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At Madame L’s Academy for Young Women Who Wish to Become Trees we learned to plant our feet in the soil and hold our arms in the air. It was boring work, I was sad to find, much like the schools I had been sent to before, the ones where we wrote out Latin phrases over and over again and were made to recite the dates and death counts of various Napoleonic campaigns.
I suppose I anticipated something different but that was pretty much all it was. Madame L would walk amongst us, making sure we kept perfectly still. If we turned to face the sun it was to be done no faster than a millimeter a month. Any faster and she would rap you with her switch, Esther – an alumnus.
The other girls seemed nice enough, but of course we weren’t allowed to talk with one another. We came from the same sorts of nice families, the ones that could afford a school like Madame L’s, but none of us was the type of girl who flinches if a spider or six crawls up your leg. We ended up there for a reason, after all: the type who could almost pass as a nice, normal sort save for a tightness in the jaw, a reticence that bore no hints of shyness, and a distaste for the things most people go crazy for, like food and music and a date at a nice restaurant.
We had all exhausted our mothers and fathers in one way or another. Some of the girls looked like the type who would get caught in the stairwell at school with a boy, or with a girl, or get pregnant, or something like this. Some of the girls were something else. Quiet types. Inward. More tree than girl even before they came.
In any event, we didn’t do well in the lives we had been born to. We had to be transferred to different soil.
In time our skin blistered and bubbled and turned to bark. Our hair, wiry and dry, fell to the ground in winter and when the snow thawed it grew back in, thick and green and leafy. One hardly noticed that the transformation was going on. It happened so slowly. And the boredom dripped away bit by bit, like everything else dripped away – my mother and father, my white bed, my body, Napoleon and his death march to Russia, declensions, young men and their dinner offers. It all went away.
Being a tree wasn’t dull at all. I stretched, I grew, I rolled my neck, I oozed sap and went dormant and awoke again and blossomed and all over again. And again.
My roots reached out and tickled those of the other girls until we were hopelessly entwined. It felt like five minutes, actually, but it was more like seventy years. And then I desired to take a walk, which is something a tree can’t do. I missed it though. And so I decided to turn back, which took another twenty years, and I found myself, a wretched old woman up to her knees in the dirt. I wandered down the mountain to the village where I took up on a bench tossing bread crumbs to pigeons.
Here I’ll stay. To change back would be too much effort, and an old woman on a bench is as rooted as any tree. But for her life is slower, and for this I am thankful. To the trees life is quick. To the trees it’s all a dance, wild and fast and delirious. People see them in slow motion and think they’re so stately and peaceful and still. I know it’s a crock. It’s a young girl’s game, that tree business.