Nonfiction from Julie Zuckerman

All Photos: Julie Zuckerman

Snapshot of the Southern Hills

What I saw on my ride this morning: Rocky terraces and verdant rolling hills, greens so abundant and fresh my words cannot adequately express their hues and saturation. Against this backdrop, fields of white mustard with tall, delicate petals sway in the wind; despite its name, a feast of yellow for the eyes. Smatterings of red anemones with pearl necklaces. Delicate lavender flowers popping up intermittently among the mustard. Tiny white buds that remind me of baby’s breath and Persian cyclamen sprouting from rocky areas, their pink and white heads bowed at daybreak. Dozens more whose names I do not know. I feel a sense of wonder to coexist in a world with these colors, grateful for the temperate weather that graces central Israel in late February.

I am alone and we are together. Once a week, for eight years, I ride with the same women and our male bike guide, beginning in the pre-dawn of 5:30 am. I am the sole native English speaker; after 24 years in the country, my Hebrew is adequate, but I am quiet in groups, the limits of my vocabulary constrain my full self. Echoes of conversation and easy laughter filter through the breeze and reach me at the back of the group. Their biking skills are far better than mine, but I prefer this rear position, appreciative of the time and space to reflect and observe and be, knowing they are just up ahead. When we veer onto a new path, someone waits to point me in the right direction.

On the southern hills behind Modi’in, there’s a gradual but steady incline, a path I’ve never managed to complete without dismounting. When my endurance gives out, I hop off to walk for a few seconds. My gaze is focused on the ground and where I need to step; when I look up, I am face-to-face with a giant brown cow, five feet away, grazing with a few friends. We stare into each other’s eyes. She is of uniform color and her hair is trim, reminding me of suede. I would like to take off my biking glove and reach out and pet her, but I don’t. At the top of the hill, we exit the area through a narrow green foot bridge designed to keep the cows enclosed but allow humans to pass. Just after I attempt a sunrise selfie with the group, we hear high-pitched calls in the distance. Jackals, our instructor says. It sounds like there are at least three or four, but we do not see them. We cycle on.

Behind the trees, the sky is streaked with the pastel hues of sunrise and clouds illuminated by bright rays. Flocks of birds zigzag overhead. There are over 550 species that use the celestial highway known as the Red Sea Flyway, the path for birds as they move between their winter homes in Africa to the breeding grounds of Europe and Asia. I’ve attended a few birding classes and have the guides at home, but my skills are amateur; I can’t yet identify them by wingspan or flight pattern or birdsong.

To my left and right, all along the route: tall grass, still-green stalks of wheat, great quantities of milk thistle with white veins spread like spider webs across prickly leaves, sow thistle, and wild asparagus. I recognize them from a foraging workshop I took last year; for weeks after, on every run and ride and walk I could not stop my eyes from roaming, searching out the wild asparagus, though its taste was bitter. Should calamity befall, I could find food to sustain us for a while.

Dirt paths and puddles, dried mud and hard-packed, firm trails, days-old cow dung, boulders cut into the side of hills and smaller rocks along our route. The contours change by week as rain or tractors or fellow cyclists mold the soft earth, just as my proximity to the others shortens or lengthens depending on the difficulty of the terrain or extent of my daydreams. Ten minutes can go by without me seeing anyone at all. But now I spot a few others up ahead, and then: a sudden bobbing of a helmet, a blip, and one of my bikemates is down. When I reach her, she is rubbing her knee with vigor, puzzled as to how she fell. She winces in pain, muttering hakol beseder. Everything is fine, I’ll be all right. And indeed, this is a minor fall, she remounts within a few minutes. One of the ongoing mantras in my head when I ride is “do not fall,” though it’s happened to all of us. A fractured wrist. Red, angry scrapes. In my case, a scarred leg, from the time I slipped, four summers ago. The bike crashed down on me, the teeth of its gears puncturing my calf like vampire bites.

Vineyards arranged in rows with bare branches, purposely left fallow for the season. A small orchard with tiny saplings, so diminutive the only thing visible are the sticks tied to the shoots and their protective plastic covers. A sign reads Please do not tread on the young plants.

The almond trees are in full bloom, with white flowers blanketing the branches, live, tangible expressions of the Tu B’shevat songs I learned as a child in America and my own children sang here in nursery school to celebrate the birthday of the trees. Later, I see a multitude of trees—apple, cedar and pine, and others I cannot name.  There are fuzzy ones that look shaved on top, like something out of The Lorax. Last year, visiting Prague, my favorite spot was the garden of Queen Anne’s summer palace. I took pictures of the exotic trees, thinking they might serve as a prompt for my writing: a Pfitzer’s hybrid juniper, a horse-chestnut, a black locust, and a dogwood. But what I understand today on my ride is that I do not need to travel to faraway places. I have all my trees and wildflowers and animals right here, 20 minutes away.

We pass a memorial plaque for a fallen soldier. We’ve traversed this path on countless rides, but this is the first time I’ve noticed it. The Israeli flag by its side flaps in the wind and looks new; perhaps this is what captures my attention now. The plaque is old and caked with dirt and the group is already ahead, so I do not stop to make out the words, but the insignia of the Medical Corps is clearly visible, a reminder of those who have sacrificed so that we can be here.

As we head back into town, crows pick at trash in a picnic area. We pass a climbing structure resembling an atom. There’s broken glass on the bike path that I nearly ride over because I’m looking up and around and not down. Purple-black lupines grow on a rocky patch of a hill that borders the main road, a new neighborhood under construction just beyond.

One of us has recently returned to biking after a six-month hiatus due to a health scare. We take turns riding slowly, waiting for her as she regains her strength. We chat about riding and kids and jobs and travels and I join the conversations. We point out rare wildflowers. I would like, one time, to bring my flower book and my two bird guides and a tree dictionary and go pedal by pedal, ever slowly, to label each item. Like Abraham, commanded to rise and wander the length and breadth of the land, I was not born on this soil and I take these words to heart. I have no demands to possess at the exclusion of others, but I do walk and ride these paths to claim for myself this land, these trails, these trees and flowers.

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Julie Zuckerman‘s debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, was the runner up for the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and was published in May 2019. Her writing has appeared in CRAFT, Jewish Women’s Archive, Crab Orchard Review, Salt Hill, The SFWP Quarterly, and Sixfold, among others. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children. She works full time at a high-tech company. When she’s not writing or working, she can be found reading, running, biking, birdwatching, baking, or trying to grow things in her garden. For more information, please visit www.juliezuckerman.com.

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