Ben-Zion’s was an immediate decision. A woman was running toward him: should he shoot above her head, to warn, or shoot in the chest, to kill? Captain Shimshon Ben-Zion shot her in the torso. She continued to run, as Ben-Zion had used a small caliber pistol, and as she did, his men peeled back and away from her falling form, like a page quickly torn from a writing tablet. For in the last week, other units had been approached by hysterical Arab women, each of who on close approach either tossed a grenade in the middle of a Haganah unit, or simply held it in her hand after letting the pin fall, taking off her arm, stripping the life from her and a clump of Jewish soldiers around her.
So when Shimshon Ben-Zion shot the woman, he realized he was flipping the coin of life and death, for himself, for the woman, for his men. His unit had just cleared some Arab houses on the very outskirts of the village of Abu Salam. The operation went as planned, or went as it usually did, until a sniper began to fire upon them from some unseen high point. Ben-Zion and his men took cover in a ditch and behind a broad well, but the civilian Arabs whom they had just rounded up were left stranded in the broad space in front of their homes, between the Jews in the ditch and behind the well, and the sniper somewhere on a hill.
The sniping and the woman running at Ben-Zion might have been an unfortunate confluence or it may have been decisive coordination: Pin the men down, then send a woman into their midst with a grenade, either to blow them up or flush them out for the sniper.
The woman lay dead near Ben-Zion’s feet. The sniper continued his methodical work, hitting the lip of the well, showering Ben-Zion and his men with flecks of rock. Then mortars from the Haganah unit to their rear landed with dull, percussive thuds somewhere in the distance, and the sniper was silenced.
Ben-Zion carefully turned the woman over using the broad side of the well as a shield. She was unarmed.
When Corporal Zelig Mendelzohn spoke to Shimshon Ben-Zion, he often used Yiddish words and expressions to punctuate his Hebrew. Shimshon, a sabra, did not understand the language, but in context, he could always divine Zelig’s intent. Once in June they found a religious Jew sitting on a large stone on the road south of the Latrun Salient. The man’s hat was in shreds in his hands. He was bleeding profusely from a wound on the crown of his head. This was the first time Ben-Zion had heard Zelig Mendelzohn speak fluent Yiddish. As the medic dressed the Chasid’s wound, Zelig sang songs in Yiddish to him, and as the man slipped from consciousness, he said a blessing over the slumped Chasid in a Hebrew with a heavy Yiddish accent. Zelig’s tan sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and his forearms were covered with the Chasid’s blood, though Ben-Zion could still see the tattooed digits on Zelig’s wrist. Zelig appeared to relish speaking Yiddish, even to a wounded man who would die before he reached the aid station.
“It can’t be helped, gornisht, not at all,” he would say when someone died or was injured. “In war, a man is toygn oyn fayer, good for nothing. No more than a beast. Treyf, non-kosher meatâ€¦”
Now Zelig stood over the dead Arab woman, shot for no reason, killed because of a union of overlapping misapprehensions, and Ben-Zion could sense that he wanted to say his litany in that mélange of Hebrew and Yiddish, but something startling and formidable in Ben-Zions’ stance, a ragged fear, stopped up Zelig’s words. Captain Ben-Zion stood there, legs apart, his pistol still in his hand, low against his knee, dark with mud, and Zelig decided to comment on the general situation rather than the specific.
“Cleansing Abu Salam. Like cleaning out a nest of hornets.”
The unit guardedly approached Abu Salam from the south. A wadi to the east of the road had flooded from days of rain, so Ben-Zion and his men skirted around it on what appeared to be a goat trail. When they reached the outer edge of the village of Abu Salam, Ben-Zion realized his map was wrong. He halted the unit. A steady mist turned into a light rain, and that rain, in a few moments, changed to a deluge. Ben-Zion kneeled down to examine the map. Zelig held a swatch of waterproof tarp over his head so the map would not sluice away to pulp. Ben-Zion’s hands trembled vaguely. Quite suddenly he saw the woman’s face as she sprinted toward him. The expression he had interpreted as malevolence, as arcane rage, he now molded into brute, animal fear, simple and undistilled. Fear in the eyes. Fear in the twisted shape of the mouth. Shimshon could not feel his trigger finger, heavy and numb as if it had just emerged from a bucket of ice water.
Zelig, in the flicker of an instant, noted his Captain’s tremulous aura, the uncertain hands which gripped the map, wet even with the overhead tarp. Zelig said nothing; he leaned over the map until his head almost merged with Ben-Zion.
“What is it, Shimshon?” Zelig asked. The unit was informal regarding titles of rank.
“The map is wrong. Abu Salam is on a hill, ten meters high, not in a valley, ten meters deep.” Shimshon Ben-Zion pointed out through the curtain of rain. There, shimmering in the distance, above a line of low olive trees, was the smudge of Abu Salam, perched on the rump of a flat hill. A minaret, the sniper’s position, poked over the outcrop which was the village’s foundation stone.
“Shit. Idiots,” Zelig spat. “Gevalt, ten meters up hill in a battle in the rain is as high as Mount Ararat. Bullets will rain on us like brimstone.”
Ben-Zion stood up without comment. The rain beat a steady rhythm against his steel helmet. All around him he felt his men standing in the rain. Their will was strong in some parts of the collective fabric, but fragile in others. The tenuous exigencies of battle could wear a man as thin as an old garment. In the long, moist, shadow of the olive trees, Ben-Zion believed he saw a blurred and indistinct movement. Water dripped from punctures in his helmet and pooled in his eyes. He wiped them away ineffectually with a water logged sleeve.
“Kak, shit¦ now what, Shimshon?” Zelig leaned forward, whispering in Ben-Zion’s ear. The rain laid a percussive shroud over the land, muffling even riotous sound. “Cleanse Abu Salam in the rain? Up a hill? With a sniper up there¦ a clean shot till we reach the village gate” Zelig was about to say Arab women with grenades up their sleeves until he realized this was a possibility which did not actually occur, at least a few moments before. Here in Palestine, in 1947, his Captain had killed a woman for no reason.
“We move,” Ben-Zion ordered, despite the moving shapes in the rain, congealing beyond the border of the trees, breaking apart and reconfiguring in the littoral realm of his sight, where an olive branch was a woman’s face, wild with fear, sprinting toward him. “We move!” he called to his men, and the face fell from the force of his words, but not to the ground; it simply floated up the hill, back to its principality of shadow and mist. “Rain or no rain. Hill or no hill. An order is an order!”
Ezra Abravanel, a survivor from Salonika, a refugee smuggled into Palestine illegally from a DP camp in Romania in 1946, often sang songs in Ladino just before entering a hostile village. The melodies were a near likeness to Spanish, but with an inexplicable and mystical Jewish inflection, a strong whiff of exile and longing, which was apparent to Abravanel’s comrades even thought they did not know Ladino. But when they cleared the line of olive trees, and Abu Salam loomed over him, he fell into respectful silence. Micha Gonen, born in the moshav of Ramat Gan, smoked cigarette after cigarette, down to the butt, until his tongue was capable of tasting only the hollow flavor of tobacco. But when he broke through the tree line, he tamped out a precious cigarette in the crook of a tree limb, in deference to the unknown vulnerability before him, as nebulous and dusky as a shadow of a trance. Chaim Brenner, a student at the Hebrew University, fiddled with a locket of his sweetheart’s hair that he wore around his neck. But when the unit reached the open space between the trees and Abu Salam, he tucked it beneath his shirt, as if the simple piece of metal and hair, when pressed against his wet skin, was a talisman against death.
Shimshon Ben-Zion did nothing but allow his eyes to dance nimbly over the landscape before him: the arbor of grapes, long since harvested; a goat shed, the animals still inside, bleating half-heartedly, without specific conviction; the minaret above them, piercing the low gray sky, like a needle jutting out from the belly of the earth. And Zelig simply watched Ben-Zion watch the village, waiting for a wave of the hand, a twitch of his lips, the murmur of an order, some kind of prognostication of coming danger or relative security. But there was nothing from the man. To Zelig, it appeared that Ben-Zion was simply staring at the vapor ringing the crest of the hill, formed from the splatter of rain upon the dull coating of the earth.
In the narrow Jerusalem corridor, news of the Haganah’s approach had preceded the advance of the armed Jews. So the ascent up the hill to Abu Salam was without incident. Shimshon Ben-Zion organized his men to mount the slippery hill in two single file columns, one against a zigzagging stone wall, the other along an irrigation pipe. When they reached the gate of Abu Salam, Ben-Zion could not see a soul living or dead. A cow munched silently on some fodder in her manger. Chickens scurried past the men’s heavy boots. Ben-Zion sent some men to the mosque to secure it and its minaret, and ordered the rest to begin the task of breaking down doors, which splintered like rotting wood under the butts of their Czechoslovakian rifles. The men dragged out women and children of all ages. They screamed, wailed, lamented. Some fell to the ground and others tried to run. News of atrocities, whether real or conjured — neither side knew for sure — had spread panic like plague. The terror was difficult to contain. Ben-Zion barked out orders. Shots were fired into the air. His men ran down the women, herded the children, and made them all sit on the muddy lane, their hands on their heads. Ben-Zion called over Private Avram Mizrahi, a Yemeni Jew.
“Ask where the men are,” he ordered. “The militia. Ask where the shooter is. The sniper in the minaret.” Avram Mizrahi stepped forward and in rapid Arabic repeated the phrases. When he was done, there came back a hail of words, a chorus of entreaties, supplications, screams and cries. When Avram Mizrahi tried to speak to Ben-Zion, he could not be heard over the din. So he stepped back to a low wall with his commander.
“All gone, Shimshon. Fled. Fled this morning.”
`What about the sniper?”
“No, nothing,” Mizrahi answered. “To hear them speak, you would think this was one of the six cities of refuge.”
Ben-Zion scrutinized Abu Salam afresh. Once again, a steady rhythm of rain pounded the earth. The tempo matched the beat in Ben-Zion’s temple, which throbbed like an exposed wire. Zelig approached him, gray with dust, carrying a Syrian rifle.
“There is a cave on the other side of the hill, Shimson,” he held out the rifle, aiming the barrel at the ground. “Veynik, small, but the muzzle is still zudik, boiling hot. Feelâ€¦” Ben-Zion’s arm twitched, as if to feel the muzzle of the rifle, but his hand did not move. He blinked his eyes furiously. Against the backdrop of wails of women and children he saw a face again, this time detached from a body, except for a hand the shape of a talon, gripping a grenade the dimensions of a pineapple. When Ben-Zion squeezed the trigger of his pistol, the pineapple fell to the ground, and became an innocuous as a clod of mud. The vision was so powerful, so evocative of a real possibility, that Ben-Zion forgot that Zelig was speaking to him, awaiting instructions, and on not getting them, was laying out a plan for action.
“Sniper has either fled, Shimshon, or is a froy oder kind, a woman or childâ€¦”
“And so, Zelig?” Ben-Zion asked, knowing which direction Zelig’s suggestion leaned.
“A search. Strip if necessary. Before we move down out of Abu Salam, for zikherkeyt, safetyâ€¦”
As the words spilled out of Zelig’s mouth, dangling, unclaimed in the air, a figure ran toward them both. There was a rush of unknown energy, the gathering of scattered perceptions, a moment of decisiveness lost, and then another lost again. Zelig held up the old Syrian carbine and aimed, squaring his shoulder to shoot, but Shimshon shoved him aside, an act of redemption arriving belatedly, and Zelig’s bullet stuck the wet earth as the carbine exploded like an arch-angel’s trumpet. Screams tore the air, and then a sound which threw a black shroud over the world. Ben-Zion looked eye level at the ground, his head embedded in moist earth, the blast ringing in his ears, a redundant after shock. He sensed that the trickle of liquid pouring from his ears was warmer than the surrounding mud.
Ben-Zion sat up. He couldn’t hear a pin drop, but all around him he watched muted chaos. Woman and children ran pell-mell. His men, their mouths contorted by a spectrum of screams, were pointing their weapons at all corners of the compass. In front of him, Ben-Zion saw Avram the Yemeni clutching his head, soaked by a substance darker than blood. Now on his knees, he looked like a heathen giving anguished prayers to an idol of wood or stone.
Ben-Zion crawled forward. The Arab woman in front of him took shape as a man in women’s garments. The grenade he held had torn a divot in his innards. Ben-Zion then noticed a man to his left: Zelig the refugee, Zelig who had survived Dachau and the DP Camps and illegal immigration on a leaky ship amidst British patrols — his tattooed arm severed from his body. His lean face was bruised and ashen. Ben-Zion leaned over the man. Zelig mouthed some words, Yiddish or Hebrew or both, but Ben-Zion only saw the lips, cracked and dry, moving as if on an automated hinge. There was a pantomime of communication between Ben-Zion and Zelig, a passing of facial tics and exaggerated gestures, and then Zelig was dead.
A solider wrapped Ben-Zion’s head in make-shift bandages. His ears continued to bleed. He could hear, but only the whimper of a buzz. He spoke to Ezra Abravanel, and from the man’s actions, realized he had understood. The women and children were rounded up and herded toward the road to the north, toward the Arab villages not yet taken by the Haganah thirty kilometers away — in the driving rain, without shelter, food, or fresh water.
Ben-Zion sat on a stone and waited for the medics. Someone had thrown a tarp over Zelig, and Ezra the Yemeni lay on the ground wrapped in a carpet, unconscious and breathing with labored intensity.
Shimshon Ben-Zion watched a cow munch on her fodder, unperturbed at the sight of one people’s political birth and another’s expulsion and exile. Her lips moved rhythmically, but with enough deviation for Ben-Zion to provide her with words — Yiddish words, which Zelig often spoke after great horrors: gornishtâ€¦ not at all, toygn oyn fayer, good for nothing. Ben-Zion knew that Abu Salam, its buildings and vineyards, its fields and sheds, would either be kept for new immigrants, or if too close to the enemy line, destroyed so as not to fall into Arab hands. These would not be Ben-Zion’s decisions, so he tried to clear his mind of superfluous thoughts. But stray faces continued to impinge upon his line of sight: the Arab woman sprinting, Zelig’s gray head in the mud. A numbness settled over his body, as if he had slipped into a crack of the earth and been swallowed whole by its refining darkness.
Then movement caught the corner of his eye: an armored bulldozer pushed over the gate of Abu Salam. The smell of the great beast settled over the village: a concoction of grease and diesel fumes. Behind it, another Haganah unit mounted the hill and entered Abu Salam. The bulldozer turned to a house and toppled it like child’s blocks. So Abu Salam would go. In an hour, it would be a pile of rubble, yet another tel of debris in a land crowded with such ancient and modern heaps, of villages occupied, evacuated, shattered.
A medic stood in front of Shimshon Ben-Zion. He spoke rapidly, but all Ben-Zion heard was the droning of the buzz, the whisper of a hiss, with a Yiddish word here and there to punctuate this argot, like loan words in a strange dialect.
Then the medic touched Ben-Zion’s bandaged head. Shimshon, acting from surprise and impulse, from the blazing need to be untouched, pushed the man’s hand away.