My mother told me about the Brown Butterflies. Her fingers twisted in time with her words. She recited how their dried out colour crisped their wings, until they matched the dirt they slept upon. I remember yearning to feel that dirt, to feel the ground when it was dry. I wanted to spread my fingers into the dust and push the earth under my nails. Obviously there is the flat rock, but I have no hope of touching that.
My mother is the oldest female in our tree. She is not related to any of us – we have no family. She does not need to keep us alive. If we all died, she would just go to another treetop. Our last mother was frail and had to live on the highest branch. When she was spotted by our new mother, she could not fight her off. She was lucky, she was killed swiftly. Some of the mothers aren’t so generous.
The father of our tree does not live in our treetop. He is kept away by my mother. He may only interact with the mothers of the treetops. I think he lives two trees along, as he does not like our mother so much.
I like him.
He is small and quick, and looks through his hair at you as if he can see what you’re thinking. He’s only looked at me once, when he brought food for those on our treetop. His black eyes shone like the surface of the water, deep and knowing. I could only stop and stare back. His shoulders hugged the corners of his face, his neck a secret unto himself. He squatted with his back bowed, and his eyebrows knitted together until they almost became one.
The Flat Rock group are much smaller in number than those in my treetop. They have only one mother. She has had the largest number of children anyone can remember having. Her eyes are deep and dark in her head. Her mouth is fat and pink, lips swollen and pouted. She is protected by the Rooftop Father. His shoulders are above all of the inhabitants on Flat Rock. His arms, torso and legs are toned, toughened by years of climbing trees and fighting younger fathers. He is proud of his physique, casually spending time leaning over the edge of flat rock to stare into his reflection. He especially likes to watch his reflection push his chest off the flat rock and lower it down slowly, repeating this action again and again, whilst all the time staring into the moving figure in the water. Admiring.
Until one day, something caught his eye.
The metal flashed in the sun. It winked at the muscled human.
He wanted it.
Swiftly, the Rooftop Father leapt to his feet. He stood straight, his eyes focusing on his desire. Bending his body quickly, he replaced his feet with his hands and dropped to nearest treetop. Running, flying, he rapidly gained speed climbing through the trees. Humans darted left and right of him. No one would stop him in his way. My father straightened his legs. His toes gripped the bark. He would not bow out of this challenge.
From his neck swung an old device that nobody remembered the name of. It had a button and a dial, and was encased in a metal coat. On the front was a circle within a circle within a circle. It looked like an eye. The back was flat and black. Near the top, it had a small rectangle window. That was the prize. If you looked through this window and turned the dial, you could see further than your eye could see. My mother had told me that having this thing was very important. I was not to touch it, take it, or use it without expecting to die.
My father was not expecting to die.
The Rooftop Father was only a couple of branches away. He jumped and swung with such force; he sprung from each branch gathering power the closer he got. My father gritted his teeth, growled and tightened his cheeks, baring his weapons in preparation. He was ready.
My father’s body swallowed his opponent’s body. The Rooftop Father leapt at my father, arms lifted wide and powerful. My father stretched his coiled body and absorbed the hit, taking his rival backwards. Their tangled, contorted bodies shot through the branches.
Thudding against a particularly thick branch halted their flight. Punching, kicking, biting; balled up fists batted faces into bloody pulps. My father forced his thumbs into his competitor’s eye sockets. They squashed so easily. Blood began to squirts from beneath his pushing hands.
The squealing man eventually surrendered.
He released My father from his clawing grasp. With this sudden freedom, my father seized his opportunity. He used every scrap of his strength to propel the bleeding man back from the treetop. An almighty scream ripped the air. His head only struggled on the surface on the water for a few moments before he was lost.
Everybody watched. Nobody moved.
After the Rooftop Father disappeared beneath the water, his group were no longer protected. They did not resist, however. They stood, patiently waiting for my father to summit their home. Once he was atop the flat rock, his shadow stretched out in front him. The sun was disappearing behind him. His shadow was a long, blank, nothing. No past. No future. Just a shaded reflection of one man prepared to die. His metal device hung like a trophy, swinging around his bruised neck. He looked each human in the eye before he flung them from the flat rock. They didn’t scream; they didn’t cry. They submitted to the black depths simply because it was what they should do.
The next female who had the most children was my mother. I did not feel sad that she was leaving my tree. In fact, I felt a little glad. It was time we had a new mother.
Snap! My feet dropped down. The branch beneath me had cracked. My torso was immediately submerged in icy cold water.
My chest tightened.
My lungs laboured. Each breath drew in water. I spluttered; I flailed.
My mother watched my face lower beneath the surface. Her eyes turned to the berries in her hands, and she placed another in her mouth.
My scalp tightened with the cold. My hair turned into icicles, the weight of my body dragged me down.
Kicking, stamping, my feet wagged hopelessly. I tried to flap my hands, desperate to keep alive for one more moment. One more breath. I exhaled and my body pulled me under.
I was gone.
Ashleigh Whittle completed her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at York St John University, and she is currently writing up her dissertation for the MA in Creative Writing at YSJ.