A man I know grows olive trees on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem. They grow on the red terraced hills that rise like fat necks around the edges of the city. People driving past barely see them, and they never remember the hills afterward. They only think to themselves, as the groves slide past their window, that Jerusalem might be beautiful after all. In her own way.
The man is old now, although he was only forty when I met him. That was ten years ago. Some people are not old until they are sixty or seventy. The strong ones, the grandparents who laugh too much and play backgammon with their neighbors, don’t become really old until they reach eighty. But the olive grower was an old man at forty-eight.
That was the year they killed his son.
He has five sons, including the dead one. That’s a lot of sons, you might think. If you told him that three or four years ago, he would have smiled a polite, disagreeing smile that made the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkle into arrows pointing inwards. He has dark eyes.
It doesn’t seem like so many sons now. When you take one from five, you’re left with not-so-much. Not four. Four is something, four is even a lot. But what they don’t tell you in the early years of grade school as you struggle to add and subtract on your fingers is that the fingers you put down don’t go away. So one from five is never four, it’s just five minus one.
Let me tell you about olives.
An olive is a page. It doesn’t mean anything, but it is interesting because of all of the ways in which it has not yet been used. Humans were planting olives before they knew how to write their thoughts on paper, and six generations later their offspring were carefully picking fruit off the same tree. They squeezed and crushed their crop to make its dark, liquid soul come out. This they rubbed into their chest muscles and poured over their king’s hair and spread on their dead.
He cried a lot when his son died, people say. I never saw him cry, but that’s what people say. They say that at the funeral, his voice was steady and he stood up straight the whole time with tears rolling down both cheeks like rain on a brown wall.
When you pick an olive off the tree, it is green or purple and so sour that you have to spit it out before your teeth can reach the pit. The olive grower used to pick them as he worked, wipe them on the corner of his shirt, and suck on them throughout the day. He said the sourness woke him up.
He would suck an olive as he walked from terrace to terrace on his hill, stopping every so often to greet one of the workers. They collected the olives in crates that a black-eyed and bearded man drove to the factory, one hand holding a cigarette against the steering wheel and the other poised hungrily to honk at other drivers. The olives traveled the length of the country twice, first in crates and then again in sleek square bottles. They were golden green with white letters that curled in exaggerated whorls on the labels.
I did not go to the funeral. My girlfriend wasn’t feeling well that day. My paper was being published that month. There was a problem with the car battery.
Also, I did not want to go.
The olive grower told me, when I first met him, that there is no tree in the world as interesting as the olive tree. I said yes, they are very beautiful. He smiled his polite and disagreeing smile. No, he said, they are very ugly. They are the ugliest and most interesting trees in the world.
I was on a tour when I met him, a six-day agricultural circuit of central and southern Israel. Each day, the group shrank a little more as members decided to skip the avocado grove or the banana plantation for a visit to the luxury spa at Ein Bokek. This irritated our tour guide; he reminded us frequently that the trip was the brainchild of some of the top agriculturalists in the country. The old women on the tour said that this was very nice, but the agricultural experts should have budgeted time for an afternoon by the Dead Sea. Of course we want to learn about cucumbers, said one grandmother, but we also want to wear them.
On our eyes, she explained to the octogenarian standing next to her. He snorted.
“Do you know,” asked the olive tender, “That the olive tree grows better in bad soil than in good?”
Later I learned from a colleague in the Classics Department that this tenuous fact had been noted several centuries before by Pliny the Elder, a jumped-up polymath who wrote an entire book about the right way to throw a lance. He was a close friend of Vespasian, the Roman emperor who sent legionnaires to pick apart the stone walls of Jerusalem and whose son burned the Jewish temple.
I don’t think the farmer had ever heard of Pliny or Vespasian. He probably knew about the temple, though. Everybody in Jerusalem knows about the temple. Only they know different things, different stories, and these stories are like knives that people use to cut into each other’s backs and throats and arms. So everyone in Jerusalem walks around with their arms crossed over their chest or bent double, glancing over their shoulder and nursing wounds two thousand years old and seventy years old and sixteen years old.
Every night of the tour, the old men from our group sat in the black leather armchairs of hotel conference rooms and drank scotch. They argued in hoarse, angry voices about politics in the Middle East. They argued even though they had all voted for the same party in the last election and they all agreed that the Leviathan energy deal was national robbery and they all believed with the adamant religious fervor of confirmed atheists that the next generation was ruining the country. I was too young to join the debate, but they let me sit with them and drink.
One night, as they shouted furiously at one another about an MK who had bought his wife an expensive necklace, I left the hotel to go for a walk. Their voices followed me out the lobby like a harem of invisible bullfrogs warning each other about a danger that doesn’t exist. I was out of patience. I was out of cigarettes. I wandered into one of the eternally open corner stores to pick up a pack.
The olive grower was there, hovering over the dairy shelves in the corner. He was buying milk, he told me, to drink with breakfast the next morning. He was embarrassed about this. He explained that his wife wasn’t feeling well. Otherwise she would have come to town to buy milk. Otherwise there would have been enough milk in his house for two full weeks.
I offered him a cigarette and we stood in the doorway of the store, smoking. I told him about the old men at the hotel. Talk, talk, talk, I said disgustedly. They don’t change anything. No-one in this country changes anything.
He spread his hands, palms up, and raised his shoulders to his ears. People have to talk, he said. What can you do? You want them to stop talking?
I want them to do things, I said. It’s not enough to drink scotch and feel sorry for the world.
No, he said. But they also go on tours.
Then he laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. His hand felt like a brick. Don’t blame the old people for being old, he told me.
He gave me his number and told me that I could come to his house whenever I wanted. Whenever I was sick of the city and the old people and the country, too.
I went. A year later, for two weeks in September during the olive harvest. He asked me to help gather the crop and I was glad to do it, glad to forget my reading glasses on the nightstand every day. I met his youngest sons, the wild unmarried boys who still lived in the house and hated school. Three years later, he invited me back for a weekend. I met his older sons visiting with their pregnant wives. They were short like their father and full of thick muscles in their arms and necks.
Four years later, I drank coffee on my friend’s front porch. I was passing through. We spoke about his new grandson, my new girlfriend, and the weather.
Not enough rain, he complained.
I agreed. But I work at the university. It was hard to care about a drought with your colleague trying to hijack your research on ethnic divisions under Almoravid rule in eleventh-century Morocco. I tried to explain my work to the olive grower. Jews. Muslims. Law and violence. Plus ça change, I said.
Yes, he said. But he was not interested.
You’ll come again soon, he said, holding my hand in his calloused square one.
Of course, I said.
Then I forgot about the olive grower, except when my girlfriend told our dinner guests that I was a farmer at heart or at the supermarket, when I saw his gold label on the shelves.
I was boiling hot water for morning coffee when I read the article about his son. It was on the lower half of the front page, two hundred words with another paragraph buried in the middle of the paper. There were many deaths that month, so it was a short article. There was not much to say. A confrontation had occurred in the West Bank. A clash. Words. Stones. Guns. He was dead. The police were investigating. His father was quoted at the end of the piece (page ten) saying that death was bad. Violence was bad. We hope for peace, he said, but not very hard.
I told my girlfriend over breakfast that the olive grower’s son was dead, and she cried. How many more Arabs will die, she asked, before we recognize Jewish terrorism for what it is?
I was surprised. I said, I never told you that he was an Arab.
I told my mother over lunch that my friend’s son was killed. She cursed the Palestinians. How many more young Jews have to die, she asked, before the world speaks out?
This did not surprise me, although I had not told her that he was a Jew.
I called the olive grower, but a jerky, mechanical voice told me that the number I dialed was no longer in service.
The funeral, I heard, was very nice. Many people came. I heard this from the bald man who sells cigarettes at the corner store where I had met my friend, too long ago, buying milk. The young man was twenty months dead, but the storeowner remembered the funeral well. He had many friends, the two-year dead boy who had two boys of his own, all right, but nobody’s manhood survives a death like that. Twenty-eight-year-olds who die like that become boys again. It is easier to cry for them that way.
You knew him? he asked.
I met him. I know his father.
He nodded and told me that the second pack was free.
No, I said. I want to pay.
It’s fine, he said. It’s fine.
I stopped by the house. The olive grower’s wife opened the door.
You don’t remember me, I said.
Of course I remember you, she said.
My friend was old. He looked like Noah after the flood. He walked as if his feet hurt and held his broad shoulders clenched close to his neck. He clasped my hand and put his other arm over my shoulder. It felt light, like a hollowed-out branch.
We talked about nothing for two hours. His wife served biscuits and black tea. I stood to leave. With relief. With regret. The house was empty.
You’ll come again soon, he said.
Of course, I said. Knowing that I would never come again. You couldn’t forget the country here. You could fill the house five times over with grandchildren and the olive grower would still stare at you like he was Job. And you were God.
It is good to see you, he said.
Yes, I said. Then I thanked his wife and left. I was afraid that if I didn’t, I would see the old man cry.
An olive tree lives for four hundred, five hundred years. Some people say that the oldest ones are a thousand years old. That is enough time for a dynasty to rise and fall. Time for a country to grow great and break into shivering slivers of what was once a people, like a wave smashing its face against the shore. Or against another wave.