OK. “Let’s go take a look.”
The three men passed another row of incinerated houses, crossed a narrow road, and then turned right a little way on, toward the playground. The concrete right triangle of the entrance to the underground shelter stood just behind a sliding board. A siren went off just as they reached the swing set. Shusterman and Gidi went down into a crouch and put on their helmets. Abadai hit the ground, rifle at ready, sending a swing skyward which, after reaching its apogee, swung back and hit Abadai in the face. He cursed loudly. A mortar shell exploded somewhere out in a field and then another whistled and exploded closer by. Then came the booms of friendly artillery firing at the Hamas squad over the border.
Abadai got up on his knees and felt his forehead. “I’m wounded,” he announced, examining the smudge of blood on his fingers. “But I don’t stop fighting.”
Still in a crouch, they crept warily up to the bomb shelter. Gidi motioned for Abadai to head for the door on the short side of the concrete triangle and for Shusterman to take the corner, where he could cover Abadai on the one side and Gidi himself on the other. Gidi approached the vent, located where the hypotenuse of the triangle approached the base. He listened carefully, but because of the noise of the fighting could not hear much. He banged on the slats of the vent and listened for a response. Then he banged again harder.
A voice came from within, but too faint to hear.
“Speak up!” Gidi ordered.
There was a lull in the explosions. He heard faint shuffling noises. A throat clearing.
“Have you no education? Are you uncivilized brutes?” The voice, scratchy, with a faint British accent, sounded like it had just been awakened from a deep sleep. “At our kibbutz, no noise is allowed between two and four in the afternoon.”
At which point Gidi heard the boom-crack reverberation of a grenade detonating inside a room.
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“The Crater” is the fifth of my ongoing series of war stories. The first two, “Cold Water” and “Shelter,” appeared in the Jewish Book Council’s PB Daily. The third, “In the rubble,” appeared here in The Times of Israel. To receive alerts when a new story appears and some thoughts about them, subscribe to my Substack newsletter.