Man Up a Tree
by Joseph Heywood
The black goat pranced haughtily
along the lip of black volcanic rock beside Volkov’s leg, looking down
into the steep canyon below them. “What is it, Serena?” he asked
as the animal fixed her stare past him.
This remote part of La Gomera was mist-shrouded, too high and too far for the few white-skinned European walking
beaches and wading in the surf four thousand feet below, and too far off beaten paths and roads for most locals, even the
remaining Guanches, erstwhile and ill-fated original inhabitants of the Canaries. Roque de la Corazon had been a holy sanctuary for the Guanches, a place to hide from
the murderous and marauding Spaniards.
Volkov understood how the native felt. He’d once been one
of the Spaniards, in a certain logic, as brutal as the Spaniards, perhaps worse.
Some blue-eyed locals still
claimed to be full-bloods, but this seemed unlikely to him; the culture was all but gone, leaving half-witted descendants
trapped in an alien world. Sergey Volkov felt a kinship for the exiles, but unlike
them, his own exile was self-imposed. He was the ultimate outsider. Even so, this was not such a bad place to land: no guns, Hinds, mines, snipers, snakes, religious fanatics,
Jihadis, few people, predictable if not perfect weather, a place devoid of color
or abundance. It was better than he deserved. The ubiquitous rats he could tolerate.
As in stinking Afghan villages, they were everywhere here and huge. It was as if God had made a working model of what would
become Afghanistan and discarded it into the Atlantic Ocean. Volkov had felt
at home immediately.
Making his way through a dense
patch of ground-hugging gray cactus, the former Soviet Army Speznaz deserter looked down the faint, steep path that led up
to the rocky saddle he had called home for the past year. He could make out flashes
of a purple scarf ascending and he scowled. Inez: usually she came on Saturdays. Trouble, he guessed, feeling himself tense up.
She was a creature of extreme habit, which meant she had something on her mind. She was as relentless in trying to
ferret out his life as she was beautiful. Her focus was sometimes annoying.
As a man in exile, he preferred
solitude. As a man with human needs he liked seeing Inez, but on his schedule, not hers.
When he headed for his cave,
Serena remained on lookout at the lip of the ledge, her tail snapping rhythmically. The goat was better than a dog, more self-sufficient. He sometimes wondered where and how she found enough to eat, but she was fat, which
meant she was doing better than subsistence. In fact, doing better than him;
his muscles had atrophied without adequate protein. Exercise alone wasn’t sufficient to maintain muscle mass.
Inez Santiago Bloch was Chilean. Tall, blonde, muscular and graceful, she had come to the Canaries to paint, had taken
an interest in Guanche pottery exclusive to La Gomera Island, taken the ferry across from Tenerife and stayed; she lived in
a tiny village five steep kilometers below his cave. Volkov no longer remembered how they had met. Rather, it seemed he had
always known her, and at the same time he knew the day would come when he would have to leave her.
Serena trailed the woman to
the cave entrance in order to satisfy herself that Volkov was all right, then shambled off to find shade.
“If you ever leave,”
Inez Bloch said in fluent German, “that poor animal will die of a broken heart.”
Volkov handed a glass of red
wine to her and raised his own in salute. “You are mistaken: She is attached
to the place, not to me.”
“You should not underestimate
your magnetism,” Inez Bloch said, flashing her eyes.
The cave had once been some
sort of primitive complex used by the Guanches and it connected to several others by narrow connecting manmade rock caves;
Volkov had explored most of them during his months on the mountain and had found most of them barren.
“We didn’t expect
you until Saturday,” he said.
Bloch sipped her wine and
studied him. He was not a physically imposing man. Moderate height, wiry build, small hands, and remarkably soft eyes, that
oddly also conveyed a sense of a dangerous edge or balance in them. He was an enigma to her.
“A man came through the village yesterday. He asked for you by name,
Andres Kryt,” she said. He was a short man with hard black eyes.”
Bloch walked into the cave,
put his hands on his hips, and looked around.
Volkov did not wonder who
could be looking for Andres Kryt. This day was only a matter of time. The name
had been a small lie for the woman’s safety. He had no interest in revealing
his past, which didn’t stop her from probing. So far, he had resisted. She
considered herself a natural empath. Sympatico.
She was a fine woman, creative and thoughtful, sensitive, and randy.
“I see now that you
are very orderly,” she said, looking around. “I have always assumed
that you picked up only in anticipation of my visits, but now I find that I was wrong.
“What do you do with your time up here, Andres?”
Volkov shrugged. “Where is this asking-man now?”
“Maspalomas, in the
new German hotel on Gran Canaria, the one with the expensive Moroccan whores. He
left this,” she said, placing a business card on a long slab of stone that served as a table. “He is a gringo named Richter, small and fat like a prize hog, pink-skinned, slate-colored eyes.
He wore a small pin on his collar, a red fist on a black star. I didn’t
like how he smelled, but he seemed to know you – though I have never considered your eyes to be hard.”
Volkov set down his wine and
stared out of the cave. The pin was Spetsnaz. Serena had settled into a dust
bowl below a yucca tree. “Were you followed, Inez?”
“Pooh,” she said. “Who would dare follow me up here?”
He would not tell her that there
was no doubt a price on his head. He had embarrassed his country and done it in the most public way possible. On the last
day the Soviet Army was pulling out of Afghanistan, Volkov was last to leave and as the others crossed the border, he had
reversed direction, taken off his uniform and rank, declared to a pair of French journalists that he was denouncing his country,
and walked off into the desert, unclothed and unarmed. The video had aired all over the world. He had seen it several times as he worked his way to the islands.
The goat’s place under
the yucca suggested Inez was alone. Nobody could approach the saddle without
“What does this man
want of?” Inez asked.
“It doesn’t matter,”
he said, shaking his head.
“Who were you, Andres? You think I’m so stupid to not know that you are hiding?”
“I don’t pry into
your past,” he reminded her.
“Pooh, Andres! Of course
you have not: Why would you when I have willingly told you everything … everything?”
“By your choice, not
She sat on his hammock, kicked
off her boots, and swung gently. “You want me?” she asked without
making eye contact. “It’s a long climb back down to go back without
a small reward to make my trip memorable.”
“You climbed up for
your own reasons,” he said. “I didn’t ask you to come.”
She slid her t-shirt over
her head and shrugged her shoulders to jiggle her breasts.” Don’t niggle,” she said. “This isn’t a court of law.” She took off her shorts and flipped them in his direction.
“I am going to Paris in December, Andres. A one-woman show at the
La Girafe en Argent, in on Place du Terte in Montmarte. My agent, she thinks they’ll sell everything of mine and I have been invited.
I will be gone for a fortnight. What do you think about that, Andres? It will be just you and that goat,” she
said. Her skin glistened with perspiration from the steep climb. When he didn’t answer, she rolled onto her back and held out her arms. “Come, Senor Kryt, or whoever you are. Humor your servant.”
Before sundown Volkov climbed
to the upper reaches of the saddle and used his slingshot to shoot a large brown hare, a buck with thick legs. A second hare
fell to one of his wire snares. Inez had a fire going by the time he got back
to the cave. He cooked the meat in strips in a pan with olive oil and wild sage
and used a can of tomato sauce to go with the meat. He dropped several wild potatoes
into the coals, and let their thin russet skins char.
In the night she repeatedly
bit his shoulders and arms with every thrust and told him she loved him. When
she awakened at dawn, the fire was going strong, and the black goat and Kryt were gone.
The trees in the forest were
twisted into shapes suggesting a streak of insanity in the Creator. The intertwined
laurels with gray trunks were surrounded by a sea of muted gray ferns. As Inez
Bloch approached the trees, she saw the rising sun reflecting off the waxy leaves, which were deep green in color, and poisonous. The Greeks had used such leaves to crown heroes; Andres had once made a bushy crown
for her and made love to her in the moist ferns. She suspected he would be high
in the trees, naked among the rats. The rodents chewed laurel leaves to make
themselves high, chewing until they became disoriented and fell to the ground, where they would lay until the stupor abated. The people in her village said the rats were the devil’s pets, the poison in
laurel leaves the blood of Lucifer. Such folklore made her smile. She believed
neither in god, nor myth. And she did not need to equate the rodents with the
devil to dislike them.
Volkov never climbed the same
tree twice, but generally came to the same area of the forest, the only green patch he had found on the small island. Bloch walked slowly under the maze of
trees and beneath one, found the goat with her tail wagging. The locals called
the area La Corazon de la Grin, The Green Heart; it was a place they avoided, which
she guessed was the reason Kryt had chosen to live so close to it.
“Andres? I know you
are up there somewhere. Please talk to me.”
he said from above and to her right.
What he was thinking was that
he was kin to the rats, trapped in a tree, with no desire to do anything about it until he fell drunkenly to the ground. But
the asking-man’s appearance had changed all that. They had found him and had come from him. They would first approach
him in a civilized, reasoned way, and if he failed to comply, people would die, innocent people like Inez. He considered inviting
her to climb the tree and float in the air with him, but decided this would not be possible.
The morning light was not
getting through the mountain mist and she could not see him. “Please come
down,” she pleaded. “I don’t like it here.” She was startled and jumped when several rats hit the ground around her like small parachutists whose chutes
had failed. “Arggh,” she muttered.
high, Volkov said. “The way his boys had been during the war. The way all
Russians were when vodka or smack could be had. “They are trying to escape
reality.” Like me, he thought, and which was impossible in any permanent
sense. He had fooled himself, hiding here in the Canaries but now he had been
discovered and his reality had returned. He felt an odd kinship for the rats,
but he would have to bequeath the trees and their narcotic leaves to them.
Inez Bloch called for Andres
Kryt for another hour, getting no answer. When she gave up and returned to the
cave, she found that his clothes and small pack were gone, and Serena was standing on the lookout promontory, staring down,
“I know the feeling,”
she told the goat, wondering if she would ever see Andres Kryt again.
Hear TSP Editor Zinta Aistars interview Joe Heywood on WMUK.
Joseph Heywood is a resident of Portage, Michigan, but regularly spends many months of the year in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, riding
along with woods cops as research for his books, the best known of which are the Woods Cop series about DNR cop Grady Service
in the U.P. He also writes poetry and nonfiction, and paints.