Thursday, March 20, 2014

Strong as Death, II


          The little things we don’t account for fuck us up, David Shemesh repeated this formula once he was out on the street.  All around him, employees of the Palestinian National Bank were streaming back to work after their mid-morning break. 
          Shemesh lit a cigarette and his eyes followed a few of the secretaries as they mounted the steep steps to the bank lobby.   Despite his looks, most failed to hold his gaze for long; they thought him an Arab.  Here, in British Mandate Palestine, most everyone thought him an Arab until he opened his mouth and fluent Hebrew issued from his lips.  When he spoke Arabic, of course, everyone thought he was an Arab; he found he was whatever the people around him wanted him to be, and the feeling came with its own particular exigencies.
            He stepped out from the shadow of the bank and into the sun.  The heat pressed him like a heavy hand.  He squinted up at Boris Gurevich’s office window.  The square shade betrayed no hint of the harrowing decisions made behind its millimeter thick swatch of dirty cotton. 
            Gurevich’s bank office was a front for the SHA’I, the National Information Service, the Haganah’s intelligence arm.  Behind that window young men and women were sent down to the Arab quarter of Jaffa, a stone’s throw from this corner in Tel Aviv, or inland to East Jerusalem, or across the Jordan River to Amman, or beyond the desert to Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, to gather information about the Arab armies who might one day strike against a Jewish state in Palestine. 
            So the Yishuv, the Jewish Community in Palestine, sent Jews from Arab countries to write reports in “invisible” ink, to take photographs with cameras hidden in cigarette lighters of tank formations, military barracks, airports.  They were sent abroad to places where the Jewish Agency, upon their capture, would certainly be unable to help them.  The specter of torture, show trials, and public execution followed these men and women.
         Shemesh crossed the street.  He sat at a café and fanned himself with his hat.  He ordered a coffee and for a moment he stared ahead at the busy Tel Aviv street; two British soliders in kilts passed by; then an Arab qadi; after him a girl, probably a Jew; for her Shemesh focused his eyes, and as she walked away, he followed the suggestive line in her stockings which raced from her heeled shoes to the hem of her thigh high skirt. 
          Shemesh allowed himself this reverie.  He imagined a rendezvous with just such a small, pert, dark haired girl.  He envisioned much giggling at his suggestions, and some good natured teasing as they parried for position, and finally, as garments were progressively removed, the note of seriousness would fully sound, in both his and her tone, for sex has its own uncompromising discipline.
            But Shemesh shook his head.  He had not time for such thinking.  Not with what faced him.  The promise of pleasure with flesh had passed him at the age of twenty-five.  Weighty matters rendered him ascetic.  He needed to concentrate on everything, even here in the safety of Tel Aviv. 
          “But I should write my father before I leave,” he suddenly said aloud, the thought an unwanted intrusion.  He called over the waiter and asked for a paper and pen.  The man frowned at the request, but he returned in a moment with a pen and a faded piece of yellow paper which bore the café’s logo, the Lion of Judah. 

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