By Anna Elkins
The citywide siren filled every corner of the house—a house in Tel Aviv without a bomb shelter. During one of the siren’s low levels, I heard Tsach’s voice from the garden, “Anna, come and see.”
Barefoot, I ran down the aloe-lined brick walk and came to stand next to him. In the bluest sky above the lemon tree, two contrails met in a calligraphy of white. He pointed, “The antimissile hit it.”
Missile sirens hadn’t sounded in the city since the Gulf War, and this was the third one I’d heard since arriving in Israel a few days before: just in time for an eight-day “war,” euphemistically called Operation Pillar of Cloud. In the Holy Land, it was no coincidence that the name conjured Biblical references to the cloud that had guided and protected the Israelites by day during their exodus.
The wailing ended, and we watched the curling script start to spread and lose its shape. As blue sky absorbed the condensation, my first thought was: It’s beautiful.
My second thought was: we’re alive. And the quinoa on the stove inside continued to boil. And we were still leaving for the Dead Sea in a few minutes. But, like the rest of the city, we stopped everything and turned on the news. There on the flat screen, from the camera’s angle, we could see there had been two missiles fired from the Gaza Strip and two Iron Cloud antimissiles fired from Israel to destroy them. Together they made twin sets of figures in slow motion, resembling the Hebrew script I’d been trying to decipher in the newspapers from right to left. What had spelled itself across the sky?
I didn’t have much time to wonder. We packed up the tiny black Nissan with camping gear and food and headed east toward Jerusalem through the cypress-lined landscape. Then south, down through buff, chalky mountains of Bedouin country, where we stopped for cardamom coffee.
We stopped again—after detouring just shy of a border control—up in the mountains with the ibex and camel crossing signs. By the time we made it to the evaporated shoreline of the Dead Sea, the approaching storm had turned the sky into a salty, white mass blending into the edgeless horizon.
We parked and clambered down the steep, crusty coastline, past the “Danger! Sinkholes!” signs. Eventually, Tsach found the warm springs he was looking for. I felt like the girl I’d been in second grade, seeing Yellowstone’s Beauty Pool for the first time: transparent turquoise, crystal white, stratified gold.
But these thermal pools weren’t too hot to soak in. Even better: soaking in the Sea itself. Without effort, my shoulders bobbed inches above the surface. I could lift my arms overhead, suspended from the sternum down in water, sternum up in sky. The Dead Sea’s salinity is almost ten times that of the average ocean. And so, while no sea life can be sustained in it, the dense water easily supports the weight of the human body.
Tsach and I lost track of time floating in the buoyant water of the lowest elevation on earth while storm clouds continued to amass above.
We had been quiet for much of the trip—two solo travelers sharing a journey. There in the spa of sea, I wondered what Tsach thought of his annual returns to his homeland. He was an ideal tour guide; he could see his country both as a citizen and a visitor. After serving the mandatory three years in the Israeli Defense Force, he had left to see the world and had never moved back. He showed me Israel through the eyes of one if its intimate strangers. There in that mineral slick of sea, we shared an afternoon of conversations I can’t remember, except for the thunder that punctuated them.
Beyond the sinkholes we’d avoided, there was apparently another danger. Tsach pointed to the thickening clouds, “If it rains heavily, the upper wadis fill with water and rush down to the sea. The roads can wash out.”
“Should we leave?”
Tsach was unfazed, but I must have looked nervous. He shrugged and started out of the water.
We had been enjoying an undeveloped stretch of coastline, so there were no public
showers to wash off the salt. Though it makes your skin feel like heaven, that mineral-oily water would be hell to “wear” overnight. Conveniently, it started to pour. We walked, being rinsed by the rain and avoiding any flooding. That was good. Not so good was that we were going to be camping. I tend to be a fair-weather camper, mostly because I like to sleep, tentless, beneath the stars.
We drove a few miles down the road to a public beach and scrubbed off the rest of the salt in the open showers as the rain ceased. The sky began to fully clear just as the sun climbed down the mountains we would climb up the next day.
My stomach told me that breakfast had been a long time ago. Tsach had an idea for a picnic dinner location: the botanical garden of Ein Gedi Kibbutz. The kibbutz was founded in 1953, back before the road we’d driven to it existed. The garden within is magical—and the only populated one in the world. Hundreds of residents live and work there. We found a stone bench beneath date palms in the “Beds of Spices” section and unpacked the meal that we’d made before the missile hit that morning.
Over the last couple of days, I had been enjoying the culinary trinity of tahini, lemons, and olive oil. Add a bit of mint and sea salt, toss into quinoa with cucumbers and tomatoes, and enjoy with a view across a valley to desert mountains. Sababa— “it’s all good.”
When we finished, we walked through the gardens, Tsach—shirtless and barefoot—looked right at home. He picked up a rope-thin piece of discarded cactus from a compost pile, “I can plant this in Mom’s garden.”
Passing a crop of purple-leafed Wandering Jew, a line I’d written years ago came to me: “wandering, wondering—a matter of vowels.” Perhaps it was the most true in a land with a language of flexible vowels. We wandered (and I wondered) though the curving paths of the kibbutz, past mothers pushing children on swings, a gardener emerging from a greenhouse, a worker zooming by in a modified golf cart. I’d lived in an intentional community before, but a study center formed of Swiss chalets is a bit different than a self-sustaining collective founded in the desert for survival.
I stopped in front of a bomb shelter door recessed into a landscaped hill of cacti and shrubbery. The green leaves rose, lush, above the dull, stained concrete. When had it last been used?
I heard Tsach’s voice ahead on the path, “Let’s go set up camp.” He was waving the strand of cactus at me. It would be dark soon.
There isn’t much development along the shore of the Dead Sea. I had expected the ubiquitous lines of resorts and shops but was pleased at the open emptiness, the sense of solitude. We drove to a stretch of valleys between low hills where outdoor concerts are held in summer near the base of the Masada—the mountaintop fortress we were going to climb before five the next morning to watch the sun rise over the Sea.
The flat valley floors made for perfect camping. Tsach pitched the tent while I sorted the chaos of bags and towels in the back seat.
I looked at the tent. “The sky cleared. Do we need it?”
Tsach asked a question back, “Want to go for a walk?”
As the stars came out, we walked through another small valley into a larger one, lined on one side by a ravine and trees, dim now in the darkness. As if in answer to my previous question, Tsach pointed to a pair of eyes glowing at the top of the ravine. He snapped on his headlamp and the eyes disappeared, followed by a black form slinking, feline, into the trees.
“Did you see it? There are large cats here, what do you call them? Not cougars . . .”
“Maybe.” He turned off his light. Suddenly, I was willing to acquiesce to the imaginary shield of a tent. There was no pillar of fire by night out here.
We returned to the campsite, opened the tent flaps to see the stars, and crawled into our sleeping bags. From his side, Tsach asked, “Did you read about the Masada?”
I hadn’t, and so he gave me the broad strokes of its history. Herod, lover of enormous stones, is credited with building the fortress around 30 BC. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Masada became a Jewish refuge and stronghold. A few years later, the Romans built the still visible camps at the base of the eastern side—a rather sheer drop of nearly 1,500 feet—in an attempt to raid the almost impenetrable city. When the Romans finally made it to the top, they discovered that the thousand inhabitants had burned everything and killed themselves rather than be taken captive.
Maybe that’s part of why I couldn’t fall asleep for hours: missiles, panthers, raids. Destruction is always possible. But for every thing that is destroyed, something is created. That night, two separate travelers, lying beneath a saga of stars, created a connection to history—our own and that of those who had been there before us. These conversations did stay with me: what brought us wonder as children, what it is to survive our fears, and what kind of legacy we hope to leave behind.
We were both awake before the alarm went off. We packed up camp, loaded and locked the car, and set off in half-moonlight–sans headlamps–toward the trailhead leading to the top of the Masada.
We began with a bit of a scramble around the largest of the three, square Roman camp ruins. At one point, Tsach told me to be careful: to the right, the edge disappeared into blackness. I leaned into the rubble at my left, hoping that the ancient foundations had settled enough in the last millennia that my weight wouldn’t cause them to roll. I kept an eye on Tsach’s pale shirt in front of me—my signpost against the depthless rock.
Just before we reached the trail, Tsach asked, “You’ll be fine if I go up fast, right?”
I was still feeling the angle I’d leaned to keep from falling. “The trail’s well marked?”
I could see him smile at this cautious tourist. “Yes. See you at the top.”
And he was off—fast indeed. I was left with the promise of dawn as stars slowly began to dim. I was happy to go at my own, gentle pace. I paused after steep stretches, looking back at the valley, its crevices slowly taking shape in two-dimensional darkness.
Then above me: those constellations, spelling our human attempts to discern things we can’t see. I felt a pull toward this place and its people. Layers of understanding were hidden from me, but I knew now that they were there, like the stars, and I wanted to know more of them. The stars had been there in daylight, hiding beneath the blue when the missiles hit. The stars were there through the night, narrative enough to navigate by and to remind us that we weren’t the first to do so.
As I watched those stars, not far from the top of the Masada, one shot across the remains of night—a celestial missile no one bothered to stop.
I made a wish and kept climbing. Before I reached the top, I knew that it would come true.
Anna Elkins is a traveling poet & painter. She earned an MFA and a Fulbright Fellowship in poetry. Her writings have appeared in many places, including The Greensboro Review, The Dallas Review, &Wanderlust & Lipstick. Her paintings hang on walls around the world. She has written, painted, and taught in the US, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, and Micronesia. She is the author of the illustrated vignette, The Heart Takes Flight, the novel The Honeylicker Angel, and the poetry collection The Space Between. annaelkins.com