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Vimi in a Tree

In the distance, there is the sound of dogs barking, high-pitched and energetic. Vimi hears also voices of men, low and thick, calling to the dogs, urging them in a rough language she cannot discern. It must be just past noon but the forest around her is dense, and wetly dark with this thickness. The air is like a cool and moist palm on her flesh. She squats on a stout tree limb, perhaps twenty feet above the ground. She ignores the pulses of pain where she scraped her knees and arms scrambling up the uneven bark. The tree seems to beat in rhythm with her fear, although she knows this cannot be, that her heart is working hard and hammering the same blood over and over through her body.

Even in the heavy air, she is thirsty. With each inhalation, the air steals moisture from her throat and nostrils. It is like a dry fire to draw breath but this is what she must do. Stay in the tree. Breathe.

Even in the heavy air, she is thirsty. With each inhalation, the air steals moisture from her throat and nostrils. It is like a dry fire to draw breath but this is what she must do. Stay in the tree. Breathe. Hide from the men and their hunting dogs. Breathe. She breaks a slender branch and crushes its leaves against her skin, to smear the smell of this tree on her, camouflage the treacherous odors of her sweat, blood and body oils. The acrid stench of fear will carry farthest on the wind. Only when she presses the leaves on her belly does she realize she is wearing nothing, she has no shield of decency. No dress, no shoes, no white underwear.

She knows her name is Vimi.

She squints into the distance, ignoring the fuzzy shapes of leaves and branches in her immediate sight. By narrowing her eyes thus, she has a better view of what approaches. She sees the brown cloud of dogs coming; they run forward in a pack and then individually circle around. They seem to come towards her and yet retreat. They hunker down to crawl beneath shrubs and skip onward, yelping loudly. One dog, perhaps their trained leader, breaks loose and rushes ahead a few paces. He lifts his head, baring his throat and howls lustily, joyously, perhaps telling the others that she is close by now. He is the largest of the animals and his throat is marked with a white patch that gleams in the dim light.

Thwack, thwack, thwack, from behind, a steady sound accompanies the dog shouts and man talk. Branches crack away from trees and underbrush is cut back. A long pale man hacks at the canopy of vegetation to clear a way for the others.

Vimi rubs more leaves on her thighs, her armpits. She looks up at the next branch within her reach, this one more slender and at a cross angle from the one she squats on. Will it hold her weight? She places one foot on the tree trunk and pulls herself up. In the moment when a damp breeze hits between her legs, she feels with a certain despair that surely her nakedness is not worth protecting. She should just shimmy down, and raise her hands overhead in a gesture of surrender, let them have what they want of her. They will club and spear her and then use her body when she's senseless. Finally, they will tear her flesh from her bones for a meal. If that is what they want, then why shouldn't she give it to them? Death could be a palatable certainty, perhaps better than hiding in this tree, perched on a slender branch that could betray her. The dogs will find her anyway. She should just shout out to the men, I'm here. Let me get down and I'll come in peace.

She will hang from this thinner branch even if it burns her skin from her bones. From the immediate heat on her soles, she knows they are bleeding too. And she prays drops of blood will not fall to the earth and point the way to her hiding place.

But she shoves off the thicker branch with her left foot so that she can reach the higher branch. Her body shakes and she is painfully aware that she will die without dignity: bleeding, unclothed, filthy, her hair a muddy tangle. She shakes with fatigue and hunger. Her hands clutch wildly at the thin branch overhead as her feet slide, lacking traction on the rough bark. The branch she finally clutches seems to burn her flesh. There is no more question of surrender. She will hang from this thinner branch even if it burns her skin from her bones. From the immediate heat on her soles, she knows they are bleeding too. And she prays drops of blood will not fall to the earth and point the way to her hiding place.

They are close now. The larger dog with the white throat makes a wide circle around the tree, barking long and deeply with animal pride. The others follow a few paces behind. They make approving noises, shorter yelps and playful grunts among themselves. The work has been done and they anticipate a game.

The dog with the white throat jumps up, his front paws on the tree now, and he barks and barks, shouting to the others, tell the men, tell the men, she is here.

Instantly, the dogs form a circle beneath the tree, some of them growling seriously. There is a rhythm to their voices and Vimi can almost understand. They want her down, to feed on her flesh. She hangs on, her palms and fingers numb from carrying her full weight. There is nowhere to rest her feet, to relieve her hands of the stress. Is she imagining it, or is she slipping? By sheer force of will, she unclenches her right hand for a quick second to flex it, to let lifeblood flow through to her fingers. Her left arm screams at the shoulder, and she believes the joint will give. The dogs below must sense her precarious one-handed clutch, her imbalance, and they increase the urgency of their barking. She clasps the branch again with both hands, hot air raking her throat.

"Huhhhhhh!!!!!" a man's voice shouts and he hurls a rock, perhaps to shush the animals. The rock hits the ground near the tree with a sound that Vimi feels through her bones more than she hears. The lead dog snarls sullenly and skulks around the base of the tree, pushing his way through the other dogs. They follow his direction, pushing, their noses moving in a small arc before them, sniffing, verifying. The men mutter and point up at the tree, conferring with each other.

Vimi peers down at her pursuers and what she sees puzzles her. There is a cluster of perhaps nine men in various mode of dress. One, the man with the scythe to cut through the forest, is tall and lean, dressed only in a loin cloth and a narrow band around his thick, brown hair. Two of the men wear wide-brimmed hats and chaps, but no holsters on their hips. They hold long, smooth clubs and the sight of the hefty sticks makes her fear solid so that it catches in her dry throat. Another man in a gray robe raises a spear over his head and talks in a loud voice, above the subdued dog noises. "Kima wata," he says over and over. Vimi knows he is trying to convince the others of something but they aren't listening. The man she looks at the longest is dressed like a holy man, or maybe a king, in a long, flowing burgundy cape and a sort of crown that makes his head seem disproportionately large. And this man, although he does not step forward and command the others, holds a long object tucked beneath his arm. A weapon, a shooting thing of some sort, but she cannot see because its shape is obscured by the folds of his clothing.

"Kima wata," the man with the spear repeats. Two men next to him begin to nod. "Kima wata," they say also. And Vimi knows her fate is in these words. She feels her grip slipping again. Now all the men, their voices high and hard with excitement, shout Kima wata, their voices charged with decision. She peers down at the circle of canine snouts, snapping teeth, snarling appetite. A foot, a knee, she would tear a limb from her body and toss it down to ward off the animals, to purchase her escape. A hand. An ear. The dogs lift their throats again to growl in agreement with the men. And her hands give way, seeming to come off her wrists or perhaps the branch she clings to snaps with the weight of her body and the ceaseless drumming of her heart.

For the love of all that is sacred above and below, she would take the spear and pierce her own body with it, to escape her certain torture. But she falls more and the air that rushes up at her brings the smells of her life: sweat and blood, fire, green leaves, soil and murky water.

She knows this in a moment, that she is falling, falling, because the branches come up at her. She plummets, leaving patches of skin as she scrapes by the tree bark. Despite the pain, a flash of white relief blinds her. She didn't let go on purpose, she held the branch tightly for as long as she could. But here she is, rushing to the ground. The men below are shouting, throwing stones into the branches. Their voices rise to meet her and she wonders at the unison of their unfamiliar words. A long dark spear passes her on its way up, perhaps in search of her heart. For the love of all that is sacred above and below, she would take the spear and pierce her own body with it, to escape her certain torture. But she falls more and the air that rushes up at her brings the smells of her life: sweat and blood, fire, green leaves, soil and murky water. What is there to do anymore? The tangled mass of canine faces swirls towards her and the sound from their open mouths whistles at her ears because she is falling so fast. Nearer and nearer. Head first, then a tangle of elbow and knee and somewhere the dead center of her belly, down, down, down.

Then suddenly, she is on the ground, breath gone. The shock of impact goes through her like an unexpected mouthful of dirt. She is buried, she thinks, because all about her is the closed smell of dank soil. But what is this warm fur that whimpers under her? She rolls over carefully, groaning, and finds the white throated dog on its side, stunned by her weight. She shakes her head to clear her vision. What? she thinks, gathering together memory of her body and its throbbing pain. Who are they still barking at? A cold nose presses against her face, and another snout works its way into her armpit, seeking her identity there. Where are their teeth? The lead dog drags away from the pack, whimpering, limping on three legs. The others are momentarily silent. She turns to the clot of men a few steps away. They mutter Kima wata but with less conviction now, the strength of their voices diluted with doubt and argumentative question. The man in the priestly robe scratches his chin. His grip on the shooting stick is slack, giving her to know that he didn't witness her weighty descent.

Vimi crouches among the other animals, feeling crowded by thickly furred bodies and hot panting breaths on her skin. The dogs make no different noises even though she is in their midst. A dog behind her nuzzles her haunches, urging her forward and she butts her head against the black dog in front. In a moment, Vimi is part of the circle that moves about the base of the tree, ears cocked to the group of men, waiting for their next command.

She follows the dogs. She lifts her head and howls, high strung delight a keen knife's edge in her throat. Around the tree on bleeding palms and knees, she creeps along the ground in the thicket of dogs. She sniffs the air, her sense of smell suddenly keen, exact. She scratches at the tree trunk, whining, waiting, pacing.

Around and around on her hands and knees, in the canine circle, hidden, for now, from death.

© Nadine L. Sarreal

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