At the end of it all, my oldest son held my shoulders as I retched.
“But you said they deserved it, Father,” he said later, after I shook his arms off and sank, shaking, to the ground. His words rang measured and careful, like a ladder offered to a drowning man. “You said they had it coming.”
I wiped my mouth and thought of that long-gone day when the sunlight had brought the grass to life. I thought of my sister’s laughing eyes, and of her screams, and of her silence.
“They did,” I answered.
I didn’t raise my eyes. I didn’t move at all.
After a while, my son pushed himself up and left me to my grief.
The mud stretched on and on around me, as far as my eyes could see.
* * *
“There was a tree,” my grandfather said from his place by the hearth. “It started with a tree, our story.”
(Which story? I wanted to ask. But in the silence, I dared not.)
“The tree was choice. Do, or don’t do. Eat, or don’t eat.”
“And the existence of the choice” — and here his voice didn’t quite rise, but grew deeper and stronger — “is what made us human.”
The men who crowded our home that morning — the men who smelled of sweat and the outdoors — seemed to stand straighter, more erect, as he spoke.
“All trees are a choice,” Grandfather thundered. “All trees are a choice,” they repeated after him, like a river of murmurs overflowing its bounds.
“All trees are a choice.” I turned my head when I heard her whisper: My sister stood by the door, her eyes alight. She seemed to look beyond the room, beyond the moment, all the way to some secret horizon I saw not.
“You can either kill the tree or leave it standing. Kill it, and you will lose its fruit and shade and beauty. Leave it be, and you won’t have wood to build a shelter come the storm.”
“Kill it or leave it,” the men murmured, clutching their axes closer to their sides. “Kill it or leave it.”
“It is the choice that makes us human. And today….”
My grandfather rose from his seat, but he didn’t look like my grandfather at all. I pushed myself against the wall. Around me, the silence yawned and stretched and darkened.
“Today, we choose to kill.”
And like the great floods rushing through the dry streambeds in spring, the men gathered their tools of destruction and poured out into the sunlight as one.
My sister slipped out the side door, her hair shadowing her face and whatever she might have been thinking. But I stayed and waited.
“Come here,” Grandfather whispered when we were left alone, and he was my papa again, not the regal stranger whose eyes burned and stilled the room. But some of that ancient gravity still echoed in his voice, and I approached him slowly.
“Ask,” he said. “I can see that you want to.”
And now the gravity was gone, and there was room to breathe.
“Why do we do this?” I gestured at the newly emptied room. “Why not just fell the trees when we need them, without collecting such a crowd?”
I could tell that my mother would be displeased later. The men left our stools upturned and the floorboards muddy. The once-neat stacks of hay lay all across the room, undone.
Grandfather smiled, though his eyes looked sad.
“If we don’t pause to understand and acknowledge our choices — if we just take and take as we please — what makes us better than the beasts of the field?”
I didn’t understand him then. But the sun was shining outside, and I wanted to see the grand trees falling, the dust rising high with every thud.
So I didn’t ask again.
* * *
Death, too, started with a tree.
“Make way for the bride,” trilled the children, and my sister walked — nay, floated, toward her betrothed. He awaited her below the ancient fig tree on the village green. “An auspicious place to wed,” the old women murmured. “May their union be a fertile one, may she nurse a babe come spring.”
The light danced on my sister’s face, and her feet — her small, bare feet — made the dew dance on the grass.
“Kiss us goodbye, pretty,” some young man said, and laughed. But he didn’t get too close to her, and his friends dragged him away, so I paid him no mind.
Until later. Until he approached us when we assembled for the feast. We sat on the dais at the center of the village, as befitted my grandfather’s role as the people’s elder.
My new brother must have seen something — some darkness — in the young man’s face. He stood, his hand reaching out to thrust my sister back. The young man laughed. “Oh, let’s share, why don’t we?” and before I understood the import of his words my brother flew at him, and the laughter soured into cackling, and then my brother lay on the ground, and iron gleamed in the beautiful light, and people were screaming, and more men converged around us and my sister shrieked —
I think I screamed then, too. I think I rose, before another man, and then another, ran past me. But they didn’t come to help us, and as they pushed me off my feet, off the dais, off into a black place of unconsciousness, I saw them converging and trampling and clawing.
I didn’t see what happened next. I was spared by the black fog that swallowed me. But I heard my sister’s sobs and screams as I floated in and out of the fog, and then her silence, and then the birds, singing their lullaby into the sunset. And then the stars appeared above, and I found that I could see.
Blood had pooled under my head. My own blood, my new brother’s, and — I realized it with a jolt that made more blood seep from my wounds — the blood of an old man who always looked like a giant to me, like the ancient trees he loved. His body lay small and broken on the dais.
Somewhere, my sister was sobbing.
My new brother stirred — once, twice. And then he did not move again.
“Beasts of the field,” my grandfather said all those years earlier. I dragged myself to look into his empty eyes, and understood.
* * *
When we were children, my mother used to sing for us at night.
“God split the earth from the sky and the day from the night, the land from the river and woman from man. Oh, Lord of distinctions, I pray: Bless my children. May their days bring them hope; may their nights bring them peace.”
My other memories of mother faded with time. But I can still hear her voice threading through the soft syllables and rising and falling with the melody, and I can still feel her fingers caressing my brow. My sister and I used to lie together underneath the woven blankets, and mother’s voice had washed upon us, soft as smoke.
“May the land bring them fruit, and the rivers pure water. May the earth be their home, and the sky give them rain.”
My mother was right: Distinctions are the foundation of the world. Land and river, sky and earth, summer and winter: Life happens in the spaces they create, as does meaning. Language, too.
And there are distinctions in the world of men, as well.
Those rotted first.
(Oh, let’s share, why don’t we —)
A man I had known my entire life, a man who once had stood solemn in my grandfather’s house and murmured “All trees are a choice,” walked into our storage room and scooped some of our wheat into a rough-spun sack. He lifted his eyes, almost surprised to see the two of us staring at him. “What?” he huffed, defensive. “There are fewer of you now; it’s not like you’ll need it all!”
(Oh, let’s share, why don’t we —)
We said nothing. We couldn’t afford to, my sister and I: We wouldn’t have been able to fend him off had he insisted.
More neighbors came after that. And when the wheat ran out, they took our tools. “You won’t be able to till your fields in any case,” one man told me. “Not alone and injured as you are. But don’t worry — we will let you have some of the wheat we grow. Come around next spring.”
(Oh, let’s share, why don’t we —)
His eyes lingered on my sister’s body as he spoke. I knew then what his price would be.
So we withdrew.
We withdrew to the mountains, and we withdrew into our minds. I spent my days seething in silence. My sister stopped speaking and sobbing and simply sat there, starring into the sky with eyes too dead to see.
On the day she shook off her apathy, she threw herself off a cliff.
I left the mountains then, and the lands around our village. I sought refuge elsewhere, but my heart, too, was dead.
* * *
When God first spoke to me, I thought I was dreaming.
By then I was convinced that my grandfather had imagined His existence, or maybe told old stories just to make the rest of us behave.
And yet, there it was. The voice that was no voice, the presence that was raw awe, raw sense.
Then He spoke, and words formed where there had been only awe before them, and I couldn’t comprehend them, not when His presence was there, too bright too bright too loud —
And then He withdrew, and the words formed into meaning in the fading light, and anger such as I had never known before seared me from within.
Now, annihilation? Now, when my grandfather’s eyes were already empty, when my sister lay broken on the rocks?
And then, satisfaction.
I saw in my mind’s eye the men who broke them, the dark, mad passion in their eyes. And I rejoiced
And when I plunged my ax into a living tree, I thought: Those were rapacious beasts, Grandfather. They were nothing like you, nothing like me. They deserve death.
They deserved annihilation.
It was a time to kill.
* * *
The preparations, too, started with a tree.
“Carve it,” God told me. “Make planks. Create an ark.”
And as I stood there, felling trees, the old words echoed in my mind.
All trees are a choice. Kill them or leave them be.
“What was that?” said my oldest son, working beside me. I knew then that I had spoken the words out loud. “All trees are what?”
In his question I saw the tragedy of our generation, the truth that we had failed to pass on, the place where we became a rotten branch, uprooted from the tree of ancient knowledge.
“All trees,” I told him, “are a choice.”
* * *
I thought of my mother’s song when the sky tore open — when, after years of wondering whether He would actually do it, rain finally flooded the earth.
We sat inside the ark as it rose and fell, and my youngest daughter-in-law screamed with every jolt. Outside, we knew, there wasn’t even the luxury of terror. Outside there was neither earth nor sky nor land nor river. Days and night blurred into one another, and death ruled where once the world had been.
“We are the creatures who choose,” I told my children and their families, there in the dim, shaking ark.
“God separated day from night, land from water, death from life, and good from evil. When we make the wrong choices, the distinctions collapse, and the world can no longer exist.”
For a moment I thought I could undo the rot of our generation. Even if I did not sound as wise as my grandfather, my words would surly imprint themselves upon my children’s hearts. How could I fail when the world broke to pieces around us, like a dark illustration for my words?
But then my youngest son stood up, and his eyes were burning.
“If God created both good and evil, why does he punish us for choosing what he made?”
* * *
In the end of it all, I saw no trees. The mud stretched in all directions, black and wet and empty. The olive branch I held felt dead and wrong.
“They deserved it, didn’t they, Father?”
My first-born son is a pious man. He will carry my words, my grandfather’s words, and pass them on into the future. He will sow them in his children’s hearts, like seeds.
But as I sat there in the ruins of the world, I couldn’t recall my sister’s shrieks and sobs. All I could think of were the shrieks we didn’t hear, the wails that must have rang outside the ark.
I hear them now, I thought then, sitting on the mud. I hear them, and I always will.
* * *
All trees, I know now, are a choice.
And I had many choices.
I could have chosen to grow olive trees or figs, cypresses or pines. I could have planted date trees in the valleys or willows by the rivers, wheat in the fields or oaks on the foothills.
The world was an empty, muddy space, ready to be remade as I saw fit.
But all I wanted was oblivion.
And so I planted grapevines in the mud.
One day their rounded fruits will gleam, red, in the sunlight. One day I will harvest them. And I’ll be able to forget.