Children explore the secrets of an ancient giant tree in Central America, work in progress
Tree of Life
Ivy Elle Nowosad
When I was eleven, I hid inside a giant tree, behind a curtain of vines in a hollow formed of above-ground roots. The massive roots formed an arch far enough over my head so I could stand upright. In the darkness, I waited, listening to the breath of sleeping bats. In the darkness beneath the spiders' veils, something glowed the way a shadow glows on a photographic negative, and it seemed that a passage might open in the strange light, like Alice’s rabbit hole descending into another world.
Was it only my fear-fueled imagination, mixing with the dread of a barely remembered tale? A glimpse of some deeper truth, before any of the fanciful retellings? Memory is uncertain, and you may doubt my story, but here are my scars. See how they branch like the canopy of a giant tree?
In Central America, early summer is the start of the rainy season, but the morning of our last day by the lake was clear and sunny. Our plan was to visit a special place on a hill, with a view of an active volcano that we had only seen in the lake’s reflection from our casita in the jungle. Afterwards, we had a reservation to tour a cocoa farm in the valley, and the next day we would head to the Pacific coast.
Papa drove a small Suzuki SUV along the curving mountain roads and through a rolling green landscape that reminded me of the shire in The Hobbit. We followed Uncle Gabe’s nearly identical rental car, dodging potholes, and narrowly avoiding on-coming trucks on several one-lane bridges. I sat in back with my sister Nicola, who was nine. We occupied ourselves, reading or drawing or staring out the window. Occasionally the tires hit a hole in the road, and we bounced wildly in the little Suzuki, spilling markers and laughing.
Up front, in the passenger seat, my stepmother screamed at each turn, a scream of genuine horror that caused my heart to pound. She would shout “Watch out!” or “Careful, a drop!” at every bus, low shoulder, or hole in the road. After a while, my sister could predict a scream was about to come and whisper, “Cover your ears.”
Iris was a nervous passenger, and she admitted it. “When I was about your age, I was in a bad accident. Another car came out of nowhere and forced us off the road into a wall,” she said, “Riding in a car makes me tense.”
“Jumpy,” said Papa, annoyed.
We laughed, and I said, “It’s OK,” touching her arm, but her words scared me a little.
Once, she had reason to be afraid. When Uncle Gabe ahead of us missed a turn and slowed to turn around in a driveway to the left, his car was nearly sideswiped. A vehicle, two cars behind us, passed on the left, ignoring our turn signals. Luckily, both Papa and the woman in the car behind us honked to warn my uncle, and Gabe paused just as the car passed inches away. Death hovered near that day, occasionally passing in and out of sight.
As the car passed, just for an instant, I glimpsed the passenger. A toddler squirmed in a woman’s lap in the front seat, trying to get his small fist through a gap in the window.
“They have a baby in front without a car seat! Not even strapped in!” I shouted. “If a baby can ride in front, then I should definitely be able to sit in the front seat.”
No response from either parent.
Papa was saying, “He could’ve killed someone, didn’t he see we were trying to turn around?” Iris smiled without joy and said, “He didn’t care. It’s his road, and us tourists need to keep out of the…”
“What happened?” my sister asked, glancing up from her drawing.
“You didn’t hear all that honking?” I said, amazed. “Uncle Gabe was nearly killed!”
“We’re almost there, just missed a turn,” said Iris, her voice soothing. Papa was silent.
Iris says I developed empathy earlier than most kids, but she never knew the whole story. What I had was a curse beyond empathy. Around age four or five, my tender feelers bumped against some dead folks. These homeless spirits are like cold sinks no warmth can reach. No one knows I’ve seen ghosts except Nicola, and she refused to believe me. The last time I tried to tell her, she woke with nightmares for nearly two weeks. Now she acts like she doesn’t remember or calls me a liar and turns away.
I learned to hide my sensitivity behind a mask of easy calm, which makes me seem detached and less childlike than my peers. “An old soul,” my grandmother said once. Unfortunately, this impression causes the adults in my life to expect more of me and to tolerate less mischief than of kids like Nicola, who basically act their age and get away with all kinds of trouble. Still, I rather be extra sensitive. My keen senses, like a million tentacles beneath a sea of calm, would soon be essential.
After the missed turn, we finally found the sign for the place, and Papa drove up the steep gravel drive. Overshooting the parking area, he nearly backed into a ravine trying to park the car, and when Iris stepped out, she was shaking, saying she never wanted to get into that vehicle again. I took her hand for a moment, expecting Nicola to smirk, but my sister was distracted by the screams of holler monkeys in the trees. We were all overcome by the tropical landscape.
“Maya, look up,” Iris said, and I did. Overhead hung a giant flower like something out of Jurassic Park, a greenish yellow chandelier with a cluster of thick tubular petals around a smooth purplish cone. Iris said, “Bananas,” just as I recognized the shapes.
“Yes, I know,” I said, even though I’d never seen bananas in nature, only on store shelves, and I never would’ve guessed the alien flower fruits were something so common as bananas. That’s just how Nicola and I liked to answer sometimes, “I know, I know,” a habit from being told what to do a lot.
Iris rolled her eyes but smiled, and we walked side by side down the drive beneath the strange trees. As we descended, the fruiting blossoms were less developed, less recognizable and more otherworldly, with centers like waxy pods the color of fresh bruises.
Ahead of us, Uncle Gabe’s girlfriend Bridgette, seemed to float into the green landscape. Her wild spray of flame gold curls bounced in the sunlight, and her dress hung like white smoke. She seemed at home and in a dream, and the effect spilled over the rest of us.
Nicola and I followed her, enchanted. She turned, searching the landscape, then looked at me, her huge eyes sparkling with heat. Everything about her was warm and golden at first glance, her hair, the chai color of her skin, freckles softening her aquiline nose, but beneath the bright surface, something wild and reluctantly caged flapped in the shadows.
Uncle Gabe called her “Bridge,” said she was from New Orleans. “Creole, which basically means swamp rat,” she said, smiling her warm smile. “Somehow, over the years, I’ve learned to sound civilized.”
Her skin was darker on one cheek, a stain flecked with light spots spilling down one side of her neck. Both hands were also darker, mottled and textured like lace pressed into clay. When Nicola asked her about the scars, I cringed, but Bridge only said she had been too close to a big fire and it was long ago.
She held out one hand, saying, “They work alright, but they’re a little numb. It’s like touching things through gloves in some spots. No fingerprints, which could be a plus if I ever want to rob a bank, but the downside is I can’t get my palms read.” She analyzed the marks on her hands as one might observe a hang nail, but for Nicola and me, the scars added to her supernatural mystique, a phoenix risen from the ashes.
When Nicola and I were little, Iris told us a story called Sealskin, about a Selkie whose pelt is stolen. The idea of a Selkie, both woman and seal, captivated me: the hidden body inside, all soft and lady-like with arms and legs oddly tucked into the shape of a seal. I asked, “Was there a seal with a man inside too?” and Iris said, “Yes, and boys and girls with pelts that could be shed like clothing and left on a rock while they walked around on the beach.” I imagine their tender feet, soft as a newborn’s, the sand rough between their delicate toes.
Picture Iris’s eyes, blue with that hint of depth like the sea and her face still and fragile as a shell, something locked inside and something missing. It was like a small but essential thing stepped out long ago and left its woman shape behind.
The trapped thing flickering behind Bridgette’s face was a different kind of animal, its rustling heat concealed behind a warm smile. Any hint of gloom soon vanished into gold as if it were never there at all, her coal eyes hardening to diamonds.
“Hola!” yelled Uncle Gabe, startling me. A thin, silver-haired man walked down the hill toward us.
“Look, the guy has a machete,” Papa whispered. “Don’t worry, I can take ’im,” he added, winking.
My father’s name is Ezekiel. It means Strength of God. It sounds strange, but I didn’t know his given name until I was seven years old and could read well enough to notice it on a letter. No one ever calls him by it. He goes by Zeke, a funny name, spring-coiled like a jack in the box, and it suits him. His manner is relaxed and fun, his eyes alert beneath the brim of a cap, ready for anything.
Likewise, his brother, named after the Archangel Gabriel, goes by Gabe. When the people at customs said his full name, his jaw tensed, and a vein visibly throbbed in his temple. My uncle is a big guy with a beard, piercings in his nose and brow, tattooed from neck to cuff. Once past security, he summed up his feelings gruffly but with a grin, saying, “the sound of that sissy angel name irks me.”
Like a bear on hind legs, broad-chested and imposing, he approached the old man with the machete and said, “I’m Gabe. This is Bridgette, my brother Zeke and his family…”
The blade was slung casually over one shoulder, and the man scanned us one by one, damp with sweat and smiling. He extended a hand to Uncle Gabe, who was nearest to him, and said “Welcome,” the hint of a V in the W. His accent was not Spanish.
Iris was doe-eyed and watchful, so still I wondered if she might soon dissolve into the surroundings. She jumped at Papa’s voice.
“Beautiful place!” he bellowed, startling me again, too. Why was everyone shouting at this man? “We came to see the Tree of Life.”
“Oh, wonderful! I am Wolfgang, caretaker here. Call me Wolf,” again with the accented W’s, so that his name sounded like Vwoof. The man shook hands with Papa and Gabe, nodding to the rest of us. “The tree is remarkable. Come, this way, you will see.”
Gabe walked alongside the man called Wolf, questioning him about the area and its history. Somewhere along the way, the machete was abandoned on a bench. I only know because I saw it there later. At the time, we crested a hill, and all I saw was the tree.
The Tree of Life dominated the landscape. It was the biggest living thing I had ever seen, colossal limbs a second sky, both encompassing and protective. From thirty meters or more overhead, hundreds of tendrils dropped from its branches, some nearly reaching the ground, the effect a sort of horseless merry-go-round on a massive scale.
“It inspired Home Tree in the movie Avatar,” said Wolf, his face lifted toward the canopy.
The tree’s root buttress was nearly twice my height, hosting a multitude of creeping and flowering lives in its folds. Up close, its surface was thorny and crawling with tiny insects. From burrow to bird sanctuary to sheltering sky, the giant tree was an ecology unto itself, charged with all that it reached into and out of, held and supported.
“So much energy here,” said Bridge, looking at me. Her leather and lace hands trembled over the bark. “Do you feel your temperature rising?’”
I placed a hand on the mossy skin of a huge root, trying to avoid ant trails and the conical thorns studding its surface. I thought I felt its weaving energy, the vibration of unseen worlds within worlds, but wasn’t sure if my temperature rose from that or from the tropical heat. “I think so…” I said, but she was already a tawny blur of curls breezing down the slope, camera in hand.
Bugged and buzzing from root to canopy, the meandering vines, some thick as my legs, sprouted heart-shaped leaves the size of dinner plates. Nicola grabbed one of the low vines and went to swing, but Papa caught her in his arms and guided her away, the abandoned tendril flapping in the damp air against a metal plaque on one side of the trunk.
The tree’s botanical name was engraved on the plaque, Ceiba Pentandra, and beneath in smaller print, more words, two of which I remember: Conquistadores and Julio, along with the year 1536.
“Hey Zeke!” Uncle Gabe called out. “It turns out this tree could be nearly five hundred years old!”
“Giant kapok trees are in the historical accounts of conquistadors…” Wolf said.
“I thought this was a Ceiba,” said Gabe.
“Ceiba, Kapok, all the same.”
“So, this one dates back to the Spanish conquest? Can you imagine living so long? Man, what this tree has lived through!”
“Yes, and it thrives!” The caretaker beamed as though personally responsible for the tree’s size and longevity.
“Ceiba, another word for sky, right?” said Gabe.
I gazed into the canopy, misty now with low cloud. Its ropey vines hung limp in the sudden stillness. Wolf was saying, “The long-lived Kapok was a symbol of power to Mesoamericans. Spanish conquerors hung defeated Aztec rulers from it, effectively saying, we have the power now.”
The mist settled, and a scent of decay wafted down from the canopy. In the air above, something hung from thick ropey vines, an odd shape that had not been there before, reminding me of the bruise-colored cones in the banana trees, but even larger and heavier.
The caretaker said something about the tree’s location on a west-facing slope, and no competing trees in the area, being a factor in its size and endurance, adding, “Compared to other trees, the canopy of the Kapok is higher, its shape counter to gravity.”
I stopped listening after that because the outline that flickered in the haze overhead, hanging from the lowest branch, was the swollen, purple-brown body of a man. A feathery band, embellished with gold and turquoise, crowned his head and trailed over a patterned cloak of coarse fabric in once-bright colors, now faded. Once a warrior, the ghostly shape was like a corpse flower.
“Maya!” yelled Nicola with impatience. She called my name from a stand of tropical flowers growing to nearly a meter above her head. “Come on!” When I looked back, the dead man was not there, the mist already lifting. A chill breeze cut through the humid air and nudged me toward the sweet scents of the garden.
I ran over the velvety turf to Nicola, saying nothing about the terrible vision. I didn’t want to give her nightmares on our vacation, or get into a fight.
“Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
Instead of answering, I said, “Hey, I have an idea! Let’s pretend we’re detectives looking for clues to a mystery…”
“No,” Nicola interrupted. “Let’s be princesses trapped by a witch’s spell. This is our Papa’s kingdom, but he’s been captured by a jealous witch who wants to rule the land.”
I sighed and turned toward the lake, a piece of reflected sky cradled in green hills. Nicola took my hand, and continued, “So the wicked hag cast a spell on the King’s daughters. That’s us. We can only go as far as the shadow cast by the branches of the Tree of Life. If we go any farther, we die!”
“Very dramatic.” I didn’t feel like arguing though and played along. I wanted to be a child with her for a little while, just an ordinary kid, not someone who imagines seeing the dead.
We investigated the stepped gardens, careful to stay beneath the canopy. The ground everywhere was carpeted in short grass, and raised beds displayed maraca flowers, birds of paradise, and waxy rose-colored stands of ginger in all stages of growth, from claw-like combs to blossoming torches. I didn’t know the names of the flowers at the time, only that they grew taller and larger than was sensible. The place was magical.
Nicola and I walked through the beds, pausing on a mound to peer out through stems nearly as thick as our wrists, the mirror lake always gleaming beyond. “I think I saw this one in a Dr. Seuss story,” I said. “It’s so tall and weird.”
“Shhh! Look at this!” Nicola whispered with urgency, lifting something from a bed of flowering ground cover. A ruby pendant flashed in the sunlight, its shape a bright red eye, set in blackened silver veins of scrollwork with a clasp on one side. It opened. Inside the locket, a tiny sepia photo of a man in a military uniform, his impassive face somehow captivating, an expression like a flicker on the surface of deep waters.
“How did you even see that in all those flowers?”
“I saw the ruby shine,” she said, and her eyes sparked with an idea. “Let’s be adventurers now! We’re on a dangerous mission to find a treasure. This locket is only a small part of it, and the map is somewhere nearby.” She pocketed the jewel and continued, studying the green earth. “There’s a rumor that some explorer found a hoard of Mayan gold and buried it in the volcano. You’re the only one who can find it, Maya! Get it? Mayan gold? It’s yours to find, but the mission is dangerous because it’s getting hotter and hotter, maybe about to blow!”
The mounds felt grave-like and wrong to walk on, and I was growing tired of games that were a little too young for me. So, I told Nicola we should look for the map in the Tree of Life. “All kinds of hiding places in there,” I said, and she agreed. I thought once there, she would be distracted from her games, and I was right.
As we were leaving the mound where she discovered the locket, a murmur rose from the blades of grass. Only syllables at first, a woman’s voice. It sounded French, like “mien… mien…”
“Do you hear that?” I asked Nicola, and something soft grazed my leg. I started and looked down at a storm-colored cat purring and nudging my leg, my sister quickly on the ground beside it, saying, “Oh, a kitty! Yes, I hear it purring. Hi Kitty!”
Imagining voices? Seeing a ghost in heavy branches? “It must be the heat,” I said absently. Nicola seemed not to hear and continued petting and cooing to the cat.
When we approached, Iris pointed out the small bats hanging upside-down in an alcove between two buttress roots, nearly hidden in a dark niche. She said, “Watch for spiders,” as we climbed inside. Papa crouched in the fold with us, and Bridge took pictures, our family beneath a family of bats, inside a giant.
Escaping the buzz and bites of insects, we sat for a while in the tree’s ancient womb and studied the bats. Their claws gripped the walls like tiny hands. “Where are the wings?” Nicola asked. “Folded up,” I told her, “Like sleeves. See?” The bats looked like little people in ill-fitting suede suits, faces tucked and hidden. Their soft black bodies twitched in sleep, perhaps dimly aware of us.
I overheard Wolf say that the Tree of Life was like a bridge between man and God, “with its roots in the earth and its canopy in the heavens.” To me it felt like a giant mothering force. To Nicola, it was probably something like a treasure hunt.
“Feel how hot I am,” she said, and she was feverish. Even her brown eyes flickered with heat.
“Let’s get some air,” said Papa, and she followed him outside, while Iris lingered nearby with Wolf.
“C’mon Maya,” Bridge said, smiling warmly but waiting for me to come out, so she could take more pictures of the tree. I didn’t want to leave it yet, so I slipped behind a thick network of vines and into another fold. The opening was narrow and nearly hidden, but the hollow within was deeper and darker than the one with the bats.
Alone and unseen, I felt like one of the tree’s protected secrets. Outside, Wolf was telling Iris he’d inherited the property from his wife, who passed away in 2004, “a week before Christmas.” I remember this distinctly because I was born on the winter solstice of 2004. I perked up, listening with interest to the talk outside, but remaining hidden from view.
“Where’s Maya?” Nicola said, attempting to interrupt the conversation, and I silently stepped back into the deepest shadows. The grown-ups ignored her at first, but she persisted. “Did anyone see Maya?” Then louder, “What about the cat?” and Wolf finally said, “Look, down the hill.”
Through a gap in the vines, I saw Nicola’s brown legs trotting down the slope, following an apparition. Ahead of her, the copper waves of Bridgette’s hair swayed in a sea of green.
Iris asked the caretaker, “Did you have children?”
“No, but my wife had a child from an earlier marriage, and her granddaughter still visits.” He glanced up the hill, toward his house nearly hidden in the jungle. “A very private child,” he said, then continued his tree talk.
“Giant kapoks once marked central meeting places. Whole villages formed around the biggest trees, and even today, many old cities in Latin America are named Ceiba something. A few still have one of these giants living in the main square, influenced by the Mayans without even knowing it.”
Iris listened intently, her eyes shining. “The ancient Amazonians believed trees of this size were middle worlds or intersections, between heaven and the underworld. In fact, the symbol for the Ceiba is a cross. So, you see how easy it is for this idea to mesh with Christianity, the idea of Christ as a pathway from this lower plane of man, to the realm of the Divine. To this day, you see Catholic churches here with tree-like crosses in their architecture…”
His speech was interrupted by the screams of holler monkeys, and after a long pause, he said, “Sorry to bore you! I’m a retired professor, you know. Sometimes I get carried away.”
“No, no, don’t apologize. It’s interesting,” Iris said and meant it. I could hear that edge of excitement in her voice, the same pitch she has when talking about art. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Compared to other trees, it’s almost super-natural, creating its own ecology and living for centuries...”
A distant rumble interrupted her words, and the bones of the giant tree shuddered a little, sending a hot vibration through me, along with a sense of foreboding. I remember hoping it was just thunder and not the volcano.
Outside, they seemed unaware of the rumbling. Iris said, “The vines look like philodendron.”
“Yes, you’re right,” said Wolf, sounding genuinely pleased. “The tropical plants you might grow in your home, so small in their pots, grow to their full potential here. You see the size of the bromeliads, all the life that flourishes on and around the tree. Can you believe some visitors have asked why I don’t clear it of these so-called invaders? Just look at it! See the frog almost blending in with the orchids. Generations of frogs, bats, and rodents have lived in this giant, countless insects. It shelters a fungal colony in the soil below, and the fungus recycles decaying leaves into minerals that feed the tree. This is a complete world unto itself. Who are we to interfere?”
Something shifted beneath my feet with an earthy groan, and a chill cut through me, prickling the hairs at the back of my neck. Spooked, I turned to leave and noticed the shadows glimmer at the edges of my vision. In the deep darkness, a brief light revealed a tunnel between the ground roots, there and gone. Maybe it was ground lightening passing through a burrow.
The glow rose from below, filtered through sap, through hidden springs, amber and blue-green. The brief light was as intangible and alive as fire. It rippled with a crystalline structure too intricate to fully see, like tiny worlds within dewdrops, or like the elements of an elixir.
A ringing buzz echoed both above and below sound, less audible than fractal. It murmured in the air long after the glow faded. How to explain something out of my realm of understanding, but I knew the sound was a message of some kind.
From my hiding place, Wolf was still in my line of sight, gazing overhead. “If it can support that kind of weight, it is strong enough to continue its symbiosis with these small lives on its surface. Maybe the interdependence is part of its secret to long life.”
“There’s so much we don’t know about the world,” said Iris, exhaling. “Plants exist on a slower plane than ours, sedentary and yet interconnected in a way we can’t understand.” This last she said in the way she sometimes speaks to Papa, almost to herself, but the Caretaker responded in earnest.
“It is beyond us, yes. It’s long been known that plants send chemical signals to their neighbors, but what if they can communicate with one another over greater distances, even across the world? The messages may travel through the ground along root paths and fungal networks, on underground waves. Say it’s something in that slow, sessile nature of the plant that aligns it with the earth’s magnetic currents...”
Had I just experienced one of those messages?
“Global communication among plant species… like an herbal internet?” said Iris.
Wolf laughed. “Yes, well said. Not technology as we think of it, innate electrical rhythms. The phenomenon may be something outside space and time as we understand it. Suffice to say, connections between every living thing on the earth are real, though we’re rarely aware of them…” He paused, finally adding, “unless we live like monks, which, incidentally, is how I find myself living these days.”
Meanwhile, in the tree’s hollow, the air tugged at my feet slightly, as though willing me to go deeper. The subtle vacuum inched up my legs, gentle as a draft, cooling my sweat-slicked body. I stumbled toward the vine-covered door, rubbing the goose-flesh of my arms. Inside, I felt electric, and yet my muscles congealed and slowed. I walked forward through hardening sap, dizzy and too aware of the pumping circuit of veins within my body to move properly. Everything ground down.
Wishing with all my heart to be in the sun again, I reached out and finally grasped a lifeline. If not for the strength of those vines, that seemed to pull with an opposing force away from the tree’s vortex, I might not have broken free.
It felt like hours passed in the tree’s vacuum, but when I stepped out, Iris was saying, “Do you meditate?” and Wolf said, “I’m just a bit of a hermit, but I do enjoy coming out to meet visitors,” and it was as though no time had passed at all.
When I looked at the entry, between the parting of vines, the cavern was only a deep groove sealed by spiky bark and crawling with tiny ants. I touched the conical studs, and a little light sparked, almost too quick to see.
My neck prickled again, and I glanced around. Papa and Gabe were talking, their backs to me. Bridge was occupied in photography, with Nicola nearby, watching bees cluster and hum in some flower clumps, and Iris listened to Wolf, who stood a few feet away. His were the only eyes leveled on me, a hint of surprise in them.
The light outside dimmed to an odd yellow-gray, the color of dead straw, and the air compressed. I shivered in the heat beneath his gaze. For a flash, he looked young again, with the striking features of the officer in the locket’s photograph. Over his head, the feathers of a ghost floated down and seeped into his pores with a glint of gold, of turquoise. He chuckled, whether at me or something else, hard to say, but I knew he’d seen me emerge from the giant.
“Anyway,” he said, his eyes on Iris again and his voice nonchalant, “location and specialized genetics likely contribute to this tree’s longevity. It’s a superior life form, as you say, generations of plants and animals depending on it. Maybe some unifying element beyond species is at play, something beyond the world we see around us, but that’s just my opinion.”
He paused and said, “Sometimes this gets in the way,” and tapped his head. “I am guilty of too much thinking. Step inside the Tree of Life for a moment, and you will feel it,” putting a hand to his heart. “Isn’t that right?” His pale eyes penetrated mine again, then the ashen sky flashed white, and the caretaker gestured toward the canopy and raised his voice over the sudden wind. “Pass through that intersection, and it will share its gifts… if you’re receptive.” Was that a wink?
A crack of thunder startled me, and Iris jumped as well. Clouds and mist cloaked the green hills all around.
“An afternoon rain is coming,” said Uncle Gabe, glancing at his watch. “We should go.”
He paid the caretaker with a twenty-dollar bill, generous at a time when the American dollar had a strong value, and the man seemed pleased. “Pay once, and you are welcome to return any time today,” he said.
“Thank you, we might do that after a bite. Bridge loves it here,” Gabe said.
“Bridge, of course, you are very welcome.” She looked up from her camera and smiled, but she seemed less golden now, a dark effervescence beneath her natural gleam.
Part way up the slope, the moist air condensed into a mist, and the caretaker said, “Would you like to have tea before you go, perhaps wait out the rain? It tends to pass quickly, and my home is right there.”
Gabe and Bridge declined, and with quick hugs and goodbyes, ran toward the driveway to beat the coming rain, but Papa thought it might be a good idea to shelter. With a feeling of unease, I watched my uncle and Bridgette slip away, her white dress ghostly and her fiery curls soon extinguished in the mist. A chill passed through me. The eerie light and the hollow tug of the tree at my back put me on edge. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the red flicker in Wolf’s eyes. He reminded me of an overripe papaya, sweet at first, then acid, a hint of bile within.
As he moved up the slope in the fog, I thought he could be his namesake, a silver wolf. His movements were animal, wiry and quick. As we passed the bench near a shed, the machete flashed, there and gone. The old man picked it up without missing a step, once again balancing it casually over one shoulder.
Along the way, Iris whispered to Papa, “It’s beautiful here, but we should go soon if we want to make it to the cocoa farm. I have a strange feeling.”
Papa looked at her closely, slowed a little, and I think he wanted to go, but the mist switched to a downpour. We ran to the shelter, soaked, and were all soon distracted by the squawks of a bird.
The patio was lined with a cottage-style mix of vegetable, fruit, and floral life. Beyond the multitude of potted plants, a wood-and-wire cage about one and a half meters high contained an Amazon parrot. When Wolf approached, the bird whistled and visibly calmed.
“This is Lucia,” he said. “Recently rescued. Careful, she seems sweet, but she will bite.”
“She’s bonded with you though, I see it,” said Papa. The bird was cooing and rippling under the caretaker’s touch.
We all took turns saying, “Pretty bird,” and singing to Lucia.
“You are familiar with tropical birds,” Wolf observed, looking at Papa.
“Zeke is good with them,” Iris said. “His mom raised birds in Florida.”
“Yeah, I grew up with them. Being the youngest, I was around birds more than my brothers. Had an Amazon in high school, Mimi,” Papa said, lighting up. “Don’t know what happened to her after I left home. Mom found places for them all I guess. Mimi could still be alive today.” My father looked sad for a second, then continued talking to the bird, “Lucia, hello girl…”
As Wolf walked toward the kitchen to make tea, he said, “She knows the song Alouette.”
Nicola immediately sang the old French song to the bird, “Alouette, gentille alouette… Alouette, je te plumerai…” and the parrot sang it back to her, neither knowing the words they sang were, “Little lark, nice lark… little lark, I will pluck you.”
Nicola and I learned Alouette in French class, but more recently I’d read the translation. It goes on about plucking out the feathers, the beak, the eyes and eventually the wings from the poor lark. It’s a terrible song. The lyrics are someone’s retribution against the bird, for being awakened too early by its calls. An odd thing to be angry about, I think.
The caretaker returned with tea and biscuits, saying, “It’s nice to have an outdoor kitchen, but the pantry is inside, protected from snakes. They mainly come out at night, but sometimes in the rain…”
I immediately glanced around the patio and under the high table and chairs, searching for snakes. When my search was complete, I ate a biscuit, which was hard and sweet with a hint of ginger, and drank from Iris’s water bottle, the tea being odd smelling and too hot for me.
Nicola was too busy with the bird to take tea. She sang, “Et les ailes!”
“Et les ailes,” repeated the bird.
“…Et le cou! Et le cou! …Et les yeux! Et les yeux! …Et le bec! Et le bec! …Et la tête! Et la tête! … Alouette! Alouette!” And your wings! And your neck! And your eyes! And your beak! And your head! Little lark! Little lark!
I nearly screamed for Nicola to stop, but when she saw me with a snack, she instantly quit singing, frowned her look of unfairness, and marched to the table. As Nicola focused on eating one biscuit after another, Iris sipped tea and cooed to the bird, snapping photos of it with her phone.
Wolf continued to play the role of host, talking about classic Mayan pottery that imitated the conical thorns studding the Ceiba trunk, “especially intricate on burial urns, like this one,” he said, pointing to a huge vase in the corner. “Some Amazonian tribes once believed deities live inside the giant trees, and to this day, ancestors of the Mayans will leave a Kapok standing when the forest is cut for timber. Zeke, did you have tea?” he asked, pronouncing Papa’s name as Seek.
Iris snapped photos of us all, then pocketed her cell phone and refilled her cup. “I heard the Ceiba has medicinal uses,” she said, looking through the rain, toward the Tree of Life.
“That’s right. Parts of the tree were used as medicine, other parts for bedding, cleansing, and the wood carved into boats or used as vessels for transport into the afterlife...”
“Canoes and coffins,” Papa said with almost a slur, adding, “Whooh, so tired. Maybe we should head out before I take a siesta on your patio.”
Iris looked sleepy as well, mumbling, “Yes, maybe get moving. Don’t want to miss the farm tour. Thanks so much for everything…” and she stared into the surrounding trees through heavy lids, a glimmer of drool on her chin.
Papa moved to place his cup on the table, opening his mouth to speak, but groaned instead. For a second, he reminded me of a wild cub separated from its mother. He gazed toward Iris, his brow furrowed, but seemed not to see her, his pupils like ink in water. Then he bumped the table, and his cup dropped to the tile floor and shattered.
Wolf moved to support him, saying, “Oh my, you are tired. Don’t worry about the spill. I’ll clean it. Just rest on the hammock.” Somehow the caretaker used the momentum of Papa’s near collapse to maneuver him onto a hammock, but in the transition, one side dislodged, and my father ended up on the floor. I flew to him, as Wolf side-stepped in the opposite direction, to avoid tripping over the netting.
At the same moment, Iris stumbled, knocking her head on a beam and nearly hit the floor, but Wolf somehow shifted and caught her. How was he there so quickly, to cup her sagging head in his arm? Her eyes pale slits and limbs floppy, the old man heaved Iris with great care onto a cushioned bench, where she lay like Snow White after the apple, glassed in by dark magic.
Meanwhile, Papa lay against the side of the hammock still attached to a post, one leg tangled in fallen netting, his cap belly-up and flattened like a dead bug beneath his arm. Nicola and I helped him to his feet, my sister looking as though she would never let go. I glanced at her and sensed the predator in the fringes. No time to think, heart clinched, I mouthed the word “run” to my sister, and for once, she did as she was asked. Without a word, she vanished into the foliage beyond the patio.
Thank God Iris wasn’t awake for what happened next. She would have been screaming her head off. In one supple movement, Wolf held the machete to her throat. He seemed to feel my gaze and looked at me, eyes flashing red again.
Everything happened fast, but in my memory of it, time slackened, a slow stream punctuated by wild bursts of energy. The blade rising in the humid air, the anticipation of the cutting blow, a red-gold breath of wind in the periphery, and out of it, Bridge arrived like a flash fire. The machete swung away from Iris, passing centimeters from Bridgette’s face, but her were reflexes sharp. She dodged, and the blade sliced the fabric of a sleeve.
“Papa! No!” I shouted.
The shock of it cut through his daze, and motor memory from years of martial arts training in his teens must have kicked in. Papa aligned himself with the slow stream, used it to his advantage, his movements fluid, slippery as the sound of his name.
“Zeke, watch out!” Bridge called, while searching the patio for a weapon. Lucia screamed in her cage, and Bridgette glowed.
Wolf hit the wall of the house hard, his next swing interrupted, and the handle of the machete pressed into his neck. Papa head-butted that silvery head twice. Et la tete! Et la tete! In the struggle, the machete fell to the ground. When Wolf went for it, a hard knee cracked his nose and blood poured. The red slicked weapon slipped from his hand, and Papa stepped back, holding it. Wolf lunged and almost fell, and finally the blade cut flesh to bone. Steam rose from the wound, a muted-violet mist wafting into the air.
All around, the lush hills flashed, and the sky thundered, the parrot franticly screeching and fluttering in its cage. The commotion almost drowned out a faint scream, coming from the direction of the tree. At first, I thought I’d imagined it, or that it may have come from some place deep inside me.
“Feed the tree…” Wolf sputtered through blood that poured from his nose.
“What?” Papa shouted, glaring uncomprehending at the insanity before him. “What are you saying?”
“An offering,” Wolf said, watching the widening red pool of his own blood. “Once every twenty years, the tree takes a life. I thought it would be Maya, so aptly named, or Iris.”
I tensed, and Papa looked around quickly, his jaw like stone, asking in disbelief, “A human sacrifice? Are you kidding me? That’s what this is all about?”
“Take me to the tree! Please!” the caretaker pleaded. “I was wrong. It’s my time now.”
“I’m not taking you anywhere,” Papa said. “Bridge, look for rope.”
“You don’t need to tie me. Just get me close to her…” Wolf mumbled something about an offering and losing his life to the tree, saying, “my wife, my lovely wife, it’s time to see her again,” and he tried to stand. “What kind of life is this, without love?” Holding his bleeding arm with the opposite hand, the old man’s eyes fixed on something in the green distance, and he moved toward it, slipping on the blood-soaked tile.
Papa responded by securing Wolf’s hands with a fast hitch knot. “Fine, tie me up, but just take me to the tree. I’m ready.”
Papa turned away, shouting, “Maya! Nicola!”
“I’m here Papa,” I said.
“Take my phone, try dialing 9-1-1. Nicola! Where is Nicola?”
I hesitated. “She ran off… to hide…”
He glanced down the slope, his face hard and still except for one pulsing vein on his brow, then he turned toward the bench where Iris lay. She looked translucent and fragile as white china, her hair almost black in the humid air. Crouching beside her with his eye on Wolf, Papa held a glass near Iris’s mouth, checking for breath. It fogged, and he stroked her forehead, then stood. At the table, he sniffed his half-full cup of tea, and glanced at Bridge, who had pulled her wild locks into a knot at the crown of her head and was rummaging in a tool shed nearby.
“I thought you were gone,” he said. “What happened?”
She held up a leather camera bag, the stitching on the strap a pattern of flames. “If I hadn’t left this behind, we would’ve been in town by now. It was hanging out with the bats. After I found it, I saw your little one running down the hill. Then heard a crash and came up to check it out.”
“You saw Nicola?”
“Yep, she was flying! Almost ran into me, but didn’t even seem like she saw me.” Bridge raised her brows, exhaling, “this is somethin’ else…”
“Right,” Papa lifted his cup. “Cheers,” he said with a dark look.
“You think he put something in your drink?” she asked.
“I didn’t drink mine,” I said, one ear pressed to the phone, “too hot.”
“Wrong fairy tale, Goldie Locks,” Bridge said. “I don’t blame ya though. In this heat, I like ice tea, steeped long and lots of sugar.”
“Where’s Gabe?” Papa asked.
“In the car, probably smoking and wondering what’s taking me so long.” She glanced in the direction of the driveway. “Maybe he’ll get curious after a while and come check.”
Iris lay so still, so deep in sleep she seemed to float over the bench. Bridge went up to her, shaking her gently, then checking for a pulse with two fire-laced fingers pressed against the red line where the blade grazed that pale throat.
Finally, someone answered on the emergency line. The voice on the other end came through waves of static, like ocean-sounds in a shell. I handed the phone to Bridge, and she fluctuated between Spanish, English, and her native French Creole, blending languages in her distress. In less than a minute, “Hola? Hola?” she said, looking at me. “We got cut off.”
“Maybe they can trace the cell,” Papa mumbled, running a hand through his close-cropped hair and staring down the hill. He looked worried.
A gurgling sound interrupted the pause. Wolf was trying to stand again.
Papa grabbed the ceramic vase from the corner. Nearly a meter long and spiked with thorns like the Kapok, the thing was heavy, and he stumbled with its weight, tripping over the broken hammock and nearly falling. I started toward him, but suddenly Uncle Gabe ran past me, catching his brother with one hand and the pot with the other. As Papa regained his balance, Gabe took in the situation without breaking stride. He swung the vessel into the air. It cracked against the caretaker’s skull, and then hit the plaster wall of the house, spiky clay shards flying. The arrival of the messenger Gabriel was swift, and his message was clear.
Gabe and Papa tied the fallen man to a post. Once a silver wolf, he lay on his side, bound, bleeding, and drooling like a wounded old dog. That bruise-colored mist, hanging in the air over him since the first blow, finally dissipated.
Bridge was on the phone with an emergency operator again when someone screamed from down the hill, distinct this time. “Nicola,” I exhaled, and without a thought, ran towards the sound.
“Maya, wait!” Papa called, passing the machete to Gabe. He lept off the patio after me, overturning pots of miniature pineapple and orange trees, stumbling over them to chase me down the hill.
From what seemed a great distance, Papa called, “Maya! Stop!” Uncle Gabe was shouting, “What the hell?” but I could not stop, could not focus on their words, the blood crashing in my ears.
The momentum of the downhill run propelled me toward the great tree. Through a narrowing gap, I passed between the vines. As I entered the dark hollow, Papa yelled, “No, Maya! No!” I could hear him beating against the trunk and knew his hands were being cut by the prickly bark. “Maya! Nicola! Where are you?” The gap closed behind me.
“Papa!” I shouted, sobbing and choking, everything too much. “I didn’t mean to…”
In the blackness, a small voice said, “Maya, is that you?” It sounded far away.
“Yes,” I exhaled, tears streaming. “I’m here.” And when I inhaled, the glow rose from its burrow, just as it had before. A white-light spectrum, humming in that pitch both too high and too low to gauge, it lit a path among the roots and beamed into a deep, rock-strewn cavern below. Reaching up into a column of light, stood Nicola.
“I fell,” she said. The way she lifted her arms into the inexplicable beam of light, her stained white T aglow, she looked like an angel. A fallen one apparently.
Deep cries trembled through the hollow. Small rocks fell, kicking up dust, and the tremors released glowing raindrops that fell in streams, forming iridescent puddles. Some drops floated back up, umbrella-like, exhaling sparks that burned blue-green-gold in the network of roots. I could no longer see Nicola, just heard her shouting, “Maya, help! Get me out of here!”
What choice did I have? Behind me a wall of black, ahead the warm and crystalline haze. I crawled through the shimmer toward my sister, calling her name. She answered, “I’m here, Maya. I’m here,” but her voice seemed to come from different directions at once. I moved through the living miasma like a worm in the mud, once again caught in that peculiar vacuum.
The bright dust murmured in the cool air, with high frequencies and slow waves culminating in a middle ground, a chorus. The more I inhaled, slow deep breaths, the more I understood. Tendrils of information branched into my lungs, pumping through veins and along synapses that leafed out in the canopy of my brain. The signals were both chemical and electric, communicated on currents of breath.
The luminous spheres grew into complex shapes, a fungal network akin to deep-sea hydrozoa. The colony revealed its underworld home to me, mycorrhizal in nature. It, or they, brought a message from the deep past, and released it into our host bodies. The spores sang of those buried beneath garden beds and among the roots of a giant, about the sanctity of life and its inner tributaries, recycled and everlasting.
One voice grew distinct, the earthy rasp of decay vibrating over hollow bones to become words. A man approached through the fog, or was formed of it, his voice and presence congealing into something more like smoke than flesh, purple-brown and overlaid with a wavering film of armor and feathers. I recognized him, the death-flower man, who once hung from the Tree of Life. His language was foreign to me, but the colony whispered his meaning into my mind. “Every k’atun, every twenty years, for four hundred years, we give a life to the tree. It is b'ak'tun, a complete four-hundred-year cycle. This is the last,” the Mayan warrior said.
An ashen woman in the miasma pushed someone forward. Nicola looked up at me, glowing with that inexplicable light. She was crying in frustration. Both the woman and the bright dust seemed to bind my sister in place, and she fought against them, but with only one hand. The other was in her pocket. In the struggle, her other hand finally emerged with a red glimmer. Nicola held the locket, the one she found in the garden. It sprang open, and she lifted it out with a look of triumph. The ash woman stared at the locket with an odd expression, a face clouded by longing and baleful pain. Letting go of my sister, she reached for it.
A platinum curl fell across one eye, and for a moment, in the glow, she was no longer murky and gray. The rosy light revealed a woman now glamorous as a fifties movie star. Her gray eyes brightened to blue, smiling, even as blood poured from the locket. Black and incessant blood swallowed the locket’s photograph, overflowing, engulfing the woman’s hand, then her arm. The darkness dripped over her feet, erasing them. It rose like smoke, up her legs. How tenderly it crept.
Poised as a magician’s assistant, she quickly responded to a trick gone wrong, her fleeting surprise replaced by a mix of aplomb and surrender. The show must go on, and so the hungry shadows dismembered the poor woman, swallowing her up before our eyes. The last of her flickered, a patch of rose-colored dust, and then nothing.
Beyond the empty air that once was a woman, a girl a little older than myself stood, wide-eyed and chattering with fear. Her frilly dress was held together by cobwebs, and her shoes were formed of mushroom-capped earth. She held the hand of a boy, pre-school age, whose root-clump hair and skin of clay sparkled with mica. Behind them, a man lifted a weathered top hat in greeting, his black eyes sinking into shadows above the raw bones of his face. His head seemed to float, and he put a hand to the place where his throat should be, opened his mouth as if to speak, but made no sound.
On and on, the line of souls stretched among the twisted roots and disappeared into the black earth. The death-flower man swayed into view again, near enough to touch, his voice otherworldly, singing along with the fungal chorus. Nicola was beside him now, angelic in the mineral light, an obsidian blade glistening at her throat.
“No!” I screamed. The sound reverberated through the sub terrane. “No more! It ends here…” my words mixing with the music of spores and decay.
I inhaled the swirling mist of the colony, like open eyes alight in the gloom. “Tree after tree after tree of life, since the beginning, we live now and forevermore,” they sang. “The time is come to branch out farther, into the wider world. Carry our song in your innermost branches, let it cycle through your breath and blood, and we will light a path to set you free. Live long and happy lives, beloved hosts, with our secrets inside you.”
Had the caretaker ever encountered the fungal life, entwined deep in the giant’s roots? If the hung warrior haunted him to the point of blood sacrifice, of murder, he clearly could not see the bioluminescence and how they negotiate with death, transforming it. The colony, the essence of life, gives the tree its name. I don’t know how, but I saw them. I breathed in their silken, earthy musk that day, and tasted the bitter-sweet taste of longevity.
“Take a deep breath, Nicola,” I said, “inhale all the way down to your feet.”
On the exhale, she said, “Listen…” The sound of beating hearts, our hearts, rose above the music of the spheres. Motes of bright dust gathered near, settled on our skin, and streamed in with each breath. A power moved through me like Ezekiel’s divine strength. I reached out, reflexes quick as my father’s, and grabbed Nicola. Past the ghost of the Mayan and down the phantom line, spirits wavered. Anger and fear and past sorrows dissolved to steam.
“Your people are gone,” I said by way of the vapor, “and your reign is over.” Thinking of the lost Mayans, added, “I’m the only Maya here now,” under my breath, not spiteful, just resolved.
Near sunset, we emerged from the tree, and our Papa scooped us both into his arms. “Thought I lost you,” he exhaled. In his embrace, I felt almost normal, a child again. Behind us, something burbled and a flicker of green receded into the fringes.
Snapshots: Wolf bleeding against the prickly buttress of the tree, an ant at the foot of a giant. Uncle Gabe’s shadow and the flash of a machete whirring past, into a gap between the roots. Bridgette’s black eyes dancing with heat, her hand releasing the old man’s restraints. A pause, almost peace in the Caretaker’s upturned eyes, rolling back, his body tumbling into the hollow’s vacuum, the thicket of vines quietly closing over him. A dark trail of blood from the patio to the tree, disappearing into the earth, bent blades trembling back into place. The gradual return of insect buzz and bird song.
The gray cat appeared, sniffing the air and nuzzling the vines, before bolting up the hill. Something glistened in its mouth, and I thought of Nicola saying, “I saw the ruby shine.”
Gabe leaned on Bridge, looking for a moment like a big bear cub, and the resemblance between the brothers was clear, the same puzzled and yet compliant look, the same groan. “What happened Zeke?”
“I have no idea,” Papa said, running a hand through his hair.
All the way up the hill, I pictured Wolf’s body in the sub terrane, feeding the tree one last flesh and bone meal. A raw energy seeped up from the ground, into my feet. I ran.
First to reach the patio, I saw Iris lying motionless, almost blue with pale. The cat tiptoed over her belly, sniffing, but Iris did not move or seem to breath. Without a thought, I held her slack jaw, pinched her nose, and pressed my mouth to hers. I exhaled. One long current of breath rose from the place where the vapor of the underworld now sparked. Her skin, cold as the sea, gradually warmed as she surfaced, coughing. Her eyes budded open and reflected the clearing sky, an evening sky the color of her name. In her eyes, I could see that this was not her first graze with death. The first had been in her youth, the source of her car-ride screams, when something essential was taken from her, something irreplaceable, until now. Wounds healed, and the rush of life churned, cool to warm like thermal energy.
“Are you OK?” I asked. Suddenly, everyone was gathered around. Papa lifted Iris into his arms, and she didn’t answer, but I heard a murmur of gratitude in the sound of her breath. Exhaling, I wondered if my breath, or its underworld currents, had just saved her life, and beyond that, returned something to her that had been lost long ago.
Bridge cleaned up the mess on the patio, further staining the white dress she would later burn. She carefully swept up broken pottery, and Gabe buried it under a pile of sticks at the jungle’s edge. Papa washed the blood off the patio while Nicola and I helped Iris clean and put away the dishes. Once all traces of the teatime struggle were gone, I wondered if it had really happened, but the nearness of death lingered in everyone’s eyes, evidence that can’t be washed away.
“Dunno what happened to him,” Bridge mumbled, leaning over the bird cage with Iris. “Took off down the hill with that machete, and that was the last I saw of him.” I suppose she was rehearsing what she would say if the police ever showed.
Bridgette’s face reflected the last embers of sunset, that wild bird flapping behind her eyes, a glimpse of wings in the twilight. I glanced back at the cage, its door hanging open, then glimpsed the cat bolting around the corner. It leapt onto the ledge of a ground floor window, still holding something in its mouth. Not the bird, but something small, shiny. As I tried to make out what it was, a shape moved behind the curtains, and the cat disappeared within.
“C’mon, girls!” called Papa. The others headed toward the driveway, but Nicola stood frozen, not even blinking. She had seen something in the house too. A witness or a ghost?
Without a word, I took her hand, and we walked together, our steps in sync. Passing by the great tree, we forgot the shape in the window. A flash of tropical color took its place in our minds. Green and yellow and red, it flew into the canopy. The Amazon parrot, free. The bird glided into that second sky far overhead, a glint in its eye, almost a wink.
We are marked by the tree. Its branching pattern is on Nicola’s left hand, and across my shoulders, a fractal scar of pale lines, slightly tactile. Iris thought the marks were from ground lightening that passed through us and would fade over time, but they never did. “Touch of a ghost,” she says, only half joking. They mark the moment we encountered the unseen life beneath us.
Long ago, the ancient colony learned the art of endurance, living many lives in several places at once, connected by miles of deep underground threads. Some species of fungus live thousands of years, plenty of time to negotiate with eternity.
“We’ll never forget the Tree of Life,” says Nicola. How could we? Our other selves live in its shadows, in the mycelium branches and fruiting bodies, hidden. A chorus of spores, they sing us to sleep at night, sheltered beneath the second sky.