Green by Ayelet Tsabari
2018 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
Ayelet Tsabari made the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Green.
You can read Green below.
Warning: This story contains mature language and subject matter.
We are green. Everyone starts green. Even the mean sergeant whose well-worn, faded uniform looks as though it was tailor-made for her. Even she was green once. Our own khaki is stiff and bunches in undesired places; it does nasty things to our bums and it flattens our chest. Not that it matters. We're in an all-girls base in the middle of nowhere. There's no one to impress here but the cooks in the kitchen and they are not the kind of guys you want to impress. They are the kind of guys who were too lazy to fight, the ones who scored too low on their classification tests. At this point in our service we still think we can do better. We dream about dating officers and paratroopers and fighters and pilots, like in that saying, "The best men for pilotage, the best women for the pilots!"
We are 18 and have just graduated from high school except for those of us who haven't. We've come from big cities and small developing towns and kibbutzim and villages. Our parents immigrated to this country from Morocco and Poland and Iraq and Russia and Ethiopia. They came chasing a dream we took for granted, oblivious to the price they paid, to what they left behind. We are the ingredients in this famous melting pot that is the Israeli mandatory army service.
The food in the kitchen makes us periodically sick. And then at least we don't have to do kitchen duty, which is the worst, worse even than cleaning toilets. The kitchen is a ravenous monster: the dishes never stop coming, and they become grosser in masses, the food all mashed together, food that wasn't appealing to begin with: meat from cans, chewy white bread, overcooked vegetables. At night, lying on metal beds in our darkened tents, we talk about food, conjure the scents of our mothers' cooking, and when we have an hour off we go to the cantina and stuff ourselves with chocolate and chips and commiserate about how fat we're going to get in the army, like our neighbour who gained 20 kilos sitting at a desk all day as a secretary in Jerusalem, or our cousin who got so fat she needed a new set of uniforms. Except those of us who are planning to continue training and become fighters or officers. We call those girls Poisoned. It's army slang for those who have the love of the military running through their veins.
We pick up the army slang quickly, had heard it from our older siblings and the boys we crushed on in high school, watching them return on weekends smelling like metal and sweat, looking even sexier in their heroic fatigue. We touched ourselves at night thinking about these boys in their uniform, the way the pants hung off their bums, barely held by their khaki belts, looking so much better than we ever would, because whoever designed these uniforms didn't think about the curving bodies of teenage girls who are going to sit on their fat asses in dreary offices all day long, wasting their best years serving coffee to middle-aged grabby hands officers in the guise of serving our country.
After one week, it already feels like there's nothing else in the world but this, like this is all we'll ever have. We get used to the dust in our nostrils and the sand in our cracks, to waking up early and running and doing drills. We don't remember high school. We don't remember dressing up and going out and flirting and drinking and boys. We don't remember sex. Except for the two girls in tent six who are having it. We can hear their stifled moans under the scratchy blankets and some of us blush and others laugh and say, "Wouldn't that be nice?" and we look at each other and then quickly away.
Some nights, for no good reason, our sergeant wakes us up at one or two a.m., shaking our tents, screaming at us to get dressed and make our beds in five minutes, or disassemble our Uzis and reassemble them again. "Sisyphic," says the curly haired one who reads books by a flashlight every night, the beam on the outside of her blanket like a drunken one-eyed car. "Fucking bullshit is what it is," says the skinny one who plucks her eyebrows too thin. Some of us begin to sleep with our uniforms on, Uzis under pillows, disturbing our dreams.
One of us cries into her pillow every night, and sometimes in the middle of the day. One of us throws up after every meal and we all pretend we can't hear her retching into the toilet. One of us prays every morning and we know she didn't have to be here because religious girls are exempt, and we think it's cool or crazy that she chose to. One of us, the skinny one with the eyebrows, talks back to the sergeant one day and is sent to disciplinary court and it's only week one.
One of us doesn't speak any Hebrew because she came from Russia just a few weeks ago and one day in first-aid class she bleeds on her chair because she got her period — the smeared red stain on the white seat like a trampled poppy —and didn't know how to tell the sergeant or if she could even speak.
One day while we clean our guns, the girl who cries puts the barrel in her mouth and pretends to pull the trigger. We all scream and beg her to stop and she laughs and says, "Relax! It's a joke." "I can't believe they gave you a gun," says the one who reads. "I can't believe they gave any of us guns." She tells us she won't serve in Gaza or in the West Bank, that she's willing to go to jail for that, and a couple of the girls switch beds because they don't want to sleep next to a filthy traitor. That night we feel the cold metal under our heads, the danger of it lurking for just a moment before sleep takes over like a black beast.
We miss our mothers. We miss our parents' home and the kitchens we know. We miss our little siblings who drive us crazy. We miss our showers and our toiletries. We miss our boyfriends, and sex, and attention. Some of us start to not care so much when the cooks flirt with us and even when the gross one makes sexist remarks we giggle like idiots even though we feel dirty and ashamed.
We each get a printout sheet with a list of positions we could do according to how we scored in the classification tests, and those of us with shorter lists fold them into our pockets and don't talk about it. The one who put the barrel in her mouth crumples the sheet and tosses it behind her back like she couldn't care less, and that night she ends up having sex with one of the cooks, standing against the creaking shelf in the storage room, and one of us sees them and tells everybody.
One of us wants to be an officer; one of us wants to be a sergeant; one of us wants to be a teacher; one of us wants to be secretary and be a "small head" and come home every day. One of us wants to be posted as far away from home — "that shithole"—as possible. The one who had sex with the cook talks about seeing an army shrink and pretending to be crazy so they would let her go. She says she's not cut out for this and we say, "None of us are, honey. None of us are."
On our last week, we stay up late talking. We lie on the grass and watch the stars, because many of us come from big cities where all you ever see is a faded version of this sky. Some of us start smoking right about then because we're soldiers now and all grown up and we want to belong. We say we'll stay in touch and write and visit. We say we'll never forget each other. We suddenly don't want basic training to end.
But basic training will end and we will forget. We will serve as secretaries and teachers and officers and sergeants. We will get new ranks sewn on our arms, and our uniform will fade, become less green, mould onto our widening hips. We will make new friends. Some of us will fall in love with officers and pilots and cooks and drivers. A few of us will get sexually harassed by our officers and one of us will complain and wish she hadn't. We will feel confined and used and increasingly bitter, and hate the army for stealing our youth, for reducing us to numbers and ranks. Except those of us who will love it — the order, the purpose, the ease of following procedures — and go on to make it a career. Some of us won't make it to the end, like the anorexic who'll be released early because she lost too much weight, or the eyebrows girl who will spend most of her army service in jail, or the one who put the barrel in her mouth, who will eventually convince the army to dismiss her, but then will kill herself anyway — not with a gun, with pills — and none of us will even know because we didn't keep in touch. And the one who always prayed, who will die in a terrorist attack on a bus in Jerusalem and we will see her smiling face on the front page of the newspaper and find out that she went on to become an officer, played piano, was engaged to be married. When we open our albums to look for her face in pictures, names will elude us.
But on the night before it ends, before any of this happens, we hold onto each other, those girls whose army IDs are consecutive to ours and always will be, bonded by these strange circumstances. We rest our heads on each other's shoulders, sing theme songs from childhood shows, and feel like we would never know such tenderness, such camaraderie, that we learned something profound about ourselves, and that we have grown so much older than we were a month before. We take photos, limbs entangled, hair down, guns pointing like an accessory, cigarettes like fireflies. The night deepens and tomorrow tugs at us, and we are fierce and buoyant and terribly young and on the brink of something grand and indefinite and bigger than us.
Read the other finalists:
- Scale of Comfort by J. Livingston
- Lipstick Day by Leah Mol
- Strawberries by Terri Monture
- Fifteen Lakota Visitors by Taqralik Partridge
About Ayelet Tsabari:
Ayelet Tsabari was born in Israel to a large family of Yemeni descent. Her first book, The Best Place on Earth, won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. Her memoir in essay, The Art of Leaving, is forthcoming in 2019.