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Watching Trees


Image by AARN GIRI

       Choose a spot where you can plant your roots in legend: an ancient oak grove with nymph-like deities called dryads living in the trees, concealed from predators.

       Do all you can to embody this myth. Wander about listening to the butterflies that alight on the branches and the distant popping noise of the males’ wings in courtship. Imagine them chew and somnambulate on a diet of sap and rotten fruit. Think of the singularity of your mother bearing you in her womb and the butterflies’ ceaseless energy and appetite. Think of destiny.

       Discover that the road leading past the grove is a dead end. This discovery will be mildly traumatic. Take time to ponder it, keeping in mind that a tree’s growth happens in the outermost layers of bark rather than the heartwood. The heart is for keeping oaths, not making history.

       Get to know the boys in the neighborhood. Plot and hone your strategy. Let them close enough to detect the scent of your skin, the sempiternal fragrance that is unique to you. They will say and do things to try to get you to open—take you to parks and point to couples having picnics and pushing babies in strollers, asking wouldn’t that be nice?

       Smile and laugh, sending them out the door, for boys come too soon. In the tree kingdom, time is measured by the speed of xylem flowing from root to stem to leaf. Simple sugars and enzymes move slowly through a plant. Foliage ferments and deliquesces in heat.

       Let the days pass as you have the temptation to lust. Do not think of torture or termites, knives or frostbite.

This is the sacrifice of staking your claim in native soil.

       In slumber, your dreams are lofty and arboreal, your mind’s eye conjuring up scenes from a utopian era when pagan gods ruled, and fauns and satyrs inhabited forests, protecting flocks of sheep from wolves and playing intoxicating music on their pan flutes. During this age, cities held rituals and fêtes where men chased women through streets, slapping them with hides of goats to ensure their fertility and an easier birth. Cult worship and animal sacrifice were common; jealous gods often converted royal heirs into werewolves, and forgiving ones set them among the stars in constellations as bears and hunters. People looked to the sky to augur the future from birds and to help them select their mates.

       Study the outlines of these objects in the celestial sphere.

       Awaken to sunshine filtering through your window, the glittering points leaving afterimages on the backs of your eyelids. Awaken to the sound of the butterflies departing from the trees and the soft, whispering hush that follows.
       When the metamorphosis happens, it is subtler than your stellar visions. In a less vigilant state, you might have overlooked it.

        One moment, you are standing on the patch of earth that lies along the dead-ended road. The next, you lower your eyes to find your appendages cleaved to your body, which now resembles a trunk, while your feet have grown thick, gnarled, and fused to the rutted ground. A few spare branches grow above your head, with birds chortling on the boughs.

       Life as a tree is tortuous at first. Stuck in one spot, your legs lose their mobility and grace, so you can no longer travel great distances on your ambitious strides. You worry that your roots don’t run deep enough, and a strong wind might cause you to topple, or a lumberjack will climb the hill and slice into your flesh, sundering all your years in one stroke. It is well-known that when a tree dies, the dryad living within it dies, too.

       Conversely, life is so long for a tree left to grow wild that you live to see all your friends and family age at the normal human rate, while you continue ramifying, although you can’t see the value of this attribute when the people who kept you company will no longer be around.

       You repine for the past and suspect you chose the wrong myth. Your parents named you for another, in which a goddess helps her suitor slay a beast in a labyrinth rather than hiding. But you were a mere vessel in that tale, too, for men on their conquests.

       One morning, the whispers in the wood grow louder. A peripheral movement catches your attention as another wood- nymph leaves her tree and steps out into the shaded grove. Soon after, more maidens wander from their sylvan hollows to stomp up and down the paths, returning to study their reflections in the gazing pool and dip their hands in the cool stream and fountain, pouring carafes of water down each other’s necks. This is when you realize you are not immobile like you feared and can come and go from the hideaway. Rediscovering the locomotion of your arms and legs, you join the women and spend the afternoon basking in the light that filters through the branches, illuminating their hair and eyes, which are green from chlorophyll.

       These mysterious beings form a tight-knit family by virtue of being in close proximity to their homes, and you quickly befriend them and grow enamored by the idea of a fey existence spent presiding over the oak’s green growth and promoting peace within the bosk. Your fellow nymphs are kinder than humans you’ve known: they teach you the art of surviving on air and rain, so you don’t have to worry about finding food.

       Most importantly, your great height puts you on the level with the butterflies resting on the oaks, so you can finally observe them congregate by the dozens, their heads pointed down and broad wings pressed flat against the silver bark. Study their mottled brown and white colors and orange and black crescents peering from the hindwing eyespots—an aposematic display that makes them almost invisible. The creatures are not like other varieties, with their vibrant markings. If you didn’t know better, you’d say they were moths.

       While you are eye-to-eye with these unusual specimens, a faint sound disturbs the upland. At first, it is no more than dull footsteps that grow with subtle intensity to resemble the plod of hooves. The noise causes the goddesses to jump back into their sanctuaries, waiting with bated breath for what will come to pass. You stay as motionless as Querquetulanae—the marble statues of caryatids enshrined in the cypress colonnades of Athens—as dark figures begin to appear through the tenebrous leaf-patches.

       The men are hybrids, with human torsos and the lower bodies of horses. They stalk through the grove on muscular legs, breathing in low, feral grunts. One of them trudges up and stops in front of you, eyes scrolling along your rimose bark, from the bole of your base to the knobby wood at your navel that houses your belly and inner sanctum to the area where a face might have been, on up to the thickening crown.

       The visitor regards you like anyone would—solemnly, as if pondering more than a centenarian oak, but something much older than himself that is awakened to earthly truths: the weathering of the soul, the saeculum of a lifetime spent rooted there.

       Beyond this tender regard lies a look of unsatisfied hunger, ardent longing, and lust.

       This is how the plot unfolds.
       He’ll wait for you to fulfill the prophecy, abandoning your stronghold to join him, and journey back to his arcade.
       You spot the loose bier flapping by his leg, a pan flute slipping out from beneath the hispid covering. A hairy leg brushes against you.
      A funky aroma fills the air.

       You close your eyes, remembering the visions that came before the transformation, the amalgam of rites and customs surfacing in your subconscious as if they were real. Life as a tree afforded you a special understanding of the ontological nature of time—the ability to syncretize episodic memories with the present and make all periods throughout history contemporaneous, so folk heroes and satyrs could prance alongside you despite there being a thousand years between.

       The boys have come a long way from the mountains in the rustic Greek countryside, where they spent their days lolling in forest nooks and frightening hordes with their rending shrieks. Yet there appears to be no difference between the one standing in front of you and the pipers from folklore: the wills-o-the-wisp and mischievous Pucks who importuned and misled wanderers, binding them to the fates of mortals. As archetypes, they do not change.

       It is you who went through the painstaking task of reviving the myth and drawing up their hard-fraught journey from the primeval ages of the world to now, suffering the ichor of passion that slaloms through your veins.

       You used to be convinced there was nowhere to go except away from where you’d been. Youth left you unmoored, with an unabiding attachment to home—doomed, you thought, to try to get back to it. Saudade led you to conjure up everything you see before you—the verdant glen, the nymphs and butterflies.

       No longer peripatetic, you think you could stay here forever, that even as the moribund rings of death widen around your reflection in the gazing pool, your youth and vigor will be preserved.

       This time, you were ready when they arrived, armed with an arboretum of tales carved into your own pith.

       The goddesses’ voices echo in your head: We are impervious. It’s true.
       So, what gives you pause?
       The frisson that ran through you, perhaps, when the boy moved closer, wielding the brassy horns and arrow-pointed tail that hid beneath goat-skin sheaths. Or his charming mien and swiftness of foot in jumping over rocks and dirt. How, lifting the pipe to his mouth to play, his euphonious song echoed to the far reaches of the forest, stirring every creature tucked into the nooks and crannies of the silent ambit.
       It's fun to hide, but it's also fun to seek.
       It occurs to you that you could go with him.

       The departure from the tree would carve out your passage from innocence to adulthood, so when you make your graceful upward spiral to join your winged kin, the change will feel natural, as if you were always there.

You think again of destiny and how you have achieved it by delving into antiquity, building a connection to eternity. Yet a solitary life has gained you the ability to foresee the future. The myth will end when time’s inexorable flow ushers in the age of theology—spiritual pursuits replacing temporal pleasures—and priestly sermons about overcoming temptation in the garden of delights mute the clever lyrics and rhymes of cloven-hoofed poets.

       When that happens, the arc of history will abandon the boy to the past, leaving no more than a specter: abstract iconography that fills the pages of books.

       The youth’s lantern-eyed gaze cannot conceal this knowledge —an awareness that neither all the gods and goddesses in his retinue, nor the magical capacity to will an imagined alternative into reality, can spare him. However poignant your moments spent together, they, too, are anachronisms, remnants of a quondam time.

       Even eternity has a certain finality.
       As the two of you stand motionless, a pink moon rises high above the welkins, the pale nimbus spilling light that glistens on your leaves and limns your bark. A delicate breeze sways the oaks’ uppermost branches. For a few seconds, the world hangs in suspense, the seconds unfolding in slow-motion.

       Between the gnarled boughs, there is a restless shudder: the wax of the butterflies’ enormous wings. You see the pinions spread wide overhead, their bodies cutting clinquant shapes out of the sky.

       You circle back to your girlhood butterfly garden, remembering the colorful imprints left when the chrysalis molted, like pressed flowers. In the hollow of your belly, you glimpse the miniature universes coiled within that nurture tiny tree ecosystems, seeds efflorescing to a cosmos of yellow amber, all the world’s chaotic beauty sprung forth in a kind of universal mise en scène. How marvelous, you wonder, to have so many companions, their eyes banding and flickering in the darkness as they watch over you—ever cognizant, ever aware.

       When the nymphs take flight, it is as if they emerge from your center, ascending through the high, green crowns, the sounds of the exodus a crescendo that falls just as quickly to earth in sharp, crepitating peals. Their bodies are well-nourished, with no love lost for the fresh milkweed or nectar enjoyed by the diverse kingdom of insects.

       The sound evokes another: the corybantic melody, the wild, frenzied shriek.

       Then you realize the essential link between then and now: The nymphs evolved to butterflies, with the miracle of their previous existence compounded by the present tricksters.

       Starlight peeks through gaps in the canopy, where you make out the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor—the big and little bears. Recall those that burnished your gaze when you were adrift in sleep, of the hunters who joined the stars. The figures are austere, just now reaching you from many eons ago, embedded too deeply in the past to see very well. Perhaps someday you will meet them, far down the road of your adventures, and they will teach you the wisdom of your ancestors.

       But for now, the good tree brings forth fruit that never falls far from the thicket: a stopping place for those seeking shade or respite from serried rain, the irenic scenery offering a place to divine the patterns spelled out in rocks, trees, and soil.

       Even trees desire to reproduce, to strike new saplings and offshoots.

       Who can say where the plot will end—whether it contains an untoward twist or turn of fortune or circumstances?
       Up above, a single butterfly lingers slightly out of reach.
       The satyr.
       Your erstwhile playmate and traveler of great distances and epochs who now seeks your protection.
You picture the eyespots on his wings blinking expectantly, as if reflected in a thousand mirrors in a folio of secret dimensions—the eyes that are a part of him, but also cleaved to something else—a stage when life hadn’t been fleshed out, when days were mere noumena on walls or grooves in stones, waiting to be given meaning or direction.

       You aren’t his savior.
       You aren’t even his girlfriend.
       But for a few unflinching moments that stretch toward infinity, you give him a place to rest.

Katie Nickas writes short stories and flash fiction from a mythical treehouse in South Central Texas. She loves portraying ancient folk heroes in contemporary settings, and hopes to transport readers to unfamiliar realms where they may delight in staying for a while. Her work is published or forthcoming in literary journals including Asymmetry, The Cabinet of Heed, Dear Damsels, Occulum, and Reflex Fiction. Find her on social media at the following links:

Facebook: Twitter: @katienickas

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