Excerpt from “Capricorn Rising”
Below is a brief excerpt from the story “Capricorn Rising,” which will appear in the spring issue of the American Literary Review. I am working on a collection of stories very loosely based on the lives of my parents (see above), Americans who lived in Israel from 1949 to 1958. I was born in Chadera, Israel, in 1957 and although I did not grow up there, the country nonetheless exerted a strange, gravitational pull on me throughout my childhood. This story, and the others in the collection, began as a way to explore that fascination.
It was sometime in January that the goats first appeared. There were about twenty of them, mostly black, though some were marked with small patches of white. Their fur was coarse and their eyes were as dark as their coats; they moved quickly and with great delicacy, as if on tiptoe.
Libby was the first to see them and she told no one, not even Stanley. Her status here on the kibbutz was a fragile commodity at best; she was aware of the slight derision with which the older, more experienced kibbutzniks viewed her, the newest Anglo Saxit from America. She had shown up at that first day wearing Chinese style cropped pants and a matching top of figured, apple-green satin and black ballet flats. Her lipstick was crimson, to match her nails. Why she chose this outfit, purchased in New York during her brief stay before the boat embarked for Israel, was unclear even to Libby. She just knew that she wanted to appear in something that no one in back home Detroit would have thought to own or wear.
The kibbutzniks who watched her descend from the wagon with Stanley just stood and stared at this festive, if highly inappropriate ensemble. Libby could feel, through the thin soles of her flats, the hard packed earth, the stones that littered its surface. By the time she reached Stanley’s tent, her feet and calves were covered in a powdery, tan colored dust.
“Tomorrow we’ll see about getting you some work clothes,” Stanley had said, slipping the shoes off and wiping her feet with a grimy looking handkerchief. “And boots. You’ll need them.” Libby just nodded, happy to be here, happy to see him again.
She had met Stanley at a Zionist youth group meeting in Detroit. He was four years older, in college already, and the smartest, most charismatic boy in the room. Her mother didn’t like him. “That one has his head in the clouds,” was Sonya’s comment. “He’ll trip over his own two feet one day because he’s always looking up.” Libby didn’t care, and when he dropped out of school to go live in Israel, she was burning to follow him. He wrote to her, covering page after page of thin, onionskin sheets with his precise, dense printing. “What we’re doing here is a miracle,” he wrote. “You have to come and be part of it.” And after a protracted battle with her parents, during which her mother twice threatened to put her head in the oven, that’s just what Libby did.
So for the goats to have revealed themselves to Libby first would have been unseemly, presumptuous even, in the kibbutz hierarchy. Libby knew this and was silent. Soon enough, everyone else had seen them too and speculation about their origins consumed the small community.
“They might have belonged to an Arab,” said Yonkeleh, a young, balding man whose remaining reddish hair stood out from the sides of his head, like ear muffs. Yonkeleh’s uncle was the Mayor of Beer Sheva and that gave him a certain stature in the community. “Maybe they escaped. Or were abandoned. They could be diseased you know.” He was thinking of the tubercular cows, scrawny and wall eyed, that had to be sold off some months earlier, the barns thoroughly scoured and disinfected before another lot could be brought in.
“They’re not diseased,” said Nissim, a Syrian Jew who had shared Stanley’s tent before Libby came. Nissim had walked from Damascus to Israel, wearing the outgrown herringbone suit from his bar mitzvah, hair slicked down by pomade from a jar that had been bought before the Germans invaded Poland. All his papers and and photographs of his family had been burned by the British; he was told it was too dangerous for them to exist. He had been unable to contact his parents for several months. Finally, he learned that they had been killed along with his sisters and his grandmother; their house blown up by neighbors incensed at the family for harboring a Zionist. If Yonkeleh had a sense of privilege conferred by birth and connections, Nissim’s was the kind conferred by endurance.
“Are you sure?” Yonkeleh didn’t like being challenged.
“If you don’t believe me, you can look yourself.” Nissim walked away, leaving Yonkeleh standing there with his thumbs in his belt, looking foolish.
The goats certainly hadn’t seemed diseased to Libby that first morning when she encountered them, trotting together in a pack on the dusty, rock strewn road that led to the maxan, or laundry. At first, Libby thought they were a trick of her mind or her eyes: the sky was not fully light yet and she was tired. As she hurried to work, she saw a what seemed to be a dark cloud up ahead. But the cloud was not in the sky, it had instead settled in the road. And it seemed to be moving at a very rapid pace.
Libby slowed as the cloud changed shape once, twice and then turned out not to be a cloud at all, but the herd of goats. Coarse black fur, black eyes. Dainty, mincing hooves. Libby let them all pass before she resumed her walk to the laundry. She would be late now, and Vered, the woman who dropped off the first batches of clothing would be annoyed. “The Anglo Saxit likes to sleep,” she would say in her thickly accented, sing-song English. At least she spoke English. So many of them didn’t. Nor did they want to. English was a distraction, an impediment. They were here to build a nation, not have a tea party. What did they care about English? Hebrew, that coarse, starkly beautiful language resurrected from the dead was good enough for them; after all, so many of them felt resurrected from the dead too.