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A Few Billion Leaves

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"Is it worth your lives?" his father had asked him, repeatedly. "Your lives? A bullet for a few billion leaves?"

Well, he'd never understood it.

No, that's not fair; he understood it perfectly well. That's precisely why he feared.

He'd never come out to the settlement. Laisa asked, with deliberate frequency, why he never visited.

"Because he's afraid," Felipe explained.

"So are we," Laisa said, then smiled. The difference was, Felipe and Laisa feared more for the forest than for their own lives. Felipe's father embraced his paternal duties, and feared double on their behalf. His son, getting married and then scampering off into the rainforest, to live like that. Reckless? Brave? Right?


Some mix of all three, Laisa thought now, as she cleared the work tables for the day ahead. The cracked shells of Brazil nuts scattered to the floor on great sweeps of her dark, bare arms. The cat wound itself between her ankles. It never attacked the fowl, that was the eternally surprising thing. Batted with a gentle paw at their beaks. Sniffed at the ruffle of their tail feathers. But never struck.

Those fowl pottered around now outside the workshop, roused to their everyday business by the morning heat. Felipe, meanwhile—still in bed. Turning to the hut, and aiming approximately for their bedroom—where he lay with the pillows, the sheets, the cupboard, and the shotgun—Laisa mimicked the call of a cockerel. The fowl were startled, and the cat shot a judgmental upward glance, and Felipe, eventually, responded with an exaggerated groan. Laisa laughed, and, parting the crowd of fowl that had gathered in the doorway, went across to the small greenhouse where the Brazil nuts lay drying on a stretched tarpaulin. It was amazing, the produce of the Brazil nut. Oil for cooking, cream for eating, even soap. And the tree was ever forthcoming, provided you treated it correctly. That is to say, provided you didn't cut it down.


The tiny clearing—home to the hut, the canvas-sided workshop, and the simple greenhouse—was enclosed by the forest. Broad green leaves were the bricks in their perimeter wall. Beyond this, a few acres of abundant, buzzing forest, giving way shortly to patchier land, and then great stretches of nothing. Flat dustland, a bare planet-scape but for the occasional young Babussa tree—the first (sometimes only) life to return when used-up farmland was abandoned. This jigsaw of dead fields and straggled, wiry regrowth continued all the way to the limits of the ostensibly protected indigenous land, some hundred kilometers north. And even there, the bulldozers would try their luck. As to that luck, where the loggers found none, they could usually buy it. The 'arc of deforestation,' that barren pincer movement closing around the heart of the rainforest, was well-financed, and it seemed that it would be until it ate itself. And then what?


Felipe emerged, at last, and crouched to greet the cat. Surreptitiously he cast an eye over the fowl. A quick headcount—all alive and well. He rewarded the cat an extra minute's petting, and felt its purr radiate up through its hand. And, then, the sudden rumble of vehicles on the road, radiating up through the cat and sending it nervously into the hut. Felipe stood, and listened as they passed by, half-a-mile downhill from here. Trucks. He sighed, and joined his wife in the greenhouse.

"Change of plan," he said, and she paused her work. "We can sort the nuts later."

"Why?" Laisa said, running her hands across the previous day's harvest. They rolled pleasingly under her palms. "You get up late and make the rules?"

He laughed. "We'll visit my father."

Laisa drooped and rolled her eyes, and then stood upright again. "Wait a minute," she said, recalling some sly fact. "What day is today?"

Felipe said, "Only a Saturday."

"And is that a Saturday with a football match?"

Felipe smiled, and then laughed. They had no television in the hut, but his father had one in his home in the town. It was an important match, he pleaded. Brazil versus someone. Laisa relented; she enjoyed these trips really. If Felipe's father wouldn't venture into the forest, she'd make the most of their trips out to him. She snatched a Brazil nut from the tarp, and hid it in her pocket.


The motorcycle was stored nearby in the remains of an old charcoal oven, a relic of crime on their doorstep. Ibama, the environmental protection agency, had stormed the place with assault rifles raised. They'd arrested its operators and destroyed the work, and left the ovens to crumble. Now the forest reclaimed them, from the ground up, subsuming them into its roots as though in forgiveness, and Felipe kept his motorcycle in the only one with a roof left standing.

"Do you have the camera?" he called to Laisa.

"Yes," she said, waving it demonstratively. She snapped a photo of him as he hauled the bike out into the sunshine.

"Don't waste the film," he said, covering his face.

"It's digital," she said. "You are worse than your father."

"Well, he does have a television," Felipe agreed. He rolled the bike along a path in the forest, holding it tight against the incline of the hill. Insects buzzed as the wheels cracked sticks, and overhead two familiar macaws cried down at them.

"Hello, you two," Laisa said. She glanced at Felipe and, biting her lip, took a photo of the birds. Felipe turned at the artificial sound of the shutter. "They were cutting down the tree," Laisa said teasingly. Felipe wagged a finger.

They reached the roadside, just as another truck went speeding by, billowing dust and fumes. On its back were chained huge lengths of tree trunk. Castenheira, the Brazil nut tree. Illegal to fell, but profitable in the US and Europe. Fashionable.

"Now, you can take a photo of that," Felipe said—almost growled, it seemed—and Laisa did, capturing the truck as it receded along the road, following its similarly loaded compatriots. "Come on," he said as it disappeared in its own clouds. Laisa sat on the back of the bike, and they went off along the road in the other direction, towards his father's house and the hallowed football match.


More often than not, visits to Felipe's fathers resulted in disagreement. Sometimes argument. Laisa usually recalled a particular visit, in which—out of fear, she now appreciated—the old man had lambasted their entire lifestyle. Idealistic, he'd said. Pointless idealism. A drop in the ocean. Well, Laisa had asked, is it idealistic to politely denounce murder? To value life over the bank balance of faraway billionaires? If so, I pledge my allegiance to idealism.

Felipe had been reticent at first. An ideological argument with one's father; always awkward, and embarrassing, in a way. The older man must know better, surely. That was his job. So who was this young man, this child, quoting statistics and the names of endangered species? Some amount of forest, gone (700,000 square kilometers). Some years left (twenty). Some murder (207 in a year, and more all the time). Playing revolutionary, out there in a hut, with a tilted hat like some green Guevara. The only ones left in their 'settlement.' Their neighbors had had the good sense to sell up and move somewhere much safer, and cleaner, and with televisions. Somewhere they wouldn't receive death threats.

But, no, Laisa was right here. Was it idealistic? Felipe had long felt that he and Laisa were antibodies, generated at this crucial time by the Earth to defend its sprawling green lung. That didn't sound like idealism. That sounded—felt, hurt—like action.

"But is worth your lives?" his father cried. "Your lives? A bullet, for a few billion leaves?"

Laisa flared at this, but Felipe suddenly relaxed. He knew then that his father's words were only a front. His father valued and loved the rainforest as they did. He didn't really believe what he was saying. He was simply fearful. The argument ended the way that all falsely, emotionally predicated arguments do: with reconciliation, and beer, and a football match.

No argument today. Only the beer and the football match, fuzzy and flickering. They cheered when Brazil rightly scored, and shouted when The Other Team cheated their way into the goal. In the afternoon, with the score settled, Felipe went out to start the bike. Laisa hung back for a moment, and fished out the Brazil nut from her pocket. She closed her father-in-law's hands around the seed.

"Your garden here is bare," she said. "When it grows, think of it as a family tree." She patted his hands and he smiled, his creased cheeks rising to cup his eyes. A tiny piece of the forest. He put it gently into the pocket of his shirt, and kissed Laisa on the forehead before waving them off; his son and his daughter-in-law, living out there in a hut, making oil and cream and soap, and photographing bulldozers, arguing with chainsaws. Good idealists. Brave and reckless. It was astonishing, really, when he thought about it, that to live peacefully and sustainably—to live as real children of the soil—was the most reckless thing a person could do in the forest. He shook his head, and knew he was old.


On the way out of the town, Felipe saw the dusty red flag of the Landless Worker's Movement, fluttering over a small, cramped house. He raised a fist as they passed, and whooped loudly inside his helmet. Laisa patted a drumbeat on his stomach, and they tore off along the logger's road, back into the shade of the forest. Laisa had switched the camera on. It was not long before they were stopped, coming up against a herd of cattle being whipped and flanked by men on horseback, looking against the sunshine like cowboys from a film. The flesh of these cattle, once fed and fattened on the land that had once been green (and would very soon be dust, and abandoned) would be carved and shipped away, across the Atlantic Ocean, and the next field would be cleared for the next voracious herd. As they weaved crawlingly between the animals, Laisa took photos, and reached out once or twice to touch the cattle, murmuring gently, gazing into their brown eyes. The men on horseback did not speak.

Intellectually, she knew she could not blame them. There were people here, and they had to eat. They had to receive a wage. Some of them did not get even that. The settlement that she and Felipe occupied had been designed to home the impoverished, and to maintain the health of the forest. It was protected. Ostensibly. Families lived there for a while, but then the timber merchants and the ranchers came, as the pincer squeezed the rainforest tighter, and the money they offered was too attractive, too vital, for many to turn down. Families sold up and left—it was for pittance, really—and the loggers claimed the land. Now, only Felipe and Laisa remained, their little island of greenery and Brazil nuts, holed up against the invaders. They turned down every coin, every note thrown their way. Felipe used to say that a bank note was nothing to a leaf. There was no nutritional value to a coin, but Brazil nuts were amazing. That said, his father had pointed out; you can't buy a television with Brazil nuts.

The men doing the chain sawing—they didn't profit. They survived. Felipe and Laisa had met—interviewed, documented, rescued—men working as slaves. Men giving their meagre wage directly back to their employers in exchange for simple shelter and food. These men weren't evil, as Felipe had once believed. Now, that had been idealistic. No, these men were victims of systemic evil. It had taken a while, but he'd broadened his definition of 'victim' over time, and did not hate these men. It was, simply put, a supply-and-demand issue. And you could pay a desperate man to do just about anything, and keep your own hands clean—for counting the profits.

A white Ibama helicopter chopped overheard, disappearing into the haze of the late afternoon sun. Felipe saluted. The bike rolled to a stop and Laisa helped drag it up the hill. Somewhere, the macaws called playfully, and the hum of insects thickened. It was a homely sound. If TV static was the background radiation of the universe filtered through technology, then this perpetual insect buzz was nature's translation. The bike was tucked away in its makeshift garage, and, holding hands, Felipe and Laisa returned to their little clearing.

Usually, the cat would run out to them, trilling and meowing. But it did not come this afternoon. Even the fowl seemed disturbed, wandering silently at the edge of the clearing. The canvas door to the workshop flapped in the gentle wind. The hut bore the false silence of a maliciously occupied place.

"Stay here," Felipe said.

"Wait."

He squeezed Laisa's hand and crept towards the hut, disappearing around a column of bricks. Laisa heard the door and his footsteps fading inside, then the resumption of quiet. And then the first gunshot.

The fowl scattered, and birds dissipated overheard. The forest reeled briefly, leaves seeming to shake, and Laisa's hands flew to her mouth, stifling a scream in a childish squeak. Her instincts were to flee; her thoughts were to find Felipe. She moved towards the hut. The second gunshot came then.


The sun assumed the bloody color of its setting. The treetops whispered in the light wind. In his garden, glowing in the triumph of the football match, and a pleasant, argument-free afternoon with his son and his daughter-in-law, Felipe's father crouched unsteadily on creaking knees, and, using a spoon from the kitchen, carefully dug a tiny pit in the soil, and planted the Brazil nut.





Notes from the Author
On the day I wrote this story, I watched two insightful documentaries: Vice's 'Toxic Amazon' and Al Jazeera's 'Crying Forest', which explored the murders of José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo, environmental activists in the rainforest. Further reading revealed that they were two among hundreds, and that the number of murders increases yearly.

These are human and environmental tragedies, with perpetrators and victims, but they arise from a complex, global economic web—a system that seeks to cram infinite growth into a painfully finite space. This is something I wanted to emphasise in my story, beyond the tempting simplicity of 'goodies' versus 'baddies.'

First appeared in Literally Stories.
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