A Tree or a Person or a Wall

A Tree or a Person or a Wall

by Matt Bell
A Tree or a Person or a Wall

A Tree or a Person or a Wall

by Matt Bell


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Here we have Matt Bell at his most inventive and uncanny: parents and children, murderers and monsters, wild renditions of the past, and stunning visions of the present, all of which build to a virtuoso reimagining of our world.

A 19th-century minister builds an elaborate motor that will bring about the Second Coming. A man with rough hands locks a boy in a room with an albino ape. An apocalyptic army falls under a veil of forgetfulness. The story of Red Riding Hood is run through a potentially endless series of iterations. A father invents an elaborate, consuming game for his hospitalized son. Indexes, maps, a checkered shirt buried beneath a blanket of snow: they are scattered through these pages as clues to mysteries that may never be solved, lingering evidence of the violence and unknowability of the world.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall brings together Bell’s previously published shorter fiction—the story collection How They Were Found and the acclaimed novella Cataclysm Baby—along with seven dark and disturbing new stories, to create a collection of singular power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616955236
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/13/2016
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Matt Bell is the author most recently of the novels Scrapper (a Michigan Notable Book) and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods (a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award and an Indies Choice Adult Debut Book of the Year Honor Recipient, as well as the winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award). His stories have appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, Gulf Coast, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he now teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

Read an Excerpt


A Tree or a Person or a Wall

Even before the man with rough hands brought the boy to the locked room, even then there was always already the albino ape sitting on the chair beside the nightstand, waiting for the man and the boy to come.

Once inside the room, the man with rough hands carried the boy across the musty carpet and laid him upon the bed, where he told the boy he was not allowed to leave, that if he tried there would be consequences.

The man said, I do not want to restrain you, but I do have a number of restraints available.

He said, I do not want to hurt you, and then he pointed to the ape.

The ape picked a melon from a bowl on the nightstand and wrenched the fruit's rind open with its white-furred fists. While it licked the juice from its pale fingers, the man with rough hands said again, I do not wish to hurt you, and then he left the locked room for the hallway beyond its door.

After a while, the boy sat up on the bed. He tucked his scraped knees under his chin, wrapped his bruised arms around his legs, and then he stared at the ape.

He stared at the ape, and the ape stared back.

* * *

True to his word, the man with rough hands did not further hurt the boy, not in any of the ways the boy was afraid the man might.

Everything the man with rough hands meant to do to the boy was done before they arrived in the locked room, and so when the man with rough hands did come, it was only to feed the boy and the albino ape, and then to watch.

For the boy, the man with rough hands made cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.

For the ape, he brought bowlfuls of melons or else walnuts, both of which the ape devoured as if starving, as if it had been a long time since he had been fed.

After the boy ate, he watched the ape and watched the ape and watched and watched the ape.

The boy watched the ape because it was better than watching the man with rough hands, who himself stood in the corner and scratched his arms and legs and watched the boy eat, then watched the boy sit on the bed beside his plate, then watched the boy watching the ape.

In this way, he was not just the man with rough hands but also the man who watches.

The boy saw that the man was both of these people, but still thought of him as the man with rough hands, because it was the man's hands that had brought him to the locked room, that had done whatever had been done to his head, which ached and also buzzed.

The man watching didn't mean anything else to the boy. He was just watching, and what could that hurt? It was a nothing, an action shaped like a void, and so the man with rough hands never became the man who watches, even though there would be much more watching than there had ever been rough handling.

There was something wrong with the boy's head that made him unable to remember as well as he wanted. After the bruises on his arms and the scrapes on his legs healed, he realized he no longer knew if there were other people outside the locked room who would miss him, or if it had always been him and the man with rough hands and the albino ape, always he and he and it.

Sometimes, when the man with rough hands fed the boy very late in the day, after the setting of the sun, then the boy was surprised to see the man, because he had forgotten him too.

The boy knew it was after dark because when the door to the locked room was opened the boy could see the hallway past the door, and in that hallway there was a window through which it was sometimes light and sometimes not.

Outside that window was something else, something seen from too far away and for too short a time for the boy to be sure of what it was.

The boy did not know exactly, but he thought it was either a tree or a person or a wall, and although it could be all three it was probably only one.

The boy's bed was broken, bent inward on its frame so that the mattress sagged in the middle, leaving his back aching most mornings.

What the boy could not be sure of was whether he had broken the bed or whether it had already been broken.

He thought that if he broke the bed, then he would remember doing so, but perhaps not, considering the buzzing in his ears and the screeching of the albino ape.

Whenever the man with rough hands was gone, the boy lay back on the bed and ran his fingers through his hair, looking for the dent or crease or crack that might account for the buzzing, for the lack the buzzing attended.

Sitting on the bed, the boy ran his fingers through his hair, while in its chair the albino ape cracked open its melons, the motions of ape and boy so synchronized that sometimes the boy thought they were the same, that the noise of the rinds giving way was the sound of his own fingers nearing the crevice in his skull into which he or his memories had fallen and would continue to fall, unless he found the crack and stopped up its slow leak.

At first, the boy did not talk to the albino ape, but sometimes the ape talked to him. What the ape said, it was not words or sentences, or not just words and sentences.

What the ape said, it sounded like EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA.

The albino ape made this sound whenever it wanted the boy to watch it, which was whenever the man with rough hands was not with them in the locked room.

Sometimes the ape wanted to show the boy how it cleaned itself, picking loose the fleas from its fur and flicking them to the carpet, where they stayed only until they could climb onto the boy's bed, where they left his legs pocked with red bites or else scratches from his own too-long nails.

Sometimes the ape wanted to show the boy how it nearly used the litter box, spraying its urine all over the box, the wall behind the box.

Sometimes the ape wanted him to watch it split another melon rind, to crack another nutshell, as if the boy hadn't already seen those a thousand times.

Sometimes the ape wanted him to watch it masturbate, and this the boy would not, no matter how many times the ape said,EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA.

To distract himself while the ape relieved itself or opened melons or masturbated, the boy tried to remember the shapes of the words he'd once spoken outside the room.

Once, he was sure he'd made words like --- or --- or ----- or -------.

Words like t-k--.

Or like s--e --.

Or h---.

He remembered the amount of air it took to make the word-sounds without remembering the sounds themselves, and so when he made the mouth-shapes the sounds used to come from, nothing came out, or rather nothing he wanted.

More and more, whatever came out of his mouth sounded like EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA and nothing besides.

The buzzing, the ape, and his mouth, all of them were EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA, and the boy was afraid that soon this sound would be all that remained.

He was afraid of this but welcomed it too, because if there was nothing of him but a sound, then how could the man with rough hands keep him trapped any longer?

The man might trap a boy, might lock him in the room with an ape, but could he do the same to a sound, even a sound shaped like a boy?

The man with rough hands would open the door, and then the sound-boy would slip out, into the hallway and through the window in the hallway, where he would use the tree or person or wall to get away.

When the boy could not stand to be alone in his head anymore — trapped inside this cracked skull trapped inside the locked room — then he sat up in the bed and turned toward the ape and made the only sound that still seemed sure.


EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA, the ape said back.

Now the boy heard words inside the sounds that came from the albino ape's mouth and from his own mouth and from the crack in his head, which he still could not find, and he knew that this was how he could talk to the ape.

The boy said, EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA, and asked the ape its name, using the words his mouth could make only after first making this other, louder sound.

The ape said, EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA, and replied, Sixes.

My name is Sixes, the ape said, and the boy nodded because that was the ape's right name.

I don't have a name, said the boy, but the ape shook his head and said, EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA.

Yes, you do, said the ape named Sixes. You have a name and the man with rough hands knows it.

The ape said, One of the ways the man hurt you was the keeping of your name, the making of you to forget.

He has your name, but a name is not all you have, and its absence is not all that hurts you.

Whatever you do, don't also forget the window, as you have forgotten so much else. If he takes the window from you, then we will both be lost.

The ape named Sixes said, EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA, and then they were both quiet while the boy practiced remembering giving his name to the man with rough hands.

It hadn't happened in the locked room, of that he was sure. Where had it happened then? Through the window? On the other side of that smear of glass, where the tree or person or wall was?

Somewhere in the boy's voided memory, the man with rough hands had asked him his name, and the boy had whispered it back, had whispered because he was afraid.

The man with rough hands had smiled, said, It's the right name.

The name I was looking for, he said, and then he said nothing else, only —


Only whatever words had been needed to bring the boy to the locked room, where the ape named Sixes and the broken bed and the empty bowl for melons and walnuts had waited.

There was more to what had happened, but what it was lay on the other side of the window now, and the boy could not reach it with his cracked mind.

The window: that which the ape named Sixes said the boy must not forget.

The boy focused on the window's square shape, on its width slightly greater than the width of his own shoulders.

He focused on its nature, on how it was something that could be seen through, and how on the other side of it there was a tree or a person or a wall.

He focused on how it might be opened, and how once opened he might be able to crawl through it, if only he could get past the man with rough hands.

So he would not forget it again, the boy named the window Escape, and then there were at least two things for which he knew the names.

Inside the locked room, there was an albino ape named Sixes, and in the hallway outside the locked room there was a window named Escape.

In both places there was a man called the man with rough hands, but the boy thought that was not a name, except when, at other times, he thought it was exactly what a name meant.

Also there was himself, who was just the boy, because the man with rough hands had taken his right name away.

The man with rough hands had taken his name, and the boy wondered if the ape named Sixes would help him take it back.

No, said Sixes. I am a prisoner here too, because the man with rough hands has some power over me too, even as I have some power over him.

The ape named Sixes said this, but when the boy asked him to explain, the ape said only, EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA, and then returned to its melons and its walnuts.

Knowing the ape was named Sixes did not make the boy less afraid of the ape. It did not give the boy over the ape what the man with rough hands had over the boy, and the boy did not know why.

That night, the boy ate his sandwich and drank his soup and he watched the ape watch the man with rough hands watch him.

He knew it was night because, when the man opened the door to the locked room, the window named Escape was dark.

The tree or person or wall, it was on the other side of that darkness, and the boy could not see it.

Inside the locked room, the boy had never before talked to the man with rough hands, but now he tried.

He said, I want to go home.

He said, I don't want to eat any more sandwiches or drink any more soup.

He said, I don't want to be in this locked room, and I don't want you to watch me either.

The man with rough hands said nothing for a long time, only rubbed the small of his back. Then he walked over to the ape named Sixes and took the ape's right ear in his fingers.

The man with rough hands twisted the ear of the ape named Sixes until the ape screamed EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA.

The boy screamed too, the normal scream of a small boy.

I take it back, the boy said.

I want to stay.

I'm sorry.

Please don't hurt it again.

And then the boy knew that knowing the name Sixes would not give him any power.

Knowing the name Sixes was only another trap, because while he might have suffered the albino ape to hurt, he would not let the ape named Sixes do the same.

What the boy never forgot: The ape named Sixes. The window named Escape. One because it was always present, and one because it was the only chance of leaving the locked room or, rather, the hallway outside the locked room.

What the boy did forget, and often: the man with rough hands.

The boy always forgot him every night, so that by the time the man came to feed him the next day the man would already again be a surprise, again be something new set to happen twice a day.

The first time was when the window named Escape showed the boy a tree or a person or a wall.

The second time was when it showed him nothing but darkness.

Those were the two times of the day when the boy had to know about the man with rough hands, but he did not have to know him any other time.

Sometimes the boy could forget on his own, but other times, when the man with rough hands had watched him for too long, then the boy needed help.

When this happened, what the boy would do is lie on the crooked bed with his body straight.

What he would do next was take his hands from behind his back and put them over his eyes.

He would leave his eyes closed and his ears open, and then he would say, Please.

To the ape named Sixes, he would say, Please, sing to me, and then Sixes would put down his melons and sing the EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA until the boy forgot the man with rough hands and the locked room and his aching back and the fleabites on his arms and legs and everything else besides, everything except for the ape named Sixes and the window named Escape.

With his eyes closed, the EEEEECHHHHHSCRAAAAA sounded like a void so wide the boy could crawl inside, and so that is what the boy did.

He crawled inside the void, but not by leaving the bed, because he was not allowed to leave the bed, not even now.

Inside the void of the sound, there was always only the boy and the ape named Sixes, and nothing else but a floating darkness, the quiet centered inside a song or else a scream, a series of syllables that approximated one or the other.

In the floating darkness, the boy always asked Sixes, How long have I been here?

And Sixes always said, You have always been here.

And the boy always said, That does not seem true.

Oh, the truth, said Sixes.

You did not ask for the truth, said Sixes, always.

And then always the boy was quiet, and then always the boy said, What else would I want?

Comfort, said Sixes. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Succor.


In the locked room, the man with rough hands had left a bucket for the boy beside the bed, into which the boy was expected to urinate and also to defecate. The boy was careful when he used it not to tumble off the bed, because he thought the ape would not tolerate that, not even now that the boy knew its name.

This was not so hard when the boy only had to urinate, but if he needed to do anything else, he had to hang his rear over the edge of the bed or else risk bringing the sloshing bucket up onto the bed with him, where if he spilled it he would have to live with the mess, because the man with rough hands had not changed the linens once since bringing the boy there.

Changing the linens would mean letting the boy off of the bed, and that, the boy knew, the man with rough hands would not do.

What the boy did not know was whether the ape would not let the man, or if it was the man with the rough hands who ordered the ape.

Once the boy had thought he'd known, but now he thought he did not, because when the man with rough hands was in the room, the ape named Sixes never spoke.

Perhaps the ape was not even named Sixes, then, because the man with rough hands did not seem to know.

And then the man with rough hands stopped coming. The boy did not notice at first, not until he had been hungry for a long time, not until his bucket was full to overflowing.

Not until the bowl of melons on the nightstand had dwindled, until the walnut shells on the floor fell into dust.

Whatever happened to the man with rough hands had happened outside the locked room, and so the boy would never know what word-shapes described the man's end, his capture or his death.


Excerpted from "A Tree or a Person or a Wall"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Matt Bell.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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