When I was very young I had atrocious asthma and in Israel in 1970 treatments were limited. The doctor urged my parents toward a geographic cure. Take her where the air is warm and dry and there is no mold. So my young parents packed our few possessions into the car and took the 4-hour jostle on unpaved roads to Eilat, a tiny, sleepy village at the last end of Israel, the southern tip on the map.
Set at the side of the Red Sea, Eilat has since been developed by tastes more suited to Vegas than the location of one of the Earth’s larger coral reefs. But in 1970 it was still a place so small and remote, only the most adventurous European tourists managed to get there.
To my child’s eyes it was a magical world. My parents rented a small cinder block house but I have few memories of the place because I was rarely in it. With the exception of several large salt water aquariums for collecting the various fish my parents collected while out scuba diving, the interior of those rooms is lost to me. My bedroom was the beach.
Most nights we would drive down to the water’s edge, set out some air mattresses with pillows and blankets and watch the astonishing number of meteorites that the very black, star-crowded skies casually revealed. Across the water winked the lights of Aquaba, a name I always thought especially beautiful. I would hold a rag doll my mother had sewn for me under one arm and lie down next to my father who liked to put his arms behind his head and wait for the fishing line he looped around his big toe to alert him to a catch.
He had devised a peculiar fishing method that provoked a small anxiety in my child’s imagination. At night, the small, lapping wavelets of the Red Sea can carry things away from shore. But, the coral shallows extend a considerable distance from the beach, making it impossible to cast from shore and reach the deeper waters beyond the reef. Those depths offered the meaty fish we wanted for our dinner. My clever Dad would wrap a heavy line around a wooden board, set the baited hook in a small cardboard box and placed the makeshift vessel on the water for the waves to carry beyond the reef. Eventually the box would get soggy and sink, casting the bait into that deep water so impossible to reach from shore. The loop of line around his toe would let him know when a fish took the bait and he would patiently wind the line back around the wooden board to reel it in. Once or twice, a tremendously large fish inspired him to wrap the line around the bumper of the car and drive up the beach to pull it out.
I suppose I have always been subject to flights of fancy but I always reflected on the similarity between the paper box and the small inflatable my parents put me in so I could accompany them on their almost daily scuba dives. It had transparent circles in the bottom and I would watch the reef and all its creatures, while my mother minded the tether that kept me in their wake. With that child’s tendency to anthropomorphize I always felt a little sorry for the poor cardboard box that left the shore and fell to the sea floor, its line to us gone forever.
We cooked what we caught, either on a fire or a camp stove, and after dinner, time for bed. We would snuggle down into the air mattresses listening to the soft lapping of the waves over the rocky edge. My father would sing a lullaby about a stubborn little goat in the sky who butted over the bucket where the stars had been collected, spilling them forever across the floor of heaven.
Coastal living today is much more intricate than my childhood memories of those nights on the beaches of Eilat. I live in California now, and know many beaches. From the wide, warm embrace of San Diego to the frigid abalone beds near Fort Ross, the varied coast of my beloved blue Pacific never fails to inspire me. But if I walk along a shore at night, if it happens to be quite dark and the stars are many, a warm, very private quiet settles around my mind, like a soft shawl against the chill, and I remember the lights of Aquaba and my father’s song.
I am six years old and with my grandmother. We are shopping in the shouk in Old Jerusalem. The sky is a hard, thorough, cloudless blue. The early sun is already baking the smells of the shouk out of the ground. I hold Saftah’s smooth, dry hand. The shouk smells of sour milk, rotting vegetables, street food, peanuts, sweat. My Yemeni grandmother bargains and argues with the stall keepers in Arabic, or Hebrew, as she rifles through mounds of lemons, tomatoes, onions, eggplants, rejecting most for failings I can’t see. The glaring sun pierces points through the holes in the ragged canopies over the stalls, like the stars in my picture books. I squint to make them shift and stretch.
The air is hotter now. The call to prayer sounds from the minaret at the mosque. Saftah’s bags are getting full. I want candied fruit. We have to wait for the Muslims to finish their prayers before we can buy anything more. I imagine the Arabic prayers sliding up between the murmuring voices out into the cloudless sky.
It is the last stall at the end of the market, next to the beginning. My legs are tired but my eyes are still busy. A woman walks past, the live chicken in her basket level with my face, “screaming” bloody murder, wings straining against its plastic prison. I jump back, bumping into Saftah’s bags. Her hand absently touches my head as she continues to haggle with the fruit vendor. He is emphatic. His hand comes down, hard, in an empty space on a skinny-legged table piled high with tangerines, shaking the pile. Two tumble and skip from the top of the heap. I watch the bright globes fall and bounce heavily, rolling away into the shadows. I lean over to see where they go. Two brown hands, smaller than mine, and dirty, grab the orbs. My eyes follow the cage of the thin, curved fingers up a skinny arm, to a boy. He must be younger than me. He’s so small. Black, black eyes hold mine without a blink and then I am watching a thin, dirty, red-striped shirt, torn across the back, get lost in the violet and gray patches under the shouk.
My focus shifts. My vision widens like a camera. Motion. The shadows and the light are not flat or still. Under the spindly legged tables groaning with food, is a separate world. Movement flickers intermittently. They are quick and slight. A handful of green beans slides down between the tables and is gone. Half of a split pomegranate disappears into a ragged pocket. Agile fingers dare to steal from the edges of the table-roofs over their heads. It’s a world, a race, of kids, like me. But not like me… at all. I know it’s wrong to take food without paying for it. I should tell Saftah but I don’t. Telling would be more wrong, I’m strangely certain.
We take the bus home. The blue sky fills square windows and the sun shoots sweeping rays through the bus whenever we turn a corner, or the street curves in a new direction. I think about the children under the shouk. I want to ask if they have homes.
At Saftah’s house we wash bright fruits and vegetables with soap and water. Sabbath is coming. I’m glad, but I also worry, about those children. The sun goes down. Dad takes me to the synagogue. The Hebrew prayers go out into the lilac air of twilight. I still worry about the children. I wonder where they sleep. I wonder about them for a long time. Even now, so many years beyond age six, so many miles and sights away from Saftah, from the shouk, from Jerusalem, I remember them. Whenever I see displays of abundance, shows of grandeur, I remember, and look for them again... the children, the hunger, underneath.