Neil Waldman: Gazelles Manuscript
Copyright Neil Waldman
Years ago, I worked as an olive farmer in the Jordan River Valley.
The valley was long and deep, a vast trough with an emerald stream sparkling through it, and grass-covered hills rising up on both sides. Beyond the hills, the snow-capped peaks of Mount Hermon shone pink in the morning sky.
I loved living in the valley.
Each day, when work ended, I’d jump onto my tractor and speed up into the hills.
I discovered some amazing places: a hidden glen where groves of bamboo sprouted from a crystal-clear spring that bubbled up from the valley floor, the ruins of a Crusader castle that overlooked the valley from a hilltop known as “Star of the Jordan,” and miles of mountain meadows where an endless array of wildflowers blossomed in wave after wave of breathtaking color.
It was two o’clock on an April afternoon.
The workday had just ended, and while the other workers headed for siestas in their air-conditioned rooms, I left the olives, filled my canteen, and started hiking.
I quickly discovered that the hillsides, which looked like manicured greens from the valley floor, were actually meadows of windblown grasses that brushed against my thighs as I climbed.
I turned and looked back.
The valley was spread out before me like an illuminated map, with the orange rooftops of a dozen settlements strewn about the valley floor. A checkerboard of fishponds glistened, blue-green rectangles shimmering alongside the river. And far beneath me, at the foot of the mountain, was my tractor, now just a tiny red speck.
I continued climbing.
Making my way into the hills, I discovered a network of narrow trails winding left and right as they cut through the grasses. I chose one, and after half an hour, I came upon a barbed-wire fence that crossed the trail, directly in front of me. The barbed wire was as high as my shoulders . . . but amazingly, the trail continued on the other side, as if no fence existed! I stood there wondering what kind of creature could have passed through this fence, or perhaps under it? Draping my shirt over the barbed wire, I carefully made my way to the other side.
An hour passed.
Higher in the hills, I came upon a grassy meadow with a flowering cherry tree at its center. Its blossoms were quivering, and there was a rustling sound coming from it. Proceeding on tiptoe, I had almost reached the tree, when a gazelle burst out from behind it.
Now, there was a second . . . and a third!
I stood there transfixed, as gazelle after gazelle shot out from behind the tree.
In a flash, sixteen gazelles were sprinting away in single file, like ballet dancers floating through the air.
I spotted a second barbed wire fence in the distance.
The gazelles zigzagged toward it, and a second later, they sprung (effortlessly) over it,
Tingling from head to toe, I continued hiking.
Springtime slipped into summer.
The wildflowers shriveled and died, as the hillsides turned brown, then bone white.
The valley had become a raging cauldron, with wildfires whipping through the wadis, and plumes of black smoke spiraling into the sky. Across the valley, millions of jagged cracks appeared, like thirsty mouths opening in the earth, waiting for the rains that wouldn’t fall again until September.
I was chosen, along with seven others, to plant a new lemon orchard at the foot of the mountain. Considering the torrid temperatures, we’d start work before sunrise, and finish at noon.
That first morning, my alarm clock started ringing at 3:40.
I splashed cold water onto my face, yanked my work clothes on, and stumbled out into the darkness. Heading for the communal dining hall, I joined seven others sitting around a table, munching on stale biscuits and sipping Turkish coffee.
A minute later, a burly farmer was walking toward us.
He had a neck the size of a tree trunk, a head-full of bouncing copper curls, and the voice of a bull frog. Welcoming us with a wink and a half-smile, he introduced himself as Isadore Isaac Finkelstein.
“But please . . . Please!” he implored. “Don’t use my Yiddish name! Here in Israel, everybody calls me Fufu.”
With that, Fufu Finkelstein led us out of the dining hall.
The eight of us followed him to a covered wagon hooked to a big green tractor. Fufu climbed onto the tractor and turned the ignition key . . . and with the engine belching, we piled into the wagon. Bumping down the entry road, we crossed the Bet Shean – Tiberius highway, and entered the citrus orchards. And as we rode past row after row of orange and grapefruit trees, I looked back at the sun rising above the hills, with Mount Hermon’s snow-capped peaks glowing pink in the sky.
We lumbered out of the wagon.
Fufu led us to a thorn-covered meadow, and handed a scythe, a pitchfork, and a pair of work gloves to each of us.
“We’re going to spend the next several weeks in here,” he began, “and we’re going to remove every single one of these weeds . . . until the entire field is almost as smooth as a baby’s ass. Then we’ll dig twenty furrows, with thirty holes in each. After that, we’ll set up the “Tif-tuf” irrigation system. And when it’s dripping perfectly, we’ll plant six hundred lemon seedlings. Now, are there any questions?”
I looked around . . . but no one said a word.
“Okay, people,” Fufu gestured. “Let’s get started!”
Stepping onto the edge of the field, he bent over a tangle of thorny weeds, slashed at it with his scythe, grabbed his pitchfork, and tossed a clump of thorns and roots
into a wooden crate. Then he motioned to us.
We followed Fufu into the field.
The sun was rising higher, a ball of fire beating down upon us. Arm weary, and dripping with sweat, we swung our scythes again and again, slamming our pitchforks into the rock-hard earth, and tossing tangles of thorny weeds into the crates.
The first hour passed, minute by minute.
Then two hours passed . . . then four . . . and finally, eight!
Fufu called to us, smiling,
“Good work, people! Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
We looked at each other, but once again, no one said a word.
“You’re just beginning to understand the life of a farmer,” Fufu explained. “One weed at a time . . . hour after hour . . . week after week . . . until the job is finished. Just wait. When we’ve pulled the last weed out, we’ll look back at the field, and smile a smile as big as Mount Hermon.”
The second day seemed to go on forever.
Every fifteen or twenty minutes, I’d look at my watch, wipe the sweat on my brow,
and get back to the weeds.
A week passed . . . then two . . . and then three.
After four weeks, we were approaching the middle of the field.
Then a fifth week passed . . . and a sixth. And after seven never-ending weeks, we were approaching the far side of the field. With the end in sight, we started chopping harder and faster. And when Fufu pulled the last weed from the ground, he clapped his hands, and called out to us,
“Great work, people!”
I scanned the field.
Not a single weed remained.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Fufu exalted.
“Cool. Awesome. Outrageous!” we all answered.
“You were right all along, Fufu,” I said, smiling.
“It really does feel great!
The field is almost as smooth as a baby’s ass!”
Sunrise morphed into mid-morning.
After laying scores of rubber irrigation pipes, we pumped water through them, and with water dripping into the soil, we started planting. By the time we broke for lunch, we’d planted a hundred and fifty little lemon trees.
We left the dining hall together, and after bumping down the entry road, Fufu parked his tractor in the shade of a grapefruit tree.
We climbed out of the wagon.
Approaching the new orchard, we were shocked by what we saw.
Right there in front of us, was a scene of utter destruction.
All the lemon trees were gone.
Not a branch, not a twig,
not a single leaf remained!
Trying to figure out what could possibly have happened,
I looked down.
The ground was covered with hundreds of gazelle tracks.
Just then, I heard a familiar rustling sound.
I turned and spotted a line of gazelles zigzagging behind the grapefruit trees,
bounding away, at lightning speed.
Fufu came walking up to us.
“Listen, people,” he said, “I have a plan.
We’re going to build a fence!”
I couldn’t believe it!
A fence to stop a gazelle?
“You sure about that?” I asked.
“Totally sure,” Fufu answered.
He patted me on the head, and led us toward the wagon.
After breakfast, we returned with sledge hammers, fence posts, and rolls of barbed wire.
We spent the next three weeks constructing a five-foot fence.
Then we planted twenty-two rows of lemon trees,
but when we returned in the morning, a familiar sight confronted us.
Every lemon tree had been ravaged!
Fufu paced up and down, mumbling to himself in Hebrew,
but when he approached us, he was smiling.
“We’re not going to let those gazelles beat us. That fence wasn’t high enough!”
So, we spent three more weeks building an eight-foot fence.
And after planting fifteen rows of baby lemon trees, Fufu drove us home.
But when we returned on the following morning, we were confronted by the same horrific sight. Not a single lemon tree remained!
We climbed into the wagon and returned to the dining hall in a state of total frustration.
That night, I had a dream.
I was back at Hebrew School.
Mr. Orbach, my Hebrew teacher, was standing in front of the class, telling us the story of “Daniel in the Lion’s Den.” But in the dream, the lion left Daniel . . . and bolted into the hills, chasing a long line of gazelles.
I awoke with my heart pounding.
Pulling on my work clothes, I ran all the way to the dining hall,
. . . and when Fufu arrived, I walked straight up to him.
“Listen, Fufu,” I said, “I’ve got an idea.”
“Okay,” he answered. “Let’s hear it.”
“I remember when we studied the Bible in Hebrew School, that there used to be lions around here.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Fufu replied. “What about it?”
I took a deep breath.
“Have you ever heard of Genetic Memory.”
Fufu stood there, shaking his head.
“No. What’s that?”
“Scientists believe that when children are born, they carry some of their parents’ memories inside them. They think that the memories pass into them through their parents’ genes.”
“So what does that have to do with us?”
“When lions used to live around here they were the predators, and the gazelles were their prey. So maybe, the smell of a lion might scare gazelles away.”
“That’s very interesting,” he nodded. “But there’s one problem. There hasn’t been a lion around here for a thousand years!”
I took another deep breath.
“Listen, Fufu. We just spent three weeks building a fence. . . and three more weeks building an even higher fence. But neither of them worked! It was all a waste of time. Why don’t you let me take a car to Tel Aviv. I’ll go to the zoo and see if I can get some lion dung.”
Fufu just stood there smiling at me . . . but I was undeterred.
“What have you got to lose, Fufu?
I can be there and back in four hours!”
and patted me on the back.
“All right . . . all right!” he said at last. “Go for it.”
I went to the garage,
picked up a Ford station wagon, and threw a shovel, a bucket, and some plastic bags into the back, and started driving.
Zooming past the citrus orchards, I pulled onto the Tiberius-Bet Shean highway, passed the ancient ruins of Bet Shean, and the Arab villages of Mus and Mus-mus.
An hour later, I was driving along the coastal highway, heading for the Tel Aviv Zoo.
After pulling into the parking lot, I quickly found the lion keeper. I explained my idea to him. He scratched his head.
“Yes, of course,” he nodded,
“I think it just might work!”
I pulled the bucket out of the car, and followed him to the lion house.
Fifteen minutes later, I was back on the highway. Passing the Arab villages of Mus-mus and Mus, I zoomed past the ruins of Bet Shean, descended into the valley, and sped north along the Jordan River.
After turning onto the gravel entry road, I headed straight for the nursery.
Carefully placing four little lemon trees into the back of the car, I made my way to the new lemon orchard.
It was getting dark when I arrived.
With a full moon rising, I planted four little lemon trees in a square, removed the lion dung from the trunk, and mixed it with the topsoil that surrounded the trees.
Then I returned to my room, went straight to bed, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
The alarm clock woke me at 3:40.
Splashing cold water onto my face, I pulled on my work clothes, and headed for the communal dining hall, where I joined the others sitting around a table, munching on stale biscuits and sipping Turkish coffee.
A minute later, Fufu arrived.
“Good morning, people,” he announced. “Time for work.”
He hopped onto the seat of his big green tractor, turned the ignition key, and with the engine belching, we bumped along a gravel entry road, crossed the Bet Shean-Tiberius highway, and chugged through the citrus orchards.
As soon as Fufu parked the tractor,
I jumped out of the wagon . . . and started running.
Heading for the lemon trees,
I ran past hundreds of gazelle tracks.
When I arrived, I looked down.
Not one of the tracks came close to the lemon trees!
All four trees . . . every last branch, twig, and leaf, was in perfect condition!
In less than a minute,
the others were standing around me.
Fufu joined us, smiled, and put a hand on my shoulder.
“What did you say that theory of yours was called?” he asked.
“It’s called Genetic Memory,” I answered.
Later that morning,
the nine of us piled into a big blue pickup truck,
threw a stack of buckets, nine shovels,
and a container of plastic bags into the back,
and headed for the Tel Aviv Zoo.