On Sunday morning, just before dawn, Adira put on her knapsack with the food and water she packed the night before, and snuck out of her grandparents’ small house at the edge of Kibbutz Nir Am. Her grandparents let her wander where she wished inside the secure kibbutz. She calculated that she would be back before anyone knew she was gone. At eight years old, Adira was small, wiry and strong, with black curly hair, green eyes, and the deep, clear voice of an older teen , not a child. She was heading to Gaza, less than a mile away, through a breach in the security barrier her twelve year old brother, Moti, had told her about.
“I know a place,” he’d said, “where you can walk right through the security fence into Beit Hanoun. Nobody knows about it, but us.”
“I’m going there,” she told him, though she knew her brother didn’t believe her.
Adira lived with her parents, brother, and Aunt Sophie, in a development of low, white apartment buildings with red awnings on Barlev Street, Sderot, just up the road from Nir Am. She was born after the second intifada, when fifty Qassams fired from Gaza blasted Sderot on especially bad days. Now the rockets came only when tensions were high between Israel and Hamas. Last week, five Code Red alarms sounded, the staccato siren vibrating the wine glasses on the dining room table until they sang. A dull “whump” told Adira that a Qassam exploded on some unlucky street. When the female voice over the loudspeakers warned “tseva adom, tseva adom” – code red – Adira thought, please, Aunt Sophie, not again.
Since Aunt Sophie moved into Adira’s home three years ago, Adira escaped whenever she could, to the homes of her friends. An invisible brush of gloom and despair trailed Sophie. When she padded through the small apartment, the brightness from Adira’s lively family, paled. With the start of each red alert, Sophie commenced her ritual. She pressed her back against the wall of the hardened room, moaned and trembled, her hands shaking by her sides, face flushed and puffy, fear shimmering off her, until Adira’s mother yelled, “you must calm down, you must,” then held her tight until Sophie sank exhausted to the floor.
“Before you were born,” her mother told Adira, “your Aunt Sophie was inventive and beautiful, like a movie star, until the rockets ruined her. She says the sirens never stop screaming in her head. That’s why she has to live with us.”
At the week’s fifth Code Red, Adira watched the kaleidoscope spectacle of neighbors splaying in all directions, dashing for the nearest shelter. She refused. She walked alone into the middle of Barlev Street, looked to the sky, and shook her small fist at an arcing Qassam. She was still shaking her fist when her mother ran to her and grabbed her arm with more force than she had ever experienced.
“Do you want to join the dead?” she said.
Now Adira would stop her Aunt Sophie’s terror. She would find some Gazan children, and convince them to tell their parents to stop shooting rockets at Sderot.
The desert was still cool as a bloated red sun began its climb over the horizon. Adira crossed the security road and walked beside the border fence, following Moti’s instructions. She heard only the wind stirring grains of sand from the desert floor. A Bedouin man on a camel, surrounded by six bleating goats and two small boys, passed her on the other side of the border. They paid her no mind, and she was alone again. Adira paused to feel the solitude settle over her.
She had craved solitude since she was old enough to wander off on her own. Many a night after her parents and brother were asleep, Adira tiptoed outside to find a place away from the streetlights, so she could see the stars, bright and beckoning, as stars shine only in desert regions. She knew that she should be afraid, a child alone in the night. Fear never visited Adira, as it did sometimes to her brother, Moti, and always, Aunt Sophie. Her father told her he worried that she was born with the fear gene missing. She understood. Adira brought attention back to her journey. In the distance, three Nubian ibex, their curved horns framed by pointy ears, nibbled on a low bush. She startled a plump chupkar, a desert pheasant, that clucked excitedly as it scampered off. After a half hour, Adira saw the break in the fence, just as Moti had described it. She pushed her backpack through, wiggled after, and was in Gaza.
Adira was on a narrow dirt road, winding through arid farmland. As she walked toward a distant cluster of buildings at the edge of Beit Hanoun, a small gray car, moving quickly, approached and stopped three feet in front of her. Two men got out. The first man was six feet tall, and wide as an ox. Swirls of black chest hair stuck out of his unbuttoned shirt. Beneath a huge forehead, dark eyes, and pock-marked cheeks, an angry scowl twisted his mouth, as if years of scowling had chiseled it down to the bone. The second man was shorter, slenderer, with a kindly face. When he smiled at Adira, he reminded her of her Uncle Beni. The scowling man barked a few words in Arabic at her. She knew no Arabic, so shrugged her shoulders. He spoke again, a loud spit of words. The Uncle Beni man held out his palm toward him.
“Are you Israeli?” he asked her, in perfect Hebrew.
“My name is Adira,” she said. “I’ve come from Nir Am to speak to some Palestinian children.”
“Get into the back seat of the car,” he said.
With the harsh man driving, they headed toward the city. The men spoke animatedly, gesturing and interrupting each other. Adira gathered that the kindly man was Khalid, the other, Jabir. They drove through Beit Hanoun, past the mosque with its faded green and black minaret, over decrepit roads, until they were on the outskirts of the city opposite the side facing the border. At the end of an abandoned road, they arrived at a squat stone cabin alone in an expanse of sand, ringed by a few stubby trees. An outhouse sat on the left. Adira thought she saw the Mediterranean far off in the distance. Khalid led her inside.
The cabin was surprisingly cool. Adira noticed a musty scent, as from a den of rodents. When her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she saw that she was in a square room furnished with a sofa, a round wooden table and some chairs. A small, crooked window that let in little sunlight, was built into one wall. On the opposite wall, hung a long curved sword with an ornate handle covered with red, green, and white jewels, each a different shape, precious snowflakes in the desert hideaway. A short corridor led to a small kitchen to the right, and a windowless, unfurnished room on the left. Khalid brought Adira and an iron chair into the barren room, and motioned her to sit down.
“Stay here,” he said, “until we come for you.”
Sitting on the hard chair, jiggling her right knee up and down, Adira couldn’t understand why they were wasting time in the ugly little shack, when the men knew why she came across the border. She heard them talking, and wished she spoke Arabic.
Khalid let out a laugh that was half a roar.
“This girl will bring us our greatest victory, without a shot being fired, Jabir. For the soldier, Gilad Shalit, the Zionists released a thousand of our prisoners. For one of their daughters, they’ll give them all back. Barghouti will be returned.”
He waited for Jabir’s approval. Jabir stared at him, brooding and silent. When he finally spoke, he talked so softly that Khalid strained to hear.
“If we hold this child,” he said, “the Israelis will destroy our weapons without restraint. No one will speak for us while the girl’s picture is on every television network from Al Jazeera to Fox News. In a week, we’ll lose half our strength.”
“We should release her for free?” Khalid said.
Jabir continued as if Khalid had not spoken, moved close to him, almost touching. Jabir breathed quickly, his breathing louder than the words he voiced slowly.
“If we kill her, we tear the heart from the enemy. We’ll leave her body at the border where the IDF will find her. We’ll blame it on some splinter group.”
Khalid looked at the man who had been his comrade for twenty years, and wondered if he had gone mad. Jabir appeared consumed by some fevered ecstasy.
“If this girl dies,” he said at last, “the Israelis will unleash hell on us.”
Jabir grabbed Khalid’s shoulders and shook them playfully.
“Exactly, my friend. When Israel attacks, the United Nations will decry the cycle of violence and call for restraint. Our friends will cry `disproportion’ and `collective punishment.’ After all, the girl will be dead. No one can bring her back. When Israeli bombs martyr our civilians, the world will forget about the girl and condemn the Zionists as war criminals once again.”
He relaxed, and his scowl softened. “You see, Khalid, if we hold the girl, we’re ruined.
If we kill her, we rend the enemy’s soul, and gain advantage.”
He hustled past Khalid, to Adira, still sitting on the chair, and pulled a large black and white keffiyeh from his pocket, that he wrapped over her eyes.
“Stop it,” she said.
When she reached to pull the blindfold off, Jabir grabbed her wrists so hard that her bones hurt. He tied her hands tight behind the chair with hemp rope. Adira strained against the rope, testing if she might free herself if left alone again. Her hands may as well have been bound in cement.
“I’m just a little girl,” she said. No response.
“Mama, I’m sorry.”
Jabir returned to the main room, and yanked the jewel-handled sword from the wall. As he stepped with the sword toward his captive, he spied a movement. Khalid drew a black snub nosed revolver that he wore under his shirt, from its holster. He held it loosely by his side.
“We won’t murder a child,” he said.
“Khalid.” Jabir managed a hurt expression. “You would shoot me for a Zionist child? We’re at war. Sometimes children die. In ten years, this girl will be in the IDF, coming for our people.”
Jabir held the sword in front of him, ran his finger alongside the razor edge.
“She will feel just a pinch, then nothing.”
As he started again toward the small room, Khalid, finger on the trigger, pointed the gun at his chest.
“No,” he said.
The two men faced off in a tense ballet, each gauging the other’s will.
“You’re a fool, Khalid.” Jabir replaced the sword on the wall.
Khalid untied Adira, and led her out to the gray car. They drove back through Beit Hanoun to the spot in the security fence that Moti had declared top secret.
“Go back to Israel,” he said. “Your parents will be worried.”
Adira squeezed through the fence and walked toward Kibbutz Nir Am. An open-backed IDF truck with two male and one female soldier bounced toward her, a mirage that became real. The truck stopped and the woman jumped down.
“Are you Adira?”
“I went to talk to some Palestinian children,” she said, “but two men got me first. I think they were Hamas.”
The woman lifted Adira into the back of the truck and hopped in. She yelled to the driver, “we found the missing girl; we’re taking her to central Sderot police station.”
The three troopers talked and laughed nonstop, scanning the desert, their machine guns on their laps.
“I wouldn’t want to be you today,” the female soldier said.
“Don’t worry, young Sabra,” one of the men said. “Your parents will be too relieved to punish you.”
Surrounded by the young, confident soldiers, Adira lay down and slept. She was home.
In Gaza, Khalid walked toward his house at the edge of Beit Hanoun. His five year old daughter, Hafsa, ran to him as he neared the front door. She jumped into his arms. He lifted the giggling child over his head, kissed her on both cheeks.
“Sing to me, baba,” she said.
Kalid sat Hafsa down next to him on their living room couch. He smelled the spiced lamb his wife was preparing in the kitchen. He sang Hafsa an Arabic lullaby she’d loved since she was an infant. A child asks her father why the man in the moon forever smiles, while children cry.
Khalid sang softly, Hafsa resting her head against his chest, her eyes closed. Khalid imagined her, in a different world, meeting Adira for the first time at the playground. Hafsa would love her fierce ways. She would follow her like a duckling after its mother. He finished the lullaby. The man in the moon has his reasons, the child is told, and he will smile down upon you always. Khalid pictured the Israeli girl sitting next to Hafsa. They would pass for sisters, inseparable. What would he do, he wondered, if she came back.