A small nourishment against terror.
It’s a haunted country – everybody looking over their shoulder for phantoms. The phantom logic says nowhere is safe, but you can’t live like that, so each person invents a system to beat the odds. Tel Avivis don’t go up to Jerusalem, Jerusalemites don’t go downtown, and Tzippi, who lives in Efrat, a big settlement 20 minutes south of the capital on the bypass road that failed to keep the phantoms away, now does her Sabbath shopping where she lives.
Tzippi, a long-time American immigrant, is a compact mother of two, with glasses, a self-assured gait and two-thirds of a new baby under her skirt. The baby, too, is jumpy, clambering around all day, making Tzippi feel tired and happy. So even though she usually bakes, on this Friday morning in early spring she decides to buy her braided challahs.
All over Israel, there’s special bustle on Friday mornings as the citizenry prepares for “the weekend,” but in busy religious towns like Efrat it’s half party in the streets, half bedlam in the markets. In the bread section, Tzippi runs into a woman from her bodywork class who’s just returned from a family wedding in America. Shoppers going in and out to grab breads pass in waves around them as they chatter and gesticulate.
Suddenly some kind of electrical problem erupts over by the bread bins, a sputtering of circuits, wires popping and snapping, current going the wrong way. Great,
thinks Tzippi, something else to worry about.
In a normal time, the women would drift over to inform the manager or mosey together to the produce department to examine tomatoes while they talk. But already the manager is hustling over, preceded by his potbelly, agitated, calling “What’s going on here?
” As he marches past her, full panic stabs Tzippi, as if she’s haunted now for two.
“I’m going,” she tells her friend abruptly, drops her plastic bags of bakery goods on the floor and hurries, irked at the manager for not controlling his store better. Crackling of electricity follows her as she rushes outside and – Man, you are acting like a nut,
she tells herself – crouches behind wide cement blocks set on the sidewalk to keep cars off.
But as she scolds herself for freaking out, she hears gunshots and screams. Hunched down in the cool spring air, waiting for something she doesn’t want to name, she orders herself, Be calm one goddamn minute,
deciding – and then she sprints for her car, scrambles in, drives off fast to get home home home, the safest place, with the baby climbing around inside her as if it wants to come out her throat.
He wouldn’t even have been at the shopping center, but his partner in their software business, who every Friday morning escorted an elderly neighbor to do her marketing, asked him to fill in. Okay,
he said, brownie points,
and he kept up a conversation with her while he drove, a little wrinkled thing who inspected him with quick eyes like a marriage prospect and guessed his age exactly – 37 – but wouldn’t tell him hers. As he parked and reassured her that he’d be waiting outside when she was finished, he glimpsed Mahmoud on his way into the market.
Mahmoud was on the work crew for his half-done kitchen renovation. He’d kidded Mahmoud the day before that they looked alike – built small and slender, with dark eyes, though their mustaches didn’t match. But what was Mahmoud doing in town today, on Friday, Sabbath for Muslims, when it wasn’t a work day? Doubly odd, he was dressed in good clothes, a bright blue windbreaker, pressed slacks, even shiny new shoes – also worrisome, because he’d read the phantoms liked to wear new shoes, maybe to make a good impression on the virgins. The spring breeze was nippy, that could be why the windbreaker was zippered to Mahmoud’s neck.
Once you start being suspicious, he thought, details force themselves into a pattern, right or wrong. Still doubtful, he followed Mahmoud into the market, reaching the crowded area near the bread bins just as the sparking and spluttering brought the manager rushing over. Still speculating through his worry, he unstrapped his Beretta .40, watching as Mahmoud, turning around, started to unzipper his jacket, seeing the explosives belt, and he pulled the pistol out just as Mahmoud saw him, the Jew whose house he was building. For a half second their eyes locked, sharing an inarticulate, deep truth, while Mahmoud’s fingers fumbled, rushing for the detonator button.
He had to hurry – in that they had the same task. The first shot was to the head, to avoid the explosives. Mahmoud fell backward onto the stone floor, his fingers still twitching toward the detonator, women screaming now, “Shoot him! Kill him!”
and with a second shot above the vest, Mahmoud stopped moving, except for his blood pooling in slow circles underneath him.
People were shouting to him, but he was locked inside a much louder silence. Reminded by its weight, he slipped the pistol back into the holster and snapped the security strap over it. He must have walked out into the spring sunlight because he found himself sitting at a table in front of the cafe across from the market with people staring at him from a distance. He slipped his cell phone out of his pocket then and made three quick calls – his wife, to let her know; his partner, to tell him come get the old lady; his lawyer, to say, “I just shot a terrorist, the police will want to question me.” In this haunted country, he thought, he could end up in jail for killing the poor Arab.
All three of them came right away, and stayed with him, a human wall of people he trusted that kept him from trembling too badly through it all.
Three months later, the baby was born, a boy. The circumcision was particularly joyful, no one forgetting how close the phantoms had come to erasing mother and child. At the festive meal in their synagogue, Tzippi told the whole story in public for the first time.
Strange, she said, that she couldn’t remember the Arab, though he must have been standing near her when the devices in the bread bins misfired. Odd, too, that after she fled homeward and told the story again and again – to her husband, to her children, then on the phone to her parents and sisters in Jerusalem, to her best friend in Ashdod – she’d become suddenly aware, as if it were the most important thing, that she had no bread for Shabbat in the house and had gotten to work baking challahs and apple-carrot cake, enough for three meals.
And only after that had she found the hardened white gunk on the back of her skirt and sweater and felt the little burns like stings where the explosive had touched her ankles and shins, like she’d come home with souvenirs from a visit to Death. In the late afternoon, just before Shabbat, she heard a terrifying explosion, so loud that the baby – this
baby – had dived down and up inside her – the sappers blowing up Mahmoud’s belt in a field outside town, more than enough to have conflated into a tomb the stone shopping center’s two levels of stores and restaurants.
Though he was there at the brit,
she didn’t identify the man, the hero who had seen, suspected and followed Mahmoud. He didn’t want his name known, he’d told Tzippi, because Mahmoud’s friends might want revenge and there was no point in taking the risk. You do what makes you feel secure in this haunted country, you do what’s necessary and you try to stay safe.