blood-tree1

The Blood Tree

In this lush and feverish fantasy, the Earth's defense against climate change and ecocide is an act of seduction — and transformation.

Opening the bedroom window overlooking the garden, Raymond finds floodlight dahlias sweating in the monkey grass, shaggy petals hit by heavy rain. Their battered heads fall, childlike in the mist, leaning down to the ground as if in sleep or shame. 

Bats have been flying round the flowers, he thinks, returning to bed and to his sleeping wife, Silvia. Gently, he pulls the sheet over her shoulders and settles into her warmth. 

He wakes to find the bedroom faintly lit by moonlight, and Silvia gone. She’s nowhere in the house.

Near midnight in pouring rain he drives with the brights on through the windy neighborhood. Silvia walks barefoot in her dripping nightgown in the middle of the street. Headlights fall on her, and she shields her face. He jumps out of the driver’s seat and pulls her into the sedan. 

Silvia has been sleepwalking ever since her sister Ashley died.

When she wasn’t researching, Ashley lectured on the way trees keep people alive by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide. A biologist studying deforestation, erosion, and greenhouse gasses, Ashley left the United States on a green grant to collect soil, water, and air samples in Central and South America, western and Central Africa, western India, Southeast Asia, and the island of New Guinea. Ashley had disappeared in Australia, and was presumed dead. 

* * *

Silvia stopped sleeping. After laying awake one night, she ventured into the dark backyard at sunrise and encountered a sculpted body of branches in bloom, spun with honeysuckle, behind the shed: a masculine head carved of curious mist crowned by yellow dahlias, hands of lilies with metallic green hummingbirds flitting over fingertips of fungi. 

Like a man, it was walking behind the neighbor’s shed in the shadow of white figs. 

The figure caught Silvia, held her down, and kissed her sharply with a thorny tongue that placed a seed inside her mouth. It held her mouth shut until she swallowed the seed. Or, so Silvia said, pointing to the backyard outside the kitchen window. 

“That’s where he disappeared, into dahlias, to become a pile of yard cuttings.”

“He?” Raymond said. “This was a dream. You finally fell asleep. You were sleepwalking because of those sleeping pills. They’re dangerous, honey.”

“It was a man,” said Silvia. “I cut him with the clippers, and watched his branches bleed.” 

“Stop taking those damn pills.”

According to Silvia, the man’s body was a tree and his hair was vine. He called to her at night, pulling her out of her dreams, leading her deeper into leaves. His eyes were locusts, his face webbed. 

He kissed her, filling her mouth with flowers before whispering, Ashley?

* * *

In Sylvia’s bruises, splashed over her pale flesh like sooty water, Raymond spies two girls. Sisters. The bruises color as she heals, black to blue to violet to burgundy to grayish pink to light green and brownish yellow, finally fading in long thin scratches, like claw marks scoring her arms and legs. 

Wine-colored twigs sprout from Silvia’s arms as he plucks weeds from her back. 

Silvia kisses Raymond deeply, and his mouth fills with petals.

* * *

“This is where,” Silvia says, pointing to an abrasion on her left shoulder where lichen grows. “It aches.”

Bruises peel away from Silvia’s skin and fall as leaves fluttering down to the hardwood.

 “Killing trees poisons the air,” she whispers, breathing honeysuckle into Raymond’s mouth. 

On the television screen, Ashely clings to the glass podium like a lover: Clearcutting is mass murder, but from the moment of the murderous act, it takes decades for the deaths to happen. Everyone in our time is passively participating. Through global warming, we’re all serial killers.

Raymond wonders if it could be true, if deforestation murders people he’ll never meet. If the victims live in a future he’ll never see and die in the future because of trees cut down today.

* * *

Silvia coughs white petals while disguising herself in dirt and shadow. Somnambulism, that lovely, soft word, captures nothing of its danger. Noctambulism is better. The doctors say Silvia is merely sleepwalking. Raymond wants to watch her day and night, but he has to work during the day and sleep at night. 

That’s why he ties her to the bedposts with a long rope binding her wrists and ankles. 

“Gentle,” Silvia says, “but not too gentle.” 

* * *

Finding her gone, her side of the bed empty and warm near untied ropes, he rushes out barefoot in the torrential rain and runs through dark streets before realizing he needs to circle back for the sedan. 

Out of breath after starting the sedan, he notices the flower garden in his headlights. Light pools over Silvia’s naked body. 

Crushing dahlias, she’s sleeping drenched, surrounded by dragonflies and mint. By dawn’s first light Raymond digs her legs out of the garden. He plucks her arms like pulling a large plant from the dirt. Toes plunging deeply into wet sod like roots, her fingers clutch earth, as if burying herself. As if the Earth doesn’t want to give her up.

Prying her from the dirt, he carries her through the yard. 

Blood-blotched dahlias straighten in mist as he stumbles under her weight. Swatting circling insects, Raymond cradles her nakedness. A faint whiff of skunk drifts toward aggressive mint blossoming in Silvia’s hair, attracting hordes of bees, butterflies. Sylvia opens her mouth; black swallowtails sail through, wings splashed in midnight blue. 

Pollinators light on her nipples, which smell of giant flowers. Wasps swarm.

In the house, Raymond closes all the windows and locks her in the bedroom to protect her from insects. With a tiny flashlight, he examines the bruises blooming in black dahlias on her pale arms and discovers weeds growing from her armpits. Her bruises now have new shapes, patterns of blood evolving into a face imprinted on a tree. 

* * *

The next night Raymond finds Silvia walking down the dark cul-de-sac near greenspace. She clings to saplings in the nude. The night after he finds her on an overpass in her gown, walking so close to the edge of the tree line. He wants to call to her, to scream her name. He remembers not to yell or wake her. If startled, she might fall into traffic.

Moths flex their wings around her eyes.

She darts under the railroad bridge where fire pits glow. Among the oaks, she crawls into tree-hidden caravans. Enormous webs sparkle in distant streetlight. Beneath silver maples, a man’s shadow becomes the shadow of branches in the darkness.

* * *

Because Silvia hasn’t slept for days, she must sleep now that she has taken her pills. Her dark hair springs from the pillow like an unruly bush. Raymond covers her nakedness with a soft pink blanket. She’s sticky and smells of sap. A tiny twig sprouts from the hairs of her left nostril. He attempts to remove the twig deep inside her nose. Seeds drop from her hands. Pollen clings to her fingernails etched in leafy veins.

* * *

Caught in motion-sensor lights outside the bedroom window, the porch swing sways near the sedan as if someone has been sitting there. It’s like a game — someone is there, someone Raymond can’t see, waiting beyond his field of vision. 

Inside the bedroom where Silvia is sleeping, a willowy shadow in the mirror travels among silhouettes of chairs, lamps, and tables. Blood trails from the kitchen to Silvia on the bed near rust-colored stains.

In the bathroom, Raymond showers, wraps a thick towel around his waist, and then stumbles into the kitchen. He takes stock of the recent remodeling as he brews a pot of strong coffee. Stainless steel appliances, ceramic tile flooring, granite countertops, everything Silvia wanted has been splotched with blood. Reaching for bleach and paper towels, Raymond stares at the coffeemaker, which hisses. 

As he watches coffee drip, he thinks of the way Silvia used to nestle beside him. 

Pale light rises behind the pines, clouds whitening sky. Raymond sits on his back porch as sunlight gleams over the aluminum carport. He imagines Silvia’s dark curls rooting across the embroidered pillowcase, pink threads silken. The yard flutters with birds, opossums watching from oaks below a nest of squirrels circling, chasing each other across the bark. Behind the pines, power lines cut through greenspace behind the cyclone fence. 

* * *

The next evening at the neighborhood watch meeting a cop lectures on safety. The cop tells everyone to keep their eyes peeled, to look out for anyone who isn’t where they are supposed to be. 

Raymond thinks of Silvia peeling the lids away from her eyes. He feels unnerved and leaves the meeting early to examine a place in his backyard where two fig trees grow close together, easy for a man to hide behind in the dark. 

Approaching his house from the back, Raymond creeps like a trespasser to gaze at Silvia through the bedroom window. Inside, Silvia brushes songbirds out of her long black hair. Dragonflies mate in tandem above Silvia’s unruly curls. She tears from her scalp tangles and hunks of hair, snagged on long vines. 

* * *

“Figs,” Raymond whispers the next day when trying to think of an excuse to inspect his backyard and the neighbor’s yard by morning light. Only last week, his nearest neighbor, an elderly retired teacher, showed him her gun collection as she rocked on her porch swing with seventeen-year locusts buzzing near her roses.

Gazing out at the fig trees, Raymond wonders about the animals living in the branches at the end of summer. He’s trying not to think about what Silvia confessed about the man who waits for her where the fig trees grow. 

The trees are alive with animals shacking up in the heavy branches, ravaging delicate fruit hidden behind dark leaves. Birds shake the trees. Leaping and diving, they make the leaves shiver and dance. Raymond imagines what hides in the shadows of the branches fed by fruit ripening in the sun. 

Mint flowers in the garden, aggressive weeds taking over; bees swarm the swallowtails, black and yellow. The floodlight dahlias mix into roses near blackberries and grapes.

Crows light on the roofs of the storage buildings and dive into the leaves of the fig trees. This is how Raymond knows the figs are ready for Silvia. She craves figs a certain way — mature, ripe. 

A white radiator sits abandoned near the fig trees. Raymond approaches the radiator. He wonders what it’s doing there, ruined by rain and covered in a spatter of rust like dried blood.

He reaches for the figs. He fills his hands with figs. He will feed them to her.

The figs are so fragile they split and drip all over the carpet when pinched by her gritty lips. 

Raymond loves the fragility, watching Silvia’s brittle nose grow sticky with her smile. As delicate as she appears, he understands that she will never again be like other women. 

Her future ends in a grove, not a grave. Her heart is heartwood. The boughs of her arms house butterflies. Roots from her hips, a lengthy taupe skirt trailing her ankles, pull water to her trunk.  

Silvia feeds wildlife the fruits of her body. Her flowers, pollinated by wind, are covered by tufts of stiff hair. Globe-shaped blossoms, her sensitive breasts swell as nutlets mature inside her. 

If Silvia is becoming the thing her sister died to save, Raymond wonders how long she can remain in bloom. 

She is cherry tree and hawthorn, a nesting site for birds, a woman of dark red fruits ripening on the zigzagging stems of her ribs. She branches with blossoms, her floral scent filling their house, swelling with bees, birds, fireflies, and butterflies. 

Her arms grow through the windows, and Raymond counts the dragonflies as friends. He kisses her often, and with every kiss he becomes further entangled in the sunlit canopy of her hair. 

Between her legs, olives grow, ripening from green to black to brown.

“The blood tree is real,” says Silvia as she feeds Raymond. “Ashley sent its seeds to me, and I swallowed them.”

Raymond often stays up at night, listening to Ashley’s podcasts. Even after her death, Ashley is still teaching people how plants keep people alive. 

Deforestation is mass suicide. Violence against nature is violence against people.

Raymond wonders if Ashley went somewhere she wasn’t supposed to go, following paths through dense forests until they ended. Before Ashley disappeared, she theorized the forest’s struggle for survival would become the world’s struggle.

In a podcast shortly before her disappearance, Ashley relates a dream, inspired by folktales, in which she discovered a tree that bled human blood in the Congo, where she was courted in the forest by a man whose body was a tree and whose hair was vine. 

Searchers in the Congo found leopards, and buzzards scattering remains camouflaged in wild flowers blooming near a stream. The decayed body, nude, devoured by insects, no longer resembled a woman.

“Ashley invited this,” whispers Silvia, her breath mist.

Silvia’s wet mouth is like a flowerpot busted in the rain, dripping moistened dirt onto the figs in his fingers. Her thorny tongue grates against earthworms, writhing behind muddy brown teeth, to reveal a tiny seedling growing inside her throat. 

Raymond sees the man of branches in the trees of the backyard. His hands of honeysuckle bejeweled with metallic green hummingbirds. 

Raymond envisions predators and insects. Somewhere in the trees, flowers bloom near a clear stream carrying strands of Ashley’s hair.

Raymond longs to see the blood tree.

“Where is it?” he says, losing patience. 

“Look,” she says. “Come here. Get closer.”

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Aimee Parkison

Aimee Parkison

Aimee Parkison is the author of seven books and has won the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Parkison is Professor of Fiction Writing at Oklahoma State University and serves on the FC2 Board of Directors. Her newest book of fiction, Surburban Death Project, a collection of stories, will be published by Unbound Editions in 2022. More information about Parkison’s writing is available at www.aimeparkison.com

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