Nagoya Writes

January 30, 2008

The Tree is Their Home by Mike Onofrey

Filed under: Issue: 2000,Onofrey,Prose — usbengoshi @ 5:18 pm

They were on bicycles and they had just passed through a sandalwood forest. The hills were ending and they were coasting down a winding road with no traffic. They saw a plain which stretched to the horizon and on that flat earth there was a road which cut from the bottom of the hills to the dull, blue sky in the distance. A truck was coming their direction on that road, but aside from that vehicle there was nothing else except a lone tree and a white structure beyond the tree.

“Easy going from here on,” said Jimmy, a crooked grin on his face.

“Good,” Darlene replied, her brown hair flapping as her bicycle drifted down the looping road.

When they reached the bottom of the hill their legs began to work. It was warm, almost hot. Scrub vegetation clung to grayish dirt. Rough edged pebbles dotted the landscape. Jimmy and Darlene drifted off the road. They braced themselves and squinted their eyes. The truck sounded its horn and blew by.

Peddling side by side in the middle of the pavement there was only that one tree in their vision, and it was only that single green remark which grew as if it were measuring their progress, for everything else remained the same. The white building beyond the tree was a footnote, its size small verses the tree.

Their bicycles were saddled with canvas bags which hung from steel racks over the rear tires. The blue of the material had faded in the five months since the bags were fashioned in a tailor’s shop in Arnritsar, which was where this peddling had begun. And now their itinerary had them progressing through southern Karnataka on a route nearing Mysore, as if they were on course, as if each day’s situation weren’t enough to end this journey like a dream of its own accord.

The tree, still at considerable distance, began to distinguish itself with heavy limbs and broad leaves which created shadow on the earth and out onto the pavement of the road, the height of trucks a squaring of green over the roadway.

“If it were like this all the way to Ceylon, I wouldn’t mind it,” said Jimmy, and leaned back on his seat. “No hills, no wind, no rain, no traffic.”

“It won’t last,” Darlene said, her large, brown eyes rolling sideways toward him and then leaving him and coming back to straight ahead, coming back to the tree, and now there were hints of movement in the tree, a further reason to occupy the eye.

Jimmy leaned forward. What was in the tree should have been birds, but somehow it wasn’t.

“Do you think there are bats in that tree?” Jimmy questioned.

“Bats? Shit, I hope not. That one we saw before was horrible. The whole fucking tree was alive with those things. It was gross,” Darlene remarked, her sun-brown face taking on the sentiment.

On the ground near the huge trunk of the tree there appeared forms. “Those are monkeys, ” said Jimmy, his long legs pumping easily.

“Monkeys,” Darlene commented without surprise, for there had been monkeys at various places since Delhi.

The few monkeys on the ground were sitting, but then they rose up unto their hind legs and looked in the direction away from Jimmy and Darlene. A moment later, the monkeys sprang to the trunk of the tree and flew up its contour, and at the same time there sounded a dissonance of screaming. There was this sound and this vision, and in it the entire condition of the tree changed.

Two men appeared on bicycles beyond the tree and coming toward the tree. The men seemed to have sprung onto the road from out of nowhere. They were peddling with determination, their torsos leaning forward, the legs moving like jackhammers. The men reached the tree quickly and dismounted with their backs hunched over. The one man began to hurriedly untied a long bundled which was lashed at an angle to the rack of his bike.

The screams of the monkeys exploded, and those sounds fell onto the savanna-like expanse as a warning to a deaf world, for nothing stirred, nothing moved in that painting of tree, earth, and sky. It was panic serving itself, and what the ear registered the eye confirmed, for the monkeys were leaping and twisting and looking down, and then they were looking down from behind the tallest, yet thickest parts of the tree they could find, as if the tree had run out of itself in the sky with the monkeys searching for exit.

The one man was looking up and down the road. The other man had the bundle off the bike and was carefully unrolling burlap.

Jimmy stopped his bicycle. Darlene coasted past and looked back at him. She said, “What?”

“Wait a minute. Something ain’t right here,” Jimmy said.

Darlene stopped, her feet on the ground, her head turning back toward Jimmy and then back to the tree. “What’s wrong?” she said.

“I don’t know. Just wait a minute.” His gray eyes hadn’t left the man with the bundle. The screaming of the monkeys grew, its texture painful.

The man had unrolled one burlap sack and had draped it over the rack of his bicycle. A second burlap sack was coming away from the long bundle. This sack too was set on the bike rack. Then the man pulled a double-barreled shotgun out from a third sack. The third sack he put on top of the other two. He broke the breach of the rifle open and looked down the barrels. Then he inserted two shells which he had taken from a pocket in his shorts. He closed the rifle.

Jimmy and Darlene were about a hundred yards from the tree, a hundred yards from the men. Everything fell into slow motion – the men, the monkeys, the shrieking from the tree.

The man without the rifle was bent over. His vision went up and down the road. His eyes, his head, his delicate footsteps moved in stealth, and thus drew attention. In his eyesight Jimmy and Darlene were dismissed as if they were part of the countryside. The man had other concerns which had nothing to do with a couple of Westerners on bicycles who were out here without explanation, and in this, the scene sketched itself in a surrealism that was pornographic, for Jimmy and Darlene were suddenly voyeurs.

The man with the rifle was sneaking around the base of the tree trying to catch the monkeys off guard. It was ridiculous, yet he was bent over and tiptoeing and shooting glances upward. The trunk of the tree required a large circumference, and the few large stones which sat where the tree melted into the ground demanded even a wider path. The man went from one side of the tree to the other, his body language cautious. The monkeys moved in conjunction with him, the animals keeping a limb between themselves and the man with the rifle.

The armed man motioned to his friend. The unarmed man then picked up some stones. He threw them at the monkeys. The man with the shotgun was on the other side of the tree and he had the rifle up at his shoulder. The monkeys were screaming and looking from one man to the other, but not a single monkey swung around to avoid the stones. And not a single stone hit a monkey, for this was a tall tree with lots of branches and large, floppy leaves. The man stopped throwing stones.

The two men came together and stood. The man without the rifle stuck his right arm up. Then he dashed to around the tree while the other man kept the rifle close to his body. But the arm in the air didn’t fool the monkeys. They kept the tree between themselves and the rifle, and if it weren’t for the terror in their screaming and the precise, serious moment of their bodies, the episode would have fallen into farce, for there were the primates on the ground and those in the tree and the distinction between one species and the other was only marked by which animal held a rifle.

The man with the shotgun couldn’t get off a clean shot, and he wasn’t willing to blast away. Perhaps it was his friend’s concern with the road and who might be coming down it, or maybe it was simply the cost of buckshot.

The hunters and the hunted continued in their pantomime, in their imitation of long-ago, as if their respective evolutions had been determined when one species started hunting its own kind.

The hunted were screaming. Currents of nerve stretched their bodies, stiffened their hair, and pulsed through their immediacy like hot coals. The tree was aglow, and below it two men in sandals, shorts, and plaid shirts snuck around as if in secret. It was fascinating before its image matured, before concept and emotion sprang from perception.

The man with the rifle continued to go this way and that, the rifle at his shoulder while he swung it about trying to get a bead on his prey. His partner was back at the roadway searching its vacant pavement. Then, with the same mystery as what brought it to be, it ran out. Its form was that of a man holding a rifle, and then that rifle coming away from the man’s shoulder while the man’s body sagged. The rifle then hung down at the end of the man’s arm like an instrument of relic, its intent exhausted, its purpose extinct. The man then shuffled toward his bicycle as if everything about him were heavy. At his bike, he broke the rifle open. He took out the shells and put them in his pocket. He closed the rifle and slipped it into a gunny sack.

The screaming from above changed. A pitch of communication entered into the vocal cords of the chimps. The man bundled up the shotgun with the other two burlap sacks and tied the bundle with twine. He secured this to the rack of his bicycle with rope. Then the two men got on their bikes and peddled away laboriously in the direction they had come. The monkeys stopped screaming.

Jimmy turned and looked at Darlene. He said, “Unreal.”

Darlene was smoking a bidi. The leaf of tobacco hung from her chapped lips. She said, “Yeah.” And then they stood as if there were something more, but there was only the sun in a cloudless sky, and upon the earth there stood but a tree, and all was silent in explanation.

Darlene finished her bidi and it dropped to the ground and she rubbed her shoe on it.

“We’ve seen and we’ve seen,” said Jimmy, “and now we’ve seen some more.”

“I’m tired of seeing,” said Darlene.

When they were under the tree, Jimmy and Darlene stopped and looked up. There were about twenty monkeys and they were relaxed and looking down. Three of the monkeys had babies clinging to their bellies. The larger monkeys were the size of a cocker spaniel. All of the monkeys had clear, brown eyes. On the ground near the trunk of the tree there were some blackened stones with melted wax. There were the remains of incense and flowers. Fibrous coconut rind lay in discard. A few monkeys began to venture down the tree.

“We’d better get out of here,” Jimmy said. “They might be looking for a handout.”

Forty yards down the road the white building dwelled, its wooden doors clapped shut with a length of steel. The building was on. the opposite side of the road from the tree. To one side and in front of the small structure a hand-pump rose out of the earth. The handle of the water pump was padlocked. Jimmy and Darlene parked their bikes and walked to the bottom of the steps which led to the doors of the building. The walls, the steps, the doors -the entire structure had been freshly whitewashed. Above the doors there was a frieze of Hunman -half monkey, half human.

Jimmy yelled, “Hello! Hello!” Darlene was busy with another bidi.

A young man with sandals and a shaved head came from around the building. The man’s lithe body was wrapped in beige cloth, his forehead marked with a beige smudge the size of a thumbprint. He casually walked up to Jimmy and Darlene and stopped. He smiled.

He said, “Hello.”

“Hello,” said Jimmy. “I was wondering if we could get some drinking water.”

The man hesitated. Then he said, “Yes.”

Darlene asked, “Is this a temple?”

“Yes,” the man replied, his face smooth, his skin without weather. “Would you care to go inside?”

“Can we? “said Darlene.

“Yes. Of course,” replied the man, his English wrapped around a cadence common to the Indian subcontinent.

The young man walked up the steps and brought out a ring of keys. He opened the padlock and lifted the bar and opened one of the doors. The three of them went inside and the man closed the door. There was only one room and it wasn’t large. The walls and ceiling were white, the floor gray concrete. To go further Jimmy and Darlene would have had to have taken off their shoes, but it was hardly necessary because the shrine was easily seen from where they stood. There was a large painting of Hunman and their was fruit piled on an alter before the painting. The air smelled of incense. White, bluish light from high, rectangular windows flooded the room’s simplicity.

“Hunman,” Jimmy said.

“Yes,” said the young man, “this is a monkey temple.”

They stood and it was silent and it was cool.

Jimmy said, “Did you hear the monkeys screaming just awhile ago?”

“Monkeys screaming?” questioned the young man, his head tilled.

“Yeah.”

“The monkeys make a racket from time to time. They live in the tree. The tree is their home. They quarrel. They are like humans, ” said the man calmly.

When they went outside there were two monkeys sitting on the ground. The one was meticulously picking lice from the back of the other’s head. Jimmy and Darlene walked to their bikes while the man locked the doors of the temple. The monkeys came up to Jimmy and Darlene.

The young man said, “Hold your hands out. Open your hands. Show them you have no food.”

Jimmy and Darlene opened their hands. The monkeys looked. The monkeys lost curiosity.

Jimmy got two plastic water bottles from the front basket of his bicycle. The monkeys approached. Jimmy leaned down and held the bottles out. The monkeys put their small hands on the plastic bottles. Their noses moved, as did their eyes which were hooded with eyebrows. The monkeys turned away.

The young man removed the padlock from the pump and then stood holding the lock in his hand. The monkeys ran over and sat waiting. Darlene held a water bottle under the pump’s large spout. Jimmy pumped. It took some pumping and then water gushed out and ran into the bottle and over the bottle and over Darlene’s hand. The monkeys had their black hands out gathering water under the plastic bottle. Their hands went quickly back and forth between the rushing water and their mouths. Jimmy raised his head and turned his view. Monkeys were cascading down the trunk of the tree.

Jimmy said to Darlene, “Hurry. There’s a ton of monkeys coming our way.”

Darlene and Jimmy got away from the pump just as the troop came up. The larger monkeys had their way over the smaller ones, the animals gathering water from the concrete square that was below the pump. Some had their muzzles in it, others used their hands. Then one monkey screamed and the others jumped back. After a moment, the monkeys returned and tentatively dipped their hands into the water while shooting glances at the one that had screamed.

The young Hindu walked through the monkeys and put the padlock back on the pump.

Jimmy and Darlene were at their bicycles. Jimmy said, “Thank you.”

The young man smiled and watched as Jimmy and Darlene bicycled away. The monkeys were still at the pump, still exercising habits of hierarchy.

After about a half a mile, Jimmy turned to Darlene, and said, “I’ll never understand this country. I’ll never understand people.”

Darlene looked at him, and said, “What’s to understand?”

They continued on the road which had now taken on a slight incline. Thorny bushes colonized the area. A dirt road ran off to the right. The sunshine dimmed. In the west, filtered light from a smear of vapor cast streaked rays. The landscape softened, the air eased, the day hinted at sunset. A strewn flock of small, green parrots appeared and flew in clipped wingbeats and banked over Jimmy and Darlene and went straight down the road, their squawking following them like paste. Jimmy and Darlene stopped and twisted their heads while their eyes followed the birds as the birds flew and then slowed and then lit in that isolated tree where the monkeys dwelled. The sight of the birds disappeared and so did their sound, and all was silence again.

Jimmy and Darlene stood. Then they started peddling, but after ten minutes Darlene stopped in the middle of the road.

Jimmy turned, and said, “What?”

Darlene didn’t reply. She only stood with her feet on either side of her bike. Jimmy stopped and turned his torso and looked back at her.

He said, “What is it? ”

Darlene said nothing. She was looking ahead as if looking past him. He walked his bike back and stood in front of her.

She looked at him, and said, “I want to go home, Jimmy.”

THE END

The theme “trees” brought no ideas when it was mentioned at the February 13th, Open Reading. After a few days, though, a memory and an idea arose. From there the rest took place on paper. About myself: Theoretically, I’m teaching English here. Writing stories is a hobby.

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