Her teeth flashed in the taillights of the muddied, silver pick-up. Sharp curses and growled protests mixed into the sweltering, night air, her brown, bleeding limbs flailing against his men as they dragged her from the compound she’d erected to guard the last trees in Magüelles. “We will take it back!” Her body slapped against the metal flatbed when they threw her in. Her voice swung low, hands circling her two children as they pressed in. “Our hands will drag you into the ground.”
Two of his men jumped into the cabin, another clambered into the bed, rifle lowered between her eyes. She trained her gaze on Rivera, unwavering as mud and rock spun into the wheel wells, unflinching as breaking waves of a sludge-filled sea swallowed the engine’s revving. Her glare rode his shoulders after she disappeared, Rivera feeling it while standing between the thick rails of the gate he’d broken, his pale fingers squeezing her brass key until his skin learned the edges of its teeth.
Beyond the withered remains of El Bosque Seco, tucked into the crags of stripped mountains, Yuisa, Keeper of the Trees, had built a quiet stronghold of reinforced concrete. There she hid the last of the palms, calabashes, mamey, flamboyanes, tabonuco, palo colorado, and ceiba. Less than four acres, but worth so much money Rivera couldn’t make sense of the zeros. He thought he’d quickly overwhelm her firepower, but as he pushed strewn, sandy-blonde locks from his sweaty face, he followed the blood slicking his boots back to the downed bodies. Over three quarters of his troops carpeted the muddy, makeshift road leading to the compound. His mangled dead amongst hers, he and those left would have to push them into the sea before the too-close sun ripped its way into the sky.
But first, Rivera needed to see it.
He stared into Yuisa’s compound, shaken by the fact that he almost destroyed what he came for. He and his men had only stopped firing when her voice came over loudspeakers, Yuisa pleading her surrender after they broke past the second ring of reinforced concrete walls. With their rifles and machine guns pointed at her third barrier, she had to sacrifice herself to stop them from piercing the high, wide, and deep walls that enclosed the grove.
Now Rivera stood in front of the closed stone doors and pressed.
Humidity. He didn’t think he’d miss that feeling growing up in Magüelles, where atmosphere stuck like spit. But when the trees disappeared, air became tight and fine like a knife’s edge. Gooseflesh rippled across his body as Rivera stood between maturing trunks and rustling leaves. He closed his eyes and thanked his god, spreading arms wide to welcome humidity’s sopping blanket.
“She was propagating,” Rivera’s arborist, García, explained while underlining Yuisa’s research. He and Rivera stood within the caretaker’s quarters, a two-bedroom concrete square in the middle of the grove. It had a small living room, kitchenette, bathroom, and windows in every wall. Felt like the trees were looking in. Crowded. Planted on staggered platforms that descended toward the apartment, the trees were arranged by maturity, the eldest on the lowest level, saplings at the top. A few hundred slits in the concrete roof let orange dawn filter through thickly paned glass. Florescent grow lights running on generators would burn at night to provide most of what the dangerous sun could not. Humidifiers flickered on and off.
Rivera and García poured over Yuisa’s documents. She’d started her work before everyone took The Heat Age seriously. She rescued specimens, planted them here under her protection. Rivera stared at the ceiba she somehow transplanted from Vieques. Gnarled trunk wider than three men, roots so grand they looked like rivers sloping into the ground. Standing beside the caretaker’s quarters, it had two ceibas on either side, the smaller trees young enough to retain their thorns. He remembered his grandmother calling those thorns spirit ladders, running as they did from the ground to the towering almond-shaped leaves.
Whooping, hollering, and snide laughter filled the grove. Rivera’s attention was drawn to a commotion at the stone doors. He walked up the stairs between the platforms, realizing his people were celebrating the arrival of the three men who’d disposed of Yuisa and her children.
One of them waved something that caught the dim light. “Tenga jefe,” Beto tucked it into Rivera’s palm with a wide, flashing grin. “Too fancy for that dead woman.”
A silver, heart-shaped locket, filigree front and back, thin chain. It popped open with a tiny click, pictures of a girl and boy, neither older than ten. Rivera grimaced and shoved it back into the man’s chest. “I don’t do trophies.”
Beto tossed his head back and laughed. “This whole place is a trophy.”
Rivera clicked his tongue, crossed his arms.
“It’s a trophy even if you sell it piecemeal.”
He ground his teeth, bit back criticisms, fearing the other men would align themselves with Beto. “You sure they’re dead? I don’t want her and those kids showing up here and making good on her threats.”
Beto blinked. “What threats?”
“Taking this back. Dragging us into the ground.”
People shifted. Their faces darkened.
“What?” Rivera demanded.
Beto rubbed the back of his head. “We didn’t know you spoke Yuisa’s language.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She wasn’t speaking English or Spanish. None of us understood what she was yelling.” Beto looked him over. “You don’t look indio.”
“Because I’m not, cabrón.”
“Then how did you know what she was saying?”
He waved Beto off. “We don’t have time to argue. There’s plenty of work for us tonight and we need some sleep.”
“You just didn’t hear her, ok?” He leaned into Beto, teeth bared. “Understand?”
He walked down the stairs and while Beto didn’t retaliate, whispering continued well after the men tucked themselves into sleeping bags along the platforms. They were here to scavenge, to earn enough money to buy tickets for the next rockets. But even vultures want to sleep amongst trees.
Rivera stirred in an apartment bedroom, linen sheet and cotton pillow sliding off straw mattress.
“We will take it back.”
His eyelids peeled open. He sat up, thinking someone was calling, but the caretaker’s quarters were quiet. His knees cracked as he stood, Rivera scratching his sore back while rounding the threshold and peering into the living room. Hazy orange light silhouetted tree branches as they swayed. He blinked. The stone doors were closed, there were no windows in the grove walls. He looked at the ceiling. None of the slits were broken.
A branch tapped against one of the living room windows.
Hair on his body rose. He swiveled in place and hurried to the bedroom García was using. It was pitch black, darker than it should’ve been. He flicked on the light. The bed was empty. He found newly painted branches on the walls, live branches crowding out the light that should’ve come through the windows. Long, almond-shaped leaves covered the floor. Shuffling some with his foot, he found claw marks and blood. He pulled a handgun from the small of his back, followed the claw marks into the hall, through the living room. They stopped at the door.
“García,” Rivera called in a hushed voice, reaching for the handle. “García?” He pulled the door open, found claw marks carved into the front of it.
Banging on concrete walls made Rivera jump. Two faces were in the living room windows.
Yuisa had walked towards him with those kids by her side, small hands raised, mouths closed. She hadn’t tried to hide them. Maybe they didn’t let her. That boy and girl walked into the truck bed and waited, watched silently when Yuisa drew a blade and killed more of his men before being subdued.
The two faces fell from the window.
A whine whipped through the grove. Branches shuddered, lowered, snapped. Rivera’s men screamed, “they’re in the trees!” Running, slipping down wet stairs, rifles barking. That muzzle fire in the dark grove threatened everything Rivera had fought for. He threw himself onto controls on a desk in the living room, gripped the microphone and demanded his men stop shooting.
Someone skidded into the apartment. “Turn on the lights!” Beto stood in the doorway. “The grow lights!”
Rivera fumbled. García was supposed to oversee the grove, but eventually Rivera’s hand fell over the dimmer switch. As white florescence brightened, torn and empty sleeping bags dropped from trees, bodies strewn over roots. Saplings wrapped around ankles and flung men into branches that ripped open chests.
The eldest ceiba on the central platform grew. Branches widening, roots thickening, it was close enough to the caretaker’s quarters that Rivera saw its trunk rise and fall with inhales and exhales. Its leaves shuddered and splayed, gnarled branches stretching like it was rousing from sleep.
“They’re in the trees,” Rivera cried.
Ceiba branches tore through the apartment window and wrapped themselves around Beto’s neck, green oval fruits opening white mouths and swallowing his hands and gun. Leaves vined under Beto’s shirt collar, snapping the chain of the heart-shaped locket and ferrying it back to the ceiba’s core.
Rivera fired until he ran out of rounds, his mouth wide, lips trembling, feet bungling into the back bedroom. He barricaded the door with the lone desk, threw the mattress on top of it and pulled the desk chair in front of him like a shield. He heard creaking, Rivera backing himself into a corner when shadows crept across the walls and floors. Fluid like ink, they drew closer and closer, painting the entire room. He couldn’t breathe, his whole body shook so hard his vision rattled.
The shadows stopped swimming. They took on texture. Like brushstrokes building, the shadows thickened, growing rougher, scalier, until they rose from the concrete, shadows becoming branches and roots that creaked and moaned. They sprung into the air, surged toward Rivera and wrenched the chair from his hands, flung the desk and mattress back. A wall of leaves swung the door wide. Branches and vines wrapped him tight and dragged him from the room, unaffected by his thrashing and clawing. Blood ran down his palms, nails shredded by the concrete floor. Before being yanked through the apartment’s front door, he saw Beto’s body in the living room overtaken by pink and yellow flowers blooming under lights.
He crashed before the eldest ceiba. Its leaves held his eyelids open, his mouth closed.
The two younger ceibas bent down, thorns along their trunks driving into Rivera’s legs and arms. The elder ceiba’s roots swam into the air and cascaded like rivers, burying all but Rivera’s head. The ceiba craned forward. Laughter, a boy’s and a girl’s, swam from a tree hollow that met Rivera’s face.
Something sparkled within. Thin chain. Silver filigree.
“Welcome to the ground used to bury us.”
The locket opened with a tiny click.