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The Smell of Fresh Snow


The Smell of Fresh Snow
Written by Elisha Porat

Translated by Asher Harris


It began to snow in Safad and on the surrounding mountain-tops in the afternoon. The spiky town was quickly covered. The houses stood out dark against the white. The veins of plaster between the courses sweated with the cold and from afar you could easily count the stones that went to make the wall. Amos BarOz was stationed on the tower inside the camp. At the moment he did not have his binoculars at hand, and he was straining his eyes to peer into the soft mist that was rolling down from Mount Canaan. The snow was very close now. You could already sense the soft flakes falling on the rocks still wet from the afternoon rain. During the night all the valleys would be blanketed with beautiful deep snow. This old stone tower, rearing up over the fences, isn't good enough for Amos BarOz. If it were higher, sharper, he could climb to the top, pass through the blanket of clouds and see what lay beyond. He could soar out into the unsullied blue that stretched above the cold, above the mud and cold tiles. All the fences and all the snow gates would sink into the shallow snow below, the cars would be glued to the sides of the ravines that were streaming with water, and the lights of the camp would fade into the mist far below him. No-one else existed; no-one else about him, standing here at the top of the tower; no-one else could see or hear and no-one else could know of his prances, only he alone. Suddenly, he imagines that down below he can see Hanna, running along at the foot of the tower. As she runs, she hops and skips like a child. Gracefully she places her left foot on the cracks between the concrete flagstones, and her right foot in the very center, and she steals an odd glance upwards, almost as if she is aware that Amos is watching her, and she begs him not to laugh as she playfully skips along. But she can't possibly know that Amos is on duty up above. Yet the way she twists her neck upwards out of the collar of her coat sends a shiver through the veins of his palms. "Are you trying to see if the snow is coming?" Amos asks her from high above. "Are you wondering whether you should be worried?"

Everything comes back almost exactly as it happened late last night. Then, Hanna had suddenly interrupted the rowdy high spirits in the sergeants' hut by asking:

"Okay. Who's going to take me back to the girl's quarters?" Amos, sitting squeezed in on one of the beds directly opposite the window, had been watching the glorious red lightning that flashed through the bottom of the window frame. He hadn't noticed how the laughter had abruptly cut off and died, or how Hanna had put on her woolen gloves. But suddenly he felt that they were all looking at him, that he was being watched from all over the room. At last he got up and asked, "What's up? What's going on?" The room exploded in a gale of laughter. Not even Hanna could conceal a smile. "You don't have to," she said. "Only if you want to."

But Amos had already risen and his place at the end of the bed had been taken by a pair of outstretched legs. Now, the already stale air of the room, the naked glare of the electric light bulbs, the palpable feeling of unease among people too remote from one another to candidly open up, yet near enough to cause unintentional hurt, all these drove Amos out, out into the rain and fog. He didn't answer Hanna but started pulling on his coat, and Hanna said,

"So you are coming, Amos?" and she went over to the bed where the girl's coats were piled.

On all sides their rose a wave of jeering, wicked little sniggers and veiled innuendoes. "Look after her!" "Don't let her get lost!" "I hope you can find your way in the dark!" "Don't let us find you in the morning in the ditch under the bridge!" A flash of lightning, close and bright, suddenly pierced the uproar of the room, outshone the sweating faces and the electric light, winged its way under the ceiling and vanished between the cracks of the shuttered windows. Every face was momentarily transformed, lined with strange blush - and Hanna, suddenly beautiful, clutched him so tightly that it hurt. In the dark, Amos drew his hand across his eyes, trying to brush away the sudden night-blindness. Outside, Hanna pressed against his coat as if she wanted to snuggle inside like a kitten. Softly she bumped her head against his padded shoulder as if asking him to make room for her. But a thin drizzle swept down between the circles of light on the perimeter poles, and under the eucalyptus branches you could hear the soft, persistent sound of dripping so that you didn't want to stick your head out of the fleecy softness of your coat. "Let's go for a walk," said Hanna. "I don't feel like going back to the room."

"Were shall we go?" asked Amos. "Can't you feel the snow getting near?"

"Oooh! It'll be lovely snow," Hanna said, curling up her fingers inside her woolen gloves. "Can I have a warm?" and she pushed her hands under his arms. They began to move slowly under the lamps by the fence. They were strung along the barbed wire and shone like pearls in the raindrops' slanting rays. The racket of the sergeants' hut was swallowed up behind them in the drifting banks of damp mist. The lights disappeared, the shouting and jeering were stilled and the air struck them, clear and sharp. For a moment, as Hanna skipped towards him and her hair, breaking loose from under her cap, swung close in the sudden movement, Amos caught the smell of the cigarette smoke that entrapped her.

"Have you been smoking again?" Amos asked. Hanna didn't answer.

"I hate girls who smoke," Amos said.

Suddenly a black shape looms up in front of them. Hanna grabs Amos, puts her arm round him and presses close in sudden fear.


"Sergeant Amos?" a voice calls.

"Yes, that's me. What wrong?"

A soldier in full battle-dress, gun at the ready, almost bursts upon them. What a piece of luck that Sergeant Amos has arrived just in the nick of time. Honestly, it's Private David of the 3rd Platoon; something has happened to him; something wrong. It might even turn out to be very wrong. Somebody has to take a hand straight away, do something before it's too late.

"You wait here," Amos tells Hanna. "Stay away and don't come any closer. If anything happens, run straight away to the sergeants' hut and get help."

Hanna draws back into the shadows. But she can't relax and calls to Amos, nervously throwing out a barrage of questions. Not every question has an answer, says Amos, walking slowly and cautiously after the soldier. David, the new recruit from the 3rd Platoon, has holed himself up at the eastern corner of the fence. From olden times, a kind of tower has been there, standing mostly over and outside the fence. It is made of stone and iron and just now the top is cut off, hidden in the mist. The other side of the fence had long ago been sown with mines and most of them are now lying exposed and rusty. Some of them, swept along by the rains, have crept forward so that by now they are caught under the barbed wire. If Private David should suddenly decide to break out of the tower and jump over the fence...

Amos looks up. The stone steps of the tower glitter in the rain. They must be dangerously slippery. If Private David should come running down the steps, he'll slip and fall backwards and crack his...

Over the black stones of the tower trail are vines of green hyssop. The rain has revived them and filled them out. They adorn the narrow embrasures that cut into the tower walls -- each wall with its opening; an opening in each wall. If Private David is armed, he can move from one to another and shoot. And at the moment he is not quite sane. He will aim at the shadows and shoot at the wind. Amos throws a glance behind him towards the smudge of shadow where Hanna is sheltering. Not every question has an answer, Hanna.

David, the new recruit, calls to them from the tower above.

"Don't come any nearer. I'll shoot."

Amos withdraws into the shadows. Now he remembers a similar incident that happened to him the previous summer. Just before sundown, im an olive grove, a soldier had cracked. He had loaded his gun and taken aim. Panic broke out in the platoon. Some of the men had thrown themselves flat on the sand, some had taken cover behind the thick trunks of the trees and others had been so stunned that they had just stood where they were, rooted to the spot. Amos had shouted out some juicy curse, and when the soldier, taken by surprise, turned towards him, Amos had called out to the others to get under cover. Then, very very slowly, Amos had bent down as if he had to see to one of his bootlaces that had come loose. Stealthily he took up a handful of sand and suddenly straightening up, he threw the sand with all strength straight into the soldier's eyes and ran towards him. A hail of his bullets flew into the sky, while the soldier was bent double, crying out with the pain of his hurt eyes. From behind him, from where Amos didn't dare to look, others jumped out, tied the soldier up and carted him off with them, while Amos' treacherous legs continued to tremble far into the night.

"Go and get the duty officer," Amos said to the soldier who had stopped him. "I'll wait here." The guard ran off on unsteady legs through the clinging mud by the perimeter lighting poles to the duty officer's room. It was cold now and the snow would certainly not be long in coming. Even if they weren't exactly waiting for it, it would come.

Amos walks slowly back. David of the 3rd Platoon has taken leave of his senses for one night. The tough training, the officer's harassment, the sergeants' tempers... Maybe a sudden flash of lightning shot a ray into his brain. From there it was only a moment to the slippery steps high up the tower.

Hanna puts her hand on his arm. "What'll happen now?"

"Oh, it's nothing, Hanna. Some new recruit has gone off his rocker. We'll soon deal with him. Go back to your room now, by yourself. I've got to stay here. Don't go to sleep. Wait for me. I'll come as soon as I'm through."

Hanna snuggles into her coat. So small inside the woolen wrappings. The smell of cigarette smoke lurking in her hair hits him again, and with an effort he stops himself from taking her smokey head and pressing it against his chest.

"Sergeant BarOz?" The duty officer arrives at the double. "What's going on here?"

"Go on, Hanna," says Amos. "Off you go now. The officer is going to call David to come down. He wants to talk to him."

"I'm not going to talk to you," answers David from the tower.

The duty officer and Amos crouch down in the shadows. Something has got to be done, now. Somebody has got to subdue David, and quick.

"Come on, David. We'll talk it all over down here."

"I'm not coming down. There's somebody else here I have to talk to and he's higher up."

"You can talk to him from down here, as well. You can talk to him anywhere," says Amos.

"Oh, no, you can't. You're making a big mistake. You're making another mistake. You're always making mistakes. This whole camp is one big mistake. What am I doing with you here, anyway, right in the middle of this mistake?"

"Oh, stop talking a lot of rubbish," says the duty officer. "Nobody here is making a mistake. You're on guard, you're cold, you've gotten overtired from maneuvers and now the tension has got you down. Come on, there's hot coffee in the guard-room."

"Oh, no! You're little, you're tiny. He won't listen to you. I've got to talk to him."

The officer doesn't let up. David of the 3rd Platoon might open fire. Something has happened to the lad. He has to be saved. "We'll let you off guard duty night. You've finished. You're off watch. You can come down. Once you're down here you can talk to anyone you like."

"To the Rabbi," calls David. "I'll only talk to the Rabbi."

"Okay," the officer agrees. "We'll bring you any Rabbi you like. You can come down now." In the gateway of the tower you can just make out a vague shadow, a dim figure. David of the 3rd Platoon is a short, thin young recruit. His hair is cut very short and his helmet comes down over his ears.

"Throw your rifle," the officer calls, "and we'll go to the Rabbi straight away, tonight."

"You're all a lot of nothings." David waves his gun above his head. The barrel catches on the stones of the tower. A shower of red sparks whirls above his head. "You're not worth talking to. All you're worth is a bullet."

The officer loses his patience and leaps towards him. David still holds out and points the gun at him. Amos jumps aside and calls out to the duty officer, "Look out! He's going to shoot!" But the tower betrays David and his feet suddenly slip on the wet stairs. He flies forward, his rifle flying in front of him, and his face goes plunging into the mud. The shot follows after him and his bullet buries itself in the mud, too. The smell of cordite mixed with steam fills the air. The duty officer jumps at David of the 3rd Platoon and disarms him. He puts his foot on him and says, "Sergeant BarOz, take him! He's yours!"


Amos doesn't turn his head. I'm not on duty tonight, and he doesn't wait to see who it is that jumps out from between the eucalyptus trees, or even what they do to David of the 3rd Platoon, or how they carry him, manacled and bound, along by the fence, fluttering in his bonds like a butterfly.

"You're all a lot of nothings." His voice can still be heard as he is carried off into the distance. "I don't want to talk to any of you. Get me the Rabbi!"

"Any Rabbi you want," laughs the duty officer. "Any Rabbi you want," laugh the soldiers who bear him along. Only Amos doesn't laugh as he takes a shortcut between the dripping eucalyptuses, and hopes with all his heart that Hanna hasn't heard the shouting.

Hanna is waiting for him at the entrance to the girls' quarters. She hasn't gone to bed. She stands there, stamping her feet to keep off the cold. As Amos approaches she starts and calls out, "What happened? How did it end?"

Amos takes her hand in his, and with his other hand waves as if to tell her that what happened doesn't matter any more. But Hanna can tell that he is depressed. "Are you upset? What happened to the new recruit?"

"He cracked up," says Amos, "and the duty-officer finished him off completely."

"Where is he now?" Hanna comes down the steps and stands, just under his chin.

"They've taken him away from the tower," says Amos, "and if they hurry, and if there's no mist on the road, and if there's no snow in the ditches, we-e-ell, by now they're already down in the valley and well on their way to Tiberias." Hanna strokes his cheeks, drawing her hands slowly towards herself.

"You're depressed," she says. "You're sad again."

Around them the night is still. The fog blankets everything. There is no-one else in the whole damp world but them, and when he turns towards her, the only sound is the rubbing of her woolen gloves over the stubble on his chin, and to Amos it feels like a light scratching on his cheeks. Even though his binoculars are not at hand, and the stones of the tower are smooth under his feet, and the banks of clouds that glide over Safad envelope him, Amos BarOz can follow the winding road, down into the warm valley. All at once the mists vanish and a lush green land is suddenly revealed through the embrasures. Hanna takes off her heavy clothes, and he his coat, and they toss them, all entangled, into the back of the car. "Let's stop in Tiberias," Hanna pleads. Her forehead is pressed against the windscreen and through his fingertips Amos can feel the wrinkles that are etched there now, and how his fingers will soon smooth the furrows away. "We'll stop wherever you like," says Amos, "somewhere by the side of the road." Hanna suddenly asks him to stop. The mountain comes down close to the road here, and the houses of Tiberias are not far off. As they go down to the shore, she even unfastens the buttons of her sleeves and her hands disappear inside the rough cloth. "At last I'm really warm," she says. "You wait," Amos says. "It'll get hotter than this." By the water's edge, Hanna suddenly gets excited and, prompted by some mischievous spirit, she jumps into the water with her shoes on. "Hey! wait! What are you doing?" Amos calls, and runs, strangely, after her. "This isn't the kind of heat I meant." Afterwards, Hanna sits down by the water's edge, her legs curled up, taking the water in her hand and letting it run through her fingers. Ever so slowly. Tiny shells stick to her hands. She crushes them unconsciously. Her white palms redden and hollows form there. Amos takes her hands between his. They're wet, covered with goose-pimples. Between Amos's hands they disappear. Ever so slowly.

Amos pulls a loaf of bread out his bag. He breaks it in two and gives Hanna half. "Look, do what I do." And he tears off bits from the inside of the loaf, rolls them into pellets between his fingers and thumb, and throws them into the water. "The fish are already here, waiting! St.Peter's fish!" Amos cries. "St.Peter's fish, I'll be damned!" "What difference does it make what fish they are," says Hanna, "as long as they're fish?" Hanna puts the dry brown crust between her lips. She doesn't really chew. She just moves her lips gently round and round the bread without swallowing.

"I'm damned if you don't look like a fish!" Amos laughs.

Hanna spits out the bread into the water "You're not sad any more?" she asks.

Amos looks towards the north. The heavy clouds lower over the mountains. The woods of Capernaum are swallowed up in the dark shadows. From there you could float along on the soft snow-clouds and throw into the sea, to the myriads of fishes waiting on the sea bed, all the bread they could wish for. "No," says Amos, "it isn't a miracle."

"I, too, could do it if I wanted to."

"You see, Hanna, how easy it is. Here we are now, by the sea, playing with the fish, and you are as soft as the dough you are spitting out." But from inside that white cocoon, where he is bound up in cords as red as yesterday's lightning, he lifts his eyes upwards like David of the 3rd Platoon. "No, I'm not depressed," Amos says. "You don't have to worry. Only up there, on the tower, this scene suddenly came to me. It was like a sudden break in those clouds there, like a patch of brightness, a splash of real sunshine, like the flash of lightning that lit you up yesterday in the middle of all that racket in the sergeants' hut. A light like that hurts."

Amos stands up, his eyes fixed upon the distant woods on the north shore. "Hanna, get up," he says. "Hanna, get up. Give me your hand, give me your soul, come, let's fly away. Come on." He gets annoyed. "Can't you see you're holding us up? Hanna, get up!" But Hanna is taken aback by the look on his face and pulls her hand away. The woods on the north shore are swallowed up in the thick darkness that settles over the sea. A strange smell, the smell of fresh snow, rises from the water. Amos suddenly slips and falls on the scoured steps of the tower. Below, on the ground, he can see Hanna lying, her face buried in the mud. The duty-officer puts his foot on her and says, "Sergeant BarOz, take her, she's yours." When he comes to, he sees that Hanna is trembling and trying to pull her coat over her head. Her hands flutter, she can't find the sleeves. Struggling with her coat, she turns towards the road and weeps.

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