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A Pigeon and a Boyby Meir Shalev
And suddenly," said the elderly American man in the white shirt, "suddenly, a pigeon flew overhead, above that hell."
Everyone fell silent. His unexpected Hebrew and the pigeon that had alighted from his mouth surprised all present, even those who could not understand what he was saying.
"A pigeon? What pigeon?"
The man—stout and suntanned as only Americans can be, with moccasins on his feet and a mane of white hair on his head—pointed to the turret of the monastery. Many years had passed, but there were a few things he still remembered about the terrible battle that had taken place here. "And forgetting them," he declared, "is something I'll never be able to do." Not only the fatigue and the horror, not only the victory—"A victory that took both sides by surprise," he noted—but also the minor details, the ones whose importance becomes apparent only later: for one, the stray bullets--or perhaps they were intentional—that struck the bell of the monastery on occasion—"Right here, this very bell"—and then the bell would ring sharply, an odd sound that sank, then abated, but continued to resound in the darkness for a long while.
"And the pigeon?"
"A strange sound. Sharp at first, and high-pitched, like even the bell was surprised; then it got weaker, in pain but not dead, until the next shot hit it. One of our wounded guys said, 'Bells are used to getting hit from the inside, not the outside.'"
He smiled to himself as though he had only just understood. His teeth were bared, and even those were terribly white, as only elderly American teeth can be.
"But what about the pigeon? What kind of a pigeon was it?"
"I'm ninety-nine percent sure it was a homing pigeon, a Palmach carrier pigeon. We'd been fighting all night, and in the morning, two or three hours after sunrise, we saw it suddenly lifting off."
This Hebrew he had unleashed, without prior warning, was good—in spite of his accent—but his use of the term homing pigeon in English sounded more pleasant and proper than its Hebrew equivalent, even if the bird in question did belong to the Palmach.
"How could you be sure?"
"A pigeon handler was assigned to us, a pigeon expert with a little dovecote—that's what it was called—on his back. Maybe he managed to dispatch the bird before he was killed, or maybe the dovecote busted and the bird flew away."
"He was killed? How?"
"How? There was no lack of how to get killed here—all you had to do was choose: by a bullet or shrapnel, in the head or the stomach or that major artery in your thigh. Sometimes it was right away and sometimes it was real slow, a few hours after you got hit."
His yellow eyes pierced me. "Amazing, isn't it?" he said, chuckling. "We went to battle with homing pigeons, like in ancient Greece."
And suddenly, above that hell, the fighters saw a pigeon. Born from bulbs of smoke, delivered from shrouds of dust, the pigeon rose, she soared. Above the grunts and the shouts, above the whisper of shrapnel in the chill of the air, above the invisible paths of bullets, above the exploding grenades and the barking rifles and the pounding cannons.
A plain-looking pigeon: bluish-gray with scarlet legs and two dark stripes like those of a prayer shawl adorning the wings. A pigeon like a thousand others, like any other pigeon. Only an expert's ears could pick up on the power of those beating wings, double that of normal pigeons; only an expert's eyes could discern the width and the depth of the bird's breast, or the beak that carries forth the slant of the forehead in a straight line, or the characteristic light-colored swelling where it meets the head. Only the heart of a pigeon fancier could grasp and contain the longing that has collected inside such a bird and determined its course and forged its strength. But already his eyes had grown dim, his ears had fallen deaf, his heart had emptied and was still. Only she remained—the pigeon—her yearning for home, his final wish.
Up. First and foremost, up. Above the blood, above the fire and the columns of smoke. Above the wounded, their flesh riddled, torn, burnt, silent. Above those whose bodies will remain intact but whose souls have been extinguished. Above those who have died and who, with the passing of many days, will die once again with the deaths of those who remembered them.
Up. Aloft and distant, to where the gunfire will become a faint ticking and the shouts will fall mute and the smell will dissipate and the smoke will clear, and the dead will appear one like the other as if cast from a single mold, and the living will take their leave of them, each man to his destiny, wondering what they did right to deserve to live, and what their comrades—lying now before them—did wrong that they deserved to die. And then a quick look to the sides, and homeward, in a straight line, as homing pigeons fly. Homeward, her heart fluttering but courageous, golden eyes frightened but fully open, missing no helpful topographical detail, a transparent, auxiliary set of eyelids pulled taut over them against blinding light and dust. Another thin stripe embellishes the short, curved tail, a hint at the bird's ancient Damascene pedigree. The small, rounded head, full of yearning and memories: the loft, the pigeonhole, the cooing of a mate, the warm scent of the nest and brooding. The hand of a young woman passing over the feeding trough, the tinkling of seeds in the young woman's box calls her, the woman's gaze scans the heavens awaiting her, and her words—"Come, come, come"—invite and comfort.
"Not only me. We all saw it," the elderly American said. "They must have, too, because all the weapons fell silent for a moment. Ours and theirs. Not a single gun fired, no grenades exploded, and all the mouths stopped shouting. It was so quiet that we heard the bird's wings beating the air. For a single moment every eye and every finger was following that bird as she did what we all wanted to do: make her way home."
By now he was quite agitated; he paced to and fro, his fingers plunged deep into the snowy-white thickness of his leonine hair. "After all, that's what she was: a homing pigeon. That's all she wants and all she knows. She took off, didn't make that big circle in the air you always read about in books, the one that homing pigeons make before they figure out the right direction to take. She just flew straight out of there, no delay, like an arrow shot in that direction—northwest, if I'm not mistaken; yes, according to the time of day and the sun, I'm correct. Right in that direction. You wouldn't believe how fast she disappeared."
A matter of seconds. With the greatest of longing and speed. She was there, then she faded. The hand that dispatched her fell to the ground; the gaze still followed her, the bell still resounded, refusing to die out, a few final notes spilling forth, gathering toward that distant sea of silence, while the blue-gray of the pigeon was swallowed into its twin on the horizon, and was gone. And below, the fingers returned to their triggers and the eyes to their scopes, and the gun barrels resumed their thunder and the mouths their groaning and gaping and gulping of air, their bellowing, their gasping of last breaths.
Now the man turned to his friends, reverted to American English, explaining and describing and pointing: "Over there somewhere, behind the pine trees," or "Right here." He told of an Iraqi armored vehicle equipped with a machine gun and a cannon that "was running around here like it owned the place." With the gestures of a generous host he motioned to "right there, that's where I lay with my gun, at the corner of the roof. But over on that building there was a sniper and he put a bullet in me."
With dexterity uncommon in a man his age, he bent over and rolled up his trousers, exposing two pale scars between his knee and ankle. "See? Right there. The little one's where the bullet went in, and the big one's where it came out. Our sapper carried me down on his back, went back up to take my place, and got hit by a mortar shell." He reverted to Hebrew, meant only for me. "A bigger and stronger guy even than me, poor sucker. Torn right in half, died in a split second."
He talked and recounted, freeing memories that had been imprisoned inside him for so long. He let them breathe a little air, stretch their bones, see the place where they were formed; he let them argue, compare: Which had changed? Which hadn't even been there in the first place? Which were worthy of being preserved, and which no longer?
"And the guy who brought the pigeons?" I asked, pursuing my own agenda. "The pigeon handler? You said he was killed. Did you see where exactly?"
Those eyes settled on me again, the yellow eyes of a lion. One large, tanned hand wrapped itself around my shoulders; another large, tanned hand rose in the air and pointed. Age spots on the back of it, its fingernails buffed, a silver sailor's watch beautifying its wrist, a white shirtsleeve pressed and rolled to the elbow. It was a hand easy to imagine clutching a rifle, patting the head of a grandchild, pounding on a table, knowing waists and thighs.
A good and pleasant vigor coursed through me suddenly, as if those were the eyes of a father gazing upon his son, as if this were the hand of a father slipping from head to shoulder—guiding, offering strength and support.
"Where? Show me exactly."
He tilted his aged head downward to mine, just as all the tall people in my life do when speaking to short ones. "There. Between the edge of the grass and the children on the swings. You see? There was a small stone shack there, no more than six or seven feet on either side, a kind of gardener's toolshed. We were all positioned in the courtyard and the rooms of the monastery while the guys who stayed on from the other company were holed up in that building, on the other side of this alley. The armored vehicle blasted anybody who so much as stuck his nose outside one of the buildings. But the pigeon handler—God knows why or how--made it out and got himself over there, which is where we found him when it was all over."
I couldn't stay there any longer. I shepherded them into Behemoth—that's the name my wife gave the huge Chevy Suburban she bought for me—and we departed for the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Now I felt the full force of my fatigue; a small group can be more demanding and bothersome than a whole busload of tourists. The day had risen on us in Tel Aviv, after which we'd continued to Kibbutz Hulda and the story of the convoy named for it, been detained for a light meal of sandwiches at the Harel observation point, and jounced about on the Burma Road on the way to Hamasrek and the stronghold at Sha'ar Hagai for more explanations and more lookouts.
From there I took them to the Palmach cemetery at Kiryat Anavim, then into Jerusalem, to the monastery and this surprise: that the eldest of the six Americans I was ferrying about and guiding--a senator, his aide, his adviser, and three businessmen, all of them guests of the Foreign Ministry—had once been a member of the Palmach and had fought in the battle that had taken place there, which I was attempting to describe for them. And from there to the even bigger surprise of the homing pigeon that had suddenly taken wing from the pigeonholes of his memory.
"Did you know him?" I asked.
"The pigeon handler you told us about earlier."
His face filled the rearview mirror of Behemoth. "Not really. He wasn't one of the fighting gang—he'd come to our brigade to set up an operational pigeon loft. They said he was a top-class professional, that he'd been handling pigeons since he was a boy."
His eyes did not let up their vigil; they continued to pin me down like the hooked spines of a caper bush. "I don't even remember his name anymore. A lot of other friends of mine were killed, and it's been so many years."
At the stoplight facing the German Colony cemetery I turned left. I took advantage of the crowds of people and the cars that slowed us to a crawl to spread my wares: the Rephaim and the Philistines, the British and the Germans. "Gentlemen, please note the verses from the Bible inscribed on the portals. And over there is the old Jerusalem train station. It's no longer in use, but when I was a child I would travel from here to Tel Aviv with my mother. In a steam engine, can you believe it?"
The train would rumble its way slowly, creaking along the metallic curves of the ravine. I remember the tiny, well-tended vegetable beds of the Arabs on the far side of the border, the soapy froth amassed by sewer water. The wind would set aloft bits of ash from the steam engine and you would brush them from your hair, happy: we were going home, to Tel Aviv...
I am revisited by the scent of bread, hard-boiled egg, and tomato, the provisions you always brought with us. My forehead would shudder—just as it is shuddering now, as I write these words—in anticipation of the egg you would rap on it, your favorite game. "Plaff!" you would shout, laughing. Each time I was taken by surprise; each time you laughed. And the rustling of your fingers in the wax paper as they pinched salt and sprinkled it. And that little song you would sing with a child's inflections: The engine's sounding, choo, choo, choo / Now take your seat, and that means you! And the smile that spread across your face the farther we got from Jerusalem, a smile of joy and contentment: home, to Tel Aviv.
Yes, of course they believe it. Why wouldn't they? The tour has been meticulously planned; the sandwiches, coffee, and juice have awaited them at the appointed hours and places, lending reliability and validity to the tour guide's memories and explanations. At the cafe of the Cinematheque, the reserved table appears as promised, as do the sunset and the view. That's Mount Zion, and over there is David's Tomb, if anyone's interested in those kinds of sites and stories; and down below, Sultan's Pool, and the ancient spigot "that waters the parched and weary."
From the Hardcover edition.
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