Gabriel Morris in India

Gabriel Morris in India
A mysterious cave in south India.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Excerpt from I Leapt Into the Night (click here for more info)

This is another one of the stories from my book of fictional short stories, "I Leapt Into the Night, And Ten Other Stories"...

"The Old Man Under the Tree"

In between the two mountains was a wide valley, and in the middle of the valley was a vast field. In the middle of this field stood a single solitary tree, on which there were no leaves. Beneath this tree, sitting against it, lay a very old man, who appeared to be sleeping.

His hands were folded across his chest and he was wearing a hat, which was tilted forward on his head so that it covered his eyes. The sun shone down upon him (which, coincidentally, is precisely why the hat covered his eyes). He was indeed sleeping. His lips, barely perceptible beneath the thick gray beard that crept down his chin and neck, pursed in and out from the flow of air through his lungs; which also caused his stomach and his hands resting upon it to rise slowly and then fall again every few moments.

He wasn’t breathing rapidly, of course, since he wasn’t doing much of anything. He was merely lying there beneath the tree, enjoying the warmth of the sun, breathing so as to stay alive, while some other part of himself was somewhere far away in dream-world. But, that dream-world reality isn’t of concern since, to the observer, there was just an old man lying there beneath a tree (speaking of which, that observer shall soon become apparent).

Once, the old man reached up his hand—his left hand, since it was on top of the other one—from his stomach to his eyebrow, which he scratched twice. Then he put his hand back in the same position it had been before. He had scratched his eyebrow it because it itched. This was typical behavior for him. Once, he had been very thirsty, so he drank some water. He also had a tendency to nap when he was tired, as you may have noticed.

The grass near the tree moved ever so subtly, because there was a slight breeze. This breeze was so slight that the old man didn’t even notice it. But even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have done anything about it, because this would have been against his nature. He did very few things he was not accustomed to doing, such as acting on the weather. The wind could blow if it wanted to, he figured. And he was quite right.

There were some very small bugs alighted on the grass, however, who did in fact notice the wind and were trying their best to do something about it, since in their case the cause happened to be affecting them. Most of them simply flew from one leaf of grass to another, so as to find the best one possible for bracing against the wind. This was typical behavior for bugs, and most of them were quite typical. One slightly atypical bug, however, chose a different course of action. It decided, for unknown reasons, to fly above the grass and all of the other bugs over to the tree, to the old man beneath the tree, where it landed on his eyebrow. This is precisely the reason why the old man had scratched it.

The old man, because of his age—which was very great as far as humans were concerned (which they were)—had gray hair upon his head that was thinning, and this was why he wore a hat. His hat was small and round and black, and when he wore it, it covered up his gray hair. But with the hat tilted forward, some of his thinning gray hair—which was also slightly curly—could be seen. But he didn’t mind this, since he assumed that no one would be watching him as he napped. And he was indeed correct, that no person was watching him. But then, he was only partially correct due to the simple fact that he was, in fact, being watched. Yes, truth can certainly be quite confusing. One more good excuse for napping.

The tree under which the old man was lying was a walnut tree. Although it had on it no leaves, it did have on it a few walnuts which hung sparsely from the bare branches, dried from the sun. And though these walnuts had lost their value as nourishment, they still did remain suitable as devices for awakening peculiar characters, who sat suspiciously under lonely trees in the middle of vacant valleys.
For atop this tree, unknown to the old man since he was fast asleep, sat a very small and yellow bird who was eyeing the old man with intense curiosity. If the bird, who was a she, had translated her thoughts into human terms, they would have went something along the lines of:

“Why in the world is there an old man lying beneath a walnut tree asleep in the middle of a valley, where there seems to be no apparent reason for his being?”
Her thoughts only appeared as images within her fragile mind, but the picture created was one of genuine confusion and curiosity at the quandary before her.

Now, if this little bird had been the old man, she probably would not have chosen to do anything at all about the situation, given the old man’s character. He would have just continued down the valley on his way, minding his own business (assuming that he actually had a way, or any business to mind).

But as it happened, she wasn’t the old man at all. Instead she was a very small and yellow bird who was curious, and who wanted to know why this old man was lying beneath a lone tree in the middle of this forsaken valley.

And so, with all these factors in consideration, she decided she would attempt to find the answer to her question, having nothing else pressing to do in that moment. And being a fairly intelligent little bird, she reasoned that the first step in discovering an answer to this riddle would be to wake the old man up, so as to properly converse with him. This was part of her nature, being direct and forthright.

Quite conveniently—as mentioned just a moment ago—there was upon this tree with no leaves a number of walnuts, which seemed almost perfectly designed to serve the purpose that the little yellow bird was willing to choose for them.

With swiftness and dexterity, she flew from her perch on a branch over to one of the walnuts, grabbed it with her beak, broke it off the branch in one precise motion, and then hovered over the old man, peering at him down through the branches until she had determined that her aim was accurate. Then, she dropped the walnut. It fell assuredly through the slightly-moving air, missing branches left and right, and then hit the old man squarely on the head, right where his gray hair showed.

The old man jumped suddenly from his place of resting. For an old man, he was still quite agile. But in the process of jumping he knocked off his hat and gray hair could be seen growing all over the top of his head. He reached up and scratched the top of his head, since that was where the walnut had struck him. And then he bent over slowly to the ground, picked up his hat and put it back on top of his head, where it most certainly belonged.

The little yellow bird, having accomplished her mission of waking him up, watched the old man regain his balance and recover from the blow of the walnut. And then, once she assumed that he was listening, she leaned over ever so slightly and said to him:

“Why, old man, are you1ying beneath a tree in the middle of a field in the middle of a valley where there seems to be no darned good reason for your being here?”

The old man, however, did not hear. He was too busy straightening his hat and dusting off his clothes. The bird assumed then that he was either rude or stupid, so she asked him a second time:

“Old man, why are you lying beneath a tree in the middle of a field in the middle of a valley where there seems to be no good reason whatsoever for your being here?”

Again, the old man did not hear. He was busy rubbing his eyes and attempting to ascertain where exactly he was. He had just woken up from a long and extremely pleasant nap, and wasn’t exactly sure why he had been woken, or even why precisely he had woken up in the place that he presently was, given that it was so far away from the dream-world from which he had just come.

The bird, however, took him for being a fool who hadn’t understood a word she had said. She figured then, that the most effective way to deal with a fool was to try everything at least twice, if not more. So she flew over to a bundle of walnuts, broke off one of them with her beak, and then hovered over the old man and, with careful and deliberate aim at that part of his anatomy which stuck out rather monstrously from the rest of his face, she opened her beak and let it go.

The old man had just remembered why he was where he was, and was just getting ready to announce it out loud so as to reassure himself and anyone else who happened to be listening, when he heard a rustling overhead, in the branches of the tree under which he stood.

He looked up in order to understand the cause of the rustling—and at that moment a walnut falling from the sky struck him squarely on the nose. He was so stunned that he fell backwards, landing abruptly in the dirt, bruising his butt and forgetting what it was that he was about to announce.

The yellow bird sitting in the tree, upon seeing the dramatic effect resulting from her actions once again, couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

The old man, upon hearing a strange, high-pitched noise coming from above, looked up from his seat on the ground, to see a very small and yellow bird clinging to a branch of the tree above him, chirping away like he had never seen a bird chirp before. To him, as strange as it might seem, it appeared almost as if the bird were laughing at him. And he did not like this. He also realized, with a sudden stroke of insight, that the bird may very well have been the cause for his awakening, as well as the bulging bruise that was now forming at the very end of his nose. He became furious, and decided to tell the bird so. He lifted himself up from the ground, stood up straight and tall, fixed his hat, pulled up his pants with both hands, and then raised a feeble fist and exclaimed in a most ferocious and assertive tone:

“You blasted yellow bird, what do you think you are doing? Are you mocking me?”

The yellow bird, upon seeing the old man roar with such anger and ferocity, felt a very small amount of fear. But instead of flying off right away, she chose to stand her ground, since she found the old man to be quite a peculiar character and she wished to discover a little more about him. Also, she was rather mesmerized by the strange and explosive effects of her actions on him, and she wondered if perhaps a third walnut would do something even more extraordinary. So she flew over to another walnut, grabbed it in her beak, broke it from the branch and then, hovering over the old man, who was still shaking his fist and cursing, she dropped the walnut.

The old man, so involved in his ferocity, failed to notice the actions of the yellow bird until it was too late, and another walnut had struck him squarely in his left eye, causing him to go temporarily blind. He yowled, clutched his hands to his eye, jumped in the air and ran in sporadic, hobbling circles in an effort to escape the pain. When the pain had subsided somewhat, he ceased his yowling, stopped hobbling in circles, and slowly took his hands away from his eyes. He looked, once again, up into the tree: to see a large dark splotch on the left, and a very small and yellow bird on the right, clutching a branch and chirping away hysterically.

At this he became undeniably enraged. Shaking his finger at the bird he muttered, “You just wait, I’ll get you for this.” And then he hobbled over to the trunk of the tree. After slight confusion between it and the large dark splotch, he lifted a foot to a bump on the trunk that acted as a foothold, reached up his hands to the branches, grabbed them and, putting all of his elderly strength into this one movement, hoisted himself up into the tree—almost falling to the ground, but not quite. Within a few moments he was sitting on one of the branches, breathing heavily, clutching his left eye with one hand and his hat with the other.

The little yellow bird, as she sat on her branch laughing away at the ridiculous sight of the old man howling in pain, was quite surprised to see him so quickly bring himself from the safety of the ground below, up almost to her level in such a short time. She abruptly ceased her laughing and looked at the old man in a much different light. There he sat, huffing and puffing on a tree branch, much as she had been only a moment before, regaining her own breath from laughter. She eyed the old man with deep curiosity, for he was indeed a peculiar character. She wondered for a moment if perhaps he was a messenger from another world, who had come here to ask her to join him in Paradise. She had heard of a place called Paradise, and it sounded like a very nice place. It occurred to her that maybe she should have been just a little bit more respectful towards this old man who slept in valleys and climbed into trees.

At that moment, the old man, who had now caught his breath, turned his head towards the little yellow bird and glared into her little eyes with great anger and intensity. The little bird was so surprised that she jumped backwards from sheer fear, and landed on the branch behind her. At that she forgot completely her notion that he was a messenger from Paradise, and decided instead that he was a messenger from a place very unlike Paradise, where there were probably more people like himself, with terribly menacing eyes and protruding proboscises and that she should do her best to get as far away from him as possible. However, she was so filled with fear now that she found she couldn’t even move.

The old man looked up at the little yellow bird sitting only a few feet away from him, and he smiled. He had witnessed her hop from one branch to another. He knew that any bird that could would have certainly flown far away by now. And so, in response to this, he ever so carefully shifted his position, stuck out an arm and a leg and moved one branch closer to the yellow bird.

The yellow bird was so consumed with fear that still she couldn’t fly away. All she could do was hop. So she hopped up to another branch a little bit higher in the tree, which was at least better than staying in the same place.

The old man, not being quite as dexterous in the ways of maneuvering through tree branches, was able to move only one branch at a time as well despite his greater size and length, and so this is what he did. He reached up, grabbed the branch above him and pulled himself up, so that he was as close to the bird as he had been before.

The little yellow bird, seeing that the old man had managed to move closer, did her best to move away. But, still lacking the necessary composure to fly, all she could do was succeed with another hop. So she hopped once again to the branch above her, widening the gap between her and the old man, if only a little bit.

The old man, seeking once again to close this gap, reached to the branch above him and pulled himself up. And again, they were no farther apart than they had been in the beginning.

Then the bird hopped again, and the old man promptly climbed one branch higher.
This event repeated itself, with the gap widening and then closing, several more times. It appeared that nothing was being gained for either of them, since they were still as far apart, despite all their hopping and climbing, as they had been in the first place.

However, at one point, the old man had just climbed up to match the little bird’s hop, and so the very small and yellow bird, still frozen in fear and unable to escape properly, did her best to hop one branch farther, since that was all she could do. But upon her hopping, she realized that there were no more branches to hop to—they had come to the very top of the tree—and so, she merely fluttered back down to her original perch in dismay.

The old man, upon seeing the little bird fail to gain the usual distance, saw that his pesterer was now one step closer than before. So, instead of simply closing the gap partway, he instead lunged forward with all his might, arms outstretched to claim his prize, and silence that which had dragged him here from his blissfully pleasant dream-world.

The little yellow bird, with an abrupt awakening of her sensibilities, gained the necessary strength in her body and courage in her soul, just as she was about to be grasped by the old man. She suddenly flapped her little yellow wings, and they worked, and she flew away.

The old man, realizing that his prey had escaped him and he was now alone, flying through the air far above the ground, thought very quickly during mid flight. He grabbed the branch that the bird had been standing on—rather than the place where the bird had been standing, which now contained nothing but air. The branch that he grabbed, however, was not quite as strong as he would have liked, considering that he was considerably more solid and weighty than a mere yellow bird. Upon the rest of his body falling downwards rapidly, following the arch of his arms, the branch suddenly snapped, and the stick he was now holding was of little use to him.

He fell down through the branches of the tree in the same manner that the walnut had—that is, downwards, though not quite so swiftly as his large frame failed to sail effortlessly through the open gaps. Fortunately for him, and perhaps as a rare stroke of luck in an otherwise unfortunate several minutes since his awaking, the branches served the purpose of slowing his fall downwards so that, though he landed eventually on the ground rather abruptly, he remained mostly intact. He came to rest at the base of the tree in the same spot where he had previously been napping, though now face down, with his arms outstretched, and his legs piled up on top of him.

His hat fell down after him and planted itself around one of his feet that was sticking up in the slight breeze. The grass moved ever so subtly, and the warm sun shone down upon the valley. The little yellow bird was soon far away. A small bug that had been standing on a leaf of grass was caught up in the wind, and it flew over to the old man and alighted on his gray hair.

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