by Siobhan Murphy
Format: Short Story | Genre: Magical Realism
I never intended to be a tree. Like so much in life, it just sort of happened. I suppose the first sign was the stiffness and pain in my joints, although at the time, I didn’t know what it meant. My knees and elbows tightened, so they were hard to bend and soon it became difficult to move around.
But I found a quiet sort of relief in the discomfort – I could remain in my flat. Here, at last, was a clear-cut excuse to avoid the mayhem of the outside world beyond what was strictly necessary. I could be alone with my books and my work, uninterrupted by other people, uninterrupted by the shaking and shortness of breath brought on by walking through the crush of the rush hour.
My desk faced the balcony window. I did this so that I could look out at the trees. The street below moved so fast in those days. The cars zipped by in blurs of loud colour. Red, blue, yellow engines whirring angrily as their drivers rushed to be somewhere else. Shops opened and closed down again before I even had a chance to go in. Football fans flooded in like the tide on match days and vanished at sundown, leaving only dancing crisp packets and shattered glass on the pavements as evidence of their passing. Everyone was in flux, temporary, and life was lived in single bursts of opportunity. Leap now, snatch, or it’s gone.
But it was not the street that I watched from my window. Beyond the low houses opposite me, behind two twirling gates of iron, lay Willow Grove Park. Enclosed within its fence was a haven of half-wild greenery criss-crossed by winding paths and glittering ponds. In the heart of it all stood a large cluster of willow trees – there since time immemorial, their fronds gently sweeping the ground. Change in the park was not like that of the street. It was gradual, elegant. The scarlet and violet of summer faded to refined sunset orange and red, only to be replaced by crisp winter snows that left a crown of white on the heads of the willows. Then, of course, followed the time of snowdrops and new growth. In the past, I used to enjoy the spring breezes, reading on a bench in the park. But once my transformation began, I started having trouble going outside at all.
On a bright Tuesday morning in the early days of my change, my phone vibrated against the wood of my desk, demanding my attention and breaking my reverie. I picked it up with a sigh as I saw the name and pressed decline. Rosemary again – wanting to see me, to bring over my ‘beloved’ niece and nephew – all under the guise of getting Auntie Ilana out more, whilst in reality allowing Rosemary to stay indoors and have her brood trash someone else’s home for once.
“Not today, Rosie,” I whispered. Today, I had somewhere to be.
I rose from the seat carefully. The pain was intense that day – my transformation was harder back then; my body strained to resist this strange, unknowing change with all its might. Each step sent a burning flare through my limbs, and though I tried to fight it, I couldn’t help the wince that creased my face.
When it had all begun, with nothing but stiff knees and the occasional dull ache in my legs, I had forced myself to go on more walks, thinking that perhaps I was just spending too much time indoors, not getting enough exercise. But over time it worsened. Spreading out across my body to my hips, my elbows, it developed into an irritation, then into my constant uncomfortable companion. I was afraid, kept trying to convince myself that this was not my reality, that soon I would throw this off. It could be from a horrible flu that my system would eventually defeat, from the cold weather … anything. But I couldn’t control the blossoming fright that something was badly wrong, and when it began to spread to my back, there was no putting off seeking help. It was becoming a chore to even get out of bed in the morning. I had muddled through for as long as I could.
I made my way down the stairs, slow and steady, then along the road to the doctors’ surgery. I noticed people staring, wondering why a woman as young as I moved as slowly as the little old ladies tugging their shopping trolleys. Heat grew on the back of my neck from exertion and from shame at the eyes burning into my back. I tried not to care about the impatient tuts as people skirted around me. I thought of returning home several times; I could rearrange for another day, any day. That was the beauty of freelancing – not only could I work on my commissioned designs whenever inspiration took hold, any hour of the day and night, but I didn’t have to engage with the world if I didn’t feel up to it. I pushed down these thoughts and kept on.
In the surgery at last, Dr Gardener raised his eyebrows as I lowered myself into the chair in his consultation room. It was the first time I had been out of the house in several weeks, and I tried not to look at the reflection of myself in his large glasses. My once-blonde hair had taken on a sickly, almost greenish hue under the garish lights of the appointment room, and the baggy clothes I had chosen for ease of dressing hung loosely from the sharp points of my elbows. When had I lost so much weight?
“What seems to be the trouble, Ms Selby?” he inquired, too politely, eyes now skimming over my medical history on the computer – did he think direct eye contact with the strange lady in his chair might contaminate him?
I explained my symptoms, and he gently began to examine my limbs, apologising profusely at each sharp intake of breath.
“And are you taking your anxiety medication, Ms Selby?” he asked as he prodded around, and I suppressed an eye-roll at the obvious distraction technique. Like talking about that was going to reduce my discomfort.
“Yes, of course,” I replied, sweat beading my forehead as he extended and then bent my right leg.
“And have you thought any more about counselling like I suggested last time? I think it could really help you.”
“Yes, I remember,” I forced out through gritted teeth as pain shot up my thigh. I couldn’t get through one of these appointments without being told to think about it after I refused counselling. All my anxieties laid bare in front of someone I’d never met before … I cringed at the thought. I just wanted to be left in peace. Was that so wrong?
At last, Dr Gardener sat back with an expression of puzzlement rooted in his creased forehead.
“I’m afraid I think this is going to need more specialist help, Ms Selby. Whatever is happening here is extremely unusual for someone in their early thirties. I’ll write you a referral.”
“But what is it?” I asked, my heart sinking even deeper into a sea of worry. “What’s wrong with me?”
He scribbled into his prescription notepad, the pause stretching out into the room.
“If I had to guess, I’d say something like early-onset arthritis, but I really couldn’t say for sure. I’ll process your referral, and in the meantime,” he tore a page from the pad, the ripping sound making me oddly uncomfortable, “this painkiller won’t interact badly with your medication. We could look into getting you a walking stick as well if it would help?”
I shrugged and carefully got to my feet. It would take several weeks before anything could be done. I left, feeling exhausted with everything. Why, at 33 years old, was my body suddenly betraying me? Was I being punished for something?
Picking up the prescription from the pharmacy brought me close to the entrance to Willow Grove Park. Stuffing the little white paper bag into my coat pocket, I felt compelled to go inside, like I had done in the past. I followed the winding path through the park. In the afternoons, while most people were at school or work, I had the place almost to myself, bar the occasional dog walker. Away from the bustle of the street, I felt calmer. No one was rushing around in here. I could move as slowly as I wanted.
It was a breezy day and all around me the leaves rustled against one another, like dry little voices greeting me in their own language. Every path in the park led to the willows at its heart, drawing everything in towards it like a black hole, and I was no exception. The path was a tributary that led me through the quiet pools until I reached the curtain of the willow fronds and passed through it, parting them around me. The trees were tightly packed. I pressed my hand against the rough bark of the nearest.
Ever since I had started coming here, I had been unable to shake the sense of awaiting in this place. It was like the trees knew I was coming. They didn’t mind how much time passed between visits because time in itself did not matter to them, ancient as they were. They welcomed me, and when I left, they would wait patiently until I came back.
“We’re not so very different,” I thought to myself, “not a bad old life, watching the world go by. Nowhere to be and nowhere to go, just listening. Just peace and quiet.”
The wind blew harder, pressing the tops of the willows forwards in a sedate nod.
As I walked home doing a very competent impersonation of the Tin Man, I wondered how much the willows had seen over the years: children playing and growing up, midnight trysts between lovers, backs leaned against the trees for support with noses buried deep in books …
The days trickled past, punctuated by the occasional call from Rosemary. She visited on Sunday and brought Mother and the children. By then, it was painful for me to sit down. I could tell they were uncomfortable around my looming presence, frozen stiffly in the corner. Mother was fretful, wanting the doctor to come round, make a house call. I told her I was waiting on the referral.
“These things take time,” I gave the reassurance she craved. “If they were really concerned, they’d fast-track me.”
Mother did not look convinced. Mother never trusted doctors, not since they failed to tell her why her daughter was too shy to talk to a single other child until aged twelve. I told her once it was because Rosemary used up all the words meant for both of us, so there were none left for me.
Rosemary’s children were unusually subdued during their visit. They weren’t even able to work up the energy to break anything. I could tell all four of my visitors were relieved when the opportunity to leave arose, abandoning half-drunk cups of tea on the coffee table at my first glance at the wall clock.
“Take care, sis,” Rosemary whispered in my ear on the way out. “For Mum’s sake. She’s worried sick about you.”
I would have nodded my head, but the bones in my neck did not seem to bend that way anymore.
They gathered up their things, and my niece Flora wound her arms around my waist. Surprised by the affection, I managed to jerkily clasp her in my arms for a moment. Her green eyes bored imploringly into mine as she said, “Get well soon, Auntie Ilana.”
The house felt empty once they were gone. All the space I loved so much suddenly seemed vacuous and hollow. I distracted myself by looking out at the summer evening settling on the park, enjoying the sun dappling on my balcony, and I reached out my arms to feel the warmth on my skin. The leaves of the willow trees whipped through the air, doubling back on themselves as though they were beckoning to me. I watched for a long time – so long that the dusky blue sky turned ebony and the stars ignited one by one.
That night, for the first time, I dozed upright where I stood. For weeks I had slept badly as I had been afraid that I would wake up unable to get back up. To my surprise, when I woke up that morning, I felt refreshed, rested.
Exactly one week later, I observed the first change in my skin. I woke up to find that a chunk of my lower left arm was covered with wrinkles, deep furrows like a plough dragged through the earth. I cried out, scrubbing at it with my other hand as though I could rub it away. It made no difference.
I tapped my symptoms into Google with gnarled, sore fingers, searching desperately for someone, anyone who could give me answers. There was no one. I convinced myself it was nothing but a bizarre rash, resolved to wait a day or two before returning to the doctor. After all, it wasn’t painful to touch, just a little dry and rough.
By the next morning, not only had the affected area gotten much bigger, the wrinkles had turned hard. Hard like … the willow trees standing vigil in the park, and a moan escaped my lips. What to do? It would not be fair to call Mother in her fragile state. Rosemary would fuss something awful. I had lost contact over the years with all my old work friends from before I went freelance. A fist of loneliness clenched in my chest. Going freelance had seemed such a good idea after the anxiety attacks had become unmanageable, but now I realised I had drifted away from the world like a ship snipped from its mooring. I shook my head. I couldn’t indulge these thoughts. I would go to the pharmacy and show them. They would help me. I forced my arms into my coat, hooked my bag onto my shoulder and made my way to the front door.
When I stood in front of the door with my hand upon the doorknob, my heart knocked violently against my ribs. I thought of stairs and stares and was gripped by the notion that if I fell, I might snap in two. I felt itchy and pulled up my skirt to find the wrinkles had also appeared on my knees. I was shaking. I had taken my medication, but it wasn’t enough to push down the surge of panic taking hold inside me. I stumbled away from the door and back to the safety of my window, knowing above all that I could not go outside today. Tears clouded the edge of my vision as my eyes sought the comfort of the willow trees. Looking out, I imagined myself there, among them, alone with the swaying branches. I slowly regained control of my breathing. I was like the trees. Still; well. My heart calmed to a steady beat. I remained there for several hours, my eyes fixed on the willows, until I relaxed again.
That night I dreamed strange dreams, of tiny feet and bushy tails running up and down my body, of birds building nests in my hair and of raindrops falling softly on my face, glistening there like tears until I drew them in through my skin. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling inexplicably irritated that there was too much oxygen in the room.
After the dream, the days slipped past one after the other and my skin continued to change, but I did not go looking for help. If truth be told, I spent most of my time standing by the open window watching the willows as though hypnotised. When I thought of my life before, I felt detached; something fundamental had come loose inside me, the part that was frightened. It was replaced by a sense of sedate calm, like nothing I had ever felt before.
I remained indoors now not because I was scared of what people outside would think, but because I could think of no reason to leave. The pain in my joints too had receded somewhat, although no matter what I did, they would not bend easily. I spent long hours watching the trees and eventually took to keeping my French windows open at all hours, drinking in the light. My feet no longer fit in any of my shoes, and when I stood in the window frame, I could feel my toes moving against the cool linoleum, seeking something that they could not find. I have often wondered exactly when it was in those final heady summer days in the flat, spellbound by the willows, that I came to know I would be a tree. The moment of realisation was not sudden or sharp – fittingly, it grew. The seed of understanding, I think, must have been planted that day in the park when I pressed my hand against the trees and recognised our parity, and, over time, that seed sent out roots through my evolving body, flowering at last into certainty. Awareness steadily formed in my mind that the trees were looking back at me, telling me that they knew we were alike too. All I had to do was blend the edges of my form a little more and I could join them forever; I had to lean into the change and give myself over. Thinking of the tranquillity of the willow grove, I knew that what was happening to me was right.
I pressed decline on every one of my sister’s calls. How could she understand what was happening here? I did not wish to see her tears.
There was a bigger concern at hand now. In place of my fears around the fast-paced life beneath me came a deep and unyielding fear of flames. I had my first inkling of this terror the night some men lit a fire in a rubbish bin below. At first, I watched it only because of the light, but as I saw blazing paper curl in on itself on top of the bin, I was consumed by revulsion. What if my sister brought others here to examine me? What if one of them carried a lighter? What if they wanted to know what my new skin was made of and decided to scorch me to see what would happen? I knew with ferocious certainty that I would go up like a pyre doused in vodka.
I received my referral at last through my letterbox and could think of nothing but the journey of the thin piece of paper between my fingers. It had once been part of a tree somewhere, a tree that had been killed, skinned, chopped into pieces and finally pulped to turn it into something else entirely. My own transformation felt gentle in comparison.
By then I had lost all interest in the food in my cupboard. My appetite dwindled until I accepted the fact that the light from the open window was sustenance enough for me, although I was dogged by a thirst I seemed unable to quench, regardless of the amount of water I poured down my throat.
I felt only a vague unease now when I thought of my family, but one glance down at my bark-covered hands, at the catkin buds growing in the crooks of my elbows, and I knew I could never see them again. I could not hurt them like that. They would not understand that I was not lost. The old me had disappeared, yes, but with her had gone the crippling anxieties, the panic attacks, the pain. Now, save for when faced with fire or discovery, I felt only serenity.
Three days later, looking out into the street, I saw Rosemary, tiny on the ground below. She looked frantic, her hands running through messy hair. The buzzer rang over and over again. After a few minutes, I heard it go off in the downstairs flat too. She was trying the whole building. If I could have moved my head, I would have shaken it. Poor Rosemary. Everyone in this block went to work from nine to five. There was no one to let her in except me, and I certainly wasn’t going to.
She appeared underneath my window again, and I withdrew into the shadows so she could not see me, so that I could not see her mouth opening and closing as she called for Ilana. How could she know I was not Ilana anymore? The pang of detached sadness I felt at this realisation was old and distant, like remembering a best friend from primary school lost in the haze of years. Rosemary and her children loved me and I had loved them, but now I loved them as I loved all things nature had created.
With a spindly hand pressed up against the glass of my balcony window, I watched my sister go. I knew it was time to leave. She would be back, and she would bring others. Police first, with their loud voices and flashing lights, then doctors and ambulances and at last the scientists, who would break me apart to find out what made me tick.
I could not remain here.
When night fell, I took nothing with me but made my ponderous way across the living room and into the hall. With my hand on the doorknob, I took a look at myself in the mirror for the first time in weeks and the last time in my long life. My hair hung in gentle green fronds that waved around my face, and my eyes were two glowing points of amber light set deep in my furrowed face. I had wrapped my coat around me like a cloak, but out of the bottom poked my elongated feet, spreading across the floor. Where my nails had been, now there was only soft, mossy green. My mouth curved upwards into a carven smile as I opened the door.
It no longer hurt to move, although the stairs were still a logistical trial. But I knew I must do this only once more. I made my way towards the park. An old drunk man saw me as I passed the corner shop, and I watched him blink blearily at me several times before he stared at the bottle in his grasp, placed it carefully on the ground and set off in the other direction. I realised that for once being outside alone so late did not bring fear but euphoria. Every bird call, every echo of distant laughter felt like it was meant for me to hear. To remember it when everyone else had forgotten. I walked on.
When I reached the gates of the park, I knew that I was home; I was safe. It felt like my flat used to when I closed the door between me and the world each evening. The night breeze whispered a greeting in my ear, and blades of grass caressed my feet with each step. Across the gravel pathway, past the sparkling ponds, the other trees swayed, calling me with voices no human could hear. I crossed the path to join their circle, and my toes finally dug deep into the earth, deeper and deeper until they found the water, and I spread my arms, raising them up towards the stars.
I will never know why the willow trees allowed me to join them against all others. As is often the way of the world, they just did. I am young, compared to the rest of them, and I listen to their tales. They tell me of the people they watch and of the people they used to be. They talk of animals, of history, of change and of the sun. Of peace, of water, of life, of days and nights gone. I am a listener now, and I know the tales the willow trees tell.
Siobhan Murphy is part of the New Voices Workshop. She was mentored by NVW Fiction Editors Tommi Sopenperä, Amanda-Marie Kale and Nicole Caratas, as well as Sonali Misra, Co-founder of The Selkie.