Raaya clenched the wheel tighter as her car approached the fruit stands along Route 60. She could feel the eyes of the Arab farmers on her, but she kept her gaze firmly on the road. The grapes did look particularly plump and inviting, she had to admit, but not enough to risk getting lynched, or kidnapped, or whatever terrorists were into these days.
She squinted into the setting sun, swallowing hard, as she sped down the highway between Jerusalem and Hebron. These roads had always terrified her—or at least they had since she had finally managed to pry the location of Avi’s yeshiva from the friend who was trying to set them up.
“Oh, big deal,” Shira had retorted. “It’s just Kiryat Arba. It’s not even Hebron. What? You have something against settlers?”
Raaya had not been amused. “It’s not the settlers that’s the problem,” she had said. “It’s the neighbors.”
“You need to stop watching TV so much. It’s perfectly safe. And he’s perfect for you. Are you going to give up your intended soul mate because you’re afraid of some Arabs?”
It was on their fifth date that he finally convinced her to come see Kiryat Arba, and that was only after he promised to accompany her from Jerusalem. They took an armored bus, one of those clunkers with the bulletproof windows so faded and scratched they were almost opaque. She had felt so claustrophobic, not being able to see, until Avi had encouraged her to stand up and peer out the narrow clear strip at the top of the window. What she saw took her breath away—rolling, terraced hills of greenery, olive groves and vineyards, under a clear deep blue sky.
She had fallen in love with the Hebron Hills—and with Avi—much despite herself.
After two years of living in Kiryat Arba, she had learned to feel at home there, to get used to the shiver down her spine five times a day when the muezzins called, so loud through her window. Even so, she never got used to the roads.
“It’s not even the terrorists,” she insisted to her co-workers at the girls’ high school in Jerusalem where she taught literature. “It’s the drivers. They drive like the road is a video game.”
From the moment she saw the two pink lines on her pregnancy test a couple months after the wedding, the discomfort she felt with the security situation deepened into a profound, suffocating fear. She woke at night with a start at every creak, imagining that every footstep on the stairs was a machine-gun-toting terrorist about to break down her door. She had been in high school through the worst of the Second Intifada, and she had heard the reports of mothers being mowed down with bullets while crouching over their sleeping children. Those stories had horrified her then, but once she carried her own child in her womb, the very thought of them made her breath shallow, her heart pound, her palms sweat. She had tried to hide her anxiety from Avi, fearing he would laugh at her cowardice, but he insisted on speaking to the doctor about it when she woke up, screaming from nightmares, every night for a week.
The doctor did not want to prescribe anxiety medication while she was pregnant. He suggested two options: cognitive-behavioral therapy or moving somewhere outside “the territories.” When they returned to the car, news of a stabbing attack at the bus station in Tel Aviv was all over the radio.
“God has a really ironic sense of humor sometimes, doesn’t He,” Avi had muttered.
No one laughed, however, at the irony of finding little Yotam that Shabbat afternoon 8 months later, lying peacefully—too peacefully—in his crib. The paramedic told Avi, as Raaya sobbed in his arms, that no one knows what causes crib death, and they had done everything right to prevent it. “Everything is in God’s hands,” he said. “I am so sorry.”
Raaya swallowed the lump in her throat, trying to blink away the image of his tiny, still body carried onto the ambulance. It had been a year, and that image still caused the same wave of horror, nausea, and weakness. She was driving on a dangerous road. She needed to stay focused.
She tensed up again as she entered a stretch of the road that went through a Palestinian village. There were always people lolling about, leaning against the walls of their houses, sometimes deep in conversation, sometimes staring coldly at her as she drove past. One of her neighbors had died in this village a couple months before, when his car windows were smashed by villagers throwing large rocks and huge bricks. He’d pulled over and gotten out of the car, presumably to fight his attackers, and was run over by a Palestinian truck. The driver had claimed that it was an accident, but footage soon found its way to social media, proving without a doubt that it had been deliberate. Avi had berated Raaya severely when he caught her watching the graphic video over and over, staring blankly, numbly, at her computer screen.
He was right, of course. She didn’t sleep for a week.
Raaya noted an army jeep parked by the road, and a few IDF soldiers stood around it, holding their guns and looking bored. The presence of the army along the road usually offered her relief, but now it made her think of Avi, blowing her a kiss from the bus at the central bus station in Jerusalem, off to reserve duty, and that made her heart pound in anxiety again.
The Hebron hills stretched out beneath her, the road curving and twisting to weave between them. People always drove at unfathomable speeds on this part of the road. The car behind hers was uncomfortably close. Her eyes flicked to the license plate in the mirror. It was white and dark green with the Palestinian “P.” She swallowed hard.
What happened at the next bend of the road must have taken seconds, and her memory took months to piece it back together. She remembered rounding the curve, noticing a large truck driving on the lane in the opposite direction, and then slamming the brakes instinctively when she spotted a car barreling toward her in her own lane, apparently trying to pass the truck. Then there was a cacophony of noise—banging and shattering and the shrill shriek of metal against the pavement—and violent shocks of movement, and searing pain, and then—darkness.
From far away, through the groggy fog of consciousness, there was a sound—a sound Raaya knew was calling to her, a sound that meant she had to get up, to do something.
A baby crying.
“Yotam,” she croaked, grasping for the sound, grasping for reality. She had to get to him. “Yotam….”
All at once, she snapped back to consciousness and opened her eyes.
The windshield was completely shattered, and her arms were sticky with blood and covered in tiny cuts from the rain of glass. The seat belt still held her firmly in place, but the car sat at an angle, probably jammed on top of a boulder. Raaya groped for the button to release her seat belt, and as she bent forward, she felt a pain in her ribs so sharp that she cried out. She glanced around, looking for her purse, her cell phone, but neither were anywhere to be seen. She shoved open the door and struggled out of the car, wincing in pain. Her sandaled feet crunched on the rocky soil as she painfully unfolded her body and stepped away from the car. She looked out over the hill. The light was fading, and things from her car were strewn all over the slope. The car must have rolled a few times before slamming to a stop on the boulder. There was little hope of finding her purse.
She glanced up toward the road. It was a steep 100-meter climb above her. She could not see if there was anybody there, but she couldn’t hear anything.
Except that baby crying.
She turned toward the sound. It seemed to be coming from behind a large pile of rocks to her left. Then she glanced up again at the road. With the ever-dimming light, she needed to get up that hill to get somebody’s attention if she wanted to be found and rescued. Her husband was in the reserves, so no one would notice she was missing until she didn’t show up for school the following morning.
But the baby.
She picked around the pile of rocks, and there it was: the Palestinian car that had been tailing her. It was upside-down, the engine steaming. The heartrending cry of a young baby was coming through the shattered windows.
Raaya stood there, heart pounding. She couldn’t see if there were any adults in the car. Well, there had to have been. The baby hadn’t been driving. She was terrified of what she might find if she came any closer. What if the driver was dead?
What if he was alive?
But that baby’s cry grated on her mother’s heart like no force on this earth. The agony of listening to that sound overcame her fear. She stepped closer and knelt on the ground by the back window.
There he was, suspended by the straps of his car seat, his face tomato-red from the hysterical crying. He looked about 3 months old.
“Shush,” she found herself saying as she reached gingerly through the broken glass to undo his buckles. “It’s okay, sweetie. It’s okay. I’ve got you.”
Her ribs screamed in pain from the awkward position and the strain, but she ignored it as she released the baby from his car seat and drew him through the broken window. She sat on the rocky ground, ignoring the pebbles that protruded painfully into her thighs, and rocked him, shushing, until he finally began to settle.
It was when his screams died down to whimpers that she heard another groan and noticed the figure of a person lying on the ceiling of the car by the front seat.
She froze, her whole body shaking, as the figure lifted its head and peered out at her. It was a man, his face pockmarked with cuts from shattered glass and streaked with blood. The two stared at each other, paralyzed with fear.
The man reached a feeble, shaking, blood-streaked hand towards Raaya and the child, and whimpered something in Arabic. Raaya glanced between him and the baby, who had finally stopped crying and was staring up at her with wide eyes.
“He—he’s okay,” she breathed in Hebrew. Still shaking head to toe, she scooted a little closer to the man, holding the baby close to him so he could see. The man caressed the baby’s head and let out a weak cry of relief and tears began to stream down his face.
“Hamdullah, hamdullah,” he was saying. The baby began to fuss again, so Raaya brought him to her shoulder and bounced him, shushing.
The man was staring at her, half incredulous, half fearful. He said something else, his voice unsteady. Raaya did not speak a word of Arabic, but his fear needed no words. She had heard that the Palestinians thought settlers were the devil incarnate—bloodthirsty baby-killers. Maybe he thought she was going to kidnap his son. How could she assure him she meant the child no harm?
Why did that feel so important to her?
He was struggling now to extract himself from the car, grunting and groaning. He managed to drag his torso out of the window and then stopped to rest, panting.
Raaya swallowed. “Do you speak Hebrew?” she asked him.
His head popped up again, looking at her, some of the fear fading from his eyes. “Ivrit…” he repeated in a heavy accent. “Ktzat ivrit.” A little Hebrew.
Raaya peered down at the baby, then back at the man, and put her hand on her chest. “I am Raaya,” she said in a quivering voice.
He lay there, panting, for a few moments, and finally said, “I am Khalil.”
He continued to pull himself from the car.
“Is there anyone else in there?” Raaya said, pointing toward the interior of the car. Khalil paused, squinting at her, following her gesture, and then seemed to understand what she had asked.
“No,” he said, pulling his legs out. One of them was twisted at an odd angle. He leaned against the boulder by the car, trying once again to catch his breath, and then he reached for the baby. “Atini,” he said.
Raaya gently handed the baby to Khalil, who wrapped him in his arms and kissed him, but then cried out in pain. Raaya offered her arms again, and Khalil paused, sizing her up, and then nodded, lifting the baby a little to indicate that she could take him.
“What is his name?” Raaya asked.
Raaya pointed at herself. “Raaya….” She pointed at Khalil. “Khalil.” Then she pointed at the baby. “And him?”
Khalil paused again, his eyes searching hers. “Abdullah,” he said.
“My son was Yotam,” she said, biting her lip. “He passed away.”
She didn’t know if Khalil understood what she had said, but he seemed to soften somehow. He leaned back against the rock, breathing shallowly, looking up towards the road. He said something, nodding up towards it.
“Yes, but you can’t climb,” Raaya said, pointing to his leg.
“At,” he said in Hebrew. You.
“I can’t with Abdullah,” she said.
He shifted and closed his eyes.
“Do you have a telephone?” Raaya asked. The word was one used in both languages, and his eyes widened. He gave a pained smile, reaching into his pocket. He drew out a smartphone. Raaya was surprised to see it. She thought the Palestinians lived in poverty and wouldn’t be able to afford such things. The screen was cracked, but it seemed to be working, and he tapped at it and spoke to someone in Arabic.
Raaya’s heart began racing again. What if he called someone who would help him, but not her? What if a bunch of Arabs descended upon them, rescuing him, lynching her?
Khalil hung up the phone and reached back into his pocket, drawing out a mashed cigarette box and a lighter. He pulled a cigarette from the box and lit it, then drew a deep draft and blew out the smoke, leaning back against the rock. Then he looked back at Raaya, as though remembering she was there, and looked at the box in his hands. He lifted it towards her, offering. She shook her head and gave a polite smile. He leaned back again. The cigarette glowed in the twilight. Raaya found herself straining to see anything else.
She had questions that she wanted to ask Khalil. Where was his wife? Did he have other children? Where were they going, and where were they coming from? What was he doing when the three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered last summer not far from where they waited? Was he friends with their murderers? Cousins, perhaps? Did his neighborhood hand out candy when they were found dead? Did he throw rocks at Israeli cars when he was a child? Did he do it now?
Did soldiers like Avi burst into his house in the middle of the night, interrogating him, arresting his sons? Did he understand why they needed to do this? Did he have family in Gaza? Did they survive the war?
In a way, she was glad of the language barrier. She wasn’t sure she wanted the answer to many of these questions.
The wind was chilly as night descended over the hills, and Raaya shivered, snuggling Abdullah close, breathing in his baby smell. He was falling asleep in her arms, exhausted from the crying. She cradled him, and found herself humming the lullaby she used to sing to Yotam, the lullaby she sang to him when she had unknowingly put him down to sleep forever—a song of the protection of angels. “In the name of the Lord, God of Israel … to my right is Michael, to my left is Gabriel … in front of me is Uriel, behind me is Raphael … and above my head, is the Presence of God.”
And her tears dripped onto Abdullah’s sleeping head.
A finger tapped her on the shoulder, startling her. It was Khalil. He was holding out a crumpled tissue.
“Todah,” she thanked him in Hebrew and blew her nose.
“In Arabic, shukran,” Khalil said.
The sound of a loud engine echoed through the valley, and a beam of light began drifting over the landscape. Raaya paused, wondering if it was whoever Khalil had called. The light eventually fixed on them. Both blocked their eyes in the blinding light. After a few minutes, they heard the crunching of heavy boots on the soil.
“Are you all right?” came a gruff voice in Hebrew. “Who are you?”
Raaya glanced at Khalil, who was still squinting in the light. He did not look relieved in the slightest. If anything, he looked more nervous than before.
“Who are you?” Raaya returned. A man in an IDF uniform stepped into the light.
“I’m a medic,” he said. “The ambulances are on their way. Is there anyone else who needs care?”
“No, it’s just us,” Raaya said.
“Is that your baby? Is he unconscious?” the medic crouched next to them, sliding his helmet back.
“No, he’s sleeping. He seems fine. I think he needs your attention the most.” Raaya nodded towards Khalil. The medic looked at Khalil, who was watching him with a look of unbridled suspicion, and asked him something in Arabic. Khalil’s tension did not fade, but he nodded. The medic began examining his leg and pulling bandages out of his bag.
“What about you, lady?” came another voice, and another soldier stepped into the light. “Do you think you could make it up the hill?”
“With help, I think so. How did you find us?”
“We got a report from someone who saw the accident.”
“Arab or Jew?”
The soldier gave a lopsided grin. “Ma ze’m’shaneh?” What does it matter?
“The Authority contacted us about a phone call, too,” the medic piped up, affixing Khalil’s leg to a splint. “But that was after we were already on our way.”
More soldiers arrived, two of them carrying a stretcher, and they loaded Khalil onto it. The group of them climbed the hill together, Raaya still clutching a sleeping Abdullah. Sirens sounded in the distance, and two ambulances pulled up: one with a red crescent and one with a red Star of David.
It was only when they reached the road that Khalil asked to take his son.
“Oh, the baby is his?” the medic exclaimed, his eyebrows shooting up under the light of the street lamp. “I was sure he was yours….”
Raaya handed Abdullah to his father gently. Abdullah’s thick, dark eyelashes fluttered a little and he stirred, but then settled back to sleep.
Khalil looked deep into Raaya’s eyes. “Shukran, Raaya,” he said, and the Palestinian medics wheeled him onto the back of the ambulance with the crescent. She watched them, until one of the Israeli medics asked her why she was standing there and herded her onto the ambulance with the star. The two ambulances drove off their separate ways, their sirens wailing into the night.
Raaya sat in the back of the taxi, heaving a sigh as the driver pulled out of the hospital lot, then wincing at the pain in her broken rib. Her husband had been released from duty and would be meeting her at home … and she couldn’t wait to show him the contents of the envelope in her hand. She slid out the glossy printout and looked at it again, to assure herself it was real. There it was, in black and white—a new heart beating within her womb.
As the taxi sailed past the Gush Etzion Junction and into the Hebron Hills, Raaya caught sight of that farmer’s stand, the one with the grapes that she had seen the day before.
“Stop here,” she said suddenly, startling the driver.
“What, here?” he said.
“Yes. The grapes.”
The driver gave her a wild-eyed look, but he pulled over and yanked the handbrake.
“I’ll only be a minute,” Raaya said, and opened the door, climbing out of the taxi, trying not to wince in pain. The kid by the stand—he couldn’t have been a day over 16—looked up at her, his eyes alight.
“A crate for thirty-five shekels,” he said in his heavily accented Hebrew.
She handed him the money with shaking hands, and he handed her the crate.
“Shukran,” she said.
“Todah,” he smiled back.
She stuffed herself and the crate back into the taxi, setting the grapes on her lap, and slammed the door behind her. The taxi driver glanced at her through the mirror, still looking a little alarmed, and then released the handbrakes and sped away.
Raaya plucked a grape from the nearest bunch and rubbed it on her shirt to clean it. She made the proper blessing, tears streaming down her face, and popped it into her mouth.
It was the sweetest grape she had ever tasted.
Daniella Levy lives in Tekoa, a settlement near the Judean Desert. She is the author of “Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism,” and her debut novel, “By Light of Hidden Candles,” is forthcoming from Kasva Press.