Caroline Taylor's stories have appeared in several online and print magazines. She is the author of two mysteries and one nonfiction book. Visit her at http://www.carolinestories.com
MASADA BY MOONLIGHT by Caroline Taylor
We went as far as the car would take us. It might have been the parking lot. Thick clouds of sand swirled around us, pinging off metal and glass. A fine grit somehow defeated the car’s armor and deposited itself everywhere. I rinsed my mouth with Coke, wishing I could spit it out, but not daring to open the window.
“Are you sure this is the place?” I asked Nick.
“Has to be,” he said, killing the engine. We were plunged into a shifting mustardy murk that shrieked and moaned, rocking the car in its fury.
Masada by moonlight. Our fateful excursion to the southern Negev Desert sometime near midnight on a Friday in 1970.
Do you remember us? I bet you do. I can almost picture you today, sitting in some bare-bones apartment in one of those hideous concrete towers in Tel Aviv, telling your wife or your neighbors or your grandkids about us. Or maybe not. We were probably just a passing moment in your long, eventful life. Because I did wonder at the time if you might be one of those generals who’d fought in the Six-Day War. You acted like someone used to command. Of course, you could even be dead, considering that the conflict in your corner of the world has never ended.
We’d both had way too much to drink at the hotel bar, followed by hardly anything to eat and the long drive as far as the car would take us. Neither of us had thought to tell anyone we were going to Masada.
“I hope we don’t get buried,” I said.
“Not going to happen,” Nick replied. “These desert storms don’t usually last very long.”
We slept in the car.
At dawn, with a blood red sun lurking behind tattered veils of dust, I drank the last of a stale, flat Coke, and Nick finished off his beer. We got out of the car and stretched, with me wishing I had more than a comb and lipstick to repair the night’s damage and Nick rubbing his hand over the fine blond stubble on his face.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go commune with the martyrs.”
All 960 of them. You would know more of the details than we did, but the guidebook had described a Jewish sect who’d been under siege by the Romans in 73 A.D. Rather than surrender, they’d committed mass suicide. How’s that for a romantic spot to visit in the midst of a raging dust storm?
Of course, the sand had buried much of the ruins, so we wandered around a bit, with me thinking, Those poor people. To die in such a godforsaken place. Soon, we were standing at the cliff’s edge where the Dead Sea sparkled far below. I had been hoping we could take a swim, but neither of us wanted to face what looked to be a very long trek back up to the top of the cliff.
With no one to explain what little we could see amid drifting mounds of sand, Masada had nothing to offer but an accusatory silence, condemning those who dared to disturb the sleep of the dead.
We returned to the parking lot. The wheels on one side of our rental were buried up to their hubcaps, and of course there was no shovel in the trunk. Nick tried to start the damn thing but couldn’t seem to get beyond grinding the ignition. “I bet the sand’s totally gummed up the works,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow.
Our only option was to hitch a ride back to Tel Aviv—or at least to Be’er Sheva where we could get a taxi or a bus. Everybody hitchhiked back then. We’d be fine.
It was about eight in the morning when we set off, although it took a while for us to find the highway because much of the road leading there had been covered in sand. The sun was already high in the sky, but there was a fresh breeze.
An hour into our walk, I said to Nick. “Have you noticed there don’t seem to be any cars on the road?”
“Maybe it’s too early?”
He glanced at me sideways. “Somebody better come along pretty soon. I’m dying of thirst.”
On we trudged with me wondering how much farther I could go with that blister that was beginning to burn on my left heel, thinking maybe I’d be better off barefoot. I checked my watch. “We’ve been walking for an hour. How far do you think we’ve come?”
“About a mile, I suspect.”
“Where are the damn cars?” I said. “Shouldn’t there be a bus?”
Off in the distance, I spied a Bedouin encampment. If it had been closer, I would have suggested we approach them and ask for some tea, anything to slake our thirst.
“Look,” said Nick, pointing to the tents shimmering in the distance. “They might have water.”
“They’re too far away.”
“I could make it. You stay here.”
He turned to set off, and I grabbed his arm. “I’ll go with you.”
He shook his head. “What if somebody comes along? They won’t even see us.”
I glared at Nick. “I’m supposed to ask them to wait until you get back? If you get back?”
“The Bedouin are okay. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t like it. Remember Bishop Pike? He got lost wandering in a desert like this.”
“I won’t get lost.”
“He died, Nick.”
“Calm down, Julie. Your face is way too red.”
“That always happens when I’m hot.” I was also worn out from arguing with him. I dropped his arm in defeat and stood there, shivering in the hot wind, as he plunged into the sand, headed toward the Bedoin encampment. “Nick!” I called out. “Don’t go!”
That’s when I saw your car driving toward me. I didn’t try to flag you down because you were headed the other way. But you slammed on your brakes, turned around, and pulled up beside me. Like many Sabras, you were wearing khaki trousers and a white short-sleeved dress shirt. A thin fringe of light brown hair hugged the sides of your head. I thought you might be pushing forty.
“What are you doing out here?” you asked in your thick accent.
“We’re headed to Tel Aviv,” I said.
I turned and waved frantically at Nick, calling for him to turn around, while you honked the horn, muttering something dark and angry in Hebrew.
Nick turned and plowed through the sand back to the road. “Whew! Thank God you showed up. Can you give us a ride? Anywhere, really.”
You threw open the door and motioned with your arm. “Get in. Get in. I will take you to Be’er Sheva.” Nick sat in front, while I huddled in the back, grateful to be out of the merciless sun, running both hands up and down the goose bumps on my arms.
“Don’t you know it’s Shabbat?” you said, in a tone of barely concealed irritation. “Nobody drives till after sundown.”
“Sorry,” said Nick. “I guess we weren’t thinking.”
Again, the Hebrew imprecation, followed by a lengthy sigh. “Those Bedouin are probably five or six miles away. You wouldn’t have made it.” The words “without water” hung there, unspoken, in the silence that stretched before us.
When we reached the center of town, Nick pulled his wallet out and asked if we could at least pay for your gas. You shook your head. “Come with me.”
What now? I remember thinking. Were we going to be arrested for hitchhiking on the Sabbath?
You led us into a small café where ceiling fans lazily swirled above us and the mostly male patrons stared at the two foreigners. You brought us large bottles of orange-flavored Fanta and sat there, patiently sipping a Turkish coffee, until we’d finished. I picked up one of those waxy pieces of paper that are supposed to function as napkins, folded it, and slipped it into my shoe to cushion the heel where the blister had burst. I would have preferred coffee, and I might even have said I wasn’t thirsty anymore. But you wouldn’t budge until we both forced down a second Fanta, an endeavor that forever afterwards put me off orange-flavored drinks of any kind.
You wouldn’t let us reimburse you for the beverages. In fact, you shoved your hands in your pockets when Nick tried to hand you some money. Then you led us to a taxi stand and instructed the driver to take us to Tel Aviv. You cautioned us both to drink lots of water and stay out of the sun, once we reached our hotel.
I’m sure we thanked you profusely. But I’ve always felt we could have—should have—done much more. The thing is, you never told us your name, and neither did we introduce ourselves. Aside from the lecture about trying to hitchhike on a Saturday in the middle of a sweltering desert, you shared no details about yourself. We didn’t even ask why you were driving on Shabbat or why you had bothered to interrupt your own journey to rescue us.
Today, of course, the Negev Desert is probably even more unforgiving. I’ve read about innocent people being kidnapped and killed. I wouldn’t say Nick and I were innocent, by any means. Brains dulled by alcohol and feeling the irresistible pull of adventure, we went as far as the car would take us. You took us where we needed to go.
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