by Oliver Emanuel
Portion of this yew
Is a man my gransire knew,
Bosomed here at its foot:
This branch may be his wife,
A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot.
(Thomas Hardy, Transformations)
She wakes up slowly to her situation.
Yes, she realises, a tree.
One minute she is crossing the street at West Fourth and Greene, talking to her agent on her mobile about the next day’s flight to LA but now, yes, definitely a tree. It’s something of a surprise yet this too comes slowly. Senses are dulled. No, not exactly dulled so much as vastly expanded. Where before she’d been a slim five foot five human woman, she is now a Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) at the corner of Washington Square Park, New York (New York). She is almost seven metres in height, with a brown, rugged bark and a thousand leaves, each five to seven centimetres in length. It’s a most curious sensation.
Am I dead? she asks herself out loud.
The question is transformed into a slight rustling of her lowest branch. A roosting pigeon takes to the sky in alarm.
Panic. Horror. Confusion. A sense of intense confinement. Yet, once more, after she gets hold of herself, she realises that she’s never felt more open. Her body stretches all the way up into the sky and right down to a deep, deep underground well.
It’s a bright, spring afternoon. The park is not busy. There are a few tourists, a very old Hispanic man playing chess with a homeless Jewish woman, and an African-American couple on their third date. She can tell it’s their third date. They cannot take their eyes off one another, laugh hysterically. Their hands roam freely.
She tries calling for help.
Perhaps if a passer-by were paying very close attention, they might see the Flowering Dogwood at the entrance of the park, shiver slightly in the breeze.
How has this happened? She never in her life—the life that’s now apparently ended—heard of a religion of trees. She remembers her grandfather once telling her a legend about the ancient Celts. They believed that the human soul was indestructible. If your first body died, another took it up. Sometimes you were lucky and your soul passed to a new born baby. Other times you might wake to find yourself a goat. Or a rock. A rock was the hardest, said her grandfather. You could be a rock for thousands of years until its last atom of grit had eroded and your soul moved on again. The point of the legend was, that for the ancient Celts, death was nothing to fear.
At this moment, her grandfather’s words are of no comfort.
In fact it might not have been her grandfather who told her about the legend of the ancient Celts. It might have been an actor playing her grandfather in a TV film she had made with Liam Neeson.
She is not good at remembering. She can recall lines and some of her better reviews but she’s almost no memory of her childhood. Or even last week. Her real life and her acting life are so overlaid that quite often it’s difficult to recall what is truth and what fantasy.
Is it even possible then that this tree thing is another role that she’s forgotten she had signed up for? Could this bark and these branches and the hundreds of microscopically serrated leaves be simple prosthetic?
She listens hopefully for the cry of action.
She’d been so excited that morning. She was stopping over in New York before going on to LA, to Hollywood to test for a pilot. It was her big break. She’d even used those words to her mum on the phone the previous night. Test. Pilot. Big break. The thing about the American language—and it was a language, she’d discovered—was that it was infinitely expressive. So much could be conveyed in a few words. Test. Pilot. Big. Break.
She’d been excited but there had been a problem with her flight as she’d been booked from Glasgow into Economy when she’d been promised Business. She’d called to yell at her agent as she hurried down West Fourth. She needed caffeine too because of the jet lag and had spotted a Starbucks in a Barns and Noble on the opposite sidewalk. She’d looked right for traffic as she always did back home, stepped out, remembering at that exact moment that cars came from the other way but then the sound of screeching breaks and—
And still tree.
That first day passes slowly.
She’s concentrated fully on her predicament, the horror of her transformation. No matter what distress signals she sends, nothing registers.
Late in the afternoon, a small male child comes up to her, places a piece of paper on her bark and uses a crayon to get a rubbing. She tries to twist the bark into a message. If the boy shows the paper to his parent or nanny, they could send help. But what message should she send? And who could help in this most unlikely situation? A doctor? A tree surgeon? The fire brigade would probably be best but the thought of fire—even the word fire—sends a tingle along her branches and the boy is gone before she can pull herself together.
There is too—she is loath to admit it—a creeping sense of wonder.
She’d always thought her body somewhat ordinary, a little lacking in natural grace. She’d had to work hard to get noticed. Now she can literally feel herself blossoming. White flowers are emerging from buds, which she experiences as a kind of fizzing, like a freshly poured glass of champagne. Water flows up from her roots, through the many channels hidden beneath her bark, tickling her insides and giving her strength.
Many people notice her on their way into the park. She is attractive beside these London Planetrees and North American Red Oaks. Some take photographs.
As dusk settles and the Manhattan streetlights begin to burn, she cannot help but feel a little giddy with this new role.
Things that she feels now she is a tree: the breeze, warmth, light. Light. The complexity of it. Its flavour and texture. Light has never been something that she’s really considered before, except as it related to the shot the director was trying to get. Find your light! Light appears to her as strongly as a feeling. Like rage, embarrassment or love. She feels light. Urgently. At the top of her stomach. Or whatever she has instead of a stomach.
Things that she does not feel: anxiety, expectation, hunger. She puts these fresh absences down to the fact that she no longer has a true sense of time. Time is liquid now, freed from the strictures of events. She has no auditions, no dates with friends or dentist appointments. She is limitless. Days are flashes of brightness and often over very quickly. Spring turns into summer in a moment. Nights are harder. A sense of suffocation, of dread darkness, a hand over the mouth. She feels blinded by night but dawn gives her new eyes.
She has good days and bad days. Occasionally she’s stuck with a sense of vertigo at the thought that this is her natural state. How long do trees live? It’s ages isn’t it? She feels sick at the thought of the endless years and years of tree-ness unfolding before her.
Loneliness too is a problem. It’s not that there are not people around the park—there are lots and lots of people—but she is unable to communicate with any of them. She has so many questions she would like to ask:
What happened to her human body? Did her mum come to take it back home to Scotland? Did she have a good funeral? Who turned up? Were there any famous people there? Had there been an obituary in any newspapers? Who had got her part in that film?
So many questions but nobody to answer. The Flowering Dogwood sways, frustrated.
Every day is the same, every day is different. She begins to appreciate the minute and infinite ways in which things change over time. The way her bark and branches stretch and contract. Her growing roots. The bending of the leaves in sunlight.
As a tree she does not see as such but every breath of wind, every drop of rain is felt and measured and understood. She senses storms many hours before they occur. Storms are actually her favourite thing. The thrill of thunder, the electric dread of lightning. As a human, rain had always been an inconvenience but as a tree, it is a clarifying. A renewal. She is literally washed clean and born again.
After every storm, the Flowering Dogwood looks as fresh as a newborn baby.
Observing the comings and goings in Washington Square Park, she comes to feel that perhaps she had not taken full advantage of the human life she’d been blessed with.
The park is bursting with humanity of every hue imaginable. Picnics happen here. Lunch breaks. Also illicit rendezvous between co-workers. She witnesses a failed marriage proposal as well as a wife attempting to slap her husband’s lover. There are literary walking tours. There’s a protest about climate change and a counter-protest about the protest. A third-party presidential candidate makes a bad speech. And every Sunday, a beautiful young Puerto Rican prostitute called Sunshine calls his dad on the telephone then weeps for half an hour after he’s hung up.
In her own life, she’d been impatient. She was constantly on the move with work her primary focus. She rarely stopped to sit on a park bench and flip through the latest prize winning novel or simply lie back and look at the sun through the canopy of the trees. The truth is that she’d never made time for herself.
Then the horrifying thought occurs, what if she had missed her chance?
A memory. Bright and clear.
She is fifteen. She is standing beneath a tall tree at the corner of her street. Her best-friend Joanne has just kissed her on the mouth. Joanne’s face is blurry, out of focus, the shadow of the tree hiding her expression. Too many feelings. Desire, confusion, fractured trust, anger, joy. Joanne speaks but she doesn’t hear. She pushes her away, roughly.
What the hell are you doing? Get off me.
And she turns and runs the three hundred yards to her house. She slams the front door and runs up to her bedroom where she remains all night without sleep. The next morning, she is ready to talk to Joanne but Joanne is not at school. Nor the next day either. Or the following week. Eventually Joanne returns but they don’t speak of what happened.
Why had she rejected Joanne? She had loved her more than anyone else in her life, she now realises. Was it simple fear? Or was there some part of herself that refused to be rooted? She’d spent the remaining years of her life entirely transient, flitting from job to job, city to city, relationship to relationship. She had often attempted to transform other friendships into intimacy but that intense closeness of her teenage years had failed to rematerialize. With her rejection of Joanne, came a breach within herself that was never healed.
And now the strongest part of that recollection is the thick grain of the bark of the tree the pair of them had stood beside.
Somehow the memory and the tree are one and the same thing.
And then one day she realises that she’s disappearing. The dawn is bright, a sudden rising. She wakes up to the fact that the human part of her is, bit by bit, going from her. It’s autumn now. Or Fall, as the Americans say. All the trees in the park are shedding their leaves. Her own drop painfully, one by one, each a different kind of sorrow. She no longer sees or feels things in a human way. Faces no longer have names, she can’t remember her National Insurance number, PIN, or her mum’s telephone number. What’s her favourite colour? Does she like pizza? These items of personality fall away one by one, day by day, until she is no longer herself.
Her last human thought is that it doesn’t matter. She will not miss herself. If anything, the life before had been a kind of rehearsal. I’m okay, she realises. Okay. Yes. This is her last thought before she becomes entirely tree.
And there are no thoughts now.
And light. So much light.
Oliver Emanuel is an award-winning writer based in Scotland. He is Reader of Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews.