October 6, 2021KR OnlineFiction

Salt

When we roll off our mats at 4:00 a.m., it is after a sleepless night in the desert. Between our flimsy, borrowed sleeping bags, worn thin by countless other travelers, and the flimsy clothes we packed back when we assumed the Negev always shimmered with heat, we spent the night shivering in the predawn air. We’re still blaming the cold for our trembling as we stumble out of the Bedouin tent where we camped at the foot of the ancient fortress of Masada. Once, this mesa was nearly insurmountable. We will summit before sunrise.

For the past two weeks, we have dreaded this morning. We would be fine, mostly fine, as we queued up for what our tour guide Natan promised was b’emmet the best shawarma, swam in Mediterranean waters, or questioned the stability of the camels we straddled. But then we would remember. Like smoke detectors, it took only one of us to panic, and the rest would pick up the signal, wailing an inconsolable alarm: Masada, Masada. Natan responded with only an Israeli amount of sympathy: “It’s part of the program.” Then he would pull out his crinkled itinerary and affirm that day’s activity. As if snorkeling in Eilat held the same significance for us as climbing the flat-topped altar to mass suicide.

“Boker tov!” Natan greets us now, grinning, as we complain it is hardly boker. Even this early, Natan is the picture of a tour guide. He sports a bucket hat once navy, now a blotchy blue, sun-bleached and sweat-stained. His khaki pants, which zip off into shorts at the knees, cover the muscular legs he retains from his years of army service. He hands out cups of Turkish coffee, which he considers to be the good stuff: boiled over a portable flame, sediment grinds filtered to the bottom of Styrofoam cups.

He tries to rally our reluctant group. “We are taking the Roman Ramp. The route of the enemy,” he says. His accent plays with the words in a way that makes them sound almost inviting. “It’s a steep climb, but I do not doubt we will conquer it quickly.”

We translate this into truth: expect a miserable struggle.

Drew begins our day with his usual crap. “Why don’t we make like the Jews and just kill ourselves now,” he says.

Our last day in Israel, we have lost our patience with Drew. He has been saying shit like this the whole trip, shit he knows get under our skin. We are supposed to be a little more sensitive than that. At home, our friends say, “I literally wanted to slit my wrists during that exam.” Our managers threaten, “I’m going to blow my brains out next time the subway breaks down.” Even our moms forget and complain, “One more ten-hour day and I swear I’m going to kill myself.” We aren’t really worried—the ones who joke never actually pull the trigger, we learned—but we don’t appreciate the reminder.

• •

Our first night, in the bomb shelter basement of a Tel Aviv hostel, we organized twenty plastic chairs into a circle for introductions. From right to left—“Like Hebrew,” said Sam, our American group therapist, who insists on making every aspect of this experience as Israeli as possible—we shared our identifying features. Our names, our homes, whom we lost and when. We have a lot of overlap. Among us, there are three Bens and two Joshes, two Sarahs, three Rachels, a Leah, Lior, and Lilah. Our losses run the gamut, but a lot of us named our brothers, our mothers, our closest friends.

When it was Drew’s turn, he leaned back in his chair, testing the limits of the plastic’s malleability like a detained high-schooler indifferent to discipline. His clothes drooped off his limbs in a way that made us guess he used to be heavy. Under the basement lights, more befitting an IDF interrogation room than a hostel, his skin glowed with a bluish translucence. Later, Sarah H. would compare him to a classmate who, while the rest of her peers bronzed their muscles under summer sun, spent two months fulfilling a post-concussion prescription for darkness and returned to school a pale and stringy apparition.

Drew had shared only his name before he suggested we go around again. This time, he instructed, we should add to our introductions a description of how they did it. He pointed to Rachel S.—Seattle, her mom, two months ago—and said, “Probably the head-in-the-oven type.”

Rachel S. pulled at the few hairs covering the spot she had worried behind her ear. She really shouldn’t be here. The trip was designed for people who are at least five months beyond their loss. We are supposed to be past the elementary breakdowns when, say, we notice the shiny head of a man whose pattern of balding fools us into thinking it’s him, even when we know that’s impossible. But it is summer break, and we can guess that Rachel S.’s dad didn’t want her sitting around the house, so much like her mom in so many ways.

“Maybe all three Bens had jumpers,” Drew continued, glancing from Ben to Ben. “Or the Sarahs all slit wrists?”

“All right, Drew, I don’t think this is necessary.” Sam made a weak attempt to stop him.  “Let’s move along.” Sam is supposed to be trained for this kind of thing. That’s how they advertised the trip: Group leaders with years of experience as trauma therapists. Maybe he had been overly trained, we thought, instructed to be sensitive to all expressions of grief.

“But I haven’t introduced myself yet,” Drew said. “I’m from the great state of New Jersey. It was my uncle with a gun in the billiard room.”

Die, Drew,” Natan interrupted. “This is not a game. Die. You know that word?”

“Don’t we all?” Drew scoffed.

Natan, we learned quickly, takes no bullshit. He did his army time in the Maglan. “It means enough.” Before Drew could start up again, Natan gestured to Jasper, whose focus appeared to be on committing to memory the pattern of the tile floor. “Bevakasha.”

“Um, I’m Jasper. I’m from New Hampshire,” he stated, as if accepting a punishment he didn’t deserve. “My girlfriend, last year.”

• •

Drew has probably internalized the Hebrew as an extension of his name. “Drew, die,” we have said every day of the trip, every time he reminded us why we are here.

Some of us were eager to retaliate when Drew antagonized us, and we adopted the word as soon as we learned it from Natan. But most of us squirmed at first, reacting as if it were its English homophone. We noticed it everywhere. An embarrassed teenager, fed up with her mother, complained, “Ema, die.” “Die,” a father scolded when his son’s tantrum sounded throughout Independence Hall. “Die, die!” urged a manager to the waiter who neglected his job, preferring to flirt with Leah. Natan saw how we flinched and reminded us, “It’s Hebrew. You’re in Israel. You have to adapt.” Sam encouraged us to use it, to embrace both the culture and the language. So after a few days, the word became our own, and then we took to it ardently. There were times when all of us had had enough.

We said it in Tsfat after we met an artist whose prints are inspired by mysticism. He was an American who, upon moving to the holy city, decided to go by his Hebrew name, Avraham, rather than Robert. As we sat in a circle of pillows covering the floor of his studio, he explained the Kabbalistic teaching that a person’s soul is deeply connected to its name. He appreciated the power of Avraham, his father’s Hebrew name, and his father’s and his father’s before that—four thousand years of his history contained in a word. We imagined other groups assessing his long hair and full beard, his loose sweatshirt and faded jeans, and chalking up his Kabbalistic calm to some exceptional hallucinogens. But mostly we swallowed our cynicism. For an afternoon, we wanted to believe our energy could come from something as inherent to us as our names.

Drew started up as soon as we left the studio, calling Rachel S. by Sylvia. “Her mother’s name, and her mother’s before that, all the way back to The Bell Jar.”

Die, Drew,” we insisted. We remembered what it was like after only two months. We told Rachel to focus on the blue details of the mystical city—cerulean gates and wooden doors, turquoise ceilings of synagogues and iron grates over windows—which Natan explained are painted that color as protection from evil spirits.

We said it again in Jerusalem, after our visit to Yad Vashem. If our rabbis encouraged us to blame suicide on God—who each year inscribes in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and seals on Yom Kippur, who shall live and who shall die—Sam proposed Hitler was at fault for our losses. Generational trauma, he explained. Descendants of Holocaust survivors might have greater risk for anxiety disorders. And even though our roots trace back to other persecutions, ancestors who fled pogroms or inquisitions, after Yad Vashem, we felt the history of the Holocaust belonged to all of us. But Ben H.’s grandfather really had survived, grown close with Elie Wiesel at Auschwitz. “So really, it’s his fault about your brother,” Drew said to Ben.

“Die, Drew,” we commanded, as if he had attacked us all.

Sam cut us off, delving back into science to teach us a lesson about our own recovery. He explained that descendants might also inherit traits that promote resilience, and we could tell this is what he wanted us to believe.

Later we repeated it for no particular reason, because we were used to saying it or got a thrill from the sound: “Drew, die,” when he asked to borrow a shekel or woke us from a nap crinkling a bag of bamba, when he took the seat we preferred on the bus, or delayed our departure from hostels in the mornings.

• •

“Oh, come on,” Drew complains now to Natan. “It’s the spirit of the day. Rah, rah, Masada!”

“Masada is not for jokes,” Natan corrects him. “You have to respect the history.”

Natan looks at his watch, instructs Sam to round up those of us who are brushing our teeth without toothpaste or dawdling at tying the laces of our hiking boots.

We wipe away the sand that coats our lashes and grumble as we hoist our backpacks. Already we can see hints of light where just moments ago there were stars, the kind of light that feels like seeing with our eyes closed.

Yalla!” Natan says, both cheer and command. This is another word he taught us, which we have taken to with equal enthusiasm. “Let’s go!” He directs us to the foot of the trail.

• •

In the beginning, when Natan asked us why we are here, we explained that our families felt we would understand the country, or maybe they felt that the country would understand us. It is full of ruins, they said, but also archaeological preservation, an attempt to restore what was lost. They wanted us to see the Kotel—remnants of our holiest temple twice destroyed—and the fervor of the Jews who pray there. Jews love symbolism, but they extended the connection beyond metaphor. They wanted us to talk to Israelis who had survived: the Holocaust and World War II, the fight for independence, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War; sometimes, a single Israeli who had survived them all. Israelis are fighters, they told us. Some of our parents wanted us to see that it is possible to overcome any tragedy. Some thought we might meet our match and find we could no longer continue our habits of mourning, which they thought we had extended too long. Some of us lost parents, and we were here just not to be at home.

“Fighters, sure,” Natan would say with his shrug of nonchalance. “It’s necessary to live here.” In Tel Aviv, he told us, we will never mail a letter if we don’t push someone out of line at the post office. In Jerusalem, the shuk vendors will take us for all we’re worth if we don’t haggle. In the Negev, we are constantly battling the heat of the day.

• •

The ramp is steep, and we climb slowly. While some of us might find a hike in the dark exhilarating, most of us need to pay attention to the precise movement of our feet. We are reminded of the first days after, when our grief manifested in our legs: it took us ten minutes to find a matching pair of shoes, which we then couldn’t tie; we had to be driven everywhere because we couldn’t convince our legs to move. Jonah, who used to swim even in Wisconsin winters at the lake by his house, said he nearly drowned the day after he found out about his cousin. We knew he wasn’t exaggerating. Our legs went leaden just thinking about it.

As we climb, Natan narrates the story of this mountain. All of us have heard it before. From Hebrew school, we remember it as the tale of a desert fortress of defiance and an unsettling kind of victory. Some of us know fragments, some of us know it by heart, but we are willing to hear it again. We are people who mark our years through the repetition of stories. On Simchat Torah we conclude Deuteronomy in one breath and in the next begin Genesis, so that just as soon as we have finished our retelling, we start retelling again.

The Romans had invaded the land of Judea, wiping out any resistance in their path. When they conquered Jerusalem, enslaving the Jews or exterminating them, only a few escaped the massacres. These were the Sicarii Jews. They fled to Masada and the protection of its nearly impregnable fortress.

“The Jews knew the Romans were coming after them,” Natan tells us, our breathing heavy behind him as we try to keep up. “They weren’t going to win the battle. From atop Masada, they could see the Roman legion below, nearly fifteen thousand strong, building camps, a siege wall, and the ramp we’re walking up now. The Sicarii knew they didn’t stand a chance, with no hope for reinforcements. They thought they were the last Jews in the world. There were only 960 on Masada.

“But the Jews had been slaves in the land of Egypt, and they were not going to be slaves in their own homeland. They were not going to stand by to watch their women abused and their children forced into the Roman army to conquer other lands.”

Natan pauses along a flat ridge, a brief respite from the vertical climb. After watching our feet to prevent ourselves from stumbling, we look up at a brightened sky, the lighting changed from dark to dim. We have memorized the promotional photos on postcards, the panorama of the Dead Sea glimmering under the morning sun, the sienna of the Negev stretching out into the horizon. But from here, we see Masada only as the Romans would have. Behind us, the desert ripples into the distance. Ahead, the mountain itself is a wall, a beige barrier dividing us from the fortress. The Romans built this ramp by pushing land up against the mesa, Natan tells us. They literally moved the earth to eliminate the last thousand people who defied them.

“It took the Romans months to build this ramp. When they finally entered the fortress, what they found”—he pauses to make sure he has our attention, as if we don’t already know—“was a citadel of death. The Jews had taken their own lives rather than be conquered.”

“Yeah, well,” Josh says too quickly, almost interrupting Natan, “what you’re going to have here today is a Roman Ramp of death.” We laugh at our utter exhaustion only halfway up the mountain.

“Josh, die!” Drew seizes the opportunity to use our scold against us. “Masada is not for jokes,” he says in his best imitation of Natan’s accent.

“Drew,” Natan says like a commander to an errant soldier, “this is not kavod. Not how you show respect.” Natan doesn’t wait for an apology. He pushes us onward, pausing only once to point out an ibex perched on a narrow ledge.

• •

Each day, we have gathered for what Natan calls a session. Sometimes he brings us to a park, other times to a conference room in our hostel after some spectacularly mediocre buffet meal. Always, we sit in a circle. Sam leads the sessions, probing us to analyze how our activities move us forward in our “healing process.” Could we extrapolate some meaning from our night of dancing in Tel Aviv? What did we gain sifting through ancient artifacts at an archaeological dig? What did we learn about loss on Mount Herzl?

Some of us have been willing to share more than others. After swimming in the Mediterranean, Leah noted simply, “It felt good.” We admitted, only some of us out loud, that we knew what she meant, the pleasure of sand burning the soles of our feet and salt stinging in the places we had nicked our skin. One day Ben H. counted twenty-five thousand steps on his watch and confessed that five months ago in the weeks after he lost his brother he hadn’t hit more than a hundred a day. Sam transforms our activities into progress: having fun, for us, is an accomplishment. We joke that a low threshold for success is how Sam must keep his job. But mostly we learn to participate.

In Haifa, Sam asked whether any of us would lead the session. We looked skeptically around the hostel conference room, which was plastered with posters for museums we had already seen and the ubiquitous threat of Masada.

“I’ll do it,” Rachel S. quietly volunteered. She offered to lead us in a meditation. This was the type of activity most of us would have resisted—all of us, had the idea come from Sam—but because it was Rachel, we gave in. This was something she used to do with her mom, she explained.

When we calmed ourselves out of the mumbling that accompanied her instruction to close our eyes, Rachel began, “I want you to imagine a light.”

Even with our eyes closed, we knew the voice that said, “Go toward the light.”

“Drew,” we started, but Rachel had control.

“This requires everybody’s cooperation.” She waited patiently before beginning again.

Our light, Rachel instructed, could take whatever form we wanted. But it should be comforting: maybe a candle, maybe the sun. It should start inside us and radiate outward. We felt it tingle our legs, rejuvenate our sore limbs, satisfy our stomachs. We imagined it bursting from our fingertips or emanating as a soft glow from our chests. Rachel’s voice guided the light through our throats, quenching a kind of thirst. When we felt the brightness pulse behind our eyes, Rachel said, we should open them.

We were surprised by the different qualities of our lights. Josh imagined the blinding white of his college football stadium as he ran out of the tunnel onto the field. Lilah pictured her family’s home by the beach, the pink and orange hues at sunset. Jasper’s light was from his headlamp. We laughed at that, but it seemed like the right image. A light that would let us use both hands to find our way in the dark.

• •

Ben C. has been up Masada before. He was fifteen then—eight years ago, when he couldn’t have imagined he would need a trip like this. He lost three friends in two years at one of those colleges where they had to stop reporting suicides, afraid the publicity encouraged more.

We prod him for information.

“So we’ll get to the top of the mountain and watch the sunrise, like it’s this big deal that doesn’t happen every day,” Ben says. He’s not much of a romantic. “We’ll look into the valley where they tossed all the bodies. They’ll point out that here we are, Jews who are free. They’ll have us shout into the valley, ‘Am Yisrael Chai!’ The people of Israel live. Physics and all, it’s just an echo. But they’ll tell us we can hear the Jews of Masada say it back.”

Some of us are not in the mood for this kind of bullshit. We don’t need a contrived opportunity to speak with our dead. But some of us could really use it—the girls, mostly, who accept that it will be their own voices they hear echoing.

“But isn’t that sort of beautiful?” Amanda says. “The idea that their voice is your voice now? That they’re carried on in you?”

We tell her yes, it is kind of beautiful, because we are all in love with Amanda. It was her twin sister. We imagine how years from now, maybe on her thirtieth birthday, her parents will call to send their love, and for an instant when Amanda picks up, it will be her sister they will hear on the phone.

• •

We spent Shabbat in Jerusalem. The entire city paused—the streets emptied of cars, the shops closed in deference to the day of rest—allowing us to observe the intimate details of its architecture. Without the daily bustle, we noticed bullet holes in the walls throughout the Old City, the smoothness of frequented sidewalks, the sepia glow of Jerusalem stone refracted in afternoon sun.

On Shabbat, Natan told us, we are imbued with a neshamah y’teyrah, an extra soul. While at home we would have resisted a call to religion, most of us ignoring the weekly occurrence of Shabbat, in Jerusalem we returned to the possibility of mysticism.

We considered how, even after ten days of constant company, when we might have been overwhelmed, instead we felt relieved to be together. At home, we had learned to censor our stories: some of us had stopped speaking about the people we lost; some of us substituted in another protagonist. We saw how their names had become synonyms for suicide, how it had become a kind of sin to invoke them. But in Jerusalem, in the quiet of the Shabbat afternoon, we put them back into our stories. We shared how our dads served us inedible dinners, how we ate cereal for most meals in our formative years. The long list of obscenities our cousins would shout at us or at the TV during football games. How our friends loved to reenact rom-coms, singing the wrong words to “Bennie and the Jets” as they danced on countertops at the bar. We compared their more terrible moments. Jacob’s roommate once left a can of Chef Boyardee open for months, buried under papers on his desk, and when they finally traced the source of the stench, they could swear the fungus was moving. Rachel’s mom had slammed Rachel’s tiny finger in the car door, and her nail had turned purple as the inside of a mussel shell. Jasper’s girlfriend burned off his left eyebrow in a fit of fury; we leaned close and saw where the hairs never grew back.

We considered whether they were our extra souls, hopeful the mystics believed they returned to us each Shabbat. But Natan said no, the second soul wasn’t theirs. It was more about spiritual potential. It’s like this, he said, pointing to the damp spot on Lilah’s shoulder where she had wiped her eyes. In retelling her stories, she had laughed so hard she cried.

• •

We’re nearing the top of the mountain when Drew comments, “We’re the Romans here.” He kicks a rock off the edge of the trail and watches it skid down.

We know what comes next. We don’t give him the chance to say it. “Yalla!” one of us shouts, setting off the whole group. With all the breath our lungs can spare, we yell this other word Natan taught us: Yalla, yalla! Sam interprets the decibel of our chant as genuine enthusiasm and beams a goofy smile of pride—in us, in his program, in our metamorphosis. But what we mean is not “Let’s go.” We chant it with venom. We chant it just to create noise. To cover the thought that has haunted us since the beginning of this trip.

If we are the Romans, we are climbing up this ramp to find a thousand suicides.

Even now, when we think about how we found out—for some of us, how we found them—it triggers a synapse. Our hearts speed up, our stomachs revolt. We brace ourselves for the moment we breach the wall, discover their bodies lying there, and have to go through it all over again.

Sam has explained that trauma manifests itself in a physical way. Our bodies don’t know the difference between past and present. Each time we remember, we react exactly as we first did. We know what it’s like to find one, to find a thousand suicides. We have to teach the mind to overpower the body, Sam says. Hence, the hiking. We have to climb past the point when our legs want to quit, past the point when our hearts want to give out.

Sensing our tired legs are not the cause of our slowness, Leah describes a different scene waiting for us. Picture it like this, she says: like the Army of the Dead from The Lord of the Rings, the original 960 Jews glowing green and translucent and standing guard atop Masada. We like the idea of an army, wearing armor and wielding swords. We expand our infantry to include everyone who took their own lives—our parents, our siblings, our friends, but also Kurt Cobain, Robin Williams, Hemingway. They are somehow ours, too, our own personal loss. They’re all waiting for us to fight with them, Leah tells us, and we have to get there before sunrise. Before they disappear. Imagining this, we pick up the pace.

• •

When we arrived last night just after dark at the base of Masada, we were grateful that on our final night we would be together under a tent. We could blame the cold and the cramped quarters necessitating the overlap of our bodies. While we thought Sam might have a fit—they really shouldn’t be sleeping together, he fussed—Natan didn’t think twice about it. He shrugged. “Kachah, he told us. “Don’t make it a problem.”

We pushed our mats together, slept intermingled. Bens draped over Sarahs, woven together like the carpet we slept on. Joshes bookended a row of us. Mostly, it wasn’t sex. Mostly, we were in our own sleeping bags, which separated us only as much as a bookmark divides pages. Lilah’s head nested just under Jasper’s chin; they reminded us of Russian dolls. Rachel S. and Jonah rested back to back, shoulder blades aligned like watchmen. We felt safe, imagining them as two guards who had closed their eyes for only a moment.

Throughout the night, we woke intermittently to the chill of the air, and in those seconds before our brains adjusted to accommodate reality, we might have embraced Drew. We might have opened our eyes this morning to find him so close that we could confuse his fingers with our own. But only Amanda had patted the open patch of carpet next to her as an invitation to him. She thought she remembered Drew dropping his mat a gaping foot away from hers. But when she rolled over in the sleepless night, she reached for him and then through him, finding his shadow was just a trick of the darkness.

In the tent, it mostly wasn’t sex, but sometimes it was. Just a few of us paired off, and only in the corners, which we left available like the edges of a field the Torah requires us to save for those in need. And even then, it was different. It started with the touching of fingertips. We observed the texture of our calluses and challenged: Can you feel this? We found the peeling sunburns at the backs of our necks, the tops of our shoulders, the edges of our collarbones. We rubbed so that we revealed new skin, tender and raw. We lifted our shirts and pressed our bodies together to share the grumblings in our stomachs. When we were inside each other, it wasn’t really sex. We were the beast with two backs, conjoined to protect a single, soft underbelly.

And even when it was sex, when we were plain and simple fucking, we understood. When we rolled off our mats this morning, we pretended we didn’t know who spent the night in the corners. On another night, in another tent, we might have been there too.

• •

At the top of the trail, an archway signals the entrance to the citadel, reinforced by the work of a restoration team. We trace scars where they repaired the stones. As we pass under the archway, we find that the fortress is empty. We are the first ones on Masada this morning.

After our vertical climb, we are relieved by the gentle slope of the plateau that stretches under our feet. The crumbling walls that surround its edges have a history we’re sure Natan will narrate for us later. For now, we take off our backpacks and our extra layers, enjoying the kiss of cool air against hot skin.

We congregate by the eastern wall, which is only as high as our waists, allowing us the promised panorama of the Dead Sea and desert. But the sun is absent from the scene, and it is light enough that we wonder whether we missed its rising. Jasper tells us it is possible for the day to begin without a sunrise. He spent college nights staying up till morning, a midwinter tradition of gathering by the hundreds on library steps to watch the sun rise—cheering drunkenly, lighting fireworks, celebrating with cigars to encourage the earth in its daily rotation—and sometimes discovering that all they could see was fog.

Now, we watch the sky turn pale, bright even, and consider that the summit itself is not enough. We will not be denied this morning spectacle when, we feel, we cannot take another loss.

As Ben C. predicted, Natan summons us to gaze down into the valley. “You know this story. I’ve told it to you. You’ve heard it growing up,” Natan says. “We glorify these Jews who took their lives rather than succumb to the enemy.”

We wait for him to offer a sermon on suicide we have heard before: they did it because depression is a burning building, and they chose to jump rather than be consumed alive.

“The Sicarii thought they were the last Jews. When they took their own lives, as far as they knew, they extinguished the Jewish people. This is not a story of defiance. It is a story of defeat,” he says, knowing his is an interpretation we haven’t heard before. “For years, it was our tradition that our soldiers hike up Masada to swear their oath of allegiance and declare: Masada will not fall again.”

Natan adjusts his hat so he can look at us all directly. “The people who you love who could not carry on—they are not the Jews of Masada. Your loved ones were in a battle. They lost, but we don’t know how long they battled to live.”

On principle, we oppose sentimentalism. It takes advantage of our compromised emotional state. But Natan is not our therapist. He led us through the desert, our commander, our source of resilience.

“You are the Jews of Masada,” he continues. “When you go home, we will not be here to force you up mountains in the dark. It’s your challenge to find a way to survive even under insufferable conditions. The Romans are coming every day. You must choose to fight.”

Here, he pauses. We are expecting his command to project into the valley: Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live.

As we wait in anticipation, we hear Drew, staring off into the sunless east, mutter maybe only to himself, “A little anticlimactic.”

Because we are primed to shout, because it is what we have been saying all trip, the cry that echoes from the valley is “Drew, die!”

Those words echo louder than we would have imagined.

We’re not sure which one of us speaks next. Maybe we all say it, in our heads, but what we hear is a single, clear voice. The thing we told ourselves we would never say; the thing we’ve wanted to say to Drew all trip: “Might as well make like the Jews and kill yourself now.”

“Ha,” Drew laughs, slowly at first. “Ha ha. Ha! ha! ha! Hahahahahahahaha!” He laughs so hard he clutches his stomach. “HA! HAHA! HA! HA! HAHAHAHA!” He laughs so hard he cries. This is when we understand. He has already tried.

When he catches his breath, he starts over. “I’m Drew, from New Jersey. Myself, last year. Almost.”

We hate ourselves but can’t help it—we scan his body for evidence.

He lifts his hands as if accepting arrest. “Nothing to see. They pumped my stomach.”

Sam tries to establish some sense of authority. “They don’t have trips for people in his situation,” he explains.

Drew gets the punch line: “If they lead us up a mountain, we might jump.”

Some of us laugh, picking up where Drew left off, but mostly because our stomachs are churning up something, and if we don’t laugh, we will puke. We let out a terrible cackle, a gargled version of everything escaping at once.

Years from now, when our loved ones are dead even in our dreams and still there are days when we stare too long into the bottom of a coffee cup, searching for sediment grinds and the words we wish we could tell them, we will think about this moment. How, for an instant when we looked at Drew, we thought we saw our army materialize in a phalanx behind him. The 960 Jews of Masada, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Avicii. Everyone we lost this way, glowing green in their eternal armor. We love you, we love you, formed on our lips. But as we started to say it, we saw that the glow of our army was only the sun; it was only Drew standing before us. Those words were meant for someone else. All we said to Drew was, “Thank you for telling us.” We imagined he had received a lot of pity—we ourselves had received a lot of pity—so we left it at that. For years we will wonder whether that was enough.

But the sun, we agree, is why we climbed Masada. With exaggerated urgency, Sam directs our attention eastward. “A new day dawns,” he says. We roll our eyes but look anyway.

• •

In our photos from Masada, we are silhouettes, all of us posed against the remnants of an ancient wall. The camera focuses on the sun, a glowing yolk in the sky beyond us, illuminating the desert flats and the Dead Sea below. In our photos, you can’t see our faces. Only we will remember whether we smiled.

We climb down the mountain by a different route, on the endless steps of the Snake Path. We shed more layers as the heat returns. Dust collects inside our lungs, and we breathe heavily again from the unexpected strain of descent. Each step we take is a bend at the knee, a bow, a type of prayer.

After, Natan takes us to the Dead Sea. By now, the sun is up in the sky, once again reddening our burnt skin. The same way it has every day in Israel, hardly a miracle. It is so strong, Sam makes us wear T-shirts into the water. As we wade in, the salt seeps through our shirts and our bathing suits, stinging our bodies even in places that aren’t exposed. Ever our guide, Natan recites to us facts about the Dead Sea, how its extreme salinity renders its waters virtually lifeless, how far we are below sea level. We joke that we have already been here: the lowest place on earth. Yes, Natan says, but your buoyancy is different. We lean back and find that we float.