The shrill ring of the cell phone startled her from a restless sleep. She moved slightly in response. The early morning sun filtered through the thin curtain on the window, doing little to pierce the fog that wrapped her brain like a shroud. Her eyes blinked to focus, scanning the ceiling, while dark demons from the night retreated back into her subconscious—the place of shadowed, haunting scenes in which she alternated between being the hunter and the hunted, troubling images that left her soaked in sweat.
The phone chirped again. This time she reached her small hand across the table by the bed, fumbling toward the wooden box beside her bed to pick it up.
“Allo.” She whispered, so as not to wake her young son, lying in absolute tranquility next to her.
“It’s time,” a man’s voice mumbled before the phone went silent. The stark words jolted her awake and brought the room into view. Throwing her feet over the edge of the bed she rubbed her sleep-oiled face vigorously, hoping to rouse her body to match the heaving activity in her brain. She pulled herself up and started toward the door. It is time! She remembered the instructions and sat back down on the bed. As she did she looked intently again at her two-year old son, Yousef, sleeping soundly. The sleep of the innocent, she thought, the boy’s bare chest rising and falling in perfect, peaceful rhythm.
She consciously tried to slow her rate of breathing to match the child’s, her lungs inhaling and exhaling, rising and falling with his. She had to regain a sense of calm, of peace, of surrender. She focused intently on the boy’s face—his long dark eyelashes, his thick eyebrows, his coiled jet-black hair, beaded with moisture from the hot night. The sweat tightened his curls and made them glisten like crystal. He looked like his father. Everyone said so. Most did anyway. And that thought gave her both peace, and purpose.
She managed to drift across the room and slowly get dressed, first changing into clean undergarments, and then reaching for a shirt and trousers folded neatly on the stool in the corner of the room, a square, cramped place with walls pale and peeling from neglect. The shirt and pants was the exact outfit her husband wore the day they had been married. She scuffled with the tiny buttons, the fabric still stiff from a fresh starch the day before. She cursed the number of them. Why must there be so many buttons? The silly frustration brought yet another rush of emotion. The tears filling her eyes made it even more difficult to finish dressing. She couldn’t cry. Not now. Not today.
She looked back at her son. He lay so peaceful, so still. Yet in just a few hours his life would be forever altered. And while it was part of God’s great arrangement, she knew the heartache and profound sense of loss he would soon feel. The emptiness that comes from realizing he was alone when the one he had come to depend on for life itself was no longer here. He would feel as she had felt less than six months ago when she learned her husband—and his father—died a martyr’s death fighting the Israeli occupation of the land of Palestine. Pride in her husband’s martyrdom, and a seething hatred of the Israelis who cut short his life, mixed together to cover her unspeakable loss and deep pain.
She felt again a threatening surge of emotion. But this could not happen. Not today. She finished dressing in her late husband’s shirt and trousers, garments she had carefully altered to fit on her more petite body. Quietly, she tiptoed to the bathroom and carefully washed her face and hands, and combed her black hair. Once back in the bedroom she gently held her husband’s prayer rug, the soft, hand-woven cloth that once belonged to his father, and his father before him. It was worn and tattered from years of prayerful handling. She gently placed it beside her sleeping son who had turned unconsciously away from the bleeding rays of sun. Perhaps one day he’d understand the spiritual legacy now being passed along to him by those whom he had given such joy during their short time together. She paused one last time to look at his tiny bronze face, one not yet hardened by anger or fear. She resisted the urge to lean and kiss him on the head, fearing she might wake him. Then, as she watched one of his little arms stretch before returning to his side, she committed the day—and her destiny—to God.
As she gently closed the door to the room she turned to see her mother seated on a small chair.
“You startled me, Mama” she whispered. Her mother sat staring blankly at her, but quickly shifted her gaze to avoid eye contact. Seeing her daughter dressed in her son-in-law’s clothes told her more than she wanted to know. Seventy and showing little sign of decline, she had learned her best defense against the harshness of life was to maintain a conscious ignorance of the future. If fate has already decreed what lies around the corner, then foreknowledge brings only a prolonged dread of that which cannot be changed. Better not to know what the day would bring, than to know and not be able to alter it. She pretended not to notice her daughter’s clothes, or to acknowledge what they might mean. She sat silent, her hands nervously wiping the day’s worry from her lap.
The fleeting look of anguish in her mother’s face brought her back to the reality— and the danger—she now faced. She quickly reached for her abaya, the flowing robe once worn by most of her people before the ways of the West had crept into their very closets.
Stretching to her ankles, the hooded garment would veil her secret from those who might not understand and be offended, and from those who might very well understand and seek to stop her. Trying to sound as cheerful and upbeat as possible, she broke the silence.
“Yousef will be hungry when he wakes. He likes some milk and sweet bread. And he knows not to play around the gate.” Her mother sat staring at a small lamp and the idiot moth still flopping blindly against the bulb that had stayed lit through the night. The futility of it struck the old woman as she watched her only daughter flee out the door, perhaps sparing her the pain of trying to respond.
Closing the front door of her home—actually little more than a five-room, cement block house in which her parents had raised 11 children—she turned to the right and started walking down the narrow alleyway barely wide enough for a small car. The maze of streets and alleys was named Balata which in Arabic means “rock.” Created in 1948, the squalid town began as a temporary refugee camp housing Arabs who fled the war that led to the formation of the State of Israel. Balata was now home to more than 20,000 impoverished Palestinians, refugees really, who had become little more than pawns in the ongoing conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors. It was a pitiful existence.
As she walked through the narrow alleys she glanced at those she was passing and saw the look of hopelessness and desperation on their faces. She wanted to stop and tell them, to give them hope, but she knew she could not. Soon enough, she thought, they will know that the strength of rock still resides in Balata.
When she reached the mosque, she instinctively looked back to see if she had been followed. The alley felt strangely quiet. Nothing moved save a mangy street dog, molesting a downed garbage container in search of breakfast. Looking again to make certain no one had seen her, she stepped through the open doorway leading into the outer courtyard of the mosque, moving instantly from sunlight to shadows. The coolness calmed her slightly. She paused to let her eyes adjust. As she did, she heard the voice from the wake-up call. “Are you alone? Were you followed?”
“I wasn’t followed. I’m alone, and I’m ready.”
“Good. Follow me.”
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness she noticed the form of an older bearded man also wearing a pale blue abaya. The man began walking toward another doorway to his left, and she followed after him. She nearly caught up to him just as he reached the doorway. Pausing at the entrance, her guide turned and fixed his eyes on her.
“Do you remember the instructions?”
“Of course, I remember. As I said, I am ready.”
The door offered passage into a side room that served as an annex to the mosque, and it appeared to be used primarily for storage. A pile of hand-woven carpets stacked on an old kitchen table stood watch over the clutter of boxes, broken oil lamps, and crowded corners filled with religious-looking junk. A pale light hung from the ceiling and cast shadows across the uneven dirt floor. Just above was a small window to the street, allowing a thin shaft of light to illuminate the tiny specks of dust rising continually from the old carpets. On the far wall another doorway appeared to lead outside. Just to the right of the doorway a row of cardboard boxes were stacked from the floor nearly to the ceiling.
She was so busy looking at the boxes and carpets that she almost failed to notice the two men seated just to her left near the center of the room. The scent of Arabic coffee spiced with cardamom alerted her to their presence. For a fleeting moment a scene from her childhood flashed across her consciousness. She remembered walking into the kitchen of her home, smelling the aroma of the coffee, and seeing her father and uncles seated at the table playing backgammon. But just as quickly the past faded from view, vanishing back into her secret vault of memories.
The men were seated at a wooden table, holding small cups of coffee. Steam rose from the frothy brown liquid in the cups. On the near side of the table sat a brass coffeemaker with its well-worn wooden handle. When the two men recognized the bearded man, they placed their cups on the table and rose to their feet.
“This is the package you must deliver,” said the bearded one. “She knows what to do.” The two men nodded in agreement. The bearded man turned and slipped back out the same doorway he had entered.
The taller of the two men pointed toward the pile of rugs. “The vest is over there, under the rugs. You’ll need to move quickly.”
She walked over and lifted the top layer of rugs. There was the vest. At first she was surprised by its heaviness. She only weighed 50 kilos, about 110 pounds, and the vest seemed to weigh almost as much has she did. “It seems so heavy,” she said, turning toward the men.
“Of course it is,” the taller of the two replied, annoyed. “It’s packed with 20 kilos of explosives plus an additional 10 kilos of ball bearings. Are you not sure you can handle the task? There are others willing and ready.”
“No worries. Inch’ Allah, I’m ready,” she shot back. “But how will it fit under my shirt?”
“It is designed to go over your shirt. You will then wear this over the vest,” replied the shorter of the two men. And as he spoke he handed her a white serving jacket with a nametag attached just above the pocket. The tag was from the Eshel haShomron Hotel, and the Hebrew name on the tag read Yael.
“Bring the vest and jacket and come with us. Our car is parked just outside. We will give you the remaining details as we drive. It will take us awhile to work our way around the checkpoints on the highways. But, inch’ Allah, we will get you there in time. You can remove your abaya and put on the vest and jacket once we are near the target. This will indeed be a day of celebration, and of mourning!”