It Was A Tree That Saved Me


Robert M. Detman

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 115 in 2008.

The last words I called to Maren, My darling, please take hold of me!
In the water she did not hear me.
I held the palm tree with a tiger’s claws as I remember Mokembo grabbing me so many years before just to swipe the ball away. And as the gray water rushed over my head with walls of wicker and doorways and quiet children flying past I would not let go. I thought this was judgment day and believed the world was ending. For what else could I know? And I thought of my grandfather and his words were in my ears, singing to me: Joku, do not let go the tree! It was the choice of first clutching Maren my Danish angel or this tree of life which would, God willing, save us both as islands sank below the sea. And yet I had no choice.
All I could do is look on as the frothing seas ran a river the earth wide. Some children nearby held on to nothing and soon the waters turned brown and sucked them into the gravel. I felt as if sliding down a mountain, the helpless swift moving past. Some looked to me and others who could not look were already dreaming their deaths.
The kingdom returned to the sea.
I was not in the hut when the waters came, but returning from my walk. Within arm’s reach, I touched the door when what swept me up did not seem real and carried me past. Then the tree knocked me and I knew not to let go.
Before setting out, I had looked in at my troubled Maren, in the dream of child-like sleep so soundly, and thought, who would ever hurt this angel? The one who saw in me not the lizard boy, but only my love for her. In the light her pale skin glowed as the new moon.
So many had told me, you and Maren are like night and day and now I fear it is true.
Mokembo did tell me, “Joku, a man who loves this woman must be a very strong man.”
I now know she requires a strong man and how Mokembo must have been as our grandfather, shaman and seer, to know what the year’s end would bring.
For the holiday I bought Maren a bracelet. It was not an expensive one. Not one that she would be used to but she loved it the same. It was a bracelet of beads and beaten silver. It was made with care by a street seller and I saw that it passed before the tourist’s eyes unnoticed and this is what I told my love.
I told her, it reminds me of my Ayah. I thought it would have no value to her, but she was pleased. I saw her catch herself in a reflection and I said, my love, you are beautiful. She took my arm and said, Joku, you know you are beautiful. The lizard boy has come a long way from the playing fields.
My grandfather said, that which comes to you is a gift, yet I think how Westernized I have become to believe I have betrayed my love for a tree.
I know that when the tree came from the water to punch me in the gut that I was to embrace it. And when Maren went under the coiling waters, I clasped the tree to my aching chest and climbed like I did when a boy. I climbed high until the water went one way clear smooth and the next rushing brown with palm branches, chairs and people. I held a hand out to them but they could not reach me. Someone’s Ayah—several—and my Maren nowhere among them.
At the road I see the news pictures and in seeing them I believe I will come upon the drowned. For I smell their sea stink everywhere. Bloated yellow bellies of bodies as thick as I once saw in the gutters of Dar es Salaam. At night I hear cries where before I heard only music. Where before a hawker tried to sell me a pair of shoes I did not need but another sold me a pair of pilot’s sunglasses.
And now the beach is clogged with these things. Rubber sandals made in China, t-shirts that say how clever we are, rouges and powders and five dollar trinkets, girls of fourteen from Krabi with braids in their hair, boys who want to be ladies, and Japanese motor scooters.
At night I try to sleep in the thickets of Ton Sai. But I return to the beach again and again to look for Maren. Others look to me as they wander the beach. I can only say, I am looking with you.
The hut that once went over our heads is now a skeleton. Near it I found the red tongues of Maren’s passport curled among bed sheets and clothing. As I believe her passport will draw her to me, I hold it tight and continue on, a leper in search of a home.
There are many there and I want to help but can only wander.
Some begged us to come to the cruise ship. Other lost ones embraced and stood on high ground. Unable to move.
A man from the cruise boat pointed me toward dry clothes and I asked if they were from the dead and he said they were donated. I borrowed a t-shirt and a sandal to replace my missing ones.
When the man gave me a box of rice, I gave it to a white family. He said, you must take some. I said I had already eaten. In truth, though my stomach is empty, I cannot eat. Though my throat is dry, I cannot drink.
Some wanted to leave there immediately and would not help. They asked for cell phones and the authorities and made fools of themselves. They are tourists puffing themselves up like frogs. They want no more than to be voyeurs and dance the harpies’ dance with cocktails and strings across their rears.
The man asked me to leave with them on the boat.
I refused.
I told the man, I must be here for Maren. I must find her broken or whole as it was I who brought her here.
As the hours pass and she does not return it is because she has been taken. She has become one with the sea and is among the clear bellies and I will now return to our home where I was a stranger but am no more. Still, I will try to find her to deliver to her parents who I have not yet spoken to. What will the lizard boy say to them, he who could not save their daughter?
I will tell them in her solid sleep of dreams she floated as I stretched out to her. But I will not tell them I could see the end in her fish-like tumble as I saw the walls disappear. How had I let go perhaps I would have caught her leg, and we would have been swept to wherever she now lies, broken and no longer bothered, together.
Nor will I tell them how I held on to the tree thinking I should reach her with my legs as I embraced the tree with my arms, but knew I could not do both. I clung to what would save me.