‘I used to be able to climb that tree, but that was a long time ago,’ he said after we introduced each other.
‘I shouldn’t bother painting it anymore. My grandchildren hardly ever go up there. They complain that there’s no wi-fi. But that tree house over there saved my life. And every year I fix it as best as I can.' He said, pointing to it proudly.
‘How did it save your life?’ I asked.
‘I must have been ten or so. My parents had left me at my grandparents' for the holidays. And my granddad had built this tree house for me. One day, he told me I could go see the puppet show by myself if I wanted. He gave me some money, and I ran through the fields towards town. But on the way there I noticed a red ladder sticking out of a huge hole in the ground. In the hole, on the ground, a shiny coin seemed to beckon me. I climbed down and picked it up, but when I turned round, someone had pulled up the ladder. And all I could see was the last rung of the ladder sticking out over the edge of the hole.
I tried to climb my way out, but I had no foothold since the walls were muddy. So I jumped to pull the ladder down but I couldn’t reach it. When I shouted for help, I heard the pranksters imitating my cries for help and laughing while they walked away. I noticed one of them had pinned a tiny note to the muddy wall with a stick. It read, ‘Your greed put you in this hole, but it won’t get you out.’ I crumpled up the note and sat on the ground cursing, and letting my head drop between my knees.
But then, just as I felt tears welling up in my eyes, I noticed my shoelaces. I pulled them off my shoes and tied them together, and at one end of them I tied my keys. I threw the keys in the air until I managed to wrap the shoelaces around the last rung of the ladder. I pulled it down slowly and climbed out of the hole.
By then it was late, and I had to run to town or I’d miss the puppet show. I ran and ran, but by the time I got there, they had already packed up everything. As I was about to leave, the door to the puppeteers’ travelling coach opened, and a boy about my age gestured to me to come in.
‘Come up!’ he said, inviting me up the steps to the coach and flicking away a cigarette from which he’d just taken a long drag.
When, I got inside, the boy put his finger to his lips and pointed to a dark corner. I could barely make out the show’s ventriloquist snoring in an armchair with his puppet still on his lap. The boy was heavily tanned and smelled of tobacco. He tiptoed so as not to wake the ventriloquist, and he whispered, “Do you want to see something funny? My dad talks in his sleep. Look!’ he pointed to the man in the armchair.
It was then, that while the ventriloquist was snoring, his puppet began to speak without raising its drooping head, and it said, “That last show was sad. I could see his lips move when I spoke. They all could. His jokes were lame, and the voice he gave me was that of an old drunk.”
I sat there frozen with fear until the ventriloquist opened his eyes and shouted, “Got you!” and he and his son started laughing so hard I thought they were going to choke.
I bolted out of the coach and began to hurry home feeling very sorry for myself when it started raining. Large dark clouds moved across the sky like buffaloes, and the rain began pelting down with a vengeance. I didn’t feel like going home after what had happened. I was annoyed with the world, and so I climbed into my tree house.
I could hear thunder coming. I thought lightning may strike the tree house, but then I remembered what my granddad had said, “You know why I built your tree house in the shadow of the church?”
“So that it’s cool in the summer?” I had said.
“Yes,” he had replied, “but also because if you’re in the tree house when a storm comes, the bell tower will grab the lightning before it reaches your tree.”
The storm came, and I couldn’t move. It became pitch dark in a matter of minutes, and I could hear thunder breaking all around me. I was soaked, but the inside of the tree house was miraculously dry, so I took all my clothes off and wrapped myself in a blanket I always kept there. The noise of the rain was deafening. It seemed a thousand men were competing to nail something to the roof. I could not see outside the tree house’s window. Only lightening made anything visible, and then only for a fraction of a second. I thought this was what Noah must have seen from his ark.
I took out a flashlight, and I wrote my will. I had heard that that was what you did before dying. I wrote that I would leave everything to my sister. I signed my will and put it inside an old bottle of whisky. I screwed on the top, opened the window of the tree house and threw the bottle outside as quickly as possible to avoid getting rain inside.
The next day, at first light, I popped my head out of the tree house, and I could see only the bell tower and church roof sticking out of the water. Bloated cattle floated past below me. At one point, I saw the red ladder from the evening before float by. I also thought I saw the ventriloquist’s puppet, but when it came closer, I realised it was a goat.
Soon, I heard my granddad calling me, and I turned in his direction. He was rowing his small blue boat. I remember when years earlier I had asked him why he had painted eyes all over the hull, and he had said they warded off bad spirits.
He was out of breath from rowing and kept having to dry the sweat from his face with a green bandana. My granny was sitting in front of him, she had her usual black dress, but she was also wearing an orange life vest. She was slouching and still. Very still. And for a second, I feared she might be dead, but as soon as she heard my voice, she sat up and turned towards me, waving.' Said the old man.
'I have seen the blue fishing boat with eyes painted all over the hull. An old man uses it to fish in the field next to mine even though there is no water there,' I said.
‘That’s the ventriloquist’s son. When his dad drowned in the flood, my grandparents saved him on that boat and ended up adopting him.’ Said the old man.
As we were parting, he grabbed my hand and put an old coin inside it. Closing my fingers into a fist, he said, 'Here you go. I hope it brings you luck.’
‘Is it…?’ I asked.
‘The very same,’ he said before I could finish the question.