A FAN OF RED in a turquoise sky. The sun a gold coin lost in the trees of al-Walaja. Fazel El-Masry is ten and scanning the barrier wall that splits his village in two, hoping for new artwork. Graffiti of every sort stretches for miles: images of Trump with a yarmulke on and his hand up, a speech bubble saying something in English; Netanyahu kissing a man; a young girl in a pink dress frisking an Israeli soldier; an idyllic image of mountains and wildflowers outside a window where white wingback chairs have been painted, the legs dripping from the heat; a boy holding a rock with clouds scudding past behind him. Graffiti on the wall? No. Fazel with a rock in one hand and the stale dust-salt smell of the desert on his neck.
He throws one rock over the barrier wall and waits. He eyes the wall that snakes into the distance, like some crude version of the Jordan River stretching 440 miles, water into stone, like a backward miracle somebody forgot to ascribe to Jesus. His palms are sweaty, and he winces with the next throw, waiting. He steps back, splitting the dead branch of a cypress underfoot, and looks up to see a rock flying his way, landing near his feet, dribbling to a stop. Two rocks thrown. One returned. Confirmed. He runs home.
An Israeli soldier shouts something in Hebrew, but Fazel doesn’t hear. He hurries through the rising dust in the road and slips, scraping his knee. Wincing in pain, he stares at the wound, stippled red like the inside of a fig. He curses under his breath, brushing his knee. In ten minutes he is passing before a tunnel like some ancient passageway between two worlds. He saw the rock. Seven p.m. Fazel edges through the brush and sees an Israeli guard near the tunnel waving a hand, urging him onward and away from the wall. A second soldier cradles what his father called an IWI Tavor-21 assault rifle.
Fazel is certain his mother heard him coming up the hill and is watching for any movement in the garden, looking for a long shadow on the third terrace where a date palm lets its arms droop in the last of the day’s light. Fazel steps into his house just as his mother flips the kitchen switch and the fan of light in the sky closes. Darkness looms outside. Inside, smell of citrus. Turmeric. Onions. Pepper. Cumin.
“Your father was looking for you,” she says in the singsong Arabic of her native Lebanon. And, indeed, Fazel was wanted earlier for help clearing brush on the second terrace where his mother, Aliya, wants to see wildflowers sprout. How did he not see his father? They eat quietly, as is normal in their household. His father, Wasim, looks at Fazel with a left eyelid that droops because of shrapnel from a stun grenade three years back. The tunnel connecting their family to the village was shuttered for an entire year because of their “family participation” against the state.
“Can I have a phone?” Fazel asks.
“No phone this year,” says Wasim, folding the taboon bread in his left hand, pinning a kafta ball down with the fork in his right.
“You wanted that game for your birthday this year,” Aliya says.
“Next year, a phone, God willing,” Wasim says.
Fazel helps on the terrace after dinner in the piecemeal light from the balcony. He reaches down to grab a branch and finds only dirt in the distorted shadow of his father. Wasim works quietly, and Fazel checks his watch every thirty seconds.
After fighting for a deal in the Israeli Supreme Court, Wasim won a settlement, and the defense ministry built a tunnel under the barrier for Wasim’s family only. Wasim’s was the only part of the family cut off when the wall was erected, the rest residing on the other side near the Israeli settlement of Gilo. From their family balcony, Gilo can be seen—ten thousand red-roofed pillars by night, one colossal cloud by day. They still need permission to go to school, to go to the grocery store, to let Fazel out to meet with his cousins to play jalul, the commander, or judge and executioner.
“Now that you grow older,” says Wasim, “crossing through the tunnel is not so easy. And it will get harder every year.”
“What do you mean?”
Fazel rolls a rock the size of his shoe from the dirt and throws it down to the bottom terrace near the trees. He doesn’t see it land but hears the soft thud in the soil.
“You must ask me first. No matter what.”
“I’m a prisoner,” says Fazel, rolling another rock.
“It’s the best deal we could get. Be smart.”
“If we mess up, they close it again. Then what? You don’t want to see Yousef or Lila again for a year?”
His cousins do the same thing when they argue, and Fazel promises himself he will never hold others emotionally hostage like his father does, like his entire family does.
“I’ll be careful.”
“We all will, God willing.”
They finish clearing the terrace, and it is five minutes past seven. He rushes to his room, closes the door, and the Nintendo whirs. A galloping anxiety in Fazel’s chest. Is he too late? The light of the television presses its way into every corner of the cramped room. The screen flickers to life and there he is, Fazel the Animal Crossing: New Horizons character, in shorts and a T-shirt, wearing new shoes that Fazel imagines squeak with each step and, if you look closely enough, might have a stenciled basketball player with his legs apart and his hand palming a basketball high over his head.
His avatar wears a baseball cap on a bobblehead. Rounded features. A cartoon body made of pixelated bubbles. Bright colors reflect off the walls of his room. Fazel steps to another character and waves. A bubble appears below Fazel’s image. Anthropomorphic characters wander around in the distance: an anteater named Apollo, a sheep named Baabara, a chicken named Becky.
Two days earlier, Fazel stood in Tel Aviv and watched waves slap against a wall of rocks coated in bird droppings, like the aftermath of a paintball fight. Fazel stared at the embankment before turning to watch the waves in the distance, the salted arches ghosting into the sand, and asked if they had time to go to the water. “Yalla,” Aliya said, hurrying him on. “Yalla aad.” They didn’t have all day. Fazel knew.
Had they all day, he would have first liked to visit old town. Al-Quds. Jerusalem. The city on the hill. He wanted to climb the stone path that follows the city wall, offering views of every quarter. He wanted to see the waves of Orthodox worshipers bending and chanting, praying and swaying, and to remember what it was like to shield his eyes from the golden reflections of Haram esh-Sharif. He wanted to throw rocks into the snaking corridors below, lost in shadow, where tourists pay too much for silk-screened Coca-Cola shirts in unyielding biblical Hebrew letters, or Nike shirts in the softer, artful Arabic script Fazel knows so well.
Inside the mall, he was hit first by the coolness of the sweet, air-conditioned plaza. Fazel stared up at rising rows of escalators and thought of the silhouettes on the barrier wall of escalators leading to nowhere in particular. He and his mother rose in the glass-roofed mall, and there it was, the glaring red store, its sign blinking beneath two leaping figures in white gloves and denim overalls. Something flipped inside him. He ran away and did not hear his mother shout his name.
A plush Donkey Kong sat in the center of the store. He jumped against its stomach and laughed before a worker stood him up and waved away the optimistic young onlookers hoping to join in. One of them smiled at Fazel. “Shalom,” said the boy, and instantly recognized his mistake. The boy removed a glistening iPhone from his pocket and spoke into it, then handed it to Fazel. A calm Siri said in Arabic, “Hello, I am Benjamin. What is your name?”
Fazel motioned to the phone. “I don’t have one. I don’t know how to use that,” he said. He handed the phone back and saw the Animal Crossing: New Horizons box next to Benjamin’s blinding-white Nikes. The box was sprayed in bold primary colors. Animals and humans interacted in a utopian camp scene near a beach with palm trees. In the distance, a boat was anchored near a lighthouse, waiting to take passengers to another island where more happiness was no doubt playing out.
Fazel picked up the box, his eyes wide. Benjamin clicked away at his phone and held it out for Fazel to hear. Siri said, “Do you play this game? It is my favorite game.” Fazel nodded and tried to signal with his hands, then gave up, grabbed the phone, and typed. Benjamin nodded and pointed to a shelf where there were three boxes left. Fazel sprinted to the shelf and grabbed one, then turned to see Benjamin right on his heels.
Siri: “Let’s be on an island together.”
They passed the phone back and forth, not seeing Aliya admiring them from a distance. Fazel picked up the technology quickly, and before long they were planning out how to communicate. Fazel’s eyes sparked when he learned that Benjamin lived in Gilo.
Nothing seemed to bother Benjamin—not the fact that Fazel was only allowed out once in the afternoons through the gate, or that he didn’t have a phone, or that he could only play after dinner and then only for a couple hours each night. He didn’t even have Nikes. Two different languages? No worries.
The code is quite simple. Fazel, always the first, throws at five p.m. Two rocks over the wall to start playing at seven, and one rock for eight. Benjamin then throws one rock back to confirm. And, the first day, it works perfectly. They meet as bobblehead cartoons and wave to animals. They find a neon-painted boat and board, stopping at one point to fish. Benjamin catches an oarfish and his character holds it high above his head. Fazel casts a line but doesn’t catch a thing.
Fazel bobblehead: What did I do wrong?
Benjamin bobblehead: Oh. Sorry. You must not have used the right bait.
Fazel bobblehead: I didn’t know you needed bait.
Benjamin bobblehead: It’s easy. You just have to ask Zucker, and he’ll give you some. But it’s too late in the day now, so the shop is probably closed.
Benjamin brings in two mahi-mahi. How did he know to get bait? They spy a seaplane and decide to fly together, to let the wind whip at the plane as they gaze upon thousands of islands like silver coins in the blue. When they spot an island that looks right, they drop down and step onto a beach where a penguin named Flo welcomes them and reminds them that they can visit other islands, but only live on one. Three other characters step from the trees.
Benjamin bobblehead: These are my friends. They said we can join them on this island.
Fazel bobblehead: Great!
The island has numerous waterfalls and tiki torches lining the rivers. Tents are surrounded by wood-fired pizza ovens, ornamental lawn chairs, tulip gardens, and stone bridges leading to fishing holes and pristine beaches with sand the color of baklava. They roam the island as a group, and Benjamin is offered a plot of land where he begins building.
Fazel bobblehead: Where should I set up?
Benjamin bobblehead: They said there is one spot right now. But they know how to get a second for you.
Fazel bobblehead: How?
Benjamin bobblehead: First, help me plant a garden.
Real soil is tilled on the second terrace in al-Walaja, and Fazel helps his father drop in the seeds. It is early. The sun slices through the trees at such an angle that if you step in the wrong place and look at the wrong time, you will be blinded. Fazel rests his weary palms after smoothing the dirt, and Wasim mists the ground with a garden hose.
“I have work. Help your mother finish the planting. Almost done.”
“Can I go to the wall today?”
“Sure,” says Wasim, coiling the hose around the spigot. “Just be careful.” His father looks at him and Fazel stares—he can’t help himself—at the drooping eyelid. It reminds Fazel of the one latticed window in their kitchen they curtain partly at midday to avoid the glaring sun. They leave the others open, just like Wasim’s right eye. “And thank you for asking.”
From the garden, Fazel can see cypress trees lining the valley like guards standing watch over rows of white homes that seem to grow every day in the Gilo settlement, like some unearthly garden in soil that should not be so fertile. The red roofs rise, more stories are added, more windows, fewer trees. The wall cuts through the valley like a white-hot streak with dirt stripes on each side, burning anything that gets too close.
Hoping by some miracle that Benjamin is on at midday, Fazel logs on to Animal Crossing: New Horizons. A raccoon named Nook is offering Fazel another loan, but he isn’t sure he should accept it before finding a good plot of land to build on near Benjamin. But the island is full. What did Benjamin mean? How would they find another opening?
He decides to wait until five p.m. He talks with Aliya and she makes a call. Fazel crosses the barrier and rushes to Yousef and Lila’s home, where they are completing their own American Ninja Warrior course. The sun is a dog in the sky, drooling heat all over the desert floor, panting hot breath into Fazel’s face as he runs, nipping at his heels.
He sets a new course record on his first attempt. Fazel is happy with the way he handled the assisted pull-up and the stone leap in the gully and the balloon balance at the end. He is even happier with his time: seven minutes and twenty-one seconds. Yousef and Lila don’t get within ten seconds of this, falling short in the final sprint to the plywood platform where they must leap, pull themselves up, and shout “Ninja Warrior!” before the clock stops. He leaves just before five with a smile on his face. The wall reflects the dipping sun, the heat of another day stored in the concrete for hours after darkness falls. The wall has small gaps between each slab, like dominoes set too close to one another.
Once, when Fazel was younger, Wasim took him to the wall after dinner and held Fazel’s hand to the stone.
“Feel that heat?” Wasim said.
“I feel it,” said Fazel.
“The burning of a sun at night. It is unnatural.”
They walked for what seemed hours, but Fazel doesn’t remember all that Wasim said about the wall, about their village, about his family and their concerns with the Knesset. Fazel only remembers staring up at the night sky like a black quilt, the stars an erratic stitching of light.
Fazel stops at the agreed-upon spot—a picture on Fazel’s side of a woman waving a Palestinian flag with words written in large, looping font: Separation Barrier. He heaves one rock over and waits. He will be home later, have dinner, perhaps a long evening in the garden. Then he will log on to the game.
A stenciled man stands beneath the Arabic script, holding a door open to nothing but a black hole. Fazel wonders what is meant by such artwork leading to nowhere. Moments later, a rock drops near Fazel’s feet. Perfect. Eight p.m.
When they first agreed on the spot where they would throw the rocks, Fazel told Benjamin he had writing on his side with a man opening a door to nowhere, and asked if Benjamin saw the man emerging on his side. What was on Benjamin’s side?
Benjamin bobblehead: Mine has writing too.
Fazel bobblehead: What does yours say?
Benjamin bobblehead: Security Fence.
Light washes over him. Aliya is speaking in hushed tones to Wisam outside of his door. They knock, but Fazel does not answer. Feet pad the length of the hallway and another door closes. The television almost sparks with the bright colors, as if they cannot be contained in any box, on any screen, in any dimension of time or space. They are too hopeful, these colors. The game promises the perfect life. You can set your own goals. Loans are given by raccoons. Tulips don’t cost much. You can sneak up on butterflies and collect them for an entire afternoon without showing a paper to a guard or slapping a mosquito on your arm or sweating at the insides of your elbows and knees.
The bobbleheads come to life. Fazel steps onto a perfectly manicured lawn and sees logs stacked in neat little rows next to a giant Dunkleosteus fossil: an armored fish that lived long before the dinosaurs. Benjamin adjusts the colors of the chairs to match the sunset, and they sit by the fire, neon green grass at their feet.
Fazel bobblehead: Did you figure out how to get me a spot?
Benjamin bobblehead: Yes. Check it out.
They stand, and their oversized cartoon heads turn. Their bubble-feet slide over the glowing grass, and they walk next to a river until they come upon another campground. Benjamin walks around a copse of oak trees and shows Fazel the spot. There is a white picket fence in a perfect square. Inside the square, a horse named Elmer roams.
Fazel bobblehead: The game won’t let me build here because of the animal.
Benjamin bobblehead: It’s fine. We figured it out. My buddy said he did it on another island.
Fazel bobblehead: Did what?
Benjamin bobblehead: If you build a fence and don’t give it food, it will get skinny and then die.
Fazel bobblehead: Really?
Benjamin bobblehead: Elmer should be dead by tonight. We can start building your house tomorrow.
The next afternoon is cardamom and rose water; the next evening is dates and dough. His mom ropes Fazel into helping prepare ma’amoul cookies for her book club. Just before five, Aliya leaves for the gate and Fazel accompanies her, fingers sore from mixing date paste and molding the oval-shaped sweets. As they leave home, they step over a Sawzall stippled with paint from various remodels in the basement. Planks of pine are scattered near the spigot, sawdust in the grass, in the dirt, in the wind. He stoops to pick up a rock and rolls it in his hands.
A few minutes later they step to the wall, where the sun bakes the concrete slabs. Light glints off metallic paint. Fazel cannot read it, but his mother walks below the words: Mr. President Walls Divide. Creaking, the gate gives way to a shadowed tube where the temperature drops, where Fazel always feels safe and guarded.
He shields his eyes from the tinfoil sheet over the pastries and waves to his mother. What time is it? Fazel waits until she is out of sight. It is ten minutes past five. He windmills his arm quickly to loosen up and then picks up a rock. The first rock gets out any kinks in the muscle. With the second, Fazel brings the heat. He hopes he is not too late. He waits for the response, but no rock flies back over the wall. He crouches in a finger of shade cast by the trunk of a palm.
A rock? No. Fazel turns to see Ophir walking his way, kicking at the gravel, gun slung low, head bobbing in the olive-green uniform. “Khara,” Fazel whispers under his breath.
“I thought it was you,” says Ophir in broken Arabic.
“What was me?”
“Throwing those rocks.”
“Come on, Ophir. I’m just bored.”
“We all are.”
“Are you allowed to leave the gate?”
Fazel knows Ophir has one month left of his thirty-two-month compulsory military service. Ophir is tired. He has given up on anything beyond the sound of a gunshot or the percussion of a grenade. They get along well, and Fazel knows Ophir will let most things go unless he is pressed or irritated in some way. God willing, he will be replaced by someone equally kind and mild-mannered.
“You can lose your gate privilege if you do that again. So don’t.”
“I won’t. I’m sorry.”
“Right. Just don’t do it again.”
Ophir waves his hand and does an about-face. Back to the gate he wanders. Slowly. Fazel stands in the piecemeal shade as the sun continues its descent. He knows if it had not been Ophir, he could have lost their tunnel rights for a year. His father would—what would Wasim do? Rolling a rock in one hand, Fazel begins his walk back up the hill to his house. Maybe Benjamin lost his gaming privileges? That has happened to Fazel before. Maybe Benjamin forgot it was five.
The sky is cranberry red and the night is coming on fast. How late is it? Maybe I was too late, Fazel thinks.
The garden fence is halfway done when Wasim calls it a night for lack of light. It is not too dark to see, but Fazel is sure his father is simply tired of the project. Always the optimist, Wasim agrees to change things for Aliya until he sees how long it will take. Then, as in their basement, a wall remains unfinished for over a year and Wasim starts on something else. Fazel is so eager to log in to his animal world that he skips dinner entirely.
Fazel immediately closes his DIY workbench on the screen to find that his bobblehead has been fenced in. The tiki torches flicker in a light breeze, but Fazel cannot step beyond the picket fence. Stars rise and turn in the game like they are attached to a wheel. Benjamin! He’s not too far away—he’s talking to a raccoon. Fazel watches them speak in the shade of the trees before Benjamin’s bobblehead turns.
Fazel bobblehead: Benjamin! I didn’t see you throw a rock. I’m sorry I was late. How long have you been on?
Benjamin bobblehead: Hi, Fazel.
Fazel bobblehead: Is this my spot now?
Benjamin bobblehead: Sorry. They were here first.
Fazel bobblehead: What?
Benjamin bobblehead: You can’t build there. The plot is too small.
Fazel bobblehead: What are you talking about?
Benjamin bobblehead: Avi started this island, and he said the bigger spot was promised to Itai a week ago. Itai built in the spot we planned for you, and then they thought it would be funny to fence you in.
Fazel bobblehead: You gave away my spot?
Benjamin bobblehead: I’d go to a new island with you, but I’m already in serious debt. I just got some contractors to build a pool near the patio. It’s a lot of work.
Fazel bobblehead: How do I get out?
Benjamin bobblehead: Probably like the horse. Just wait. Your character will spawn somewhere else.
Fazel bobblehead: Somewhere else? So I’ll die?
Benjamin bobblehead: Don’t worry.
The controller sinks in Fazel’s hands. Heat rises to his neck, and his ears burn. He walks his bobblehead to the fence. Fazel throws his controller into the bedroom wall and the grip cracks. He wishes his bobblehead could create a Molotov cocktail, but Fazel knows in the game it would only turn into hundreds of butterflies when thrown. He wishes he could build an AK-47 or mix a batch of C-4, but he knows that in the game, if he fired he would only see smiley-faced balloons rise from the barrel of the gun; when he hit the detonator only tulips would rise from the plastic explosive. On the screen he sees a bubble pop up: Hi, neighbor! says Phil, a ring-necked pheasant. Fazel wants to flip him off, but his hand is a bubble and there is a permanent smile plastered to his character’s face.
Midnight. Fazel is sweating. He steps into the kitchen for a glass of water and sees the yellow stains on the floor. Have those always been there? The game controller holds together, after Fazel dabbed superglue on the grip. Now it looks like it fits in his room, with his other piecemeal belongings. The flour in the pastry was grainy, wasn’t it? Mom used to buy fresh pastries at the bakery in the evenings. Now, she enlists Fazel to help with the baking. The gate closes more often lately, and with fewer reasons offered by the guards. When Ophir is gone, Fazel will lose days with Yousef and Lila. Maybe weeks.
Stepping onto the back porch, he looks down at his shoes and sees them clearly for the first time. Not Nikes. He doesn’t even own a silk-screened Nike shirt like the tourists in al-Quds. His parents bought the video game, but he knows his mother now carries a flip phone and no longer buys new shoes. Dad spends fewer days at various jobs and more nights sitting on the balcony, staring at the concrete wall. He used to play video games with Fazel: first-person shooter games while Wasim talked about signing Fazel up for a competitive soccer league with shiny jerseys. He even promised new cleats. Now, Wasim calmly builds misshapen garden fences and borrows tools from Yousef’s father to fix things that always end up unlevel and out of square. Fazel steps past the garden and recognizes that his first row of seeds is not even planted in a straight line. How long ago did they plant the first terrace? Not even a stem in how many weeks? Nothing sprouting. How did Benjamin know that he could ask Redd the fox for the right soil, and the garden on the screen would sprout overnight?
Fazel El-Masry runs to the wall and doesn’t care if any soldiers are watching. He throws rock after rock until a fire starts in his shoulder and his muscles burn and twitch. He curses Benjamin and Avi and Itai, his breathing heavy, his heart smacking his ribs. He is exhausted. His muscles ache. His whole body flexes in the midnight heat.
Stepping closer to the wall, he launches another rock before his foot catches on a cypress root and he goes down. Dirt in his mouth and a ringing in his ears. His pupils dilate and the wall blurs before him, a row of shadowed giants. Fazel tries to stand but stumbles again, and the wall turns into a white picket fence, then back to concrete again. He is dizzy, reeling.
A giant fox head moves toward him, above an olive-green uniform on a human body. Ophir? No, it is a fox. The wind whinnies as it dips over the wall and presses through the brush. When Fazel closes his eyes, starbursts of white light appear beneath his lids. When he opens them again, he is surrounded by brightly colored tulips, and Ophir the fox is standing over him, reaching out his hand. Fazel feels like his head is big and heavy. When he stands, the tulips disappear and the dirt returns. The wall is no longer a fence, but towering slabs. Ophir is there.
Ophir: I told you not to throw rocks.
Fazel: Benjamin throws them too. He doesn’t get in trouble.
Ophir: Benjamin? Who is this Benjamin? You are not Benjamin.
Fazel: I know.
A white-hot pain shoots through Fazel’s head, and he flinches. Ophir rests his hand on his shoulder and asks if Fazel is okay, asks if he can walk him back to his house, tells him he doesn’t look well. Fazel squints and bows and holds his head between his knees and says that he is fine. Then he rises slowly, and Ophir is a fox again, and neon pink and yellow tulips blossom at their feet. Ophir’s gun is not a gun but a butterfly net on a pole.
Fazel bobblehead: Where are we?
Ophir bobblehead: What are you talking about? Fazel, can you hear me? We are at the wall.
Fazel bobblehead: Are we in the game? Why do you look so funny?
Ophir bobblehead: What game? We are at the tunnel.
Fazel bobblehead: Yes. The animal crossing.
Spencer Hyde’s stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, Bellevue Literary Review, Five Points, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and literature at Brigham Young University.