The Fire Tree

By Catherine Valdez

Image courtesy of Abdulmajeed AlShatri (flickr.com)

Her flesh was blotchy and red from the mosquito bites that she had scratched raw, and dried blood had dug under the rims of her fingernails. The hot Amazon canopy seemed to curdle her wounds and cook the blisters on her feet. She stopped to rest against the side of a tree where dew drops fell from the tips of broad leaves and rolled down her face. She hated the rain. It was one of the things that had brought the mosquitoes that now buzzed around her ears like hazy radio waves. She thwacked one off her cheek and its small body flattened, leaving a dot of brown blood. She peeled it off her palm and flicked it onto the ground.

The heat made it hard for Esther to breathe. It was humid and it felt as if she were breathing in more water than air. Water and stray mosquito wings. She smacked another one off her arm. She cursed the small wings that hummed against her sunburned skin. Esther dug her heels into the ground and pushed back against the tree trunk as she sprung onto her feet. Her toes cringed with pain but she started to walk. She was less likely to get bitten when moving. She wiped off the sweat that edged down the bridge of her nose. Peeling skin stuck to her fingers, leaving behind flesh as pink as peony flowers.

Just a few hours ago Esther had been with her mother, residing with a small tribe north of the basin. It had been boring there but at least the sizzling fires they kindled at night kept the mosquitoes at bay. She wished she hadn’t been so rash as to go out and explore on her own. If she had waited patiently, her mother would have finished her work and they would have taken a guide around the forest like she had promised.   But Esther wasn’t the type to sit around doing nothing all day, and she was mad at her mother for dragging her out into the jungle, where there was absolutely nothing fun to do. At the moment, going out on her own had sounded like a highly entertaining thing to do.  After sneaking out of the camp for only forty minutes, Esther had become completely lost. She couldn’t tell one tree apart from the other; they all arched towards the sky and ran down her field of vision in the same never-ending loops of rambles and vines.  She didn’t even know which direction she was going in and for all she knew, she could be inching farther away from the camp with each step she took. The tribe members were all busy tending the sick from the sudden outbreak of disease that had driven her mother here in the first place, yet she hoped that someone would take notice that she had disappeared.

Her only company was the consistent buzzing of the mosquitoes. Their buzzing, it was driving her mad, like a song she couldn’t get out of her head, a scratched record stuck playing one single note: bzzzzz, bzzzzz, bzzzzz.

Her stomach growled and she hunched over. A stabbing pain seared into her side and left her gasping. Her mouth was dry and she imagined it filled with the white cotton balls that her mother used to treat wounds. The heat, the pain of hunger, the feel of her cracked tongue on the inside of her mouth, and the mosquito bites, it was all too much for her. She wanted desperately to be back in her tent, back at the tribe’s camp. If she managed to find her way back, she promised herself to never again complain about the constant boredom or whine about her homesickness. She wouldn’t even chirp another word about the fact that she was stuck boiling drinking water most of the time or how the rising steam flushed her cheeks and made sweat drip down her face as if she were in an unpleasant sauna.

She walked forward, despite the pain. She had the ominous feeling that if she were to stop and rest for more time than she already had, she would find herself closing her eyes and drifting off. Esther shook images of her limp body resting on the ground, never waking up and decomposing into the dark layers of leaves that littered the ground. She didn’t want to think of dying. It had only been one day. It was too soon to give up.

Image courtesy of wren el renegade (flickr.com)

The greenery began to densen after a few more hours of walking. She had to move with her arms out in front of her to clear enough space to walk. Here the trees were greener, taller, and healthier. They reminded Esther of the buildings that dotted the sidewalks of her home and shot up from the asphalt. She placed her palm on the tree closest to her. Orchids, pink with speckles of red (so much like dried blood) ran down strips of bark. They spellbound her for a moment until she forced herself to pry her eyes away.

Higher up still, there was a cluster of fruits.  Some littered the floor but they were rotten, and beetles had tunneled into their flesh until they were nothing but pulp. Her stomach urged her to risk a broken neck to climb up and retrieve the fresher ones. She gripped the bark but it was slippery from layers of slick green moss. The attempt wouldn’t be worth it. She didn’t even know if they were edible.  Esther kept walking, parting wooden llana vines as she went along. Over head she could hear a toucan or macaw, maybe both, and a few spider monkeys. She made out an algae-covered sloth to her left, pressed into the limbs of a tree like a drooping leaf. In the last fifteen minutes of walking she had just seen more animals than in the last two days combined. The ground was moist beneath her feet. A single word rung in her head; it droned above the sound of the mosquitoes. Water, where there are animals there is water. She remembered this fact from all the documentaries she had watched prior to her trip here.

Esther quickened her pace. In an hour she reached the bank of the river. It seemed to stretch on forever and dip into the horizon. In some places it was littered with lily pads, some larger than car wheels. Ether dipped into the water, her clothes becoming translucent. It was refreshing and cooled her wounds. She dunked her head underneath, taking large gulps even though her mother had warned her that the river water was filled with bacteria. She let it lap over her tongue and down her throat.

Something pink sliced through the water. It resembled a large fish. It got closer and nudged Esther. Light reflected off its skin. It was as smooth as leather. Not a fish, a dolphin. A pink Amazon dolphin; she recognized it from the colored illustration of a field guide she had brought for the trip. It didn’t shy away when Esther tried to touch it and let her run her hand down the length of its nose. It was beautiful like the orchids, pink like peony flowers, like her wounds. It submerged into the water and swam away. She stared at the spot where it had disappeared into and wondered if she had really seen it or if her mind had just concocted it to calm her. The latter choice was more reasonable, since Amazon dolphins were supposed to be extinct, yet it had felt real to the touch.

The water under the lily pads rippled. Esther tried to make out a flash of pink but all she saw were murky fish, their jaws open and full of sharp teeth. She trudged back onto the bank. Just weeks prior, a young native had been attacked by a piranha, and the image of his mauled calf was still clear in Esther’s mind. She did not care to find out if the fish that lurked just a mere twenty feet away were the same ones that had torn the skin of the boy’s lower leg to shreds.

The sky was a water-color canvas of pink and orange. The relief of the water wore out soon and her wounds began to burn. The river flowed north, the direction of the camp, so she walked along it and only dared wade through it when the path became too dense with trees (wary of moving creatures as she did so). Without the influence of the water to dull the noise of the mosquitoes, the pestering noise was back in her head.

She kept walking north until twilight  and only rested a few minutes at a time. Esther reached a point where the river thinned, a point that she recognized from when she had first trekked into the camp. She was close, but a few wrong steps could send her off in the opposite direction once again.

Esther swerved into the pack of trees. She felt light headed, almost feverish as sunlight peeked through gaps in the canopy and beamed down on her. Her muscles were knotted and she had to lean on tree trunks for support. With every conscious second it was as if her bones were  being whittled down, and it became harder to stand. Twice she lurched forward onto the ground. She thought of the textured water she had chugged down, impure and unclean; she had been grateful for the thing that had soothed her parched tongue and settled her stomach. Now it spewed out of her, mixed with bile and onto the forest floor. It hadn’t been wise to drink it.

She moved slowly, her steps swaying. Esther fell forward onto a red barked tree. She gripped it and let herself slide down to the ground and rest on its uplifted roots. She stared up at the red bark, just like that of the tree that loomed just thirty yards from the entrance of the tribe.

“The fire tree.” She murmured. It was the name of the ancient tree that was once home to hundreds of colonies of ants, but was now an empty shell. The natives of the tribe had told Esther of the rituals their ancestors had practiced on that very tree. She remembered sitting in horror as she was told the legend that had been passed down to generations. They would strip their prisoners of any article of clothing, or protection, and tie them to the bark with thick ropes made of vines. With wooden poles they would beat the tree until the colonies of red ants swarmed out.     

They looked like strands of fire as they engulfed the helpless prisoners and ate them alive. The natives would then dance around the tree until they grew tired. In a few days (sometimes even by morning), all that was left clinging to the ropes were bones.

Image courtesy of CIFOR (flickr.com)

Esther closed her eyes and rested her head on a nest of fallen leaves. Guides always passed by this tree in tours to retell the story. It was a landmark in this part of the Amazon. If she stayed put long enough, she would be found in just a matter of hours, at most a day. All she had to do was stay awake and count the moments until she was home. Already thoughts of her mother and of restful sleep filled her mind. The mosquitoes buzzed around her head like the ticking of a clock.

 

 

Catherine Valdez is a ninth grader currently studding creative writing at Miami Arts Charter School . She is of Hispanic decent. Key factors in her writing are nature and her heritage. Her work has received awards from the Jack London Foundation and The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards of 2012. She has been published twice in creative communication.

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  1. [...] interesting article by Francisco X. Stork about depression (a topic in his next book) but it also introduced be to Catherine Valdez, a promising new [...]

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