Introducing the 2019 Fall Fiction Contest Winner: “Salt-Sea” by Zeeva Bukai, selected by Anita Felicelli! About this grand prize winning story, Felicelli wrote, “Salt-Sea enthralls. Set against Israeli army life in the Judean Desert, this luminous story excavates both the brutal and the soulful with equal attention. The beautiful, hypnotic voice of the lonely narrator tells us an atmospheric story of how an intimate friendship between women soldiers unravels in the face of unrequited longing. Events that might have been simply tragic in the hands of a less thoughtful writer are complicated by a profound ending. The story’s exquisite craft and artful observation conjure sex and birth and death and the earth itself, hinting at eternal return.”
We whispered secrets in the dark, our hands reaching for one another. I remembered how she’d brush the hair off her face, and how her hips dug into the sand before she fired her weapon. She made sure to tell me what I did wrong the way I imagined a mother or older sister would, not just in target practice, but the way I ate my food, dressed on my day off, and talked to men. Sometimes I deliberately wore the wrong color lipstick, or didn’t use my knife properly, just so she would correct me.
I met Iris Landau the summer of 1972. We were in our second week of basic training and our unit was scheduled for the shooting range. By eight a.m. the sun had scorched the earth and the dew that had fallen overnight turned to vapor where scrub grass managed to survive July. We were in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea and flags of heat wavered in the distance. The salt flats reflected the sun, turning them into giant mirrors of light that caused a metallic haze to hang over the water. Across the sea were the twill colored mountains of the Kingdom of Jordan.
I held two Kalashnikovs, trying to decide which to use for target practice, when she asked my name.
“Yardena,” I said.
“Mine’s Iris. Do you plan on using both rifles?”
Embarrassed, I thrust one in her direction. She tucked the butt of the AK-47 against her shoulder and lifted the barrel, squinted at an imaginary target and mimed squeezing the trigger. “It’ll do,” she walked ahead lean and tall, auburn waves down her back.
“You should put it up,” I gestured toward my own braid. “It could get caught in the magazine.” I’d read that the night before in the manual they’d given us while the girls in my tent shared a bottle of arak with the recruits from the 401st tank division.
“Thanks,” Iris said and without fuss made a knot of her hair.
We lay on our bellies in the sand—already searing at that hour—leaned on our elbows, and focused on the target seventy-five meters away. For every one of my misses, Iris hit the mark. When her practice sheet came in there were sixteen bullet holes: eight to the head, eight to the heart. I finally got one round in. She told me I’d never get it right if I didn’t learn how to breathe.
“Watch.” Sweat pooled in the philtrum above her lip. She inhaled, emptied her lungs, and then pulled the trigger.
“Nothing to it.”
“I mean it. You’re amazing.”
“Thanks.” She beamed at the compliment.
By the end of practice we were friends and within a week Iris moved her gear into the tent I shared with four other girls.