Poland, 1919, and Lev, a young Jew, seeks advice from his grandfather. But as we see in this extract from the new novel by J David Simon, he comes away with something altogether unexpected
Lev went to the forest. He used to go there with his father, his brothers or the Young Guard. But rarely alone. And never in such weather. The snow was falling heavily. He pulled down his cap, pushed his scarf up against his mouth. His feet, he couldn’t feel them at all. He had wrapped his punctured boots in old cloths before he set out but the numbness had set in quick. He didn’t think it would be this difficult. But each step sank deep into the white mush, sucking his strength. He would have turned back but he was closer to his destination than he was to his home. Why would someone live out here? With the silence, the Catholic farmers, the robbers and the wolves?
He reached the edge of the pine forest, leaned in close to the first row of trees for shelter, twigs breaking off against his upper arms, branches dragging across this back, dropping their icy load down his neck. He searched for the breach in the perimeter showing the trail. Something slithered and scampered through the frozen leaves inside the forest. A wild beast? A dybbuk waiting to pounce on his indecisive soul? He picked up a stout branch the length of his forearm, judged its heft in his palm. It would have to do.
He found the path easy enough and turned into the forest. The snow hardly made it in here but neither did the light. Or any sound. He stopped, held his breath, just to listen to the silence. ‘Aye, yay, yay,’ he called out, listened to the words echo off the trees. He hummed loudly as he walked deeper into the forest, brandishing his club, hoping the noise would frighten off the bear and the boar.
Before his brother, Amshel, disappeared from the family, Lev used to go hunting with him in this vast, dark interior that seemed to stretch on forever. Or at least Amshel would hunt while Lev was left to forage for telltale signs of their prey from the rubbed marks on the tree bark, the corridors of broken branches or the imprints of hooves on the earth. Together they would build hide-outs from which to spy on the giant hogs that came to languish in the mud pools. Amshel wasn’t like other older brothers. Lev could see that when he looked around at his peers, whose senior siblings teased them, bullied them or treated them like slaves. Amshel taught him things. How to make a catapult, where to find the wallowing pools, the berries and mushrooms to eat, the best plants to use against insect bites, the sounds of the different birds. He didn’t teach him how to shoot though. Their father forbade it, and Amshel would support him by saying: ‘There is enough killing in this world without you adding to it as well.’ As they stomped these trails, their eyes, ears and Amshel’s rifle primed for wild boar, Amshel would talk freely of the village girls he lusted after, the wealth he would accumulate from schemes involving the distillation of alcohol from various vegetables, the grand apartment he would purchase for the family on the Nowy Swiat, Warsaw’s finest street. And on these excursions into the forest, Lev, unarmed as he was, always felt safe in the presence of his older brother.
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He saw the light first, from the flutter of flames reflecting in a window. Then the smell of woodsmoke. A cottage in the clearing, one stone wall where the fireplace stood, the other three made from logs caulked with tar or wood fibre. He looked around for a dog. There used to be a dog. Bazyli? Bazyli? Where are you, you stupid mongrel? He rapped the club against the heavy door. Snow fell from the roof. He knocked again. He heard a wooden bar scrape across, a crack of light, a gust of warmth. A woman’s voice, harsh like the wind suddenly picked up through the forest. Zelda. He shivered.
‘What do you want?’
‘It’s me. Lev.’
‘I don’t know Lev.’
‘My grandfather. I’ve come to see my zeide.’
The door opened further. Zelda squinted at him. A small woman with a square head on top of a square body. Not someone you could knock over with a feather. She could wield an axe like a man, cleared half the trees to make this dwelling.
‘I don’t see too good.’
‘It’s Lev. Szmul’s son. Will you let me in?’
Zelda scratched her scalp through hair as sparse as winter weeds. ‘I don’t know when he wakes.’
‘Zelda. It’s freezing out here.’
‘All right, all right. Come in.’
The room was dim, warm and smoky, with the stink of rotten vegetables, drying wool. The roof leaked in a couple of places into rusted tins on the floor. One wall was shelved to the ceiling with books. Two stools. A table carved from a log. There was a kitchen area with a sink, a few pots and peelings, pelts strewn everywhere. He had heard it was Zelda who had skinned them, laying traps for the wolves, slitting their throats when caught. The townsfolk said she’d even killed a bear, slipped underneath its paws while it stood on its hindlegs, ripped open its stomach, then sliced off its testicles. A delicacy where she came from. Although where that was, nobody knew. She had been his grandfather’s housekeeper for as long as he could remember. He had never known his grandmother, who had died giving birth to his youngest uncle. There was only one bed in this cottage, so Lev had to make up his own mind where Zelda slept. The same friends, uncles, aunts and cousins who called his stepmother a whore used to say the same about Zelda. But not to his grandfather’s face.
‘Who is dead?’ she asked.
‘No-one is dead. I just want to talk to him.’
‘When will he wake?’
‘I can wait. I brought him some tobacco from the store.’
She snatched the package from him, sniffed it hard along an edge, then waddled over to the kitchen area, searched out a bowl. From a pot by the hearth, she ladled out some liquid, handed it to him.
‘It could be a long time. Sit.’ She pointed to a stool by the fireside. He did as he was told. Zelda went over to a pile of skins, laid down and closed her eyes. He watched her as he drank the soup – beans, herbs, bits of bark. More like a potion than a broth. He listened to Zelda’s snoring, the spit of the fire, the droplets of water falling into the tins, until he slipped off his stool onto one of the pelts, into his own deep sleep.
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The rough shaking woke him. And the rancid hiss by his ear. ‘Son of Szmul. Come, come. He is ready.’
‘What time is it?’
‘What do I know about time? He is awake.’
Lev pushed himself to his feet. His forehead ached. ‘Water.’
Zelda nodded to a barrel in the corner. He dipped in a tin cup and drank. It tasted of the forest. A window above his head showed a half-moon high in the sky. He had slept for hours.
‘Come, come,’ Zelda beckoned. She opened the door to the only other room.
His grandfather was sat up in his bed, wrapped in a prayer shawl, a tattered, black silk yarmulke on his head. His beard hung grey and dirty like a hank of raw wool. It had been a while since Lev had last seen him, but he looked the same. Perhaps the old were always just old in the eyes of the young.
‘Which son of Szmul are you? Is that you, Amshel?’
Lev looked for a stool. But there was none. Instead, he had to crouch in a half-kneel before the bed. ‘There is only one son now, zeide. You know that. I am Lev. The youngest.’
Lev did as he was told.
‘Let me feel you.’
His grandfather’s fingers lightly tapped the skin of his face. The touch was dry like parchment.
‘Ah yes, now I remember. You are the good son.’
‘The good son?’
‘Amshel, he was selfish. The other two, what were their names?’
‘Hershel and Baruch.’
‘Yes, Hershel and Baruch. They only had time for each other. But you, you also look out for others. The name shapes the man, Lev. Your name in Hebrew, it means “heart”. But in Yiddish, Lev also means “lion”. Do you have the heart of a lion, Lev?’
‘I don’t think so, zeide.’
‘You are still young. You have time to find one. Why are you here?’
‘My father … Szmul … .your son … he is leaving the town.’
His grandfather sighed, a whispery, papery breath. ‘Ah, America.’ Then the anger rose, as Lev knew it would. ‘With that kurve he now calls a wife? Not your mother, mind you. Your mother was a good woman. An angel. Not a whore like this one. With her lipstick and fancy ways. When did he decide this?’
‘A few months ago. He is leaving after winter.’
‘He sent you to tell me this? After a few months.’
Lev waited for his grandfather to calm. ‘He didn’t send me.’
‘He is leaving without telling me? It is that kurve. How she drives a wedge between father and son. So if not to tell me, why have you come?’
‘I came to ask your advice.’
‘You are going with him?’
‘That is what I want to ask. The Zionists want me to go to Palestine. A small group of pioneers. Ten of us.’
‘Ah, the Zionists. They think now the British are in control, their dream will come true.’
‘They will arrange the papers. Provide some funds. We are going to start a commune. Build an agriculture settlement in a Jewish homeland.’
‘They want you to build roads for Jewish capitalists. When you could walk on streets made of gold?’
‘What do you say, zeide? I should go to America?’
His grandfather started coughing. An awful sound. Zelda was quickly by his side with a cup of water. He sipped from it then waved her away. ‘Listen, Lev. To go to America is simple. It is a fresh start. You make no sacrifices. You go, you get work, you make money, you buy a house, you get married, you have children, you die. To go to Palestine. It is not a fresh beginning. It is like grafting new branches onto old vines. It is complicated. The people. The history. The land.’
‘I still don’t understand. Where shall I go?’
‘It is not for me to tell you. You must make up your own mind. Or listen to your heart. But I think it is best you go somewhere. For here they hate us.’
He left his grandfather coughing into the fringes of his prayer shawl. Zelda caught up with him just outside the door.
‘He will be dead before winter is out,’ she whispered.
‘I saw it before. This wasting disease of the lungs. One month. Two at the most.’
He rubbed his eyes. So much death in his family. ‘I should go back in
to see him.’
‘No, no. It is just good you came. That is enough. He is very fond of you.’ She grabbed his arm. ‘What will you do?’
‘I am following my heart. I will go to Palestine.’
Zelda fished something out of her apron pocket. ‘Can you take this?’
A rag. Something wrapped inside. A tiny stone? A jewel? ‘What is it?’
She looked at him coyly. ‘My tooth.’
‘From when I was a child. I want you to bury it in the Holy Land.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J David Simons is the author of four novels, including the best-selling An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful. He lived on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1970s and has worked around the world variously as a lawyer, cotton farmer, journalist and university lecturer. He now lives in Glasgow, the city of his birth.
The Land Agent is the third title in Simons’ Scottish-Jewish magnum opus, the Glasgow to Galilee trilogy, which follows his award-winning novels The Credit Draper and The Liberation of Celia Kahn.
The Land Agent is published by Saraband next week. To order a copy, please visit www.saraband.net