“An Unwelcome Guest” by Jonathan Papernick
Yossi and his wife have settled in Jerusalem to start their family in a new home. One sleepless night, Yossi finds himself in the presence of a mysterious Arab stranger. Thus, the most intense game of Backgammon Yossi has ever played begins, and as the old Arab’s family members begin appearing in Yossi’s kitchen, he realizes the stakes only grow higher. Wanting only to protect his sleeping wife, Yossi fears being outnumbered by a growing group who protests that his ‘home’ belongs to them.
About the Author
Jonathan Papernick is the author the story collections The Ascent of Eli Israel, There Is No Other and The Book of Stone. His fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including, Nerve, Post Road, Green Mountains Review, Night Train, Blunderbuss, Folio and Confrontation. His work had been anthologized in Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge, Scribblers on the Roof, The Moment, Sudden Flash Youth and Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life. Dara Horn calls Papernick “an utterly original writer,” and the New York Times writes, “There is a muscular certainty to the best of Papernick’s stories.” Papernick has taught fiction writing at Pratt Institute, Brandeis University, Bar Ilan University, Emerson College, Grub Street Writers and Emerson College. A Toronto native, Papernick lives with his wife and two sons outside of Boston where he is a Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College.
Yossi Bar-Yosef lays next to his sleeping wife, Devorah, in their apartment in Jerusalem, the moon hanging low outside the window where two soldiers can be heard whispering in Hebrew on the street. Yossi puts on his kippah and goes downstairs where the stone floor is cold in the kitchen, and fills a pot of water on the burner. He thinks about Devorah, “her soft olive skin, her curly brown hair, her green eyes, the way her body felt beneath his.” They’d been married 8 months and now she is pregnant. They’d moved to Jerusalem from New York to start a family while he trains to become a rabbi. Suddenly, Yossi hears “You are welcome,” and turns to see an old Arab man sitting in a chair at the table. He knows the old man had come in through the door left unlocked for the prophet Elijah whom Yossi awaits at Passover, but he tells the Arab to leave, he’s in the wrong house. His name is Ziad. “His face was cracked like a wadi in the heat of summer, his nose round, bulbous, and pocked like a Judean hilltop, his thin salt and pepper mustache ratty, careless, a goatherd’s mustache. He wore a black and white checked keffiyeh on his head and a filthy striped caftan that reached almost to his slippered feet.” Conversation ensues and Ziad claims the house is his, had always been his, and Yossi argues that it is not longer. Ziad lifts a small wooden box to the table and Yossi, believing it’s a bomb, considers calling for the soldiers outside. It turns out to be a backgammon board, or shesh besh. Ziad asks for a cup of hot water to make his tea from a tin on the table and says they will play until someone wins three, and each time someone wins a game, they have the right to talk.
During the game Ziad is winning, they speak of Jerusalem, and Abraham, and different towns that Yossi is unfamiliar with, Deir Yassin for one. When Ziad wins, Yossi says he’s never been there and Ziad interrupts and says it is his turn to speak, telling Yossi he has been there. He was 300 men with guns and mortars. He raped and pillaged the village among other terrible things. Yossi finds this ridiculous as they begin a second game. The clouds roll over the moon and Yossi stands to get a candle, when he lights it at the table, he finds three more old Arab men sitting near Ziad, and Yossi is paralyzed with fear. “Two men slightly younger than Ziad wore kaffiyehs and took turns smoking from a tall gold-plated water pipe, a third ancient man with a battered fez planted on his head awkwardly fingered a set of worry beads.” They tell Yossi they are old (two brothers and the blind father), and there is nothing to fear, continue playing. The smoke fills the room and Yossi goes upstairs to check on Devorah who is still sleeping. He kisses her and takes her 9mm from her bedside drawer. He puts it in his pocket and goes back. Ziad asks if she’s sleeping and he nods. The brothers discuss memories from the house, but mostly speaking Arabic that Yossi doesn’t know, and he sees the empty eye sockets of the blind father.
Ziad asks about Yossi’s wife, learns she’s 19, and meanwhile wins the second game. Yossi tries to quit, and Ziad argues no one has won three games. Yossi touches the gun in his pocket and agrees to one more while the blind father whispers names of towns like a prayer. When Yossi is in the lead, 4 women appear, the wives of each man, but Yossi focuses on the game. Zahira, Ziad’s wife, resets the board after Yossi’s win — her fingernails black, her face like worn leather. Yossi puts his hand on hers and says “Hevron!” He tells her they were neighbors in Hevron and she came to their homes, had done terrible things to their village. She calls him a liar and spits in his face. He pulls the gun out and shoves it in her ribs. Ziad says Yossi wasn’t even born to which Yossi replies “Memory is in the blood.” He remembers being exiled, remembers the camps. Zahira tells him to shoot her while the others look impassive, but Yossi says they will play instead. Zahira continues to curse and threaten him as he plays. Ziad says the tea is cold and Yossi stands to boil more water while Ziad talks of his young wife on their wedding night (gruesome details of her virginity) and his son, Youssif, an angry barefoot boy. Yossi thinks of Devorah, wants to run to her. By this time, the children of all of them have appeared and the kitchen is crowded. Yossi doesn’t want to play and Ziad says he must — they are the majority. The water is boiling over and as Yossi pushes through the crowd, someone pulls the gun from his pocket and replaces it with a slab of olive wood. He doesn’t realize this until he returns to the table to see Ziad’s stones have been cleared without rolling dice. Yossi calls him out for cheating, but when he finds his gun is missing, Ziad says he will play now. Yossi says if he wins he gets the gun back, but these are their rules now. Yossi wins a second game and they let him say more about the lies of the terrorist attacks he witnessed, which he does in detail until Ziad begins talking badly of the Torah and Yossi realizes he is Amalek, and they are terrorists and don’t belong there. He asks where Youssif is, then hears glass smash upstairs but is now held down to his chair. He yells for the soldiers outside and Ziad shoves keffiyeh in Yossi’s mouth, yelling back to the soldiers that all is okay. One brother sets the 9mm on the table and Ziad spins it around, reading the engraved message from Devorah’s father and says it’s a thoughtful gift, asks what Devorah means. Yossi glares as if to say “Fuck your mother you filthy Arab.”
Zahira holds the gun to Yossi’s temple and says it’s time to pray, which Yossi does silently. As the others kneel to pray, they disappear one by one. Alone, Yossi runs upstairs as Youssif steps out of the bedroom with a broken, bloody bottle, assuring Yossi she isn’t dead, “She is only crying for the ghosts of her children and their children, too.”
“The sun continued to rise, the muezzin wailing in Arabic, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.””