Featured in Colorado Review
Beautiful SoulsFeatured, Fiction
Published Fall 2011
Winner of the 2011 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, selected by Ron Carlson
They were two American girls, Abby and Jennifer, best friends, sixteen and not entirely naïve, wandering in the Arab shuk in Jerusalem’s Old City. Good girls, not rebellious types, they had left the hotel early that morning with their earnest parents, Susan and Phil, Barbara and Steve, to sit through the interminable Saturday morning services at a crumbling, ancient synagogue off a winding alley, just as they had dutifully trailed along to all the tourist sites the entire week, and now this, an afternoon alone in the shuk, was their reward. No adults, just the two of them. They could go, the parents said, as long as they promised to stay together and be back at the hotel by four. Because at four-thirty it would be almost dark.
Now it was three, and they were hungry. Starving. They had fled the hotel as soon as allowed, skipping the buffet lunch, walking down King George Street to the Jaffa Gate exactly as their fathers had shown them on the map. Their mothers, in the lobby, waved them off. Buy something special! For the holiday! Because, yes, their school vacation coincided this year with—amazingly—Hanukkah! They would be in Jerusalem for Hanukkah, their parents had exulted months before, in Cambridge, showing Abby and Jen the glossy photos of enormous clay pots of burning oil on top of the Old City walls—no ordinary menorahs there!—just like the pots from thousands of years ago! The parental gushing was startling, weird, finally annoying. Because despite how the six of them looked tromping around Mount Herzl in the rain at the grave of the Father of Zionism or staring at the terrible pictures of the camps at Yad Vashem—and Jen and Abby knew exactly how they looked, four wide-eyed adults and two gum-chewing teenagers—the trip wasn’t an attempt to instill ethnic pride in the two girls. Rather, it was because Susan and Phil and Barbara and Steve, friends since college, suddenly wanted to get into the Jewish thing for themselves. A hole in their endlessly re-examined lives, they told their daughters when selling them on the travel plans. Hole? Abby thought, rolling her eyes at Jen in Jen’s parents’ living room, a fire going in the fireplace, the first crisp days of autumn upon them. What were they talking about, these flaky quasi-grown-ups who had decided to investigate yet another potentially life-altering ism, just like their prior love affairs with shamanism and veganism and humanism and feminism and who knew what else? Jewishness—or Judaism, as Phil and Steve, who knew a little more about it than their wives, corrected—had occupied a zero place in either family’s existence, though the girls received the usual holiday cards from the grandparents in Florida and had managed to attend a couple of friends’ bat mitzvahs, kids whose families had given up on their heroic attempts at urban child-rearing in virtuously peeling triple-deckers in Somerville or Central Square and had slunk out under cover of darkness to the embarrassing suburbs. But that was it for tradition, religion—any religion—deemed collectively and unanimously by the four adults to be primitive, regressive, lethally divisive, the scourge of humanity. It was a tenet by which they’d all lived, Abby and Jen had been told ad nauseum. Which made the recent turnaround irritating, to say the least. They were exhausting and confusing, these parents. Abby, for one, wished they would just lighten up and be more concerned with their daughters’ PSAT scores and insufficient wardrobes instead of their eco-conscious, human-potential, progressive, egalitarian, spiritual health.
But now, regardless of the grown-ups’ starry-eyed wonder—Susan and Phil and Barbara and Steve planned to spend the afternoon reveling in the transcendence of their first ever fully observed Jewish Sabbath—Jen and Abby would have their reward. Once inside the shuk, they’d moved with the tourist crowds down the labyrinthian alleys past the spice vendors and trays of sticky pastries, past the silver shops and the men selling carved olive-wood tables and nargilahs. At one stall, Jen had made Abby stop so she could examine a wide-necked peasant blouse with embroidery, but within seconds a sweaty, middle-aged man with a thick mustache appeared from the back and began pressing them in accented English. Only one hundred shekel. One hundred. How much did Jen want to pay? Ninety? Eighty-five? He’d give it to her for eighty. Or dollar—did she want to pay dollar? For her, a special rate. Twenty dollar. Eighteen. Take. Try. See how nice it goes on you. He swept the blouse off the hanger and held it up against Jen, brushing her breast. Abby saw the hand touching Jen, keeping it there too long. Was he really doing that? Putting his hand on Jen’s breast? Jen quickly mumbled she wasn’t interested, thank you, and pulled Abby out to the alley, and neither said anything because they were supposed to not be afraid of the Arabs or think poorly of them. All week their parents had talked with them about the plight of the Palestinians and the failed leadership on both sides and the irrational hatred of the Other that was everywhere in this world, responsible for so much suffering. They’d met with nice, reasonable Palestinians who wanted peace, and nice, reasonable Israelis who wanted peace, meetings arranged by their guide where the parents were given envelopes in which to mail checks, and where Jen and Abby were given tea and cake and were ignored.
And so neither girl said anything after the experience with the man with the mustache. Maybe he hadn’t touched Jen for so long on purpose, or maybe Jen looked pale and stricken because lately being around any males, Abby couldn’t help but notice, seemed to make Jen uneasy. Like Jen was turning into some kind of prude. She didn’t used to be that way, but Abby had been noticing. So they said nothing but anyway didn’t have to; they knew each other so well they could read each other’s minds. That’s how they’d been since they were four years old. Best friends who knew each other’s thoughts. They walked fast and turned a corner and fell in behind a large German couple, tall, blond people with wide shoulders who could have been Alpine hikers from an energy-drink ad. When the couple turned into a shop, the girls followed and bought six tiny painted teacups for hardly anything, three dollars apiece, which is what the Germans paid.
And now they were ravenous. And cold. They’d refused to wear their winter parkas, the coats so ridiculously American, they told their mothers at the hotel; they were from Massachusetts, for goodness sake—a little brisk weather never bothered them. But it turned out that sweaters weren’t enough. The city shivered under a constant damp chill, December, the stone buildings barely heated. Even two sweaters weren’t enough. Over identical white turtlenecks Abby wore Jen’s borrowed black wool pullover, and Jen had on Abby’s powder blue. It was the powder blue that the man with the mustache had touched.
They spotted the restaurant at the same time. It was next to a bakery; later, they would say the smells had lured them over. That even though it was past three and they knew they should head back to the hotel, the yeasty, sugary scent had enticed them. That’s how they would explain it. They turned into the dark entry, the place on closer inspection more a bar or café than a restaurant. They knew it would be patronized by Arabs. In particular, Arab men. Their fathers had warned them, quietly, on the side, while showing them the route on the map so that Susan and Barbara wouldn’t hear and get overprotective and retract the agreement to let the girls go. When you go to the shuk, you have to be careful around the men. It’s not because they’re Arabs. Of course not. It’s because in some places in the world, men are different from what you’re used to. It’s a cultural thing. When they see young women alone, they think they’re available. Their daughters don’t go out by themselves like ours do.
And so, yes, there were men in the café. The girls waited at the door and looked in. A handful of tables, all suffused in smoke, two or three men at each. Which, if Abby thought about it, was a little thrilling. If she was going to be totally honest. The mustached shopkeeper had shaken up Jen, but the men in this café, as far as Abby could tell in the shadowy dark, were a whole lot younger and a whole lot more attractive than the man in that shop. And there was something else: she didn’t want to go back to the hotel. Didn’t want to listen to their suddenly worshipful parents who were replaying every moment of the trip, going on about the amazing resilience of the Jews, and the holy aura of the city, and the miraculous building of the country, all of it so inspiring, how could they have ignored their heritage all these years, not just ignored but—dare they say it?—been ashamed of it, what had been going on with them, had they been sucked in by simplistic politics or rebelling against their parents? Was that what it was? How free were they, really, when their so-called liberation was prescribed in advance by developmental psychology or the rigid agenda of the left? Endless talk, hours of it, over every meal, at every tourist site, during every ride in the tour guide’s van. The parents processed and processed, and every now and then one of them would toss Jen and Abby a sincere look and a probing question. How are you finding this experience, girls? To which neither of them would answer. So no; no parents right now, please. Abby looked into the dim café with its smoky low-hanging haze and knew she didn’t want to go back to the hotel.
A man slowly got up from one of the tables, came their way.
“Yes, mademoiselles?” he said, and Abby felt herself blushing. Mademoiselles.
“Is it possible to get something to eat?” Abby said, taking charge, because Jen was still too upset to talk and anyway she was shy, and Abby heard herself sounding different. Sophisticated. Like she was acting in a play. Is it possible.
“Possible?” the man said, smiling, waving toward the back, toward a curtain of beads. “Of course. It would always be possible for such lovely mademoiselles.”
They followed him deeper into the room. At the table nearest the front, two Israeli soldiers in olive drab smoked and sipped from tiny cups like the ones they’d just bought. Except for the uniforms, the Israelis looked no different from everyone else in the cafe—black-haired men also sipping, smoking, watching them pass. The girls moved down the narrow center aisle. Their fathers had been right; there were no women. But it would have been rude and awkward to change their minds and ask to leave, even if they’d wanted to. Later, Jen would say she didn’t want to go in, that Abby was the one who started it, but now neither of them protested, and they took seats where the man directed them, at a table for four in front of the curtain. Then the man vanished behind the beads.
They put their purchases on the empty chairs. Then they folded their hands. They pretended not to notice the half dozen men openly staring. They were young, these men, twenties, early thirties. And handsome, Abby thought. All the men she’d seen on this vacation were handsome. Dark and sort of tough, tight jeans, sunglasses, or in cool bomber jackets like the soldiers. Some were even close to her age. They were nothing like the boys at home—nice, sensitive Cambridge boys who were too polite to ever try anything with Abby or Jen or their friends, afraid of offending. Afraid of their own shadows.
Someone lit a pipe; a musky scent filled the room. That was another thing: neither Jen nor Abby looked over, but it certainly could have been hashish. The whole café could have been filled with hashish. Because this was, after all, the Middle East. They weren’t that sheltered. They weren’t totally naïve.
“I’m glad we got those teacups,” Abby said, clasping her hands, pretending no one else was listening.
Jen nodded morosely, mumbled she was glad too.
Were their parents crazy or what, with this whole Jewish thing, Abby said, lowering her voice, not wanting to say the word too loud, just in case. Jewish. Well, they had only a few more days of this, and boy, would she be glad to get home. Jen murmured that she would be glad too, and Abby said at least this was better than sitting around their apartments in Cambridge the whole school vacation, plus dealing with New Year’s Eve, wasn’t it lame that Caitlin’s parents wanted Caitlin to have a girls’ sleepover at her house so they wouldn’t be tempted by the drunken brawls in Harvard Square. But the talk between them was just air, meaningless words skittering on the surface, because both of them were wondering what they were supposed to do now. No one had come to take their order, and no one was eating at any of the other tables; they were just watching. And listening. Sipping and smoking and listening.
And then suddenly the man who had seated them came back from behind the curtain, beads swinging, with a tray he began to unload. Plates of hummus and chopped tomato salad and olives. Little bowls of oily red peppers and cauliflower and beets and other vegetables they didn’t recognize, dense with lemon and garlic; a plastic basket of puffy, hot pita; two glasses of steaming tea.
“For you,” said the man. He swept his hand across the table. A minty scent rose up from the hot glasses. “Please to enjoy,” he said and walked away.
They looked at the plates. They hadn’t ordered it. Still, they weren’t stupid; they’d learned a few things in their lives, including that restaurants here might do things differently from what they were used to. They both knew this without saying. Maybe you didn’t always order; maybe it was like eating at someone’s house: you ate what they put in front of you. They had done this on the eighth-grade class trip to Washington, D.C., where they stayed in people’s homes. Jen and Abby were paired up, of course, and for three days they stayed with an African-American family named Jefferson—after the President—who served them grits and black-eyed peas and collard greens and cuts of pork they’d never heard of, let alone tasted, and they had politely eaten it all without question because that’s what you did. You were sensitive to the culture of others, which was the point of the class trip, and besides, you were their guest. But here Abby wondered: how much would this cost? They had American dollars and some shekels, but what if the man kept bringing dishes and they didn’t have enough to pay for it?
“This looks great,” Abby said, trying, and Jen murmured a mostly inaudible yes, probably worried about the hour, three-thirty already, but what could they do, it was too late to make it to the hotel in time. Their parents wanted them back by four so they could all stand outside in a circle and hold hands and wait for three stars to appear in the sky, signifying the end of the Sabbath. Separating the sacred from the profane—isn’t that beautiful? Their mothers had heard there was a special dance or song for this; they were going to learn it that afternoon. The men at the other tables were still watching as the girls began to serve themselves, small helpings, tentative. Abby broke apart the soft bread. They didn’t talk, probably the first time they’d ever had a meal together where they didn’t speak, because everything would be overheard. They couldn’t even switch to a foreign language because Abby knew Spanish and Jen was taking French. Anyway, maybe people always watched the customers eat there. Maybe they wanted to see if the customers liked it. The truth was, Abby didn’t mind. So what if some good-looking men were watching them? She ate carefully, tipping her head just so, flexing an ankle. It wasn’t the kind of thing she ever did in Cambridge.
After a minute, one of the men got up and came over to their table. He pulled up an empty chair and sat down next to Jen, opposite Abby.
“You like this food? The food here is good, no?”
He was maybe twenty-one, slim and dark, in a black leather jacket. A gold chain glittered on his neck. “Yes, very good,” Abby said.
“You come back again. Bring your husbands, your boyfriends.”
Abby blushed, went for the tea. Jen stopped eating.
“What, not here with husbands? Boyfriends? I don’t believe, such pretty girls like you.” He inched up on his chair. Jen looked like the air was going out of her. She looked frozen. The man was sitting very close to her, and Abby guessed his knee was probably one inch from Jen’s leg. His hair was slicked back, too wet, but he was good-looking. Except for his teeth. They were yellowed and crooked. Still, he wasn’t afraid to smile. “Where you girls from?” he said. “New York? California?” The way he said “California,” he emphasized the for and separated the nia, so it came out Cali-FOR-neeya, which for some reason made Abby a little weak in the knees. Jen kept her eyes on the table. Or maybe they were from Philadelphia? PhilaDELfeeya.
“No. Boston,” Abby said. She could feel the other men watching. Maybe they were jealous; maybe they wished they’d gotten up first and beaten this one to it.
“Ah, Boston.” A yellowy grin. “Paul Revere and the Freedom Trail, yes?” He inched up closer and, from the way Jen was shifting in her seat, Abby was pretty sure his knee was now against Jen’s thigh. It was hard for it not to be. “You know this film The Verdict? Paul Newman? Is made in Boston. Great film. You see this film?”
Abby shook her head. Jen stared at the table.
“No? Maybe you want to come to a film with me and my friend? Very many good films here. You like movies? Ice cream and movies?”
“I like movies,” Abby said. She glanced at Jen, but Jen wouldn’t look at her. “And ice cream.”
“We’re here with our fathers,” Jen said, her eyes fixed on the plates.
Abby stared at her. Their fathers? What was she talking about?
“They’re right outside,” Jen said to the plates. “Waiting for us.”
Abby kept looking at Jen, but Jen wouldn’t look up. Abby knew exactly what Jen was doing. She was hoping it would frighten this guy off if he thought their fathers were outside. Or he’d take pity on them, girls with strict parents who watched their every move, like the daughters in his family. Their fathers had told them at the hotel. Girls in Palestinian families are supervised very closely. It’s a conservative culture, very traditional. Not that we’re criticizing. Just comparing.
A chuckle erupted somewhere in the shadowy room. The man smiled again, showing his bad teeth. “So where are such fathers that they let two beautiful girls eat by themselves? They don’t come join you?”
“They’re not hungry,” Jen murmured to the table. “But they’re right outside, a few steps away.”
Abby kept looking at Jen. It was a stupid lie. Any one of them listening—and they were all listening—could just get up and open the door and see there were no Americans loitering out there, no middle-aged men waiting in the alley for their reckless, stupid daughters.
“Such pretty girls, I don’t blame a father for standing guard.” The man had moved his hand, was resting it next to Jen’s tea. He had on a big, flashy ring, a blue stone set in gold. His nails were cut square across.
“I think we’re finished now,” Jen said, glancing around the room as if the waiter—as if there even was a waiter—might instantly appear. She was pale and wouldn’t look at Abby, which wasn’t right; that’s not how they operated. They always checked in with each other, even if they couldn’t talk. They’d do it with their eyes. Jen scanned the room, ghostly, and said, “We need the check. How do we get the check?”
“The check?” The man waved the ringed hand. His jacket shone a little in the dim light. “There is no check here. This is not America, not Boston. Here we take our time. Here everyone is like family. You eat, you drink, you make new friends, and then later, when it’s time to go, you worry about paying. But not now.” He pushed the plates closer to Jen. “You haven’t touched the salads. What, you don’t like this food?”
“We have to go,” Jen said, still looking for a waiter, for anyone. “I’m not feeling well.” Abby kept looking at her, but Jen refused to make eye contact. Maybe she really was feeling sick. Maybe she’d gotten so scared she was physically ill. She looked bad enough. But it irritated Abby. Jen was becoming a real Miss Priss. What was the big deal? A handsome guy comes and talks to you—what’s so terrible about that?
The man clucked his tongue, tsk tsk, and opened a pack of cigarettes and lit one. “Such a pity,” he said. “Afraid to talk to a friendly stranger. You should have a coffee. Tell me about yourselves.”
Somewhere, a chair scraped tile. Abby had never seen Jen like this. Did she truly not like boys anymore? She used to like boys. She used to be fun. A tall man in sunglasses walked by, lightly rapping the table as he passed. The man at their table glanced up, waved the other man away, dismissive, then took a long pull on his cigarette. The sunglasses man disappeared behind the bead curtain.
“Well, I suppose we’re kind of late,” Abby said, deflated, because what else could she do? Jen looked like she might get up and walk out, and she couldn’t let her do that. “I guess we should go,” Abby said. She watched the man slowly inhale, then make an “O” with his lips to let out the smoke. No one at home smoked. It was practically illegal in Cambridge. Smokers there were treated like criminals. Her friends would be shocked to hear she’d sat at a table with an older guy, a foreigner, who was smoking; it made Abby want to take a puff.
Jen wrapped her arms around herself, hugging herself in the blue sweater, and stared at the untouched salads.
“You’re cold,” the man said, looking at Jen.
Jen shook her head, but then she shivered, a real shiver, like she had the flu. Another chair scraped the tile.
“Yes, yes, you’re very cold.” The man put the cigarette on the edge of the table and took off his jacket and put it over Jen’s shoulders. He had on a tight black nylon shirt. The gold chain hung down like a perfect horseshoe. He was very muscled, and Abby thought that in another place, her high school, for instance, he’d be considered a real stud.
Jen shook her head. “Please, no, I don’t need your jacket.”
“Yes, you do, you’re very cold.” He moved his arm around Jen’s shoulders to keep the jacket from slipping off, but then he left it there.
Jen shook her head again, more firmly now. “I’m fine. I don’t want your jacket.”
“Ma zeh?” A loud burst of staccato Hebrew. The two soldiers from the front, long guns hanging off their shoulders. They were standing at the table. “Ma zeh?” one of them spat out again. “What’s going on? He is bothering you?” he said to Abby. “This man, he bothers you while you eating?”
Abby stared at the gun, a huge appendage like a burnt tree branch, then looked at the soldier. Twenty, twenty-one, wearing a green army beret and rimless glasses. He kept a hand on the weapon, agitated. “He bothering you?” he said again and didn’t wait for an answer. “Get up!” he said to the man. “Now!”
The man got to his feet. He was shorter than the soldier and seemed to Abby smaller than when he was sitting, as if he’d suddenly shrunk. He was almost petite, despite the muscled neck. There was something even dainty about him. The tight shirt, the jewelry, the lacquered hair. The Israeli poked his gun into the leather jacket sleeve, which was still hanging off Jen. “This your coat? You put on the girl?”
“She was cold,” the man said.
“Don’t tell me cold! Don’t give me this bullshit! I saw the girl shake her head!”
The other soldier grabbed the man by the arm, pulled him away from the table.
“We come in here to get a little tea,” the soldier with the glasses said, “and we find you bothering the tourists! What’s the matter with you?” He gestured with his chin for the man to go to the other side of the room. The other soldier pushed him toward the wall.
“You okay?” the soldier with the glasses said, turning to the table.
“He didn’t hurt us or anything,” Abby said, looking straight at him. She had seen a lot of these soldiers, and usually they were really attractive in their uniforms. But this one didn’t seem attractive at all. She could tell he was good-looking, would be good-looking in another place, maybe her high school or sitting in her parents’ living room. But not here, in this café. Here he looked ugly. Ugly and mean and not desirable at all. “He was only talking to us.”
“Only talking? Only talking? What are you, exchange students? Kibbutz volunteer on chofesh? How long you in Jerusalem? Two month? Three?”
“Five days!” The Israeli laughed. He turned to his partner. “You hear that, Lior? They’re in the city five days, and they know everything! They think this guy, he’s a perfect gentleman! Tom Cruise!” He turned back to the table. “You think he’s Tom Cruise? Leonardo DiCaprio? This is what you think?”
“I didn’t say he was Tom Cruise. I just said he didn’t do anything. He was only talking to us.”
“If he was only talking, why your friend here look like she going to be sick? You want to tell me?”
“She’s got a cold. She didn’t feel well all day. That’s why we came in here. We thought maybe she’d feel better with some tea.”
“This isn’t America. You understand?” the soldier said to her. He had lowered his voice, was trying to calm down. She could see he was trying to steady the situation. The other one, Lior, was on the other side of the room talking to the men there in another language. Arabic maybe. “You can’t go around all the time with a yafeh nefesh. You know what means this, yafeh nefesh?”
“Beautiful soul.” The soldier paused. “You know what this is?”
“Bleeding heart. In English you say bleeding heart.” The soldier watched her. “You can’t be like that here. Maybe in America. But not here.”
Abby turned away. Jen was leaning over the table, her forehead in her hand. Abby didn’t want to look at her. Abby never wanted to look at her again. She turned back to the soldier. “He was just talking to us. I don’t know why you’re making such a deal out of it. We don’t need your protection. He was only being friendly.”
“Friendly?” The soldier leaned toward her. Behind the glasses his eyes were very blue. Maybe he wasn’t twenty; maybe he was eighteen, or seventeen, practically her own age. If she lived there, she’d have to go into the army, she’d have to go next year. The black gun was swinging by his side. It looked like it was made of plastic, like a toy. Though Abby knew it wasn’t a toy. “Friendly?” the soldier repeated. “Why you think no one eats in this cafe? Why you think there are no customers except five guys drinking coffee all day? Thousands of tourists in the shuk and not a one in this place. Why you think?” He looked up, gestured with his chin at one of the men at the other tables. They were smoking and sipping and listening. “Hey, Mahmoud, you want to tell her why it’s empty here? Where the owner is, your uncle? Your cousin Hassan?”
Silence. The other man blew smoke, looked away.
The soldier turned back to Abby. “Last week a bomb blows up fifteen people at a bus stop. You want to know who drives the bomber there? Who helps him blow himself up and fifteen more? Seven little kids on the way to school, all waiting for the bus? You want to know where the owner of this place was last week, where his son was?”
He stopped. He was getting red in the face and was trying to control himself. He didn’t want to be yelling at her. The room was a tomb. Jen wasn’t moving.
“But do we shut them down?” the soldier said. “Close up his restaurant, burn it to the ground? No. Because the Americans will say we starving East Jerusalem. The Europeans will say we’re criminals. Anyway nobody comes in here. Because the whole shuk knows. The whole East Jerusalem knows. So only the family comes in here.” He waved at the smoking men. “Just them. And us. Because now we have to protect them from their new enemies. Because some people here are not happy that we know all about it. They wonder who told.”
The soldier straightened up. He seemed exhausted. He gestured for Lior to come get the leather jacket. It was still hanging off Jen’s shoulders and looked to Abby like a person, a dead person hanging off Jen. Then he told the girls they needed to leave, that he would escort them out.
“We can’t go yet,” Abby murmured. “We haven’t paid.”
“Paid?” The Israeli laughed.
“I want to pay. It’s not right.” Abby stood, unzipped her fanny pack. Her hands were shaking. Had the owner really driven a suicide bomber to his target? Did all the men there know it? Were they glad? Jen had told her that Palestinians in Gaza danced in the streets when Israelis got blown up, she’d seen it on TV. Their parents would never tell them that, but it was true. And what about the man who came to their table? Was he glad? He was standing by the wall, but she couldn’t look at him. If the men knew she and Jen were Jewish, would they want to kill them too? Maybe they already did know. She rummaged through the pack, hands sweaty, unable to think. There were no shekels, where were the shekels, she couldn’t find the shekels. She pulled out an American twenty and put it on the table.
“Twenty dollar?” the Israeli said. “Are you crazy?”
“That’s all I have, I don’t care.”
The Israeli swept up the bill, shoved it into her pack. “Don’t leave that.”
Jen was getting herself to her feet. She looked like a ghost. Abby hated her. She was her best friend, and she hated her. Jen unzipped her fanny pack, pulled out three twenty-shekel notes, put them on the table.
“That’s too much,” the soldier said.
“I don’t care. That’s what we’re paying,” Abby said.
Lior waved them ahead of him with his gun. The soldiers would walk them to the Jaffa Gate, the one with the glasses said, and after that they would walk them to the hotel and explain to their parents that it was dangerous to let two young American girls wander alone in the shuk. That they had no idea what it was like in this country. Did they think it was Disneyland, some Middle Eastern theme park with cobblestone alleys and exotic foods? Did they think everyone in the shuk was a friendly, colorful merchant like from a tourist video or a Hollywood movie?
They were at the door. It was already dark. “The start of the holiday,” the soldier with the glasses said, pointing his weapon at the pots high up on the walls. “They’re lighting now. The first one. Look.”
Abby looked. Sixty feet up, a giant flame whooshed into the sapphire sky. It licked the air, furious, the pot a fiery cauldron like something out of a nightmare, like what ancient civilizations threw babies into in order to appease their ferocious gods. Behind them stood the men from the café, watching the flames, but Abby couldn’t turn around. Couldn’t look at Jen or the man with the leather jacket or the other soldier or anyone. She could only stand there and watch as the flames rose higher and higher while somewhere across the city their parents whirled and sang and danced in the darkness and wondrously counted the stars.
Joan Leegant is the author of a story collection, An Hour in Paradise, winner of the PEN/New England Book Award and the Wallant Award, and a novel, Wherever You Go. Formerly a lawyer, she divides her time between Boston and Tel Aviv, where she teaches writing at Bar-Ilan University.