Gadi realized that the boys were not behind him. The midmorning sun was now high enough that the shade was shrinking on the path in Nahal Kisalon. Gadi’s t-shirt was soaked behind, below his backpack, and a large wet stain was expanding from his chest downward. To endure the heat he had trudged along, allowing his mind to sink into that hypnotic state of half-dream that closed the world off from his mind, or his body from his mind. Now his sons were not in sight.
“Zevik! Tzvi!” he called out. Then he grumbled, annoyance overlaying the twinge in his stomach. It was their fault. If they’d gotten out earlier, at seven, as he’d told them they should, it wouldn’t be so hot and he wouldn’t have spaced out. But at seven Zevik was still stubborn and Tzvi pouty and they didn’t get out until nearly eight. He backtracked along the path, shouting “Zevik! Tzvi!” Two handholding twenty-something lovers approached and Gadi pulled up his mask, a salute they returned.
“Have you seen two boys?” he asked. They nodded, pointed in the direction from which they had come, and returned their attention to each other.
He shouldn’t have agreed to Tami’s suggestion that he take a day off work and spend it with the boys. He’d had to cancel all his patients and who knew whether the desperate and lonely grandmother Eva Czerny wouldn’t do something awful to herself and then he’d lose her as well as his boys. But then it hadn’t really been a suggestion. It had been an order to fulfill his part of the agreement so that she could get a day’s work done. No summer camps in pandemic times, and she was not about to let them wander the neighborhood alone or play on a swing set where a superspreader might be seesawing a preschooler.
“Zevik! Tzvi!” There was no answer. He quickened his pace, rounded a bend, and there they were. Tzvi, the younger one, who had just finished, if one could call it that, first grade, sat just off the path in a small patch of lavender-and-white Cretan germanders. Whether those crushed under his bottom or those being desperately shredded by his six-year-old fingers were suffering the worst fate was not at all clear. Tzvi was heaving soft sobs and muttering: “Give it to me, give it to me.” His brother Zevik, four years older, stood in the middle of the path intently applying his surgical mask to an object he held up at shoulder height.
Tzvi turned his tear-stained mask to Gadi. “Abba! Tell him to give me the turtle!” he wailed. “I saw it first!”
Zevik, oblivious to Gadi, shot a warning glance at Tzvi. “That’s not Abba. It’s Oroku Saki in disguise.”
Tzvi wailed louder. “You’re lying!” Then he looked doubtfully at his father. “Who’s Oroku Saki?”
“It’s Shredder’s original name.”
Tzvi screamed. “It’s Abba! Not Shredder!” He gave Gadi a frightened glance. “Isn’t it Abba?”
Gadi wiped the sweat from his forehead with his safari hat. “Zevik, what are you doing?”
“Look!” Zevik said, holding up the tortoise with satisfaction. “Leonardo!”
“Turtles don’t need masks. They don’t get corona,” Tzvi objected. “They aren’t people.”
“Guys, can we leave the turtle and just get moving? It’s getting hotter by the minute and we don’t want to miss this hike. There are lots of flowers to see and …” Gadi’s phone rang. He took it out of his pocket and looked at the screen. “Sorry guys, I need to take this, wait a minute.” He walked a few strides down the path, leaned against the far side of a carob tree, took a deep breath, and swiped.
“Is this Dr. Shabi?” Eva Czerny shouted in her scratchy hebephrenic contralto.
“Eva, is it an emergency?”
“You left me a message asking if I could come in tomorrow instead of today!” she shouted. “I don’t know who you are or what this is about. I am going to report you for harassing me.”
“Eva, I’m taking a day off with my boys. So if it’s not an emergency …”
“You probably think I’m crazy! A mental case!”
“Eva, we’ll talk tomorrow.”
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m on the roof. Maybe you’d like to offer some so-called professional advice about which side of the building to jump from. On the street side, or will that cause traffic to back up? Or into the garden, where I’ll smash the roses?”
Zevik’s voice came to him from behind. “Come on Tzvi, quick, this is our chance to hide from Oroku Saki!”
“He’s not Orokuku Sakik,” Tzvi pouted. “He’s Abba!”
“How do you know? And if it’s really Shredder in disguise? He’ll kidnap us and force Abba and Ema to pay him a lot of money and they’ll get really mad at us!”
“Eva, you’re not on the roof,” Gadi said into the phone.
Eva used her full vocabulary of expletives. Gadi held the phone away from his ear. “You’re a therapist and you’re going to let your patient kill herself? I’ll make sure they take away your license.”
“Good. Get working on that and we’ll talk about it tomorrow. I need to get back to my kids.” She cursed him in Hungarian and he hung up.
He turned around and all he saw was the masked turtle, immobile in the middle of the path. He took a step toward it.
“Zap him, Leonardo!” Zevik’s voice called out. “Zap Shredder!”
“Don’t!” Tzvi screamed. “It’s Abba!”
“I told you, he’s Oroku Saki in disguise!”
Tzvi broke into tears as the two of them emerged from behind a common oak. “That was before. Now it’s really Abba.”
Zevik looked his father up and down carefully. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Gadi had in the meantime picked up the turtle and removed the mask. “Turtles can’t wear masks. The poor thing won’t be able to breathe.”
“Sorry, Leonardo,” Zevik said to the turtle.
“Also, your Leonardo is a she,” Gadi said, turning the turtle over. “See, the bottom of its shell is straight? That means it’s a female. In males it’s slightly curved in.”
Tzvi peered at the turtle’s plastron closely, duly impressed by his father’s knowledge.
“Yeah, I know.” Zevik tried to grab the tortoise but Gadi held it out of reach. “Ofer, my Scout counselor, told us that the males’ shells curve inward to make it easier for them to climb on top of the females and mate.” He turned his face to his little brother while following the outline of Gadi’s abdomen with his left hand. “See, that’s why Abba and Ema haven’t had any more children. Abba can’t get on top.”
“Zevik!” Gadi barked. “That’s totally inappropriate!”
His phone rang. It was Tami. He put down the turtle so he could take the phone out of his pocket. “Hey. How’s work going? Yeah, we’re having a great time. We were just taking a rest and now we’re going to go on with the hike.” He held the phone out to the boys. “Say hello to Ema.”
“I don’t want to hike,” Tzvi wailed into the phone. “I want a popsicle!”
Zevik picked up the turtle and held it out to his brother. “Here, lick this.”
“Ichs!” Tzvi spat. “It’s got germs!”
“You said that turtles don’t get Corona.”
“Other kinds of germs!”
“Just wonderful,” Gadi said into the phone. “No, we won’t bring it home. I think we’ll be back sooner than planned. Right. Ice cream. After ice cream.”
“Ice cream!” the two boys shouted in unison, turning it into a chant. “Ice cream! Ice cream!”
“Ok, I get the message.” Gadi shook his head. “Anyway, it’s too hot to keep going. Let’s head back to the car.”
Gadi turned wistfully to gaze down the path at the hike he had planned to bond with his sons. The two lovers from before were approaching, on their way back. They saw him and pulled up their masks. He looked at his sons and motioned them to do the same, drawing a spare mask out of a pocket to give to Zevik in place of the one he’d attached to the tortoise. Tzvi held his arms out and Gadi picked him up and put him on his shoulders.
“Glad you found them!” laughed the girl.
“We found a turtle,” Zevik informed them, holding it up for their admiration.
Tzvi chortled from above: “We’re taking it home to Ema! His name is Leonardo.”
The boyfriend feigned a frown. “I don’t know. He doesn’t look like a mutant to me.”
“No, he’s a girl.” Zevik pointed at the turtle’s belly. “Do you know why male turtles have bottom shells that are curved in?”
Gadi interrupted him before he could enlighten the couple. “I think we should leave her here.”
“Why?” Tzvi complained. It sounded like he might be on the verge of another tantrum.
“She’ll be bored at your house,” the boyfriend suggested. “Here, in Nahal Kisalon, she’ll have lots of adventures.”
“Right, she’ll be bored at our house,” Zevik advised his brother. “Just like us.”
He placed the turtle on the ground. It remained tight in its shell.
“Let’s go,” Gadi said to his boys. “Ice cream!”
“Ice cream!” they shouted back. “Ice cream!” the lovers echoed.
A ways down the path they turned to look back at the turtle. Its head and legs slowly emerged from its shell. It looked this way and that, and lumbered slowly into the undergrowth, toward the stream bed below.
A few minutes later, just before the car came into sight, Tzvi said from above to his brother below: “I really liked this hike. Did you like this hike?”
Zevik flashed a smile upward, the first he had given Tzvi all day. “Yeah, I did. I really did.”
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.