The Fig Tree
By Yona Zeldis McDonough
The fig tree stood in the center of the courtyard. It was small but shapely, with a supple trunk covered in light brown bark. The branches grew in a graceful, almost symmetrical configuration, and its leaves — as large as Rose's face — were a fresh, soft green.
Rose had first seen it when she’d come to this hospital in Beersheva to deliver her babies. Now she was here not to give birth, but because of a persistent, hacking cough and fever. The doctor — a precise European with manicured nails and wax coating the tips of his moustache — had diagnosed her with double pneumonia. She would need medication, monitoring and rest. Sinking into the narrow bed, she disappeared down the rabbit hole of sleep.
By the second day, the new wonder drug, penicillin, had started to work. Stanley came, clearly exhausted, from the kibbutz, to visit when his shift at the dairy was over. As he sat in the wooden chair at the side of her bed, his eyes closed and his chin came to rest on his chest. The soles of his shoes were caked with cow manure. The smell had become so familiar that Rose no longer minded it.
She stared at Stanley, willing him to wake up. She wanted to ask about their twin sons, now two, who were back on the kibbutz. Was Dov getting enough to eat? Had Rafi’s rash cleared up? Did they miss her? The boys lived in the children’s house, like all kibbutz babies.
Stanley had insisted it was an ideal way to raise children. “They’ll have multiple mothers to love them,” he said. “The whole community gets involved.”
Though she understood the practical aspects of the arrangement, Rose was not convinced. True, Dov, with his plump cheeks and plumper thighs, was thriving. He’d gurgle delightedly when she held him, though he seemed equally content to be held by the metapelet. When Rose left, he opened and closed his fist at her. “Shalom,” he seemed to be saying. “Bye-bye.” Not so with Rafi, though, who wept whenever it was time for her to go. She had to look into the dark pools of his tear-glazed eyes and reluctantly extricate the strands of her hair from his tiny fingers.
“He stops crying as soon as you go,” the metapelet told her.
But Rose did not believe her. One day, she snuck back to the children’s house about twenty minutes after she’d left. The children were outside playing, contained by a crude wooden fence. She found a crack through which she could observe. Some were using spades to pick at the dry earth; others sprinkled it with water from small galvanized steel cans. A few played ball. Only Rafi sat alone, hands idle in his lap, upraised palms mutely imploring the sun. Two glistening tracks of tears shone on his face.
Rose’s heart felt sheared in half. Should she go to him? Or would that make it worse? She stood there for a long time, her cheek pressed against the fence. Don’t cry, my little man, she begged him silently. Rose thought of the metapelet, and her bovine indifference, and seethed. Rafi did not stop crying when she left. She wanted to slap the metapelet hard across the face for her duplicity. But, of course, she did not; nor did she rush in to claim her boy, not that day, nor any of the other days on which versions of this same scenario played out.
Instead, she confronted Stanley, who was unmoved.
“Can’t you see what we’re doing here, Rose?” he asked. “We’re building a nation. I’m part of it and so are you, Dov and Rafi. Even if it seemslike he’s suffering now, he’s not. It’s sacrifice. Sacrifice for a great cause.”
Rose wavered. It was this kind of talk that had made her fall in love with him. Maybe she was wrong about the children’s house. Maybe Rafi would be all right. He was a baby, and everyone knew babies cried. She tried to view things from Stanley’s lofty perspective, not her own limited one.
Stanley snored softly, startling himself awake once, but then settling back to sleep. Rose grew impatient watching him. Pretty soon he’d have to go and they would not have had a chance to talk. But if she woke him, he’d be irritable and there would not be much conversation anyway.
To distract herself, she looked out the window. It faced the courtyard and gave her an unobstructed view of the tree. There were numerous figs hanging from the branches. Most were still a pale, translucent green, but a few had begun to darken. Earlier in the day she had seen a couple of nurses — olive-skinned sabras with dark hair and eyes — wander out to the courtyard for a smoke. The shorter, plumper of the two had walked over to the tree, yanked off a fig and stuffed it whole into her mouth. The other nurse had admonished her. Rose couldn’t make out the words but the tone was clear. The short nurse didn’t seem to care, for she pulled off another fig and ate it, too, more slowly this time.
Rose and Stanley were not sabras. They had both come from Detroit, where they had met at a meeting of Habonim, a Zionist youth group. Rose had not even wanted to go; she’d gone, reluctantly, to accompany her friend Esther Goldenfarb. Esther had a crush on Howard Lissinsky, a member of the group, and Rose went along as a loosely-defined chaperone. Esther was from an Orthodox family, and it was considered unseemly for her to be chasing after some boy. But then Rose had met Stanley, and soon she was climbing the wide, splintered steps above Rifkin’s Dress shop, whether Esther was with her or not.
Stanley. He was four years older, already a student at the University of Michigan. His father, she learned, owned a liquor store. Rose’s own parents looked down on such an occupation. Rose, however, cared only about how Stanley looked at her, the way he’d touch her elbow with two fingers to steer her gently out of the room and press her back against the cool, bare wall of the stairwell to kiss her.
At first, Rose didn’t bother listening to what was said at the meetings; she waited only for the moment when Stanley would rise, casually, and make his way over to where she sat. But, gradually, she began to pay attention. She liked hearing the names of places: Jerusalem, Beersheva, Netanya, Tel Dan, Ein Gedi, Tel Aviv. The foreign syllables reverberated like bells inside her, filling her with an inexplicable happiness. There was a lot of talk about freedom: how the Jews needed to break the bonds of their reviled status in Europe, their own martyred past, the persistent enmity of the surrounding Arab nations. Freedom was a message Rose could understand. She, too, wanted to be free: free from the incessant worry of her mother — of whose four children only Rose had survived. Free from the life she was expected to adopt — marriage to a nice Jewish boy, a house in the rapidly developing suburbs, children of her own. Rose wanted none of it. If she went to Israel, she realized, she, too, could be free. Stanley would lead the way.
Stanley dropped out of the University of Michigan and traveled thousands of miles to the newly-formed kibbutz in the Negev. Esther got married, not to Howard, whom she had loved, but to a pale, wizened boy her parents produced, like a rabbit from a top hat. Esther took a large chunk of her ample wedding money and gave it to Rose, who used it to book her passage on a boat that docked in Haifa. From there Rose made her way, by bus and then wagon, through the unfamiliar terrain of her new home: lush and green where she started, soon turning to gold, to brown and finally to the bleached ochre and bone of the desert.
Her own parents had been consumed with grief. Her mother had wanted to sit shiva, but her father had succeeded in calming her. Rose could stay in Israel, on the condition that she would return home to get married.
“I will,” she assured her father during the transatlantic telephone calls she placed from Beersheva.
“When?” her father asked.
“Soon,” she told him.
But months elapsed, and neither she nor Stanley had any inclination to return to the States. Instead, Rose got up every day at five to begin her day’s work in the laundry. She learned to drink the thick, black coffee the kibbutzniks called botz — mud — and to speak Hebrew, the austere, beautiful language.
She and Stanley were married in the dining hall of the kibbutz, Rose in a blue shift loaned to her by one of the other kibbutzniks and a veil she improvised by cutting up a lace-trimmed slip. Stanley wore a white shirt she had washed and ironed that morning. Everyone toasted their union with a bottle of wine left over from the last Pesach, and then they all went back to work. Her mother sobbed quietly into the phone when Rose told her the news. Her father said that when she had a baby they would visit.
On the third day of her stay at the clinic, Rose felt well enough to take a walk. Slowly she made her way through the corridors. The inside walls were whitewashed and grubby from the residue of many hands; the outer walls, glimpsed through the open windows, were a thick, stuccoed pink. The windows themselves were large and domed at the top. The floors were covered in glazed tiles that were decorated with blue and turquoise arabesques. This had been someone’s house, she realized. An Arab family displaced by the Zionists. Displaced, in a sense, by her, by Stanley and all the others who had come with them. An unsettling thought, and Rose tried to move more quickly, as if to outpace it.
She continued walking until she came to an open door. Here was the courtyard where the fig tree stood. She wanted see the tree up close, to bury her face in its leaves. But the nurse had told her she wasn’t well enough to go outside. She walked slowly back to her room, tired by the exertion.
When she reached the doorway, she was surprised to find someone in the neighboring bed. Rose had had the room to herself since she’d arrived, and although she hadn’t actually asked, she’d assumed she would remain alone in it. Evidently she’d been wrong. Her legs felt weak and she was glad to lie down again. The woman in the other bed had her face turned toward the wall, but Rose offered a tentative “shalom” anyway. No answer. Rose waited a moment and then closed her eyes.
When she woke, she saw that the inhabitant of the other bed had drawn herself into a tight ball, her body obscured by blankets and the thick black garment that she wore. She’s a Bedouin, Rose thought. Rose had seen Bedouins from time to time; they were nomadic, following their herds from wadi to wadi, living in tents.
Later on, Stanley came, bringing with him the smell of the dairy. He’d also brought her a small parcel, wrapped in paper and tied with twine. It was from Rose’s mother, whose last package had contained ivory satin underpants, a hot water bottle and a tin of peaches in syrup. Rose had brought the tin to the communal kitchen, where it was passed from hand to hand and exclaimed over in reverent tones. No one had seen such a thing for a long time, and it was decided that the peaches would be saved for a special celebration. The hot water bottle would be useful when she had menstrual cramps. The underpants she had hidden away in her drawer. They were pretty but out of place on the kibbutz, where the women hemmed inverted flour sacks to make towels, and saved, to use as toilet paper, the tissue in which oranges had been wrapped.
“Don’t you want to open it?” Stanley asked.
“Later,” she said. “How are the boys? Does Rafi still have the rash?”
“All gone,” he said with quiet pride, as if he himself had cured it. “See? You didn’t have to worry so much.”
Rose said nothing.
Stanley extracted a cigarette from the pack in his pocket. “Maybe I should go outside to smoke.” He stood, lanky on his long legs, and stretched. “I’ll be back.”
Rose watched him go, only to reappear, moments later, in the courtyard, where he sat on a bench and waved before lighting up. A plume of smoke drifted between the leaves of the fig tree. Her attention momentarily distracted, she didn’t see the doctor until he was standing before her.
“I heard you were up and about today,” he said in his careful, hesitant Hebrew. “Feeling better?”
“Much better,” Rose said. She loosened her robe, decorated with sprigs of violets — another of her mother’s well-intentioned but inappropriate gifts — so that the doctor could position the stethoscope against her chest. He was pleased with her progress. Then he turned his head to the occupant of the other bed. Rose still had not seen her face.
“Hello, I’m here for a look,” said the doctor. The woman didn’t move. “I need to examine you,” he continued. Still nothing. The doctor turned to Rose. “Can you get her to speak?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” Rose said.
Outside in the courtyard, Stanley had finished his cigarette and was stubbing it out with the tip of his work boot. He said something to the short, buxom nurse — it must have been amusing because she laughed — and then he came back inside. When he saw the doctor, he hesitated in the open doorway.
“That’s all right,” said the doctor. “You can come in.” Stanley entered and sat down. “She’s much better today,” the doctor added, looking at Rose as if he’d hatched her. “That new drug is a miracle.”
“We’re living in an age of miracles,” Stanley said. “How to explain all this?” He gestured to include Rose, the doctor, the room, the whole hospital with its courtyard and green, fruit-laden tree outside.
The doctor smiled. But his smile faded when he glanced over at the other bed. The woman who occupied it had neither moved nor spoken during this entire exchange.
Rose and Stanley watched as he moved closer to the bed and touched the woman on the shoulder. She flinched, and he removed his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. The doctor waited and, then, gathering up his bag, he went to the door. “I’m going to have to examine you. But I can do it later if you prefer.” To Rose he said, “You, I will see tomorrow. Keep up the good work.”
“I guess I’ll be going, too,” Stanley said. Rose nodded. “Is there anything I can bring you?”
She wanted to say, “Bring Dov, bring Rafi,” but she shook her head.
“All right then. Tomorrow.” His feet, in their boots, thudded down the hall. From a distance, Rose heard a low, musical laugh. Was it the nurse from the courtyard? And was she laughing at something Stanley had said?
Rose closed her eyes and slept. When she woke, the sky had deepened to a warm, orange color, as if the entire world were briefly lit by flames. The walls of the room glowed and the fig tree outside was a vivid, almost incandescent, green. Suddenly Rose wanted a fig from that tree, a fig that was deep purple and so ripe it was splitting its skin. She could imagine devouring it whole, as had that nurse, the one Stanley seemed to like. The fig would fill her mouth with its sweet pulp; the crunch of seeds would catch in her teeth. But she was too weak to go out and get it.
The nurse came in with the dinner tray. Fried cauliflower, fried eggplant, fried potatoes, all covered by the same film of shining grease. The odor sickened her and she replaced the cover gently.
“Not hungry?” asked the nurse. Rose shook her head and pushed the tray away. When the nurse had left, she saw that the tray still remained by the bedside of her roommate. The woman was still on her side, motionless.
Rose reached for the package that Stanley had brought earlier. Gently, she slipped off the twine and tore at the paper covering the box. Inside it was another, larger tin, and inside this tin, swathed in tissue, were the cookiesthat her mother had been making for as long as Rose could remember. Crisp half-moons, studded with walnuts and dusted with cinnamon sugar. Rose knew, even before tasting one, how delicious they would be. They had made the long trip, all the way from Detroit to the Negev, almost unscathed. Only one was broken. Rose lifted the morsel from the tin to her lips and bit down.
At just that moment, her roommate sat up in bed. Her black burnoose covered her body and head, but it had slipped down slightly, revealing the wild tangle of her hair, which looked as if it had never been combed. Her face was exposed, and Rose, startled by the sudden movement, stopped chewing to regard the dark oval with its long nose and full, pink lips. Her eyes, large and dark brown, had irises so large they seemed to obliterate the whites, and they were framed by full black brows and fur-like lashes. She was only a girl.
“Would you like a cookie?” Rose offered in Hebrew. She knew only a handful of Arabic words and cookie was not among them. The girl continued to stare. She did not accept the cookie but her mouth began to move, delicately, as if she were chewing. “Please,” Rose said. “Have one.”
When the girl still did not respond, Rose stood up, with some effort, for she was weak, and walked over to the other bed. She held out a cookie, but the girl did not take it. Rose was just about to return to her own bed when the girl’s hand shot out and grabbed the offering. She ducked her head by way of thanks but did not eat it; instead, she tucked the cookie somewhere within the sleeve of her voluminous garment. Then, she promptly turned over on her side, away from Rose, presenting only her mute back, in its covering of black, to Rose’s puzzled gaze.
The following day, Stanley did not come. But three Bedouin men arrived mid-afternoon to see the girl. They appeared like a trio of giants, their bare, calloused feet slapping the tiled floors as they strode in. They wore coarse black garments and their flowing beards spread out from their faces like waves. Rose shrank back into her bed, feeling exposed in her flower-sprigged robe. Where was Stanley?
The men ignored Rose and stomped over to the girl. The tallest began speaking first, his voice rich and low. The girl did not respond. Then another of the men began, and soon the third joined in. It was like an opera, all three talking and gesturing at once. Rose could not make out what they were saying, but she caught one word — Fatima.
The doctor walked in. Today his moustache was not waxed but hung over his upper lip as if it had been indifferently pasted on.
“I’m glad you came,” the doctor said to the men. “She still won’t let me touch her. Can you talk to her?” The men looked at each other and then, to Rose’s alarm, at her.
“Could you try?” The doctor followed their gaze. “Maybe she would be more comfortable with you.”
“Can’t you ask one of the nurses?” Rose replied.
“ No one is available now. There’s an emergency and we need every pair of hands we can get.” Rose must have looked skeptical because the doctor added, “Someone threw a grenade into the central waiting room of the bus station in Beersheva.”
“A grenade!” Rose sat up as if she’d been poked with a cattle prod. The worst fighting had been up north, not here in the desert.
“A lot of people were hurt.”
“That’s awful!” Maybe that was why Stanley had not come. Panic snaked through her.
“So, please, if you could just talk to this girl — ” The doctor extended his arm in the direction of the huddled black shape. His forehead shone with perspiration, his striped shirt had wilted in the heat, and he looked desperate. Here was a small kindness Rose could perform, something she could do.
“All right,” she said and gestured. “But I think these men should go out into the hall.” The men looked at each other and then shuffled out of the room. The doctor, who flashed Rose a grateful look, stepped back a couple of paces.
Rose drew the flowered robe around her and got up. She approached Fatima — for the girl was now Fatima in her mind. Rose suspected that although the burnoose Fatima wore was meant to deflect the lustful gaze of men, it was also a form of armor, giving her strength and protection. Rose’s own flimsy robe was scarcely any use at all.
“Are you frightened of the doctor?” Rose asked in Hebrew. “You don’t have to be. He’s very gentle.” When that didn’t work, she had another idea. “Would you like another cookie?”
Fatima turned and lifted her head from the pillow. Rose hurried over to where she’d stored the tin, pried open the lid, and held out not one but two cookies. Fatima reached for them. Rose expected her to tuck them away in her sleeve, but, no, she lifted one to her mouth and began to chew.
“Tasty?” she asked. “They’re good, right?” Rose waited, patiently, as Fatima ate first one cookie and then the other. There was a cup of tea, untouched, on the table near her bed. It was cold, but better than nothing. She offered it to Fatima as well. Fatima sniffed, then took a small, delicate sip.
“Where does it hurt?” Rose asked, simultaneously gesturing to parts of her body. Fatima wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and then pointed in the direction of her pelvis. Rose understood at once. “You don’t want the doctor to examine you because he’s a man.” Fatima’s head quivered on her neck; it was not exactly a nod, but it was enough. “And you don’t want to tell the men who came to visit you, either.” She paused. “That’s all right.” She turned to the doctor. “Isn’t there a woman who can examine her?”
“We have no women doctors here,” the doctor said.
“A nurse then? When things are — calmer?”
The doctor rubbed his chin. “All right,” he said. “All right.”
A couple of hours later, wanting to give the girl as much privacy as possible, Rose stepped out of the room, while a nurse examined Fatima. Feeling a bit stronger, she walked to the courtyard where the fig tree stood in all its verdant glory. Most of the figs were still green or light purple. But she spied one ripe fig, right at eye level, and she plucked it easily. She was about to pop it in her mouth when the tall nurse she had seen out here the other day came swooping down.
“You can’t eat that!” she said.
“Why not?” Rose asked.
“The soil here is not clean,” the nurse said. “It was an Arab structure, after all. Who knows what they used for fertilizer?”
Rose stared at her. Surely the Arabs who had lived here had eaten these figs and were fine. And the reflexive assumption that anything touched or grown by an Arab was somehow tainted was, in this moment, deeply offensive to her. But she was afraid to antagonize the nurse, whose help she might need.
“You’d better give it to me.” The nurse held out her hand and Rose reluctantly complied. Then, the nurse took her elbow and walked her slowly back to her room. Fatima was alone again, huddled in her familiar shape. Rose was feeling feverish but before she climbed back into bed, she asked the nurse if she could try to call the kibbutz; she was worried about Stanley. The call not go through, though, even when she tried, and then tried again. Exhausted, Rose gave up. Her fitful sleep was punctuated by dreams in which grenades were hurled across vast expanses of parched soil.
The next morning, the doctor arrived early. He was looking his dapper self again: moustache curled and waxed, fresh jacket, pressed shirt.
“Thank you,” he said as he held the stethoscope against Rose’s chest. “I appreciated your assistance yesterday.”
“How is the other . . . situation?” Rose asked. She kept her voice down, as if speaking about it in front of Fatima might be some kind of affront.
“It’s . . . under control,” the doctor said. He coiled up the stethoscope in his hand. “You, my dear, are doing splendidly. If you keep it up, you’ll be able to go home soon.”
Rose thought of the faces her babies: Dov’s round and smiling, Rafi’s thinner and so often sad. “I can’t wait.”
Stanley finally came at the end of the day. She clasped his hands in hers and kissed them over and over. “You’re all right,” she kept saying. “You’re all right.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I was nowhere near the bus station.”
“I’m so glad.” She released only one of his hands and clung tightly to the other. Stanley helped her up and they took a walk to the courtyard. Rose sat on the bench near the fig tree but did not touch it; she didn’t want to tangle with the tall bossy nurse again.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come yesterday,” Stanley said. “Beersheva was a nightmare; no buses in or out all day.”
“I know,” Rose said. “The wounded people were brought here.”
“Seven people were killed,” Stanley said grimly. “Seven lives cut short.”
“Jews or Arabs?” Rose asked.
“Jews, of course,” he replied. “I don’t know if any Arabs were killed.”
“I wonder if any of them died, too,” she said.
“The Arabs are the enemy.” Stanley said. “They want to destroy us.”
“And what about us?” asked Rose. “Don’t we want to destroy them?”
“We have no choice,” he said. “It’s us or them.”
Rose was aware of something ugly coursing through her when he spoke; it felt suspiciously like hatred. The sensation was fleeting, but it had been there.
He stayed a while longer, and the conversation turned to safer topics: they were building a new henhouse; one of the washing machines had broken down.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he told her when he left. “That is, if there isn’t another grenade.”
Rose returned to the room where Fatima lay with her back to her. But instead of remaining still, she moved her shoulders just the slightest bit. To Rose, it was a greeting.
The next morning, the other bed was empty. Perhaps Fatima had gotten up and taken a walk. Rose looked out the window at the courtyard. No one was there. And when the nurse came with breakfast, she brought only a single tray.
“Discharged first thing this morning,” the nurse said. “It wasn’t even light when they came to get her.”
“Those men?” Rose asked.
The nurse nodded.
“They scare me,” Rose said. “I’m glad they’re gone.”
By that afternoon, Rose was gone, too. The doctor had come around and pronounced her recovered sufficiently enough to leave. She still had to take the medication, and he wanted to see her again in a month, just to make sure that her lungs were clear.
Stanley was worried about the bus trip. Buses were notorious for breaking down and leaving travelers stranded for hours. And he was worried about the bus station, too. “It’s not safe,” he said. So he’d brought the wooden cart he used for carrying the milk from the dairy into Beersheva. The cart was pulled by a gray mule with a bent ear and a tail that swished rhythmically at the perpetual cloud of flies. Stanley helped Rose climb up. He’d folded an old blanket and laid it over the seat, and there was a basket at her feet that contained a thermos of coffee, a canteen of water and three oranges. “Got to keep your strength up,” he said, kissing her forehead tenderly.
Guilt flashed through her. How could she have been angry with him? So he took a hard line against the Arabs. Wasn’t the entire state of Israel just one long, hard line against the Arabs? And if she objected, then what was she doing here?
Two weeks later, spring came to the desert. Cacti bloomed and the sky was a cloudless blue. Rose, as instructed, took the bus back to Beersheva. There was a delay at the hospital and she went to wait in the courtyard. A noise at the window made her turn, and there, behind a dust-smeared pane, was Fatima, holding a packet wrapped in worn brown paper.. She, too, must have returned for a check-up.
Rose walked toward the open doorway where Fatima now stood. Without smiling, Fatima untucked the corner of the packet she held and offered it to Rose. Nestled inside were six perfectly shaped, ripe figs. Their dark, striated skins seemed ready to burst and even their pliant stems looked edible. Rose took one and lifted her gaze so she could thank Fatima. But the doorway was empty. Fatima was already gone.