Until the girl arrived, the last time I had taken a step was eight hundred years ago when I walked as a young man, eighteen years of age, into the Bavarian forest with my parents, to spite the Grimms and their wolfish tales. Don’t take shortcuts. Listen to all authority. The woods are dangerous. Dark is menacing. We were on a mission, in the name of my sister, to prove the forest was not, had never been, evil. A sister who the Grimms said ate the witch’s apple, or was locked in a tower, or got lost in the woods. A sister eaten by a witch. The rumors did not let up, though the doctor diagnosed her with miasma. She disappeared into her sickbed and then her death.
In the yard of my childhood we had a large oak. I had a rope tied to it with a big knot so I could swing from it. One spring, one of its limbs didn’t leaf out. We sawed it off. That’s what people do. Deadwood. Moved the swing. My young sister’s breath tightened. Then another limb became leafless, we sawed it off, and no longer had a swing. My sister didn’t play anymore. Then half the tree had no leaves nor limbs. From my sister’s bedroom window, the branches loomed gray and dead. She needed sun. The trunk was robust and when the logger came, the tree didn’t want to give in. Of course the saw won, it always does. The ground rippled under the mighty fall.
That same evening the logger came and went, my sister gasped her last tortured breath. We mourned my sister, and in our grief, we drew connections to the tree. We began our quest to understand the forest. To understand is to love. To love is to become.
My parents and I hiked deep into the forest, and prepared as we were, we got lost. We hadn’t left a trail of crumbs like Hansel and Gretel, nor could we smell our way to Grandmother’s house like the wolf. We were thick among the trees. Perhaps some villagers called and we didn’t hear. Perhaps. Once our packs of food were rationed—it was supposed to be an overnight trip, no more than twenty-four hours—our energy waned. Days, weeks passed. We stood among the ancient forest trunks and drank sap to survive.
First, my father changed. Slowly, slowly. After many weeks, months, years. We couldn’t see the sun for the thick canopy of beech, pine, spruce, and oak above us. Each dusky day the same: mere gradients of difference between night-dark and day-dark. My father’s skin grew grooved and barky, his hair green and leafy, and his feet rooted beneath the forest floor. We shifted closer to him, to embrace him, my mother and I, but found when we shuffled through the ferns that we had grown tendons from our toes that dug into the rich layer of humus, tendons that tore and stretched with tiny webs of rooty hairs clinging to soil clumps, tendons that would not loosen completely from their new substratum dwelling. I touched my face and felt the grooves, the crusty roughness of my skin. I was also turning tree.
We, my mother, father, and I, grew sunward in the midst of the Bavarian forest: people trees, then fully trees, for eight hundred years as close as I could tell by counting the growth rings forming in my corkeous layer. I could not count them until an old father—not my human father, rather an old father of all the trees, one of the elders—cracked. His privileged canopy reached the sun. It wasn’t the sun that cracked him, it was the thunder, or the wind. Something happened outside our collective whole and shuddered throughout the being of the singular old father. Something we didn’t have a name for, something only communicated as outside trauma.
The great fissure gained its origin at the unseen top, then undulated down the highways and the byways of his mighty trunk, gaining speed like a wheel down a hill. Half of him was propped up by the neighboring ash and half fell on me, snapping off my arm where it joined my trunk. A sharp searing reverberated throughout my whole being. A ragged break. I counted the years of my growth along the jagged edges to distract myself from the incessant throbbing of my lost limb.
Yes, trees have pain. They have thoughts, they have hearts, they have souls—spend time next to a tree, and you’ll hear its soul thrum, the rhythm not unlike the beating human heart.
That old father whose heft tore my shoulder from my body, my limb from my trunk, he had a few words left in his phloem before he petrified. Limbs, trunks, roots—any bit of a tree that gets severed, broken, sawed off—goes on living for several months. Though he could no longer take in new carbon dioxide, the old father summoned his residual gases and exhaled stories.
The air thickened beneath the canopy, thicker because of his portion of carbon dioxide went unabsorbed, thicker because of the off-gassing of his decomposition. I drew in deep pockets of his carbon dioxide and felt myself growing taller, despite the pain of the ragged amputation and despite the pain of the impending deprivation of this old father and his two thousand years of experience. Growth in a time of loss, the nourishing of the younger through decomposition, the network of trees feeding arboreal sugar to the old father’s disengaged stump. Of course, trees who have always been trees don’t think this strange at all.
The old father exhaled stories of sunlight shining through the leaves, exposing only veins to the shadows beneath. Green dappled sun as far as one could see. A river cutting through green canopies, a forest fractured into puzzle pieces. Conifers clustered into holy formations midway up the hills. The moon dripping at night, only the oldest of elders tall enough to partake. How recently a youth (and by youth, he meant a mere 1200 year old adolescent) had joined the ranks, her leader branch jutting between theirs to capture a full gulp of moon cocktail.
She was the beech with the divided trunk that sunk her twin beams beside me, that stretched her lateral branches to leave space for mine. All who were coming up alongside her thought the two trunks would thwart her, create a place for disease and fungi, parasites, crackage. They were wrong. The two trunks sturdied her, provided her a double portion of the nutrients we took in through our roots. Below the earthen floor, each trunk’s roots twined with others, searching the underground horizons for water and nourishment. Her roots, I knew them well, they twined with mine, gripping and pushing my roots deeper, seeking farther than I ever could have without her. I was glad she captured that sip of moon silver, and I knew when its effects trickled through her system, she’d force an atom of moon drop to me via our snaking roots. It might be my only taste. Many, many trees never make it to the canopy, the percentages lower than low, tougher than becoming a wealthy shipping magnate when one grew up in the landlocked slums.
We twined roots for two years before I felt it, the silver liquid now a subterranean mist that seeped a particle into my sap. The tremor rang from my deepest taproot, up the byways inside of me, shuddering outward through my heartwood and simultaneously upward through my crown and then my canopy. My leaves fluttered for a month or more, my sap hummed, which is why I didn’t notice the girl in the red cape until she was hugging me.
I creaked, as trees sometimes do—usually the old ones about to lose hold on the earth, or the stiff ones when the wind passes from the outer trees to the inner. I was neither about to lose my grip, nor especially stiff, being only eight hundred years (give or take a decade); no the creaking was a result of my brush with moon drops, that sacred sharing between the two-trunked tree and me, the generosity of she who grew equal to the canopy of the elders and now partook regularly of the moon.
“Oh, tree,” the girl in the red cape cried. “I’m scared!” Her honest grip, her insistent voice reminded me of the sister I once had, and lost.
I fluttered a leaf against the girl’s shoulder. There, there, I wanted to say. What could make her in such need of consolation? Why did she choose me of all the trees? The wondering pulsed loud within me.
“You sound like a person,” the red-caped girl said. She pushed her ear to my bark. “I hear you gurgling.” She produced a woven basket with a hinged lid, hidden beneath her cape. “You must be hungry,” she said, and she took a hunk of raisin brot out of the basket and reached high onto her tiptoes. She shoved a sticky wad into the rough-edged void where my limb broke off when the old father fell on me. She shoved the raisin brot past the soft bit of clotted sap, past the thin bark and cambium until it nudged up against the sapwood—the mainline inside of me.
My shoulder ached with the intrusion. I hadn’t been hungry since I became fully tree. The community of roots supplied me with a buffet of underground nutrients. It’s not eating or drinking; it’s constant infusion. We trees pass nutrients back and forth, and the elders who gather the sunlight from the canopy share the wealth of light through the public chlorophyll baths. Of course, the elders breathe light best, which is why we all reach for their executive meeting of the leaves.
I wasn’t hungry, yet by impulse my sap pulled in the raisin brot. I felt a flex of digestion—intestines?—and a gaseous something whirred in my core. The red-caped girl heard it. “Are you purring for more, Mr. Tree?” And before I could answer—because of course I couldn’t answer, but it felt as if I had the words now, words that previously hadn’t wanted to come out or form cohesively—she shoved in another piece, then leaned against me and ate her own bit of bread. Again, the gaseous feelings and now a stronger flex in my center, definitely the memory of human intestines. The brot moved strangely upwards along my xylem which had previously only transported the water I squeezed from the soil. The brot swam further and further up, causing a loosening in my treesome torso, the barky ribcage expanding ever so slightly with my digestive contents, and with it the slight crackle of tight tendons that hadn’t bent more than a tree sway in centuries.
The red-caped girl fed me again and again. With each piece of raisin brot—and she had that whole basketful to share—my treewood stretched into muscle and shaped into bone. Heartwood dropped into the spinal cord curve, bark softened into flesh, until the last piece of bread was pushed into my shoulder and the red-caped girl exclaimed, “My! But don’t you look like a man! A tree man.” She stood back a bit, against the trunk of my long quiet mother who had become tree alongside me, who transferred her maternal attentions to the forest.
My mother housed fungi that she dispersed to the communal forest via spores carried on air currents. She gave oh so silently, in equal measure, to each tree, never a preference for me, her original son. So it was with utmost surprise when she passed communication to me through the rustle of her lower branches. Go, she whispered. You go, Son. Take her. See the sun again.
I didn’t want to see the sun as a human, I wanted my tree self to reach the sun and partake with my twin-trunked moon-drinker at the canopy of the elders. I squeezed our twining roots, not discerning which were mine and which were hers, and therefore, the impulse notified me as much as it did her that I would stay.
“Yes,” the girl said, swinging her red cape round, “you have an arm and a hand.” Then she held it, what she supposed was my hand, her small fingers lacing with my twiggy phalanges. “I feel safe with you, Mr. Tree Man.” The knots near my crown gelled, and I saw more vividly the girl—her long dark hair, her woven picnic basket—and my finger twigs involuntarily twined around hers. The brot worked its way slowly to the tip of my meager canopy where I reformed a neck and shoulders. I rolled my neck, it creaked, this veined neck with head and hair, leafy hair. My roots pulsed below the forest floor, and the one who gave me moon mist tightened her grip on me. I squeezed back.
I do not recall human life being collective. Trees, we are collective. Humans are individuals. Though I had more range of motion as human, my treeness imbued calm steadiness. When the red-caped girl left, I’d stay in the forest. I still had roots, I could revert back to tree, drink sap. It was the human food, the brot, the raisins, which made me more human, less tree.
I gulped air, and coughed while my system converted to oxygen inhalation. My calcified lungs grated tissue and muscle. I coughed, and coughed again, until I bent over and spit out a green and brown globule—chloroplasts and sap, no doubt. My breath came easier, and the red-caped girl said, “There, there, I have no more bread.” She rustled the linens in her basket and held up a jar of amber liquid. “I do have bier.” And what makes a man more of a man than bier? I sipped, through my mouth this time, and the pleasures of humanity came back. When I think on it now, it was shallow pleasure, no comparison to the deep fulfillment of my two-trunked moon-mist sharer. But the red-caped girl reminded me of my past, my sister, so I drank and I threw my head of leaves back and I laughed the widespread branching rasp of a tree man.
The echo of my laugh came back in the form of a rumbling bark, and that too seemed true and natural. “He’s back,” she said. “He keeps following me.” The red-caped girl shivered. I had misunderstood, thinking it was fear of the forest, fear of the shadows. I had forgotten the clarity of human youth.
Being lost, that is how I became tree. But the red-caped girl wasn’t lost, wasn’t hungry for sap, not after all that brot, and besides, becoming tree takes years.
The barking came impossibly closer, and then the girl was climbing my torso, clutching my one good arm, scrambling over the scaffolds that formed my limbs. The barking was now beneath me with paws scratching my trunk. This was the he who was following the red-caped girl. This was the bark. With my newfound range of mobility, I agitated my trunkish legs enough to make him lose his grip. His paws slid down. He was gray like a wolf, snouted like a dog, incessant like a beast. I hadn’t seen a wolf nor a dog (nor a witch, nor a house made of sweets) in this forest in all my years as tree. Somehow those damned Grimms found me anyway.
I longed for why we came to the forest in the first place: the solitude, the freedom from yammering stories that feared the congregating trees. I knew, now more than anyone, that the forest is the haven, the forest is the saviour. How can trees be dangerous? Trees are rooted deep in the earth, entwined with every other surrounding tree. I received airborne motes from trees a mile taller than me and as far beyond.
When the old father fell on me, when my limb ripped from my shoulder, the trees around me groaned. Pain, so much pain. Trees share pain, the pain of my severed limb, the enduring loss of the old father. His roots gave off secretions for many years, while his tendons shrunk and withered, limp and flaccid, closer and closer to the texture of the soil, disintegrating in our grip.
I think of the trees up and down the street of my childhood who survived our oak’s reprehensible death, how their sap must’ve run thinner, how their leaves must’ve fallen earlier that sad autumn—the oak and my sister, both gone. The front pine lost a third of its needles and the maple yellowed early, setting off a wave of autumnal colour coursing down the street as each subsequent maple, pear, and aspen got the memo: time to stop producing sugar, time to turn yellow, time to release the leaves you’ve nurtured all spring and summer.
We murdered our front yard oak. And with the oak, my sister. For what? A bit more sun?
The red-caped girl gripped tighter. The dog-wolf barked louder. His front paws scratched higher and higher toward the girl. Like the human I was re-becoming, I wanted to shoo him away. My voice flared tree-whispery, ineffective. When I lifted what once was my left leg to shake him off, tremendous ripping and shredding noises erupted. Pain plumed up as if a cloud of pollen. Roots snaked free from underground, excavating dirt clumps, leaving empty tunnels behind. Entwined roots loosened. All except the moon-mist giver released me, as if they knew I was now human, as if the communal food was no longer viable, which for me it wasn’t. The raisin brot sustained me. The bier. Partake of human food and you are human; partake of sap, sunlight, soil, and you are tree.
I shook my trunked leg. One leg torn from the soil. My trunk split. Part human, part tree, sturdy bark moguls and viny root separated into prongs. The dog-wolf did not shake off. Faster, this transformation back to human. With humanity, everything is faster.
The girl clung to me, buried her face in my shoulder, the one with the arm. I hadn’t moved as a human in hundreds of years, and an arm gives more balance to one recovering his humanity than you might think. I set my foot—if you could call it a foot, it was more of a pronged root—down and lifted the other leg-prong up. This one splintered off at ground level with a mighty tearing noise that rustled the leaves of the other trees and caused the dog-wolf to stop scritching up my leg for a moment and cock his head to the side.
My roots—my command center—remained under ground. The community had not released me, as if after I exhumed my first foot prong, they had convened and said, No. You will not leave. We will no longer loosen, we will no longer encourage.
But, I had already exercised my human individuality. The shock of it made me soften into man more fully, for in those roots were the atoms of my tree memory, how I knew to be tree. The pulse of moon dust evacuated my being.
She moaned, my moon-mist giver. I sent the last bit of pollen I could muster over to her, to let her know I’d be back, I’d reclaim my roots snapped off in her grasp, I’d reclaim my position with her, and in the meantime, to please enjoy her moon cocktail sessions. I’ll be back. I’ll be back.
Don’t leave, her spores said. She sent a tuft of volatile organic compound, a bit acrid though not altogether unpleasant, the tree signal for pain. The odor filled me and became my own; I felt a hitch in my oxygen intake, as if the converter to human stuttered, readied itself to turn back to carbon dioxide, to remain tree for another eight hundred years.
The dog-wolf snarled and bit at my tendons and the red-caped girl dug her heels into my core, raising herself higher into my branches. I knew too much about wolves and the terrible sweet tooth the Grimms had for little children. Ironic we had come into the woods to escape them and here, eight hundred years later, their stories found us. Me.
I looked over at the tree who was my mother and the tree who was my father and perhaps because of their age, or perhaps because of the type of community trees have and are, they didn’t have much parenting left in them, only the bit of whisper from the tree that was previously my mother. Go, Go. They were, in tree years, not much older than me, and strove toward the same canopy as I had. They went from older and wiser humans to my peers, my tree equals. The residual parental feelings, I believe, faded after the first hundred years, and I struggled to remember them as parents at all. I did remember that the elders protect the youngers in the human world. I needed to protect this red-caped girl from the dog-wolf.
I didn’t ask, I confess, if she needed my help. Human of me, the lack of communication. The lack of warning. The lack of understanding. In my defense, I had been tree for centuries. Humans have no scent cues. Humans do not communicate via sugar shared through roots. Humans need explicit communication. Trees synchronize food supply in order that everyone gets a share. Favouritism is rare. The red-caped girl had fed me without my asking, returned me to humanity. In turn, I took her away from the prowling dog-wolf. I stretched my pronged trunk-leg forward, ripped it free from the tiny vines and root fibres remaining, and took my first step in eight hundred years.
“Where are we going, Mr. Tree Man?” the red-caped girl asked.
I surveyed the trees, the trees I knew by their sugar scent, or the taste of gas offed from their leaves. The pine whose oozing sap fed me, gave me life. The ash who propped up the fallen old father. The beeches I recognized from their aura of sweetness, the willows from their tangy pheromones. Likewise, the trees around me recognized my hybridized intentions in regretful acquiescence.
The newly thinned sap choked up my vocal chords. I confess, I had absorbed the folklore that I, being born a man, was also by right, a saviour.
I held the girl with my arm, and I walked slowly—legs are so unsteady, so ungrounded for one who used to be tree. The dog-wolf, confused, trailed behind, stopping to sniff other trees.
There is no way to walk in a forest without disturbing others. It’s why trees don’t walk. But I was no longer fully tree, so I did as humans do—I acted as if it was mine to disturb. I brushed the leafy crowns as I went by. The conifers enjoyed this free pollen spreading and puffed out extra pollen as I passed; the beeches released sugar, sugar, sugar, until it pooled on the topsoil; the few lone oaks spored their nuttiest flavours into the air.
One tree leaving—one insignificant me leaving against the will of the collective—and all this? Of course, I was already thinking as a human. As a tree, I knew. I knew exactly how one tree fit in the midst, how one tree contributed, how we all felt the life and death of every single tree. How despite our best efforts, those eight saplings didn’t leaf out in the spring, and slowly slowly surrendered their growth to the ferns below. The choice had been made for me: the girl stuffed me with raisin bread, the brot of the people, turning me humanesque. The trees parted, swayed to give me a narrow and nearly indiscernible path while at the same time bending low to send the dog-wolf elsewhere. They whispered their leaves to whoosh over and gently close behind me, caressing my crown with goodbyes.
After many winding miles, I exited the forest for the same reason I had come in the first place. The Grimms forced my hand. I silently proved them wrong for eight hundred years and they proved me wrong for the next who knows how long? The dog-wolf came to the forest, made the forest evil by association. The only way to prove the forest is not complicit in these crimes was to leave, to take the girl to safety, to place her in the arms of humans.
After I did so, I turned back to the forest. My path was blocked, ringed by the search party, guns shining for a wolf. The trees closed in on them, swished their leaves forward, released the danger, danger, danger spores. I waited for the alarm to pass. I waited and waited and waited.
I became less and less tree.
My work became human. For it was not the trees who needed to change.
Now, I am the old one-armed man in the small cottage at the end of the lane. I am gnarled and knotted, a little too tall for the general public. My human bones have settled my spine, my height, to a more manageable human height. Eating blutworst and sauerkraut gave me bent legs that fit into pants. The city sustained me.
That bit of heartwood remains petrified deep inside. It makes me live long and longer. I needed to find a safe place for the red-caped girl, and I did, though it was a place that taught her the problem with her dog-wolf encounter was the forest, that she should never again go into the forest, for if she hadn’t gone into the deepest darkest place, the dog-wolf would never have chased her. That twisted and ever-present morality of the Grimm gospel.
I remain, here, in the city of humans. I teach, I must, because otherwise they will chop down the scary wood for devouring children.
I teach that the dog-wolf exists separately from the forest. I bring my students to the perimeter. Drawing deep breaths of tree exhaust is life enhancing, I tell them. We touch bark and taste sap and nibble a bit of cambium if the tree seems amenable, for if a little tree gets in their soul, just that bit of treeness, who knows. It will be difficult to blame and chop down what becomes part of you.
At night when I am alone, I hold my human face up to the moon and I allow the silver to drip onto my skin. I rub the moon drops into my epidermis. I whisper Save my spot Moon-mist giver, save my spot.
Emptiness doesn’t last long in the forest. Saplings see only three percent of the light the canopy sees. My empty space in the forest has given a few of the youngest ones an advantage, a quarter percentage increase in reaching more sunlight, the increased possibility of becoming tall enough to commune with the elders in several hundred years.
Those silver moon nights, I tell myself humans will learn. There will be one. There has to be one among my students. One for whom the world of people and Grimms don’t fit. That one will take my place, and if not my place, a place. I will show them where I was and where I mean to return. I will stand beside the moon-mist giver and place my feet under the ferns and once again, I will drink the sap.