It had been a most natural thing, an ancestral instinct, to climb a tree in the middle of playtime. He was supposed to be running after other children his age, through the overgrown grass, bypassing huge oaken hurdles. But after a matter of only five minutes, he had lost interest in the pursuit, in the evasion of the massive wooden obstacles, and actively sought the sharp grooves in the bark and reached for the low-hanging branches to find his way to the dense foliage of leaves that sat atop his chosen tree like a mass of curly hair.
He didn’t care for those who had brought him out to this land in the first place: friends and classmates of the cousin he was visiting. Even though he could hear them, even see them in some cases, he didn’t feel the need to leave the nest he had cocooned himself in, at the juncture where all the branches sprouted from, surrounded by greens of varying shades, amidst sounds of birds and squirrels going about their daily chores.
Even though his temporary abode was still and unmoving, he felt a calm settle over him that was much like the one he experienced in the embrace of a hammock, on a beach, somewhere along the coast. And maybe it had something to do with the sunlight, which was filtering in between the leaves, which wasn’t the blinding, scorching kind that hit him on the ground, rather a warm, almost maternal affection glow—in the span of a few minutes he was sound asleep.
When he awoke, it was dark. His day clothes—a t-shirt and a pair of shorts—were inadequate in the face of the cool, night breeze. So he wrapped his arms around himself and pulled his knees into his stomach, turning himself into a slug he had once seen on a muddy path, to dispel some of the cold he was feeling. This was a different tree than the one he had climbed. There was no warmth of the sun, no call of a bird. Even the leaves and twigs that had held him so gently before, had a harsh texture to them now.
His descent had to be more careful than the ascent—he had to be slow to place his feet in the right places, unhurried to let go of twigs above. He was thankful, at least, of the reflective markers on nearby trees to aid his progress, for as dim as they were, they still helped to reassure him as he journeyed to the ground.
As his shoes hit the oft-trampled grass, as he stood rod-straight after hours of lying twisted in the tree, he felt a strange tingling in his feet—a greater awkwardness than the one he experienced when they felt ‘asleep’. He felt like an alien, suddenly transported to the body of a human. Had he really spent his entire life placing one foot in front of the other using a thick, rectangular piece of flesh with five oddly-shaped digits in front of it? The mere idea of it seemed absurd to him in that moment.
He wiggled those very digits, the toes (what an odd word, too), inside his socks, trying to trigger memories from his past—millions of walks taken from one place to another. He moved around his legs, too. From the hips, he oscillated his right one while placing all his weight on the left. He performed a similar action with his arms, as well, swinging them simultaneously from his armpits. Then came his head’s turn: from the left to the right; down one second, up the next.
And there he stopped.
He had never seen a sky such as this, with the canvas so black and twinkling. There were a few clouds, wispy and threadbare, gliding in the darkness. But they weren’t enough to obstruct his view of the stars, planets, and satellites that lay just beyond his reach. In the city, it was never this dark and never this clear—with skyscrapers and bright street lights hiding its might. There, when he had looked up after dusk, it had only been to admire the moon. Here, in the forest, he had a wider selection in front of him. And he was reminded of an incident that had happened a few days ago, when he had focussed all his attention on a multi-coloured gobstopper inside a bag of candies and paid no mind to the jelly beans, milk teeth, and gummy bears that still lay there, ready to be devoured. He had left the bag on the kitchen counter and later returned to find it empty. The rest of his family had consumed everything else.
He didn’t let that happen now. He left the gobstopper-moon alone, reserving it for the day he’d return to the city, and instead focused on the jelly bean-stars, the milk teeth-planets, and the gummy bear-satellites. He even gobbled up a few clouds, which melted on his tongue like candy floss. He picked them one by one, stretching his hand and plucking them from their set place in the sky-bag. Only for the clouds did he forgo the use of his hands—he didn’t want to get them sticky—and instead, opened his mouth wide to eat them whole. He felt his jaw unhinging, his lips lengthening and reaching his ears, acquiring a cavernous look, to eat the selection of largely cirrus clouds on offer for him. The very last one, small and plump, that was stuck somewhere between a cumulus and a stratus—he sucked right in like jelly from a cup.
His belly full, he now began the walk back to his cousin’s house.
From time to time, he stopped and looked up, wondering what it would be like to actually be in space, see all that he had eaten today face to face. Would it be scary? Would he feel smaller and more insignificant than he already felt? Or would he want to stay there, floating in nothing, never wanting to return?
The main door was open and he could hear the adults in the living room laughing and talking. His mother and father were among them. They were making fun of a political leader who had miserably failed in the last election and then they were discussing the best way to make a chocolate. It didn’t seem like they had registered his absence for the past five hours.
He neither made a conscious effort to soften his footfalls, nor amplify his actions as he crept up the stairs. The door to his cousin’s room was closed so he opened it just enough to let himself in. His makeshift bed, an old sofa, still lay just as he had left it that morning. His cousin, in his faux race-car was already asleep. And he decided to follow suit. He took off his shoes and socks and lifted the duvet to slip inside, his legs settling in his first and then his torso. As his head hit the pillow, something inside his mouth moved and lodged itself between his premolars. He used his tongue to free it, swirling this way and that to accomplish the task, before, finally, the object in question came loose. He pushed it forward with the tip of his tongue, towards his lips, and took it in his hand.
He sat up in bed to see it clearly in the darkened room, but when he couldn’t be sure of its identity for a long time, he got out and moved to the large, open window. Under the gaze of the full moon, in the light it provided for an undertaking such as this, he began to look at the strange item from all angles. It was dark—green from one perspective and black form another. Its surface was tough, dull, almost like rubber.
Had his mouth been open while he had been asleep in the tree? Had a bird or a squirrel thrown something in his mouth, just for the sake of it? Or had nature itself played a trick on him and lodged a small stone in his mouth, only for it to come loose and get wedged in a more uncomfortable place inside his mouth cavity?
He could, of course, ask his parents what it could be. But then he’d have to tell them about his little adventure in the woods, answer their many questions, and see a discomforting uneasiness spread across their faces on the realisation that they had, again, unknowingly, forgotten that he existed.
He was the youngest and smallest of their children; not yet a teenager, where his other siblings were grown up and married. It was easy for all them to overlook the last ten years of their lives, to not even consider it in the face of the entirety they had already lived, even though the years contained in that one decade spawned his very life.
No, he thought, as he took the thing in his hand and moved it near his eyes to see it more clearly, he’d have to solve the mystery himself.
It turned out to be the right decision, too, for the moment he looked at the object from such close quarters, he made the connection to the open-air feast he had indulged in a while ago, and instantly identified the peculiar item. Because sure enough, between his forefinger and his thumb, what lay trapped was nothing but an uneaten piece of jelly bean.