Spotlight: Aleph Friedman Killed

[fiction]

The messenger arrives early in the morning. He hands Rachel an envelope. Inside the envelope is a letter printed on lengths of tape and pasted on a form. In the letter, there are three words. Aleph Friedman Killed.

“That will be fifteen lira. We charge five lira per word; there are three words in the message, so fifteen lira in total,” says the messenger.

“Ah—” Rachel says.

“The letter Aleph counts as a word in this case, yes.”

“No—you don’t understand—which Aleph Friedman? There are two.”

“That’s all it says. I have reached the Friedman household, right? This came from the front. Is Aleph Friedman a soldier?”

“My brothers, Aharon and Avraham—” Rachel begins. “Both of their names begin with Aleph. They have the same family name, and they are both soldiers fighting in the war.”

The messenger shifts around uncomfortably.

“So there’s no way of knowing which one—” says the messenger.

Rachel shakes her head.

“Go to the Girls School,” says the messenger. “It has been repurposed as an infirmary for the wounded. They also keep the lists of all the dead there. They may be able to help. I’m sorry for the confusion. Still, someone must pay for the telegram.”

“We must pay?” Rachel asks.

“With the costs of the war being so high, well, yes, you must pay for it,” says the messenger.

Rachel pays the messenger and takes the message to her mother, who is sitting on the sofa. Her mother is paralyzed from the waist down. When she hears the news, she covers her face in her hands. Her wrinkled papyrus hands are covered in liver spots. Rachel strokes her head in slow, circular movements.

“I am not sure what to feel,” her mother says. “Who am I sad for? Avraham or Aharon?”

“I do not know, Ima. The telegram was sent from this address, see? A school. That is where they record the names of the dead. I will go there and find out,” Rachel says.

“I will go with you. Take me there, to the school. I have to know which one of my sons is dead,” her mother says.

“Ima, how will you get there? You cannot walk. How will you sleep outside? It will take us at least two full days on the road. What if it rains? What if the soldiers stop us? It’s dangerous,” Rachel says.

“If you die, Rachel, there will be no one to take care of me. You will take me,” her mother insists, “and that is final.” Rachel knows she cannot leave her mother on her own. She would not survive. Rachel also knows that she cannot bring her along.

Rachel has been working on a contraption to transport her mother for the past several months. The old wheelbarrow serves as a base, together with a steel rod and bicycle wheels. The barrow seat is a box with three sides. To the box, she has fastened two long handles. The only thing left to do is line the seat for comfort. She uses woolen blankets, strips of felt and feathers from her bedside pillow. She works all day and all night, hardly stopping to rest or eat. When it is complete, she is proud of what she has built. The home-made rickshaw cart is relatively comfortable. It is balanced, and the wheels turn smoothly. She packs a loaf of bread, three apples, a knife, and a pistol for emergencies. She puts the pistol under her mother’s cushion, for safekeeping. Rachel wraps a scarf around her unusual curly, red hair. She is used to the attention of men and would like to avoid it.

They leave very early in the morning. It is still dark out. The narrow, cobblestoned alleyways are mostly deserted. A banner tied between two palm trees reads: “Youth of Today, the Nation calls You!” Vendors from the shuk are setting up their wares: crates of rotten pears, sacks of flour, and an emaciated goat tied with a rope. An old man opens a large case, upon which rows and rows of eyeballs are pinned. Each eyeball is of a distinct hue. Dozens of different shades of blue, green, and brown stare back at her. Many men had lost their eyes during the war. Some had replaced them with a black felt patch, others with fake eyeballs. A sign next to the eyes reads: “Hand-Painted.” Rachel pulls her mother along the stalls. The bleary-eyed men, sipping their coffee, hardly give her a second glance.

Once they cross the market, Rachel rests for a moment. Her shoulders and back ache. The palms of her hands are already developing blisters. She spits on her left and rubs it together with her right. Her wounds sting. They make their way along the city walls, overlooking the sea. The air is cool and salty. It revives her. They stop by the side of the wall, next to a pair of low bushes. Her mother needs to relieve herself. Rachel lifts her from the cart, under her arms, and holds her dress up, exposing thin, veiny thighs. She hears a steady trickling sound. A pool of piss gathers at their feet, wetting their sandals. A group of young boys, dirty and barefoot, start jeering and making faces at them, miming obscenities. They stick out their tongues and put their hands in their pants. The boys follow them around asking her mother a stream of questions: Were you born that way? Do you like being carried around? Are you a queen? Can I ride in your carriage? Do you have any money? Do you have any bread? Her mother reaches under the folds of her blanket and brings out a loaf of bread, which they had been saving for dinner. She cuts it up into small chunks and hands them around to the boys. They whoop and cheer. They help pull the rickshaw eagerly. They fight over who gets to pull the cart. They go fast, with a dozen young hands pulling. Ima laughs, holding on to the edge of the cart. Rachel feels herself relax slightly. She lets the boys do some of the work. Her muscles are sore. It is a relief to take a break. She walks alongside the cart. Her mother looks cheerful, surrounded by children. The boys stop abruptly. They lift the cart, to stop it from moving, and the wheels spin uselessly in the air. One of the boys says they will not go any further than the animal market, which leads to the mosque. He is slightly older and taller than the rest. “There’s a sniper in the tower at the mosque,” he says. “Don’t go there.”

“We must,” Rachel says. “The main road is patrolled by armed men. We cannot go through the beach, either. I won’t be able to pull this cart in the sand. The unmarked fields are too dangerous.”

“You’re slow. An easy target. The man in the tower has been picking people off like flies. He shoots anyone who goes by.”

“We have no choice.”

“Go after dark, then.”

Rachel and her mother wait by the side of the road until darkness falls. The limestone houses, broken in places by mortar bombs, grow darker and darker. The sea, from above, is a flat sheet. They must make their way past the mosque. This will be their only chance now that the streets are completely dark. Rachel covers her mother in a large tarp. “Can you breathe? Try not to move too much, you will draw attention to yourself.”

They make their way towards the mosque. Its dim silhouette looks deserted. Rachel pulls the cart slowly, bowing her head. The wheels make squeaking noises as they turn. She can hear her mother breathing loudly. With every breath, the wooden base creaks. The wheels are stuck. They have hit something. Rachel pauses, stares at the dirty ground. It looks like a body, but not a human one. It is a dead donkey, surrounded by flies. Rachel pulls the cart around it, trying to breathe through her mouth so as not to smell the carcass. Sewage runs through the street, dirtying her dress. They are close to the animal market, approaching the mosque. Chicken feathers float in the air, sticking to her sweaty face. Rusted metal beams are scattered around. She trips on one, which makes a clattering sound. It cuts her ankle. She can feel the blood soak through her dress and bites her lip to stop herself from making a sound. A movement to her left, sharp and sudden. A figure in the darkness. A man, carrying a sack slung across his shoulder, is running. He runs with long strides, his body leaning forward. He makes it to the mosque. She can see his shadow across the pale stone. He runs past it now. He is going to make it. No sign of a sniper. Rachel breathes out a sigh of relief. The man trips, falls, and drops the sack. Heads of lettuce scatter all around him, rolling all the way to Rachel’s feet. He stands up again but is unsure what to do. A shot rings out. The man drops immediately. Rachel stays absolutely still. The man is face down in the mud. Rachel retreats slowly. In the cart, under the layers of blankets, her mother is shaking but she does not make a sound. Rachel puts her hand on the moving pile of blankets. She feels around until she grasps her mother’s hand. She squeezes it and the hand squeezes back.

“We will sleep on the beach tonight,” Rachel says. “We will be okay.”

Five large, stone steps lead down from the wall to the beach. Rachel has to feel her way down in the dark. For each step, Rachel has to lift the rickshaw. The going is torturous. Her mother complains that the bumps are hurting her back. They argue over whose back hurts more. When they go down the last step, Rachel is exhausted. They start making their way on the beach, looking for a sheltered place to set up their blankets for the night. At first, it feels only slightly more difficult. The wheels turn slower and slower until they stop completely. They get stuck in the sand. Rachel tries to pull and pull, but they don’t budge. She tries pushing from the back. She hits the cart in frustration. Another dead-end.

“I guess we will sleep here,” Rachel says. Her mother does not complain. The wind is strong by the sea. Rachel makes sure her mother is warm enough under the blankets. They sleep close together for warmth.

Rachel wakes up from the glare of the sun. Her mouth tastes of sand. Her hair is messy and tangled. Her mother is still sleeping. The cart is still beside them. She looks up at the five steps she has descended, which she knows she must now ascend. She must go back up, there is no other way. Two fishermen, with faces like gnarled driftwood, walk past them carrying a bloody bucket with wriggling fish. They have already started their working day, oblivious of the war. The fish are still in the sea, people must still eat. They are arguing about the type of fish. It’s Amnon. No, it’s Denis. There is also an octopus in the bucket, even though it is forbidden to eat by kosher law. Several warships dot the horizon. Rachel begins to climb, pulling the cart with her mother, one step at a time. She is sweating so much that her vision is blurred. At the top, she rests on the grass by a row of cacti.

They head to the main road, which will no doubt be patrolled by armed men. They walk along the deserted highway. Strewn around are empty orange crates, bearing the logo “Jaffa Sphinx Oranges” and “Importé de Palestine” in bold letters, with a drawing of the pyramids. A convoy of military vehicles drives by in a long line. A truck carrying supplies tips over and blocks the road. The drivers are shouting at each other. They start pushing and cursing. Rachel pulls the cart in the tall grass by the roadside, passing unnoticed by the two men. They walk for no more than an hour when they spot two men at a checkpoint. They have blocked the road with pieces of rubble. The men are brewing coffee over a camp stove. Their guns are slung across their chests. Rachel stops the cart.

“Where are you going?” Asks one of the men.

“To see my brother,” Rachel says.

“Do you have a permit to cross?”

“We were not aware you needed a permit,” her mother says.

“We are at war. Of course, you need a permit. Go back to where you came from.”

Rachel turns the cart around and starts walking back. Her steps are heavy. The only way is through the open countryside. The fields are dangerous. Outlaws and thieves roam around. They have reached a crossing. One road will take them back home, through the alleyways along the coast; another road will take them to the fields. “I am not going back,” her mother says. “We need to know. We cannot go back.” They head in the direction of the fields. The fields of tall grass provide cover. They walk until it gets dark, then set up camp under a ficus tree. Rachel makes sure her mother is warm under the blankets. Rain blows sideways. Their blankets are soaked through. They shiver, teeth chattering.

In the morning, Rachel pulls the cart slowly, stumbling forward. Her dress is torn and covered in dirt. Her feet ache. She keeps scratching her scalp. The white-washed houses around her are riddled with holes. Roofs are caving in, exposing the woodwork. The air is filled with dust and her mother begins to cough. The skeletal frame of an abandoned bus lies by the side of the road, sniffed at by stray dogs. A large dog with light blue eyes, its fur sticky with blood, walks alongside the cart. Rachel shoos it away. She hears the thundering sound of an engine overhead. She quickly pulls the cart to the side of the abandoned bus and crouches, hidden. The warplane flies by. She cannot tell if it is one of ours or one of theirs. They walk along a promenade where the trees have all been uprooted. The trunks have been severed into smaller pieces, probably to be used for firewood. Small, inedible fruits, and pigeon excrement litter the ground. In front of them, a man is pulling a cart with a body. She can see men pulling more carts, dozens of them, all wheeling the dead. She smells it before she can see it. A large bonfire rages, where the corpses are dumped. The men throw the dead in the fire, their faces lit up orange by the glow. Their arms and clothing are all covered in flecks of gray ash. Rachel has a strong urge to push the cart with her mother into the flames. Or jump in herself. To end this senseless journey. Some of the carts, carrying the wounded, continue down the promenade. Rachel follows them. The carts carrying the wounded all head towards a building at the far end of the promenade, surrounded by fencing. They have reached the school.

*     *     *

The re-purposed building is a dull green color. On the walls hang crumpled paper garlands in the shape of pomegranates. A framed photograph of young girls in uniforms hangs over the reception entrance. Tall windows facing the fenced-in garden are barricaded with strips of plywood. The only source of light is a naked bulb in the ceiling, which flickers on and off. A tall man in wire-rimmed glasses sits cramped behind a desk meant for a school child. Rachel drags her feet as she wheels the cart toward him. Her face burns red and her palms begin to sweat. She licks her dry lips.

“No vehicles allowed inside,” the clerk says.

“This is not a vehicle. It is for my mother, she is crippled,” Rachel says. “We must consult your records. We are looking for A. Friedman.”

“First name?”

The clerk positions his glasses on the edge of his nose.

“A.”

“That is not a name.”

“That is all we know.”

“You do not know the person’s name?”

“We do not know for sure.”

“Why did you come here if you do not know for sure?”

Rachel can hear groaning and crying coming from the hallway.

“Listen, we have come from far away,” Rachel says. “My brothers, Avraham and Aharon Friedman, have the same initial and the same family name. We received a telegram informing us that A. Friedman had been killed, but we did not know which one of them it was. We were told to come here.”

The clerk looks at them. The young woman with messy red hair spilling from a scarf tied to her head may have been beautiful once but looks tired and worn beyond her years. Next to her, a tiny woman with a shriveled prune face is sitting in some kind of makeshift cart which looks like it may fall apart at any moment. He sighs.

“Hold on.”

He looks through a thick folder, stacked with papers, on his small desk. Each paper is printed with a list of names. Next to the names are a series of numbers, probably dates. He goes through alphabetically, slowly. Rachel wants to shout at him to hurry up but restrains herself. He makes clicking sounds with his tongue, as he goes through the list. His finger hovers for a moment.

“There seems to be some mistake,” says the clerk.

Rachel sighs with relief.

“So, the telegram was a mistake? No Aleph Friedman was killed?”

Her mother beside her looks up hopefully. She is seated at eye-level with the clerk at his desk. Rachel is standing over them. Maybe Avraham and Aharon have come home by now, only to find the house empty. They must hurry back, to catch them.

“No, that is not what I mean. There are two Aleph Friedmans listed here.”

“Two? How is that possible? Two?”

“Perhaps our typist entered the data twice. It happens.”

“Yes, it must be a mistake,” Rachel says.

“One moment.”

Rachel and her mother wait by the desk. The sound of groaning again, from afar. Cries for help. Sobs. The clerk returns with a plump woman, the typist.

“I assure you, I did not make a mistake,” the typist says.

“You must have,” Rachel says.

“I remember it very clearly because I thought it was odd receiving the same name, one day after another. Look, the dates are different. These are two different people, coincidentally with the same name,” says the typist.

“So, they are both dead?” Rachel asks.

The clerk nods.

“Are they related? Do you know them?” asks the typist.

“Yes. They were my sons,” her mother says. “My sons.” This is the first time she has spoken since they have arrived. Rachel looks down at her mother. She appears lost, as if she has forgotten where they are. She is looking around, at the clerk, the typist, at Rachel. She does not seem to recognize anyone. “Where are my sons? What have you done with my boys? Avraham? Aharon? Where did you take them?”

“Ima, they are gone,” Rachel says. “We came all this way for nothing.”

“How do you know? We need to go,” her mother says. “Come.”

“Where? Where do we need to go?”

“We must look for them,” her mother says.

“Ima, I need to be on my own for a moment,” Rachel says.

She walks away, following the groans and sighs. The school hallways are dimly lit. The tiled floors are dusty. She reaches a large gymnasium hall, where fold-out beds are arranged in rows. Men lie on the beds. She realizes the sound is coming from them. Some are missing limbs; others are bandaged. She walks between them. An arm reaches out to her, tugging at her sleeve.

“Ima, Ima,” the man says.

His head is bandaged from his right ear down to his jaw. Tufts of curly hair stick out from the bloody gauze. He is wearing a soldier’s uniform. He is smiling at Rachel under the bandages and blood. “Ima, you said that when I got back, we would go to the sea.”

The soldier is looking at Rachel, tugging at her sleeve.

“Ima,” he calls out to her. “You said we would go to the sea.”

She sits down on the bed next to him. She holds his hand, stroking his knuckles.

“We will,” Rachel says. “I said so, didn’t I?”

A nurse, one of the few going between the beds, drops a roll of gauze onto Rachel’s lap.

“Change his bandages. He’s bleeding through.”

Before Rachel can protest, the nurse is gone. The nurses walking around are only young girls, school children. Their faces are hardened. They wear a uniform of button-down white shirts tucked into brown skirts. The same uniforms worn by the girls in the photograph above the reception desk.

“I just have to change your bandages,” she tells the soldier. She starts unwinding the gauze from his head, slowly.

“Then, we’ll go to the sea?”

“Yes, then we’ll go to the sea.”

Rachel’s hands are shaking, but she manages to unravel the bandages.

“We can scare away the crabs under the rocks,” he says.

Without his bandages, she sees a gaping wound in his head. She tries to hide her expression, but he does not seem to notice. Half of his head is missing. She unrolls the new gauze and winds it around him, as it was before. Almost immediately, the white bandage darkens as the blood seeps through.

“I gave you that seashell, spotted like a leopard. Do you remember? Do you have it still?” He asks.

“Of course. Always.”

Around them, men are crying out. The nurses walk around the beds, changing bandages, administering medicine, stroking damp foreheads.

“Ima, Ima—”

“Yes?” Rachel answers.

“Take me to the sea.”

“I will,” Rachel says. “I promised you.”

“I want to go home. Ima, please—”

“I am taking you home. We just need to wait for—”

“I need to go home. You need to take me, Ima—”

The man’s words are cut short. A bubble of blood forms on his lips. He coughs, splattering her dress. She does not turn away. She strokes his hand, in circular motions. She keeps stroking his hand, long after it goes cold.

Omer Friedlander’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in over a dozen publications in the US, UK, Canada, France, Israel, and Singapore, including The Mays Literary Anthology, Ilanot Review, and Paris Lit Up. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Cambridge and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Boston University.