(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Yishai Sarid
Translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan
He’ll summon me eventually, when the celebrations are over. Wait ten days, two weeks at the most, I told myself. He will call. I watched his inauguration ceremony on the news, with the honorary guard, the assigning of the ranks, and the military band. He could have sent me an invitation, I thought, but I understood why he didn’t.
The summons from his office came after two weeks and two days. “The Chief of Staff wants to see you.”
“Of course,” I said. When Rosolio asks me to come, I come.
My entry permit had expired and the guards at the gate held me up for a long time. I showed them my I.D., which stated I was a lieutenant colonel in reserve duty, but they insisted on following proper procedure. I finally made it into his office, a little sweaty and not as fresh as I’d have liked, but right on time. I was never late, anywhere.
“Just a moment,” his head of office said. I didn’t like the jealous look she gave me.
“Please, have a seat,” she said, pointing at the waiting area. After way too long, a group of potbellied men in powder-blue civilian button-downs walked out of his office, and she finally deigned to announce my arrival. A few seconds later, Rosolio appeared in the doorway, wearing the military’s highest ranks. He was as stunning as ever. “Abigail,” he said.
“Sir,” I answered — it just fell out of my mouth, like I was an idiot — and beamed my biggest smile. I felt immense pride in him, as if he were my older brother, or my man.
The first time I met him, twenty-five years earlier, during one of his battalion’s drills in the Golan Heights, I knew he’d make it all the way to the top if he managed not to get killed on the way. He had made it to this office in one piece, though it took him longer than I’d expected. The old images submerged me. I was touched. His body had thickened, but his pleasant scent had remained, as was the hint of masculine flesh hidden behind the uniform and the brass, and his eyes still contained that wise gaze that attracted me more than any physical quality. He was glad I’d come. “Come on in, Abigail,” he invited me with a wide gesture, then took a seat behind the desk at which fates were sealed. On the desk was a framed photo of his wife and daughters, which he hadn’t bothered to hide for my sake.
“How are you?” I asked. I noticed stress in his tired eyes and slumped head and shoulders, as well as his bitten nails.
“Well, you’re looking at it,” he chuckled. “Lots of work to do, lots of things to change.” The way he spoke was always a little wooden, and I had to chip through it to find the droplets of emotion. A famous topographical map of the Middle East was hanging over his head. He looked lonely. I wanted to go sit next to him, to touch him, massage his stiff shoulder blades, but I wasn’t sure how he’d react.
“I’ve been working like mad,” he said. “It’s an immense responsibility. You don’t realize just how immense until you get here.”
I asked what he’d been eating and how much sleep he’d been getting. Over the years, I’d seen Rosolio under all sorts of pressures, and I knew he was strong but not made of iron. He wasn’t one of those rare superhumans that the military produces once every generation or two. Now and then, the night before embarking on a military operation or making a crucial decision, he had an intense need for me to hold his hand, offer words of support, reassure him he’d made the right choice, save him from the doubt and confusion and fear involved in sacrificing human life. Rosolio was brave, serious, and smart, but occasionally he became blocked by hesitation and had to be rescued so he could move forward.
I’d gotten dolled up for him, wearing barely perceptible lipstick and a young, spring-scented perfume. My greatest fear was that I’d look old to him. That my body would repulse him, but I could tell by looking into his eyes that I had yet to cross that terrible threshold. He still liked me.
He asked what life as a civilian was like. I told him I hadn’t been able to let go, and that I mostly treated veterans suffering from shell-shock; that I’d made myself a reputation as someone who specialized in that particular kind of rehabilitation. I told him I still gave talks at Command and Staff, and that occasionally I did a few days of reserve duty to assist with special missions. “I treated some regular people,” I told Rosolio, “but I didn’t have patience for them. Their little problems bored me. I sat across from them and couldn’t stop yawning.”
“Thank God we’re helping you make a living,” Rosolio joked, then turned serious, as if afraid someone might be watching him through the wall. “We’ve screwed lots of boys’ lives,” he said, adding, “and it wasn’t always worth it.”
“That’s not something you ought to be thinking about right now,” I told him. “Save that thought for retirement, when you write your memoir.”
“Welcome back, Abigail,” he laughed. “I’ve missed you. It’s been a long time since anyone gave me some clear instructions on what to think. We’re back in the good old days.”
Underneath every word we spoke were the things we couldn’t say. We were in the Chief of Staff’s chambers, the map of the Middle East watching over us, no chance for intimacy. Rosolio scratched the back of his neck and said, “I asked you here today because I think you might be able to help. You always made a special contribution to the force. You didn’t just help those who stayed behind, you also helped us stride ahead. That’s what I want to do with this entire military. Stride ahead.”
Could you be any more formal? I thought. But I said, “Sure, I’m totally in. How can I help?”
“We’re fantastic in the air and in the sea,” he said. “Fast, efficient, invincible. On land is where we get bogged down, in face-to-face combat. That’s where we get killed or abducted. That’s where we sink into the mud. These are gentle kids; we never taught them how to kill.”
Now I was finally able to frame this meeting: he asked me here as an expert on the psychology of killing. I crossed my legs, sat up straight. My hair was in a bun, as usual. I said, “Anything they can operate from a distance with the touch of a button comes naturally to them. Killing from afar is no problem. It’s like a game. But hurting people up close is a whole other story. These kids barely play out in the yard. They don’t even get into fights. Instead of playing with the other neighborhood kids, they text them. Everything is symbolic, the real world barely exists. Sometimes I think we should have taught them to slaughter a chicken or break someone’s nose before expecting them to go off and kill other human beings.”
Rosolio laughed and said, “Can you imagine what the papers would say if I introduced chicken slaughter into the training program?”
“They don’t fuck anymore, either,” I said. “They don’t even touch each other.”
“I only have daughters,” Rosolio said, then paused awkwardly and corrected himself, “We only have daughters, so that doesn’t bother me as much.”
Twenty-five years ago, outside of his battalion commander tent, Rosolio made me Turkish coffee and we shared our views about man as a killing machine. He was eager to talk to me, even though I was just a young academic officer who hadn’t encountered a battlefield in her life. I was so flattered. I wanted to deepen the conversation now too, to impress him, to tell him about new studies conducted by military psychologists in other countries, to boast my knowledge, to demonstrate my professional authority. But his office manager knocked on the door, apologized, and said Rosolio had to head out to a meeting with the minister. They were waiting for him, she emphasized, shooting me a suspicious glance. “One minute,” he said, then waited for her to leave. “How’s the kid?” he asked softly, almost whispering. I didn’t know if his office was tapped. I decided to proceed with caution.
“His enlistment is in a few days,” I reported. I wouldn’t have brought it up had he not asked. That deviated from the rules of our agreement.
“Already? What unit?” he asked, surprised, even embarrassed. He had no idea how old Shauli was.
I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Paratroopers, like you.”
“Paratroopers? How come? How did that happen?”
“I’ve been asking myself the same thing. I must have done a bad job raising him. He could have joined the Intelligence Corps. He’s got a great mind. He could have been a pilot, if he insisted on being a hero, or a naval officer. He’s at the beach all the time, anyway. But no, he wanted to be a paratrooper. An old-fashioned boy. The only one out of all of his friends. He wants to be a man’s man. That old shtick still works on him.”
“It can’t be a coincidence. Did you tell him anything about me? Did you insinuate anything?” Rosolio asked suspiciously.
“No.” I made a face. I didn’t like that question. I never told and I never would. I’d given Rosolio my word. We had an agreement.
“I’m sorry, Abigail. Of course you didn’t,” he said softly, appeasing me. I recalled his languidness as he rose from our lovemaking bed, how tenderly he’d treated me. He’s one of the good guys, Rosolio. I hadn’t been wrong in choosing him. “So he’s a big boy now,” Rosolio concluded tritely, then glanced at his watch, seeing he was late. “Strange. I probably wouldn’t recognize him on the street.” He kept saying “him” or “the kid.” Rosolio never called Shauli by his name. But that was my fault. I forbade any contact between them and never told my son who his father was.
“Come look,” I said. Suddenly I felt sorry for both of them and searched for my phone to show him a picture of Shauli. I wanted him to see how tall and handsome our son was. But then I remembered the guards had taken my phone. Too bad. Or maybe it was for the best. “Paratrooper basic training?” Rosolio suddenly said, his tone amused. “I’ll ask around about him.”
I tensed. “Don’t you dare look for him or ask about him. This is a delicate situation and he’s a smart boy. What would he think when the Chief of Staff suddenly asks about him? He knows you used to be my commander. He’ll put two and two together.”
“You’re right, I’ll keep my mouth shut,” Rosolio said, twisting the doorknob and rushing off to his meeting with the minister.
“Hang on,” I said. I stood up in front of him and took hold of his epauletted shoulders. I wanted to empower him and had to resist the urge to hug him. “Get me back in here when you’re ready. I want to stride ahead with you.” He leaned in for a flash, then pushed out of the room.
Shauli called me almost every evening during the first days of basic training. They were allotted a few minutes of freedom before evening formation. I could hear in his voice that he wasn’t broken, but wasn’t happy, either. I asked what they were eating and if they were being pushed around a lot, what his new friends’ names were, and if they’d received their rifles yet. As I listened to his brief answers, I asked myself why they were allowed to call home every night. It only served to weaken them, and in the meantime he was in no danger. These daily calls, like a kid phoning home from camp, made it harder for both of us. It would have been best if he used his free time to rest or buy himself a snack.
The first time I sent him off to kindergarten, a bad kid picked on him, bugging him and biting him. He would come home with teeth marks on his arm every day. I spoke to the teacher, but she just talked circles around me and did nothing about it. I had no choice but to teach Shauli to fight back. He was a small, soft child, not yet three, and I was already showing him how to throw a punch, pull hair, and bite back. I brainwashed him to give his bully hell next time. “Give him hell,” he repeated in his childish voice, laughing.
The day the teacher came complaining that Shauli hit the bully, and that I had to do something about it, and when his upset mother called me later to scream at me (I politely told her where to go), I was relieved. I knew Shauli had learned how to survive.
“Good night, sweetheart, be strong,” I’d say to him on the phone during the first weeks of basic training, until he stopped calling. That didn’t concern me. He knew I loved him.
I was giving a talk to a new class of battalion commander training officers, one of the pleasurable tasks I kept after my discharge. Most of the training officers were in their late twenties, nearing thirty; young, ambitious, authoritative men. This time there was one female officer among them, I pointed out to myself. They watched me curiously as I stood there in skirt and heels. I’d spent a long time in front of my closet that morning, picking out the right outfit. For the next few months, I’d come talk to them once a week — my famous class on military psychology.
“When I was twenty-five years old,” I told them, “having completed two psychology degrees as part of military academic studies, I was assigned a role as psychologist of a paratrooper brigade. A mental health officer. I was given a small office with a desk and two chairs and was expected to interview problematic soldiers and determine who was actually losing it and who was just trying to get an early discharge. I got bored very quickly. A few weeks in, I went to see the brigade commander and told him I wanted to go out to the field and spend some time with the soldiers.
“He looked at me like I’d just landed from outer space. ‘No one before you has ever gone out into the field. What do you have to look for out there?’
“I explained that I wanted to see how the soldiers lived, to get to know their roles and the pressures they were under. How else was I supposed to understand their souls? He agreed to let me join a training session in the Golan Heights for three days. The name of the battalion commander who hosted me there might ring a bell. Lieutenant colonel Rosolio, who is now the Chief of Staff. He was more or less the age you are now, and when I showed up he looked at me the way you’re looking at me now, like, What does this girl want from me? I explained that I had no intention of getting in his way. I was just there to learn.
“The wheels in his brain turned quickly. ‘Welcome,’ he said. ‘Come on, we’re about to head out for a drill. Hurry up, we’re about to start.’
“Before I could even put down my pack, he had me get in his jeep and we headed out into the field. As we drove, he explained what was going on, which force was performing the main maneuver, who was running diversion, and where the suppressive fire was. I ran with him and the signaler among the boulders. He took no mercy on me. I fell down twice, and when the drill was over a few hours later, I was covered in sweat, my makeup running. But we’d conquered our target. We won. Even though there was no real enemy, I felt the joy of triumph. Then we returned to camp, dined on field rations, and I stayed the night. Not to worry, I was set up with a cot in the women’s tent, and even a separate shower with a little bit of hot water. They were perfect gentlemen. That evening, as I was getting ready for bed, Rosolio sent a soldier to get me, and I followed. Rosolio was sitting outside his tent with the other officers and a few old-timer NCOs. They had a small fire going and were making coffee, and Rosolio asked me to sit with them. Speaking softly, so as not to wake up the sleeping soldiers, they told funny stories of their military days, about odd characters they’d encountered, peculiar commanders, ridiculous missions.
Not great tales of bravery, just amusing anecdotes. The conversation went around in circles, everybody sharing, except for me. I was too embarrassed to talk. What could I possibly tell them? About my time at the university? The nights and days I spent poring over books? But they wouldn’t let me get out of it. ‘Your turn to share something,’ they insisted, and I froze, until Rosolio came to my rescue. ‘Do some kind of psychology trick for us,’ he said. ‘Can you interpret dreams?’
“My stomach turned as if I were given a pop quiz. Above me was the sea of stars, and all around me was a group of strange men. ‘Sure I know how to interpret dreams. I’m an expert on Freud,’ I said.
“‘Great. Who’s got a dream for the mental health officer?’ Rosolio asked.
“One of the young officers raised his hand and shared a dream he’d had a few nights earlier. In the dream, he was chasing down a wild boar through a field when suddenly he found himself deep in the woods, lost. He saw lights in the distance but couldn’t reach them, and when he kept walking through the forest somebody pounced on him from behind and latched onto his back. A heavy man, ape-like, his face rough and covered with hard stubble, a kind of prehistoric man. ‘I walked through the woods with this guy on my back for half a night. I couldn’t shake him off. We almost became one person.’
“‘How did you feel about him?’ I asked.
“‘He weighed me down and frightened me, but I gradually got used to him. When I woke up the next morning I looked for him in bed. I was convinced he was still there. When I couldn’t find him I felt kind of disappointed.’
“There was a moment of awed silence, and then everybody started laughing.
“‘Calm down a second,’ Rosolio hushed them. He wanted to hear my thoughts.
“I asked the dreamer a few questions about his life. Where he lived, what kind of relationship he had with wild boars. He told me that people hunted them on the kibbutz where he lived. Now I had enough background in order to interpret the dream according to good old Dr. Freud’s guidelines, though my interpretation was very shallow. After all, I knew basically nothing about this officer. ‘This is a dream about growing up,’ I said. ‘You left home and you can’t go back. You rely on yourself now. You’re becoming tougher and cruder in order to survive, to catch prey. It frightens you. You want to get rid of this new man, to be light and carefree like you used to be. But on the other hand, you’re attached to him. You’re in transition. Don’t let this savage take over you, but don’t banish him, either. Be his friend. He’ll keep you safe. Keep the good things about him. You had a very good, useful dream. Well done.’
“Everyone got excited, including Rosolio. Some people even clapped. I’d earned my spot by the fire. Others shared their dreams next. I became the center of attention, a kind of battalion clairvoyant.
“We laughed and enjoyed ourselves until one of Rosolio’s company commanders shared his dream. Everyone fell silent when he started talking. It was a dream he had almost every night: he was climbing a steep cliff, tied to a safety harness, so that even if he lost his grip, he wouldn’t fall. But then he realized his harness was gone, and he was dangling over an abyss, barely hanging on to grooves in the rock face, his toes trying and failing to find notches to cling to. His energy ran out and he knew he would soon fall from great height, with nobody around him to help.
“Everyone kept silent as the company commander told us his dream. We could practically see him falling. There wasn’t much to interpret here besides the obvious — a terrible anxiety. When the guy finished talking, Rosolio walked over to him, put his hand on his shoulder, and told him he would never be alone, that they’d always help each other. But the guy was killed in an accident before he even turned thirty. Rosolio called me especially to tell me about it and ask if I remembered the man’s dream. Of course I remembered. I remembered everything about that night.
“The next day, Rosolio let me speak to the soldiers. We sat on the ground under a tarp. When psychoanalysis was invented in Vienna, this was not what they had in mind. I spoke to young soldiers, to sergeants, to the guys from the assisting company. I talked to all of them. It was riveting. In my mind, the battalion became a living creature, with many heads, arms, and eyes. Those three days were my gateway into the soul of the military. After that, I went out into the field many more times. I didn’t wait for them to come see me on the verge of collapse. I didn’t stay in my tiny office, behind my desk. Over time, they got used to me. The commanders liked my visits and appreciated being able to get my advice on how to improve motivation and handle disciplinary issues, boost cohesiveness within the force and communication between units. I had lots of theoretical knowledge on these topics, and it was fascinating to implement it in the field. The soldiers discussed everything with me — homesickness, the mental challenges of such a demanding service, their romantic relationships and unrequited loves. Fear was present in every conversation with them, even when they didn’t name it. I knew I had to feel it myself. I couldn’t leave it in the realm of theory.
“A few months later, Rosolio’s battalion settled in Lebanon, and I requested permission to visit. The brigade commander refused. He said there was no point in putting me at risk, that it would be an unnecessary burden on the force that would need to take care of me. But I insisted, and spoke to Rosolio, who persuaded the brigade commander. I remember how I felt when we crossed the border. My stomach tingled as if I were embarking on a pleasant adventure. I was driven by truck to Rosolio’s post, deep inside Lebanon, and I stayed for a week. The first night, we were bombed with mortar shells. I was frightened, but trusted the people around me to keep me safe. That’s where I understood the meaning of fighters’ camaraderie and felt its force. I’ll put it another way: professionally speaking, that’s where I lost my objectivity. I became one of them. That’s a dangerous thing for a psychologist to say, but there it is. On my third morning, we heard a loud explosion nearby. A recon tour came across an explosive device while clearing the road. Rosolio headed there immediately. I got into his car without asking permission. I’ll never forget what I saw when we got there: a soldier sitting on the road, one leg missing, helmet removed, his face very pale. The doctor who came with us from the post ran over and tried to stop the bleeding. Soldiers kneeled on both sides of the road with their vests, helmets, and rifles. I felt something freezing in time, as if the image was staged. Everybody’s thoughts were hanging in midair. The sky was bright and the air was clear, and I took it all in with frightening clarity. The chopper arrived, we heard it approaching. It evacuated the soldier back to Israel. When the soldiers returned to the post, Rosolio convened them and asked me to join, too. They were young, nineteen or twenty. I didn’t know exactly what to tell them, how to reassure them. I operated according to instinct. It was the first time I had to treat trauma in real time, and everything I did afterward began there. Rosolio started talking, and I slowly and quietly joined in like an orchestral accompaniment. Rosolio asked about the operational details, and I asked how they felt. I asked them to tell me about their friend who was injured. Some of the soldiers started to cry. Their company commander rebuked them, urging them to behave like men, but Rosolio told him to let them cry. As far as I know, this was the first time the IDF ran a questioning in the presence of a psychologist immediately following battle, rather than waiting a few weeks to conduct it back in the home front, when the trauma has already been fixed and was too difficult to treat. As soon as the discussion was over, Rosolio sent them to do recon on the same road. We had them operative again immediately. I was glad I’d been around to help.
“When Rosolio was promoted to brigade commander a few months later, he invited me to his office and asked me a very direct question: how could I help him make the soldiers better fighters? I asked what being better fighters meant. He explained: functioning better in battle, with minimal hesitation and fear. I asked: Do you mean you want them to be able to kill more easily? He answered simply, Yes.
“I asked Rosolio to let me spend a month doing research at the university library and then get back to him with answers. He agreed. Thus began my romance with the psychology of killing. A new world had opened up to me. A month later, I presented the essentials of what I’d learned to Rosolio, and — at his request — wrote a paper that many commanders found eye opening. I ask that all of you read it before our next session. There are copies at the door to grab on your way out.
“After that, the military sent me for a two-month course at the Marines Military Academy in Texas. I studied with the top military psychologists in America who spend all of their time researching ways to optimize the lethality of their organization. They’ve got plenty of experience from their empire’s many wars. When I got back, I gave a talk to the senior command staff, and every combat unit came knocking on my door, asking me to consult for them. This is who I am, this is what I’m going to teach you, and I hope you find it useful and interesting,” I said, walking out of the lecture hall with my back straight. I was pleased. I felt I’d left the right impression.
What I didn’t tell them, nor had any intention of telling them, was that when I was thirty-three years old, after having served as a mental health officer for the paratrooper brigade and the elite General Staff Commando Unit, I seduced Rosolio because I’d decided I wanted to have a child with him. He was almost forty years old, married with two daughters, and had never touched me until then, even though we’d been working together for years. There were a few moments when an emotional intimacy had developed between us, when I advised him and supported him in times of need. He was a master of self-discipline, never saying a word about it, but he couldn’t contain the look in his eyes, and I could tell he wanted to.
At the time, Rosolio was in charge of a series of extremely secretive operations, during one of which our soldiers were almost caught in an enemy country, getting out by sheer luck and the skin of their teeth. Rosolio asked me to get involved and meet the fighters because the atmosphere was becoming panicked, and he was concerned that this panic could lead to failure. He could sense fear walking among them like a deadly virus. I came to their base right away, spoke to the commanders, and designed an action plan together with them. Then I met the teams for one-on-one and group sessions, and the change was apparent in a matter of days. They were ready to go back to business as usual. Rosolio was grateful. His career hinged on the success of this mission, and his nerves were shot by the time I’d arrived. He was good at hiding it behind his cool exterior, but I saw right through him.
Whenever I asked myself who I wanted to be the father of my child, all I could see was Rosolio. It’s impossible, I told myself. I tried to erase him from my mind, but he kept popping up — in my dreams, when I was awake, in explicit visions. Finally, I decided to take a chance: one congress, one cosmic clash. Whatever happens, happens. The time came on my final night working with his unit, after questioning the last team to return from the field. It was a victory celebration, though Rosolio attempted to keep things restrained. We parted with an elated sense of success, the Minister of Defense delivering a special thank you note, someone pouring whiskey into plastic cups, and everyone sending me off with affection and appreciation, like I was one of their own.
Nighttime. Rosolio walked me to my car. We were both in high spirits, enveloped by the aroma of orchards and summer, walking close together. He put his hand on my shoulder for a moment, and my breath caught — don’t back down now, this is the moment. No one was around, and yet he startled and removed his hand. I took it in mine and decisively returned it to my shoulder. Then, to break the awkwardness, I said, “What a lovely night.” He mumbled something back, shaken, clearly unused to this kind of thing. He was a loyal man, Rosolio. I was afraid he’d slip between my fingers.
“Why don’t we go to your room,” I said. I knew he’d been allotted a little chamber for the purposes of this operation, in a distant corner of the camp, within a eucalyptus thicket. We could slip in there without anyone noticing. We snuck over softly, made sure no one was around, and when he locked the door behind us we both burst out laughing, and I knew things would go my way. I didn’t have to work too hard to seduce him. I got what I wanted from him between his single bed and the shower. A moment before he entered me, I told him I wasn’t using any protection, and that I wanted a baby from him. A moment’s hesitation passed over his face. Then he said, “All right, I understand,” and continued to touch me. I think that was a very decent move on my part.
In the middle of the night, when we got up to leave, he caressed me gently and said some kind words that I still remember. His face was serene. I felt good with him too. As I drove back into town through empty roads, I felt I was carrying a treasure within me.
A few weeks later, when I was certain of it, I made an appointment with him. I told him I was pregnant. “I went back and forth about it a few times,” I lied, “and I want to keep it.”
He nodded, and without having to demand it, I made a commitment to him: I would never tell anybody he was the father, not even the child. I wouldn’t ask for money. He wouldn’t have to play any part in this child’s life.
“Are you asking permission?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I want this very badly.”
“All right,” he said again. “I understand.”
We stuck to our agreement. We didn’t meet again while I was pregnant. I fought myself every day, literally digging my fingernails into my arm to stop myself from calling him, from seducing him again with my beautiful pregnancy, my round belly and full breasts, all this glory he’d created. My mother was the only person with me in the delivery room, and she didn’t ask any questions. My parents helped me raise Shauli from the very beginning. My mother took care of him for many full days, and did so gladly. Shauli’s birth brought a light into her life.
On Shauli’s first day of first grade, I sent a picture of him with his new backpack and happy smile to Rosolio. I couldn’t resist. It was a one-time indiscretion, hasty and careless. I hoped he’d delete the picture and ignore the message, but he responded right away: “Sweet child. Enjoy him, they grow up fast.” For hours, my eyes caressed the words he’d written.