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Death in the Files

by Ma’ayan Even
Translated from Hebrew by
Tom C. Atkins
Issue 25 Online Exclusive

A soldier goes through casualty reports. It is the end of the summer and the end of the war. Names come and go in front of his eyes the way movie credits in the cinema do, while you make your way towards the subterranean exit amid empty popcorn boxes. The redhead soldier has turned the air conditioning OFF again. The soldier, while skimming the reports, troubles himself with a moral dilemma: should he retaliate with all his might to her attack, cease his work, rise from his seat and turn it back ON? Or would it be wiser to accept things as they are? A stolen glance at the clock flickering at the bottom of the computer screen decides: The day is nearly at its end. The gains from rising, therefore, are fewer than the losses, and so he must practice restraint and wait. “This war will never end,” mutters the chubby soldier sitting next to him, poring over reserve forms. The reports-soldier ignores him. The disappointment occupying the chubby soldier’s expression is hard to miss. He had been hoping to relieve his boredom with some decent small-talk. The reports-soldier, for his part, developed different tactics of alleviating the dreariness, and right now he is in the depth of a statistical analysis of the frequency of fallen soldiers’ names, with the name “Moshe” having a comfortable lead (but who knows what secrets awaiting reports hold for him). The chubby soldier releases an angry sigh, lifts off of his chair and turns the air-conditioning ON. Instantly the redhead soldier turns around, wide eyed, growling contemptuously, “What do you think you’re doing?”

The stopped-reports-soldier turns around to watch the event and uses the conflict between the redhead and the chubby soldier for a short truce with himself. He hasn’t decided at what level to place the redhead’s sexiness. On the one hand, her hair is fiery and her breasts are firm and lush, but, on the other hand, her nose droops and is unusually ugly. His eyes follow her while she heavily lifts herself from her seat, studying her legs wading towards the controls. In obvious defiance she presses the OFF button, as if pulling a trigger. The chubby soldier lowers his eyes, afraid and ashamed. This war will truly never end, the sidelined-soldier thinks to himself and returns to the bodies of the fallen in the form of abandoned reports. He has no doubt that the pile of reports has lessened considerably since the beginning of the day. At times he felt as if he knows the dead hiding beneath the names and numbers, and in his heart he wants to say the Kaddish for them, to visit every shiv’a and lay a comforting hand on sobbing, quivering shoulders.

All around, he feels gentle ripples of stretches, warming up for the return home, and his heart-rate, which had become accustomed to a regular, lazy, beat, is awakened to practice different tempi. Only three reports are left. In his mind, the soldier sees a desert battlefield, vast and empty, and in its center three soldiers stand shaking in a circle, each looking a different direction, running around their tails, haunted-faced, and there—he himself kills them with his bare fingers, stuffing them into worn plastic folders in a dusted binder and leaving them bleeding inside. Now, only the last soldier is left, lying on his desk awaiting his verdict. “On such and such date the soldier was killed in action. Personal information:” The black lines reveal a very familiar name: his own. The reports-soldier knows that he is the sole bearer of this name, and expresses restrained surprise, but when he goes over the string of digits that composes the serial number, he realises it must be a clerical error, for this is his, and only his, number. He is undoubtedly the only bearer of this number, and if you factor in the name and the serial number then no other conclusion can be reached. It is a mistake.

The finished-reports-soldier reads his name and number over and over, jailed as they are in a humble detail chart under the unambiguous headline: “Re: Casualty Notification.” He emits choked bursts of laughter. “Ma’am,” he calls out loudly, drawing the attention of everyone present, “There’s some mistake.” His CO, in her office at the other bank of the hallway, draws her eyes away from her computer to shoot a tired glance at the soldier. “See me in my office and we’ll take care of it.”

On an unstable shelf in the officer’s office are books dying, mostly of military heritage, books detailing the proper procedures for writing a military document and books containing general standing orders. Beside them rots a heavy volume titled Quotes for Every Occasion. An anthology of Good Old Israel poems withers. Once, when he was punished with detention for sloppy appearance, he sneaked into her office, hoping to find entertainment among her books. He had opened the anthology at random and happened to stop on a poem by Rachel Bluwstein, “Only of myself I knew how to tell.” Not a bad poem, he thought, but what does it have to do with Good Old Israel? The officer’s chair is padded and shiny, and through the window behind it you can see the path leading to the dining room. “What kind of fault are we discussing?” the officer grumbles with mock authority. “Here, look,” the handing-his-own-casualty-notification-soldier says to the officer. “For some reason it has my details, my name and number.” The officer doesn’t move her eyes from the soldier, only narrows them in suspicion while taking the file. She slowly lowers them towards the page and reads through it, lifts her face back to the soldier and asks, “Are we sure these are your details?” and the details-soldier promptly responds, “Absolutely, Ma’am.” The officer freezes for one moment, staring at an imaginary spot at the uppermost right corner of the room, nods her head to a rising beat and decides, “Let me look into it.”

* * *

The bus-waiting-soldier amuses himself by developing hypotheses about the cause of the mistake that stamped his name into that weird document, now awaiting the officer’s graces. The street bustles and cars sprint back and forth, but the soldier is hooked into his earphones as if to a life machine and hears nothing but the sweet sounds of a guitar from some foreign band. The most rational speculation is that a confused soldier was responsible for the delivery of the forms, and instead of filling the details of the soldier who should go through them in the mail’s address line, he mistakenly trapped them in that preposterous report. But he, the bus-longing-soldier, should not be content with the first theory that comes into his head; for it might be a deliberate action by some bastard of a soldier, who decided to end his boredom by playing around with the casualty reports’ data. The thought-wandering-soldier slowly fills with questions tinged by fear: Did his name replace another’s? How many eyes have read his name before the document found its way to him? From there the soldier slowly wanders to other fields, focusing mostly on complaints on the nature of bureaucracy and hierarchy, immediately cut off with the awaited arrival of the bus.

Outside his house’s door stands an officer, some soldiers and a doctor, their heads bowed. The homecoming-soldier sees them from afar. What can they be looking for here? Perhaps his officer sent them? Do they come in peace? He watches his mom opening the door, standing petrified while listening to them and in a few moments bursts into tears and falls into their embrace-ready arms. Realisation falls as fiercely as soldiers in the battlefield: too many eyes have read the paper, the procedures were dully followed, and now they came to notify his mother of his fall. He quickly draws his phone. “Ma’am, I’m calling for an update about the report I showed you.” There’s no voice on the other side. “Ma’am?” Another silence, and then a short gasp of held crying. “I’m sorry,” the officer mumbles while burping a sigh, catches her breath and then shoots at once, as if reciting a ready-made text. “Following additional examination, it was found that there is no basis to believe that the information on the document you handed to me this morning has the wrong information, and therefore the decision has been made, after a lengthy discussion, that you are an IDF casualty as the report you handed to me indicates. May you rest in peace.”

The casualty-announced-soldier is speechless and his head empties of thoughts. In his ears echo the ridiculous sounds of the crocodile-teared officer, in his eyes flashes his soldier-embraced mother, and what will be of him now, what can he do with this helplessness making its way through his heart and crowning itself ruler? He hangs up on his officer and runs to his doorstep. “Mum,” he cries, “I’m alive!” an exaggerated smile on his face “It’s all a mistake!” His mother pulls herself away from the prolonged embrace, looks with dread at her son, then with similar dread at the announcers, and stammers, “But… they said… they announced… but you’re dead. No? How no? What no? They just announced it, and there were crying and embracing, no? I mean…” The officer cuts her off, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder, “There has been an unequivocal instruction that he is dead. They must have forgotten to notify him. In any case, the chief of staff has instructed not to converse with him, in order not to create a false impression.” The false-impression-soldier still insists, straining his voice to a terrible shriek, “I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m alive!” and his mother struggles not to look at him, and in a moment falls again to rest on the officer’s firm chest, while he whispers to her, “He was a hero.”

The hero-soldier takes advantage of an opportunity and charges into his house through the open door. He takes off his uniform and washes himself of the day’s remains. Thoughts whistle through his head like bullets and he decides not to deal with them for the time being. In the living room the television is open and the news is on. A haughty, serious looking anchor reports that the war continues and people are dying in it, and reveals to us that if we just wait to the end of the commercials, we will get to learn the names of the newly fallen. The ads feature soldiers enjoying chocolate bars, a bereft mother exposes her secrets to a plump interviewer and a partially naked woman spreads herself on a car exclusively designed for strong men. We return to the anchor, who begins, “And these are the names.” Eight additional soldiers were killed since yesterday. “God,” the faithless-soldier prays for the first time in his life, “don’t let him read my name,” and the anchor, as if out of a secret desire to tease, says the soldier’s name at the exact same moment. The television-announced-soldier cries. Not silently, like his mother, not hidden, like his officer, but in a still small voice, understanding, shedding simple tears like sweat, “God, I needed you once,” he begs, “God, why have you forsaken me?”

The instruction to deny the existence of the fallen has spread quickly through the nation. The denied-soldier walks around the city, computing what percentage of the people are wearing a singlet. He quickly abandoned praying, and not long after he abandoned the hope of someone defying the order and looking at him. What else does he have? His shiv’a is held in his house. He hasn’t dared to visit it yet, but all of the complex tactics he developed to create entertainment from nothing are not enough to console him anymore, and the yielding-to-temptation-soldier enters his house. His mother shows his officer childhood pictures. “Here,” she reminisces “We were at the Sinai coast when he was four.” The Sinai-coast-when-he-was-four-soldier quickly understand that even his presence in the shiv’a is no escape, and busies himself by counting the percentage of people that he never met out of those in his shiv’a. The war, against all expectations, has ended. One of his mother’s acquaintances, a retired general, grandly explains what wonderful achievements were made. “But the dead,” a middle-aged kindergarten teacher, her hair dyed a faded shade of red interrupts, “all these dead—are they worth it?” The retired general wears a serious face, looks straight at her and determines, “Every war has its price.” The chubby soldier stops munching on dry biscuits to turn the air conditioning ON. “Every dead soldier,” the Kindergarten teacher says, “it’s as if I die.” But only the reports-soldier knows exactly who’s dead and who isn’t, and she certainly wasn’t there, she wasn’t and he definitely was.

The redhead soldier comes in shyly, wishing, “May you know no more sorrow.” A common saying claims that women are more beautiful without their clothes. That hasn’t been proven yet, but it is definite that soldiers are more beautiful without their uniforms. Her white breasts hint at their softness through her tight singlet and her nose suddenly seems gentle, happily gliding down her face. She approaches the mother and sighs, “I’ll miss him.” The dead soldier comes near her, almost kisses her, but she turns around and walks towards the air conditioning, to turn it OFF.

Poems by Ma’ayan Even have been published in the magazine OH!, in the Ha’aretz literature section, and other national papers in Israel.
Tom C. Atkins is a freelance academic and literary translator, living and working in Israel. He is currently gathering materials for an anthology of short stories by budding writers from all walks of Israeli life.