An email notification appeared on the screen of Ya’ara’s iPhone. She moved away a little from the group, which was gathered once again around the refreshments table, and opened the email. A chill went down her spine. Matthias. She hadn’t heard from him in four years. Another one of those connections that had vanished from her life after she left the Mossad. Connections that had slowly died off would be a more accurate term. Matthias Geller was the head of the BND’s Hamburg station. Clearly aware of the inherent potential of naval personnel and businessmen in terms of reporting on events outside Germany, the country’s Federal Intelligence Service operated a station in the huge port city. Matthias was a vastly experienced naval captain who was recruited by the BND at a relatively advanced age. It didn’t take more than a single brief glance to know that he was a hard and seasoned man of the sea. He had captained huge merchant ships and was said to have docked at every major port in the world, associating effortlessly with hard men like him who chose to live on large oceangoing vessels and remain months on end away from home. Following an abbreviated training period, he rose very quickly through the ranks of the intelligence service. Within three years, he was already overseeing the Hamburg station. To his handful of friends he said with sober irony at the time that his rapid—meteoric, some would say—rise through the ranks had also heralded the termination of his advancement within the organization. He wasn’t going anywhere from there. He knew that the Hamburg post would be his final position in the BND. As head of the service’s naval station, he was in the position that suited him best. He couldn’t picture himself sitting behind a desk at BND headquarters, or at any other station either, any station that didn’t specialize in the sea. He loved the ships, the smell that permeated the ports, the people whose lives were tied to the ocean highways. That rumble, deep and powerful, emanating from the belly of a ship as it sets sail from the harbor. The odor of fuel and machine oil, mixing with the smell of sea salt. The screeching of seagulls, the wake of foam trailing behind the ship. The smell of wet seaweed.
When Ya’ara first met him, he was already forty-five years old. The Mossad wanted to get to a Russian submarine that was lost in the Baltic Sea, to retrieve secret equipment that had also been supplied to one of the Arab states. Matthias was the German intelligence service’s representative in the operation. And with Matthias’s help, Ya’ara and her team reached the site on board a large ship captained by one of his agents.
Eight or nine years had gone by since, and they had run into each other now and then during that time. On one occasion, they were again together on the deck of a large ship, waiting as always for the signal to set their operation in motion. The call came in on the satellite phone in the middle of the night. Matthias passed the handset to Ya’ara, who was standing next to him. He saw the blood drain from her face and heard her say, in English, a cold formality in her voice, “Thank you for letting me know. No, I can’t be there right away. We’re in the midst of negotiations. Ask them to wait for me.” She turned to Matthias, buried her head in his chest, and he felt her entire body shake as she sobbed. He stroked her head. They stood like that for several long minutes, the ship cruising slowly in a circular pattern, maintaining its position in the waiting area, the crashing of the sea against the hull rising like a distant echo to the bridge high above. Her tremors finally subsided, and Ya’ara pulled away from him. She wiped away her tears on the sleeve of her sweater, and the apologetic smile she then offered tore his heart. “My mother’s dead,” she said. “I didn’t know it would hurt this much.”
He held her hand, which suddenly went limp, and they stood like that without a word. “I’m ruining your sweater,” she said a few minutes later, rubbing the tear stains with her hand. He poured her some cognac from the metal hip flask he always carried in his pocket, and there, in silence, facing the purple sea, the sky above dotted with large stars, they stood motionless. Only when it was all over, with the white helicopter approaching the deck with a deafening sound, did they raise a silent toast to the memory of Ya’ara’s mother. Only then did she let go of Matthias’s hand, move toward the helicopter that was hovering about a meter above the deck, throw her bag through its open door, and grab hold of the hand of a crew member, who pulled her inside. As the helicopter rose and turned sharply to the west, she noticed that Matthias had his eyes fixed on her, his long, light hair disheveled.
They met several more times over the years, unexpectedly becoming friends. Matthias appreciated her operational mind-set, her grit and courage, but it was the wild and dangerous side he saw in her that brought them closer. Her tenacious ferocity was the thing that drew him to her. Since that single occasion, he had never seen her break down like that again, but he knew that the potential to do so existed inside her, that there was an element of softness under the tempered steel. He thought sometimes that she reminded him of something in himself, something that had existed once but was now gone. Matthias and Ya’ara were in direct breach of procedures when they exchanged phone numbers and email addresses and remained in touch now and then. And when they met up, they were like two open and honest individuals whose profound affinity failed to have any bearing on their daily lives. Matthias viewed Ya’ara as a younger sister, and he wasn’t quite sure how she saw him. Still, their connection had faded in recent years. Ya’ara was focused on her film studies, and Matthias felt too old, a part of a different era. And now, out of the blue, his email lit up on her screen. She could picture him as she read his words. His light-colored hair a mess. His face tanned and lined. A man who had spent many a day under the strong sun. Dressed as always in the same thick black sweater.
The email was almost laconic. “Dear Ya’ara,” it said. “Forgive me for disappearing. I need to see you as soon as possible. Uncle Matthias is about to get married and he needs your blessing. Let me know where and when. Does tomorrow work?”
Uncle Matthias is about to get married. That’s what it sounds like when a German tries to be funny, Ya’ara thought. He doesn’t need my blessing, he needs help. Urgently. Otherwise he wouldn’t have suggested tomorrow.
“Dearest Uncle, I’ve missed you. Of course we can meet. How does the Dan Carmel Hotel sound? Let me know when you’ll be arriving. Your fiancée knows by now that you’re not easy, right? You can’t let her be shocked and surprised. Warm hug. See you.”
Ya’ara had no idea what kind of help Matthias needed. Had he gotten himself into trouble, and how? She decided not to think about it. Their now-tenuous connection wasn’t going to allow her to make a wise guess. Anyway, she’d know soon enough. Matthias, she assumed, would be in Israel within twenty-four hours.