Even the trees

I remember the first time I saw it. He was desperate, you could see he was desperate, that bit wasn’t unusual. It was the stomach that was odd. The branch wrapped around the middle of his body, the bulge above it, distended, hanging over it, his stomach. He was held fast, his feet long since lost and a branch loose around his neck, another coming out of his mouth, sprouting leaves. It looked like he was vomiting foliage.

You could see the desperation in his eyes. He was hungry, but the branch had grown to fill his mouth and so there was no way of feeding him. What point would feeding him serve anyway, it would it only prolong the inevitable. He was being absorbed into the tree and there was nothing that could stop it. You could see his hands had melded into the trunk and didn’t exist anymore and if you came back tomorrow, a little more of his arm would be tree.

If there was an escape, we had not found it. The trees had proven impervious to the axe, they had withstood our flames, we had even tried talking to them, just stood there opening and closing our mouth with words but there was no evidence they heard and it did not stop.

It was mostly men at first, because we needed wood and they got the wood, and the trees had always been so passive, so agreeable to what we did. Or so we thought. It was not all trees, the majority of them just stood mutely, as trees do, but these active attack timbers were new. You couldn’t tell the passive trees from the aggressive ones and worse when you cut into one that had absorbed someone, sometimes there was an outline in the tree, other times blood would pour out, or there were organs just sitting within the trunk and you would wonder if there hadn’t been some semblance of humanity left, some sentience that you had swung your axe against.

Not long after it started, it was alleged they adapted new tactics, letting themselves be cut, became the joists of some house and in the night crept down from their roof top space or their wall and took children. You simply woke up to find your child being absorbed into a beam, of course they were static, the beam couldn’t up and run away but your child was still gone. That was rumour and I never saw any evidence of it.

We were becoming a world of fewer and fewer people. There was nothing we could do, there was no cure, if anything the number of trees doing it was increasing. It was a hard thing to observe, a sort of rapid growth around someone as they went near a tree, a kind of snarling ensnarement that was strong and then a slow absorption over a period of days.

The woods were alive with the howling of victims until the inevitable branch filled the mouth, some trees seemed to revel in the idea of the screaming and the branch to fill the mouth was the last thing they did. Others seemed bothered by the noise and did it quickly.

I had a son of twelve, I did not let him go out often. The house had stood so long and I knew its beams, they would not transform in the night. Still I was careful with the wood for the fire, but I knew it is inevitable. I watched him grow, watched many die and knew the inevitable must happen. There were fewer of us and the trees were taking victims younger and younger. What to do?

Then came the day he simply did not come home and I ran to the road and searched like so many others and there he was and he was so far gone. I could not hold his hand or feed him. I could only see the terror in his eyes and stroke his arm and tell him it would soon be over. It was mercifully short.

The trees began in earnest on the women then and sometimes the animals. It was as if the trees had turned against all forms of life that moved. I had seen so much, so many suffer, I did not want to die that way. At the end I did not even think I could trust the trusses that held up my own house, I could not bring myself to light a fire out of fear. Many simply gave in, just walked up and placed themselves before a tree. It did not always work, the trees were whimsical, they knew they had won.

I could not bring myself to do that, I could not imagine how I could live through the agony of absorption, the slow solidification of my body into something firm and hard, the creeping stillness, the days of hunger until your blood merged into sap, your final taste just wood and leaves, the joy of sound silenced by a think branch on your tongue. I knew I could not bear such things, feet, hands merged into trunk, limbs melted into bark, torso melded into wood, none of it worked for me.

Instead I went to the river. The river is forbidden, was forbidden once. I dipped my toes in the water. I waded out into the depths. I lay down in the water and I let the river dissolve me. I felt myself come apart, each molecule of my body drifting apart from the other, the parts that held me together overwhelmed by the sheer amount of liquid I was drowning in. I felt the water seeping into me and I felt myself merging into it. I was at peace with the world, there was nothing left of me. I became water instead of wood. I joined with the drops of the river and floated out to sea.

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Breathe

I woke up, as in my eyes were open, but I was acutely aware I could not feel myself breathe. It was as if my lungs had somehow moved on, my ribs seemed to have decamped to some other part of my body I could not feel. I grabbed my phone and flicked to the meditation app. There it was, her cool calming voice giving me instruction, breathe in, breathe out. My breath though, had left me, had just gone from my body. I lay there listening to her, my hands on my unmoving chest, yes my ribs were there but they were still. I rested my hands as low as I could, I daren’t feel for the heart beat in case it was gone as well.

And she kept talking, gentle, soothing, the meditation woman telling me to take a breath in and then a long slow breath out, but how? It had all stopped working. I tried not to panic, this was meditation after all. I tried to focus but my hands were sending that signal to my brain, you aren’t breathing, the lungs are not working. There is no in and out, no up and down happening. At this point I wondered why the meditation couldn’t focus on some other bodily function, like digestion, but it did not.

I am not dead, I know I am not dead. I wiggle my toes, probably I have just forgotten, just forgotten and somewhere at the back of my brain is that thing that will kick start the whole thing again. Thank goodness I woke up, otherwise I might have actually died. Meanwhile the meditation app gave slow pointed instructions, in and out, in and out. I kept looking at my ribs, nothing. My lungs literally sat there, not bothering to inflate, like the last balloon in the packet that no one wants, probably the green one or the yellow one or the horrible pink which is too see through.

I wait patiently thinking what a waste for the meditation app. I wonder how much I am paying for this app that does not seem to be inducing my lungs to act. There is still no breath going in and out, I am panicked but without the capacity to demonstrate it. I couldn’t be less calm and all I can do is wait for that one heaving breath that indicates I am back on the planet.

And then it comes, sweet luscious air rushes in, I suck it in, my lungs finally inflate and the ribs move and my hands lift and I wonder about the delay! Who knows what would have happened if the blood I drank yesterday was not pre-oxygenated.

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The Conference

I have always thought I could become an expert at something, but what? Somehow bring myself to focus in on the minute detail of some corner of history or science, in truth I can barely focus long enough to vacuum, but somewhere I have always thought I would be able to espouse wisdom on some such topic at dinner parties. In my head the whole table are always enraptured as I drop pearls of factual delight, when in fact I have met such people myself and turned immediately away and began to discuss the weather.

I remember one particular erudite person I sat next to at dinner who saw nothing more than the back of my shoulder for the entire evening and to make it worse I was wearing a particularly ghastly brown paisley thing with a mosquito bite on the edge of my shoulder for good measure. No I lack the application, the attention span for expertise, but I can do generality which makes what happened seem quite odd. I think perhaps there was a moment of confusion, a point at which someone thought I was something else, someone else.

And so I found myself on the stage, in front of the audience, with a lap top open before me. Of course the audience could see the slides, but I could see the slides and the speaking notes. And what could I do, but speak. I did not think I could say, there’s been a mistake, I am not this person. I am not even presenting at this conference, I am just here with my partner.

So I gave the speech, at the conference, the conference I was only attending with my partner. Its not easy you know, to stand up and speak, to follow the words when you have not read them before at all. But I did and there was rapturous applause, and to be honest I am not even sure what the speech was about. I don’t pretend to remember a word of it but it was well received.

I feigned a stomach bug instead of dinner only for it to be reported to me (by my partner who had not attended that session but was watching another session at the time) what a standout performance it had been. The highlight of the day, maybe even the conference. I said nothing, what could I say? He would want to know why and I even now, am not sure why.

I tried not to think about it, stayed in my room. I was embarrassed by it, until my partner mentioned that it was available on a website, me giving her speech. He had watched it, said what a great speaker she was. I thought he was joking, he had realised but it seemed not. I googled it, there I was, me- giving her speech, with her name on the banner underneath. My first thought was to get in touch, apologise. But I just wasn’t brave enough, wasn’t bold enough and the moment passed and we travelled home.

And then it came, a week later, by post, not even by email, a short note, three words, ‘We should meet.’ And so there I stood, waiting outside the coffee shop for the woman I had impersonated, who’s speech I had given. I had no idea what to say, I was so embarrassed. And there she was, a little taller than me, same hair colour sort of, different colouring, not my sense of style.

And so we sat for coffee and she thanked me and showed me her other speeches, all of them given by different women, all of them just whoever was there, like some kind of weird experiment, and that’s what it was, at least how it started – as some weird experiment. She had a mad fear of public speaking and so at conferences she angled it so someone else gave her speech and she discovered that almost no one spoke up, no woman took exception and nor did the men, men who knew who it was, who knew it wasn’t her, said nothing. All of them complicit.

And then she told me more, she wasn’t the only one, lots of women did it, they just subbed in to whoever was close to the stage. There was a club, a group, on line, off line, all of them, quietly lauding their victories. It had long since stopped being a way of avoiding public speaking and become more a way of just subtly undermining the status quo.

She gave me her card with a phone number, in case I ever had to speak at my own conference. She said she would arrange it, make it happen so someone else could speak. She said she couldn’t remember the last time any woman ever gave her own speech at an international conference. It just doesn’t happen.

Of course, I was horrified, I would never do such a thing, until of course. It was just a small speech, a nothing speech, a tiny conference, a nothing topic, a general topic, nothing specific, but well, I mean you would, wouldn’t you? And no one noticed, and no one was harmed and so the chain goes on. And if you are speaking next, well get in touch, we can sort something out.

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Conceived

I am thinking of chopping it off. My hand that is. It keeps oozing out the past at every opportunity. I have lost control of it now. Completely. And it is only a matter of time before someone guesses. Especially here, in the nursing home, where death stalks every corner. It is my own fault. I should have removed it before I came here.

Once there was a bad man. Bad to me. Bad to others. I was at a party. He passed out on the floor. I remember the very solid thump as his head hit the ground. I did what anyone would do. I stood staring for a moment. Unsure.

Then I put my wine glass carefully on the table. I checked for a pulse. He was still breathing. I tried to bring him around. Perhaps not very hard but I did try. At first. I took out my phone. I looked at it. The thing is –he was a very bad man.

I clamped his nose between my fingers and jammed the palm of my hand into his mouth. I put my legs across his chest, settling my knees beneath his rib cage. Basically I stopped him breathing. I waited, with my head turned to the door. No one came.

I told myself I had helped him to die rather than you know-the ‘m’ word. For all I know he would have died anyway. It was a long time ago.

The official verdict was death by accident. It was a very nasty head bump. Someone else found him.

Except now my hand.

I wake up in the morning and there it is. The very shape, room for a nose, my hand clamped in that position. Immovable. I have to purposefully will it to release itself. There is the gap between my two middle fingers. Holding something that is not there. My outside fingers tight together. They are just held there in suspension. As if. As if they are still clamping a nose. My palm presses forward. It is all there in the muscle memory of my hand. Which is why I need to get rid of it. Do you know how hard it is to get a knife in this place? My hand has gone rogue.

It doesn’t stop in the morning either. I will be sitting having coffee. I say coffee but it is murky brown tasteless stuff. I will be having coffee with a friend and I can feel my hand contract and form the shape. It just happens. I cannot control it. I know they look at me as if I am odd. Every person in this place is odd though, it is the privilege of old age. I think they want to get a doctor to look at it. That can’t happen. That will be a disaster.

I dread finding someone collapsed in the corridors in case I am tempted. I am tempted. I can still feel his body spluttering underneath me. I feel him struggling for breath even unconscious. And I just held my knees tight. His rib cage could not move. He was unconscious. I am sure he was unconscious. He was mostly unconscious. He was a bad man.

I feel the last gasp of air come out of his mouth. I can feel it on my face because I leaned in. Because I wanted to feel it. And my hand, now my hand, keeps going back to that position. Covering his nose.

I worry about the hand. Would it be safer to chop it off? What if someone sees? Guesses? Knows? But I am helpless in this decision and google and youtube have been useless in giving proper instructions for hand severance.

I find myself making that shape with my hand in front of the TV. With my left hand when I am doing the crossword with my right. I pray now for the end to come for me. I have had a long life, but that night is still with me. Still inside of me somewhere and it keeps bursting out in the form of my hand.

I remain unrepentant, he was a very bad man. My hand is sorry but I am not.

Epilogue

I look at my mother’s body. It is the last time I will see her, laid out in the coffin. There it is, even now, that strange shape she used to make with her hand when she was nervous. Where did that come from? I take her hand in mine and try to stretch the shape out. But the fingers won’t move. They are stuck forever in that position. It was a shape I always associated with her. I never saw anybody else do it. I am alone now. There was always just Mum and me.

I know nothing of my father. He died on the night I was conceived.