“I’m afraid I might be turning into a tree.” The assistant chiropractor looks away from the computer he’s typing his notes into. He half-smiles.
“I’m nearly done, then we’ll start making you feel like a human again, Kit.”
He resumes his typing and I wonder how he’ll react once he feels how wooden my back has become. I bite my tongue as punishment for saying my fears out loud. I still don’t know if being near the tree has anything to do with my back. I knew I shouldn’t have weeded so long last night. The weeds at its roots have been so stubborn, springing back up by the evening when I pull them in the morning. The tree’s leaves have grown brown and dry like they do in November though it’s early June. No matter how much I water it or what kind of mulch or fertilizer I put down, nothing has brought it back to health. Trying to take care of it like Mom made me promise to has left hardly any time for packing. The family I’m selling the house and our land to comes to sign the paperwork next week; I need to get my back fixed and work quickly.
“What kind of tree do you feel like?” He asks as he saves his work and slathers sanitizer over his long fingers. “I know poplar is a softer kind of wood or are you more like hickory?”
“It’s a maple tree,” I reply before I can think of a better answer. He steps around me, gently prodding my back. “My mom planted it right before I was born. She always said it grew because I did.”
“That’s an interesting thing to say.”
“That was her way. She always looked at things differently. One of my friends told me she was a witch. It never mattered to me whether she was one or not.” I pause, the words getting caught in my throat. “She died last month.”
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, pressing hard on my lower back, where my flesh has become wood. I wait for him to ask me to lift my shirt so he can see. He doesn’t say anything.
“You’re definitely more like hickory. My brother found a hickory stick in the woods once. It was so hard that he broke his wrist while pretending it was a sword. Now stand up straight and keep your legs hip length apart. I’m going to show you a few stretches.”
My back does feel better after my appointment but it’s no less wooden. I pick up a few things from the store then head out of town, the roads growing narrower and more winding the closer I get to home. Mom said she chose this house because it was close enough to town to be safe but far away enough to be dangerous in the winter. Though why she wanted things to be dangerous in the winter is beyond me.
“Adventure comes in strange, new places sometimes, Kit,” I remember her telling me. “You’ve got to seize it when you find it.”
Seeing both the dying tree she planted and the sold sign in the yard tear at strings on the opposite sides of my heart so it feels like it’s ripping down the middle. I put the groceries away and try to pack up the kitchen but the silence is too much. There’s so much I need to get done that my head aches just thinking about it. Clearing my head will help before I try tackling any of it. I walk outside and head to the tree. An old memory surfaces as I run my hand down its bark, which has gone flaky white-green with some kind of blight.
When I was little, I thought if the leaves remained green it meant I didn’t have to go back to school. I tried to keep them that way by staring at the trees that ring the property, willing them to stay green. Mom had chuckled when she caught me, suggesting for me to put blood on just one leaf on one of the trees. I tried it with this maple tree, pricking a finger and wiping the blood away with a leaf on a branch I could reach. The whole tree stayed green until early December.
I now think about my old friend’s assertion that Mom was a witch. Mom left me to draw my own conclusions about the world, how it happened, and my own place in it. She would make suggestions from time to time, though, if I was experiencing a problem or if I had a question that was bothering me. The only thing she had to a consistent creed was that nature is something we exist alongside; it’s something that goes through life with us, the highs and the lows, and everything in between. That belief of hers and how many times she told me about it is probably one of the reasons why I’m afraid to leave, aside from having to start a completely new job in a totally new place. This is the place that I’ve known all my life; it knows me, too. Leaving will be difficult but, without Mom, staying is impossible.
I keep one hand on the tree’s trunk and place my other hand against the wood of my back. My spine is harder now. I can’t sell the house with the tree so sick. What if the new owners cut it down? I fight back tears. These thoughts aren’t helping me. I jump to grab one of its branches, thinking I can climb up like I used to. A sharp twig slices into my palm and I scream, thudding down. Blood dribbles down my wrist.
I fish my handkerchief out of my pocket and drop it. I carefully lean my bleeding hand against the tree as I bend to pick it up. The feeling of relief that goes through my body is like inhaling after holding a breath for too long. The tree soaks up my seeping blood. The blight recedes, the bark returning to a healthy brown. The woodenness recedes from my back. Green returns to the low-lying leaves.
I snatch my hand back. The tree reverts to being sick.
“It grows because you do,” my mother’s rough, high voice rings out in my mind as clearly as if she is beside me.
“I have to leave,” I tell the tree. I haven’t talked to it in so long. “But I’ll try to make you strong enough to survive.” I jump up again to cut my uninjured hand on that sharp twig. I grimace as more skin is cut and more blood flows.
I put both hands against the trunk and sigh in ecstasy. The tree’s needs and relief become mine. Its thirst is immense and old, but well-moderated. The tree is joyous at being given so freely what it has craved for so long. My body loosens and turns supple. Without thinking, I spread my arms, embracing the tree like the old friend it is.
My heartbeat slows and changes. The sun comes out from behind a cloud and everything in me strains and spreads to reach more of its glorious light. The breeze ruffles my hair and I feel the leaves sway like so many strands of hair. The wood of my back no longer hurts; I can see that’s spreading up and around me, so different from skin. My vision blurs and gets darker. New details emerge of the sky and under the ground. My lungs can’t help but hitch in panic before finding their new rhythm. There is no pulling away now.
My last thoughts come slowly, my inner voice deepening and quieting. This is my new adventure and I’ve seized it, Mom. Why was I so afraid?
Elizabeth Hoyle lives in southern West Virginia. Her fiction has been featured in Seaborne Magazine, Sledgehammer Lit, Second Chance Lit, and other publications. Her poetry has been featured in Versification and Neuro Logical, among other places. Find her on Twitter (@ERHoyle) or at https://elizabethhoyle.com.