Neighbors Over the Fence

Illustration by Bill Russell

An excerpt from A rege fun emes

Blume Lempel (1907–1999) was an American writer known for her uniquely modern voice and daring fiction that challenged the norms of Yiddish literature both thematically and stylistically. Born in Ukraine, Lempel lived in Paris before settling in New York in 1939. Writing in a contemporary manner, Lempel frequently used sparse and unadorned, but eloquent, language to give her readers psychological insight into her characters’ inner workings. Her award-winning work was published in the Yiddish press throughout the world.

Every time Betty looks up from her typewriter, Mrs. Zagretti’s whitewashed stoop catches her eye. She knows that when the widow opens her front door it will be exactly 9:00 a.m. Without even looking, she can see the widow’s wintry face shrouded in its black shawl. The gulls that lie in wait on nearby rooftops have no need of a clock either. As soon as they finish their first breakfast at sea, they arrive at Mrs. Zagretti’s for dessert — tasty breadcrumbs dipped in fat and salted just so, as if she knows exactly how they like it.

The moment the door opens, the birds attack with a raucous clamor, flapping over the fence to land on her shoulders. Bowl in hand, Mrs. Zagretti tosses the bits of bread over the railing. The clever gulls catch the food in midair. After they gobble up the last morsels, she goes back into the house. The birds linger on the surrounding roofs and wait for more. When the miracle fails to occur, they fly back out to sea, where the bowl of food is never empty.

Betty doesn’t wear a watch. She likes to rely on the widow.

At about ten o’clock a taxi arrives to transport Mrs. Zagretti to her son’s grocery store. At three in the afternoon she returns home laden with groceries and stale bread for the insatiable birds.

When Betty is busy with a literary text, she loses track of time. Only when Mrs. Zagretti’s taxi appears does she realize she must put away her work before the children come home from school.

Betty works at the machine only in winter. In summer she devotes herself to the children. Also, in hot weather, friends she hasn’t heard from all winter call on the telephone. They come for a swim in the sea and stay for supper, leaving behind wet towels and a carpet full of sand.

Betty’s friendship with the widow began over the fence. Each in her own garden, on her own territory, sought to display her horticultural know-how. Mrs. Zagretti won the contest. She didn’t just have a green thumb — all ten fingers yielded a plentiful crop. She was privy to the secrets of the green world, knew what the plants wanted and lovingly fulfilled their every need. She showed her Jewish neighbor which ones needed full sun and which ones could manage with less. The two exchanged tomato seedlings, cucumbers, zucchini, a variety of flowers.

“Life, my dear, is a garden full of all kinds of plants,” Mrs. Zagretti said. “People, too, are plants that must be cultivated if they are to reach their highest potential.”

In the summer Mrs. Zagretti spent all day in the garden. She cared for every plant as if it were a living creature, caressing with her hands, her eyes, and, it seemed to Betty, her heart.

The pride of her garden was her fig tree, which had been imported directly from Italy. During the winter, the tree was wrapped from top to toe in a black cloth. In April, when the danger of frost had passed, Mrs. Zagretti uncovered the tree as reverently as one would unwrap the mummy of an ancient pharaoh. The delivery of the tree into the hands of the spring sun always took place on a Sunday, before Mass. Then, usually on Good Friday, the whole family — her son and daughter-in-law, the daughter-in-law’s parents, and their children — would take part in a ceremony, dancing around the tree as if it were a pagan god.

With a little sun, a little rain, and a little organic fertilizer the tree began to sprout. Red buds appeared among the branches. They grew fuller every day until, to Mrs. Zagretti’s delight, leaves burst open like green spoons in the sunshine. Every morning and evening she watered the tree, counting the blossoms and later the fruits. She spoke to the tree in Italian.

At the end of September, when the widow Zagretti harvested her figs, she talked to herself in a melodious voice, sometimes even singing a song as she worked. Over the fence, she presented Betty with a dozen of the green fruits on a plate covered with an embroidered cloth.

“You’re the only one who appreciates the fruits of my fig tree,” she said. “My own daughter-in-law doesn’t deserve them. Anyone who says that figs from a can are as good as figs from a tree isn’t worthy of a real, natural fruit — a fruit grown without chemicals or artificial fertilizer, a fruit as God created it. But what can you expect from an American girl who paints her fingernails and dyes her hair!”

Betty obliged her neighbor. She extolled the figs and assured Mrs. Zagretti that only an Italian tree could have produced such delicious fruit. Her interactions with the widow were unfailingly warm and sincere. She listened to her talk about the same topics over and over: the garden, the economy, her son’s grocery store, and the shortcomings of her American daughter-in-law.

One fine winter day when Betty is busy at her typewriter, Mrs. Zagretti knocks at the door. Looking out the window and seeing her coming, Betty can’t believe her eyes. In the three years since she and her family moved into the neighborhood, the widow has never once darkened her doorstep nor has Betty ever set foot in her neighbor’s house. The friendship has never crossed over the fence. For the first year, Mrs. Zagretti deliberately ignored the Jewish family. She seemed to have decided not to see Betty’s friendly smile or to respond to her greetings. The house had previously belonged to an Italian family, and Mrs. Zagretti was unable to adapt to the change. Not until spring arrived, when the two women began working in the garden, did they forge an unexpected connection, an emotional affinity that bound them like roots intertwined under the fence.

Mrs. Zagretti noticed that contrary to expectations her Jewish neighbor had a natural gift for gardening. She could tell by Betty’s ungloved hands. Standing on her side of the fence, she was surprised to see Betty scratching at the soil with bare fingers — something her daughter-in-law would never have done. She leaned over the fence and offered her new neighbor half a dozen gladiolus bulbs along with instructions as to how to plant and tend them, how to dig them up at the end of the summer, how to store them for the next season.

The second spring Mrs. Zagretti presented Betty with some tomato plants started from seed that were ready to be put into the ground. Every morning the two women greeted each other with a friendly “Good morning,” and every evening they wished each other a good night. They never invited each other into their homes. The garden was the intermediary that brought them together. As the garden blossomed, so did the friendship — but never did it cross their thresholds.

Now, when the widow knocks at the door, Betty greets her with undisguised amazement. She isn’t sure whether to invite her in or deal with the matter in the doorway. Sensing her hesitation, Mrs. Zagretti steps through the doorway without ceremony. “Close the door,” she says. “No sense letting the heat out.”

Mrs. Zagretti removes her coat but not the black shawl covering her head. She sits down and fingers her rosary as if she were seated before the priest in a confession booth rather than in a Jewish home.

Betty makes coffee. She flutters around her guest and waits for her to speak.

“Why didn’t you go to your son at the store?” she asks. “Is something wrong?”

Mrs. Zagretti stares at her neighbor as if she were surprised to see her. “Ah, you notice everything,” she says. “No, I couldn’t bring myself to do business on a day like today.”

Betty sips her coffee and studies her older neighbor out of the corner of her eye. Mrs. Zagretti has not touched her coffee. Something has definitely happened, Betty decides. Or is today a religious holiday? No, it has to be something personal — the shadow clouding her neighbor’s face attests to that. Her nose seems sharper than ever and her cheeks are sunken, with no sign of their summer color. Only the severe black line of her eyebrows preserves a trace of her former radiance.

Mrs. Zagretti sits silently, absorbed in herself — until suddenly she stands up and makes a sweeping gesture with her hand. “What a pity your walls are so bare!” she exclaims.

“Bare?” Betty replies. “What do you mean?”

“The previous owners had holy pictures on the walls.”

“We Jews don’t make use of religious pictures,” Betty says.

“A house without a picture, my mother used to say, is like a heart without a god,” Mrs. Zagretti says. “When I pray to God, I need a picture in front of my eyes.”

“We Jews carry God in our hearts,” Betty replies with an edge in her voice.

“I know,” says Mrs. Zagretti, “I know. I often see you standing by the window. Only people who sense the closeness of God have such a look. I’m no fool — I understand people, maybe not with my brains but with something my ancestors planted in me. I have a feeling you have that something inside you too, Betty. That’s why it’s easier for me to talk to you than to my daughter-in-law, my son, or even my priest.”

“Thank you for the compliment, Mrs. Zagretti,” Betty says. “You’re too kind.”

The widow doesn’t answer. She hurries down the hall to the doorway. Her face lights up with a summery smile as she tightens the shawl around her head and buttons her coat. A hidden hand seems to have erased the wrinkles from her face. She clears her throat and says, “Can you imagine a person feeling close to a fly?”

“To what?”

“To a fly,” Mrs. Zagretti says. “A housefly. Do you understand?”

“Yes, of course,” Betty answers. “I hope so.”

“You’re not laughing at me?”

“No,” says Betty. “Why should I laugh? A fly is also one of God’s creatures.”

The widow fingers her beads again. Her smile has disappeared. “It might seem that a person and a fly would have nothing to do with each other,” she says. “The person didn’t invite the fly into the house, or make a nest for the fly, or put out food for the fly. And yet…. do you know what I mean?”

Betty nods.

In the open doorway Mrs. Zagretti leans against the jamb just as she likes to lean on the fence. Clearly she feels freer outside. Her words pour out:

“You can’t imagine how much grief the death of this fly is causing me. I came into the kitchen this morning and there it was, lying like a crumb on the windowsill — dead! What can I tell you? My arms and legs went numb. I felt as if I’d become a widow for the second time.”

Betty looks at the floor without speaking. She reaches out and touches the widow’s shoulder.

Mrs. Zagretti shakes herself as if awakening from a trance. “You must understand,” she says, “the fly was a kind of soul mate for me. Whenever I came home it flew to greet me. It followed me from room to room. At night when I got into bed it would circle around the night light. Around and around and around — it must have hatched in late summer so that its life was just beginning when all the others of its species had already died. I could feel the tragedy of being left all alone in the world — all ties severed and paths overgrown, all friends and relations annihilated without a trace, condemned by fate to live out its one and only life in anguish . . .”

Betty wants to say that she knows many people who were orphaned and left alone in the world not because of a mistake in the calendar but because of the calculated, brutal, organized murder of a people.

A wind comes and stirs the bare branches of the trees. Mrs. Zagretti’s lips have turned blue with cold.

“Maybe I’ll go down to the store after all,” she says. “What did my son do to deserve such a foolish mother?”

“Good idea,” Betty says. “Go on, Mrs. Zagretti. We’ll talk about all this another time.”

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of three books of poetry, Uncle Feygele (Plain View Press, 2011), Vos shtilkayt hot baloykhtn (What Stillness Illuminated; Parlor Press, 2008; Free Verse Editions series), and The Insatiable Psalm (Wind River Press, 2005). His website is at www.yataub.net

With Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, Ellen Cassedy is the winner of the 2012 Translation Prize awarded by the Yiddish Book Center for “Oedipus in Brooklyn” and Other Stories, by Blume Lempel. She is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), which includes translated excerpts from Levi Shalit’s memoir.