When I was eight years old, I fell out of a tree and my face smashed into the rosewood beams that lay beneath it. I still wonder how I’m alive today, or at least not incredibly deformed.
It was a dry day, and I was taking a break between math problems. Way was talking to a visitor halfway down the hill, and, overcome with a sudden curiosity, I climbed a tree to see who it was. Perched at my usual branch about four feet off the ground, I couldn’t see far enough down the hillside.
I climbed higher and higher, grabbing into unfamiliar branches, checking to see if I could get a better view at each branch. I was at least 12 feet up when I got a glimpse of the visitor in the driveway. It was a thin man with dreadlocks who I didn’t recognize.
I reached up and shifted all my weight to a branch above me and hung there, letting my feet unwrap from the trunk as I peered down the hillside. Suddenly, there was a crack and a spray of rotted wood dust hit my face. Before I could grab another branch, I felt myself falling. The bottom fell out of my stomach, and everything was blurred. My heart raced and the warm summer air felt cold. Everything was a frantic swirl: a life-flashing past, and then evaporating. I flailed my arms in blind search for a branch to grab onto on the way down. The skin on my right arm was torn by something sharp, and then I saw it: the pile of rosewood logs that I was to hit in seconds. My muscles wrapped tight around my bones as I braced for impact. There were no more branches to grasp at. It was over.
My face hit the logs first and the rest of my body came crashing after it. It felt like the time I accidentally inhaled water at the river—a sharp sting high up in my nose from liquid in my sinuses and then a burning in my throat. But it came and went in a flash. Soon I didn’t feel anything but a warmth in my fingers and toes, everything else was numb. I didn’t move right away. It felt like I was standing outside of my body looking at myself, a calming warmth radiating through me. There was no pain. I didn’t move, I felt like I was falling asleep. I was brought back by the sound of Jah’s voice breaking into a long bawl. I sat up to see what was the matter. He was staring at me and screaming and I felt confused. I stood up and felt a wash of warm liquid run down my face and the front of my flowered rag dress, I my head felt so light on my shoulders, I almost fell over. I looked down and thought the red liquid looked pretty as it soaked into the fabric leaving behind the thick clumps of tissue that didn’t soak through the cloth.
The warm feeling spread from my fingers and toes to all of my skin. A dull metallic taste filled my mouth. I felt like laying back down and continuing my nap but I thought I should at least walk to the bed in the house.
Jah’s cries had alerted Na and she was standing at the end of the path by the house looking down the driveway that was the entrance to our hilltop home. When she saw me her fists clenched. Her face got red and she looked angry and terrorized at the same time. A warm trickle still flowed from my face, the blood soaked fabric of my dress stuck to my stomach and it felt like a warm blanket. I saw red dots of blood start to drip on my feet. I walked right up to her, looked up, and I smiled.
“I’m fine,” I said. “It doesn’t even hurt.”
Na grabbed at a nearby water drum to catch her balance. Her face went from red to pale. I felt a sweeping calm, like I did after eating a large hot meal. Sleep seemed so close, now. The ground looked soft, like a bed.
“Can I take a nap?” I asked.
Na let out a primal scream. The world got blurry. I felt her grab my arm. “I’m so angry with you. I’ll never forgive you.” She said lowered herself to my level and looked me in the eyes. “I will never forgive you for this.”
Moments later, I felt cold water hit my face and it disrupted my euphoric feeling. I felt a deep, distant throb inside my skull. I felt Na’s hands on the back of my neck and a cold cloth dabbing my face. I heard voices. At my core, I just wanted everyone to know I was all right. I tried a smile but my muscles slackened. I just needed a nap. Everything would be fine. Why didn’t everyone know?
When my face was wiped off, Na led me to the hammock in the kitchen. I sat in it and laid back. The warm stream down my face had been replaced with the cool dampness of a cloth. My nostrils were full of something thick and wet. I had to breath out of my mouth.
“We need a doctor,” I heard Na say. Then I heard Way and saw his face appear over me. He returned to his discussion with Na. “We can do it ourself!” He said. Then they lowered their voices but I heard snippets of the conversation all ending in “her nose.”
I reached up to feel my face and Na slapped my hand. “Don’t touch it! We have to tape it on. We’ll just tape it in place. That’s what we’ll do.” She was talking fast and frantic and pacing. Jah was staring at me with red, watery eyes and quivering.
An idea was floating around in my head. Something bad happened. Something very bad happened to my face. My nose. Where was it? I couldn’t feel a thing, or at least no pain; just a cool breeze on my skin.
“I’m fine.” I repeated, and I was surprised at the gurgled, nasal sound that was my voice.
“Don’t talk!” Na shouted at me. “Just be quiet!”
She ran into the wooden house. Way turned to me and bent over the hammock, examining my face closely. “Yeah, Min,” he said smiling,“You bus’ up your face, but don’t worry. We a fix it, okay? Just relax.”
Na returned with a roll of duct tape, some cotton balls we used to wrap around sticks and use as Q-tips, and a pair of scissors. She set them on the kitchen table and she and Way discussed antibiotic cream, namely that we didn’t have any.
Way went into the garden near the kitchen and came back with four fat aloe vera leaves. He slit one open with a knife and dug its inner clear jelly into a bowl. Na mashed the cotton in it until it was wet and sticky. She then took the cotton and wiped my face with long gentle strokes in one direction. It felt slimy and cold, faintly itchy. Globs of it dripped down into the creases of my lips and an intense bitterness invaded my mouth. Na tore off pieces of duct tape, one after another, and stuck them over the aloe soaked cotton onto my face. It didn’t hurt. It felt like my face was not mine at all, like my being had shrunk inside of my body making it a shell.
When she was done, she asked if I could open my mouth. I could, but only halfway. She said it was fine. “Just enough to get a spoon in.” I breathed through my mouth, shut my eyes. The world went quiet.
Almost instantly, Na shook me. “You can’t sleep right away, you’ve had a concussion.” She said. “Jah, find her a book, I don’t want her to go into a coma.”
I opened my eyes and three pairs of eyes blinked back at me. Na had pulled up stools around the hammock for her and Jah and she held Chaka in her lap.
“She’s alive!” Jah jumped off the stool, a wild look on his face. “Now can I ask her which books?”
I wasn’t sure if he was happier that I was alive or that it meant that Na would read us story.
“Get the one with the story about the man who pulls the thread.” I gurgled.
Jah jumped as if he had heard a ghost. He looked at me for a second and then ran to the wooden house to find the book of Russian fairy tales that was my favorite.
The first story I requested was the one about a man who was going through a hard time. He encountered a witch in the forest who gave him a magical ball of thread. He could pull on the thread and time would fast forward, a perfect tool to skip over life’s worst moments. The man ended up pulling through all the hard parts of his life and so he aged and died fast–something like a matter of days.
“If you had that thread would you pull it ’til your face was fixed?” Jah asked.
I tried to open my mouth to answer but the duct tape pinched me. I would, I thought to myself. I’d pull the thread.
As Na read, Jah was tasked with keeping me awake. It was a duty he cherished, poking and pinching me whenever my eyes lowered. We sat there listening to stories until the evening birds could be heard in the surrounding jungle and Na had to boil the beans to preserve them for the next day. Jah helped me out of the hammock to the wooden house. By nightfall my face had swollen so far that my eyes were reduced to slits that I could barely see out of. Na had held her hand in front of my face at different points during the day to make sure I could see, and I could until my face swelled shut which set her at ease knowing that I had’t gone blind. Now, I saw slivers of light in front of me but the swelling made it hard to see far enough to walk.
We all packed onto our sponge mattress as usual. Na and Chaka at the bottom and Jah and I laying diagonally so out feet didn’t touch her. I got Jah’s pillow and mine to prop my head up on to help me breathe. Na said I could fall asleep, since I seemed pretty alert and out of the the woods for a possible coma. No sooner than I laid down, I fell asleep.
When I woke up I was alarmed that my eyes had sealed shut with a crusty dried fluid and I couldn’t open them. It stayed like that for about a week. Na changed the duct tape and cotton balls on my face every morning and evening and put more aloe on. A few days in, after I got my sense of smell back, I started to hate the smell of aloe. I laid in the hammock during the day and Na would check on my when she had time between chores. Most of the time my only company was Jah circling the hammock and telling me how horrible my face looked. “You look like a lizard,” He said one day, then he hesitated. “Well, a lizard who got beat up a pulp.”
I threw the cup I was holding in the direction of his voice.
“You look like a garrobo,” He said at length. “But without the tail I guess.”
I sat up. “Go get me a wet rag.”‘
“Just get me one, okay!”
He went to the kitchen and returned with a wet dish cloth. It smelled like rancid cooking grease. Still, I used it to rub my eyes until the dried mucus let go of my eyelashes and lids and I forced my eyes open, even to slits. The first thing I saw was Jah running to tell Na what I was doing.
I put the rag down and laid back in the hammock like nothing happened.
Na came from in from the kitchen and I felt her grip my arm and examine my face. “Do you want to go blind?”
“I want to see how bad it is.” I said.
She asked if I was sure. I nodded. She went to the house and got the one mirror and handed it to me. I held it close to my face so I could see. My heart jumped when I saw my face. It felt like little splinters fell in my stomach and my tongue got dry. It didn’t look like me at all. I was overcome by a terrifying feeling that it was how I would look for the rest of my life. I didn’t say anything, just handed the mirror back and tried to fight back tears.
“Maybe you don’t look like a garrobo so much,” Jah said once he saw my condition, and in a strange show of consolation, he poked me in the shoulder with a stick.
The swelling went down gradually, and after a couple weeks I was moving around and doing chores again.
The first chore i did was collect firewood. Jah and I took our machetes into the ravine on the outskirts of the bush to collect firewood. I was chopping dried branches and Jah was stacking them. My sight was fine now, and I could see everything that moved in the bush. I stopped chopping and sat down next to the pile of branches.
“What is it?” Jah asked.
“I’m so happy I can still see.” I said. I was looking at the leaves flickering in the canopy above. There were birds up there feeding on the luciana seeds. I finished all my chores that day like they were not chores at all. I decided that my biggest fear was going blind.
For weeks I avoided the mirror. I was still a sight with duct tape stretched over the middle of my face and the whites of my eyes blood red. I wondered if they would ever go back to normal. Na said not to worry, that it was “just broken blood vessels”.
I don’t remember the day it went away. I was a slow healing and one day Na didn’t put the duct tape back on, she just slathered the scar under my nose with Vaseline. My nose started itching and it took everything in me not to scratch it. And one day, I don’t remember the exact moment, but one day it was gone. My face was back to normal except for a raised scar right under my nose where the flesh had healed back. The fall became a bizarre memory.
The first tree I climbed after the fall was the guava tree. Guava season was just coming in and I wanted to get one before the piam piams pecked into them or before they were crawling with fruit worms. Jah went up the the tree first and I, after. It was like normal. I wasn’t afraid, instead I felt security in my new practice of checking the end of each branch to make sure there were green leaves on it. Na and Way saw me go up the tree in quiet approval. Looking back, they must have known I had suffered the best lesson of all, better then any scolding could carry.
In college, to my peer’s astonishment, I would scale the crab apple tree on campus on my way to class, eat as many as the tart fruit I could take, and then descend like a cat back onto the sidewalk with twigs lodged in my curls.
Over the years I’ve learned the art of climbing: examine the tree, know the durability of the wood type, know your limits, be flexible, always check the end of the branch before leaning your weight into to, and never put all your weight on a branch without making sure there is another within reach that can hold your weight. These are the principles of climbing.