People-like Trees in the Night

Louis Rakovich

YAAKOV WONDERED IF there had been signs. In the mornings, when he went to look for turtles, he’d watch the mist roll over the tops of the trees, cottoning the sky, and he’d go over the past months in his head. Was her decision the result of a sudden bad mood, or was it the culmination of weeks, months of her growing weary, sick of him and her life in their house?

He would snap out only to put the small turtles back in the bushes. He’d try to recall every look on Elinor’s face, every sigh, every turning-away at night. He would suddenly find himself back in the house, chopping off a big turtle’s head, and he’d realize that once again he had forgotten to look down the hole – his old home – his mother’s grave.

♦ ♦

The last time he had stopped to look at Elinor she was frowning, biting her lip as she pressed the fountain pen against the paper, leaving behind careful, crooked lines. The creature she’d made had two sharp ears, four legs and a tail. He studied it from across the table.

“Is it a dog?”

Elinor looked up at him, eyes round and wide set, and said, “A cat.” She brushed her dark hair behind her ears.

A cold wind came just then, so strong it blew the window open and rattled the lantern. He watched his shadow sway across the table, covering and uncovering the cat. He had never seen one with his own eyes. As he stood to close the window, he saw a light moving toward the house, then a light and a hand, then a hand holding a lantern and a human figure attached to it, black against blue sky.

“A visitor,” he said.

After five years he didn’t have to say more. Elinor pushed the pen and the papers to the side of the table and headed toward the hearth. As she put the turtle soup to heat, Yaakov opened the closet doors and stepped inside. He could hear the clanking of the dishes as she set the table. He thought he could hear the rhythmic tapping of her fingernails on the table’s surface as she sat in wait. Finally there was a knock. He heard Elinor’s footsteps and the creaking of the front door.

She said, as she would always say, “Who are you?”

A man introduced himself, said he was traveling. They all traveled. He was coming from one place, heading to another; he was hungry, and cold, and all the things they always were, especially in the winter, and did she have any food for him, or a bed for the night?

She said, “My husband will be here soon. But I can fix you a plate. Come, sit. Have you always lived in Jerusalem?”

Yaakov didn’t understand the interest Elinor had in their stories, their hometowns back in Germany or England or wherever they were from, their compasses and their books and the pictures of the women whom they called “My intended.” But he liked the look on her face after the bones were cleaned and the soup had begun to boil, when she would sit by the table and polish their trinkets and study their books. The one before last was a writer. For a whole week after, she walked around dizzy with excitement, muttering about her childhood, the pictures she would paint with her sisters. Then the excitement turned into fear of the paper and the ink running out.

Like the writer, the new visitor spoke Hebrew – the new kind, like Elinor, not the one Yaakov’s mother had taught him. After the writer there was an Englishman. Yaakov didn’t know what he said. He sat in the dark of the closet and imagined the words flowing out of the man’s mouth like water. Later, when he struck him on the head, he saw he had fair, golden hair, like Yaakov’s mother.

He could hear the man chewing. Elinor asked him questions, naming things and places Yaakov had never seen, and the man would swallow and answer, then suck another spoonful into his mouth.

“Who are they?” he asked, and Yaakov knew he was pointing to the picture hanging on the wall.

“My husband’s parents,” Elinor said.

The visitor mumbled something, cleared his throat. “What a beautiful woman,” he said. “But the man, you can barely see—”

“Yes, the picture’s damaged. So you say you’ve been…”

Yaakov closed his eyes in the dark and imagined the picture above the closet doors.

♦ ♦

His mother was beautiful, yes. The women of his kind always were – that’s what she told him. But he never had to believe her to know that what she said was true; he knew it somewhere inside of himself, as though he were born with the history of his kind implanted in his brain. And even though he didn’t see a human being until he was twenty years old, he knew they looked somewhat like his mother, and that his mother was beautiful to them, more beautiful than the majority of their own women. Her golden hair curled down to her waist and her irises were two round, smoldering coals. Her fingers were thin and long, her eyebrows thick, her lips red. Her front teeth were blunt and useless, but her back teeth were like Yaakov’s, animal sharp.

When her kind left, dug through to their primordial tunnel and disappeared back into the depths, she didn’t join them. She went to Jerusalem instead, and she was beautiful there. Men loved her. After a few years and who knows how many men, she stumbled into the German Colony, southwest of the city. The way she’d tell Yaakov about it – on her way to the colony something in her broke, something bad, something useless that had been weighing on her through all the years in Jerusalem, and when she arrived, there were no men, only one man, his father. Everyone else seemed like faded figures, people-like trees in the night, and only Yaakov’s father, a blind Templer who held his face high and his cane light and ever-moving, only he was a man. He was also a Yaakov, only not quite – a Jakob, a Yah-kop.

They married. He didn’t know what she looked like until their first night together, and she found a strange joy in that. They were together seven years before she became pregnant, a thing which she thought was impossible with a human mate. A fortune teller – the crazy-eyed daughter of one of the Germans – told her under a cypress at night that the child would be male.

The men of Yaakov’s kind were not beautiful. They were tall and hunched, their hands bony and long, stretching down to their knees; their fingers meatless bones covered in petrified gray skin; their claws sharp and black. Their eyes were a mist of blood, no iris, only an ever contracting-and-expanding pupil.

♦ ♦

His mother took some food, and the photograph she had posed for with her husband on the day of their wedding. She went back to the grove, back to the hole. The entrance to the tunnel was blocked, as it had been before the dig. There would never be another dig.

She raised Yaakov as her parents had raised her, collecting turtles, hunting deer. At night she would stare at the Templer’s face – Yaakov was only half what his mother was, and her eyesight was better than his. She’d brush the picture with the back of her index finger, every night for twenty years, until the man barely had a face left. One time, Yaakov thought that his mother wore twenty years’ worth of his father’s face on her skin, and for some reason the thought filled him with fear for his mother, for himself, for the land that would be forever empty of his kind once he died, a few hundred years from now.

His mother died early. A week before her death she told him how, when she’d heard she would have a son, she had wished the whole human race would disappear off the face of the earth, all of them save for her husband; then she’d be free to stay in the German Colony, and blind Jakob would have no one to tell him what his son is, what his wife must be.

♦ ♦

Yaakov buried his mother, took the picture with him, and for the first time in his life, went far enough from the hole to see a house. It was a small construction, dirty white stone and brown slate. A flowerpot outside. A man’s face in the window. Grass and rocks and nothing else all around, save for one distant tree.

Yaakov approached, waving, as his mother had taught him humans do to announce themselves; and the old bearded man came running at him with a rifle, screaming without words. Yaakov tore his head off his shoulders. When he ate him he felt childish pride and childish guilt for doing what his mother had always warned him against. He couldn’t eat people, she said. He couldn’t hurt them. People weren’t turtles or deer, they had within themselves everything he had, more or less. But as he chewed the old man he thought that he had never known them like she’d known them – and truth be told, she’d never known them like he did when the man was shooting the air around him. They never screamed at her, never looked at her with eyes wide with fear and disgust.

He moved from the hole to the dead man’s house. His new bed was soft and kinder to his hunched back than the harsh floor of the hole. He had a hearth, a well, knives and pans. He learned to make soup, to boil the meat in hot water with weeds that smelled good. When people came by, he would hide, then leap. One day many years later, Elinor came.

♦ ♦

From afar she was a small, dirty-skinned figure in green clothes. They weren’t a long narrow dress like the one Yaakov’s mother used to wear, nor the pants, shirt and vest he wore now – leftovers from the last visitor – but some cross between the two, torn, nearly shapeless, and reaching just below her knees.

He thought of hiding and leaping like he always did, but as the figure drew nearer he found himself losing the will to attack it.

She knocked on his door. She said, “I saw something moving through the window. I’m hungry.”

The others spoke differently when they knocked, before they would see him – greeting and apologizing and asking through the door. Elinor merely stated.

Yaakov said, “Go away.”

He stood in the shadows of the house and watched her go. She went around the house, to the well – he could hear the squeaking of the pulley, the splash of the water against the bucket. He waited. A few minutes later he looked out the back window to see her sitting on the grass, her face in her hands, no bucket in sight.

He went out to her. She lifted her head and looked at him as plainly as she had spoken to him earlier. There was no disgust in her eyes, no fear. For a moment he wondered whether she was blind like his father the Templer. She sniffed. Her eyes were red.

“I’m tired,” she said.

He pulled the bucket out of the well and handed it to her. She drank. He couldn’t imagine being tired enough to be unable to lift a bucketful of water, but then again he couldn’t imagine being many things that people were.

He said, “There’s soup inside.”

She said, “You’re strange.”

Then he knew she wasn’t blind.

He fed her and put her to bed. That night he slept on the floor, for the first time in many years.

In the morning she said to him, “I’m nineteen. How old are you?”

He didn’t remember exactly. He tried to count winters in his head. “Forty,” he said. It must have been somewhere near the truth.

He gave her the clothes of the smallest of the visitors and they fit her almost fine. She told him she’d run away from the city over a family disagreement. She said she loved her parents but didn’t want to go back. He understood, and was happy that she may find in his home the same freedom he had found following his mother’s death. He thought his mother would have understood too.

Elinor made gentle fun of the way he spoke, and taught him people’s Hebrew. He taught her to carve faces on empty turtle shells and to make soup. She didn’t object to the killings, of the turtles or the people. Yaakov thought she read the looks on their faces when they’d see him, and knew that if they lived they would come back and bring others; but perhaps there was no foresight on her part, just indifference. The first few times she stood in the corner as he opened the front door. Then she had the idea of giving them a meal and listening to their stories before killing them. Yaakov didn’t object.

Gradually, she became his wife. That was four years ago.

♦ ♦

The man was mumbling something. “Keep talking,” he said. Then, “What?”

There was a pause, and a soft, half-familiar scratching sound. Yaakov listened in the dark.

“Keep talking,” the man repeated. “Well, as I said, yes.”

He went on to describe in great detail the route he had taken from the city, and his voice was flat, disinterested, almost like Elinor when she talked in her sleep. All throughout his incoherent story the scratching sound persisted. Yaakov tried to connect it to an image – the clapping wings of a beetle? A mouse fighting its way into the house? – but before he had enough time to gather his thoughts, the sign came.

Elinor said, “I think I see my husband approaching.”

Yaakov opened the doors. Instead of a man looking intently into the window he saw only a hand and a frying pan, and then there were only the taste of blood in his mouth and the sound of someone’s heartbeat.

When he came to, the house was empty. Elinor had left all her things behind, including the writer’s papers. Words covered the white space around the drawing of the cat. Through the mist in his eyes Yaakov could distinguish the words,
my husband is a monster.

♦ ♦

There were times when he thought of going to the city. But even if by some stroke of luck they didn’t kill him when he got there, he’d never be tolerated long enough to find her. He wished he could become invisible, a shadow, a person-like tree in the night; he would spend his life in Jerusalem looking for Elinor.

He ordered the trinkets of the new visitors by beauty and arranged them in separate piles. They would be waiting for her if she returned one day, defeated like his mother, tired, thirsty like on the day he had met her. Yaakov would be waiting, too.


Illustration by Paul Pederson

~

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About the Author

LOUIS RAKOVICH writes sometimes-fantastical literary fiction. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, The Fiction Desk, Criminal Element and other places. He grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and currently lives in NYC, where he’s working on his first novel – a psychological thriller with theological undertones. You can find more fiction by him at louisrakovich.com, or follow him on Twitter at @LouisRakovich.

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