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There afloat, two boats: one for the three Jews (fishingpersons of the Lake Kinneret; Galileans in the truest sense), another for the four hundred sardines drowning in the midnight oxygen, looking up at the stars for the first and last time. The scene was lit white in the triple glare of boatlight, with a yellow streak from twinkling Tiberias writhing towards them from the shore. Above them, the moon: the only witness. The water was onyx-cold, a constant, cosmic black. Another throw was imminent; the men could relax until they heard the Captain’s call. Nobody observed the clock at the moment the motors stopped humming and the boats gave themselves up to the drift.
The Captain lumbered out of the cockpit. The other two were sat wet-arsed on the nets, clattering dice lazily around the belly of a shesh besh board (Hebrew = backgammon), manoeuvring counters in a sequence of patternless clicks. The Captain held onto a strand of stray rigging, wriggled the ache from his hips, and watched the game. Blacks had a commanding hold over whites; somebody was about to begin bearing off. A gunshot slithered through the night. Nobody looked up. What was war at all, in the face of the events unfolding on the board, but the incessant noisiness (the Captain was reminded of his wife grunting in bed as she rolled over) of landspeople and the pastimes they pursued? But this was not the truth. The shot reminded each of his purpose.
The game was over; the loser seemed to notice that the engines had been switched off. He straightened up, fiddled with the clammy sheet of moisture across his buttocks, and lit a cigarette. A silence, too long for fishermen to tolerate, stretched itself out. The Captain, sensing paranoia, unzipped his raincoat with unnecessary force.
‘You know, boys,’ (the boys’ names were Zvika and Segev, though he rarely used them), ‘I have never lost a game in my entire life.’
Zvika laughed and spun the board towards him. ‘Nonsense.’
But he believed it. The Captain was a master, or rather (as he suspected, knowing little of the man’s life before the boat, only his skill – a professional standard to the extent that one exists) the master happened to be a captain.
‘No. Not even my first one, against my father. And he never beat me after that. And neither did anyone else.’
He struggled onto the nets, crossed his legs, contemplated the board. Zvika began to move the pieces.
‘No,’ said the Captain. ‘Him.’
Zvika spun the board towards Segev, who had no desire to play, but knew there would be consequences if he didn’t. In the shadow of a delicate secret kept inside was the knowledge that there might be consequences regardless. The engines, after all, had stopped.
When the board was arranged, the Captain spun it one-eighty: Segev was offered white. The Captain never played as white. Segev lifted a die, closed his fist around it, and thought.
They knew, there was no doubt about it. They knew, and there was nothing he could do. All the unclean money under his mattress would not save him. The Arabs, to whom secrets were not just another currency but a real, physical commodity as real and physical as the sardines now life-dried in the hovalah, could do nothing to protect him from the destiny perched now so precariously on this gently-rocking deck, under stars he had never taken the time to really look at. There would be a signal, and then, the meaning of his nineteen young years, the entire span of his country’s existence, would be asphyxiated. He was surprisingly calm, he noticed. It would be, at the very least, an end to fear.
They rolled one die each. The Captain would go first.
5 2 (a black counter hops into formation)
How many evenings stationed in some desert outpost, far from the waters he understood, had the Captain sat cross-legged and pushed pearl across velvet? He out-aged Segev two to one, cocking in his flash-bang life many more rifles and firing into countless darknesses round over round, seeking out the hearts and helmets of his enemies and then sleeping, dreaming, waking to new dusty kibbutz sunrises and living further.
Segev flinched as he gripped the dice.
5 4 (a white makes one leap across the latitude)
He watched the counter settle, a little white circle left exposed (in a terrible position, as he noted) in a little void of its own, dangling there, like a star annexed from its constellation. He felt suddenly dislodged, displaced, and utterly alone. The flick of the Captain’s wrist as he made his move implied that victory would be a leisurely affair. Segev let his eyes roll towards Zvika and tried to draw a smile from some long-dry reserve of brotherliness. Zvika’s silence was a cavernous well; Segev wandered through it briefly, searching, and turned back to the game before he lost himself. He watched the counters migrate around the board while shoals of mushtim cut purposeless patterns underneath them and invisible battalions, camouflaged to the night, manoeuvred around the Valley. His hand moved robotically, as if an Arab crouched somewhere in those black hills were controlling it remotely, with no concern as to whether he won or lost. Strange thoughts; he shook them off.
6 6 (four pieces glide synchronised to safety)
A glance from Zvika to the Captain, unreturned. It was more than Jewry, more than fish, more than shesh besh between them. Segev could see it, even from his outsider’s distance, how the old fisherman evoked his captain’s captainhood, his inner Lev (Hebrew = heart, but the man’s surname incidentally) – could also see the ship’s-mateship of Zvika himself and the void that separated them from this other man, crushed under these dice and the weight of his own lust for money or whatever else. Even whilst pulling the corks of a quarter-tonne throw Segev had known that his muscles worked for his personal Present alone, dragging his time cork-by-cork into the hovalah and dumping it there. Strange then, in the light of circumstance, that his Future should pine for a return to the water.
‘Praying?’ Zvika pried with his typical lack of poetry.
It took cork-pulling strength for Segev to re-lift the dice.
1 1 (the frustrated shimmy of dancers who cannot hear the music)
It was a turning point, or else a point of no return. Within a half-dozen moves or so, Segev’s battlements would become utterly unsettled. The calm pool of strength that was the board freshly-set would be disintegrated. The initial stand-off of the counters (equalised, unyielding, nuclear in effect) would finally invite the violence that will eventually lead to the exit of all counters from the board, one way or another. The history of the game is an ancient one, bunny-hopping from culture to culture, but every game ends with the same final mode of extinction. The fact speaks at a volume of its own: whilst moving in opposite directions, the black and white counters can never co-exist. These truths and others entered Segev in one simultaneous thrust. He was left unguarded.
4 3 (black piece squashing white, instantly covering itself)
A short space for lamentations. Segev would never have the chance to spend the wage the Arabs had given him. Hindsight would have bought a ticket to Peru (MOSSAD-free if such a place existed, and moneyed). Why had he hesitated? The kibbutz, he supposed, or at least the seducing smoke over the village pool table, his name in chalk, salted peanuts and pretzels, cold beer, security. He had never been popular here, not amongst the Zvikas of the Jordan Valley, but then, why – again another why? There was no love affair to speak of, neither sex, and the way his family spoke together reminded him always of bad television. It was none of these things. It was only the desire to ignore the fear of death that cemented him to the valley: the death of knife-jacking buses; the death of border capture; death under torture; death in the unknown. Death lit him under spotlight in the belly of the boat. Everywhere was death. It was no wonder he had stayed where he was.
2 2 (no moves to play)
The sense of being trapped rolled a little visible fear over Segev’s forehead. Even the luck of doubles had polarised against him. He noticed Zvika pulling tight a bowline.
The Captain’s turn. An inch in the direction of fate. Segev threw.
6 5 (‘shesh besh’ – sweet liberation)
The freeing of his counter from the bar landed with a momentary flutter of the soul. Those instincts towards self-preservation (living in and through every Jew, every Arab, all tree- and fish-life in the basin) were realised in a coarse stream of adrenaline waking Segev to himself – he hadn’t, after all, offered everything to the enemy. The structure of his life still stood, however shaken: passionless memories, decisions made as if by someone else, a body full of needs, a will to survive. The consequences of his actions belonged surely to the world alone. What did the kibbutzim’s bunkered armouries mean to him, or the winding of tanks and ground-troops through the Valley, or the region’s transformers, dams, plantations, tunnels? Had he not simply unblocked a build-up of secrets in the free flow of information across the Earth? Another fact surfaced: if his people were defeated, he would attain nothing like a hero’s reward. He would not be celebrated, in Damascus or elsewhere. This, also, meant nothing. All routes led inalienably to his survival; this was the ultimate end, the goal concealed even in the most immediate game of shesh besh played wet-arsed on a bed of nets. The ropes underneath him supported his theory, leading skywards from the tangle in one ascending triumph.
The fish in the hovalah had stood no chance. All they shared now was their mute lack of conscience.
2 3 (a skip in the direction of freedom)
Now, two avenues for the near-future to pursue: the first, a strategy of possession at ten knots, appealing to reason, humanity, shared history; option two, a severance – boat-from-boat, cable-from-winch, energy-from-potential, heart-from-artery, soul-from-body. A year between Segev and his drill-training, almost as much since his injury and discharge … but didn’t krav maga still occupy his muscle-memory in some unpractised reserve? Break wrist/shatter collarbone/split nose/remove eye… He took in the Captain’s rope-worn hand, glanced at Zvika and the gulley between his pectorals.
Down to the board; the counters were not evenly placed.
‘I suppose you think I’m a louse.’
It was a strange sentence to roll out of his mouth, something borrowed from an Omar Sharif film.
The Captain threw the dice. His progress was slow. ‘What?’
‘Another couple of moves and I’ll be scot-free.’
Against the ropes, Zvika was dead-fish still.
The Captain spoke: ‘Yes.’ To what? To Segev’s louseness? To the thought that he might, for the first time in his life, lose a game which is besides half-luck? No, it was a yes to something else altogether, and certainly not life. ‘You’re not a bad shesh besh player.’
Segev moved. ‘I played with my father. He served in the Palmach, alongside Rabin. He fought at Horev. He lost a hand.’
‘Well,’ the Captain, half-ruminating, ‘we’re all our father’s sons.’
4 1 (the black begins to grey)
‘Last year,’ Segev skirting the line between history and imagination, ‘I played with a doctor from Petikvah. I was in hospital. He was my surgeon.’ A game had taken place, it was true, but with a Surgical Assistant, a scalpel-tosser who had been called away before all the pieces had left the board. ‘The man said a prayer before every move – I don’t mean a few words, I mean a full Baruch-atah-Adonai-Eloheynu, rocking in his chair. I asked him about it – he said the game brought him closer to God, something like that. You never know with the Orthodox. Afterwards he wolfed down a plate of pastrami. Really, you have no idea…’
5 4 (the brilliance of a full moon)
‘When I was a child, I saw Alexis Obolensky playing in New York City—’
‘Who?’ Zvika, already agitated.
‘You’ve never heard of Obolensky? The godfather of the game? The Americans call him “Obe”, I think – he was trekking around teaching Westerners how to play, setting up tournaments… A wonderful man to watch, really very charismatic. Russian, of course. He was up against a Frenchman – I forget the name…’
6 2 (blockage)
‘My father learnt the game from a Turk in Bodrum. He was half-drunk in a cafe at the waterside…’
3 5 (a chink in the clouds)
‘You know, shesh besh technically pre-dates the Flood…’
1 5 (the full divergence of paths)
He had been speaking continuously for several minutes. Now, all of the black pieces and all of the white pieces had passed one another; there was no more room for conflict – no strategy, no psychology. It was now a simple footrace. The moves would inform themselves from this point on; a genius player might already know who had won and lost. But there was no such genius present. The only voice still able to articulate anything like knowledge was Segev’s own, and that was beginning to shake.
‘I believe in my country.’
Zvika’s hand slipped from the rail.
‘Even now, I know we’ll come through. Even my father has his doubts – I have none. Yesterday, I sat and watched the tanks rolling up against that ridge there, and I…’ The pieces were manoeuvring quickly now. ‘Well, I know we have everything for us.’
Six disparate pieces remained in no-man’s land: four of the Captain’s, two of Segev’s.
Something like remorse left the Captain’s lungs. ‘I am beyond fighting.’
Segev brightened. ‘Why?’
‘Somebody has to run the lake.’
Another move towards freedom.
‘Besides which, I can barely walk.’
Segev had found an avenue of hope. He let the Captain lead him.
‘You took a bullet – I know that. I never took one. The lake wore my spine down for me though. You don’t get to command these waters for so long without them taking something from you. I’ll be in a wheelchair in a year or so. Still…’
A light breeze seemed to lift the dice into Segev’s hand.
‘Doesn’t pay to ruminate now, does it?’
5 4 (home)
The last of Segev’s little white soldiers had reached base. Most were already piled up near the edge of the board. It was only a matter of time.
The Captain lifted the dice. He threw.
‘Doesn’t pay to ruminate…’
4 3 (home)
There we were then – I suppose there’s no more point pretending I wasn’t there, or speculating as to what Segev might have been thinking, or the Captain, or myself.
2 3 (a crawl)
The whole evening is tangled up in my memory. In truth, I can’t remember what was said or by whom. As much as I allow my imagination to run away with me, I’ve always had a sense of people. I think it’s fair to say that Segev was fully aware that we knew.
6 4 (a bound)
Maybe he wasn’t. Either way, the night knew what was to be made of it, and everyone knew their role within the enclosure of the boat.
1 2 (sluggish)
Segev was not forced to come fishing with us that night. He could have fled to the city, or crossed the border somehow.
5 5 (virile)
He didn’t do that; he chose his future just as he had chosen his past, to whatever extent choice even comes into it. The Arabs had only invited the information out of him; we had only been lucky to capture who we captured, and to reveal that quiet boy who lingered at the pool-table for he was.
2 3 (the stagnant)
Do I feel guilty? Because he was nineteen? A difficult question, considering the circumstance of war. What would guilt achieve, for Segev’s family stirring in some village somewhere, for the Captain who has known only white versus black, or the kibbutz, or myself, who has never felt what war-free people describe as regret?
4 4 (the blessed)
I speak in the light of what these people have told me, that the enemy is the same as me, that the Segevs of this life walk only one step behind me.
3 1 (the swallowing of keys)
But there is no guilt in my world.
6 3 (soaring, unfettered)
The destiny that assigned Segev his choices is the same that assigned mine.
2 1 (whites gather at the cell door)
It would suit a great many powerful orators if we were agents of the same universal movement.
6 5 (‘shesh besh’ – the final black piece makes its exit)
And that was it. I was the first to seize him, followed by the Captain. Segev gave me a bloody nose for the sake of theatrical consistency. Within seconds, a rope was around his ankles, and another round his wrists. A Surgeon’s Knot, he seemed to register, at impressive speed. We said nothing as we dragged him to the edge, but as his legs were lifted over the side I think I half-grunted ‘Traitor’, and a hoarse ‘Your mother’ wrestled its way out of Segev’s throat. The Captain clawed into his shirt and dragged his shoulders up. There was no remorse in the fingers that gripped the cloth around his body. There had been no remorse from the moment we had set out that evening, night-fishing half a tonne’s worth in spite of what was to happen, and there will be no remorse till all of us has seen his last sprinkling of stars in the night sky. Segev had lost long before the board had been spun towards him. Each roll of the dice, each working of the brain and each movement of the counters had been determined beforehand, existing unknowably from the beginning of time, only waiting for their chosen moments to be fulfilled. He was the spy that always was, and the death that had been written inside of him before he was born.
From then on, it was simple. Heave ho, and over we go.