On Ben Yehuda Street – Published in Arc 25

On Ben Yehuda Street

At 3:45 in the morning, I awake from a bad dream.

“The same dream?”

My husband’s voice is soft in the darkness. He takes my scarred hand in his and brings it to his face. I move closer, the curve of his body molding comfortably against mine. This is how I remind myself that I am not alone. The silence between us grows warmer with each moment and soon turns to whispers.

I drift back to sleep. Later that night, I am again in my dream and again awakened by the explosion. Always the same noise echoing like thunder—it smells like smoke and ruin.

A few weeks ago I stepped into a world where time was stopped, and joy ceased to exist. I want to get away from it so I pace the length and width of the rooms in our house. I can’t. That which destroys and consumes won’t let me.

***

Survivors and witnesses would recall the perfection of that early summer evening, a time to unwind over a cappuccino and pastry, to take stock of one’s surroundings.

The fact that it was also a Saturday night only served to heighten the restful atmosphere because Saturday nights in Jerusalem are times of reawakening and gentle rousing. Lights aglow, the city murmurs with activity. Shops reopen; people traverse the sidewalks at a slow pace. Traffic comes to a standstill and the blare of car horns are some kind of reminder of our great revolt in Masada against the Romans.

Seated at an outdoor café, I glanced at my watch. Seven-thirty. My husband was late. I tried his cell, but knowing he was in the habit of listening to loud music while driving, I decided to settle back and enjoy watching the pedestrians.

People streamed up and down the sidewalk. A group of young men in army uniforms congregated in front of the ice cream store, laughing and slapping on each other’s shoulders. Someone had started to play the bongo. Strains of a violin added themselves and then the gentle wail of an old woman singing a sad Russian melody mingled.

I checked my watch again.

A beggar paused at my table with his hand extended. Gaunt, haggard, and hollow-eyed, his cheeks covered with a scraggly beard, he resembled the Moses from the Bible of my childhood. I smiled at him and dropped a few bills into the tin can he held in front.

Just then a slight young man walked up the street towards me. He wore a black trench coat that I thought was too warm for a summer evening. The brim of his cap rested low as he glanced up and down the block. His gaze met mine. It lasted just an instant, but it sent a jolt of dread through me. I looked him over for another moment before glancing at my watch, then returned to my coffee. Sometimes I worry about nothing.

But sometime later, as the blond, curly-haired waiter served me yet another coffee, a paroxysmal roar intruded on the early evening. The sky erupted into the chaos of a red-and-orange fireball. Windows shattered by the shock waves pouring through the air.

A gust of warm debris filled the air, racing toward me. Screaming, I dove under the table. Dust shrouded me like a black vapor. My hands oozed with blood.

When all quieted, I rose and staggered through the lingering smoke. Only in nightmares were feet so heavy.

The balcony over a toy store lay smashed in the street. The force of the blast had destroyed the facades of several stores. Cars smoldered. Glass shards peppered the street. Charred papers and other debris fluttered in the air.

            Dust-covered civilians staggered down the torn sidewalk with shocked eyes, with shrapnel wounds and bleeding ears. Moans and cries charged the air from all directions.

 Soon, first responders raced about, ferrying the wounded to ambulances.

Where was my husband?     

My eyes picked up images in meaningless flashes. An armless boy. A wedding ring on a severed finger. Legs blown off below the knee, mutilated feet dangling limp, blood seeping from shrapnel wounds. A man kneeling by the lifeless body of a little boy. His lips moving as if he might be praying. A wounded soldier was screaming. A sobbing woman, covered with blood, clutched a small body tightly to her, rocking back and forth. A vacant-eyed man cradled his unconscious wife.

Where was my husband?

I collapsed to the ground next to the mangled body of a young woman. She was hardly recognizable, save for her soft, blond curls, soaked with blood. Nothing I could have done for her.

I dragged myself away and nearly stumbled over someone else. A young man, perhaps in his early twenties, whose legs seemed shredded below his knees. I crouched down beside him. His unfocused eyes glazed over with pain. “Ima! Ima!” he kept calling.

 Coils of sadness tightened in my heart and I found it hard to breath.

Someone had once told me that death is lighter than a feather. I had not understood what that meant. Now I understood it even less as blood trickled from his mouth and down his throat.

I took his hand with both of mine and squeezed it, brought my lips to his feverish forehead and kissed him gently. I could do nothing else to shield him from the pain he was experiencing.

“What is your name?” I smiled down at him, stroking his blood-soaked hair from his face.

“David,” he whispered. Blood continued to bubble from his lips. I met head on the terror in his eyes, as if that alone would ease his suffering.

I once read somewhere that our names contain our fates and wondered if David was a victim of his.

He was shivering. I covered his body with mine, my heart beating against his fading life.

“David, hold on, a doctor will be here soon.”

A hand on my shoulder. “He is dead.”

Something was wailing inside me, a scream that never materialized. I held onto David’s hands until someone pulled them away. Then two uniformed boys carried him off on a stretcher, his body covered with an army blanket.

All sound disappeared. My entire world sucked by gravity toward David’s boots, protruding from under the cover. Seeing them splattered with mud and blood made me think of his mother.

I turned to the wall and retched.

Was it only twenty minutes ago that the world had seemed a safe place, when I was sitting at a sidewalk cafe on Ben Yehuda Street, savoring the sounds and smells surrounding me? And the sun, still far from setting, had bathed the old city, its walls, its churches and domes. The cerulean sky, clean of clouds, had imbued me with happiness, hovered over me like a good dream that hadn’t morphed into reality.

Jerusalem, compacted together, house touching house and roof-to-roof. Just another day. Just another bomb. A city under siege.

***

At night now I find it difficult to sleep. Images of the smoldering ruins flood my brain. Twenty people were killed, most of them under the age of twenty. Some had died still clutching their belongings, as blood pooled around their bodies. Dozens more injured—destined to endure life-long injuries.

These days I’ll get up before dawn, sit in the living room with a blanket wrapped around myself, and stare outside my window. Glittering lights of the city shine through the darkness. Alone with only my thoughts for company, I wonder whether this is how it is with everyone who has experienced death and fear—the kind that can’t be silenced with comforting words, the kind that looks at you straight in the face with a challenge. The kind that consumes and destroys.

“Let’s go for a walk.”

I hear my husband’s voice.

Side by side on the road, our moon shadows follow us; my husband’s nearly twice as long as my own.

 

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