“Cover Up” by Clare Needham

In Clare Needham’s memoir about her experience as a young woman living and working in Jerusalem, the author reflects on issues of women’s bodies, national identity, and physical safety. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read our interview with Clare here.

Cover Up

Clare Needham

 

I did not begin my time in Jerusalem with the desire to be dangerous. I arrived in that most intoxicating, infuriating, enervating, derelict, and sad of cities with a large black suitcase into which I’d folded a year’s wardrobe, plus books and toiletries. I had a postcollege fellowship at an Israeli civil rights and legal organization that soon came to feel too conservative for me. Its mission was laudable: it advocated for a greater separation of religion and state and for equal allocation of government funds for all minority groups within ’67 borders. But the organization relied on funding mostly from Jewish groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia, which were, as one colleague explained to me, “progressive except for Palestine.” In the fundraising materials I helped compose, I could not mention Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, which began about four hundred meters from our office, or its occupation of the West Bank, or its occupation and total blockade of Gaza, even as we approached the one-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. Granted, antioccupation work was not within the organization’s purview, and among the staff there was disagreement and a spectrum of political opinion. But I felt stifled nonetheless.

I was, however, free to wear whatever I liked to the office. I had two bosses, one an American who’d explained to me before I moved that I didn’t need to worry about packing a separate work wardrobe. Israelis dressed casually; they wore whatever—the organization’s press liaison liked to wear thigh-highs and little black dresses to work. My American boss now felt stuffy whenever she had to put on button-down Ann Taylor blouses to meet with potential donors. I adored my Israeli boss, the organization’s executive director, who had been a champion swimmer in a former life. She wore jeans and T-shirts, so I did the same.

My first day out in Jerusalem, before I had to report to work, I wore jean shorts. The temperature was in the mid-90s, and at noon there was a blinding white heat. Almost as soon as I left my apartment near the city center—where something like a secular atmosphere still prevailed—I began to feel my mistake. A man grabbed the backs of my thighs and parted my legs with his hand. I vowed never to wear shorts again.

I put on jeans that covered my ankles and then decided it was better to cover my shoulders as well, even if, for a little while longer, I left the rest of my arms bare. Within two weeks, I’d added a scarf to the ensemble. Often I wore a black one dotted with tiny blue and violet flowers that I adjusted each morning to hide my vulnerable neck and collarbones, then double-checked my work in the mirror—though mirrors were not necessary in Jerusalem. As soon as you stepped onto the street, your body was reflected back to you, and your body was understood as your essence. Jerusalem, reputed to be a spiritual place, was rooted in the physical, in the crudeness of surface appearance. I was a young white woman, secular, not obviously Jewish: everyone I passed reflected that image back to me.

My excessive paleness—red hair, blond eyebrows and eyelashes—made strangers often stop and demand where I was from. The first time I flew out of Ben Gurion Airport, I underwent extensive questioning— Why did I speak Hebrew? What was the origin of my last name? Was I really Jewish?—and my passport was slapped with a stickered number 5, the second most serious security rating. On my return from Istanbul, as I rode up an escalator with other passengers from my flight, airport security summoned me out of line before we reached passport control. They searched my luggage; they asked more questions. When I described the experience to an Israeli colleague, she didn’t miss a beat. “Oh,” she said, “you fit the Rachel Corrie profile. European-looking woman, traveling alone. They assume you have a Palestinian boyfriend, a blog where you write about the occupation.” (Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003 while defending Palestinian homes in Gaza from demolition.)

I did not have a blog, and my boyfriend was American, but he taught at a Palestinian university and lived in East Jerusalem, and soon I moved in with him. With the move, I became the one white lady in At-Tur, a neighborhood on the Mount of Olives, a part of East Jerusalem crowded with many histories and lives. It was a Palestinian village with an illegal Israeli settlement embedded in it, whose compound flew an Israeli flag large enough to be seen clearly from the Old City. Soldiers patrolled 24/7 outside. Christian tourists were bused in every day to visit the Garden of Gethsemane and the storied churches that spread up the slope. Our apartment was not far from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, on whose property the head of John the Baptist was rumored to have once been buried.

I would have been interested in many of these details if I’d had a different body, if I were not thinking so much about the uniform I needed to wear. Growing up, I spent time looking through a book my mother had, called How to Be a Perfect Stranger, an etiquette guide for every religion. What to bring to a Baptist wedding, what to wear to a Muslim funeral, what to avoid saying, whether to give gifts or take photographs. It was in this spirit of respect, of not giving offense, that I planned my dress. I was an outsider; I was no one’s sister or daughter; I had no family protection. I could not blend in, but I wanted to float through; I wanted to be safe.

This was not possible. One morning an old man pulled down his trousers and extracted his limp dick, holding it in his hand as he crossed the road toward me. I knew then that I’d have more problems. Still, I thought the right clothes might help minimize them. No matter the weather, though easier in colder months, when I could wear a coat, I kept on the jeans and the scarf and traded my T-shirts for long, loose shirts that fell at least midthigh. I’d learned that any part of a woman could tempt—a man once grabbed my naked left elbow and imprisoned it between his hands, briefly, before I could pull away—so I tugged down the sleeves of my shirts to cover even the backs of my hands. Though I felt like a colonizer all the same, I wanted to make clear that I was not an Israeli settler: a long skirt was out of the question. Loose red hair was too suggestive, so I put mine in a braid. I wore Supergas or low-heeled boots; I didn’t want to show my feet, much less my occasionally painted toes: that was slutty. When I went outside, I pretended to be married and wore an opal ring on my left hand.

I repeated the lie of my marriage often to Samir, one of the taxi drivers who waited at the foot of the Mount of Olives every day to drive tourists and others up and down the slope. He introduced himself to me shortly after I arrived and it became clear that I was a more permanent resident, though I’d noticed him right away, in part because he was exceptionally well-dressed. Palestinian men, in general, dressed more formally than Israelis; they wore blazers and shoes with laces, while Israeli men wore shorts and Crocs. Samir’s daily uniform was impeccable, a triumph, almost a fuck-you to the occupation, a hint of whom he might have become had he not been born under a system of foreign military rule designed, among other things, to disrupt daily life and thwart ambition. He wore a fresh white button-down shirt tucked into dark denim Levi’s, a leather belt that matched his polished shoes. Nothing he wore ever showed dirt, dust, or sweat. His head was shaved, and he managed to sport Ray-Ban Aviators without looking like a tool. He seemed imperious until he removed the sunglasses and showed his gold-flecked eyes.

He began offering me free rides, and at first, I accepted. When I sat next to him in his clean cab, I felt ashamed of what I wore, designed to minimize everything about me that was desirable. I felt ashamed of my dress because I was attracted to him, as he was to me. We never spoke about it, though often he suggested that we drive to Jericho (we never did). But I had a boyfriend, and he had a wife and kids who lived in Silwan, a neighborhood next to the Mount of Olives, where settler violence against Palestinians was well documented. Around him, I was especially aware of my American passport: I could leave whenever I wanted. My citizenship, for which I’d done nothing other than possess the random good fortune of being born to American citizens, granted me powers he would never have. When one afternoon he leaned over and kissed me as I was getting out of the car, I decided I had to refuse his rides as often as I could. So I began treading carefully down and up the steep slope each day on my way to and from work in West Jerusalem. If Samir was there, I would make small talk, then move on.

But I was far from slipping into the crowd. Often I was the only woman walking outside, or the only one unaccompanied by a man.

Late one morning, when I was on the slope and almost in sight of the taxi drivers, a man came running from behind. He slammed his body into mine and put me in a chokehold. One arm gripped my neck and the other belted my waist. In memory, it feels as if he had his pants down, though I might be confusing this time with other times, with other men who unzipped their flies as I walked past. I would like to say I fought off the man on my back, but he had the advantage of the slope, of gathering the energy of the hill before putting me in his grip. He must have chosen to let me go. He disappeared, and I ran the rest of the way down the hill, shooting past Samir and the others, propelled by fear. When something like this happened, I scrolled through my recent calls and talked to whoever was first to pick up. I screamed at my boyfriend or at a friend as I described the latest incident. Nothing they said was enough. I was outraged but stubborn, and stupid. I kept walking. Everywhere I wanted or had to go required my first getting down the hill.

Soon there was trouble every day. A good day meant only being called a slut or a Russian (i.e., a slut). A bad day meant I was touched, grabbed. And almost every evening, I would tell my boyfriend what had happened, and he’d suggest that I had a bad attitude: I just had to shrug it off. He did buy me pepper spray, which I knew I’d never use. I tried it out on our roof, and with comic predictability, a sudden gust sent it stinging into my eyes. Other people said I should move. Another friend told me to wear a hijab. I balked at the idea, in part because I knew that covering my hair would not work. I was from elsewhere, and it was visible in the way I moved; a piece of cloth could not change that. I had been in Jerusalem long enough to realize that actually I was my body: it was my essence; my body was my soul.

I decided I would become ugly, neglect my hair and skin and clothing. I would make myself repulsive, untouchable. Then I might be safe. I tried becoming more like a man: I started wearing my boyfriend’s clothes. He was disappointed; he wanted a sexy girlfriend. But the new uniform didn’t work, anyway. The incidents continued.

My boyfriend and I went on a short vacation to Greece, where I could wear whatever I wanted. I understood this conceptually, but my body did not. In Thessaloniki, we went for a walk along the promenade, looked out over the shining Aegean Sea. I had put on a dress I’d loved wearing in New York: horizontal black-and-white stripes, thin shoulder straps. We had not gone far when I insisted we turn around so I could change. I felt like a slut, I said. Someone could hurt me in the dress.

Things got worse when we got back. One evening at the end of February, I was returning from having a drink with a friend in the Old City. It wasn’t late—just after seven—but the sky was dark, and Samir and the others had all gone home for the day. I reached the base of the Mount of Olives and started walking up. The road I took was poorly paved, with no shoulder and no sidewalk, and was barely lit by streetlights, several of which had been extinguished for months—Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem paid municipal taxes, yet there was an appalling and unequal distribution of municipal services. But I had experience with this path, a sense of how to handle the road.

Five or so cars passed, a couple of drivers sounding a friendly beep of their horn to let me know to watch out. Generally when a car approached, I moved to the edge of the road and waited for it to go by. Since it was dark and the headlights were bright, I looked down at my feet each time the beams swept over my body and face. It had rained earlier that day, and it was cold. I wore black leather boots and an androgynous black raincoat that tumbled to my knees and hid my form.

Soon I was walking up the steepest section of road. My breath was heavy, and the sound of it filled my head. On one side of the road was a high stone wall that bordered private church property and on the other, directly to my left, a steep drop down to an open field, usually dusty  and dry, though in late February, the start of Jerusalem’s brief spring, covered in vibrant poppies and wildflowers exuding their colors, even in the dark.

Someone flung himself at me sideways. I remember an expression, eyes and teeth—not a face. I began to wrestle with a body much stronger than mine, though both of our bodies were, in that moment, transformed by adrenaline. My mind was clear: I was an idiot, and I was going to die; it was my fault, because I’d insisted on being alone and walking. In seconds, this other body had slammed mine onto the ground. I had a gray leather bag slung diagonally across my chest; now he reached for its base and pulled it away, over my head, while I clung to the strap. He began to drag me, headfirst, back down the steep hill, pulling me behind him like a dog. I skidded along on my right side, scraping elbows and knees, but I managed to hold up my head, and that’s how I saw the idling car, the open door, and knew I’d be thrown inside. It did not occur to me to let go of the bag. I held on to the strap and tried to use all my weight to stop this trajectory: I would do all that I could not to be put into the car.

But he only wanted the bag. I was an available body lugging a bag of unknown treasure, there in the right place, the right time—for him. He dragged me until I could hold on no more. He tore the strap from my hands, and I rolled further down the road with the momentum and the slope’s decline, then stopped. I raised my face from the ground and saw the car’s taillights, its exhaust curling into the dark air, the silhouette of a man holding up my bag, then jumping into the passenger side, the car screeching down the slope. My instinct told me to pursue them. I was somehow on my feet, then running down the road; I can’t remember if I was screaming. For that moment, I was pure adrenaline. I wanted so badly to kill someone. I imagined turning superhuman, leaping in front of their moving car, smashing through the windshield, strangling them. Instead—there was never a chance to catch them; they were gone almost instantly—I turned and ran back up the hill, for once not noticing its steep pitch or my ragged breathing.

I reached our compound, stormed up the stairs, slammed open our apartment door, and greeted my boyfriend with an unsettled grin. At first, he thought I was laughing. I managed to explain what had happened, though not before backing him against a wall and knocking a glass from his hand. Then I went to my desk, took out a sheet of paper, and in a gesture I thought even then a bit grandiose, titled it “What I Have Lost.” It was meant to be a list of items from my bag—driver’s license, passport photocopy, a laminated card of the traveler’s prayer—so that I could sort out what needed to be canceled, replaced, what could not be retrieved. I tried to hold a pen and write down a few words, but I couldn’t control the shaking of my hand and kept stabbing the pen through the paper.

I went to bed with a stomachache. Lying awake, sleep impossible, I saw how things could have gone much worse. It was the first time that fear broke through my conditioned numbness, and I started to feel afraid for myself—a feeling that would become constant for the next few years. What might have happened if I hadn’t been able to pick myself up in time? Or what if I’d been taken into the car? I fell into a nightmare and woke vomiting over the sheets. For days after, I could not keep down food. My throat was raw, and my arms and ribs were sore from the pummeling on the road.

My boyfriend reversed his policy of telling me to chill: he said I couldn’t walk on my own up and down the hill, and this time, I agreed. The taxi drivers urged the same. They told me the men who’d mugged me were drug addicts, thieves from neighboring areas. The police wouldn’t do anything, as the men were also collaborators with the Israelis, and the police didn’t care about making a Palestinian neighborhood safe. Their explanation was plausible; regardless, the no-walk rule meant that after work in West Jerusalem, I walked to Damascus Gate and got a taxi or went further east, to Herod’s Gate, where I could pick up a ride in a shared car. I hated this new system; I felt trapped in the vehicles. I also hated what it confirmed. I wrote in my journal: “And then I was dropped off at the top of the hill, and the good little white girl ran all the way home.”

The mugging was an earthquake that went off only inside me, an event whose damage could never be fully shown. But its devastation was extensive. A colleague at work expressed concern that I had changed so much, even in the few months she had known me. She gave me the number of her therapist. And one day soon after, Samir found me sitting on a bench in the Dominus Flevit Garden, where sometimes I went because I was unlikely to be molested there. I was pretending to read and was listening instead to an American pastor describe for his congregants how on this very spot Jesus had wept for Jerusalem, how Christ’s tears were similar to those some of them must have shed when faced with a person who did not accept the Lord. Samir appeared during this sermon, his  uniform intact as ever, and asked how I was. How was my life, my husband? I made up some lies; he nodded. He turned away, went back up some steps, where he joined the Americans and waited to provide them with rides down the hill. Then he came back down to me. He asked more questions. How was I really doing? “You don’t seem okay,” he continued. “You look bad.”

I was bad. In the aftermath of the attack emerged someone new, someone who wanted to do harm. Again and again, I had experienced how easy it was for someone to get too close, to cross a line, to touch me so it hurt. I saw now that it was easy to do. They did it because they could; they understood it was easy to do, so they did it. Most people didn’t see this, how easy it was, but now I did. I saw it, too.

I wanted to commit violence, to trespass into someone else’s life. I was given many chances. Wherever I’ve gone, people have asked me for directions, maybe because I’m often walking alone, at a good clip, so they assume I know the way. But also, likely, they stop me because I do not appear to pose a threat. In my previous life (and again, now, in a more recovered life), I thought of giving directions as a sacred duty. When someone asked which way to go, I did everything I could to direct them. I felt a failure if I didn’t know, and I’d take out a map or my phone. On a few occasions, I’d run after strangers, maybe slightly startling them, as I reappeared to say I’d gotten it wrong: they were to go right, right, then left.

In Jerusalem, after the mugging, these requests for directions presented an opportunity to abuse my power—no one would suspect me. I grew breathless with the potential. One time in particular: a pair of blond European tourists, both women, were heading toward the Mount of Olives. As I followed them, I wrestled with conflicting desires, the urge to help, the urge to hurt—or to do both, perhaps. I imagined a scenario. I’d tell them, do not walk up the hill; it’s not safe—and as they were thanking me, I’d find a way to take something from them. I imagined they’d be too distracted to notice my hand slipping into a coat pocket or purse. Or maybe I wouldn’t even attempt a cover-up: I’d approach with a smile, then take their stuff and run. I knew the city better than they, and they almost certainly did not possess my kind of fury, which gave me energy even as it exhausted me.

Instead, I called out to them from a distance and told them to take a taxi.

The fantasies made me dizzy. When I did get asked directions, I’d keep my sweating hands in my pockets, or I’d clasp them behind my back, fingers curling, just in case I couldn’t control the desire to do something more physical. I wanted especially for people who seemed protected to experience violence. I wished to trouble their lives. I would come down from these urges scared for my sanity. I fell into weird states. One day, I was late to meet a friend for coffee because a young man had asked me what time it was, and I assumed this was the prelude to an attack. So I screamed at him, and when he turned away, I followed him, galloping alongside and telling him never to fuck with me again. My friend thought this picture of my anger was funny. But I thought it was horrifying.

That year, a Christian radio host in California made a widely publicized prediction that the Rapture would begin in May and culminate with the end of the world five months later. I was unconcerned. The end of the world seemed fine by me. I welcomed an apocalypse—an uncovering, an unveiling.

***

I returned to the States in June. But anger and fear continued to warp the familiar. Walking one evening from the train station in my parents’ suburb to their quiet home close by, I glimpsed ahead on the sidewalk a tangle of dark shapes. My mind constructed a group of Satanists crouched close, ready to turn me into a sacrifice. I took a longer route home. As I walked, I reasoned that what I’d seen was unlikely to have been real— but I didn’t trust my body to register reality in time and avoid going into panic. The next day, I walked back in sunlight and saw that the menacing  shapes from the night before were a bundle of tree branches. Every place, every person could cause a flare-up. Every landscape was strewn with traps. On a night typical of many, I abandoned a group of friends on Brighton Beach. Their chaotic energy, their eyes flickering bright as they shouted and ran into the shallow waves—suddenly I didn’t trust them. Alone, I found my way to the elevated subway platform. But there I experienced a fear of being thrown onto the tracks. The next subway station also troubled me, though I did not know why. A voice told me to go back into the night. I obeyed. I kept walking.

With time, and with the rescue of EMDR psychotherapy, I improved, and New York came to seem a safer city. While a shadow or something just outside my periphery would continue to suggest the mugger and I’d feel a surge of sick energy spike up my right side, mostly I no longer feared for my life. As my fear receded, I was granted the New Yorker’s wish, the writer’s wish, the solo walker’s wish, to feel invisible, anonymous, all the better to observe. Walking home at night in Brooklyn, I noted the regularity with which Black and Brown men were first to move to the edge of the sidewalk or cross the street as I came toward them; they knew how their bodies were perceived. I had to break the habit I’d learned in Jerusalem of walking straight toward a person if I thought they were going to fuck with me—though I knew I was not the one seen as dangerous. Still, I tried to give people space, the right of way. Here, you don’t know me. You don’t know the harm I wish I’d done; you don’t know how violent it’s been in my head. Let me move first.

I made these minimal gestures.

With time, I no longer felt the need to cover my neck or elbows or ankles. But I could not drop the urge to hide and disguise myself. For five years I wore a broad-brimmed men’s hat that turned me confident and made me mysterious. Mine was not the face people expected beneath; this discrepancy was doubtless part of its power. I wore the hat for style, and to block the sun, but also because it was slightly too big and sat low on my forehead, cast a shadow, concealed my eyes.

Late one spring evening, on a subway ride home, I noticed a young Black man wearing an incredible wool hat. It had about six inches of excess fabric that stood straight up and was stitched with a gold-sequined slightly smiley face that gave its wearer the power of having two expressions at once. We got off at the same stop, and at the corner, waiting for the light to change, he came up to ask for directions and to praise my own much-prized hat. He might even have used a phrase I was familiar with, that many people used when they described how I looked: “bandit chic.” Everyone who said those words did so with good humor: to them I didn’t look like a criminal. The young man and I were walking the same way, and we kept talking about style. He had an internship at Michael Kors and was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Within a block, a police car pulled up, and an officer leaned out to ask if I was okay. In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.

***

Clare Needham is a writer living in New York City. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, PEN America, MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During her second year living in Jerusalem, she worked for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and oversaw the English translation of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, published by Metropolitan Books in 2012.  (Author photo by Bree Zucker)

 

 

“Genesis” by Yael Hacohen

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her short essay “Genesis,” Yael Hacohen writes about her experience as a woman soldier in the Israeli army and challenging “the mechanisms of power.”

 

Genesis

By Yael Hacohen

 

In June, the desert became even more of a desert. The dust settled on everything: between my toes, in my socks, in my cotton underwear, in my ponytail, inside every single fold of my olive-colored fatigues. Like how my mother used to tuck me into bed, the training base coated me with the thick layer of heat and sand. And I loved it.

Commander’s course was a no-bullshit environment. I shared a small corner room with five other women. We were the first women ever to be integrated into Bahad 1, the commander training base, and we were offered the best room on the floor. I was lucky; my cot was cool in the morning and warm at night. And don’t even get me started on the showers. The army had to build a whole new bathroom designated for just women, and we were the first to use the showers in it.

Every soldier I know can always remember a base by its showers, and the women’s showers at Bahad 1 were exceptional. Each stall had a blunt copper pipe and a single knob to turn the water on and off. There was no way to control the temperature, and the pipe gushed hot water. It may not sound like much, but let me tell you, after a long day of training, there was nothing like it. The pipe gave improbable pressure, Moses beating water from the stone. I would take an extra ten minutes just mulling the day over; the hot water beat down on my head, spilling over the daily occurrences, washing out the dust.

I would go over the everyday ant-like rolling aggressions. I would clean those away—as if they could be cleaned. In Israel, we have a particular word for making a woman feel like a girl: hamuda, roughly translated as “cutie,” “darling,” “sweetheart,” whatever. Hamuda was my commanding officer’s usual nickname for any woman he saw around the base, including our forty-three-year-old lieutenant colonel (even though he gritted that one out between his teeth). For me, it was the way he said it. Not as an insult, no. For him, it was almost deeper than that. Crueler.

Training started at 5 am, immediately followed by the morning 5k run, and my CO was a really, really, really great guy to run behind, if you know what I mean. He had one green eye and one blue. His ears pointed straight up toward the sky, like a puma’s. And like a puma, he had this goddamn beautiful run. His teeth sneered when he said my name, Yael, and I could see his slight, cat-like tongue curling inward. The mechanisms of power are complicated.

My CO always singled me out. During Krav Maga training, he explained to the group, “Always pick off the easiest target first,” and then he would point at me and polish it off by adding, “You’re up, hamuda.” Taking that step forward was the longest step I’d ever had to take. The whole group staring, nodding their heads in perfect acknowledgment.

I stood there, maybe twenty inches away from him, while my CO went on and on with his drawn-out intonations. And all this time, I was standing there in the middle of the training arena. It was quiet, and it was getting dark. He was going to demonstrate the most effective way to body-slam. He said it involved the element of surprise. Then he whipped around, grabbed the lapels of my uniform, and brought me so close to his body I could smell his lilac shampoo. He kicked my right shin and simultaneously knocked my shoulder to the ground. It was over so quickly I didn’t even get a chance to blink.

They tell me fight-or-flight takes only three seconds to initiate. But I didn’t fight. Instead, I dusted myself off and returned to my line. My shin was sore, my hair out of place. Like tangled seaweed, my hair stuck to my face in all the wrong places. Through the shock of it, sweat covered my eyes, my ears, the backs of my knees. But the worst was the way my group had looked at me: two parts pity, one part superiority.

Hamuda became my nickname throughout the base, and I started taking even longer in the shower— the lizards of my mind going over the event. I must have fallen a thousand times before that and a thousand times since, but I can still taste the specific dust from that one fall.

Till one Tuesday, my commanding officer was going to teach us how to pull the weakling out of an army line. He walked straight up to me and yanked my shield forward.

Don’t ask me what adrenaline tastes like—you’ll know it when it when you taste it in your mouth. There I was, standing right in the middle of the training arena. Again. He came close till I smelled lilac. I looked my commander right in the eyes, and  I punched him in the face.

He fell like a plate falling off its shelf. It was regal. The look in his eyes shifted when he finally stood back up. And I remembered that I’d seen that look once before, in the Ramat Gan Zoo. A female gorilla had watched a khaki-clad worker shovel her shit to the far south corner of her pen. Her pen was jungle-themed, with large banana and monstera leaves painted crudely across the backing, an absurd painting of an overly large boa constrictor coiling itself around the painted branch. The zoo speakers continuously broadcast the deafening caws of rainbow-colored parrots, cassowaries, and cotingas. And the zoo worker had earphones in. He was just dancing to himself, out of sync with the music, shoveling. I watched the gorilla flare her nostrils. She stood up on her two back legs. Standing like that for a moment, Godlike. The gorilla didn’t even make the softest sound before she charged him. And as if on a swivel, the zoo worker twisted his head around to face her. He too had that look.

My CO stood up and straightened his uniform. He turned to the group and said, “If you are mistaken about the weakest link, just grab the next one.” He didn’t say anything more. And I returned to my place in the line.

The bible says that on the second day, God created a space between the waters to separate the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth. And while I wish I could say my CO never again called me hamuda, the truth of that one punch was this: I was never again singled out in training. Never. And that evening, that shower, the water was cleaner than it had ever been. The cool night air whispered in blue. And God called the waters of the heaven “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning of the second day.

 

****

 

Yael Hacohen is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. She has an MFA in poetry from New York University, where she was an ‎NYU Veterans Writing Workshop fellow, international editor at Washington Square Literary ‎Review, and editor-in-chief at Nine Lines Literary Review. Her poems appear in Praire Schooner, the Poetry Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Every Day ‎Poets magazine, Nine Lines, and many more. She was a finalist in the  Glimmer Train Very Short Story Competition, the Consequence Prize in Poetry, and the MSLexia Poetry Prize for Women.‎

“The Names of the Saints” by Megan Peck Shub

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In Megan Peck Shub’s “The Names of the Saints,” set in contemporary Israel, a couple’s visit to the national cemetery at Mount Herzl exposes both the flaws in human relationships and the deep dignity of enduring grief. This story is Shub’s fiction debut.

The Names of the Saints

by Megan Peck Shub

“Isn’t this the cemetery where your uncle is buried?” she asked Daniel. They were in the car leaving Jerusalem, where they’d spent the day on a walking tour. They’d seen the wall and the market and, best of all, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where a hooded clergyman had proceeded like a zombie through the room, swinging his brass thurible of burning incense, the clouds of myrrh billowing everywhere. She got a kick out of it.

His eyes pivoted to the cemetery and back to the road, a four-lane highway winding gradually down the mountain. He always drove carefully, hands at ten and two, and if he drank more than a thimble of anything, he wouldn’t touch the car keys. He was good.

“Yes, that’s it,” he said. “Mount Herzl. That’s where all the soldiers are buried. Well, many of them.”

“Is it still open? Pull over,” she said.

“Really?” he said, but he flicked the turn signal and pulled the car into the empty parking lot along the road.

“Do you remember where the grave is?”

“I can figure it out,” he said. “I came here so often with my grandmother. I’d have to be able to figure it out.”

They got out of the car and walked toward the entrance. It was after 5 o’clock; at that hour only a few other cars sat in the parking lot while traffic jammed the road, which was a major thoroughfare leading out of Jerusalem’s old city. Tour buses idled at the volume of jumbo jets, expelling streams of ash-colored clouds. As a child, at the close of every school day, she’d walked through a canyon of yellow buses in the anxious search for her own. The loud, sudden bursts from their hydraulic brakes frightened her. The hissing came randomly. There was no way to prepare for it—and that was the scary part.

They entered the cemetery through an open gate, and, as if someone had turned a radio dial, the street noise faded to the whistling of the high tree branches catching wind rushing from the valley below. They passed the shuttered visitor center and a posted map. Someone had scratched “fuuuck you” into the plexiglass over the “you are here” marker. She lingered for a second.

“Would this be of any use?” she said.

“No, I think it’s this way. I remember,” he said, and started up one side of a forking path.

***

Not long after they started dating, Daniel had told her about his weekends with his grandmother, Esther, and their visits to his dead uncle’s grave. Uncle Eli had died in the First Lebanon War, back in 1982, a few years before Daniel was born. “He was twenty years old,” Daniel said whenever Eli came up, his tone lined with sadness and disgust. “A kid.”

The cemetery was built into the mountainside in a series of long flat terraces, the collections of graves organized by war. As they walked along the stone pavers, she meandered, taking in the information engraved on the headstones. They had died, after all; reading their names was the least she could do; it only seemed fair. But Daniel was focused, forging ahead, once in a while thinking out loud about his grandmother. He paused occasionally, as if the precise direction and temperature of the light or the sensation of the breeze could trigger a memory as evidence, as a clue.

“Here,” he said, pointing to a particularly steep incline, which they scaled halfway before pausing.

“She had a cane, you know? She hobbled all the way up here,” he said.

“Did she?” she said, a little winded.

“And she did this every single weekend,” he said, turning around and heading back upward. “We’re getting close.”

Once they cleared the incline, the terrain leveled out again and they approached a circle of World War II-era headstones. A small tour group dispersed in their direction—a local guide trailed by three American tourists stupidly wearing their sunglasses atop their baseball caps.

“I remember this area,” Daniel said. “Hannah Szenes is buried here.”

“Who is that?”

“She already lived in Israel during the war, but she went back to Europe to try to save people. She was a spy. Yeah, look, here she is.”

They paused to take in the headstone, which looked nothing like the grave of a national hero. No statue. No monument. It was like all the others, distinguished only by the foot traffic coming and going, the American tourists aiming their pricey SLRs at the nondescript granite stone etched with a few Hebrew words.

“Eli’s grave was not far from hers,” he said, starting to walk again. They approached another group of graves, this one the biggest yet, the size of a few lots in a suburban subdivision. The headstones dated from the early 1980s, but the name of the war was unfamiliar.

“Operation Peace for Galilee,” she read.

“Yeah, not quite,” he said. “They started off calling it that, I guess. It wasn’t always the ‘First’ Lebanon war either—there had to be a second to make this one the first. But the headstones don’t change.”

“No,” she said. Gravel had worked its way into her shoe, and she hopped onto one foot to remove it.

“Eli didn’t have to be buried here,” Daniel said. “But it was important to my grandfather that he was. My grandfather wasn’t the person who had to drive to Jerusalem and climb up this fucking mountain every weekend, though. It was my grandmother who did that.”

“Why was it important to him?” she said. She knocked the sole against a palm, dislodged a few little rocks, and shoved her foot back into the shoe.

“Because this is where the heroes are buried, of course,” he said, motioning to the epic view from the mountainside. He shook his head.

She’d heard Daniel’s grandfather speak about Eli only once, a few years ago, during a visit to his apartment at an old folks’ home an hour south of Tel Aviv. After lunch, she’d wandered into the spare bedroom and saw, propped up on a stack of cardboard file boxes, a black-and-white portrait of a young man who looked a little like Daniel.

“Such a shame,” his grandfather had said in his labored English as he passed behind her. But that was all he said.

Over a stone ledge, which protected visitors from tumbling down the steep slope, distant buildings glowed off-white in the late-afternoon light, and faint construction noises echoed from cranes across the valley.

“Wouldn’t you want to be buried among the nation’s great Zionists and prime ministers and fallen soldiers?” Daniel said, winking at her before turning his gaze back over to the headstones.

“We’re getting close. This feels familiar.”

“Why don’t you start at one end, and I’ll start at the other?”

He removed his baseball cap and ran a hand over his bald head. He had shaved it this morning as she took a shower, the steam totally obscuring the mirror. He’d carried on even without seeing his reflection. He knew all the contours of his skull.

“He’s in here somewhere,” Daniel said and put the cap back on his head.

***

All the graves were identical: headstones a few feet tall, with names and dates etched into the stone. Simple. Stalwart. At the bases of the headstones lay rectangular planters measuring a few square feet. Manicured patches of rosemary grew in most of the planters, but a few yielded signs of personalization: pebbles, trinkets or photos, flags, flowers still in bloom.

She moved from grave to grave, sounding out the Hebrew names letter by letter and reading the ages of the deceased. Eighteen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Eighteen. Twenty. Twenty-one.

Her mother always said that having a child was like having your soul exist outside your body. She imagined Daniel’s grandmother’s pregnancy. Imagined growing a baby for nine months, enduring the pain of delivery. The crib, the nursery, the late nights, the baby becoming a child blowing out birthday candles year after year after year until he is a man. All the love and optimism. And then, one day, a soldier approaching her front door. Her son is a soldier, but this soldier is not her son. She imagined Esther seeing him through the curtains. Unsmiling, the soldier rolls a steel barrel up the driveway and knocks on her front door. He douses the barrel’s insides with gasoline, lights a match, and tosses it into the barrel. He does it just for show. Her soul is not there in the barrel. Her soul is not there in her body. Her soul is lying somewhere in a field far away.

The smoke from the barrel reaches all the way to the top of the sky.

      ***

“Here he is,” Daniel said from a few rows up. She cut over, taking care not to step on the planters. Eli’s grave looked like the graves of all the others, even the hero Hannah Szenes.

Daniel took a seat on the stone border of the neighboring grave and crossed his arms over his knees. She sat beside him.

“Every weekend I stayed with her, she brought me here. Sometimes she’d bring flowers. Sometimes we just came here and sat like this.”

She plunged a hand into the rosemary and broke off a few inches, rolling it back and forth in her palms, releasing a hit of fragrance.

“It was so hard for her to scale that hill with her cane; I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said.

“It’s difficult to imagine that kind of devotion,” she said.

“We’ll have kids one day,” he said. “And then you’ll know.”

“Will we?” she said.

The night before, at his parents’ house, the entire family had carried on for an hour debating a recent essay about the morality of having children amid looming climate change. Daniel stayed mostly silent as she and his sisters volleyed arguments back and forth. She enjoyed herself with Daniel’s family, which felt like the family she should’ve had, and their visits always felt to her like coming home.

“How about you get married, Daniel, and then we’ll come back around to this conversation?” his younger sister said, lighting up a cigarette as the seconds of silence accumulated into something uncomfortable for everyone.

“You should leave early for Jerusalem tomorrow,” his mother said to Daniel, getting up from her chair and collecting the empty dishes. “The traffic will be a nightmare.”

***

An old couple emerged from behind the bend in the road, the woman with a scarf tied around her head and knotted beneath her chin, her black orthopedic shoes kicking up dust. The man swatted his palm with a folded-up newspaper and then raised it, as if to say hello.

Daniel took a deep breath. “When I was a kid, it felt like Eli’s death was ancient history. But he only died a few years before I was born, and—even in my earliest memories of coming her—this grave was barely ten years old.”

He removed his glasses and, in one swipe with his pointer finger and thumb, scooped tears from beneath both eyes. She’d never been able to see him cry without doing so herself.

The sun had descended almost completely behind a mountain, creating a darkness that reduced the clusters of buildings throughout the valley to their twinkling lights. She remembered learning in elementary school that a beam of light could travel, theoretically, forever, a fact she considered often, especially when riding in her mother’s car at night, staring up through the sunroof at all the stars. “How is there no wall where this all ends?” she used to think. Even as a little girl, she couldn’t believe in God.

Daniel smiled at her, “What are you thinking about?” he asked, and she shook her head. From everywhere, the distant roar of traffic sounded like waves hitting the shore.

They’d spent a few hours at the beach in Tel Aviv the day before. For chairs, Daniel dropped some shekels into the automated rental kiosk, and they walked fifty yards through the throng of people before finding a vacant spot beside an oil-slathered man listening to Russian radio on a boom box.

Daniel had looked at the radio and back to her. “No,” he’d mouthed. She motioned to the chairs around the—all full.

A louche young attendant had come over to collect their ticket. As he waited for Daniel to fish it out of their tote bag, he stuck a Marlboro Red into his mouth, lit it, and drew in a huge breath. She’d wanted to bum one, but she didn’t ask.

“Here,” Daniel had said, handing the ticket over. The attendant took another drag of his cigarette and expelled the smoke in Daniel’s direction. He walked away without thanking them.

“I hate Israelis,” Daniel had said, sitting down. He pulled his hat over his eyes and fell asleep immediately. She opened a book and read a few lines without concentrating before shutting it. In the row of chairs behind her, an American bachelorette party discussed their upcoming manicure appointments.

“I know, but you have to go with my colors,” the bride had said in a Brooklyn accent. She was chewing bubble gum. “It’s one day of your life, honey. Some people have real problems, you know?”

***

She broke off another sprig of rosemary and put it in her bag, the resin sticking to her fingertips. She sometimes saved odds and ends from places as a way of holding on to them. The shelves in her apartment hosted rocks, shells, and pine cones. Pamphlets. Trashy tourist keepsakes. Little cards from cathedrals with the pictures and the names of the saints.

“Do you think your grandfather wanted Eli buried here as a way of getting back at your grandmother?” she asked.

His grandparents had divorced when Daniel’s mother was thirteen. One night, his mother drank a few glasses of wine and said that Esther had had an affair with her piano teacher. Her father had basically disappeared after that. And then, of course, Eli was killed in a tank explosion.

All of a life in a barrel and a lit match thrown in.

“I don’t know,” Daniel said.

“Would you ever ask him?”

“No. Never.”

Daniel hoisted himself up from the grave, beating the dust off his palms on his jeans. He took his glasses from his front pocket and put them back on his face.

“This has been good,” he said, extending a hand to her. “Traffic could be bumper-to-bumper, even this late. Let’s get going.”

By the time they returned to the parking lot, the sky was black as a tarp pulled high over their heads, and the stars like little punched holes, illuminated by something shining back from the other side. They got back in the car and resumed their place in the procession of cars headed down the mountain.

 

 

 

Megan Peck Shub is a segment producer at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Previously, she produced Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS. She lives in New York, but she’ll always be a native Floridian. This is her fiction debut.