They Looked Like People: Fiction by Oren Smilansky



Behind the Kfar-Savta soccer stadium, there were fields, empty areas Avichai and I liked to explore. These were swampy, vast, brown spaces that got mud-flooded every time it rained. I lived on one end of the land while Avichai and his family lived on the other. It was a sort of steppe, and often we met in the middle, comrades in arms.


Some days Avichai brought explosives, butterfly bombs and firecrackers that we’d set off in the middle of ant hills. Once we dug a hole in the mud, at the edge of a miniature swamp. We were searching for the relics of a satanic late-night sacrifice society Avichai said he’d seen gathering for ceremony once.


“They burnt a cat alive right here,” he told me. “I saw it from my window.”


All around, there were new buildings being constructed. This whole area, at the edge of our town, bordering with Jaljalia—an Arabic village— was under development.  Our families had both just moved in.


One day we found a bundle of short metal rods, the ones you’d find in the skeletons of concrete walls if you had x-ray vision. We each grabbed one. We walked over to an abandoned shack and found, among other junk, an old computer screen. We took turns whacking at the glass, but it wouldn’t shatter, and each failed attempt caused metallic vibrations that made me drop my stick. 


At the end of the day, we left our rods upright in the mud.


The next day, the skies were an odd yellow. It looked like cold weather, but it was summer and the air was hot and thick with dust. We found our metal rods in the same spot we’d left them and carried them around like swords. There were no other kids around. Hardly any families had moved into the new apartments yet, and you could see plastic wrappers covering some of the windows and doors like blankets. There was enough lumber lying around for the upcoming Lag Ba’Omer bon fires.


Close to a busy street by the business district, we found a long row of cactuses.  Some of them stood taller than us, and if you stood in front of them they looked like people. We discovered that it was satisfying if you slashed through them; the cactuses were juicy on the inside. Each time you went at one it felt as though you were severing a head. We called this game “Sleepy Hollow,” after an American movie we’d seen.


I imagined getting in trouble for destroying the cactuses. ‘10 YEAR OLDS ARRESTED FOR SEVERE VANDALISM AT SOCCER STADIUM,’ the headlines would read. It would turn out that cactuses were actually more expensive than we’d imagined — more valuable than our own lives. 


Avichai said “Shit,” a split second before he hit my arm.


I dropped my rod immediately and moved around aimlessly, the way a person will when he’s stubbed a toe.


Eventually I sat down and cried.



As we walked towards my apartment, Avichai apologized more than once. I didn’t forgive him, but I didn’t hold anything against him, either.


“You think it’s broken?” he asked.




“You probably need x-rays?”





At home, my father was taking a nap in his room. I opened his door slowly.  A wave of smoke, even thicker than the one that sometimes filled the living room, hit my face—it was the kind of scent that gets stuck in clothes and blankets.


I knew that I’d need to sound slightly pathetic. I didn’t want to upset him. It was too soon after my mother’s departure, back to America. “Abba,” I said—the Hebrew word for “Dad”.


He woke, startled, and regarded me through blood-shot eyes. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. I could see the scar on his arm from the time he’d fallen down the stairs—long and scaly like the ones in cartoons. “Aaron?”


“I hurt my arm.”



The doctor said it was broken and he built me a cast. Thankfully it was my left arm. Nights were miserable. The smell, a nauseating, sour sweat; the itch, unbearable.  There were mosquitoes, and purple zapper lamps hung in every room. I drew a picture of a cactus on my cast.

Oren Smilansky was born in Los Angeles in 1988. When he was seven, he and his family moved to Israel, where they lived until he was thirteen. He holds a B.A. from UC Santa Barbara and an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University. While he spent most of his life in Southern California, he now lives in New York City. Oren works as a business and technology journalist, and is writing a memoir about his father’s private investigations firm in the San Fernando Valley. 


Curated by FORTH Fiction Editors.

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