I’m in a chair surrounded by a curing blue light. My body has healed.
What am I here for? Vlerd—no, Mara. No again—Kafele. Survival.
I should have been better. What was I thinking back then? Exactly—what was I thinking, exactly?
The certain particulars of my first meeting with Survival elude me, but I know it was in my lab back in the trees. I had just returned, late in the night, from one of my trips—one that took me just outside the human land. Subira and a baby Kafele slept; the wind rustled the canopy, and I went to my lab to prepare for my standard return meeting with the elders the next day. I always dreaded those. The elders, in their needless cloaks, stood in the way of every idea I had to improve life in the trees—to reach beyond what we were and become more. They tied my hands, sometimes literally when our arguments became heated. They played the wise men and women, too enigmatic and knowledgeable—infallible—to listen to me.
And yet they funded my trips to the lands over the vast and empty thresholds of this world—took care of my family until I came back with treasures and findings to sell. And they were often my only customers. I guess, from the outside, it might look like I owe them the debt a son owes a father.
That night in the lab, my empty travel rucksack burst into flames. I removed it hastily from the wood floor and stuffed it into a glass vase by the window. The burning hair smell wafted off my singed hands as I covered the glass, trying to suffocate the flame with a woven blanket. It only grew in size and heat at my vain attempts. It became too much for me, and I backed away, about to run and gather Kafele and Subir—about to call for the fire brigade. About to be responsible. But the flame stopped me with speech.
“Hello Akil,” it said. “Don’t worry, I won’t grow larger than this container.”
I stuttered; my mouth dried in the heated air. “I have seen many things,” I said, “but talking fire is not one of them. Fascinating.” I pulled a thermometer and optometer from my desk drawer.
“Great,” said the fire, sprouting two eyes of different shapes. “Now that I’ve given you this sight, perhaps you could do something for me.”
And I did, without much resistance. I said Survival had a silver tongue, but maybe I just had tin ears. Maybe I just wanted to get out from under the elders’ collective thumbs. Ironic, considering they would be the ones to fashion the imprisoning hat out of fabric and my blood. They would be the ones to quell the ape masses shouting for Kafele’s demon head, and they would be the ones to send me here—to this faint possibility of a remedy.
“Put me in his room, and just leave us be,” said the fire three days of tests later, bearing a wavering smirk. “I promise him no harm. Quite the contrary, in fact—his body, mind and health will never diminish. His memories will be happy ones. He will age only as much as I allow—or as you allow, rather. I have no interest in dictating a life. I just need a body—a mere corner of the body—to house my weary self, Akil.” I’m applying some sinister overtones to his words now, but I’m sure they were there in some way then.
I must have still had some paternal instincts knocking about in my head because I said, “I will not just ‘leave you be. If you try anything other than what you’ve promised—”
“You will put a stop to the spookification and possession. I understand, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Soon, Akil, you will have access to uncharted scientific territory. Imagine the discoveries you will make. Perhaps how I react with his physical being could yield medicines? Cures? Hell, the secret to eternal biological life. And all it will take is a small part of some real estate in young Kafele.”
And a large part of my apeanity.
The fire requested chains to rattle at the foot of Kafele’s bed—to frighten him into a possessable state, he said, but it struck me more as theater than necessity. I provided them, though, and stood in the doorway. I did nothing but dread the thought of Subira waking up to the noise and catching some talking fire I hid from her possessing her only son. And even worse, her husband allowing it to happen. She’d see me first, I thought. She’d see me in the hallway, shaking and nervous. She would wonder with some light and sleepy smile what I was doing. With each step she would take, the smile would flatten as the horror of my act became clear.
What would I have done then? Stop her or stop Survival? I didn’t have to find out, but I still think about how her face would have fallen. Her eyes—her once existent eyes—would have welled with thick tears.
There’s a knock at the door to the farmhouse. It pulls me out of my memories. It’s a soft knock, like a branch full of leaves moving gently against the door in the wind. At the same time, though, there’s a distinct heft to the sound, as if the knocker is holding back. I stand to answer, in a daze. The warm blue light washes over me and the grand foyer. I have trouble recalling Kafele’s predicament and the names of my companions: Vlad, Survival, Martha? No. Vlerd, Survival, and Mara. Was there a corn friend too? Did they all just leave me here in a chair? Mud and sticks lay at my feet; that’s right, I was hurt. Not anymore, however; I feel better than I have in a long time.
“The farmer’s gone,” said a familiar, hollow voice beyond the front door. “Is she really?”
The three tongues. Those large writhing muscles from the forest’s mouth. There’s another knock, this one harder than the last.
“We would be,” they said, putting a sizeable pause here. “Attacked by now.” Another knock, and this one cracks the wood with its strength.
“Otherwise,” I say, finishing their triplet thought. I could run, I think. Upstairs or down the hall between the foyer’s two stairways. Surely one leads to an exit. Surely one leads to Vlerd and them, exploring this place with that bear.
The memories linger. That night lingers. I don’t see what purpose I could serve anymore in this blue—Astral?—light.
The tongues splinter the door, and then tear it off its hinges. Wind and rushes back into the foyer, throwing dust into the air. I stand there as the taste-budded serpents slither inside, caution in their movement, and spot me.
“Apes bring death,” they say. “One ape, even. But there was. Another ape—p-period.”
“The farmer has him,” I say. “Deep in this place.” A wall spins into a different position like the house is acclimating to the tongues’ presence.
“Couldn’t find them. If we tried. Mercurial, astral place.” They surround me. “This will do.” One wraps around me, and I don’t struggle beyond my natural response to get more comfortable. They don’t smell of saliva—only dirt and earth.
“You don’t struggle. A wise decision.”
“I deserve this,” I say. “I burned Subira. I ruined Kafele. Killed him, even.”
“We said so,” say the tongues, one carrying me to the door and the others following.
“Apes bring death,” I say. “I guess so.”
The tongues pick up speed once we’re out of the house. The rain has stopped, and the tongues retrace mud trails as they worm their way back down the farm path. The farmhouse looks again like a farmhouse—quaint and subdued. The crops droop in the wet air, facing me. We reach the forest, and the tongues must slow themselves to weave back through the trees. We pass a small fire, where lightning must have struck during the storm. It’s dying out. Some chewing trees have maneuvered their roots into rainwater slides pointed towards the burned dirt and blackened plants.
One says, eyes on me, “I remember you. Tongues got you, huh?”
“I let them take me,” I say. “Not as some selfless act, though.” I felt the need to make that clear. The stark distinction between selflessness and penance should always be made clear.
“Apes,” says the tree. It laughs, its wet mouth opening wide. “Too hairy to eat, too dumb to survive. Good luck in the mouth.” Some of the other trees chime in with snickers and guffaws.
The world’s mouth. Such a grand idea—and maybe a connecting tissue between lands long disconnected. Those cliffs around the lake stand as they did yesterday—last week?—unchanged and unmarked by Vlerd’s transformation, Kafele’s death, my tears, or Survival’s fire. The rain, I wager, has washed the stone and dirt free of any blood. Perhaps Vlerd’s tattered clothes—no, the wind took them. The apparent bases of the tongues pulse as I’m raveled into the mouth. I have wandered the deepest of caves in several lands the world over, but never one as dark as this. Natural light does not go any farther into the mouth than the laws of science force it to. The tongues let me go once we’re inside the drafty chasm, and then disappear down into the abyss. My stomach drops, an all too familiar—fitting—sensation of late.
I fall again, though I imagine this will be my last, yet longest, plummet. I soon start to wonder what discoveries I will make on my way down—I salivate at the notion. No, I shouldn’t let the scientist in me rear his head. This act is penance—decent, fatherly penance, damn it.
A glowing speck of light pops into my eyeline. The speck moves closer with each second I fall. I spot a stinger and a tiny flutter of wings. A lightning bee has found its way down here.
“Fascinating,” I say. My voice echoes. “I must make note of this.”
There is more down here. There is much more.
-Nicholas Perilli, insightfulape.com