The moment it first occurred to the woman that she would bring the girl home was when the girl had climbed to a sturdy branch halfway up the sycamore and ensconced herself there, first removing, then dropping, her yellow leather work boots and then her socks, stretched out like lilies at their tops, fluorescent lime green no less. The girl wrapped what looked like prehensile toes around some of the finer twigs so that it appeared that she had grown into the tree or it into her. When the woman was trying to discern the nature of the being she was examining, first she thought feral, then thinking feral, she thought wolf. But wolves don’t climb trees, both the girl and the woman knew that.
Confronted by the girl’s feet, she was compelled to say simian, ape, primate, mono, monkey, but stopped there as no one would identify a species by its feet alone. Then as the woman teetered between one identification and another without knowing if the confusion or complexity was in the girl or in herself, the girl raised her mouth to the sky and opened it into a fluted goblet as if to catch rain. The sadness the child exuded was so like a perfume that one could not bear taking it in or being without it. Grief eased out into the air extending itself in mineral colors like oil on water, the thinnest of diaphanous films until it found its destination and wrapped itself about the living body, a sculpture in opal and mother of pearl. So many days, the woman admitted, she had been curious about grief while most willing to avoid the textures of its mysteries.
Climbing the tree had not been a thoughtless or impetuous action. The girl had taken a Jew’s harp, a handful of dried cranberries, a scrap of blue leather, feathers, a vial of silver and turquoise beads, a needle, some thread, other secret objects, some sacred, all carefully balanced in the lap of an oversized T-shirt that the girl turned alternately into a desk, a knapsack, a handkerchief for blowing her nose, while another T-shirt became a bandanna, a snood, and a white banner that declared most adamantly: “I will not surrender.”
Closer scrutiny indicated however that this was not a wolf or a monkey person. Nothing so close to human. Or so diminished as to say humanoid. No protoperson. Nor was she any animal the woman could identify, but she was of another species, the woman thought, of another species altogether. The way the words fell together, something else she could not yet understand was presented to her mind: An animal of other species altogether. Or, as she was only later to understand the meaning of: an animal of other species all together.
The stone fell with enough force that there was no doubt it had been aimed and thrown to land exactly three inches from the woman’s foot. The girl was known to bite. Or so, Carmela who had taken the girl in, alleged. The woman eased herself down against the trunk of the tree. So the girl had thrown a stone. It hadn’t hit the woman. The miss was deliberate. It was an ardent signal although its meaning was unclear. Fundamentally, it indicated — “watch out.” OK. She would sit down and watch. Out. Out of herself. Watch to see what would happen next.
The least sensible thing to do would be to get a ladder and climb up the tree. The girl was fast and nimble, as any tree-based animal might be. Even if she succeeded in reaching the girl before the girl pushed her down or climbed higher or fell down herself, what would be accomplished? She could hardly expect to have a sensible conversation with the girl up there in the branches. They had never really succeeded at conversations when Carmela had brought the girl to see the woman and the woman had always known that she was not agile enough to corner the girl in the house, had it ever been necessary.
Nor was it a good idea to call the fire department. The girl would scratch, tear, kick, twist, slap, chew, spit. The woman could not pretend the girl was a house cat, or an escaped parakeet. Every morning a flock of green parrots swept through the neighborhood, a gang of runaways accommodating to the foliage and the weather. This girl was a loner. No virtue in treating her as if she were a member of a flock, or a herd animal, or a rabid dog, or worse, a wild animal, a big cat, escaped from its confines, from the zoo, and needing to be behind bars, “for its own sake,” as people were likely to say.
“Would you like to come down?” the woman asked trying to be sensible and to establish herself as someone who knew how to behave under such circumstances.
“It is beautiful up here,” the girl said. “If you climb up we can have a picnic. I have…” and then she looked through her treasures, holding each object up to the light, “nothing much to eat really. You’ll have to bring your own. Bring hot dogs.”
Wolf, the woman thought again.
Raccoon, the woman postulated.
“No soy coyote.” Had the girl whispered this or was the woman imagining this? If she wasn’t a coyote, the woman might be safe with her.
The girl was rummaging through her treasures again and yes, there was the knife in the sheath attached to a belt. She put it on as if it was the most natural adornment. The woman hesitated and then continued as if nothing had changed between them.
“Would you like me to come up? I guess I can manage it.” She didn’t mean it. She couldn’t imagine how she would get up there, but she thought it was worth asking.
“You can’t come up,” the girl said. “This is my country.” It was a definitive statement. “Don’t try it.” She paused. “I know you won’t anyway. You don’t know how to come here.”
The girl knew more about the woman than the woman knew about the girl. What would she bring the girl if they were going to have a picnic? Food with a lot of vitamin B in it, the woman thought. Food for the nervous system. She was thinking of greens and brown rice when other thoughts, decidedly foreign on practical and culinary grounds, made a dramatic entry: hearts of palm, maguey blossoms marinated in lime and tossed with red and yellow nasturtiums in a nest of rice on a bed of leaves, miner’s lettuce with the sweet coral berries of the Australian pepper tree, cactus with red hot chilies, angel’s hair with lemon butter, pansies and rose petals. Such an invasion of mind had to be accounted for. The girl was infiltrating the woman’s mind.
“Do you like to eat flowers?”
The girl looked startled and blushed several shades of bougainvillea — magenta, crimson, purple, orange, then pale white. For an instant, the woman had her.
“Oleander is poisonous. Watch out.” The words appeared in the woman’s mind as on a computer screen, so she didn’t know if they were hers or the girl’s.
Then two elderly women, Carmela and her housemate, Dusty, appeared. Until the girl climbed the tree, Carmela, who had invited the girl to live with her, had willingly shared the house and yard where the girl had been camping out between the worlds. Now they were walking in a file, Carmela extending a plate of cookies and Dusty, with equal solemn formality, offering a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. Carmela held up a cookie, timorously, reaching toward the girl and backing away, simultaneously.
“I don’t think she’ll bite,” the woman said. “She’s not an animal, you know,” she said, wondering what she meant to convey with this adamant statement when, of course, she was certain the girl would bite.
“Don’t be so certain.” Carmela, who knew the girl’s ways had called the woman, though she had waited longer than Dusty would have liked. Now they both wanted the girl down from the tree. They wanted the woman to take her away. They wanted. “Hold on to her,” they said. “Don’t let her get away. Don’t — ”
“I’ll put her on a leash,” the woman said, exasperated even though the two women had been quite kind, or so the girl had said when they had brought the unwilling girl to the woman’s house. “To talk” was the euphemism they had used each time they left the girl for an hour or so. Then it had seemed to the woman that the girl was as reluctant and confused as an animal brought for its own good to be probed or vaccinated by a vet.
A memory emerged so swiftly the woman felt a bit of vertigo and lost her inner balance as she teetered between the present and the past, then and now. When she’d been a girl of seven, a three-year-old boy who lived across the street had been kept on a leash by his mother. One end of a cord some fifteen feet long had been tied to the porch railing while the other end was hitched around his waist and shoulders to allow the boy the range from house to curb. The little boy wandered up and down the stairs and back and forth on the sidewalk, sometimes winding himself around the sycamore in the front yard, after which, for long stretches of time, he cried piteously for his mother to free him from immobility. It was true that she was only seven at the time but she had never forgiven herself for watching this scene play out again and again and doing nothing about it. Something about the boy’s predicament had seemed to her so very frightening that she had been afraid to approach him even when he only needed to be unwound or when he had climbed, leash and all, into a wood playpen, snuggling up against the bars, so distraught was he. Had she thought he would bite? It wasn’t that alone. The child was so bereft, his situation so degraded, his mother so much angrier than the other mothers who only said they were at the end of their rope, that if she, as a little girl, could have put words to her fear, she would have said that the circuit of rope which circumscribed the boy’s movements was one of the rivers surrounding hell and anyone who entered it ran the risk of drowning or remaining on that desolate shoreline forever. The woman was older now and not so afraid of catching the girl’s grief.
“Who is she?” the woman asked. “Did you ever find out anything about her? Where does she come from? Who are her people?”
“She belongs to no one,” Carmela answered, either dismissing the girl, or condemning her.
“Then she belongs to herself?”
“That’s no one.” Dusty whispered in her little rag of a voice.
“Actually,” Dusty continued, self-righteously, “I know something about her. Or rumors.” She lowered her voice and came up to the woman so that the girl wouldn’t overhear what was being said unless, as the woman suspected, she had the sharp hearing of an animal. “They say her father was a … They say, her mother …. They say she ran away from home and was never found. They say she lived on her own in the mountains.”
Not to be outdone, Carmela shouldered Dusty aside to commandeer the woman’s attention, “Some say, a jaguar raised her.”
The two women turned away and then turned back, each with the same stunned expression that revealed for the first time that they really didn’t know why they had taken the girl in. They didn’t know anything really except now the girl was in the tree, had been there for hours and they were up a tree about knowing what to do.
Carmela, panicked, had called the woman who had been talking to the girl occasionally for several weeks at Carmela’s request. The woman hadn’t asked, “How can I help?” She had just come.
Now Carmela and Dusty were looking at the woman with kindness. And hope. They wanted the girl out.
The woman asked for food and sat quietly, as if there were no girl in a tree, no wolf, no apparitions. Dutifully, the two women brought coffee and another glass of orange juice and also hot dogs and a platter of sliced fruit, mango, papaya, melon. On another plate were circles of queso blanco on tiny tortilla rounds arranged around fresh salsa which, the woman surmised, the girl had made herself before she climbed the tree.
The women went back into their house, having agreed to leave for several hours, to see a movie. Then there was a sound of a car starting up and driving away.
“Did you hear them leave?” the woman asked the girl. “They have left the two of us to each other.”
There was no answer from the tree. Silence.
“There’s juice and cookies here whenever you want them.” She looked for a way to pass them up so that the girl could get them without endangering herself, without having to risk being caught by the woman, but there was no branch close enough upon which she could balance a plate. “Hot dogs too. Tortillas. Fruit. Juice. Cookies. You conjured all of it.” Pause. “Any time you’re hungry.” Silence. “You must be hungry. I can tell. I’m certain of it.” Silence. As if the girl had really disappeared.
The woman found herself looking to see if any of the branches led to other trees in the yard, checking out avenues of escape, even for a split second entertaining the mad idea that the girl could fly. But then she found her, or a smudge of her, a smear of brown flesh on a long white mottled limb, an aggregate of rage and terror held together in the shape of foot, thigh, rump. It was all she could see. A hunted animal. A frightened creature. Just as she settled in, all the girl’s remaining clothes, except for the white banner, came down from that living burl in the tree with a thump.
The woman prepared for a long wait. Being that it was a warm May afternoon, the woman took her light jacket and rolled it into a pillow for the hollow at the small of her back. If it was not for the fact that she understood that the girl was suffering, she would say that the girl had appeared at exactly the right time. The woman was tired of human chatter. She would spend the night at the base of the tree waiting for the girl. She could spend a week if necessary. As it happened, she was on vacation. She might as well spend it here. Eventually the girl would come down if only to see if the unoccupied portion of the nest of leaves at the foot was more comfortable than the sky nest she had made for herself at the crook where the largest branch veered out toward the horizon.
The girl would descend in a manner befitting the kind of animal she was. The woman did not think she was dealing with a mammal of sloth nature or bat nature who preferred trees to earth. She had already established in her mind that this was no monkey though the girl had cradled herself against the trunk exactly as an alpha male Capuchin had done when the woman had observed him sleeping in a sitting position while the females and the younger ones stretched out on the branches below. The woman had spent days at Rincon Vieja in Costa Rica watching monkeys in the way she was watching the girl now. After a few days, she had told the lover who was traveling with her, “I want to die here when I am mortally ill in order to watch the monkeys in the trees as I die.”
At some time in the past, human ancestors had come down from the trees to explore the savannas. It had occurred at the same time that color had entered the landscape. One could say that all of human history followed from that. What she knew about the girl from hearsay and her own limited contact with her, the few times the girl had come — or rather had been brought — to her house, indicated that trees were not her habit of choice, but rather that they, like a dark corner, cave or closet, provided escape as well as a vantage point.
The woman began to think about the kinds of animals that secured their lives in caves and those that secured their lives in trees. To defend a cave, the creature would have to be powerful, fierce. Tree security did not require strength. It required one to be light, lithe, and agile.
“Do you ever fly in your dreams?”
“I stay awake in my dreams. I always have to be alert. Sometimes I fly … away.”
The girl was alert. She exhibited a creature instinct to protect herself through bravado, wariness and seclusion. Interests in food and water were clearly secondary. Survival had to do with escape or making herself invulnerable. From this the woman drew certain conclusions: During the history of her life, the girl had suffered more from being accessible than from being hungry.
What tactics she had developed over the years to protect herself would soon become clear. She was armed, obviously. She probably had a cache of stones hidden away in little niches in the trunk or in the forks between the branches. The woman had been told that the girl always carried a knife in a leather sheath strapped to her belt but also that she was more likely to use it against herself in a ceremony of bloodletting than against others. Weapons didn’t seem to be the main line of defense.
The knife, her seeming defense, was her jeopardy. There was a fragility, or an illusion of fragility, so that, instinctively, one wanted to protect her. Yes, her jeopardy was her defense. She was so engaging, one would not take arms against her. She was enchanting. Or enchanted. It was as if the girl had gathered all creatures into herself. As if wolf, monkey, bird had become one creature, all together, one phantasmagoria, a magical beast, an original like a sphinx. One could not take one’s eyes off her, and yet one couldn’t see her clearly either. One’s hands locked around smoke.
A shapeshifter. I’ve got myself a shapeshifter, the woman thought. At first she was pleased as if she had made a conquest and then she was a bit ashamed of thinking she had triumphed. Then she looked at her hands and saw they were empty. There was nothing in the tree but vapors and in contrast she felt massive, as if she wasn’t a creature either, but in contrast to the shimmering volatility of the girl, she was simply dull, heavy clay from which something might someday be made, with the girl’s help. She settled down, ass on the ground, to wait.
But she couldn’t wait in silence. It wasn’t her style. She listened for the girl’s mind. She listened for squawks and trills, for chattering, for monkey mind. She would know it if the girl was so afflicted, even if it was only the tremors of the twigs she heard rustling according to the girl’s quick thoughts. The girl was absolutely silent. Her mind was still.
The only sounds the woman heard were the consequence of her own inner prolixity. A din of associations bumbled through her mind. Adam and Eve. The stage was set. They were in a garden. There was a tree. The tree was hiding the girl. The woman was hungry for something. All that was needed was a serpent. Someone to say, “Dare.” My mind’s a blithering mess, the woman thought. Primal ooze. My God, what’s happening to me. What game is this child playing with me?
On cue, the girl sidled back and forth on the heavy limb she had chosen as her perch. She wrapped herself around it. She rolled around it. Snake was added to the retinue of creatures that composed her. The woman was trying to wrap her mind around the phenomenon of the girl when a sound issued from the girl’s mouth, clatter of beads on a calabash, a warning rattle.
“Don’t try to read my mind,” the girl said. “I don’t want to have to fill it with junk just to confuse you.”
Strategy one had failed. On to strategy two. The woman leaned back into the tree contemplating the soft bowl formed by her own belly, thighs and forearms. In her mind, her hand smoothed the clay, flicking drops of pure water onto flattened mud coils, until she was such a vessel that the girl would not be able to resist and so she would climb down from the tree to curl into the artfully crafted nest, head in the woman’s lap. And then if the woman was careful enough she would raise her arm, but not so much for the girl to fear a blow, and would place it on the girl’s long shining black hair braided with the leaves and blue feathers she had gathered from the sycamore. And stroke her hair. Then if the girl allowed it: singing.
Of course it happened exactly when she was caught in such an idyllic reverie, when she was lost in fantasies of her own irresistible benevolent presence, to nurture without altering, to interact without affecting, to touch without marking, to offer without wanting, to protect without domesticating, to listen without intruding, to extend without penetrating, to enact her unique and exemplary ability to tame the wild without taming the wild, that the girl let loose with a pungent, yellow stream of urine that was not, as was the stone, designed to miss the mark. The thrill of mink was that it might, could, did — often — bite.
Naïvely, the woman had reckoned that the girl would not relieve herself while in the tree, that she would not piss on her head. This turned out not to be correct. The woman did not know anything about the girl. But she saw this: The girl was not out of control. Despite this incident, the girl was always fastidious. She had let go with precise, exact marksmanship.
It was thrilling. What was thrilling? Being pissed on didn’t thrill the woman. It had some currency in pornography, she had heard, being pissed on. A male thing usually. The fast path of the eros of degradation. The man would inveigle a woman to piss on him. It wasn’t to correct the usual order of history, it was …. She didn’t know what it was and her lover had confided that a woman he knew had insisted he piss on her. Then as he had found himself intrigued, he immediately got out of bed, put on his clothes and walked out the door, reeking with self-righteousness.
Once with her lover… in a little clearing in the woods… near a river… it was a warm evening. A stream nearby. On each other’s feet. They had let go at once.
“My siblings taught me,” the girl inserted herself into the woman’s mind. “My older sister taught my two older brothers and I taught the youngest one who was five when I was six. It was easier for the boys. I had to learn to aim. I got so good at it, I was the champ even if I didn’t have the best equipment.”
“So don’t try to get control of the situation,” the girl hissed aloud. “I may not have a pot to piss in, but I don’t need one,” she said with absolute dignity.
The woman knew her hair could be washed. Clothes could be washed. Urine was sterile. She pretended to herself that she found this comforting. In fact, she did find the urine comforting. That is, it set parameters broader than she had expected. It expanded the playing field. She burrowed down into the soft earth under her and adjusted her jacket. Yes, she would wait the girl out. And she had a strategy too.
She would wait for the women to return from the movies. She would put the girl in their hands for the night. They could sleep on the porch. They wouldn’t need to stay awake to keep watch as it was, given the last scene, most unlikely that the girl would come down while they were outside since the girl had climbed the tree to escape them in the first place.
Success. The woman had the girl treed.
This fiction piece is an excerpt drawn from chapter one of the novel Feral.