Family Business

Yara Beshket

Yara Beshket lives in Ukraine and spends hours walking in the fields and writing about the monsters roaming there. She loves wildlife and helps stray animals on a volunteer basis.

(Our host has) A golden willow,
With golden bark,
And rosy flowers.
Oh, not a willow — that’s Ivan’s wife,
Oh, not the flowers — they’re Ivan’s children…

National Ukrainian song

When the Vasylkovs’ willow dried out, the family decided to leave.

The Vasylkovs lived near the forest, where the houses were new and extravagant. Few people liked them because Oleg, the father, worked in the town, and their mother never bought anything from the local shop. The kids were like everybody else though: bruised knees and elbows, grimy faces, funny laughs behind jagged teeth.

Zhenya knew they were lucky. Their old but sturdy house, built by her great-grandfather, was at the crossroads far from the Vasylkovs. Her father was neither a policeman nor a rich man, but the news came to him first, like gifts. People brought their words, pains, and fears to him. Perhaps because he had plenty of others’ dreams, her father had never had his own. He had a tanned, sharp, and noble face — as a kid, Zhenya often imagined all knights in fairy tales with his chin. And not a single person dared call him a rascal.

Zhenya’s father had always been the head of the village, though power had never tempted him. Maybe that was the reason everyone liked him so much. The habit repeated itself: the news about the Vasylkovs’ willow was brought to them first.

“Talk to him,” said Maria, nervously studying the window. “Olezhka’s ready to leave. He’s not completely insane, is he?”

“He isn’t local,” answered Zhenya’s father. “Hard to guess what’s in his head.”

Zhenya saw the doubt on his face. That was why no one wanted the newcomers in the village: they lacked the guts to sprout here, and their trees were weak too. Far worse: the Vasylkovs had almost cut down theirs when they moved in! They would’ve been refused their house deal had her father not intervened. It was strange, in a way. The willow near their house was watching them from above every night, and they didn’t even know. It was watching, without averting its gaze, and it knew where everyone slept.

“I’m coming with you,” Zhenya caught her father’s sleeve as soon as Maria left. “I’ve got to learn, after all.”

He gave her a small sort of smile. Their family had only one child, and it would be only Zhenya who would listen to the future people’s grief. She already knew them — saw them in her dreams. She was visiting everyone head by head, like houses. Zhenya was her mother’s daughter, after all; it had taken years for them to get used to her.

“Just don’t make them too uncomfortable,” her father said softly. “We need them to stay.”

Spring was cool, as if it shied away from the village, kissing it lightly and stepping back. Her light touch was barely audible in the air. The motionless branches looked dead when Zhenya and her father went outside the yard. It felt like bad weather. Moribund.

While they were walking to the Vasylkovs’ house, Zhenya saw frightened faces in the windows: children and adults who did not want to go outside and join the talk. They didn’t want to look at the willows in their yard, like a person with cancer who would not want to know their diagnosis. But they watched anyway. Tall, strong silhouettes, like elongated figures, were waiting for them.

It seemed to Zhenya that those peeking at them from every yard were not only people. The willows, leaning forward, almost climbing out of the ground, reached out to them, bent their long, delicate hair-like branches, and almost touched the road. Scratched their heads with catkins. Zhenya jumped over the puddle, slipping on the dirt —

The wood creaked right next to her. Above her ear.

She turned sharply and raised her head. The dark crest of the tree kept looking at her, peering into the depths of her pupils. A chill slowly crept up her spine. The thin fingers of fear.

“Zhenya,” her father called, “Don’t look.”

She ran after him. Ancient, wise, hungry creatures these were. There was something predatory about them, as if this motionlessness, this being stuck in the ground was an artifice. As if they were playing a game: look away — and they will catch up.

Everyone in the village had hoped that her father would persuade the Vasylkovs to stay. Zhenya looked uncertainly at the high fence, the new car, the dry twigs near the roof of the house and muttered:

“How did they last so long? Did you look after their tree yourself?”

Her father stayed silent. He probably had something to say because he was gentle, weak towards his wife and daughter, never saying a rude word to them. But he did not say anything this time because Oleg opened the gate and went out to the car. His face was sweaty despite the weather, and his hands held the boxes too tightly. His fingers were whitened from the power of his grip. Her father looked behind him, but Zhenya already knew everything herself; she moved aside, hid her hands behind her back, and stood up like a guard. She was always a bit of a wild child, slow in her movements, but something about her, despite all her attempts to appear nonchalant, scared people. While her father got people’s respect, Zhenya… Zhenya was needed so that they did not run away. Sometimes, they joked about it at home when no one heard. Mother always laughed the most.

“Ivan,” said Oleg gloomily, and then to her: “Hello, kiddo.”

They always spoke to her like that, as if the name did not belong to her. Zhenya did not even blink. Her father took Oleg by the shoulder when he put the box down and faced him. He was strong — stronger than most — but his fingers were relaxed. Calm. Oleg was standing like a statue; his shoulders shook like twigs in the wind.

“You don’t have to do this,” said her father, “you know, Olezhka. Just plant a new one.”

Olezha had the face of a wounded dog. Zhenya knew that he would die soon. It was similar to an apprehension some people possessed when they guessed the weather in the evening.

“Your Katya should have told us,” Oleg spat on the ground. “And now what?”

Something passed between them. Zhenya stared at the grass. She hated people attacking her mother, but she knew there was no use arguing. Her father cleared his throat, and his courage almost broke.

“She is sick,” said her father, “she can’t guess anymore. The Kovalchuks’ tree is already dry. Old Liuda’s, too. Don’t take that on your conscience. Plant a new one. Stay.”

Instead of eyes, Oleg had bottomless wells.

“It has already infected those houses, Ivan. I have two children.”

Zhenya kept looking at his shoes, at the old sneakers, green from grass and paint, and thought: who will catch up with him? No one plants willow trees in cities. There is no need. But Oleg would bring his disease into the world, and they would find him, and he would not rest. She had dreamed about it, but dreams, like tree seeds, had a tendency to scatter everywhere. Not all of them sprouted.

“At least close the windows,” said her father, “and they won’t get in on the first day even without you inside.”

Because willows were about home. About people on the other side. What climbed from the dead trunks did not spread to other families until it opened the house like a shell. And it was the duty of everyone who lived in the village to be a bank that could not fall. An obstacle.

“Well,” said Oleg, “I’m not a complete asshole.”

He didn’t look at them anymore.

On the first day, they loaded the car. On the second, they left. On the third, twenty people gathered, all of them with seedlings. Zhenya was among them, holding two pieces. But she had to do everything herself. People always dropped stuff when she was around.

She slowly dug a hole, stroked the tiny leaves like they were puppies, and urged them to grow. She listened to the noise of people while the sky above them slowly darkened.

In the morning, before the fog had lifted, they found the Kovalchuks on a willow. Father, mother, son, swaying. It was a high tree, protected for generations. The legs barely rocked without the wind.

“Don’t look,” her father told her, “Zhen’ka.”

But she did anyway. She noticed that the Kovalchuks’ son, Kolya, had rather tiny feet.

Her father covered her face with his wide palm, and the dry hand softly hid everything from her.

“Turn away. Stop! No. Find their cat. The black one, remember? Take it home.”

They knew the cat would be alive because it was not human. Zhenya remembered it: small and weird-looking, a little cross-eyed. Cross-eyed cats sometimes wander into the wrong places. So they say. Zhenya knew that such creatures had better intuition, and she rushed to the Vasylkovs as soon as a black tail appeared behind the fence. Her father also saw that and did not stop her.

Strange, Zhenya thought, crawling through the hole in the fence, and the house was still standing. If they broke into it, there would be cracked windows and broken doors, not a home but merely a box. And this one looked as if nothing had happened.

Zhenya went around the house, not looking at the tree trunk. She had heard that they were climbing out from there after the tree had died. Where there was an old hollow, something slowly moved and shuffled, and the noise grew.

Something blew into her ear, like her mother in childhood, and Zhenya turned her head a little and felt the cold slowly flowing under her feet from the dry roots. It was as if something slowly creeped out from there, pulled out of the ground like rot. She never looked. The cat didn’t look, and she wouldn’t. Animals are smart. The wet grass tickled, said sorry, sorry, and rustled sadly. All the windows looked at her with black eyes, barely catching the sun’s rays. Dead, the house stood still, deceptively friendly. Like a trap.

Zhenya stepped aside and made an arc around the house. She went out into the backyard, which was littered with old things. She looked at the windows behind. They were closed tightly.

Except a window into the basement.

Zhenya felt a damp fear slide down her neck.

There was no need to break the glass or the door if at least one way was open. They climbed into the house and studied it, felt the walls, penetrated the floor, the ground, and furniture, and the place was lost. And then they attacked the neighbors.

“Prick,” hissed Zhenya.

Oleg had propped up the window with books, leaving it wide open. He did not protect his own house, and in taking his barrier down, he had let the putrid current from the dead willow’s heart flow through the Kovalchuk’s house. His house was a lost cause, and it didn’t stand its ground, the barrier disappearing instead of resisting the attack. Oleg gave the Kovalchuks up to the creatures like a badly wrapped present.

If the families’ willows didn’t die out and continued to grow, they weren’t found on the branches. Everyone knew it, and everyone was ready. But such families were few.

From morning till the evening, the children collected catkins around the lakes and near their houses, passing them from hand to hand, from palm to palm. And put them on the windows and around their homes. Little by little, the smiles disappeared from their faces, something empty nesting in their eyes. House after house fell like dominoes. The cemetery, which had known no deaths for years, was expanding, and the smell of damp earth hung in the air. That’s why they didn’t hope anymore.

Within a month, the Hudymchyks’ willow tree also withered. They were neighbors. Zhenya was playing with Liza, their youngest daughter, in her yard, but the girl kept turning her head, looking back at the dead tree. Zhenya didn’t look. She believed that it could feel and get inside.

“Can’t your dad do something?” asked Liza. “Anything at all?”

Zhenya counted her own fear through the beats of her heart against her ribs. She had already thought everything through. Everything she could. She considered offering Liza to stay at her place for the night, but the shadow on Lisa’s face stopped her. Anguish had already left a mark on her; you couldn’t hide that in the house.

So Zhenya knew that Olezha and his family were dead. She heard the Vasylkovs’ willow breathing heavily with strained dry branches and felt its sad murmurs when she watched the family’s house and its closed door. Good riddance. Not Liza, though. Not all the others.

Words got stuck in her throat, but she did not cry. Zhenya restrained herself, knowing that if she revealed her alarm, it would only rot Liza’s mood. And the willows needed to be believed in.

“Listen, Lizka, my folk’s the same as yours,” said Zhenya, “and you planted the new ones. They started to grow, didn’t they?”

Liza looked at the thin trees, caressed by the weak spring’s warmth. A crinkle passed between her eyebrows. She thought intensely.

“They did.”

At night, after closing the windows and hiding the cattle, Zhenya and her father listened to the night. Zhenya looked into the living room, coming into the pale light of the TV. Her mother was silently crying, covering her face with her hands. She fell ill and could no longer hear the willows. Zhenya thought that she also heard them sometimes. Their rustling of leaves, their hungry sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh, like a creature lulling a child to sleep before suffocating it. But her mother was like a radio station, and instead of music, she heard the tongue of trees. Zhenya sat beside her and patted her shoulder awkwardly, like any daughter trying to comfort her mother. She heard her father enter the room and listened to his soft steps approaching. He surrounded them with such peace and warmth that even Zhenya’s tears stung her eyes.

“This has happened many times before you, and it will happen after you,” said her father into her mother’s hair. It was thick, curled at the tips, and it tickled Zhenya’s cheeks. It looked a bit like the catkins. Zhenya could feel how calmly her father’s heart was beating and wondered: was he telling the truth, or had he learned to lie calmly?

They went to sleep. Tears always made her fall asleep better.

The thump was quiet and stealthy, and the hair on Zhenya’s arms rose up. The house was asleep, but they had woken up outside.

If she didn’t listen, she could imagine rain pounding on the walls and roof, sickeningly beating its rhythm. She could open the window, place her palm under the drops, and catch one.

Or they would catch her.

It sounded like hundreds of paws running on the Hudymchyks’ house.

A few passed right along her bedroom wall, jumped on the window, and Zhenya pressed herself against the bed, petting the dog. It twitched a little, and Zhenya felt the animal’s pulse racing against her fingers, fearing that it would now snap, revealing them, and the creatures would turn their heads to the two imposters, catch the glance of them through the curtains, absorb their fear.

All sound vanished from the street.

Zhenya kissed the dog on the nose and smoothed its ears, mentally asking: be quiet, oh pretty please, don’t whine. Her heart pounded in her throat, and she didn’t know whether they were noisy because she couldn’t hear anything underneath the static in her head.

Slowly, very slowly, the dog fell asleep. Fear left Zhenya’s body in waves, leaking from the sweat, and she started to dream, wrapping her arm around the dog. It seemed to her that this way, she could control it till the morning.

Just before dawn, she heard the glass outside cracking. At first, it was a tiny, barely audible sound, like the distant buzzing of a mosquito, then an explosion, as if someone had yanked it with all their might. Zhenya sat up sharply, forgetting all about caution, and her consciousness was going away with the sound of the glass breaking. The dog was nowhere to be seen, and Zhenya slowly stood up, burning her feet against the cold floor. Now, it was no longer quiet. It was complete chaos.

She pulled the curtain aside.

The moon was full, and everything around was gray and flat. Hundreds of bodies, black as nothing, fell through the window of the Hudymchyks’ home. The creatures were as flexible as water. There were many of them, and they crawled and covered the house with themselves.

Liza shouted, then stopped. Zhenya got up to go to another window, pressed her face against the glass—

The window was barely open, like the mouth of a half-sleeping beast. There was a shadow right next to it. Zhenya froze next to the glass, her eyes leveled with the eyeless, mouthless face. Its face was nothingness. It clung to the house like a piece of cloth, and its head spun from side to side.

It did not breathe or make noise, but the space around it seemed incredibly loud. It was looking for an entrance. It was listening.

Zhenya took hold of the edge of the window and pulled inaudibly, not breathing.

She knew that it came from the Hudymchyks and didn’t get lost — the creature was looking for more. There were many of them against her wall: bodies in a negative photograph. They pressed against the glass on the other side so the sky vanished.

Zhenya pulled again. Her fingers barely found the thin handle. She was shaking. She tried again, but her fingers did not obey.

Zhenya swallowed. She made a movement so rash and quick that she almost slammed the window. The glass began to crack from the pressure of bodies. She stopped a second before making a sound.

She bit her cheek from the inside, slowly rocking her whole body, coaxing herself to calm down, and with that movement, slowly, centimeter by centimeter, she closed the window.

Her wet palm froze in front of a creature’s face. It poked its face into the glass. Let me in, asked the creature silently. Zhenya sucked in air through her teeth and froze. She could no longer feel her fingers.

Someone shouted — and the creature jerked away. They all ran, and their stomping rang through the house for the last time.

Liza’s mother screeched. The sky became visible again.

By the end of the month, the bodies hung like bells in front of almost every house. The willows were no longer protecting them, only letting more and more creatures out. Children were not allowed outside, and their thin parents were trudging and collecting the remains of catkins, boarding up windows and doors. The streets became empty.

Zhenya went downstairs and saw two silhouettes, her father and mother, against the background of a foggy window. Everything was gray and melted in the air. And they? They were as if carved from wood. But Zhenya stepped forward, the board creaked under her feet, and they slowly turned their heads towards her. They did not retreat, did not run away. Her parents had always loved each other simply and honestly, and it was the best truth about her life, the first she had learned after their love for her. The same was happening right before her eyes. She was made of their faces, their bodies, woven from their emotions, and everything they felt, she also knew.

“No,” said Zhenya, “no, no.”

The light did not pour but slowly flowed through the curtains, threadlike, not the enemy of darkness, but its lazy, attentive brother. Her mother patted Zhenya on the cheek as she took a step towards her, and they hugged. Zhenya’s thoughts, except for this one, were slowly decaying, but then, something was unfolding inside her, clinging to her throat, like Zhenya to her mother’s shirt.

She started to shake and cry. There was the same dead light under her eyelids. The village was slowly dying; she knew they would be the last. It should be so.

She and her father took axes and kindling. Only Zhenya cried. While Zhenya was clinging to her mother, she leaned over and kissed her daughter’s forehead. She smelled like spring, sun, and leaves.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work out, no matter how hard you try,” said her mom, “But it’s alright, little one.”

They cut down and burned all the willows in the village, both healthy and diseased. They went around all the houses, walked through every road to the forest. Few people helped them because they knew it was none of their business. Such things stay in the family.

Leaves with flowers covered the ground like a carpet. The catkins stuck to the skin, the droplets and dry branches hid behind their ears and fell into their pockets, and her father and Zhenya did not look at each other. They did not listen to the slow crackling of the fire. Like families destroyed from the root, dozens of lights emerged all over the village.

Scratches and calluses bloomed under Zhenya’s fingers, and her eyes were blinded by tears and smoke.

In the evening, when not a single willow tree remained, they walked home to the joyous, drunken shouts of the survivors. Zhenya saw small children, pregnant women, and tired men waving to them. Only the faces of the old people were sad. They did not congratulate Zhenya and her father; they mourned.

The infection passed, but the payback was theirs.

Zhenya and her father entered the house; the warm light of the corridor caught the black eyes of the open door from the shadows. No one came out to them. How difficult it was for her to take at least one step! To break this silence!

They went into the room where her mother was. It was dark there, although the moon was visible through the open window. Zhenya looked at the bed, feeling the taste of ash on her tongue. Her father allowed himself the first sob and took a step forward. His tired hands touched the bed.

They collected everything left: burnt bark instead of skin, leaves instead of braids. They took it all in their palms, kissed it, and burned it in the backyard.