Welcome to my tree home. You can leave your walking stick propped there against the trunk. Go ahead and take off your flip-flops; it’s easier to scramble up if your feet are bare. Watch out for those nails; if you’re not careful they’ll tear a hole in your clothes. You can sit here next to me, or if you’re not scared, you can climb up to that Y-shaped branch. It’s a bit high, I know, but you get a great view up there. You’ll be able to see everything.
That building over there to the left? That’s the landlord’s garage. Celia got stung by a flying black insect when she was pushing her way through those bushes at the entrance. You’ll meet Celia later. Anyway, for now it’s nice to just sit and look at the leaves. I like those rowboat-shaped ones; when they drift down it’s like they’re sailing away on an ocean of air. Oh, of course, help yourself—most of the mangos should be ripe by now. But just so you know, biting into unpeeled mangos makes your lips burn. If you like, you can always climb back down and eat those squishy overripe ones there in the dirt. It seems to be safe, for now.
I’ll bet you’re thinking that my tree home isn’t that fancy, right? I haven’t even made a nest to sleep in yet, like the ones you’ve probably seen woven out of palm fronds or plastic bags. But for me, this has been doing just fine.
Not everyone’s so lucky to have a tree home. That old couple, what were their names: Willy and Maria. They were stuck climbing those rusty monkey bars. Lord, how they would shout on and on about how numb their legs got, sitting for hours on that sharp metal. Then there was that young kid in the army boots, Roberto. He only ever climbed buildings: the house, the garage, the shed. Veronica, now she just walked straight through the garage door and climbed one of the rickety metal tables, the ones covered in bags of white powder, and lay down on top of them like they were fancy pillows propping her up.
You sure are lucky to be here with me right now, and not all by yourself.
I don’t usually climb much higher than this, no. I’m glad you asked—the branches get pretty thin up there. I prefer not to take any chances. Besides, it’s nice right here, isn’t it? We have a great view of that pretty bush by the papaya tree, the one with the heavy white flowers. You can only see the river behind the fence if you stand, but listen closely and you’ll hear the water tumbling over the rocks. The river should be clean by now—when Celia and I first got here, the water was filled with shredded white manila folders, dancing crazily around. Laura was there too, sitting in the mud and thrusting her arms in and out of the water, over and over again like she couldn’t stop herself. Celia asked her if she was looking for something she’d dropped, but she didn’t answer, and when she pulled her hands out we saw that they were filled with streams of wet unwound black video tape, heavy and dripping.
If you think you can stand up on this branch without falling, you’ll be able to see the brick wall with the shards of glass on top, surrounding the landlord’s property. You’ll see the water fountains, the Cupid and angel statues with their chipped wings, and the empty cages where he used to keep his animals: the peacocks and the monkeys, the lion and the rabbits. You look tall enough; you might even be able to see into the garage, see the bags of white powder resting in neat rows on the metal tables, the empty gasoline barrels and stacks of suitcases. Who knows, you might even be able to see the swimming pool. It’s more of a concrete hole filled with leaves by now, but sometimes I close my eyes and think about what it must have been like once, the water so clean and blue it could hold a perfect reflection.
The landlord? Sure, you can ask about him. I’m not sure—he might have gotten a flight out of here to Europe or Australia, back before things got bad. Or maybe one of the paramilitary groups got him and now he’s tucked away in the house somewhere, spread out on his big white bed with a machete sticking out of his chest.
Lonely? Why would you want to ask about that?
Well. I guess it was nice when I could see Willy and Maria over there, swinging their legs back and forth, and I could hear Willy shouting out their children’s names while Maria just screamed nonsense. Whenever I felt like it, I could just stand on this here branch and see Laura by the river with her arms in the water, and Veronica lying down in the garage, a red trickle of blood hanging from her nostril like a fancy jewel, and the sunlight glinting off Roberto’s rifle, where he left it on the drainpipe.
Let me tell you something: sometimes I like to lean over this branch right here and picture Celia leaning against the trunk, where she first sat down with her hands pressing against her insect bite. She sat like that without moving for hours, you know, before she finally fell over sideways, and the blood that leaked out of the hole in her neck stayed in the dirt for days.
You sure do ask a lot of questions, don’t you? You remind me of someone I used to know—I can’t remember who just now.
Make sure you watch the sunset. I love how it looks when you tilt your head back and watch it through the leaves: slicing through the branches, bloodying the sky. The colours make me think of the grapefruits Celia and I used to pick on the farm back up on the mountain, by the village and the well. You can’t ask about the well. The well is of no concern to you. But anyway, back then I still had my machete to dig up yucca roots. Boy, I would sweat getting them out the ground, but it was worth it. Those yucca roots are so heavy, you feel like you’re carrying around the arms and legs you cut off someone’s body. At sunset we’d walk through the underbrush to sit by the stream and listen to the hum of the insects as they shed their skins. The sunshine, the grapefruits, Celia’s smile under her hat—let me tell you, that was all I needed to be happy.
That may have been the happiest I’ve ever been, actually.
You’re being pretty smart right now, sticking so close. I mean, just think about the world for a minute and the state it’s in. Really think about it. This world’s gone to the dogs, and I don’t mean the mangy packs that wander in here from time to time, poking their noses into the ashes of the abandoned barbecue pit and chewing on burnt pieces of wood. I mean that it’s a real mess out there. Sometimes I tell myself that there’s a meanness in this world that I have to get away from, nothing but meanness, but when I look at the bloody fingerprints on my pants that haven’t faded, that’s what tells me that it isn’t something in the world, it’s something in me.
The children will be here soon enough. They’re the only ones who still come by here, you know. Everybody else left long ago: Willy and Maria with the ropes around their necks, Veronica with the jewel in her nostril, Laura with the stones in her shirt, Roberto—you know, I don’t want to talk about Roberto.
It’s getting darker now; the sun is almost gone. Mind yourself in front of the children; keep your voice down, you don’t want to alarm them. Listen, here they come with their bedsheets and wooden carts and crusty nostril rims. Look how they settle down so nice and quietly, sitting cross-legged in the dirt, leaning against the barbecue pit. They’re so good at tying the knots on their plastic bags to keep the ants and wasps out of their mangos. The way they’re craning their necks back and turning their faces up—don’t they make you feel like the tree is a fire and they’re all sitting round it, just waiting for us to tell them a story?
You can’t ask about the well. I said that already.
I don’t know. The one thing I’ll say about it is that maybe years later somebody will wander back up there—assuming that people are still left, of course, and we’re not all skulls and bones lying inside of houses with machetes sticking out of our chests. Maybe they’ll make it to the farm and find all my grapefruits, now huge and swollen and the size of coconuts, yucca and ferns growing beneath the house floorboards. If they can find the farm, they can find the red dirt road, and if they find the red dirt road they can find the well. Maybe they’ll walk up to it and lean over, the crumbly brick pressing against their stomachs, and look deep down inside. I bet you anything they’ll say that the bones belong to dogs, the smallest bones to rats. They’ll tell each other that the ragged remains of clothing were dumped there, the heart-shaped earrings and boots with silver spurs accidentally lost.
It didn’t happen, you see. They didn’t push them in one at a time. We weren’t there on the hillside, watching behind a tree. We hadn’t decided to walk to the village that day. No, we stayed up there on the farm by the river with the humming insects. It never happened. We never left. We didn’t see how they lined everyone up outside the church or hear them questioning everybody about the guns that weren’t there and that nobody knew about. We didn’t see the camouflage pants or red armbands, the white lace underpants with pink ribbons trampled in the dirt. We didn’t see the baby and how they threw it in—that was the very first one they did, the baby. We didn’t see the women and the pregnant and the old. I’ve never heard broken limbs getting crushed into mouths that are still open and screaming. I don’t know what it’s like to finally turn and run, smoke in our eyes and the burning village at our backs.
I’m sorry to disappoint you. You must have me confused me with someone else.
But don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten—I did say you would be meeting her. Of course I didn’t just leave her slumped against the trunk. There’s a bush of flowers she liked, the white ones by the papaya tree. I wiped the machete off after digging the hole, and when I was finished with Roberto I threw it over the fence into the river. Then I climbed up here.
That was the first time I climbed. I haven’t been back down since.
The sun’s gone now, but if you wait just a bit longer you’ll see the moon starting to peek over the glass shards on the wall. Actually, it might still be light enough for us to see our reflections, burning in the house windows. Look over there, can you see? That’s you. And there’s me, waving back.