ISRAEL, WESTERN GALILEE, MARCH 2015
The spacious holiday cabin looked exactly as it had when they all met there for the first time. They left Berlin separately, with some of them flying directly to Israel and others stopping for a day or two in another European city. They had already grown accustomed to the never-ending practice of trying to break common patterns.
They were sitting in a circle again, all eyes on Ya’ara and Aslan by her side.
For several minutes the room remained silent. It was a peaceful silence, but also contained a dimension of solemnity and festivity.
“Today we come to the end of months of exhausting training,” Ya’ara spoke, her voice low and soft. “Like most of the things we did, the training wasn’t routine. You were thrown into the deep end from the very beginning, and you proved to be great swimmers. I’m proud of you. There’s no one else I’d rather have by my side for the task of carrying out operational activities. From today, you are all combatants in a semiofficial and highly classified unit, a special ops unit. We don’t exist anywhere. There are no records of us anywhere, there’s no law that recognizes us, there’s no clause in the state budget that’s earmarked for us. But it’s time you knew just how high up the chain of command this thing goes. The unit was set up in keeping with a personal directive of the prime minister, and we are conducting missions he assigns to us for the purpose of safeguarding the security of the State of Israel. I have no idea what this unit will look like further down the line, but we’re going to make every effort to stave off its institutionalization for as long as possible. For as long as you and we are here”—she gestured to include Aslan among everyone else—“we’ll continue in this manner. We’ll maintain the ability to act quickly, forcefully, and aggressively, emerging out of nowhere and going back to nowhere when the job is done.”
The eyes of the cadets displayed stern intentness and pride. Ya’ara focused her gaze on Helena and recognized a deep sadness in her face, overlaid, however, with determination. Helena had disappeared for two weeks, and she was different when she came back. She didn’t offer any explanation and Ya’ara didn’t ask for one. But she knew that her cadet had finally found her place, even if she had been forced to make some hard decisions to do so. Forced to let go. She believed she knew what it had entailed. She could see the distance that had opened up between her and Ann. She could see that Helena was making a concerted effort to keep as far away from her as she could, positioning herself at the farthest point from the person who had once been her best friend on the team, and maybe even more.
“Despite the fact that we don’t exist anywhere, it’s only fitting that we have a name. It’s my and Aslan’s joint decision. You recall we spoke about it at the end of the debriefing in Berlin, and I’m pleased you agreed to the unit name we proposed, Sirocco. We’ll be the fiery hot storm that lays waste to whoever rises against us. It may sound poetic and dramatic, but it’s the truth. Today, we, you, are joining a long line of Hebrew warriors, and we will play our part in the struggle to ensure the existence of our people and our country with the utmost dedication.”
Ya’ara leaned toward her backpack and pulled out a large crystal, in shades of brown and silver, with a touch of purple in each.
“This crystal is from a quarry in the Jerusalem mountains. A specialist jeweler has set eight small cuttings from it into gold pins. The pins are similar but not identical. Each pin is slightly different from the others. Each pin is a unique creation, a combination of prehistoric nature and the hand of an artist. This crystal contains sufficient material for the pins that will be given to every individual who joins Sirocco over the next hundred years. And today, each and every one of us will receive such a pin. They won’t be worn outside Israel. Due to security considerations, and also because it’s a kind of oath.” She opened the black box resting next to the crystal. Glittering in the light, on a dark piece of velvet, were eight gold pins set with a shard of the crystal. She passed the open box to Batsheva, who was sitting to her right. Batsheva selected one of the pins and handed the box to Helena, who chose one of the pins almost at random and aggressively jabbed it through the fabric of her blouse. The box went from one to the next, and ended up back with Ya’ara. She took off the thick sweater she was wearing and pinned the piece of jewelry to the T-shirt she had on underneath, on the left side. “Near the heart,” she said with a smile, and put on her sweater again. Just then, there came a loud knock on the door. “Excuse me a second,” Ya’ara said, before standing up and going over to open.
“Have I come at a good time?” the prime minister asked.
- • •
“You couldn’t have picked a better one,” she responded. She saw the prime minister’s bodyguard staying back, signaling to her that it was fine, he’d remain outside. “Friends,” she said, returning to the center of the room, her guest by her side, “please welcome the prime minister of Israel.”
- • •
The prime minister and Ya’ara walked slowly down the narrow road. A thick fog had settled, and visibility was very limited. Tiny rivulets of water trickled and wound their way along a ditch by the side of their path. The strong, clean smell of an Israeli winter enveloped them, dense clusters of short oak trees adorned the slope, and cyclamens painted touching pink patches of color among the rocks.
“How can they allow you to wander around like this?” Ya’ara asked, referring to the heavily manned security detail that accompanied him wherever he went.
“I’m stepping out on a limb today. They’ve allowed themselves to back off a little. No one knows I’m here. You have no idea of my sense of freedom.”
“You said some good things to them, to the cadets. I think your words will resonate with them. Thank you for the effort. I appreciate it.
“I have to tell you, Ya’ara, you’ve surprised me in a good way. And my expectations of you were high to begin with. I didn’t think you’d be ready to conduct operational activity so soon. I know how long it takes to train combatants.”
“As I reported to you, we did it the other way around. We started with the operational activity, and then we learned from it, we dealt with conceptualization and theory, and we put things in order.”
“Keep thinking outside the box. We need someone who thinks like that, too. Do you recall our discussing it? But do me a favor, take care of yourself. I understand what you did in Brussels, you created a situation in which you had the upper hand, the initiative, but if something had happened to you, I would have found that very hard to swallow.”
“I’m a combatant. That’s my job.”
He nodded in agreement and Ya’ara felt ready to ask the question that had been bothering her.
“Prime minister,” Ya’ara asked, “for a time I thought you had washed your hands of me. Was I wrong?”
“No, you weren’t wrong. There was an outcry about the operations you carried out and we were forced to remain silent and suspend all communication with you. A few of the old foxes guessed you were involved.”
One particular old fox, Ya’ara thought. For how long would Aharon Levin continue to keep track of her, she wondered.
“You’ve made yourself quite a few enemies in high places.”
“I know,” she said.
“I’m pleased to tell you that you have a friend in an even higher place. I have no intention of giving up on you. I sent you out there, after all. But don’t do anything stupid. That’s an order.”
They walked alongside each other in silence. The prime minister took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. “Do you mind?” he asked. Ya’ara shook her head.
The prime minister lit the cigarette, and in the distance Ya’ara spotted the figure of a bodyguard standing at the precise point where she expected to see him, along the line of a closed perimeter. She was pleased. The security guards were doing their job properly. She and the prime minister turned around and started heading back.
“Isn’t it hard for you sometimes?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s hard sometimes.”
“Do you ever think of quitting? Of passing on the burden to someone else?”
“It never enters my mind.” The prime minister laughed. “It’s my life. It’s why I came into this world.”
For as long as you get elected, Ya’ara thought, but kept that to herself. And asked out loud instead: “How can we know why we came into this world? I, for example, don’t know. I simply exist.”
“You know. You know. When you come across your calling, you know.”
“So you think my calling is to be a combatant?”
“Your calling is to bring light to the world.”
“I’ve found a very odd way of doing that,” Ya’ara commented gloomily.
“I’m getting to know you, Ya’ara, and I think that’s what you’re doing. You have a special path to follow, and I know it’s a tough one. But I also know you’re going to do significant things in this world. You already have.”
“You’re enjoying that cigarette, aren’t you?”
“You have no idea. I don’t smoke in closed spaces, and I’m in closed spaces almost all the time. I don’t always feel like it either. And I admit I don’t allow myself to smoke in places where there are cameras. But now I want to and I can, and you were nice enough not to say no.”
“Who dares to say no to you?”
“If there’s anyone, it’s you.”
“Truthfully, my father smokes, too. It reminds me of home.”
They were nearing the cabin. The cadets had already dispersed and Ya’ara knew that this was only the quiet before the storm. Because a storm was going to come.
“Ya’ara Stein,” the prime minister said, looking her straight in the eyes, “we only just started. You have lots of work to do. You know where I’m aiming for. I’m patient. I’m not afraid of taking the long road. What did you say was the name—Sirocco?”
“Yes, Sirocco. Wherever needed, always.”
The prime minister shook her hand and then grabbed hold of her two arms, in some kind of clumsy embrace. And then he shook his head, in surprise of sorts, and walked toward the car that was waiting for him, its headlights on and its engine growling softly. He got into the backseat, and a bodyguard shut the door behind him and got into the front. The vehicle sped off. Ya’ara stood outside for a few more minutes in silence. On her way to her room, she saw Sayid and Nufar having a chat. “Hey, you two,” she called out to them, “wake me up when Assaf’s soup is ready.”