This story is the second place winner of the 2007 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2007 stories were judged by journalist and novelist Geraldine Brooks. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Brooks and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Click here to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
By Andi Arnovitz
For a long time Keren wasn’t aware that she was dreaming certain dreams over and over. Her days were so intense, her work schedule was so overextended, that when she woke up in the morning, for a few seconds there would be amber mists, or fragments of music, or icicles floating there, hovering just behind her eyelids. Then they vanished like vapors, the moment she opened her eyes. Once she looked at the clock they were gone for good. She remembered nothing of them, only that there had been something there.
Then they began to repeat themselves with intensity. Sometimes they would wake her up during the night. Sometimes she would dream them all in succession, they would appear, one after the other, like acts in a play. She felt unsettled. She was disturbed by the fact that she dreamt them again and again, thinking that there must be a message there, something she needed to pay attention to, an issue to address. She remembered enough from an introduction to psychology class to know that the subconscious will pursue its demons long before (and after) the conscious even knows they exist. Eventually, in an effort to exorcize them, she bought a small notebook and recorded them, thinking that if she gave them their due, acknowledged them, formalized them, they would go away.
They did not. She dreamt them until they came true.
The first dream was this: She is walking through piles and piles of feathers. The colors are fantastic and varied, they have an intensity, and there are mountains of them; black, green, red, orange, purple, many shades of gray, white, turquoise, yellow. They are all mixed up; they are iridescent and electric and when she walks through them, they float, they fly upwards, air-borne, leafy feathers of color. In her dream, these feathers fly on the wind, they dance and twirl, they settle back down to the ground and then once again, as the current shifts, they are lifted up into the air, rearranging themselves, creating new patterns and compositions of color.
The second dream was this: She is swimming across a sea. The sea is endless, she swims and swims. She struggles to keep her head above water. The water is green, and luminous, as if it is lit from within. It is bubbling, frothing, churning. She is swimming through what looks like boiling water. There is a sense that the water is heavy, not water, in fact, more like green mercury, like liquid, phosphorescent metal. As she swims, she sees pieces of herself floating away, languid, and lazy. An arm, a leg. They are there, floating on the surface of the water and then they disappear completely, without a trace.
The third dream was this: There is a target. Like an archery target, like a shooting practice target, except that the target is a strange shape, like a rectangle but with funny angles and strange corners. Like the outer outlines of a maze of sorts. There are no rings, just a black hole towards the bottom. Inside that hole is another hole, and inside that hole is another hole, and another hole. On and on. She cannot see all these holes, but Keren knows they are there, knows instinctively this is a target, holes inside holes like a mirrored box of lights, where the lights seem to go on and on for an eternity.
Keren wrote everything down. She made notes on the margins when the dreams were particularly vivid, recording additions, small observations, sensations, remembrances of these details that would perhaps illuminate the purpose of her dreams.
On the day of her last dream entry, three perfect, giant, silver, four-ton bullets were fired from the middle of a desert in the middle of the Middle East. They spun madly, sailing through the morning sky, making no ripples, giving no warning, thundering at a terrible speed, gaining momentum, rushing to their climaxes, hurrying, hurrying, up, up, arcing somewhere over the great cedars of Lebanon and then, turning gracefully downwards, a rainbow shaped projectile of air and sound, and then screaming together dementedly, high pitched whining, a chorus of insane laughter, they part slightly, each one separating itself from the others, shuddering as they approach the earth, and then, impact, a roar, three roars. Bangs bigger than a loud bang, or perhaps something like the Big Bang, cousins of the Big Bang, and then fire, rolling fire, several million degrees centigrade, the sun brought to earth, three perfect suns exploding, billowing, growing: titanic waves of fire and noise.
And then silence, and black rain.
The three nuclear bombs sent from Iran hit Israel simultaneously. The first, missed its mark slightly, hurtled into the port of Haifa, rather than into the city itself. Entire freighters were swallowed up in the fire and the water, incinerating and drowning at the same time. The light was so strong, so blinding that millions of people died without knowing what it was. Their last thought was that the messiah had come on the wings of a solar eclipse. They disappeared, leaving thin, accurately drawn traces of their silhouettes on cement walls, floors, things that remained standing. Every single leaf on every single carefully tended and manicured branch on every single tree in the Baha’i garden burned off in an instant. It looked like the moon, like an exquisitely designed garden of ashes and blackened sticks. The city shivered, shuddered, sank to its knees. Buildings near the port slid down the molten hills and into the seething sea.
The second bomb exploded in the heart of Tel Aviv, hitting its mark precisely. The Azrieli towers swayed, they danced together briefly, and then tumbled to the ground, pieces of one building lying in the arms of the others. The Mediterranean sea vomited, it heaved and retched, sucking whole city blocks underneath in its spasms. Here too, millions of people were gone in a second, literally gone, vanished into thin, exceptionally hot air, leaving nothing, no trace, not a shoe, or a filling, or a single, sparkling pink fingernail.
And the third bomb hit Jerusalem. Some people say it hovered for the briefest moment, hesitated, before thrusting itself into the ancient stones, before moving stones that hadn’t budged in thousands of years. And Jerusalem, a city of white stones, became even whiter, a hot, searing white, and then black, sooty, velvety black and then white again, the ashes covering every surface, every crevice, every rocky, stubborn hill.
The rest of the world watched. For several days nothing but satellite pictures were transmitted, as no one could get near Israel without risking death. The pictures were gorgeous, the rich black of space, the deep azure blue of the oceans, swirls of white, the browns and golds of the continents and then, with large televised arrows pointing to it, the crimson red of this sliver of a country, this hot speck of a nation simmering and smoldering in radioactive ruin.
Not everyone perished. Some Israelis lived. Those who survived, (temporarily) with cars, drove as far away as they could, as far as their gas tanks would let them, inserted their credit cards into the automated machines of deserted gas stations, shook their heads at the tenacity of commerce, drove south into Egypt, east into Jordan, north into Lebanon, places that they would never have dreamed of venturing before. Long time enemies temporarily chose to turn their heads, chose to erect tents and donate port-a-potties and boxes of powdered milk and blankets, for their own people, for these strangers. After all, what could the Israelis do to anyone now?
The ones without cars shuffled out of their houses, drank contaminated water, ate contaminated food, spit out their teeth along with the toothpaste. Women stopped getting their periods, and everyone began to bleed, from their noses, their ears, their anuses. There was a sick joke that went around, that all of Israel had become ultra-orthodox, as everyone’s hair fell out in clumps, men and women alike, until they all looked like the ultra-Orthodox women of Mea Shearim, with their shaven heads. Husbands and wives would lie together in bed at night, and feel the breeze travel across their barren skulls, knowing that the breeze was lethal, that it carried spores and whispers of mortal danger.
Strange problems of Jewish law presented themselves. All the Cohanim, all the Leviim, the remnants of the high priests, a lineage dating back to the time of the first and second temple, a regal DNA, mutated. The next generation was born deformed, defective, incapable of uttering a blessing, ascending a bimah, or repeating after a single soul. The Cohanim themselves, forbidden from approaching a dead body, became prisoners in their own homes, as the simple act of walking to the synagogue or the store would require them to pass who knew what forms of death. Questions of family purity arose. How could any woman go to the mikveh, the ritual bath, any man for that matter, when no one ever stopped bleeding, oozing, seeping? An entire legion of Agunot arose, women whose husbands disappeared without releasing them from their marriage vows. Hundreds of women, hairless and toothless, wandering the streets and valleys haunted by what they witnessed, incapable of mumbling a prayer, or asking a question. There were problems of burial, of saying kaddish, as no one had the strength or energy to get through the prayers. What was the point of toiveling anything, of making it ritually pure for use if the water itself was impure? All the chickens, the cows, the ducks were blind, were deformed, were ritually unacceptable for eating. The Rabbis went back to the great texts, poured over ancient tomes, searching for answers. What did the Jewish people do after the destruction of the second temple? After the slaughter of the priests and the followers ? “What should we do?” they asked each other, “what can we do?”
A year after the bombs fell Keren is slowly dying. Even though she lives far south, she too is contaminated: everyone is sick and dying. The entire city of Beersheva is one pathetic, clinging, swarming crowd who cough blood, stumble addled and blind (even the dogs and cats are blind) as they bump and trip through the streets, people whose bellies extend swollen and lumpy and whose hair has grown back completely white. Even the children. The entire city is white-haired.
One day, lying in her bed, she remembers her notebook of dreams, and she forces herself to get up, out of the bed, to walk across the room, to walk without stopping or resting, and she goes to the dresser and finds, tucked underneath her personal documents, the small notebook. She opens it and begins to read, remembering clearly her three dreams. She is awed by her mind’s ability to know the future, stunned by her Nostradamuslike gift. She nods and understands finally, all that she had dreamt, everything that she had somehow known.
One of the greatest tragedies of the nuclear holocaust was the birds. Few people knew that Israel was the great bird highway of the world, and Jerusalem the center of this aerial autobahn. Israel was the very place where birds stopped on their way to and from Europe, the steppes of Siberia and Asia, India, tropical Africa and the vast Sahara desert. Millions and millions of birds swooped and soared over this little country each year. Bird watchers would come from all over the world to witness these great migrations, these jeweled productions, with casts of thousands, costumed regally, an airborne, graceful choreography of magnitude.
No one told the birds that the autobahn was badly in need of repair. The birds came, they stopped like always, they ate the surviving bugs and the larvae, they mated, they drank and swam in the water, they did everything they had always done in their life affirming migrations; only now, each sip, each bite, each swim, was tainted. In rapid succession, they died by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions. They piled up on the shores of the sea of Galilee, by the springs and the Jordan river, in parks that had deceivingly turned green again, in the Hula valley. There were towering, stinking piles of them, mounds of Great Spotted Cuckoos, Black-headed Buntings, Fan-tailed Ravens and Tawny Owls. There were drifts and banks of Long Billed Pipits, Kingfishers of multiple varieties, Yellow-vented Bulbuls and Egyptian vultures. Pyres of Spotted Redshanks, Cranes, Great White Egrets, Storks, Hummingbirds of all luminescent varieties, Pelicans, Bluecheeked bee-eaters, and radiant Citrine Wagtails. They all became sick, they died, they rotted away. Entire species became extinct in two years. But the remnant of the people of Israel, the survivors, Keren, will remember the strange months of colorful winds, winds bearing feathers of all sizes, of every color and shade, splendorous, refulgent, luminous. They will remember the weightless piles of color that swept themselves into corners, that drifted into mounds, and settled into crevices.
Keren’s dream of green water was harder to fathom, but became more obvious as time went by. For hundreds of years before the bombs hit, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Salt, was actually a sea of life-giving health. People would travel great distances to sit and soak in its weighty waters, the minerals easing away arthritis, eczema, and psoriasis. The air there was different, charged with ions, rich in bromine and packed with oxygen, a few hours at the Dead Sea was like three days of vacation. The tonic-like combination of magnesium, sodium, potassium and calcium would make love again after a morning spent there. People said a day at the Dead Sea added two to your life.
A strange thing happened after the bombs hit. The water became heavier. Heavy water. It absorbed all the radioactive particles hovering in the air, runoff water from Jerusalem, and the Galilee. It became lighter in color, gradually at first, and then lighter and lighter, until it glowed. The temperature increased, it became hotter, angry. It bubbled and frothed, salty spittle churning up on the shores. A soak was fatal. A person’s skin would shrivel away, it ate everything, devoured flesh, bone, it became a caustic acid sea. It was renamed: the Sea of Death.
The last dream took Keren much, much longer to fathom. Because her other two dreams were so powerfully lucid, so tellingly true, she continued to search for its meaning, the correspondence to reality. It was only a year and half later that the third dream’s meaning crystallized. She was reading the paper, reading an article about the archeological damage of the bombs, reading about the priceless, exquisite losses of history, the total erasure of the past, and there, in the paper was an aerial photograph of what was once the Temple Mount, the larger, surrounding walls of the old city of Jerusalem, what were once quaint and venerable neighborhoods; the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, each tucked away behind their smaller, respective walls. There was something familiar in the photograph, something that made her look again. And again. Slowly it dawned on her. She rose from her chair, leaning heavily into the table, staring down at the photograph. The walls of the old city, the Temple Mount, these were the outlines of the target in her dream. She understood then, that the target was in fact the ancient, immemorial Jerusalem, the outer walls, the walls of stone, and the bull’s eye, off center, seated low, was the Dome of the Rock. Not the Dome of the Rock, but the rock itself. The hole. The hole with the rock inside. The hole inside the hole. The rock that had been splintered into a thousand rocks, a million rocks, a rock so shattered and beyond repair, that neither Mohammed ascending on his stallion nor Abraham sharpening his knife would have the vaguest notion of where he was.