That was a favorite story for Vanya, as Father insisted that they study
Torah together, going over to the apartment of a rabbi and hearing him read
the Hebrew and translate. As they walked home, they would talk about what
they'd heard. "These guys are religious?" Vanya kept asking. "Judah sleeps
with a prostitute on the road, only it turns out to be his daughter-in-law so it's
all right with God?"
The story of the circumcision of Shechem was Vanya's turning point.
Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, gets raped by the prince of Shechem. The prince
wants to marry her and Jacob agrees that this would make everything all right,
only Dinah's twelve brothers are more interested in repairing the family's
wounded honor than in getting their sister married to a rich man with a throne
in his future. So they tell the prince that he and all the men of his city have to
be circumcised, and when the men are all lying there holding their handles and
saying Ow, ow, ow, the sons of Jacob draw their swords and slaughter them
all. At the end of that story, Vanya said to his father, "Maybe I'll let the moyle
do it to me."
Father looked at him in utter consternation. "That story makes you want
to be circumcised?"
"Is there any hope that you can explain to me why this makes sense?"
"I'm thinking about it, that's all," said Vanya. He would have explained
it, if he could. Before the story he refused even to think about it; after the
story, it became conceivable to him, and, once he could conceive of it, it soon
Later, running, he thought maybe he understood why that story changed
his mind. Circumcision was a foolish, barbaric thing to do. But having the
story of Shechem in Torah showed that God himself knew this. It's barbaric,
God seemed to be saying, and it hurts like hell, but I want you to do it. Make
yourself weak, so somebody could come in and kill you and you'd just say,
Thank you, I don't want to live anyway because somebody cut off part of my
He couldn't explain this to his father. He just knew that as long as God
recognized that it was a ludicrous thing to do, he could do it.
So for a few days Vanya didn't run. And it turned out that by the time
the circumcision healed so he could run again, they took the city out from
under him. The American Congress had antagonized the Russian government
by tying most-favored-nation status to Russia's upping the number of Jews
getting visas, and in reply the Russians cut the emigration of Jews down to
nothing and started harassing them more. To Vanya's family, this had very
practical consequences. They lost their apartment.
For Father, it meant no more consultations with students, no more visits
with his former colleagues at the university. It meant the shame of being
utterly dependent on others for food and clothing for his family, for there was
no job he could get.
Mother took it all in stride. "So we make bricks without straw," she said.
All his life Vanya remembered her making enigmatic comments like that. Only
now he was reading Exodus and he got the reference and realized: Mother
really is a Jew! She's been talking to us as if we were all Jews my whole life,
only I didn't get it. And for the first time Vanya wondered if maybe this whole
thing might not be her plan, only she was so good at it that she had gotten
Father to think of it himself, for his own very logical, unreligious reasons.
Don't become a practicing Jew because God commands it, become one so you
can get your son a good life in America. Could she possibly be that sneaky?
For a week, they camped in the homes of several Jews who had no room
for them. It couldn't last for long, this life, partly because the crowding was so
uncomfortable, and partly because it was so obvious that, compared to these
lifelong followers of the Law, Vanya and his parents were dilettantes at
Judaism. Father and Vanya hacked at Hebrew, struggled to keep up with the
prayers, and looked blankly a hundred times a day when words and phrases
were said that meant nothing to them.
Mother seemed untroubled by such problems, since she had lived for a
couple of years with her mother's parents, who kept all the holidays, the two
kitchens, the prayers, the differentiation of women and men. Yet Vanya saw
that she, too, seemed more amused than involved in the life of these homes,
and the women of these households seemed even more wary of her than the
men were of Father.
Finally it wasn't a Jew at all, but a second cousin (grandson of Father's
grandfather's brother, as they painstakingly explained to Vanya), who took
them in for the potentially long wait for an exit visa. Cousin Marek had a dairy
farm in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, in a region that had been
part of Poland between the wars, and so escaped Stalin's savage collectivization
of the freehold farmers of Ukraine. Because this hill country was remote,
strategically unimportant, and thinly populated, Communism here was mostly
window dressing. Technically Cousin Marek's dairy herd was merely a portion
of the herd belonging to the farflung dairy collective; in actual practice, they
were his cows, to be bred and cared for as he wished. A good portion of the
milk and cheese they produced didn't quite make its way into the state-run
dairy system. Instead, it was bartered here and there for goods and services,
and now and then for hard western currency. Cousin Marek had the room, the
independent attitude, and enough surplus to take in a few hapless cousins who
had decided to become Jews in order to get to the West.
"The country life will be good for you, Vanya," said Father, though the
sour expression on his face suggested that he had not yet thought of a way that
the country life would be good for him. What Cousin Marek did not have was a
university within three hours' travel. If Father was to lecture, he'd have to find
a subject matter interesting to cows.
As for Vanya, though, Father was right. The country life was good for
him. The chores were hard, for though Cousin Marek was a pleasant man, he
nevertheless expected that everyone on the farm would work every day, and
give full measure. But Vanya got used to labor quickly enough, not to mention
the country food, the whole milk, the coarser, crustier, more floury bread they
made in this part of Ukraine. The farm was good; but what he came to love lay
beyond the farm. For in this backwater, some remnant of the old forests of
Europe still survived.
"This is the rodina, the original homeland," Father told him. "Where the
old Slavs hid while the Goths passed through, and the Huns. And then they
were gone and we fanned out into the plain and left these hills to the wolves
and bears." Our land. Father still thought like a Russian, not like a Jew.
What did Vanya care, at his age, about the original Russia? All he knew
was that the country roads went on forever without traffic, and with grass
growing where the wheels didn't make their ruts; and the trees grew large and
ancient in the steep-sided hollows of the hills where no one had bothered to cut
them down; and birdsong didn't have to fight to be heard above honking cars
and roaring engines. Someone had spilled a milkpail of stars across the sky,
and at night when there was no moon it was so dark you could bump into
walls just trying to find the door of the house. It wasn't really wild country, but
to Vanya, a city boy, an apartment dweller, it was a place of magic and dreams,
like the paintings of Shishkin; Vanya half-expected to see bear cubs in the
This was the place where all the fairy tales of his childhood must have
taken place -- the land of Prince Ivan, the grey wolf, the firebird; of Koshchei
the Deathless, of Mikola Mozhaiski, of Baba Yaga the witch. And, because he
came here about the same time as his first reading of Torah, he also pictured
the wanderings of Abraham and Jacob and the children of Israel in this green
place. He knew it was absurd -- Palestine was hot and dry, the Sinai was
stone and sand. But couldn't he picture the sons of Jacob coming back from
herding sheep in these hills, to show their father the torn and bloody many-colored coat? Wasn't it from these hills that Abraham charged forth to do
battle for the cities of the plain?
He couldn't fly here, either, but he could run until he was so exhausted
and lightheaded that it felt as if he had flown. And then he grew bolder, and
left the roads and tracks, searching for the most ancient and lost parts of the
forest. Hours he'd be gone, exploring, until Mother grew worried. "You fall
down a slope, you break your leg, nobody knows where you are, you die out
there alone, is that your plan?" But Father and Mother must have discussed it
together and decided to trust in his good sense and perhaps in the
watchfulness of God, for they continued to allow him his freedom. Maybe they
were simply counting on the visa to come and get him back to some American
city where they could hide in their apartment from the gangsters' bullets and
the rioting Africans that they always heard about.
If the visa had come one day earlier, Vanya wouldn't have found the
clearing, the lake of leaves.
He came upon it in the midst of a forest so old that there was little
underbrush -- the canopy of leaves overhead was so dense that it was
perpetually dusk at ground level, and nothing but a few hardy grasses and
vines could thrive. So it felt as if you could see forever between the tree trunks,
until finally enough trunks blocked the way or it grew dark and murky enough
that you could no longer see beyond. The ground was carpeted with leaves so
thick that it made the forest floor almost like a trampoline. Vanya began loping
along just to enjoy the bouncy feel of the ground. Like walking on the moon, if
the Americans really had landed there. Leap, bounce, leap, bounce. Of course,
on the moon there were no tree limbs, and when Vanya banged his head into
one, it knocked him down and left him feeling weak and dizzy.
This is what Mother warned me about. I'll get a concussion, I'll fall down
in convulsions, and my body won't be found until a dog drags some part of me
onto somebody's farm. Probably the circumcised part of me, and they'll have to
call in a moyle to identify it. Definitely the boy Itzak Shlomo -- on your records
as Ivan Petrovich Smetski. A good runner, but apparently not bright enough to
look out for trees. Sorry, but he was too stupid to go on living. That's just the
way natural selection works. And Father would shake his head and say, He
should have been in Israel, where there are no trees.
After a while, though, his head cleared, and he went back to bounding
through the forest. Now, though, he looked up, scouting for low limbs, and
that's how he realized he had found a clearing -- not because of the bright
sunlight that made the place a sudden island of day in the midst of the forest
twilight, but because suddenly there were no more branches.
He stopped short at the edge of the clearing and looked around.
Shouldn't it be a meadow here, where the sun could shine? Tall grass and
wildflowers, that's what it should be. But instead it was just like the forest
floor, dead leaves thickly carpeting the undulating surface of the clearing.
Nothing alive there.
What could be so poisonous in the ground here that neither trees nor
grass could grow here? It had to be something artificial, because the clearing
was so perfectly round.
A slight breeze stirred a few of the leaves in the clearing. A few blew away
from the rise in the center of the clearing, and now it looked to Vanya as if it
was not a rock or some machine, for the shape under the leaves undulated like
the lines of a human body. And there, where the head should be, was that a
human face just visible?
Another leaf drifted away. It had to be a face. A woman asleep. Had she
gathered leaves around her, to cover her? Or was she injured, lying here so
long that the leaves had gathered. Was she dead? Was the skin stretched taut
across the cheekbones like a mummy? From this distance, he could not see.
And a part of him did not want to see, wanted instead to run away and hide,
because if she was dead then for the first time his dreams of tragedy would
come true, and he did not want them to be true, he realized now for the first
time. He did not want to clear the leaves away and find a dead woman who
had merely been running through the woods and hit her head on a limb and
managed to stagger into the midst of this clearing, hoping that she could signal
some passing airplane, only she fell unconscious and died and ...
He wanted to run away, but he also wanted to see her, to touch her; if
she was dead, then to see death, to touch it.
He raised his foot to take a step into the clearing.
Though his movement was ordinary, the leaves swirled away from his
foot as if he had stirred a whirlwind, and to his shock he realized that this
clearing was not like the forest floor at all. For the leaves swirled deeper and
deeper, clearing away from his feet to reveal that he was standing at the edge of
This was no clearing, this was a deep basin, a round pit cut deeply into
the earth. How deep it was, he couldn't guess, for the leaves still swirled away,
deeper, deeper, and the wind that had arisen from the movement of his leg
carried them up and away, twisting into the sky like a pillar of smoke.
If that was a woman lying there, then she must be lying on a pedestal
arising from the center of this deep hollow. Women who bumped their heads
into tree limbs did not climb down a precipice like this and climb up a tower in
the middle. Something else was going on here, something darker. She must
have been murdered.
He looked at her again, but now many of the leaves that had blown up
from Vanya's feet were coming to rest, and he couldn't quite see her face. No,
there it was, or where it should have been. But no face now, just leaves.
I imagined it, he thought. It was that leaf -- I thought it was a nose.
There's no woman there. Just a strange rock formation. And a pit in the
middle of the forest that had filled with leaves. Maybe it was the crater from an
old meteor strike. That would make sense.
As he stood there, imagining the impact of a stone from space, something
moved on the far side of the clearing. Or rather, it moved under the far side of
the clearing, for he saw only that the leaves began to churn in one particular
place, and then the churning moved around the circle, heading toward him.
A creature that lived in this hollow, under the leaves like a sea serpent
under the waves. A terrestrial octopus that will come near me and throw a
tentacle up onto the shore and drag me down under the leaves and eat me,
casting only my indigestible head up onto the center pedestal, where it would
eventually lure some other wanderer to step off into the pit to be devoured in
The churning under the leaves came closer. In the battle between
Vanya's curiosity and his morbid imagination, the imagination finally won. He
turned and ran, no longer bounding over the forest floor, but trying to dig in
and put on speed. Of course this meant that his feet kept losing purchase as
leaves slipped under them, and he fell several times until he was covered with
leafmould and dirt, with bits of old leaves in his hair.
Where was the road? Was the creature from the pit following him
through the forest? He was lost, it would turn to night and the monster would
find him by his smell and devour him slowly, from the feet up ...
There was the road. Not that far, really. Or he had run faster and longer
than he thought. On the familiar road, with the afternoon sun still shining on
him, he felt safer. He jogged along, then walked the last bit to Cousin Marek's
Vanya never got a chance to tell about his adventure. Mother took one
look at him and ordered him to bathe immediately, they'd been searching high
and low for him, there was almost no time at all to get ready, where had he
been? The visas had come through suddenly, the flight would leave in two
days, they had to drive tonight to get to the train station so they could get to
Kiev in time to catch the airplane to Austria.
Eventually, when they had time to relax a little, sitting on the plane as it
flew to Vienna, Vanya didn't bother to tell them about his childish scare in the
woods. What would it matter? He'd never see those woods again. Once you
left Russia there was no going back. Even if you had left a mystery behind you
in the ancient forest. It would just have to live on in his memory, a question
never to be answered. Or, more likely, the memory of a childish scare that he
had worked himself into because he always imagined such dramatic things.
By the time the plane landed in Vienna and the reporters flashed their
lightbulbs and pointed TV cameras at them and the officials inspected their
visas and various people descended on them to insist that his parents go to
Israel as they promised or to inform them that they had the right to do
whatever they wanted, now that they were in the free world -- by this point,
Vanya had persuaded himself that there was never a human face in the
clearing, the pit was not as deep as he imagined, and the churning of the
leaves had been the wind or perhaps a rabbit burrowing its way through. No
peril. No murder. No mystery. Nothing to wonder about.
No reason for it to keep cropping up in his dreams, haunting his
childhood and adolescence. But dreams don't come from reason. And even as
he told himself that nothing had happened in the woods that day, he knew that
something had happened, and now he would never know what the clearing
was, or what might have happened had he stayed.
Copyright © 1999 Orson Scott Card