Before coming to the West Bank, Nathan worked for years as piano tuner, which left him with a nervous tic: one more slight turn of the crank, one more gentle pull, and the pitch will be perfect. He has begun to see the world as an instrument of dense hardwood and heavy alloy, pulled into a state of constant tension, to see himself as the only person capable of getting the damn thing into equal temperament. But no matter how he coaxes the pin, the strings will never quite render. A waver remains in that octave, a twang in that unison. So he has taken to a constant puttering, an endless low-grade effort to fix everybody else’s problems. He might let his own bills pile up unopened on his desk, but he keeps busy repairing the lives around him, like so many busted D-strings.
This tendency used to drive Julie nuts, and even though he knew it was pushing her away he couldn’t help himself: he needed to tell her the right tone to use when talking to her mother on the phone, the right anecdotes to tell when trying to impress her boss, the right grad programs to consider in pursuit of a career that would, finally, make her happy. The more he advised, the less she listened. Not that she had ever paid much attention to begin with; she couldn’t tell a Steinway from a Hamilton if her life depended on it, never seemed to really feel music. So they ran out of things to discuss, and by the end they just stopped talking. And they had been such good conversationalists in the beginning. They were that noisy couple on the next table over in the diner, interrupting each other’s stories with laughter that sprayed root beer across the booth. Over the years, their voices quieted down, and by the end they hummed absently as they read different sections of the newspaper and passed the sugar across the table without looking up. If their fingertips accidentally brushed together, Julie shivered as if her body were fighting venom. Maybe if he had been in a different line of work, Nathan thought, maybe if he had developed a different set of habits, things might have worked out.
On the other hand, the habits of a piano technician seemed well suited to survival in a war zone. This place, he decided, is like a delicate old instrument: feather-light touchweight and rich sound quality, the whole contraption held together by thirty tons of pressure across rusty strings. All those years of manipulating the tuning crank have given him the patience to settle in for these more involved jobs, and patience is perhaps the most important quality in a human shield. Because he is finding life under occupation seems to consist of sitting and waiting. The most common danger here seems to be boredom.
And while you wait there are the cigarettes, the countless cups of coffee, the heaping platters of food. Resources may be scarce, but people always somehow manage to fill the table for guests. In fact, as Nathan picks his way between villages, he somehow finds himself putting on weight. So, when an old man in a kuffiya walks into the shop in Beit Furik holding his granddaughter by the hand, when Kumiko, his fellow volunteer, explains that this is the mayor of the village and he wants to talk to them, Nathan smiles because he is hungry, and he knows they will soon be sitting down to a feast. Sure enough, the shopkeeper disappears into the back for a time and emerges with plates of fresh figs and grapes and flatbread, bowls of olives, creamy hummus, savory mashed fuul.
The mayor settles down at the table across from the foreigners while the shopkeeper returns to his station behind the counter, chatting with the customers as they browse the barren shelves. The mayor pats his granddaughter on the head and talks for a while in Arabic while Nathan smiles, feigning understanding. Then Kumiko turns to him.
‘He said his granddaughter was crying the whole time the tanks were here. Loud noises sometimes make her scream.’
Nathan bites into a fig, pretending not to notice the shopkeeper watching him over by the counter. The mayor begins speaking rapidly in Arabic and Kumiko’s pen scratches along the page while Nathan tries to seem engaged without calling too much attention to himself. To pass the time, he tries making friends with the girl, but she just grips her grandfather’s knee and stares vacantly out the door at the fading sunlight.
Nathan finishes his coffee and is unsure where to put down the empty cup, so he places it discreetly on the ground under his plastic chair. His hands may be precise enough to loop a faulty string around the hitch pin, but maneuvering these miniature dishes makes them feel clunky, like catcher’s mitts. As he straightens back up, he catches the granddaughter looking at him. He decides he will find some way to make her smile.
‘He says they’re almost out of water.’ Kumiko says. ‘The soldiers have been stopping the tankers at the checkpoints on the way to Nablus.’ She shakes her head. ‘The farmers have to kill their livestock because there isn’t enough water to keep them alive.’
Then the mayor is talking again, so Nathan nods vaguely, reaching for a grape. Over by the counter he sees a group of customers gathering together, laughing quietly, and he decides they are not talking about him. He has a plan: he will play peek-a-boo with the little girl, a move that never fails to get at least a giggle. So he ducks his head below the tabletop, then slowly peers over the edge at her. But her eyes seem to be focused six inches behind him, and her face is slack.
The mayor glances over and shakes his head. ‘She does not play,’ he says. Then he swivels back to Kumiko and starts speaking in Arabic again, gesturing out towards the door. Nathan notices he has barely touched the food on the table in front of him.
‘Last night the tanks were here,’ Kumiko translates. ‘The loudspeakers said all men between fifteen and fifty had an hour to meet at the school. Any male who stayed inside would be shot.’
Nathan meets her eyes for a long moment, but her face is the same professional mask as ever. ‘I think we should stay in Beit Furik tonight,’ she says. ‘The soldiers won’t come if foreigners are here.’
Nathan nods. She puts down the pen and turns back around and says something in Arabic. The mayor remains silent for a time, sipping his coffee.
Nathan is determined to make this little girl smile. He pulls a fig off the platter and sits back, turning it deliberately over in his hand, one final adjustment to the tuning crank. Then he bites into the fruit and opens his mouth wide, his teeth sheathed in the purple skin, eyes rolling. He looks over at the girl and laughs, shaking his head side to side. And while she doesn’t exactly grin, for a moment the corners of her eyes seem to crinkle, slightly.
The mayor puts down his cup and smiles, cobwebbing wrinkles around his own eyes. ‘Please do stay in my home tonight,’ he says. ‘You are welcome.’
Then the voices over by the counter grow suddenly loud, and Nathan sees an old man standing in the centre of the group, smiling and passing something around. The man raises his arms towards the ceiling, and everyone reaches out to shake his hand, and then the crowd shouts and surges its way towards the back. When the man gets closer, Nathan sees he is missing several teeth in his wide grin, and that he has been passing around sesame candies. The man hands one to the mayor, and then one to each of the foreigners.
‘Today I am a grandfather!’ he says.
But at that moment, he lets the candies drop to the floor and shatter as faintly, the refrigerator doors begin to rattle once again. Quickly, someone shuts off the light, and the shop grows silent as the tanks rumble closer.
Photograph © Rowena