After 1 Samuel 28
The three faded bars on each shoulder mark the long-limbed figure’s rank, but even without them I would know that he is a company commander in the reserves. Dark of hair and olive-skinned, he has the hard, determined gaze of a man who commands others. His uniform is faded with the desert dust of summer; there is a small rip in his shirt, on the left side, several centimeters below his armpit, but the shirt is tucked in.
Holding his low-slung short M-16 to his waist, he stands aside as others board at the stop across from the Valley of the Cross, then steps through the bus’s back door, right where I am sitting. His grip on the pole in front of me steadies him as the bus lurches forward. Then he bows his head for a moment, revealing a purple kipah stained with grease. He takes a deep breath, then brings his wallet up to the sensor to scan his bus card. The light on the sensor flashes green, and the captain looks slowly around.
The seat across the aisle from me is empty; the window seat is occupied by a stout Arab grandmother, her head scarfed in a hijab. Her eyes are closed. The captain looks around and, after motioning to a mother with a stroller to sit down and being refused, he takes the seat himself, placing his rifle, still secured on his shoulder, on his lap at a slight diagonal, so as not to disturb the sleeping woman next to him. He draws his Samsung out of his pocket, glances at it briefly, and closes his eyes.
That a company commander back in the city on a day or two of leave would be exhausted is no surprise. But there’s a sinew or two refusing to obey his orders to be strong and ready for action. They suggests that despair lurks behind his resolve. For a moment, the officer and the grandmother sit side by side, eyes closed, each in a different world.
The woman stirs first. Her body quakes, as if she has seen a horror in her dream. She opens her eyes and looks around, barely turning her head. She sees the soldier next to her and shrinks toward the window. She takes out her phone and taps on it, as if sending a message to someone about what she has just seen.
Faintly, I hear three long notes emerging from the captain’s pocket. They are like a distant bugle call, but reedy in texture. They are followed by a mournful soprano voice sounding a descending triad, then returning to the top note for three slow beats. It is not the ringtone I would have expected from a soldier’s cell phone, but I know it well. “Requiem æternam dona eis,” she sings, “Rest eternal grant unto them,” the laying to rest at the end of the final movement of Verdi’s Requiem.
He wakes sharply and draws the phone swiftly out of his pocket, putting it to his ear and cupping his free hand over it. He speaks softly, in brief bullet-like phrases, his dark eyebrows down and his mouth a fine line as he listens. I cannot make out most of it, but it seems as if he is hearing a report that disturbs but does not surprise him. He issues orders. I make out a few phrases like “back soon,” and “needed a few hours,” and “get my head clear.” It is enough to enable me to realize I was mistaken. He has not just come home. He is on his way back to his unit after a brief visit to Jerusalem. Perhaps he went to pray at the Western Wall. His muscles tense as he listens, but then suddenly he shakes the phone two times, removes it from his ear, presses a button on the side a few times, and curses under his breath. He returns the useless phone to his pocket.
He stares straight ahead, his lips pursed, as if reviewing what he has just heard and steeling himself for what is to come. Then, suddenly, his shoulders sag, he chokes up, and a tear runs down the cheek I can see. He glances quickly at the woman next to him, and then grips the seat with his hands, straightening himself as if trying to man up. It doesn’t work.
The woman watches him carefully. She lifts a hand up, returns it to her lap. I see her body relax, to a point. She lifts her hand again, lightly touching her head scarf, as if to ensure that it is securely in place, and then produces a small white handkerchief from her sleeve. She lifts it to the captain’s face and wipes a tear away, then another.
More than a head higher than she, he looks quickly down at her face and then away. For a moment he seems to get hold of himself. He pats his chest and pulls a tiny book out of his shirt’s left pocket. His eyes cast down at the volume, he reads a psalm, his lips mouthing the words. But after a few verses he shakes his head violently, glares, and seems ready to cast the book aside. His arm tightens and he returns it to its place.
The woman extends her phone to him and points at the screen. He looks and slowly draws it from her hand, watching it intently. The blood drains from his face. He looks up from the screen, down into her eyes. She meets them with a fiery and questioning gaze. Nodding slowly, he hands the phone back to her.
I close my eyes to listen, in my mind, to the trumpets and the choir break the soprano’s reverie with an anguished fugue: “Libera me, Domine, de morte æterna, in die illa tremenda,” “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal on that fearful day.” Then the soprano returns, imploring “Libera me!” The choir thunders and echos, the orchestra sounds, and it all goes quiet, almost impossible to hear, as the soprano and the choir plead “Deliver me!” and pause, and “Deliver me!” again, and fade into silence.
When I look back at the pair across from me, the Arab woman is unwrapping a napkin from a pita filled with falafel and chopped salad and tahini. She holds it up hesitantly to the captain. He grimaces and shakes his head violently. She gently places a hand on his shoulder, and with the other offers the pita again.
He mouths a word of thanks and takes sustenance from her. He eats the falafel sandwich slowly, and with each swallow, I see, he grows more erect. When he finishes, he wipes his mouth with the napkin and she takes it from him. He is resolute once more, gazing before him, to what will be.
When we reach the stop across from Binyanei Ha’uma, the three of us wait for the rest of the passengers to file out. The captain takes up his weapon, stands aside, and gestures for the Arab woman to step out. She rises and faces him, looking straight into his eyes. It is not an evil gaze, nor a kind one. It conveys no anger, but neither does it offer comfort or absolution. She turns and steps out the door, turning to the right, walking to the next stop down to wait for another bus. The captain watches her carefully, then himself steps out and strides toward Jaffa Road and the Central Bus Station. I wait a moment, then follow them out of the bus, the cry from Verdi’s heart echoing in my head.
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. Read Watzman’s story “Aethon Fires” at the Tel Aviv Review of Books.