Forest From the Trees

 

“Sixteen years of persistence.” His old eyes scanned the horizon: treeline, lab coats, and punchy fingers poking at handheld devices.

“The first tree, over there, it’s a maple. Only one in the park.” He smiles, “We had the very same one in our yard. As a boy, it seemed larger than life. And just like life for little boys, we climbed it, got scraped up by it, tamed it, stuck it with nails and plywood, and claimed it our own.”

“Did you have such a tree, growing up?” His eyes never leave the trees. Periodically, he taps his leg with one finger, as if recalling something in those memories he’d rather keep buried.

“Sixteen years. Hard to believe all that time has passed. But we’ve done well enough. A lake, trails, wildflowers, 1,776 trees—a coincidence. By the time we’ve opened, we’ll have doubled that number.”

He surveys his trees, his lake, and his trails.

“Look! Over there!” He points to a frozen deer. “We’ve done well enough.” One of the labcoats rushes towards it, arms outstretched, and the deer turns and gallops through a tree. He laughs and applauds the spectacle.

“I suppose that’s one issue we’ve yet to figure out. Certainly a fence should fix it. See that though? We’ve even fooled the animals.”

He picks up a stick and draws a line in the dirt.

“The ground, that’s real. We’ve shipped earth from all corners of the United States. Even buried some arrowheads here and there for added authenticity—er, they’re real, too. Well, crafted in a factory, but real stone.”

“Thinking of taking a stroll? It calls to you, doesn’t it? It does, me. Have you ever walked a trail in the rain? Snow? Would you like to? Just a turn of the dial. Temperature, too. On these trails, cold and snow aren’t correlative. You won’t even get wet when it rains, if you’d like it to. Wonderful, really.”

“I know what you’re thinking. The point is moot. These trees don’t give off oxygen, they can’t make more—we do. But the experience, the experience is total—a digital arboretum. Don’t you see? The real trails, they’ll be smoothed over. They’ll get paved. They’ll fell the real trees, replace them with cement walls, and those inside will wish they weren’t. This place? It can’t be paved. It can’t be built upon. If you so wish to leave, you need simply choose one direction and run through it all. If the land is sold, we simply move it all to the left some, or to the right. You understand my point.”

“People long for escape, yes? Whether it be in the wilderness, or the internet. We need a place to go, to be understood, to be silent, heard, to hear. Our experience is a strange one, wouldn’t you say? We may not offer seeds, or fresh air, but we can give our visitors the illusion they long for. It’s only as deceptive as any other escape.”

“And in 100 years, it’s possible these are the only trees to immerse oneself in anymore. It could very well be that, by then, we’ve all moved to Mars. I only wish I could see that far into the future, to prove myself wrong. But our trees will welcome whatever unfortunate souls come here looking for life.”

“It sounds almost sinister. I sound defensive, my apologies.” He taps at his pants. “I’ve dealt with many investors, businesspeople. I’ve had to state my case to people who look to bottom lines, profits. It leaves a bad taste. Imagine, this experience for free? One day I hope to allow true freedom, but the investors insist an entrance fee.”

“Once opened, it’ll be twice the size it is now; over 4,000 trees. I’m personally designing over 10 trails. Our engineers are working wonders, and we’re only limited by our imagination. I’d love to have the bees up-and-running by then, but they’ll likely come as an update.”

“Four nations have already shown interest in what we’re doing here. In 100 years, we could have parks all over the world—when we’re all on Mars. Incredible. The businesses can keep taking what they will, and we’ll still have preserved our natural world in some form.” His smile slipped, his eyes slid to this shiny square-tipped black shoes, and he lost himself for a moment to a head full of digital trees.

“It’s not perfect. I mean, it’s not the perfect solution. But it’s the best I’ve got. I truly love the outdoors, you should know. I loathe what’s coming. Do you read poetry?

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats. I think of these lines often.”

“Tell me, what do you think when you look upon all this? Does it unsettle you? Are you moved instead by what may become? That this may very well be what remains of our natural splendor? Pre-emptive, and hopefully for nothing.”

The sun begins to set over the trees, some tips glitch and appear to the left of their trees. Labcoats gather in these areas and take notes, punch figures into their devices, and carry on into the night.

In silence, the two men sit and watch the last crystals reflect off a lake. Recorded crickets begin their symphony, and the labcoats walk the trail, single-file, with their eyes scanning for inconsistencies.

Out of the darkness, light shoots into the sky and bursts to color.

“This was not my idea, I should tell you. The investors thought it’d offer a little something more to guests. I find it tacky and outside the scope of our work here.”

Halfway through the display, the fireworks freeze in the sky. A loud boom stretches into the night, stuck in explosion, and pierces the ears. After a moment, they disappear from the sky.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.”

“Same poem.” He smiles.

“Part of me hopes this exists only here, as an oasis; maybe as a cautionary tale. Though I fear I may be asked to build many, many more.”

He draws circles in the dirt with a stick.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

“I must leave you now. I suppose I should get some work done today. Six months until we open. There’s much to be done. Investors to please. That sort of thing. Would you like some free passes? Leave your email address and they’ll send them to you.”

He kicks up dust as he walks, his shoes now in need of a shine. Just as darkness overtakes him, he turns around once more with a smile that pierces the night, “Six months! Remember! And twice as big! It’s not at all as complicated as I’ve made it, you’ll see. A true marvel. A real experience. You won’t believe your eyes!”

“After all, what’s left to do but enjoy what should rise in the wake?”

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Last Night

I’m safe here. Mist seeps through a missing pane, one of his ex-girlfriend’s took it out with a right straight. Hard to imagine, I’m a lefty. I don’t want to face the night. I don’t want to walk to my car. From here, I can see it all. The letters, the addresses, the cracks in the street, the empty sidewalk of an unsuspecting town. I don’t need to be out there, they don’t need me, either. My mouth slumps.

I tell people I grew a beard out of laziness. “Didn’t feel like paying $6 for a razor.” Not quite right. I let it scrawl my face to hide the sadness of my lips. Full, pink, they receive remarks. They’re rarely perked. Twangy hairs dangle over their cracks, slip into my mouth, and with my teeth I pull. A condemned house. Overgrown. Useless.

“You have sad eyes all of a sudden, don’t be sad!” She said. There’s no hiding. What I had thought in that moment was beautiful and painful. It bares no recall – a truth whose power lives and dies in me. I stroke the hair on my chin, my eyes begin to droop.

His door locks like some found antique machine forced to life–of course it still works. I wait with the draft, with the mist.

We exit his building; his car is in front, mine a block away. We shake hands, bump shoulders, and I take flight against little wet pincers. He says something. I turn back, laugh and smile. He disappears inside his car and it’s far too late for pedestrians. I can remove my thumb from my mouth now. It’s mostly healed.

Two weeks ago I stopped a grocery store panic attack by chomping on my thumb until it bled. I wrapped it like sliced deli meat, and watched with pursed lips as my stain stuck the napkin to my finger. Too many people, too many. Shopping, doing. Being. No, not me. I can’t. I won’t. Bread, coffee, oatmeal, bananas, yogurt. I ran my fingers, one bandaged, over the paper. Focused on its crinkles. It soothed me enough to weave up and down aisles. To become.

On the corner, I wait for a sports car to droll past before crossing. There’s flecks of black in the blue line, only took 6 months. A block and a half away, a block away, half a block away, a bus charges towards its garage. The mist kneads the headlights like dough, blurs and bends them to form an electric halo. Just as I find the curb, I imagine without effort tossing myself head-first into its grates. There’s a mess, my body parts scatter. It erupts the boulevard with lights and sound. In the next moment, I’m surrounded by sterility and stiff lips. Would my hands land palms-up? Is there anybody on the bus? In the next moment, I’m gone.

Beyond the lights and self-righteous silence of the boulevard, I slink down a side-street.

Be happy, dammit.

I move with the wind, a little game I’ve played by myself since childhood. How quiet can I be? I’ve snuck up on friends without trying. Overheard terrible conversations meant for none. I’d like to quietly slip into the fluffy shadows of these hedges, but don’t have permission. I live vicariously through my own shadow. It disappears and pokes out. Grows long and short; knows the rules. I live like a shadow. But I am not literal.

Be happy, dammit.

Between two rows of crane-dropped homes, whose owners pay no mind to the magic and privilege of flipped switches, a stream of light intrudes the road and wanders with mist. Is that my car? I forget my little game and jog towards the source: a dark, almost vanished metal brick in the filtered night. It is my car. I unlock it, turn the light knob while cursing myself out, and plug the key into the ignition with bated breath. It turns on; the fan-belt squeals for a moment. It stays on. I smile for a moment, and roll towards the sign to STOP.

Purge and Binge

On  the floor, her note lays in dozens of ripped pieces. I can’t even glance at them. Each shattered word reanimates the sentence it belonged to; every reason she left echoed in her apoplectic voice. Without her things, the room barely changes. It lived as my representation; my confections, my ropes lassoed to the past. Hers wedged themselves between, found homes on the edges of ledges and the bookcase, and without them mine appear cozy.

I run through our memories together, pissing the good times away with the stroke of a thought. I’m a time-bender, and in each place I find her grazing, a bottle of alcohol smudges presence and she becomes blur. Her voice. Her voice. It lifts above the liquid. It does not drown. It stirs inside me, and the words I tore again come out to play. My hands curl to fists.

I want her things back. The bottle-opener from Peru, a wooden Incan tribesman, stares at me. Its mouth is drawn wider with a little more room to spare. Her little vial, some mysterious creamy liquid, is a hole in the dust. I storm over and rub against the ledge, rub away the dust and rip the tribesman from its peace. I don’t hear a voice in it, hers or anybody’s. Like her vial, it was a gift. It conjures the memory of one-time use and reshapes as wood. I don’t speak to him anymore. Its weight settles in the trash.

There are other spots, more vanished items. At each place I stop and stare, try to recall the piece that once mingled with other litter, and hoist the nearest object into the trash. Where is she right now? My things can vanish, too.

There’s no reward. No escape. Every book, candle, gift, and little joy is attached to invisible rope, bound around my neck. From the moment they found me, I them, I know what they’ve done; how they performed. Where they fell once. How they were replaced. The trashcan does nothing. It sits closed, with ropes oozing out and to me. I’ll know where they wind up. Not her. Throwing them away does nothing.

I catch myself before the floor turns mosaic, staring at bits of paper that follow me around the room. They’re bound to me, too. So stupid. Why did I rip it up? In the trash, too, they’ll follow me. I’ll think of them. It will break my heart. She’s gone. I want to scream, but for what? For who? She’s gone. I let the floor turn, and teardrops trickle off the ridge of my nose. But only for a moment. I stop without want. I cannot cry. My eyes well, but the tears remain with me. She’s gone.

On hands and knees I begin to ball up each piece of note. I like the feeling they have between my forefinger and thumb. I like the smoothness of their roll. Each tiny ball, I place lovingly on the bed. I feel happy for the first time since I walked into the room. Since I first noticed her vial missing, and thought nothing at all of it. Since I saw this damned note and let it, and all things, lasso me to this room.

26 tiny balls. I smell my inky fingers and count again. Still 26. I pluck one from the group and toss it into my mouth, swallow. 25. She can’t take this. 24. This one is mine. 23. And so on. After the last piece is stuck with me, I take the trash bag and pull the door closed behind me. I’ll never speak to anybody about this. She never left a note. I never had a bottle-opener. You haven’t seen her? Lent the book to a friend, oh, you don’t know them. A coworker. Think I’ll move somewhere warm. We just weren’t right for each other. Here’s a candle. You can have the ropes.