Nadab gripped Abihu’s wrist, and in preventing his brother from spinning the top, he had pinpointed the man’s radial pulse. “Shteln, shteln, shteln,” said Nadab. “Every time you spin that thing, it is Put in, put in, put in.” The metal ball of the sun brightened a pile of stones left behind by Bedouin on camelback. It had not been there, at dusk, when the men had lain down beneath the old fig tree, hashikma, at the side of the highway. Did the shape of the pile comment on the availability of a certain smuggling route? “Put in, put in, put in,” said Nadab. “It is the same? A hundred spins in a row?”
“Who knows?” said Abihu. He spun the top.
“Shteln,” bet Nadab, as the wooden toy whirled, if it whirled on a nail.
“Yes,” said Abihu, after the spin broke, the top settling at the three-pronged character. “Shin: Shteln: Put in. Your hunch is correct.”
“It is a hundred-plus-one times in a row, the same?”
“Who knows? Multiples upon multiples.”
“Spin it again.”
“What is your bet?” said Abihu. He released the top in a coiled twist.
Nadab stood outside the shelter of the hashikma, its wide, craggy trunk split into many thick, swerving branches just above the crown of his head. He shaded his eyes with a flat palm, a salute to the procession clopping toward them, on the highway, a fuse of dust sizzling behind mule-drawn carriages. Brightness, he thought, was a predator that could survive with less.
“Nadab!” cried Abihu.
“Shteln,” said Nadab, coldly, to the road. Behind him, the top struggled to maintain its axis, a flicker of elliptical failure. It rapped the suitcase they had arranged in the dirt, before stilling, the air dull and dry. His brother said nothing. “No?” said Nadab. He returned to the shade but the adjustment cost him a moment. The top had landed on the letter nun, nite, nothing. “After all this?”
“Yes,” said Abihu.
“At last, yes: nite, nun.”
The procession stepped into the mishap lane, where the carriages, three of them, halted, their heavy wheels rocking back and forth while the mules—in the roughened rugs of their skin—leveled. They sneezed through their white noses, they shook the shackle-work of their bindings, they hung their ears, dusty and stoic, at the edge of a ruined pasture that had hosted, for a thousand years, the grueling servitude of their kind. The drivers dismounted. One man hassled another while a third would attempt to divorce the two by inserting his arms between them and pushing forward, a swimming motion. Two of the men would pursue a third, pecking their fingers, hen-like, toward the poor fellow’s eyes. Finally, each man held his forehead in his palm, unspeaking, the free palm held out, stiffly, in the universal gesture of intellectual distress. They wore trucker caps and adventure boots.
At last, one of the men unhitched the mules, and led them toward the giant fig tree, the hashikma, where Nadab and Abihu loitered. The brothers tugged their suitcase and mess kit aside when the man’s intent became apparent. He could not, however, tie a mule to the trunk, too great the tree’s girth; he could not toss the reins about a dipping branch. “Any rope?” he inquired of the brothers. “They might hang themselves, my friend,” said Nadab, to the newcomer. “But, no rope, no.” The man spat in the dirt. He removed his cap, which read, “CAT Diesel Power,” and daubed his forehead with the back of his forearm, and daubed his bearded chin. The brothers and the newcomer squinted toward the eastern reaches, nodding in the countryside manner, and after that bit of camaraderie wore down, for lack of alternatives, gazed at the same horizon in the affectation of matinee idols. The mules did not miss the cue. They began pacing in circles, sniffing the earth and tasting a few of the hardy weeds sprouting through the toughened soil, until one of them, bending forward, lay down, his rump following his forequarters, and thudding to the side of his hind legs. The other two mules followed the leader. “My goodness!” said Nadab. “A trick!” said Abihu. “They learned it from ordinary dogs,” said the newcomer, with a look of casual modesty on his face. “Good,” he said to himself. “The uplink should be—by now—functional.” He stepped off in the direction of the mishap lane. The other two men had erected, in the meantime, a spacious white tent, a small satellite dish beside it, oscillating. They had, apparently, been traveling with a small generator, which guzzled and spluttered in the media of middle day.
The travelers-by-mule were sitting cross-legged inside the tent, passing the mouthpiece of a water pipe back and forth. “Sit, sit,” they said to Nadab and Abihu, motioning them to spots in a circle. The sixth spot was occupied by a wide laptop computer perched on a small coffee table. On the screen, a leader of Greek-Syrian descent delivered an address: “...your warplanes, your rockets, and your atomic bombs...,” he said. The travelers studied the Greek-Syrian. They were bearded, American, and in need of a wash. The pipe exhaust drifted from their mouths and noses, a current akin to breath in chilly air. Nadab and his brother had at least dipped their toes in the fount of an old Turkish bath in Be’er Sheva, where they had slept for a spell, before traipsing northward, along the highway, thumbs-up, hoping to catch a ride. The quiet days and cold nights in Be’er Sheva, Nadab thought. The careful tiles on the terraces. The gold teeth of the babushkas, the Russian grannies, who groaned up the stairwells with their washes, those dark stairwells smocked with torn bills and the brine of faded urine. His brother’s chest, he thought, was built for the breastplate, his hand for the censer, but longing was a stiff, painful neck, in the bloated uncertainty of their exile.
Abihu leaned to his brother’s ear.
“These men,” he whispered, “are spies?”
“We are negotiators,” said one, the only fellow clad in eyeglasses.
“Go-betweens,” said the man who’d attempted to tether the mules.
“...your warplanes, your rockets, and your atomic bombs...,” said the leader, on the laptop computer screen. His address was caught in a loop. Every few seconds the message recycled.
“Richard!” said the mule-handler, pointing to the screen. “Come on!”
“Oh, sure, throw the blame on me,” said the third man. “Richard!”
“Neither of you is worth his weight in typing bond,” said Richard, the fellow clad in eyeglasses. He was too late. His colleagues began to wrestle, but if they lacked imagination in their scuffling—tearing a fistful of shirt, yanking both ears to the cartilage—they could not contain their roly-poly skirmish, and the argileh, the water pipe, was toppled by the combined kick of their adventure boots. The shisha, the apple tobacco, rolled onto the Persian carpet, where it sparked and caught. Richard, in his effort to yank the mule handler from the other man, pulled too hard and fell backward, flailing through the table that had supported the laptop during the Greek-Syrian leader’s address. Nadab and Abihu had gained their feet at the sound of the table splintering, and excused themselves from the tent. They hadn’t gotten ten feet clear when they were arrested by the sight of the hashikma.
“The mules are gone,” said Abihu, the younger brother.
“As well as the pile of stones,” Nadab added.
“Bedouin?” said Abihu.
“Shteln, shteln, shteln,” said Nadab. “Put in, put in, put in.”
“No, but you are wrong, my brother.”
“How is that?” said Nadab.
“The final spin—,” said Abihu.
“Ah, yes. Of course. I remember now.”
“Nun, nite, nothing. And we are lost. We are lost.”
“The uplink!” cried Richard, behind them. The tent had collapsed atop the three negotiators, whose struggle to locate the entrance—the outshooting of arms, the bodies rolling, one after the other, in a tumbling routine—further obscured their salvation. “I am burned,” lamented the mule handler. “...your warplanes, your rockets, and your atomic bombs...,” said the Greek-Syrian, before the generator spluttered, and died.
Dr. Sylvia drove with one hand on the wheel and a thin cigarette no longer kindled, the butt of a filter, cold coal, between her lips. “Miscues,” she was saying, “begin in The Knesset.” She had been pretty, Nadab thought, in her younger years. No, he corrected himself, she had been remarkable. His brother slept in the back seat, beside their modest collection of belongings, trunk and kit. They had left behind the barren, brown hills and distant red buttes, and some ancient ruins, heavy stone upon heavy stone, which still formed an outline—walls above the knees—in the dirt. “He who is strong enough to defend the turf!” Dr. Sylvia was saying, a fist aloft, as she looped her car into a space, in a parking lot near the Old City. She threw the stub of her cigarette out the driver’s side window. Abihu awoke. He met his brother’s eyes, always wary. The two men labored in open spaces. They feared every slow pedestrian, those, especially, who featured hunches and hoods. Anything sudden: the dial of a watch, for example, reflecting onto the Ottoman walls. “The harbor!” proclaimed Dr. Sylvia, her blonde hair and freckles asynchronous, given the years, the decades of her scholarship. She drew a lengthy breath, as if to emphasize the wonders of the salty sea.
“You are living nearby?” said Nadab.
“I live in the clouds,” said Dr. Sylvia, waving backwards. “In Haifa. Up the hill, among the Baha’i.”
“Thanks for driving us,” said Abihu, who’d collected the luggage.
“I am not dumping you,” she said. “Follow me, you hitchhikers, you.”
They walked along the water, which lapped the old stones, the Turkish fortifications. Arab boys made themselves into cannon balls from the heights of crags, splashing-down among the jetties and ruins in advance of sunset. The fishing boats—those with motors and those with masts—had been lashed to the docks by crews who’d repaired to the souk, narrow cobble walkways, passageways defaced in black spray-paint. The mosque held sway over the town in a physical sense, its green dome and plaintive minaret, even in the darkening sky. Dr. Sylvia paused to kindle another cigarette, one that generated blue smoke.
“This evening,” she said, “you sleep with the knights.”
“The knights?” said Abihu, setting down the luggage.
“Well, not really. I know a friend.”
“We are in the north?” asked Nadab.
“To be sure—you are in Acre. Saint Jean d’Acre. In the north.”
The brothers looked in opposite directions, one toward a knot of automobile activity, the other beyond an arch, a curving passageway.
“The Templars and Hospitallers are besieged here in 1291, to the Mameluks, et cetera. And then, not until the British are marching through during the Great War, are westerners chopping off heads, here, again. But this,” said Dr. Sylvia, indicating the heavy masonry, “this walls are eighteenth century, even Napoleon have to go home without parading—hoo hah, hoo hah—his cavalry and carabiniers.”
Dr. Sylvia waved the brothers through the arch, to trudge the passageway that curved, indeed, into a darkness broken, at spotty intervals, by light bulbs housed in iron grilles. They paused before a vaulted doorway, a recess four paces thick. Two armchairs propped open the wooden doors, beyond which, the beginnings of a banquet hall, a pay-as-you-go dormitory. A simple bouquet of flowers brightened the reception desk in dots and centers. “Mon amie,” said Dr. Sylvia, to the receptionist, who snapped her eyes from a newspaper. “Defense de fumer!” bellowed the friend, a stocky woman whose hive of hair climbed to an impressive peak. “It is late and I must go,” said Dr. Sylvia, flicking down the blue cigarette and twisting it under a sandal, an act that yielded a frown from the receptionist. “You will be comfortable, I hope,” said Dr. Sylvia. “Good luck.”
“Thank you, again,” said the younger brother, Abihu.
“It is nothing,” she said. She waved at the receptionist—“Au revoir”—but the other added, only, a snort.
“A moment,” said Nadab, touching Dr. Sylvia’s elbow.
Dr. Sylvia laughed.
“I am the same as you. Israelite. Hebrew.”
Dr. Sylvia’s sandals flapped down the curving passageway in irregular, medieval solo, then the brothers bargained with the receptionist for lodgings in the dormitory. She had demanded soixante, sixty, and had clutched her chest (“Oh!”) at the counter-offer of thirty, but she and Nadab had agreed to quarante huit, and from cinquante, fifty, she returned two by slapping the currency onto the countertop. “A la droite,” she ordered. “To zee right. And no hoe-cous poe-cous.” It was still early, and the sleeping quarters—tilted cots that resembled examination tables in doctors’ offices—were nearly emptied of travelers. A few hummed in their sleep at various removes. Nadab and Abihu settled on two beds in an empty corner, sat, and faced each other, arms on thighs, knees bouncing.
“We are yet alive,” Abihu whispered. “Why do we live?”
“To die,” said Nadab, “is to invalidate all.”
“What? The whole world?”
“To be invalidated. Yes, the world.”
“My world,” said Nadab, thumping his ribs. “Me.”
“There may be my world, after all,” said Abihu. “And you, my brother, may be an ornament in my realm.” He indicated the few men humming in their sleep, the dimming quarters of the dormitory, bunks in two rows. Nadab mugged, a sarcastic grimace, as if to say, Obviously. Both men cleaned their foreheads with the backs of their hands.
“To die,” tried Nadab, qualifying his intent, “without some form of transformation, in which one would remain conscious, to some degree—”
“Would be to negate?” said Abihu.
“Yes, negate. Nullify. Render irrelevant, the—”
“Culmination of ... no.”
“Yes,” said Nadab. “The accumulation of experiences, and—”
Abihu interrupted his brother by severely raising both hands.
“What of our exile, man?”
“Well, there must be exile,” said Nadab.
“What, then, of our sentence?” Abihu hissed. “On account of a switch-up? A poor improvisation? As if there had been any precedent, to contradict!”
The brothers trailed fingers through their damp locks, their thickening beards, and were dappled at once in luminous swerve, as a door opened.
“Explanations,” said Nadab, a parry.
“Explanations?” said Abihu. “Are there two?”
“All right: the one.”
“Yes,” said Abihu. “The one.”
“To accept it, would be to—”
“Faith,” said Nadab.
He, the elder, clapped his hands free of the debate, and threw himself backward onto the cot. I am agitated, he thought. He kicked the covers around, he batted the covers. Every few minutes, a fellow would bungle into the darkness of the dormitory, the end of a table, the edge of a slumbering foot. The sleeper, disturbed, would grunt, and the walker would discover a free mattress, elsewhere. Had the moon played on the sleeping quarters? Yet the moon played on the bodies of those who were worshipping or those who were shunned and the moon was a force, a character, a painting that depicted turbulent, saintly figures draped in blue, beneath a tempest. El Greco, Nadab remembered. The image of St. John. The man’s devotion, arms raised, offered a demonstration that Nadab could not access, despite the kinship in its monotheistic origins. He awakened, on his side, facing his slumbering brother, Abihu. He started and wakened again, and after a third instance, reached out, and discovered his brother’s radial pulse. There was history in his sleep, when his sleep resumed, and there were uniforms, too, an abrasive language that frightened the very color of his well-groomed response, a rejection that he had planned, even in exile, his undeserved exile, to prosecute with God.
Nadab ben Aharon and his brother, Abihu ben Aharon, sat in the corner of a small barn, the confusing area between wakefulness and shivering. The other men, drifters, who’d arranged themselves back-to-back for warmth, had ventured forth, and in their stead, a dozen peasant women had posted themselves about the barn, stuffing large gunny cloth sacks with hay. They wore scarves around their heads, thick skirts, and heavy shirts, but didn’t smart from the chill, the standard autumn currency that diminished little as it blew in their direction past the sand spits and moraines to the north. The women smiled at the brothers. In the middle of the space lay a black, left-side boot, dried mud in its well-worn creases, toes pulling free from the sole.
“A soldier has been here?” said Abihu ben Aharon.
“If so,” said his brother, “he marches boot-sock, boot-sock.”
“You are in good spirits, then?”
“For someone who hasn’t eaten in a couple days, I am.”
“We have begged everywhere.”
“Then we shall beg twice,” said Nadab ben Aharon. “Surely there must be crusts or scraps, someplace or another. Follow me.”
The two men brushed dust and hay from their overcoats, the sizes too large: sleeves terminating beyond the fingertips, hems drooping beyond the shins. The women had turned away from the brothers, a statement of modesty, as the two sluggish chaps, salt in their hair, stepped into the morning, their white armbands affixed to their right arms. They traversed a dirt alleyway behind shacks and houses, where barbed wire ran atop tall picket fences, from post to post. At the gentile market, all the boxes and baskets had been emptied, overturned, and a soldier gusted from one speechless national to another, complaints, insults, bluster just shy of violence. The men of the town stared at their feet; the women glared in a separate direction; the one child, a boy, hands in the pockets of his knickerbockers, couldn’t help but eyeball the foreign soldier, in thrall. The brothers passed through, in the gutter, without incident. A pair of jackdaws scrutinized them from a crippled rooftop, its thatch sagging above a peeling wooden jamb.
“This is an international city?” said Abihu ben Aharon.
“City?” said his brother.
“It has a downtown. The buildings, there, are stone. One store advertises for Philips Radio.”
“There is one nationality that has been overrun by a second nationality and a third that can claim no part of either, a shaky tenure. If that is international.”
“It is dynamic.”
The jackdaws sprung—cack, cack—into the sky that glowed with cold, wet clouds. Perhaps they would fly one direction for many days, thought Nadab ben Aharon, eventually among the cedars of The Lebanon. The buildings, on their walk, became stone and plaster, the windows flanked by shutters. The buildings became brick, with standpipes and decorative balconies. A farmer sold to Jewish women wrapped in shawls, his cart parked in the road, its heavy iron wheels of twelve spokes apiece. The brothers turned out their pockets but the farmer shook his head, No. They lingered beside the cart, puffing into their purplish, cold hands, and when most of the patrons had shrugged off, in limps and drags, the farmer reached into the straw for a stale loaf of black bread. “Here,” he said, then shoved them, without malice, toward the town’s tall buildings. Nadab ben Aharon ripped the loaf in half, handing the other half to his sibling, Abihu ben Aharon. Each of the brothers devoured his half in haste, at the entrance to a plain alley.
The food—the bread—had tired the brothers, whose legs would not center. They might have been two shapes in a shaken mirror, and they paused, leaning against a heavy plaster wall, to belch. Young men in country suits stood in groups, the white armbands imprinted with Stars of David cinched about their right arms. Nadab ben Aharon stared up at a jutting sign, above a storefront, that read Philips Radio. “I tell you so,” said Abihu ben Aharon. “It has a downtown, this town.” Soldiers, too, milled around, without carrying their rifles. They wore boots, trousers, and jackets, and some, even, had removed their headwear before speaking to a passel of Jews. “This is a weekend?” said Nadab ben Aharon. His brother did not know. “Friday,” said one of the passersby, flipping his wrist, offering them a look at his watch: two o’clock, plus a few minutes. The brothers, inspired by their pause, aimed toward the Jewish square, but not before they glimpsed the recess of a photography studio. In it, a woman, first, sat for a photograph, then her boy sat, bearing a defiant face, for the photographer. His ears sprouted beneath a tilted beret.
“They are mistaken,” said Nadab ben Aharon.
“Mistaken?” said his brother.
“They have no mantelpiece on which to stow a photograph.”
“Then to fulfill another purpose, is the picture.”
“To emigrate?” said Nadab ben Aharon. “For the passport?”
He shook his head.
“It is folly,” he said, “if they are not free to leave.”
“Perhaps,” said Abihu ben Aharon, “they do keep a mantelpiece.”
“They are mad,” said his brother.
“Because they are lacking a reason?”
Nadab ben Aharon did not answer.
“They hope,” said Abihu ben Aharon, taking his brother’s arm, slowing his pace. “This is reason enough, for them.”
The brothers again paused, at an intersection, downtown, where the road did not continue ahead, but curved into another road, either a misdirection, east-west, or an unfamiliar distance, north-south. “I do not recognize who is this stop,” said Nadab ben Aharon, pointing to the sign above a tailoring shop: “Bławat Polski.” There was a minor rubble of loose bricks at the curve, beside the raised, paved walk, but the hard-packed intersection was part dirt, a possible hindrance should rain develop and puddle the tracks of heavy vehicles. The buildings were similar to other parts of the modest commercial area—windows in tall twos, with a fixed pane arranged atop the pair that swung outward. Decorative iron balconies, almost basket-like, dotted the upper floors, while the lower floors offered openings: doors and vestibules. The area almost bustled, on a Friday. People crossed to and from the corner. “Jews,” said a man, the hat nicer, the coat heavier. He pointed in the right-hand direction on the new street, but the brothers didn’t grasp his intent. A few other men had numbered behind him. They began to rattle the brothers, hands on their shoulders. “Jews,” they said, shoving them toward the right, in the right-hand direction on the new street. “The market,” said Nadab ben Aharon. “We must have circled without knowing.” The brothers looked at the men as they made toward the Jewish square, but the locals, those overrun by a second nationality, did not receive their glance backward with any variety of forgiveness, arms folded across their sternums.
The Jewish square consisted of two meager trees and a collection of wobbly tables set within a flat, empty lot where little had ever prospered, loam, trespassers, duration of sunlight. The vendors arranged their buckets and boxes atop the tables, and most days, even on the Sabbath, came the market-goers—men in dark hats and dark coats, men with elderly beards, and older boys who held the hands of younger boys who held the hands of boys just able to dotter the hard paths. Women marketed, too, of course, in stockings and ill-fitting shoes, those pregnant and those beyond childbearing age, those who wore dark wigs and those who strode energetically in their deprivation. A girl of maybe ten or twelve, her orange hair woven in two tails, was clad in a summer dress, and it was unclear whether she could not afford bulkier clothing or whether she possessed an uncanny tolerance with regard to the chill. Many of the wares had been emptied, the tables clean of goods, but a few buckets and boxes overflowed with items: roots, implements, and handicrafts. It otherwise might have escaped the notice of Nadab ben Aharon and Abihu ben Aharon had the man not been so tall, but they marked an officer leaning over some of the wares, in full dress, his holster at his waist, his visor and black, shiny boots. When he straightened, he stood taller than any of the marketers and those who went ‘to market’, by many inches.
“Why not hope?” said Abihu ben Aharon. He was younger but not so much in appearance. The brothers had acquired similar characteristics: skin of the face hardened in weather, tangled growth of hair, the yoke of a divine sentence thrown upon them, as if it were another layer of clothing. They had even lost teeth in the same checkerboard pattern. “The officer walks among our people. See? There is no panic.”
“There is unease,” said his brother.
“Well, of course.”
“The stupid smiles,” said Nadab ben Aharon.
“They are worried, naturally.”
“They are prisoners.”
“Brother,” said Abihu ben Aharon. He took his sibling’s forearm in his hand. But Nadab ben Aharon twisted free.
“I should clap you,” he hissed, “in the jaw.”
Both men took each other’s coats in their fists but Abihu ben Aharon, the younger, shrank from his brother’s domineering hold.
“Please,” he said, averting his face. “On the eve of the holy Sabbath.”
“And only because of that,” said the elder, throwing his grip aside.
“In the autumn,” added Abihu ben Aharon.
Nadab ben Aharon glared at the heavens, not to strive in his exile, but to check the angle of sunlight, his hand shading his vision. He composed himself, smoothing the wrinkles in his coat, rubbing the anger from his beard. A table, yet, was heaping with caraway breads—for a tall price. A few vendors still offered knit-work and products crafted from tallow, the fats of the animal. Soaps, he could see, but candles, sanctified? He and the younger, Abihu ben Aharon, neared the tables, around which stood a few venerable men, rabbis, perhaps, in the rule of their facial hair, in the suave handles of their canes.
“I don’t wish to quarrel,” said Abihu ben Aharon.
“Quarrel, quarrel,” said Nadab ben Aharon, in resignation.
“Maybe if, on this occasion, we were to worship—properly.”
“Of course, you fool. Can you not witness the attempt?”
Abihu ben Aharon realized that he had misspoken.
“I meant to emphasize,” he clarified, “this time. Now.”
“We have offered,” said Nadab ben Aharon. “We have kindled and praised. Not to mention the blessing of every—organic—breath—about us. The ordinary. We have celebrated the leaf of a thistle-vine, the irrelevant creature in the brush, the solitude of the worker at dusk, the mind cleansed of its thinking. We have humbled ourselves over and over—in strife and in peace. And for what, but dirt and decay.”
One of the rabbis turned to the brothers.
“Excuse me,” he said.
“We are Levites,” said Abihu ben Aharon.
“We seek the materials of worship.”
“Look about you,” said the rabbi, spreading his arm forty degrees.
“The breastplate,” said Nadab ben Aharon, moved to manic explanation. “The censer. A goblet. The resin. A batch of coals, perhaps, or another form of fuel.”
“What is this?” said a second rabbi. The circle of studious men turned to the brothers, as if to condemn a matter academic. A curiosity.
“Please,” urged Nadab ben Aharon, patting his empty coat-pockets. “We have been living as hermits. We have nothing in the way of resources.”
“Ah,” said one of the rabbis, “they have sojourned among the Magometians and the Old Believers. In the land of the Don Cossacks.”
The studious men chuffed from their bellies, but one of them, in the ebbs of their laughter, relented.
“What is your name, young man?”
“Nadab ben Aharon and brother Abihu ben Aharon.”