The Bean Seed / Grazing Fire
By Nurit Zarchi
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
The Bean Seed
Back in the day, we moved a long way from the center of town, which made me feel like we’d gone to live in the Wild West. And yes, the air was filled with a sense that the place wasn’t safe, that the good old middle class moral code hadn’t yet reached it. We befriended a couple who lived downstairs. I would go visit them with my eldest daughter, who mainly liked to have fun and play with Lardal, their giant of a dog whose breed I was never quite able to identify. My daughter was very curious about the dog and often asked, “Mommy, is Lardal their son?”
I felt a certain sense of relief finally meeting people who weren’t subjected to the tyranny of the traditional family structure, though there was a certain desperate tone in their conversations with Lardal, even when we were present. One of the couple, the husband or the wife, would ask the dog, “Lardal, do you want to go out and play?” Or, “Lardal, are you hungry maybe?” And they explained to my daughter that if they listened hard enough, they could always understand what Lardal wanted.
One day when we went to see them, they almost refused to let us in. They did not spell it out in so many words because of the little one, but I understood.
Someone had killed Lardal.
My daughter asked, “Where is he?”
“He’s probably gone to be somewhere else,” they said.
“But why?” she persisted.
“He must have been tired of always being in the same place.”
“What? He wanted to be in several places all at once? He didn’t love you?”
And it was then that the woman burst into tears. Quickly, I started to take my daughter away from their door, but somehow, maybe she had heard it from her father, or from eavesdropping on a telephone conversation, my daughter seemed to understand what had happened.
“Mommy, did someone kill Lardal? Why?”
“There are bad people in the world.” I tried to make excuses.
“Are there bad people here, too? Is this ‘the world’?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Why are they bad?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe something happened to them to make them bad like that.”
“Maybe they had a thorn stuck in their finger,” my daughter said. “Or maybe the other children insulted them.”
“What do you think those other children might have said?” I asked.
“Maybe they didn’t want to play with them.”
“Yes. Maybe,” I muttered.
But I knew that this lesson, by its very nature, always repeated itself.
Under the building where we lived, there was a patch of land no one cared for and which had been left to grow wild. One day, when my daughter came home from kindergarten with a bean seed resting on a bed of cotton wool, we decided, her and me, to plant the seed in that overgrown patch.
So we did, and it sprouted, producing a tall, proud stalk. My daughter spent many hours sitting beside it.
“I see how it’s growing. I can actually see it. It’s getting longer and taller every second.”
“It is?” I marveled.
“Yes, come and see.”
But I was afraid to put my own limited sight to the test. I had bitter memories from similar sprouting classroom experiments. When I was a child on the kibbutz where my mother was the teacher, I woke up early one morning, before the usual wake-up call in the children’s house, and went to the collective garden we had planted a few days before. Nimbly, and with a certain expertise, I tore up what looked to me like wild grass, ravaging the newly sprouted vegetable seedlings.
A short time later the teacher arrived, accompanied by the other children in my class.
“Oh my!” she cried. “Who has torn up all the carrot shoots?”
“I did,” I said, still failing to realize the extent of the ruin I had inflicted. It did not take long before I understood what I had done.
“I didn’t know,” I stammered, “I thought that—”
“Those who are ignorant about gardening should not interfere with it,” the teacher scolded me. And she was right, of course.
I felt insulted, though probably for no good reason. But ignorance is often perceived, by the person who displays it, as innocence, although others might easily perceive this same ignorance as evil. The newly uprooted carrot seedlings lay dead at my feet.
Dozens of years have passed, and I have not forgotten that incident. When I heard my daughter’s heart-wrenching scream coming from under the building, the sight of the ruined carrot seedlings resurfaced in my mind’s eye.
The bean seed that had grown into a proud, tall plant now lay flat on the ground. It had been mercilessly trampled. Whatever life it had previously possessed had been taken from it.
My daughter cried with heavy sobs that racked her little body. “Who was it, Mommy? Who trampled my bean?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shocked. “Come, let’s go upstairs. We can try to plant another seed.”
“No! I liked my bean seed! I don’t want another seed.”
The seeds of evil are scattered throughout the world. Sometimes they are only discovered when they mature and are in full bloom, when there is nothing we can do. Other times they are still tiny, and then our human nature often makes us walk away and say: “Never mind, it’s so small, maybe this was just an honest mistake.”
And maybe there is no point in fighting it, because a bean seed, by its very nature, is destined to be trampled.
One evening, when I was putting my daughter to bed, she asked me, “Mommy, do you think they were the same bad people who killed Lardal?”
“No,” I tried to reassure her. “It must have been someone who wasn’t paying attention.”
“To my bean seed? Was the person who wasn’t paying attention evil?”
“Maybe. Or maybe they were just in a hurry to get to some place important.”
My daughter refused to accept that. “They should have paid more attention to my bean. What if a little girl had just happened to be there, and they had not paid attention and trampled her?”
The boy, on the cusp of becoming a teenager, held the goslings in his hands in cautious joy. He had barely been able to win them, so many had jumped at the opportunity to have these goose chicks that had been distributed by the Household Farming Committee.
They felt softer than a girl’s caress against the skin of his palms, these goslings, not that the boy had ever experienced such a touch. The boy’s father was in Tel Aviv as usual, where he worked as a treasurer. Only his mother, who was home, like most days of the week, watched him from the window as the boy gathered planks from the deserted yard to build a home for the goslings.
They were his and his alone. He named one Kalman and the other Zalman. Before long, the sound of the boy crying for the goslings at the top of his lungs became a common event along the paths of the moshav.
“Kali, Zali,” he would call as he trained them to follow him to the grocery store, the post office, and even the local youth center. They no longer looked as soft and endearing as they had when he first won them. Their golden down was slowly being replaced by long, white feathers, turning them into ridiculous-looking teen geese. But the boy was very proud of his ganders – who were actually geese.
Then, one morning, he did not seem able to shake them off as he made his way to the yeshiva.
“Have you gone crazy? What is going on here?” The guard was outraged and tried to stop the boy, waving a stick in the faces of the geese.
“Kali, Zali,” the boy scolded the geese, but they were relentless. Honking at the top of their lungs, they charged the guard, who ran away in panic.
“Go home, go home!” the boy implored them. But the frenzied geese refused to draw back, and waddled right on inside.
In the classroom, they honked incessantly as they stood under the blackboard, turning everyone in the classroom mute. The boy, who’d stopped at the door, lowered his eyes to the floor, but the rabbi simply said in this other voice, the voice he used only when he wasn’t teaching, “Be welcome here, living souls.”
The boy raised his head. Rabbi Menachem was known for the dual qualities of his voice. One was stern and strict, and sent a tremor of guilt and fear down the backs of anyone who heard. But his other voice, the one he used now, was warm and friendly. Perhaps that was why the other teachers treated him with a little derision, and the pupils responded to him with confusion.
The geese honked in reply, to the joy of the yeshiva pupils.
“Go away, go away,” the boy urged them, clapping his hands. The geese, for some reason, listened to him. One after the other, they went out the door and left.
Upon the boy’s return, his mother looked at him through the kitchen window like the mother of Sisera. She cast a hostile glance at the geese. She saw them as a sort of waste, though she happily welcomed the big, beautiful eggs they laid. The boy knew where his mother had come from and what she had gone through in childhood, which is why he tried not to confront her or trigger her sharp tongue. All that was related to war, and to hunger, bound her to there. The years she had never mentioned weighed heavily on her, impossible to ignore.
The day of the boy’s bar mitzvah approached. As expected, the members of the family were invited, and the boy’s mother bought him a white shirt, a pair of sandals, and pants with a belt. Even his father came home from his work in Tel Aviv. The garden flowers seeded their red stains around the house, and the sun exchanged caresses with the bushes in the hedges to mark the coming of spring.
The day came. In the morning, when the boy went for the final rehearsal of his sermon at Rabbi Menachem’s house, he met his niece. He thought she probably had come from France as she spoke French. The boy could not have spoken with her, even if he had had the courage to do so – which he didn’t. But her nylon stockings thrilled him deeply. The girls in the moshav never dared to even dream of wearing such fashions.
On his way home the boy was overcome by such reflections, and upon entering the house in his new clothes he experienced a moment of pure holiday joy. He sensed that the whole world was smiling at him. In the kitchen, the fine aromas of good cooking permeated the air. In a moment, they would all sit down at the table.
But then the boy’s face paled.
He had not seen them on his return.
“Er–” he started, but before he could utter a word, he ran outside and vomited. Then he sat there, without knowing if it was for a long time or a single brief moment.
“Where is the child?” he heard his father calling. “What has happened to him?”
And the guests wondered, too. “Where is he? Where has he gone? It is his party.”
When the boy finally returned, his mother, dressed in festive clothes with an apron over them, gave him a momentary look he did not want to read.
First to understand was his father, who gave the boy a pleading look. An unspoken sentence hung in the air. “Son,” he said, “don’t make a scandal. You know what this story is about.” And indeed, the boy did know. Her memory of hunger would turn each passing thing into something edible.
The boy sat down, trying to hold back his tears. As his mother stood at the head of the table with the pot in her hands, distributing the portions, he realized he had to decide whether or not he should hate her forever. It was a pivotal moment in his life, and one that would leave its mark on his future. He had to soar high above the mountain of anger that seethed in him and, in so doing, subdue the energy that would forge a new path in the core of his being.
But something – the boy did not know what it was – made him say, “Mother, look out the window and see.”
A flock of geese was in the sky taking flight, forming an arrow that pointed onward.
“It appears,” he said, trying to still the tremor in his voice, “that my geese have joined them.”
A moment more, and they were gone.