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The Kissing Stone

Tags: war, love, three

Three young people go to the woods after the war and what happens to them



...And when the silence was at its deepest, the stillness so complete that even the crickets ceased their shouting, and the watchman on duty was dozing off somewhere. Alya arose from her bed as if obeying a command and, dressed in her nightclothes, went to the door and opened it. For a long moment, she stood at the open door listening, then closed the door behind her and walked into the night. The way she walked was more like floating, down the moonlit path, straight toward the old water tower where a month earlier, wrapped in bloodstained army blankets, five corpses had lain on the ground. Five dead soldiers.

She sang softly, “I am dreaming, and my eyes can see . . . Anemones, red, red anemones. . ."

Time leaped back. Again she saw them, lying in a straight line, their naked feet sticking out of the bloody blankets. She bent down and, one after the other, lifted the blankets and searched the faces with the tips of her fingers, ever so softly touched the faces. But he wasn’t among them. “Gill!” she called. “Gill!” And she began walking around the dead soldiers just as she had walked then—that day, during the war, the day they’d brought the bodies. “Red, red anemones,” she sang until she heard Gill’s voice, and his voice was soft and clear and bright.

Tomorrow will be a beautiful day. Go to the woods . To our secret place.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes. Tomorrow. In the woods. Our secret place. Yes. Listen, Gill, I’ve something important to tell you . . .” But Gill was gone, the dead soldiers vanished, she alone was standing by the old water tower, smiling at nothing. And still singing Gill’s favorite tune, she returned to her room. She went on singing, even softer, as she got back into her bed. For a while, she lay quietly, her eyes wide-open; and she remembered the sky that seemed almost black, each star a burning flame, the moon bigger and brighter than she ever saw it, the moss that sprouted out of the cracks in the cement of the old water tower, the smell of death on the soldiers’ faces as she leaned close to touch them. Then the night around her softened, and only Gill’s gentle voice lingered in her mind, lulling her into sleep.

And while Alya slept a dreamless sleep, in another bed in the same room, Orna pulled the covers over her head, her brain alert and restless though her body lay rigid and still. The fear she came face-to-face with every night when Alya left the room did not end when Alya returned; and in order to bring sleep, Orna closed her eyes, longing to dive into the realm of dreams, to evolve toward another more satisfying form of existence. And she fastened her mind on the happy memories of her childhood, before the war.

And while Alya slept and Orna conjured up pictures of happy, carefree days, in the bed under the window, Ruthie turned toward the wall, beset by ominous thoughts: How long was this lunacy going to go on? Weren’t they going to do something about Alya? The war was over. Why don’t they do something? Tears of frustration wet her pillow as she lay there in the suffocating stillness, waiting to sleep.

On Saturday afternoon, Orna was sitting on the lawn in a spot of brilliant sunlight, lost in gloomy thoughts, as she leafed abstractedly through a small book of poetry. Her head ached, her temple throbbed, her eyelids were sore and slightly puffy after a night of troubled sleep. She let the book drop to the grass, closed her eyes, and abandoned herself to the consoling warmth of the afternoon sun. Her face relaxed a little. From one of the houses, she heard faint singing. “Red, red anemones . . .”

She sat motionless while the song lasted. When it stopped, she opened her eyes and raised her head. Suddenly she noticed Alya slinking like a tomcat between trees and shrubberies, careful to avoid meeting anyone.

Perhaps Orna knew what her friend was up to. Perhaps she didn’t. But she leaped to her feet and called, “Alya!” And she watched as her friend halted abruptly, then turned and slowly came across the grass toward her.

“Well,” Orna said, “why are you sneaking around like a criminal?”

“I am going to the woods,” said Alya.

Orna felt her heart lurch in her chest. “You can’t be serious,” she said in a fierce whisper, fixing her blue eyes wide-open upon Alya.

“Why not? I love the woods.”

Orna, striving to keep her voice even, said, “I love the woods too. But I don’t go there.”

Alya smiled enigmatically. “That’s because you don’t have a soul.”

“What do you mean I don’t have a soul? Oh, never mind, you and your fancy words.” Orna leaned forward, her face almost touching Alya’s. “Tell me,” she breathed. “You might as well tell me because I saw you talking to him. Alone.” Orna felt like punching Alya—actually, all day she felt like punching someone, anyone.

“I’m meeting Ari in the woods at five o’clock,” said Alya.

Orna lost her cool altogether. “Are you mad? You don’t even know him.”

“I know him,” said Alya. “He’s nice. He’s a poet.”

“So? He’s old. I hear he’s twenty and maybe even more.” Orna, feeling helplessly annoyed, glared at her friend. “What’s wrong with you anyway? Don’t you ever read the paper?”

“Orna, you’re in love with him.” Alya’s voice was low and even.

“I’m not.” Orna made a desperate effort to sound nonchalant.

“Oh,” muttered Alya.

“Oh what?” Orna barked at her friend.

“I’m glad you’re not in love with him. That’s all,” said Alya, her voice slightly apologetic.

Orna stared at her friend, her blue eyes wild. No, she concluded to herself she’s definitely nothing special to look at. She looks ten, not fifteen, and she doesn’t even have boobs. She’s so skinny. Orna took a deep breath, deliberately extending her well-developed breasts. Thank God I don’t have freckles and red hair , she thought and, with a flick of her head, tossed her long yellow hair then noticed that Alya’s eyes were fixed upon her face with a sort of an innocent yet mischievous glint, and that her lips parted slightly in a little smile. Yes , Orna thought, it’s this innocent look in her eyes, this smile . She recalled Ruthie telling her the other day that people were talking about how strange Alya has become.

“The last rumor,” Ruthie had said with a weird look of excitement on her plump baby face, “is that at night, Alya has been seen walking near that awful place by the old water tower where the dead soldiers had lain, talking and singing to herself and calling her father’s name. And I heard people say if this continues, something drastic should be done.”

Orna, determined in her loyalty to Alya, immediately jumped to her friend’s defense. “This is a vicious rumor. Alya sleeps in the same room with you and me, and I’ve never seen her leave in the middle of the night or talk to herself. And as far as calling out her father’s name—honestly, Ruthie, sometimes you make me sick. Don’t you understand anything?”

“You know it’s true,” Ruthie had said. “Every night you wait for her to return from the old water tower. Every night. And even after she returns, you can’t sleep, and neither can I. So don’t pretend you don’t know.”

Yes, of course, Orna knew. Everyone knew.

Now, looking at Alya’s upturned face, Orna thought how changed Alya was by her father’s death. Not that she was ever ordinary; everything about her was a little eccentric, out of accord with the rest of her friends. But as time passed, it has become more and more apparent that Alya no longer inhabited their world, that she lived in a private world of her own where all dimension had seemed to be eliminated between the living and the dead, a mysterious world that belongs only to her and Gill. And when people mentioned the war or talked of death, a hard and remote expression would invade Alya’s face, leaving her brilliant brown eyes expressionless. And she would walk way. And Orna would watch her with anxious heart, a tide of pain rising to her chest, and she would follow her friend and walk by her side and silently watch Alya’s pale, almost luminous, face. And she would swallow her tears.

And of course, everyone talked about the war—that was all they have been talking about. So more often than not, instead of going to school, Alya would go to the woods of the olive grove, sit under a tree, and read, mostly dream. And sometimes Orna would find her fast asleep with her face buried in a bunch of yellow dandelions that grew in abundance under the trees. Alya would say that school was boring, that she was so happy in the woods and the grove. “Don’t tell on me, Orna. Please don’t tell on me,” she would plead. So if anyone asked her if she knew where Alya was, Orna would merely shrug her shoulder and say impatiently, “What am I, her keeper. How should I know?” And yet Alya’s growing remoteness was something very difficult for Orna to bear.

And now Alya was going to the woods to meet this stranger, Ari. The new poetry teacher. “Alya,” Orna said, sadness mingled with impatience replacing her anger, “don’t you know it’s dangerous to go to the woods?”

“Dangerous? Why?”

“Why? Why do you think there are still so many soldiers there? And what about the mines? Don’t you remember when Boaz stepped on a mine and everyone in the kibbutz was sure he would die?”

“Gill had said Boaz wouldn’t die.” Alya smiled serenely. “Gill knows everything.”

Orna wanted to scream that Gill was dead, that he was killed in the war and would never come back. But she merely looked at the ground and viciously kicked at the grass with the toe of her shoe.

“You have a morbid mind, Orna,” Alya said. “You make up all kinds of stories. You see demons and evil spirits everywhere—you scare yourself crazy. And you’re always confusing things. It’s true that Boaz stepped on a mine, but it didn’t happen in the woods, it happened near the cornfield. And the papers, I don’t read the papers. And besides, Ari will be there to protect me.

“How? Does he have a gun?” Orna was rapidly losing her temper again.

But Alya merely smiled. “No,” she said gently. “He doesn’t have a gun. He has a book of poetry.”

Orna leaned forward a little and, glaring straight into Alya’s eyes, said, “He’s so odd and so silent, you shouldn’t be alone with him. Did you see the scar on his cheek? Ruthie told me that during the war, he was with the commando unit in the Arava desert and got wounded in the face by a shrapnel. Ruthie also said that he never talks about the war because he saw terrible things happen there, and that—for three months after he got wounded—he didn’t talk at all, and that he himself almost got killed, and—” Orna clamped a hand over her mouth, letting out a low sound, as she saw the familiar empty look in Alya’s eyes; and as her friend turned away from her, she grabbed her hand. “Alya,” she groaned, “I’m sorry.”

Alya turned back to face her friend. She stood silent, her face white and remote and detached, her eyes turned inward. “I have to go now,” she said after a moment and walked away.

“Alya! Wait!” Orna called, sobbing.

Alya walked toward the gate of the kibbutz. Amos, her dog, trotted beside her, licking her hand. His damp black eyes were begging for her attention, but his efforts were not being paid as usual. “Go home, Amos,” Alya said. The dog fixed accusing, hurt eyes on her and whined mournfully. Then he laid back his ears, turned around, and crouched at the kibbutz gate to wait.

Outside the gate of the kibbutz, Alya began to run. It was two miles from the kibbutz to the woods, and the world around her glistened green and pure and tranquil. The old eucalyptuses on each side of the road rushed pasted her as if moving backward. She ran fast, trying not to think. But it was no use. She couldn’t stop the incessant chatter of her mind. She was remembering how, when after poetry class on Friday, Ari had stopped her and asked if she could meet him somewhere—anywhere, she should only name the place—on Saturday at five. He took her by such surprise that for a moment , she merely stood gaping at him then flushed, her mind twisting with confusion. “Why me?” But he said with an encouraging smile, “To read poetry.” She looked at him closely and noticed two bitter-looking lines around his mouth. His hair was black and curly, his face narrow and dark, and his lips full. A red scar in the shape of a rose was etched high on his right cheekbone. But it was his eyes that touched her imagination: deep-set black eyes that looked at her with gentleness and appreciation. Perhaps the way Gill’s eyes looked at her. I like him , she thought.

“To read poetry?” She paused. “Okay.”

“Where should we meet?”

“Go to the woods. To our regular place,” says Gill.

“In the woods,” came out of her mouth like in a dream. “By the Kissing Stone.”

“The Kissing Stone?”

She blushed, giggled nervously, and bit her lips. “It’s only a name of a big white rock in the woods.”

He said nothing, only looked at her with his head tilted, and she saw fine hardly visible lines creasing the corners of his eyes. “Well,” she said with a sort of daring shyness, “it’s only a rock. When our parents lived inside the woods, they named it the Kissing Stone.”

“I didn’t know the kibbutz was built inside the woods.”

“There are many things about us you don’t know.”

He smiled at her good-humoredly. “But I’m learning fast. Why did they move from the woods to the hill?”

“They had to. Living in the woods wasn’t safe then because—oh, I don’t remember that time, I was only a little girl. Anyway, the Kissing Stone is easy to sit on, and you can’t miss it because it’s the biggest rock in the woods, and it’s very, very white.”

She looked around, unsure of being seen with him alone. People talk. Oh never mind , she thought. Let them talk, they would anyhow . And when he said, “I hear the woods isn’t exactly a safe place now either,” she pulled herself up and looked defiantly into his eye, challenging. “It’s safe enough,” she said. “I go there all the time.” Then a small devil leaped inside her, and a little mischievous smile lifted the corners of her mouth. She said, “Except of course for the snakes.” She saw the look in his eyes change.

“Big snakes?” he asked, his voice soft but subtle, stroking her nerves like a balm.

She whispered, “Enormous,” and watching him laugh, she laughed with him. But the moment was a difficult one for her. Perhaps for him too.

Now, recalling the entire scene, each detail fresh and alive. Alya felt hot and sticky. Not quite real. And he had chosen her, and she wondered how a thing like that could have happened to her. If I were him , she was thinking, I would have chosen Orna. Orna is so sophisticated, adventurous, and of course, the prettiest.

My beautiful girl. My clever little honeybee , says Gill.

Near the woods, Alya slackened her pace. Her legs felt strange as though her knees were made of gum. Her red hair stuck to her flushed, damp cheeks, and her shirt was soaking wet.

Is that what Gill means when he talks about love? she wondered. At that moment, she wished Amos, her dog, was with her, or even Orna.

“Oh, don’t panic. It’ll be all right,” she admonished herself.

When she reached the edge of the woods, she stopped running and stood listening. She listened not only with her ears but also with her whole person, her face assuming an odd, mystical expression. After a moment, she took off her shoes and slowly entered the woods. The stillness was complete and soothing, stroking her nerves like a mother’s gentle hand. The damp pine needles yielded submissive and soft under the light pressure of her bare feet, and a red winter sun acting as a chaperone winked at her through the branches of the trees. The ground was crimson with anemones. She sang softly, “Red, red anemones . . .”

She picked an anemone and slightly caressed her face with its delicate petal, inhaling the fresh and poignant fragrance of recent rain and pine needles. She walked slowly, feeling the warmth of the sun on her back and shoulders, when suddenly the stillness was interrupted by a loud, abrupt metallic sound. She turned quickly but saw nothing unusual, only dense blankets of scarlet, white, and yellow flowers beneath the tall grass and under the trees. The wild thumping of her heart subsided. She sighed and shrugged then, singing, entered the long, narrow path of the cypresses. After a while, she turned to the right where the pine branches entwined, converging into an awning, making a shade over her head. With the anemone’s flowers, she wove a red laurel with which she adorned her head and forehead, securing it with hairpins. A slight breeze began to stir. She saw the tops of the cypresses sway gently. Sparrows and wagtails and bulbuls and red-breasted robins sang all around her. Then she saw the Kissing Stone, solid as ever. And there was Ari, sitting on its flat surface, reading from a small book.

Dazed with excitement, Alya became almost unconscious of her surroundings, a little frightened. Holding her breath, she crept closer and watched him from behind the thick gnarled trunk of an old acacia tree. She thought him beautiful. Suddenly he got up and began to recite. She couldn’t hear the words he uttered; his voice was only a murmur. But his face was entirely visible to her, and she saw him grimace and gesture wildly like a mad actor on an invisible stage. She giggled. He looked around. “Alya?” She crouched lower behind the tree’s trunk. She saw him look at his watch. She looked at hers. Five o’clock. She stood still, listening again, completely absorbed.

“Here I come,” she said, and from among the shadows of the trees, she stepped out into the bright light of the clearing. With the red laurel on her head, she walked bravely to meet him.

He turned and saw her standing with her shoes in her hand, her feet bare and mud caked, and the red anemones laurel circling her head like little leaping flames. He gazed at her, enchanted, his face white and tense, his right hand clutching the book of poetry to his chest. She looked so young and timid it scared him, made him feel uncertain in himself. The reality of their situation suddenly confused him. What were his intentions toward her?

From the first moment he had seen her, she dominated his thoughts. He wished to be alone with her, to know her. And yet as much as he was attracted to her, something about her disturbed him, made him feel perplexed. She was completely different from anyone he’d ever met. She seemed always to be mocking a little. Not overtly, not obvious, and definitely without malice; but it was there in the glint of her eyes, in her smile. Her smile—the most charming smile he had ever seen on a human face yet also most disquieting. A smile that was ironic and sweet, innocent yet knowing, pure joy and passion mixed with deep sorrow. And still he felt compelled to know her.

“Alya, you’re really here,” he said softly, trying to hide his confusion.

“Yes,” she laughed.

Not knowing what else to say, he asked, “Did you see the soldiers?”

“No,” she said, and he saw her body stiffen. He looked at her in wonder.

She liked his shyness. It made him seem younger, and it made her feel older, a little bolder. But she wasn’t going to talk about wars or death, and she hoped he wasn’t going to talk about it either. She wouldn’t be able to bear it. She would have to walk away from him, and she didn’t want to walk away from him.

I like him, she thought. His eyes are so gentle.

She stood meditating and looked deep into the shade of the dense foliage, listening to the songs of the insects in the grass. She was conscious of his eyes upon her and his silence. She hesitated a moment then, with a small frown on her face, said, “The woods seems somehow different.”

“Different?” he asked. “How?”

“The woods seems so calm today as if hiding an important secret. Orna would say, ‘It is full of demons and spirits.’ She giggled, embarrassed at her own words.

“Probably because of the soldiers,” he said. “They seem to be everywhere.”

She said nothing but looked at him so intently, her face pale, her eyes pained. Suddenly she felt trapped in her loneliness, lost inside herself, and as if she were cold, she hugged her shoulders.

Only a bad dream. Shah . . . , says Gill.

Perhaps at that moment, as she met his eyes, he saw the the terrible pain in them, Ari began to understand, to know her. He reached out his hand as if to wipe off the fear from her heart. She looked at him, transfixed. His fingers touched her cheek. She shut her eyes. She felt as if she wanted to hide herself in him, in his gentleness, in his strength. She opened her eyes.

Shah . . . Nothing to be afraid of. I’m here, says Gill.

She sat on the stone’s surface, her head turned toward the setting sun, her eyes squinting at the early-evening radiance. For a while , they sat in silence—she looking at the sky, he looking at her. Then she turned to him and said, “This stone means so much to so many,” and with the open palm of her right hand, she slowly, sensually caressed the stone. Perhaps she was thinking about his hand on her face.

“Tell me about it.” He took her hands and held them for a moment between his.

“It means happiness and disappointments, dreams and love and—death. When our parents were young, they used to meet here.” She blushed. “Oh,” she said in a little voice, “I don’t really know how to talk about it. It’s our parents’ secret.” And suddenly she felt foolish, sitting like that in the exposed clearing with the red anemones laurel on her head and her hands held in his. But her hands felt right and comfortable in his. Perhaps more. The blush deepened on her cheeks.

“Let’s read poetry,” Ari said. He jumped off the stone, pulling her with him, spread a blanket on the damp grass, and sat upon it. She sat next to him, her shoulder barely touching his. She removed the hairpins from the red laurel and let it slide down around her neck. As she leaned back against the Kissing Stone, her fear disappeared. She felt safe again. Safe with him. He opened his book of poetry and read to her simply, his voice rich. She closed her eyes and tipped her head back until it rested on the stone, listening to the poet’s words and the man’s voice. At that moment she felt in harmony with the red sun and the tranquil universe.

And when you’re completely silent, you’ll hear the wings of the butterflies, says Gill.

Ari closed the book and quietly looked at her.

“How beautiful.” She smiled. “Poetry. Gill loves poetry.”

“Gill?” He looked at her questioningly.

For a moment she looked at him in silence, as if not sure that she wanted to tell him. “Gill is my father,” she said in a quiet, soft vice. “The people in the kibbutz say he was killed in the war by a bullet. But to me he’s alive. He’s always with me. He talks to me. People think I’m mad, and perhaps they are right, but I have no chice. You’d like Gill. You’re like him, a little. Would you like to know him?”

“Yes,” Ari said.

Slowly she withdrew her hands from his. She sat completely still with only a smile on her lips; and her brown eyes, full of light and shadows, gazed at the sky with a sort of rapture. Perhaps she was hearing Gill’s voice at that moment. 

She spoke very softly: “Gill and I come here every day in winter. Gill talks to me about the butterflies and the birds and the flowers and trees and of all the earth’s creatures. Gill and I, we have a bond between us. Gill never says, ‘Go to school. Alya. You’ve got to be like everyone else, Alya.’ He says, ‘Come, the vineyards are heavy with grapes, the orchards laden with fruit. Come let us go for a heavenly walk.’ That’s the way Gill talks. And we walk in the fall and in winter, and we walk in the spring and in summer. And we walk for hours. And Gill always hums a tune to himself, and his voice is joyful, his eyes are full of light and always laughing. Gill’s eyes are green, and his hair is red and thick and curly and coarse like lamb’s wool. When Rina, my mother, wants to tease him, she says he looks like a broom caught on fire, but to me he looks like a pillar of light.

“Sometimes Rina, my mother, would join us on our walks but not very often because she isn’t very strong. She is delicate and tires quickly. But then Rina doesn’t care for the vineyards and orchards and woods the way Gill and I do. She says it’s awfully hot there and sticky, and there are millions of bees and wasps and all kinds of dangerous creatures living among the grapes, peaches, apples, and flowers. Once, in the vineyard, I was stung by a wasp, and my face was swollen for days, and my eyes disappeared altogether. I looked so ugly just like I did when I had the mumps. Gill called me a chipmunk and said it wasn’t so bad, it’ll toughen me up. But Rina was terribly upset and fussed over me as if I were critical. I loved being fussed over like that by Rina. Gill kept teasing her and quoting to her from the Bible, saying that like the Shulamit, she was fairest among women , and he called her his lily of the valley . And he took her in his arms and kissed her until she stopped talking, and I saw her burrow her face in his woolly coarse red hair, and in his hair, she later told me, she smelled the fields and the earth and the air. And he made her forget all that existed outside of themselves, and that was very nice and made me very happy. 

Rina and Gill are crazy about each other, and Gill once told me that he kissed Rina for the first time right here on the Kissing Stone. Rina says that Gill and I are birds of a feather, and that we’ll be the death of her, we’re so wild. I wish Rina could feel him like I do. But she doesn’t. And she has that funny look on her face when I say that he is only lost somewhere, and she has to find him. Then it won’t hurt so much, and she won’t feel so lonely. She looks at me, and a strange smile appears on her face, and I can tell that she doesn’t see me at all. Perhaps she sees Gill. I don’t really know. And she begins to cry silently and pulls me to her and kisses me all over my face, and her tears wet my face, and she moans and sighs so sadly I want to run away. It’s unbearable.”

Alya looked at Ari. “Have you ever met her?”

Ari didn’t answer. He was sitting erect, his body utterly still as though held by a terrible tension; and his face, she saw, was suddenly distorted as if he were gripped by an intolerable pain.

Ari wiped the sweat from his brow. Someone, or was it something, was laughing at him with a piercing shriek. Shells whistled around him. The jeep he was driving blew right from under him. Three of his friends were torn to pieces. He pressed his open palm to the wound in Dan’s throat. He was drenched in Dan’s blood; the taste of it was in his mouth. He was breathing blood; blood was on his face, on his hands, in his eyes. “Dan!” he screamed. “Dan! Don’t die!” But Dan, his best friend, was dead. He stopped breathing just like that. The terrible rage of that moment threatened once more to obliterate his sanity. He felt the nausea rising up in him. The ghastly, helpless feeling was with him. In him. He was in agony and was unable, for a moment, to collect himself.

His mind was still locked on the image of his dying friend when he felt a pressure on his hand. And when he turned his head and looked at her, he was looking out of his chaos down into her uplifted, faintly flushed face and vivid brown eyes.

“Gill says pain is only an illusion,” Alya said. “And Gill once told me that the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert say there is a dream always dreaming us.” Then she smiled and removed the red anemones laurel from around her neck, and crouching on her knees, she slowly placed it at the edge of the blanket. “For Gill.” She hesitated a moment, then turned her head and looked at him. “You understand, don’t you? About Gill, I mean.”

Yes, he knew. He understood. She lived inside her imagination. She was chained to the ghost of her dead father as he was chained to the ghost of his slain friend. And for one breathless moment, he imagined himself setting her free, bearing her away. Saving her. Suddenly he imagined the man, Gill, shot through the chest, lying on the arid ground of the Arava desert with the hot wind roughing his flame-like hair, his eyes open into a blue and empty heaven.

Ari clenched his fists.

And as if reading his thoughts, he heard her whisper, “If I let go of Gill now, I’ll lose him forever.”

“Yes,” he said.

They looked at each other. Pained. He took her hand again. They sat in silence and listened to their ghosts as they watched the winter sun bleeding its dying rays over the branches of the trees.

The moment Alya disappeared from her sight, Orna went quickly to the room she shared with her and Ruthie. She put on an old pair of sneakers and a white sweater over her blouse and tied a scarf around her blond curls. Suddenly she sat down on her bed and stared in front of her as if in a spell, her heart boiling with raging and conflicting emotions. Of course she was jealous of Ari being sweet on Alya and not on her, but she also knew that wasn’t what made her feel so utterly devastated. She couldn’t understand the restlessness that came upon her with such a force. She felt bewildered, afraid, and unbearably sad. “Oh,” she cried and banged her fists on the bed. “One day, I’ll go away. Far, far away. Away from hate, from wars, from death.” She kept hitting the bed with her clenched fist until her hands were raw. She felt no relief. She thought of another conversation she had with Ruthie: Ruthie had said, “This Alya, she’s always up to something weird like going to the woods where no one goes now. And the way she talks about her father. Real freaky. She seems to be the only one in the kibbutz who doesn’t know that he’s dead. And the way she never cries. Never. She didn’t cry the day they told her he was dead, she didn’t shed a tear at his funeral. Not a tear. You saw how she was. You stood at her side as they lowered him into the ground. You never took your eyes from her, and you didn’t cry either. I must say, Orna, you looked almost as crazy as she did. She. Standing there like a stranger looking at the sky. Smiling. I thought I’ll die. My god, Orna, she’s mad. Really crazy.”

“Shut up,” Orna hissed. “Just shut up.”

Recalling that conversation, Orna suddenly felt, as she had felt many times and especially since Gill’s death, that she had to protect Alya against herself. I should have found a way to prevent her from going to the woods. How could I have been so blinded by jealousy? How? How? And then finally came the tears. Tears that had choked her throat that entire day, that entire year. At that moment, like many she had experienced during the war, the world seemed to her dim and grim and menacing—full of evil, infested with demons. “I must go to the woods,” she cried. “I must go to the woods now!” And with her eyes still full of tears, she ran out the door and toward the gate of the kibbutz, where Amos, Alya’s dog, was still whining but again to no avail. Ignoring the dog, Orna studied the gate for a moment then turned around. She decided to go through the olive grove. It was a bit faster to reach the woods from there, but the ground was still muddy from recent rain, and her feet sunk into the wet earth, slowing her pace. Above her, the olive trees stretched their bare branches, motionless, like dark arms. She could still hear the dog’s mournful whine, and trying to suppress a feeling of sudden dread, she began to whistle and hastened her pace until she reached the old acacia trunk where she crouched to observe.

Leaning against the Kissing Stone, bathed in the last glow of the red evening light, they looked like images in a dream. Alya was talking, and Ari was listening. The red anemones laurel was around Alya’s neck, and her mouth was curved in an enchanted smile. Orna knew well that look of rapture on her friend’s face. “Oh no,” Orna whispered. “Don’t talk about Gill. Please, please, Alya, don’t talk about Gill.” Would she ever be able to let him go? Would things ever be the way they used to be? 

“Is my happy childhood over?” Orna asked herself in a whisper. 

“Yes, it’s really over,” she answered herself with bitter finality. Her depression, her suffering, time alone would be the healer. Time. She wondered.

When she saw Alya remove the anemones laurel from around her neck and place it, with so much reverence, at the edge of the blanket, Orna understood the significance behind that gesture. She sang softly in a halting, broken voice, “Red, red anemones . . .”

Behind the top of the trees, the red sun lolled westward. The dusk deepened. Only a trace of twilight lingered in the sky. Rain clouds were gathering; the tops of the cypresses waved restlessly. As the night advanced, it grew cold. Orna shivered. She felt cramped in her hiding place. Slowly she began to rise when somewhere nearby she heard a branch of a tree snap suddenly. She crouched back. Did I hear footsteps? Someone breathing? Must be one of the soldiers. She waited. Nothing. Only the breeze playing, moving through the treetops, scuffing the grass, and birds calling out as they settled for the night.

How dumb of me to be so jumpy. I should watch out for my own wild imagination. She leaned her face against the rough bark of the old acacia and gazed into the long shadows of the woods. Suddenly she went rigid. Two flickering black eyes were staring into hers with grisly grin of malice.

Orna screamed. She leaped up. Her face distorted with terror, she ran toward the Kissing Stone. Ari caught her as she stumbled and almost fell. She clung to him, howling and babbling incoherently. She heard Alya’s urgent voice. “Orna! What are you doing here? What is it?”

Orna let go of Ari and looked at Alya with horror-stricken eyes. “There”—she pointed to the old acacia, her teeth chattering—“I . . . I saw something evil . . . A man . . . A demon with murder in his eyes . . . There . . . there . . . I saw the devil. There is danger in the woods. Terrible danger. Let’s get out of here before we’re dead.”

Alya took her friend’s hands. She said, “Orna, Orna, no one is there. See, Ari is looking behind the acacia tree. Look, he’s coming back. All you saw were the shadows of trees and flowers and animals. Calm down. Calm down.”

Orna released her breath, but the horror lingered in her eyes. “This place gives me the creeps, it’s so spooky. I am sure I saw something.” And leaning her trembling arms on the Kissing Stone, she hid her face in her hands. “Alya,’” she sobbed, “I was so jealous, and then suddenly, I had the feeling that something awful is going to happen to you. Really. I’m so ashamed for the lunatic way I’ve behaved.” She looked at Ari. His face was very pale and very silent, but she saw no surprise on his face, no confusion. She tried to smile. 

Ari put his hand on her shaking shoulder. “Don’t cry, don’t cry, Orna. It’s all right now. You had a bad fright. It’s really all right.” He turned to Alya. “It will be completely dark soon. Let’s go back.”

But looking beyond them, far into the woods, Alya saw a soldier approaching. “Look,” Alya cried and pointed. “It’s only a soldier after all. Only a soldier,” she whispered to herself faintly.

Orna wheeled around, and still crying and at the same time laughing hysterically, she waved her arms frantically.

“Let’s go,” Ari said. “Now!” He was looking in the direction of the old acacia. His face tightened with sudden tension. But Alya didn’t seem to see or hear him. She merely stood and listened to the woods.

The soldier raised both arms and waved back; and as he ran toward them, his machine gun swung at his side, its metal glittering red in the fading twilight.

“What’s going on? What are you doing in the woods?” The soldier’s voice was low and angry.

“We’re going back,” Ari said.

“Then hurry.” 

A look passed between the soldier and Ari. The soldier made a signal with his head in the direction of the old acacia, and Ari acknowledged it with a slight nod of his head; then he caught Alya’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go. Quick.” She was startled by the sudden sharpness of his voice but went with him without resisting.

The soldier grabbed Orna’s arm. “I’ll walk with you to the edge of the woods,” he said in the same low, angry voice.

“Let go. You’re hurting me.” Orna tried to free her arm. The soldier ignored her and walked with rapid, almost-running strides, pulling her roughly.

They were only a short distance from the Kissing Stone when the shooting began. The soldier cursed. “Run!” he cried and pushed Orna toward Ari and Alya. She stumbled. Ari caught her by the hand. They saw the soldier swing around and fire in the direction of the old acacia.

They saw him fall. They heard him hit the ground.

“Get down behind the Kissing Stone!” Ari shouted. They ran back amidst a spray of bullets ricocheting—whistling all around them, lodging in the barks of trees, bouncing off rocks, hitting the ground. Shots exploded everywhere. Shots and shouts. Hell.

Alya stopped running and stood rooted to the earth. Her face was lifted; and her eyes were staring, as if in a trance, far into the darkening sky above her head.

Still running, Orna turned her head. She screamed, “Alya! Get down!”

But Alya didn’t move.

“Oh my god! Alya!” Orna almost reached her friend when a bullet struck her between her shoulder blades. She leaped forward and hit the Kissing Stone. Three more bullets entered her body, painting her white sweater dark purple. On the flat surface of the stone, she lay facing the sky, her blue eyes wide-open. And her face? Her face was that of the child she so yearned to be.

Ari stumbled. His body struck the moist ground. With his fingernails, he clawed the earth and, with his last breath, dragged himself to where Alya lay. He collapsed at her side, his head barely touching her right shoulder. He felt his head burning, blood blinding his eyes.

To touch her face. Can’t move. Can’t see. It’s so dark. The clamor in his head was unbearable. He vomited. Then relief. No pain. Silence. Dan? Dan?

At the foot of the Kissing Stone, Alya was lying on her back, her fingers moving, caressing the silky grass. With feverish eyes, she watched the fog descend over the tops of the trees slowly, enveloping the universe with a halo of light. And through the light, a voice called: come, let us go for a heavenly walk.

She lost consciousness.

After a while, she awoke dizzy with pain. What’s happening? Where was she hit? Was this blood? Was it really the end? What was this smell in the air? Rain? Was it rain on her face? She tried to move her legs. Impossible. Her hand groped around. Her fingers touched Ari’s head. She summoned all her willpower and lifted herself up, supporting her trembling body on her left elbow. She looked down at his inert face. “Ari,” she whispered, “Ari.” His eyes were staring at the sky. With her right hand, she touched his cheeks. His face was still warm, his flesh still firm. Was it blood on her hand?

Now. So easy to break the cord of life. Now. A little push. A last breath. A mere glide from here to there.

She collapsed. The silence and darkness were heavy around her. She was sinking fast. Suddenly, behind her closed eyelids, a blast of light. She opened her eyes. Lightning. The air was flushed with lightning, the sky white.

I want to live. I want to live , her mind screamed. “Orna!” she called. “Orna!”

Somewhere in the woods, a night bird screamed.

She pushed herself up again. She turned her head. She saw Orna lying on the Kissing Stone, the growing darkness falling, shrouding her body layer by layer like gauze. Her face, illuminated by the lightning, looked ghostly.

Orna. Orna.

Alya lost her courage. She lay still, mad with pain. To sleep. Not to know. So much fear. Gill. Gill.

Don’t be afraid. I’m here. It’s only a bad dream. Here. That’s better. Nothing bad will happen to my little girl. Shhh. Tomorrow will be a beautiful day , says Gill.

Suddenly she smiled, and in a clear voice she said, “Good-bye, Gill.”

She closed her eyes.

Ari. Orna. Gill. Orna Orna Orna. Don’t tell on me, Orna. Please don’t tell on me.

She heard voices. Familiar voices. A dog bark.

I can’t. Hurry. Hurry.

She fainted and awoke and again fainted. After some time, when her own screams pulled her back from the night into semiconscious numbness of cold and pain, she saw, like in a dream, the wind torches coming near. She heard voices and barks. She felt hands lifting her up. Faces swayed above her, blurred masks. Something warm and wet on her face. A dog whine.

And the last thing she was aware of before she sank back into the dark was the fragrance of pines and wet earth.

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