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Promises By Elish Porat a story

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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 andmy wife. Her devotion during the first days of my injury knew nobounds. But that, it turned out, only made things worse between usbecause it galled me that I didn't know how to repay her. I reallythought in the beginning that a small miracle had occurred, givingour love a fresh start. Then, little by little, matters sank backinto their old, oppressive rut. I couldn't even thank her the wayI wanted. We fell into the old quarrels, the usual jabs andpredictable reconciliations. Imagine, I even wanted to surpriseher with a short trip abroad, but by the time I began making thenecessary arrangements, I saw that it was ridiculous, absolutelypointless. I was all mixedup, befuddled like a boy, when I toldher, in my roundabout way, about the trip I had canceled.

"But the situation today is much worse. You can see that itisn't the light wound from the Ufana battle. I've had plenty oftime between radiation treatments to vow all the vows in the worldand change my perverted habits 77 times. And how does all thathelp? On the contrary, now I can smoke all those forbiddencigarettes serene in the knowledge that these are definitely mylast 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 arebad spells of weakness when I'm unwillingly driven to reestablishthe old alliance with my wife and make the mistake of mumbling apartial confession in her ears. But she isn't satisfied with anincomplete story. With rising fury, she wrings further detailsfrom 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 buta 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 notbear up under that burden. But sometimes, right after my treatments, when I feel especially miserable, I'm suddenly ashamed, Iyearn to be completely different and share in all the world'sgrief. Look around me here, in the hallway, in the waiting roomsand at the doctors' doors. So much suffering is concentrated here.

"After my wound at Ufana, when I knew that I hadn't been badlyhurt and would soon recover, and might even make something out ofit, I was filled with a childish desire to contemplate everythingas a reporter would. In other words, with detachment and anoutsider's eye. Once again, I made myself an announcer like thefamous one on the radio and reported directly from the firefightin the north, my own personal suffering front. Yes, it's a realscandal, that impulsiveness of mine, how inane I am, whipped on bya passion for games. Among the wounded thrown on top of me weresome very badly hurt. One of the boys was even in danger of losing.his life. Do you remember how we all pulled together then? Thewhole unit called up, guys refusing to be released just so theycould spend time with the wounded. What a spirit of brotherhoodbound us all. We were so close. There was a bedrock faith thateverything had to turn out all right. We were all united in fearand 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 anymoment? What nonsense. What mindless idiocy. Promise myself that I'll abstain from adultery? What a naive, childish way to bribethe one who toys with our lives. You can see that even this littlepayoff wasn't wanted. When I turn around and close my eyes, I see Ufana's black basalt mounds once again, the bursts of fire andsmoke from the 20 millimeter guns. With difficulty, I stop myself from dropping and crawling beneath the scout car, from feverishlyburrowing 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, metallicmalevolence, struck and changed my entire life.The door to the doctors' room across from us opened, and anurse 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


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