Binder: The Tree — Free version


This is a small chapter from my young-adult fantasy novel which right now I’m calling Binder. More of a proposal, it’s in the beginning stages and subject to major overhaul, particularly the names of things. I welcome your comments and feedback.

The tree’s trunk, bulbous and scabby, squatted on the banks like a fat old spider-man with a dozen skinny legs. His branching arms reached out over the water, as if sheltering the stream’s flow, guarding its passage, and casting off his purple bouquets and kelly-green leaves like offerings.

The network of roots and burls, exposed a half-meter or more out of the ground, formed a series of rooms and tunnels like open cages, allowing airflow and the teasing semi-privacy of latticed light and shadow. Five kilometers out on the Swept Plain and straddling the city of Dev’s only untainted and uncontrolled freshwater source, this oasis of old trees had become the site of many trysts for lovers, friends, and people from the Skirts who wanted to be alone, but still together. Each ad hoc community’s kisses and sighs, glimpses of skin, and soft puffs of sweet smoke were shared with the next tree’s squatters, and passed through like news, like the shared rituals of a secret society.

A boy of 16, shirtless, shoeless, and wearing a type of primitively carved and garishly colored short leather kilt that had become popular among the Cut youths in the city’s barrio of outcasts, artists, and artisans, stood a ways out from this particular tree, shading his eyes as he looked toward Dev Proper. A small leather pouch with a long strap hung from his shoulder across his chest. He was waiting for someone.

It was a hot, clear spring day, and his skin, just a shade or two lighter than his kilt, shone with sweat in the sunlight. One salty bead trailed from under his chin and slid down his neck toward the well of his soul at its base. Before it could hit, he raised one long, half-mooned finger and scooped it into his mouth. An anticipatory smile played then about his lips.

The boy noticed a patch of small rolling puffs of black dust hugging the ground and dispersing 20 meters away, in the direction of the city, either stirred by wind or… Looking farther, he saw that the trail of diminishing little clouds could be tracked as far back as he could see. He smiled, realizing what he was looking at. Yes, it must be earth and dirt kicked up by invisible feet. His small grin grew into a broad smile.

“Hola, Pol!” he called out into the empty landscape. “What are you hiding in there?”

He heard a laugh, felt an unseen, tingling wave buffet his face; and saw two walking figures appear out of a diffuse mosaic of colored light — Pol, with a dirty, paint-smeared pack slung over his shoulder, wearing baggy cargoes; and the one he’d been waiting for, Alucio, shuffling in his big black boots, his legs encased in slim black trousers, and wearing a short shift, black, sheer, and sleeveless. Alucio glanced at the waiting boy quickly, and then looked away, a half-grin playing on his lips.

“Something you’ve been waiting for a long time, but I’m thinking,’ Pol said, with a peculiar look on his face. “You might not know him now.” He shook his head and laughed. “Hola, Nacho! Todo bien?”

“Si, Pol. I saw you coming and…well, I didn’t really see you coming…” He paused, laughed and slapped the dust off his kilt.

“Hola, Ignacio,” Alucio said, brows crunched up in comical concentration. He raised his hand in greeting and then came forward to kiss Nacho on the cheek. When he pulled back too soon, Nacho grabbed him and hugged him, with a smile.

“Ay, guapo, don’t run away from me,” he said, laughing and squeezing Alucio hard, still smiling, with his eyes wrinkled closed.

Alucio had dropped his arms but raised them then and took Ignacio by his elbows, pressing his thumbs gently into the crooks. Ignacio laughed softly and bumped his forehead into Alucio’s, damp and dusty, unfurrowed now and smooth. His body relaxed and settled into his friend’s at those three points of contact, and the only sounds were the water—clucking under and flowing past the roots of the trees to their left—and a hot wind rattling the old spider-man’s leaves.

They stood there a few long seconds until Pol began laughing too.

“Chicos, I’m still here!” he said, reaching up and snatching a fly out of the air and trapping it in his fist. When he opened it a few beats later, it had become a locust, then shifted with a stutter, with a tiny misting of color, and with a negative shake of Pol’s head, into a dragonfly, bobbing and buzzing in his palm.

His hands still on Alucio’s shoulders, Ignacio had been watching, his eyes wide.

“Que raro, Pol!” he said, dropping his hands. “I don’t understand how you can do these things!” Then he winked at Alucio.

Alucio inclined his head toward Pol and rolled his eyes.

“He’s just showing off,” he said, and then taking his hand from Ignacio’s arm, waggled his fingers vaguely in Pol’s direction.

Then it was like a shiny white cloud had descended onto Pol’s hand and enveloped the insect. At which the dragonfly became a fly again and buzzed off.

Pol shrugged, waving his hands to one side and then the other, shifting his form a meter, then a meter back, then half a meter forward, flickering, a smile in one pose, a glower in the next.

“I show what I want to show,” he said, and settled on just Pol, smoothing down his curly hair, which bounced back from his fingers, and flashing a bright smile and laughing, he said, “And no one can catch me.” Then, he shimmered out of sight. Several puffs of dust trailed away from the oasis, heading back to the city and away from the two boys with their hands on one another.

“I think you hurt your friend,” Ignacio said, taking his hands from Alucio’s shoulders. “Pol acts happy, but he’s not always. He’s…”

“Sensitive..I know,” Alucio said. “I don’t know why I said, what I said. Or did… Sometimes I…I don’t know.” He shook his head, frowned, and then sat down on a nearby tree’s massive roots.

“You’re proud, ‘Lu,” Ignacio said. “But, afraid, too, I think.”

“Afraid? What am I afraid of?” Alucio said, his eyes pained, looking up at Ignacio, who had moved over to stand in front of him.

“You’re afraid that no one notices you, and that…well, sometimes that makes you mean.” At that, moving to stand in front of him, Ignacio brushed Alucio’s cheek with the back of his hand. “Pero, mi vida, te veo.”

Alucio closed his eyes, and smiled.

“But, what did Pol mean about how you’re different today…?” Ignacio said.

“He meant that…I’m not sure what he meant, but, you saw what I did with the dragonfly, yes?”

Ignacio nodded, and said, “I know Pol makes people see things that…that aren’t really there but…”

“Pol plays tricks. He…asks the worl.. the universe to, to play a trick, to make a joke. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to make this fly look like a dragonfly?’ Usually, the universe agrees and answers, ‘Yes,’ and lets him do it. He does the same when the Order is chasing him.”

“Ah ha!” Ignacio said. “He paints everywhere and never gets caught.”

“Right. What Pol does is important — he’s resisting the Regime — and so when he asks the universe to make it seem like he’s somewhere else, the universe, uh, thinks it’s important, and also funny, to let him do that…at least, that’s what I believe…”

Alucio paused a few seconds, so Ignacio said, “But, I don’t understand what you did…”

“You know I’m a binder. My family, we’re all binders. And what that means?”

Ignacio began a nod, paused, and then completed it. “You make books.”

“Kind of. Partly. Well, now I can..unbind. I can..” Alucio paused and got up, taking Ignacio’s hand.

“The world, the universe, everything we see and feel and even everything we can’t see is bound together. In a kind of…agreement. Not to fall apart, to stay together,” he said, as if reciting.

Ignacio cocked his head and looked Alucio in the eye.

“Yes…like when a boy, like me, joins with another boy, like you. And they stay together,” Ignacio said and smiled.

“Yes!” Alucio said, but looking a little embarrassed. “Sort of like that. There is a kind of…love. A deep kind of…choosing…that all matter and energy and, and… life makes to…be.”

At that he shrugged and shook his head.

“I don’t know. I don’t know everything yet, Ignacio, but now I can…talk to those bonds, that being, ask them to unchoose, to unbind and then…”

He dropped Ignacio’s hand, turned around, and took a step away.

“It’s so hot and I’m not making sense.”

Ignacio reached out for Alucio’s retreating shoulders and pulled him back.

“No, mi amor, I like to hear you talk even when I don’t understand everything you say, and especially when you don’t, but…” He nestled his chin in the hollow of Alucio’s shoulder from behind and lowered his voice. “It is so hot. And I brought draw.”

He kissed Alucio’s earlobe.

“Let’s get out of the sun and smoke,” he said.

After making their way through the roots, ducking their heads and pulling themselves forward with their arms, they found a shady spot carpeted with powdered mud, cozy enough to sit close but wide enough to stretch out their legs. Alucio at first sat down next to Ignacio, both their backs against a gnarled root, their shoulders almost touching. But Ignacio got up and said, “Pull your legs in, Lu,” and when he did, after bumping his head once on a looping root and then laughing and crossing his eyes, sat cross-legged in front of his friend. They were knees to knees.

Ignacio pulled a pale red, almost pink, leaf out of his pouch, tugged on Alucio’s arm and laid it onto his outstretched palm. Then he reached in again and pinched a spot of draw, squinted at it, frowned, then reached in again for a bigger wad. When he was satisfied with the mass, he sprinkled it out the length of the long and wide leaf.

“I don’t really like to smoke,” Alucio said, frowning with his mouth and smiling with his eyes.

“You say you don’t like to smoke. But I know you like it when we do,” Ignacio said, sealing the cigarette with a lick and offering it out with a flick of two fingers.

Alucio opened his mouth. “How do you know I like it?”

“I just do,” Ignacio said. “So, light me up, Lu!”

Alucio cocked his head, looked at the cigarette. “Hmm. Fire… I’m not sure how to do that. But, if combustion is a shift from one state to another… then I can unbind the…”

Ignacio laughed and placed the palm of his other hand on Alucio’s chest.

“Don’t worry, maestro. This I can do,” he said and snapped his fingers immediately in front of the tip of the [castellano slang for joint](). A fizzing, a tiny crystal of red light, and the leaf caught fire.

Grinning, Ignacio brought it to his pursed lips and drew. As he sucked the spark to life, a tiny white cloud swirled.

Alucio looked at his friend inhaling, puffing out his cheeks. He opened his mouth to speak but then closed it.

“Ah hah!” Ignacio said. “You thought I couldn’t do a thing…a thing like that, but all my friends can do this now.” He drew again, and a bead of red bloomed, bright in the dimness beneath the leaves.

“But…that was..”

“Magic. Si,” Ignacio said. “And red magic, too. The magic that makes fire…and,” he lowered his voice, “other things.”

He laughed softly and leaned back on the root behind him, bringing the joint to his lips slowly, cocked his head, squinted, grinning all the while. He laid his other arm across one leg, leaving that hand dangling loosely, waggling a little in front of his gaping kilt.

“But, you’re…not…” Alucio stared down, flushed, then looked him in the eyes and shook his head.

“No soy…que? No soy magico? Soy cortado?” Ignacio teased, still smiling, but now waving the fingers of his loose hand. “No, mi corazon, I’m not cut, and I can show you.”

He took another hit, inhaled, then took the joint from his mouth and leaned forward. He reached out, cupped a hand behind Alucio’s neck and pulled him forward.

When his and Alucio’s open lips were almost touching, he exhaled, he blew, and both pairs of eyes slowly shut. Alucio sucked in the thin squiggle of white smoke, and when he’d finished, when his lips had almost closed, Nacho slipped in his tongue — like a snake, like a boy on the way — and kissed him.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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