As the goats came close, they slowed and began milling about, some nibbling at newly sprouted grass along the sides of the road, others staring off in all directions while bleating opinions to one another. From the back of the herd called out a young boy of about ten, who eventually appeared from within their midst; who then made his way towards us, parting the animals skillfully as he came along. He waved joyfully when he saw me; and I recognized him and called out his name, “Yusef! Young man, it is so good to see you!”
As he came closer my captors quickly hid their guns, but the boy saw them do it, and he stopped suddenly, with an expression of fear falling across his face. Now is not a time for fear, not when the predator is ready to strike; so I quickly called out to him, hoping to reassure him, “Yusef, it is alright! These are my friends. They’ve joined me this morning and we are on our way to their house. They need my help!”
He looked warily at me, unsure, but wanting to trust me; and glancing cautiously at the two other men he quietly answered, “I don’t want trouble. I’m bringing the goats back down.”
“Yes! Wonderful!” I exclaimed. “We’d like to go with you, there’s a patrol just down the road, just around the corner, and another at the bridge. Could we walk with you—and your goats—until we get across the bridge? Please, Yusef?!”
“No guns! I don’t want trouble,” the boy insisted adamantly while shaking his head and looking warily at the brothers. I looked imploringly at them, and waited, while Yusef said the same to them in Arabic. The older brother turned to look down the road—appearing to be considering a new plan—and then said something to the youngest, who turned and ran back down the path from which we had just come, presumably to get their other brother to bring him up to us; and within a few minutes the two returned. Next, we prepared to leave; the brothers hid their firearms in a small fissure, under a pile of rocks. Yusef was now our guide, and our temporary leader—the youngest of our group, and the one calling the shots. He called to his goats and they began descending the dirt road once again, and we fell in line with the boy, mingling amidst the straggling goats at the back of the herd. We were a motley tribe: a Bedouin boy, three Palestinian men, an Orthodox monk, and one hundred goats, give or take a few.
As we rounded the bend in the road, and came into full view of the Israeli patrol, I felt apprehensive; but considering the previous plan was to attack with guns blazing, I liked our chances much better now. And the goats had a wonderful effect upon everyone. Have you ever walked in the midst of animals? Their genuine and simple spirit can rub off on you; helping one see life as they do, or at least as we imagine they might. This group of goats included a ridiculous and absurd collection of characters: some petulant, many eccentric, and most comedic. Take for example, one black and white goat with long hair, who attached itself to the middle brother’s trousers with great gusto; appalling the wearer, and instigating great bellows of complaint from him, to the enjoyment of everyone else, whereupon, eventually even that surly fellow gave up his surliness, allowing himself a faint smile, as he batted the persistent and hairy creature off his leg.
How fortunate we were to have met this travelling troupe of herbivores at such a time as this; for there is little that can so disarm mankind than laughter and a smile. The tension we had all been feeling, moments prior to Yusef and his hairy entourage’s arrival, had dissolved, without any of us appearing to have noticed how, or when exactly, it had left us. Our group was in light spirits as we met the Israeli patrol, and this in turn elicited a number of surreptitious smiles from the young men and women in uniform, as they began their perfunctory examination; questioning each of us briefly and with little concern, or suspicion.
However, our diverse and incongruous organization did arouse surprised expressions and inquisitive looks from the young Israelis. It was undoubtedly unusual to see a disparate group, such as ours, travelling together. There were questions about this, but our response seemed to be satisfying: that the three men were friends of mine, and I was on my way to help them with a problem they had back home, and we also all knew Yusef, and had met up with him along our way. Even so, I believe the goats provided our best cover, as they milled about us on the narrow, dirt road—getting in everyone’s way—raising a general commotion, and adding a tinge of preposterousness to the proceedings.
Finally, we were allowed to continue down the road to the bridge, and I was amazed at how easily and simply things had gone with the patrol, when I had anticipated something so much more difficult, or even deadly. As we walked down the dusty road, the landscape widened; the cliffs of the gorge gave way to more gradual slopes, and a widening valley—the Kidron valley—flanked by ancient hillsides, which were scarred by cuts of rough rock here and there, yet made softer now by the faint touch of green which covered them—newly aroused by the recent rains. The sun shone, glistening golden across the surrounding hills, with depths of shadow rolling across their surfaces. It was becoming a glorious morning; the perfect inspiration for a prayer, had I not already been inspired earlier, and begun praying hours ago. Still, it aroused in one the desire to pray even more fervently, and to express gratitude for life. The dirt road finally reached the river, and we followed its path, as it snaked around the slopes, meandering across the floor of the Judean wilderness.
Not far ahead we noticed a second, larger patrol waiting at the bridge. But it began disbanding as we approached, with men and women filing into several trucks, and then driving down the road and out of sight. Two men were mounting the remaining Jeep just as we began crossing the bridge, and I called to them asking what was going on.
One of the men answered, “We were looking for a missing person, from the Moshav near Avdat, supposedly kidnapped. But he came back late last night…it was a mistake, I guess. So, its okay. Time to go home!”
“Yes!” I thought to myself, “Time to go home, indeed.” I was glad to hear Avi had made it home again.
* * *