Soft leaves draped over clusters of long, brown seedpods. Thick spikes sprouted right from the trunk, some as long as my arm. I slipped my hand between these thorns and touched the bark.
“What is this,” my friend Bird breathed, pulling loose a seedpod. She cracked it open; inside was a thick yellow paste, sweet-smelling.
We knew all the mountain trees in the woods between her trailer and my house — pines, oaks, hickory, maple, sourwoods. This tree was fiercer in its ancient stillness. I found a patch of bark without thorns and lay my face against it, pressing my ear hard enough for pain. Warmth surged through the wood and set my body tingling. I could almost make out a voice, speaking to me, saying my name.
“Hello,” I whispered.
Bird tugged my arm, “you’ll get spiked.”
I wanted to tell her what I was listening for, what the tree was saying, but I couldn’t grasp the words, and the images grew strange and large and left my head. I pulled away and rubbed my hands on my jeans, laughing a little to break the tension.
Last night I dreamed I stood before the tree and it was glowing with inner light. I longed for it, hips tingling, an ache between my legs. I pulled loose one of the seedpods and split it open, brought it to my face and ran my tongue down the crease. The soft insides were sweet and slick, so delicious I shivered.
When I woke in the grey dawn my whole body was pulsing. I pulled a sweater over my nightgown, then crept downstairs so as not to wake dad, grabbed my boots, and headed for the woods.
The path led me straight to the tree. I rested my palms gently against thorns, pushing experimentally, but it wasn’t pain I longed for. I needed to be closer. So I tore off thorns until I cleared a space to press my body against the trunk. Better, but not close enough. I took my clothes off, shivering in the morning air, and pressed my bare skin against the trunk. Still, not enough.
I flushed with a heat like anger, dug my fingers under the bark, and pulled. It was looser than I expected; great sheets fell to the ground. Musk rose like smoke. I went on tearing, splinters under my nails, a rush of need crawling up my throat and burning my eyes. There were deep grooves in the exposed wood, like something had been carved under the bark. I pushed my fingers into those grooves, sticky with sap, and felt warmth, pulsing, longing—something was here, if I could get it loose. I scrabbled harder until something released —the sudden lightness knocked me off balance and I fell to the ground.
I breathed heavily, staring at the tree. Sticks jabbed into my bare legs; I was naked and should feel ashamed. Rustlings rose in the brush around me. Warblers chittered overhead. Too bright for spookiness. There was a shape in the wood. The smooth outline of a body, one arm dangling loose, fingers splayed.
I dusted off, then went back to the tree and slipped my hand through the fingers. They tightened. My chest jolted. I moved my nails along the grooves again, tugging, anxious now. A crack— I pulled — something gave way — I pulled, fell, the body on top of me. I gasped for air, pushed it off, then stood up slowly.
The tree person shifted in the leaf-filtered light.
Skin polished to a warm shine.
Lids and lips parted.
Eyes like the liquid surface of a river.
“Hello,” I said, like I’d said to the tree before, when it was only a tree.
Lips closed. Opened. “Hello” —a croak from deep inside.
I took the wooden fingers, now pliable as flesh. The tree person tugged against me and pulled up to standing. We were the same height, eye to eye, nose to nose. They wrapped their arms around me. It was natural, a relief. We turned toward each other, eyes meeting. They put their mouth on mine. My hot breath and their warm wood breeze, the body pliant: my blood ran even quicker.
We came apart. “Please take me home,” they said, voice small and exhausted.
“Where is home?” I asked, still spinning.
They touched my shoulder. “I need to rest.”
I searched my mind for understanding but came up dry. “What should I call you?”
They seemed more naked than before; the outlines shaded in now, their body complex and alive. They squinted up at the patches of blue visible through the pines. “It’s warm,” they said, and it was, a soft, thick kind of warmth. “What month is it?”
“The time isn’t right. I shouldn’t be out yet. But here I am. So you can call me June.”
I searched their face, but couldn’t read their wooden eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said, “Maybe it’s my fault. I tore the bark off and pulled you out. Maybe I shouldn’t have.”
June frowned and traced their fingers over the space in the tree where their body had been. “You couldn’t have done this if I wasn’t already separating. But I can’t remember. I can’t hear properly. I need some time to think.”
Out of the woods, under the garland of bees, up the hill and in the back door. It was late afternoon, so I knew my dad would be sitting on the front porch like always, watching the sky change.
In my bedroom, June gazed out the window past the hives spilling bees into the summer sky. I gazed at June’s back. All their limbs were smooth and well muscled and seemed to be lit from within.
“I would like to rest a while,” they said.
It was still so early in the morning. I thought of Bird, on the other side of the woods, sound asleep in her trailer. What would she think if she saw me now? Maybe, eventually, I would find a way to tell her.
I pulled back the quilt on my bed and patted the mattress. “You can rest here.”
June crawled in, turned on their side, and curled up like a child. Afternoon sun fell over them, golden. I crept closer, socks hushing over the smooth, wood floor.
“Come here,” June said.
I climbed in behind them. They didn’t move. I fitted my body along theirs, tucking my knees into theirs, wrapping my arms around their stomach. They softened and settled. I softened, too. Our breaths came together: rise and fall, rise and fall. It wasn’t long before I also sank into a wide and weighty sleep. It was the first time I’d slept so well in months.
Leanna Moxley spends most of her time wandering in and out of fictional
dimensions, often guiding others through these portals in her work as a
Powell’s bookseller, and sometimes as a college writing teacher.