By Sara McKinney
Barefoot and silent, the three of us sat on my mother’s cushionless couch and ate the casserole Ora had brought with her, the plates balanced awkwardly on our knees, a capitulation to the low seating. Outside the living room’s large bay window, the tree stood, its leaves hanging, limp and brown in the depths of June, its silver trunk marred by a hole that burrowed deep into the heartwood. Was it heart rot, some central infection, eating its way out from the core, or was it something else—parasites, climate, age itself—that had left the tree hollow and ghoulish, a tombstone brooding in the center of my mother’s lawn? In the upper branches, shrouded in lifeless foliage, large black birds scuttled over the bark, worrying and squabbling with one another like fractious pallbearers. It was impossible to distinguish a species.
When the sun went down, Ora and I retreated to the kitchen to do dishes—ours as well as the pile that had accumulated since the last time Marcia, the home health assistant, had been by to help Mom with the household chores. I eyed the bowls spilling out of the milchik sink and onto the counter, made a mental note to bring it up with Marcia. Except for our plates, the fleishik side was clear.
“We’ll have to find someone to take it down.” Ora spoke in a low, not-quite whisper so the sound of the running faucet would cover her voice. She swiped a rag over a damp bowl and then placed it, dry, onto the counter. “It’s too close to the house. If there’s a storm, it could blow onto the roof or the power lines.”
“She’s sitting shiva for it; you think she’s just going to let us chop it down? Besides, you know what it represents,” I said, also speaking under the sound of the water as I scrubbed at a spot of dried egg that had adhered to a frying pan and begun to mold. Is it really so close to the house?I wondered.
“Yeah, well, she’s not operating at one hundred percent these days, you know? Shivais one thing and what Dad’s tree represents, that’s one thing, too, but...I don’t know. Isn’t it kind of unhealthy, keeping it around the way it is?” Ora gave me a furtive look. “I mean, when Dad died, we planted a fig tree outside his old office on Wittenberg’s campus, right? With a memorial plaque. We could do something like that. Plant another birch, put in a marker—with or without names, your call. Give it a few months and Mom won’t even notice the difference.”
I made a doubtful tch in the back of my throat. “Come on, she’s not that bad. She’ll know if we plant another tree.”
Mom appeared in the kitchen doorway, a sparrow of a woman, high-powered bifocals magnifying her eyes to a disconcerting largeness. I could still remember when her gaze was sharp, the dark irises quick to catch pilfered sweets, a downstairs window left ajar to admit a lover or an AWOL sibling who had snuck out to party long after bedtime. Now they were dim, milked over with cataracts, eyes that gazed out on a world half-obscured and unfamiliar. She clutched at the door frame, mumbled something in a low voice. Ora and I looked at each other; it was the first thing she had said since our arrival. That wasn’t abnormal on its own – mourners weren’t required to speak to guests. But, well, this was a tree.
“The angels,” she muttered. “Someone shoo the angels from your father’s Shoah tree.”
Ora looked at me and mouthed the word “angels,” one eyebrow raised, as if to say, I told you so.
“Crows,” I said, using the warning tone I typically reserved for unruly tenth graders. I made steady eye contact with my sister. “I saw a few roosting there earlier. I can finish up the dishes on my own, so why don’t you go out and scare them off?”
Ora shrugged and went out, taking Mom with her. When she returned, I was setting the last of the dairy plates in the strainer to dry. Her dark curls were windswept, unsettled.
“I put Mom to bed. Oh, and by the way, they were vultures, not crows. At least ten of them, the size of children.” She shuddered. “I banged a shovel against one of the trash cans to scare them off, but I think I was more spooked than they were.”
“Yeah, nature.” Then why does it feel like such a desecration? “Hopefully, that’s the last of them. If not, I guess…” I hesitated. The tree will have to come down after all, I meant to say, but instead the words caught in my throat, stagnated, and were swallowed again. Because now I was seven years old and sitting on the birch’s lowest branch, my father’s hand on my back, steadying me, so I wouldn’t slip off the pale, smooth bark. I was nine and curled on the floor beside a roaring fireplace, my head resting on his knee, eyes half-lidded, breathing in the mingled smells of cedarwood and tobacco—his smells—while he told me in a deep but faltering voice that the tree was a child, too, in its way. That its father lived in a far country, the first tree my father had seen when he left the ghetto and as such, the first beautiful thing after years of ugliness. That it was a Betula oycoviensis, a hybrid species that only appeared in groves where the parent species were both present, a deciduous tree that grew among evergreens, a lone stripe of silver in a sea of black Polska pine. But this particular B. oycoviensis had other names too, some of them common—silver birch, weeping birch, Ojcow—and some of them private, familial, known only to my father. He recited them like a prayer, thinking I was asleep and would not remember, but I did, because even then I knew that memory was my duty, no matter how painful. So I remembered five names, which he called family: Chaim, Philip, Henrick, Sruel, Ezra.Although their owners had disappeared in the streets of Krakow, as long as the tree lived, he said, so did they.
We talked a little longer, decided who was going to make breakfast in the morning, then retired upstairs. My dreams were dark and uneasy, full of black wings, blurred faces.
I blinked and turned. Ora gave me an enquiring look.
I stood, setting my empty plate on the coffee table. A dog began to bark in the distance.
“In the basement, I think. With the photo albums.”
Shrugging, Ora sat back down.
Unclasping the rust-speckled closures, I lifted the heavy, wood-paneled lid and there, sure enough, tucked beneath two week’s worth of fresh clothing and a photograph of my father was a cluster of yahrzeit candles. I picked up the photo frame, my fingers smudging the glass as I traced the familiar lines around mouth and nose, the small cleft in his stubbly chin. But I did not touch his eyes. No, I stayed far away from those. My father had been a warm man, just as quick to laugh as he was to produce a pithy reflection on the mating habits of aphids or the seeking, hungry thrusts of plant rhizomes. But even when the rest of his face melted into a smile, there was something cold in his eyes. It was the same part that saw windows breaking when a bowl my mother dropped one summer afternoon shattered on the hardwood floor, the same part which had grabbed her by the hair and raised a fist before his better sense could intervene.
I returned the photo to the trunk and gathered two or three candles to bring upstairs, but just as I was about to leave, I caught sight of a scrap of paper peeking out where the suitcase’s satin lining had fallen loose. I folded back the satin lining and picked up the photo. Ora’s young face stared back at me, except her dimples were missing and, pinned to her sepia-tone dress, like a weal, like a brand, was a yellow Star of David.
As if it were poisonous, I lifted the photo by its corner and turned it over. On the back, someone had written in a neat cursive script: Dvora Levy, age nine, 1940.
Candles in hand, I rejoined my mother and sister in the living room. At sunset, we gathered in the kitchen, lit the candle and said Kaddish — for the tree, for Dad, for so many others. In the darkening distance, a vulture screamed. Rust scraped from a moving hinge, broken and eternal.
I nestled the receiver deeper into the crook of my shoulder and twined the cord of the ancient landline around my index finger, straightening its kinks. Mom and Ora were out at the library and would remain there for the next two hours or so. Three, if they stayed in town for lunch. More than enough time.
“Yes, hi. I’m looking for some help with vultures.”
“You got a kettle, a committee, or a wake?”
At the word wake, my breath caught. “I’m sorry, a what?”
Mike inhaled roughly. I imagined him: a broad-shouldered man in a dusty warehouse, massaging the sunburn on the back of his neck. “That’s a tough one. Yessir, real tough. Vulture nests are federally protected out here. Otherwise I’d send one of my boys out with a net and haul them off. Where are they? Roof, tree, shed?”
“Tree,” I said, worrying at a sliver of dried skin on my lip.
A snort. “Figured. They kill it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Eh, doesn’t matter now, does it? Best bet is to get the tree removed. I got a buddy out in Elletsville runs a landscape shop. Let me get his number for you.” A muffled scrabbling came through the line.
Someone had already beaten me to it.
All of the lights in the kitchen were on, including the small inset bulb above the stove, which lacked a switch and had to be twisted into place. I blinked in the harsh light, confused. Ora and I had made sure everything was off before we went upstairs, nor was it like my younger sister to be so forgetful, even if she had wandered back down in search of a nosh. Standing on tiptoe, I reached up and turned the bulb until it went dark again.
A floorboard creaked in the next room.
I froze. Listened. A cold line of sweat trickled between my shoulder blades.
More footsteps. The raspy hush-hush-hush of heavy breathing.
“Mom, what are you doing out of bed?” I asked, joining her at the window. At first, she didn’t respond and continued to stare out at the moon-washed lawn, her thin lips drawn into a white, trembling line. I was about to ask again when she spoke, her voice clear but unsteady.
“Do you see them, Rebecca?”
“See who, Mom?” Dementia care manuals suggest that you call the sufferer by their first name as often as possible to keep them anchored in the here and now, but even though I was well into my fifties, I couldn’t bring myself to call her Sima. She was Mom, always and forever.
I looked beyond the dead birch, searching the silver grass and the dark border of pines that marked the edge of the property. I saw nothing.
But her eyes widened and she pressed herself to the window, crying, “Dvora! Moshe!”
She tugged at my sleeve, pointed at the empty yard. “Do you see them? They are headed the wrong way. Soldiers—in the woods—they will be seen! They will be caught!”
I knew this story. So well, in fact, that if I tried, I couldalmostsee it playing out, like a mirage laid over the present: the spring meadow and the two children — an aunt and uncle I had never met — running hand in hand, their small feet wrapped in rags that slipped and slid on the dewy grass.
I took my mother’s bony hand and pressed it. “Mom, look at me.”
“They’re gone. They’ve been gone for seventy years,” I said, but even as the words left my mouth, a flicker of motion in my peripheral vision made me turn back to the window. Two dark figures were fleeing across the lawn, their gaits awkward and unsteady, while behind them, a third, larger darkness. Moving fast, it seemed to skim over the ground, rather than run upon it. Something like a man, carrying something like a rifle.
I let go of her hand, heard myself tell her to stay here, to wait, to hide if she saw anyone approaching the house. Only half-aware of what I was doing, I slipped out through the front door, silent as a shadow.
The night air was warm, muggy, hanging so thick and close it was almost soupy. I readjusted my grip on the knife.
Skirting around the base of my father’s tree, my nose wrinkled at the stink of ammonia. This close, I could see the white streaks that ran along the gray bark and puddled, stinking, in the grass below: vulture droppings, several layers thick. In the branches, a pair of black shapes sat close to the trunk, watching as I passed beneath them, their faces obscured by dead leaves. Ora had been right; they were huge. I shuddered, quickening my pace.
Up ahead lay a small vegetable garden, riotous with weeds and swaddled in deer netting. I paused beside it and took in my surroundings: nothing. Did I lose them? I stood, blinking and bewildered in the moonlight. Or did I just imagine it?
I was prepared to turn back and had already begun to chastise myself for being so fanciful and playing into my mother’s delusions when I caught sight of them, crouching at the edge of the trees. They seemed smaller somehow at this distance, oddly foreshortened, like a forced perspective painting viewed from the wrong angle. The third figure loomed over them, its back to me. The barrel of its gun (Was it a gun? It seemed the wrong shape somehow, and yet, what else could it be?) rose, leveled, aimed —
“Stop!” I cried. But it was the wrong thing to do, at the wrong moment. At the sound of my voice, one of the crouching figures started up and a sharp crack echoed into the night.
The figure that had started up sank down again, slowly, like a tower of cards, folding in on itself. The rifle trembled, poised halfway between the crumpling child and the other, who still crouched, head lowered and submissive, as if praying, or pleading, or simply resigned at the end of a long and impossible fight. I thought it must be this last, because praying or pleading would both seek a favorable answer to a question that the rifle and its bearer were not asking, a question which, at its core, was a moral one: To shoot or not to shoot? But the question at hand was much simpler, much crueler, answered by a second report, and the crouched child’s sudden stiffening.
As if remembering the bullet’s impact, my body stiffened, too.
Mute, unmoving, I watched their lazy progress through the thick summer air, first climbing, and then circling the lawn, before all three landed once more in the top branches of my father’s tree. In the patch of grass where they had stood, a rotting fawn lay, two of its ribs exposed and freshly broken where the vultures had just been eating. Not gunshots. Bones breaking.
I hurried back to the house, giving the dead birch as wide a berth as possible.
Inside, my mother had fallen asleep on the couch, clutching her glasses in one hand and snoring lightly. I woke her and led her upstairs. Once she was settled back into bed, I knelt beside her and told her in the same soft voice that she had once used to read me bedtime stories that, when the shivawas over, the tree would have to come down.
“But we’ll replace it,” I said, recalling Ora’s suggestion. “It won’t be quite the same, but we’ll remember. And we’ll put a plaque in it so that even when that tree dies, other people will remember, too.”
“Mom, please!” I reached out, took her hand, tried my best not to sound desperate, although of course a hint of it seeped through anyway. “The vultures—it’s not healthy. Something has to be done about them, and so close to the house—”
“Shhh, it’s all right,” she said, folding my hand into hers. “It’s all right.”
She shook her head. “The plaque I like but… these other things, they are not replaceable.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you wouldn’t leave a corpse unburied!” I cried, and, watching her eyes narrow, regretted it.
A chill spread from my hands, which were still clasped tightly in hers, creeping up my arms inch by inch and standing the hair on end in a slow ripple. A face appeared in the back of my mind: a faded photograph, a vulture’s shadow, both familiar and strange. I found myself wishing I could leave. Wishing I had never come. I tried to look away, break my mother’s gaze, which had become terrible and unblinking, but I was pinned. Far off, I heard, or thought I did, a hollow crack like a bullet. Like a broken bone.
“I don’t understand,” I said. So she leaned in close, and told.
Between us, the birch stood pale and erect, like a dead finger, pointed at the sky.
I turned back as we pulled out onto the main road. In Ora’s rear mirror, the house was already out of view, closed round by a dark barbican of pine.
“She told me that if we took down the tree, the vultures would roost on top of the house. Apparently, she and Dad had problems with them when they first moved in.” As I said it, I felt the rasp of my mother’s breath, once again brushing along the outside of my ear as her lips whispered the words scant inches from my face. When they come, you provide a roost.
“Well, that’s a pleasant thought,” Ora said. She pressed down on the gas and the car sprang forward, revving, rushing on into the bright summer morning. Behind us, detaching itself from the Shoah tree’s dead and grasping branches, a dark shape rose and followed.
* Hebrew, meaning eagle or vulture