The Outpost on Oliphant Street — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Illustration by Avi Katz
Illustration by Avi Katz
The outpost on Oliphant Street? I remember everything. Yes, I do, don’t give me that look. I’m not senile yet. I may be far gone but I have not yet left this world. That was 1948. I was eighteen. The outpost on Oliphant Street. It was with Udi. We were under fire. He was my lover. In Jerusalem. What? Yes, before Saba. Several before. Your grandfather came by after I’d had my adventures and was ready to settle down. It was cold, it was February, you know, it was very cold. I think it was raining, maybe just very cloudy, and all I had was a sweater. I was stationed in Rehavia, we had a communications post there and I did shifts by the radio. Udi was almost as tall as you, but slender and flexible, like a gymnast. He could jump over the table we spread the maps on, like a cat on a spring. This is the story of how I lost him. And about the outpost on Oliphant Street.

Udi took a squad into Talbiyeh. A lot of the rich Arabs who lived there had already packed up and gone. The National Guard, what did they call it, no, it’ll come to me, the Hars Watani that the mufti sent into action, had moved into the neighborhood. The British, who had security zones on either side, let them in. It was going to turn into a staging ground for an invasion of Rehavia, so we had to act.

The squad went in to show the flag, establish a presence. The thinking was that the Arab guards would get scared and turn tail the minute they saw we were coming in. There were two Arabs, little more than kids, who looked suspicious, that’s what Udi told me afterward. Udi called them over, demanded that they identify themselves. Instead they pulled out pistols and began shooting. Two of Udi’s men were wounded and he beat a retreat.

Of course, we weren’t going to take that lying down.

Not he and not I and not any of us. We believed in the brotherhood of all human beings but not when they shoot at you. We sent in a truck with a loudspeaker. I was inside with the microphone. “Harabu,” I warned them. The Jews will retaliate. Get out while you still have your lives. The Arabs panicked. Cars with armchairs tied to their roofs and their backseats stuffed with children and suitcases jammed the streets. But then the mufti’s people came in and commanded them not to leave, warning darkly that anyone who did would be a traitor and his house seized by the national institutions. A British police force showed up and arrested us. We demanded that the British get rid of the armed Arabs also, but the British looked the other way when the armed Arabs started putting a barbed wire fence up around the neighborhood. An agreement was made that the neighborhood would be guarded by a British police force that included Arabs and Jews. The Jewish policemen were Haganah men, everyone knew that. The scared Arabs began to return in their cars and unpack.

That was the way things stayed for the next two months. But the war in Jerusalem was already raging. The fighting in Katamon, the next neighborhood over, Arabs lived there, too, then, you know, the fighting grew fiercer, they tried to stop us but it just made us more determined. They attacked first, otherwise we would have let them be, as long as they surrendered, which they weren’t going to do. At the end of April we took control of the neighborhood. The streets of Talbiyeh filled up again with carloads of fleeing Arabs, the men in suits, the women in long-sleeved dresses. As they passed, some gazed straight ahead, refusing to see us. Others eyed us in fear. From the back seat of one sedan with boxes roped on top of its boot a dark woman looked and, when she saw me, she reached out as if she wished to grab me and pull me in. I recoiled. Udi cursed and raised his pistol to threaten her. She grimaced and shot first, a jet of well-aimed warm saliva that landed on my hand. And then I heard her laugh. By then her car had moved ahead and she had vanished inside.

We let them go, and we moved in. But a few Arab fighters had holed up in that house, the one on Oliphant Street. It was on high ground and they sniped at us from the windows. We had to take it. It wasn’t difficult, a two-pronged operation, with a force coming in from the north that served as a decoy, to attract the fire of the Arabs, as Udi’s force, to which I was attached, moved in from the southwest. The grounds were unguarded, they were all up shooting from the windows. We took the lower floor and burst up into the second, surprising the snipers. There were only four of them and they did not last long.

The house was a shambles. There were light squares on the walls where pictures had hung. A red plush couch in the salon, and dust balls where a carpet apparently had covered the floor. The kitchen cupboards were open, as if things had been pulled out of them in haste. A crystal chandelier. Off to the side of the salon was a longish room that looked out over the garden below. Half of it was taken up by a huge black grand piano. That’s where we made our headquarters. I sat at the piano and sounded some notes, but I don’t play. Udi came and picked out a tune, one we all sang at the time. I walked around the piano. A bullet had gone straight through it, just above the strings, from side to side.

At midnight I began a shift at the radio receiver. Tzvielli and Hanoch were up on the roof, I remember exactly where each one was, Beno and Dani and Ziama at the windows on each side of the house, and three others guarding the yard. Udi and the rest of the squad were snoring on the floor, some on mattresses hauled from the bedrooms and the unlucky ones on blankets on the hard tile floor. I was drowsy, I hadn’t slept more than a couple hours the previous night. I was also as randy as a rabbit, look, if you want to hear the story you have to let me tell the truth, you see your lover sleeping on the floor and how can you not want to climb on top of him, don’t shush me, don’t turn red, grandmothers were once normal people, you know. And I did. I dropped a pencil on the floor to see if anyone would react. Nothing. I played a few notes on the piano, it was like playing to the dead.

Look, in those days we had sex in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of places. Don’t you? Why not? You’re spoiled, you have your own room, in my day there was nothing of the sort. People just politely looked the other way.

So I slipped off my pants and straddled my lover. He groaned. I unbuttoned his fly. He was ready for me. But then I saw her. How did she get there? To this day I don’t know if it was a dream or a vision or a real woman in the doorway. She was dressed in black so I could barely make out the figure, but a moon ray fell on her face, which was dark but beautiful. She gazed at me for a long moment, then walked slowly to the window and looked out. When she raised her hand to push the curtain to one side, I saw that she held a sheet of paper. She turned and, placing the paper on the piano, she seated herself on the bench. I realized who it was. She gazed for long minutes at the sheet, then raised her hands above the keys. Then, just when it seemed she was about to begin to play, she put her hands over her face and began to sob.

I looked at the guys on the floor. None of them had stirred and I heard no snores, as if time had stopped for them. The strange thing was that I felt that I could just go on as I had, do what I had intended to do, I had no thought of calling out—I felt no danger and no shame. The woman wept. That’s when Udi woke up.

She was the first thing he saw. His eyes were fixed on her, not me. He sat up quickly, as if transfixed, leaning on his bare arms. He pushed me off him, roughly, cruelly, as if I were a rock, a dead weight, an impediment, a whore. Now it was my turn to weep, but none of the others heard. They all slept.

Udi rose slowly. I could see that he was no less ready for love, but that it was not for me. He held out his hands, whether as a sleepwalker or a lover reaching for an embrace I could not tell. He took a step toward the piano and she—was she a Lilith demon or a house spirit?—placed her hands softly on the keys and began to play. Udi halted, and then, as the music surged, he leapt at her, reaching out to grab her, to possess her. But during that split-second he was in the air she vanished, as did the music, and he fell, helpless and flaccid, on the bare piano bench. He lay there, unmoving. I waited a long moment and then slowly rose.

“Udi?” I called out softly. He did not answer. “Udi?” I said a bit louder. The men around me began to stir. “Udi!” I screamed, and the men were scrambling to their feet. I had heard no shot fired, but I saw a bullet hole in his left temple and a pool of blood forming on the floor. And behind the commotion and the shouts and the orders I heard that evil laugh and looked down to see a large gob of spittle on my hand.

Remember this: they left, but they are not gone. They live among us, as we love, and live, and die.

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