Kerry L. Cole
Juan Rivera braced a lean forearm against the coarse bark of a Douglas-fir tree, focusing battered Bushnell 10 power binoculars on distant tree tops, like a patient bird watcher seeking the rare Marbled Murrelet. Rivera was no bird watcher, however, nor particularly patient; the quarry he sought in the midst of this Northern California forestland was human, feminine.
“Where is she?” he muttered, magnified gaze slowly panning left to right across the undersized wood platform secured high in the branches of an old-growth redwood. The scent of decaying leaves, moist earth and faint campfire smoke registered subconsciously on his senses as he focused on the tree. Her house, he mused derisively, a sheet of scrap plywood lashed to a pair of gnarled branches with rope and liberal applications of duct tape and a blue tarp hanging down from higher branches forming a teepee over the precarious structure.“What kind of idiota would choose to live there?” Twigs, ferns, branches and tall trees blurred through his vision as he glassed the platform and its blue teepee with a corner pulled back exposing some interior space of the small hovel, but not the girl. A strong wind would shred that tarp, he thought, and yet hadn’t she survived several months already. Recently a much-need monsoonal rainstorm whipped in from the Pacific Ocean, via Humboldt Bay, thundering like a herd of stampeding cattle, pummeling and soaking the parched vegetation, animals and humans in its path. Enough to drive even the heartiest zealots to more convivial environs, and maybe it had. She didn’t seem to be on the platform.
Juan stumbled on the tree sit during one of his longer evening hikes, hearing voices through the woods in what turned out to be the woman’s supply team restocking her meager provisions. They tied a bag filled with supplies to a rope and she pulled it up. Crude, but effective. Juan loved prowling through the forest, comfortable with nature, unlike his co-workers who feared lions and tigers. Juan assured them no such creatures wandered this wood, but just the same, it pleased him that none ventured far from camp and Juan didn’t work all that hard to allay their superstitions and fears. He liked his alone time, melding with this vast forest ecosystem and even hiking all the way to the small town from time to time. They wouldn’t be happy about that. He returned each dusk to spy on the girl, hidden in the foliage, creeping closer each visit. His heart raced, pumping endorphins and adrenaline throughout his body, each sense fueled and heightened, as he stalked her through the undergrowth, silent, like a panther.
On the fourth evening he’d been rewarded with a glimpse of the girl, naked from the waist up, bent over a basin of water, shoulder-length auburn hair pulled back in a loose pony tail, washing her face, soaping her underarms then quickly splashing off the suds. He’d frantically worked the focus of his binoculars, cursing as her image sharpened then blurred from overcorrection, sharpened again, herky jerky as he sought a stable brace for the binoculars. “Not a girl, a woman,” he thought, reflecting back to those brief, blurred moments, images frozen in his memory. She’d turned back to the shelter by the time he brought his field glasses in focus, but he scrutinized her bare back and shoulders as she disappeared inside the blue tarp abode. The vision, fleeting but exciting, revealed an attractive woman, around thirty he reckoned, much older than he. That had been ten days ago. He’d sneaked back every evening since then, always at dusk with his day’s work completed. Hidden in his camouflage gear, shielded by Douglas Fir, redwoods, bushy evergreens and springy green ferns on the forest floor, amid the dusky smell of peat and hundreds of years of forest detritus, he spied on her. One evening, one of the recent warm nights, she sat with long legs dangling from the platform, reading a book and he’d been able to study her face, it’s contours, blemishes, full pink lips, the sweep of her eyebrows and the way she absently tucked a few strands of straying hair behind an ear, then turned a page. Crazy lady to sit like that 180 feet above ground, on that rickety shelter, but completely at ease, comfortable.
Juan ruminated on the woman constantly while working the field. When did she wake up? Was she afraid of the wind and rain? How did she go to the bathroom? How often did her helpers stop by? Did visitors climb the tree to see her? Why was she wasting her life on a dangerous, wood pallet in the sky? Creating a back-story for her: Married? Probably not he conjectured because it suited his fantasy. Was she a pampered princess run away? Maybe, for she seemed concerned about personal cleanliness as Juan witnessed firsthand at the glorious water-basin sponge bath. Juan’s mind linked cleanliness to an exalted nature, as the Bible taught, and her feminine nobility to some regal worthiness. Religion, superstition and fantasy mixed and marinated in Juan’s mind in a creative stew of bent philosophies and fairy tales, fomented by years spent in company of ignorant older men-- uncles, cousins, and their degenerate friends. Virtually none of Juan’s male role models achieved high school graduation, their lives spent working the fields from age fourteen, spending their meager paychecks on whiskey and women in a week-to-week subsistence. A favorite sport was tormenting the gullible boy, always underfoot, with vicious tales of the sordid undead, of darkness, and ghouls from the otherworld. Some nights, a beloved uncle, Miguel, who may or may not have been a blood uncle, but emanated a genuine affection for the lad, read him stories from the battered family Bible or a tattered novel. He slipped off to sleep with scenes of David’s courageous battle against Goliath playing in his head or the less admirable actions of David toward Bathsheba and her husband Uriah the Hittite. Of King Arthur, damsels in distress and knights in shining armor. Even now as an older teen he fantasized the scenes in his mind while drifting in the twilight moments before sleep overtook him, and often continued in dream, the line between fable and fact an ambiguous blur informing his perceptions of the world. In recent days the woman from the tree cavorted through his fantasies amid the knights and princesses, assorted zombies, and Juan, himself.
He inferred ladylike, noble inclinations for the fairy tale princess image persisted beyond all other imagery generated by his inventive mind, not at all like the common women he’d known.
She ended most days gazing at the setting sun, wistful, unsettled, he thought. Something out there called to her, but day after day she waited until the sun slipped from sight and dusk became darkness before retreating behind the blue tarp cover. That was his cue to melt back into the forest and begin the hour-long hike to the hidden worker’s camp; it never occurred to him to climb the tree and introduce himself to the princess. For one thing he was deathly afraid of heights, but more importantly, one does not socialize with nobility, one observes them, reveres them from a distance, unseen, unacknowledged, unknown.
Juan glassed the woman’s tree stand and surrounding trees; on past evenings he’d seen her clamber carelessly along leafy branches from one overlapping tree to another, seeming oblivious to the danger. Other times she’d hooked into a metal cable with a mountain-climber’s carabineer and pulled herself hand over hand to one of the abandoned tree stands in nearby trees. No sign of her this night and he felt a heaviness in his heart. Had the recent storm finally forced her out? Juan and his coworkers spend most of the week in tents playing cards and finishing off their supply of beer. Surviving that storm, on a hunk of scrap wood in the air seemed unlikely. Perhaps she’d been knocked out of the tree and killed. He considered checking the area beneath the stupid tree as hot tears sprang to his eyes. He wiped them away with the back of his right hand, leaving a muddy slash across his face. Reason it out. Think. Think. If she’d been blown out of the tree, the covering tarpaulin would be shredded and the wood platform would be hanging slackly from the ropes or gone.
For the hundredth time, he braced carefully and focused on the tree stand. It stared back at him benignly, everything in order, as he’d known it would. He slumped to the damp earthen and foliage strewn forest carpet, back scraping the fir’s coarse bark, snuffed hard and ran his hand over his runny nose, wiping the residue on his dirty green canvas pants. He tucked the glasses inside his padded jacket and pulled up his legs. Bits of fern and grasses stuck out of his floppy camouflage hat, just as he’d been taught in the Mexican National army infantry. Become one with the environment, become invisible. Think. Her house is fine, none the worse for wear so she didn’t get killed by the wind. But she isn’t at the tree.
Darkness crept up on him while he’d stood watch, and the tree containing the girl’s abode darkened and retreated into the forest. Only the powerful magnification of the binoculars drew in enough light to reclaim her tree, and that a losing battle. Still no movement, no sign of the princess. She’s left, gone home; everyone has a breaking point and she reached hers. There’d been near constant turnover in the other tree stands, yet she’d always hung on. Again salty moisture threatened to leak from the corners of his eyes and his nose watered as he felt himself slipping inexorably into the deep, murky pit of black tar that lurked in his psyche like a shadow.
He wiped with the frayed jacket sleeve and vowed to revisit each evening for the remainder of the harvest season. She had to return. She had to. It would be his vigil, his crusade, but the hollowness in his chest, his leaden limbs and sluggish brain told a dreary story.
A tree squirrel chattered in the near darkness and the muffled crack of a soggy twig, light swish of a nearby animal, probably a deer foraging on the tender wild grass shoots before following the faint trail to the stream. Juan, himself, would trek a portion of the same trail returning to camp. The common forest sounds, the deer trail and even the piles of small green-brown marbles, deer scat, that dotted the trail brought comfort and peace to Juan, but now he remained oblivious to these things, slumped, the legs and seat of his pants soaked, on the forest floor. Giant Sequoias, spruce and Douglas-fir trees towered above him, reaching heavenward, further humbling Juan with their power and majesty. He cradled his head in his hands, rocked gently on his haunches fighting the darkness within. Always fighting the demons of his internal darkness.
Eventually he wrestled the black clouds into the corner of his mind, at least enough to stand up and start the return trip. Before setting out he yanked the Bushnell’s out of his jacket and focused on the tree-house one last time, though even with the magnification, the tree remained virtually invisible as the last vestiges of light fled, their job done for the day. He blinked hard clearing the moisture from his eyes, and focused intently.
“Looking for somebody?”
The sound startled him, coming from somewhere to his rear. Binoculars fell from his hands as he dropped and rolled then came up in a firing position, sweeping the area with a two-hand grip on the 9mm Glock 17 from his web belt. His heart pounded, he peered into the glooming, sensing a form here, a movement there, eyes trying to readjust from the magnified luminosity of the binoculars. He’d been so completely, intently focused on the woman’s platform, fighting his personal darkness, secure in his invisibility, that he’d let his guard down and someone came up on him. Stupid.
“Who’s there?” he growled in strongly accented English. “Show yourself. Quien esta?” He slid sideways, pressing through wet foliage, seeking protection of a bulky fir tree as he spoke, covering the forest with the pistol as he moved. For several long moments only the sounds of the forest responded. Night birds chirped and crickets squeaked in a normal rhythm, background noise he noticed only in its absence. The continued presence of these native sounds suggested to Juan that the natural order didn’t detect anything amiss. Yet, the voice indicated another human, the top of the food chain, a potential predator to these bugs and animals. Why were they behaving normally? Juan’s mind weighed and evaluated the data subconsciously, all other senses intensely tuned to the tiniest movement in the darkness or sound of a twig breaking, anything to betray the location of his undefined adversary.
After several seconds spent covering the forest with the Glock, sweeping in a left to right pattern, hearing only nature, the deepest, dimmest recesses of his mind suggested to Juan that he may be dealing with something unnatural like a fantasma, a ghost. What else could cover this terrain unnoticed by the birds, and nocturnal noise makers, or himself for that matter, in complete silence. He felt a confirming chill envelop his being like the nightly fog beginning to settle in from the Pacific, however this chill began in his bowels and spread outward like water freezing in a bottle. He rubbed his midsection while keeping the gun trained outward, dreading an encounter with the undead that populated so many of the legends of his youth. Beads of sweat popped on his forehead and the back of his neck, moistening the fringes of unkempt black hair. Freezing inside, burning outside. His fight or flight instinct screamed RUN, but his clammy combat boots remained frozen to the soggy forest turf.
“You planning to spy on me or shoot me?”
The voice, feminine, came not from behind him, but above, and pierced his thoughts. He fell to his knees and rolled to his back in one sharp motion, instinct and training overriding horror, and pointed the gun toward the sound. Bullets are useless against the bodiless fantasmas conjured in his uncle’s folklore, but the Glock carried seventeen shots in the clip, one in the chamber, and he’d expend them all without hesitation, just in case. Aiming along the sights from supine position at the branches above, he detected it, a dark form in somewhat humanoid shape, twenty-five feet up in the lower branches of another Fir tree, to his right side. Dark, shrouded in an ethereal mist, outline blurred. Spasms of fear overtook him; his adrenaline spiked, but his blood-pressure nose-dived to near blackout levels, and his previously chilled bowels heated instantly, threatening to loosen altogether.
“Dios mio, Dios mio,” he uttered in desperate prayer and crossed himself. Then he screamed, “Vaye, vaye. Go away,” the stress pinching his vocal cords to a prepubescent squeak. “Just go away!” The gun trembled.
“You go away and let the trees live.”
Juan cocked his head, puzzled, and chanced a quick swipe across his sweat-streaked forehead with his left hand, then quickly regripped the Glock with both hands. Even as it swayed like a willow in a stiff breeze, the gun barrel arcing with little deference to target integrity, he sensed something odd happening.
“I can see you,” he said in a stronger voice.
“I see you, too.”
“Why don’t you just fly away and leave me alone.”
“When you and your people agree to respect the forest, my associates and I will only be too happy to leave.”
“There are more of you?”
“Oh, yeah. A never ending supply. Legions. We won’t give up. Not now, not ever.”
Juan’s skin crawled and he gave quick side-long glances at the dark shrubs and trees. Legions.
“Where? Where are they?”
“Why are you here?” he asked in a stronger voice. “I’ve never seen you here before.” Then a thought exploded in his brain, his grip tightening to white-knuckle strength. “Did you take away the girl? What did you do to her?”
Ignoring the last questions it answered, “You’re lying. I’ve seen you here a couple of times and I know you saw me. Why do you come here? Why are you spying on me?”
This conversation puzzled Juan. The fantasma kept its distance, didn’t overtly threaten him. Sounded normal, if cranky. Why did it ask questions? Didn’t the fantasma know why he came here. Surely it had drifted in with the mist, hovering nearby and seen him on other days. No? Spied on him while he spied on the girl.
“I come to watch the girl,” he managed feeling more comfortable with this other-worldly being as they conversed in her strange, cryptic style. As long as it stays up in the tree, he thought, regripping the Glock.
“In the tree. The one in the tree. Over there.” He gestured vaguely over his shoulder, toward the tree stand, without taking his eyes off the ghost, holding the gun at the ready with his other hand.
“Oh, that girl.” In a soft voice, “Did you come to hurt her?”
Juan narrowed his eyes, suspicion pinging relentlessly in his subconscious mind began to seep into his consciousness and his wits slowly returned. He noticed with great satisfaction that his bowels felt trustworthy again and the freezing interior of his body reached equilibrium with the burning exterior in a comfortable reality. He lowered the gun, not yet ready to holster it. With his free hand he grabbed a Maglight from an interior pocket and without warning shone the powerful light on the fantasma.
“You’re her! Juan gasped, “Are you alive or dead?”
The girl, for he saw her clearly now in the flashlight’s yellow-white brilliance, shielded the glare with an outstretched hand and shifted her position on the branch, blinking rapidly.
“You trying to blind me? Get that out of my eyes.”
Juan lowered the light and despite his severe superstitions, felt pretty sure she was real, but he knew the true test. “If you’re alive, let me touch you.”
“Yeah right. That’s going to happen.”
To Juan’s ear this sounded possibly like sarcasm.
Then she added, “In your dreams,” and he wondered how she knew.
While he watched her in the indirect light, be she poltergeist or human, she unscrewed the cap of a Nalgene bottle and took a long pull of water. This act confirmed it for Juan; water did not drop through her body as it surely would’ve a vaporous specter.
“You alone?” He challenged. Fear was immediately replaced by its closest companion in Juan’s psyche: anger. And that jumping from a simmer to full boil, an over-compensation to being scared out of his wits.
“Yeah, there’s legions of tree sitters here. Don’t you see them?”
Again with the sarcasm. Juan did not like nor always understand sarcasm, particularly in English, and he believed it unladylike. Was that a Biblical allusion to legions, as in evil spirits?
“Please put that gun down. I’m unarmed. If I had a gun and wanted you dead, you’d’ve been wasted twenty minutes ago.”
“Why’d you sneak up on me? You scared me to death. I thought . . .” He would not finish the thought, it was none of her business that he’d feared her death or departure and the idea of it drew tears on his young face.
“That’s precious, given your cute little camo outfit and the twigs sticking out of your hair and backside. Oh, and the binoculars staring at my platform. You’ve got some nerve.”
“I don’t like your attitude. I have a gun.” He waved it as if unveiling the weapon for the first time. “I could shoot you.”
“Put it away now. We can’t talk with that thing waiving about.” Obeying orders was an integral part of his life and though he hated himself for complying with this increasingly irritating woman’s request, he slid the Glock into his belt.
“Come down here,” he commanded, “on the ground,” but she ignored him, something else with which Juan was all too familiar.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” She reached out a long leg, found purchase on a branch a few feet down and lowered herself. Then she moved down a couple more, only fifteen feet off the ground now.
“Juan, Juan Rivera.” He walked close to her tree and sat cross-legged on the mat of leaves, some dried and brittle, others green, but all damp. His heart slowed close to normal and his temper dissipated, but ever lurking.
“And?” she prodded after he didn’t continue. “You’re here to . . .?”
“Patrol.” He reclined and stared up at her, occasionally playing the light across her form. Night had settled in. Above the canopy a few early stars shone and a crescent moon rose on the horizon.
“You’re a logger then?”
“No.” He spat it out like an insect caught in his mouth. “I hate loggers. They’re our enemy.”
She brightened considerably, smiled, “So you’re one of us?”
He slapped a mosquito drilling in for a swig of young, Mexican blood. “No,” he scoffed. “We hate the loggers, but tree huggers are just stupid. At least loggers make money. We understand making money.”
“Who is the we that makes so much money?”
He sat up, pulled the collar of his jacket up. “Mi family. My hermanos. Mis amigos. My people.”
“What do you do to earn all this great and glorious money? You and your posse.” She repositioned herself on the branch and muttered “My butt is falling asleep on these hard branches.”
“You should speak more ladylike, more gentle. You don’t act at all like a princess. Always digging, pressing, talking.” No true princess would deign to speak to a commoner like Juan. He knew this, though not in those words, yet there she sat, peppering him with questions, condescending to his level and commenting about her tired rear.
She shifted positions on the limb again and leaned forward, bracing on an overhead branch. “Princess? Hardly . . . Juan, how do you make your money? Why are you in the woods? How old are you anyway? Talk to me.”
“Stop. Stop it. A lady knows her place. She doesn’t keep pushing a man all the time.” He swiped angrily at a mosquito buzzing his face. “It makes a man angry. Prying. My name, my job, my age, but who are you?” He suddenly leaped to his feet and in a smooth motion drew and leveled the pistol, lining the sights with her head. The menacing hole of the barrel, a black pinpoint darker than the surrounding night. Sarah threw her hand up in an instinctive defense posture, but that same instinct told her to freeze. Any sudden movement might set him off. Like a statue, he silently held her in his sights, muscles taut, poised. Her eyes wide with fear and he seemed to draw strength from her terror. They remained locked together, eyes laser focused on each other, no sounds or movement penetrating their private conversation tunnel; the dominant and the submissive, one holding the life of the other in his hands like a god, the other a beggar of little value, but as a frightened pawn to be played at the god’s whim.
Several silent moments passed, her world turned upside down in an instant, fragile like a glass ornament, teetered on the edge of an abyss, the slightest puff of wind capable of sending it to shatter on the jagged rocks below. Sarah tried not to breath, afraid the exhalation of her lungs might be the tipping point. She dared not blink.
Slowly the muscles around his shoulders and neck slackened, his gaze released her and he lowered his aim, but retained the Glock in a two-handed shooters grip, as if uncertain. Not safe, but a step back from the brink.
“Who are you! Why are you here?” he said with menace, reversing her question to him, laying emphasis on the “you” as if to underscore that the tables had turned.
“I’m sorry . . . Juan.” She said in a weak voice that barely fluttered to the ground. “My name is Sarah. Sarah Simpson.” She slowly lowered her hands and settled back on the branch, and tried to steady her frenzied nerves. Sarah surreptitiously considered escape routes in one quadrant of her brain, considering and discarding, even while she addressed the boy in as soothing tones as her quavering voice would allow. “I’m an environmentalist trying to keep a timber company from cutting these trees. If I’m in a tree, they can’t cut it down or even any close by.”
He glared at her for a few seconds then made a showy production of placing the handgun in his waistband. He countered her contrition with imperiousness. “Speak. What do you want to know?”
This is not a stable human being; he is dangerous she thought, considering how to continue. His unpredictability will get me killed. She decided to continue the role of submissive repentant until she could escape. “Sorry, Juan. I just wondered what brought you out to the forest at this hour. You don’t look like a forest ranger. You say you’re not a logger.” He didn’t answer, just stared at her, but the emotional pendulum seemed to have swung back toward calm or normal. She took that as progress and tried to gently lighten the mood. “Can’t be a car salesman, drug dealer, high school teacher or preacher because there’re no people up here. What is it? A hunter?”
“Yeah, a hunter.” He patted the Glock, “with a gun or silent with a bow,” and eyed her carefully, almost shyly, and the confused adolescent reemerged for a moment. He began moving the torchlight through the trees, flitting across her face, down the tree trunk, up in the air, across her body. Without further comment he snapped off the light and plunged into the forest, lost to the night.