I was adjusting the hammock in the tree when I heard him come stomping through the forest. He was wearing a Park Ranger uniform and holding his hat, his other hand resting on his firearm. When I’d first heard movement in the trees I’d thought nothing of it, the forest was in a constant state of movement; and I was used to the hushed noisiness of the dense forest around me. But when his gruff shape burst into the clearing I called home, there was no mistaking this sound. An unknown human had invaded my sanctuary. His short brown hair clung to his head, wet with sweat, and he wiped at it as he scanned the forest floor for anything out of place. I clung to the tree’s trunk, the rough bark pricking the skin on my back through my shirt. I watched him circle my tree, looking around, searching. Based on his uniform, but more so his obliviousness, I knew that he was a new ranger to the protected park area of the forest. He wasn’t just unaware of what he was supposed to be looking for, or where he was supposed to go; he was also, most importantly, and unaware that he had left the protected section of the forest that he was supposed to be protecting.
His hand slid around the trunk as he rounded the tree, stopping in the exact spot he had started in, just below me. I had been standing on the branch that extended out in front of me, then retreated to the trunk quickly when I spotted him. He hadn’t spotted me and I was been determined to keep it that way, hoping he would go back the way he came as quickly as he had come. But as he looked around the forest, his hand no longer on his weapon, his hat resting on the ground near his feet I thought there was something different about him. Something almost interesting and more aware than any other human I had ever seen before. His eyes the color of the setting golden sun, were scanning the trees like there was some magical secret to behold; like this deep into the forest he would find a magical kingdom of fairies, or the Lady of the Lake. The forest seemed to hypnotize him, he seemed to truly love being in the woods. His frame was muscular but stiff, like he had to spend so much time around people that his discomfort was shaping his body. But now he seemed to be relaxing in the forest, his posture relaxed, and he closed his eyes and lifted his face to the last golden rays of the setting sun. Casting his gaze, if his eyes had been open, directly at me in the tree is was in.
The sudden opening of his eyes caught me off guard and I froze, still clinging to the tree and uncertain of what to do. I had been watching him the whole time, but he hadn’t known that until now. Opening his eyes meant he was making direct eye contact with me. His eyes went wide as he realized what he was looking at, and there was a piercing look of irate shock that narrowed his golden eyes into angry slits. I wasn’t used to the presence of other people, but I could feel the emotion coming off his body as he regained his ranger posture and straightened his hat on the top of his head. Looking and feeling every bit the official Park Ranger of the protected forest area, he moved closer to my branch. His eyes still narrowed and his mouth opened, I prepared for another, usually rare, human interaction. His face told me he was confused and angry, but his emotional body language told me that underneath all that there was more; he was also curious, intrigued, unprepared, scared, and uncomfortable.
He opened and closed his mouth a few times before he was able to bark out a question. His voice's tone was different from what I had seen from his body language, but he didn’t look like the kind of guy that would let any of his questions go unanswered. While I felt no fear at seeing him, even as close as he was to me; I continued to cling to the tree, and it took my brain a few more seconds than usual to begin processing what he asked me. He demanded, in a voice that sounded like thunder during a summer storm, what I was doing setting up a hammock in a tree in the protected forest. When the fog in my brain was clear I walked out onto the branch and sat down, looked down at him, and gave him an answer he wasn’t expecting.
“I live here.” I stated simply, shrugging at the honesty and obviousness of the answer.
“What the hell do you mean you ‘live here’?” he demanded, putting air quotes around my answer.
He kept his eyes fixed on me, he was searching my body for something, and taking me and my surroundings up in the tree in. His hand was no longer on his weapon, and he seemed to let his body relax out of its “ready to strike” stance, so it seemed like he considered me unthreatening. He was still angry though, and while he relaxed a little, leaning his arm on the trunk of the tree, he still wouldn’t take his piercing gaze off me.
“I thought it was pretty self-explanatory,” I responded, getting flippant and already tired of this exchange. “I live here, in this tree, in this forest…right here.” I finished, spreading my arms out and motioning to the immediate area all around me.
I leaned back against the trunk now, tired of explaining this already. He seemed skeptical still, like seeing my appearance before him was too outrageous to even be remotely close to the truth I had told him. I could see how he could be confused, based on my appearance I looked like any other camper he had come across before: my auburn hair was long, hanging loosely down my back, and curling slightly; my green eyes weren’t bloodshot, cloudy, or crazed; my skin was clear and pale after a summer of being shaded from direct sunlight by the canopy of trees above, I was thin and had a slight muscular build from living up in trees and surviving for years a forest; my clothes were somewhat modern and fit well. And since it was starting to get cold and the leaves were falling I was wearing a hunter green waffle knit long sleeved top, thermal black leggings, dark green wool socks, and my favorite pair of black combat boots. I wasn’t talking to myself, I didn’t have fleas, I wasn’t lost or seemingly deranged; I had bathed recently and smelled lightly of soap and deodorant.
I was aware that the contradiction was seemingly appalling and unnerving, but I didn’t see what other explanation there could be. How else could he explain the hammock in the tree, the gear and stuff strapped and stocked within the branches, or me there up in the tree?
“You’re joking, right? You can’t be living in a tree, you’re totally a camper and you know the rules about climbing the trees in the protected area…” He stated dryly, glaring and pointing a finger up at me.
“No one can actually LIVE in a tree much less a forest.” He finished, putting emphasis on the word “live” as he rolled his eyes.
He pulled out a bound pad of perforated paper and pointed the attached pencil’s point at me.
“What’s your name?” he asked as he began filling out the top paper in the pad.
“Why?” I asked, crossing my arms and narrowing my own eyes down at him, “What’s your name?” I asked wryly, still looking at him.
“Ryan” He replied shortly, pointing the pencil at his chest where a name tag would presumably be.
He was so green that he still didn’t have a name tag, and I wondered how long he had been at this job that he didn’t have a name tag, or any idea where he was. Ryan was still looking down at the pad and not me.
“And I’m going to write up a report about you breaking the rules by being up in the trees where you know you’re not supposed to be.” Ryan said, still looking at the pad, but now tapping the pencil on the pad instead of writing.
“I’m Sri,” I said, and he looked up at me annoyed.
My name can sound a lot like ‘sorry’ sometimes, so me holding my hand to my chest and saying it might sound like I’m issuing a lame apology; or that my name is actually ‘sorry’, and given the amount of times I said it as a child it probably should be.
“You’re not going to need that report anyway.” I finished without addressing his annoyed glare.
“And why is that?” Ryan asked flipping the notebook cover closed on the pencil.
“Because, you’re writing me a citation based on false evidence.” I stated, quoting something I’d read from an old Practicing Law book a camper had left behind.
Ryan stared at me dumbly, so I went on to explain.
“Writing me a citation for climbing a tree in the protected forest campsite, as you have stated, would be false because of one very important fact: The protected forest area actually ended a couple of yards back.” I stated matter-of-factly.
He looked over to where my finger was pointed and then back up at me.
“Are you sure? I think I would know where the end of the campground I work at would end…” he trailed off scratching his head in confusion and looking back to where I was pointing.
“How do you know?” he finally asked with quizzical eyes directed towards me.
“How?” I said, making the question sound sarcastic.
“Because,” I said looking down at the grounds around him, and spotting what I was looking for, I pointed to it and met his gaze again.
“Hand me that stone over there.” I told him as my finger moved to point to where it sat two feet away from his feet.
He followed my gaze and retrieved the medium sized, moss covered grey rock, and handed it over to me. I took the rock from him and held it in the palm of my hand for a second, before turning back to where he had come. I tossed it swiftly over to the meandering tree line, and with a loud snap of metal teeth clanging together his head snapped over to look at where the rock had landed. He tried to following the rock as it sailed through the air, not believing that I had any purpose in this demonstration, if only to waste his time some more. But as the loud clang came he had to admit that there was a way that I could be right.
“What…” he started, not even bothering to finish his question. He looked even more confused and just a little concerned.
“The park put a line of bear traps around the inner perimeter of the protected forest land to keep animals that could be harmful away from the campsites. Most campers have a map that clearly marks the perimeter lines, but they never stray from the open camp areas. Once the trees get too dense they get uncomfortable and turn back so they never encounter the traps. The Rangers also put up signs and spray paint markers on the ground as warnings well before the perimeter traps.” I told him, looking defiantly down at him in righteousness.
Ryan looked down his leg at his ankle which had luckily been spared from being ensnared in one of those horrible bear traps.
“I didn’t see any of that…” he murmured to himself quietly, bewildered and slightly sick.
“You’re now standing in the unprotected wilderness of this great forest” I said quietly, looking around at all of the beautiful nature and life around us. Listening to the quiet of the hushed ecosystem that still survived on its own, even with human invasion.
We both stood in silence for a few minutes. The birds were singing their evening songs, getting ready for the night, the wind rushed through the trees and the leaves rustled with the movement of animals scurrying about. As he stood, no longer looking at his ankle or the bear traps beyond us, but at nothing in particular; I knew he wasn’t listening to the wonderful liveliness of the nature around us. He was too lost in his own thoughts, in his own world to hear anything. It was somewhat irksome to me that Ryan, much like all the other humans I had met before, paid little attention to the wonders of nature around them. Even the ones that claimed to be avid campers and lovers of nature had no real respect for what was around them. The homes of animals they disturbed, the food supplies they destroyed; the animals they frightened out of their natural habitats forcing them to coexist unnaturally with humans, and then hunting and killing them when they came too close to campers. These people ruined the forest that had for so long happily existed without the threat of humans, without the fear of being invaded and forced out; and still the humans, like Ryan believed they were doing the forest and its inhabitants a helpful service by intruding into their happy, easy, free flowing ecosystem. They destroyed plant life, removed trees and plants; taking out things that had been a part of the forest for longer than they had been on the planet, and yet they felt they had the right to intrude. Feeling, even, that they were doing the right thing, that they were protecting the forest through their despicable actions. I lived in the unprotected forest, often just beyond the perimeter of the protected land; watching as the campers and rangers fished in the lakes and ponds, and even hunted certain animals. Watching them destroy the land they were supposed to be protecting with disgust, and deep pain in my heart.
I had lived in my part of the forest for so long that I watched the ecosystem around me adjust and thrive even with me in it, I tried to keep my intrusion into the sacred life inside the forest to a minimum; and the forest adapted and accepted the things that I couldn’t control, hard as I might try to. The forest around me was seemingly untouched and unharmed, my life in the forest was spent in helping my side thrive despite my limited interference, and it seemed to be working well as the forest and I co-habituated peacefully. With the intrusion of Ryan, which had thankfully been limited, I suddenly began to worry that the rangers had some plan to extend the perimeter of the protected forest land; and worse, extend the reach of their negative human interference. I looked down at Ryan, who was still looking around at nothing in particular, it was my turn to interrogate him.
“So!” I suddenly barked, snapping him out of his thoughts, forcing him to look up at me.
“Why are you here? Are you Rangers planning to extend the invasion of human life into my forest sanctuary too now, or is your horrible government planning on taking over this unprotected land; and making the entire forest one big protected money sucker for the government officials in charge to nurse from, making your society even worse. The reverse Robin Hood effect at its worst!” I said to him my body temperature rising in anger, hatred, disgust, and fear.
I had unglued myself from the trunk, and was now pacing the tree branch, gesturing wildly as I angrily recited my speech. But now I came to a stop above him, facing him directly, and waiting anxiously for his answer; the anxiety and annoyance from waiting for his response evident on my face. My eyebrows raised, eyes wide and questioning, sending my anger to him through my eyes, my shoulders raised and my arms crossed in front of me.
Ryan seemed unaffected by both my emotional outburst and my tone. He looked down at his utility belt and put his notepad and pencil away, taking his time; moving at a nonchalant pace, and seemingly uncaring about my words. After his notebook was back in its rightful place he turned to look up at me and clasped his hands together in the center of his chest, one hand over the other; his feet shoulder width apart, and addressed me again.
“Sri…” Ryan said hesitantly trying out my name for the first time.
“It means radiance, money, beautiful, intelligent, thankful, and modest…it’s Telugu.” I told him, cutting off whatever he was about to say to me.
“Pretty” was all he responded with, looking unaffected by anything I had just said to him.
“Anyway, like I was saying Siri,” Ryan started, purposely mispronouncing my name; “I have no idea what the other Rangers or my ‘horrible government’s’ plan for this forest is. I don't have any business here, I simply walked past the boundary line for the protected area, unknowingly.”
I rolled my eyes at his “mistake” with my name as attempt to annoy me, but I couldn’t help believe that he really didn’t know anything, and had just wandered over the line unintentionally.
“Fine! Then go back over the line and back to your “job” “protecting the forest” and don’t come back here.” I said using my own sarcasm and air quotes to annoy him, trying to subtly point out the fact that his life and his world is just an unhappy and pathetic allusion.
Trying to point out that true happiness can only be found by going against everything we have been made to believe is right, and only by doing what truly makes us happy in our hearts can we live true lives. Judging by Ryan’s semi-confused look and bored expression I figured that my message had been lost on him.
“Whatever,” he said flippantly, waving one hand in front of his face like he was swatting a fly, and began walking around the tree I was still in.
I was hopeful that he was now going to leave, but instead he stopped short again on the other side of my branch and turned back to face me again. I pressed my back up against the tree again, this time leaning nonchalantly against the trunk with my feet crossed on the branch in front of me; but I quickly pushed myself to a standing position when he spun around on the heel of his boot to face me again. I looked down at him still annoyed that he refused to just leave, when his next words caught me by surprise.
“So how does one live in a tree? How do you even live in a forest?” Ryan asked looking first at me and then at my little “house” set up in the tree above me.
I stepped out of my standing position, placing my right foot behind me, almost as if I were doing the Warrior yoga pose; then I vaulted myself over onto my hands and gripped them around the branch of the tree, standing on my hands facing away from where he stood now to where he had previously been. Then I swung down and landed crouched on my feet in front of him on the forest floor. I stood up again, seeing that our height was almost equal to one another’s. I met his gaze and tried to figure out how to begin to explain it to him, and outsider.
“Well, one doesn’t ‘live’ in a forest. One mostly lives with the forest, and tries not to get in the way of the delicate balance of the forest’s ecosystem” I replied, trying to yet again subtly convey that the outside world is going against everything that makes the true beauty of the real world go bad.
It seemed that I still wasn’t getting through to him, because he returned my gaze with glazed over and unfocused eyes, and waited for me to continue.
“However, I came to live in the forest about a decade ago, and have been trying to limit my interference in the balance since then. I found a tree I thought would make a good place to live, and I started setting up a life for myself. I started with just a sleeping bag I had brought with me strapped to a tree, and I ate what I brought with me until that ran out, and then I ate whatever I could find in the forest around me. Leaves, bark, berries, and dead animals that died of natural causes, fish that also died naturally; anything that could be eaten I would eat it, if I had to eat. I would set up a fire on the forest floor with fallen tree branches and twigs, I would boil water from the nearby supply when I absolutely needed it. I take supplies leftover by campers, like clothing and books, food and water; anything that I thought would help me, but also limit my interference” I told him, letting him in on some of the simpler aspects of my ten year life in the forest.
“But how do you do the simple things like every other human does?” Ryan asked me, crossing his arms over his chest, his brow wrinkling in confusion.
“Simple things like what?” I asked him, my own brow wrinkling in confusion, I thought I had explained anything that could be important to human survival.
“But how do you bathe? How do you have three meals a day? How do you talk to other people? How do you brush your teeth or brush your hair? How do you change your clothes, or exercise? How do you sleep and where? How do you get shelter from the elements and survive winters or natural disasters? How do you keep yourself hydrated? How do you keep yourself safe from harm?” Ryan asked, his list going on and on, and my eyes glazing over waiting for the end to come.
“I already explained all of that!” I said loudly, waving my hands above my head. I was already bored of this exchange, and I could tell that he wasn’t even close to being finished asking me questions.
I was anxious to just get rid of him so I could get back to my life, but he seemed unwilling to go anytime soon.
“Don’t you have any other friends to talk to, some of the Rangers you work with must be around for you to annoy.” I said, now walking around to the other side of my tree, trying to get some distance from him. I hoped that my body language would help to convey that I no longer wanted his unwelcome presence in my side of the forest.
“The other Rangers are annoying, they only want to talk about themselves. They’re only here for a paycheck, and the others seem to think that being a Ranger will help them meet women.” He stated, seemingly bewildered at the personalities of his coworkers. He was watching me move around the tree when a sudden flash of confusion and annoyance crossed his face, and he began talking again.
“The old military guys are the worst though, they all seem to think that this is still a war they have to fight! They don’t seem to realize that the war ended years ago and now they’re working in a forest. It’s like they’re waiting for Smokey the Bear so they can challenge him to a fight or something, to keep the fate of the forest safe.” Ryan concluded, the bizarreness of his coworkers behavior still on him mind.
I laughed at him, the picture he painted of his coworkers in my mind making me laugh for the first time in a while. I hadn’t had something funny in my life in a long time, and having Ryan around didn’t seem so bad when he had a sense of humor I could appreciate. I had just rounded the other side of the tree to face him, my outstretched arm still clinging to the bark of the tree, when a loud bang caught us both by surprise. Our heads jerked around to the right where we had heard the sound echo through the forest. The smile I had seen on Ryan’s face was disappearing as quickly as my fear was rising. I recognized the sound as soon as I heard it, I would know that sound anywhere. The gunshot rang off the trees, through the forest, and right to us. The smoke from a nearby campsite snaked into the air, and I could smell the faint scent of tobacco a couple of yards away, as it mingled with the scents of burning wood and hot metal. I couldn’t tell if it was a Ranger or a camper that had fired the shot; either way the idea that anyone had a gun in the forest, protected or not, terrified me to my very core. I could feel the heat coming off my every artery, the marrow in my bones tightening, my blood boiling; my blood vessels contracted with fear, but my skin and eyes burned with fury. Human’s like Ryan, would always invade and destroy everything in their path just to get what they want. I just hoped that it wasn’t a defenseless animal that had been killed. As cold as it may sound, one less human on this earth would be better than a dead animal. One less killer of nature, one less destroyer of Earth, would be better than anything.
My face was hot and I quickly turned on Ryan, letting my anger spill out at him. Although in the back of my mind I knew that Ryan was no more responsible for the shooting then I was, it was still his people that had destroyed something else.
“How could you! How could you let yet another terrible human destroy the forest, the animals that so innocently try to coexist with your invasion?!” I yelled, not even bothering to keep my voice down to avoid being detected by whoever possessed the gun.
Even on the unprotected side I could still face danger at being found living here. Having stayed out of sight, and out of trouble for so long I should’ve been trying to be more careful, but I was too irate to care. Ryan’s face suddenly appeared very close to my own, his eyes were mirroring the same worry I felt showing in from my own. He was so close to me that I could feel the rapid pace of his breathing, I could see the rise and fall of his chest under his shirt; I could hear the same worry, sadness, and anger in his voice that had been in my own.
“Sri,” he said my name outright this time, not even trying to mess it up to annoy me, “I have no idea what is going on, I have been here with you. I have no idea why someone would be firing a gun out here. The hunting season hasn’t begun, and there should be no reason a Ranger would fire a gun, even for an animal endangering a camper!” Ryan’s voice came out rushed, endeavoring to calm me down; but also, it seemed, to allay his own fears as well.
His hands were wrapped around my arms and he tightened his grip a little, while gently shaking me back and forth; the warmth of his hands cooling down my rising blood pressure and anger. I knew he was right, there could be no explanation as to how he could know, people may talk; they may even gossip and brag, but Ryan was new, and he had already told me he didn’t have any friends on the squad. So how could he know anything that I didn’t? I felt my body calm down a little, and my anger fade to slightly elevated frustration, but the only thing I felt, the only thing that seemed left inside me was the fear. That shot didn’t mean nothing bad had happened, it just meant that we didn’t know what it was yet. I was eager to find out what happened, but that would mean crossing enemy lines into an area I wasn’t supposed to be in. If I was to suddenly appear in the protected park area of the forest with Ryan, and any other ranger was there; my whole world would be blown apart, like someone had fired a shot into it too.
“Stay here.” He told me, and he didn’t have to say it twice. He didn’t even have to look back to make sure I was still there.
He knew me well enough, even after only a few hours spent with me, that I wouldn’t risk the life I had made here to investigate something that was out of my control. He knew as well as I did that there was nothing I could do, with or without him, in the protected area, that wouldn’t do further damage to myself and the forest. He was a Ranger for the protected forest, and I was a Ranger for the unprotected forest. And in that moment my side wasn’t in danger, so I had to stay there, even if I knew it was only a matter of time until the danger would affect me too.
I watched him move quickly through the trees, back to where he came from. Careful not to step into a bear trap, he crossed quickly back through to the thick coverage of trees; his shape becoming less and less distinguishable until it finally disappeared altogether, and I could no longer see anything moving through the forest floor. And then I just waited, waited to hear something. Waited to see Ryan come back through the trees and tell me that it was nothing more than a hunter killing a bird, or a Ranger firing a warning shot. Nothing that could impact me or the unprotected forest, just an unconnected event that I could ignore, and we could all go on with our lives. I waited for what seemed like hours, but nothing happened. Ryan never came back, and no other noise was heard in the forest after that one shot.
I trudged back through the woods, careful to sidestep the bear traps that Sri had pointed out, and headed toward the sound of the shot. I had left Sri back by her tree, and walked toward the smell of burning wood and gun powder. When I approached the campsite I could see the Ranger that had fired the shot, and the animal he had killed; I could also see the person the animal had apparently killed next to the man.
“What happened?” I uselessly asked the other Ranger, Peter, even though I could already tell what happened by looking at the scene before me.
“The animal charged the guy, I think he’s dead, but I had to kill the animal; it could’ve killed someone else if I hadn’t” Peter said breathlessly.
I looked at him closely, my eyes zeroing on his face above all else. He seemed nervous, like something else was going on but he was hesitant to tell someone. Peter was still pointing his gun at the animal like he expected it to get up and charge at him again. I walked slowly toward Peter and gently pushed his hands toward the ground, the barrel of his gun followed until it was safely pointed at the forest floor.
“Peter, what really happened?” I asked him, and now he wouldn’t look me in the eye, and he was still shaking.
He looked more nervous than I had ever seen him. We had started working here around the same time, so we had gotten to know each other better than we knew most of the other Rangers. I could tell he was much more nervous than he usually was he was whenever he had to use his gun, and when I had met him I thought that he was one of the braver Rangers in the group, even recklessly so; it was only until we had routine gun safety training that I realized what the only thing he was afraid of was.
Peter looked over at me slowly, like he was unwilling to take his eyes off the gruesome scene before us: “I think I killed him…”
Peter breathed the words so quietly I almost didn’t hear them, but soon those words were ringing in my ears so loud they were quickly became something I’d never forget.
“What do you mean ‘you think’? Either you did kill him, or you didn’t Peter, that’s not something you guess at!” I said these words in a hushed scream, I couldn’t bring myself to say those words at a normal volume. The words were just too daunting to face.
I couldn’t imagine killing anyone myself, much less that Peter had done so. In all other areas of life Peter was brave and courageous, in an almost stupid sense, but he could never be a killer. Peter couldn’t stop looking at the body, he had been shot square in the chest, fatal within seconds. Peter might’ve hated guns but he was a great shot, the man wouldn’t have suffered. But I couldn’t help wonder if he had killed both the animal and the man, why did Sri and I only hear one shot. I looked at the animal and then looked at the man, I saw one shot for each, but nothing to explain how they both died with one shot. No one, not even Peter was that good of a shot.
I looked over at Peter again, trying to make sense of it all. He wasn’t holding two guns, and there wasn’t evidence of a second ranger on the scene, so how in the world did Peter pull this off? I stood in the middle, between Peter and the murder scene; just looking at everything, trying to look at it through Sri’s eyes. How would she see this? What would she say? How would she handle this? And in that moment I got a split second of insight that made me thankful for having met her. Looking at the scene again, it was so obvious now, I could tell that the man Peter had killed had killed the animal first. One of the man’s hands was tucked under his lifeless body, rolling him over with the toe of my boot I found what I already knew would be there. The hand under his lifeless body, right by his stopped heart was his gun. The gun, affixed with a silencer, that I was sure would match the bullet that killed the animal next to him. It all seemed so simple now that I was looking at all the information, but in the heat of the moment, with Peter’s breathtaking words, it was hard to think straight. I looked back at Peter again, this time with all the facts. I understood the how, now I wanted to understand the why.
“Peter,” I started, hesitating for only a second before getting up from my crouched position next to the man, and walking quickly over to him. I grabbed him by the front of his shirt and pulled him close to me, our noses almost touching. “What the hell do you do, exactly?” I grumbled, my mouth reflected small and upside down in his eyes, barely moving as the words came out of my mouth.