It was the late 1950s. Our field, not yet buried between city blocks, was an open space we kids used as a short cut to school, overgrown with bracken and encrusted with ancient, boulder-like stones. There were caves in this field dating back to biblical times.
Hirsch and Sorrel lived here. Figures out of a fable, they stood no higher than the ferns - tiny, hushed beings the color of grain. Like field mice or fairy gnomes, their age had faded them into the bracken, almost indiscernible. Muffled summer and winter alike in tattered shawls, they mumbled together softly in a language that seemed nothing more than the rustle of trees. Hirsch might have had a threadbare beard. I no longer remember clearly. I remember them foraging together among the fallen Eucalyptus leaves for half-empty tin cans, whispering over garbage. Occasionally, we’d see them spooning food into each other’s mouths with exquisite tenderness, in silence. Some days, we’d surprise them, like foxes in their thistled lair. “Hirsch,” we’d call, ever so softly, “Sorrel,” and we’d chase them - half-heartedly, because even though we’d brought offerings of boiled eggs and sardines, we wouldn’t have known what to say if we ever caught up with them. Spotting them became a game for us kids, earning us imaginary honor points. But Hirsch and Sorrel never responded. I don’t know how we knew their names; possibly, we made them up ourselves. In any event, they treasured their privacy, shuffled off rodent-like when we spotted them, spurning our eggs and our sardines.
Hirsch and Sorrel had survived the camps of Europe; their son was a psychiatrist in New York, or so the legend went. He left money for them in a bank, under their name, sent tickets begging them to join him, or to live in any home they chose. But they’d seen the civilized world. Didn’t pick up their tickets, never drew money from the bank. That was the story that was recycled among us. In those days, the center of town was lined with men and women in ragged clothes, some squatting Arab-style on the sidewalk, some stationed outside a house of prayer, or at the entrance to the cemetery, a hand held out for coins.
One rather uncompassionate grad student did her research on the beggars of Jerusalem, claiming that a number of them had bank accounts, and that the patches of sidewalk on which they rested were rented out by the city, exclusively to them. In any event, in this field, which led in the mornings from my house to my school, Hirsch and Sorrel had drawn their life circle. Here my friends and I came upon their harvested trash, their whispered spells.
I’d daydream about Hirsch and Sorrel from my school bench by the classroom window, during the angry winter rains. “How do you survive in those dank caves,” I’d whisper through the glass.
We grew up, my friends and I. We left school. I moved north, yet periodically I came to visit. I still come. The municipality has dynamited the rocks and the hills of our field, erased its ancient caves, flattened it and poured a lawn in its mold. Today, grandmothers watch toddlers at play, waiting at the turn of the merry-go-round to coax that last morsel of banana from its peel into the stubbornly shut mouths of their grandchildren, chasing, scolding - catching them as they squeal in glee down the slide. One childless grandma has spread tealeaves over her skin and is exposing her face to the morning sun. Two ancient men - friends, I guess, have been parked on the bench by a daughter, one leaning his cane against his trembling bones; the other, not trembling, with the newspaper spread open over his knees, pretending to read. They are both staring at the kids as they play tag, not seeing them, waiting. Now, the trembling man has nodded off under the warmth of the sun and has stopped trembling; the other is listening to the portable radio that the boys in their leather jackets have brought, the ones who should be at work; watching them smoke, play checkers; listening perhaps to their tales of prowess. On the other side, there’s a group of retired men sitting round a card table. They’ve brought a tablecloth, an ashtray, sandwiches and beer and are playing chess. Over two thousand years ago, Zacharia had prophesized, “old men and women will yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with a stick in his hand of old age. And the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in her streets.”
My first love-gift came from this field: a little heart carved from the bark of the olive tree. Among the pine trees, I see the boy who made it - his gangly legs, his golden skin and his hair-lock - walking me home from high school alongside his bicycle, with never a word of romance. It was after the man in the winter coat exposed himself to me in the field. After I’d marched past the man on the path because I hadn’t wanted him to see how scared I was. When he sat among the thistles, whining after me in his sad voice, like a beggar hungry for food.
It’s spring. I look for Hirsch and Sorrel, call and coax. I leave food. I go to the municipality, asking about them. They say they found two homeless people in a cave, several years ago, in our field, during the coldest week of winter.
Gone, with neither struggle nor protest, leaving nothing behind them, no resounding statement, no monument, no body of work, not even any loved-ones close by; only a bundle of rags, a son who works successfully on the other side of the world (or so they say) and us, my childhood classmates and I, who will carry them with us, lightly, to our graves.