Monkeys See Forever
I step back a couple paces then run and leap. I fly upward, aiming for the low mossy crotch of the silver maple close to our house in the front yard. Its trunk slants upward in a long V, like fingers pointing to heaven. My feet have just enough space to land; my legs sway to a firm touchdown on the tree crotch. When I glance around, I see no one. Not even my sisters Aleta or Marta. I clap five times, once for Mom, another for Dad, twice for my sisters, another for me, so I will not feel alone.
With my back lodged against one side of the trunk and my feet and hands pressed against the other side of the trunk, I slowly climb, almost sloth-like, inching upward. In this manner, I climb as far up as I can, several feet, before I stop. I do not hesitate, I lean forward, and my hands grip the deep bark ridges. Hugging the tree trunk with my legs and arms, I shimmy upward until I catch sight of a branch large and wide enough to hold my weight.
As I push upward, small pieces of the bark tear away, crumble under the pressure of the grooves of the soles of sneakers but I keeps moving upward. My hands pull my body upward, until I belly up onto the chosen branch. Gingerly, I rise from a squat to a stand. I stare down at the green asphalt roof tiles of our house, making a mental note of an orange Frisbee near the chimney, and a baseball with a grassy, peeling cover lodged in a gutter.
I imagine Mom in the kitchen. The aroma of the pinto beans laced with bacon bubbling in a black frying pan on the stovetop delights my nose. In my mind’s eye, Mom is rolling flour into tortillas on the kitchen table using a copper pipe, a scrap metal gift from the railroad yard where her Dad worked greasing the wheels. It makes a good rolling pin and moves swiftly in her hands.
I imagine Dad asleep, snoring, mouth wide open like a river carp, and the newspaper folded like a pup tent on his lap. The TV blasts news of the war; the causality list rolls down the screen casting a blue glow over the black and white marbled linoleum tile floor, even splashing against the wood paneled wall. My sister Aleta naps in her purple bedroom, on her tiny bed, sleeping beside a giant blond doll, almost her size, whose blue eyes no longer blink.
I count the lobes of one the leaves, one-two-three-four-five: five like the fingers of my hands, five like the members of my family, and I smile. Gazing upward, I scan until I find the highest branch that can bear my weight. Even higher above, the slimmest of branches point at the sparse white clouds in the bluest of skies as if an ocean inviting me to sail to new worlds.
I begin climbing again, reaching upward for another branch, grabbing hard, holding firm, pulling my weight up, my feet scrambling upward until I stand on the next branch. Below, to the right, I can see the ripe berries on the mulberry tree at the edge of the yard. My mouth salivating, I imagine standing under its long yellow branches so heavy with berries that they lean down, touching the grass making for easy pickings, the berries staining my fingertips red, my tongue ecstatic with their sweetness.
From branch to branch, I climb, until I arrive at my destination, I stop, rest. I wipe the yellow sweat from my sideburns. Rolling the sleeves of my shirt up to my elbows, pointy and hard, I think they are the perfect weapons to fend off my sister Aleta when I grow tired of her following me around. Let her sleep with her doll while I climb to the top.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice something moving. I turn to face it: a small brown ant, antennae quivering, climbs up the tree trunk, its arched legs climbing faster than I ever could, moving precisely, feet clinging to the bark, unwavering. When I reach to touch the ant, it scurries just beyond my reach. Gazing down the tree trunk, I notice more ants marching upward. With great anticipation, I wait for the next ant to reach me, listening to the clapping hands of the leaves in a gust of wind, feeling the fingers of the wind in my hair, and in the whorls of my ears.
When the next ant enters my circle, I examine it. I take note of the large eyes on top of its head; I imagine it sees me, a giant face. I count the legs, one-two-three-four-five-six, all moving up the trunk, and marvel at the thin upper body, the larger tear–shaped bottom-half.
Some summers ago, two wandering armies of red and black ants fought each other on the back porch beside Mom’s garden of colorful zinnias and towering sunflowers. With the garden hose in hand, and my parents’ permission, I squirted the ant armies away from each other, their lithe bodies caught up in the swirl of the gushing water, floating away from the back porch onto the grassy yard. Next, I hopped on my red tricycle, rolling over the reminder, their bodies left quivering in the hot sun. Now, years later, I wonder if I did the right thing as I examine with curiosity, and awe, the ant before me.
As the ant crawls into range, I reach out, my fingertips barely touching the ant but enough to cause it to slip off the trunk. It falls, descending slowly, floating, and fading until it disappears. I imagine it lands on its feet and walks away, amazingly unharmed, and perhaps returning to its nest by entering a tunnel under our house. Since I could not see it land, I feel unsure, and this feeling, this doubt pricks at me like an ant’s bite as I move upward.
When I am within reach of the highest possible branch I can stand on, I pause, and peer down below. Within the branches, there’s fluttering, a robin in flight, warbling, leaving behind a nest made of twigs, roots, grasses, holding three spotted eggs, blue like the sky, like the oceans, like the earth seen by the astronauts, my heroes, circling the moon.
In the distance, so many trees stretch across the land to the horizon, I imagine I am not in my small town in Illinois but in the middle of a great forest. Closing my eyes, I am there, in the forest, with bears, their heavy bodies swaying under the cool shade. There is where I belong too, not just here, where I live. I follow the prowling bears down to the river where they fish for salmon in a gleaming stream with their large paws, long claws, their jaws widening, devouring.
Am I really, what my Dad often calls me? Monkey? The hair on my arms like fur rises. I realize the climb down will be over too quickly for my agile arms and legs to savor. For as long as possible, I will remain among the bears, and the growl of a mountain lion in the forest, sounding like a screaming woman, until Mom hollers for me, calling me back inside for supper.
Mario Duarte: "I am a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. My poems and short stories have appeared in aaduna, Bilingual/Borderless, Chicago Literati, Huizache, Lunch Ticket, Pank, Pilgrimage, RavensPerch, Sky Island Journal, Storyscape, 2River Review, Write Launch and Typishly. New work is forthcoming in The Abstract Elephant."