He was down on the ground in no time, and as a young man mounted his bicycle in one easy jump. He rode fast on the narrow pavement, cutting through residential neighborhoods, Libi running by his side barking. They crossed the kibbutz in tandem along a cypress-lined dirt road, all the way down to the main yard. Only there, by the asphalt road that separated the kibbutz from the fields and factories, did David come to a full stop in order to catch his breath. He was dumbfounded to see in front of him, right by the cowsheds, a big fire rising from the main hayloft, consuming quickly the hay bales, lined in straight rows twenty fold high at the very least.
David couldn’t understand why the cowmen weren’t outside, even if they were busy milking the cows inside the dairy building. Libi was already there, and as if reading his mind, was calling on them to come out. But they didn’t hear her, how come? Nor did they hear the fire, which was very loud as it devoured with great appetite the hay and straw bales, including also the wooden structure of the hayloft.
At the same time, to his astonishment, he saw the first orange flames flaring up from the roof of the plastic factory. And not so far way, where the white granary tower stood tall and proud, as if guarding the kibbutz, he noticed a funnel of gray smoke spiraling high up into the clear azure skies. Not only that—though here David was beginning to doubt whether he was seeing straight, or was just imagining things—he thought he saw the shadows of people running between the various structures of the kibbutz’s main yard. Some shouting voices, as well, he thought he heard.
He was back on his bicycle in a heart beat, rushing toward the kibbutz’s dining room and the big lawn in front of it: his most cherished, greener lawn. For many years now, since tractors had replaced horses and had forced him out of the fields, that David had been taking care of the landscape of the kibbutz. The lawns, the trees and the flowerbeds were his soulmates; he knew every corner, turn and path in this old camp of his, even with closed eyes.
It was easy for him, therefore, to find the alarm-wheel not far from the Community Laundromat. It was still hanging by a thick iron chain on a rusty crowbar, under the ancient olive tree. “A real museum piece,” his son used to say, going back to the old days of the first Jewish Chalutzim. With it, against random fires, or the occasional attack by Arab Fedayeens, the alarm was sounded for the members of the kibbutz to take up arms.
David almost fell when he came to a sudden halt by the olive tree, stumbling off his bicycle and letting it fall down on the ground. Better it than me, the thought flashed in his head, just as he grabbed the iron bar that was lying neglected on the ground for many years, and began hitting with it on the wheel. He couldn’t understand how, and where from, did he muster the power to hit it so hard. But he did. And at first, the sound his strokes had produced was so pleasing to his ears, because it reminded him of long past days.
Back then, everything had started and had ended here, near the big dining room. From here the farmers had departed before dawn to the fields and orchards, and from here members of the kibbutz had left late at night, at the end of the General Assembly, after the endless arguments regarding the future of the kibbutz had finally ended. At the small hours of the night, young lovers had stopped by here to grab something to eat, after making love out in the fields and vineyards.
Remembering those things energized David to continue hitting the alarm-wheel, even though his ears were ringing by now, and his fingers were burning with pain. He instructed himself to continue at it, no matter what, the same way he had used to hit the hard, stubborn soil of this valley with his wide hoe: with all his might and inner conviction. And if his strength would take leave of him shortly, or his heart would stop beating suddenly, and he would collapse on the ground dead—so be it. It was all the same for him anyhow, whether he would live or die. He did his best; he did his duty.
But then Ephraim arrived. He was the man responsible, back in those bygone days, for the discovery of the fires, and for the equipment to fight them off. He carried his seventy years on his back like a sack of potatoes, but still, day and night, was attentive at all hours to the sound of the alarm-wheel. Yet David, pushing seventy himself, refused to let go of the iron bar. Instead, he sent Ephraim down to the main yard, to the granary, to the factories and the cowsheds. So he did with Yariv, a reserve paratroops colonel who came running barefooted, still trying to put his shirt on. The high school kids began arriving soon, but David shook them all off and sent them away to the center of the fires. He was glued to the alarm-wheel as if, this lifesaver of the kibbutz, were a limb of his body.
Only when Rafi arrived, and gently but firmly extracted the iron bar from his hands, did David finally give in. After all, Rafi was his adopted son, and was still in the army, though his commander had sent him home for the festivities. He was a kid from the rough side of town, fatherless when he was brought to the kibbutz. Maybe he was paying David back for all those years of dedication by saving his life now. He helped him down to the soft lawn a few meters away, then continued hitting the alarm-wheel himself.