So I went down to the city esplanade along the Sea of Galilee. Never mind the meeting that didn't work out. Forget the old story whose full details I would not be able to extract as I had anticipated from my long-time friend. To hell with questions that would forever remain unresolved. What counted was a glorious winter day in Tiberias for me to enjoy, an intoxicating, sun-drenched day resplendent with light, a day whose warmth drugged the body and infused every bright sight with a dreamy glow.
Along the way, I stopped at the table of a restaurant facing the new dock from which tourist boats set sail for the eastern shore of the sea. From my seat, I gazed in wonder at the bustle emanating from the pier. Boats arrived and departed. Groups of sightseers came ashore and went aboard. The Galilee glittered behind them in the wintry sun. Sea gulls cruised the waterfront and families loaded chests, fueled motors and rolled nets to put their boats in order for a night of fishing.
I was reminded of the Sea of Galilee as I saw it after the grim days of the Yom Kippur War. The management of the Tiberias hot baths had invited our weary battalion to wash away some of the cares of war. We arrived good and filthy, but a dip in the warm waters restored to us a taste of other times. The bath attendants pampered us. They saw to our every need and draped our bodies with old towels when we stepped from the pools into the cold outside. We gave ourselves to the sun that heals every wound. Seated on the shore, at the foot of broad eucalyptus trees opposite the baths, we contemplated the mountains on the eastern rim where smoke rose from the high ridges of the Golan. Every outpost could be seen, every road and every settlement on the Heights. Casting dry twigs into the water, we pondered the terrible war just ended and what would come in its wake.
A strange vision suddenly took hold of me. I imagined that I saw a tall, thin man with a dark face. His arms are spreading from his sides and black dancer's pants stretch to his ankles. He dashes and glides over the water, not in a straight line but in a zig-zag course, making a sort of twisting leap through the expanse of illuminated water. Now he is running towards the east before veering off and heading to the far southern shore. Now he is turning sharply, spinning around towards me, his face angled to the side under a veil of shade. I felt a moment of mild dizziness and had to turn my head towards my comrades wrapped in towels in their seats under the trees. "Do you see a man out there, fluttering over the water?" No, they answered, they did not, and they were sick of my lingering shell shock that took a new form each time. Again they tossed dry twigs into the water lapping the shore and quietly resumed their conversation, always the same questions: Whose fault was the war? Who had to pay for it? How would our stricken country change, and for whom were we giving our lives?
It all passed in an instant. The strange delusion vanished. Across the mirror of water, only drab ducks paddled and king fishers screeched. A speed boat buzzed in the distance. Still tingling with memories, I watched from my seat at the fish table as one of the sightseeing boats took on some buoyant tourists. Did I recognize the man greeting them at the gangway? Didn't I once know that face a long time ago? Wasn't that Me'ir, skipper of a navy patrol boat? I had lived through a number of tense, frightful nights ages ago under his command. Can a man be seen in two worlds at one time? Could Me'ir appear simultaneously in two eras? After his discharge from the navy, had Me'ir from the boat become Me'ir the artist who came to Ein Hod? That was what his friends wrote after he was taken. Where had I seen those tributes? In my copies of the literary journal given me by the artist who preserved his memory? Or had I read them in the commemoration album issued by the navy? I no longer quite remember, but the similarity of their faces so stunned me that I rose from my seat at the fish table and approached the gangway. The sunny expression on his face dazzled me. The same eyes, the same dark skin, the same cryptic smile, the same delicate, fragile wrists. Me'ir? Was it really Me'ir? "Excuse me," I trembled before him, my breath suddenly short. "Excuse me, is your name Me'ir?"
The man turned from the tourists with a smile and looked me over. "No, what's this about Me'ir? Might be a Me'ir on the next boat. She'll dock in just a few minutes. Ask over there." I looked him in the eyes. Wasn't there a Me'ir here who had served in the navy? I asked. "I don't know him," answered the man. "You're all mixed up. No such person here, and I don't have the time to help you look."
What had suddenly come over me? I got a grip on myself and slowly settled into my seat beside the restaurant table. How could I bother people because of an old demon who took possession of me years before? Even to me, his origin was by means clear. For what had I gone to Tiberias and Ein Hod and the Bay of Atlit? What was this Me'ir, who relentlessly hounded my dreams, as though I, and I alone, owed him and others a debt to redeem his memory from oblivion? If I met a strange young man who crossed his arms over the back of a bench on the town square in Ein Hod, what of it? Did it follow that he was in fact a herald whose revelation of good tidings only I was bound to proclaim? And if, sometime in the dawn of my youth, I bumped into an eccentric chief petty officer on a little patrol boat off the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, directly below the guns of the Syrian coastal batteries, was I obliged to pursue glimmers of his image all my life?
Indeed, life is but a series of such peculiar encounters, especially in the beginning, in our enchanted childhood. For example, take that nameless tractor operator clearing rocks from Givat Ram in Jerusalem. When I stood before him with a friend, dressed in uniform with the unit patch shining on my shoulder, he stopped the giant tractor, jumped down, flung a chunk of stone at my feet and said, "Out for a hike, eh? Decided to escape from the northern border, eh? Had enough of those pitch black ambushes, eh? No more strength for crawling exhausted through jungles of reeds, eh?"
Before we could collect our thoughts, before we could get a fix on what he was saying to us, even before we could see his face shielded by a broad cloth hat over a layer of sticky dust, he hopped back onto the giant tractor and pulled the levers. The tractor growled and dug its great blade into the heap of rocks.
Did he know more about us than we ourselves did? Did he see himself as a secret partner in our fate? Why have I not sought after him? His name, too, is not important to me, nor the history of his family or its fortunes in Israel. For many years, I have nursed within me an idle curiosity as to the identity of that man and the reason for his remarks. Still, unlike the matter of Me'ir and his brief life, I left him alone as he did me.
I sat at the fish table, I ate and drank, and then I desired to quit the city. What would I do with this man who pursued me everywhere? On my way to the Tiberias bus station, I remembered that the artist had spoken sparingly of his death and I had not asked further, as though we were of one mind from the start to say nothing of that sorry chapter. Besides, anyone who had merely heard of the incident knew exactly what it involved. But it is impossible in thinking of him to regard that final act as the definitive event of his life. For some reason, Me'ir's artistic side had not drawn me. Instead, other facets of him, opening doors in a host of directions, had riveted me, though they would not make a biography even were I to write about them.
And if I sat down and wove a tale from events that would shed light on his life, and my life, and the hidden paths that we must take, why would I seize on his sad story? The esplanade in Tiberias and the new ship dock are full of groups of merry tourists, each of whom has a story more entertaining, and less mournful, than Me'ir's.
It is only the bronzed face of the man at the gangway guiding passengers on board the excursion boat that leaves me without peace. Did he really say his name wasn't Me'ir?
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