Paltiel held the plastic container up to the rays of the morning sun coming through the living room window. Transparent, with a close-fitting red lid, it was filled to the halfway point with what looked to be powdery sand, the kind that the hamsin winds blow up from the south each spring. The kind that is the bane of soldiers, that forms drifts against the hills of the Judean desert in which feet sink deep, making every step an effort and running impossible.
Heli’s lips were pursed angrily, and there were tears in her eyes. She stood erect, a few steps behind him, her fingers curled and rigid.
Yoav, their six-year-old, stood between them, surveying his mother and father defiantly. He wore a yellow t-shirt, from beneath which soiled fringes cascaded over his blue shorts.
The container had left their house in Mitzpeh Yeriho that morning, an hour and a half before, in Yoav’s school bag. Heli had filled it with cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices, to supplement the cheese sandwich she’d prepared for his midmorning school break. Heli glared at Yoav. Paltiel lowered the container but continued to gaze out the window. A small piece of the Jordan was visible between the houses of the next street over. From the spot on the edge of the cliff just outside the perimeter fence where he liked to pray some mornings, the full length of the valley stretched below him. There he could see, at this hour in the summer, sparkles of sunlight playing on the dark waters at the northern tip of the Dead Sea.
Heli’s voice was threatening and despairing all at once. “Why didn’t you go to school? Where were you?”
Yoav shrugged his shoulders. “Mars.”
Silence. Paltiel could feel Heli’s eyes on his back, demanding that he speak. He turned to look at his youngest son. He stroked his beard.
Heli drew in her breath sharply, demanding that he acknowledge the severity of the infraction. He knew this because she reacted the same way each time he confirmed to her that, no, no one had called to book him as a tour guide and that this month, too, they would have to ask her parents for money.
“And what’s in the box?” Paltiel shook it. Yoav held a hand out in warning.
“Careful. It could explode.”
“Do you know how worried we were?” Now Heli was crying. “We thought the worst. Terrorists. Rattlesnakes, scorpions.”
Yoav tried to be helpful. “It’s real Alien Martian Superhero Dust. They gave me a free sample. That much usually costs more than a million krorks.”
Heli looked at Paltiel in despair. “What are we going to do with him? I can’t handle it anymore.” Her hands went to her belly, as if she were protecting the child inside from the one who had been to Mars.
Paltiel kneeled down and placed his hands on Yoav’s shoulders.
“Couldn’t you have gone to Mars after school?”
Yoav rolled his eyes. “Abba, there’s only one bus every day, at eight-oh-five.”
“You could have waited until summer vacation. It’s only a week from now.”
“But today they had the special offer on the Alien Martian Superhero Dust. Where would I get a million krorks?”
Paltiel looked up at Heli and then back at Yoav. “You know you have to get a punishment for not going to school and scaring us out of our wits.”
Yoav leaned forward to whisper in his father’s ear. “Make it easy and I’ll give you some.”
Paltiel stood up and assumed a command pose. He raised his arm and pointed to the hallway. “Yoav, you are going to your room and you’re not coming out until tomorrow morning.” Yoav winked at him and obeyed.
Heli glared at him. The punishment was inadequate, as was pretty much everything else he did. She reached to take the container from him.
“I’ll wash it out.”
“I’ll take care of it. You have things to do.”
“The whole settlement spends an hour searching for him and all you can do is send him to his room?”
“Fine, fine.” She sighed and turned and walked down the hall to her sewing room, where she made bridal dresses and did alterations. The door didn’t quite slam, but it didn’t close softly, either.
Paltiel stood for a moment to get hold of himself. Then he took a volume of Talmud down from the shelf and settled into his reclining armchair to go over the day’s page. His morning class had dispersed before it began when the word came that Yoav had gone missing. He read the first few lines, looked at Rashi’s commentary, tried to focus.
“Rav Hisda said: Mem and Samekh stood miraculously.” It was about the tablets Moshe brought down from Mt. Sinai. The letters weren’t merely engraved in the stone—they went right through, so that you could see them from both sides. But these two letters are a square and a circle and so how did their centers stay in place? They were disconnected from the rest of the stone and suspended in midair.
Paltiel looked out the window. He realized that he still had the container in his hand. He looked at it, then back at the large volume open before him, then back at the container. He got up and went to Yoav’s room. Yoav was sitting at the computer he shared with his two brothers.
“What does real Alien Martian Superhero Dust do?”
Yoav didn’t look up. “Pretty much everything. Depends where you sprinkle it.”
Paltiel waited. Yoav shot down the alien spaceship that had suddenly soared onto the screen and paused his game. He looked up.
“Like if you sprinkle it here.” He pushed up the sleeve of his t-shirt and pointed to his biceps. “You get really big muscles, like Superman. If you sprinkle it on your feet, you can run at the speed of light. Almost. Cuz nothing but light can reach the speed of light. If you sprinkle it on your head, you get a super brain and understand everything.”
“Ok, thanks.” He came out of the room and encountered Heli.
“What’s he doing?” she asked him.
“Playing on the computer.”
“Some punishment.” She entered the room. There were firm words and objections and the sound of a screen going blank. When she came out she walked right past him to the kitchen and put the water on. He followed her.
She didn’t offer to make him coffee. Looking at her mug, not at him, she said: “You’re not good for much, are you?”
“Listen.” Paltiel couldn’t keep it inside any longer. “Do you think, like, well, he really went to Mars?”
She looked up at him sharply. The water boiled and she poured it into her mug.
“Have you gone totally off the edge?” she said to the mug. She wiped an eye.
He waved his arm in the direction of the volume of Talmud he had left on his armchair. “I mean, we believe in miracles, don’t we?”
She was holding back tears, he saw. She took her mug and, her eyes on the floor, went back to her sewing room.
He sat back in his chair and picked up the volume. His eyes ran over the letters but comprehended nothing. The box was still in his hand. Keeping his unseeing eyes on the page, he pried the red lid open and took a pinch of real Alien Martian Superhero Dust and rubbed it on his forehead.
He sprang immediately to his feet as the rest of the dust erupted all over the Talmud, the armchair, and the floor. He knew it. He knew what he had to do. Striding, almost running, to the front door, he left his home for good. He nodded at the occasional neighbor he saw until he reached the fence. Some time ago, after guard duty, he’d made an illicit copy of the key to the chain that held the gate on the southeastern corner closed. It was only a few steps from there to his precipice. He looked back to make sure no one saw him and positioned himself with his toes on the edge of the rock. He reached up to feel his forehead, where the real Alien Martian Superhero Dust still adhered. Looking up to heaven, he nodded with his superior knowledge. Looking down at the sea, he smiled and took a deep breath.
He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the voice.
His will broke and he turned. He stared at his son.
“It’s not real Alien Martian Superhero Dust.”
Paltiel touched his forehead, then his right biceps.
“It doesn’t make you understand everything.”
Yoav imparted the information matter-of-factly.
“Ema says you should come home.”
Paltiel nodded. He placed his hand in the hand his youngest son stretched out to him. They walked through the gate. Yoav took the key from him and locked the chain and put the key in his pocket.
“There isn’t really a bus to Mars at eight-oh-five every morning.”
“I knew that,” Paltiel said, squeezing Yoav’s hand tightly.
“Yeah, I know you did.” Yoav squeezed back. “I guess you just forgot.”
Haim Watzman’s Necessary Stories appear in The Times of Israel every four weeks. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and a collection of his stories, Necessary Stories. For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com. To receive an email notification each time a new story appears, sign up for the Necessary Stories mailing list.