‘Aethon Fires’

A new "Necessary Story" by Haim Watzman.

“Someone’s knocking,” Yoram shouts from the kitchen, with his usual knack for stating the obvious. I don’t move. On principle, I don’t respond to Yoram, who has been squatting in my kitchen and raiding my refrigerator since Dani moved out three weeks ago. “You need a man around the house,” he keeps telling me. His puffy fingers, fat cheeks, and wispy hair are not what I would look for in a man if I wanted one, in the house or anywhere else.

Anyway, right now he’s decked out as a Greek hoplite warrior. Crested helmet, shin guards, and a breastplate outlining abs that—if he has any—are buried deep under layers of flab.

It’s just after 3:30 on Friday afternoon, that hour when families come together at home, parents from work and shopping, boys and girls from play, soldiers from their bases or outposts. It’s a long vacation weekend—last night was Purim, the costume festival, which the whole of Shechaniya, our exurban outpost on the edge of the wilds of the Western Galilee, celebrated with the traditional annual masked ball. This year, the theme was “The Ancient World.” I wrapped myself in a sheet, penciled in my wrinkles, and called myself “Helen of Troy, 25 years later.” Yoram insisted on walking me home. He propped his shield and spear against the wall, and tried to pick me up and carry me into the bedroom, but his back nearly gave out. I pushed him away and told him firmly to go, but he wouldn’t. Eventually I gave in and allowed him to sleep on the couch, in full regalia.

Now there are egg stains on his armor. He’s slurping coffee, and digging into a plate holding a two-egg omelet with herbs and onion, mounds of white and cottage cheese, salty brown olive spread and pesto. The front page of the weekend newspaper is propped up against a basket full of rolls he found in the freezer and some pats of butter I’d saved from a café. Across the table, on the other side of the rolls, another breakfast plate, similarly laden, waits for me. I had spent the day demurring and making excuses, paralyzed with worry about Ami, trying to concentrate on the arrangements for dinner. Now, with the sun close to setting, Yoram has decided to go ahead and make us breakfast, whether I like it or not.

The newspaper rustles as he turns a page. “Your egg’s getting cold,” he announces loudly. I have my back to him. The kitchen is to one side of the front door. I am in the armchair in the cozy corner, as we call it, an alcove off the living room, just to the right of the front door. I prefer the armchair to the adjacent loveseat, or the couch with too many cushions, which sits at a right angle. I watch the fish in the aquarium. When he was small, it seemed like Ami spent hours watching the fish swim back and forth, back and forth, meandering endlessly through their small world, with its plastic mermaid, shipwreck, and sea monster. Just behind and to the right of the aquarium are the French windows, thrown open on this unseasonably warm March day. Through the windows and beyond the rose bushes bordering the patio, I can see the shoreline of Haifa bay, and then the great sea spreading westward until it disappears in mist. Closer by, I can see boys playing basketball on the court two streets below us. Cars bearing noisy children are returning from the beach, making their way slowly past waiting houses. Down at the entrance gate to our fenced community, a stranger walks heavily up the hill, pulling a shopping cart loaded with—what? discarded wine bottles and Coke cans? He’s just passed the guard booth, where a volunteer inspects vehicles driving in with a cursory glance. Homeless? Here, in our upper-middle-class commuter suburban pioneer settlement built to further Jewish habitation in the all-too-Arab Western Galilee? I dial Ami’s number again. Again, voice mail.

Another knock. I jump. “Someone’s knocking,” Yoram says.

I turn on the radio, tuned to the Voice of Music, the classical station. Knocking is what they do when they come to tell you that your son is dead. Shot in an ambush, blown up by a grenade, crushed under a tank in a pointless accident. They don’t ring the bell. However, this knock—crisp, rhythmic, almost playful—doesn’t sound like the somber knock of a sad-faced officer, trained in telling mothers that their world has come to an end. A piano and a voice singing in German come out of the radio. They stir a memory. Dani once brought home a cassette tape from reserve duty, said a buddy had given it to him. The buddy’s wife, I think he said, played the violin. A song by Schubert.

I stare at the fish in the aquarium, swimming back and forth, forever in sight. Ami has always been a wanderer. As a boy, he’d go off without a word and we wouldn’t know where he was. Half a day later we’d get a call from the mother of a friend asking when we wanted him home. When he entered his teens, a strange car would occasionally pull up and Ami would tumble out, scratched and sunburned from walking over the hills. A lot of the boys from Shechaniya—and some of the girls—liked to hike in the hills, but they would stick to the trails or avoid going too far afield. Ami, though, would walk and walk until he was lost. He’d emerge on a road at some point, flag down a car, and ask to be given a lift back home. Frantic, I would tell Dani that we had to put a stop to it. There are Arabs all around, he could get killed or worse. “The boy needs his freedom,” Dani would reply, laughing. I sometimes thought that we needed an aquarium for Ami too, where he could swim free but only we could see him. He has seemed more lost than ever since Dani left.

“For God’s sake,” Yoram calls out, his mouth full of bread and butter, “answer the door. Come have breakfast. Do something.”

Ami’s call woke me up at just after 6:30 this morning. He was coming home, he said, just then leaving the base. It was a surprise because yesterday, on Thursday, he’d phoned to say, in a voice full of desperation, that he wouldn’t be coming home for the weekend. Punishment for wandering off during a battalion exercise. But this morning, his commanders relented.

“You don’t sound very happy,” I murmured sleepily.

“Just tired,” he said. But he didn’t sound good at all. “I’ll be home around eleven.”

He hasn’t shown up yet. This isn’t unusual—sometimes, he suddenly decides to hike to some spring and spend the day there. Or hang out in Tel Aviv, where he had to switch buses. He’d forget to call to let me know, and I would spend the day having nightmares about him having been kidnapped or something I don’t even want to think about.

The doorknob creaks. I jump up and approach, just as it opens a crack. A voice calls out “Leah?” A buzz-cut head, glistening with sweat, peeks in. Then the whole body follows. New Balance shoes, black running shorts, a yellow singlet with a winged snake emblem emblazoned on the left. It’s Gil, Ami’s best friend, from down the street.

“Sorry,” he says. “I knocked twice, but no one answered. There were lights on, so I knew someone must be home.”

“Gil,” I say in relief. “Come on in. I’m sorry, I must have dozed off.”

“Maybe you’d like some breakfast?” Yoram calls out, his face still buried in the newspaper. “Leah’s not eating hers.”

Gil looks across, raises his eyebrows at me, and grins. Everyone in Shechaniya knows about Yoram’s clumsy efforts at courting me since I told Dani to pack his things and go. Yoram, Gil’s next-door neighbor, was one of the original group of young and idealistic settlers who’d built the first ring of houses on this hilltop. Most were couples; Yoram, though, was single, and has remained single ever since. There had been girlfriends in the early years, but the romances fizzled out almost as soon as they began. He immersed himself in his work, in software design; a series of office jobs at first, then freelancing at home, because no one wanted him on site anymore. He worked alone and lived alone. Because Dani felt sorry for him, he came over to us for dinner nearly every Friday night. We even included him on family outings sometimes. I’d always sensed that he had a crush on me. Dani dismissed this, but I was right: the day after Dani packed his stuff and left, Yoram showed up at the door with a bunch of roses, half-price. “You shouldn’t be alone,” he informed me, walking straight in, waving the flowers around like a fencer’s foil. I can’t deal with this now, I said to myself. But my first night alone had given me some insight into his thousands, and I didn’t want to hurt him. Body language, I thought; I did my best to signal that he wasn’t welcome just now. But he didn’t get it.

Gil pantomimes Yoram with his coffee cup and newspaper. “He has the husband role down perfect,” he whispers. “It’s like Dani never left.”

“If you’ve something to say, say it out loud,” Yoram calls out, pushing out his chair and lumbering over to the front door. He puts his left hand on his spear. “Didn’t your parents teach you manners?”

“Careful with the weapon.” Gil says sternly, wiping his forehead with his running shirt. He’s a sergeant in the Paratrooper Corps, went into the army a year before Ami, who ended up in the Givati infantry brigade.

Gil turns to me, hesitates for a moment. “Is Ami here?”

“No.” My gaze wanders to the window. The ragged man is wheeling his shopping cart up the hill. “He was supposed to get here this morning, but you know Ami …”

“Weird,” he says.

“I’ve been trying to call him but I just get his voice mail.”
“Me, too.”

“I’m going back to my breakfast,” Yoram cuts in. “I’m famished. Didn’t eat all day, waiting for Leah.” He shuffles back to the kitchen table.

“All these scenes of him being kidnapped by terrorists are running through my head,” I confess.

“There’s no need to worry about that,” Gil reassures me. “We rode the same bus this morning.”

“You mean he’s here?”

“I was on my way back from my base, down near Arad, and he came from his near Gaza. I sat next to him, and we both fell asleep pretty quickly. He shook me awake just before we reached the bus stop down on the main road. It was a little after ten. A car stopped but there was only room for one so he told me to go ahead. Around a quarter to eleven my sister Penina called out ‘Ami’s here,’ and he walked into my room. I think she wanted him to walk into her room. She’s got a real crush on him, but he hasn’t even noticed.”

“But where is he?”

“One of you really should have this breakfast,” Yoram announces. “It’s scrumptious.”

“But why didn’t he come home?”

“He said he was locked out. No one home, and he’d forgotten his key.”

“I was here all morning,” Yoram shouts at us.

“I was in and out,” I say. “But we never even lock the door during the day.”

“So he dumped his backpack in my room. I offered to make him coffee, and my Mom wanted to make him a sandwich, but he said, no, he’d just go for a walk because probably his Mom will be home in ten minutes and he’ll come back to get his bag then. He took his rifle and went out. I fell asleep, and when I woke up a couple hours later his pack was still there. Then I figured I’d go for a run. I got back just now, and the backpack was still there. So I thought, maybe he forgot about it, which would be typical, and I came over to remind him that he had left his stuff in my room. And you probably want to get his laundry done.”

I hear the rumble of a shopping cart.

“You said he took his rifle?” Yoram shouts, his eyes on the newspaper.

“Well, of course,” Gil says.

Yoram swivels round, right elbow on table, left arm propped up on the chair back, hand propping up chins. He seems meditative. “Maybe he went off to shoot himself.”

I scream.

Gil looks horrified, but quickly recovers.

“No way,” he laughs. “Ami?” But Gil’s voice is nervous.

“Well, I mean the kid’s father walked out on him, his home is broken, his Mom’s so frantic that she doesn’t eat right.” Yoram looks at Gil, then at me, then shrugs his shoulders and turns back to the newspaper. “Just trying to help,” he mutters.

I’m hitting redial. Gil puts a hand on my shoulder. Voice mail again.

“I’ll do another circle around the village,” he says. “I’m sure he’s around somewhere. Someone must have seen him.”

I’m frozen in place, speechless.

“Really, there’s nothing to worry about,” he promises me, and jogs off.

Slurps, crunches, rustles, all I can hear. Then a snap. A newspaper is spread open, crumbs shaken off, a soft feathery sound as it is folded into half, and then quarters. The abrasive grind of a chair pushed back against a tile floor, the grunt of a great weight hoisted onto untoned legs. The dull clunk of plastic armor. The clatter of dishes piled one atop of another, a clink and crash as a fork falls to the floor. The rattle of dishes transported to the sink, the jingle of the fork kicked along the floor. The cacophony of dishes dumped in the sink, a fart as a body bends down. Then, finally, the clatter of fork thrown on plates.

“You’ll do the dishes later?”

“Yes,” I whisper.

“I didn’t catch that.”

“Yes,” I say a little more loudly, but the effort makes me feel like I will faint. “I’ll do the dishes later.”

I sense Yoram coming up from behind me. I feel him looking at me with concern.

“You don’t look well,” he says. Still behind me, he puts a hand on my left shoulder and places his right palm on my hand, interlacing his fingers between mine.

“You should sit down.” He directs me softly toward my armchair, Ami’s armchair, as though we are partners in a stately court dance. And there is great tenderness in that movement. I can feel it. It’s a gentle love welling up from deep inside a man who has never found his place in the world, a man who must have been lost from the moment he was born. He sits me in the chair. He’s still behind me, but even if he were not my gaze is fixed on the fish in the aquarium and I would not have seen him. Despite the skewed and liquid reflection of a Greek foot soldier in the glass, a seaweed-covered toy shipwreck in the background. He hesitates.

“Maybe you want part of the newspaper? I’ll get the newspaper.” I hear him shuffle toward the kitchen. The fish swim back and forth in silence, suddenly turning to avoid the glass walls they cannot see. The paper rustles. There is a knock on the door. I put both hands to my mouth to keep from shrieking.

“I’ll get it.”

The door opens. There are voices. One is cracked, slurred. I can’t make out the words but somehow it calms me.

“Do we have any empty bottles or cans?” Yoram calls out.

I take a deep breath. “I put some out by the garbage this morning.”

“He already took those.”
“That’s all,” he says to the invisible man outside.

The door closes. Yoram comes and sits on the love seat next to me. He offers me a fan of newspaper sections. Front page, Weekend Review, Arts. I shake my head.

“I’ll just watch the fish for a while.”

“Poor guy. I guess that’s how he feeds himself. Collects bottles and cans.”

He unfolds a newspaper section, stares at me hard, then reads. A swordtail and a molly head from opposite sides, on collision course; but at the last moment, the molly swerves aside and dives toward the shipwreck.

A soft, sliding sound, a second’s pause, and a slide back. A tap. I glance at the window. Scratches as a black rod scrapes against the jamb. A figure in rags with raised arms, a head of powdery hair and an eye. An intense single eye, deep as the sea, aligns with the sights of a rifle.

I scream and throw myself over the arm of the chair and onto Yoram, his breastplate banging into my back. The rifle barrel angles up, then plummets as a torso in yellow descends from a corner of the window onto the shoulders behind the eye in the sights.

“You fucking idiot!” It’s Gil’s voice, shouting. A flash and an explosion. The aquarium quivers and crashes. A whoosh, then and a plunk, as a hole appears in the wall, near the corner, a meter wide of Yoram’s head. Fish viscera color the spilling water pink. There’s the sound of tussling below the window and Gil struggles to his feet with Ami in a headlock. The beggar’s head is enveloped in a cloud of talc, his t-shirt half ripped off. His chest has three cuts, from the rose thorns I guess, deep and parallel. The rifle, hanging from around his neck from its strap, thuds against his belly as he struggles. Then he catches my eye.

“Ami!” I call out. He goes limp. He begins to weep.

“Geez, Ami, what the fuck?” Gil says, his arms trembling.

“Mom!” Ami calls out. “Mom!”

I rise slowly and approach the window, stepping over gasping fish. I extend my right hand and touch his cheek.

“Mom!” Ami sobs. “Mom, I’m home.”

I glance back at Yoram. His newspaper has fallen to the floor and his gaze is fixed on the hole in the wall above his head.

“It’s Ami?” he says dully. “Oh, I forgot to tell you. He walked in late this morning. I said hello but then he went straight out, with his duffle bag and everything.”

Gil loosens his grip, steadies Ami on his feet, and carefully lifts the rifle up over his head. “Let’s go inside,” he says. The two disappear for a moment, and then enter through the front door. Gil guides Ami to the cozy corner and sits him down on the couch, taking a seat next to him.

“What a mess,” he says, looking around at the remains of the aquarium.

Yoram gets up and shuffles toward the kitchen. I look at Ami. He averts his gaze, then looks up at me and into my eyes. We stay that way, silently, as I hear clinking in the kitchen and water running. Yoram reappears with a large glass cookie jar filled with water, and a spoon. He kneels down, scoops up the flailing fish and plops them into the jar.

“Maybe we can save some.”

He places the jar on the coffee table, walks over to where his spear and shield lay in preparation for battle. He picks them up, placing the shield on his arm and holding the spear high and angled toward the ceiling, as if in salute.

“I guess I should be going,” he says. And the door closes behind him.

I get up and sit on Ami’s other side and take him in my arms. I feel his tears against my neck.

Do I hear a siren in the distance, a rising note that grows steadily stronger?

Gil shakes his head. “What are we going to do?”

I’m crying, too.

“We’ll just sit here a bit,” I say. “Then we’ll decide.”

Yoram’s head appears in the window.

“Sorry,” he says. “I forgot to ask. What time is dinner?”


For more information on Watzman’s books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com. Read Watzman’s story Saul at Ein Dor in the Times of Israel.

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