Commentary Magazine


In Israel's Green Pastures:
Four Tales by a Reflective Shepherd

We Had Some Fine Times Then

Maury Nissim was a small, trim, dark-blond fellow whom I knew slightly in France before I went to Israel; knew slightly in Israel the first time I was in Israel, and next heard of again shortly before I left Israel for the second time. He was said to be living in Tel Aviv, and since it was in Tel Aviv that I heard this, I went around to see him. He was staying in a typical Tel Aviv house: two stories high, cement blocks overlaid with peeling plaster, washing strung across the court, shingles advertising “Diplomated” teachers of all languages, and every bit of electrical and plumbing installations visible on the outside in a variety of pipes and tubes and discolored leaks. My knock was answered by a colored girl in gold jewelry and an advanced stage of pregnancy, we spoke in Hebrew and she asked me to come in, then called out to Maury in French that he had visitors.

He came in from an adjoining room wearing only trousers and undershirt, but my quickly formed opinion about the nature of the manage was wrong: the young lady was the wife of a friend.

“Well, for Christ’s sake! Come on in!” he said. “Jesus, what a surprise.” Maury speaks a very fluent brand of American English, learned chiefly from expatriates in Paris. He also has a first-rate command of French, German, Hebrew, Ladino, and Bulgarian. He brushed some soiled linen and a roll of film off the sagging couch, and invited me to be seated. The young person said goodbye, Maury patted her paternally on the belly and on the behind, kissed her cheeks, and closed the door behind her. Then he repeated his opening remarks. Then he asked what I was doing.

“Getting ready to go back.”

“You, too? So am I.”

“To Bulgaria?”

“You think I’m nuts? Naa. To France. To civilization.”

“Cecil Ginzburg said you were in a fishing co-op.”

“Cecil Ginzburg is full of it. A fine fellow, but full of it. I was in a fishing cooperative, yes. No more. I mean, no more cooperative. I couldn’t care less. But still, we had some fine times while it lasted. If I had an English accent like Cecil’s, I might have gotten a government job, too; but I figured, what the hell. Build up the country. Supply food. Rugged outdoor life, all the rest of it. So I joined this co-op. Y’ wanna hear about it?” He got up and rummaged around until he found a pack of cigarettes. We lit up. “I can only afford Matossian now,” he said.

I can only afford Matossian now.”

“Well. You remember Herbert Sam?”

“The Egyptian? Yes.”

“That’s him. I met him right after I got my shikrur from the army. The Israeli army, not the Bulgarian army. And he told me about this co-op. The Misrad Dayag-the, how d’ya call it, the Bureau of Fisheries, was going to give us a permit and help us get a loan and so on. And I met the fellows and everything seemed swell. You know where Jubjuba is? On the coast? It’s down near the Egyptian line, and there used to be a little Arab settlement there, not even a town, just about seven or eight houses and a well. And nearby a British barracks of some kind. There’s a nice beach, too. So we moved in, just-waiting till we got everything fixed up, in the meanwhile. We pooled what money we had and bought a dory so we could practice rowing anyway. Hell!” he said, suddenly and explosively. He rubbed his chin.

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“It All seemed so important at the time.

I Now—I couldn’t care less. The set-up was like this. Herb and a Turkish fellow we called Izmir, they were the brains, the liaison people with the Misrad Dayag and whoever the hell it was that was making the loan. They used to stay up in Tel Aviv and come in on weekends. So that left me, Hannah, Nate, Freddy, Sue, Amnon, Igor, and Jack. Hannah was living with Nate, Freddy was a Moroccan, Sue was living with Amnon, Igor was a Ph.D., Jack used to be in the Foreign Legion. I guess that takes care of everybody. While we were waiting for the Misrad Dayag to fix things up, what we did for a living was this: The Agudat Ha-Shomrim, the Watchmen’s League, paid us to guard the pump at the well. The police paid us to guard the old barracks. Somebody paid us to post a lifeguard at the bathing beach, I forget who. People were always coming there on bathing parties. So we had enough money to get by while we were waiting, and we took each a turn on guard duty. And believe me, there was plenty to guard.”

“I believe you,” I said.

“The Arabs used to come sneaking around every few nights. They knew we had women there. Once they shot the electric light bulb—what am I saying”? The kerosene lamp, the chimney, shot in my room, right off the base. Boy, did we ever duck! Except Jack. Jack was mad, He lit a cigarette and he walked outside with his rifle. Slowly. They shot at him, he shot at them, they ran. We found blood on the sand next day. They left a boat and a net, so we had more practice. And visitors, did we ever have visitors. From all places. Women used to bring us wine and talk about how romantic. Boy. We had some fine times. But no permit, no loan.

“Then one night we threw a party for Amnon’s birthday. He’s a sabra, you know how they are, they never been outside the country and they feel they got to show that they’re just as hep as everybody else. So he brought in lots of liquor and we all got as drunk as owls. And Jack got really drunk, crazy drunk, and he at once got the idea he was back in the Foreign Legion.

“He started to yell, ‘A Vattaque! Suivez-moil’ and we did, first, because we were all drunk, and second because he said he’d shoot the first man he caught skulking. We charged out the door yelling and just our luck! we saw some figures on the road, so we started to shoot. We kept on shooting till our ammunition gave out. And then we forgot all about them and went back into the house and started singing. What did we sing? ‘Awpris de ma blonde,’ I think.”

“But the people you were shooting at—?”

“Oh, yes, them. Well. That was embarrassing. They turned out to be a patrol from the Agudat Ha-Shomrim, checking up on our guard. They were real mad,” Maury sounded almost puzzled. “Not like anyone was hurt, I mean. Well, they took away our guard job from us. Then the police decided it was cheaper to buy a padlock for the barracks than to pay us to watch it. And then it came on winter and the lifeguard job went away, too. Then Freddy went to Tel Aviv and got a job with some American airline he used to work for in Casablanca, he was in seventh heaven.”

“I can imagine,” I said. Without meeting him, I felt I knew Freddy. He was one of a long line of Freddies, Dickies, Jackies, from Morocco on up the Mediterranean, who learned English from the U.S. army and can never again be happy with their old way of life. Most of them are doomed. Freddy was lucky. For the female Freddies there is no hope at all.

“And then Hannah and Nate split up. They still live together in the same room, but she says to him, ‘Don’t think you can touch me any more. That’s finished,’ she says to him. Then she says, ‘Give me five pounds.’ ‘Give me ten pounds.’ And he does. Then he cries. He’s crazy, that poor bugger, And Igor left for Australia, and so one, two, three, no more co-op. Only Jack stayed on. He used to go out in one boat with a naked Arab and throw detonation in the water and sell the fish that were killed, but the police stopped him.”

“And after it was all over, I suppose you got the permit and—”

What? You nuts or something? Never got a thing. Let me tell you the pay-off of the whole business. It seems the Misrad Dayag is a Mapam enclave in our Mapai economy. And none of us had the slightest affinity for politics, let alone being good Ma-pamniks. They never had the slightest intention of helping us at all. One of them told me so later on. Not that it matters now. I couldn’t care less.”

“So you’re going to France?”

“Betcher life.”

“When?”

“Pretty soon. I’ve had enough of the East. I was raised in an Oriental country and now these three years here. Enough. I’m waiting for the war to start, then I’m going into the American army as Bulgarian interpreter. I’m so happy Bulgaria is with the Russians because she is always on the side that loses. Then I will get even with all those sonsabitching fascists that turned Communist so quick. Then-well, we’ll see. But I’m through with small, Oriental countries.”

He rubbed his chin again and looked dreamily out the window.

“Still,” he said, “we had some fine times.”

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Doctor Basileus

“The true homeland of the Jew is the JL Exile. His people has spent a great deal more time in the Exile than in Israel itself. Can the Jew, then, not be at home in Israel? Yes; for in Israel he is in exile from the Exile itself.”

Dr. John Anthony Basileus (Dr. Med., Gen. Practitioner, said the brass plate near the gate—the one now green with vedrigris and the other a hazard of rusting iron and falling masonry) put down his pen and closed, without blotting, the ledger which currently served him as commonplace book. He sat for a moment in silence trying to remember something. A soft, bubbling noise in the corner of the room told him what it was, and he got up and took the sterilizer off the fetiliah, the single-burner asbestos wick kerosene stove. The flame, forgotten, continued to burn—or, rather, smolder, as Dr. Basileus took a small egg from the sterilizer and poured the water into a teapot. In his dietary habits he gave great scandal to the plump, serious Rumanian nurse who assisted him in his clinical work.

“Honestgod, Doctore,” ran her opening lines, “why you are not eating more?” and her fingers scurrying to thrust in a scrap of escaping hair or fix an undone safety pin or an undone button.

“Eating much is bad for thought: it causes humors to arise to the brain, Sister Goldman.”

“It is not so. How you can believe such thing?” She would turn her round, red, serious face at him and scan the thick nose, the spectacles with one opaque lens and the bridge mended with adhesive tape, the straggling gray mustache and irregular teeth.

Or—”Honestgod, Doctore, how you can cook food in this sterizer? where you have put before dirty instruments, diseased thing?”

“If I trust my patients’ lives to sterile technique, Sister, I may also trust my own.”

He put two lumps of sugar in his tea (tea and sugar alike a gift from the police; probably smuggled; ask no questions, Anthony John, but take what the day brings. In the past the day had brought a rich father and a foreign education, a spendthrift brother, an unfaithful wife, a loss of faith, and a calm compassion which passed no judgments and made no demands. Take what the day brings) and cracked the egg against the littered desk. Several times a day Dr. Basileus would buy a cornucopia of peanuts in the village and he always saved the paper, which—always—was a document or form or notice of some kind from “the late Mandatory Government” which the winds had scattered about the same time as they had scattered most of the local Arabs across the Jordan. It pleased Dr. Basileus to read these while he ate, and then to use the backs of them for writing up his records. There was a most pleasing variety. Criminal trial reports, testimony from civil suits, statistical accounts, orders and decrees, what not. It pleased Dr. Basileus still more to think that these papers in the distant future might be used to reconstruct the history of the times. He saw himself as a clerical scribe of the past, going every day to the monastic lumber room and idly picking up separate leaves of parchment or papyrus, and then-on the back of a fragment of a rare Latin history or a leaf of ^a lost apocryphal Gospel, setting down in his cramped and corrupt script the daily accounts of the abbey. To make any systematic attempt at collecting these papers would altogether spoil his pleasure.

At such times he regarded himself from afar as, also, a civilized scholar surviving into the times of the barbarians (although who were the barbarians, the Moslems or the Jews, or both, he was not quite certain). Calm and forbearing, he goes about his daily tasks amid the ruins. He was also capable of regarding from afar this observer himself, and of smiling at him; for this attitude might have been taken at any time during the last eight centuries by any member of the family of Basileus.

His cousin Christopher had sat in this same room the night before he fled with the others. Tears ran down his face.

“We have lost our country,” he had sobbed.

“That is not news,” Dr. Basileus had said. “We lost our country when the kingdom of Jerusalem fell to the Turks. We have lost our language, we have lost our culture, some of us have lost our religion as well. It is An-toninus’s nonsense that has persuaded you that you are an Arab. ‘The Arab Awakening’ indeed! They are walking in their sleep. Really, I have no patience at all with you, Christopher.” But he said it gently. And uselessly.

Dr. Basileus remained in his crumbling house and had never been molested. Instead of treating illiterate Arabs for trachoma he now treated, for the same complaint, illiterate Jews who spoke the same language. As before, he read Dickens in English and Balzac in French, and wrote epigrams in old ledgers. A new pleasure was the collecting of records on scraps of empire. Nashashibi and Husseini, Latin church and Greek and Evangelical, were replaced by Mapai and Mapam, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Yemenites. The sun scorched in summer and the roof leaked in winter. Take what the day brings, be it quarreling Christians, feuding Moslems, or discontented Jews. . . . “We wept when we remembered Zion.”. . . Who weeps now? The Moslems may, but is it not rather late for the descendants of the Crusaders to weep?

“Honestgod, Doctore!“ Sister Goldman had said; “I cannot to understand why you are staying. Yes, I am content that you stay, but how is it you are not going away with your others?”

“‘Go ye not unto the Gentiles,’” Dr. Basileus had quoted; “‘—nor unto any city of the Samaritans, but go ye unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’” And he had peered at her to see if she recognized the source or the irony of his quoting it. But-

“You are good man, but I cannot to understand you.”

Doctor Basileus smiled and finished his egg-

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Don’t Talk About Money

Only as far as Beersheba, said the man sitting next to me in the bus.

In Beersheba I am going to pick up my things and go back to Lydda. If they are there, I mean. I hope they are there. A chappie I know from Eilat promised that he would leave my things off at Beersheba when he came up with the lorry, and he was supposed to come up last week, so they ought to be there by now. I had great plans for Eilat. It was Solomon’s dowry present from Pharaoh, king of Egypt, you know. Even when I was still in Calcutta I used to dream about Eilat, because you see, from the map it is quite obvious that Eilat is the key to the Indian Ocean. I saw there—in my mind only, of course, a great, new city, something like New Delhi, only ours, of course; and something like Calcutta. But with no slum quarters. I have studied something of engineering and something of architecture, only I did not take my certificate. My word, my grandfather was angry with me because I did not take my certificate.

Well, then you must come into the business once and for all, he said; and I did not want to go into the business, so I went and spoke to Granny. Granny is Cochinese, you know: not the black Cochinese, but the white. They come from Spain, I think. Anyway, my grandfather is very proud to have married a Cochinese, because his parents were Baghdadee. She said, Silas, do not force the boy to go into the business. He is not a businessman, he is a scholar, he should be a rabbi.

He will not learn to be a rabbi by gadding about in the Himalayas when he should be studying, my grandfather said.

Then let him go to my family in Cochin, Granny said.

Cochin, my grandfather said. In Cochin they know everything, he said, but not how to make money. I am here for that.

And you must give the boy a decent allowance, Granny said.

My grandfather said, Do not talk about money.

Look, there is Masmiyah, see all the new houses. When I came here there was not a new house. But they were built too hastily, look: already, cracks. . . . You must move slowly when you build or what you build will not last. In India the ancient ruins are in better condition than the new houses here. . . . Perhaps I will not stay in Lydda, perhaps I will settle in Ascalon and raise fowls. I think I should, like that. Best of all, I should like to found an ashram, but the people here are not ready for that, they have no interest in things spiritual. Once, in the Himalayas, in an ashram, I asked the yogi why the Baghavad Gita begins with a negative; and this is what he said, You must first be negative with the world before you can be positive with the Divine. . . . Of this I am not sure, but here I see they strive for the opposite, which is surely wrong also. Now my grandfather has a more simple philosophy, he says, If you want to be a millionaire, you must act like one. That is just what he did, he set up one of the very first places in Calcutta for motor cars, all his money and the rest borrowed, and he dressed up like a man who owns ten jute mills, and in a very short time he was a millionaire. If he would invest his money in Eilat it could be the city I have dreamed of, but he would not like it there, they are some of them working on Shahhat and they would laugh at him with his spectacles and great white beard. . . . No, I did not get a place as engineer or architect, but as bookkeeper. I have studied accountancy as well, but I did not take my certificate. He was very angry, my grandfather. Never did I see him so angry except when I said I was going to be married.

Why do you want to be married so young? he asked. You are only twenty-five. Look at your Uncle Solomon, he is fifty-five and unmarried.

And then when he heard that my wife’s mother is a Bene Israel, he was enraged, for, you know, the Baghdadees look down on the Bene Israel. They are the oldest community of Indian Jews, but they are very dark, very poor, and very ignorant; and my grandfather said, You will never marry a Bene Israel.

Then you will never be mayor of Calcutta, I said. For many years it has been my grandfather’s ambition to be mayor of Calcutta, and he has promised the Bene Israel community that if they will support him, he will allow them to be given honors in the Baghdadee synagogues. And if he makes a scandal against them, he will not become mayor, and he is very near, he is already a magistrate. So I said, We will go to Israel.

Go, he said. Go anywhere, but go.

It will cost money, I said.

Speak to Granny, my grandfather said. When he is willing to give, he always says, Speak to Granny. When he is unwilling, he says, Don’t talk about money.

But Eilat, that’s not what I expected. I do not see the possibility there for the city I dreamed of. There is no respect for the things of the soul, and a city is more than bricks and plaster. So people come there to make a little money and they go away again because of the bad conditions. . . . A few months ago my grandfather came to visit us in Lydda. You are wasting your time, he said, spraying drains for the municipality all day and reading your books all the night. You should open a big shop and put in a big stock and the public will have confidence and your business will increase. . . . Then I asked him to sustain me in printing my philosophy, and he said, Do not speak about money. You have a job with Government, it is healthy, out-of-doors work, your wife is fruitful: be content. Do not talk about money.

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The Lady in the Cup

At three-thirty in the morning the guard came in to get Rory up.

“Wakey, wakey, rise and shine,” he said, tumbling the blankets. “ ‘Arise, shine, awake, awake; the glory of the Lord is revealed upon thee,’” he said, bending over the bed. Rory shot up.

“Got it,” he said, bent down, poured water over his fingers, and hopped out and into his clothes and shoes while the guard held the flashlight for him. They went out together into the cold and the stars. The settlement was so high up and the hills were so abrupt, that they seemed to be really among the stars and not just under them.

“Had your breakfast?” Rory asked, huddling into his jacket.

“You mean my dinner,” the guard said. “No, I’m going now.”

“Who’s the shomeret this morning?”

“It’s Sally, thank heaven. Gerda’s done.”

“Amen to that,” Rory said.

Who was shomeret made all the difference in the world. Sally, now, was a pleasure to everyone because everything was a pleasure to her. The children were all darlings and never gave a bit of trouble, the guards were all lovely boys and there was always hot coffee fresh and she made the sandwiches the way you wanted them. Gerda, on the other hand, was hell. She made the coffee when she first came on duty, and then let it get cold; cut the bread before it was needed and let it get stale; made sandwiches any which way—and woe to him that complained!

“You’ve got a lot of cheek!” she’d spit. “I’ve got twenty:four babies to care for and worry about,” she’d jaw at you. That was it, she was afraid of the babies-afraid they’d smother, take fits, fall out, anything. When she was on duty they always cried, and no wonder, with that face on her, and that heavy hand. Poor kiddies! And the parents! Pity the girl if a mother took it into her head to come have a spy and found her precious crying and the girl away in the kitchen for a cup of coffee or making a bite for the shorner. . . . All the mothers would talk about nothing else for days. Suggest, if you will, that they put two females on duty in the nursery, then, instead of one—ah, no, that wouldn’t do, either: More work. They would not admit you can’t have it both ways; and as for the idea of putting the kids in with their own natural mother—oh, Lord. Heresy. Destroying the foundations of the kibbutz.

But this morning everything was fine, just fine. Cheerful, capable Sally had a nice, hot breakfast for the guards and the driver and the shepherds, those whose work had them up so early; and all quiet in the nursery.

“The top of the morning to you,” said Sally.

“The top of the morning to you.”

“Isn’t it lovely, the way he talks so Irish?” Sally asked the shomer. “It comes from sitting on what’s-his-name’s tomb. Thomas Fox” (—Wolf Tone—Rory corrected.) “Wolf Tone, I mean.” She had to sit down to finish her laugh at the mistake. “Solly Clein is Irish, too, but he didn’t ever sit on Wolf Tone’s tomb, that’s why he talks like the rest of us.”

“Now you’re making things up,” said Rory, happily. “It’s true, as children, we did use to sit on Wolf Tone’s tomb, poor man—”

“Well, if I am, you just let me. I didn’t make that up about the lady in the cup, did I?”

Rory turned to the guard, who was eating eggs. “She’s told the girls that there’s an old Irish legend, if you look into a teacup long enough you’ll see your true-love’s face. All I said was, at home we had teacups that had pictures painted on the inside bottom, and the people did say, if you could see the lady in the cup it was a sign the tea wasn’t strong enough.”

“Never mind; I like my way better,” said Sally.

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The sun hadn’t come up yet when Rory reached the sheep pen, and only the kerosene lamps hanging in the dior gave a faint light to the yard. The pre-dawn silence was broken only by the occasional clatter of hooves on a rock, by the snuffling of the ewes and the grunting of the rams, or by Ezra’s or Fred’s calling from time to time, “Here’s one,” and “Take her in.” A ram had been selected as “teaser” and a canvas apron fastened loosely on him. He moved freely among the ewes and when he found one in heat, attempted to mount, but was prevented from coupling by the apron. At this point he was seized by the horns and pulled away: his attention once diverted, he instantly forgot the ewe and began searching for another. The ewe, meanwhile, was dragged or pushed unwillingly into the dior, where her back was painted for identification. After the search, the ewes in oestrus were bred and given extra rations; the rams were forcibly fed with milk after each mating. At noon the mating was repeated to ensure results, and then the ewes went back into the flock. The whole business took about an hour each time. Rory was sure—quite sure—that no one would make jokes about perversion among shepherds who had ever joined in such a morning’s work. Drenched with sweat, the three men struggled to control the animal sensuality which—if controlled-meant better lambs, finer wool, more milk. The darkness, the smells of sweat, suint, and urine, the gurgling and panting of the beasts in the darkness—it was either the epitome of sensuality or its utter denigration.

It was a scene from some inferno; it was not conducive to promoting lust in men.

But it was over at last—at least for the time being—and Rory was able to take the flock out to mireh, down the rocky slopes (“. . . a good sheepfold should always be on a rocky slope for the sake of drainage,” Ezra said), across the road that led up to the kihhutz, along the dusty path through the fields, and over to the hills that made up the morning pasture. He jogged back and forth, avoiding—when possible—the dusty side of the column. It was astonishing how long a column one small flock of sheep could make when they were stretched out single file. When in front, he sang; when behind, he whistled, or clapped his hands; when the sheep stalled and were loath to budge, he crooned to them in a low, tremulous tone. And when the poor wittolds scattered in panic, as they did for such slight causes as a lizard’s scuttling across them, or a bird’s starting up from the grass, he rounded them up and spoke quietly and soothingly.

. . . Our Shepherd, the Shepherd of Israel. . . .

(Ezra said, “A good shepherd should always be in front of his sheep to lead them, but a good shepherd should always be in back of his sheep to keep them from straggling”)

On the hills were whole groves of sdbras, the native prickly-pears, now in fruit; orange-pink, egg-shaped fruit: the devil’s own job to get the spines off them if you didn’t want a nasty lot of ulcers. What you did was, you cut off the whole fleshy leaf, on which the fruits grew like fingers; you pronged it onto a stick, and you rubbed it in the dust until all the prickles were off. Then you made two cuts and popped out the inside and ate it, pips and all. There were plantations of olive, fig, and grape. “Grape trees,” Tabib called the vines, Tabib being the Christian Arab who rented the plantations from the Afotrcrpos.

“What you wish, eat,” Tabib said; “but do not let the sheep eat the trees.”

_____________

 

About nine o’clock the sheep stopped grazing about and gradually collected in one place, where they lay chewing their cud, or standing with their heads under one another’s bellies for the coolness. Rory looked about for a nice flat rock and for a moment paused in choice between one covered with white and green lichens and one that had the penny-bits in red and brown. As a good Irishman, he chose the green, looked carefully for scorpions, and sat down and looked about him. To the left was the Sea of Galilee, blue in its deep pocket, bordered with Syria and Jordan. Northwest were the “Horns of Hittin”—you daren’t go there, for it was still mined, they did say. Behind towered Mount Hermon; to the south, rising from the low hills, rose Mount Tabor.

He opened his knapsack, Rory did, and took out his tallit and tefillin, and said his bit of prayer. Then he had a sandwich and poured some tea out of the canteen into his pannikin. He glanced at the sheep: all quiet—a far cry from this morning’s messy work. He turned his attention to the cup.

From the slight movement of his hand the liquid was a bit atremble and he gazed at it as it calmed, and in the lessening ripples of its surface he saw an image take form.

Then he spun his head around and he broke into a delighted grin and jumped to his feet.

“Well, I wondered if you’d turned to stone and if Td have to roll you back down the hill by myself,” she said. And, “Will you show me what it is you do out here?” she said, fussing with her long brown hair and smiling.

“Sally, darling,” said Rory, laughing with pleasure, “I will that.”

And he showed her the personalities of the flock, and the view, and how to fix sdbras, and the colored lichens, and the hand-cast bronze bell on the old wether’s neck. And he showed her the vines and the plantations, and they ate the soft, ripe, purple figs until their tongues were nearly rasped with the sweetness of them.

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