Tree of the Forest Seven Bells Turns the World Round Midnight27 min read
Thistle stepped over an upturned root that twisted from the dark, wet earth.
“Your mama live near the river?” “Naw.”
“Your mama live in a tree?” “Nope.”
“Then what we doing?”
“Mama the river and the tree.” She moved with deliberate grace, each footfall a code that unlocked another hidden key. Wilder should have known. Every other word out of her mouth was some strange, cryptic poetry. She was more siren than sage, more whistle than song. In the few months they’d been hanging, he had gotten used to her “magic woman” guise. Bohemian bruja, wide-hipped hoodoo. Unlike the other women Wilder tried to lay with, Thistle felt sincere. At least she was original. Most other relationships Wilder had had, all ended the way he felt now, lost. With the others he would soon lose interest—or they would, tossing him back on the street, the fascination over before it had begun. Then he’d be off, duffel bag in hand, looking for cover. To Wilder, everyone worked so hard to be just like the next. What was the challenge in that?
Thistle stood with her back to him, all curve and joy, a plum-skinned promise of delight. He tried to follow her, but his feet wouldn’t move. With each step forward he kept stumbling backward, as if his body wanted, needed to withdraw every footstep, to retrace their path under that lone glimmering star. His car was locked and parked way down the road that flanked high above the river. If he hadn’t been with Thistle, he never would have seen the trail.
“What I’m trying to understand is why we got to come see her in the pitch damn night?” He held himself steady, grabbed hold of a tender birch tree. All he saw was branches and limbs and more wobbly trees. Bark fell away from his hands in flakes, fluttered to the damp ground like layers of skin. “I’m cool with meeting your family, but why can’t we go to Piccadilly or the China Inn? Don’t your mama like buffet? That’s what normal folks do.”
Thistle turned her head, hesitated. Even in the deepening darkness, Wilder could see her eyes narrow into slits, her full lips poked out like she might offer a kiss. “When have you known me to be normal?”
Laughter shook the leaves of a mayhaw. Fireflies flitted a warning message in the faded light. Wilder didn’t see. His eyes were in the future, back to the cool, thin sheets in the rented room. The air was hot and humid, thick enough to slash a knife through. The sky was full, twilight now turning away from dusk. A super moon and that strange, twinkling star Thistle swore was a planet. Which one did she say? Venus. Or was it Jupiter? Wilder used to know stuff like that, back when he thought it was important. Astronomy, astrology, tarot cards, and divination, none of it foretold anything close to what Wilder had come to know, his hard truth. Ghostly light shone through the waist-high grass, and the blossoming weeds cast shadows across Thistle’s face, her arm outstretched to him like a luscious vine. This he believed in, this he could follow—the curved finger of flesh. An open palm, his favorite invitation.
“It’s just a little further.”
“I hope she got something to drink.”
Thistle giggled, moved through the path, a silent wind. Wilder had made her a jacket with spikes on the shoulders and bright, colorful Ankara print for a lining. He hadn’t sewn anything new until she’d tumbled into his life like a weed. In the black, weathered upcycled leather and the scraps from an old African caftan, she looked like the punk queen he imagined her to be. He had woven the jacket for her, his first gift, when she initially refused to go out with him. “I’m not fit for human consumption,” is what she’d said. “Try harder,” is what he heard. Wilder was persistent. He’d followed her, held signs at every protest, passed flyers out with other activists at the Riverwalk, harangued downtown hipsters who would bulldoze century trees for their new LEED condos. Finally, at a Mid-South Peace & Justice Center ice cream social, she relented. The jacket she donned like a crown. And she had worn it every day, her second skin she called it, even in the 105◦ heat.
But Thistle never sweated. A fact that startled Wilder, made him lie awake some nights and wonder, that, and her spooky, stony sleep. Gulping it down every chance she could get, Thistle drank water like a catfish, slept like an old dead log. But each time he saw her, a wildfire in his arms, remarkably awake, or asleep, corpse-like by his side, he grew more fascinated.
Wilder had met her at a friend’s lecture at Rhodes on the music of John Coltrane, sacred geometry, and physics. Melvin discussed how Coltrane had composed “A Love Supreme” using African fractals and indigenous design, the same design found in ancient West African compounds, in passed-down rites of passage and patterns of braided hair, in the wooden sculptures of the Mende, in pine cones, and even in drops of water. Melvin was a philosopher, the baddest bassist in the world—Time Out New York had declared it, and Wilder knew from personal experience that to be true. Only one other bassist gave him a run, and she wasn’t a bassist at all. She was a goddess; she was music itself, not even a fair comparison. Wilder had been planning to give Melvin the full Memphis roots midnight tour when he spied Thistle, fluttering in the periphery of the concert hall. Her back was pressed against the yellow papered wall, arms folded, as if she was too good to squeeze her hips into the plush student seating. Her eyes were closed, head nodding, as if she was hearing some other music beneath Melvin’s words.
Later, Wilder would learn she was rarely still—except frighteningly so in her sleep. Awake, she flitted through the world, an emerald-throated hummingbird. Even now she stooped to caress a crooked row of foxgloves. Her bangles stacked high up her arm like brass armor, glinted in the night. “Look how they bow their heads.” She stroked the purple blossoms as if they were pets. “They’re always the first ones asleep.” She rose and darted ahead, a bejeweled black dragonfly.
Barefoot, Thistle used to collect ferns and moss and polished river stones, dark mushrooms and wild weeds for the birdcages and terrariums she hung throughout the city. She said her found art was a public indictment, a statement from the elders. Wilder never asked who the elders were. He simply chalked it off as more of Thistle’s spirit speak.
So when she grabbed fistfuls of earth and held them before her nose, as if to breathe a prayer, Wilder only shrugged. “You should take off your shoes,” she said and kicked off her boots, the tongues lolling as if they were hot and tired, full of thirst.
“Here? I’m not doing that.” Thistle tied her shoestrings together and flung the pair over her left shoulder. The strings got caught in the patch of spikes. She shrugged, the leather jacket arched across her back like a pair of wings. “The earth is cool and damp here,” she said and held out her hand. “Come on, every step is like a kiss.” Wilder shook his head, no. She threw her head back and danced, her toes sinking into the moist grass. “Best massage ever.”
Wilder paused. “I can think of better.”
A sudden burst of wind carried Thistle’s laughter through the air, lifted it above his head, lingered in his ear. The breeze felt cool, inviting. He sighed and unlaced one shoe.
“Got me messed up,” he muttered and kicked off the other. He stuffed his socks in his back pocket, strung his shoes over his shoulder, and dug his toes in. The grass smelled sweet and wet, felt like heaven on his soles and heels. Within the circle of trees, he went beyond thought, beyond feeling. As his feet sank into the earth, he felt himself yielding to a soft green breath, a sensation he hadn’t felt since childhood. He stood there, eyes closed, remembered what it felt like to run barefoot without worry, without fear. A deep presence filled the space around him, within him. Wilder glanced up, saw in moonlight the silvery threads of a webbed work of art, dangling from an elm. And like his lover, the spider was nowhere to be seen.
Only the familiar whoosh of the river replied. All he heard was the waves of the water, sloshing somewhere ahead, down below, and the sound of his own voice whispering in the waist-high grass and weeds. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the dark and the silver. The light was strange, as if waking inside a dream. Wilder followed the crush of green, where Thistle’s hips had slashed through the ferny veil. Her footprints led him inward, deeper into the night where he didn’t want to go. He walked in slow, plodding steps at first, searching for Thistle’s trail, but each time he moved, he felt the air move behind him, only to turn and find no one there. Uneasy, Wilder moved faster, twisting through the rambling path, fighting the woods. He ducked beneath branches, cursing as he worked to untangle them from his hair. Instead of thinning out, the trees grew thicker all around. Wilder didn’t like it here, the way the ground sucked at his feet, gentle at first, but more insistent with each step, as if the land was hungry.
He stopped. That was how she looked—hungry. Those nights when he would wake, the room suddenly filled with the weight of a presence that made him turn over only to find Thistle lying flat on her back, hands at her side, still and cold, eyes flung wide open, mouth parted …
“How does it feel?” he had asked once, when the sun had risen and she moved, thankfully, once again part of the living.
“Like I woke up dead.” Wilder remembered frowning until she kissed him. “It’s like my mind is awake but this body is not …” Thistle often spoke of herself as if she was not part of herself, as if every day was an out-of-body experience and Wilder was her witness.
“Like you’re trapped?” he’d asked.
“No, like I’m finally free.” Her arms were wrapped around his throat, his head resting in her hands. She was curled beneath him, their legs entwined, her breath like peppermint and lemongrass, sweet herbal spice.
“But your eyes are wide open and you look … you look …”
“What?” She stared as if to dare him.
Wilder had searched for another word to describe what he could not say. Dangerous is how she looked, feral, but what he whispered then was “terrified.”
Thistle raised one brow, rubbed her knee. “Sleep paralysis, common enough. I’ve had it all my life. It’s like the body is paralyzed and your mind is still awake. REM atonia, when your brain awakens and your eyes start to open. You become alert, conscious.” Sitting cross-legged on the rumpled sheets, she gulped noisily from a glass of water, then pressed a cool fingertip at Wilder’s temple. “But then you realize you can’t move, you can’t speak, and you feel a weight pressing down on you, on your chest, and you feel like you can’t breathe, you can’t …”
“That’s fucked up.”
Her tongue darted out, licked the tip of his nose. “It’s merely a question of transitions. The brain and the body, the spirit and the mind, move all the time, between state to state. Sometimes you are just caught in between.”
“If I had to sleep like you, I think I’d just skip sleep.” “I don’t sleep. I wait.”
But she didn’t wait. She’d left him, creeped out alone in the damned woods. And she didn’t sleep. She didn’t sweat. And when she did sleep, she looked wide awake. Dead. Thirsty. Hungry. The last few weeks she had given up her normal diet of vegetables, fresh fruit, and nuts. “What happened to the kale?” She had only shrugged. Wilder was relieved. It was as if his whole body was starving and all he needed was to nibble on one bit of bacon for release. He hated pretending, acting as if he was into all that vegan stuff. He had done worse for less. Hunger was something he’d gotten used to, a dull ache until he did some odd jobs or found a steady gig, or another cool-sheeted bed to lie in. With Thistle’s new appetite, Wilder ate heartily, satisfied. He collected every meat recipe he could remember, and watched as Thistle sat eating strip after strip of barely cooked meat, mostly seafood, from the river that she caught herself, and piles of freshwater mussels with garlic and butter and white wine sauce.
Thistle was in a good mood these days, almost giddy, and she slept, if you could call it that, less and less. Wilder had started to think that this was one time it would be alright, until she had insisted it was time for her mother to meet him.
Wilder stooped to scrape a pebble from between his toes and rose, wiping a streak of mud against his thigh. When he brushed his hair out of his eyes, he saw a circle of stones. Wilder frowned. It was as if the trees had hidden them. One minute there was a wall of green, the next, a circle of stone. They rested upon each other like giant children holding hands in a ring. The wind picked up here, the air cooler. It carried the rustle of leaves and the rush of waters, the sound of the reeds clattering in the breeze, as if each were an open throat, rising to speak. Wilder wrinkled his nose. The wind carried a strange scent, something that made him wipe his face with his sleeve. Wilder had lost Thistle’s trail. Instead he felt as if he’d stumbled upon an ancient conversation, the rocks and the grass, the river and the moss arguing about shadow and light. Wilder didn’t like the sound, the sounds. They buzzed in his ears like static, a cloud of gnats. The hair on his arms felt prickly. He wanted to put his shoes back on, drive as fast as he could all the way home, but he realized he had dropped them somewhere back in the thickening bush. Out here wrassling weeds. And where had she brought him? Wilder felt as if someone had told him to drive to the end of the world, to drive and drive and when he got there, keep driving on.
Ferns and foliage had sprung up where he didn’t recall seeing them before. The great stones seemed to rise higher, pressed all around him like a great crushing wall. The air felt old, godless. Why did Thistle leave him, alone in the dark in the middle of night, and who would choose to live in such a place?
He felt the slow shifting of eyes he could not see, then a sound like a bell, Thistle laughing, her voice high and clear. She was waiting for him, beside a tree just beyond the tallest rock, the one shaped like a raised elbow and a fist. A large web, the shape of a shield, sparkled in the moonlight, inches from his face. Wilder recoiled, waved his hand.
“It’s bad luck to kill a spider,” Thistle said, and she ducked beneath the web and pulled him close. Her voice was a murmured apology in his ear, as her nails scraped his jaw, razed the skin. Her ringed fingers ripped away at his collar, exposed his throat. Thistle tore off his shirt, kicked it into the ground that was covered in a thin layer of rising mist. She rolled up his tank, scraped at his back and neck, her tongue deep in his throat, stumbling through the tangled branches and moss-covered stones until he fell limp, into a bed of leaves, shoulders stooped, arms hanging at his sides. Tiny, hot scratches scraped along the softness of his belly, down the length of his arms; a cut stung on his chin. Thistle nipped, nibbled at his nose.
As odd as she was, Wilder loved being with Thistle. He felt himself expand in her presence. Her strangeness and stories awakened in him a vague awareness of his own. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about the land or “her sisters,” the damn weeds and the river, or whatever Thistle was always so amped up about. It’s just that he saw the state of the world as out of his hands—something decided by others more predatory, more resourced than he. For Wilder, fighting was a losing proposition. Someday the meek would inherit the earth, but not in real time, so why spend what little time you’ve got, stressed? Wilder didn’t want to make a difference; he wanted fucking change. When that didn’t happen when he thought it should, he gave up.
A long time ago Wilder had had skin in the game. He’d put his neck out there, like Thistle, believing, marching, singing, guitar playing, airbrushing, phone banking, door knocking, and leafleting, only to have it crushed by the world, again and again. There had been some successes, but the failures were more than he could bear. The night Thistle finally came to him, he had marched with her and the others against the Stiles Water Treatment plant. Stiles was vile. It dumped partially treated sewage wastewater into the river, claiming rapid dilution by the Mississippi’s vast flow and hiding under the cover that the river was used mostly for industry and commercial traffic. Thistle and the other activists knew that state law required all Tennessee waters to be fishable and swimmable. The only folks who fished and swam in the river bottoms were too dumb to know better or desperate or both. Or Thistle. Thistle painted a beautiful, huge canvas mural that had to be carried by twenty hands, calling for disinfection and respect for her “mother,” the river. Wilder joined the protest only because he wanted to be near her. He wanted to show that he was willing to go wherever she was, that he was down with the cause, her cause, even if it didn’t make much sense.
When he dropped out of school, Wilder had spent years on the streets, lonely and hungry and denying both while searching for truth in flesh. He couldn’t find his tribe, but wherever he wandered, music was his solace. Wilder never stayed in one place long, never loved one heart long. He had learned to survive, to protect the soft parts of himself. But the world had eaten his spirit up and spat him out, left him pulp and gristle at Thistle’s feet.
“It’s not enough that I’m barefoot and getting eaten up by bugs, but now we’ve got to play hide and seek in the dark?” Thistle bowed her head, smiled. Wilder held her close, lifted her chin. Damp pine needles pricked his back. “You know we could have done that back at the house.”
“Mama’s not back at your house.” “Where the hell is Mama?”
Thistle pulled away and rose, turning her back to him. He stood up, wiping matted leaves off his legs. “What’s wrong?” She didn’t answer but offered her hand, her palm cool and damp. Wordless, she led him through an opening in the stone door he had not seen, her hand still clasped in his. As they walked, waves of coolness trickled between his toes, tickled Wilder’s soles. He looked down, stared at the flat surface of the water. It stared back up at him, a dark mirror. A dense, blue fog clung to the trunks of the trees. Behind him, the old stones groaned. Up above, the stars revealed themselves one by one in the veil of night.
“This way. She’s here.”
Together, they waded through the river mud and muck. Thistle held his hand in a tight, possessive grip, squeezing his fingers with her silver rings, as if he might flee. She walked with her back to the darkness, her eyes willing him forward toward a tunnel of trees ahead. Her feet moved expertly, as if she had walked the unseen path a hundred times before.
“Slow down, Thistle, you’re going too fast. You’re going to fall.”
“Hasn’t happened yet.” The hair bristled on the nape of his neck. How many times had she walked this path before?
Thistle’s steps through the stream had become quick and light, silkfire dancing through the night. She moved as if possessed, as if each step were a key she played in a song for the earth. Wilder’s footsteps were heavy and unsure. His breath grew ragged. Sweat trickled down his chest and back, made his skin stick to his tank top, made him wipe his shoulder with his chin.
They passed a stand of young saplings. Thistle paused to stroke their stalks tenderly, whispered as if telling them secrets. The wind rustled in a red maple’s leaves. She tilted her head, as if to listen. Wilder sighed, swatted a mosquito that looked big as his hand. “Please, can we go now? I don’t want to be out here all night, Thistle. I’m getting eaten alive here.”
She stopped. He could hear distant voices, perhaps from a barge floating by. A muffled grumbling sound rumbled through the air, like the echo of trucks speeding across the I-55 bridge. Wilder frowned. The old bridge was too far away for that. “Let’s hurry, then. You’re more than ready,” Thistle said.
“Look, we could be home by now, eating. I know you’re hungry. You’re always hungry these days. I mean, why are we here? Is this even necessary right—”
“I wanted to show you where I came from,” Thistle interrupted. “Who I came from, why I am.”
Wilder shuddered. His feet were cold. The drying sweat had chilled on his skin, but despite his discomfort, he accepted her answer. It was what he’d wanted to hear. For months she had been secretive, silent. If he hadn’t seen her student ID, he never would have known that she had been working on her Master’s in bryology. Her thesis was on the role of moss in rejuvenating human-scarred land, healing poisoned waters. “Ecological succession” is what she’d called it. “Every hour the Mississippi River Delta is disappearing; one football field of wetlands vanishes at a time. Your levees have strangled it, your channels and canals have allowed saltwater and waste to poison it. Whole ecosystems are drowning in muck.”
“You think moss and algae and shit can save it?” he’d asked.
She’d nodded. “I do.” Wilder had snorted. Thistle had sat back, watched him in silence. Maybe that was when it had changed. Her sleeping patterns, her eating, everything, even the way she looked at him, held him when they made love, before she drifted off into her open-eyed sleep.
Thistle claimed she already had a lifetime of degrees in environmental forestry and the science of trees, but moss was a new interest for her. The change in scale, she’d said, the smaller focus, enriched her life, changed her view.
“You have to expand your vision and make your spirit very small. I’m so used to being—”
“Being what?” he’d asked. She’d slipped the photo card back into her satchel. Her face was ashen, her lips a thin, grim line.
“Being rooted in everything.”
Now she looked amused, almost giddy. She moved in an intoxicated sway, as if she was dancing to a furious music.
“Remember when you asked me about the others, the ones before you?”
“Yeah, and you said to leave the past the past.” She smiled. “Don’t you want to know?”
“No, I don’t.” Wilder’s eyes darted, like the fireflies that fluttered past them. He was starting to imagine movement in the dark. A rustle by that tree, a whispered hiss underneath a bush. He grew more unsettled the longer she stared at him, humming and swaying. “I know everything I need to know about you—don’t need to know anymore—and besides, I’ve already met your mother. See,” he said and stomped his feet in the rising water that grew colder, “the river. And here—” He leaned against a gnarled, narrow black gum, so twisted it almost looked bent. “The tree. Pleased to meet you, Mama. Now can we go?”
Thistle shook her head. “If you core these trees, you’ll find that some of them are over 150 years old. Or older, like that one there. So now you’ve met Loridant. He was one of my favorites.”
Wilder frowned. “Favorite what?”
“They say he disappeared after he led an expedition here, when the Chickasaw tended this land, but I see you have found him.”
Wilder jerked away from the alligator bark, sucked in air, steadied his voice. “Come on, where is she? I see you’re not going to end this game until I meet her, so let’s go.”
He marched ahead of Thistle, snatching at branches that leaned in his face, swatting at the high grass, cursing the weeds that created a wall around him. Why did he let her toss his good shirt? His white tank top wasn’t much defense against the scratches and the bug bites. It glowed in the dark, making him look like a ghost slipping through the trees. The air was more fragrant here, dark and sweet, cloying. He could hear Thistle giggling behind him. She was practically singing now.
“There better be some Fireball when I get there.”
Wilder would have kept marching and cussing if he hadn’t fallen into the marsh.
“What the—Thistle? Thistle!”
It was as if the land had given up and the river had taken over. Wilder found himself knee-high in a black bowl of muddy, sludge-like water, but it wasn’t the water that worried him. The moonlight reflected an image so uncanny that it made the inside of Wilder’s scalp itch. Straight ahead, in the center of the circle was a huge cypress tree. Its great dark, tall plumes stabbed against the sky. Its trunk, or trunks, rose from the water in a huge entwined knot, covered in green fungus. It appeared to combine at least two other trees. Huge tangled roots rose in and out of the water, like knobby knees, a great serpent’s nest. The limbs were massive and coiled in the air like mighty arms. The bark around its base was smooth, save for a series of fire scars, as if someone had tried to burn it, many times over. Standing in the shadow of this giant, Wilder felt as close to God or the Devil as he had ever felt.
Thistle stopped just short of the water. Her face calm, her eyes shining in the light.
The ground shook, rippled beneath them, and the triple tree seemed to bow in answer. This shouldn’t be here. Wilder knew nothing like that grew in the area. Maybe a couple hours away in Mississippi, where the cypress trees in Humphreys County were some of the largest in the world, 97 feet around, 118 feet tall, the South’s own sequoias, or maybe down in Texas and Louisiana, but not down in the delta in the mouth of the river in West Tennessee.
As if hearing his thoughts, the tree’s great limbs bent forward, but Wilder did not feel any wind or breeze. Instead, the water around him began to warm and bubble. Water lilies with huge poppies bobbed and floated in the bubbling water. Wilder tried to back out, his voice lost in the rumbling of the strange tree, but something twisted around his ankles, held him in place. He screamed, fearing it was a snake, and reached into the water. Instead of scales, his fingers felt wet vines and scale-like leaves. He tried to rip the heavy vines off, his fingers digging into them. He yanked one and tossed it. It landed in the muddy pool with a splash, heavy as a walking stick. Wilder felt the air whirling behind him. He turned to see the triple tree’s branches twisting like angry snakes. Wilder turned to run, but his legs were caught again in a nest of vines. They dug into his flesh, stung and burned him like fire ants. “Thistle, help me. Why are you just standing there?”
She stared past him, at the great knotted tree, at the swirling waters; then her eyes rested on him.
“You could say,” she said, “in my way, I am helping you. This is one of the oldest, most sacred spots. Right now, you are in the intersection of the river and the tree. You are in the delta of civilizations, a place most dear to me, the place where I was born. Where I am seen.”
Wilder flailed his arms in the water, legs rooted. “Listen, baby, I see you and you are so beautiful to me—I just need you to help me right now. See if you can help pull me up. I’m tangled in these weird vines. Some kind of bad storm is coming, and I think that old tree is about to fall down.”
Wilder didn’t like how she was looking. She was facing him, but her water-eddy eyes seemed to peer through him, focusing on something else. Wilder felt more wind at his back. The air filled with the rustling of leaves and needles, the sound of a hundred cicadas, a humming buzzing sound that rattled his ears, jarred his teeth.
Thistle closed her eyes and nodded her head. She opened them, a peaceful smile on her face as she crouched before him. “I like to believe in balance, in the natural order of things. I take from life, and I like to think that I’m giving life as well.” She reached above him. Wilder gripped her arm.
“Thistle, please,” he hissed. He leaned forward and stroked her cheek, his muddy fingers caressing her hair. “I don’t know what’s happening, but I need you—”
“You don’t see me,” she said. “Even now. You never did.” Thistle jerked out of his grip. A clump of black hair fell away in Wilder’s hand. He stared, his breath shallow. “Thistle, what’s wrong?” he whispered. He held the hair for a moment, then let it drop into the water. It floated like a feather. “Are you sick? Why didn’t you tell me? Is that why you wanted me to meet your mother? How long have you known?”
His mind was racing, panic spreading. If she had cancer, he thought he could deal. Maybe. He wanted to hold her, but he couldn’t get out of the water. He was pulling with all his strength, and the vines that held him barely budged. Why did he have to find out like this?
“You’re going to have to try, baby, to pull me, or go for help. I can’t stay out here, not like this.”
Thistle’s eyes were on the hair that still floated on the skin of water. Her hands flew to her scalp.
“Damn,” she said. She held her hands up. Her nails were gone. She slipped her silver rings off and tossed them into the water next to Wilder. They sank with tiny little bubbles. The nail on her index finger dangled by a thread of cuticle. No blood, just dry, flaking skin. The air hummed again, a whispering sound like many rushing waters. “I know, Mama,” she whispered. “I know.”
“Thistle, stop it.” Sickness and anger rose to his throat. “Your nails are falling off. You’re falling apart, and you’re talking crazy!” He swallowed, covered his mouth with a muddy fist, lowered his voice. “What kind of cancer do you have?” She frowned at him, stared. Wilder shook his head, tried to make sense of Thistle’s decay. How could she hurt like that and not bleed? “You wouldn’t accept chemo, no matter what the doctors said, so that means you’ve been trying to fight it naturally this whole time?” He closed his eyes. “That’s why you’ve been eating all that weird shit?” But her hair, her hair fell out in his hand. He shook his head, confused. “Baby, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Wilder jerked and strained in the mud, trying to walk. He clawed at the sediment and silt, his legs struggling underwater. For a moment, he felt the vines loosen from his knees then creep up his legs again, holding him still. The vines pricked and stung him more, held him tighter. Everywhere they touched him, his skin felt itchy and scaly, as if sunburned. His legs began to feel heavy, leaden. He tried to reach for Thistle, but her eyes looked different. They caught the silver light, giving her face an eerie amber glow. Her skin was ashen, her cheeks hollow. Thistle stared in the space above his head, as if she hadn’t heard anything he’d said. Wilder looked up to see one of the knotted tree’s long thick branches hovering above him. He froze. Thistle picked seven bell-like yellow blossoms from the limb and held them in her open palms. An invitation.
Wilder shook his head no, but Thistle kissed him, her mouth filled with tiny, razor-like teeth. He tried to pull back, but he felt sleepy. Her tongue was sweet, like honey and mead, and she held him as she always did and whispered to him, the songs that only she could sing, with words that only she remembered the meaning to. His eyes grew bleary, and he heard more than he ever had—the croak of the plump, brown toad beneath an unfurled leaf, the jewel beetle scuttling across algae-covered bark, and the wind in the leaves, the many hundred leaves rustling above his head and a chorus of crickets.
Thistle smelled of maple syrup and buttermilk, of wet grass and rain-soaked walking sticks, of a wet stone covered by moss and babbling brook. Her eyes were too round, too full of silver and purple-golden light. Her skin was riven by deep whorls and lines, as if it had been carved with a knife.
When Thistle fed him the seven bells, Wilder’s mouth was still full with the taste of sweet nectar, but then the blossoms stung the inside of his jaw, and the tip of his tongue went numb. He stared at her, struggled to keep his thoughts clear, to make his lips and teeth form words. Only shallow gasps escaped, a jaw harp deflated, out of tune. Recognition clouded his eyes. Wilder’s heart was brittle, ready to break.
As the poison flowed through him, he felt the hum of a strange touch; fallen roots blossomed in electric earth. He was being lifted, carried backward through the waters. “Don’t struggle,” Thistle called to him. “Mama just wants to meet you.”
As the vines covered him, the limbs pulling him closer to the great tree’s bosom, Wilder felt pieces of himself, like pieces of dusk, fall apart and be gathered in the bark and dirt. Thistle was naked. Now he could see her—a body no longer woman but willowy tree. Her bright, round forehead shone in the moonlight. Her skin was tattooed with the whorls and swirling textures found on old-growth trees. Snails and mussels clung to her legs. Flowering vines and green moss wrapped around her thighs. Wilder thought he saw blue mountains, perhaps galaxies flowing in her ancient hair that now fell away in clumps like riverweed and algae at her feet. If he could move he would have reached for her. He would have tasted her with his fingertips and tongue, but she was out of reach. He wanted to cringe, to creep away. He wanted to lean into his lover’s palms. He couldn’t do either, so Wilder no longer tried to move.
His eyes asked the question his lips could not. “People are the cancer,” she said as she flicked an emerald beetle from her shoulder and followed him into the muddy pit. “Not all of them, of course, but enough of the wrong ones to wreck the balance. The movement needs people with heart,” she said. “Spirits committed to systemic solutions, long-game change,” she said. “But that’s not you, is it, Wilder? At least not yet.”
Wilder felt his breath grow short. Where each began, a tickling fire flowed through his blood. Seven thousand songs surged from stones as Thistle walked over to him. In the ghostly light, she still looked almost human, beautiful. Wilder’s ears hummed. Alarm, desire, and fear echoed in his temples, a competing heartbeat.
She embraced him, smelled like the strange, yellow blossoms.
Thistle caressed his throat with a sandpaper tongue; the skin peeled off in gentle flakes like wet, dark bark. “I told you Mama would love, love you …” Her voice was airy, a solemn fractal, whispery as the wind. Wilder craned his neck to reach for her. The fragrant pheromones released from the tree dulled his pain, mixed it with his hunger. Even in the face of his dwindling energy, the memory of life fading fast, desire welled inside him; however, Thistle had completely transformed. She was no longer recognizable, and he was no longer sure how he could love her, but he did.
He remained still as a rock in a river of sound as Thistle and her Mama pulled apart the disparate shreds of who he used to be. In their presence, his thoughts felt noisy, cluttered. He tried to clear his throat to speak, but he could not feel it or his mouth. A gurgle and a rush of air escaped the hole where his throat and esophagus used to be. If he were a pipe, she could have played him. Wilder the bone harp, the baddest instrument in the world.
Thistle gently ran her fingers across his chest, then ripped his tank off. His eyes widened. “Don’t worry, Wilder,” she said, her lips and sawteeth stained blood red, his back sinking into the smooth base of the knotted tree. Mama licked him, and he sensed another part of himself slide away. A spine of bones exposed to the night’s air, he thought he could hear pieces of the old flesh drop into the waters, remnants of his former selves sink into the muck, but he was no longer certain if he still had ears.
“The Tupelo, black gum tree has a strong heartwood,” Thistle said. “It’s one of the oldest native trees here, like the oaks, and the poplars, but, of course, not as old as Mama. And you’ve probably guessed, Mama is not from around here. She came with the river. But Wilder, you’ll have plenty of time to contemplate the true meaning of change. Mama will keep you company. She’ll sing you the old songs and tell you her stories. She’ll keep you safe with the others until—”
Brambles curved around his chin. Thorns pierced his flesh while he tasted her final honeysuckled kiss. His thoughts disappeared in the rising mist. Wilder’s mind rang with a new truth. He would die here. Perhaps he would be reborn. To spring from the earth, a fresh green shoot, dark roots twisting deep beneath the river’s belly. A sapling tree, straining for the scent of rain, reaching for change. Wilder felt as if he had traveled through a dream, as if he woke beneath a river and there was no way back through the forest except to become clear water, a spring to fill and heal himself. His eyes wide awake, his body unable to move, his fear vanished into the dark center of things. As Wilder watched over Thistle’s shoulder, her tiny teeth sinking into his cheek, he saw where she had dropped the first gift he had made for her, into the bubbling earth. Muddy, watery fingers reached in languid waves to snatch the jacket up. The world afar, the last spike floated in dark womb-water, shimmered a sinking star.