One Night of Hanukkah: Bird Excerpt
Savta Hanna shifted from one foot to the other and pulled the bag in close to her again in an attempt to move away from where the conversation had gone. Her body looked like the bag felt heavier. “What about your friend? Lila is her name, right?”
Ori squinted. “She likes trees. She’s drawn a lot of the trees around Tel Aviv. I lent her a book. I didn’t want to give it to her at first, because of all the notes I made on the page about the olive tree.”
Sipping from the cardboard cup he continued, “The symbol of the Golani brigade is a green olive tree. It has roots on a yellow background because its artist was from a kibbutz. It’s supposed to stand for the hills in Galilee-”
“Let me sit before I slip,” she called for Ori’s attention.
“Maybe you need new glasses. Look at your elbow.” He laughed a little, pointing at the shoe polish dotting her elbow just underneath. He placed his hand there, guiding her like a fragile old woman, he walked her to the bench across from the fountain.
“You see. Growing things is important.”
“Is that why you garden?”
“The first soldiers were farmers and new immigrants and they wanted to tie themselves as strongly to the land as they could. The olive tree has strong roots. That is a good unit for you. Good for you to be Israeli. I remember from your photograph that the beret was brown like the earth. Why do you only wear gray now?”
“I don’t have the heart for color, at least that’s what Lila would say. Literary bullshit.” Ori felt his eyes ripple. “I just grab whatever mostly, to wear I mean.”
“You went with Lila to the Dead Sea for your birthday? I would like to see Massada.”
“You want to see the fortress? Those Jewish soldiers committed suicide when their supplies ran out.”
“They resisted the Roman army. They stayed together. I’m sorry to have missed so many birthdays.”
His eyes watered. Maybe it was the steam from the coffee. Ori tapped the cup with his palm.
Savta Hanna took his hand. It was cold. She continued, “They controlled their own destiny. My family controls their own destiny. This is a beautiful place, many nice browns and greens here.” She produced the shiny, black shoes from the plastic bag. “I don’t want to take too much of your time. I know you have work to do. Mostly I just want you to get what you came for. Have you tried on the suit?”
“No. Don’t want to ruin it. I hung it up in the hostel.”
“Will you go back?
“To the army? Reserve is always a possibility. Metziut.”
“Sorry. You wouldn’t know the word.”
“You were a good soldier. Mic-.” She cleared her throat. “M’ija is proud.”
“She’s supposed to be. Be proud I mean. Israel is filled with soldiers and songs, films, stories.”
“I don’t think of Israel that way. When I close my eyes, I see it filled with gardens and dreams that should have never been, but still survive. It is difficult to understand yourself through someone else’s stories. Did you like the army?”
“Doesn’t matter. Not like it’s a choice.”
“No? But then there are other choices. Even if you are always a soldier, you have a choice about the kind of fighter you are.” Savta Hanna carefully placed the shoes back into the plastic bag and slipped it into the gap in the curve of his arm where his hand clutched at the bench.
“Would you come for one night of Hanukkah Ori? It is a good holiday for who you are.”
“What do you mean?”
“I always tell the stories that are good for who listens. You are not Ester. You are not Judith. Even they were not always who they claimed to be. But Hanukkah is a holiday that allows me to feel like I am in Israel. It is a story after all of a group of few who defeated a more numerous enemy. It is a holiday of freedom.”
Ori’s stomach rumbled too loud. He scuffed his feet to try to hide it. “And you should eat something. Your ideas are malnourished, but I think your faith is starved, not fake. Good luck at your meeting.” Savta stepped backwards still watching him. The guidebook fell from his lap. She stooped to pick it up, noting the large circle Ori had drawn around Recoleta neighborhood. “Is this where you need to go next?”
Ori nodded. “But just for Lila. The National Art Museum.”
Savta Hanna swept hair back behind her ear. “The cemetery is beautiful too. They are lucky, the ones who know where their loved ones are buried. I hope you find what you are looking for.” She turned around before he would feel obligated to hug her.