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A Hike in the Galilee~SHORT STORY~

Share A Hike in the Galilee
By Elisha Porat

Translated by Alan Sacks


A.

In the Migdal date grove

The lumbering safari bus struggled down towards the shore of the lake. Moshe Ben-Haim, the driver, didn't dare throw caution to the wind as he had before. But I, the tour guide, stood on the side board and urged him on, down and still further down, until he reached the lake front. He sweated and fought the unyielding wheel.

His wife, Tova, interfering constantly from her seat beside him, only made the job of parking harder for us. The young French work volunteers in the bus squawked and shrieked like a gaggle of school children.

Each thing they saw, no matter how slight - the sharp descent to Tiberias, the city's ruined fortress, the antiquities at Capernaum, you name it - gave them a thrill. Now they were enjoying the perverse antics of our bus. They cheered every bump and merrily applauded each time a hole swallowed one of the tires. From my perch on the side board, I saw how they poked out their hands to stroke the trunks of the date trees in the grove. At last, we pitched our camp.

I thanked Moshe, then climbed on the bus and, in my broken English, informed the group: "This is the date grove at Migdal. We'll eat dinner here, go for a swim in the lake, make a party around the fire and then turn in for the night."

I observed them as they bolted from the bus and sprinted into the cold lake. Their passion for the touch of the chill waters was like a blind lust so powerful that they went in fully dressed, their sandals still on their feet, heedless even of wetting their cameras. Their gleeful chatter, the music of their French, their wide-eyed curiosity, even the meager respect they showed me as their guide, all gave me pleasure.

I kept my eye in particular on the girls, one of whom I intended to select as my companion for a three day camping trip. I wanted to get to know her better, maybe even lie beside her at night. I didn't look for payment for my short hikes with groups of tourists; rather, I loved to meet foreign women, wooing them in my heavy-footed way and feeling surprise each time history repeated itself as if in obeyance to unknown laws. I leaned back on a date tree and studied the girls. This time, I thought, I'll choose Claudine.

Why did I pick Claudine? First of all, because her long legs, launched earthward from her shorts on a seemingly endless voyage, had immediately captivated me. And second, because she had not been swept up with the others in the rush for the water. She had slowly gotten off the safari bus, removed her glasses - what a homely face she had - and squinted with near-sighted eyes at the scenery around her: the embers of abandoned fish grills, improvised tripods, the remnants of discarded reed mats.

Then she had looked up at me, the guide propped against a date tree, smiled and asked if there were lavatories and a changing room on the beach. I quaked in her presence, I wanted to lay my fingers on her eyes and heal her sight. Instead, still slouching, I told her that she would find everything in the sea, even the lavatories and a place to change. Here, the sea supplied all our needs. "Is that so? Really?" Astonished, Claudine drew closer. "Everything is in the sea?"

Ever so slowly, she turned around, removed her clothes as she walked away and went in the water in a skimpy bathing suit. I heard her mumbling in amazement, "How can it be that the lavatories and changing rooms are right in the sea?"

That was the moment I resolved that she was the one I would pursue and conquer if I could. My heart belonged to no one, I was free to stalk girls.

Moshe and Tova managed famously without me. They were both veteran outdoorsmen and Tova liked to tag along on the tourist outings we organized. I had even grown accustomed to them. They were a pleasant couple who enjoyed listening to my guide's commentary.

Tova had just one maddening habit. As she snuggled with Moshe in their sleeping bag, she would suddenly begin to grunt in the middle of the night, savagely gulping air while she ground one hand hard against the other. A light sleeper, I was awakened each time by the racket of her snoring. Though I well knew what to expect, and made my bed far enough away from them that her eerie noises would not give me a start, the spectacle of her fingers passionately rubbing and grinding held me prisoner.

I lay awake through the night, jolted by her choked snorts, all the campers around me asleep and only I, preternaturally alert, devouring the sight of Tova Ben-Haim's deranged fingers and trying to fathom her garbled murmurs.

She was a splendid woman in the morning. She cheerfully fried omelettes for Moshe, who licked his lips at whatever she set before him. I, too, was spoiled by her. I would steal a glance at her eyes, at her hands and fingers deftly preparing the food, and never find in them a trace of her bizarre nocturnal dramatics. I nearly committed a faux pas once when I casually hinted at what she did in her sleep. My well-bred listeners ignored the allusion and merely shot one another indulgent smiles. I immediately withdrew my remarks and gracefully extricated myself by changing the subject of conversation. Further than that I was not willing to go, for we would certainly be partners on many excursions to come.

I observed Claudine's movements again that afternoon. My targeted prey would not escape. When she went down to join her friends rough-housing in the sea, I followed. At first, I kept my distance from them, swimming contentedly far to the east. I acted as though their dip in the water was no concern of mine.

These were still children, after all, and I was an amateur tour guide, nearly 27 years old with a wife and two young daughters. They paid me no mind. Only now and then did they throw their striped beach ball out of reach, momentarily cease screaming and look in my direction. I tacked and turned around the ball as if I hadn't noticed it. It was only after they shouted to me impatiently, and one of the boys began swiftly swimming my way, that I suddenly discovered the ball floating beside me. I gripped it and tossed firmly it at Claudine. I closed the distance between us, even as she moved a little ways from the others.

Suddenly, the two of us were alone together in the Sea of Galilee, sealed in by expanses of gentle water. I felt that she wanted to come closer. I splashed, I made bubbles. Then, knifing through the water, I reached for her back, as if my hand had slipped its moorings and acted by its own will, not mine. Claudine, my marked quarry, did not flinch. On the contrary, the glancing brush of my passing hand seemed to draw her still closer. Already she was swimming at my side, gazing into my face, asking if I wasn't afraid to roam so far from the safety of land. I took hold of her back, pressed against her chest and caressed her belly, not too hard but with a sort of soothing stroke. The water flowing between us kept us just barely apart. Things indeed were happening, though in the water. The contact was not close, full of sweat and lust, but rather a dainty playful frolic if even that, merely the reflection of play, as if hovering over the soft, feathery swells of water.

Then I made the mistake of growing too ardent. It may be that I misread Claudine's faint responses. I clasped her to me, forcing her beneath my outstretched body. Claudine broke away in fright. I had gone too far, she had never intended such intimacy. She turned west, away from my grip, towards her comrades and the grove of date palms on the muddy shore. I heatedly gave chase but failed again and again in my attempts to stop her. She had an odd yet very rapid swimming motion. Her face resolutely met the low waves while her long legs kicked wildly through the surf, but I dived below to show her, I am faster; try as you like, you cannot escape my grasp. But without even a glance at me, her lungs heaving, she shook off the hand I had clamped on her. In the next moment, her long legs touched bottom and she came to rest. Exhausted by her flight, she croaked out a plea to her friends. "Zil, Zil, come quickly." One of the boys plunged towards us, his arms a windmill, then came another and still two others. My victim was snatched from my jaws. Nothing remained for me but to surrender, turn around and amuse myself, to all appearances, in harmless water sport. Again I headed east, into a desolate stretch of water. I never even looked back to see how terrified Claudine was saved from my predatory pursuit.

B.

In the artists' quarter of Safed

It would be better for me not to speak of the agonizing night through which I suffered. I circled Claudine like a beast in heat, trying to mollify her and regain her trust.

She was still frightened by the ambush I sprang in the raspberry brambles. She had screamed for help and been rescued by Zil, from whose arms she did not budge the rest of the night. She clung to him even at the camp fire. Zil's eyes met mine, but I could not determine if Claudine had told him of the incident in the water. I sat across from the campers to sum up the day's touring and brief them on the next day's route. Even as they regarded me with the attentive faces one sees on students, and asked perceptive questions when I spoke about Migdal and the Sea of Galilee, and demonstrated a deep knowledge of my discourse on ancient Christianity, I could not disabuse myself of the notion all that time that only a small, stupid mistake had prevented me from spending the night between Claudine's lanky legs.

It was only when Claudine bedded down sheltered in the haven formed by the campers around her that I realized that all my efforts to snare her would be in vain. I gave up on her and returned to Moshe and Tova Ben-Haim sleeping under the safari bus. It was already closer to dawn than nightfall, and I was dead tired when I lay down beside them. I heard, oh did I hear, how the skin grated and scraped on Tova's hands as they went at one another and she growled in her spooky voice. On our ride up to Safed in the morning, I decided I had to change my tactics for catching Claudine. I wondered on our arrival at the artists' quarter why she had not even scowled at me since the previous day. Neglecting the tour group, I devoted to Claudine all my talents as a volunteer guide. For her benefit, we mounted and descended steps without end, peeped together into every forsaken cemetery, gazed in awe at every shattered ruin, loitered in every gallery. Wherever we went, I found something to say to her and the others huffing behind us up the worn flights of stone.

Claudine was very interested in the eccentric painters, their weird works and the ascetic life they led. I soon lost all sense of time. It suddenly struck me that she understood this art work, the fruit of completing some preliminary courses towards an art degree. Surrounded by keenly fragrant fig trees, I felt the need for a fresh assessment of Claudine. Standing before me was no mere wild doe, long of leg and near of sight, but a cultured young woman on the threshold of a promising life. Watching as she chatted happily with the artists about colors and the forest of domes in the old city, I was at a loss to explain how I had become stuck on Claudine of all the girls in the French contingent. It happened just like that, while I leaned in boredom against the trunk of a date tree in the grove at Migdal. I lie in wait like a hunter of small game about to spring from the bush. Only her bewildered smile and quiet astonishment had drawn me to her.

"Really? Even the lavatories are in the sea? And the changing rooms too? How can it be that there are no facilities on the beach?"

So nearly the whole of our day in Safed went by. I was busy that afternoon with settling the campers into a hostel, with dining reservations and lodging accommodations and all a guide's other headaches. I had no time to indulge my curiosity until that evening, when we made another stop in the city to lick ice cream cones in the cool breeze sighing through the pines above our seats. Safed the enchanting blazed below us while Claudine and her pals traded opinions of their visit to the galleries.

Moshe and Tova, weary from the day's strenuous ramblings, left for the hostel. Tired as I was, I had to mind my young charges until bed time. One by one, the campers drifted off to the hostel. I wished them goodnight and was conscientious enough to sketch out what awaited them on our final day of touring, the wonders and walls of Acre and her golden coast where we would conclude the trip. Zil remained with Claudine and me.

Throughout the day, he had peppered me with sidelong looks whose meaning I could not determine. Was he angry with me? Did he believe that I had exploited my status as guide to take unwarranted liberties with Claudine? I had found him, too, to be an interesting boy. The few words I had overheard him speak that day had greatly impressed me. He was studying architecture, and the enthusiasm sparked in him by the artists he had met during the day equaled Claudine's own excitement. At long last, the two of them rose to leave. Claudine asked if I would be staying on the park bench. I said that I would soon head to one of the hotels and sit there a bit longer.

I was secretly happy that each of us would pass the night in his own little room. I would not again be an unwilling spectator of Tova Ben-Haim's nighttime insanities, compelled to listen to the awful grinding of her fingers. The three of us walked down from the hilltop park to the road. I sensed how Claudine was trying to reassure Zil and steer him to the hostel alone. Had my fatigue suddenly made me go soft? Was it only exhaustion that gave me, in her eyes, an affable, intriguing air? I did not know why, but Zil backed down and left for the hostel by himself. Claudine turned to me with that near-sighted smile of hers and said that she wanted to keep me company as I sat that night on the deserted dance floor of the hotel. She wore long, thin slacks beneath a colored skirt and was not nearly so attractive as she had seemed to me the day before when she left the safari bus for the sea. Her face, scorched by the Galilee's summer sun, seemed even plainer, but her eyes glinted with a beguiling earnestness.

I felt that I might have given up on her too soon. Perhaps I should have tightened the screws of my trap since last night. She sat close to me now, yes, but she was far away. Whatever had existed between us had changed completely, stripped of any tingle of seduction and all the ache-filled, thrilling spice of carnal conquest. She asked if it were true that I was married. "Of course," I said, for I did not like little lies, "with two young daughters." Then she wanted to know what I did on the kibbutz and how I had become a sometime guide for tourist groups. In the pigeon English by which we communicated, I told her of kibbutz life, of commitment to the servitude of agricultural labor and the years racing by and the rainbow of light that young tourists reflected on our lives. With animation, she spoke of her life in a French village, of her art-loving parents and the obligation she had felt to see the Holy Land after that glorious miracle of a war.

She told me how she had conversed with so many fascinating artists that day, and how pleased her parents would be that she had visited an artists' quarter. It had never crossed her mind that an entire section of town might be engaged in such beautiful craftsmanship. As she spoke, my fingers darted forward with a will of their own and seized the hand she had placed between us. She drew back but did not resist and left her palm in mine. To my great surprise, the sluggish hunter's blood within me began to heat. I bought us each another ice cream. She allowed me to come still closer, our shoulders had already merged. Her skin was warm against the cooling air. I remembered how base impulses had overcome me in the Sea of Galilee the day before when I fondled her belly, how I had tried, vulgarly, impetuously, to tear off her bathing suit. I thought she would understand even without translation that this was the pathetic, tipsy state of a volunteer guide who devoted a few days every summer to a group of young tourists and was smitten anew each time by one of the girls. I could already imagine myself next summer, lounging here one night on the chilly dance floor in Safed and whining in the ear of a long-legged foreign girl, the life of an Israeli farmer is so hard, the dreams he will never realize shine so bright, his luckless life is crushing him, and what a fantastic wife he has, too bad he got saddled so quickly to a house and two young daughters. If things turn out well, as they did the year before and the year before that, I will soon take her to bed with baited breath in the back lot of the hostel or in a raspberry bramble hideaway on the Migdal coast.

I did not translate for her, yet I felt that she understood everything. If so, why had she discarded her resistance? We rose entwined and Claudine asked where we were going. "It is very, very late," I answered. "We must go to the hostel. We have a long day ahead of us touring the sights of Acre."

She leaned her legs against me, then all her body. She was so light that I nearly hoisted her up and carried her on my shoulder down the road to the hostel. Suddenly, without rhyme or reason, I had an irresistible craving for the omelettes Tova Ben-Haim fried up for Moshe in the morning. I hoped she wouldn't forget me the next day, in my room down the hall from theirs, when she served him that savory early morning breakfast of hers.

C.

On Acre's purple beach

I drove my tour group without mercy the next day. I lashed them and whipped them as hard as I could. I showed them how mean and vile even an unpaid guide could be. I marched them double-time and without rest through Acre's sights, from the Persian garden and the Bahai holy cemetery to the firing ports for the bronze cannons in the Napoleonic fort. I abridged my comments and even denied them the few moments they needed for photographs. I gave almost no thought to their questions. I strode at the front, my face a mask of anger, and barked incessantly at stragglers who strayed into the shops. I had a sick, awful feeling that I could not explain and wanted to end the tour early.

Was it the hurried parting from Claudine in the hostel's back lot that had left me with a bitter taste and self-loathing? Was I pouring my wrath on the French tourists because of what had happened between us there in the dark? I lost the last of my self-control in one of the souvenir shops where, to the clerk's terror, I snatched the knickknacks from their hands, threw them at the shopkeeper and bodily cast the youths outside.

"Later, I'll explain everything later, when we finally get to the purple beach," I screamed at them afterwards in my fractured English.

On the golden, purple beach by the sea so blue, a calming peace instantly descended on me. I waved my hand at them and said, "As far I'm concerned, the sea is yours, run free under the sun, abandon yourselves to the sand. All our time is in our hands. The safari bus is at our service, no one expects us to return before dark." I felt the anger and palpable displeasure in the words they exchanged.

The way I had mistreated them was intolerable, but the strange city intimidated them and they were afraid of returning to it without me. Their indignant tone alone declared that the trip to the walls had not been as promised. They had entirely missed the famous mosques, I had not allowed them to soak up the color of the market or glance into the crusader halls. All true, I told myself, for they were absolutely correct, I had abused them cruelly. But I could not have behaved otherwise. Moshe and Tova, who had seen enough of Acre, were not with us. Instead, they took the safari bus to drop in on a close friend in one of the neighboring towns. We agreed to meet at the purple beach parking lot. I was sorry for their absence. Perhaps they would have stood by the campers and drawn some of the venom from my sting, or softened my vindictive rage with a soothing word or two. I sat on a shaded concrete bench not far from the entrance gate, contemplating my wards as they plunged into the sea. The gloom that had plagued me the previous night had not taken its leave.

Claudine's questions, her faith in me, a sudden tender look in her eyes, all generated a disturbing sense of irritation that left me on edge. Was this really how I was to squander my life, going from one tour group to another? Was I indeed to look forward each summer to a long-legged lass who would lean her slender figure on me to rise on my shoulders as by her own power? And what about that pretentious claptrap I had blabbered to her in Citadel Park in Safed? - the commitment of my life to the servitude of agricultural labor and the sacred mortification of the settlement's young, who give their lives to the holy trinity of community, family and work.

I had lusted in every fiber of my being after her young body, for the possession of which I was prepared to ply her with talk of things of the mind and the spirit all so fraudulent it tastes foul in my mouth even now. Claudine passed by me in the blazing heat, hopping foolishly on her burning feet. Catching my eye, she signaled me with a flick of her wrist that I immediately took as an invitation.

"Just a moment," I hastily told her, "I'll get out of my shirt and sandals and be right with you." I trailed her down to the water.

The beach had already filled with bathers. A refreshing breeze blew and cadets of the marine academy were training out to sea. Their terse calls rolled onto shore with the ripples of the wind to clash with the music blaring from the roof of the changing rooms.

"Are you really married?" Claudine asked. I moved closer and smiled into her eyes.

"Yes, and my wife is terrific. I also have two young daughters. But we spoke about all that yesterday."

She wanted to know if I lived a full and happy life as I had told her, and really loved life on the kibbutz as I had described it to her tour group.

"Yes," I answered with the same intimate look. "Yes, it's all true."

Then we fell silent. I took pains to avoid touching her body, even by accident, deterred by the way she had shrunk in panic from my caresses on the beach at Migdal and rushed to Zil, her defender, to protect her from the libidinous predator. Salt rasped her throat and she coughed. I offered her my hand. Did she need my help? She leaned against me with a childlike trust that I found exciting. "I'm sorry I have to go back to France tomorrow. What a shame the hike was so short."

"Yes, it's a pity," I said. "It's hard to get to know someone in so short a time."

I grazed my hand over her back. She dodged like a slippery fish, crying, "No, no, don't start that again. There's no point now. Can we get out of the water and talk?"

I helped her to push through the waves, then shook myself off and followed her up the sand. Outside the water glowed a summer such as one can feel only at the beach. Beyond the city walls and the marine academy training boats, floating wisps of clouds aroused in me poignant pangs of longing.

I pointed out to Claudine the threads of clouds that I identified as summer banks of haze. But in autumn, everything changes here. The light grows sharper, the air clearer, the clouds heavier. With fall come nights at the shore rank with the wafting smells of greenery utterly intoxicating to the few who swim after dark. Claudine sat beside me. From her delicate knees, we brushed grains of sand to mine. Time stood still for me.

I forgot my duties as guide and banished all thought of the labors of the hike. Lunch time passed unnoticed. Moshe Ben-Haim and the safari bus, departure time, the cold water I had promised them, the crates of fruit still on the bus, everything was wiped from my mind. I had no desire to think at all. All I wanted was to surrender myself to summer and the shore and the pleasant, almost imperceptible scratching of the sand Claudine was sprinkling on my knees.

Why was I not ashamed to lecture her the night before in Safed how each young Israeli suffers through military service? Or about the necessity of all our wars? Was I so serious seated beside her on the hotel veranda? And what about the happiness that always seemed beyond my grasp? Had I really foisted all that on her? I never ceased to feel gnawing within me a sense of deceit, of a hunter cunningly setting a trap for his prey, of shame in the face of Claudine's transparent smile and the handfuls of fine sand she sifted over my skin.

We sat together on the purple beach. My heart broke at the thought that Claudine was inevitably bound to cross the barrier between us at this time which could not be denied, that this was one of those rare moments in life that would be etched forever into my memory. In years to come, I would peel back the layers of memory and unfailingly find it all - the waves of loud music booming from the loudspeaker on the roof of the changing rooms, the soda bottles trampled into the sand, the tremendous feeling of relief that here I had once again outwitted a threat looming on the road of my life - and everything as fresh as the day it happened.

The mild disappointment of unfulfilled hopes for amusement, the underwater pursuit of her long legs, my unsuccessful attempts to fondle her belly, all that would be forgotten, driven off like the fleecy summer clouds drifting past the walls of Acre.

But what would I, the volunteer tour guide, make of what I had realized today? Would my life continue frozen in the rut into which I had sunk by no conscious decision, or would I find the strength of will to break free and embark on a new life, one that included Claudine?

Moshe and Tova, arriving unexpectedly at the bathing beach, nearly stumbled over us. In an instant, everything ended for me. I leapt up and began rushing around like one possessed. I arranged lunch for the campers, rounded them up over their protests for one final, boring lecture in the shade of the bus, reprimanded them without cause and praised them to excess. I spread before them the bounty of the fruit crates and let cold water pour from the jugs. It was as if I were trying to atone for all my neuroses of the past two days.

Everything I had wrongfully withheld from them, whatever I had deprived them of, I wanted to restore to them in a single moment. They were not appeased but insisted on their right to play, as they had been promised, until the day grew dark.

I was angered and refused, so they sent Claudine to sweet-talk me. "Impossible," I shouted at her. "You're flying to France tomorrow. You have a lot of things to take care of, and who will be responsible if you miss the plane?"

I prodded them to finish packing their gear while I saw to the tour equipment. Claudine, leaning against one of the bus' front tires, planted herself in front of me. Her pose reminded me of how I had leaned against the trunk of the date palm in the grove at Migdal, how I lay in wait for her to pass and told myself here was my prey, how she had asked with bewitching shyness whether facilities were available and been stunned by my reply, how she had been transformed from game in my sights, a doe doomed to capture, into the pivot on which my life suddenly had begun to turn. A shiver ran down my back at the memory of Tova Ben-Haim's hands, kneading one another with unquenchable desire.

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