“What if he asks?”
“We’ll say it’s so we can be in a cabin instead of having to be in different barracks.”
“Danny, you’re insane. You’re out of your mind, you know that?”
If I knew English better, Tami thought later on, I could try to dig up that song that Danny was singing about how the guy… “held a knife against her breast as into his arms she pressed….” He loves her and she loves him, but for reasons the song doesn’t go into, “she would… not be his bride” so he does her in. It makes no sense what Danny wants me… wants us to do. Danny, “please… don’t murder me. I’m not prepared… for e-ter-ni-tee…”
“And what do you plan to do afterwards, the two of you?” Colonel Baran put the question to Danny when Danny broached the subject after Danny had begged a moment of the Colonel’s time.
“Finish up here. Then maybe go to the university,” Danny said.
“And your parents?”
“My mom’s abroad. Hers are…” Danny made a gesture to indicate that Tami and her parents weren’t on the best of terms.
“And Major Damon? Will he approve?”
“I expect so. ‘Dulce et decorum est.’”
“Then I can’t see any good reason not to.”
Danny ran to find Tami.
“So long as it’s the only way for you to get out and it doesn’t count for anything else.”
In a fresh shirt and skirt, Tami paused in the lavatory before leaving the barracks. She pulled her hair back, twisted it up, swooped an elastic band around it and ran some chapstick around her lips for want of a tube of lipstick. Then she gazed in the mirror. Where did those blue eyes come from? Some Cossack probably. “And mother,” she’d once asked, “why did you name me Tamar? You must’ve known who Tamar was. In the Bible.” To which her mother had replied, a bit frostily, “daughter, don’t push me.”
Doing a favor for someone I can help if it won’t come back to bite me. Has he ever done it with anybody? Some girls say it hurts the first time. Some girls say you’re so turned on, you won’t notice if it hurts.
Colonel Baran said a few things that Tami sort of heard, but her heart was racing and she wasn’t really paying attention.
Then the Colonel started off, “Do you, Danny…” and then it was Tami’s turn.
Though Tami tried to concentrate, something odd was happening with time and space, in her head and in the room. Things lengthened and got stretchy and then slowed way down and seemed a trifle swirly, and it was almost as though she saw herself standing in the corner watching what was going on from across the room. She heard words like “richer… poorer… better… worse… sickness… health… this day forward… to thee do I pledge…” It was all a jumble that in the end, she’d said yes to, and then she felt something cool and golden sliding onto her finger, a brass flange from an electric light fixture in the front hallway of the barracks, and then it was over and the weirdness slowly wore off like a dab of scent behind an ear slowly wearing off.
“You may kiss the bride,” said a genial voice.
Danny gave Tami a peck on the lips. Tami didn’t peck back, not because she didn’t want to but because it was all so weird, and, because it was all so weird, she was sorry to have missed out on their first kiss.
On the way out, Danny took Tami’s hand and said thank you very, very much.
“What should I do with this?” Tami slipped the brass flange off her finger.
“Give it here. I’ll stick it back,” Danny put the flange in his pocket. “See you at dinner?”
“Yeah,” Tami sighed.
Danny said thank you again and drifted away.
Tamar had a husband who died and left her childless. It was up to Onan, Tamar’s father-in-law, to do his deceased son’s duty. But Tamar, being Onan’s daughter-in-law, was too close for comfort. So, at the last instant, Onan pulled out and “spilled his seed on the ground.” Then Onan moved away. Tamar went chasing after him. When she caught up with Onan at a local shrine, she disguised herself as a ritual prostitute. Not recognizing Tamar, Onan took his pleasure of her, leaving her with child. Then, when Tamar showed up at Onan’s new place, dressed as herself and big in the belly, Onan commanded that Tamar be put to death as a fornicator. But Tamar revealed to Onan, by means of a stratagem she’d cooked up beforehand, that he was the father of the child-to-be, whereupon Onan called the death sentence off and took Tamar as his wife.
When Danny went looking for Tami after dinner—Tami had skipped dinner—Tami wouldn’t look at him or talk to him. Nor would she have anything to do with him the next day or the next.
Finally, the next day, Danny caught up with her. “Why’re you mad at me?”
“I’m not mad,” Tami looked away. “I’m just sad and ash… Just go away, okay? Just… please, go off to Florence or someplace.”
She would not relent.
Danny mailed his request to be re-assigned to the reserves. The office sent a form back saying that Danny’s request would be put it in the queue.
It’s meant to be your biggest day. Your dad, supposing he shows up, walks you down the aisle. You’re in a white gown and a veil followed by a train and a flower girl. You toss the bouquet to whichever bridesmaid you hope will be next. Then the bride cuts the cake. The groom cuts the cake. Hi ho the derry-o… Then handfuls of rice get flung at you as you dash, hand in hand, down the red carpeting, to the waiting limo.
Which could still happen, as it’s only official for military purposes. But it wouldn’t be the same. It couldn’t be the same.
And there was something else, something akin to “spilling one’s seed on the ground,” something about not doing something the way it should be done if it’s going to be done. And now the daily grind — beefing up the shelters, packing crates in the warehouse — began to chafe: discontent, like a wormy apple of too poor a grade to be shipped to market, retained for domestic consumption.
Mother, you gave me your eyes. What I need now is your heart.
Once the anatomy of the thing became clear, organs and limbs began to fall into place, like her habit of overriding herself so as not to displease others. Now when Tami passed Danny on the quad, she was curt and mildly hostile if Danny tried to approach her.
One night, the hillside crackled. As it wasn’t fireworks on display, there could be only one thing that crackled like that. The next night there was more crackling. Then a convoy came, bringing stores of food, fuel, clothing and hardware, as patrols kept watch on the roads.
A night or two later, one of the jeeps came roaring into the settlement and screeched to a stop at the infirmary. There’d been a firefight, the first in recent memory, and Eitan had been shot. Not seriously but the enemy, better armed, was growing bolder.
A notice came for Danny. Transfers to the reserves were being put on hold. Everyone was to stay at his or her posts.
Then came the night of the first siren. An ambulance with the inverted blue triangles on the doors came steaming into the settlement. The EMTs hauled three stretchers to the back. Nurses hung bulbous packets of plasma on metal IV stands and stuck the needles in.
The enemy had struck hard, dishing out the first casualties in this neck of these hotly contested woods.
Major Damon raced to the barracks. “Tami, come. Quickly.”
“I’m lugging stuff to the shelters,” Tami said, her arms full.
“Danny?” Tami blanched.
“Danny’s been hit.”
“Hurry. There may not be much time.”
Does Major Damon know? Colonel Baran must have told him.
“But it was only make believe,” Tami stammered.
The triage unit had several cots, each one in a cubicle divided by curtains that slid on rods. Three of the cots were occupied. Danny, on one of them, was on life support. The other two no longer needed life support.
Tami went to stand beside Danny’s cot. Mounds of hastily applied gauze stanched body fluids draining from open gashes.
“Can he hear me?”
The nurse, busy, mumbled something and moved away.
“Danny, it’s me.”
Then, not knowing what else to do, Tami took Danny’s hand.
“Is he going to make it?” Tami said to the busy nurse as she scurried by.
The nurse muttered something to indicate that she was, indeed, busy.
“Is he going to make it?!” Tami shouted.
“Keep your voice down. There’s wounded in here.”
“I want to know if he’s going to make it!” Tami seethed.
“Probably not,” the nurse said. “Would you mind steeping outside? We need the space.”
“I’m his wife. I’m not leaving him.”
What did I just say?!
“Then pull up a stool and try not to be in the way.”
Tami gazed at Danny’s face, which, thankfully, maybe on account of the sedation, wasn’t contorted. He hasn’t got a beard or a moustache. His face is delicate, not very manly, now that I’m looking at it. His eyes are his best feature, though they’re only blank slits now. It must’ve been a mortar attack. Those things can rip you apart. He’s so calm. Not even breathing.
“Danny, I didn’t mean to put you off. I was feeling overwhelmed. I guess if it was going to be – you and me, I mean – I was wishing there might’ve been time for us to go from fifteen love, volley by volley, to match point before doing… what we did. ‘Cause I think…” tears were starting to come… “if we’d’ve had time, I could have grown to love you.” And having said that she thought she could have, she knew, inside, that she could have, and the tears really came.
So calm. Not even breathing…. Wait. Something’s wrong. Nurse!
The nurse came running. Ear to mouth. Pulse. Hands groping under the sheet. Eyes on the flat-lined monitor. The nurse shook her head and looked sadly, at Tami. I’m sorry…
No way! It’s not possible. People don’t just… not like that. They struggle. They put up a fight. They pledge their… whatever that thing was that I pledged.
The nurse swung the curtain shut, leaving Tami to gaze at Danny. Tami reached for Danny’s hand. He’ll never get to Florence. He’ll never walk out on the Ponte whatever-it-is. He’ll never get to see… and then, with a roar of grief unlike anything she’d felt before, another life becoming, in the moment, the measure of her own, Tami cried out, not caring who might hear and unable to stop herself, “He’ll never get to see boats and trees in a way that would really let him see them!” And then, with the awareness striking home that Danny’s dream would never come true, Tami wept, loud and unrestrained, as though she herself might never see a boat or a tree or anything like them ever again. “Oh, Danny, you should have been a leaf on a tree of beauty. You should have been a sail on a boat of wonder. And, like my namesake in the Bible, I would have run like the wind, in my harlot’s dress of gray shirt, gray skirt, gray socks and gray Keds, in the hope of catching up with you!”
“Give her a minute,” Major Damon, on the other side of the curtain, said to the doc who wanted Danny moved to free up space for one of the other casualties that the head set on the radio said was on its way in. “They were newlyweds.”
For the next few weeks, as the border heated up and the weather cooled down, Tami kept to herself. Meanwhile, Danny’s mom and Ron arrived home to receive the urn that held Danny’s ashes.
At length, Tami went to call on Major Damon.
“The inscription on the statue you took us to see,” Tami said. “You said it in Latin. ‘Dulce et decorum est…’”
“‘Pro patria mori.’”
The Major was a rugged man with a face free of non-essentials.
“What does it mean? And what’s a griffin?”
“The phrase expresses a patriotic ideal. It’s from Horace, a Latin poet. A griffin is a visual representation of that ideal.”
“It doesn’t make sense though.”
“The ideal, its representation or both?”
“What I did. What I agreed to do.”
“Danny wanted out. You were a means to that end.”
“I know, and I wanted to help. But I told the nurse I was his wife.”
“So you did.”
“And I meant it when I said it.”
“Danny was in extremis. You were wrought up.”
“Which is why I’m sure I meant it.”
“You’ve a long life ahead of you,” Major Damon scrutinized Tami, “that is, such length as those who belong to a people like ours might hope to have. As far as the law goes, where there’s no intent, there’s no binding agreement. You’re as free as… as the apples hauled in from the orchard to be sorted into their crates. Help yourself to as many as you like. It will save the kitchen crew the trouble of lugging the wormy ones to the compost.”
“You say there’s no binding agreement where there’s no intent,” Tami said. “But I said things. Things that can’t be unsaid.”
“Without meaning them when saying them, words are nonsense syllables, hieroglyphs etched into a monument awaiting translation.”
“No, I don’t believe that. Even if I didn’t mean them – though maybe I did and didn’t know I did – I said them. And now, in some way, I’m bound by them. And that’s what I don’t understand. In some way that makes no sense, I’m his wife… his widow.”
“Not in the legal sense. We’re a people of the law. The law is our lifeblood.”
“My lifeblood is what seeps into my tampon each month,” Tami was shocked to hear herself speaking so bluntly to her commanding officer. “Lord knows what my mother will think,” Tami shook her head, “though maybe she’ll surprise me. Maybe it’s time I…,” Tami looked at Major Damon with a hint of determination, “pushed her.”
“How old are you?” Major Damon looked frankly at Tami.
“I’ll be twenty-one in April.”
Major Damon chuckled. “My younger daughter’s a year shy of you. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, she’s a raging feminist. Male chauvinists, look out!”
“And on the other days of the week?”
“She hugs her teddy in her jammies with the bears and bunnies on them.”
Tami burst out laughing, and with that burst of laughter, a cord of irresolution that was wrapped around her heart began to loosen.
“When Isaac was an old man and ready to leave this life,” Major Damon said—…you may recall the tale from your days in Sunday school—his wife, Rebecca, played a trick on him. Esau was the elder twin. Jacob was the younger. Esau had hairy arms. Jacob’s arms were smooth. That’s how their father told them apart, having by then, lost his eyesight. Everything went to the elder in those days. Younger sons stayed on as vassals or went into the army or became priests in our equivalent of the Church.
“Jacob was his mother’s favorite. She didn’t care much for Esau. And when Isaac called for Esau to come to him so that Isaac might give Esau his blessing – bestow his patrimony – Rebecca had Esau go off and run an errand. Then she took a sheepskin, gave it to Jacob and said, ‘Drape this over your arms and go in to your father. He’ll think you’re your brother,’ which Jacob did, the little sneak. So when Isaac, to make sure it was Esau who was kneeling before him, said, ‘Reach out that I may feel your arms,’ Jacob, his arms wrapped in the sheepskin, deceived the old man who then pronounced his blessing on the imposter.
“When Esau returned and got wind of the ruse, he flung himself on his father’s lap and begged his father’s blessing, but it was too late. The old man had said the words that couldn’t be unsaid. ‘Have you nothing left for me, father? Nothing at all?’ ‘No, my son, I’ve given it all, every jot and tittle.’ They were beside themselves with grief, father and son. But the words had been spoken.”
“You said we’re a people of the law and that where there’s no intent, there’s no binding agreement,” Tami said. “So how could they have let that stand?”
“You’ll have to take it up with the rabbis,” the Major said. “They’ve been hashing it out for nigh on to two millennia.”
“Then they’re stupid,” Tami said.
“The rabbis?” the Major bit back a smile. A young woman all of twenty years old dismissing the collective wisdom of the race with a backward sweep of her hand—the charm and the irresistible insouciance of youth.
“I mean what’s the point of haggling about it,” Tami said, “when the answer’s in here where the last word gets spoken.” Tami touched her shirt pocket beneath which perked her braless breast.
Major Damon smiled. “And I wish you well as you seek to decipher it.”
During the course of the next few months, Tami blended, without fanfare, into the settlement’s daily round as stalemate on the border ratcheted down to a former sense of urgency.
When Tami’s furlough came up in the spring, she paid a visit to her mother.
“So you had an affair,” Tami’s mother said when Tami related a condensed version of what had gone on with Danny. “That’s what army life is for, isn’t it?”
“Not an affair. Not exactly. And I’m still intact as far as that goes.”
“So whatever it was, it was more imagined than real.”
The details, Tami said, were unimportant. What mattered was that Tami wanted to experience – and to share – a stronger bond of intimacy with her mother than had thus far existed between them.
“Perhaps when you’ve earned it,” Tami’s mother said.
“No, mother,” Tami held her ground, “it’s not a matter of earning it. Maybe that’s the point of the story—that it’s my birthright simply by virtue of being your daughter. I love you. I look up to you. You’ve shaped me in ways I’m probably not aware of and haven’t yet come to appreciate, but I’ll take my sheep and goats and go dwell in the Land of Canaan all my days if you can’t man up and open up to me. And heaven help the shepherd who spills the seed of deception on the ground of my trust.”
“This is what six months in the army has done?” Tami’s mother said, impressed, in spite of herself, with her daughter’s cheek. “Schooled you in the art of issuing ultimatums?”
“Never mind what six months in the army may or may not have done,” Tami shot back. “I want a mother, not a… portrait hanging in a gallery at the Uffizi for the tourists in Florence to gawk at before they go to lunch al fresco on the piazza.”
“You’re asking a lot,” Tami’s mother said.
“A lot? I’m asking for every jot and tittle.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” Tami’s mother said. “You may be in for more than you’ve bargained for.”
“I’ll handle it,” Tami said with a degree of temerity to which neither she nor her mother had yet borne witness.
“I’ve always felt guilty for having driven your father away. For me, it was the right thing, but it deprived you of a father and for that, I’m truly sorry.”
“You needn’t be,” Tami smiled. “You did the job of two and never broke service.”
When Tami got back to the settlement, she rustled up a dusty hi-fi turntable. While on leave, she’d stopped at a music emporium where, flipping through the bins, she’d stumbled on an old Joan Baez album. Though Tami’s English was too halting to make much sense of the words, the guitar, the voice, the ambience drew her in.
On a solitary walk along the path behind the warehouse – no weepin’ knives or weeping eyes, no waters that flowed except in trickles when it rained, no loving arms into which a pristine breast might press – only, as it happened, a loose lace on one of her running shoes that she bent over to do up, Tami gazed at the surrounding greenery and, in a tone that mimicked the lilt of a folk tune from another time and place, she hummed, “If ever
I should married be, I’ll still, for love, be true to thee…,” and there’ll be a yummy piece of wedding cake stowed in the freezer, to be wrapped in wax paper uneaten, for all e-ter-ni-tee.
I’m an attorney in Amherst MA where I offer home and alternative school seminars in “Community Economics for Sustainable Living” online at http://www.communomics.com. This story comes from a time when I was living and working on a border kibbutz in Israel.