Tosca was my blond bitch, lighter on her feet than the color of her fur. I rescued her one winter night, shivering at the feet of two gypsy men sharing a cigarette outside a circus in Jerusalem. The circus performance, which a friend and I had attended, had been a seedy affair, the acrobats and performers as ragged and dusty as their faltering tent. Depressed by the show and the grim winter night’s cold, we were heading toward the bus stop when we heard the men falling into a loud argument. We turned to see them landing a beating on the dog with each rant.
“Hey!” I screamed, stopping in my own tracks. “Don’t do that to the dog!”
The men gawked at me, uncomprehending neither my English nor reason for fury. In their world a dog was no better than a rat, and they would just as soon have lit the animal’s tail on fire as ignite their cigarettes. I ran toward the convulsing creature, grabbed her up into my arms, and lurched off in search of a cab. The ride home cost nearly my entire week’s salary.
This occurred in the fall of 1971, after my return to Israel following a life three years earlier on Kibbutz Tzorah, where I’d experienced that agricultural outpost as a spiritual playground. Kibbutz life had reawakened a tomboy self long lost in the girl who’d arrived a shy academic. I’d spent my days there in mud-kicking work boots and shorts, pruning trees in the peach, plum, and persimmon orchards, breakfasting on Turkish coffee and blood oranges, and flirting like a sun-baked version of my childhood hero, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Aside from the constant murmur of complaining and joking, the only sound that disturbed the quiet of that desert orchard was the brief, of a tinny-bright train whistle at the orchard’s perimeter. The train could have been no longer than five cars, for, by the time the sound of the whistle had sailed off into the sky, the tracks were empty. Every day I wondered where the train went and who was riding on it.
In comparison with the air of hope in Israel following its victory in the ’67 war, the despairing political climate of the U.S. made infused me with an unfamiliar optimism. For while I was happily moving irrigation pipes, the U.S. was exploding: Robert Kennedy and Medger Evers, assassinated; Washington in flames; riots and bomb threats; anti-Viet Nam protests; students shot dead at Kent State university. I saw no reason to return.
But, reluctantly, I had to finish college. This new life in Jerusalem was my return – I found a job as an international correspondent at the Israel Museum and an unusually spacious apartment. The six-day work week in an orchard and a six-day work week in an office, even if it was in a museum with a sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi and exquisite collections of Ashanti gold figures. Even if. Even oif. Even if… With November came chilling rain. The spacious rooms with their twelve-foot ceilings and stone floors – perfect for keeping out desert heat, but the familiar, but unidentified effects of clinical depression. my spirits as gray as the dulling skies. Thus, when a friend suggested we spend an evening at the circus, I jumped at the invitation.
Jerusalem sits on a hilltop, and its winters then were cold enough for snow. The only heater -- a small kerosene stove -- radiated a circle of warmth no wider than four feet. Even curled up in bed with the dog, whom I’d named Tosca, I could never get warm. Some nights I awakened to find snowflakes drifting around my head. On those occasions, Tosca would have worked open the French doors to stand outside on the terrace listening, looking, sniffing in the muted night.
My new blond girl took to her new surroundings with an alacrity that far surpassed my own adjustment to transplantation. She bounded with happiness on our walks, her ears perked, her tail high. Tosca seemed to grow healthier by the day, and within a week or two, her scrawny silhouette grew round. I congratulated myself on my nurturing. Then it became evident that Tosca was pregnant.
Until the last days of her pregnancy, she was ready at any moment for play. Then her eyelids began to hang as heavy as her laden teats, giving her a look of savage sadness. She walked with the tentative step of a recovering invalid, each paw meeting the floor with deliberation. Then, the pups were sprung from her womb. Within days her step was reignited, and once again she was ready to fly.
With the promise of spring in the air and Tosca liberated from her pups, which had found homes through a vet, I decided to take us both on an outing -- a visit to Tzorah. My spirits would be refreshed, and Tosca could run unleashed and exultant. It was Sabbath, of course, the country’s one day of rest. We drove with a friend from Tzorah, also now living in Jerusalem, and my heart did, in fact, soar at the vision of the familiar vineyards and trees and campus. Tosca was practically eating the air in excitement. We strolled toward my old quarters and down familiar allees. I recognized friends from the orchard. Passing one of them on the path, I anticipated the offering of a fond hello. Instead, he gestured at Tosca and spat toward me a few unpleasant words in Hebrew. Turning back toward the dining hall, I was again greeted with hostile glances or remarks. Finally, I realized that, never actually seen a dog on the kibbutz during all the time I’d lived there, perhaps they weren’t so welcome. I’d assumed Tosca would be looked upon with the same affection as dogs in America, but discovered instead a prevailing pioneer attitude: “We work too hard surviving to be wasting attention on animals.” I led Tosca toward the car, wishing that this time she could scoop me into her arms to run away.
Summer approached. Tosca, playful and grown beautiful, flourished; I, on the other hand, was steadily diminishing. By fall, I realized I simply couldn’t face another punishing winter or more cultural disappointments. The weight of transplantation had became too much for my emotionally skeletal constitution. But to consider leaving Israel was to contemplate abandoning Tosca. I would have to find her a new home.
I placed a classified ad in the Jerusalem Post, and a family living outside of Haifa responded. They had a small farm, they told me, and Tosca would have plenty of land across which to run. I was advised to bring her to Haifa by train where they would meet me.
I was a wreck. I was leaving my dog. I was leaving Israel, again. I was back to wandering.
The only requirement for the train trip was that Tosca wear a muzzle. I packed her favorite toys and the chewed up sweater she like to sleep with. She was allowed to sit with me. She was calmer than I was. In fact, she looked out the window as if truly curious about where we were going. Half an hour out of Jerusalem, I began to notice familiar terrain. Date palms, artichoke fields. Then orchards. Peach, plum, persimmon. The train whistle blew. I knew where we were and who we were. Who were the people on the train and who, I then wondered, might be listening for us from the orchards.