Excerpt of The Lonely Tree

The day that Tonia Shulman first noticed Amos had begun as an
ordinary one. When her tenth-grade Civics class – and the school
day – finally ended she stretched and looked at her watch.
‘Feel like going to Café Atara for coffee and cake?’ Ilana
Rozmann swiveled in her seat to face Tonia.
Tonia shook her head. ‘Can’t. No time.’ She had heard that
the gooey chocolate cake they served was delicious, but she
had to catch her bus back to the kibbutz. Besides, she had no
money.
Ilana shook her wavy blonde hair and ran the fingers of her
right hand through it. ‘My treat,’ she offered.
Tonia felt her face flush as she stood up. ‘No. Thanks, but
I can’t. Have to work today.’ The last thing she wanted, today
of all days, was Ilana Rozmann, or any of the Rozmann family,
paying for anything else for her.
Ilana slid sideways from beneath the battered, ink-stained
wooden desk. ‘More fields to clear?’ She raised her eyebrows
and stared at the scrapes and cuts on Tonia’s hands.
Tonia held her hands out, palms up, as if to ask, what can
I do? Then she busied herself gathering books while Ilana
swayed toward the door to join her friends. Bunch of spoiled
rich kids, Tonia thought. Let them choke on it. She shrugged
into the straps of her backpack and tied the sleeves of her frayed
navy blue cardigan around her waist. She could see Ilana giggling
with two other girls out in the hall. They all wore brightly
colored shirtwaist dresses and white patent leather pumps. Tonia
watched them for a moment and her resentment faded. What
did she care? She was not ashamed of her faded blue skirt and
scuffed work shoes. She wouldn’t want to get a permanent wave
or wear stupid nylon stockings if she had all the money in the
world. That much she had inherited from her parents – a disdain
for fashion and the accumulation of material goods for their own
sake.
Though Tonia had little in common with her classmates, she
loved her new school. Thank God her father had agreed to allow
her to switch from Miss Landau’s school for religious girls
to the prestigious Hebrew Gymnasium of Jerusalem. At Miss
Landau’s they still taught deportment; at the secular and coed
Gymnasium Tonia was learning philosophy, economics, and
physics. A diploma from Jerusalem’s first modern high school
would get her into a good university. That it was located in the
snooty Rehavia neighborhood and mainly attended by the children
of professors, doctors, and government officials was a minor
annoyance.
Ilana stuck her head in the door and waved goodbye. Tonia
smiled and waved back. Ilana was nice enough, Tonia reminded
herself. Anyway, it wasn’t her fault that Tonia had no choice but
to accept her parents’ charity.
Tonia descended the wide stone steps and strolled through
the shady neighborhood with its elegant dress shops and flower
vendors. As usual, downtown Jerusalem was deserted. Few cars
passed, and the owners of many of the hole-in-the-wall shops
had closed up for their afternoon nap. She window-shopped toward
the Pillar Building on Jaffa Road to wait for the battered
bus that would take her home to kibbutz Kfar Etzion, about
a forty-minute drive south of Jerusalem. The long black bonnet
of the bus soon nosed around the corner. It had high fenders and
pop-eyed headlights on either side of its tall grill, and its side
was covered with deep scratches and dents. Since yesterday, six
of the seven windows on either side of it had been fitted with
squares of plywood.
‘Hey there, Tonia, how are you today?’ The stocky driver
– dressed in khaki shorts, sleeveless blue T-shirt, and sandals
– left the engine running and the door open. ‘Don’t go anywhere
without me,’ he called over his shoulder and raced up the
street. Tonia knew he would soon be back with a large bottle of
seltzer.
She rapped her knuckles against one of the wooden shields
before climbing onto the bus. With the windows covered, the
empty bus was dark and airless. Tonia chose the seat halfway
back, next to the still-uncovered window on the right side, where
she would have enough light to read.
By now Ilana and her friends would be lounging around
a table at the café. That’s what they did after school, threw
away their families’ money. It never occurred to any of them to
get a job. To work for anything. Tonia did not envy them their
wealthy lifestyle, but was determined to one day attain the security
that money could provide. She was prepared to work hard
for it; no one would ever have to offer to pay her way again. She
was going to be rich enough for her children to eat whatever they
wanted, whenever they wanted it. For years, she had dreamed of
boarding an airplane for New York and escaping this wretched
not-even-a-country. Now she was fifteen and would soon be old
enough to do just that, once she saved up some money. Her children
were going to grow up somewhere they could feel safe.
‘That’s only so we don’t suffocate,’ the driver said when he
came back and saw Tonia next to the unprotected window. ‘No
one’s supposed to sit there.’
‘At least until Bethlehem,’ she begged.
The driver shrugged, took his seat, and put his head back
to pour half the contents of the bottle of seltzer down his
throat. Five more passengers boarded. Three women, members
of Tonia’s kibbutz, to whom she nodded, and two young men
she did not recognize. She presumed they were Palmach boys,
stationed in the kibbutz by the Haganah, the unofficial Jewish
army. A bivouac of tents in Kfar Etzion housed a contingent of
them, the isolation of the kibbutz allowing the Haganah to conduct
illegal military training on its hillsides, far from the eyes of
the British Mandate authorities.
‘Is there anyone I should wait for?’ the driver asked, turning
around.
The passengers shook their heads, and he pulled out onto
Jaffa Road. The thick pale walls of Jerusalem’s Old City soon
appeared on their left, majestic under their battlements. A chaos
of pushcarts, donkeys, and camels mobbed the clearing outside
the Jaffa Gate. Tonia craned her neck to watch the driver of
a red delivery van try to maneuver past them, but the single bare
window allowed her only a glimpse.
At least the sky was clear, and she wouldn’t get drenched
and muddy again. She was assigned to work in the orchards and
had three hours of work ahead of her when she got back to the
kibbutz. If only she could skip work, get in bed, and read, without
having to squint in the flickering light of the old kerosene
lantern or take her book to the dining hall. Of all the luxuries
Ilana Rozmann took for granted, Tonia did envy that one – the
electric light next to her bed.
When Tonia got her dream house in America, she would fill
it with bright lights and never turn them off. And it would be
some place where they had too much water. Some place where
you could take a hot bath every evening. You could leave the
faucet running all day if you wanted. She would have a room
full of books with an enormous desk and a thick rug on the
floor. And a huge wooden table in the kitchen, where friends
and family would gather for uncomplicated, delicious food.
Mrs. Rozmann’s recipe for honey and garlic chicken. Grilled
eggplant salad. Roasted potatoes. Almonds with tea after the
meal. She would set the table simply, with white plates. Maybe
a silver rim around the edge, but no fussy flower patterns. Tonia
would sit at one end of that long table, the man who loved her
at the other. The shadows of her fantasies cloaked his face, but
she knew he was tall, slim, and had a warm smile. He would entertain
the guests with his wit, but his eyes would always linger
on Tonia.
She sighed and took out her copy of Anna Karenina in
English. The bus soon jolted to a halt at the roadblock on the
outskirts of Bethlehem, and an unfamiliar British police officer
boarded. The regular policeman was friendly and usually waved
them through. When he did stop the bus, it was to ask how things
were or warn the driver about something he had heard. But this
one was a stranger to them, young and arrogant-looking, brandishing
a nightstick, square jaw jutting high.
‘Open that,’ he ordered Tonia and poked the stick at her
backpack, which lay on the seat beside her.
His rudeness angered her and she ignored him, looking
down at Anna Karenina and pretending to read.
‘This bus isn’t going anywhere, Miss.’ He almost smacked
his lips on the ‘M’ of ‘Miss’ and bent down to bring his face
closer to hers. ‘Not until I’ve checked that none of you Jews are
carrying illegal arms. So open the bag.’
She unzipped the bag and pushed it toward him.
He turned the backpack upside down and shook it, spilling
everything out. Her schoolbooks, notebooks, and the books she
had bought for her father, still wrapped in newspaper, fell on the
seat and floor. ‘Oops. So sorry about that. Now you can unwrap
those packages.’ He tapped her father’s books.
Tonia rolled her eyes, did as she was told, and then gathered
up her things while he searched the other passengers.
‘Get those wooden panels off the windows,’ the policeman
barked at the driver. ‘Against traffic regulations.’
‘I didn’t put them on, and I can’t take them off,’ the driver
said. ‘You’ll have to lodge a complaint with the bus company.’
The policeman wrote a citation, muttering about bloody
hooligans and terrorist thugs. He handed it to the driver and
gave Tonia a nasty look before getting off the bus. Then they
pulled away, going south toward Hebron.
‘Tonia, get away from that open window now,’ the driver
said, eyes flitting between the road in front of him and the rearview
mirror. ‘Be a good girl and don’t make me have to explain
to your mother that I let you sit there.’
‘I’ll tell her it wasn’t your fault.’ She picked up Anna
Karenina. At least the time she spent riding the bus should be
hers, to do as she pleased.
The road ran over the crest of a range of hills that formed
a watershed. To the east lay the Judean Desert – naked peaks of
earth and rock, glorious in their desolation. On Tonia’s right, the
rocky hillsides glistened green, and tangles of yellow wildflowers
clung to them. These straggly flowers could not rival the
brilliant patches of pink and white cyclamen and red, white, and
purple anemones that had sprung up after the first winter rains
and just as quickly disappeared again, but they still afforded
a better view than plywood.
They were approaching Solomon’s Pools, a water reservoir
two miles south of Bethlehem, believed to have been dug
during King Solomon’s reign. The area looked like a picture
book. Cultivated plots near the pools surrounded small homes.
Vineyards spilled down the hillside.
They had just passed the large rectangular stone building
called Nebi Daniel and the driver had to slow for a curve. Tonia
glanced up and saw three figures – three young men with kaffiyahs
wrapped around their faces – rise from behind the acacias
that hugged the roadside. She watched in paralyzed fascination
as they raised their arms and threw the rocks they gripped at the
bus. In the same motion they bent to scoop up a second round.
The first barrage crashed into the bus with frightening force,
making the vehicle seem to shake. One of the women in the
back screamed, and the engine roared as the driver tried to accelerate,
but then hit the brake. Tonia could not take her eyes off
one of the Arabs. He seemed to be staring right at her as he let
loose the large jagged rock that came flying through the unprotected
window.
It missed her head but grazed the end of her nose, and she
felt blinding pain. The rock smashed into the opposite side of
the bus and fell to the floor. Tonia instinctively moved her hands
toward her nose, but was afraid to touch it. It felt as if the rock
had torn it from her face, but she looked down and saw only
a small trickle of blood dripping onto her lap. It couldn’t be that
bad. She placed a finger on each side and, reassured that she still
had both nostrils, let out a deep breath. The tip of her nose was
bleeding, but she did not seem to be badly hurt.
The driver kept glancing at her in the mirror as he maneuvered
on the tortuous road. ‘Are you all right? Can you talk?’
‘Yes. I’m okay. It’s not so bad,’ she said, resolved not to reveal
how shaken she was. She wiped the blood on her sleeve.
He did not slow down until they had gone a few more miles,
past the dilapidated village that stood high on a hill overlooking
the highway and past the summer residence of the Mukhtar
of Bethlehem. Meanwhile, the other passengers huddled around
her and subjected her to a thorough inspection, clutching the
overhead rack, as they were tossed from side to side by the motion
of the bus.
‘God in heaven, look how you’re bleeding,’ one of the women
said.
‘It’s not so bad, I don’t think, really,’ Tonia said. Her body
had begun to relax, fear replaced by exhaustion. She wished they
would leave her alone. She would be home soon, and her mother
would take care of her. ‘Just tell me – what does it look like?’
The woman took Tonia’s chin in one hand. ‘It scraped off
quite a chunk.’
One of the Palmach boys bent to pick up the heavy rock and
fingered its sharp edges. ‘Could have killed you,’ he said and
shook his head. ‘Easily. No wonder that bloody copper wanted the
plywood off the windows. Bet the bastard knew. Good thing you
opened the window. Broken glass could have blinded you.’ He set
the rock down on the seat beside her. ‘Hang on to that. Good story
for your grandchildren. You can see your blood on it.’
When the driver stopped, the Palmach boy went to the front
for the first aid kit and cleaned the wound for her. She winced as
he doused it in purple iodine and felt ridiculous when he taped
a piece of gauze to the end of her nose. ‘Looks like it might
leave a scar,’ he said, ‘but only a small one.’
The driver started up again.
‘Come, lie down in the back.’ One of the women tried to
take hold of Tonia’s arm. ‘Until you can collect yourself.’
‘I’m all right,’ Tonia said.
‘The shock of these things sometimes takes a few minutes to
set in,’ the woman said. ‘That thing almost hit you in the head.’
‘But it didn’t. It only scraped my nose.’ Tonia shrugged her
shoulders and shook her head. She could not stand people fussing
over close calls. Didn’t they know that life was one long
narrow escape?
The other passengers finally retreated to their seats.
‘One more centimeter and she’d have been a goner,’ Tonia
heard the woman say.
‘That girl has nerves of steel,’ the Palmach boy added, shaking
his head.
‘Of course,’ one of the other women pronounced, ‘a person
should have better sense than to sit there in the first place, especially
after the driver asked them not to. Some people always
have to do things their own way. There’s no talking to them.’
The driver caught Tonia’s eye in the mirror and winked. She
raised her hands in surrender, tossed the rock out the window,
and held tightly onto the seat in front of her while she moved
around to sit there. She opened her book again and squinted, but
could not read in the dark. It occurred to her that now she probably
wouldn’t have to go to work. That was almost worth a few
millimeters of nose. Finally, they turned off the Jerusalem-
Hebron road, up the feeder road, and arrived at the kibbutz.

That was the first time she saw him – when she got off the bus
by the gate of Kfar Etzion. He was working with the group of
Palmach boys who seemed to spend every waking hour digging
new outposts along the perimeter fence. He swung a pickaxe
with steady strokes, and, though the air was cool, sweat poured
off the taut brown muscles of his bare back. He straightened,
stretched, turned to take a cigarette from the boy beside him,
and grinned at something he said.
Tonia ignored the pain and tore the gauze from her face.
How ridiculous she must look, her nose all purple. She stuffed
the bloody bandage in her pocket and pretended to fuss with her
backpack, but she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He was tall and
lean. Long brown legs stretched from khaki shorts to thick blue
socks rolled down over work boots. She flushed, her gaze drawn
to the backside of those shorts and down those legs. No suntan
was that even, and his complexion was so dark that she would
later lie in bed and think of him as ‘that Italian boy’. The yarmulke
that clung to his thick black hair seemed out of place. How
could a religious person exude such a physical presence? Maybe
he wore it to be polite, since Kfar Etzion was a religious kibbutz.
In profile, she could see his strong jaw line. No need for him to
grow a pious beard. Tonia always suspected that most of the men
who had them were camouflaging the lack of a proper chin.
Then he turned and noticed her. He was not handsome but
striking, large heavily lashed green eyes above hollow cheeks.
He stared straight at her, and his face spread into an easy smile,
both friendly and challenging. Her eyes caught his for a long
moment, and she felt something inside her turn warm and liquid.
Then he threw down his cigarette, ground it out, and wiped
his hands on his shorts. He bent to pick his shirt off the ground
and started walking toward her. He was going to come and talk
to her. She felt her face turn red, as she clutched her packages
and fled. So much for her nerves of steel.
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