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Forest Dark
Author:Nicole Krauss

“She wanted a bench in a crummy park in Sunny Isles. If that.”

“So why? I don’t understand, Yuda, I really don’t. It’s none of my business, but they were frugal people, your parents. They didn’t like to waste. One tree, two trees. But four hundred thousand? For what? You remember how I came to America for the first time when I was twenty-one? Your mother wouldn’t let me throw out my own toenail clippings.”

Epstein didn’t remember any such visit. He would already have been married by then, Jonah and Lucie both born. He would have been preoccupied with his work at the firm, and a hundred forms of struggle.

“They brought me to see you and Lianne. I came to your Park Avenue apartment, and it was like something out of another world. I’d never seen people live like that. You took me out for lunch at an expensive restaurant and insisted on ordering a lobster. Because you wanted to treat me, or impress me, or because you were having a little fun with me, I couldn’t tell which. And the waiter brings this huge boiling-red creature, this terrifying insect, to the table and puts it in front of me, and all I can think about are the swarms of giant red locusts that come every seven years and lie washed up on the beach. You got up and went to the bathroom, leaving me alone with it. And after a while, I couldn’t stand its beady black eyes staring at me anymore, so I put my napkin over its head.”

Epstein smiled. He had no recollection of it, but it didn’t sound unlike him.

“That night, I went back to the house in Long Beach. Your mother put me up in your old bedroom. And, lying there in your bed, listening to your parents go at each other in the kitchen, I kept thinking about that lobster. For the first time since I’d arrived, I felt homesick. All I wanted was to go back to Israel, where we might have had plagues of locusts, but they were my locusts, and at least I understood what they meant. I was lying there listening to your parents tear each other apart, and thinking about what it must have been like to be you. And suddenly I heard something slam hard against the wall with a thud. Then silence. I was already a man by then, just out of the army, with the reflexes of a soldier, and I jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen. I saw your mother leaning against the wall, holding her face, and I understood that some things are everywhere the same, and it was like I was back in my childhood kitchen again, with my own mother.”

Epstein looked up at the sky, bloodied to the west. Had he been better acquainted with this side of Moti, hidden under the coarseness and the wise cracks, or had the thought itself not been so abstract, he might have said something about the way, out of chaos, a few singular images are sometimes thrown up that come to seem, in their unfading vividness, the summation of one’s life, and all that one will take from it when one goes. And his were almost all of violence: his father’s or his own.

Instead, he said, “I think of my parents now, and I think, my God, so much argument. So many battles. So much destructiveness. It’s strange, but when I think about it, I realize my parents never once encouraged me to make anything. To build anything. Only to take things apart. It struck me the other day that only in arguing did I ever feel truly creative. Because it was always there that I defined myself—first against them, and then against everything and everyone else.”

“So what are you saying? That’s what this is about? A belated desire to stop fighting and make something? Yuda, let’s sign up for a pottery class, please. It will save you a lot of money. Come to think of it, I know a painter with a studio in Jaffa. For a small sum he’ll happily go to Rio for the month and leave you his place.”

But Epstein didn’t laugh.

“OK, it’s just that I don’t see it. You have three children. You were a great lawyer. You built a huge life. Isn’t that creation enough? If it were me we were talking about, a total failure in nearly everything, that would be a different story.”

“In everything?” Epstein asked, with genuine interest.

“It’s a part of me, very strongly connected to Jewishness, to the fact that I belonged to a cursed tribe.”

Epstein turned to look at his cousin, but at that moment Moti stood, hitching up his loose jeans and snapping a photo of the view on his phone, and in his slack expression Epstein saw no chance of being understood. He turned back to the desert, set ablaze by the sinking sun.

“This is it,” he said softly. “Go tell her this is the place.”

The car was silent on the drive back. A screen of darkness fell over the hills, and the temperature dropped. Epstein opened the window, and the cold air tumbled into his lungs. He began to softly hum the Vivaldi. How did it go? Cum dederit something, something, something somnum. He heard the countertenor, and saw the blind woman’s German shepherd with its eyes closed, listening outside the human range.

His phone began to vibrate in his pocket, and he ignored it. But when it started up again with new urgency, he checked and saw that it was Klausner trying to get through, and that he’d already missed three calls from him. Seeing the date, he realized that it must be the reunion Klausner was calling about. He looked back out at the darkening landscape, and against his natural persuasion he felt a little shiver at the thought that the real David must have walked and fought, loved and died, somewhere out there.

When his phone rang again, he gave in and answered to get it over with.

“Jules! Where are you? Are you in Jerusalem already?”

“No.”

“Where then?”

“In the desert.”

“The desert? What are you doing in the desert? We’re starting in an hour!”

“It’s tonight, is it? I’ve been busy.”

“Good thing I got through to you. I was starting to get worried. There’s still time. I’m at the hall now supervising the preparations—hold on—the musicians just arrived.”

“Listen, I’m on my way back to Tel Aviv now. It’s been a very long day.”

“Come for half an hour. Just to absorb the atmosphere. Eat something. Jerusalem isn’t so far out of your way. I don’t want you to miss this, Jules.”

Epstein felt the gnarled hand of the little man in the Safed shrine reach out once more for his pants leg. But this time he had no intention of yielding.

“To think that the Messiah might be there on the guest list. But no, really, I can’t.”

Klausner took no offense at the joke, and unwilling to take no for an answer, said he would try him again in half an hour. Epstein bade him good-bye and turned off his phone.

“What was that all about?” Moti asked.

“My rabbi.”