The following is an excerpt from To the End of the Land by David Grossman, to be published by Knopf in September. In this passage a mother is accompanying her son, who is returning to duty in the Israeli army.
The convoy twists along, a stammering band of civilian cars, jeeps, military ambulances, tanks, and huge bulldozers on the backs of transporters. Her taxi driver is quiet and gloomy. His hand rests on the Mercedes’s gearshift and his thick neck does not move. For several long minutes he has looked neither at her nor at Ofer.
As soon as Ofer sat down in the cab, he let out an angry breath and flashed a look that said: Not the smartest idea, Mom, asking this particular driver to come along on a trip like this. Only then did she realize what she’d done. At seven that morning she had called Sami and asked him to come pick her up for a long drive to the Gilboa region. Now she remembers that for some reason she hadn’t given him any details or explained the purpose of the trip, the way she usually did. Sami had asked when she wanted him, and she’d hesitated and then said, “Come at three.” “Ora,” he’d said, “maybe we should leave earlier, ‘cause traffic will be a mess.” That was his only acknowledgment of the day’s madness, but even then she didn’t get it and just said there was no way she could leave before three.
She wanted to spend these hours with Ofer, and although Ofer agreed, she could tell how much effort his concession took. Seven or eight hours were all that was left of the abruptly canceled weeklong trip she’d planned for the two of them—a trip meant to celebrate his discharge, now moot, because he had decided to go back on duty—and she realizes she hadn’t even told Sami on the phone that Ofer was part of the ride. Had she told him, he might have asked her to let him off today, just this one time, or he might have sent one of the Jewish drivers who worked for him—“my Jewish sector,” he called them. But when she’d called him she’d been in a state of complete frenzy, and it simply had not occurred to her—the unease slowly rises in her chest—that for this sort of drive, on a day like this, it was better not to call an Arab driver.
Even if he is an Arab from here, one of ours, Ilan prods at her brain as she tries to justify her own behavior. Even if it’s Sami, who’s almost one of the family, who’s been driving everyone—the people who work for Ilan, her estranged husband, and the whole family—for more than twenty years. They are his main livelihood, his regular monthly income, and he, in return, is obliged to be at their service around the clock, whenever they need him. They have been to his home in Abu Ghosh for family celebrations, they know his wife, Inaam, and they helped out with connections and money when his two older sons wanted to emigrate to Argentina. They’ve racked up hundreds of driving hours together, and she cannot recall his ever being this silent. With him, every drive is a stand-up show. He’s witty and sly, a political dodger who shoots in all directions with decoys and double-edged swords, and besides, she cannot imagine calling another driver.
Driving herself is out of the question for the next year: she’s had three accidents and six moving violations in the past twelve months, an excessive crop even by her standards, and the loathsome judge who revoked her license had hissed that he was doing her a favor and that she really owed him her life. It would have all been so easy if she herself were driving Ofer. At least she’d have had another ninety minutes alone with him, and maybe she’d even have tempted him to stop on the way—there are some good restaurants in Wadi Ara. After all, one hour more, one hour less, what’s the rush? Why are you in such a hurry? Tell me, what is it that’s waiting for you there?
A trip alone with him will not happen anytime soon, nor alone with herself, and she has to get used to this constraint. She has to let it go, stop grieving every day for her robbed independence. She should be happy that at least she has Sami, who kept driving her even after the separation from Ilan. She hadn’t been capable of thinking about those kinds of details at the time, but Ilan had put his foot down. Sami was an explicit clause in their separation agreement, and he himself said he was divvied up between them like the furniture and the rugs and the silverware. “Us Arabs,” he would laugh, revealing a mouth full of huge teeth, “ever since the partition plan we’re used to you dividing us up.” The memory of his joke makes her cringe with the shame of what has happened today, of having somehow, in the general commotion, completely erased that part of him, his Arabness.
Since she saw Ofer this morning with the phone in his hand and the guilty look on his face, someone had come along and gently but firmly taken the management of her own affairs out of her hands. She had been dismissed, relegated to observer status, a gawking witness. Her thoughts were no more than flashes of emotion. She hovered through the rooms of the house with angular, truncated motions. Later they went to the mall to buy clothes and candy and CDs—there was a new Johnny Cash collection out—and all morning she walked beside him in a daze and giggled like a girl at everything he said. She devoured him with gaping wide looks, stocking up unabashedly for the endless years of hunger to come—of course they would come. From the moment he told her he was returning to join his unit, she had no doubt. Three times that morning she excused herself and went to the public restrooms, where she had diarrhea. Ofer laughed: “What’s up with you? What did you eat?” She stared at him and smiled feebly, engraving in her mind the sound of his laughter, the slight tilt of his head when he laughed….
She kept checking the time. On her watch, on his, on the big clocks in the mall, on the television screens in appliance stores. Time was behaving strangely, sometimes flying, at other times crawling or coming to a complete standstill. It seemed to her that it might not even require much effort to roll it back, not too far, just thirty minutes or an hour at a time would be fine. The big things—time, destiny, God—could sometimes be worn down by petty haggling. They drove downtown to have lunch at a restaurant in the shuk, where they ordered lots of dishes although neither of them had an appetite.
He tried to amuse her with stories from the checkpoint near Tapuach, where he’d served for seven months, and it was the first time she discovered that he would scan the thousands of Palestinians who passed through the checkpoint with a simple metal detector, like the one they used when you walked into the mall. “That’s all you had?” she whispered. He laughed: “What did you think I had?” “I didn’t think,” she said. He asked, “But didn’t you wonder how it’s done there?” There was a note of childish disappointment in his voice. She said, “But you never told me about it.” He presented a profile that said, You know exactly why, but before she could say anything he reached out and covered her hand with his—his broad, tanned, rough hand—and that simple rare touch almost stunned her and she fell silent.
Ofer seemed to want, at the very last minute, to fill in what he had left out, and he told her hurriedly about the pillbox he’d lived in for four months, facing the northern neighborhood of Jenin, and how every morning at five he used to open the gate in the fence around the pillbox and make sure the Palestinians hadn’t booby-trapped it overnight. “You just walked over there like that, alone?” she asked. “Usually someone from the pillbox would cover me—I mean, if anyone was awake.” She wanted to ask more but her throat was dry, and Ofer shrugged and said in an elderly Palestinian man’s voice, “Kulo min Allah“—it’s all from God. She whispered, “I didn’t know,” and he laughed without any bitterness, as if he had understood that she could not be expected to know, and he told her about the kasbah in Nablus, which he said was the most interesting of all the kasbahs, the most ancient. “There are houses there from the Roman era and houses built like bridges over alleyways, and underneath the whole city there’s an aqueduct that goes from east to west, with canals and tunnels running in all directions, and the fugitives live there because they know we’ll never dare follow them down.”
He spoke enthusiastically, as if he were telling her about a new video game, and she kept fighting the urge to grasp his head with both hands and look into his eyes so that she could see his soul, which had been slipping away from her for years—although with warmth, with a grin and a wink, as if they were playing a casual game of tag to amuse themselves—but she did not have the courage to do it. Nor could she say to him simply, in a voice that was not drenched in complaint or accusation, “Hey, Ofer, why aren’t we friends like we used to be? So what if I’m your mom?”
At three o’clock, Sami would come to take her and Ofer to the meeting point. Three o’clock was the farthest point in her thoughts. She did not have the strength to imagine what would occur after that, and this was further proof of her frequent claim that she had no imagination. But that was no longer true, either. That, too, had changed. Recently she’d been flooded by imaginings—she had imagination-poisoning. Sami would make the drive easier for her, especially the way back, which would undoubtedly be far more difficult than the way there. They had a domestic routine, she and Sami. She liked to listen to him talk about his family, about the complex relationships between the different clans in Abu Ghosh, about the intrigues in the town council, and about the woman he had loved when he was fifteen, and perhaps had never stopped loving even after he was married off to Inaam, his cousin.
At least once a week, by total coincidence, he claimed, he would see her in the village. She was a teacher, and there were years when she taught his daughters, and then she became a superintendent. She must have been a strong, opinionated woman, judging by his stories, and he always drew the conversation out so that Ora would ask about her. Then he would report her news with a sort of reverence: another child, her first grandson, a prize from the Ministry of Education, her husband’s death in a work accident. With touching detail he quoted their chance conversations in the mini-market, the bakery, or on the rare occasions when he drove her in his cab. Ora guessed that she was the only person he allowed himself to talk to about this woman, perhaps because he trusted her never to ask him the one question whose answer was obvious.
Copyright © 2010 by David Grossman