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Haim Watzman
Necessary Stories
War Stories: Fiction

What a soldier never has: The crater (part 4)

Gidi wandered through the gutted house, into a bedroom with a children’s bunk bed, with slashed and bloodstained mattresses
Illustration by Avi Katz

(Continued from ‘The Crater’ Part 3. Part 1 can be found here.)

Gidi closed his eyes at the edge of the crater where Dvir had died. He felt weary, so weary. Closed in, trapped, by Shusterman on one side and Abadai on the other. Shusterman gazed toward Gaza; a smile played on his face. His unrelenting amiability and pleasant competence felt like a weight on Gidi’s chest; Abadai’s hulking macho ineptitude, in the past either exasperating or funny, now scared him. He needed what a soldier never has: solitude.

Shusterman at least seemed to sense that; after a long moment of silence, he gave Gidi a soft punch on the back and wandered off. Abadai sneezed, blew his nose loudly, and shuffled impatiently.

“I definitely could fuck her.” Abadai’s way of making conversation. His eyes were on the ruined house that Professor Ella Agasi had just walked into.

“Get away from me, asshole,” Gidi hissed. “Get away from me right now or I’ll smash your skull in.”

“Your mother’s cunt!” Abadai shouted and stomped off.

An autumn breeze played on his face, bringing with it the damp, pungent aroma of the kibbutz’s cowshed and just a whiff of salt air from the sea in the west. Two more explosions sounded in the distance, more muffled than the earlier ones, farther off. Maybe one of them tore asunder the body of the grunge who had fired the mortar on him and Dvir. The Hamas guy had never seen the two of them and Dvir had only a vague stereotypical picture in his head of what the mortarman looked like – green headband, heavy eyebrows, pointed beard. It’s easier to kill when you can’t see the people you’re killing. But the Hamas beasts who had invaded Hoshea looked in the face of each and every one of the people they killed. The children they had pulled out of bed and shot, the women they had pinned to the floor and raped and slashed, the humiliated men unable to protect their families, the stoic grandmothers who had, for decades, worked to further peace and accommodation in the face of jeers and abuse from their own people. He choked up. It was a horror beyond his imagination, something he could never imagine doing himself. Or maybe he was sickened because he suspected that he might, if he lost control, be capable of something like that after all.

He heard footsteps, slow and cautious. A faint, almost familiar feminine scent. He opened his eyes and saw the crater below him. Then he looked up at Professor Agasi. Her face was pale, her hands trembling.

“I’m sorry for your friend.”  The voice was restrained, even a bit stiff. “Maybe I sounded callous.”

“It’s okay.”

“Could you … if you don’t mind.” She motioned to the house. “There’s something I want to show. To someone. To you.”

“I’ve seen it all.”

He needed for her to go away but she waited. So he motioned for her to lead and he followed. They tread carefully past a bent peacock lawn ornament still clinging to its perch, by an overturned wooden wheelbarrow that had served as a planter, over a toppled beam from the porch. The outside wall was grimy with soot and pocked by bullets. A number had been painted in black paint by the entryway, over a circle with an X inside it, and the scrawled legend indicated that the search for bodies and body parts had been completed.

Just inside, on the floor, was a patch of congealed blood. A fire had raged in the living room, all the furniture was overturned, except the dining room table. On it was an open photo album and scattered on the table and on the floor were several photographs, all of the same man with a lithe body and narrow face. In some he was a young man, with a head of wavy hair, wearing a baggy summer suit. In later ones he was bald, hair remaining just along his head’s perimeter. In one he held a wooden train, a child’s toy; in another, he stood next to the peacock from outside, in a third he was dressed as a clown. Once again, for Gidi had seen the photos many times by now, the man reminded him of an actor he had seen in some old movie speaking with a British accent. It was this that Ella Agasi wanted to show him.

“I can’t help imagining,” she said quietly, almost in a whisper, “that on Friday night, before the attack, someone, probably the mother of this family, the daughter of this man, was preparing an album for his birthday party.”

“Oh God.” His body went rigid.

She looked up at him. “Do we know if they were all killed? The family who lived here? Or were some abducted into Gaza?”

“I think …” he said, but he didn’t finish the sentence because his phone vibrated in his pocket.

“Efrat?”

“You told your Mom you’d call her back. She’s hysterical. Just saying.”

“Oh right.”

“Are you ok?”

“Not really. You?”

“Frantic. I miss the kids. I’m worried. I’m off for Shabbat. Any chance for you?”

“No way. I just got back.”

“Call your Mom. Love you.”

“Love you.” He looked up. “Sorry.”

“I’m sorry. I’m interfering. You need to call your mother.” She began to move toward the door. “I just had to show someone those pictures.”

He’d already pressed on Ema’s icon.

She turned. “Excuse me for asking, but when you saw the pictures, it looked like you recognized him. Do you know him? Is he alive?”

“Ema? Just a minute.” He looked up at Ella Agasi. “I’ve never seen him.”

He managed to calm his mother down. He wandered through the gutted house, into a bedroom with a children’s bunk bed, with slashed and bloodstained mattresses. He gagged as he spoke to Avni and Niri and Sapiri, promising them that he’d come home as soon as he could.

The sun dazzled him when he emerged from the house. It took him a second to get used to the light. He saw Shusterman at the end of the path, near the perimeter fence, looking out into the field. APCs were churning up sand and soldiers were shouting to each other in the distance. He walked over.

“Lucky bastards,” Shusterman said, shaking his head. “They’re going in. Any day now.”

Gidi shifted his weight uneasily. “Do you really mean that? We’ve got wives and kids. Isn’t what we’re doing dangerous enough?”

Shusterman put a hand on his shoulder. “Whatever Hashem wants, I accept. But this is history. A big step toward redemption. You want to be where the action is.”

Gidi looked at his companion. Shusterman’s eyes were still on the APCs and the men in that other brigade.

“That old guy in the bomb shelter.”

“Yeah?”

“I think … We should do something.”

Shusterman sighed. “What did Rotem say?”

“Nothing so far. He’s got other things on his mind.”

Shusterman looked at him, his eyes asking what he wanted to do.

Gidi shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then back again. “I’ll go talk to him. Make sure he’s ok.”

Shusterman nodded, his mind over the border.

(The Crater continues here.)

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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