The moment it first occurred to the woman that she would bring the girl home was when the girl had climbed to a sturdy branch halfway up the sycamore and ensconced herself there, first removing, then dropping, her yellow leather work boots and then her socks, stretched out like lilies at their tops, fluorescent lime green no less. The girl wrapped what looked like prehensile toes around some of the finer twigs so that it appeared that she had grown into the tree or it into her. When the woman was trying to discern the nature of the being she was examining, first she thought feral, then thinking feral, she thought wolf. But wolves don’t climb trees, both the girl and the woman knew that.
Confronted by the girl’s feet, she was compelled to say simian, ape, primate, mono, monkey, but stopped there as no one would identify a species by its feet alone. Then as the woman teetered between one identification and another without knowing if the confusion or complexity was in the girl or in herself, the girl raised her mouth to the sky and opened it into a fluted goblet as if to catch rain. The sadness the child exuded was so like a perfume that one could not bear taking it in or being without it. Grief eased out into the air extending itself in mineral colors like oil on water, the thinnest of diaphanous films until it found its destination and wrapped itself about the living body, a sculpture in opal and mother of pearl. So many days, the woman admitted, she had been curious about grief while most willing to avoid the textures of its mysteries.
Climbing the tree had not been a thoughtless or impetuous action. The girl had taken a Jew’s harp, a handful of dried cranberries, a scrap of blue leather, feathers, a vial of silver and turquoise beads, a needle, some thread, other secret objects, some sacred, all carefully balanced in the lap of an oversized T-shirt that the girl turned alternately into a desk, a knapsack, a handkerchief for blowing her nose, while another T-shirt became a bandanna, a snood, and a white banner that declared most adamantly: “I will not surrender.”
Closer scrutiny indicated however that this was not a wolf or a monkey person. Nothing so close to human. Or so diminished as to say humanoid. No protoperson. Nor was she any animal the woman could identify, but she was of another species, the woman thought, of another species altogether. The way the words fell together, something else she could not yet understand was presented to her mind: An animal of other species altogether. Or, as she was only later to understand the meaning of: an animal of other species all together.
The stone fell with enough force that there was no doubt it had been aimed and thrown to land exactly three inches from the woman’s foot.
The girl was known to bite. Or so, Carmela who had taken the girl in, alleged. The woman eased herself down against the trunk of the tree. So the girl had thrown a stone. It hadn’t hit the woman. The miss was deliberate. It was an ardent signal although its meaning was unclear. Fundamentally, it indicated — “watch out.” OK. She would sit down and watch. Out. Out of herself. Watch to see what would happen next.
The least sensible thing to do would be to get a ladder and climb up the tree. The girl was fast and nimble, as any tree-based animal might be. Even if she succeeded in reaching the girl before the girl pushed her down or climbed higher or fell down herself, what would be accomplished? She could hardly expect to have a sensible conversation with the girl up there in the branches. They had never really succeeded at conversations when Carmela had brought the girl to see the woman and the woman had always known that she was not agile enough to corner the girl in the house, had it ever been necessary.
Nor was it a good idea to call the fire department. The girl would scratch, tear, kick, twist, slap, chew, spit. The woman could not pretend the girl was a house cat, or an escaped parakeet. Every morning a flock of green parrots swept through the neighborhood, a gang of runaways accommodating to the foliage and the weather. This girl was a loner. No virtue in treating her as if she were a member of a flock, or a herd animal, or a rabid dog, or worse, a wild animal, a big cat, escaped from its confines, from the zoo, and needing to be behind bars, “for its own sake,” as people were likely to say.
“Would you like to come down?” the woman asked trying to be sensible and to establish herself as someone who knew how to behave under such circumstances.
“It is beautiful up here,” the girl said. “If you climb up we can have a picnic. I have…” and then she looked through her treasures, holding each object up to the light, “nothing much to eat really. You’ll have to bring your own. Bring hot dogs.”
Wolf, the woman thought again.
Raccoon, the woman postulated.
“No soy coyote.” Had the girl whispered this or was the woman imagining this? If she wasn’t a coyote, the woman might be safe with her.
The girl was rummaging through her treasures again and yes, there was the knife in the sheath attached to a belt. She put it on as if it was the most natural adornment.
The woman hesitated and then continued as if nothing had changed between them.
“Would you like me to come up? I guess I can manage it.” She didn’t mean it. She couldn’t imagine how she would get up there, but she thought it was worth asking.
“You can’t come up,” the girl said. “This is my country.” It was a definitive statement. “Don’t try it.” She paused. “I know you won’t anyway. You don’t know how to come here.”
The girl knew more about the woman than the woman knew about the girl. What would she bring the girl if they were going to have a picnic? Food with a lot of vitamin B in it, the woman thought. Food for the nervous system. She was thinking of greens and brown rice when other thoughts, decidedly foreign on practical and culinary grounds, made a dramatic entry: hearts of palm, maguey blossoms marinated in lime and tossed with red and yellow nasturtiums in a nest of rice on a bed of leaves, miner’s lettuce with the sweet coral berries of the Australian pepper tree, cactus with red hot chilies, angel’s hair with lemon butter, pansies and rose petals. Such an invasion of mind had to be accounted for. The girl was infiltrating the woman’s mind.
“Do you like to eat flowers?”
The girl looked startled and blushed several shades of bougainvillea —magenta, crimson, purple, orange, then pale white. For an instant, the woman had her.
“Oleander is poisonous. Watch out.” The words appeared in the woman’s mind as on a computer screen, so she didn’t know if they were hers or the girl’s.