The Trees

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February 24, 2010

The United States looms large in the Israeli consciousness, almost as large as Israel appears in the American consciousness. Author Yuval Yavneh’s graceful short story, “The Trees,” relates the encounter between two Israeli innocents abroad and their American co-worker. Their wry discussions illuminate the gaps in their experience, yet the shared melancholy of their job allows for an epiphany about their fundamental human connectedness. –Adam Rovner, Hebrew translations editor

The Trees

“What did you bring today?” Abdul asked, as we sat down for our lunch break.

“I brought a salad and a hard-boiled egg and a sandwich with tahina.”

“Tahina?” said Abdul. “I never ate tahina. How is it?”

“I like it,” I said. “You can taste it if you want.”

“No thanks, I have my own food.”

“What, French fries and oranges again?”

Abdul nodded. We sat silently while above us the branches of the tree we were working on – that is, the ones that were still left – rustled in the wind.

Meanwhile, Reuven had come down from the tree. Reuven works in the tree and Abdul and I help him from below. We tie the tools that he needs to a rope, load the branches that he cuts down into the pickup truck, saw the thick branches and pile the logs along the sidewalk.

“There’s a lot of work on this tree,” said Reuven. “I hope we’ll finish today.”

“What did you bring today?” asked Abdul.

“I brought brown rice and olives and whole-wheat pita and hummus.”

Abdul looked at him with astonishment. “I never had brown rice. How is it?”

“It’s very healthy,” said Reuven. “Want some?”

“No thanks,” said Abdul, who began peeling an orange.

“This is a beautiful tree,” said Reuven. “A big one, the kind you get into working on, and become immersed in and forget there’s a world outside.”

“Isn’t it kind of a shame to take down such a beautiful tree?” I ask.

“That’s my job,” says Reuven, “The landlord wants to cut down the tree and I do the work.”

Abdul finished peeling his orange and popped a segment into his mouth.

“Are you married?” he asked me..


“Do you have kids?”

“No,” I answered.

“I have two kids,” said Abdul. “But I’m divorced. Been divorced three times.”

“How old are you?”


Afterwards, when we got back to work, Abdul said to me “I’m not stupid, you know. If I was stupid, I wouldn’t have made it to twenty-four.”

Reuven complains that Abdul is lazy and doesn’t take initiative, but I know he’s just saving his strength, like he learned on the streets, because you never know when you’re going to need it.


This is how we work–Reuven ties the rope to the branch, and Abdul and I pull the rope, which passes through a support point on the tree, from the bottom, and then Reuven saws the branch using the chainsaw and we slowly lower the cut branch to the grass. The grass around the tree is covered with branches and leaves and sawdust; the tree has already lost half its broad and beautiful canopy, and now Reuven works on the other side.

Every time that Reuven turns off the chain saw, Abdul reminds me to take off my earmuffs.

“You cold?” he laughs. “I learned this from the animals,” he continues. “I saw a T.V. show about how animals get along in the heat and cold. They showed a fox who lives on the North Pole and he has little hairy ears, and a fox that lives in the desert who has big, thin ears, so I learned that you should never cover your ears when it’s warm out.”

It’s strange work, Reuven’s job. On the one hand, he loves trees, but here he is, of all people, cutting them down. He doesn’t always cut them down–in most cases, people ask him to thin a tree out, and then he works on it like a devoted barber and takes down all the dry branches and unnecessary limbs, and then the tree is suddenly revealed in all its beauty, like a person after a good haircut. But sometimes, like today, he has to take down the whole tree. Why? Because that’s what the landlord wants. And why? Maybe the tree obscures the sun. Maybe the landlord is sick of the autumn leaves falling onto the grass? Maybe the branches are a hazard for the electric wires? Or maybe he just wants to demonstrate control over his property, that he can do whatever he wants on his land, and the tree is his property because the tree is part of the yard, and the yard is part of the house, and he owns the house. And Reuven? Reuven came and gave an estimate after carefully assessing the thickness of the trunk and the height of the tree and its width and its surrounding. “That’ll cost you a thousand dollars,” Reuven told the landlord. So it is not just some oak–it’s a thousand-dollar oak, and in the morning Reuven climbed up and was intoxicated by its broad canopy and its green shade, and afterwards he started to cut it; and now it’s noon and his arm is still outstretched.

Reuven doesn’t need our help with the rope any more because now he’s cutting smaller branches, which he throws to the ground. Abdul and I load them onto the pickup, Abdul stands on the bed and I hand him the branches and he places them one by one in an orderly pile. From time to time he stomps on the branches to squeeze in as many as possible. I note his movements–not one is superfluous, no movement is too hasty; he invests the exact amount of energy required. Abdul tells me about a movie he saw on TV, a collection of authentic clips of people being attacked by animals. Abdul described in great detail how he saw a man being devoured by a lion in one of the African reserves. “And his friend videotaped everything,” he said to me. He told me about the woman who fed a bear in the zoo which caught her though the bars and wouldn’t let her go, and about the man who was attacked by frenzied wild bees and almost died.

“But how did people videotape all that,” I protested. “How could they stand aside and videotape? Why didn’t they help the people being attacked?”

“Maybe they couldn’t help,” said Abdul indifferently. “And if they couldn’t help, then why shouldn’t they videotape it?”

Abdul signals to me not to hand him any more branches. He turns on the chainsaw and cuts through the pile of branches. When he turns off the saw he takes off his earmuffs right away, but I forget to remove mine, or maybe I remember but refuse to take them off as a protest against the ways of nature. Only when Abdul signals to me with a smile do I remove them.

I look at the tightly packed pile of branches; there is defeat in them, an acceptance of fate, an unconditional surrender. How is it that these branches, which just this morning were a magnificent green canopy, now lie crushed and broken, wallowing in sawdust and in their own plucked leaves, a sudden plunge from the highest rooftop into the deepest pit, from heaven to earth, from the chirping of birds to the silence of the worms, from crisp air to rot. I look up–not much is left of the tree’s canopy. Most of the branches have already been cut down, and only the trunk remains along with a few thick branches from which Reuven cuts pieces that make a dull thud when they land.

I look up and suddenly don’t understand how in place of green branches there is now only blue void, how the wonderful treetop is lost, how it was and is no longer. I don’t understand where all the leaves rustling in the wind are, and where the long branches that once stretched out like hands disappeared to, or what became of the lofty, treeish crown that spread a panorama between its branches. That is, I know exactly what happened to the tree. I can go over the various stages of the job. I can reconstruct the path of each branch from tree to pickup, but that doesn’t explain the disappearance of being and its turning into nothingness.

Reuven moves about the tree as if possessed, perhaps so as not to think about its destruction, like a murderer who absorbs himself in the labor of killing in order not to think about the death of his victims. Abdul stands atop the pile of branches on the pickup while his eyes follow a young woman walking down the sidewalk. Reuven told me that Abdul met his previous two wives at the mosque, and that neither marriage lasted more than a few months. Abdul converted to Islam five years ago. He didn’t tell me what his name was before, and I don’t ask. He says he wants to make a pilgrimmage to Mecca to fulfill the religious precept of the Hajj. And he wants to save money to travel so he can see everythihng–Europe, China, India, Africa.

Abdul and I collect the logs scattered on the grass and pile them along the sidewalk. All that’s left of the tree is the trunk and three central branches. Soon Reuven will be able to take the big chain saw and cut down the trunk.

The sawdust coast our heads, penetrates our shirts, and chokes us. It seems that the sawdust is the physical embodiment of the same death-filled atmosphere that enshrouds us in the leap from being to nothingness. The same atmosphere that envelopes us when love fades, or when a happy period passes and we know that it will never return, or when a house we have known since childhood is destroyed. The same atmosphere that sticks to our hair and gets beneath our shirts and chokes off our breath. In the neighboring yard children stand and watch Reuven with great interest. You can always find children wherever a building is being destroyed, or a pit or ditch is being dug, or a tree is being cut down, or electricity poles are being erected. Children are drawn to being and to nothingness, to that which is coming into being and that which is passing out of existence, to that which is being built and that which is being destroyed.


“That’s it,” Abdul flashes me a broad, white-toothed smile. “We’re going to take down the trunk.”

I lift my head and see Reuven sliding down the rope, his long face dripping with sweat and a strange look in his eyes. Abdul refuels the big saw with precise movements, pouring the fuel and oil into the guts of the saw, and tightening the caps to just the right degree.

Reuven grips the big saw and examines the trunk closely. He explains that he can determine exactly where the trunk will fall based on the angle of the cut. We move back and pull the rope tied to the upper part of what remains of the tree. Reuven saws horizontally deep into the tree and then makes an additional diagonal cut. The two cuts meet and Reuven removes a wedge of the trunk and tosses it to the grass; an ugly cut gapes in the tree like a toothless mouth. Reuven moves to the other side and inserts the blade toward the meeting of the two cuts he has just made. “Pull,” he shouts. Abdul’s muscles bulge, the trunk begins to totter, sawdust flies from the cut and sticks to our sweaty faces, choking us with every breath. “Pull,” Reuven hollers, sawing ruthlessly into the heart of the trunk. We pull with all our might, and the trunk bends as if accepting its fate. Reuven saws one centimeter deeper and then pulls back. The trunk falls toward us. Abdul lets out a shriek and it lands with a dull thud on the grass.

The ground shakes, a breeze carries leaves and sawdust. Reuven hurries to the defeated trunk and begins cutting it into short logs, as if he fears the tree might arise and reattach itself to the stump, which remains in the ground. Abdul also lunges upon the humiliated tree and attacks it with the other saw. The sight reminds me of how African hunters kill an elephant, how they lunge upon it and bisect its abdomen with axes, scoop out the innards with their hands and eat the live meat, dripping with blood.

I take the rake and gather the leaves and little bits of branches in the area where the tree was brought down. I can’t take my eyes off the stump–the empty column of sky that rises above it was this morning occupied by a sturdy trunk and wide branches and crown; the absence is so harsh, the void so striking.

“They get rid of the stump,” Reuven says to me, “using a special saw.”

That’s someone else’s job–to get rid of stumps, and someone will come here, apparently in the next few days. Why get rid of the stump? Why all the trouble? Who does it bother? One could set flowerpots on it, sit upon it, turn it into an improvised picnic table. But if they leave the stump it will be a constant reminder of the tree that once towered high above, of the wide canopy, of the shade, of the rustle of the leaves, of the autumn leaves, of birdsong, of the tree that was, that isn’t, the tree that they cut down–why remember such things? It makes for an unpleasant feeling in the belly, like a chasm opening up, and anyway, work has to be completed to the very end, you have to finish the job. If you decide to remove a tree, then you’ve got to do it right, from treetop to roots.

Reuven coils the ropes and Abdul and I roll the logs to the pile near the edge of the sidewalk. Here’s the tree: this pile of logs is the tree, that pile of broken branches on the pickup is the tree. The logs will be burned in a fireplace, and the ashes will scatter over the earth as fertilizer, and the branches will be ground in the city dump, and will rot and also become fertilizer. This is how the tree will return to the earth, such is the life and death cycle of trees–a tree grows from fertile earth, a tree dies and falls, a tree rots and disintegrates, a new tree grows and is fed from the rot.

This tree wasn’t going to live forever. If they hadn’t cut it down now, it would have died in a few decades, it would have died upright, or it would have been consumed in a fire, or it would have collapsed under a burden of snow, or a storm would have knocked it down. We are not emissaries of the landlord but emissaries of the cycle of life, like heavy snow, like a windstorm, like fire, like time.


Reuven sweeps the sawdust and the broken branches and the leaves scattered about the sidewalk. He piles it all onto a blue plastic groundsheet, and afterward we help him load it onto the pickup. Reuven looks at the stump of the tree and at the grass, and afterward he passes his gaze over the sidewalk and the road.

“I think we’re done for the day,” he says.

We get into the pickup and drive off. Abdul tells Reuven that he was accepted to an SAT-prep course so that he can study and learn a profession in order to get ahead in life. “I want my own house,” says Abdul, “and a new car. Lots of black people made it, and so can I.”

And Reuven? Reuven drives with his gaze fixed on the road, his long, Mephistophelean face doesn’t twitch. What is he thinking about? Perhaps he remembers being up there in the treetop, in the wonderful shade, or perhaps he’s calculating the profit and loss of the day’s work. After we drop Abdul off, there’s a long silence. Reuven turns on the radio and flips through the stations nervously, as if he’s looking for something specific, as if he’s awaiting some sign that will arrive through the radio.

In the end he finds a jazz station, the golden sounds of trumpet and saxophone pour from the speakers into the cab, painting everything in gold. Golden is the steering wheel, golden is the dashboard display, golden is Reuven’s beard, golden are the seats, golden are the windows, golden are the broken branches, golden is the stump left behind. And time as well is golden, and golden time is not linear, and thus we drive on, with the live tree and the dead tree, and with the seed from which the tree grew and with the tree’s rot, with Reuven the child and Reuven the man, and with the forests which were here before the city, and with the forests which will return, and with the sound and with the silence that comes before and after the sound. And suddenly everything becomes clear and the entire cycle appears before our eyes: how melody comes from silence and returns to the silence, and how jazz developed from Abdul’s ancestors, and how it bubbles in the veins of cities, and how it yearns for the marrow of the trees, how the city was born from the forest and to the forest shall return and how everything comes and everything goes and everything revolves and returns, how melody is created through discovery of the world and how in melody the world is revealed, how the gold is born from blackness and how black is present in gold, how everything flows to everything and everything is reflected in everything, how Reuven the child is reflected in the face of Reuven the man, and how the gold of sound is reflected in the trumpet, how Africa is reflected in Abdul, and how the tree stump is reflected in the treetop and how time is reflected in the tree stump.

Suddenly the music stops and there’s a news flash. The announcer reports that a forest fire in Oregon burned more than one million trees. I look at Reuven’s face and I see it glowing, and his eyes look far away, beyond the road, beyond the street, beyond the city, from one end of the world to the other.


Yuval Yavneh was born in 1964 in Jerusalem. He has published three collections of short stories. “The Trees” is included in his prize-winning collection, American Stories (Carmel: 2002), which deals with Yavneh’s encounter with American culture and American Jewry.

Jessica Bonn translated this story for Yuval Yavneh as a surprise birthday present.

The author would like to thank the students of Lisa Katz’s translation course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s English Department for their comments.

Zeek’s Hebrew translations are made possible by a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.

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