New Voices: “Treasure” by Aharon Levy

February 26, 2024

“In the Armana village on the Green Inlet lived a chief’s daughter who had always been famous for her strong will.” Aharon Levy’s “Treasure,” invokes oral storytelling traditions and uses the narrative of one mother’s grief to foretell a communal tragedy, as the colonizers—the “Sick Men”—approach. We are so proud to feature Levy’s story in New Voices.


The Armana made the world.

That’s the story the Armana tell, anyway. The First Man appeared, then The First Woman. They had children, and died, and from their graves grew the trees that became the forest that covered a world filled with their descendants: something, everything, from nothing. When an Armana boy is born, a great red tree is planted as a reminder.

Other People have their own stories; each created the world in their own ways.

The Palex say the first man cast a net upwards and caught five stars, which he pulled into the bottomless ocean. They offered him land to stand on if he released them. He loosed the net, but kept one star trapped to ensure the promise was honored. When a Palex son is born, his parents throw a rope into the sea at night, to recall the bargain.

The Tilo say the first man started a fire to frighten the first woman, a witch who lived in darkness. The new light banished her and called everything else into being. When a son is born, they keep tall flames burning for a week and then bury their ashes in a secret place, so that the world may go on.

The Lotti say the first man built a longhouse and opened its north and west doors. The wind between the two carried in all the things that hadn’t yet existed and spread them over the world. When a son is born, they cut a new door, just as they seal up a door after death.

And so forth. Some customs are known by all, some are kept hidden.

There are also customs for daughters. Or, rather, there were. Now, no one does any of this; there is no one to do it.

In the Armana village on the Green Inlet lived a chief’s daughter who had always been famous for her strong will. When she was born, her crying drove everyone but her mother from the longhouse. She refused to be swaddled, taught herself to walk and run without coaxing, cut her own braid off with an axe before her fifth-birthday ceremony. When she was four, she followed a crow to its high nest in the deep forest when it stole her doll, and returned to the village after dark covered in cuts and tree-sap, the torn toy in her hands.

She married a whale-hunter who spent most of his time on the water, who on land never said more than he had to and sometimes not even that. The village at first was surprised that each took the other, but then decided that the pair was balanced. They’d assumed neither would marry.

They had three sons in three seasons. As soon as the oldest learned to walk, he went to the inlet’s shore to watch for his father’s return, the greatest event of any day it happened. As soon as he could, he’d steal his brother from his hearthside crib and carry him to wait there too, and when the youngest was born the two boys would take him together.

Their mother plucked the best bits of meat from every stew and pushed them into her children’s mouths; they’d chew or spit these out as they wished. She combed their heads every morning with oil, and at the end of each day they returned with hair matted and filthy. She sang them the songs she somehow recalled from her own childhood, though she hadn’t liked to sing them then. The boys preferred to make up rude tunes of their own, about fishers stealing babies and village dogs shitting in the dust.

It seemed to her that each day they grew stronger, taller, and stranger to her. She’d once known their bodies entirely, but soon, when she put her hand on a son’s face or the hot back of his head, he’d shake it off. She felt toward them as she’d felt for her doll, a ferocious possessive desire that could drive her to danger. And so, sometimes, she’d put her hand back, keeping the child in place, because despite all they’d grown she was still bigger and stronger. She’d say, “What are you watching for when you go down to the water? Your father will come back or not. Watching won’t bring him.”

The son would then thrust out his lips and belly, put his hands on his hips and cock his head, her questions something he was prepared to endure but not to answer.

“You think he’ll bring you a present? What would he find, out on the water? A spear-chucker? A bone-whistle? Where? How? The sea doesn’t give up bones to carve a whistle out of. The sea doesn’t give up anything. I’m here. I give you everything.”

The child would narrow his eyes as if sarcasm were an unknown low language, and she’d feel a prick of guilt no worse than a pebble’s tap under a toe. She loved her husband too, waited for him too. But this love was like a clear bright sliver of moon, when what she felt for her sons was the whole of the sky.

After many years, when her middle son had moved to his new bride’s longhouse and her older had carved his first crude boat, she realized she was pregnant again. She resolved to love this fourth child better than those who already breathed. They belonged to the world and always had; this one would be hers entirely.

Her husband was quietly happy at the news. Some others in the village were quietly jealous that the woman’s fortune had continued. Her sons were curious for a few days, then grew bored: what interest was there for them in something they couldn’t see?

Over the last weeks of her pregnancy, she grew ill. The shaman came and set small stones on her belly, noted the direction in which they fell, chanted as he filled the longhouse with sage smoke. He asked her questions about what she saw in her fever-visions, and found her replies uninteresting.

A cousin who’d lost all three of her children sat with her in the days before the birth. This cousin had admired the woman since they were children together in the same longhouse, had imagined herself scaling trees and scaring away dogs as the woman had as a girl, later imagined three strong living boys of her own—though her children had been daughters—her back straight and strong. Now she was happy at the chance to offer whatever strength she could, proud that the woman permitted her to do so.

The boy was sickly, small and weak. His mother pushed him constantly to her breast, but he rarely drank. Her husband’s brother’s wife came and sat with her, sweeping the longhouse and mashing pine nuts into a paste for her. “Pour cold seawater on him. Then he’ll wake up and eat. I did that with my first, and you know how strong he is now.” She had a triumphant smile, pleased that she knew something the woman didn’t, that she was better at something. She’d never liked her, the way she walked through the village without ever stopping to gossip, how she clutched at her sons when they were young, as if they were too good for anyone but her.

Other mothers offered advice on poultices, foods, chants and prayers. They did this from kindness or duty or because they too wanted to show the woman that they thought things had changed, she wasn’t so separate after all. She stopped herself from pushing them away as she wanted; she was too tired, so desperate for her son that she’d listen to even the most foolish advice. None of it helped.

One day, when the painful pressure in her breasts became too much, she strapped the boy to her back and carried him to the edge of the woods, where his tree had been planted. His sapling was sickly too, bent to the side, yellow-leafed and tiny. She set him down, removed her wrap and lay face down, pressing herself into the wet soil, begging as she never had. The earth seemed to hear her whispers, and to open up for her, pulling the milk from her breasts while her child lay in silence. She stood, drained, cleaned herself and put the uncomplaining child to her chest, where he drank the few drops of milk that were left.

After that, she returned often to the woods. She offered her breast first to the baby and then to the earth, which began to have a smell that drew confused animals. It seemed to her the boy always drank something at the end, and on her way back, she sang to her unhappy baby, her pretty voice filling the woods while the child, like his father, kept quiet.

After a few months he died. It is a mother’s job to cut down the tree when a boy doesn’t reach his first haircut. This severs the tie between worlds and allows his spirit to remain in the next one, just as her cutting the umbilical cord ushers her children into their lives. But she was unwilling to yield him and chopped another sapling instead. She told no one, not even her cousin, who slept by her side for weeks.

Every day the woman visited the flat stone that marked her son’s body and then the tree she’d planted. She no longer sank into the earth, and her milk dried up. But the tree had already drawn its nourishment; it straightened and spread, sending itself up to the sky and down into soil.

Her mourning months ended but she continued to wear the hair-bracelet on her wrist and to stare into the fire each night. Her sons talked to each other about this but they were busy with their lives—the oldest on his boats, the middle carving wood and assisting the shaman, the last tilling the soil and gathering in the forest—and so could ignore her. Her husband had no more or fewer words now than he ever had. The tree grew quickly.

On the first anniversary of his death, her youngest son came to her. He spoke urgently, more forceful than he had been when alive. But he was just a baby still, and she didn’t understand what he said. She listened to him all night in her bed, keeping silent so that she would miss none of his incomprehensible speech.

Soon after, there was a new thing. A party that had gone far north to hunt seals returned with a story about Sick Men in an enormous canoe, whose disease killed everyone it touched, though they themselves never died. The inlet village’s men talked late into the night about what to do. Some said they should send a party to kill these strangers, others that this was a trick by the northern villagers, who had shown for generations that they couldn’t be trusted. A few thought this boat and its crew were just a product of boredom or madness, brought on by the hunters’ many days in seas and wastelands beyond the proper world.

The woman rarely paid attention to the village’s discussions, but now she sat on a stump at the edge of the firelight and leaned forward, listening. Was this her son again, she wondered, sending her another message?

The council couldn’t agree, and decided to wait for further news. For days the village’s children scanned the horizon for a strange canoe, then grew tired of this new game and forgot about it. At the next meeting of village men, the woman stayed away.

Her son appeared to her again, a two-year-old. He had words now, and said to her, again and again, “Go now, must go.” She listened, encouraging and proud, though to anyone watching her sleep she would have seemed agitated, clutching at the sealskin her husband had scraped for her.

He didn’t touch her well past the end of the mourning period, but one night her husband reached for her. Instead of turning toward him as she usually did, or turning away as she might, she remained where she was in their bed and began laughing, loudly enough for those outside to hear. “What is it you want to give me now?” she said. “You’ve given me so much already.”

At this, he turned away, as he never had.

He landed a whale and was away for three weeks, carving and salting the meat on a far island with his helpers. The woman spent hours each day walking to the tree by varying indirect routes, so that her destination couldn’t be guessed. Her sons’ wives began to whisper that she’d stopped doing the village’s work, though she was still strong. They had their own children now; they dreamed of their own lazy childhoods, running through the woods to the river where it narrowed.

When he appeared to her next, her youngest son knew the word “chop,” which he repeated in a sing-song. “Chop me down, chop me down,” he sang, and the woman woke from her vision with a face covered in tears and a rage sharp as flint in her throat.

Her husband landed another whale and there was a huge feast that left the village happy and fattened. During the toasts one of the seal-hunters offered his gratitude for the Sick Men’s absence. Others clapped and cheered that the strange threat had returned to wherever it had come from, if it had existed at all. The woman sat on a high stump far back from the fire, still and shadowed so that it was impossible to tell whether she was listening. At the feast’s start, her husband had brought her a broad leaf covered in good fat meat of the kind she’d forced on her sons when they were young. She took the leaf, but later fed the meat to the fire. Only a few villagers saw this, but soon they all knew about it.

Her grandchildren, whom her husband doted on in his silent way, began to falter. One broke an arm; another’s eyes suddenly pointed in different directions. They grew, but only a little; they cried, but with weak voices. Their mothers began to complain about an unnamed old woman with worrisome habits, who might bring the damp air of the forest into the places people live. Not much was made of this; in the village women often resented their mothers-in-law. And she wasn’t bossy or scolding, didn’t compare them to herself or to her ancestors, mostly ignored them and their children. What they disliked, they agreed among themselves, was how different from an ordinary problem she was.

The cousin reported all this. “I can tell them to be quiet,” she said, eager to be of use. “I can remind them what happens to gossips in the next world.” The woman waved this away. Her grandchildren improved anyway, slowly.

She awaited her dead son’s reappearance but also began to feel dread at it; he grew older each time she saw him, repeating “chop me down, let me go,” all night. In her dreams, he had the long lashes of her family and the broad forehead of her husband’s. “How beautiful you’ve grown,” she’d say, and he’d pout, like any boy embarrassed by beauty, willing to admit only the wish for strength. She longed to touch him, but wouldn’t in case her hands went through him or settled onto the cold flesh of the world of the dead. “Chop me down, let me go.” He looked at her as though she didn’t understand. Like any boy, he couldn’t grasp someone knowing his will and not surrendering to it.

She understood him perfectly; he wasn’t so complicated. He was hers, though, and she refused to send him on. His tree grew as tall as three men, four.

Her husband came in his canoe to a settlement he knew but couldn’t at first recognize. There were no fires and the longboats had been left in the water and were rotted to little more than wormy logs. In each longhouse sat piles of stretched-dry skin, bones and hair; not one person had been properly buried. He returned to the village and spoke about this, more words than anyone had ever heard from him. Something had cursed this place, the villagers decided; they agreed never to visit it again.

He landed another whale, but this one was sick. Those who ate the first meat lay on the beach, vomiting. Two died, and the rest were kept away for thirty days until they were clean again. His daughters-in-law brought soup to the shunned men’s enclosure, carried away buckets of waste. Their complaints grew louder then. The woman did nothing, just as she’d done nothing when their children were afflicted, though they’d been glad then for her staying away.

Her husband returned to the water. He saw more ghost villages, and never approached them. The woman began to imagine she heard the voice of her child, distant and vague, even when she was awake. She’d stop, wherever she was, to listen, would nod and shake her head. Men in the village began to comment on her new beauty, a shining fullness to her face as if she were somehow pregnant again, an attractiveness that also seemed repulsive to some. Her sons went to her; their wives, for whom they’d long had more affection and fear than for their mother, told them to. They asked what was wrong, what they could do for her.

She laughed. “What should children do for a parent? Nothing, it’s only we who should do for you.”

They looked nervously around, seeming then not so different from the small boys who’d pouted at her. The oldest said, “I gave father a spear last month. I helped him carve a new rudder.”

She clucked. “Oh, that’s your father. You can give him things. But a good mother is one who has nothing of her own, and needs nothing. Don’t your wives agree?”

Instead of answering, the middle son said, “And you don’t weave nets any more. You didn’t bring the men water when they were sick.”

“The village has plenty of nets already.” She bent and splashed her hand into a puddle. “There’s water everywhere.”

The youngest said, “You walk around as if you’ve lost something.”

“What could I have lost?”

They shrugged; the memory of their youngest brother had vanished from their minds. Even if they had recalled him, he wouldn’t be an explanation for anything. They went back to their homes and declared that they’d tried.

At the five-year gathering, torches that had once gone to the horizon ended at a dark line, as if the forest had advanced. There were not so many People as there had once been; many had seen the dead villages now. They spoke about those and the Sick Men in whispers, eyes cast to the side.

But there were still oysters and fish. There were berries and honey and nuts, firewood and mushrooms, old roots and the last of the whale meat and the best carvings each village had brought to show off. There were drums and dances, as always, and if there were fewer People now, there were still more together than any of them had seen for five years. The gathering disbanded with old disputes resolved and new ones begun, with some surprise marriages and a few fights which drew blood, all of it just as it always had been.

The woman stayed in the village, along with her oldest son’s wife, who’d cut her foot and couldn’t walk far. It was the twelfth anniversary of her youngest son’s death, and when he appeared to her he was tall and slim, a shadow of mustache above his lip. If he’d lived, his hair would have just been cut for the second time and his first tattoo inked. He bowed before her until his face touched the floor, said, “Mother, uproot me. I’m a man now. You know what men do.”

Before, he’d only made declarations and demands as if the sole problem were her understanding. But now his ghost-face rose to watch her, waiting for an answer. He’d grasped, at last, that they were separate, that his choice and hers could be different. She was saddened to see that even in the spirit world such a disappointment could find him. She shook her head and said, “No. I never will.”

He pressed his forehead again to the floor, begging, something he’d never done. “Please. Now I’m strong. Now I’m dangerous,” bragging as all her boys had, before they stopped caring enough even to brag to her.

“No, no, never.” Even if she had no more power over the world, no more desires, she still had this: her boy, hers alone.

Her daughter-in-law heard her speaking. She told her husband when he returned that night, and he told his brothers: their mother spoke to nothing, to no one, to things only she could see. They decided they’d speak to her again once they’d attended to more important things.

Two mornings later, the sickness began. An eight-year-old girl woke with red blotches on her face. By afternoon she lay feverish, and by night she was dead.

Her husband returned to sea and she returned to the tree, so tall now that even if she wanted to fell it she couldn’t do so alone. She called out to her son to speak to her; as usual, he didn’t answer. She’d long before stopped worrying about being seen, and so didn’t notice that this time some villagers, buzzing with rumors, had followed her. They watched from the underbrush, heard her speaking to nothing, saw that her skin was unmarked. On the way back to the village, some of them faltered. What could this be but a curse?

That night, those who were still well enough gathered in the village center and stood about in groups, discussing what to do about the woman as though they hadn’t already decided. Her cousin walked past them into the longhouse and said, “They’re out there.”

The woman shrugged. “They’re always out there.”

“They’re talking about you.”

“When have I ever cared what they talk about?”

“Sister, you should tell them you’re not a witch.”

“I have nothing to tell them.”

Outside, a hand struck the wall, then another. Someone called out, “Come out,” and another voice said, “All but one of you can come out.” Then there were more hands beating, more people crying out, “My child! Our children!”

Two other families lived in the longhouse, also her cousins. One picked up what they could and left. The other was already outside, waiting.

“Please,” said her cousin, her great friend, grabbing the woman’s feet. “Just tell them.” But then she stood and left, glad in that moment that she wasn’t bolder.

Once she came out, the villagers began piling logs at the doorways. One of them started to beat a drum, to drown the screams and curses they expected.

But the woman kept silent. She thought, as she had not for a long time, that her older sons had disappointed her. Even now, they hadn’t come to argue with her fruitlessly. “They’re with their wives,” she said, and nodded in satisfaction at their satisfaction. She didn’t know that two of them lay in their longhouses, too sick to move, and the third was already dead of fever.

In her neighbors’ moans about sickness, their yells that she’d cursed them, she heard her son, showing his strength, keeping his word. How could she be anything but proud?

Someone lit the first log, which lit the others. Fire climbed the walls, from the outside and then from within, adding its own voice. A second and third drum joined the first, lost step with each other, became chaotic as the flames.

So the Tilo were right after all, thought the woman, and laughed. She closed her eyes and saw a great tree grow above the village, shivering in wind, branches sweeping everything away, smacking the inlet to send waves into the ocean to smash her husband’s boat. She saw the next world open up, and was ready at last to let her most precious son go on to it, now that she could go with him.

From the woods, silent and outnumbered eyes watched all this, uncertain of what they saw, incurious and patient. Two mornings after, the Europeans—four Dutch, two Norwegians, a German, an Englishman and a Finn, who could barely speak to one another and had anyway not been on speaking terms for months—walked out of the towering forest that filled them with dread no matter how long they spent in it. They entered the silent dead village to look for gold, which in all their years of searching they still had not found.

Aharon Levy is a stock speculator whose fiction and essays have appeared in many publications. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and is completing a novel.


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