by L. Vocem
First published in Well Versed
Bryan pranced ahead of his father, oblivious of the heat, or how steep the hill was. The father called, “Bryan, don’t get too far ahead. Bryan, wait!” But Bryan kept going.
The father stopped, trying to catch his breath. He turned around and looked at the city, at the high-rises in the valley. A breeze came from the east, barely abating the suffocating heat of the afternoon as it hit his face.
“Pap, are you tired?” Bryan asked.
“No son, I’m fine. I’m just looking,” he said, still winded, taking quick bursts of air. Rivulets of sweat poured down his face. “Can you tell which one is our home?”
Bryan looked at the buildings for the first time, not interested, attempting to produce a grimace, trying to avoid contorting the side of his face with the black eye, still swollen. He turned and began to walk up the narrow path.
The father glanced at the high-rise where they lived and searched for all the ferns on the balcony -- that would be their apartment. He couldn’t help noticing a four-story building closer to the mountain. He grinned sadly, remembering when he got the letter from his brother saying that his parents had sold the home place, that they were tired of tending a house. He was in school in the States and there was nothing he could do about it. And since they came back, he'd noticed that most of the old houses with the red roofs had disappeared as well, swallowed by higher and higher buildings. Now even the building that stood where the house used to be looked old, with mildew streaks running down the side where the air-conditioner units hung.
“So where is this place Pap?” Bryan asked, looking up at the mountain.
“It’s been a long time. You see that group of trees on the middle of the mountain, well, that's the place. Back then, they grew all over there.”
“Why does it have to be a guava tree? Why not that tree over there,” Bryan asked, squinting the black eye. The yellow was beginning to form on his cheek.
The father realized he was staring at Bryan’s face and looked away, up at the mountain.
“Yeah Pap, why not that tree there? It looks perfect,” Bryan said, getting off the path into the monte, into the tall tropical grass.
“Don’t walk through there, Bryan.”
“Pap, it’s no big deal.”
Bryan sighed and rolled his eyes, displaying more of the blood turned purple that covered the white of his left eye.
“I mean it,” the father said. Bryan stopped and looked at him with a bored expression.
“See this,” the father pointed at mud and twigs that seemed to have caught between some of the leaves of the tall grass.
“Mata Caballos,” horse killer wasp, he said. “That is their nest. I got stung by some of them when I was a kid and they almost killed me. I stayed in bed for close to two weeks.”
“From that? Wow. And look at them, they don’t look so mean.”
“Take a look at this.” He lifted his short sleeve and pointed at several marks on his shoulder.
“No way. They look like freckles.”
“From them? We don’t get any like them back home.”
“Bryan, remember, this is home now.”
The father took a deep breath, not feeling as hot, and began to walk up the hill. This time Bryan followed him. Rains had carved a foot-deep ditch into the path, now dry and rocky. The father told Bryan about the places where the rattle snakes liked to hide, particularly behind some of the loose rocks. They walked carefully to the side, also avoiding the wasp nests.
“We’re almost there, see that mango tree. We used to have a club house there.”
“Out here. You’re kidding.”
“That’s where our group would gather to smoke cigarettes.”
“Don’t tell your Mom I told you.”
They walked under the canopy of the mango tree. The trunk was as wide as their kitchen table and covered in moss. Branches extended horizontally across a forty-foot area. The ground reeked of fermented ripe fruit, thick and penetrating under that heat.
“Funny, nobody comes up here,” Bryan said.
“How come?” the father asked.
“Don’t know, boring I guess. Video games are better. Skateboard’s useless up here.”
“So you think this is boring?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So you’d rather hang out by the supermarket’s parking lot with those shit-for-brain kids, right?”
"They're not my friends, Pap."
Jennifer would have bitched at him for using the “S” word. He began to think that maybe the trip up the mountain was all a mistake. He could just as well be at the office. There was so much that needed to be done, yet here he was, feeling inadequate with his own kid.
Bryan bit his lip and looked up at the canopy of the tree.
The father pointed to Bryan where they used to have the steps, where the plank boards and walls once stood. Then he described some of the battles he had there with other groups of kids that wanted to take over their tree house. He told him how he kept rocks in his pockets. Usually they were small enough to fit in a sling shot pouch, which was made from the leather label from a pair of Lee jeans. Most of their battles were half fun, so they mainly used dirt clods, solid enough to be precise, soft enough not to send someone to the hospital. But then there were those times when the battles were for real and nasty. The father picked a mango from the ground and threw it up at the tree. Several mangos fell to the ground. He picked two of the mangos and tossed one to Bryan.
Bryan smiled for the first time, twitching his black eye.
“Can I climb?” Bryan asked, grabbing a branch of the tree and placing his untied cross-training shoes on one of the wooden steps still nailed to the tree. He couldn’t get a good hold on the large branch and slipped.
“Try this,” the father said, going up the hill away from the tree into some bushes. He reappeared by making a swift jump onto one of the branches. Holding to the foliage of the tree, he balanced his way into the middle.
Bryan climbed the tree following his father. The father leaned against one of the branches and pulled a medium-sized kitchen knife, wrapped in a paper napkin, and cut into the mango. Bryan climbed some of the branches, making monkey noises as he went up.
“Test the branches first son. This is a very old tree, and a lot of them are rotten.” Bryan did not answer and kept climbing closer to the top of the tree. “Just push them and see if they hold.” The father felt uneasy, realizing that his son could fall, remembering the times that he had fallen, the close calls, and how he managed to remain unscathed. He looked at the ground below. No. It’s dangerous, he thought. How come he never saw it that way as a kid?
“Bryan. Not too high,” he said, feeling guilty for saying it. How in the hell is the kid going to learn anything if he doesn’t let him make mistakes? He felt shame for the black eye, remembering that was why they were up here on the mountain.
“Pap, I can see Mom from here. She’s watering the ferns.”
“Jesus Christ you’re way too high. Come down.”
“It’s okay Pap,” Bryan said.
Bryan began to climb down, pursing his lip, trying not to make a face.
The father could not help but watch every step the son made, praying that each branch would hold; that it would not be rotten. A branch broke under Bryan’s foot and fell to the ground. Bryan looked at his father and grinned, showing his braces.
The father took a deep breath and from the corner of his eye gave Bryan a look. Is this how he behaved himself when he was eleven?
A light breeze came up from the valley and filtered through the tree. It made the inside so much cooler, more like the way the father remembered. He told Bryan about how they used to take siestas while one of them kept watch. It was easy to tell when someone was coming, because a flock of vultures that congregated on the top of the first knoll would take off. Bryan looked without expression in the direction where his father was pointing.
“Why guard the tree, what’s the big deal? There're mango trees all over the place, Pap,” Bryan said and looked at his father.
The father took a deep breath and pursed his lips. You’ve finally gotten his attention, the father thought. So talk. He forced a smile at Bryan and looked around. Then as if performing a trick, he lifted the seed of the mango he had eaten. “Son, there’s no better mango than this. And we used to sell them by the buckets. This was our currency; what allowed us to go to the movies, buy comic books, baseball cards–-”
“And cigarettes,” Bryan said.
“That too,” the father said, thinking that maybe this whole thing was a mistake, like so many things that he just acted upon, without thinking, without planning, until it was too late. No. This he was sure. His father did it. His grandfather did it. Now it was his turn. Now he was "The Father." Even though he was sure Jennifer was not going to approve. They'd have a fight. She’ll call him a beast, at least, name dropping all the books about the scientific rearing of a child. But they were no longer in the States. Things were different down here. He had no choice.
“So Bryan, do you know what a guava tree looks like?”
Bryan looked puzzled and made a face as if he didn’t want to know. Then he said “does it have to be a guava tree, Pap?”
The father nodded. He wiped the knife and covered it with the paper towel and climbed off the tree.
“Why not this tree Pap?”
“Not the same, wrong branches,” the father said as he walked from under the canopy of the mango tree into the scorching tropical sun. He squinted, having to readjust to the brightness. Bryan came out a few seconds later and covered his face. Then walked back under the tree.
“Where are you going?” the father asked.
“I gotta take a leak Pap.”
“Not under the tree Bryan!”
Bryan came back alarmed.
“Go ahead, son. I guess it’s stupid. That was one of our rules. We didn’t want the tree to be stinking of piss and shit.”
Bryan frowned and nodded, as if realizing that it made sense. Then he walked out of the canopy and started to take a leak, which made the father want to take a leak too. They pissed on a small bush, moving the streams around until they had drenched every branch.
Farther ahead they found the grove of guava trees that the father had talked about. Bryan seemed disappointed. He looked around at the small trees with the texture of a crape myrtle, only that guava trees had that fruit Bryan had not been able to get used to eating because of all the little seeds inside.
“So, what’s the big deal about a guava tree, Pap?”
The father didn’t want to just reveal his secret, turning the whole trip up the mountain into one small piece of information that Bryan could quickly disregard. No, that was not why he had not gone to the office, even though it was a Saturday. So instead he just took out the kitchen knife, thinking that the next thing he was going to do was buy a good hunting knife, like he used to have as a kid. He looked around the trees and studied the branches, nicking some of them with the knife on certain places. He noticed that Bryan was staring at him with a befuddled expression. The father cut several branches about seven inches below what looked like a V shape. Then he cut the rest of each branch about four inches above the V and peeled the bark off each one. About a quarter of an inch from the top he carved a groove out of the wood. He studied each V shape carefully, peeling some bark in some areas until they were even. When he finished, he showed them to Bryan.
“Guava branches have the best V shapes of any trees, and after the wood dries, it’s tough, yet flexible enough to make it more accurate. There's just no better wood.” The father grinned. “Just remember, not a word of this to your mother.”
Out of a pocket, the father took four red rubber bands about half an inch wide. He cut the circles into strips. He felt though his pocket for some of the string his wife used for tying roasts. Finally, he found it in his back pocket.
“Take your pick,” the father said, throwing the two V shaped branches at Bryan.
“What am I looking for. Pap?”
“Grip, thickness, how it feels in your hand.”
“I don’t know. You pick, Pap.”
“This one will last forever.” The father gripped one of the V shaped branches, extended his arm and looked through it, then shaved about half an inch from the top and carved new groves about a quarter of an inch from the top.
“Here, give me a hand.” The father wrapped the end of the rubber bands around the groove in the wood and stretched it. “Tie the best knot you can around the rubber bands, then twist it around the wood. Make an X. Good. Now do another knot. Tighter. Tighter! Good. Good job.”
They repeated the process over the other side. Then attached the leather strap with Lee written on one side to the rubber bands.
“Here,” the father said, handing his creation to his son. Bryan smiled, gripping the handle tight. The father picked a small round rock from the ground and gave it to Bryan.
“Put it in the pouch, don’t worry about the aim just yet. It takes practice. You’ll get there, I promise. I used to be able to knock a mango off a tree thirty feet away.”
“No way. With this thing.”
“We used to call them cheenahs.”
Bryan pulled the pouch with one hand and held the handle hard with the other. Then he released the pouch and the rock flew and smacked a guava tree in the middle of a branch.
“This is cool as shit! Oops, sorry, I won’t say that again.”
The father’s face turned serious, stern. He studied Bryan’s face, cheek bones, eyes. Bryan’s smile disappeared, but he kept blinking the left eye, the blackened eye.
The father lifted his hand about Bryan’s eye level and produced between his fingers another rock.
“Bryan. This is a special rock. See, it’s flat. I used to keep two of them in my front pocket, and the cheenah in my back pocket all the time. I had to.”
“Had to? I thought this was a quiet neighborhood when you were growing up Pap?”
“It was, son," the father said, trying to see into the one eye that was practically shut, with some gook stuck to the corner of the eyelid, and purple and yellow around his cheek. “But you know why this rock is flat? If somebody tries to mess with you. You politely tell them to stop, like your mom told you. But if they keep messing with you son, remember that this rock is flat just for one reason, and that is to draw blood.”
Bryan took the rock and placed it in the pouch. He pulled on the sling shot, but stopped and let it relax. He looked at his father, at the tree, at his hand holding tight on the pouch. He pulled the rubber as far as it would go. He aimed. He released the pouch. The rock buzzed through the air and smacked a green guava.
Bryan looked at his father and grinned.