Fruit Trees Sprouting in a Field of Ash
by Judy Stanigar
The fire that almost burned our house down was set by Dad deliberately, in a way. He had the best of intentions in mind. He was not a pyromaniac. Just a man way over his head about how to grow a garden. And what a garden we had. We counted forty fruit trees, forty. But how does a man newly arrived in Israel from Poland, having escaped the gas chambers, deal with a garden? If you asked him how to chant Psalms, or how to fire a rifle, or survive the Russian Gulag, he’d have no problems doing so. He was the guy who was brought up in European cities and escaped the Nazis’ clutches only to get nabbed by Stalin into a Gulag prison before joining the Russian military to fight the Nazis. So, shortly after he and Mom landed in Israel and he went to fight in the War of Independence, Mom went ahead and bought the house with all those fruit trees. They were going to become pioneers in the dry Mediterranean climate of their new land.
Three years later, we still had a messy yard drowning in weeds with no flowers or shrubbery, just a few skinny hens. The kind of yard one expected from two people who knew nothing about horticulture or indeed anything to do with farming. But Dad was a quick study in his spare time, which was rare; he worked six days a week in construction often away from home in the new Negev towns.
“Everyone,” he said, “painted the bottom half of the tree trunks in white lime to keep insects off the trees.” He would do that too.
Mom was a skeptic. “White paint isn’t going to keep any vermin or bugs off,” she said, examining a leaf for any noticeable signs of bugs. “This is just some ridiculous fad! If you really want to get rid of pests, spray them with the same repellants we use in the house. It kills everything.”
Dad rarely went against Mom’s wishes, but in this case, he was obstinate. One Saturday morning he set out for the yard with his paint brush, a bucket of white lime paint and barrelful of determination.
We watched with fascination as he went about his task: dipping the flabby brush in the bucket and slathering the paint on the trunks. It took him the best part of the day. When he finished, he stood back and, wiping the sweat off his face with his shirtsleeves, he eyed his handiwork. Mom feigned disinterest from the kitchen window, but my sister and I went out to inspect the job with critical eyes.
My sister bent her head this way and that way. “The paint is not even on all the trunks, and looks splattered,” she finally said.
“Yeah,” I jumped in with my six-year-old enthusiasm. “It’s higher on some trees than on others. It makes the trees look funny.”
Dad laughed and waved his hand. “Crooked, splattered, it’s like a Picasso. And anyway, it will keep the insects off, so it doesn’t matter. Now our yard is like our neighbors’.”
We heard Mom scoff from the kitchen window. “It’s not like they know what they’re doing. The blind leading the blind, if you ask me. It would have probably been better to get rid of overgrown weed, so we don’t have to worry about any critters making their homes here.” That was her say on the matter before she called us in for dinner.
I liked the white tree trunks; it gave them an eerie, supernatural appearance, like they were trees, but not trees. White trunks shooting up from a sea of weeds. And at night they reflected the moonlight and glowed in our dark yard.
The following Friday afternoon, we heard Mr. Segal, our neighbor whose yard abutted ours in the back, yell for my dad, “Shlomo, Shlomo!” he called.
Mom wiped her hands on her apron and ran outside, muttering to herself, “shouting across the yard like a peasant.” I skipped after her. “Shlomo’s just come back from work and is in the shower. What’s the matter?” Her face was shiny and red from standing over the kerosene lamp cooking.
“Mrs. Tova, a snake; I saw a snake in your yard. I’m pretty sure it was a rattlesnake.” Mr. Segal waved and pointed his hands at our unkempt yard. The overgrown grass engulfed all the fruit trees.
Mrs. Segal stood next to him in her housedress wringing her hands. “This is a vilde country. Snakes! Got in Himmel!”
“Rattlers are poisonous. You’ll have to burn the overgrown grass in your yard,” Mr. Segal said, his face lined with concern. “It’s the only way to deal with them.”
Red blotches appeared on Mom’s neck. That didn’t bode well for anyone. “Burn the yard? Are you crazy? Besides by now the snake could be in your yard. Why don’t you set fire to yours? You’ve got plenty of weeds yourselves.”
Dad came running out in his shorts and t-shirt, his hair dripping wet. “What’s this about a snake?”
Mom turned to him. “He thinks he saw something like a snake in our yard. Something yellow. It could have been anything. Oh – and we should burn our yard.” She waved her hand dismissively.
Mr. Segal huffed. “Mrs. Tova, I know what I saw: it was a snake and he rattled. It’s the only way.”
“This is crazy. Lea,” Mom said turning to my sister, “go get Moishe. We’ll see what he has to say.” Mom held Moishe, our other Russian neighbor in high esteem, when it suited her. At least he wasn’t a Yekke, a German, who gave himself airs.
Lea crossed the street and a few moments later Moishe appeared, a rake poised over his shoulder. A noodle, likely a remnant of Dorka’s Friday chicken soup, stuck to his glistening chin. And for the next half hour, Dad and Moishe gingerly combed through the yard with their rakes held up high, so that if the snake appeared they’d be able to smash or rake him. I watched from our kitchen window while Mom set the table for our Friday night meal. The aromas of the soup and gefilte fish and chocolate cake made my mouth water.
After a while Dad came into the house, his tanned face sweaty and crestfallen. “Tova, we heard the rattle, and saw the color. It’s a rattlesnake all right and we can’t risk it. We’re going to set the grass on fire. It’s way too overgrown anyway.”
Mom’s face turned beet red, and a little vein flicked on her temple. “A fire? The only thing we have is this piece of property and you’re going to set it on fire?” Mom’s voice rose as she was warming to the subject. “I’ve been through the fires of hell, and it’ll be over my dead body that I’ll let you burn our yard and home.”
Moishe stood at the doorway. “Relax, Tove’chka, it’ll be fine. We know how to do this. It’s called controlled fire.”
Mom bore her eyes into Moishe. “And where did you learn this trick? In the shtetel in Minsk, before or after they burned your house down? I won’t lose my home because of a little snake you men are too scared to kill. Here, let me have this.” She reached out to yank the rake from Dad, but he held her off.
“We’re just going to put little fires to the grass; we won’t let them get big. Close the window,” he said. He motioned to Moishe. They marched out.
Dorka, Moishe’s wife, appeared in our kitchen. “Tova, come to our house and let the men take care of this. Please.”
Mom shoved us to go with Dorka. “I’m staying right here. These idiots will burn down the house.” Tears mingled with sweat ran down her cheeks. I’d never seen Mom cry.
Dorka put her hand on Mom’s shoulder, but Mom, her eyes blazing, swatted it off.
Lea and I stayed with Mom in the house. I wanted to make sure nothing happened to her.
We stood at the kitchen window; our eyes glued to the action outside. Dad made a torch out of a long stick wrapped at one end in one of the towels he brought home from the Sinai War. Moishe doused it in gasoline and then set a match to it. Yellow flames leaped out and Dad let the flames lick the tall grass.
Mom turned to us. “Go to Dorka; I’m going out there.”
“No, Mom, don’t go,” Lea pleaded.
“Go, go.” Mom shoved Lea and me aside.
We stayed at the kitchen window. I clutched my stomach, but stayed glued to my spot, mesmerized by our burning yard.
It didn’t take long before little fires were sprouting everywhere, enveloping the tall grass around the fruit trees. Dad lit one patch, Moishe another, and Mom followed and dumped a bucket of water onto the flames, a hiss followed. Smoke filled the air. Soon it was hard to make out the three figures as the whole yard was shrouded in haze, and an acrid smell pierced our nostrils. More neighbors came round, gawking, offering advice on how to best keep the fires under control. I kept my eyes on Mom. She seemed to have a hard time dousing the flames with her two buckets. By the time she refilled them, the flames came alive again. At one point it looked like they would consume her and Dad and Moishe.
The hens made a racket, something awful. Someone shouted, “Watch out. The flame’s getting close to the house!”
Dorka yelled, “Don’t just stand there – go get more buckets.”
I caught a glimpse of Mom. She seemed crazed. Her hair was matted and plastered onto her red, glistening face. I couldn’t see Dad or Moishe. I gasped for air, and Lea told me to get my asthma inhaler, but I didn’t budge. Two men appeared with more buckets. Mr. Siegel managed to get an extra-long hose that got water from his yard to ours. He aimed it at the wall of our house facing the yard.
Finally, it was over. All that remained was smoke. The gawkers and helpers went back to their own homes.
“Did you find the snake?” I asked.
“There was no snake,” Mom said, wiping her face in her dirty sleeve.
“The snake got burned to a crisp,” Dad said. “We found his skeleton.”
Mom glared at him. “I’m going to shower first. You’ll have to take a cold shower,” she said as she stormed inside. Dad put away the buckets and rake and followed.
The air was thick with gray smoke, and the stench clung to our noses. Lea and I surveyed the yard. It looked ghostly. The white tree trunks were white no longer, but they had survived – fruit trees sprouting in a field of ash.
Judy Stanigar was born and raised in Israel. Her short story, Fruit Trees Sprouting in a Field of Ash, draws on her childhood there. When she was a teenager, she moved to the United States with her family. She attended Columbia University and worked as a psychotherapist for many years before turning her life-long passion and love of books into writing.