Begin Reading The Lonely Tree

Chapter One

Jerusalem, British Mandate Palestine – May, 1946

The day that Tonia Shulman first noticed Amos had begun as an ordinary one. When her tenth-grade Civics class – and the school day – finally ended she stretched and looked at her watch.

‘Feel like going to Café Atara for coffee and cake?’ Ilana Rozmann swiveled in her seat to face Tonia.

Tonia shook her head. ‘Can’t. No time.’ She had heard that the gooey chocolate cake they served was delicious, but she had to catch her bus back to the kibbutz. Besides, she had no money.

Ilana shook her wavy blonde hair and ran the fingers of her right hand through it. ‘My treat,’ she offered.

Tonia felt her face flush as she stood up. ‘No. Thanks, but I can’t. Have to work today.’ The last thing she wanted, today of all days, was Ilana Rozmann, or any of the Rozmann family, paying for anything else for her.

Ilana slid sideways from beneath the battered, ink-stained wooden desk. ‘More fields to clear?’ She raised her eyebrows and stared at the scrapes and cuts on Tonia’s hands.

Tonia held her hands out, palms up, as if to ask, what can I do? Then she busied herself gathering books while Ilana swayed toward the door to join her friends. Bunch of spoiled rich kids, Tonia thought. Let them choke on it. She shrugged into the straps of her backpack and tied the sleeves of her frayed navy blue cardigan around her waist. She could see Ilana giggling with two other girls out in the hall. They all wore brightly colored shirtwaist dresses and white patent leather pumps. Tonia watched them for a moment and her resentment faded. What did she care? She was not ashamed of her faded blue skirt and scuffed work shoes. She wouldn’t want to get a permanent wave or wear stupid nylon stockings if she had all the money in the world. That much she had inherited from her parents – a disdain for fashion and the accumulation of material goods for their own sake.

Though Tonia had little in common with her classmates, she loved her new school. Thank God her father had agreed to allow her to switch from Miss Landau’s school for religious girls to the prestigious Hebrew Gymnasium of Jerusalem. At Miss Landau’s they still taught deportment; at the secular and co-ed Gymnasium Tonia was learning philosophy, economics, and physics. A diploma from Jerusalem’s first modern high school would get her into a good university. That it was located in the snooty Rehavia neighborhood and mainly attended by the children of professors, doctors, and government officials was a minor annoyance.

Ilana stuck her head in the door and waved goodbye. Tonia smiled and waved back. Ilana was nice enough, Tonia reminded herself. Anyway, Tonia thought, it isn’t Ilana’s fault that I have no choice but to accept her parents’ charity.

Tonia descended the wide stone steps and strolled through the shady neighborhood with its elegant dress shops and flower vendors. As usual, downtown Jerusalem was deserted. Few cars passed, and the owners of many of the hole-in-the-wall shops had closed up for their afternoon nap. She window-shopped toward the Pillar Building on Jaffa Road to wait for the battered bus that would take her home to kibbutz Kfar Etzion, about a forty-minute drive south of Jerusalem. The long black bonnet of the bus soon nosed around the corner. It had high fenders and pop-eyed headlights on either side of its tall grill, and its side was covered with deep scratches and dents. Since yesterday, six of the seven windows on either side of it had been fitted with squares of plywood.

‘Hey there, Tonia, how are you today?’ The stocky driver – dressed in khaki shorts, sleeveless blue T-shirt, and sandals – left the engine running and the door open. ‘Don’t go anywhere without me,’ he called over his shoulder and raced up the street. Tonia knew he would soon be back with a large bottle of seltzer.

She rapped her knuckles against one of the wooden shields before climbing onto the bus. With the windows covered, the empty bus was dark and airless. Tonia chose the seat halfway back, next to the still-uncovered window on the right side, where she would have enough light to read.

By now Ilana and her friends would be lounging around a table at the café. That’s what they did after school, threw away their families’ money. It never occurred to any of them to get a job. To work for anything. Tonia did not envy them their wealthy lifestyle, but was determined to one day attain the security that money could provide. She was prepared to work hard for it; no one would ever have to offer to pay her way again. She was going to be rich enough for her children to eat whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. For years, she had dreamed of boarding an airplane for New York and escaping this wretched not-even-a-country. Now she was fifteen and would soon be old enough to do just that, once she saved up some money. Her children were going to grow up somewhere they could feel safe.

‘That’s only so we don’t suffocate,’ the driver said when he came back and saw Tonia next to the unprotected window. ‘No one’s supposed to sit there.’

‘At least until Bethlehem,’ she begged.

The driver shrugged, took his seat, and put his head back to pour half the contents of the bottle of seltzer down his throat. Five more passengers boarded. Three women, members of Tonia’s kibbutz, to whom she nodded, and two young men she did not recognize. She presumed they were Palmach boys, stationed in the kibbutz by the Haganah, the unofficial Jewish army. A bivouac of tents in Kfar Etzion housed a contingent of them, the isolation of the kibbutz allowing the Haganah to conduct illegal military training on its hillsides, far from the eyes of the British Mandate authorities.

‘Is there anyone I should wait for?’ the driver asked, turning around.

The passengers shook their heads, and he pulled out onto Jaffa Road. The thick pale walls of Jerusalem’s Old City soon appeared on their left, majestic under their battlements. A chaos of pushcarts, donkeys, and camels mobbed the clearing outside the Jaffa Gate. Tonia craned her neck to watch the driver of a red delivery van try to maneuver past them, but the single bare window allowed her only a glimpse.

At least the sky was clear, and she wouldn’t get drenched and muddy again. She was assigned to work in the orchards and had three hours of work ahead of her when she got back to the kibbutz. If only she could skip work, get in bed, and read, without having to squint in the flickering light of the old kerosene lantern or take her book to the dining hall. Of all the luxuries Ilana Rozmann took for granted, Tonia did envy that one – the electric light next to her bed.

When Tonia got her dream house in America, she would fill it with bright lights and never turn them off. And it would be some place where they had too much water. Some place where you could take a hot bath every evening. You could leave the faucet running all day if you wanted. She would have a room full of books with an enormous desk and a thick rug on the floor. And a huge wooden table in the kitchen, where friends and family would gather for uncomplicated, delicious food. Mrs. Rozmann’s recipe for honey and garlic chicken. Grilled eggplant salad. Roasted potatoes. Almonds with tea after the meal. She would set the table simply, with white plates. Maybe a silver rim around the edge, but no fussy flower patterns. Tonia would sit at one end of that long table, the man who loved her at the other. The shadows of her fantasies cloaked his face, but she knew he was tall, slim, and had a warm smile. He would entertain the guests with his wit, but his eyes would always linger on Tonia.

She sighed and took out her copy of Anna Karenina in English. The bus soon jolted to a halt at the roadblock on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and an unfamiliar British police officer boarded. The regular policeman was friendly and usually waved them through. When he did stop the bus, it was to ask how things were or warn the driver about something he had heard. But this one was a stranger to them, young and arrogant-looking, brandishing a nightstick, square jaw jutting high.

‘Open that,’ he ordered Tonia and poked the stick at her backpack, which lay on the seat beside her.

His rudeness angered her and she ignored him, looking down at Anna Karenina and pretending to read.

‘This bus isn’t going anywhere, Miss.’ He almost smacked his lips on the ‘M’ of ‘Miss’ and bent down to bring his face closer to hers. ‘Not until I’ve checked that none of you Jews are carrying illegal arms. So open the bag.’

She unzipped the bag and pushed it toward him.

He turned the backpack upside down and shook it, spilling everything out. Her schoolbooks, notebooks, and the books she had bought for her father, still wrapped in newspaper, fell on the seat and floor. ‘Oops. So sorry about that. Now you can unwrap those packages.’ He tapped her father’s books.

Tonia rolled her eyes, did as she was told, and then gathered up her things while he searched the other passengers.

‘Get those wooden panels off the windows,’ the policeman barked at the driver. ‘Against traffic regulations.’

‘I didn’t put them on, and I can’t take them off,’ the driver said. ‘You’ll have to lodge a complaint with the bus company.’

The policeman wrote a citation, muttering about bloody hooligans and terrorist thugs. He handed it to the driver and gave Tonia a nasty look before getting off the bus. Then they pulled away, going south toward Hebron.

‘Tonia, get away from that open window now,’ the driver said, eyes flitting between the road in front of him and the rearview mirror. ‘Be a good girl and don’t make me have to explain to your mother that I let you sit there.’

‘I’ll tell her it wasn’t your fault.’ She picked up Anna Karenina. At least the time she spent riding the bus should be hers, to do as she pleased.

The road ran over the crest of a range of hills that formed a watershed. To the east lay the Judean Desert – naked peaks of earth and rock, glorious in their desolation. On Tonia’s right, the rocky hillsides glistened green, and tangles of yellow wildflowers clung to them. These straggly flowers could not rival the brilliant patches of pink and white cyclamen and red, white, and purple anemones that had sprung up after the first winter rains and just as quickly disappeared again, but they still afforded a better view than plywood.

They were approaching Solomon’s Pools, a water reservoir two miles south of Bethlehem, believed to have been dug during King Solomon’s reign. The area looked like a picture book. Cultivated plots near the pools surrounded small homes. Vineyards spilled down the hillside.

They had just passed the large rectangular stone building called Nebi Daniel and the driver had to slow for a curve. Tonia glanced up and saw three figures – three young men with kaffiyahs wrapped around their faces – rise from behind the acacias that hugged the roadside. She watched in paralyzed fascination as they raised their arms and threw the rocks they gripped at the bus. In the same motion they bent to scoop up a second round.

The first barrage crashed into the bus with frightening force, making the vehicle seem to shake. One of the women in the back screamed, and the engine roared as the driver tried to accelerate, but then hit the brake. Tonia could not take her eyes off one of the Arabs. He seemed to be staring right at her as he let loose the large jagged rock that came flying through the unprotected window.

It missed her head but grazed the end of her nose, and she felt blinding pain. The rock smashed into the opposite side of the bus and fell to the floor. Tonia instinctively moved her hands toward her nose, but was afraid to touch it. It felt as if the rock had torn it from her face, but she looked down and saw only a small trickle of blood dripping onto her lap. It couldn’t be that bad. She placed a finger on each side and, reassured that she still had both nostrils, let out a deep breath. The tip of her nose was bleeding, but she did not seem to be badly hurt.

The driver kept glancing at her in the mirror as he maneuvered on the tortuous road. ‘Are you all right? Can you talk?’

‘Yes. I’m okay. It’s not so bad,’ she said, resolved not to reveal how shaken she was. She wiped the blood on her sleeve.

He did not slow down until they had gone a few more miles, past the dilapidated village that stood high on a hill overlooking the highway and past the summer residence of the Mukhtar of Bethlehem. Meanwhile, the other passengers huddled around her and subjected her to a thorough inspection, clutching the overhead rack, as they were tossed from side to side by the motion of the bus.

‘God in heaven, look how you’re bleeding,’ one of the women said.

‘It’s not so bad, I don’t think, really,’ Tonia said. Her body had begun to relax, fear replaced by exhaustion. She wished they would leave her alone. She would be home soon, and her mother would take care of her. ‘Just tell me – what does it look like?’

The woman took Tonia’s chin in one hand. ‘It scraped off quite a chunk.’

One of the Palmach boys bent to pick up the heavy rock and fingered its sharp edges. ‘Could have killed you,’ he said and shook his head.’Easily. No wonder that bloody copper wanted the plywood off the windows. Bet the bastard knew. Good thing you opened the window. Broken glass could have blinded you.’ He set the rock down on the seat beside her. ‘Hang on to that. Good story for your grandchildren. You can see your blood on it.’

When the driver stopped, the Palmach boy went to the front for the first aid kit and cleaned the wound for her. She winced as he doused it in purple iodine and felt ridiculous when he taped a piece of gauze to the end of her nose. ‘Looks like it might leave a scar,’ he said, ‘but only a small one.’

The driver started up again.

‘Come, lie down in the back.’ One of the women tried to take hold of Tonia’s arm. ‘Until you can collect yourself.’

‘I’m all right,’ Tonia said.

‘The shock of these things sometimes takes a few minutes to set in,’ the woman said. ‘That thing almost hit you in the head.’

‘But it didn’t. It only scraped my nose.’ Tonia shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. She could not stand people fussing over close calls. Didn’t they know that life was one long narrow escape?

The other passengers finally retreated to their seats.

‘One more centimeter and she’d have been a goner,’ Tonia heard the woman say.

‘That girl has nerves of steel,’ the Palmach boy added, shaking his head.

‘Of course,’ one of the other women pronounced, ‘a person should have better sense than to sit there in the first place, especially after the driver asked them not to. Some people always have to do things their own way. There’s no talking to them.’

The driver caught Tonia’s eye in the mirror and winked. She raised her hands in surrender, tossed the rock out the window, and held tightly onto the seat in front of her while she moved around to sit there. She opened her book again and squinted, but could not read in the dark. It occurred to her that now she probably wouldn’t have to go to work. That was almost worth a few millimeters of nose. Finally, they turned off the Jerusalem-Hebron road, up the feeder road, and arrived at the kibbutz.

That was the first time she saw him – when she got off the bus by the gate of Kfar Etzion. He was working with the group of Palmach boys who seemed to spend every waking hour digging new outposts along the perimeter fence. He swung a pickaxe with steady strokes, and, though the air was cool, sweat poured off the taut brown muscles of his bare back. He straightened, stretched, turned to take a cigarette from the boy beside him, and grinned at something he said.

Tonia ignored the pain and tore the gauze from her face. How ridiculous she must look, her nose all purple. She stuffed the bloody bandage in her pocket and pretended to fuss with her backpack, but she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He was tall and lean. Long brown legs stretched from khaki shorts to thick blue socks rolled down over work boots. She flushed, her gaze drawn to the backside of those shorts and down those legs. No suntan was that even, and his complexion was so dark that she would later lie in bed and think of him as ‘that Italian boy’. The yarmulke that clung to his thick black hair seemed out of place. How could a religious person exude such a physical presence? Maybe he wore it to be polite, since Kfar Etzion was a religious kibbutz. In profile, she could see his strong jaw line. No need for him to grow a pious beard. Tonia always suspected that most of the men who had them were camouflaging the lack of a proper chin.

Then he turned and noticed her. He was not handsome but striking, large heavily lashed green eyes above hollow cheeks. He stared straight at her, and his face spread into an easy smile, both friendly and challenging. Her eyes caught his for a long moment, and she felt something inside her turn warm and liquid. Then he threw down his cigarette, ground it out, and wiped his hands on his shorts. He bent to pick his shirt off the ground and started walking toward her. He was going to come and talk to her. She felt her face turn red, as she clutched her packages and fled. So much for her nerves of steel.