Vasant 2024 Stories - Avital Gad-Cykman


Shell of Innocence

By Avital Gad-Cykman


“Spread your wings,” the red-haired, thirty-five-year-old reserve forces soldier tells me, so full of pathos, I know he sees me as a wide-eyed girl, which is not that far from the truth. I am a twenty-one-year-old student, called to the reserve forces for the first time, in the middle of the university's first year final exams. I shrug my shoulders, pushing a strand of long hair back from my face and smile at him as if he’s just given me a compliment. My ride on a helicopter from the center to the northern base-camp is the closest I get to flying high.

We share seedless grapes and a thick chocolate bar he releases from a blue and white wrapping paper illustrated with a picture of a fat cow. Masculine voices rise everywhere around us in the sandy yard and from the operations room, some of them in urgent tones, others murmuring. I’m the only woman in the unit during these first two weeks, and I suspect this is the reason he chooses my company and fills my ears with his ideas. I tell him that before the war I hitchhiked from Tiberius, where I spent a weekend until military vehicles started rushing toward the north with a deafening noise.


“I got a ride in a truck loaded with ice cubes,” I say, “just imagine what would have happened had we been stopped at a checkpoint.”

“That’s minor stuff,” he says. “Ice cubes or water, what’s the difference? Living life from day to day isn’t enough, it’s too trivial. We should and can access our better selves.”

He must be referring to good-willed, positive people. I can pretend to be one. I often look like my better self to authorities, until they taste my sardonic comments. There’s hardly a difference between him, who speaks as if he is a master or a guru, and people who actually practice authority.

Policemen and guards have never blocked me. My face is a good enough document, my ID. In that ride from Tiberius to Jerusalem, my blue eyes and ready smile helped the truck driver drive non-stop. The one barrier I can cross these days is the border to Lebanon, where “a war is raging,” as the newscasters say. This is the second Lebanon war. During the first, I worked with children at a kibbutz. Now, I am responsible for the contact between the air force to the ground forces.

“What do you mean by having ‘access’ to your good self?” I ask, restricting my tone of voice to a friendly question. He is a relief from responsibility and overwork, although his idea of salvation may be more a cliché than wisdom. I’m not sure yet, but, “spread your wings?” I’m afraid he can’t offer relief from life. Spreading wings, raging wars…All these two-word expressions of upheavals don’t get to the core of these days, each hour contracting into another tense muscle.

He cites lines from a book called Cobweb and Tears about the right way to do everything. Consciously. It makes sense. He describes the colors of my aura, and tells me to focus my eyes over his head, in order to see his. I imagine smoke, and think I see it.

I dream a lot these nights, as I get only three to six hours of sleep. My dreams are colorful, and hours afterwards I recall disturbing details such as limbs spread on a field like junk. I use the phone, the computer, and the fax to connect among the army forces that enter Lebanon and between them and their base camps. It’s crazy that so much is in my hands.

He sticks to my side as if he wished to be my prince charming, but unlike others from the unit, he doesn’t flirt or touch my arm or shoulder, nor does he make promises, like the one who said he’d take me sailing on his yacht when the war is over. The war does not seem to have any foreseen end, and the yacht man is married.

One day, an army unit bombs another by mistake. The dead are arriving in the nearby field in nylon bags just as I arrive in there at the beginning of my twenty-four-hour leave. Finally, another girl shares my load of work. I see a full, black nylon bag, the size of a human being. I turn and run away from the helicopter that is about to give me a lift. My backpack hangs heavily from my shoulders, as I keep running toward the road to travel with the living and not the dead. Death has already taken command, but at least I won’t look it in the eye.

He says that there is no death, only a different form of living, other dimensions, and contacts with the other side. I think about it. The problem is, I say, you can’t get a hold on the truth the way you pick up a coin and put it in your pocket.

“Such a skeptic!” he says. “Come to my house for a meeting.”

I sleep for two hours, and am awakened by a great commotion. A squadron of helicopters has to fly into Lebanon with paratroopers, and everyone is calling everyone else, as I do too, to get the right information, let others know, stay in touch, and prepare the return. When the helicopters are in the air, I remember I did not register the flights on the computer.

Crashes between airplanes, shooting from ground forces at the helicopters, plastic bags with the dead, body parts in total darkness hold me by the throat and suck the air out of my lungs. The pilots spread their wings and I failed them. I digitize the information with shaking fingers, check with the control tower they’re already informed, send messages to the home air force base, and act as if I was in full command.

The helicopters come back safely, my mistake is not found out, no body bags, nothing. Still, the future ahead is pretty scary. When I get some time off, I attend the meeting at his home. Who knows, I may find answers.

He lets a group of ten feel an electric charge that passes between hands. “It shows we have power over the forces that move the world if we understand them,” he says.

“Nice,” I tell him. “Excellent. Good show. For a second there, I almost forgot the war. Tell us how to handle this force, Mister.”

The group turns to me, as I break my shell. “Tell me,” I say, “tell me what we can do about it, how electricity and aura, the sun and the moon, the differences you claim exist between men and women, how any of it can change the world.


” He’ll say something in reply, but I do not expect an answer. I’ll find my own. I bend my arms to my hips in the form of triangles, as if they could be wings.


Avital Gad-Cykman from Brazil is the author of Light Reflection Over Blues (Ravenna Press) and Life In, Life Out (Matter Press). She is the winner of Margaret Atwood Studies Magazine Prize and The Hawthorne Citation Short Story Contest, twice a finalist for the Iowa Fiction Award and a six-time nominee for the Pushcart. Her stories appear in Spectrum, The Dr. Eckleburg Review, Iron Horse, Prairie Schooner, Ambit, McSweeney’s Quarterly and Michigan Quarterly, twice in Best Short Fictions, W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International anthology and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in English Literature, focused on minorities, gender and trauma, and lives in Brazil.


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