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The Widow's Hero. A story for Yom Hazikaron

It's Israel's Memorial Day, a time for reflection for all of us who have fought and lost loved ones. And here is a story about loss, love, and heroism.



Shuffling down the aisle, they are heart-warming. She, Alma, holds onto the cart while he braces her back with one arm. Though roughly the same age, she is frailer, her steps less certain, shoulders stooped. Marrick, by contrast, still stands erect. His head, unlike hers, doesn’t tremble.


“We need peeled tomatoes,” Alma says, and Marrick replies in a mock-military style, “Peeled tomatoes it is!” and reaches for a can from the shelf. These days he does all the reaching.


“And peas. We’re low on peas.”

“Can’t have us low on peas, now, can we?”


Shoppers float through the supermarket ether. A toddler howls, hooked around his mother’s calves. A voice on high announces a special on chicken parts and a brand-name detergent.


“Artichokes!” Alma gasps. Two fists cover her heart. “Let’s get some and I’ll make your favorite sauce. I know how much you love artichokes.”


Marrick smiles at her. In fact, he hates artichokes. But he has always loved Alma. Even now, with her once-abundant walnut hair reduced to colorless straws, a mottled mask in place of the face that first enchanted him, he worships her. Her mind, too, has largely vanished. A mind so powerful that students and faculty alike called it The Machine, capable of memorizing entire lawbooks. An engine that drove her from classroom to courtroom and to lecture halls the world over. And that kept her excelling while raising a baby alone, after her husband’s death.


His first name was Rami and his last became “The Hero of Post 29.” That was the title of a popular song dedicated to him and the movie based on the song. Children’s books, annual marathons, even a national math contest—all celebrated his valor. For a nation reeling from an irredeemable war, Rami supplied hope.


He was a reserve officer in command of Post 29, a fortress facing enemy lines. With the attack, Rami ordered his men to their firing positions and fought beside them as one after the other fell. Blinded by sunlight, they shot, through geysers of iron and sand, at the massing shadows. Grenades dropped into the trenches, but still Rami stood. His features, as ruggedly forged as the farm tools he left at home, never quivered. Radioing in, “Post 29 about to be overrun. Long live our nation,” his voiced remained calm. Drilled through by a sniper’s bullet, his last breath escaping through his chest, Rami asked the medic to tell his wife that he loved her, that she must someday remarry, and that she must never give up on life.


The origins of this account were choppy, pieced together from the few soldiers taken prisoner and another who had played dead. Other, less lionizing, reports had Rami cursing like a madman at the generals for abandoning him and the soldiers who begged him to surrender. They were relieved when he finally was hit. “Fuck you,” he gasped at the medic who struggled to plug his wound. “Fuck you and your mother.”


Such stories were confined to the radical media, though, while the legend of Rami congealed. The song followed, and the film, with tales of the hero’s life. A sickle in one hand and a slide rule in the other, a pioneer of the land and linear algebra. And then there was Alma. Waiting stoically for word from the front, bolstering others whose husbands were also away fighting. Wondering if the life inside her would ever know a father.


Contrary to fable, news that her husband had “fallen”—as if he’d tripped over a rake—shattered her. She scarcely remembered the birth of her daughter, Maya, much less the pregnancy before. She locked herself indoors, alternately crying and screaming, unbearably missing Rami but also furious at him for preferring heroism over her.


Secretly, she believed in the less valiant narrative, the one with the Rami who swore and lost his temper, not so much brave as stubborn. That was the man who she loved and somewhere always would, she confessed early in her relationship with Marrick.


He understood. Or at least believed he did, initially. Not being intimidated by his predecessor made him feel manly. And the raw emotions that Rami still invoked in Alma rendered her more irresistible in his eyes, a vulnerability behind the grit. For Alma was no grieving homebody by the time Marrick met her, but a firebrand attorney already redoubtable in court.


The state had targeted his firm, a manufacturer of computer frames, for some regulatory infraction. Marrick would have gladly paid the fine— profits easily absorbed it—and moved on, but his lawyers demanded an appeal. The hearing was more a form of entertainment for him and, for a new immigrant to the country, a way of showing he belonged. The last thing he expected to see was a fervid prosecutor with hair piled on her head, dressed in black but with an alabaster face that was both implacable and frail. The last thing that he, a bachelor in his mid-forties, anticipated was the urge to introduce himself to this woman, congratulate her on her victory over him, and invite her out to lunch.


“You should know, I come with baggage,” Alma warned him as their salads arrived.


The tale of Post 29 followed, and she wielded it as if to ward him off. She must have done so frequently, Marrick reckoned, and successfully. After all, what man would want to share a bed with a myth? That was when he convinced himself that he could accept that part of Alma was reserved for Rami, just as long as the rest of her was his.


For Marrick also had guts. Growing up an egg-headed kid in a tough neighborhood, bespectacled, slight, he learned to use his fists even when the bullies’ were bigger. It took nerve to pick up after college and move overseas to a place where wars broke out regularly, but which also lent opportunities to newcomers. Conquering the strange language, the brusque culture and cutthroat competition, he prospered. His life became his business, leaving him little time or taste for relationships. The women he dated were too feckless, he felt, and boring. But then he met Alma.


The way she stabbed at her lettuce that day at lunch, the undainty revolutions of her chews—here, Marrick thought, was a woman of strength and intellect. At last, a woman worthy of him. But did he merit her? The question rankled him when first entering her office, where Rami’s black-and-white army photograph dominated the diplomas on her wall. He asked himself again when accompanying her to Memorial Day events where children recited elegies to the Hero of Post 29. People were staring at him, he sensed, wondering how this owlish man with glasses and an accent could ever be Rami’s replacement. And he, too, began to doubt. Inscribed within him now was the image of Rami fast at the ramparts, invincible. And here he was, a man who never served in the military, who knew nothing of farming and whose math skills barely sufficed to balance books. If proud of Alma in public, alone with her he debated whether he could ever match up.


And yet he stayed with her. For all his insecurities, he refused to give in to what he knew were irrational thoughts. The mere notion of defeat offended him. And, irrespective of her past, Marrick loved Alma. Such devotion overwhelmed the widow’s resistance, reawakening a passion she long believed lost.


Soon they were a couple, complete with tiny kindnesses and the occasional bicker. When not abroad for business, Marrick moved in with her. He even won over her daughter. An introverted girl, Maya was bright like her mother but with her father’s flinty looks. His self-righteousness, too. Twelve at the time she met Marrick, she treated him to two years of spite. Maya could shuffle past him at the breakfast table, extract a drink from the refrigerator and shuffle back, without so much as a nod. She could criticize him to Alma, in the third person, in his presence. Refusing to attend those interminableble ceremonies, she nevertheless resented him for escorting her mother.


Maya, it seemed, was determined to despise him and to prevent any man—especially Marrick—from sharing her mother’s life. But then came the awkwardness, the zits and the slow-sprouting breasts and the jeering of schoolmates whose bodies appeared pre-formed for adulthood. Hearing her sobs behind her door, Marrick did what he never dared and simply stepped in. More—he sat at the edge of Maya’s bed, held her hand, and listened. He promised her that her life would be joyous and that, in the interim, she should ignore those—his word—assholes.


The next day, he waited outside of school and scowled off potential tormenters. Yet mere empathy could not account for Marrick’s victory over Maya. Nor could the support that he lent her as she grew into a handsome young woman and the college tuitions he paid. Rather, affection came with the realization, gradual and unspoken, that the two of them shared a house haunted by the same ghost and the only woman who could see it.


“For you, my queen!” Marrick proclaims, loud enough for Alma as well as passing shoppers to hear. With a slight bow, he presents her with scepter-shaped artichokes which she accepts and lays in the cart.

“My knight,” Alma swoons, fists again clasped over her heart. “I’ll make them just the way you like, with lots of butter and garlic. No more of you coming home from the army and grousing ‘where are my artichokes?’”

“No more. I promise.”


He steers down the dry goods aisle, selecting the pastas and grains she swears are urgently needed. Their cart brims with items that they will never eat and which Marrick, in cahoots with the grocer, later returns. Another elderly couple passes them, their cart a common walker, and appears to recognize them. Marrick is used to that, even now, years after the Incident. Or perhaps they only place him, whose face, more than Alma’s, was everywhere. With a slight pressure, he ushers her forward into the cereals, boxes of which she selects.


“You need your strength,” Alma reminds him.

“And so do you.”

“How is a man supposed to fight without his strength? How can you defend me?”

“How,” Marrick asks as he turns them toward checkout, “could I not?”

An otherwise ordinary day at the office ended when Marrick came home to find Alma and Maya huddled in the study, crying. Together with his wife and his adopted daughter, they formed a close-knit family. Maya became a pediatrician and married an endocrinologist, together raising two tireless children. And Alma was named a judge. Respected by the system, feared by those who flaunted it, she was widely expected to rise to the Supreme Court and even perhaps preside over it.


Marrick’s business continued to flourish, affording them an insulated lifestyle and an upscale house in the suburbs. Rami’s photo faded on the wall but not in the public’s—or Marrick’s—memory.


But now, suddenly, these tears. And their cause, he learned, was not one but a succession of crises. The first was the near-total hearing loss of one of Maya’s patients, brought on by any one of several infections, some of them resistant to treatment. Still, the parents sued. The second and more grievous plight was Alma’s—an allegation that she incentivized her legal friends to have the case dismissed. So a single misfortune in Maya’s clinic erupted into a national scandal. The entire system was rigged, critics raged, and the press ran with the charge.


“None of it’s true!” Alma wept and Maya embraced her. But Marrick just stood there wordless. “You believe me, don’t you?”

Of course, he did. He was just shocked to see Alma sob. “We won’t let these bastards get to us,” he finally declared. “We won’t give an inch.”


Not yielding proved more harrowing, though, as the issue refused to recede. Rather, it escalated into an anti-corruption campaign with Alma as its bullseye. Rami was also evoked, but as a symptom of society’s decline. The Hero of Post 29 would be mortified, columnists surmised, by his widow’s dishonesty. Not only had she sullied justice but also her late husband’s legacy by marrying a disreputable businessman, and a foreigner to boot.


“I think I should step down.”

“Never.”

“Say what they want to about me,” she whimpered, “but about you—I can’t bear it.”


Marrick turned a paperweight in his hands. He planted it on the desk with a thud. “I can,” he said. “We all can.” But could they? The most agonizing blow had yet to be dealt—not to Alma or Marrick or even Maya, but to Rami.


Digging into the archives, reporters unearthed the alternative version of Post 29, complete with its raving commander. And worse. An eyewitness emerged who attested that the record was exactly backward. Instead of exhorting his men to stand firm, Rami pleaded with them to surrender. Under withering enemy fire, at gunpoint, they ordered their officer to fight. None of the battle’s survivors could corroborate this claim, but the media didn’t care. Nor did it matter that the veteran had been institutionalized for trauma, was a vagrant, and a sometimes thief.


Yet the libel devastated Alma, more than the accusations of graft. While she might somehow defend herself, who would stand up for Rami? That question never occurred to Marrick. For a moment, it seemed that he could be freed from Post 29 and the burden of its myth. But garbage was dumped on their doorstep and their windows smeared with graffiti.


Then, one night, a mob roiled on their front lawn and demanded to confront the judge. “The police will be here any minute,” Alma wailed. “You don’t have to do this!” She tore at his coat-sleeves as he punched his arms through them.

“Don’t I?” he said, absently at first before insisting, “Nobody can violate my house. Nobody can threaten you.”


Ripping the sleeve from Alma’s grip, Marrick barged outside. In the sudden darkness, he could feel rather than see the crowd and heard some drunken sneers. Still, he drew himself up, calibrated his tone, and stated, “This is private property. Get out, all of you. Now.”


The response was laughter and catcalls of “Property brought with bribes!”

“Liars. She’s never been anything but straight.”

Louder laughter now, and boos. “The authorities are on their way,” Marrick responded, adding as he turned back to the door. “Leave while you can.”


But the protesters remained, and one of them taunted, “Go, crawl back into your little hole. We know that your wife likes cowards.”


Marrick stopped. His cheeks seethed ember-like. Swiveling on a heel, he hollered, “How dare you?” He lunged at the demonstrators who reflexively stepped back. “How dare you disrespect a man who gave everything for this country. For you!”


“Cowards, you and your wife,” someone bellowed, and the rest of them took up the chant, “Cowards! Cowards! Cowards!”


A substance hit Marrick’s chin and hung there dripping. But he did not flinch or waiver. He stood at attention until the police cars arrived with sirens trumpeting and lights that draped him in blue.


The charges against Alma were ultimately dropped and her judicial reputation restored. Yet the publicity quashed her chances for a Supreme Court appointment, much less to serve as the chief.


Alma retired but still offered legal advice. The young attorneys who visited her office gazed respectfully at her diplomas but failed to recognize the young soldier in the yellowed photograph. Only Marrick, when chancing in with her cup of tea, was half-inclined to tell them.

“We forgot green onions,” Alma worries as her husband loads groceries on the checkout belt. “To sprinkle on your artichoke sauce. I want it to be just perfect.”


“But it is perfect,” he assures her. “It always is.”

“I’m afraid you’ll leave me again. Leave and not come home.” As if to still it, he touches her trembling cheek.

“I’ll never leave you. Ever,” he says.


In his mid-eighties, Marrick is hale and mentally sharp, still foreign enough to wear a tie to the supermarket. But Alma is vanishing. She needs constant assistance, even for the simplest tasks. He reveres her bravery in the face of dementia and loves her even more.


“Such a gentleman,” the cashier says to them. A heavily-accented woman, cheaply dressed, she is clearly an immigrant.

“A famous gentleman,” Alma replies. “I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”


The woman shrugs. She holds up a can and mentions to Marrick, “These are on sale, you know. Two for one.”

He almost winks at her, as if she were in on the secret, but merely responds, “One will do. Thanks.”


Alma goes on. “Everyone’s heard of him. His name is…is…” Now Marrick does wink, and the woman, wise if uneducated, understands. “


Of course, I’ve heard of him, who hasn’t?” she chimes while ringing up the artichokes. “Your husband’s a hero.”


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