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Beginning

My oldest sister has a dark spot above her lip. It is black against the brown of her skin, and she carries her fear in her eyes. As for my second sister, she carries her fear in her stomach, hunching as she ages, her back curving as if in a storm of thick wind. My sisters were born in our mother’s youth and I in her middle age. Between us there passed many rainy seasons and children who died young, either in the womb, stillborn bloody and blue, or later on, falling from a high branch or lifted by the jaws of something terrible.

I remember, in my earliest youth, gray dust frosted my sisters’ outlines against the stream before we all dipped our hands in and cleaned ourselves, cleaned each other, hair lacing through fingers and toes as we removed the fleas, nettles, filth. Our mother would part the hair at the center of our backs and lick at the dry skin to heal the itch that settled there. We’d shiver on the bank, dampened, and lean against each other for warmth—my small form between the two almost-grown forms of my sisters—until the sun could dry us.

A few years after me, our mother bore the youngest child of her old age, a brother. She pushed aside the two oldest in order to care for the two youngest. My sisters left us then, for the clearings, quite a far distance from the rest of our group in the trees. I could see them from the high branches and I stole away to visit sometimes, to climb their bodies, to swing in the sun. Their hands felt like my mother’s: strong sinew of muscle in the fingers, large joint bones, smooth hair at the knuckles. And their smell was much like my mother’s: a fruit on the day of its greatest sweetness, before it spoils. They took me in their arms. They showed me how to find the roots in the earth that were good to eat. We share the same lithe muscular limbs, hair that runs from dark at the root to nut brown on the ends—angular faces with thick brows, smallish teeth, perfect shell-like ears at the sides of our heads. I touched their ears and sat with them in the clearing, and when they had their own children, I visited them to play with the babies. Then I’d go back to my mother and our family in the trees. I knew my mother could smell my sisters’ scents on me. She’d sniff deep, holding me against her when I returned. My brother would cry then, for her affection.

Shortly after I learned to forage enough to feed myself, my mother died of bloated water in the leg. Pus and darkness poured out of the wounds. One morning we saw, in the dust, a trail of the dragged wounded leg where she had taken herself to the high river. She must have known that the stink of her sores was beginning to attract the hyenas, the big cats, the preying birds. Her smell had changed from sweet fruit to sour. Not rotten, but picked too soon. My brother shook in fear, in sadness, and I found a branch that would rock in the wind the same way our mother’s arms did. There we sat, clutching each other and feeling our mother leave us from the inside.

We went to the high trees as the sun dipped into the canopy. I watched for movement in the clearing and saw my sisters there, finally, to the north of us. My brother reached for the hair of my back, the way he would with our mother, but I nudged him to the side, and we climbed down from the high branches to the lower ones, finally reaching the ground. The sun was gold at our feet. My brother rubbed at his eyes, tired from grief. We walked together, pushing aside green vines and thorns, hearing the peculiar sound of our feet crackling on dried plants. We found our sisters in the clearing, where they each carried a new child and helped the older ones pick the carcass of an animal clean. My brother tensed at the sight of food. I could hear the hunger from his stomach. He reached forward, but our oldest sister took his hand and pushed him away. She pressed her own daughter forward. There were some young males who ate the largest portion of the animal, and there was none for us. We ate berries and sucked on twigs as we returned to the trees.

The others in the trees would not feed my brother, either, and he set off like most young males, only earlier, smaller. The last branch shifted behind him, and I knew I would not see him again. Tough, paltry scraps were left for me only after the others had fed themselves. I ate the dry berries, the shriveled roots, seeds, and nuts. I felt the hole inside me that was my dead mother, my lost brother, my hunger.

Alone most days, I took to the high branches and hid myself in the green. The birds and the slugs trolling the knots where branches had broken became my companions. I buried my face in fruit peelings, missing the scent of my mother. I gathered and ate food away from the others in the group, learned to catch small lizards and press their heads against the trees until they cracked. But still, from the cover of the canopy I watched my sisters in the clearings. I could not stop myself, even through the hottest part of the day, when the rest of the ones in the trees slept. Soon, I drew closer, even crouching on the other side of the bushes, staring through drooping red berries. Though I wanted to, I did not reach for my sisters. They were busy with their own children and had no time for the latest-born sister of their old dead mother. I did not want them to turn me away, as they had my brother.

From behind bushes or in the low branches of the trees, masked by the landing of soft footfalls and the indignant flaps of birds, I heard for the first time how my sisters repeated rasping sounds to their children when there was a snake in the grass, a quiet sliding hiss that ended in a low note, and a different sound when it was a four-legged beast—a noise from higher in the throat, a sharp sound from the nose and a flat tongue to finish. A loud, echoing squeak meant that lightning was far away, signaled by the smell of smoke rising above the thick, damp leaves. The difference was in their tongues. Somehow they used their tongues to shape and tunnel sound. For those of us in the trees, there was simply a call of danger, and a slightly different cry meant that the danger was above, or below. There was also a nameless call to flee: a desperate shriek. The sound for rising waters, for balls of fire. Expressions of pure emotion, of surprise, hurt, anger, love, satisfaction, feast. But my sisters were making new sounds.

I sat in the low branches and listened to them as they reached high for the second row of branches, for fruits of the trees or for brown nuts. Their young children sat on the ground a few paces behind them. My sisters repeated a soft sound over and again, and they listened for the warbled response from the mouths of the children. Once or twice I tried to hum these sounds low in my throat. They did not come out to my liking, though, not the way they wheezed high and full of breath from the mouths of the babies. My unpracticed notes were low, guttural, as if a resistance blocked my throat because my ears didn’t like the harshness. My ears liked much better the delicate sounds of the sleeping jungle: the thick moss rubbing against the skin of the rodent climbing into the trunks of rotting trees, the soft drop of rain into the waiting cup of a frond.

When my own children were born, I used only the few calls of the ones in the trees. I had less time to follow my sisters, and instead I stayed with the rest of the group in the canopy, letting my children play with the other children, around trunks. I’d sit and thread my arms about the arms of those in the trees, comb hair, and gnaw fruits. The comfort of touch and the quiet of the trees, the rustle of the small plants as they brushed against one another in light breezes, or the snap of wet leaves against each other in the rain, these were the sounds that we liked most of all, more than the rough tremors of noise that belched from our throats. We listened to the songs of the birds and the calls of other animals at dusk. We listened to the sculpted sounds from the ones in the clearing at night as they settled into their shelter in the low branches and bushes.

We loved the warmth of a hand upon hand, of foot upon chest, for this was how we comforted one another in the night. Night, when we bent down the new growth of the tall branches and slept to the breathing sounds and sighs that slipped through the spaces of teeth and gum and lip. The flutter of twig against branch, leaf against leg. I felt again, as I had with my mother, one of the group. We flared our nostrils to smell the plants, uncurling to the sun, and the steaming earth in the mornings, moisture released from the night. We leaned in close to smell each other’s skin. We slept with our backs resting upon one another, upon the dark smooth tree bark. When the moon rose, an overlapping pattern of ribbed leaves floated against our sleeping bodies and the tree trunks, coming together to make one form in the night.

My sisters continued to live and sleep in the clearings, and to use their new sounds with their growing families and the solitary males who wandered into our midst. Their voices carried to one another in the wide spaces, and up to us in the trees. We sat in a group on a branch and looked down at their grooming circles, their constant noise a distraction from the rich sounds of the earth and sky. But it faded eventually into the rising and falling of the wind, occasionally punctuated by a shriek between two in the clearing who collapsed and cackled in amusement. The gossips.

One day, when searching for my mischievous daughter in the low branches, I saw the clearing where my sisters lived close at hand. They had begun to use soft dead logs pushed into mounds for protection, and for sleeping they spread fresh ferns and rubbery stalks of bush. I could not imagine sleep without the wind sifting through my hair and swaying my branch. I could not imagine the stillness of the earth.

Besides an accidental meeting at the low branches of a fruit tree, the ones in the clearing stayed among themselves and we among ourselves.

The children of the clearing began to cast stones at us the same as they did to other tree creatures—the climbing rodents, the spiders, the lizards, the birds. When they threw stones, our children hid their faces in the leaves, not understanding that leaves offer poor protection. Or perhaps they did understand, but they hid their faces nonetheless.

My second sister’s half-grown son rammed a stone with a hard edge through the bottom layer of the canopy, and I saw how the arc of the stone dropped after it hit my youngest child. He squawked in pain, again and again, until I reached him and pressed my hand over his mouth. His calls of pain would surely raise the notice to the beasts. My second sister came from the clearing and peered up at the tree, the bleeding child, the frenzied shaking of leaves as the others emerged from their sleep of the middle of the day. When my second sister saw her young one with his hand poised as if still holding the rock, she reached over and pushed him to the earth. When he rose she did so again, calling out a sound to him that seemed to be from the rough part of her throat, where neck meets body. She struck him across his back with a stick. The child ran into the depths of the clearing, among the other ones, who ignored his violence and offered him fresh nuts from their hands.

It rained the night that blood flowed from my child’s head, and I held a branch in place to direct the water to clean the wound. The rain was good, for the smell of the wound would dilute. My second sister clutched her belly and crouched beside the tree. I could sense her, smell her, that long-forgotten scent of my mother rising from the ground beneath us. In the morning, she was still there, leaning and staring upward, her features twisted. The bark on the tree was stained a faint pink from the blood that had washed down. My youngest child’s face was puckered by the mark on his brow. The sharp edge had gouged his skin, deep and raw, but I could control the bleeding now. My fingers pressed leaves into the wound, and my eyes opened and closed in the morning light dappling the green.

My sister had joined my nightlong vigil. She scratched at the bark with the nails on her fingers, and made a sound through pursed lips, repeating it, then reached her hand up and then down toward her chest. Her eyes met mine. They were the same brown as my own, as our mother’s.

But I did not warble the call in return. She spoke again to me, and again. I felt a strange longing in my chest, like that for mother, when the low tender notes in my sister’s voice sounded. Even my child opened his eyes into slits and curled his small fingers around my shin. I felt his pull and broke my gaze with my sister. My child relaxed in my arms. I looked down once again, and now my sister’s eyes seemed unlike my own and I did not call back to her. I turned away and pulled my child closer, lowering my head into his soft belly skin and breathing in his scent: the smell of dew on the back of a tree frog. I heard my sister’s sliding footsteps retreat into the clearing, the tamped-down grass ticking her ankles.

A small child ran to my sister then, feet sinking in the mud. My child heard the one on the ground splashing, and turned his head, the blood still surfacing, but no longer flowing from the wound. My sister lifted her child and pointed to us. I held my own in my arms and pulled on a branch for her to see. A swift shake of leaves. She would know, at least, that he would heal. They walked back into the clearing, feet sinking into the earth. Their prints could be our own, if we could bear the mud.

I stayed there dozing in the sun, my child in my arms, but soon the smell of another approaching storm roused me. The sun remained bright in the sky, the clouds had not yet gathered. From my high vantage, I could see far into the trees, and I could see my sisters and their families in the clearings, too. They rested in the shade, languid and warm, eating purple berries. They spat the seeds and licked their fingers. They did not glance up as the rest of us did, sensing the storm. They did not change their postures. Their children played and rolled in the dirt. In the language of the throats, they called out to each other, their sounds bouncing back and forth, too loud to hear the birds’ flight toward cover. They ambled along, browsing the fruit of the low branches. I knew then that they could no longer smell a storm. They did not remember the way into the deep leaves.