“The Baseness of Nature”

As the bomb fell she inexplicably thought of the kiwi she hadn’t picked, the one just out of reach. The small brown fruit had hung over her head, and when she stretched to reach it, her fingers barely brushed its prickly bottomside. She could’ve grabbed a crate to stand on, but it seemed too much of an effort and now she wondered if the blast had loosened it from the viney branch; if it had fallen and bruised or defiantly held onto the tree.

Later, lying in his bed on the kibbutz, Doron corrected her. “It wasn’t a bomb,” he said, his accent thickening as it always did when he was tired, after they had made love. “It was a katyusha. A rocket.” But to her way of thinking it was loud and it had flown in from the north leaving a streak of white cloud in its wake and when it had made contact with the soft soil the next field over, the earth quivered under her feet, so she really didn’t see what the difference was. Had the thing been pointed just slightly to the west, she wouldn’t be there arguing the point with the stubborn Israeli lying next to her in bed.

She hadn’t known that kiwis grew in Israel, that line after line of the short wiry trees with the full rounded leaves would tempt her into the fields each morning. She hadn’t known how much she would love working outside, checking irrigation pipes, spraying the weeds, pruning the trees, picking the fruit. After a dismal junior year at college—a year in which she had declared and changed her major three times; a year in which too many mornings she dreaded getting out of bed; a year when too many phone calls to her parents ended with bursts of tears for no better reason than it filled the void in their conversations—her parents suggested some time away, to think about what she wanted to do. Her parents worried enough to pack her up and send her abroad. But where they had been picturing a summer in Paris, she gravitated here, a land that seemed as uncertain and frightened as she was.

She returned to the fields the next morning, even though most of the other volunteers were packing their bags to retreat, alarmed by the nearness of the violence. The kibbutzniks pretended nothing happened, for what other choice did they have? She knew she should call her parents and let them know she was okay—she could picture them reading the New York Times and worrying about her safety—but if she called they’d only order her home, and she wasn’t yet ready to leave. 

The small red Citroen pulled up, Doron behind the wheel, Aaron in the front seat. She climbed in the back, deliberately not looking at Doron, saying good morning as if it were the first time that day she was seeing him. They kept up this ruse, pretending they hadn’t spent the night together, to avoid the gossip, although the entire kibbutz knew they were a couple.

They waited a moment or two to see if any of the other volunteers were coming, but when it was evident they weren’t, they drove to the fields.

Doron and Aaron left her alone in the upper fields. With a small plastic tank of water and chemicals strapped to her back, she walked up and down the rows spraying the stray weeds. The fresh scent of the leaves mingled with hints of the sea air that floated in from the Mediterranean, overwhelming the metallic tang of the pesticides. In the morning light the trees looked unreal, as if manufactured for an advertisement—the light striking at angles, illuminating in vibrant colors half a leaf, half a branch, half a fruit, while the rest teased in darkness. On her first day in the fields, the kiwis were so plump and fuzzy, hanging low in heavy clusters from the branches. Their weight, their texture, their confident demeanor in their full ripeness reminded her of something, and when it occurred to her, their phallic temperament, she blushed slightly at the baseness of nature.

The sun began its ascent but already the planes were flying, and she paused to watch as they headed north. From this distance the munitions on their bellies looked like the red breasts of gentle gray birds, but she knew they weren’t breasts and there was nothing gentle about these birds. Their engines began as a whisper in the sky, a gentle reverberation in the air that shook louder as they glided closer, interrupting the stillness of the fields, until the roar filled her ears, drowning out the birds and the rustle of the trees. This could be a training exercise, she thought. Perhaps they’re just maneuvering. During her first week in the fields, the Israeli planes had practiced diving and looping, and occasionally, one would hang upside down, and she’d be able to look into the face of a pilot who was younger than she. She paused to listen. She didn’t hear any helicopters. Doron had told her that the sound of helicopters meant it wasn’t a training exercise; the sound of helicopters meant they were coming for the wounded.

Once the planes passed, all was silent, so she continued her walk. Her hand moved automatically, pumping the liquid in the tank, spraying in a gentle sweeping motion. She thought to herself if she weren’t killing weeds, this would be very Zen, these mornings in the field.

By the angle of the sun, she guessed it was nearing time for breakfast, probably about a half hour until the Citroen returned to bring her to the meal. She was nearly finished with these rows and after the morning break, she’d probably stay in the lower fields, finishing the irrigation check she had started yesterday afternoon.

The low rumble of aircraft caught her attention once again, only this time when she looked up, the graceful jets were returning south, birds migrating for the winter. As she peered up, though, blocking the sun from the corners of her eyes, she noticed the red breasts had disappeared, leaving only cold gray machines.

There were still three rows to go until she finished this field. Yet she dropped her tank suddenly and sprinted toward the front field. She passed long lines of trees standing bushily in front of her, green vines protecting the vulnerable limbs. The front field was farther than she had thought but still she ran, as fast as she could, tripping only slightly on her oversized work boots. As she approached the second row, she slowed, gasping for breath but she didn’t pause as she worked her way beneath the branches and halfway down the row, boots sinking into the dirt now muddied by the irrigation water.

The kiwi was easy to spot, all alone in the row. She stood before it as it clung fiercely to the vine, waiting for her. Carefully she placed her foot on the metal pole that propped the trees, raising her body slightly off the ground. A V in the metal gave her a ledge to stand upon and she wedged her foot in tightly. Her hand, now callused, reached for the small fruit. Her body stretched and she leaned in willing her arm to go just a smidgen higher. Finally she maneuvered herself far enough up the pole that her fingers were able to grasp the kiwi and gently pluck it from the stem. The kiwi was just entering its moment of sweetness, and she knew she’d savor the flavor, alone in her room, later that day.

As she walked back to where she left her sprayer, her hand absently rubbed the kiwi in her pocket. In the distance, she could hear the whirring of helicopters.

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About J. S. Brown

Jennifer S. Brown is the author of the upcoming novel Modern Girls (NAL/Penguin, April 2016). She holds an MFA from the University of Washington, and her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Natural Bridge, Under the Sun,  and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction from the Bellevue Literary Review was selected as a notable essay in 2012’s The Best American Travel Writing and included in volume 9 of The Best Women’s Travel Writing.  She lives outside of Boston where she is working on her next novel. For more visit jennifersbrown.com.