THE VAN IS BLUE. It was once the touring vehicle for Killer Klezmer, a hardcore klezmer band in Tel Aviv, but they had a falling out over the accordion and broke up, and now the van belongs to Yusef. Yusef is twenty-two and needs a way out of his father’s carpet shop, a way from the dust to the light, a way into air conditioning. The van is old and rusted and still has musical notes and an accordion painted on one side, but Yusef loves it, and he calls it al-Jabbar al-Azraq, the Mighty Blue.
Yusef drives the van for Iordannis, a Greek Palestinian who leads tour groups through the Holy Land and wears a many-pocketed khaki vest as if the tour were a jungle safari. Iordannis is very proud of being both Greek and Palestinian, and he refuses to identify as one or the other. “Can you separate my blood?” he says to anyone who asks (and some who don’t). “Can you drain out one vein from the other?” He and Yusef went to school together in Tel Aviv.
Yusef drives the van for Iordannis for seven years. He begins lumping the tourists into categories, usually by country of origin. There are the wide-eyed Americans, attempting irony and open-mindedness and failing, and kerchiefed Romanians who eat sausage on the van. But the Russians, the Russians are the worst; they push and shove each other and talk too loud and chew with open mouths. They never tell him thank you or hello. When Yusef drives the Russians, he praises God for the checkpoints, when the Israeli soldiers board with guns to check passports and the Russians fall blessedly silent.
Every week, he takes a picture of one of the tourists. He decides whose portrait he will have when Iordannis first leads the tourists onto the van and they file by Yusef’s seat, one by one. He always knows the moment he sees his subject. It is not a matter of beauty or distinction. He chooses the person he feels is least like himself.
Yusef has plastered the van’s ceiling with thousands of snapshots: middle-aged women, Romanians, American pastors in suits. There are so many pictures he has had to start stapling them on top of each other, and now the ceiling looks as if it has sprouted scales, every one a Polaroid, many of them dusty and battered and faded. When the van goes over bumps, the entire ceiling flutters, and every once in a while a picture will fall on a passenger’s head. But Yusef can’t bear to take any pictures down; it would feel like removing a finger.
Business slows after 9/11, but Iordannis is a shrewd man and he has a brilliant idea: budget tours. Most Holy Land tours last ten days or at least a week, but Iordannis decides to make a five-day tour for those who couldn’t afford to come otherwise. This means mostly Americans from the South, Baptists, Methodists, and the denominationally unaffiliated, those who haven’t traveled enough to know the jet lag will make the trip unbearable. Mondays, they pick them up from the airport in Tel Aviv. Tuesdays, they take them to Jerusalem to see the Holy Sepulchre. Wednesdays, to the Mount of Olives. Thursdays, to Bethlehem. Fridays, to the River Jordan, and then to the airport again.
Of all the days, Yusef hates Fridays the most. He does not like to go to the River Jordan. Yusef’s father was baptized in that river, and his father’s father. But Yusef was baptized in a rubber basin in a cold stone church, because by the time he was born, the government forbade them access to the water. Now they can go again, driving tenderly between barbed wire and leftover land mines, but the water has become so sparse and polluted that it makes Yusef sick to see it. The tourists don’t know why the river is brown, and they don’t know that extra water is piped in at the tourist spots to make the river look fuller than it actually is.
Yusef hates the feast of Theophany, too, when they sing the hymns about the baptism of Christ (The sea looked and fled / The Jordan turned its back) and all the pilgrims gather around the river to see the miracle, the miracle that happens every year when the bishop blesses the water: the river stops flowing in one direction and reverses to the other. He hates it, because if there had to be a miracle, why couldn’t it be that the river begin flowing again as it should, clear and free? Why can’t it be that the barbed wire would turn into irises? He remembers his grandfather pointing out where the Jordan’s banks once stood, half a mile from where they’d now receded. Why can’t miracles ever be useful? He far prefers the Pascha miracle, when the bishop goes into the tomb and comes out with candles lit not with lighters or matches or the work of human hands but with fire, the Holy Fire sent straight from heaven, and everyone else’s candles light then of their own accord. That, at least, is more practical. God saves everyone matches.
To punish God for his thoughtlessness, Yusef never goes to see the river at Theophany, to see the Jordan turn back, no matter how much Iordannis badgers him.
As Yusef grows older, he goes to fewer and fewer of the holy sites with Iordannis and the pilgrims. He does not speak English well, and he would not know what to say if he did. Most of the budget pilgrims come from Alabama or Arkansas or somewhere, and they wear straw hats and fanny packs and look very confused by the icons and incense in all the churches. Iordannis tells him that once, somebody complained about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and asked him to take them to the real tomb, the one “from the movies.” By the eighth year of driving, Yusef has learned to sit in the van and avoid all this, and he listens to soccer games on his phone. He doesn’t mind being alone.
At least, not until today. It is eight p.m. and a crowd of tourists is weaving its way into the van from the airport—a big group, because this is the week of Theophany. Yusef’s eyes flick from one tourist to the next, wondering which he will photograph. At the very end of the line of pasty Americans is an Arab woman in black, and her hair is as dark as her eyes. Her long dress brushes his sandaled foot as she walks by. She is helping along a crippled woman so bent over that he can’t tell if she’s her mother or her grandmother. Yusef is so taken with the woman in black that he stares at her as she makes her way to the back of the van, and he forgets himself, and Iordannis has to remind him to start the van. Yusef decides right then and there that he will have her picture.
He spends the rest of the week wondering who the woman is and how to get her attention. On Tuesday, he thinks she is a movie star and he keeps his distance respectfully. On Wednesday, he thinks she is a spy but he doesn’t care—maybe he can become a spy, too?—and he buys bottled water for everyone on the van, hoping she will be moved by his kindness and will notice his efficiency. On Thursday, he thinks she is an heiress from Dubai, and he nods and smiles at her as she helps her mother onto the van. She smiles back. Always, she follows her mother, holding her mother’s arm, taking care her mother’s drooping head doesn’t bump into the passengers. The two of them are never parted.
On Friday, it is Theophany, and Yusef pulls into the parking lot of the baptismal site. The lot is overflowing with buses and vans, and it takes them twenty minutes to find an empty space. Iordannis speaks to the group through a microphone. Yusef knows what he is saying, even though he doesn’t understand the English, because he knows Iordannis’ gestures and he’s memorized the script: We are now at the site of the Holy Baptism. Please, do not walk outside of the barbed wire. They are still removing the land mines. Please, do not disturb the Israeli guards. You may ask them for a picture, but do not touch their guns. If you would like to purchase a baptismal robe, you may do so at the gift shop for only five dollars. The passengers gather their belongings and slather their pale faces with sunscreen and leave. Iordannis winks at Yusef and closes the van door behind him with a thud.
It is quiet. Yusef yawns and stretches and cranks up the air conditioning, which he will leave on only for a moment, just for himself. This is his routine: he will turn on the fan, and the cool air will flush the scent of sweat and sunscreen and foreign deodorants from the van, and he will breathe deeply, and he will be glad he is alone.
But he is not alone. A voice pipes up behind him. “Foolish man,” it says, in Arabic. “You’re going to run out of gas.”
Yusef whips around. The woman in black has stayed behind. For the first time, she is not wearing the traditional headscarf worn here by Christian pilgrims, and she looks like an American.
“Iordannis is helping my mother today,” she says, anticipating his question.
Yusef turns toward the windshield again and sits up a little taller. “I always run the air conditioning for a moment,” he says, looking at her in the rear-view mirror, trying to appear detached. “It keeps the van cool for the tourists.”
The woman shrugs. “Suit yourself,” she says. She begins reading a magazine.
Yusef hesitates. He is not sure what to do now. He does not want to interrupt the woman and her reading, so he does not want to turn on his soccer. But he also feels he cannot do the other thing he usually likes to do alone in the van, which is sleep. The woman has left him without options, and this makes him bold. He takes his Polaroid camera from underneath his seat.
First, he will warm her up with conversation. “Why did you stay behind?” he says to the mirror. He runs his finger around the camera lens.
She shrugs. “The river doesn’t interest me,” she says, “nor artificial miracles.”
This surprises him. It has never occurred to him that a miracle could be manufactured like a pair of shoes. His hands, still holding the camera, moisten.
“What do you mean?”
The van beside them starts up its engine so loudly that the woman gets up and moves to the seat behind Yusef. “I’m just here to help my mother.” She is close enough that her unwrapped hair brushes his headrest as she sits, and he feels a whoosh of air on his face, air scented with sandalwood. “She thinks she is going to find some sort of miracle here. She’s been bent over so long she can’t remember the way the world really is.”
“You don’t believe in miracles?”
“I don’t believe in believing,” she says.
“Then why come here, of all places?” He hopes desperately that whatever her reasons for coming, whatever questions have brought her here, he can be part of the answer.
“To tell you the truth,” she says, “I was hoping I would meet a rich American.” A disappointing reply. Yusef is neither of these things. “I chose the wrong van.” She pulls her knees to her chin and looks up at the ceiling. “But at least I chose an interesting one.”
He looks up at the ceiling, too, at his vast collection. His eyes fall on the Polaroid from last week, a woman from Tennessee with piles upon piles of yellow hair who felt older than her face would tell you. Some of her hair had fallen on Yusef’s shoulder. Suddenly, the picture feels indecent, and he wishes the woman in black was not seeing it.
He looks at her, expecting a derisive remark, but she only says, “You are quite the collector.” Her eyes are like caves, and he wonders what is lurking in the back of them.
“I meet many people,” he says. He clears his throat. His mind wanders back to the start of their conversation. “You don’t care about the miracle in the river?” He wonders if she even believes a thing or a place can be holy. He wonders if maybe she, herself, is holy. He’s heard of people like this before—holy fools, who wear their dead husbands’ clothes and loiter outside of sacred places and give prophecies. They act insane to cover up the holiness.
“The artificial miracle,” she corrects him. “There’s nothing to it, really. A fan under the water. The bishop gives a signal to the Israeli soldiers, and they flip a switch. It’s all a racket to promote peace and cooperation or something. A falsity. It isn’t even useful. It’s all so the tourists will come here and spend more of their money.”
“Who told you this?” He puts down the camera, and his voice sounds more hurt than he intends.
She doesn’t answer the question. “It’s such a joke, anyway,” she says, still staring at the ceiling. All he can see is the whites of her eyes. “All these foolish pilgrims coming to these polluted waters as if to a holy site, as if there were such a thing as holiness left in this world. They spend money on polyester baptismal robes and dip themselves in this water that is half water, half fertilizers, runoff, human waste. They bottle it and take it back to America to sell. Americans will buy anything.” She stands up and brushes the pictures with her fingertips. “And do you know what? They deserve it. We deserve it, too. All of us, imbeciles, for what we have done to the river.” She rips the picture of the woman with the yellow hair from the ceiling and stares at it.
“Please don’t,” he says.
Still she keeps ripping. “I have been to Lourdes,” she said. “I have been to Fatima and Assisi and Guadalupe. Everywhere the same foolishness, the same idiots buying the same overpriced candles, the same sacred bits of cloth. And my mother is one of those idiots, and no matter where we go my mother is exactly the same, just as bent as the day I was born, only now a little bit poorer and older. And you and I, we know better,” she says. She rips another picture from the ceiling. “You and I—we are not afraid of the truth.”
“I am nothing like you,” he says.
She laughs. “Have you come with us to a single holy site?” Now she has a whole collection of pictures in her hand, and she is fanning herself with them. “Here we are, in a sweltering van on the feast of Theophany, and are you standing on the shores of the river with the others? No. You are here with me. Here in this filthy van, you have made your own cathedral. And I am with you. We have no need of others. We can worship in our own minds, at altars of our making.”
He stands now. She has taken so many pictures from the ceiling that the deep blue fabric overhead has bled through the collage. He wants to stop her, but he does not know how.
“You are like me,” she says. “I sensed this the moment that I met you. This is why I have stayed behind. To talk to you. To speak the truth with you.”
“I am nothing like you,” he says again, and she stands directly in front of him. Her arms are filled with photos and it is like she is holding the last seven years of his life, all the tourists, Romanians, kerchiefed grandmothers, fattened pastors, aged ladies, all in the arms of one who does not deserve to carry them. There are so many of them she is dropping some on the floor. She does not stoop to pick them up.
Yusef bends over, and when he tries to pick up a picture she stomps on it with her foot. “Am I disturbing you?” she says. “Am I trampling on your sacred images?”
Yusef lunges forward, grasping not at the pictures but at her, to stop her, to keep her from destroying anything more, and she slips past him. She jumps from the van and runs through the parking lot, laughing as she weaves between the vans. She is mad. Her arms are still full of his images. A handful of them tumble to the asphalt. Yusef leaves them there.
Yusef runs out across the pavilion and past the gift shop and the changing rooms where pilgrims don their polyester robes. They run past the white stone chapel with its open walls and down the wooden steps to the water. The woman in black is heading for the shore. Hundreds of people crowd the river, and Yusef loses her.
A bishop stands near the water’s edge, golden cross in hand. The bishop lifts the cross on high, and Yusef can hear them singing the baptismal hymn—The sea looked and fled / The Jordan turned its back. He pushes to the front of the crowd and sees the muddy waters, sees waves take form and reverse. Something gleams under the water. Is it the blade of a fan he sees? Is it a fish?
The crowd stirs. Yusef turns, and the woman in black is beside him. She is going to throw the photos in the water. He moves to stop her, to protect these waters from her filth, but the bishop begins walking toward them, flinging holy water with dripping branches of basil. The drops of water fall on Yusef’s forehead and in his eyes, and he is still. Everything becomes still, even the breath in his lungs.
When he opens his eyes, he sees the mother of the woman in black, and the mother is not so bent anymore. She is raising her head as if she has just now noticed for the first time that there is a sun hanging in the sky above them, and her back is rising up, up, up, until she stands aright, and she spreads her arms to the world and she laughs. She looks Yusef right in the eyes, and her eyes are green like new olives. Yusef feels himself breathing again.
The mother stumbles toward them with her arms outstretched, this newborn woman, learning to walk, and the woman in black backs away, her arms so full of the photos that she cannot steady herself as she backs into the crowd, and the Russian women jab her with their elbows and she falls into the water, throwing the pictures behind her as she goes. Her head disappears beneath the waves. The pictures float away. Yusef does not jump in to save them.
If the water churns with fans, both will be lost forever.
Elyse Durham is a fiction writer and journalist. Her work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review, America, and Christianity Today. She is a student in the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College and lives in Indianapolis.