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Forest Dark
Author:Nicole Krauss



We’d only driven for ten minutes after leaving the restaurant in the Confederation House when a row of green army vehicles appeared, blocking the road. The northwest traffic had been brought to a standstill, and each car was being stopped and checked by soldiers. Friedman switched the radio dial to the news, which flooded into the interior with rattled urgency. When I asked what was going on, he said it could be anything: breach of the wall, bomb threat, a terrorist attack in the city.

The atmosphere grew more ominous by the minute as we crawled along, waiting to get to the front of the line. When we finally did, two soldiers with automatic weapons slung across their chests circled our vehicle, looking into all the windows and underneath the car with a mirror attached to a long handle. I couldn’t understand either their questions or Friedman’s answers, which seemed to me far longer than required to satisfy these teenagers in fatigues, following orders that must have meant little to them. The girl was tall and pigeon-toed, still fighting off acne but with the promise of yet becoming beautiful one day, and the boy was squat, hairy, and arrogant, too interested in the power the situation lent to him. Friedman, already tense, grew quickly annoyed with the questioning, and this only stoked the arrogance of the boy—one couldn’t really call him a man, and maybe that was the problem, or one of the many problems. I waited for Friedman to reveal his secret connections that would bring about our immediate release and a flurry of embarrassed apologies. But when he finally fished out his wallet from one of the voluminous pockets of his vest, the card he removed from it and held out with his tremulous right hand was nothing more than a standard ID. The soldier plucked it away, studied it briefly, then turned and addressed me in Hebrew.

“I’m American.”

“What’s your business with him?” He gestured at Friedman with his chin, which had a cleft in it, like a thumbprint, where the otherwise dark, intractable hair refused to grow.

“Business?”

“How do you know him?”

“We met a couple of days ago.”

“Met why?”

Friedman tried to interrupt in Hebrew, but the soldier silenced him with a raised palm and a few sharp words. “Why did you meet him?” he demanded again.

Various answers flitted through my mind. I thought of telling him that Friedman was some sort of distant relative that my father had sent me to be in touch with, a lie that at least had an oblique relationship to the truth.

“We don’t have all day.”

“He has a project he thought I might be interested in,” I finally said, a reply that seemed innocuous enough until the words came out of my mouth.

The soldier raised his heavy eyebrows, knitting them together so that they formed one large hairy bar across his forehead, then went round to the back of the car and opened the trunk.

“You didn’t let me finish,” I called to him, trying to amend my mistake while maintaining the illusion that I couldn’t care less what he thought, that his modicum of power had no currency with me. “I’m a writer, if you want to know. I write novels.” But the sentence and its meaning struck me as pathetic.

“You packed this yourself?” He pointed at the suitcase from Spinoza Street.

“Myself?” I echoed, stalling. Around us, the other cars were being waved through, their passengers eyeing us with heavy-lidded curiosity. I thought it would be nice if one them recognized me now, and got out of their car to tell me they had named a miserable child after one of my characters. But as the cars went by at a distance, it was clear my fantasy had little chance of coming to fruition, which in a cosmic sense was for the best, since the moment readers become useful to writers should always be suspect, anyway.

“It’s been in your possession the entire time? Anyone gave you something to carry?”

I knew I should have lied outright, but instead I said, “No, I didn’t pack it. We picked it up an hour ago in Tel Aviv. But it’s only papers inside. Go ahead and see for yourself.” I thought to ask him whether he had read Kafka. Surely The Metamorphosis or Ha Gilgul or whatever name it went by had been assigned in his high school in Ra’anana or Givatayim. “This is all just a simple misunderstanding,” I went on. “Everything will be cleared up if you’d just open—”

I felt the pressure of Friedman’s hand on my arm, but it was too late. The soldier had unhooked the walkie-talkie from his belt and began to radio his superior. A garbled reply, deep-throated and filled with static, arrived as if from far away. The soldier listened, eyes fixed on the suitcase, and when it came his turn to respond, he seemed to deliver a disquisition, not only on the beat-up piece of luggage extracted from the apartment of the elderly daughter of Max Brod’s lover, but on many other things—the patterns of history, the flawed nature of human relations, the irony of the incommensurate, the genius of Kafka. Twice I heard him say it, turning his back on us and gesturing expansively toward the foothills, where bits of white stone showed through the red dirt like bone: Kafka, and then again, Franz Kafka, though later I wondered whether it was the word davka I’d heard, which has no translation in English beyond its literal meaning, exactly, but which sums up the Jewish mode of something done just to be contrary.

“Can’t you do something?” I hissed at Friedman, now losing my patience with everything I had been asked, or allowed myself, to go along with. “Why don’t you talk to someone higher up?”

The soldier, still gesticulating over the phone, grabbed the suitcase from the trunk and hauled it to the ground, where it landed with a sickening thud. Yanking up the collapsible handle, he rolled it over to the female soldier, who tested its weight with a skeptical look, as if she suspected the dead Kafka himself to be curled up inside of it. Slowly, she began to tug it toward the row of army vehicles.

“You think I didn’t try?” Friedman said, sounding resigned, even melancholy. If I’d managed to imbue him with a certain authority until then, now it was vanishing before my eyes. He seemed not only old but helpless, and the invincible plural—the “We” he’d summoned when he spoke of pride in my work—had now dissolved into the eccentric singular. “He wanted to make a problem, so he made one. It should give one hope, no? That they don’t only torment the Arabs.”

The soldier came back around to my side.

“You have your passport?”

I dug around in my handbag until I found it at the bottom. He narrowed his eyes and looked from the photograph to me, and back again. It was true that it had been some years since the picture was taken.

“Remove the glasses.”

Everything dissolved into a blur.