The tree has a mouth. A crack in its bark from growing too fast or maybe early rot. We pass it without remark. There is no one else but Tod and I walking through the forest. The trees are aspens. Long, slender trunks like the legs of famished children. Wind picks at fallen leaves and grabs the spindled branches, drags across the bark and soft green moss. The storm has passed. It is not dark anymore. The earthen path crunches under our boots, and the smell of sweet rain lingers in the soil like someone you cannot see but know is there.
“Faster,” Tod tells me. He turns and smiles with every yellowed tooth.
Tod is a big man, a combination of fat and hard, swollen muscle. Much older than myself, his beard has streaks of gray. He walks fast but with his hands in his black trouser pockets. A pistol is strapped to his hip.
“Do you know where we are, Oskar?”
“Bialowieza,” I say, although I do not wish to answer. Bialowieza. Where I had been only hours before and where I am now. The forest I grew up in, pretending to hunt and search for lost things. Mother would always warn me not to come here and play, and so I came as often as I could. She once told me that a Golem wandered the forest. A giant made of mud and sand. She said that if the Golem caught me, it would eat me, and the last thing I would see would be truth written across its forehead. And so I hunted for the Golem, too.
“Bialowieza.” Tod repeats, still smiling. He uses the Polish word instead of the Russian. His Polish is good. So is his Yiddish. “Do you know where we are going?” Tod slows and nudges me with a bulky elbow, like we are sharing secrets. “Do you know what is beyond the Bialowieza?”
“No,” I say, grasping my coat against the wind. “I have never been far from the shtetl.”
I nod. Ignatowka. It was there that I learned how to read and write. How to keep Shabbos and hunt. My mother’s house—my house—the same one I had always lived in. My room, the same room. Now, I worked and smoked and shaved my beard, but it had all been in Ignatowka. That’s why it is so strange—the thought that the village no longer exists.
“Say it.” The smile washes away from Tod’s face. “Where are you from, Oskar?”
“Why?” I ask.
Tod laughs like a wolf’s bark. A bug clings to his beard. “So that you don’t forget.”
I give up and let my coat unravel around me. “From Ignatowka.”
“From Ignatowka. Relax, Oskar. If a stone falls on a pitcher, woe to the pitcher. If a pitcher falls on a stone, woe to the pitcher!” Tod’s wrinkles crease and fold in on one another as he grins again. “Come. Time to leave the path.”
He leads us off the beaten dirt and into underbrush. The sun has sunk below the roof of leaves. Motes of floating golden dust pass before us, and light reflects from the pearly bark. I always felt something different in these woods. As if the trees were as aware as anything else. As the animals and myself. As the rest of my shtetl. To my mother’s disapproval, I started hunting a few years before. I saved and bought a rifle from a traveling peddler. No longer pretending, I would spend days away and come back with a deer or some pheasants. I wanted to be a part of the forest, a fixture as much as the Golem was.
“I saw a play not long ago,” Tod says. He is moving fast again and I try not to slip on the still muddy ground. “Not far from this part. Warsaw. The name of the production was The Dybbuk. Written by Ansky, if you are familiar. In the play, a young woman is possessed by a dybbuk, as you would say. Yes? The ghost of her dead husband. She is a Jew, too, of course.
“First, everyone in her shtetl thinks she is mad. Naturally, their reaction is to doubt. They don’t believe she could actually be possessed. They believe she just can’t accept the fact that the past is gone and so is her husband. Her family consults their Rabbi and he tries to explain the woman’s condition. She is suffering, he says, because reflections of clouds and trees are not clouds and trees.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I keep my eyes on the ground to keep my footing. I wish the wind would drown out his voice, blow him far away from me.
Tod shrugs. “I did not understand what the difference was. And do you think my kadets would? Do you think, the Cossacks, they would be familiar with Ansky? This was months after the battle. My corps helped the Polaks kill Russians. Red Russians, comrades, but still… But no, it does not matter. At least not for now. Prepare, Oskar.”
“Prepare for what?”
“We are almost there.”
And the forest is gone. Before me is a large clearing and a barn. Long blades of grass drift in the wind, like hair undersea. The winds are still strong, but the sound is warped, distant, caught low in the tangle of trees behind. Smoke and lavender clouds hang in the sky.
Tod walks to the barn. The weary structure is the only thing in sight. Taupe slats barely hold each other up as it leans from the weight of age like a tombstone. When we reach the barn, Tod places a hand against the splintered alley door.
“Will you help me push, Oskar Mosco, my friend?” Tod asks.
I shudder, but we push. Inside, a single bale of hay stands in the middle of the alley. The rest is empty, filled only with the stagnant smell of rotten water. Slits of light streak in from between cracks in the walls and roof. Above us: a loft and the remains of a ladder.
“The hay?” Tod points at the pile. He sneezes in his other hand and takes a moment to observe the glob of snot before shaking it off and onto the floor. “Why don’t you move it.”
Once I am done, Tod and I observe what was underneath. There is a door, a hatch, small and wooden with a wrought iron handle. It’s roughly the shape and size of the ark in my synagogue, back in Ignatowka.
“I don’t want to,” I say. “I don’t want to open it.”
Tod whispers something that is lost in the wind, but I do as he wishes.
The rest of the shtetl folk knew that this was Ignatowka’s last day. I was not there earlier in the morning, but I know this. Tod knows this. The sound of the shtetl’s knowing was that of sharp tongues, scoldings for children who complained when told they could not go out to play.
This was an aberration for our normally demure village, the good-natured shtetl. At its core were simple chalet homes, my mother’s home, shops, and the basalt synagogue—the largest structure in the whole shtetl, with its oak door opening to the central square. In the village’s outer orbit were some homesteads and then nothing but forest. Bialowieza. Where I was when they came. Out in the thousand acres of aspen trees and tsar oaks. White, scarred stilts, buttressing the sky. All this had existed for generations with only one road as a tether to the rest of Galicia, what was now the Second Polish Republic. Our shtetl, Ignatowka, was a small place on the heartstring of the Pale, but was the only place most of us had ever known.
Rabbi Lot had a story about the beginnings of the shtetl. How when the old folk had decided to build a new synagogue, they sent the strongest, hardest-working men to a mountaintop to gather stones. Basalt boulders, the color of shade. The men put the stones on their shoulders and trudged down the mountain back to town. When they reached the central square, the constable was waiting for them. “Foolish men!” he said. “You should have rolled the stones from the mountaintop.” The strong and hard-working men agreed and so they trudged back up the mountain to roll them down as the constable had advised. Rabbi Lot liked jokes, especially in his teachings. His long gray beard would shake as he laughed along with the congregation. My mother never found him very funny, though. And anyway, on Ignatowka’s last day he told no jokes.
Inside his synagogue, I imagine there was almost nowhere to stand. Chatter would have echoed off the ochre walls. People pressed against the pillars that lined the pews. Mothers and fathers brought their sons and daughters, who did not yet fully realize that this was Ignatowka’s last day, who did not realize why everyone wanted to speak with Rabbi Lot. Who did not realize the significance of the man that sat in the central square. I would not have known either.
When Rabbi Lot stepped in front of his congregation, he quieted the questions—what is happening? who is the man outside?—with an outstretched hand, gathering himself in their attention. “The righteous perish!” Rabbi Lot said. Lines like deep valleys scarred his brow, but he did not tremble. “We die and no one ponders this in his heart. Good men are taken away and no one knows why. We don’t know why. But those who walk upright enter into peace. They find rest as they lay in death.”
Rabbi Lot said nothing more. And all this time, my mother was in the back of the synagogue—wedged between Stanislaw Kot, the pharmacist, and the basalt wall. Smothered by the bulging fat of his neck, she hadn’t heard a word. But she shoved her way past his girth and snaked through the crowd in an effort to exit. My mother was always slim, and wore her smock dress—easy to move in.
After she left the temple, she visited the second busiest spot on Ignatowka’s last day. The butcher’s shop. But this late in the morning, Czeslaw Jatka had nothing in his store but thick sheets of paraffin paper and oily hands.
“Not even a brisket?” she asked Pan Jatka.
“Not even a brisket. I’m sorry, Pani Mosco,” Pan Jatka said. He did not say, “Come back tomorrow.”
She stood with her hands in her pockets, a familiar stance of confidence and a scolding tone. “Did that man take anything?”
“No, not to worry.” Pan Jatka caught himself. He must not have wanted to give out false promises. “I mean—he did not take anything.”
“Good.” Mother smiled. “If that man gives you trouble, you come and you tell me. My son will be home soon. Maybe he will bring back some fresh venison for you. And don’t tug at your beard like that, your hair will fall out.”
“Of course, Pani Mosco.”
"Have a good day, Pan Jatka.”
She left the butcher shop empty-handed and headed back toward her house. My house. I try not to imagine the eddying village, the shtetl folk continuing to dartle around. But they did. I know this because Tod knows this. They kicked up trails of dust as they crisscrossed the shtetl’s central square.
This was where he sat. The man Pani Mosco suspected of stealing from the butcher. The one whom everyone was whispering about. Tod. A White with a Germanic name. The man in black with the knee-high, patent leather boots and a pistol on his belt; he still wore the Romanov crest even though they’d been dead for more than two years. Rumors had been floating around the shtetl for some time already, even before I left for my hunt. I departed even though I heard the rumors, days before he arrived by automobile, the machine that was then parked outside the temple’s walls. The Whites—what was left of them—were being pushed back, now in the Pale. Like a giant boar with impeccable posture, he sat on the cleaved lip of the well in the central square, one hand buried in his beard. Sat as if he were at the theater and watching a show. This was where he was when they, the caravan, came.
Now, Tod sits on the edge of the barn’s loft swinging his thick legs back and forth like a child. I imagine the tired wood creaking, buckling, burying him.
But I sit by the open hatch. It is a sort of cubbyhole, like a minikin cellar or child-sized grave. Inside, there is a small stack of roubles. Some papers that Tod tells me not to read. And so I don’t.
“Why don’t you make a fire, Pan Mosco.” Tod does not ask. Beyond the barnyard doors, only the palest line of yellow separates the black treetops from stars.
As I pick up bits of straw and grass, I think about my mother. The last thing we did together was pray at the cemetery the day before. For my father, we stood under the granite sky. More precisely, she prayed, while I waited for the chance to leave. I was impatient to hunt, to be in the forest. To the east, there was a break in the clouds and patches of blue sky. The respite would be brief, and I wanted to leave before the weather turned again. My mother understood this. She placed a pebble on my father’s grave for us both.
“There is not enough,” I say.
“Use the papers. Here, a match,” Tod says. He is standing next to me now, the pile of bramble and straw at our feet.
Tod drops the match into the tangle of underbrush and bills. The tiny flame is soon lost in the poor mulch. Still, he stoops to his haunches, puffs his cheeks and exhales. Licks of fire catch and spin themselves around the tinder. The fluttering ring of light doesn’t reach the darkest corners of the room, but it is enough to warm my hands.
“In the play,” Tod goes on, “The Dybbuk, the people of the shtetl eventually believe that the young woman is, in fact, possessed.” He wraps his coat tighter, as if he is cold. “It is… disappointing. They are not convinced by what she says, the things she otherwise would not know. Only after she walks past the village graveyard and all the tombs begin to fold and collapse do they believe. Then everyone is gnawing at the bones to appease her and the dybbuk that has seized control. They offer it money and land and everything a man could possibly want, but none of this eases the ghost. Finally—”
“What is this about?” I demand. “Why must this all be repeated? Why did you take me to this place, make me burn those papers—how did you even know they were there?”
Tod looks at the fire. “This is almost over, Oskar. All this is nearing its conclusion. We know what we’ve done, don’t we? Part of Ansky’s Dybbuk is that the spirit wants the young woman, his love, to follow him into his world. That’s not what this is about.” Tod holds his hands close to the flame, trying to feel the heat.
Half a day earlier, the sky was a thousand-acre blanket of gray when noon and the caravan came: wagons, armored trucks, an omnibus. Soldiers, kadets and Cossacks, marched in on foot and horseback. They expected Ignatowka to know what to do.
Would I have resisted? Most of the shtetl folk didn’t as they were herded into the central square where Tod was. Where Rabbi Lot stood praying for the shtetl folk. Men and women and children. Some cried. Some tried to run away: they were shot. Stanislaw Kot, the pharmacist, was one of them.
Amidst the process, my mother asked if anyone had seen her son. I can hear her voice thinly, like through paper, calling my name. I always will. It was only when she reached Pan Jatka that she stopped.
“Do not speak his name,” Pan Jatka said. “Do not speak his name again.” She understood. She did not say my name again. I do not want to know this, but I must: they were put on the same truck not long after.
The air swelled with the smell of rain as the sky mulled with clouds. Everything was proceeding until there was only one truck left. It was full, as tightly packed as a carton of cigarettes, and there were still four people left in the central square. Rabbi Lot was one of them.
“Do not be afraid,” he said to the other three. Two women and a boy. From where they were, they could see the last truck was loaded with people. Its engine was already on. “They cannot take our souls.”
Tod spoke with the driver before they left, kicking up a cloud of dirt that went nowhere, did nothing but hang in the thick air. He walked over to the well where the four shtetl folk stood.
“Please lie down with your faces against the ground,” Tod said quietly as he stood in front of them, legs spread and hands clasped behind his back. “Except for you, Rabbi. You can say your prayers out loud.” He was so much larger than any man should ever be.
“I saw a play several years ago—” Tod began to say when he heard a sudden crack, a hollow noise, as if a violin’s string had snapped. A piece of Tod’s bald scalp flapped up like a lock of hair and ribbons of blood untangled from his head. The mess and his meat hung in the air for a long moment before dropping to the earth.
I stood no more than three meters behind him when I fired, when I shot Tod, where I then stood by the fallen body. A cloud of blue smoke snaked from the tip of my rifle.
“Oskar?” It was Rabbi Lot who spoke. The two women began to stand, pulling the boy up by an arm.
“I was hunting,” I said without knowing what I was saying. “I just came back and saw… this is my hunting rifle.” I dropped the gun to the ground.
“Gone,” one of the women said as if someone had asked a question. She had dark brown hair and streaks of dirt on her cheeks from pressing her face against the ground. I don’t know her name. Neither does Tod. She opened her mouth as if about to scream but she did not scream.
“We need to leave,” said the other. “Rabbi Lot, thank you.”
“For…?” Lot was staring at the body that was now bubbling a puddle of black liquid and gray stuffs from its cranium.
“For praying for us.”
He nodded, gathered himself and turned his back to the dead man. “Of course. You’re right. We need to leave.”
“They took the horses,” my voice said. I stared at my hands. “I passed the stables on the way here.”
It began to rain. The square filled with mud, the dirt clumping while the blood thinned and spread. Rabbi Lot said he had to go to Zofiowka and warn their shtetl. He would head north to the town, but the rest of us should go south. The women nodded but I did not.
“I can’t go,” I told them, the women and the boy. “I cannot leave yet. We probably won’t see each other again.” I was thinking of my mother. I let them take my rifle.
They left and so I became the last living being in Ignatowka. The rain was coming down sporadically now, uneven and slow. Each drop had patience before striking the earth. I left the central square, left the body that was still slowly leaving itself of its own self, and followed the tire tracks that were already washing away. Rain ran off the gabled roofs of homes and shops that would never open again. I passed my mother’s house, our house, without looking up even though I still see it now. I didn’t take my eyes off the tire and hoof tracks for fear that if I looked away for even a moment they’d be gone forever. That is, until I walked into something large enough to knock me from my feet. Not a living thing, but a being all the same. A ghost. The dybbuk. In front of me stood Tod in his black patent leather boots.
Tod tells me to close the hatch and replace the bale of hay. He tells me to shut the alley door. It is late now, or early morning. My muscles are tight and hard, and I am so exhausted I’m almost in a dream. But I am afraid to close my eyes, to keep seeing the land I grew up in disappear. Afraid that what happened in The Dybbuk will happen to me. That I will drift away with Tod into another world. I wonder if I might have already.
“Come, sit up here.” Tod sits in the loft again, looking down at the slowly dying fire.
I ask why, but I do as he says regardless. I have no choice. Up on the loft, there is a small window that faces the grass and forest. The moon casts everything in a glaze.
“Don’t stand too close to the window,” Tod says and smiles. “He will come soon. We have not missed him.”
I ask who even though I shouldn’t have to.
“You should know this by now.” Tod stops smiling. “Ignatowka is gone. Did you wonder why it was so easy? Why no one left, even though everyone knew? It’s easier this way. The way I do it.” He sneezes in bursts. “I guess I’m getting the flu.” He starts to laugh.
We wait. Hours turn. Silver clouds pass across the moon, plunging everything into uncertainty before floating on and turning everything to crystal once again. Eventually birds begin to sing. Sounds of the forest waking. The deep violet sky lifts its veil and underneath is a lighter shade of blue. Peering through the corner of the window, I can make out a man slowly walking toward the barn.
“Time to step back,” Tod whispers. I can’t see what’s out there anymore, but I can feel the man growing closer. Soon I can hear the long grass tremble. The alley door below us groans and opens. In walks the smell of clean air and cold. In walks Rabbi Lot.
He has shaved his beard but I recognize his face as he passes below. He looks tired, dried out. Doesn’t bother to close the door behind him, but rushes to the bale of hay.
Tod stands in front of the window, eclipsing the now risen sun, though Rabbi Lot cannot see this.
And so he doesn’t see as Tod reaches to his hip and removes the pistol from its holster. Any trace of laughter is absent from Tod’s face; his body is ashen, eroded by wind and time.
“Oskar?” It is Rabbi Lot who speaks now. He is facing me and looking up at the loft, squinting through the window’s light.
Tod and I have switched places. It is no longer the large Russian standing in front of the window but me, with the pistol in my hands, with my shadow burning onto the ground below.
“Oskar, what are you...” Rabbi Lot backs away toward the hatch behind him. His expression changes from surprise to fear to despair. He speaks but I do not listen. He tries to explain, plead and falls to his knees.
Tod doesn’t look at me, or my Rabbi, but at his feet, inspecting his boots.
“Oskar, you must understand,” Rabbi Lot says. “They told me everyone would be okay if it was this way. Don’t you understand? Worse was the alternative.” He talks and talks, but I know what Tod knows. “These men… If you can’t go over, you must go under. More good could be done.”
The sun is strong now, heating my back.
“Oskar, your mother! I can talk to them about your mother…”
“That won’t change anything.” I tell Lot what he already knows.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter, does it? Does it?”
I can see what the dead have seen, what Tod can see, but why did he take me here? Why did he need to show me this?
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“I had no choice,” Lot says. His odor spreads. Old fish and musk. Urine. He knows that I am a murderer more so than I do myself. I close my eyes and hear the gunshot again: small, an echo in Tod’s ear; a thunderclap in my own.
“He had a choice,” Tod says, “just like you and I. But you can’t change it, can you?”
“Can you?” I ask.
“Can you what…” Lot says. The begging tone has ebbed from his voice. “It doesn’t matter, does it? Does it?” He shakes his head back and forth, stooping over with his hands on the dirt and loose straws of hay.
“Everything matters,” Tod says.
I climb down the ladder and stand before Lot. The room is full of light. Newborn heat. Even when I shot Tod, I didn’t feel this angry. But I see myself now, strangling the old man, beating him—angry not just at him or Tod, but at myself, at the Pale, and the rest of the world. Why do we stand it? I tear out his eyes and grab him by the tongue, scream and yell and demand to know why he did what he did. It doesn’t matter that he answers, and it doesn’t matter what his answers are. I imagine he can barely speak between sobs and screams and a swollen purple tongue. Bloated eye sockets. I cannot truly blame him, but I close his mouth around the pistol; he is so frightened he leaves teeth marks on the barrel. And when I pull the trigger his head shatters like a mirror of cold blood. Time slows. I stand there and watch his floating bits float. He will have no ghost because he needs no ghost. I imagine these things but I do not do them.
I only stand there with the pistol at my side. I tell him to leave and to not come back. He stays, stooped over, staring at my feet. He tries to speak, but only begins to retch. I tell him that he will suffer because reflections of clouds and trees are clouds and trees. He seems confused but leaves, scuffles out the door.
Lot never even opened the hatch. Never knew that it was empty, that the money and falsified papers had burned to ash. That it had been Tod’s idea to use it as tinder. Outside, Lot is shrinking away. He runs to the trees where the Golem with truth written across its forehead walks. And still, the wind howls. Blows the clouds along—those small, infrequent things, the color of cream and shape of hands. They cast shadows that move like paper creatures pressed against the ground.
“I couldn’t do it,” I say. Tod is standing next to me, his beard grayer than I first thought. His eyes struggle to stay open. I hand him his pistol.
“We all choose.” Tod takes the pistol and points it to the distance, at Lot’s receding back. “Your choice doesn’t make a difference, but that’s not what matters.” He pulls the trigger but the gun only makes a click. “You see what I mean? Do you understand now?”
Tod points the pistol at me and pulls the trigger. Nothing. Then himself. Nothing again. I look out at the forest that was once a part of my home. It doesn’t matter if what I see are reflections.
“How does The Dybbuk end?” I ask Tod, but he is no longer there.
Theodore Yurevitch is a writer currently living in Florida, where he is a graduate student and instructor at Florida State University. His writing has appeared in journals including The Southeast Review and Nashville Review.