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The Gordian Knot
A novel by Yair Weinstock
A SHAAR PRESS PUBLICATION
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Published by SHAAR PRESS
Distributed by MESORAH PUBLICATIONS, LTD.
ISBN: 0-89906-285-7 Hard Cover ISBN: 0-89906-286-5 Paperback
Legend tells that when Alexander "''the Great came to Phrygia, the elders placed before him a rope with a knot so complex that no man could unravel it. Whoever could undo the knot, they said, would be the conqueror of all Asia. Without hesitation, Alexander unsheathed his sword and cut through the knot — and went on to conquer the world.
Here, in this novel of suspense and intrigue, is a contemporary Gordian knot: a story of five generations connected by a mysterious and important secret. It is a tale of dedication and treachery, and, above all, a story of the incredible Providence that watches over the Jewish People and every Jew.
David Eliad, the simple moshav farmer whose past life is surrounded by haze and mystery, holds in his hands the ends of the Gordian knot, a bond that ties together many different lands and many different generations. What is the secret of the centuries-old will left by the hidden Kabbalist Avigdor Horowitz? What terrible doom will overtake Horowitz's grandchildren — and the entire Jewish nation — if the will isn't discovered? What clue is concealed in the tiny letters written by Roman Spiegel, a ....
(continued on back flap)
Five generations entangled in mystery.
Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.
— Chapters of the Fathers
Jerusalem 5755 (1995)
The mass of people streamed down the streets of Jerusalem to- wards the Old City. The large fleet of buses could not contain even a fraction of this pulsating flood of humanity. Thousands made made their way in private cars, despite the strictures of security forces to refrain from doing so. Traffic on Jaffa Street came to a standstill as myriads of pedestrians headed for Jaffa Gate. At the same time, a huge throng of walkers swarmed the streets of Meah Shearim in the direction of Damascus Gate.
Lublin 5655 (1895)
The snow began falling from early evening.
For two days stormy winds had howled through the streets of Lublin. On the third day, the sound grew even more frightful, almost human. If you had no compelling reason to be outside, you stayed home. Only the brave dared face the chill wind and freezing temperatures.
Towards evening, black clouds spread across the city skies. At the edge of the horizon even thicker, heavier clouds could be seen approaching. Suddenly the wind died down, its demonic shrieking stilled, giving way to snowflakes rare in their enormity. Within a very short time Lublin was covered with a fleecy feather-quilt. Store shutters were quickly drawn and bolted as both shopkeepers and customers prepared to dash homeward before the mighty snowstorm trapped them outdoors, far from the cozy warmth of their homes. The hustle of the market turned to stillness; the big city grew silent.
Yes, everything was understood. The message was clear. The words had never been so transparent. It was not the intense cold that caused his hands to tremble. He lit another candle and sat down by the table to write.
All through the night the quill scratched across the thick paper. It was of the finest quality: It would need to stand the test of the many coming years. Occasionally he would halt and dip his quill into the small inkwell. Then he continued writing with infinite diligence.
Dawn rose on snow-covered Lublin as he transcribed his last lines:
"... and therefore I hereby command my family: After I depart this world, open only the first part of this will. The second part, which I have entitled 'A Secret Scroll' and have duly enclosed within a sealed wooden tube, shall not be opened under any circumstances! It must be transmitted from son to son, generation after generation.
"I beg you, guard this scroll as your most precious possession, and may the Guardian of Israel protect you from all sorrow and harm. Do not lose it and do not let it out of your possession. One hundred years after my death it is to be opened by my descendants and its contents read most carefully by them. I repeat and beg of you with all my heart: Please, transmit to the coming generations my command that you open the scroll on the one hundredth anniversary of my death. This will prevent a great calamity from befalling the Jewish people, G-d forbid, collectively and individually."
The quill was dipped into the black inkwell for one last time. He affixed his signature with a sure hand, spread the sheets of paper by the stove, and when the ink had dried, rolled up the thick papers and bound them together with coarse string. He slipped the roll of paper into a wooden tube and sealed it over with wax, a seal within a seal, and laid it away in his closet.
He stood lost in his thoughts for a long time. He finally shook himself out of his reverie, got up and left the house in silence. Bright white feathers of snow floated about in the freezing air above, circling dizzyingly before sinking slowly to the ground.
Maidenek 5704 (1944)
That day he did not go out to work.
After the morning roll call he slipped off to his barracks, waiting for the last of the stragglers to leave.
When he was finally alone, he leaped off the shockingly narrow bunks and sped to the rear of his room. His long fingers rummaged feverishly in a hidden niche, finally drawing out a ring of shining nickel keys.
He hid behind the barracks for an eternity, his shaved head peering out from time to time. Finally, he found the opportune moment; no one was about. This was his chance!
He sprang out with lightning speed, shooting frightened glances over his shoulders in all directions to see if anyone was watching.
The key almost slipped through his fingers while he was working to turn it in the keyhole. The brilliant idea of hiding his treasure deep inside the very lion's den, in the administrative barracks, had been entirely his.
Each morning after roll call, the officers went off to the dining hall. While they were busy gorging themselves, he would enter their room and make himself at home.
But this morning he was gripped by a paralyzing fear. He had a sinking premonition of evil and had to force himself to overcome his terror. Completely illogical, he told himself. The strict rule of order made no allowance for officers to be found in this particular part of the camp at this hour. It was thanks to these punctilious regulations that he had never yet been caught.
He entered, promising himself that today he would take his 'package' with him and hide it someplace else, anywhere, so long as it would spare him setting foot in this room ever again.
He quickly wound the straps around his arm, arranged the tefillin on his head, hastily murmuring broken phrases of the blessings and verses and covering his eyes with his hand...
Sometimes a person gets the feeling that his heart has stopped beating. He suddenly felt that his heart had, indeed, grown silent and dead within him.
His ears had not deceived him. He had heard the clicking of keys outside. The door opened. He froze in place, like a pillar of salt.
"W-what?" the roar shook the walls of the barracks, activating shock waves that bounced off every item in the room. "Here? In my very room!"
There was no point in trying to explain. A hail of blows pelted down on his head, his back, upon every square inch of his tortured body.
"What else are you hiding here?" the officer forced him to get up. He rose laboriously, weaving on his legs, awaiting the approaching end. He pointed helplessly to a hiding place.
The officer's thick arm drew out a long wooden tube. "What's this?" he wondered, trying futilely to open the sealed cover. "Never mind. Nothing will happen if I let this ride until tonight. When I've finished my shift I'll deal with your treasures," he hissed between his teeth.
Crushed and broken, he lay on the concrete floor, his body burning like fire. He lost count of the hours and had no idea if it was day or night. It didn't really matter; he was indifferent to everything and didn't know whether to be thankful for his life, or to be sorry that he had not forfeited it at the mercy of the whip's lashes.
Everything had drained from him and lost all meaning. Until now, the scroll had been his possession; he'd held onto it as a lifeline, extracting drops of encouragement and comfort from it in his most difficult hours. Now he had betrayed his trust; it had been wrenched from him cruelly and was gone! Would it ever be returned to him?
The Weizmann Institute — Rechovot 5755 (1995)
The microscopic creatures writhed in the liquid as if delirious. They danced and gyrated in all directions. He scrutinized them through the lens of his electronic microscope and compared the result with a previous picture, a satisfied murmur accompanying the examination.
"The power of change!" he chuckled.
DAVID AND BUKI
Yetzivim - 5713 (1953)
The ringing of the alarm clock rent the stillness of the night. A hand shot out from under the warm cover to silence the raucous sound before it awakened the whole family.
David peeked at his wristwatch with sleep-webbed eyes. The phosphorescent hands indicated the number four.
His bed beckoned to him in the darkness, calling him back to its cozy warmth, bidding him to lie down and place his weary bones upon the straw mattress. A brief battle took place. David wanted so badly to go back to bed, to curl up under the thick, warm woolen blanket and drift back into sleep...
"A waste of time," he scolded himself, somewhat annoyed over the battle that repeated itself each morning. "Dina and Chedva are waiting for me."
He slipped quickly into a shirt whose original color had long since faded, and into wide, dirt-encrusted trousers which had known better days. He drew on his high boots and slipped silently out of the house.
When he emerged into the bracing air he was glad that he had not succumbed to the urge to sleep. This was his favorite time of day. A blessedsilence reigned. The black sky was strewn with thousands of stars and even the east showed no sign yet of the approaching dawn.
A chill wind caressed his face as he strode energetically along the dirt path. He suddenly shivered, whether from the sudden cold or from something else, he wasn't sure. A dull, intangible sensation struck him and he felt he was not alone. There was some other presence here besides him; was someone watching him this very moment, studying and surveying his steps?
"Nonsense." He quickly dismissed the thought. "Winter has sprung upon us and it's become cold, that's all!"
Nevertheless, he hastened his pace and strode quickly towards the cowshed to make sure that everything was all right, that nothing had been stolen and no damage wrought.
When he reached the shed he felt reassured. This was his domain; here he was intimately familiar with every square centimeter. He could already hear the impatient lowing of the cows.
"Patience!" he shouted at the locked door. "Don't you realize I'm already here?" He quickly bent down to the bottom of the water barrel and took the key out of its hiding place. He turned it twice in the lock and swung the door wide open. The rusty hinges creaked their protest. The sound was the steady accompaniment to each morning's ritual and had become an inseparable part of milking time, but this morning it evoked a hidden fear in his heart, as if it were a tolling alarm bell.
"What's the matter with me this morning? Why am I so frightened by every little rustling?" David turned the light on in the barn. Chedva and Dina stood silently side by side, gazing at him with their large eyes. "See, it pays to be patient," he scolded them affectionately as he stood the rinsed pail in its place and began milking.
If there is anything good in this world, it is this. You hitch yourself comfortably down on a stool and squeeze. The warm milk squirts in a thin stream into the big pail, releasing a bubbly froth. The cow stands content, casting her head back from time to time and glancing at her master, as if reading his mind. If he was not mistaken, he thought he could spot an occasional gleam of affection in those big animal eyes. Sometimes it seemed to him that a human soul was hiding inside that huge body. If there is any rapport, any connection between man and animal, this is where it was woven, between the coarse concrete wall and the manure-laden floor. What others considered an offensive smell which could not be borne for even a short spell was for him a heavenly aroma, the embodiment of nature.
David would not have traded the predawn milking hour for anything in the world. He didn't care if Odelia took on the evening shift. But the early morning was his hour of communion, his connection with the little bit of good in the world which he could call his own.
He would sit and chat with the cows, at ease, the pails filling up with frothy, steaming milk. Sometimes a cow might turn mischievous and kick the bucket over with her foot and the precious liquid would spill over and spray his face with a mighty splash, whitening his long dark beard. How many scoldings had he already directed at the misbehaving cows over the damage they caused...
Alas, parnassah, parnassah. A man had to make a living, didn't he? A pity he had to sell the precious milk. He would gladly have gulped it down to the last drop, but he was paid for it, a good price at that. How would he be able to feed his family if he squandered his treasures?
By the time he left the barn carrying the metal jugs, the east had already turned rosy. Dark clouds were rapidly approaching from the west, mercilessly covering the delicate orb which had just risen out of the darkness to shed its golden rays. Darkness returned to cover the moshav. A cold wind began whistling. Soon the first rain would whip him with its large drops.
He turned the key quietly in the keyhole and tiptoed into the room.
"David..." Odelia was already in the kitchen. The small kettle was standing on the smoky paraffin stove and she poured him a cup of hot tea. The smell of mint, naanah, filled the kitchen and David inhaled it deeply into his lungs with pleasure. "You don't have to tiptoe; the children are fast asleep and I'm already up."
David carefully sipped the scalding tea, taking tiny sips lest he burn his tongue.
"D'you know, something strange happened on my way to the barn. I had this eerie feeling that I wasn't alone, that someone else was wandering about outside."
Odelia glanced at him with suspicion. It was beginning again...
"You have nothing to fear," she said in a quiet voice. "Maybe it's because of the robbery at Shikma..."
The words were hardly out of her mouth when she wished she could take them back. David looked at her, his eyes dilating with terror.
"No, I didn't hear a thing about that," he whispered. "Are they beginning to get closer? Oh, no!"
It was too late for regrets. She'd have to tell him everything. "Yesterday in the early dawn infiltrators entered Moshav Shikma. They stole three cows and two calves from Shmulik Bodenheimer's barn. His wife, Rivka, heard strange noises around two in the morning but was too afraid to get out of bed. They only discovered their loss this morning."
"Why didn't you tell me? We've got to arrange a night patrol, starting this very evening. Oh, it's very late already." He glanced at his watch. "I've got to run off to shul." He hastily grabbed his tallis and tefillin from the dresser and slipped into the children's room to kiss the sleeping tots who lay enthralled in their sweet childhood dreams.
His prayers that morning were troubled and filled with thoughts that had nothing to do with the text, thoughts generated by the present situation. To his surprise, he discovered that he was not the only one. Everyone seemed upset and overwrought. What was the matter? Had a single theft in Shikma disturbed people to such a degree?
"What do you say about the Bodenheimer robbery?" he asked Hillel Weiss after prayers. "I'm telling you, the chutzpah of these Arabs knows no bounds. And we keep quiet and do nothing. I heard about it only this morning..."
"What are you talking about?" Hillel looked at him in surprise. "Is that your only concern? Your own people come first!"
"What do you mean?"
"What? You haven't heard? Last night we also had the honor of a similar 'visit.' Five sheep stolen from Mazuz' sheepfold."
Now he understood why his fellow moshavniks had looked so upset. This time the plague had struck them. They suddenly felt helpless, exposed to danger.
His feeling that someone had been near him that morning had been correct... An alarm began ringing loudly inside his head. Was there any single island of safe, solid ground? His hands and feet began trembling, dark spots danced crazily before his eyes and everything whirled in a dizzy circle about him.
"David, what's the matter?" Hillel bent over him, holding a washing cup filled with water. "Why did you fall down? We thought you fainted!"
He lay on the cold floor, stunned. For a moment he looked about, not understanding what was going on around him. What had happened? What did they want from him?
"It's nothing, really. Just a spell of dizziness that will soon pass," he whispered. A strange thought crossed his mind: This scene could almost have been funny. His position accorded him an unusual angle of vision; Hillel and Sheike's rounded eyes, Kobi and Mordoch's heavy-set chins, Moishe's reddish beard. He had never noticed it was that long...
"Chevra, move aside, I'm getting up," he announced, leaping lightly to his feet.
"You're okay?" Hillel ran after him, the washing cup still poised in his hand, just in case.
"Maybe you'll be kind enough to remove the water?" David said in a tone that mixed reproach with warmth.
"Look at him, the big hero," chuckled Mordoch. "First you stretch out on the ground without any warning and a moment later you're angry that people rush to help you."
David looked at him, his expression inscrutable. The spark that had been ignited in his eyes for a fraction of a second died out, with the same suddenness it had appeared.
"Friends," he announced coldly, "we are being targeted, and if we don't stop the infiltrators now, our moshav will become a free-for-all to any petty thief from Gaza. We've got to set up rotating shifts to stand guard, starting tonight."
A babble of voices cut his words short; everyone was talking at once, as if seeking to shake off the tension. First of all, several moshavniks said, David should be exempt from duty; he wasn't feeling well. Everyone had seen how he had fallen and fainted. Secondly, they couldn't make decisions about night patrol on their own. They would have to discuss it, plan their strategy and coordinate it with the security forces.
"Oh, sure! They'll protect us just like they helped Shikma and like they prevented the big robbery in Moshav Tvua, when the huge barn was emptied out. Fifteen cows they shlepped off to Rafiach, and we're expected to sit, arms folded, waiting for someone to do the work for us?" This was David's longest speech since the establishment of the moshav. He spoke with bitter cynicism and suddenly felt his knees buckling under. He eased himself down on the bench.
It was finally decided to wait another day or so. Until now the infiltrators had not struck twice in one place, at least not in the same week. Meanwhile, they would reinforce the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the moshav. They already knew where the thieves had entered the past night. It was a breach near the Morali home at the northeastern end. Today they would repair the damage. Two men would keep watch that night. Woe to the Arab who dared attempt to steal anything...
"Tell me, David, what really happened to you?" Hillel walked by his side on their way home from prayers.
David was very fond of Hillel, but he kept those feelings under wraps. Hillel sensed it, however, in his own way. The two were like night and day. Hillel was an inveterate chatterbox, optimistic and good natured. David was chronically taciturn, a pessimist, his eyes dull with futility. Even in their outward appearance the contrast was marked. David was tall, thin and long legged. Hillel resembled a bouncing ball. He had virtually no neck; the outline of his chin slipped straight down to his enormous paunch. He rolled from place to place on a pair of thick legs.
In one area people were of a unanimous opinion: Hillel was one of the best. He overflowed with magnanimity and goodness. He could not stand distress, especially in a close friend, such as David for example.
"How about coming in for a hot cup of tea with naanah?" David suggested, evading his question. Hillel declined. They parted with a nod.
Hillel was filled with disturbing thoughts. What was the matter with David? Why was he always so distant and reserved?
Breakfast was waiting for David on the table. Buki jumped on him with glee. "Abba, come see what I did yesterday!" Little Baruch — Buki — pulled him towards the yard with his small hand and pointed to a small channel no more than a centimeter wide, running around the base of the apple tree. "I dug it all by myself! It's got to be irrigated with water, right?"
David stood speechless. A three-year-old with such initiative and such articulate speech. The words rolled from his lips like polished jewels, his childlike enunciation filled with warmth and charm. Without a word, David encircled the small figure and drew him up to his chest, hugging the child fiercely. "Have you drunk your cocoa yet?"
"No, but Yigal hasn't eaten his cereal yet either. So what?" David trundled the child off to the kitchen and made sure he drank the cocoa, sweetened with brown sugar which the father had obtained through the black market with considerable effort. He couldn't understand how someone could leave cocoa on the table without drinking it.
The sun's rays had broken through the clouds when he sat down with Odelia in their small kitchen. A gentle light penetrated the snowy-white lace curtains. A beam of light penetrated his heart and flooded it with hope. He quietly told her the news while they ate bread and salad and his own home-made cheese. Yigal sat on her lap and Buki by her side in a highchair. The young mother fed her children quickly and efficiently. "Who's going on patrol first?"
David cleared his throat. "Mordoch and Shukrun," he answered quickly, ashamed to tell her that he had been disqualified because of the stupid incident in shul.
She asked no superfluous questions. She had always known how to handle him: no pressure, and avoid stepping on his toes. That was her special skill, the essence of their marriage.
By the time he went out to the field, the clouds had already dispersed. The strong wind had driven them southward to release their stored water upon the heads of their enemies. Perhaps it was for the best. Let them keep busy in their fields. Let the Arabs be preoccupied in productive work and leave them alone.
For the first time in a long while, he stood and looked at the horizon, anxiously studying the border fence. He felt fear sending its cold, clammy fingers to clasp his heart with a painful pinch. The border was so close! If they wanted, they could cross over with nothing to stop them and...
He shook his head to banish these disturbing thoughts and fell upon the vegetable rows with zest, spade in hand. Weeds had suddenly sprung up between the tomato plants. He had probably been slack in his weeding during the summer and now had to suffer the consequences. There were no two ways about it; the rules of life were hard and fast. If you didn't sow with tears and sweat, you didn't reap with gladness.
The smell of the first rain wafted up from the damp ground. The earth had drunk up the isolated drops thirstily after the summer dryness. He broke off a clod of earth and inhaled its smell with pleasure. The light drizzle had not sufficed to turn the dry ground into messy mud, but had given the earth that primal smell of the first rains, the yoreh.
He continued working for many hours, back bent, investing all of his strength to remove every suspicious-looking stalk. In the summer, when the sun had beat down upon his head and his body had been bathed with rivulets of sweat, he had been unable to make the effort, and had worked superficially. Today, that laziness was taking its harsh toll. Now, with the sun partially hiding between the clouds, peeking out now and then for a moment, the work was not as arduous.
Something unusual aroused his sudden attention. Footprints. The rake fell from his grasp. He studied the marks with intense concentration. There was no doubt about it; two pairs of footprints led from the outside to the interior of the moshav. But these were not the prints of bare feet, as had been discovered that morning near Mazuz' barn. These were footprints he was familiar with — high, hobnailed boots! They snaked their way through his field into the moshav.
His forehead became covered with a cold sweat. His mouth opened wide in shock, but only a dry cough emerged from his throat. A silent scream echoed into space.
The figure raced over the fields of the moshav, over the furrow and rows of vegetables, looking to the eyes of the moshavniks like some kind of vengeful ghost. When the figure approached they were barely able to identify David's cadaverous face, so stamped was it with horrified panic. "What happened, David?" they asked, attempting to pull some explanation from him. He waved his hands wildly in the direction of the fields, blurting unintelligible staccato syllables. He then resumed his headlong flight towards Yoni's house to report to the moshav secretary.
Yoni's heart skipped a beat or two at the sight of his unexpected guest. David's face was completely bloodless; he looked like a figure fresh out of the grave.
"Mr. Eliad..." Yoni was taken aback. "What has happened?"
David tried to say something but his tongue refused to obey. He tried again and again but not a syllable came out. Yoni took out a bottle of shnaps from the wooden cabinet on the side and poured a shot for David.
David downed it in one gulp and felt his throat scalded by its sharpness.
He heard himself saying: "A terrible calamity is about to happen; I'm telling you, something horrible!"
Yoni stared at him, not comprehending. "What are you talking about?"
The words stuck in David's throat. The footprints! He wanted to tell about the footprints he had discovered in his fields, about the hobnailed boots that led into the interior of the moshav, but his tongue betrayed him. All he succeeded in blurting out was: "A terrible calamity." The words repeated themselves again and again, like a broken record.
Yoni looked at him and shook his head. From the very first moment, I was against accepting him.
David shook himself, the warmth of the cheap whiskey surging in his veins, melting his momentary panic. "Come with me, quick." The urgency in his voice convinced the moshav secretary. He ran after David to the field to examine the fearful evidence.
A few minutes was enough to convince him. Yoni raced back to his house. He threw his army jacket over his shoulders, a souvenir from his soldiering days, and raced to the tarpaulin-covered jeep parked in his yard.
With a roar the jeep sped to the nearby Bedouin camp.
A dense cloud of fear had descended upon Moshav Yetzivim. Half the moshav streamed towards David's field to see with their own eyes and be convinced; the other half did not get the chance because someone reminded them that it would be a foolish thing to do. With so many footprints, they would obliterate the evidence!
Everyone awaited Yoni's return with bated breath. The teenagers rushed out to be the first ones to catch sight of the jeep and the two experienced trackers he'd set out to bring;
The rains made their second appearance that day. A strong wind brought a sheaf of clouds in its wake. The skies darkened with the same rapidity in which they had cleared before. This time it was a generous rain that swamped the entire area and sent the crowd scurrying for shelter.
Yoni did not arrive until afternoon. The Bedouin tracker Salaah had gone shopping in Beersheba and Yoni had awaited his return to the camp. After an hour Yoni had understood that time was working against him. He dragged Salaah's comrade Monir along with him and the two arrived drenched to the bone.
"There's no point in going out to the field." Monir got out of the jeep shivering. Water ran down from him, gathering in puddles at his feet. "The rain has wiped out all the tracks, you can be sure."
Nevertheless, Yoni and Monir went to inspect the evidence. The Bedouin did the best he could. He spread himself out on the ground, full length, getting himself filthy with mud. With infinite determination, he examined every centimeter of ground as if looking for precious diamonds. He sniffed at the mud and finally said, hopelessly: "There's nothing here. Everything has been wiped out. No footsteps, no odor, nothing."
That night no one closed their eyes. The terrible thought of murderous infiltrators hiding in the area banished all sleep from the members of the moshav. The endless night was prefaced by many hours of thorough, intensive searching from house to house, chicken coop to chicken coop, barn to barn.
"I don't want you to overlook a single building." Yoni gathered all the members to the playground near the moshav store and handed out orders in his strong voice. "Remember, check every storage shed, every haystack. At least two infiltrators have slipped into our moshav. What they are capable of doing, I have no need to tell you..."
Yetzivim was searched thoroughly that night. After hours of searching, the members returned home with mixed emotions. They bolted their doors carefully, drew the shutters on every window and... trembled with fear. The frightening knowledge that the intruders had not been found paralyzed the entire moshav.
The following morning they emerged from their houses red eyed. The terrible night was over.
"Nu, David. How did you pass the night? Did you stand by the door with a broomstick?"
David froze. From the first day the moshav had been established, that voice had never addressed him. He looked at Meir Tzuriel with glassy eyes.
"Leave me be." he begged plaintively. Meir continued on to the beis knesses, half walking, half skipping. He had accomplished what he set out to do.
"And I tell you there were footprints there." Yoni stood by the long washbasin with its many faucets, surrounded by the worshipers of the first minyan. They demanded an explanation. Some (the disappointed ones who had not made it to the field) even went so far as to claim that it had all been a figment of David's imagination and there were no prints at all.
"Of course there were!" Yoni argued heatedly. "If not for the rain, we would have tracked them down already last night. But never mind. Let those mice sit in their hole for another day or two. We'll find them yet!"
"But I'm so scared," peeped a childish treble. Everyone burst into laughter. Moshe, the moshav clown, always managed to break the tension at the most difficult moments with his bubbling humor.
Two days passed and the tension dissipated. It had been a mistake, or perhaps the infiltrators had fled. Perhaps they had been frightened away by the high state-of-alert. Life returned to its normal routine.
And then everything exploded...
As he walked towards the barn before dawn, David felt an unaccustomed serenity. Thank G-d, the nightmare had passed. He drank in the cold night air and looked with pleasure at the homes of the slumbering moshavniks.
Something suddenly caught his attention. It was nebulous, indefinite; more a premonition than anything visual. Wait. Stefansky's windows. Why were they open wide at such an hour? In this intense cold?
He approached with hesitant steps, drew out a flashlight from his pocket and flashed its beam inside the room. Pools of dark blood spread on the floor tiles, next to the children's beds. And the beds themselves...
A long moment of eternity passed. He stood petrified, his blood frozen in his veins. What was this? The mad thought flickered through his numbed brain: Had he gotten this far, the wretched Roman Spiegel?
A dreadful scream finally emerged from his paralyzed throat. The cry reverberated in the air, suspended for a moment above his head, only to come crashing down in thousands of smithereens, echoing again and again between the houses.
"He's coming to."
"Give him another dose, please, Nurse. Let him sleep for at least two days. He mustn't be allowed to wake up so soon; his nerves are shot."
Voices, sounds hovering very close, touching but not touching. Who was talking there in the background? Everything was so vague and hazy. They've stuffed my head up with cotton wool until it feels about to burst. Why can't I see anything?
A needleprick in his arm and everything began going black again. The order he had tried to impose upon his brain cells was being demolished, his mind was in a turmoil. The vestiges of his thoughts melted down and ran off as the bittersweet intoxication took over. The voices receded, disintegrating into absolute nothingness. Quiet. Blessed silence. Now I can float off upon the wings of dreams to wherever I like.
Dreams or memories?
He felt himself returning to Latrun.
Latrun 5708 (1948)
Machine guns exploded all at once in staccato bursts. The soldiers threw themselves onto the loose earth without cover, without any protection whatsoever.
The soldiers of the Seventh Brigade had failed in their previous attempt. The Arab Legion fully controlled Latrun, and it had proven its superiority over and over.
"Do they think that we have any chance of capturing such a fortified building in this idiotic way?"
David glanced to the side toward the rebellious whisper which echoed the thoughts that had been racing about inside his head for the past three days.
"Tell me," continued the stubborn whisper, proving that it was not coming from his own heart, "how can we possibly succeed: an unorganized force, untrained, against well-disciplined and experienced Legionnaires like theirs, eh?"
"Who are you?"
"I'm lying to your right. I dug myself a small ditch so that you can't see me without raising yourself. Hey, don't do that! Are you crazy? Do you want a bullet in your head?"
After night fell he was able to make the acquaintance of his entrenched neighbor. "Shai Matzliach," he introduced himself. "I'm from Battalion Two in the Alexander Brigade. I arrived last night with the group sent to help capture the Latrun Fortress. But due to faulty planning, we arrived late and became exposed to the Arab Legionnaires at sunrise. They massacred us. And you?"
"David Eliad. I was in the Givati until a week ago. Now I'm in the Seventh Brigade."
Under cover of darkness, the fighters retreated again. The attacking force returned to lick its wounds in Kibbutz Hulda.
The soldiers bit their lips in pain. The defeat was too bitter to face. The attack upon the proud fortress had ended in a complete failure. Tens of fallen and wounded soldiers lay on the ground.
"And all this a hopeless exercise. Our blood is being drained just because our commanders didn't do their homework!" Shai was bitter. This time he spoke aloud.
"Open your eyes, you fools!" he ranted. "What kind of attack did we launch today? No training, no preparation. They stick a rifle from the days of the Turks into your hand, with thirty bullets, and order you to storm the hill. That's all. It's a wonder any of us are still alive."
"Who's talking there?" Gidi, commander of the platoon, demanded, afire with rage. He had heard every word and felt, with his sharpened instinct, that this ordinary soldier, with his Oriental accent, was right in every word he uttered. The soldier was no fool. On the other hand, he was liable to start the entire platoon thinking, and that was something very unhealthy. A thinking soldier was capable of rebelling.
"Shai. When we get settled I want to see you in my tent. And that's an order." Shai was silenced. David, sitting nearby, thought he would burst. If a person said the truth, he deserved a punishment?
The members of the kibbutz watched their return from their windows. The men's faces said it all; there was no need to add a thing. The expression of frustration and despair sat upon the returnees like a dark cloud. The wounded were immediately transferred to a makeshift hospital. The treatment of the dead took place far from a seeing eye. In victory, one quickly forgets the victims. They have, after all, paid the price of winning. But in the case of defeat, every additional corpse turns into an accusing finger pointed at the decision makers. Everything is done to hide the dead, to obliterate everything...
Shai emerged from the command tent, having gotten off easily: guard duty until morning.
"I'm with you," said David, wanting to protest the punishment in his own way. He had no trouble getting permission to join Shai for his nightlong vigil.
The two sat at the entrance of the camp, chatting. This was a get-acquainted talk, the initial overture of what was to become a fast and hard friendship, one, they both felt, that would not fade quickly. Shai talked a lot that night, while David was silent. A feeling deep inside told him to listen to every single word, to preserve everything in his heart.
Shai told him how he and his twin sister had fled from the Tunisian island, Djerba, immediately after the Second World War, arriving in Eretz Yisrael via France with forged documents. He spoke of the ancient heritage of Tunisian Jewry. David, fascinated, drank in every word. It was his first introduction to something foreign, unknown to his own world. It was as if someone had pushed aside a curtain and opened his eyes to the world and its fullness as it existed beyond his own small room.
"And where do you live now, you and your sister?"
Shai sighed with pain. "You know, we came here as green as cucumbers. The Jewish Agency officials sent us to Kibbutz Maayan Daniel. We hate it there. The members look at us as if we were relics of the Stone Age. They can't stand anyone who thinks differently. After the war, the first thing I intend doing is to take her to live in Jerusalem or to some Torah-observant settlement."
Towards dawn, David finally opened up. He proceeded cautiously, moving slowly in very wide circles, careful not to get too close. He's hiding something, Shai felt. David talked mainly about his most recent life, since he had gone to live in the Chalissa neighborhood in Haifa, and up to the point when he had been drafted into Givati.
"Do you have anyone here in the country?" Shai inquired delicately, careful not to tread too crudely. You never knew where something painful might be hiding, especially during these times.
"I have no one! No one!" David didn't shout the words, they screamed themselves from the chambers of his bleeding heart, bursting from his throat, shattering the stillness. His gaze suddenly clouded over. Shai felt the end of a thread slipping out of his grasp. He tried to catch hold of it before he lost it altogether. His hand reached out in the darkness, groping for David's. He patted it warmly. "I'm with you, David. I'm with you."
David was silent, removed, disconnected. Suddenly he leaped to his feet, pressed Shai's outstretched hand and whispered, "Thanks."
Shai watched as David walked back to his tent, alone. Suddenly a thought struck him: a blinding light. A daring idea began taking shape, fermenting in his subconscious. He would not yet speak: His thoughts had not yet crystallized enough to assume the shape of words. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would surely find the way to convey his idea to David.
At dawn, a group of sleep-robbed men stood at the top of the hill, daydreaming, longing for the warmth of their sleeping bags, their eyes focused on the stubborn hill that rose opposite them.
"I hope that you all understand the strategic significance of the Latrun fortress." The commanding officer had learned the lessons of the previous battle well. He would prepare his soldiers for action, at least let them know what they would be fighting for.
They listened to his briefing in silence, learning the tremendous strategic importance of the area.
"Because of its particular location, the Latrun Fortress commands our most strategic crossroad. As you all know, Jerusalem is besieged; it has no water or food. Our convoys can't break through with supplies of food and equipment.
"It is our aim to recapture the fortress, to wrest it away from the Arab Legionnaires in order to remove the suffocating ring around Jerusalem and from the other settlements of the plains as well. When we finish all of our preparations here, we will set out again for Latrun!"
David did not say a word. His gaze was fixed upon some faraway, indefinite point along the horizon. When the briefing was over, he moved away with heavy steps.
David and Shai sat upon overturned wooden crates. David stared at the sandy ground, his head bent. He drew circles in the loose dirt with a thin branch. Suddenly he turned to his comrade.
"What's bothering you, Shai?" he asked.
Shai gave him a look both astonished and impressed. He'd only met Eliad yesterday, and yet the man knew him, sensed his feelings of outrage and anger.
There was something very deep about David, something you couldn't pinpoint. A great deal of pain; depths of agony were reflected in his clear blue eyes. Two souls, if not more, reposed in his body, or so it seemed. Sometimes he was pleasant and calm, his gaze sharp and piercing. He conversed comfortably on all kinds of subjects (except for the forbidden topic of himself!). Then suddenly, without warning, his eyes would grow murky and a mysterious film passed over them. In one moment, everything would be changed. He would clam up inside and metamorphose from a likable, quiet fellow to an angry, curled-up porcupine poised for battle; a porcupine ready to fire one of its spiky quills upon the slightest provocation.
"You know what, why don't you step outside and see for yourself?" Shai finally answered. "Go to the big tent behind the orchard and talk with the new recruits who arrived last night. You'll be able to communicate far better with them than I can. After all, you know Yiddish. I had to break my teeth talking to them last night."
"When did they come?"
"Right after guard duty last night. I heard the engines of a few trucks. I strained my eyes and saw group after group getting off. I waited until they finished getting organized in their barracks and at five in the morning, I paid them a visit. They spoke a very broken Hebrew. 'Lushen koidesh,' they called it." It sounded very funny on his Oriental lips. "But I understood them. The heart understands every language. I still can't get over it."
"All soldiers are to report to the parade ground at once," blared the loudspeaker, echoing through the camp and interrupting their conversation. "Prepare for action."
The commanding officer again enjoyed the limelight, surrounded by hundreds of excited, anxious men. It was clear that they were about to charge the stubborn fortress of Latrun once again. "A few days ago we received an urgent telegram from the commander of the Harel Brigade. The situation in Jerusalem is very serious. There's hardly any water. The civilians and soldiers barely receive a ration of two slices of bread per day. If we cannot break the siege, the capital will fall!"
"Jerusalem shall not fall," declared a trembling voice.
"Who spoke?" a junior officer said angrily. "You're interrupting the colonel."
"ViYehudah Volom teisheiv, Yerushalayim ledor vodor," the voice said in its Ashkenazi intonation. Jerusalem, the prophet had promised, would endure forever.
All eyes turned towards him. "He's one of the new guys," Shai whispered to David, "I spoke to him yesterday. He's from Poland. He's been through the Holocaust, poor fellow."
Leibel, a young dark-haired Polish Jew, stood in the last row....
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