In the Land of Milk and Honey
Originally published in Four Chambers Press, Issue 2 (Print)
Eighteen. Guy hates his gun. He carries it slung on his back every day, the black cloth strap tight against his chest, cutting across his jutting collarbone. The M-16's barrel points down, diagonally. The thick, chunky stock bangs into his shoulder blades.
"That's where you had angel wings before you were born, bubele," Bubby used to say. She would place her finger on his lips, fitting it to the groove between them and his nose as well as to the cleft on his chin. "And that, that's where an angel with a long finger told you ‘shh’, and made you forget that you once lived in the clouds before you came into this world." Bubby had been soft and fleshy, her wrinkles melting off her face like candle-wax that never burned his fingers when he touched her. She’d let him pull the skin on her arms like plastelina, what they called Play-Doh in America. Guy remembers vividly the sensation of rolling her earlobe around and around between his six-year-old fingers. But whenever she’d wanted her grandmother’s right, a goodnight kiss, he’d make a gagging noise and run away.
Guy wears his uniform like his Bar Mitzvah suit. Uncomfortably. Pictures from that landmark, five years gone by, show a dark-haired youngster with barely enough flesh to fill his boots, let alone a suit. His shoe size hasn't grown - he has small feet for a man, and while he has sprouted unwittingly upwards, his weight is all in his bones. Gangly, some would call him. Others find his lankiness attractive.
"You look like an anime character," Layla used to say. She’d watched a lot of Japanese animation, had read a lot of manga, and secretly – she’d confessed to Guy, her eyes flickering up and down between her hands clutching her feet and his face – had masturbated to a lot of hentai, a kind of animated porn that he found discomfiting. She used to run her fingers down his chest. "Okay, so you're too dark, but you're thin enough. I can feel all your ribs. And you're all smooth..." She’d start kissing him, and he would forget how boring he found their conversations. She wasn’t his first girlfriend in Virginia, but she was the first one who put out. Guy doesn’t like thinking about her, though he often does anyway. He remembers how sad she’d been when he told her he was leaving Virginia, leaving the USA. He still feels guilty. He’d felt more sadness leaving the high-school track than leaving her.
Basic training is the worst thing Guy has ever experienced. He wonders if it is the same everywhere, in all countries, but his father and Ben, Guy’s brother, tell him that it isn’t. The Israeli army is the best, they tell him, its training unique. Guy only talks to them once throughout the whole ordeal, and to Bubby twice for the few seconds it takes her to tell him to eat, because his phone runs out of battery and he has no time or motivation to plug it in. Later, explaining this to people, he knows this doesn’t make sense, but it’s just how it is. It isn’t the physically grueling bits that are difficult. It’s like a kind of summer-camp for people who like to run and he likes to run. Those parts are okay. It’s the rest of it that’s the problem.
“Achuki,” Ben had told him on the morning Guy’s basic training was going to start. “You’re going to shit yourself. You’re going to get sick. You’re going to see more dicks than you’ve ever wanted to in your life. And you’re going to come out of there wishing you could have three more weeks of it.” Then he’d clapped his hand on Guy’s shoulder, had shaken his head. “Three weeks, ya’alla, that’s all they give Intelligence?” Guy had slumped a little. Ben always knew how to take everything away without even trying.
He doesn’t shit himself, but he learns to deal with the smell of foul toilets and fouler kitchens. He sleeps with his gun beneath his thin mattress at night, the contours of the weapon serving as his pillow. He wakes up for a pointless headcount every morning and jumps through hoops all day to do things that nobody needs done. He keeps his head down when the tears come, just like the other boys, and by the end of the three weeks, nobody questions whether they are men or not. Being pushed beyond the threshold of endurance and going further – if that doesn’t bring you into adulthood then nothing will.
Nineteen. The desert base is lonely. It’s top secret, which means, as everyone in his unit knows, that it is as open a secret as the nuclear weapons cache several kilometers away. In another direction is Be’er Sheva, the single big city in the small desert, less than a twenty-minute drive. A couple hours’ bus-ride, and he could be swimming in the warm sea, or lying on the sand with a beer balanced next to him. The same amount of time spent driving in any other direction and he’d hit a border.
“They’re not your enemies, what are you talking about?” Jacob, Guy’s friend back in Virginia, once wrote him in an email, before he stopped writing altogether. “Listen, I belong to that place just as much as you do, even if I didn’t go there to serve. But I could if I wanted to, you know, and I’m sorry, but I don’t think that what you and your brother are doing is particularly honorable. I think it’s despicable. You should be speaking out against everything that’s happening there. Not for it.” Guy didn’t know what to think. It wasn’t about politics, was what he wished he could say. It was about showing Ben that he could do it too. About getting away from Virginia, where just the state-name, never mind the state motto – Virginia is for lovers! - made him feel like his balls were shriveling up. It wasn’t where he belonged. And it wasn’t where his Bubby was dying.
Nothing is really that far away, and distance is relative. Flying across the world several times a year for most of his life taught him this, but living in a small country without the ability to leave has made him forget, or neglect, this knowledge. Guy has gotten used to thinking that his base is in the middle of nowhere, that the apartment he stays in with Bubby during the weekends is far, far away.
“The worst thing about this place is the beer,” Ben had told him over Skype before Guy had moved back. “But at least you can buy it legally. When you come, gever, you’ll see what I mean.” Ben was wrong, though. Guy wasn’t nearly as big of a beer snob as his brother and was pretty content with a Goldstar, the brown bottle suiting his sense of nostalgia. He liked sitting with it stuck at an angle in the sand, leaning on his elbows on an old white sheet of Bubby’s, watching the sea become gold as the sun went down. It was like being inside a sepia photograph.
The desert was the same way, all brown and gold and soft. When he and Ben were little, before they’d been uprooted and moved to Virginia, they’d lived near a big empty. Shetach Tesha, it was called. Area Nine. The sand was packed hard, and there were what looked to Guy like cliffs, though they couldn’t have been anywhere near that high. It was all replaced by a mall by the time he moved back. Guy remembers wildflowers growing there, the kind he was told never to pick because they were rare, protected by The Society for the Protection of Nature. Guy fuzzily recalls little green sign near the entrance to the sandlot with a sad-faced flower being picked by a small hand and a big X over both. They were red flowers, the reddest he’d ever seen, with little black stem-like growths emerging from between the petals. Bees buzzed around them. The yellow flowers, pathetic little things that wilted within a day, were okay for picking, so Guy would gather as many as he could fill his hands with. He’d make what seemed like the biggest bouquet in the world, march back to his parents with the flowery bunch hugged to his chest.
“Are you giving those to Bubby?” his mother would ask. He remembers clearly – or maybe his mother has told him the story so many times that it feels like a memory – how he rarely spoke when he was three and four years old, even though he knew how to. The few times he spoke in public, on the bus or in the park, his mother would say “Shh, not so loud” and he didn’t like it. So he kept quiet a lot, whispering secrets to his stuffed animals and into his cupped hands. His mother accepted his nods and shakes, mostly. At the sandlot, she’d say, “Well, let’s sit down and have our picnic before we go home.” They’d all sit down, Guy and Ben and their parents, and their picnic would consist of a bottle of lukewarm water for the adults, a bag of chocolate-milk for each of the boys to rip into with their teeth and suck on, and a big, baked pretzel for each of them. Guy remembers the taste of the salt crystals that stuck to the outside of his portion. He used to lick off the salt first and then bite into the pretzel, already a little soggy from his spit.
His stomach rumbles. He allows himself to look at his watch, as dangerous as that is. It’s too easy to check it too often when he’s patrolling, and if he succumbs to that, the time will slow right down to an awful crawl. He has the worst shifts this weekend. Noon to four, then midnight to four. Eight hours in between. It’s not as bad as the shifts he knows some combat soldiers have – noon to six, six hours of rest, then midnight to six. Six, six, six, the number of the beast. The heavy metal he used to listen to in high school thrums through his mind and the beat slows down to match his walking pace.
"Dude, I just found out that Megadeth are coming here. Fucking Megadeath, man, and after Metallica were here last year and all. I’m going to get tickets." Ido had messaged him that a couple years ago. Was it more recently? Ido who had befriended Guy in first grade. Ido of the long hair and barbell piercings. They'd gone together to get their heads shaved before enlisting. Ido, big and beefy and more muscled than he was fat, had shut his eyes tightly, but Guy had seen the tears leaking out from under his delicate long lashes. They’d never talked about that day. Anyway, Ido wasn't the same person he'd been then. Military service has changed him. He’s become a chevre’man, one of the guys, completely devoting himself to his squad. Brainwashed, some would say. Guy doesn’t like it when other people, be it Ben, Jake, or Ido, get into his head and start arguing with one another. Bubby, when she’s in there, is soft-spoken and gives good advice. He doesn’t mind her presence in his head.
His boots crunch on rockier and rougher sand as he reaches the less populated back of the base. There’s a good two or three hundred meters of pure desert within the base here, maybe for future expansion, but it’s still untouched, unleveled, and there are some dry bushes tufting out of the ground at intervals. The sun beats down on him and his forehead runs with sweat, drops sliding down into his dark eyebrows and pooling there. A natural sweatband, those bits of hair. He thinks about how people in cold countries never realize why their eyebrows exist. Probably. Maybe if they go to the gym. Or exercise. The debate falls apart in his head. He’s not as good at arguing with himself for entertainment as the others are.
“Don’t worry, motek, I’ll call you if there’s any change,” his mother had said, just a few hours ago. She’d been trying to soothe him, Guy knows, but she isn’t very good at it. Mostly, it was strange to hear her sounding so close over the cellphone connection. She isn’t so far away now, keeping bedside watch on her first visit back home in years. But he shouldn’t be thinking about any of that, he reminds himself, and promptly stumbles, his boot catching on a rock sticking out at an angle. It blended with the sand so perfectly that he has to scuff it to make sure he hadn’t imagined it and stumbled on nothing, on just the worry he is carrying with him.
The regulation black boots he now stares at carefully, to make sure he doesn’t fall again, are fashionable among his old crowd. Real army boots aren’t so easy to find in America, where soldiers leave their country in order to serve it, and most of his heavy-metal friends make do with scuffed Docs. Guy snorts, wishing they could see him now, sweating in uniform and armed with a gun that, no doubt, saw some use before it was recycled into his feeble paws. He is the antithesis of everything anarchistic his old friends admired. The mucus catches in his throat and he spits a wad of it onto the earth. He's far enough from the base now that he can check his phone, quickly, surreptitiously. No one will see him out here.
“-----“ The screen is too dark to tell him anything. The sunlight is too bright. He takes his sunglasses off and he can make out his phone’s homescreen now. A sonic boom sounds and his ears go womp-womp-womp, disorienting him, as if he were diving deep into the ocean. He puts his phone back in his pocket. Nobody's texted or called. No news.
He pulls a pack of Camels out of another pocket. He lights the cigarette and keeps walking, slowly, holding the smoke on his right side, nearer the fence, just in case one of the commanders looks out of a window at him. He's hungry. He ate only three hours ago, more or less, but he's been on his feet, walking, since the second he shoveled the last bit of tuna on salad on white bread into his mouth. He'll buy himself a bag of potato chips when he gets off patrol duty. Then he'll sleep. Or maybe play Gidi's Nintendo DS. The only good thing about patrol duty is the break from headphones.
The endlessness of the headphones. He takes a long drag and kicks at a little hillock of sand. It's an anthill, he realizes a second too late, but his boot has scraped the top and let loose the scurrying multitudes of black insects. He pauses, gets down on his haunches, pushes his sunglasses up to see better. These aren't the tiny ants that invade every room he's ever lived in here; these are fat-bodied, long as a finger nail, legs visibly jointed as a spider's. He watches them until the ash from his cigarette falls and makes them scatter, and he remembers that he should be patrolling. He gets up quickly and the desert goes red and black in his vision, dots crawling across his eyes. He shakes the head-rush away and begins to walk again.
If only people were as quiet as those ants, he thinks. But no. People's little worlds are disturbed every day, every single day, and they can't shut up about it. They talk to each other and he needs to listen in, figure out what's worth listening to and what isn't, what needs to be passed on. Sometimes it's so banal he wants to scream. Guy knows three languages, not two, though he never uses the third for anything except listening.
The corner of the base looms ahead and he pauses. There is a beautiful view right here. The sun is just a bit behind him when he faces the corner like this and his neck feels the full brunt of the unfiltered, unmediated radiation. But it also illuminates the pinkish-red stone in front of him and the dunes far ahead to the right. He can almost hear the dry brush sizzling, or maybe that is his own skin. He rarely burns, though. He tans. In Virginia, he looked exotic. Girls always thought he was half-Brazilian or half-Jamaican or all Italian or Greek. When he told them what he was, the responses were always reserved, nervous, withholding comment until they found out how political he was.
Another round of the base and he'll be finished with this shift. He's allowed five minutes to sit at the entrance post before he takes his last round. He collapses into the hard plastic seat. It's the same kind of chair that he sat on throughout elementary school. By then, he was a loud kid again, with Bubby’s encouragement to scream and run around when she took him to the park, and he’d sat in the back of the class and fidget, running outside to play soccer as soon as the bell rang for break. He’d met Ido, his first heavy-metal friend, in first grade. Ido had worn a lot of black even as a little kid, Guy remembers suddenly, looking at Facebook messages on his phone. Ido's sent him one. He wants to go out next weekend, when both he and Guy are home from their respective bases.
Guy decides to respond later. He checks his Facebook wall quickly, making sure that there isn't anything interesting or urgent there. He clicks on a cartoon of an alien trying to eat things that look like bananas but aren't, including the inevitable dildo. He smiles internally, but his lips stay motionless. He's too tired to move his face more than it takes to breathe and blink. He gets up. His five minutes are over. He begins to walk again.
Twenty. “You’re going to serve in the desert?” his father had asked him when he’d found out his posting. “Maybe when you’re on patrolim you’ll meet the Little Prince.” Guy had heard him smiling through the phone and his throat had lumped up. He’d needed to fake a coughing fit to clear it. The Little Prince and the desert – until his father had mentioned the connection, Guy hadn’t made it, but once he had, it seemed inevitable and completely obvious. Now, whenever he was outside at night at the base, he remembers and watches the stars to see if the blond boy will come falling from outer space, a place Guy believes in as remotely as he believes in God. He also keeps his eye out for snakes and foxes, just in case they show up to welcome the Prince as well.
It’s midnight and he has two more hours of patrolling to do. It’s been six months. No, more. Eight months. Soon it’ll be a year and they’ll have the azkarah in Virginia, as if that’s where Bubby had lived, as if that’s somewhere she gave a damn about. That’s not where she should be remembered. Guy stands, shivering, beside the small guard's hut. He gives a high five to Dan, who's on gate duty.
"My brother, where's your jacket? It's cold tonight." Dan looks around for a second and then adds in an undertone, "Here’s something to keep you warm, ach sheli." He grins and gives Guy a flask. It’s against the rules, highly punishable, but Guy takes a long swig. It’s hard liquor, cheap, but he’s not such a big drinker and all he knows is that he feels something burning down into his stomach, chasing his mood but not quite catching it. Dan is one of the good ones. He was with Guy in basic training. Guy had the bottom bunk and Dan had the top one. He went by Danny back then. He was gay, and everyone knew it, because he had special permission to get up early and go to bed later than everyone else so he could shower alone if he wanted to. He used the time, but not to shower. He showered with everyone else and if anyone gave him shit about it, he’d just look right down at their dick, arch an eyebrow, and say “Do you see me getting a hard-on?”
Dan used his extra time to read the books he’d brought with him. Nobody, including Guy, understood how he did it. They got four or five hours of sleep a night as it was. He and Dan had bonded during the second week of the course that came after basic training. It was in a different base in the desert, somewhere farther south. They’d taken a walk one night, late. Guy's stomach had been hurting like a volcanic eruption and he’d needed some air, and Dan had said he’d go with him. When they'd gotten to the dark area behind the dining hall, where the lights were shut off at night, Dan had asked - "Well, aren't you going to try anything?" Guy was confused, but eventually they figured each other out. "Sorry," Dan had said, embarrassed. "I just don't normally take walks with men late at night without them trying to go too far with me. Homo’im… they always assume about me, but I... um. I'm a virgin."
Guy knows it's not like this everywhere. Some units, Dan would get a lot more shit for being gay. Here no one cares and there are lots of girls. More girls than boys. Guy knows he's lucky, privileged even, to wear his headphones all day and sit in a safe spot out here in the desert where nobody can really get to him. He's not like Ido, out there at the checkpoints, harassing people or being harassed, raiding buildings that might yield a life-ending bomb or a life-altering first-kill. Ido is really doing something, something tangible that he can feel. Ido is what this country is all about, Guy feels. He quickens his pace. It's cold. Getting colder.
The desert looks different at night. He walks across the packed sand on the eastern side of the base and looks through the wire fences and imagines the animals that might be skittering around outside. It's a shame, really, how little he knows about the wildlife around him. He might be the most dangerous and lethal thing out there tonight. He doubts it, but it's possible. He doesn't even know the names of the plants.
“Bubele, if you want to know the names of plants then why don’t you do something about it?” Her voice scratches in his head as clearly as one of the voices in his headphones. Only one more year to go now before his service ends, and when it does, he wonders if the dreams will stop. The dreams made up of sound, in which all he can hear are voices whispering secrets that he can’t quite catch but that he knows are of supreme importance. When he wakes up,he needs to go listen to voices that he can hear all too clearly, voices that make his head ache and his jaw throb and his tongue cluck up and down as he unconsciously mouths responses.
Bubby was the only one who knew exactly what his job was. It’s a secret, a state secret, he could go to jail if they found out that he’d even told her. He fingers the scar running down his cheek and is glad she never saw him with it. He always forgets it’s there. He doesn’t think he’ll ever imagine his own face with it. Maybe one day, when he’s as old as Bubby was, he’ll finally get used to it.
“You little shit!” Ben had arrived to the shiva drunk. Guy knew he was also high out of his mind on some club drug that was sold in the potpourri shops that had sprung up all around the Central Bus Station, but he still hasn’t told his parents that. Or anyone else for that matter. “You fucking copycat! I did it first! Me! ME! But you’re the one she cared about – you think that’s fair, huh? HUH?” It didn’t make any sense. Ben was always their parents’ favorite, and both he and Guy knew it. Why Ben suddenly begrudged his brother’s closeness to Bubby could only, Guy reasoned, be explained by drugged-out paranoia. A bad trip. A bad day. Maybe his girlfriend had threatened to break up with him again. Whatever it was, Ben had grabbed one of the cheese-knives and lunged at Guy, carving deeply into his face before curling into a fetal position on the floor and puking onto Bubby’s beautiful hooked rug. Guy was angrier about the soiled rug than his face.
Guy doesn’t mind the scar so badly. He wishes he could have thrown a few punches back, just to work off his own pent-up turmoil, but the pain had been almost as good for that purpose. It’s fine now, anyway. Ben and his girlfriend are engaged, they’re moving back to the States, Guy’s parents are thrilled, everyone is happy.
He walks quickly to the back of the base, where a new building is going to be built soon. He’s going to miss the enclosed bit of desert here. He kicks at a cold sand dune and watches the sand fly up, dramatically backlit by the big spots hanging from the wire mesh across him. He slings his gun off his back and feels incredibly light without it. He places his hand on a flattish bit of ground and kicks up – he walks on his hands for a few steps and then collapses.
He lies on his back and watches the stars. His gun is behind him. He imagines a flock of birds flying down from the heavens and picking him up on their way to another planet. Dan would get it, he thinks. Bubby would get it, too. He pictures taking his gun and running away from here to join Ido, doing some real work with him for a while, feeling useful and manly with him. He thinks of hopping the fence and running all the way to the cemetery where Bubby is buried and telling her about all the decisions he has to make and how they’re too big for him.
He gets up. He slings his gun back over his shoulder. He continues his patrol, the M-16’s barrel pointing towards the ground, the stock pounding on his angel-wing bones with every step he takes.
Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-American fiction writer and book critic. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, McSweeney's, Joyland, StoryQuarterly, the Washington Post, the Guardian, LA Times, and more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring new, emerging, and established fiction writers.