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The Guardians of the Metal Trees

Updated: May 26

by Niranjan Kumar Rai


The carbon leaflets are to be checked and replaced daily. 


They get clogged up pretty quick, and their self-renewal mechanisms aren’t so ship-shape; they still need our caring human hands climbing up their tubule stalks and branches, and the length of their monolithic trunks, the size of skyscrapers. 


Someone once told me that it was the Elephant King, who gave up his ivory for the roots, his flesh for the grass and his bones for the branches and the twigs, and his ears for the leaves and of course, his trunk for the trunks of the trees. The Elephant King did so, so that his people could have shade, protection, and sustenance, separate from that of the upstart human, but his sacrifice was for naught, and finally, they are all gone now. 


“Hai yawng (Basically Translates to Hey man or Hey Friend) Myo, how’s it over to your side?”

“Two leaves, eight spreads, and a twig growth malfunctioning and turning inwards, could potentially mess up the whole osmosis system on the left side.” 


“Okay.” The sound went dead on the comms, and the far and faint figure to the right, way farther down the trunk, slid off to the other side, hidden in whole now. The wind rushes down into and behind my ear. I am alone. 


I reach up for the leaf and it falls away just out of reach and I slip, and the safety rope extends as to the force of it, phew—I try to climb back up again, nearly reach it, but still an inch away from my grasp. Okay then, okay, I’m gonna have to climb a bit farther and lean back down to grab it. And so I walk, steady and in a sure gait. I go past it now, so tantalizingly, and I turn sideways in my pose and reach downwards, and the leaf comes into contact between two of my fingers, and I begin to pull it out, and it comes, slowly giving way, and I pull the partially broken, and soot filled leaf up to me. It looks beautiful still in its death. 


“Hangar call one, hangar call one, how’s it up there?”


“Well base, no serious injuries as of yet, the tree is okay. Some minor leaf damage, nothing that a replacement can’t fix.”


“Alright Hangar call one, stay safe.”


“Yeah, roger.” I put the leaf away in a pocket, and take out a clean new one from all the other spares I have. It seems just the right fit, the hydro circuits working full and blue, chloroplasts synthesizers in a top notch state, and the auto-generators, and the salt water filters working to the full, I put the checking node away and move to stick the leaf into the tree.  


It nearly falls out, but I catch it just by the finger nails and they ask why I don’t clip mine clean. And I position it straight, and steadily push it in, the joints click into place, the circuits working and at the ready. Already the growth mechanisms performing. Hopefully a new canopy will grow here too, one day. 


“Hai yawng, Hlaing Moe, how’s it to your side?”


“It’s alright, it’s alright. Not much damage here, and the self-repair and growth mechanisms are working fine. How’s yours?”


“I changed the leaf but I will have to wait and see about the twig outgrowth, maybe it will right itself as its nearby cousin is working well now, maybe it won’t and in case it doesn’t mark it down. I’ll send the coordinates to you now.”


“Alright, alright, I hear that.” I look out over and beyond to the scene below; the wide blue sea shining out, the sun coming down, the twilight hour approaching and all in a dusky orange glow now, everything below me, everything, the towers and the spires and the scrapers reaching out for the sky paling to the trees and their ever extending leaves. 


“Hey, Hai yawng Myo, you hear me?” 


“Yeah.” I can hear a faint sigh and laugh over the comms ear piece. 


“Chewing in the scenery?” 


“Yeah.” I look out over the honey colored sundown of the cityscape. “I can’t wait to be back up here again; next week.” 


“But until then we’re ground crew, mole rats, brown diggers.” 


“Come on man, don’t use that.”


“Sure, sure—Mr. Sensitive” 


“I’m not Mr. Sensitive, I’m Mr. sensible. Just don’t call yourself that.” 


“Alright, alright.” He takes a pause and I look on. 


“Wanna head back down now? We’re done with our check of the rounds and it’s all okay now, right?” 


“Yeah, let’s head down.” I replied, by instinct, but I just wish that I could stay suspended up here, forever. 


“Alright, report to base!”


“Report to base.” I sigh out, and the scene slowly drops away, the fall a soothing lull, a consumption, a going under, a merging in with the scenery of which you were once above, the honey thick sunset covering you in, and smothering you, in full, and drowning you out, and from within, making you small, the buildings all taller than you now, the cityscape far above you. And I just look down, because the ground is coming to greet me now, where I rightfully belong. 


“All Green Tree employees, all Green Tree employees report back to Home Office and checkout within your leave hour… All Green tree employees, all Green Tree employees…” the calming feminine voice of the motherly announcement blared on, and we were coming out, our clothes changed now, civilian uniform, blending in time. 


“So, so, so… Myo? What do you want to do now, want to hit up the bar, do some karaoke, see a movie, rent a fuck-bot what?” 


“You know we can’t afford any of those, especially the last one. You wanna invite upon yourself karmic justice, go ahead? And besides—”


“Ah… Come on Myo, you know I was just kidding.”


“Yeah sure, and besides…” I flash my wrist over the scanner, and the rails part way briskly and gives me a slight moment to escape. Though I don’t see it that way. “We should lay low these days.” 


“You mean they’re back again?”


“They’re always here, you just don’t pay attention to them.” I can already hear their incessant chanting coming in again from the outside, with the workers surging out, and the slurs flinging about, hot cinders in your ears. 


“You fucking brown diggers, go back to your own country and plant your fucking seeds.”


“Diggers go home, diggers go home, diggers go home…”


“We don’t want this; diggers are a sin to god and man and they are participating in the evil acts of Devil, reaching towards god and defying him, like the Tower of Babel these trees shall fall and ye shall all go down with it…” I sigh, do I really have to deal with this almost every day.


“Wait.” I pull Hlaing back. He looks at me confused, and scared “I know an easier way to freedom, come along.” And we head down towards the sanitation area, where all the shit and filth of trees and humans are stirred around in greasy brown pots by metal ladles with hanging arms attached to the roof above. 


“Ah man, do we really have to come in here?” 


“Come on man we eat thi—”


“Don’t say it, I’m warning you, don’t say it.” 


“Sure, sure.” We come out from there into the laundry backroom, and the machines running on steady, and tuned, for the higher ups and their pups, their white sheet dinners, and their lounge rest outfits, and shirts and pants, ironed out—what a life for them now. 


“Aye, fucking bastards.” 


“Yep.” And from there to the outside, where the laundry is shipped straight to their homes or the dump after a week or two. What a cost free world, what a cost free world…  


We come out from there into the back, and into the freedom of the thronging streets where one face blends into the other there quite easily. And we are silent for a while, quiet from the brief scene we had seen. Then Hlaing, he speaks, sullen and hurt.


“Is that all they see us as, dirty brown faces, fucking around in the earth, huh?” I shrug.


“I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter if we know about how they see us or not, what matters is—”


“But still, it hurts.” He spoke as if a dagger was being pulled out of him. 


“What? Being rejected by the main social and racial class around here, nothing really to care about, they’re just as dumb as us, diggers, and they don’t want to admit it, they’re just as lost and foolish, and all they want is a job or something, they say—but they don’t know what the fuck they want, like the rest of us, finding something to blame, the crow for the crab’s mistake.” 

“Ha…lar pywan be.” (Roughly translates to: This again.)


“What?! It’s a good proverb.”


“Yeah but it’s just…” 


“What?”


“It just doesn’t—you know?”


“I don’t know.” I shake my head. 


“I mean; it just doesn’t, it just doesn’t say—say what it’s like to actually be the crow. And, what it feels like? It feels like a constant—minstrel show.” I look at him with nothing to say, with no comforting words to give. And I sure as hell don’t dare to give him a pat on his back, and say, it’s gonna be alright, because I don’t know, and it could be for damn sure the other way around, not just the bad—but still I can’t say it, I can’t say it will be okay, so all I said was


“Let’s get a drink.”


“Yeah” he said, deflated. And we went onto a hover bus and sped off to the dingy downtown avenues, the brown towns, the digger country, the hangar around. Heh—it will cheer him up in no time now, and all the philosophy from him will be gone, all good now and all cool. But, I felt that maybe I don’t ever want to come down now, because when I do, I’m always looking down and not above. And no one can, it strains your neck, especially for a digger. 


The towns were in an uproar almost every time you head in there, especially the Tamil and Telegu zones within festival seasons. And it’s one of those times again, I thought, the caramel colored girls with jasmines in their hair, and the obsidian ones too, they smile for all around with turmeric on their skin, and thanka (sandal-wood) on their cheeks, a special and potent mix to knock the tiredness right out of you, and lets you see the world anew. 


“You want to get off here?” 


“Yeah, sure.” He says, upbeat, jumping off with me. “Hey, what festival do you think it is this time?”


“Probably Pongal (Harvest Festival Celebrated in South-India, particularly by Tamils, and by most of the Tamil Diaspora) or maybe the sacrificial season, the time of year to keep your promises to the Gods.” 


“Yeah, maybe, maybe.” He says, looking up, drearily. 


“You want to head up into black town or stay here and just eat around.” 


“Let’s go into black town and get some rum, especially at that Jamaican joint.”


“What—you don’t like the old school jazz place?” he deliberates for a while.

 

“Heh, why not?” 


“Okay.” And we head on in, towards black town. 


The bar scene was ablaze now—the music was playing, the people were dancing, and the crowds were thronging, in and out, crowds of all faces. The day wage worker like us on their night to strut, or the happy go lucky municipal worker. Everyone from almost any of the lowest walks of life are here, and I could already see eyes upon us. Checking for who we were and why we are here. And I make a sign out, an X on my head, and my eyes bent down, digger. And they turn away now in a slight murmured sigh of relief, he’s one of us, at least partially. We head up onto the counter, and we take our seats.


“Barman, double shots of rum and whisky. Keep them coming.”

 

“Sure sons, hard day tonight?”


“As always.” I speak out in a sighing kind of way and all that weight comes crashing down. 


“I see. Today was one of those bad days, huh.” He pours out a cup and Hlaing quickly grabs it and pours it in.


“Yeah, not the best I’ve had.” 


“Sure, sure…well, just hit me up if you guys need anything, I’ll be right over there.” And he heads off towards the far side of the seemingly endless counter having left the two bottles before us. 


“Cheers” we said in all our tiredness and dual weary states and the drinks came pouring. 

The night goes in a flash with rum and whisky in hand, but another thing it does, besides making it go faster, it unfortunately makes you bolder. Sometimes for the best, but most of the times, not, and this was one of those many. 


Well, to say the worst for the worst Hlaing Moe thought he saw that Jamaican girl he was kind of sweet on and so he went off to her and tried to make an offer that she wouldn’t refuse. Her boyfriend came and they and a couple of his friends refused it for her and so we are out here bruised and battered, not too bad compared to most days. But sitting on the curb, looking up at the stars and away, the faint glowing light of the bar bleeding in a pool onto our backs. We were tired and we were battered and bruised and we were getting angry about it. 


“You know what, this fucking does it?”


“What, what the fuck are you talking about?” 


“I’ve had it, I’ve had it with this.” he said, motioning to all about him. I pretended not to understand, or at least tried not to.


“What the hell are you talking about man?”


“This scrounging about like fucking animals and being not treated much better by your own fucking kind.”


“Hey, come on man, you know this kind of stuff happens, what the fuck are we gonna do, nothing about it. Trust me, one day we’re gonna wake up as old men and we’re gonna laugh about this.” 


“No, I’m tired of waiting, I’m tired of fucking hoping for things to be better, I—well I…”


“What, are you gonna do, go on a white man’s rampage? Is that it, with a six gun and shoot it up? Look around, do you think these people don’t know, why the fuck do you think they drink so much anyway, why the fuck do you think they screw all the time, cause there’s not much else they can do about fucking anything that’s why? And if you’re worrying about pussy, our time will come, no one can stay virgins for so long, so just wait and calm down, but apart from that we can’t do anything to change anything, our actions will have no effect on the future, and our names and our facts and our deeds, they wouldn’t even make a ripple in this ocean, we barely exist as it is, we barely matter. So let’s go. Let’s head back home.” I walk on ahead of him, I don’t have to wait, he’ll come, what the fuck he’s gonna do, where the fuck he’s gonna go, but home: Burma town. The shit place, the shit people, the shit dreams, the dead place, everything in a lull, never change. For a while I hear nothing and think, well this stubborn bastard’s gonna get killed sticking around here for the night, and then I hear feet shuffling on the tarred street, and he come walking beside me, and we walk on home together; to Burma town. 


The town’s already dead quiet, the stalls closing up, all silent. The children gone, the football games done, and the girls no longer out playing badminton, all asleep, and closed up, their lights and windows and dreams, except us, heh—the two lofty dreamers wandering the streets in search of—nothing. In search of nothing except for our place to sleep and rest up for the next day’s drudgery. Nothing but a hovel home in the Mya Ya Gone apartment complex, nothing more than an ugly block building. Taking up more than half the street, and a sizable chunk of the street over, consuming everything. 


Apartment 102, I slid my dingy keys in, the walk up quite nearly back breaking, and the elevator always broken. And we strip off our clothes like they were eating us up and pile into our beds on the floor of that one room apartment, two beds, both just two flattened mats on the floor. One far off kitchen corner, and a toilet and a bathtub in a singular room to share, as one shits one showers. Don’t flush after. 


We fall in naked and tired and bruised and ready to give into the sweet release of a dreamless and deep sleep. Or at least you don’t remember it, the things that could’ve been. I slowly fall into… 


“Hey—Hey…”


“Whaaat?” I say in a drowsy drawl. 


“Did you really mean everything you said back then?” I think back on it a bit and I just say

“Yeah.” And there was a silence afterwards, a chilling silence, and I fell back in whole; the darkness swallowed me like a massive cup. 


The towering descent into the depths was a gruesome wait. You could feel the entirety of yourself drop, and for a long stretched out hour it was as if you were gone, and all that existed was a mind lost in darkness. Most of us don’t throw our headlights on, because we know that it is a pointless act from the start. So it’s best to just wait and see the lights. 


The lights are like a city, a crystal ant hill city and when you see it, after god knows what hours, it’s like a godsend from heaven down to hell.


The people working: checking the growth of the roots, their speed, if there was fault in anything, the rate of water consumption, nutrient consumption, and root taking, and how well they take. All a science, all a steady and informed act, to be remembered. And they don’t see it. None of them do. 

“Alright, alright People, come and collect your placement tags and sections charts, two for each way, two for each way…” The wrangler warden, or the digger king as we called him, there’s always one for each shift. 


“You, C three, root nine, do it well, take a buggy with you.”


“C four… C six…C twelve—fifteen…”

 

“And ah—you two, long time no see; how’s it up there?” 


“Well enough.” replies Hlaing Moe, sourly.


“Great enough.” I add in, trying to be jovial. 


“Well, here’s to a good digging.” And he hands us away our corresponding tags and charts, and we head to the buggy stations. 


The lights of the roots glimmering from above, makes you feel sometimes like you were in a rainbow castle, not the dreamy kind, but still, it was nice to be in a place like this, however sullen you are, however sad, and the beauty takes you away from you.  


I hone the buggy in on our place. 


“This it.” He asks, sharp and workman like. 


“Yeah.” I replied, shocked by his change of stance and tone. 


“Well, let’s go on with it then.” He closes up the section chart, and comes charging out. With quick jilted steps he goes to work; robotic, flipping through the chart, checking for any root leaks in the water pulls. The hair fibers you have to be especially careful, but—I just can’t shake the feeling of something lost. Maybe it was something between us, or that of within him, his heart. Did I—


“—the third quadrant side of this section?”


“Huh.” I was pulled out of my trance and was looking like a fool to him then. He studied me for a while, and said, briskly. 


“I said, can you go check the root valve on the third quadrant side of this section?”


“Yeah, sure.” I went off then and he was hidden behind a root wall. Gone from my view, myself… 

…my care. 


It is not in the least easy to go on without that thought, that supreme assurance that I would be fine, regardless, because I have him as a friend. But now I just see the cavern walls, and the glowing flecks of rainbows through the darkness. And a secluded figure working on a small side of a giant root, of a massive tree, glowing multicolored, and no discoloration to be seen on the length of it. Nothing damaged, nothing gone wrong; just okay. But you can never tell with these things, down beneath, a root valve cracks and shit goes sideways, and we are flooded out like rats, or something falls, and the cavern collapses, a piece of a root, maybe it dug into a soft spot the wrong way. It is better if you can tell, can say for sure where and when something is wrong, it is always necessary with these things; and when you can’t, when you are no longer certain, that is the day it becomes certain that it will soon come crashing down over your head, of cracked rock and soil, an irreparable wall, structure and bridge, or more; something more. And when it falls someone is often the worse for wear from it more than the other. And it will fall, someday, always waiting. And you’re always waiting too, and no matter the checks and balances it will one day collapse anyway, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, and so you just wait, and prepare for the day it does, and when it does, it will take and break everything within you. And even still you wait for it, and prepare for the fall to come and take everything away—all that you had built up in the years past, the routines, the memories and the last dances out in the night together, for barmaids and beer sips and whisky drops and rum quarts. And I often wonder what I am doing here, in the deepest shits of the earth, waiting for the fall, waiting, and always with nothing to prepare you to ease the pain to come your way, waiting always and forevermore, for it to break. And I think of whether or not, if anything, would’ve changed, if I didn’t, or hadn’t waited. That I can’t say, but I feel it’s soon gonna break, and I can’t prepare for the day, just take it in as it comes to me in full with the fall and the pain and the misery, gone and washing me away, gone and washing me, clean of everything. I wait for it. 


“Hai—” I catch myself, I can’t exactly call him that now. “Quadrant section clear… Moe?”


“Okay then get back down, we’re heading out and moving on.” I caught myself off guard, and I feel my mouth drop and my heart fall away, clear. Something gone now. 


“Sure” The comms go silent, die down, and I’m left alone, standing upon a rainbow root, lost and in search… For what, I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. I come back down dejected and lost and small and forgotten and forgetting everything before me, the multicolored lights flashing and flowing on, the length of the buggy coming into view with him standing to the side and reviewing the chart in his hands. And I come, head bent, gingerly sliding down, he looks up and turns back to the chart, and I look away; heading off towards the buggy, something breaks, the tension leavening, nothing much worth thinking about, or remains; nothing. 


I move towards the buggy to wait within. But the lights flash dazedly, something changes. A crack in the ceiling, the far light disappearing, faintly. And it falls, my hand to the wheel of the buggy and about to slide within, looking up in awe at all that dark tonnage falling, I guess I am just about ready to turn into mush. Not bad that way, I thought, a hero’s call, the worker’s death in his time, a brief remembrance and pass, but remembrance nonetheless. 


I look for him to smile at him, but he is gone. Oh. And then I felt a pull, a rush, something pushing me away and dragging me down, far off and safe, from that falls. I see a flash, a smile, and maybe a faint laugh to begin, but cut short, stopped, dead in its tracks. 


I was pulled back by the force of his push and fall and he lies dead under the solid pieces of earth and cracks of dirt. Bleeding. His arm extended towards me and his face buried deep. 

I crawl towards him…I crawl towards him to…to ask him, to ask him to speak and joke and laugh and say as he always did “Ah…this”, “Ai…that”, but he doesn’t, he lays silent, dead. 

I reach out towards him and hold his cooling hand, it falls, and I know it was something eternal. I don’t really know what to do now, should I cry, should I call out for help, but for what, they’ll find me soon enough. What matters most is that I—I don’t run amok and lose…and stir shit up. I need to be—I need to be…ah…I…I need to be…


“Hey it’s Myo, Myo! Are you alright!” and the cavalry comes sliding and running and buggy riding down, but too late now, no need to even come, no necessity, no point and I’m just—

“It’s alright Myo, it’s alright.” The king says trying to soothe me and if he only knew, what it was that died with Moe, what Hlaing Moe did take with his death, all my—all our memories of the honey thick skyline together, of twilight, and of the rainbow times in the depths of darkness, caring for the roots together, wandering the tunnels here and by, the towns up above, the nights out and the few girls we managed to hook around ourselves, but never that far. It was all that he took with him, the joys, the joys of living now, of being a brown digger and a hangar around. All gone now; the joys and memories and the point of going on. 


“Somebody get him out of here, and his friend.” And they take me away and I leave him behind to be carried out like a corpse from its grave. This grave. 


They let me off with the whole nine yards, life endangerment payment, minor insurance bills, and costs for damages to my psyche, basically I get to see a shrink for free, I think. 

And last but not least sign everything and keep my mouth sewn shut about it. Why the hell not, who am I gonna tell anyway? 


As I collect my payment and move to leave, I turn and ask,


“Did he have any—”


“Family?” cuts in the big looking man behind the desk.


“Yeah.” 


“Well, huh…” he looks down at some sheets of paper, probably some bullshit to draw himself away from my eyes, punctuate himself, look official, huh—but why do I care about that now, no one cares about anything. “He didn’t have any relatives, no, no family, but he did have a contact when in case of decease, or injury—” 


“Who’s that?” He stopped, pointing at something and looks at me with unsure eyes. 


“Well I’d—I’d assume you’d know?”


“I don’t.” I reply, coldly. He looks down at his cluttered desk for a while and then he stares me straight in the eyes and says, like it was a cursed. 


“It’s you. He listed your name as the contact.” Turning one of the papers to me and pointing my name written upon it. 


“Oh.” I don’t know what I have to say for it, so I begin to turn the knob to go. 


“Of course; we will give you all the benefits of being the singular contact of the deceased.” 


“Really?” I spitted, not looking back.


“Well, yes.” 


“Then you can shove it up your big fat ass, cause I quit.” 


“Wait, wait uh—you can’t just do that you know, you have to inform us, hey! Hey! Somebody stop him!!” And I bolted, ran down the length of the hall and descended through the stairs, going on and on and on, never seeming to end, and barged out onto the ground floor, and turned towards the slick, and quick receding rails. I flashed my wrist, but it did not budge. That fast, huh? And so I shove the checking node into its blinking face. It goes open, close, and close, and open, close, haywire; everything glowing red and blaring alarms and warnings and commands.


“Employee non-compliance, employee non-compliance, stop 56281, Employee Myo Myint, stop 52681, Employee Myo Myint…” the kind motherly voice, now cold and distant, domineering. Everything revealed to be the lie that it is. I jumped through a quick opening and ran down the remaining length of the way, apparently aiming for the main doors, the guards gathered there, and so were some of the employees looking for a bounty. I turned and skidded off into the sanitation space, and they come charging, but I am out of their way, a quick jab at the main circuit boards and everyone being lathered in hot shit and piss and screaming and I guess my way is clear from here on. I walk on calmly out to the laundry, not without making a change there, and I’d never thought that hearing a man being ironed to death would make me laugh, but it did, it sure as hell did. I laughed, for what else can I do. And I go out the back and it was all clear there. My tag and my uniform onesie and my hat, I leave to lie in the back alleyway—and walked out towards the thronging street, and called out to one of the protesters gathered at the main exit.


“Hey, if you’re looking for a way in, it’s right back there, through the laundry room.” 


“I found a way in!!” and they take quick charge and credit, and the whole crowd surges in to be met with the laundry and the shit. 


And here I fade and I disappear from the way, lost in the faces, the brown faces, the diggers and the maids, and the municipal workers and the taxi and bus drivers, I disappear into the mix of faces and people, where I don’t matter, will never matter, and be quickly forgotten, where I’ll always be a face amongst countless, nothing special, or different, except, I did this one thing; though nothing changes, life stays as it was, but still, I did this and was let off and free from it, forgotten and pointless an act that it is—and it goes on and on and on. Though at the very least I didn’t let it wear me down or bend my head to the ground that day, at least I didn’t smear my friend’s name into a price tag and throw it away. At least I didn’t, on that day, let the act of a smile and laugh cut short go to waste on a despicable life like mine. At least I didn’t…let it die, and inside it grows that laugh and that smile, I’ll never forget them, or him, the names and acts of a man, not just a ripple in the ocean. All that matters in the end is for one face to have known him and that goes a long way to making…to making…huh—to making that smile and that laugh, remain. No matter how long, it remains.  



An Undying Friendship. Image provided by the author.

About the author:


Niranjan Kumar Rai is 23, and has been published at Wilderness House Review, for a poetry competition at a University that he’s dropped out of, and for ‘Through the Light Holes’ by Aruna Global South and Myanma Photo Archives. He was born in Mandalay, Burma. And he lives in Rangoon.

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