J. A. Bernstein
Private Rotem Katan had never fought a man with his fists before, but as he lay straddling Private Mikhail Koslovsky, he thought rather of the first time he made love. It wasn’t love really; it was more like a chore, something his girlfriend had cajoled him into doing while her parents were vacationing in Rome, as though, since they were away, they might as well have the foyer replastered. Rotem saw a sergeant peering in through the tent-flap. He glared at them, as if this kind of thing were expected in training, like some tribal cleansing or rite. Three other soldiers crouched beside a bedframe. All had just tried to separate them, and now the entire focus of the tent was concentrated in a network of rays, a complicated series of vectors extending out from the sergeant’s snarled lip, Rotem’s torn shirt, the hot flapping lid of the canvas tarp above, and the soft-muttered burst of rifle fire outside, compounded by the occasional bang of LAW shells.
Weeks later, when Rotem found himself assigned to base for an extra weekend, stuck doing guard, he phoned up his ex-girlfriend late one night.
“Missing you,” she said.
“Yeah, Chen, I’ll bet.”
As he hung up the phone, the sentry next to him, an American-born private named Scott, asked him, “Did the bitch give it up yet?”
“You know, that girl you’ve been dating.”
“Oh, you mean the one from high school. Yeah.”
“You know, you could always invite her to our base,” Scott said in his crude form of Hebrew. “Give her a tour of my bunk.”
Scott was actually perched several meters above him, peering down from a rusted steel booth. They were guarding the base’s weapons depot, which was surrounded by a high wire fence. Beyond lay the chipped gravel floor of the Negev, moricandia patches in bloom, and the jagged gray shapes of the mountains, which sliced towards the moon and the stars.
“You know, I had two girls once. In Amsterdam,” Scott continued. “It was on a stopover on my way home. And the Army fucking paid for it. You know that? They donated the flight—some American sponsors—and they gave me 400 sheks for my meals. So naturally, I invested in a threesome. That kept me full for a month. One of these chicks, I think she was black, or Moroccan . . . ”
The desert stars seemed comical to Rotem, like an infrared scope filled with bugs. He wondered where he’d be going soon, as soon their draft would depart, and if they’d head to Gaza, or Jenin, or Tulkarem. Two kids from his high school had died in Gaza. They were both Russians. An IED had melted their Puma, so they had to be ID’ed by their teeth. This is why the army took X-rays at induction.
Rotem felt his own jaw, where Mikhail hit it. He wondered if they’d be able to identify him, or what his mother would say when he was reported as still-MIA. What would Chen think?
“The fuck is that?” Scott said, interrupting himself.
“What?” Rotem was leaning against the chain-link fence, which was topped off with razor wire and glittered dull pink in the lights. Through it, he could see some faint figures drifting, like ghosts. They were about a thousand meters down. “Bedouin, I think.”
“The fuck are they doing here?”
“They’re probably scrounging around for shells.”
“You think I should take one out?”
“Yeah, aim for the little one,” said Rotem. “Wait—”
The night exploded. At first, Rotem thought he had been hit. The sound reverberated through the steel lookout above, powdering the top-layered sandbags and echoing rungs of the stairs.
“Holy fuck,” Rotem shouted. “What the hell did you do?”
“I gave them a warning,” said Scott.
The radio erupted, loud voices blared, and the base, which had been mainly silent until then, this being Friday, came alive with commotion, Jeeps howling, tents flapping, and soldiers streaming out to the blocks. The whole battalion had gone to war. Or so they’d thought.
Four months later, having finished his training, Rotem was serving at an infantry outpost near Bethlehem. It was a three-story, gated, brick compound that had once been an Arab hotel. When the uprising started, a couple years back, it was taken over and fitted with sandbags and wire. It wasn’t the worst place to serve, although the guarding was endless and cold.
One night, Rotem got the call. Or rather, his Platoon Leader did, and Rotem, being assigned to the base’s response team, followed him out to the Jeeps. Apparently a settler’s Ford Taurus had flipped somewhere along southern Route 60. Arabs had hit it with a rock, and the settler, going 100kph, had crashed.
The driver was fine, as were his wife and three kids, amazingly. The car was completely upside down, clicking, like some overturned crab. Beyond it, barbed goatgrass swayed in the wind. An ambulance wailed far beyond. Because Rotem’s team was first to arrive, they scoured the neighboring fields.
As they loped through the scrub, Rotem at point cradling his M203, his commander with the handheld behind him, all eying the shelves of torn limestone and sage and the copper-hued sphere of a moon, Rotem said, “stop.” He saw a young Arab running. At first, he thought it was a goat. The figure was about 300 meters down.
“Shoot him,” someone shouted.
“No, hold it,” said his commander.
Rotem’s heart raced. The rifle nearly bounced in his hands.
“Waqf, waqf,” his commander yelled in Arabic, bellowing “stop” at the child. They had all started sprinting at this point, except Rotem, who still clenched his sight on the kid. The kid turned around, and even from that far away, it was plain that he was crying. He was wearing a red Puma T-shirt, and his black jeans were torn. “Shu?” said the commander, approaching him. “What’s up?”
Rotem and the others caught up. About a thousand meters down lay the glittering lights of a village, between which some small figures skipped.
The commander spoke Arabic, asking the boy what he’d done.
“Wala shi, wala shi,” coughed the boy. “Nothing.”
They took him in for questioning, and the kid later talked. Rotem thought he should have gotten a medal, but the kid, he knew, was just twelve. Possibly younger. Enough to nearly take a life, though. And for that he belonged in a jail. Or at least its juvenile equivalent.
Rotem held no real disdain for the Arabs. He understood why they fought. He respected them for that, and sometimes, he himself wanted to throw stones at the settlers.
On the way back to base, Rotem rode with Mikhail, who, predictably enough, had been assigned to the same line battalion. They’d gotten along better since the fight.
“You ever wonder what we’re doing here?” said Mikhail.
Back at the base the next night, Rotem was guarding, holding down the 2 a.m. shift, when his phone started buzzing in his pack. It was illegal to talk while on-guard—and extremely dangerous when you were manning the base’s south gates, where commanders would regularly pass, even at 2 a.m. He answered.
“Roty, I want you to come home.” Chen.
“I think I’m pregnant with your baby.”
“I’m just kidding. I’m having a party tomorrow night.”
“How the hell am I supposed to get there?”
“I don’t know. Can’t you sneak out? If you love me, you’ll come.”
Then she hung up. He tried calling her back a few times. Her phone was turned off, though, of course.
The first time Rotem had slept with her—slept with any girl, in fact—he remembered feeling scared. He’d begun to suspect for at least a couple years that he was gay. Intimacy disturbed him. He had never been good at kissing. He rarely found himself getting an erection, even when drunk. Were these signs?
He paced on guard, rubbing the stubble of his cheek, feeling his jaw again, musing on the fact that he’d never once told the girl he loved her; he’d only twice nodded his head, after she’d said it, and perhaps she interpreted that as love. Probably, in fact. It was always something strange like that with girls. And the less you said, the better.
Tonight, though, as he leaned against the wall of a guardbox, whose oily brown window was cracked and scribbled with names from South Lebanon, Rotem desperately wished he could talk to her. Or any girl, in fact. Someone to help kill the pain. He had never done drugs before, but he thought he should start. Or he could try smoking opium, as his father had said he’d done while serving in the Beka’a.
“Hey, Scrotum”, shouted Scott, the American, who happened to be on guard across from him, about a hundred meters down, behind cement blocks. “I heard you almost shot an Arab last night.”
“Fuck you,” Rotem shouted.
“Well done. Next time, pull the trigger, mothafucka.”
Rotem fell asleep while standing, as soldiers on guard learn to do.
Twenty hours later, he was on again, this time responding to a call, along with the rest of his emergency response team. The crew, which consisted of him and three older guys, second-year sergeants who shunned him, and whom he was proud to be among, found themselves dispatched to a fairly remote region, about twenty clicks west of their base. It wasn’t even their territory, properly, since it was inside the line of Hebron. As they rattled out in a Jeep, Rotem in back, trying urgently to figure out the muffled dispatch of the radio, clawing the overhead bar, holding a round in his chamber and checking that the safety was locked, he heard his cellphone beep in his vest. It was her, of course. He didn’t answer. He just took out the phone and clicked OFF. He hated this person. He hated every woman. He hated people in fact, and his life.
“Where we headin’?” said a sergeant across from him. The team leader in front didn’t answer. He gripped the handset carefully. None of them had slept in two days. Finally, the leader answered, “Rocks thrown at a car. Same stupid shit.”
The sergeant across from him grinned. His name was Baz, and his father was actually a singer, a sort of has-been pop star in Israel. The men taunted him about it, predictably, but Baz never let on that it bothered him and, in fact, seemed to bask in the attention, since he was otherwise nameless on base. He had cut himself shaving, and his chin was stained red.
“Where are you going when you’re done?” Rotem asked him, referring to his upcoming discharge. Baz just tsked and looked off. He was probably afraid to jinx himself, since guys never spoke of it beforehand.
At that very second—it was actually a couple seconds later, during the awkward silence that ensued—the Jeep swerved dramatically. Rotem hit the floor. Two others did, as well, and a green ammo box fell onto him. His head slapped the bench, and his helmet loudly cushioned the blow. His body, however, was scrunched, and as he came to, he realized that the Jeep was leaning on its side.
“Son of a bitch,” said the driver.
Their Jeep had driven off the road and was turned over in a ditch. The men all climbed out of it slowly, propping themselves through the back and side doors. The raised front tire was spinning and sputtering smoke towards the sun. “Where the fuck are we?” said the leader.
“Not good,” said the driver.
“Don’t ask me your stupid fucking questions,” said Baz, turning to Rotem.
Rotem just glared at him weakly. He considered fighting the motherfucker, but his whole body hurt, especially his arm, which was scraped. He wondered if he had fractured any part of it.
“Everyone OK?” asked the leader.
The driver was limping out. “The axle’s fucked up. I think we’ll need to get a tow out.”
“Oh, shit,” Baz said, turning to the olive field behind them. Beyond some knotted trunks, a small pack of children emerged beside a fieldstone wall. They were shouting and picking up rocks.
“Watch them,” said the leader. He cocked his gun, re-gripped his handheld, explained the situation to the base, and told the three men to follow him. They crossed to the other side of the highway, which was utterly vacant (a curfew was in force), and he told them to kneel on the embankment. “Keep an eye behind us,” he told Rotem and the driver. “We’ll form a four-man lookout from here. We’ll try not to move until the backup arrives. You wait for my signal before firing. And only in an emergency. From the looks of it, these are just kids.”
Just kids, Rotem thought. They’re motherfucking killers. Wild animals with claws.
Rotem knelt with the others on the gravel, feeling its rocks pierce his hand. He coughed and thought about lighting a cigarette. He wanted one desperately, even though he’d never smoked.
The children coalesced to the south. One shouted “your mother’s cunt” in Arabic.
“Keep them at bay,” said the leader to Baz. “Fire a warning shot if you have to.”
Rocks started pelting the road. One of them clunked Rotem’s shoulderblade. Another hit Baz in the arm. “Fuck.”
Then a gun banged. It was the driver, who wasn’t even supposed to be facing in that direction and was actually a jobnik by trade—although he was probably more used to these encounters. He was also two months from being done. The shot softly buried in the earth. Smoke wisped up from the hay-covered mounds of dry soil. The kids ran away.
For ten minutes, they sat like this, sweating, hearing the commotion, and fretting over the lack of the dispatch’s response. Soon, more kids began flitting through the fields, fearless as always, crouching and flinging their rocks, taking cover behind the gnarled trees.
“When the fuck will they be here?” said Baz.
“Don’t know,” said the leader. “Keep them all in range.”
What did he mean by that, Rotem wondered. He had never fired his gun before, and up until now, he had been rather anxious to do it, in spite of the incident with Scott. Now, however, when faced with the possibility of shooting, he found himself strangely paralyzed. He could barely grip his gun.
“Rotem,” said the leader, still crouching, “I want you to run over to the Jeep and take out five or six tear gas. Go fast.”
Hundreds had gathered in the fields beyond them, bounding along the tiered groves. Above them, garbage was burning on a bare, rocky, hillside; further west, along a dark incline, sprawled the poured cement homes and spired mosques. Within them, a loudspeaker was blaring, probably egging kids on.
Somehow, Rotem summoned the strength to move. As he ran from the bank and down to the ditch with their truck, he remembered that two men had gotten killed not far from here a couple years back. An Arab had walked up to the Tunnel Road Checkpoint, removed a small carpet from his back, and pulled out a Kalashnikov. He shot out the neck of the front man, gunned down another, and drove off in a getaway car, never to be heard from again. There were stories like that in each town.
As he heaved himself up and climbed along the Jeep’s moldered seat, Rotem considered the possibility that the truck would explode. This scared him more. A transmission hose was leaking, and the engine block ticked. The whole chassis was exposed beneath him, like some ruptured gut. “Fuck,” he said, climbing. He heard another gunshot ring out behind him, which echoed the Jeep’s steel walls. He located the fat orange box, unclasped it, and tried to remove the wax-papered rounds. One of them clunked on the floor, which was actually the cabin’s side wall. He stuck the other six tubes in his vest. Then he lowered himself from the hatch, past the massive coils of the engine and grate, and sprinted away on the dirt, towards their encampment. The leader, he saw, had been covering him the whole time, peering through his Trijicon.
“You see that group over there?” the leader said, as Rotem slid down, wet and panting.
“Yeah.” About fifty meters down, a small pack was perched behind an olive trunk. Maybe six or seven arms. Children or adults, he didn’t know.
Another rock smacked his left thigh.
“If you can get an angle on them, give them some gas,” said the leader.
“Son of a bitch,” said the driver. “We should just take them out.”
“No,” said the leader. “Fuck you, and listen. Not unless it’s life-threatening. We’ll get disciplined for it. You want to stick around till July?”
“But I’m getting fucking hit.”
“Just keep your helmet on.” The leader, who was also part-Iraqi, turned to Rotem, as if seeking his approval or accord.
Rotem still studied the tree, its black, mottled bark, and the tiny heads peering beside it. He thought about Chen, how she was undoubtedly calling about the party; or maybe she just wanted to report to him that she had found someone else. That was fine by him anyways. And he wished she could see him here now, all sweating and covered with soot. In the heat of the action, he thought. Still, he hoped he wouldn’t die. This didn’t seem like it could get to that. But he remembered the two soldiers who had gotten lost near Ramallah. Mobs dragged them out from their Jeep and tore their whole bodies to shreds. Rotem felt his jaw again, clutching it. Then he steadied the dot in his reticle.
“Come on, motherfucker, look out. Show your head to me,” he whispered.
Their elbows projected like tiny yellow stumps. It was actually close to forty meters, judging by the lines in his Reflex.
Another rock crashed on his arm, disrupting his focus. He quickly re-sighted. Fuck. That rock really stung. He wondered if they’d start throwing bombs.
Just then an Arab darted out and right towards him. He was hollering loudly in Arabic. Occupier, your sister’s cunt, something like that. His mustache was twitching, and his Adidas cap was swung backwards. Rotem’s heart pounced. Should I shoot him? he wondered. Then he realized he was supposed to switch to gas.
“Give it to him,” said the leader.
Rotem cocked the grenade back, raised the leaf sight, and aimed at the Arab, who was contoured brightly by the sun. The explosion ripped out through the barrel. The grenade gave a poof as it whirred, and about thirty meters down, he saw it take the man’s head off.
Rotem felt his veins surge.
“Fuck,” said the driver.
The man was still standing, but his head was laying at his side. It rolled along a mudbank and stopped. Then the man’s body fell.
Guns popped off around him. Soon the fire was general. “Stop, stop, stop,” yelled the leader. The men ceased their fire. By this point, all the other Arabs had run away, racing through the field, diving over stone walls. The man’s headless body lay sideways, curled into a fetal position, as the ruptured neck spurted red streams.
Rotem nearly wept. His arms shook. His head burned. He studied the men at his side. They all looked at him fiercely, most of all the leader. None of them spoke though, until finally Baz said, “Well, that oughtta keep them at bay.”
Rotem said nothing. He gripped his gun silently and cried—not externally, but in some deeper place in his chest. He felt his heart welter inside of him. Soon, he had to piss, and his cellphone was beeping again. He thought he’d turned it off.
On the way back to base, in a well-armored Humvee, Rotem rode silently in back, face-to-face with Baz. Baz wouldn’t look at him. Rotem felt fearless and also strangely scared. He turned his phone off.
Back at the base, Scott didn’t even congratulate him. He said Rotem might have to face trial.
“The Captain said the shot was fired too close. It’ll probably be the leader who’s in trouble. But you could be as well.”
“Well fuck that,” said Rotem.
He quivered for a second. Then he set his gun down on his bunk. The barrel was still steaming, but he realized that was the sun streaming in through the sandbagged window above. Other men rose on their beds.
“So you’re the killer,” said someone.
“Fuck you,” said Rotem.
Soon the Company Sergeant called him out to the hall and said it was his turn to go clean the floors. He was joined by three others, men he barely knew, who didn’t speak to him during it. He wondered if they were afraid.
As he sized himself up in the mirror of the bathroom downstairs, he could hear the thwacking of ping-pong balls in the yard. He leaned his mop against the sink, while the other men smoked by the windows behind him, blowing smoke between the bags.