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Forest Dark
Author:Nicole Krauss

His trees were growing at a kibbutz in the Kinneret. A month after he’d signed his name to the $2 million donation, Epstein was taken to see them. The head of the JNF, having returned from her travels in South America, brought him personally. They dined under a grape arbor that the kibbutz rented out for weddings, and drank the wine produced by its sister kibbutz across the valley. Epstein’s glass was refilled, and afterward, tipsy, he was driven out to the fields in a tractor. The air was heavy with the smell of manure, but the view was wide and fertile, with green fields, yellow grasses, and brown hills. Epstein stood, loafers sinking into the soil, and saw the rows upon rows of shivering saplings. Is that all? he’d asked. All four hundred thousand? It seemed to him that even with so many, there were still not enough. The head of the JNF double-checked with her assistant, who confirmed that a further hundred fifty thousand saplings, broadleaf rather than pine, would be brought from another kibbutz, but that what he was looking at, right here in front of him, was the heart of the Sol and Edith Epstein Forest.

His books lay open on the table. He was reading Isaiah and Kohelet. He was reading the aggadot in Bialik’s Book of Legends. The man behind the crowded desk in the secondhand bookshop on Allenby understood the vein he was mining, and always had something waiting. But now, close to midnight in the apartment in Jaffa, Epstein left off from their pages and began once more to pace. The saplings still needed six weeks before they could be transplanted. Come March it would be spring, and then the valley would burst into flower, ranunculus and cyclamen would cover the hills, and the saplings would be ready. They would be dug up and wrapped in burlap, transported to the mountain in the northern Negev, and placed in the ground by an army of laborers. In Israel, where the warm sun almost always shone, trees grew twice as fast as in America. By summer they would already be up to Epstein’s chest, and by fall they would surpass him. Galit was overseeing the project; on this Epstein had been insistent. In his impatience, he phoned her once a day. His energy for the subject of forests and trees was inexhaustible, and only she could keep pace with him. The word humus—which she used when referring to the rich soil that the trees held in place, and replenished when they died, suffusing it with the minerals they had mined from the depths of the earth—sent a shiver down Epstein’s spine. He developed a great interest in the topic of erosion, not only in the wadis, where the rain from flash floods spilled down the barren slopes and came sluicing through in search of the shortest path to the sea, but across the world, and through time. When the owner of the bookshop on Allenby failed to procure any books on forestry, Galit arranged for certain titles to be delivered to Epstein’s Jaffa apartment, and in these he read about how the great empires of Assyria, Babylon, Carthage, and Persia were all destroyed by the floods and desertification brought on by mass clearing of their forests. He read about how the felling of forests in ancient Greece was soon followed by the vanishing of its culture, and how the same destructive clearing of the virgin forests of Italy later caused the downfall of Rome. And all the while, as he read, and the sea rolled its great dark waves against his windows, his own saplings were growing, their leaves unfurling, their leaders stretching upward toward the sky.

Epstein took up his book again: Rescue me, God, for the waters have come up to my neck.

His phone rang.

And there is no place to stand

I am come into deep waters,

where the floods overflow me.

It was Sharon, breathless to have gotten through, since he rarely answered anymore. She had still not given up the search for his lost phone and coat. Standing on the cold Jaffa floor, it all struck Epstein as long ago: Abbas at the Plaza, the coat clerk with a limp, the mugger who ran the shining knife across his chest. But Sharon had not forgotten, and—in Epstein’s absence, without instructions otherwise—had remained doggedly on the case. With excitement, she reported that she had traced the phone to Gaza.

Gaza? Epstein echoed, turning to the south and looking through the dark windows.

Using Find My iPhone, she explained, she had been able to track it over GPS. And, after many hours on the phone with a technician in Mumbai, she had disengaged Lost Mode and triggered an app installed when Epstein’s phone was new that allowed one to remotely command it to take pictures. Within a matter of hours, Sharon announced with pride, tomorrow at the very latest, the photographs taken by Epstein’s itinerant phone would be transmitted through to her computer.

Epstein imagined bombed buildings nestled in the lost phone’s archive next to the stream of photographs Lucie had sent him of his grandchildren.

Sharon’s tone now switched to one of concern. But how was he? She had not heard from him for two weeks; messages she had left had not been returned. Did he want her to book his return flight?

He assured her that he was well, and that he didn’t need her to do anything at the moment. Not wishing to get into it further, he hurried off the phone, without pausing to ask her what it was she meant to do once the pictures from his phone in Gaza finally came through.

He put on a jacket and went down the dark stairwell, not bothering to turn on the lights. When he got to the landing of the floor below, a cat streaked out through an open door and wound itself around his legs. His downstairs neighbor came out, apologized, scooped up the ginger cat, and invited him in for a cup of tea. Epstein politely declined. He needed some air, he explained. Perhaps another time.

On the jetty made of boulders and concrete blocks, some Arab men were fishing in the dark. What are you trying to catch? Epstein asked in his simple Hebrew. Communists, they told him. And when he did not understand, they gestured with their thumb and forefinger to demonstrate the smallness of the fish they were after. He stood watching them throw their lines for a while. Then he touched the elbow of the youngest of them and gestured south, toward the open water. How far to Gaza? he asked. The boy grinned and reeled in his line. Why? he asked. You want to visit? But Epstein had only been trying to gauge the distance, a skill that along with others seemed to be slowly abandoning him.