Watching Trees

fiction

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