Authors: Meir Shalev
I looked at him, all set to go: I was confident that he had prepared thoroughly and happy for the small details that had returned to his mind and his hands. He put the food into two plastic containers that he took from the kitchen cupboard. He tucked the containers in his pack along with two bottles of water and did something, strange and new, that he'd never done before on those hikes of oursâhe wrote down on a slip of paper all the items he was taking. Like a grocery list: “6 slices of bread,” “2 cucumbers,” “3 granola bars,” “1 sour cream,” “2 hard-boiled eggs.” Also “2 plastic containers,” “thermos,” “spoon,” “2 water bottles,” “backpack,” “toilet paper,” “this note,” and “pen.”
He stuck the note and pen in his pocket, then surprised me with one more thing: he took our thick little bath mat and walked out of the house, taking it and the backpack to the plant nursery.
I followed him: the wife knowing the events to come, the mother imagining them, the granddaughter happily anticipatingâCome, bring it on, breathe life into our dry bonesâand watching and remembering every detail. From the tool rack in the nursery he took items not taken on an ordinary hike: pruning shears, a sinister Japanese folding handsaw, a roll of green duct tape.
The slow, purposeful pace of his activity suddenly quickened. More items were added to the list and the backpackâa spool of cord, a pocketknife, and, of course, the constant friend: the small pickax used for uprooting the bulbs of wildflowers, which in his hands, I knew, was likely to be a terrible weapon. All these he wrote down on the slip of paper, adding “car keys” to the list. He pocketed the keys, went out to the pickup truck in the carport, and put the pack on the backseat.
Now he returned to the tool rack, took down the big scissors, and cut the bath mat into two equal pieces. He bored holes along their edges and attached pieces of the cord and placed them near the knapsack. From a pile in the corner of the carport he pulled a faded-green tarpaulin with metal-rimmed holes along the sides and slipped pieces of cord through them too and fastened them with knots. He put the canvas tarp in the back of the pickup and threw in a leaf rake and small broom; he rinsed out and cleaned the portable sprayer, filled it with water, pumped the compressor, sprayed some water on the ground, and then released the pressure valve, opened the tank, poured plastic glue into the water, closed and shook it, and compressed it again, put it in the back of the pickup truck, and added it to his list, along with “tarp,” “rake,” “broom,” and “sheep-shoes.” What sheep-shoes are and why one wears them I discovered only the next day, when he returned from the place he had gone and from the deed he had gone there to do.
Now he turned to the old storeroom in the yard, a small wooden shed, a vestige of the early days of Grandpa Ze'ev and Grandma Ruth in the village, and emerged after a few minutes with a bundle in his hand: something long, rolled up in an old blanket with faded flower embroidery and tied with rope, like a corpse in a shroud bound at the ankles and neck.
He laid the bundle on the floor by the backseat of the pickup, wrote down “rope,” “blanket,” and “
rifle,” the definite article. He bent down and locked the front wheel hubs manually the way guys do on trips for guys in treacherous off-road terrain, then sat down in the driver's seat and shoved a hand in his shirt pocket, suddenly recalling the pack of cigarettes that had sat there for years, which he tossed with perfect aim into the trash bin.
I was thrilled: something in the movement of his hand reminded me of his old agility.
I said, “Eitan.”
He did what he hadn't done for twelve years: he looked into my eyes.
I asked, “Eitan, where are you going?”
He didn't answer.
“Don't worry. I won't tell anybody.”
“You want me to come with you? Do you remember how to drive? You haven't driven in twelve years.”
He remembers, of course he remembers, I reassured myself. A man like him would not forget. Not how to drive, how to walk on the trail. Not camouflage, ambush, sharpshooting.
“Eitan,” I said again.
Again he looked at me.
“I know where you're going. I know what you're going to do. Just know that I'm with you in this but be careful. Please.”
The pickup moved forward, exited the gate of the nursery.
“And come back on time,” I called out. “You hear me? We have a funeral tomorrow.”
He drove off. Not to the right, to the main road, but left, into the fields.
I imagine: He got on the road a few kilometers later and met up with the wadi around sunset. He didn't turn on the pickup's headlights, kept driving slowly for another few hundred meters, up to the parallel wadi. Here he downshifted twice, and without braking or signaling he turned right onto a short dirt road that led to a pumping station at the edge of the gully. Without stopping, he expertly downshifted the sticks to second low gear and inched the pickup forward as slowly as possible, so as not to make noise or spray pebbles or leave deep tire tracks.
I imagine: A few dozen meters before the pumping station he swung behind a stand of oak trees and came to a halt with a gentle pull on the hand brake. He switched the interior light to the off position, opened the door, extended his legs, and keeping his feet in the air he wrapped the pieces of bath mat around his boots. He tightened the cords in a diagonal pattern and stepped out of the vehicle in his covered footgear. He hung the knapsack and the spray gun on the branch of an oak, and the rifleâconcealed in its blanket like a snakeâon an adjacent branch, picked up some stones, and positioned them around the pickup truck, which he covered with the tarp till it vanished underneath.
As the sunlight waned he hastened his activity. He tied the tarp to the stones he had arranged, sprayed it with diluted glue, scattered fistfuls of dirt and dry leaves, which stuck to it at once. With the rake he quickly erased any trace of a moved stone, a footprint, or tire tread, then lifted an edge of the tarp and slipped the sprayer and rake under it. He stepped back a bit and checked his handiwork, then hoisted the knapsack on his shoulder, picked up the rifle wrapped in the blanket, emerged from the oak trees, and headed up the wadi.
For years he hadn't walked like this, on a narrow, dark, and rocky trail, not cleared by pickax and bulldozer or leveled by steamroller but blazed by the paws of animals and the shoes of humans and the hooves of time. But his feet instantly remembered the art of quiet, confident nighttime walking that left no imprint except upon his face: an old, inscrutable smile, slightly askew, of facial muscles that for twelve years had not smiled nor kissed nor spoken, just ate a bit and drank a bit and clenched one jaw to another.
I know the route. I've walked it more than once. After a kilometer and a half, at the third bend of the wadi, he climbed southward to the lower shelf of the ridge, lay down a moment on his belly, listened and looked, proceeded in a slow diagonal crouch, and went down the slope. He quickly arrived at the mastic tree and the oak that grew side by side a few dozen meters above a sharp turn in the adjacent wadi. The oak is taller and its branches are wider, and the mastic is typically small and thick, its aromatic branches bunched together, kissing the ground.
Here he stopped, set the rifle and knapsack on a nearby rock, turned to look at the big carob tree he knew well, which grew in the wadi below him. In the darkness the tree looked like a huge black lump, which sharpened when he looked at it sideways and blended into the night when he gazed at it directly. In a few more hours, when he will lie, rifle in hand, in the hiding place he has prepared, the sun will rise from behind him, he will see everything clearly, and the man who will come, a man whose name and face he doesn't know, but for whom he waits and whose life he intends to take, will be blinded by its rays if he looks toward him.
He undid the rope from the blanket and took out the rifle from its folds: a veteran Mauser, heavy, accurate, more than a hundred years old, fired by German soldiers and Turkish soldiers and Grandpa Ze'ev, and he himself had shot it more than once. He inserted it between branches of the mastic tree and propped it on its stock. He took the small pickax from his knapsack and put it on a rock, spread out the blanket and sat on it, untied and removed the covers from his boots and laid them on the ground.
He took off the boots, placed them on top of their covers, and rolled his socks and stuck them in the shoes to deter snakes and scorpions. He lay down on half the blanket, covered himself with the other half, reached out and felt the rifle on his left and pickax on the right, pulled over a fieldstone, placed it under his head, and took a deep breath. He had a few more hours of darkness ahead, and he hoped that tonight, perhaps, he might have a reprieve from his insomnia.
I put the little pieces together: People do not walk here at night; wild animals will not approach him. If wandering dogs do not come near, if nobody notices the pickup truck he camouflagedâeverything will go as planned. The single shot he will fire in the morning is not a problem: there are hunters in the area, and there are soldiers on leave who shoot in the woods near their villages. No one will go out looking for the shooter or contact the police because of one shotâand if they do, no policeman will bother to come.
He was sure he would hear birdsong before sunrise, but to be on the safe side he fixed an hour in his mind so that the birds of his body would wake him too. Despite what was about to happen he felt at ease, a surprising, forgotten sense of well-being. It was good to know that he was about to do what was right and necessary. Good to know that he had the talent and the tools to do it well. Good to lie on the ground and feel its touch, hard and soft at the same time. To close his eyes under the dark, open sky, to breathe air that streamed from the starry heavens. And good to feel again the ability to feel what was goodâI'm back, it's me, as he would say when he would surprise me with a hug from behind, when he came home, to the bed, to my flesh. That's what he always said to me: “I'm back. It's me.”
I feel: his head resting on the stone pillow, his eyes canvassing the vastness of space. The sky curving above him like a woman. Soon he will touch her through closed eyelids and curtains of darkness. His body is heavy and soft as he sinks into sleep. So easily, for the first time in twelve years, unbothered by dreams.
We awoke at the appointed hour. For a few seconds we lay still. Eitan there, on the ground overlooking the carob in Grandpa Ze'ev's wadi, and I here in our house, in bed. He with eyes shut, ears sharp, listening to the familiar set of predawn soundsâIs anything different? Disrupted?âand I wait for his return, my eyes shut like his and my ears also perked: distant loudspeakers of a muezzin, joined by a chorus of wailing jackals, and then the noises nearbyâthe joyful screeches of the stone curlews, celebrating the end of night, followed by the jaybirds from the wadi below him and our jays from here at the plant nursery.
It's good to wake up and hear birds. To open your eyes under open, dark skies with their eastern fringe turning pale, then fiery gold. It's good to feel the tiny marvelous movement under your back. It is the earth, turning slightly on its axis, presenting a new meridian to the rosy fingers of dawn.
Another smile shone on his face. Twelve years without a smile, and suddenlyâtwo in a single day.
We sat down at the same time. My legs feeling the chill of the floor tiles. His legs gathered beneath him on the blanket on the ground. He took a bottle of water from his pack, poured some into his hands and rinsed his eyes, shook out his socks and put them on, turned his boots upside down and shook them too, put them on, and wrapped them with the sheep-shoes he had prepared. He stepped a few yards away and pissed into a wild poterium, taking care that the stream be inaudible and its puddle unseen. He put the pillow stone back in its place, picked up the rifle, and went down to the carob tree. He examined the ground beneath it, peered into and sniffed the little cave on the bank of the wadi and the pit inside.
The sky grew lighter. Eitan returned to his hiding place and sipped a little coffee from his thermos. I got up and switched on the electric kettle, and while the water boiled I went to the bathroom. He closed the thermos and put it back in his pack, took out the toilet paper, took the rifle and pickax with him, walked about thirty meters, and dug a shallow hole. Afterward he came back, took out the small Japanese folding saw, the pruning shears, and the duct tape and headed for the mastic tree.
I made myself some tea. I drank it and looked out the window at our plant nursery. Our big mulberry tree loomed blackly behind it. Soon, when the light was better, it would be green. Eitan lifted two limbs of the mastic tree, thick branches that touched the ground. He spread them apart and crawled inside, as far as he could go. He reached up and sawed off the two branches at a downward diagonal, so the shiny wood would not attract attention or curiosity. He pulled the branches away from the tree, then returned to the empty space within the foliage and began pruning interior branches with the shears, shoving them between other branches, fashioning himself a small cell in which to hide.
A light wind arose; more birds joined in their sisters' morning choir. He cut off pieces of green duct tape and pasted them to the stumps of the sawed branches. He put the shears in his pocket, emerged from the tree, returned the saw and tape to the knapsack, and pushed it and the rifle into the hiding space. He crawled inside, spread out the blanket as much as possible, knelt down on it, and pulled toward him the two large branches he had sawed off, their leaves facing outward.
Now he sat in this tiny cell, whose walls and ceiling were leaves and branches and its floor a blanket and embroidered flowers and dirt, and he ate and drank. When he was done he scratched from his list the container of sour cream, one egg, two slices of bread, a cucumber, and one granola bar. He put the paper and pen back in his pocket and shoved the granola-bar wrapper and empty sour-cream container and spoon into a separate section of his knapsack.
Behind him the horizon was bright. He moved the barrel of the rifle closer to the edge of the foliage, looked through the gunsight. At this distance he would not need a sniper's rifle. He would do fine with the old Mauser, with its ordinary sights, its famous accuracy, and his own experience. He took out the shears and delicately snipped, one at a time, a few leaves that interfered with his line of view and put the shears back in his pack.
The sun had almost risen. He again peered through the branches at the wadi and its big carob tree. All he had left to do was wait. The waiting was hard, soporific, boring, but clearly it would not continue for long; he had waited longer in the past, had experienced situations that were far more complicated and dangerous. And indeed at 6:30Â a.m. he sensed that his waiting would very soon be over. First in his gut, then his ears: a stone dislodged from its place, striking another stone and ringing out in the silence, the sliding sole of a shoe, an angry curse.
The man came into view, different from the image he had drawn in his mind: a tall, beefy fellow, his right hand in a bandage. His neck thick and strong, but his belly soft and jiggling a bit under his tight shirt. One of those people whose feet are smaller than expected and whose dark sunglasses hide their eyes more than protect them.
The man wore black pants, a bright yellow shirt, and a black leather jacket styled like a sport coat, left unbuttoned. On his feet he wore short, square-toed boots with thin leather soles, testifying to the worst kind of inexperience, a mixture of exaggerated self-confidence and sheer laziness. Eitan saw no weapon in his hand, in his belt, or under his open jacket, but over his shoulder was a small leather bag that might contain a pistol.
He looked at him from his secret hideout, cleansed his mind of hatred and malice so that his victim would not sense his existence or intention, and again reminded himself that the deed he was about to do was not an evil deed. Evil sends waves into the distance, and a person whose heart is evil can easily feel the evil heart of another. But the good and the true and the right things to do are hidden and quiet and do not give away their owner even when he is very close.
The man again slipped on rocks damp with dew, and each time he stumbled he cursed aloud. Eitan followed him with his gaze and said to himself that this was the only way to meet such a vile personâa first and last encounter, in his very last moments. He allowed him to reach the big carob, saw him bend over, explore, and examine, and he knew this was the man he was waiting for.
The man knelt down and crawled on all fours, moved stones and turned them over; Eitan knew he would not bother to return them to their places. And when he despaired of his questâhe knew he would despairâand took a cell phone from his jacket pocketâhe knew he would want to report to the one who sent himâhe fired the shot he had come to fire.