The following is an excerpt from Fragments of Fragments, a series of short publications that speak more directly to the Oct. 7 Israel-Hamas war.
by Daniel Spector
Shalom Michaeli was a foolish boy. Everybody said so, even his parents. He didn’t mind, because it was said with love mixed with a little exasperation. When he was six years old, he told his mother that he didn’t need to learn anymore because he already knew how to count to 100, and that was the biggest number there ever was. His mother smiled at him, shook her head, said, “Foolish boy,” and continued picking vegetables from her garden for dinner. When he was eight years old, he bet a friend that he could jump from one side of the village square to the other.
The friend’s father said with a smile, “Foolish boy. You see the horizon way over there?”
“Even if you started from there and ran all the way here, you couldn’t jump that far. Now go help your father bring the sheep in.”
Anyway, boys were supposed to be foolish until they were old enough not to be foolish anymore, and he wasn’t old enough.
Eight families lived in the village, each in its own house. (Maybe you think that wasn’t enough to make a village, but it was enough for them.) Two houses faced each side of the square, which was not really square, just an open space where the children played and the families gathered for celebrations and the men sat and smoked and talked about their wives while the women sat in the doorways and talked about their husbands.
Shalom loved his village. It was his world. He ran among the spiny hawthorn and terebinth trees with the other children and he helped his father tend the sheep. If he was thirsty, he drew water from the well in the square. If he was hungry, he walked into any house and he was fed.
The tranquility of the village was disturbed from time to time only by what was, to Shalom’s young mind, a strange and magical event — the sudden appearance of an Olive Tree in the square. The first time he remembered it happening, he was four or five years old. I say “strange and magical” because, were it not for the screams of horror by the adults, the appearance of the Tree would have filled Shalom with wonder. One minute it was not there, then poof, it was. Such a miraculous appearance was to a boy like light to a moth, and Shalom’s first instinct was to walk up and touch the Tree.
The adults’ screams gave him pause. At first, he thought they were screaming about something else: What was so terrifying about an Olive Tree? Then his mother scooped him up and ran into the house, as did other mothers with their children. The men brought embers from their stoves and machetes from the tool shed and set the Olive Tree to burn while they furiously hacked its branches and limbs. In an hour, the Tree was a charred stump surrounded by smoking pieces of wood.
The women came out of the houses and the adults stood around the stump, shaking their heads and murmuring among themselves. Some of the men loaded the pieces into a wagon and drove across and through the land, strewing pieces as they went, while other men dug up as much of the stump as they could (which was not much because the roots were deep) and burned it to ashes.
Until the next time the Olive Tree appeared.
No one could remember how many times the Tree had appeared since the village was built or predict when the Tree would appear next. (It was always the same tree. You could see that it had the same trunk, limbs, and branches. Even the placement of the leaves was the same.)
After the third time in his life that the Olive Tree appeared in the village square, Shalom could not suppress his curiosity.“
“Why are you scared of the Olive Tree?” he asked his parents over dinner.
His parents looked at each other, and his mother said, “Because it is foreign. It does not belong here.”
“But if it does not belong here, why does it keep appearing?”
“It represents something evil,” said his father, “something that would destroy our way of life. When you become a man, if you love our people, you will burn that evil, too.”
Which ended the discussion.
In the cool of the morning, the oldest man in the village, the Memory Keeper, would gather the children in the square for a lesson, girls to one side and boys to the other. This was Shalom’s favorite part of the day.
He particularly liked it when the Keeper brought out the Book, which contained stories about how the village came to be. The Book was old, with frayed edges and faded pages so thin they might have blown away in a breeze if they hadn’t been bound together. The Keeper kept the Book carefully wrapped in a soft cloth. With his students sitting before him, mouths agape, he slowly removed the cloth and opened the cover with the utmost delicacy and respect. The children knew better than to interrupt the ritual by moving or making the slightest sound; such disrespect earned an instant withering look. Adults around the square also stopped what they were doing until the Keeper raised his eyes to the children.
Then in solemn tones, he read to them: About how their ancestors were driven from this village thousands of years before and had to live among Others who wanted to kill them, until the Others killed so many that the ancestors learned that they would never be safe if they lived among Others. So they came back to this place that was promised to them by God, where they could be by themselves and nobody would bother them and they wouldn’t bother anybody. And the ancestors planted gardens of chickpeas and cucumbers and lettuce, grew wheat, raised chickens, and grazed sheep from horizon to horizon.
Sometimes the Keeper would allow the most deserving boy to read part of a story to the other children, under the Keeper’s supervision, of course. The boy was not allowed to touch the book, only to read the words. He had to stand before the Book with his hands behind his back. Not too close, lest his breath disturb the tranquility of the words on the page. If a page had to be turned, the boy waited while the Keeper lifted and turned the page with the utmost delicacy and respect.
The Keeper read certain stories more than once because, he said, they were important to the Memory. Like the story about the ancestors coming here and finding a land filled with fruit trees, sheep, vegetables, and abundant water, a land needing only a hard-working people.
“Where did the sheep and the fruit trees come from?” Shalom asked.
“What do you mean?” the Keeper said, warily.
“When our ancestors came here, they found sheep and oranges and everything,” Shalom said. “If our ancestors didn’t bring them on the journey, where did they come from?”
“Foolish boy. They were already here.” The Keeper was smiling, but by his tone, Shalom understood that the response was final.
The Keeper’s answer bothered him. The sheep grazing beyond the village couldn’t shear themselves. The trees couldn’t pick their own fruit. The chickpeas couldn’t plant themselves. Could they? Did God know how to shear sheep? That night he put the same question to his parents, and to his disappointment he received the same answer — “They were already here.”
But Shalom loved the stories, and he was proud of his ancestors for surviving the Others and for building a home where he could be safe.
One morning, while the men were grazing the sheep and the women were harvesting the chickpeas, the Keeper spoke to the children about Memory. “These stories are our Memory,” he told the children, holding up the Book to emphasize the solemnity of his words. “Memory binds us. We carried it with us through our long journey to this land, and we practice it every day. Memory is sacred, it is who we are.”
“Do the Others have Memory?” Shalom asked.
The Keeper looked at him sharply. “Foolish boy,” he said after a pause. “What does that matter?” This time the Keeper didn’t smile. In the silence that followed, Shalom sensed that something was wrong. The other children did, too, and they looked at him. This was a different kind of “foolish.”
He didn’t feel any less uneasy when he saw the Keeper talking to his mother and father that afternoon, the three of them glancing in his direction.
That night, over dinner, his mother was worried. “Why would you ask such a question?”
“I was just wondering, Mama,” Shalom said, unhappy to be the center of unwanted attention. “We have Memory and the Book. If the Others are people, maybe they have Memory, too. Maybe they have their own Book.”
“The Others are not like us,” his father said. “They are consumed by hatred. They hate us more than they love their children. All they remember is that hatred. They don’t need Memory. The only Memory that matters is ours.”
At the next lesson, as he prepared to read another story, the Keeper announced that foolish boys would not be allowed to read from the Book. The children looked at Shalom. He didn’t ask any more questions.
Time passed. When Shalom and his cohort became old enough, they joined their fathers in the field or their mothers in the gardens while younger children sat before the Keeper, mouths agape. Between errands, Shalom would steal a few minutes to listen to the stories he knew so well.
A change had come over Shalom. “Introspective,” “quiet,” and “more serious” were some of the descriptors the villagers used to mark his change from a foolish boy (the earlier kind of “foolish”) to an excellent shepherd. His parents attributed the change to “growing up,” which reflected their relief that, as his mother said to his father, “he isn’t asking all those questions.”
She was wrong. Shalom was asking those questions, but not aloud. While the sheep grazed, Shalom sat on an outcrop and wondered about the Others. Each time the Olive Tree appeared, he watched it closely, looking for clues about its nature. He did not participate in its frenzied destruction, which occasioned rebukes from the Keeper, glares from his father, and gasps from his mother.
Early one morning, Shalom awoke from a troubled sleep filled with fleeting images of people he did not know and groves of olive trees. He stretched and walked outside his house, careful not to wake his parents. The east was just beginning to brighten, but stars still ruled the sky and the air was crisp. The square was empty and the village was quiet. He sat down on a bench and took deep breaths to clear his mind.
A faint rustle drew his eyes to the ground. Something had brushed against his shoe. He couldn’t make it out in the darkness hugging the ground, so he picked it up to bring it into the growing morning light. It was a leaf from an olive tree. His eyes jumped to the square — it was a leaf from the Olive Tree, which had just appeared in the square. The leaf fell from his hand.
His breath caught in his throat and he rose slowly to his feet — the Tree was the light and he was a moth. He took a few steps forward, and then a few more. As he approached, an image began to form at the base of the Tree. With each step, the image became less fuzzy.
In his house, his mother had risen to start a fire in the stove. When she looked out the window and saw Shalom and saw the Tree and saw Shalom walking toward the Tree, she screamed. He didn’t hear her, but the rest of the village did. Men and women rushed out of their houses, yelling to Shalom to stay away. As Shalom approached the Tree and as the figure at its base came into focus, he himself became less distinct in the eyes of the villagers. When he reached the Tree, he looked at the girl sitting against the trunk, and smiled. At that moment, he disappeared.
The villagers were stunned into silence. They stood rooted to the ground. They couldn’t even look at each other, fearing that to do so would be to admit that they had seen something that couldn’t have happened. Then Shalom’s mother and father began to wail, which broke the paralysis of disbelief. Children cried and clung to their parents. Villagers scurried around the Olive Tree, like mice looking for bits of food; they climbed into its branches and got down on hands and knees and pushed aside blades of grass.
Above the noise of the scurrying villagers, above the crying of children and the wailing of parents, the stentorian voice of the Memory Keeper flung curses at the Olive Tree and the Others. He held up the Book, shook it at the Tree, and called down the wrath of the ancestors.“
Once again, the Others have shown their true colors!” he bellowed, looking at the villagers with fiery eyes. “Once again, They have shown how much They hate us. But we will not be driven from our land again. Our Memory binds us. We will destroy this Olive Tree and every Olive Tree They send against us. Not one more child will They take from us!”
When Shalom’s mother saw the men move to get the burning wood and the machetes, she screamed “No! You can’t!” as tears fell, one after the other. The men stopped, embarrassed.
The Keeper turned on her. “Our Memory compels us.”
“No, my son … he … maybe, maybe he’ll come back if we leave the Olive Tree for a while. The Tree took him, the Tree could bring him back,” she pleaded.
The Keeper was unmoved and responded unfeelingly. “The Others want to kill us. They hate us. The Book says so,” he reminded her, patting the Book in its cloth wrapping. Shalom’s mother began to wail again. “We must give them no quarter,” he shouted over her sobs.
Then he turned to the villagers. “Let this be a warning: Do not question the Memory! You see what happens when you ask questions you should not ask, questions you should not even think?” he said, pointing to the Olive Tree. “You give aid and comfort to our enemies! And you pay the price.”
The men, including Shalom’s father, brought embers from their stoves and machetes from the tool shed. They avoided looking at Shalom’s mother, who was still sobbing. Other women helped her back to her house. The men set the Olive Tree to burn while they hacked its branches and limbs. In an hour, the tree was a charred stump surrounded by smoking pieces of various sizes.
Some of the men loaded the pieces into a wagon and drove across and through the land, strewing pieces as they went, while other men dug up as much of the stump as they could (which, as usual, was not much because the roots were deep) and burned it to ashes.
When Shalom’s father returned to the house, he found his wife sitting, staring out the window. She did not acknowledge his presence and he was embarrassed to intrude on her thoughts. He made himself some tea, grabbed a piece of bread and some cheese, and left to tend the sheep. He returned in the evening, found himself some dinner, and went to bed. When he awoke in the middle of the night, his wife was still sitting, staring out the window.
Which is where she was at first light when she screamed and ran out the door. There, sitting on the ground in the middle of the square, was Shalom. When he saw his mother running toward him, he rose and welcomed her embrace. His father, awakened by her scream, followed behind her, but stood apart, unsure of what to do. Shalom walked to him and hugged him. His father cried quietly into Shalom’s shoulder.
Only he wasn’t the same Shalom who had disappeared the morning before. He was older and broader of shoulder. His voice was deeper. His eyes had a light and his countenance had a weight that is often seen in those who bear the responsibility of knowledge and experience.
Word spread, and soon Shalom was surrounded by his neighbors, some of whom touched his arm or his face to assure themselves that he was real.
The Memory Keeper arrived and pushed his way through the crowd. “Were you with the Others? Did They send you back here to question our Memory?” And then to the villagers, “Do not trust him. He is…”
“Giving aid and comfort to the Others?” Shalom replied impassively. For once, the Keeper was speechless. The villagers murmured. “How did he know?” “How did he know?”
Shalom turned away from the Keeper and walked into his home, trailing the villagers behind him. He went directly to his mother’s wedding chest, which was against the far wall, and moved it three feet to the left, exposing a small rectangular hole in the stone wall, about two feet above the floor. He looked at his father.“
That hole has been there for as long as my family can remember,” his father said. The villagers crowded into the house behind him. Those who couldn’t fit inside stood in the doorway or looked in through the windows.
Shalom looked at the hole again, then took a small rectangular stone from his pocket, bent down, and slid the stone into the hole. It was a perfect fit. He removed the stone, stood up, and returned the stone to his pocket and stood there, eyes downcast.“
When I walked to the Olive Tree,” Shalom began, “I saw a girl sitting on the ground with her back against the trunk. She smiled at me, so I smiled back. She said her name was Adalah. I said, ‘My name is Shalom.’ She said, ‘I know.’ I asked her if she was the Other. She said, ‘No, are you?’ I said ‘No, of course not, I live here.’ She said, ‘So do I. Look around you.’“
I looked around and I saw people like us, families like ours, doing the same things we do — tending sheep, growing vegetables, telling stories, raising children. But all around the horizon, encircling the families, was a kind of wall. Not a real wall of stone or wood or metal, but something with the essence of a wall. ‘What is that wall made of ?’ I asked Adalah. ‘Your fears,’ she said.
“They can see through the wall,” Shalom said to the villagers, “but we can’t. They can see us, but we can’t see them. I could hear and see what you did to the Olive Tree when you thought I had disappeared.” The villagers shuffled uncomfortably. “And the Olive Tree is their warning to us that they are still here: No matter how much we burn and destroy, they remain.”
“Remain where?” a villager asked.“
Here, they are here,” Shalom said, sweeping his arms to indicate the village. “Adalah is here,” and he opened his palm to his right, as if Adalah were standing next to him.
From the doorway, the Keeper shouted, “He brought Others into our village, into our homes!” The villagers panicked. Some ran to their homes to check for the presence of Others.
Shalom sighed and sat on the wedding chest. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out the stone.“
Adalah gave me this stone,” he said. “I didn’t know about the hole until she told me. She said her great-grandfather built this house, Papa. Adalah’s grandmother gave her the stone and told her that it fell out of the wall one day. Sometimes when her grandmother wanted to hide something, like a pretty beetle, she would hide it in the hole and cover it up with the stone. It was their little secret, Adalah and her grandmother.“
Adalah told me that when our ancestors came here,” Shalom continued, “they drove Adalah’s grandparents out of this house. This,” he said, looking around at the four walls, “this is Adalah’s home.”
“You lie!” the Keeper shouted again. “The Book says that this is our land! These are our homes!” The villagers mumbled their agreement.“
They read a different Book, Memory Keeper. I read their Book. Just like us, they have Memory. Their Memory binds them. Maybe their stories aren’t all true. I don’t know. I don’t have all of the answers. I don’t even have all of the questions.”
“Our Memory is all that matters,” the Keeper insisted. “It was handed down to us by our ancestors. It is complete and true.” Heads nodded. “You speak like an Other. I will not listen to someone who hates his own people.” He turned and walked away.
“Our Memory was a quilt sewn together piece by piece by generations of our ancestors,” Shalom said, trying to get the attention of the villagers, some of whom had already followed the Keeper out. “A tapestry of joy and sorrow, of beauty and horror, of love and regret, of struggle and defeat.
“But we have taken our Memory apart, piece by piece, and have kept only the pieces that make us feel good and righteous,” said Shalom. “We even create artificial memories to fill the empty spaces in our Memory. How can we do that? Who gave us the right to do that?”
Only the handful of villagers who remained heard his words. Shalom pleaded with them. “What remains of our Memory after we throw away the pieces we don’t want and create artificial memories to take their places? I’ll tell you what’s left: pieces that don’t fit together. We live in the ruins of our Memory, and without our Memory, all of it, who are we?”
By the time Shalom finished, his parents were the only other villagers in the house.
Shalom looked to his right with a fixed gaze, as if he were listening. Then he cast his eyes downward.
“What is it, Shalom?” asked his father.
“Adalah spoke to me.”
“What did she say?”
Shalom looked into his parents’ eyes. “The villagers will build a wall around me.”
Shalom Michaeli was a foolish boy.
DANNY SPECTOR (he/him) is a writer, a retired geologist, and a red diaper baby. With the love of his life, Maggie, who passed away in 2019, he raised two wonderful daughters and now basks in the glow of four grandsons. He is the author of the weekly Thoughts-Letter (thoughtsletter.substack.com), his outlet for fictional and non-fictional musings. Some people actually read it.