By Alys Jackson
Mason perches on the edge of the veranda and watches the crows. His eyelids tremble. A memory is kindled; heat, dust and a raven’s call. Israel, 1984. He’s young, still bare-backed with youth and promise, as yet unsaddled. A smile touches his lips.
The day had been early, always early. Up before the sun to till the fields, pick fruit and lay life into the soil. The Golan Heights, annexed by Israel, a basaltic plateau bordered by the Sea of Galilee, the sun-scorched hills littered with rotting tanks and rusting ammunition, and the sound of his own laughter. He wonders how he could have been so young.
The kibbutz had been ringed by watchtowers and the constant threat of attack by Katyusha rockets. At night he could hear the gunfire just over the border. It still quickens his heart. His closed eyes look deeper into the memory. And there it is.
A field, shimmering in heat, dirt-packed and dusted with dying grass. Moshev is there, and Disco Levi; bent into their work, muscles, blood and bone, hearts bursting with effort, and barely a metre down. The ditch was needed for water, to supply the Jewish commune, the Australian volunteers contracted to help do the digging. Even the two Swiss girls are there, eyeing the men.
“You’re late!” shouts Moshev, but he’s smiling.
Leeway is given. They’re unpaid after all. Mason hefts a shovel, fingers curling around the sun-warmed wood.
The men are singing now, and Mason thinks he’s never felt more alive. Which is odd. Back in Sydney, life moved faster; parties and deadlines intertwined until the whole became a blur of non-stop living, faster and faster, heady, feverish, as if everyone knew it somehow wasn’t real and were desperate to drown out the sneaking unease that flitted beneath the surface. Not real.
Four years of study delivered him a degree, a good job, congratulations and back-slapping respect. Celebrations had followed—with champagne, the real stuff not the cheap fizz sold in the downtown beer joints.
And he got Sarah in the end.
Five more years and an irritable bowel saw him chuck it all in.
The surprise on his mother’s face was more satisfying than seeing her at his own graduation.
A car squeals past, the sound splitting his memories into fragments, but Mason refuses to let go.
If he really tries, he can still smell the sweetness of grapefruits ripening. And the taste of them, fuzzing his lips, juice trailing down his chin to splash onto the earth below.
“Come on!” yells Moshev. “Harder.”
Mason’s body responds, he wields the shovel like a weapon. He’s a knight, a crusader come to rebuild the Holy Land. Earth flies and the men laugh. His muscles contract and squeeze and the Swiss girls watch him and whisper.
He wonders if Sarah would have liked his tan, his vigorous muscles and new-found brawn. He digs deep into the soil, mind and spirit joining in a crude celebration of body. And with each violent stab; I don’t need her, I don’t miss her, and look how the Swiss girls stare.
In the late afternoon, he will retreat to the bomb shelter, swill down Arak, the cheapest he can buy, and listen to the Israeli women gossip. He never tries to join them. He knows he wouldn’t be welcome. Their hospitality only goes so far. An outsider, still.
But for now he belongs and the men laugh to see him work, and Mason knows that from now on life will be different – better.
Then as the sun cuts its path between the date palms, metal strikes metal.
He remembers the heat, the force of the blast blowing him off his feet. He tries to stand, even manages a step or two, before falling. Blood spurts, saturates the ground. His blood. The wound in his thigh is open to the bone, flesh pulped and scattered into the dirt.
The men rush to get help. One of the Swiss girls drops to his side to cradle his head, the other staunching his wound with softness and with strength. He’s carried away from the battlefield, a fallen hero, honorably injured and carefully, so very carefully, lifted into the ambulance, the Swiss girls refusing to leave his side.
A smile flickers at the edges of Mason’s lips, his eyes tightly shut, every sensation arrowing into the deep past.
Sarah had loved him then. Had rushed to his side. A terrible, wonderful, exciting day.
A daydream that eventually came to replace the reality. Who wants to hear about the time you *almost stepped on an unexploded shell?*
At first, Mason would unwrap the daydream secretly, savouring it in the quietest of moments. Then, very gradually, as those moments became more frequent, he’d forget, especially when he was drunk.
Friends were astonished. They asked to hear more. Mason refused.
When girlfriends asked why there were no scars, Mason would look to heaven and talk of miracles. The girlfriends dwindled, friends drifted and the years soft-footed beside him, one shot glass at a time.
In the end, Mason’s memories became so tangled with his daydreams he could no longer separate the two.
A crow lets out a plaintive cry and Mason opens his eyes. The sun is beginning to set over the city, downtown. It’s beautiful, he thinks. Even the crows, black-backed and screeching their defiance at a world too busy to listen.
He raises a toast to the fading light and returns to a sunnier place in his mind.
As the shell explodes, he gingerly touches his thigh.
And the pain he feels is real.