We walked slowly in the muddy tracks of the jeep that revealed its acrobatic prowess by bouncing around on all fours in the ruts and mire, which after so many tranquil generations of bare feet and donkey's hooves were compelled to bear silently two scars along their entire length, bleeding mud and silence. There were no more shots to be heard, apart from a stray volley here and there, like an afterthought. If you were here on your own, and stopped walking, and lsitened for a bit, you'd no doubt here the earth quietly smacking its lps, drinking, sucking, and lapping up the water, and the remains of the autumn melancholy, dry and fevered, warmed and spread soothingly like the soporific effect of suckling.
Finally, when the road straightened out and stopped winding and meandering, alternately exposed and sheltered by hedges of prickly pears and acacia and by twigs threaded through rusting barbed wire, and became simply a damp dirt path running down toward the valley, the jeep stopped, where the machine gun mounted on it could cover the whole road ahead while we got out and went into the huts and yards to check them. And even if there was, it seemed, nothing easier than to disregard it, simply to deny it, it mattered to me that it was beginning. I was impatient for the beginning of things that I imagined differently from everyone else. I was content with everything and hated starting to feel differently, and I didn't want to stand out from others in any way. It always ended in disillusionment. The tiniest crack attracted attention, turned into a gaping hole and started to shout. I took hold of myself and forced myself to keep quiet.
The huts appeared to have been uninhabited for a very long time. A harvest of fear and a crop of evil rumors had reaped untimely haste and the writhing of a worm hurrying to meet its fate. We kicked in the wicket in the big wooden gate in the clay walls and entered a square courtyard with a hut on one flank and another hut on the other. Sometimes, when they had the means and the time was right, these people would erect a clay hut over the casing of the well house below, training a vine or two and making an arbor, and bringing some concrete blocks, which didn't need plastering, at least as long as their corners were so attractive; pepper bushes and autumn eggplants were rotting below in the grass and moldering near the water tap, and roses peeped out of the rampant weeks and climbed above them, and paths extended to some place inside the groves. Another kick and a casual glance into an abanoned home, and a storage room where the dust of crops coated cobwebs both tattered and greasy-looking. Walls that had been attentively decorated with whatever was at hand; a home lined with plaster and a molding painted blue and red; little ornaments that hung on the walls, testifying to a loving care whose foundations had now been eradicated; traces of female-wisdom-hath-builded-her-house, paying close attention to myriad details whose time now had passed; an order intelligible to someone and a disorder in which somebody at his convenience had found his way; remnants of pots and pans that had been collected in a haphazard fashion, as need arose, touched by very private joys and woes that a stranger could not understand; tatters that made sense to someone who was used to them--a way of life whose meaning was lost, diligence that had reached its negation, and a great, very deep muteness had settled upon the love, the bustle, the bother, the hopes, and the good and less-good times, so many unburied corpses.
But we were already tired of seeing things like this, we had no more interest in such things. One glance, a step or two were enough for the courtyard, the house, the well, the past and the present, and their attentive silence. And although there might be an abandoned pitchfork or a fine-looking hoe, or a good, and valuable pipe wrench, momentarily enticing you to pick it up and weigh it in your hand, as one might in a market or a farmyard, and things that ought to be in their place, and even stirring an urge, incidentally, to take the motor from the well and the pipes, five inch, and the beams from above, and the bricks from below, and the wooden boards (we could always find a use for them in our yard) and send them home, there was such a tickling pleasure in getting such easy benefit, in getting rich quick, in picking up ownerless property and making it your own, and conquering it for yourself, and plans were already being made, right away, and it was already decided what was going to be done with almost all of these things at home, and how it would be done--except that we had been in so many villaes already, and picked things up and thrown them away, taken them and destroyed them, and we were too sued to it--so we picked up the fine-looking ownerless hoe, or pitchforkk, and hurled it down to the ground, if possible aiming it at something that would shatter at once, so as to relieve it of the shame of not being of use--with real destruction, once and for all, putting an end to its silence.
On the other hand, when we moved on and arrived at the cultivated land near the village, there were clear signs that the yards and houses had been abandoned only a short time before. The mattresses wee still laid out, the fire among the cooking-stones was still smoldering, one moment the chickens were pecking in the rubbish as usual and the next they were running away screeching as though they were about to be slaughtered. Dogs were sniffing suspiciously, half-approaching, half-barking. And the implements in the yard were still--it was clear--in active use. And silence had not yet settled except as a a kind of wonderment and stupefaction, as though the outcome hadn't yet been determined, and it was still possible that things would be straightened out and restored to the way they had been before. In one yard a donkey was standing, with mattresses and colorful blankets piled on its back, falling on their sides and collapsing on the ground, because while they were being hastily loaded, the throb of fear, "They're-here-already!" had overcome the poeple, and they'd shouted: "To hell with it, just run!"And in the next-door courtyard, which contained a kitchen garden, with a well-tended patch of potatoes, the fine tilth of its soil and the bright green of the leaves calling to you and telling you to go straight home and do nothing but cultivate beautiful potatoes--in this next-door courtyard, two witless ewes were huddled in a panic near the corner of the fence (later I saw them again bleating on our truck), and the huge water jar was lying across the threshold, calmly dripping the last drops of its water ina . puddle, half in the room and half out of it. Immediately after this yard there was a plowed field close by and beyond it the outskirts of the village.
We had just reached the track when a swaying camel came toward us piled high with objects and bedding, its rope halter tied to the saddle of a donkey in front of it, which was also laden with houshold effects, great steves and piles of clothing; it was standing and chewing the grass beneath the acacia bushes with exaggerated enjoyment, plunging deeper in pursuit of their juiciness with total disdain for its rope-partner that was anxiously lifting its small head to the full extent of its neck, leaning it backward as far as possible, as if to avoid a collision, expelling diabolical gurgles and fearful grunts, emitting a stench of greasy camel sweat. At the sight of the jeep it tried to break free and run, but its halter, tied to the donkey's saddle, held it back; it tugged and shook it with mounting force, but the donkey paid no heed to this camelious panic, it didn't allow itself to be distracted and just went on feeding lustily. At once our Sha'ul jumped down and grunted at the camel with a grunt that would make any knee bend, and tapped it reassuringly on its upraised backward-straining neck with the barrel of his rifle, and the camel, caught by a language it understood, was gurgling and arguing and spewing bitter speech, and already intending to kneel on its forelegs, amidst anger and wiling and complaint-except that just then an Arab emerged from the thick hedge ahead of us and came toward us with outstretched arms.
"Ya khawaja" said the Arab, who had a short white beard, talking while he was still walking.
Immediately Sha'ul raised his rifle at him aand shouted to us: "Look who's coming!"
"Ya khawaja" repeated the old man in the voice of one who has decided come-what-may, "Allah ya'atik, ya khawaja," God grant you favor, Sir . . .
"Yallah!" said Sha'ul, slipping a bullet into his rifle.
"Ya khawaja" wailed the old man, alternately spreading his hands and pointing to the camel, breathing heavily, from fear not from frailty. "The camel, ya khawaja, let us take the camel and go," and while he spoke he was already next to his beast, holding on to its girth with his wrinkled brown hand.
What's he mumbling," said Sha'ul to Moishe, who was sistting in the back of the jeep. Immediately the jeep reversed and approached the camel in a single movement that so agitated the beast that it pulled the rope free from the donkey's saddle (the latter gave a momentary start, as the bundles fell off its back, and immediately returned to chewing the succulent grass in the recesses of the hedge with equanimity) and shook the old man from his place with a sudden blow; terrified, he turned toward the camel and said a single word to it, a word it deserved, and how, and then he turned and clung so hard to the saddle that he became part of it, staring in alarm at the jeep that was pressing right up against him.
"Who are you, what are you, where are you from, and what do you want. All these questions were somehow bound up in the single word that Moishe spoke to him: "Esh?"--What?--in a singsong with a gesture of his thumb and two fingers.
"The camel, ya khawaja, the belngings, let us take them and we'll go away, may blessing come upon you, let us take the camel and go . . ."
"Isma, ya khtiar" Moishe said to him--listen old man!
"Hai na'am, ya khawaja, Allah ya'atik, ya khawaja." The old man, sensing a turn for the better, became submissive and yielding, hoping and praying and ready for anything.
"Choose for yourself," said Moishe. "Your life or the camel."
"Khawaja," said the old man in alarm.
"Ya nafsak ya jamal," Moishe insisted, drawing out his syllables and furrowing his brow: "Just be happy we're not killing you."
"Khawaja," the old man was close to tears, he placed his hand on his heart. "Allah," he tried to say. "Bihyat Allah, by the life of God," he suddenly swore, striking his gray-haired chest, it was evident that he lacked one single great compelling word that might explain. "We're going--going," the old man said. "We have nothing, we're leaving everything behind," he pointed to the ground all around or to a particular house, "only a few clothes and some bedding," his tongue ran fast, so as to compress a lot of explanation into a little time, and his hands spread, like a man before his god.
"Yallah," Moishe decreed, "imshi yallah--get going."
"All right," the old man said, "all right we're going," with a slight bow of submission that was close to a shudder, and took a few steps backward, "we're going, ya khawaja." He stopped again and tried to say something more.
Aryeh fired over his head. The man was emptied of his breath and his knees trembled. He turned and groped in the air after a moment with his hands and started trudging along again. We all, it seemed, were sharing a certain unease, or else various thoughts were stirring. But then Aryeh said:
"Let me, Moishe, best to let me finish him off here. What do you want with this scum? Let them learn once and for all that there's no fooling around with us."
"You sit here quietly," said Moishe.
Hearing the voices, the old man turned his head, thinking that doubts were awakening that might be an opportunity to be taken advantage of, and he swiveled toward us with his little skullcap on his head, his short white eard, and his striped caftan open on his white-haired chest, and as he turned he stretched out his hands and murmured, "Ya khawaja."
"Imshi--go," barked Moishe in a voice not his own.
The old man went. When he reached the turn in the track he disappeared, For a moment there was a sense of relief.
"Did you ever see anything like it?" said Gaby, wiping his nose.
"I wouldn't have let him go like that . . . some nerve, even to come and ask," said Aryeh. "Imagine if he'd been a Jew and we'd been Arabs! . . . No way! They'd have slaughtered him just like that." You could see he had plenty more to say, but instead he uttered a single insult with a viper's hiss.
"What are we gonna do with this camel and the donkey?" I said.
"To hell with the camel and the donkey," said Moishe, and we moved on.
S. Yizhar - Khirbet Khizeh