Bogotá39 is a project by the Hay Festival and Bogotá: UNESCO World Book Capital City to name 39 of the most promising Latin American writers under the age of 39. The first list was assembled in 2007, and a new list appeared in 2017. Beginning in the current issue, Latin American Literature Today will feature works by the young authors selected for this prestigious recognition. View the full 2017 list here.
We still don’t know how Óscar came to swallow the seed, and haven’t figured out where he got it. We’re even less clear on how the tree managed to grow inside him, to germinate its seed unimpeded, there in the pit of his stomach, the doctor told us, watered by nothing but the boy’s gastric juices. But you see, at the age of seven, the doctor also told us, that’s how well a stomach works. The body of our Óscar – back then he was still our Óscar – allowed the tree to grow, the roots to spread through his intestines and the trunk – slender, ceremonious – to reach up through his esophagus to his mouth, its branches in search of sunlight. What we do know, or what we choose to believe, is that the tree was not trying to do him any harm, that this tree monster – as I call it when I’m alone, looking in the mirror, still ashamed at what we did – loved him. In a way, Óscar and the tree monster were one and the same, of a piece. And thus the branches that grew up his throat never pierced his chest and instead, patiently, created space for themselves. Never bothering him. Never hurting him. Even if, from the outside, it seemed the opposite.
This was no ordinary tree, with regular leaves and wood: the wood of the tree monster was as pliant as an elusive muscle, its color resembling viscera. The leaves were very delicate and as green as leaves should be, but only to the midpoint; from the petiole flowed microscopic capillaries that, though hardly visible, tinged the lower half of the leaf a reddish color, like late afternoon.
It took us some time to realize all of this because the tree monster’s invasion seemed to bring our Óscar nothing but joy. In the early days many of us thought he looked more beautiful and healthier than ever. The bored and sickly child he was blossomed into a splendid child, full of energy. He never sat still. His cheeks, habitually pale, were beyond rosy, his eyes shone like never before. It’s true that his skin, if we looked at him certain times of day, had a slightly greenish hue, but we refused to worry about a trifle of that nature. That was the first of our mistakes. We also didn’t want to force him to remove the cap he kept wedged on his head, the one he never took off even to sleep and which had begun to stink a bit of damp. We interpreted all of this as the standard quirks of any ordinary boy.
We discovered the tree on the day Óscar opened his mouth to holler at us, and instead of a holler, out came a flower. It was a moist and golden flower, still small and closed, as though afraid to open. As soon as Óscar realized we wanted to snip it off he shut his mouth and refused to say another word. Until we hid the pruners and moved off a safe distance, he wouldn’t open his mouth again. When he did, the flower reemerged, rather more daring this time, and opened just a bit, making sure that no one wanted to pluck it from the boy. That same day, Óscar took off the cap that for weeks had been fixed to his head and showed us the branches now coming out his ears, young and supple, with new leaves and shoots.
“They need light.”
That’s all he said, all the explanation he gave us. He shook his head, happy to be able to wave his branches openly. We were so shocked we must even have stopped breathing. Some of us vomited. The others burst into tears. Óscar began to console us all, as though suddenly our roles had been reversed and now we were the children who needed taking care of. He especially made us promise that we would never, no matter what happened, take him to see a doctor. That no doctor would ever examine him.
After the discovery of the tree some of our habits changed. Schedules, for instance: daylight hours were so vital to Óscar that we learned to divvy up trips outdoors among ourselves, so the boy would always be accompanied by an adult. Sometimes one of us would catch Óscar gently stroking his stomach. He never complained of any pain, and to this day we wonder whether it was out of fear of a possible doctor’s visit, or one of those aches so intrinsic to life that they become enjoyable and painful in equal measure. In the months that followed the tree grew tremendously, more than a meter above his head. His cap, now out of sight in the highest part of the tree, must have ended up housing a bird’s nest. The boy actually had to bend over to get into his room. Despite the branches and leaves and all the things we couldn’t see due to its height, none of it seemed distress Óscar. We never could comprehend that symbiosis. It was simply as though, for him, the world had suddenly gotten smaller.
At night we’d go into his room to watch him as he slept without him knowing. We came to enjoy being present in that moment prior to deep sleep, when the closed flowers emerged from his mouth and settled in on either side of Óscar’s head, embracing and protecting him. If the boy fell prey to a bad dream and stirred restlessly, immediately one of the flowers would wake up and stroke his cheek, calming him. We also witnessed the way, each night, once the boy was totally and deeply asleep, he’d begin to cry. Óscar would cry quietly for hours, no sound, no snot. From his eyes streamed rivers of salt water that soaked the sheets and the branches on his neck and his lower leaves. And, although he seemed to sleep peacefully, we always had the impression that in each one of those tears a little life escaped him. But it’s also true that every morning nothing bad seemed to have happened: the boy would ask for several glasses of water, yawn widely and then rub his eyes and his leaves and his whole body with not the slightest trace of tears.
He never knew we watched him sleep. We’d return to our bedrooms at dawn, convinced that he wouldn’t have been pleased to know we did it.
The illness came on suddenly. We don’t know whether it was the cold, or the open window, or his lack of cap, or the change of season. Or was it the monster tree, which, by that point, with no way of growing much more, no space inside to extend its roots, started to get sick. Leaves began falling off in pairs, the regular watering that nourished them no longer enough, and they detached, brownish, like autumn leaves. The branches seemed to shrivel. And with each step Óscar took more leaves detached, falling off by themselves, by their very weight. Sometimes we swept them up without the boy realizing. But he knew, of course he realized. No matter how often we said to him that, at certain times of year, some trees that lose their leaves, he intuited that his was not one of those trees, and that losing leaves was not good.
All he could do was sit in the sun, keeping as still as possible and extending his arms and branches firmly to trap the rays of a sun which, up above, was increasingly muted or covered by clouds. The flowers, and this was our source of hope, did not fall. They endured, large and warm, a total of four emerged, beautiful, from his mouth and settled behind his head like a golden crown. When Óscar sat motionless, taking the sun, his face and blossoms illuminated by the diagonal rays of light, he looked like the king of trees, a king wearing a golden crown of flowers. It was truly something to see.
But the sun was losing strength as autumn wore on, the cloudy days increasing in frequency. Óscar, therefore, had to spend more and more time outside, motionless, his branches extended to make the most of each speck of light. He also slept more each night and cried copious rivers of saltwater. We had, at that time of year, fewer hours of light each day.
When winter finally set in we decided to call the doctor. We camouflaged him enough that the boy never knew who he was. We introduced him as another person who’d had a tree inside of them and the boy fell for it hook line and sinker. Of course the doctor did a really good job, inventing a very believable character, making the most of his fern-like face, his mossy beard, and a few herbs he used to help die his tongue green. We reckoned Óscar was already tired, he’d been like that for several days, his branches and arms held out to capture what little sun remained. We were sure that he wanted to go back to being like other boys, that he couldn’t bear the weight of a tree that was now so big, and so sick. Or maybe it was a mistake to try turning him into one of ours. How to know?
Still, we did it. We were the adults. The fake-tree doctor told him how to remove the plant without causing either of the two to suffer. He based this on his experience, with a wealth of detail explaining to us how he’d managed, even showing the boy photos of his supposed tree, now growing happily on the banks of a river, as tall and lush as any other. The doctor told Óscar that his own tree, in time, bore fruit and that it now fed an entire family. The boy listened with all the heart and soul he could muster, he no longer possessed the strength to speak, but his eyes shone immensely as he stroked his branches and arms and golden flowers.
And so, that very night, before going to bed, Óscar let us prune him. As gently as we possibly could, we cut off his branches, taking exceeding care not to snap the shoots on the uppermost limbs, beautiful shoots that could be put in water in order, perhaps, to sprout new leaves. We pruned slowly, all of us. Óscar couldn’t stop trembling. Two of us held down his hands and two more dried the tears streaming from his nose to the floor in great drops. The boy turned white when, finally, we cut the flowers from his mouth and placed them in his hands. He took them respectfully and deposited them in water with the branches. The flowers, still, remained upright and beautiful, as golden as ever.
We all went to bed. The following day we’d go and plant the tree’s remains carefully, exactly the way the doctor had told us to. That night the boy closed the door to his room, and, for the first time, we couldn’t spy on him as he slept. Instead, we spent the night monitoring the tree branches in water until we fell asleep. We felt peaceful. Tired.
We slept so much that midday took us by surprise. We nearly sank into despair on opening our eyes and seeing that the tree flowers in water, golden hours ago, beautiful and moist, were now droopy, depressed, shriveled. The branches had lost all the suppleness of the day before, and now, separated from Óscar, were nothing but hardwood, full of splinters. We ran to the boy’s room, careful that together we didn’t end up breaking down the door. Óscar was laying in bed, in the fetal position, and looked to be sleeping peacefully. No new twigs or flowers had grown. We held one another’s hands in subdued excitement and approached slowly. We gently stroked his cheeks, his arms, his legs, his chest. Even his skin had regained the pale tone of yore, before the seed. Óscar breathed easily, unaware of our joy. He began to wake slowly, we didn’t rouse him, we waited, enjoying each of his boyish movements.
But the smiles must have frozen on our faces when Óscar opened his eyes. That changed everything. His eyes, seemingly the same as ever, the same color and the same shape, were unrecognizable. They were muted, no glimmer whatsoever, opaque. So empty that looking directly at him produced a crushing uneasiness. On making contact with those eyes we were hit with a profound sadness, a sadness so immense, so contagious, that all we wanted to do was die. As though Óscar’s sadness were in the air and impregnating our skin and innards. Suddenly the only thing we longed to do was bury each other, hide, cover one another and throw tons of dirt over each other, crush one another under it all, in darkness. Grow roots and let each other be eaten by worms. That’s what we wanted from then on.
Translated by Lisa Dillman