Chapter 1 — Sakalina
Sakalina winced as she felt her foot slip. Her face flushed with embarrassment as she pulled herself back up with her arms and regained her footing on the lower branch. No one was there to see that she had slipped, yet her embarrassment was a matter of professional pride. Sakalina had just passed the midsection of the tree. Her destination was near the top of the tree. She wanted to get close enough to the top to be able to reach the new shoots, for it was the tender young growth at the tips of the highest branches that she sought. Yet she was experienced enough in all her years of climbing, that she took great care not to venture where the limbs of the tree were so thin that they could not adequately support her weight.
It wasn’t that she was a particularly heavy girl, as teenagers went, nor a very light one either, but Sakalina Ramita was aware of every gram of her mass. This was because, though still a teenager, she considered herself a professional, and her profession was climbing. In the village of Lignumholtz, in fact in the whole region of Twigsylvania, all teenagers had a job beyond school and household chores. Yet Sakalina’s job was not just to climb. It was what she was climbing for that was her business, and that was twigs.
Sakalina did not seek just any twigs from any old variety of tree or shrub. There were only two kinds of tree that she knew had viable twigs of interest to her. There was a third kind of wood that she had heard could be used for the intended purpose, but that was a kind of shrub that she had never seen herself.
Sakalina climbed higher. The branches were thin enough that she swayed with the boughs, as though she were dancing with the tree. The rustling of the leaves in the morning breeze was like music to her ears. Sakalina reached her left hand across to her right forearm and pulled out her knife. Her thumb brushed gracefully across a small metal knob at the hilt of the knife. The blade of the knife came alive and the sharp edge that she had pulled from her arm-sheath became serrated so that the leading edge resembled a small saw. With a caress of another thumb-button, alternate teeth of the saw angled to the left and right, even and odd, so that the saw’s edge was suitable for cross-cutting.
The first stroke was positioned carefully. Sakalina knew exactly the proper distance from the tip of the new shoot to cut. The blade slid across the shoot and pierced the bark. Sakalina inhaled the sweet aroma of the tree and drew her blade away from the twig, forward in preparation for another stroke, and pushed in hard as she ripped into the wood of the young shoot. The vibration of the twig rang out in a low rumble as it resisted her attack, while the succession of the teeth of her blade created a distinctive rhythm atop the drone. Eight leaves atop the twig had danced with the pulsing of the saw’s teeth, and rested between strokes. She repeated the action several times, savoring the music of the cutting on each stroke, and working swiftly before the sap filled the wound she was inflicting upon the tree.
Her thighs clamped harder upon the branch to which she clung, and she released the hold her right hand had been maintaining higher up the branch. Sakalina could feel the heat building immediately in her gut as her body stiffened to make up for her shifted posture, as she now suspended herself with her legs alone. She clasped the twig in her right hand and made the final cut with her left. She wiped the blade on her shirt near her diaphragm. Sawdust fell down like pollen through the branches beneath her. A swift motion returned the clean blade to its sheath on her right forearm, and she grabbed the branch with her left hand, the prize twig still held in her right. With another deft maneuver she delivered the twig to a bag that hung at her waist.
Sakalina descended halfway, down into the tree’s core, switched over to another branch, and climbed back up on this new branch. She repeated her harvesting until she had eight fresh twigs in her bag. At each of the eight cuts she had inflicted upon the tree, sap filled the wound and had begun to seal the site of the injury. Her daily goal met, Sakalina climbed down through the many branches of the scribina tree and leapt down to the ground.
Her landing produced a thud accompanied by the crinkling of dried leaves. She walked out from beneath the canopy of the tree, a six meter radius from the trunk, and the carpet of leaves under her feet was replaced by green grass, of a curly zoysia breed. The tiny coils of grass cushioned her steps and sprung back in her wake.
• • •
As she approached the back door to the small cottage, Sakalina’s nose lost the scent of the sap she had induced to flow from the tree. That precious aroma was replaced as another scent took up residence in her nose. It drew her closer to the white stuccoed building with a red tile roof. Her nimble fingers grabbed hold of the curved metal handle, and she flung the door open with a flourish in a seamless motion with her dashing in. The wood-framed screen door slammed behind her, the over-eager spring returning good on the swing open she had given it.
“Good harvest?” asked the man who stood at the stove with steam flowing around him.
Sakalina’s left cheek bulged and the aperture around her eye socket tightened. “Just the usual,” she replied.
The man pushed a ladle across the steaming skillet, and the aroma-filled vapors subsided.
“You know you don’t have to stop at eight, dear,” the man suggested.
“Eight is the limit. Eight is where I stop,” said Sakalina. “I’ll be back up there tomorrow.”
Rara Ramita splashed half a cup of water over the vegetables in the pan, and clouds of steam flared up around him with a sizzle in the air. He pushed again at the ladle repeatedly, and the steaming settled down.
“But it is our own tree, Sakalina,” Rara prodded. “You can pick however much you want and make more money. I don’t miss any opportunity to do extra work, and neither does your mother.”
“She’s gone already?” asked Sakalina.
“Yes. She asked me to tell you she loves you, to have a good day, study hard, and…” Rara paused. “There was something else.”
Sakalina called back mockingly, “Don’t forget my lunch. Again.”
“Oh yeah,” said her papa, “That’s was it was.”
Had he not been using the same faux forgetfulness technique since she was a little girl, Sakalina might have laughed.
“Let me see them,” her papa requested, attempting to bring the topic back to her harvest.
She wiped off the countertop with her hand, as if her hands were clean from climbing the scribina tree and cutting its new growth. Once she thought it was clean, she emptied the twigs one by one onto the granite countertop.
Rara scraped at the skillet once more and turned off the burner. The gas flame flickered out. He stepped over to the other side of the counter from here his daughter stood. Bending down slightly, he squinted at the sapling cuttings as though examining fine gemstones. After inspecting each of them for a few seconds each, he stood upright.
“Beautiful work, Sakalina. You have remarkably discerning taste,” Rara said. “I am sure you can bargain for a great price for these. Just imagine if you had picked twelve. Or, you’re quick, maybe even twenty!” Shaking his finger, he added, “You could be the richest youngster in the village.”
“Our precious tree is my livelihood. I want it to live a long, healthy, and bountiful life. Harvesting its twigs is the only job I have,” Sakalina told him. She was unrelenting. “I shall never pick more than eight, papa. Please don’t even try to convince me to. It’s not because it’s a law. It’s for our own good—you, me, mama, and our tree.”
Papa let the topic go, and served her breakfast. They chatted a bit more about other topics of what the day might hold in store for them, but he knew better than to bring up the matter of the twigs again.
Sakalina helped Rara clean the table and the pots, then the twig harvester placed her bounty back in her sack, put on a curious looking hat of sorts that she had grabbed from the windowsill, thanked her breakfast chef, and dashed out the front door.
“Rabbit, Rabbit!” she could hear him call as the door slammed. But by then she was running.
It was then that Rara noticed the brown lunch bag sitting on the countertop.