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Poems from the pen of Elisha Porat

                                            for Sima and Ephy Eyal
Poetry is a sudden process
of verbal compression.
I remember well one such illumination:
her father was a famous artist
who used to load his brush
with one bullet many --
to explode on the canvas with first touch.
He drew the beautiful head of his daughter
and shook his head with pity at my sweaty pages:
I feel  for the two of you,
she dosen't know yet
that a poet is a continuous process
of the pain of existence.

MEMORIAL DAY

On Memorial Day I take-off to the woods.
Again I'm moved.
Through the smoke I observe
the earth veiling its shoulders.
As they gather before me from the rocks
I command: You're all released to memories.
I turn aside and to you I whisper:
This is it, folks, they're trapped.
They can't escape. Their will and testament
they've left with us.

Trans. by Tsipi Keler, 1997.

A LONGING

On Memorial Day I surrender
to a longing for my dead.
The wail of the siren shrieking
above the Eucalyptus tops
is sounded from afar as if
it were a private whistle-code
between me and them. As if
presently they'll rise
shake off the dust,
lean their bikes against the fence
and whistle back to me.
As if time gathers again
into the funnel of the electric siren:
it goes down through iron and grounds
the awful wailing
deep in the earth.

Trans. by Tsipi Keler.

ON THE BEACH

Saturday noon, on the beach,
the tan grandson burrows into
a dug=up basin padded with sand.
I observe him from the height of my age,
again see my body draw a circle,
warm and sticky of a boy pissing in the sand.
Time flows between us, a golden froth,
and stings my lips with salt.
From the sunken mold of the sand mask
the boy that I was comes back to me,
sprawled, foaming and wallowing, coddled by the sun.
A passing cloud suddenly darkers the light,
my face takes on the hardness of graying plaster:
the short=lived joy, a forgotten image from childhood,
all is swept back, dripping between the fingers
in the rhythmic beat of retreating waves.

Trans. by Tsipi Keler.

ON THE WAY TO NABATIYA

On the way to Nabatiya
the rocks along the curves
seem to resemble the stone columns
of the bay in San Francisco
or the collapsed fences
in a Hasidic community in Jerusalem.
As I tie the belt of the helmet to my chin
tightly fasten the prickly velcro of my vest
adjust the goggles on my forehead
all at once my eyes grow blurry
and for a moment I can't tell
which is farther away:
The United States or Me'ah She'arim.

lebanon, 1984.

Trans. by Tsipi Keler.

HAUNTED

to the memory of Abba Kovner
translated from the Hebrew by Tsipi Keler

Years he smoked, burned, inhaled
filthy butts that wrecked his lungs
with tuberculosis:
muscus, cough and pain.
He didn’t cry he didn’t shout,
he only groaned in private,
and in whispers dictated notes
to those bending over his bed.
The sound of chimes and bells
interrupted the silence of his last nights
always alerting his heart’s flight:
He didn’t save from the fires
a loving mother chasing
after him, clinging as he walks,
as if he were a baby again,
holding her ashes
on his last day.

GROWING OLD

by Elisha Porat

I who was a buck in Jerusalem
a young and fine=muscled buck in Jerusalem lustily
bounding on the terraces of
Jerusalem, now calculate each pace and step
on the ascent to the lost lairs of love.

Clumsily I slide on the inclines
tumbling with the stones of Jerusalem,
Clinging like a desperate survivor to an early memory:
a forgotten classroom lesson
about a cruel and precise law
concerning inclined planes.

Trans. Riva Rubin,

RETIREMENT

Poets do not retire
On reaching their time to be silent, Praising the beauty of Jerusalem
They are pushed slowly eastward
Thrust aside forgotten to the desert.
And there, suddenly in absolute secrecy
Drop mutely from the cliff,
And the bone of their poetry, drying
Bleaching and gathering dust
Descends to the cave opening.
Sinks slowly, gathered
In the dust cloud of the scrolls.

Trans. by Aura Hammer,

WITHOUT A EULOGY

What he wanted was
to hide among the simple
or among the small
whose greatness
he had always craved.
To be at rest with friends
cloaked in the pride of the meek without words,
and without even a eulogy.
And after that, only this:
To lie below tender shoots
sheltered in the shade of thorns
and to hear nothing
but Blackbirds singing.

Trans: Alan Sacks

Copyright ©1998 Elisha Porat.
Used by permission.

PROJECTING A UNITED WILL
translated from the Hebrew by Hanna Lasch

In my youth, the old-timers told me that people who sought solitude in the woods near the kibbutz were unique. Too highly educated to take part in the exhausting work, too sensitive for the daily hustle and bustle, too snobbish to participate in the daily affairs of the settlement, they set out for the tall Eucalyptus trees on the outskirts of the kibbutz to hide in the shade of their thick branches and build a tree house that could only be reached by a makeshift ladder.

And that is why people told all kinds of controversial tales about them; fascinating tales about a life of freedom up here, in the shaded domes, completely isolated from the warm, pulsating life beneath them. These men raised their hot heads upwards, toward a different sky, one that could not be observed by the pedestrians on the soft sandy path down below. Some were dropped from the collective kibbutz memory soon after having arrived. Others lived to a bright old age and eventually joined their comrades down below. They merely blush a little on being jokingly reminded of their former escapades in the treetops. Several of them have actually become legendary. But the tales serve to remind them of their first days in the country, their first steps on the kibbutz — most of all, they recall the unique smells.

As a lad, I chose to ignore the decaying tree houses in which crows nested. I tried to disregard the large rusty nails that were forever stuck in the big trunks and served as annoying reminders. Walking aimlessly beneath them, I would kick at some forgotten cigarette package and spit at the surprisingly fresh condoms that had somehow turned up under the tree houses. In my wandering, I merely intended to discover some concrete evidence of mythic existence.

And then, on one of my walks at twilight, as my power of judgment seemed to be somewhat impaired, I came across that legendary figure from the old-timer’s tales. He looked just like one of us, in his dark blue clothing and heavy rubber boots. “Come on up!” he called, encouraging me to climb those precariously loose steps. “From up here the entire world looks different.” Overcoming fears that had been nurtured throughout sleepless nights, I followed him up the tree.

“This way! This way!” He pulled me into his lofty outpost, which overlooked tower tops and power lines. “Sit down! Why are you breathing so hard, why are you so pale? They must have scared you with their stories down below! After all, this is merely a simple tree house, not a dragon’s nest.”

“Do you remember Rabbi Haim Vital’s stories? Do you recall one about the Holy Ari* and his failure?” Instantly he had removed all barriers. I was no longer a young dreamer, but his spiritual equal. I was no longer a moonstruck lad, seeking temptation and sin in the woods, but a pupil sitting in front of his teacher. I was extremely flattered to have been chosen from among my buddies who had remained behind, down there in the teeming kibbutz yard.

“If at one and the same time all the Jews of Saffad had worn white clothing... If they had all left town together and marched toward Jerusalem... Can you imagine that? Every individual wish would have disappeared: one foot, one pace, a single united step by people in white... Their heads held high and led by the Ari, they formed a united society. ‘Follow me! We are about to deliver Jerusalem! We are going to change the world!’ Can you imagine it? Do you realize what a chance was missed in those days in Saffad? It is simply mind-boggling!”

The floorboards creaked; the huge trees groaned in the wind; a shower of fragrant Eucalyptus cups fell onto the sand below. Calmly taking off his boots as though sitting on his porch, he comforted me, “Don’t be afraid. Worse storms have not managed to destroy my lofty aerie! Now, will you please listen to me! Imaging everyone on our kibbutz — men, women, children, and old-timers — standing in front of their huts and tents. All dressed in their Sabbath clothes. Holding hands, they sing quietly. And not just members from our kibbutz, but from neighboring kibbutzim, from the entire country! An enormous force of kibbutz members who all project their will in a single direction. Can you imagine what might happen? What might happen here and throughout the entire universe?”

Bending low over the wooden boards of the tree house, he covered his head as though trying to prevent it from bursting. “Such a unified will, one that encompasses millions, may cause a real revolution. Not just our country would be changed, but the entire globe; our miserable earth would move in a completely different orbit, one that was intended from the beginning. Do you see where the Ari erred? How could he have expected people to be ready in a couple of hours! What a crazy schedule he tried to enforce! Who can be expected to get ready at such short notice? Do you see the sorry chain of events that eventually led to a missed opportunity? What a pity! One could simply burst with frustration!”

Taking hold of my boyish hands, he folded them together and said, “No power in the world can withstand a united people’s will. You must always remember this. Naturally, it would be nice if matters were accomplished tidily in suitable clothing and accompanied by the right tune. But most of all, it is imperative to prevent the disintegration of this united will into thousands of individual ones. Look down at the kibbutz. What do you see? Everyone is going wild and pulling in a different direction. That is not the way to achieve salvation! It simply makes me cry!”

I strained my neck to look downward and see what he meant. I tried hard to imagine what such an enormous will, one that united the entire kibbutz, might actually achieve. But aside from sudden tears caused by the effort and an obscure but penetrating pain, I felt nothing at all.

* The Holy Ari — the (sacred) Lion, Rabbi Isaac Ben Solomon Luria, Kabbalist (1534-1572). Return

Copyright ©1998 Elisha Porat. Used by permission.

The Bearded Man by Elisha Porat translated by Alan Sacks

A During the deadly days of the war in Lebanon, I was posted with my unit to an army camp near Moshav Rosh Pina. Starting early each morning, I loaded trucks with military supplies. It was hard, exhausting work in the oppressive heat while the worry and tension gnawing at our hearts erased all memory of the pleasant routine of life before the war. Still, I was free in the evenings to drop by the moshav, walk its quiet roads and delight in its gardens. It was difficult to believe that aghastly, brutal war raged just a few dozen kilometers away. I toured the modest fields and circled the fenced grounds. Beside fragrant flower beds, the residents read newspapers on benches outside their homes. Each time I looked, I was amazed at how this life of utter serenity existed a stone's throw from a highway groaning under its burden of military convoys.

One evening, I walked up the old moshav's road. The restored homes were very attractive. Every feature of the fences revealed the hands of those craftsmen who had cast the iron and given the gates their distinctive design. A woman, walking with her two children, invited me home to take a breather from our daily toil and the pressure of war. I gladly accepted and followed them to their hillside house. As we passed the gate, I asked where her husband was serving. Was he with the forces invading Lebanon or assigned to a support unit like mine? "Neither," she answered. "He's abroad, in one of the South American countries, acting as an agricultural advisor to local farmers." She had tried calling to tell him that war had broken out here but could never reach him. Meanwhile, he was better off in a safe place.

Inside the downstairs rooms, antique rugs covered the floors and metal ornaments hung from the walls and ceilings. I could see at once that this was the home of a family of artists. The chilinstantly disappeared on the stairs and in their places appeared a number of dark, thick-furred cats from the yard.

"Help yourself to some cold water in the refrigerator. I'll be back in a minute." While she went into one of the other rooms to change her dress, I poured a glass of ice water and sat in a carved rocking chair. After my eyes adjusted to the half-light, I saw a bearded man seated opposite me under the window. He was leaning back against the wall, his legs crossed under him and his hands folded in his lap. The beard jutting from his face was so unusual and so bushy that one might easily have thought it was a fake, an artifice glued to his skin as a sort of disguise.

"Hello," he said, without twitching a muscle. "I recognize you. I remember your voice. Do you remember me?"

I was taken completely by surprise and for a moment wasn't sure that he was speaking to me. I looked around for others who might be sitting along the walls but he was alone. "Do I remember you?" I asked. "Where should I remember you from?"

"We met once," he said. "Think back. It wasn't far from Nes Tziona. As soon as you came in the room with Rina and the chilI recognized your voice."

"Nes Tziona?" I was flabbergasted. What connection did I have to that place? I'd never been to Nes Tziona, only gone past it while driving south. Who the hell stops in Nes Tziona? What's there to look for around there?

"I'm Kobi," he spoke to me from the wall. "Kobi Tzvieli. My beard shouldn't fool you."

Kobi? Tzvieli? How did I know his name? And yet I felt there was truth in his words. We had met sometime. Even his voice sounded vaguely familiar.

Rina, wearing a comfortable house dress, returned to the room and switched on some recessed lights. Now I remembered him. Like lightning striking, my memory came back to me from some remote region. I was annoyed with myself for this rare and unforgivable lapse of recall. This must be Jacob, Kobi, Tzvieli, a poet and man of strange visions. So bizarre were his dreams that he had needed a period of hospital treatment at that institution not far from Nes Tziona.

Now I remembered his soft manner of speech, his mild stutter, his hands rubbing his chin. He would stroke all the harder while reading me his strange poems, look me straight in the eyes and ask if there was any point to his poetry or any true value to his writing. Kobi Tzvieli, whom I had met under peculiar circumstances at some literary affair where he had been infatuated like a child with a poetess who was famous at the time for her exhibitionistic verse. Kobi, who had sent me some long, imploring letters which I, turning my heart to stone, hadn't answered out of fear that he would make a pest of himself and saddle me with a friendship that I couldn't maintain. Kobi, who had conveyed his regards years before and of whom I would inquire, "So, how is he? Is he well? Is he getting along?"

I rose from the rocking chair and approached him. He too stood up. We shook hands and asked after one another. Rina was astonished. "Look, just look at what wars do. Now sit down you two, drink some coffee with me and we'll hear the whole story." I asked him if he too was here because of the war. Kobi said no. He was living here temporarily. His condition exempted him from military duty and he had never promised anyone that he would live forever in Rosh Pina. He had settled in with Rina and her husband, very generous people with whom he had been friends since childhood. He could leave the next day if he wanted, for any destination to which his spirit moved him. There were a number of artist colonies in the country; he had even tried living in some of them. Doors were open to him wherever he went and in each colony, he had made friends who enjoyed looking after him.

Most important, I should know that his life had changed entirely, always getting better. His poems were improving, too. Young writers understood the benefit of hitching their wagons to his rising star. Had I read his most recent book of verse puba few months earlier? It was a truly superb volume, and that wasn't merely his opinion but the view of a new generation of critics. He would show me the articles if I wanted. He had saved everything in scrapbooks that he took with him wherever he went. They were upstairs and he would have gone up for them but I said, "Not now, Kobi. Hold them for a more convenient time."

B Now I must calm down from the shock of our meeting and put everything in the right order. First of all, my visits to the institution near Nes Tziona, which initially I made as part of my work and later to satisfy my growing interest. I remember them as though they happened yesterday. I remember the dismal lawn hemmed in by old houses roofed in red tile and enclosed on all sides by gorgeous jacaranda trees blooming violet. I remember the rich red soil covered with a blanket of fallen blossoms and the wooden bench splattered with dried bird droppings so thick you needed a knife to cut through them. I remember the sweet scents of late spring, wafting over the institution's grounds, which permeated the paand their guests strolling slowly, even solemnly, on the sidewalks. I had walked there, too, at Kobi Tzvieli's side as he talked. He was shorter and plumper than I, and our Mutt-and-Jeff dialogue, delivered while hopping over fresh puddles left by the last rains of winter somewhere deep in the orange orchards on the way to Nes Tziona, made me laugh.

Second, I remember our muted conversation, with his mild stutter and those attempts, which won my heart, to sidestep land mines of words and labyrinthine booby traps of adjectives while his searching fingers plowed through the heavy beard. He hadn't grown a beard before his commitment but shaving there became a nightmare for him. The water was always cold, the razors never sharp and he was constantly nicking himself. "Just like in the army," I told him, "during the first months of basic training." I suddenly recalled that Kobi was disqualified from military service and immediately shifted the subject of conversation. I remember that he really wanted serve in the army, in the vanguard where all his good friends from the kibbutz could be found. The authorities refused, however, and rejected him. He withdrew into himself and from that time never spoke much about the army.

Only about the war did he always have something to say. It was a wonder that he didn't let loose a stream of curses against the fighting in Lebanon. He was by no means the only one I had met in Rosh Pina who loathed the war. We had dropped by the public pool the day before for a quick swim. One of the boys insisted on asking the cashier for a complimentary pass, the kind soldiers are entitled to. "What soldiers?" the ticket seller asked. "Are you soldiers?" When we continued to demand our free passes, she rose from her seat and began to rebuke us. "What kind of soldiers are you? Do you know what you look like? If you're soldiers, what are you doing at the moshav's swimming pool while so many young men are being killed in the mountains up there? You should be ashamed," she spat at us. "You're a disgrace to the army, a disgrace to Israel."

In another moment, she would have swung at us with her puny fists. Behind us, swimmers called over had begun to run. A man, apparently her husband, burst in through one of the gates. He seized her by the arms, held her tight and begged her, in Hebrew, Yiddish and garbled Rumanian, to calm down. Then he offered us a weak apology. We had to understand and forgive her, he said, because she was a bitter woman who couldn't forget the past. Every bomb exploding on the border jarred loose old fears and she had been unable to sleep since the battles in Lebanon began. He had even asked her not to go back to the ticket window at the pool. So concerned was he about her that he had abandoned his own work to keep an eye on her from afar throughout the day.

"Ok, Ok," we said in confusion. Filled with remorse, we were ready to pay in full for our tickets. The cashier wouldn't agree. "I don't need your stinking money. Our children are dying all the time up there in the mountains, and you're not ashamed to live the easy life on the moshav or swim in the pool." She tried to escape her husband's arms and attack us again but he kept his grip and forced her to the other side of the fence around the pool.

Kobi Tzvieli didn't damn the war or those who had started it. I was glad of that. I was still disturbed by what the hysterical cashier had said and couldn't drive from my mind the kernel of truth in her tirade.

Third, I remember his cramped room, the bookshelf above his bed and the book of poetry by Noah Stern he read during those days in the institution. The few visits I made were filled with his words of longing for the perfect poem imprisoned against its will within the walls, its wings clipped, its legs fettered and throat throttled, the mirror image of the great poet Noah Stern's own history. He urged me to read his poems and the few words published about him in the literary journals. There was a humble librarian on the kibbutz with whom he was close and who was one of the select who had known his heart even before the break-down. It was the librarian who had pressed into his hand the works of Noah Stern. In the annals of world literature, there were many poets who had composed inside walls but for us there were only a handful, perhaps only one, so the librarian told him.

While we walked on the narrow pavements sunk into the red loam, we would always embrace the sweet smell of the orchards, which was a thousand times more maddening inside the desolation of the walls, and the darkness of the fruit groves he had known in the forests of his native land. He told me then how he would steal into the tangle of groves behind dense hedges of bindweed, flatten himself in the succulent grasses and drape his body over the trees' forked trunks. There, in his hiding place, he heard the constant distant drone of life on the kibbutz beyond his green barrier. Like a tiny insect, he cleaved to a citrus trunk and compressed himself to seem like one of the plain grasses of the orchard.

And fourth, I remember his dreams and the stories of his dreams. What he actually saw and what he imagined and invented, I don't know, nor the source of the craving to tell the story, a thirst by which he made himself free inside the walls as if he had returned to an ancient spring whose waters were too pure to bear any taint. Had he been a girl, I told him once when I wearied of his tales, he would have driven me crazy with accounts of American films, for he endlessly amassed the most minute details as girls liked to do. It was our good luck that his nights in the instituwere so brief, cut short when he was awakened early to clean the facilities, or he would sleep and dream into the afternoon. It was our further good fortune that I visited so seldom, just once each season, and I reminded him of the heavy rain that had poured down on the lawn the last time I came by.

Kobi Tzvieli had looked up at me and said that he was grateful to me for even those few visits which, he knew, I wasn't obliged to make. Luckily for him, I was reliable and never forgot him even though he wasn't one of the patients whom it was my duty to attend, and he knew how the drive to the secluded hill not far from Nes Tziona wore me out.

C There was one dream that came back to him during those terror-stricken nights. It had a fixed order and a firmly predictable succession of images. First, he saw a sort of magnified relief map of the kibbutz, to all appearances an exceptionally realistic aerial photograph. The pictures revealed scenes of his childhood in the early days of the settlement. Remnants of jubilee exhibicoalesced before his eyes. The green copse surrounded the map, which he called his dreamscape. Although it didn't always include the eucalyptus trees, other trees of various types, such as toothed palms and the prickly Parkinsonia, sometimes cropped up. Since his admission to the institution, the violet blooming jacahad multiplied. The copse in the dreams was the hiding place of his childhood that he had made his refuge, where he had erected his first tent camp on the holiday of Lag BaOmer and where the members of the kibbutz still held picnic roasts on a warm Independence Day. That was where he had slipped away that bitter day when he suddenly fell apart and no longer saw any purpose to his life.

In his dream, he watched as the sun, shooting bolts of color, rose over the copse, sank through the screen of fluttering leaves and set in a display even more magnificent. There the reddening rays assailed his eyes transfixed by the western wind, and there the gentle breeze of early evening dried the tears coursing unfelt down his cheeks. Deep yearning radiated from his heart through his body and a terrible longing spread through his limbs for the father who had abandoned him years before and the grandfather whom he had come to love in the pages of the family album.

Inside the forest, he inhaled the pungent aroma of eucalyptus leaves and, so his dream always went, built a fire over which a pot of nourishing eucalyptus broth simmered on a tripod. He believed with the innocence of youth that this was the secret of eternal life. What was required of a man to be happy? Some potatoes baking in the fire, eucalyptus soup and honeyed nectar suckled from flowers.

Sometimes, terror seized him in his sleep and his dream was shattered by the racing beat of his heart. Someone would menace the little white tent camp at the foot of the security building. How he loved to climb in his dream to the top of the concrete stairs rising to the vista visible from the building's high roof. He, Kobi Tzvieli, would raise the standard and rush forward to save the encampment from sudden fire or a bloody onslaught.

He would sprint to the great bell hung between the kitchen and the dining hall and, but an undersized child, helplessly leap under it until one of the members, taking pity on him, arrived to sweep him up on his shoulders and raise him to the bell-pull. "Strike it, son," the fellowould say. "Don't be afraid, ring the bell and summon the whole kibbutz."

To the pounding of hooves and the clop of horseshoes clacking on cement, he turned restlessly in his troubled sleep. Who were the riders? Who were these knights swooping down to cleave the little tent camp? Silver-helmeted warriors of the Arab Legion or bands of brigands, their heads swathed in thick kafiyas, from the neighboring villages? Or perhaps they were British paratroopers belted to the chin? These dreams beset him even during the months he spent within the walls near Nes Tziona. Even there, he twisted and turned on his bed until the crack of dawn. Who were these armies that set his bones to trembling and spoiled his night of sleep? He could think of nothing clear to tell the doctors, for nothing of the dream remained with him but a single, sharp memory, the memory of bearded men.

In the mornings, he would make himself a vow to grow a thick beard and never cut it off. It wasn't because the medicine had impaired his looks, or because the institution's food had made his skin yellow. A full, black beard, like that of his grandfather, one of the founders of the kibbutz, and of his father, a pioneer of the commune's industry. A real beard, as soft as the one his sister had loved to comb as a child seated on their father's knees. Her little hands, floating over his face, would graze the hair of his beard. She had kept the habit even as she grew older. To this day, he shivered with fear when forbidden scenes from those long-gone times unfolded before him in the dream. He saw his sister as an incorrigible seductress, climbing with obvious pleasure on their father's knees, running her hand through the tangle of his dark beard and doing wonderful things with her fingers. Sensations of sweetness such as he had never felt before suffused his body. Hadn't the institution's physician hadn't warned him that the time had come to root out his sister from the dreams? Hadn't the doctor threatened him that he must free himself from her and, at long last, annihilate the last shreds of illicit desire?

On the margins of this recurring dream, hazy, mystery-shrouded views of the old stable appeared. As a child, he had once under-taken an expedition of discovery to the shack beside the stable. There, among the horseshoe fittings and barn lanterns, an old mattress stuffed with seaweed lay across the floor. The floor of the tool shed was littered with log books for the horses and tattered harnesses. It was possible to poke one's nose through the gaps between the rotting wooden boards and see things, provoking sights, fit only for the dark. A group of children peeking through the slats called him to come see a girl, dazzling in the whiteness of her body, sprawled on the mattress. How closely she resembled his sister, and the man rolling on her in a grotesque motion reminded them of his father. Only the darkness prevented them from identifying the tell-tale beard. They came up behind him and forced him to squint through the crack. Through the tears of humiliation blurring his eyes, he couldn't make out who lay on the mattress, but what he saw there, a whirl of heaving bodies, forever came back to him at night.

Kobi Tzvieli, the bearded man of dreams, would wake then from the dream drenched in a heavy nocturnal sweat. He would spend the rest of the day in purification rituals of his own invention. He never succeeded in purging himself of the sickness of the dream infecting him until he had recounted it to me in every detail, to the last roll of the body and the final moan. Among the sights he saw in the dream, certain matters intruded that he didn't divulge even to the medical staff laboring to restore his health.

D The next morning, I was rinsing dishes under the water tanker when, through the clatter of plates tossed into the tubs, I over-heard the soldiers talking. "I never saw such a sight, it was really crazy. Did you see his eyes glowing? Did you see the way he flapped his hands? Did you see his bushy beard? I've fought in three wars, but I've never run into anything like that."

I turned off the faucet and approached the men eating break-fast. "What happened, who are you talking about?"

"Some nut is going wild down in the gas station at the Rosh Pina junction. He's brought all the convoys to a halt. The drivers have stopped to watch the show. Would you believe that one man could block the entire army?"

"That's impossible. The junction is swarming with military police. Can't they control one disorderly guy?"

"Oh no, the MC's are standing around enjoying the performance. It's really very funny. You'd think the morale branch had sent a showman just for us. That guy foams and spits and doesn't hear a thing he says. You have to go down and see him before someone gets steamed and takes him away."

I wiped my hands on my pants, muttered something to the KP staff and rushed down the hill. I glided down the path, I flew like a plane, I skipped over the basalt rocks and the spiked tufts of globe thistle. If someone was foretelling the future down at the gas station, I could guess who it was. If an insane bearded man was stopping convoys on their way to Lebanon, I was sure who they were talking about. And if no one had called me to save him, well, I had summoned myself. On my own authority, I was rushing to the rescue before the mob trampled him, the wild man down there, or he was arrested by the military police... or spirited away to a place I had no wish to see or remember again.

Even in Rina's house, where I had seen Kobi Tzvieli and his beard at home, fearful thoughts had come to mind, speculation that was an omen of doom. This man was destined for disaster. You could see it in his face. A heavy, gathering cloud of grief lurked over his head.

The gas station was a scene of total chaos. The junction was blocked and a huge crowd milled through the side streets. Clouds of dust were churned up and the whir of helicopters descending to a landing zone nearby deafened my ears. I crossed columns of tank carriers, slipped between giant trucks and made my way towards the center of the gas station and the rutted asphalt island between the pumps. There, I saw, was my friend Jacob inside a circle of grinning soldiers and police officers. Kobi, standing on the concrete curb dividing the gas pumps, raised his hands to the sky. People thronged forward from all directions, not just soldiers but residents from the moshav, to watch the unexpected spectacle. From a distance, I caught sight of Rina and the children trying to get closer. It even seemed to me for a brief moment that I saw the Rumanian ticket seller wailing on her husband's shoulder.

The soldiers lounging on their armored personnel carriers cheered him and clapped their hands. From the convoys' vehicles rang out jeers and catcalls mixed with hollow peels of laughter. Someone threw a water bomb at him, and suddenly he was pelted from the closest APC's with plastic bags filled with juice and fruit syrup. Kobi looked so strange, soaked by the water bomb, his beard dripping, a demonic gleam in his eye, oblivious to everything happening around him, that I wasn't sure whether he was the Kobi Tzvieli I knew from his days in the sanitarium.

I forced my way through to him. I pushed and was pushed, kicked and was repelled, but I kept on. I felt duty-bound to stop him before it was too late, before something horrible befell him. As I drew closer, I heard his cries: "I'm calling you from inside the walls, those lofty walls. Don't go there. That man will bring you nothing but tragedy."

"What man?" the soldiers in the APC's wanted to know. "Tell us straight out, who are you talking about?"

"That man," screamed Kobi Tzvieli. "That Noah Stern imprison-ed within the walls."

"What Noah? What walls?" they roared at him from the APC's. "Do you mean that Arik, that Sharon?"

"Yes, yes," yelled Kobi. "That's precisely who I mean. That Arik and that Stern." The soldiers laughed at him, but he felt nothing of their scorn. "By his hand, you will know only calamity a catastrophe, and you will rue the day you followed him to his misbegotten war."

A deep growl came from the direction of the police station. When I strained on my toes to see what was happening, I saw a number of club-wielding officers cutting a path through the crowd to the pump island, the small concrete pulpit on which the bearded man stood and ranted.

Though I also stubbornly struggled towards him, the teeming mob wouldn't give way. If I could take hold of him before the police, we could flee up the artists' street of the old moshav and escape through Rina's carved gates into the protective dark of the stone house. To my great consternation, however, they reached him before I did.

"It all began this morning," I heard voices in the crowd. "This guy off his rocker came down from the moshav, latched onto the drivers stopped at the junction and harassed the station attendants."

"What did he say to them?"

"He went from one to the next trying to convince them that the war wouldn't profit them and they should go back where they came from. `That damned man is leading you to hell!' He was calm and cheerful in the beginning, and even won over the drivers with his smooth talk. `You still have your skins today, but tomorrow some of you will fight in the next war. Don't you feel even a twinge of fear? If you don't stop and stand up to that accursed man now, then...' and so forth and so forth."

He might have gone on reasoning with the drivers at the gas station until he tired and eventually left in peace, but one driver, offended by his comments, lost his temper, swore at him, slapped him and plucked at his beard. And that's when the loony flared up and ignited a colossal disturbance at the junction.

The military police had already arrived at the pumps. Very, very slowly, they boxed in Kobi from behind. He never noticed them, perhaps because his eyes were shut and his ears plugged up by the awful drone of the helicopters. Only his dark beard danced in the breeze. He bellowed with all the might in this throat, "That Noah, that Arik, that Stern. From inside the walls, I'm calling you. Save yourselves."

It's his life that must be saved now, I thought as the police clamped their hands on him and whisked him away. How small and how light he suddenly seemed dragged between their arms. "All right, quiet now, you've shouted enough today. Come on, come along with us."

"But where are you taking me, you blind men?"

I heard his screams and answered him silently in my heart. He wouldn't have heard me even if I had shouted. They're taking you to the green orchards, Kobi, to the lawn beneath the blooming jacarandas and the filthy benches beside the narrow paths, a place you came to know years ago inside the high walls not far from Nes Tziona.

All rights reserved ON THE ROAD TO BEIRUT

by Elisha Porat translated by Alan Sacks

I met a buddy not long ago, a young guy who can`t forget what he went through during the war in Lebanon. Seven years have gone by but he remembers everything as if it all happened yesterday. Here is his story:

What I remember most is the ride on the convoy of armored personnel carriers on the road to Beirut. I was a grunt in the armored infantry when our unit went into Lebanon. I got along just fine with the other guys. The hardships of army life bound us together. We were a team, each of us knew how to live with the other.

I remember that we were all so angry, with an unconscious, shared rage that we just started ahead all the time. I sat in the APC, never letting go of our guns. We had already seen how you could get taken by surprise if you weren`t ready.

The villages and towns we passed through were riddled with signs of destruction, pictures of religious leaders covered the walls. From cellars and hiding spots, terrified villagers watched us but didn`t dare show themselves. Fear of our column had driven them into hiding.

Eventually, though, outside Beirut, we stopped going through the villages. Our commanders were afraid to take the risk. The sloping, yellow hills crept down right to the water`s edge. And then the heat sapped our strength and the flies swarmed us, but we kept on going. Moving ahead was now the main thing. To keep going, moving faster and never stopping. If we stopped, we would become an easy target for the enemy.

Hour after hour we gazed at the route, studying the pitted shoulder of the scorched summer earth. I had plenty of time to think, to worry and regrets. Between bursts of fire and quick mop-up missions, I blamed myself endlessly.

How did I get stuck here? What an idiot I was. Right now I could have been in the rear, in a cool, shaded spot beside flowing brooks and clear springs. Instead, I was rocking hard in my reeking, broiling APC, a perfect target for anti-tank ambushes on the main road to Beirut.

From time to time, a plume of smoke or a swirl of dust would appear of us below some deceptive ridge. Our CO barked at us and we fired like robots. But we knew that behind the ridge lay another masking yet another beyond it and another after that. Each ridge was crowned with a dark copse of pines like a green cockscomb concealing an enemy lying in wait for our APC. We knew, but still we went on because it was so damned important to rush to Beirut.

The sounds of gunfire were all we heard. Our ears were deafened by the din and the explosions. We couldn`t even hear the rumble of the engine. Sometimes I wondered how the APC could keep going with an engine that couldn`t be heard.

With earnest, tired looks, the officers gave us our orders. They were at least as exhausted as we were from the days of battle. Each time the convoy slowed down, fast, light jeeps passed it by. Big-shot officers sat in the jeeps, fear on their faces as though they were pursued by terrible premonitions. Watching them as they passed, we thought about the generals and the Minister of Defense himself. We were a bit dazed but their vibrant image calmed us and made us feel a little better.

Suddenly, we wanted them to pass by our convoy, by our very own APC. If only they would stop for a moment, jump into our vehicle and lift our spirits. But they didn`t come and we continued on our way.

That`s when the memories got me, memories of the good times before the war. They gnawed my heart, awakening awful yearnings for my Kibbutz so far away, for the shady orange groves on soft hills of loam and heavenly nighttime milkings in the old milking shed. I would hear the cows lowing after they were milked and smell the acrid odor of their fodder mixed with rotting orange peels. I went mad with yearnings. But around me galloped the convoys to Beirut.

For now, the men in the APC were my whole world. They were my past and my future. I couldn`t long for anything else. The sight of a burning hause or corpses sprawled in the road no longer astonished us. We weren`t even surprised to see horses dead in their stables along the road. Even the wounded among our own troops didn`t stir us. We glanced apathetically at the evac teams tending the wounded and at the helicopters hurrying to pick them up and carry them to hospitals in Israel.

Then, completely by surprise, one of the helicopters landed beside our convoy. Out popped the Minister of Defense surrounded by a bustling retinue of officers and adjutants. It was afternoon, when the sun began to sink into the sea to the left of the road. He smiled at us, the convoy troops, stopped the APC`s and talked with the weary men. Here and there, excited soldiers leaped from their armored vehicles, crowded around him in awe and tried to shake his hand. But his entourage quickly pushed them back.

He climbed on one of the APC`s and called out in a voice so loud that the whole convoy and all his adjutants could hear, "Boys, listen up. We`re almost at the end. Now we`re on the road to Beirut."

I should have been happy and filled with pride. Instead, I felt numb. I just sat silent in my turret and didn`t answer when they called to me. I felt I was just a small screw in a vast machine careening unstoppably to Beirut, as if I had never been a man, as if I had no parents, no relatives, no fragrant piece of our land back in the plain of Sharon.

I felt as if military discipline shackled me to the vehicle, as if patience had sucked me dry, as if the weight of fatigue had emptied me of everything that had been in me.

That is what war does to simple soldiers. I had become a sealed, hollow lump. I didn`t curse my life because I felt it had been cursed long before. I didn`t hurt my body because I felt it had long since turned to stone. And I didn`t smile at the Minister`s entourage passing below my turret.

I just sat on my APC, planted in it, a traveler on an eternal, endless journey on the road to Beirut.

"It`s been seven years," my friend told me, "but I haven`t forgotten anything. How many more years have to go by before I can forget what I saw?"

Promises A story by Elisha Porat translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks

During a break in my radiation sessions, I met Motke in the outclinic next to the medical center. He was a buddy who had served so many years with me as a reservist in our recon platoon that I had forgotten when we first met. Though pale and weak, hepulled me down beside him on the bench across from the doctors'room. He was thrilled to see me. With a tug at my shirt, he said:

"Do you remember that ambush in the summer of '69? When I was wounded in the battle below Ufana? That innocent little Syrian village, shepherds' hovels and thick Tabor oaks with peeling trunks sprouting right out of the basalt walls. What an ambush, so deceptive. The fields of basalt became a living hell when the Syrians opened fire on us with 20 millimeter guns. Do you remember the shower of ricochets? Do you remember the sickening whistle of stone chips? How long did the whole ambush last? Ten minutes? A quarter of an hour? How long did that murderous fire rake us? Itseemed like an eternity to me. I lost my faith in watches then. And when the fire died down, and the slow as molasses rescue team finally arrived, I looked back over my shoulder once more towards that picturesque Syrian hamlet, towards that sweet mirage, Ufana, a handful of low houses, their roofs flat and dark, planted among the gloomy knolls. An astonishing nest of unexpected evil.

" I was evacuated too, because of a light wound in my back from one of those treacherous ricochets off the hostile basalt. Do you remember how I tried to make a joke of it all the way to the aid station? From where I was lying in the evacuation carrier, I wanted to lift the men from their depression. It was awful there in the armored carrier. I remember that I pretended to be a famous radio announcer, mimicking him as I broadcast the incident at Ufana. I was precise and excited, true to the horror as if I'd been a broadcaster from birth. The boys helped me with the game,chiming the portentous warning beeps just before the news, afterwhich I imitated the famous announcer's grave, pretentious voice.

"Slowly and with emphasis, I read the names of the boys lying on meinside the evacuation carrier. I deliberately threw in the namesof our buddies who had stayed behind at the base in Kuneitra andhadn't been wounded in the ambush. Lucky stiffs! We were all lightheaded from the tension, the shock of surprise, our woundsand the wonderful feeling that we had been saved. Who could control his excitement at a time like that?

"'Motke,' I vowed to myself between bonejarring jolts of the galloping carrier, 'Motke,' if you manage to get out of here in one piece; if you make it to the landing zone at Kuneitra safe and sound; if you survive the flight to the hospital, you'll never comeback. You can wipe the illusion of ruined Ufana, the track of dust sifting beneath you, the basalt mounds and the skeins of vines, from your life's map. You can erase from your life the grooved floor of the carrier and the redhot hood of the scout car on which you lay when the 20 millimeter shells unexpectedly burst from thebunkers concealed at Ufana. From now on, you'll be wrapped in asoft, cushy flak jacket. You'll take care of yourself from here onlike a woman at the end of her pregnancy. And you'll give up your.killer cigarettes. "So, while we lay on the floor of the carrier in a sweating, bleeding pile of wounded men, we swore one another solemn, inviolable oaths. No more foul, lifeshortening habits. An end tosmoking, to overeating and infidelity. As the wounded were loadedonto a helicopter, I looked back again towards the foot of thedistant hills overlooking the ruined town and the barren knollsaround it. For the last time in my life, I saw the little villageof Ufana feigning innocence in the soft morning light and swayingwith the wind's refreshing breeze as if in a dream.

"Where am I, and where is the flak jacket around me? Where amI and what has become of those vows? Do you think I've stopped smoking? Have I forsaken gluttony and adultery? It seems to methat my appetites for all these have even grown since I was wounded: more cigarettes, more pigouts and, yes, more cheating on mywife, too. How could I have treated myself like a woman ready todeliver? Look, I didn't even know how to behave when my wife went into labor with our children. Where is that feeling of intoxication, that sense of promises never to be broken, beneath a heap of wounded men? To live better and as soon as we came off the chopper at the hospital's cramped landing zone, even before I was staggered by the scent of the sea, I had already forgotten my vows. "Why was I punished? Why were the guys punished? Who thehell is it who decides who'll be wounded? What would have happened if I had dawdled on my final leave, as my wife had begged me, andnot hurried off to join the patrol that was hit?.

"As you can see, you understand how it is, I recovered quicklyenough from my wound. I was lucky, the injury wasn't serious. Butsome thoughts still gnaw at me. I went back to work, to stress, bosses' orders and silly arguments with the employees under me. Asfor the family, I really tried to bridge the chasms between me and my wife. Her devotion during the first days of my injury knew no bounds. But that, it turned out, only made things worse between us because it galled me that I didn't know how to repay her. I really thought in the beginning that a small miracle had occurred, giving our love a fresh start. Then, little by little, matters sank back into their old, oppressive rut. I couldn't even thank her the way I wanted. We fell into the old quarrels, the usual jabs and predictable reconciliations. Imagine, I even wanted to surprise her with a short trip abroad, but by the time I began making the necessary arrangements, I saw that it was ridiculous, absolutely pointless. I was all mixed up, befuddled like a boy, when I told her, in my roundabout way, about the trip I had canceled.

"But the situation today is much worse. You can see that it isn't the light wound from the Ufana battle. I've had plenty of time between radiation treatments to vow all the vows in the world and change my perverted habits 77 times. And how does all that help? On the contrary, now I can smoke all those forbidden cigarettes serene in the knowledge that these are definitely my last ones. I can overeat to my heart's content because I know,even without the doctors' nagging, that these are my last binges. I struggle only with my affairs. It's hard to cheat on your wife.when you're sick. I don't get around so well, either. There are bad spells of weakness when I'm unwillingly driven to reestablish the old alliance with my wife and make the mistake of mumbling a partial confession in her ears. But she isn't satisfied with an incomplete story. With rising fury, she wrings further details from me in my weakened state: more names, more places, more dates.

"It's unbelievable how much suffering there is in the world. It sometimes seems to me that my entire life has been nothing but a hectic passage from one station of pain to another. Sometimes,I find happiness in knowing that others suffer, too. Fortunately,I don't have to share in all the heartache around me. I could not bear up under that burden. But sometimes, right after my treatments, when I feel especially miserable, I'm suddenly ashamed, I yearn to be completely different and share in all the world's grief. Look around me here, in the hallway, in the waiting rooms and at the doctors' doors. So much suffering is concentrated here.

"After my wound at Ufana, when I knew that I hadn't been badly hurt and would soon recover, and might even make something out of it, I was filled with a childish desire to contemplate everything as a reporter would. In other words, with detachment and an outsider's eye. Once again, I made myself an announcer like the famous one on the radio and reported directly from the firefight in the north, my own personal suffering front. Yes, it's a real scandal, that impulsiveness of mine, how inane I am, whipped on by a passion for games. Among the wounded thrown on top of me were some very badly hurt. One of the boys was even in danger of losing his life. Do you remember how we all pulled together then? The whole unit called up, guys refusing to be released just so they could spend time with the wounded. What a spirit of brotherhood bound us all. We were so close. There was a bedrock faith that everything had to turn out all right. We were all united in fear and love and averting pain.

"Wrap myself in a soft flak jacket for the rest of my life? Pamper myself in my remaining years like a woman expecting any moment? What nonsense. What mindless idiocy. Promise myself that I'll abstain from adultery? What a naive, childish way to bribe the one who toys with our lives. You can see that even this little payoff wasn't wanted. When I turn around and close my eyes, I see Ufana's black basalt mounds once again, the bursts of fire and smoke from the 20 millimeter guns. With difficulty, I stop myself from dropping and crawling beneath the scout car, from feverishly burrowing into the layer of wicked basalt. I must remain erect. I must see with my eyes, and feel with all my body, how the swift,unseen sliver of metal flew at me in a wholly indifferent, metallic malevolence, struck and changed my entire life. The door to the doctors' room across from us opened, and a nurse came out and called, "Motke, come in, please."

I rose and stood beside him.

(c) All rights reserved .

Elisha Porat, a 1996 winner of Israel's Prime Minister's Prize for Literature, has published more than a dozen volumes of fiction and poetry, in Hebrew, since 1973. His works have appeared in translation in Israel, the United States, Canada and England. Mr. Porat was born in 1938 to a "pioneer" family in Petah Tikva, Israel. In the early 1930's his parents were among the founders of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, where Mr. Porat was raised and still makes his home. Mr. Porat was drafted into Israeli Army in 1956, served in a frontline reconnaissance unit and fought the Six Day war in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. A short story by him -- On the Road to Beirut is also posted at Ariga. As a lifelong member of his Kibbutz, Mr. Porat has worked as a farmer as well as a writer. Mr. Porat currently performs editorial duties for several literary journals. You can write to him at porat_el@einhahoresh.org.il

Read his poem Every So Often

© Elisha Porat 1998 --This work may not be copied, reproduced or altered without consent from the author. Please respect individuals' work and do not plagiarize. Mocha Memoirs 1998. All Rights Reserved. Vol. 1. Issue 3.