Winner of the Sonora Review Issue 77 Fiction Contest, selected by Rebecca Makkai
During Operation Peace for Galilee, when Ziv was thirty-two and serving in the paratroopers reserves unit, he was sent to take over a radio station in West Beirut. Ziv and his unit members, Nadav and Mazal, were among the many reinforcements called for combat duty via special immediate order. Their objective was to stop the subversive transmissions from 97.2 FM, an English language radio station in Lebanon. Most of the transmissions coming out of the station were stories for children, fairy tales that their commanders believed contained coded messages for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. They had expected a large-scale operation with high-tech broadcasting machinery, state-of-the-art technology, countless technicians, researchers and reporters, but to their surprise, they discovered that the radio station was operated by a single woman, who called herself Scheherazade.
The station was close to the Museum Alley Demarcation Line, a dangerous crossing point between East and West Beirut. As they passed the National Museum on Damascus Road, the four columns of its ochre facade riddled with bullet-holes, Ziv saw militia men, automatic weapons strapped across their chests, carrying what looked like priceless artefacts to an unmarked van – ancient painted pottery, alabaster burial urns, and a heavy stone bust of Anubis, the Egyptian god of death, mummification and the afterlife, with a golden jackal’s head. For a moment, Ziv was tempted to go inside the museum, but they weren’t here to see an exhibition, there was a war going on and they needed to get to their destination. The station was on the top floor of a run-down, three-story building, encircled with barbed wire. A massive signal antenna towered on the roof, like a lone steel Lebanese cedar tree in a forest of satellite dishes.
They found Scheherazade alone in the dimly lit broadcasting room of radio station 97.2 FM. She was sitting at a long desk outfitted with a turntable and reel-to-reel tape recorders, preparing for her broadcast, when Ziv and his men burst into the room. For a moment, her eyes were wide and terrified, but she recovered quickly. She was wearing a formal evening gown of black velvet, as if she were on her way to an elegant ball, a turquoise clutch bag hanging from her shoulder. Her long dark hair lush and thick as night. Face pale as wax, jaw clenched tight. She crossed her arms over her chest. Her wrists were slim, Ziv noticed, her long fingers like the ivory keys of a grand piano. The way she hugged herself, as if in protection, was the only indication she was nervous. Otherwise, she seemed utterly unaffected by their hostile takeover. She snapped open her clutch bag, and for a moment Ziv imagined her retrieving a sleek pistol and calmly shooting him between the eyes, but with a flick of her slender wrist she only took out a pack of Camel Lights and a gleaming silver Zippo.
“If you’re going to kill me,” Scheherazade said, in a lightly accented English, “you may as well do it now.” Her voice did not waver. It was resolute, resigned to a lifetime of instability and violence. She inhaled deeply, the cigarette burning amber, then let the smoke out slowly.
“We’re taking you prisoner,” Ziv replied in English. “No one’s going to die.”
She sat up very straight, looked at each of them in turn, then stamped out her cigarette against the table. She gathered her hair in a bundle and tied it up with a golden brooch shaped like a honeycomb. It was a habit of hers to tie her hair before every broadcast, she later told them. With her hair out of the way, Ziv found himself admiring her delicate collarbones, and the single beauty mark on her long neck.
“May I broadcast my show now?” she asked. “I was just about to begin.”
“Not tonight,” Ziv said. “We’re taking you off the air. We’re shutting the station down.” He grabbed the turntable, yanked the cord from its socket and smashed it against the wall. Then, he destroyed the recorder, too, pulling the seemingly endless reel, letting it spiral on the floor.
“That’s right,” Mazal said. “Veni, vidi, vici.”
“Very well,” Scheherazade said with a sigh, drumming on the table with her long fingers. Then she smiled shyly, and asked: “But can I tell you a story off-the-air?”
“Yalla, let her tell a story,” Mazal said. “It’s been years since I’ve heard a good bedtime story.”
Once upon a time, there were three little piglets, Scheherazade said, her sonorous voice soft and low, as if she’d smoked two packs of those same Camel Lights every day for the past ten years. The first pig was lazy and built a house out of straw. The second pig was not particularly industrious either, he built his house out of sticks. The third pig was a hard worker and built his house with bricks, even putting in the effort to add a chimney and fireplace. A wolf passed by, saw the straw house and smelled the succulent pig, licking his lips, thinking he would make a fine, mouth-watering meal. He knocked on the door. Little Pig! Little Pig! Let me in! But the little pig saw the wolf’s big paws and cried, No!
“I know this story,” Mazal said. “The wolf huffs and puffs and then the house comes down.”
“And the first pig,” Ziv said, “runs away to hide with the second pig.”
“And the second pig,” Nadav said, “runs away to hide with the third pig.”
“And the pigs end up eating the wolf,” Scheherazade said. “But this isn’t how this story will end.”
Ziv had a bad feeling about staying in the radio station. It wasn’t going to be a fairy tale with a happy ending or easy moral. “We should move on,” he said, speaking in Hebrew, so Scheherazade wouldn’t understand. “We can look for a different place to lay low. There are plenty of abandoned bombed-out buildings in this city. We can find somewhere else to spend the war.”
“Like a Club Med?” Mazal said.
“Anywhere but here,” Ziv said. “Come on, we’ve still got a few hours before it gets dark.”
“And become cannon fodder for RPG kids?” Nadav said.
On the first day of the war, they met the so-called RPG kids, named for their weapon of choice – the rocket propelled grenade. It was June 6th, 1982; their unit of ten had just entered Lebanon in an armored vehicle, along with the entire platoon. Tank after tank thundered forward, water-carrier trucks and gasoline trucks, an endless procession of steel-grey Centurions and beige Merkavot, in a hazy fog of bluish exhaust smoke. They went through southern Lebanese villages with stone houses and lemon trees, and Ziv felt strangely excited, as if he were going on an adventure, watching the blur of banana groves, sunflower fields and cypress trees swaying in the breeze, admiring the bright technicolor sky, and the distant sea, radiant and ablaze with light.
When their platoon of armored vehicles passed Rashidieh, a Palestinian refugee camp about five kilometers south of Tyre, they came upon a school building. The playground was a mess of broken earth. A large black raven was pecking at the overflowing trash bins in the yard. Suddenly, bullets whizzed past Ziv’s ears, shrieking like deranged mechanical hornets. All around him, men were crawling on the ground. Ziv crouched behind a thorn bush, lungs choked with dust. Nadav and Mazal took cover behind a mound of dirt. Between the foliage of silver birch trees surrounding the school building, he saw a child wearing a dirty, striped red and white T-shirt, aiming an RPG. The kid couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. Ziv froze, his finger on the trigger, he couldn’t bring himself to shoot. When some of the soldiers opened fire in the kid’s direction, he threw the RPG on the ground and ran away. He was too small to carry the heavy weapon. At that moment, Ziv decided that the best thing for him to do was to try to avoid the war at all costs.
They fought another battle in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, in the suburbs of Sidon, and lost more men. Air raids took down entire buildings, leaving behind only wreckage: twisted metal beams, broken white window-shutters, crumbling walls. When they got to El Mansourieh, many of the homes were abandoned, the streets were deathly still. Cherry trees with pink petal blossoms grew on the hills, their stone-fruit a rich, dark red. There was a tall, pale-brick building, a tower with a cross. Several young men with rifles strapped across their chests, members of the Christian Phalangist army, sauntered out of the church in a careless and arrogant kind of way. A woman in a torn floral dress was stumbling around in a daze, wailing. The Phalangists whistled at her, then laughed mercilessly. Ziv knew their fight wasn’t with the Phalangists – they were allies of Israel. At that point, he had no idea who they were fighting. Everyone was a potential enemy.
For weeks, their forces had West Beirut under siege. Frequently, the entire electrical grid would switch off, leaving the city under a blanket of night. Darkness so thick it was Biblical, a plague from the book of Exodus. Once in a while, the sky would light up with a white flare, illuminating for a moment everyone’s dirt-stained faces, the skyline of Beirut, fighter jets streaking through the air, followed by heavy bombardment. Bursts of fire, walls of flame licking the air, heat so terrible Ziv felt it gnawing at his skin, infiltrating to the marrow of his bones. The earth shook, the sky was filled with thick, acrid smoke and entire buildings collapsed in heaps of rubble.
When they invaded the city, it was complete chaos and anarchy. By then, their unit of ten had shrunk to three. Their armored vehicle rolled into a maze of small streets, smelling of cordite from artillery fire and the decaying stench of bodies rotting in the sun. Snipers from every window, checkpoints at every corner, each manned by a different militia. Stunned, dead-eyed civilians fleeing, clutching suitcases over their heads. Scrawny dogs scrambled over fallen rubbish bins, sniffing through the remains of a halal butcher’s shop, snarling and biting each other over entire roasted rotisserie chickens, grilled legs of lamb, tenderloin filets and ribeye steaks. Children dug through the rubble of a candy shop, pulling out swirly lollipops and colorful pastel candy-chain bracelets from a heap of broken glass, while an old man was tenderly wiping the dust off of his grey Peugeot, whistling the tune of Edith Piaf’s song about having no regrets.
That first day inside West Beirut, they had no clear objectives or directions from their commanding officers. Amid the devastation of flattened buildings, blackened by fire, Ziv saw a pretty young woman in a leopard-print dress watering her flower garden. Nadav was playing with a plastic toy ring hanging from a chain around his neck. He found it in a blown-up video arcade and amusement park. He wandered inside, lured by a pinball machine, its glass cabinet lit up with brilliant lights. He saw the best modern coin-operated arcade games: Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Battlezone, and Pac-Man, frozen in time, stuck in the maze forever, surrounded on all sides by colorful ghosts. Nadav found the toy ring in a yellow claw crane machine, its glass front smashed, all of the plush toy frogs and giraffes spilling out. When I get back home, Nadav said, I’m going to propose.
Ziv didn’t have much to look forward to back home. He didn’t have a girlfriend who was waiting for him. His father was dead, and had left him nothing but a worn copper field-compass, the North faded almost entirely. His mother was in a care facility, her brain foggy with early onset Alzheimer’s. Ziv worked in a kibbutz in the northern Golan Heights, picking pears and nectarines. It was steady work, but difficult, leaving him blistered, sun-burnt and worn out. On weekends, he went camping alone, pitched a tent on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. He liked the early mornings, the lake shrouded in mist. He would fish in the murky waters, snag several red-bellied tilapias, fry them on his grill until their bodies were charred, the pale flesh moist and ready to eat. If he died in Beirut, no one would notice.
Finally, the opportunity to avoid the war presented itself when they received an order over the communication device to take over a radio station in West Beirut. Noting the waypoint coordinates, they plotted the shortest route there. They didn’t want anyone to think they were cowards, so they would go on their mission and then hide away in the station until the war was over. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
But after meeting Scheherazade, Ziv changed his mind. They could go to an abandoned factory or mall, someplace their guys would never think to bomb. He was unnerved by Scheherazade’s calm stoicism, but he was also feeling protective of her. He thought of her slim wrists and delicate collarbones. She was so alone in the station, broadcasting her stories, while mortar shells fell from the sky, and Beirut went up in flames.
“We should leave her and keep going,” Ziv said.
Mazal insisted they stay. “Nobody will come looking for us here. It’s the perfect cover. We did our job and stopped her from broadcasting, now all we have to do is hang around until the war is over.”
“It could take years,” Ziv said.
“Let’s give it a week,” Mazal said.
“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” Nadav said.
Mazal got what he wanted, and they stayed in the radio station waiting for the war to end. He was the luckiest guy Ziv had ever met. That was how he got his nickname, Mazal, meaning luck. He could tell Mazal was lucky from the first moment they met in reserve duty. Mazal came in late to roll call, cocky and hungover, in a faded leather jacket, with three days of stubble and beautiful curly hair tumbling down to his shoulders. The commander recognized Mazal from a silent meditation retreat in Dharamshala they had both gone to in their early twenties, and he let him get away with it. Mazal hated that retreat. For two entire weeks, on a remote, snowy mountain peak in the Himalayas, he’d sat on a wooden mat in a tiny room and didn’t say a word. It was absolute torture for him, the most difficult period in his life, even more terrible than war. Eventually, he couldn’t take it anymore. He went to the head monk, a British yogi in orange robes who always looked clinically depressed, and told him he was leaving. The yogi held a finger to his lips. No talking, he mimed. Mazal smiled respectfully, told him where he could shove that finger, and left with a bounce in his step.
Ziv notified Scheherazade that he and his men would remain in the radio station for the foreseeable future. He made it clear to her that she wouldn’t be able to leave the premises without his permission. They led her through the station at gunpoint, and she gave them a short tour of the facilities, acting like a gracious host, forced to put on a smile and escort a pack of wild children trailing mud through her elegant foyer and ransacking her home. The only sign of her discomfort was a vein throbbing on her forehead, the slight tremor of her hands. She showed them the broadcasting room, toilets and shower, the well-stocked kitchen and supply closet. Down the hall, Scheherazade said, there’s the elevator. I warn you: its descent is quite slow, and it plays terrible muzak. It was a vintage metal-frame birdcage elevator with an interior of polished sandalwood and plush blue carpeting. Apparently, it took its sweet time descending to the basement, which Scheherazade affectionately called The Underworld.
They followed her into the common area, with its tattered green sofas and orange shag carpet. Some of the windows were shattered, the walls were damaged from stray bullets fired from outside. There were shelves crammed with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of LP records. Ziv spotted Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his favorite album. The Beatles were supposed to come perform in Israel, but they were denied entry to the country, because Golda Meir feared their music would corrupt the youth. Sgt Pepper’s was released fifteen years ago, when Ziv was in high school, he had just moved with his family to the Golan Heights after it was seized from Syria in the aftermath of the Six Day War. He didn’t make any friends at his new school, he spent all of his time drinking liquor stolen from his father’s cabinet, smoking cheap Noblesse, and listening to Sgt. Pepper’s. Those were his last months of freedom, before he was drafted for mandatory service.
That night, Scheherazade tied her hair up, and told them another story. Briefly, the shelling outside stopped, as if in suspense of her story. Ziv felt like he was a kid again, sitting in front of a kumsitz campfire with his friends, listening to a scary chisbat. Nadav was sitting eagerly on the edge of the sofa, nervously playing with his red beret. Even Mazal, who normally never stopped talking, was silent in anticipation. One of the overhead lights flickered and died, leaving only the illumination of a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Scheherazade’s face was cast in shadow. She looked at each of them in turn, and then she began to speak. Spellbound by her beautiful voice, Ziv felt the hairs on his arms stand on end, and his heart beat faster. For a moment, he was so captivated by her tender lips that he forgot that she was their prisoner.
Scheherazade told a story about an old fisherman who cast his net into the sea. One day, he pulled up a dead donkey. The next time he cast his net, he scooped up a pitcher full of dirt. On the third attempt, he found shards of pottery. Finally, on his fourth try, praying to Allah and casting his net he hauled a jar, emblazoned with a six-pointed star, the seal of Solomon. When he prized apart the lid, a jinni appeared, who promised to grant the fisherman a choice: he could pick the way he would die.
“How do you want to die?” Mazal asked, interrupting the story.
“I’d like to die on the toilet,” Nadav said.
“I want to die having sex,” Ziv said. He turned to Mazal, the lucky one. “You?”
“In my sleep,” Mazal said. “Think about it, man. If you die in your sleep, you don’t feel a thing.”
“No,” Nadav said, “it’s much better to die on the toilet. You’re already sitting down, it’s peaceful.”
Mazal and Nadav started arguing passionately about the best way to die, going back and forth with great speed like the racquet players on Tel Aviv’s Frishman beach. Mazal flicked away Nadav’s limp emotional points like a professional matkot player, hitting back with his expertly worded rubber ball of tightly controlled logic. With each serve, Mazal knocked down another one of Nadav’s verbal defenses, until a tense silence settled over the room.
“Well, that was fun,” Ziv said. “I’m going to bed.”
“I’ll take the sofa tonight,” Mazal said.
“Sweet dreams,” Nadav said. “May all your wishes come true.”
They set up a guard rotation to watch Scheherazade, who had left the room and made herself comfortable on a fold-out cot. When it was Ziv’s turn to watch her, he made a pot of black coffee to keep himself awake. She was sitting on her cot, wrapped tightly in a cocoon of bedsheets. At any moment, he expected her to shed her chrysalis and transform into a black and orange butterfly, wings like the stained-glass windows of the church in Nazareth he visited once as a kid on a school trip. They sat in silence for some time, and every once in a while, Ziv heard fighter jets fly by, one after the other, recognizing them by the sound their engines made. The whooshing Phantom, the screeching Ayit Sky Hawk, the sonic-boom thunderclap of the Mirage. He heard a mortar shell explode, tanks climbing over heaps of rubble, rapid gunfire in the distance like the drilling of an insistent woodpecker.
“Can’t sleep?” Ziv asked, adjusting the strap of his Galil rifle.
“No.” She shook her head. “Just like my sister. She can never fall asleep, either.”
He sipped his coffee. “Tell me about her.”
Her sister was the spelling-bee champion of Lebanon. She spent every day memorizing long, complicated English words. Her parents hired the best private English tutor in Beirut, who liked carrying an engraved whisky flask and a worn copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the breast-pocket of his green velvet waistcoat, a gentleman known as Shakespeare al-Lubnani. Her younger sister was the gifted one, a prodigy. The reason she could never fall sleep was her brain wouldn’t rest. Words drifted by every moment, letters arranging themselves in her mind in endless combinations, she recited them, again and again, walking down the long and winding corridors of the alphabet. Many geniuses, Scheherazade said, were somnambulists. ‘Somnambulism’ meant sleepwalking, she told him. It was one of the spelling-bee words that crowned her sister a champion of Lebanon. Another one was ‘chiaroscuro’, an artistic style with strong contrasts of light and shadow. Her favorite, ‘vivisepulture’, meant being buried alive.
“How about you quiz me?” Ziv asked.
“Okay,” she said, “spell kaleidoscope.”
“Is it ‘I-E’ or ‘E-I?’”
“That’s why you’re not the Lebanese spelling-bee champion.”
“I’m not a champion of anything.”
“Maybe you’re lucky. My sister is blessed with an incredible memory, that’s true, but it’s also a curse.”
Scheherazade told him how her sister could remember exactly what she had for breakfast last month on a given day. She knew the color of the bus-driver’s cap, who drove her to the bookshop at the city center on a Tuesday afternoon ten years ago. She remembered how many age rings looped around the severed tree trunk in their backyard. She could tell you the number of turquoise tiles lining the kitchen wall of her childhood home. She could recite the lyrics to all of Fairuz’s songs, memorize the order of a deck of cards in under a minute, and tell you the details of their father’s autopsy, including the type of bullet used to kill him and the diameter of the hole in his chest.
“How did he die?”
“It’s very easy to die in Beirut, don’t you think? He died six years ago now, a year after the Civil War started. Shot by a sniper when he was on his way to the pharmacy to buy my sister lemon flavored cough-drops.”
The coffee was cold in his cup, but Ziv sipped it anyway, just for something to do. “You live in the radio station?” he asked.
“Yes, this is my home. And you are the big, bad wolf, coming to blow it all down.”
Ziv grew up on stories of the big, bad wolf from Lebanon, sending rockets to their villages in the north. They kept rebuilding and rebuilding and now their homes were no longer made of straw, they were made of brick. They were defending themselves, pushing the PLO operatives back past the forty-kilometer line from the border, making sure they wouldn’t keep suffering attacks like the Coastal Road Massacre. At least that was what he was always told. Scheherazade must have grown up on different stories. He kept thinking of her father with a hole in his chest, and her sister reciting the information from the autopsy report, the width and depth of the bullet wound, over and over again, in a room full of turquoise tiles.
When Scheherazade fell asleep, wrapped up in her cocoon, Ziv went to check on Nadav and Mazal, both curled up on the two sofas in the common room. Nadav slept with his M16 in his hands, probably dreaming of his girlfriend. Mazal was sound asleep, his stolen Kalashnikov rifle, looted from the corpse of a Palestinian fighter, peeking from under the sofa cushion. Ziv could hear him snoring lightly, his breath coming in waves. Suddenly, gunfire erupted from outside, shattering the shelves. Ziv ducked for cover, as the stacks of LPs came raining down. Nadav rolled to the floor, clutching his M16, but his eyes were not on the window. He was staring at Mazal, who was lying very still, a bullet in his forehead. Blood dripped down the side of his face, staining the sofa, running down to the floor, pooling on the shag carpet. Ziv remained crouched, his heart pounding, waiting until he was sure it was safe again before going to Mazal’s side. At least you died in your sleep, Ziv thought, cradling his friend’s still warm head on his lap.
They needed to find someplace to store the body. They didn’t want to risk leaving the radio station, so they decided the best option was the basement. Ziv took Mazal’s Kalashnikov and slung it over his shoulder. He grabbed Mazal under his arms, the uniform soaked with blood, and Nadav took hold of his legs, and on the count of three they lifted him from the sofa, dragging the heavy body down the hallway. They put him in the birdcage elevator, and propped him up awkwardly in the corner, legs sprawled. They took the slowest elevator in the Middle East down to the Underworld, avoiding each other’s eyes, while some hidden electronic speaker emitted unnervingly soothing muzak.
When they finally reached the basement, a kind of storage room, they lay Mazal’s body down among cardboard boxes filled with old radio scripts, worn poetry books by Khalil Gibran, and a crumpled newspaper with militia commander Bachir Gemayel on the front cover. Nadav touched his right hand to his lips, then to Mazal’s forehead. Ziv took out his father’s worn compass, stroked the copper frame, then put it in Mazal’s rigid hands. Mazal might as well have the compass, it didn’t work anyway. The stubble of Mazal’s beard was light blonde and reddish. His curls tumbled down, excessively luscious for a man, let alone a dead man. His lips were parted, as if, even in death, he wanted the last word.
“Do you want to say anything?” Ziv said.
“If Mazal was alive,” Nadav said, “he wouldn’t be able to stop eulogizing himself.”
Ziv was waiting for Mazal’s death to affect him in some way, but mostly he felt numb. He stared at the peeling plaster wall, etched with drawings of fuzzy, black and yellow bumblebees. It was like discovering the old painted cave walls in France, with the buffalos, deer, and bears. The drawings on the radio station wall, however, were not ancient, they must have been done by Scheherazade in honor of her sister, the spelling bee champion of Lebanon.
After their improvised funeral ceremony for Mazal, they sat on the blood-stained sofa in the common area, exhausted and shaken. Slowly, the sun rose, bathing the room in a golden glow. Ziv closed his eyes, feeling the warmth on his face. He could hear Nadav quietly sobbing, so he kept his eyes shut, knowing that if he opened them, he might cry, too. A few hours later, Scheherazade walked into the room, her hair slightly disheveled from sleep. She didn’t seem surprised to see the blood on the sofa, or two soldiers instead of three. She stifled a yawn, and wordlessly, went to the kitchen to make coffee. She seemed completely at ease, while they were steadily losing control.
Ziv began to wonder if they were in fact her prisoners, and not the other way around. He didn’t want to admit it, and certainly not to Nadav, but he was afraid Nadav would actually die on the toilet seat. So now, whenever Nadav went to the bathroom, Ziv followed him. At first, he tried to do so discreetly. He would pretend to make himself something to eat in the kitchen, but after a while, he didn’t care anymore. Nadav had many things to look forward to when he returned home from the war, he just couldn’t die on the toilet seat.
When Ziv showered, he caught Scheherazade watching him. He was rubbing a bar of coarse soap on his body, thinking about dying during sex. He imagined Scheherazade coming to him in the night, slipping out of her dark velvet dress, tiptoeing naked to his fold-out cot, crawling under the blankets to keep him company. That wouldn’t be a bad way to go. For the time being, however, he would abstain. Once he left Lebanon, he would be free to have all the sex he wanted and to tell the tale afterwards. Scheherazade kept watching him shower, and he had nowhere to hide his arousal, so he shut off the water, even though his body was still covered in soap, wrapped himself in a pink towel printed with flowers, and grabbed his Galil. Scheherazade giggled when she saw him – how stupid he must have looked, walking around with a pink towel around his waist, rifle slung across his back.
If she wanted to look, let her look. He would make it easier for her. Ziv grabbed the sledgehammer from the supply closet and broke down the bathroom door, imagining he was Sylvester Stallone in Rocky III. He splintered the thin wood, and kicked it apart, until all that was left was a gaping hole. He broke down the walls, and they came tumbling down in a heap, just like the houses of the three little pigs, and all that was left was a pile of rubble. He ripped the teal-colored shower curtain from its hanging. The toilet seat was now in plain sight, between the broadcasting room and the kitchen, and the view to the shower was unobstructed. He was panting heavily, and his forehead was damp with sweat. He really needed to shower again. At least, now Ziv would be able to watch over Nadav, so he wouldn’t die on the toilet.
“Look at you, man,” Nadav said. “Whoever started the rumor that reservists are lazy was totally wrong. This station is starting to look just like the war outside.”
The night after Mazal died, Scheherazade tied her hair up. She wanted to tell another story. But Ziv interrupted her. There was no way he was going to let her tell another story which would endanger him or Nadav.
“You’re lucky you’re still alive,” he said.
“Doesn’t it make sense, though, that I tell another tale? That way, the new story will override the old one. I can tell a story with a happy ending if you like.”
“One about an archaeological expedition that crossed the Sahara to search for the City of Brass. Along the way, they met marionettes that danced by themselves, without strings.”
“That doesn’t sound like it has a happy ending. Tell me about yourself instead.”
“That’s not a story with a happy ending, either, but okay if you want, I’ll tell it.”
I was a lonely girl, Scheherezade told him, I didn’t have many friends at the Grand Lycee or in my neighborhood of Achrafieh. There was one place I loved. The National Museum. It was my refuge, my hiding spot. I wandered the marbled floors of the main gallery, visiting the exhibits as if they were my friends. The precious sarcophagus of Ahiram, engraved with winged sphinxes, was my favorite. I conversed with the mummified queens of Tyre and the statue of Aphrodite, confessing how much I hated my classmates, those rich and spoiled, superficial girls. My real friends were made of stone and marble, bones wrapped in gauze and faded robes of cotton. To me, this collection of ancient and dead things was more present and alive than anything.
Ziv didn’t want to tell her about the militia men looting the museum on his way to the radio station. He was wondering if the sarcophagus of Ahiram, Scheherazade’s favorite exhibit, was safe, when an explosion shook the building. Dust and debris, shattered glass all around. Ziv instinctively protected Scheherazade, covering her body with his own. Lying on top of her, he felt her soft silk dress against his cheek, smelled rosewater in her hair. He felt her rapid heartbeat against his own chest. He got up, shakily, and ran out of the room, but it was too late; he found Nadav slumped on the toilet seat, pants hugging his knees, head lolled to the side. Shrapnel had pierced his neck, and now poor Nadav, too, had gotten his wish.
Ziv lifted up Nadav’s pants to cover his skinny thighs and the dark hair around his genitals. He felt like a father dressing his son, teaching him to use the toilet for the first time. For a moment, struggling with the button, Ziv thought: Why does this matter? He’s dead, he won’t be needing pants, anymore. He took Nadav’s M16, then he knelt beside the body, trying to remove the toy-ring hanging on a chain from his neck, but it got caught in the buttons of his uniform. He tugged at it, forcefully, and the chain snapped. The ugly plastic ring was blood-stained. Ziv cleaned it with his sleeve. At least, it won’t be bloody when he gives it to Nadav’s girlfriend. For her birthday last year, Nadav took her to the guest house of a kibbutz in the Galilee for the weekend. They shared an enormous breakfast of fried omelets, yellow HaEmek cheese, warm pittas, and a finely chopped salad. They spent their evening on an outdoor swing, under a Syrian juniper, drinking cheap white wine, looking out at the fertile plains and rolling hills, when a hoopoe bird settled on a branch above them, spread its wings, and shook its crown feathers in a mating dance. Then, lying in the thick grass, naked in the cool night air, they made love in the dark.
Ziv managed to drag Nadav’s body from the bathroom all the way to the elevator. He rode down to the Underworld, laughing hideously at the terrible muzak, and at the thought that he had no one else in the entire world to share this bizarre nightmare with except for Scheherazade. He dumped Nadav’s body next to Mazal’s bloated corpse, gagging and coughing at the terrible stench in the storage room. If all of the ways they imagined dying came true, would he never have sex again?
“This is your fault,” Ziv said, when he emerged back up and saw Scheherazade smoking a cigarette in the hallway. He pushed her against the wall, trapping her between his arms. He was breathing heavily, shaking.
“I’m so sorry about your friends,” Scheherazade said, her face as indecipherable as a marble death mask. “Let me cook dinner for us.”
“How do I know you won’t poison me?”
“You’re being ridiculous. I’ll taste all the food before you eat it,” she said wearily, and stubbed out the cigarette on the wall.
She whisked a bag of bulgur wheat, lentils and three small onions from the supply cupboard. She boiled bulgur and cooked lentils, the steam rising from the pots, onions sizzling and caramelizing in the pan, the flames lighting up her face with an orange glow in the dark kitchen. She made mujadara, the poor man’s food in Lebanon. She served them each a portion, heaping mujadara into two bowls. Ziv watched her eat, spooning the bulgur gently, chewing without taking his eyes off of him for even a moment. She ate an entire bowl before he even touched it. It had been so long since he last had a warm meal, and it was so delicious, he could barely stop himself, he ate quickly, gratefully.
That night, Ziv placed his Galil, Mazal’s Kalashnikov and Nadav’s M16 under the sofa cushion. He watched Scheherazade sleep in her fold-out cot, listening to the rising and falling of her breath. In the morning, he woke up to the sound of running water. Scheherazade was showering, her back turned to him, water cascading off of the delicate wings of her shoulder-blades, trickling down her vertebrae. Her silk-spun, midnight hair fell past the curve of her hips, down to her pear-shaped buttocks. He shut his eyes, pretending to be asleep and waiting for the sound of the rushing water to cease, but it kept going and going. He felt a droplet on his face. When he opened his eyes, she stood over him, gloriously naked with the dark mound of her pubis, the triangle hills of her breasts.
“I’ll chop your head off,” Ziv said.
Scheherazade slunk away, hips swaying, and switched off the water. She squeezed the water out of her sopping wet hair, and gathered it up with her golden honeycomb brooch, but she didn’t put her clothes back on. She started walking around the radio station naked. Over the next few days, they developed a comfortable routine which revolved around mealtimes. He’d had girlfriends before, but he never got married and he assumed this was what married life was like, a kind of uneasy truce between enemy nations, a fragile ceasefire that required a constant redrawing of the battle lines. He felt trapped, but happy in his prison. He lost track of time. The dazzlingly long and uneventful days blended into each other, repetitive and monotonous, sitting on a blood-stained sofa, next to a naked woman, imagining the war outside.
One night, unable to sleep, Ziv noticed Scheherazade wasn’t in her fold-out cot. The common room was empty, and no one sat on the toilet seat or stood under the shower. For a moment, he wondered if she had escaped the station, but finally, he found her sitting in the broadcast room, on the floor, her hair tied up with her honeycomb brooch. He wondered what she was thinking, and if she missed her sister. He sat next to her, with his legs crossed. Neither of them said anything, and Ziv found himself once more thinking of the nearby National Museum, imagining its treasures, mosaics of lions and tigers, gilded figurines, and golden sarcophagi.
“Would you like to see the view from the rooftop?” Scheherazade said.
“Let’s take the stairs,” Ziv said. “The elevator is out-of-order.”
They stood on the roof, amidst dozens of dusty dish antennas, sprouting up like mushrooms after the rain. The station’s enormous steel Lebanese cedar tree stood tall and proud, a sentinel with forked branches of signal antennae overlooking the smoldering night sky, bursts of orange and yellow, rain of fire and white ash, choked with plumes of dark smoke. Ziv felt the heat on his face, his nostrils tingled with the acrid smell of burnt rubber. Watching the bombs falling on Beirut, the flames getting higher and higher, Ziv understood that he would never go back home. He would die here, in the radio station, while having sex with Scheherazade.
Ziv felt surprisingly calm and free of fear, as if he were reenacting a scene from a play he knew by heart. His hands were steady as he laid down his Galil assault rifle. He put Mazal’s Kalashnikov and Nadav’s M16 on the ground. He took off his heavy ephod combat vest, with twelve magazines, three hand-grenades, a First-Aid kit and binoculars. Then, he slipped off his uncomfortable red paratrooperboots and dark socks, and massaged his tired, dirty feet. He unbuttoned his uniform and pants, pulled off his T-shirt and underwear, and cast aside his silver dog tag. He left everything behind, until he was completely naked. He reached out to Scheherazade, caressed her hair and stroked her delicate collarbones, then he pulled her towards him, holding her in his arms.
“Can I tell you a story this time?” Ziv whispered in her ear.
“Very well,” Scheherazade said, half a smile on her lips, poised as ever. A cool breeze blew by, and she shivered, her slim arms covered in goosebumps. A strand of dark hair escaped her honeycomb brooch. She tucked it behind her ear. “Tell me a story off-the-air.”
Near where I grew up in the Golan Heights, Ziv said, there are hundreds of thousands of active landmines. The only inhabitants in these dangerous no-go zones are a rare breed of cunning wolves, so small they don’t weigh enough to trigger the explosives. They’ve made the dangerous landscape their home. They stalk the rancher’s cattle, drag their prey back to their lair, where the hunters cannot go. When I was a teenager, I was unhappy and liked to get drunk by myself and wander away from home in the dark. One night, I walked too far, it was pitch black, and without noticing I stumbled onto a field of landmines. Any false step and I would be blown away, reduced to nothing but dust. I waited and waited, paralyzed with fear, unable to sit down or even move my feet. Suddenly, I saw a pair of glimmering green eyes. A wolf appeared out of the darkness, and somehow, I knew that I needed to follow it. I walked slowly, a few paces behind the wolf. I stepped where it stepped, followed its exact movements, trusting it completely with my life, and it led me out of the field of landmines and back to my home.