He’s hanging from the black-trunked tree, under the yellow sky, the yellow sun, the yellow leaves. A simple oscillation to his body, back and forth. His head tilted to the side. Eyes half-closed.
Something touches the tip of his shoe and gives him a slight push. A little girl’s voice. “Are you dead, mister?”
He opens his eyes, the yellow sun blinding him, dark spots swirling in the corners of the world. He tries to speak, but his neck is crushed by the tightness of the rope. His lips feel dry. He reaches into the pocket of his coat, pulls out a knife, and cuts himself loose. He lands with a thud.
The girl takes a couple of steps back. She smooths her green frock, then holds her hands behind her.
He stays on the ground, feeling the dry leaves underneath, the sleepy pulse of the earth, the blood rushing against his eardrums.
“No, not dead,” he croaks. He covers his eyes with his palm, hides them from the yellow sun, the yellow sky. The same old sun and the same old sky. Hot moisture trickles from the corner of his eye. He laughs. Tears, after all these years? “Not what you would expect,” he mutters.
“I don’t understand, mister,” the girl says. “What’s your name?”
A rustling in the dry leaves. A woman rushes from behind the girl and scoops her up. “What’s going on here?” she asks. She is pregnant, carrying her belly high. She turns her back to him, hiding the girl from sight, and looks at him over her shoulder. A strong face. A harsh jaw. A voice like old wounds and lavender.
“Pentheas,” he says.
“Your daughter asked me my name.” He pushes himself up from the ground, pats his coat clean, un-nooses his head. “It’s Pentheas.” He stares at the rope for a few moments, then tosses it to the side.
“I did,” the girl whispers to her mother, trying to steal glances at him from behind the woman’s hair.
“Can I trouble you for some water?” he asks. “My throat is terribly dry.” He rubs his neck, tries to smile.
The woman clenches that harsh jaw of hers. She puts a protective hand on her belly, takes a moment to think about it.
“Please, momma, let him stay. I like him,” the girl says. “He’s not dead,” she adds, as if that ought to make everything all right.
The woman glances at the woods, the yellowing leaves, the naked branches, and then motions towards the house that stands at the far end of a clearing. “Come,” she says. And then: “Call me Serah.”
Call me Serah, I tell him, and he says “Serah” and then, after a while, he repeats: “Serah.” As if it’s not a name, but an incantation of some sort. He looks at my belly, averts his eyes when I catch him. I find myself wanting to tell him how you came into my life, child, like smoke, ghost hands wrapped around my centre. Child, child, child. Will I ever—
Two years and each morning I wake up and check if you’re still there, round under my skin, my two beating hearts, my four lungs, my two minds.
I want to feel your little hands, sleeping child, your little hands pushing against me.
In my sleep, I dream of—
Sleeping child, will I ever get to meet you.
“So did someone hang you from my blacktree, or did you hang yourself?” she asks, placing a cup of hot tea in front of him. She’s still mad, but he hears something soft in her voice now.
He nods towards her belly. “How far along are you?” He picks up the hot cup and inhales. Jasmine. Elderflower. Cloves.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I hung myself,” he says, hugging the cup in his palms. “Now you.”
She lowers her eyes. The little girl twirls around the table with her arms over her head, and then she leans over her mother’s belly. “This is my baby brother,” she sing-songs, “but he will never be born.”
“Leila, go play,” her mother snaps. The girl looks at her startled for a moment, but then she turns around and does as she is told.
Serah avoids his eyes. “I’ve been pregnant a long time,” she says after a while. “The baby won’t come.”
“And your husband?”
“Dead for three years.”
He sips the tea. The clove is bitter on his tongue. “I’m sorry.”
“In any case, you shouldn’t have put my daughter through that.” She regards him now, appraises him. “That scar around your neck,” she says. “It’s not new.”
“No, it’s not.”
“You must be a very lucky man.”
He laughs. “That’s the last thing I am. I just haven’t found the right tree yet.”
A bitter smile crosses her lips briefly. “I see why my daughter likes you,” she says. “You remind her of her father.”
“Ah, is that so?”
“Never afraid to laugh at himself.”
“What happened to him?”
She runs her hand over her immense belly. “Want something stronger with your tea?” she asks, then she opens a high cabinet and fishes out a dark glass bottle without waiting for an answer. She tops their teas with liquor. It smells sweet and strong.
She raises her cup.
“What are we drinking to?” he asks, raising his.
“To the hanged,” she says.
This man. His accent is strange, foreign. How old is he? His hair is long and grey and curly, like Fedor’s. He drinks from my glass. I’d forgotten what it’s like to have a man sit at your table, drink from your glass. His smell. The old scar around his neck. Is it a double one—an old scar on yet an older one? The trembling of his hands. What am I doing. What am I doing. My two minds, but I speak neither.
She drinks and closes her eyes, leans back in her chair. “How old are you, hanged man?” she asks him.
Why not tell her the truth? She knows death, after all, she knows ghosts, doesn’t she? “I’ve lost count,” he says. “I can’t die.”
“Why would you want to die?”
“It wouldn’t be a curse otherwise, would it?”
“I knew men who didn’t want to die, but did anyway.”
He shows her his palms. What can he do? There’s so much loss in this world. So much loss and nothing to say.
“What did you do to get yourself cursed?” she asks.
“I was king of a city, long ago. I spurned a god who came from a foreign land. He was the god of life and death and rebirth. He showed me his power. Showed me and showed me.” He downs the last of his tea, the liquor burning him all the way to his core. “Now I am his greatest believer.”
He tosses back his head, his curls loose and tangled. Remember this? he wants to ask himself, out loud, or maybe ask her. Give her a performance, why not? All these years and the god’s pulse is still strong in him, bending his limbs to his rhythms, the hip, the wrist, the neck. The neck.
She watches him, her hand absently caressing her belly. “What are you doing in these parts?”
“I can’t get over how yellow the sky is in this land.”
“It wasn’t yellow where you’re from?”
Sometimes I saw two suns, he thought. “Blue. It was blue,” he says. He reaches for the bottle of liquor. He looks at her before topping up their cups. She nods. “There’s one blacktree in the entire world that will get the job done,” he says. “Someone told me it’s here.”
The corners of his lips point downwards even when he smiles. Why is he so sad?
All the hanging men of my life. Do I want to know?
In my sleep I dream of—
She shows him to the only other room in the house besides the kitchen. Leila is asleep on the bed that takes up most of the space. A single candle is burning on the bed stand. Serah walks over to the wooden trunk in the corner and lifts the lid. “Help me with these blankets,” she says. She spreads the blankets on the floor between the bed and the wood burner. “You can sleep here,” she says.
“Thank you,” he replies. “You shouldn’t be this kind to me.” This comes out abrupt, dry.
She touches his hand with her fingers. Her skin is hard, the tips of her fingers calloused. “I’m not afraid of you,” she says. She takes her shoes off and slips under the covers next to Leila. She waits until he settles under his blankets. Why did he accept this kindness? Her face is yellow under the light of the candle.
Before she blows the flame out, she says: “The tree. I’ll help you find it.”
In my sleep I dream of a forest with trees that have no branches. They are only trunks, sprouting from the dry earth and reaching up into the clouds, going on forever, narrow and straight, like candles under the yellow sky—
A thud on the front door wakes them up early in the morning. She has slipped into her shoes and has tied her hair up before he manages to crawl out from under his blankets and stand up. The kitchen is tinted red. Someone has thrown red paint—or is it blood?—on both windows.
Serah is out the door, shaking her fists and shouting at a few silhouettes, running away through the trees. “Don’t you have any shame?” she yells, but they are already gone. She collapses on the ground, sobbing. More out of anger and frustration, he suspects, than sadness. He’s watching her from the door, with Leila hiding behind his hip.
The entire façade of the house is covered in red.
“It’s all right,” he says. “We’ll clean it up.”
She looks at him, her eyes sunken.
“It’s blood,” she says. “Chicken blood. They’ve done it before.”
She tries to get up, and he rushes to give her a hand, but she refuses the help.
She shrugs. “They think I’m a witch,” she says, nodding towards her belly. She holds his eyes a moment too long. There’s more to say about this.
They send Leila to her friend Mera’s house, the only friend she has, and they get to work on the blood.
They don’t speak for a long time.
Then, she says: “They blame me for my husband’s death, his family. His name was Fedor.”
“He died in a hunting accident. Killed by his best friend, Doyan. They thought I was having an affair with Doyan. Strung him up and beat him until he died, the poor lad. They had a noose for me too, but they spared me on account of Leila. They haven’t made it easy. And I have been without work ever since. I used to be a midwife. No pregnant woman will go near me now.”
“I see,” he says. He keeps washing away the blood and it’s running down the wooden panels in straight, narrow lines.
“I remember the way Doyan looked at me while they were killing him. ‘I killed my brother,’ he’d whispered to me the night before, when he brought Fedor back, dead in his arms.” She pauses. “At first I thought he was a deer.”
He lets this hang in the air as he wipes away the blood in silence until the sun starts to set. What is he doing here? There’s so much life here.
Leila arrives before darkness falls, accompanied by a woman in her forties. She gives him a sideways glance.
“I’ll go check the back,” he says, and Serah nods at him.
He hears Serah whisper the other woman’s name. “Tesseret,” she says. “You didn’t have to come all this way. Leila can handle herself through the woods.”
“I know,” the woman replies, then drops her voice. “You should be careful, Serah,” she says. “People have noticed he’s staying in your house. They’re starting to talk again.”
“He just needs help. I’m helping him.”
“And he helps you, I can see.”
Serah doesn’t reply.
“Just be careful,” Tesseret says. “Good night, Leila,” she says, louder. “Come again tomorrow. Mera will be waiting for you.”
When the woman’s gone, Serah makes her way to the back of the house. Pentheas is leaning against the wall, his eyes closed. The air is cool on his face.
“You heard,” Serah says.
“I should go.”
She comes closer, but she doesn’t touch him this time. “No,” is all she says.
He opens his eyes to look at her. She has gotten blood on her dress.
“We’ll start looking for your tree tomorrow,” she says, “if you want.”
Who is he? Why do I let him into my life like this? Is it the way he speaks, so distant, so familiar? Is it the way he looks at me, my ghost life, like he’s known ghosts too?
He retrieves the rope from where he tossed it under the blacktree and makes it into a coil to hang over his shoulder. Before they head out, she shows him a handful of red shreds. “To tie around the trees you try,” she says.
There is enough forest between Serah’s house and everyone else’s, but they pick a blacktree that’s not too far from her house, just in case.
He ties the noose. Then, he stacks a few flat rocks under the lowest branch and ties the end of the rope around it. He steps on the rocks and wears the noose over his neck, tightens it. “Sometimes I pass out. I may appear dead for a while and then come to again. Wait a good while before you let me down.”
“What should I do with your body, if you die?”
The question catches him off guard. He’s never thought about that before. Tear me to pieces, he wants to say. Feed me to the dogs. Burn me.
“Whatever’s easier,” he says. “Let it drop from a cliff. Throw it in the sea, let the currents take it away.”
She nods. “I’m ready,” she says.
So is he. “Look away,” he says, and steps off the rocks. The rope cuts off the air to his lungs immediately. There are sparks before his eyes. His tongue fights its way out of his mouth. An animal thing that doesn’t want to die.
The rattling sound. Then numbness.
I say I’m ready but I’m not. I cannot watch another man die, one more hanged man to haunt my dreams. Why do they dare death like that? Fedor did too, with his little rifle and his little knives against the woods.
There he goes. His face is red, he fights to breathe in. Does he really want to die? Should I cut him down?
I can’t do this. I can’t watch this. I can’t, I can’t.
He wakes up on the ground, the sound of rustling leaves in his ears. She’s tying one of the red shreds around the branch, like a ribbon. Not this one, then. Her eyes are puffy and red.
“Were you crying?” he asks. His voice is rough, his throat hurts.
She finishes with the shred and turns to look at him.
“Promise me we’ll only do one per day,” she says. “I can’t handle this more than once every day.”
“You don’t have to help me. It’s all right. I’ve been doing this a long time on my own.”
She presses her forehead against the tree’s black trunk, rubs her swollen belly. “Let’s get back,” she says then. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
Halfway to the house, they find four men blocking their path. Their wide-brimmed hats cast shadows on their faces. They’re playing with knives in their hands.
“What are you doing with a stranger in the woods, Serah?” the tallest one asks.
“Leave me alone, Torgev,” she says. “Don’t you have any more chickens to slaughter?”
He turns to Pentheas. “You are not welcome in these parts, stranger,” he says, taking a step closer.
Pentheas rubs the burn on his neck. The old scar like a rope, keeping his head on. “You must have families,” he says. “You look like good men. Leave this woman alone. Go home.”
The man keeps walking towards Pentheas, but he doesn’t move.
Serah touches his shoulder. “Pentheas, go away, please. I’ll be fine. They won’t dare hurt their brother’s child.”
“Death child,” Torgev says and spits on the ground.
“You shouldn’t talk about our brother,” one of the men standing further back whispers through clenched teeth.
Torgev keeps closing the distance between himself and Pentheas, until they stand face to face.
Pentheas turns to Serah. “Look away, Serah,” he says to her for the second time today. Then Torgev pushes his knife under Pentheas’s ribs. Pentheas laughs taking the knife out of his body, wishing it were so simple. But it still hurts. It always hurts.
Then he loses his mind for a while.
He thinks of women roaming the mountains, playing flutes and tearing bodies to pieces.
Pentheas. He tells Torgev that his name means mourning, holding the bloodied knife in his hand. For no reason at all, he tells him he was torn apart by his mother centuries ago, put back together by the god. Is he mad? Is this true?
And then he pulls Torgev’s arm and it tears from his body like it’s nothing. Nothing at all. Torgev screams. He advances towards the rest of the men and my breath catches in my throat as I try to cry out. I want to say: no one will put these men back together again, Pentheas. Stop. But I can’t. And he doesn’t.
“Let me treat your wound,” she tells him, back home.
“I’m fine,” he says. “It will heal soon.”
“I understand. But let me anyway.”
The cloth of his shirt is stuck to the bloody wound, so she has to cut it off him. She makes him lie on the bed so she can clean his wound with warm water and soap. Her hands are trembling. He pulls himself up and grasps her wrist.
“Are you afraid of me now?” he asks.
She looks him in the eye. “You ripped Torgev’s arm clean off,” she says simply. She pulls her hand away. “But I told you. I’m not afraid of you. Lie back.”
“I think they will stay away from now on.” The ones who got away.
“Yes. They will.”
She keeps washing the blood away from his skin. She traces the marks on his body, old wounds, almost forgotten. “Your body is full of scars,” she says. Then she bends over his chest and kisses the long scar that runs down his ribcage, on the side of the heart. He finds himself running his fingers through her hair, then pulling her onto him, enveloping her.
Her body full, expectant, death-pregnant.
His skin is marked, like a map of great torment, old but not forgotten. Was he really torn apart by his mother, put back together by a god? I would like to have seen this blue sky he keeps talking about. His skin smells like burnt wood. His curly hair too. What did Fedor’s hair smell like? I can’t remember. Why can’t I remember.
“How did you become pregnant?” he asks her, after.
“My husband’s shadow came to me one night when I was thinking of smothering Leila with a pillow and then hanging myself from the blacktree—the one where I first met you. We made love.”
“What was it like, making love to a ghost?”
She is silent for a while in the half-dark of the room. “It was very similar to making love to you,” she says. “What is it like to hang yourself?” she asks then.
“First, surprise. Then a great weight at the feet, pulling you down. You forget you want to be done with life, and you want to loosen yourself, pull yourself up, but you never think of your hands. Then nothing.”
In the morning, Leila has come back from Mera’s house, where she spent the night. I’ve slept in, my body loosened up. My skin seems to me bright, reflective. Pentheas is kind. A kind lover. A kind man. I find him in the kitchen with Leila, having broth and raisins and telling her about being the king of a city, long ago, when gods ran among the trees of the forests, singing to stones and dancing with bulls.
He’s brought in wood for the fire, and for a moment I think I could live this life. Isn’t that so, child, sleeping child? This is a life we could actually live in.
But then he sees me and he tells me it’s time to go out again soon. Look for the tree that will end his life. Watch him hang from a branch, watch the light go out of his eyes again. Tie a ribbon. And then do this again and again. Tie another ribbon, one for each time I’ll think I’ve lost him. One for every time I’ll think I finally know how to love a man who wants to die.
Before we go, I light a candle, long and straight, and plant it in the dry earth by the door.
There aren’t many blacktrees in the area, but there are still too many for her, he can see that. Too many for himself as well, maybe. But he goes through with it, and so does she. Step on, step off, pretend to die, die even, then do it all over again, as is the god’s vice.
Soon, the forest seems strangely festive, with red ribbons tied to the black trees. He thinks of all the places he’s been too, all the things he’s seen. But he’s never seen a forest quite like this one before. And he’s never met a woman pregnant with a ghost before either.
Yet he puts the noose over his head and kicks the stones, the ladder, the chair.
This time there are bluish flames in front of his eyes in the fleeting moments before he slips into the calm. Blue. Is it the sky of home? And two suns. Are they the suns of home? he wonders before slipping away. Are these my seven gates?
When I first saw him, I thought it was Doyan hanging from the tree again, his shadow returned to haunt me. It wasn’t Doyan, but it is a haunting after all, isn’t it? All this fighting, all these not-deaths. This repetition.
I used to be a midwife, helping people into life. Now who am I.
He wakes up with his head on her knees. She’s sitting on the ground, her back rested against the blacktree. His vision is still blurry. He thinks she’s braiding pine needles into her hair. Will she produce the god’s staff now, reveal herself as another one of his divine tricks to torture him?
She lets her braid drop on her belly and caresses his cheek.
Maybe it’s all a lie. The blacktrees, the promise, all of it.
“You’ve got blood in your eyes,” she whispers, and her voice makes his neck tight as if she were a noose around it.
“There’s too much life here,” he says. “Too much life for me. I’m not supposed to be part of this tangle any more. I’m tired.”
“I know. I’m tired too. But it’s almost over now,” she says. “If what you’ve been told is right,” she adds. “There can’t be more than a couple of blacktrees left now.”
Yes, I would like to have seen his blue sky. And I would like to have met this god of his to ask him this: do you know how to love a man who wants to die? And also, why would you do this? And also, thank you for doing this. A thousand times thank you. A thousand not-yet-deaths to thank you for.
That day they pick up Leila from Mera’s house and take an afternoon trip to the cliffs overlooking the sea. Serah has brought a basket of grapes for them, and Leila makes him a wreath of wildflowers. He wonders if it’s the god hiding in these little things again, taunting him with his theatre, but he lets the girl put the wreath on his head and curl up in his arms anyway. Together they look out at the sea, and he tells her of all the different kinds of ships he has been on, and all the different islands they have taken him to.
He leaves out the part about what he was looking for everywhere he went, and she doesn’t ask, she only touches the scars around his neck with her little fingers and laughs.
The sky is yellow, and so is the sea.
This morning I felt you move in my belly for the first time in a long time, child. Will you wake up now? I imagined myself flat-bellied again. I want to dream of branchless trees with my eyes open. I want to walk out that door and find the forest razed to the ground, every black tree turned to ash.
Child, child, child, will you ever get to meet him.
There’s but one blacktree left, it turns out. Serah has to yell at Leila not to follow them into the forest. Perhaps she’s sensing what they are up to. Perhaps she’s known all along.
Serah ends up having to lock her in the house, and then Leila looks at them through the kitchen window until they are deep in the forest and the house is out of sight. They find the last ribbonless tree—a big, old one with a black trunk as wide as two men standing side by side.
He holds the rope in his hand. He runs his thumbs over its coarseness, so familiar, almost soothing. Serah has been careful to avoid his eyes since they woke up in the morning. Serah with the harsh jaw, with the voice like old wounds and lavender. Serah like a noose.
“Are you ready?” she asks, her voice almost inaudible.
He takes his time, then he bends over and kisses the trunk of the tree.
“Tomorrow,” he says. “I’ll be ready tomorrow.”