The Death of Apo

Somehow the air seems even more oppressive than usual. It seems to weigh on me, pushing me towards the earth. The air is moist. It is heavy with the jungle. I suppose, years ago, I could have pulled the notes from its many textures. I could have described the trees, the bushes, the insects and the animals. From scent alone, I could have known the threats that surrounded us and described the dangers they represented.

But… no more.

Now all I sense now is the vague danger. Undefined and all-encompassing. Heavy like the air around me. And all I feel is the sadness. The aftermath of danger, realized.

A young man is laying before me, stretched out on the underbed of the jungle floor. Already it seems as if the all-consuming vines are reaching towards him, trying to consume him. I want to hack them back. I want to warn them to keep away from the young man. To keep away from the child of my people. But I know that there is no point. I will move on, but the vines will stay and there will be no way to protect what is left of the boy.

I lift up my eyes and see my people assembled before me. We are barely 300 strong. Although I know it is not true sometimes if feels like we lose two of our children for every one that is born.

For this occasion, for this final goodbye of one of our number, we have hacked out a small clearing. A temporary clearing. A pushing back, however briefly, of the jungle. But just the underbrush has been cleared. Overhead the wind rustles through leaves as countless as they were before we arrived. The sun is hidden by them, a mysterious source of dim light and great warmth. We have done our best to clear a place for the young man. But it is never enough.

I look down again at the body. A young man, not yet in the prime of his strength. A simple nick on his leg, caused by the mistimed swing of an obsidian blade. A nick, and infection, and death.

I feel tears coming to my eyes and my throat seems to catch.

I don’t know if I can do this again.

But my people, my 300 people, are waiting for me.

I am the Mother of my people, and they are waiting for me.

I take a breath of that hated air. I reluctantly let it fill my lungs. What can I say that these people do not know? The boy’s name is known. His character is known. We all know each other, one family united by our adversity.

What can I possibly say?

I take another breath, a deeper breath, and then I begin to speak as I have so many times before.

“Apo.” I state. I open with the boy’s name, as if speaking it into the jungle will somehow give him life. Life in a place of death.

Indeed, my very first memory is of a death. I had had an older brother, as a young girl. Yun. That had been his name. Yun. I don’t remember him, but I remember his name, spoken by our people’s Mother so many years ago.


I don’t know what killed him. An insect, a poisoned plant, an animal. A simple lack of food. But he had lain there, on the full floor of the jungle, just as Apo does now. My parents had been weeping. Our people’s Mother had been weeping. That day, it seemed as if our people had been destroyed.

The day of Yum’s death was no ordinary day. It was an extraordinary day. I remember the tree. I am now the last of my people to have seen it. It was no ordinary tree. It was huge. Its trunk seemed as large as the world. Its canopy stretched out in every direction. Miraculously, the ground below it was clear. There was no brush. No small bushes. No other trees. There had been a clearing. A natural clearing in the jungle. To this little girl it had seemed miraculous.

Those around me though? They had wailed in mourning.

And I knew, somehow, that they were not only mourning my brother.

The people’s Mother had come to me that day. She had seemed a broken woman. The spirit had gone out of her. She had come to me and she had laid her hand on my head, the head of still-young girl. And she had told me that I was now the people’s mother. Now, it was my place to lead them.

She had stayed with us. But she had never given me a word of guidance. Her heart had been ripped from her.

We moved on from that terrible tree. As grand as it was, it could not sustain us. What fruit it had were quickly consumed. We moved on, as we always do. We left Yun behind just as we have left behind so many others.

“Apo.” I repeat, looking at the young man now before me. “Apo gave his life so that we can continue.”

I see heads nodding in some sort of resigned consolation. These are words I have spoken countless times before. I don’t want to say them. I want to shout at the people – “CONTINUE? WHY DO WE CONTINUE!” I don’t not mean it as a question, but as a demand. As a protest. As an accusation against the G-d that leads us.

But I keep my peace. Such words from the Mother would destroy all of us on the spot.

“Ahead,” I pronounce, as is the formula of our people, “Ahead there is the Clearing. There is food. There is rest. There is safety.”

I am describing a world that seems impossible. We live in the jungle. Hacking through it with our obsidian blades. We make our progress, careful step by careful step. I have been travelling our path for my entire life and there has been no Clearing. There has been nothing other than that tree of despair. There has just been endless jungle and unending time.

The rains, the hidden sun, the dangers. The sadness. Almost banal in their repetition.

I knew I had once been one of the girls who would collect the fruit and cook it in order to soften it. Maybe I had played with the toy axes that the little boys loved so much. But I don’t remember that. I only remember being the Mother. As girls around me would collect trinkets and speak mischievously of boys, I only remember searching for the path the G-d had left us in the jungle.

I look at Apo. A young man of my people. He had been so strong. He had been so strong.

I remember asking my own mother why some of us couldn’t travel ahead. The powerful. The healthy. She had told me, “If we leave them behind, then we will never reach the Clearing.”

I hadn’t understood why, but my mother had insisted. I wanted to ask the Mother what she thought, but she refused to speak. Perhaps she was like me today, filled with doubts and anger and resignation. Perhaps she was wrapping herself around her despair so it would not wash away the people.

I listened to my mother. It seemed somehow natural and true. It seemed as if the G-d would insist that the Clearing could only be reached by those who protected the weak, fed those who could not pick their own fruit, led those who could not see and fended off the near-silent dangers to those who could not hear.

We travelled slowly. We cut our way through the endless jungle, slowly. Because we know that our people must remain together if we were to survive.

“Apo stayed with us his entire life. He stayed True to the Path.”

He followed where I pointed. Like so many others, he followed. But the trail was so thin. It was so concealed. It was so hard to know. I led the people, but I led them on the cusp of an overwhelming fear that I was not leading them to the Clearing. That those who came after me would never lead them to the Clearing. Because I did not truly know the way; and they would not know the way.

We would stay in the jungle forever, harried and frightened.

Not everybody stayed True to the Path. Sometimes a few of us, or even quite a few of us, would break away from the Mother. They would set off in another direction. Only rarely would they return, hungry and lost – most of their bodies integrated into the emptiness of the jungle. Sometimes a few would rush ahead, believing they had the power to discover the path for themselves. But there would be nothing for them. No hope, no future. They would never be seen again.

I continue, my voice shaking, “We must remain a people united. Apo aided others and he accepted their aid. And in the end he gave his life so that we may reach the Clearing.”

I see the people nod. Knowing heads. Hopeful heads. Heads that believe, perhaps, that in the very next day we will find our hope and our future.

I kneel before Apo’s body and then I do what is hardest of all. I take out my own obsidian blade. A dagger used only for this purpose. I cut into him and I watch as his blood gently drains into the earth.

Then I take the seeds of the fruit, the source of all our nourishment, and I push them into the ground surrounding his body.

“From death, let there be life. From death, let there be nourishment. From death, let there be hope.”

I rise. We will rest now, as we always do. We make our small camp. There is a distant rumble of thunder and so we unfold our leafy huts – pathetic shelters against the rains. That night, amidst the thrumming of the heavy rains, our people sing. Mournful songs, troubled songs.

And, yes, here and there songs of an ever-resistant hope and joy.

That night I travel from hut to hut. I speak to all the children. I tell them what the Mother before me had taught me. And what the Mother before her had taught her. I told them we were going towards the Clearing.

I told them that if they were dedicated, they would reach it.

I told them, but I did not believe it myself.

I had seen my childhood friends have children. I had seen those children have children. Yet there had no Clearing. There had been nothing that massive tree that seemed to erase the hope of the Mother who had come before me.

In the morning, we rise. Tired. Bedraggled. But knowing that we must continue. There is no more fruit here. We cannot be sustained. We must always travel. We must always hack through the jungle in search of tomorrow.

The day begins as it always does. The unsheathing of obsidian blades by the young men and the strongest of the young women. I sit in our tiny and temporary clearing and I simply look at the wall of green that surrounds us. Our people watch, expectantly.

Then I sense it. Or I think I sense it. The path the G-d has fashioned for us.

A hint of distinction in the undergrowth.

I point and our people set to work.

The greater darkness of night has almost come when I hear the shout.

At first, I fear another death. I rush forward, into the ranks of the obsidian blades. Heedless of the danger to myself. A young woman points ahead, but I see it well before she can raise her finger.

There is a break in the jungle. A place with no underbrush.

Our bladesmen redouble their efforts, wary of the poisoned burrs of the jungle plants.

And then, we break through.

The people pour in through the gap we’ve created. I see the confusion in their faces. I see the wonder. And I see them asking if this is The Clearing.

Only I know that it is not.

Instead, in the center of the space is a tree. It is huge. Its trunk seems as large as the world. Its canopy stretches out in every direction. The ground below it is clear. There is no brush, no small bushes, no other trees. It is a clearing. A natural clearing in the jungle.

And I have been here before.

I have been leading my people for two generations and I have been here before.

I fall to my knees, hopelessness washing over me.

I have been here before.

We have been here before.

I have led my people in a circle as long as life itself.

I see my people turn to me. I see them asking, silently, “Is this The Clearing.”

I shake my head in simple resignation. I have been leading my people for a generation and I have led them no closer to our destination.

We set up camp for the night. There are no tents needed here. As the ripples of my people’s worry form into cracks that threaten their very survival, I find myself doing what I always do. I walk the perimeter of the clearing, wondering where we must go next. More than ever, I wonder if there is any point in following the path.

And then I see it. A tree. Fully grown. Burdened with fruit. And below it, the slightest change in the vegetation. The slightest lightening of the jungle’s pressure.

It is Yun’s tree.

This was the path we had followed before. When I had been made our people’s Mother.

And then, in a flash, I see it.

Generation after generation of my people following that same path. Clearing that same road. Making it clearer and clearer each time. Planting where the bravest among us have fallen. Generation after generation, I see a path emerging. And then a track. And then a road. A road cobbled with stones – the jungle kept at bay. I see beautiful roadside orchards. Rest stations with all that is needed to survive and to thrive. Those orchards have names. Names unknown to those who visit them, but names nonetheless. Yun. Apo. And countless others besides.

There is no Clearing to be discovered by some lucky generation.

No, there is only a road to be travelled again and again – cleared by generations of my people. They will always travel. And they will always live off that which was planted by those who came before them.

A little girl, a serious little girl, steps up beside me. She looks up, somehow aware that I am in the throes of prophecy.

In that moment, I see her leading our people.

I rest my hand upon her head, and I tell her, “You are our Mother now.”

She seems overwhelmed, confused. She seems lost.

But I will be there to guide her. Unlike the Mother who came before me, my hope is not lost.

Years will pass and then I know my time will come. But that too is for the good. I have already been joined with my people and the Lord has already revealed His Path to me.

I have already lived until the end of days.

This story was written in honor of my teacher from 3rd Grade to 8th Grade. Beverly Shaff passed away April 8th at the age of 98. She had started her career as a teacher in 1947. Mrs. Shaff didn’t tolerate stupid. Nonetheless, she always made me feel like I had a part to play in finding our path to the Clearing.

I believe it was a hope she held out for every one of her students.

May we be deserving of the hope of our elders and of trust of those who follow in our footsteps.

דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם—

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ:  כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְקוָק אֱלֹקֵיכֶם.

Speak unto all the witnesses of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I, your timeless Higher Power, am holy.

Shabbat Shalom.

Joseph Cox

Beverly Shaff, wondering just how the photographer could be quite that stupid.

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