the fair-skinned girl is crying again. she leans against you, your rough knots making rivets in her smooth forehead, her fast tears sliding down your bark and darkening a patch of dirt at your base. when at first she came running through the forest to you, of course you could sense that something was wrong, but you weren’t able to tell what. though as soon as she touched you--falling to her knees on the ground, lurching forward onto her torso, scraping the pads of her fingers against your uneven brown skin as her light hair became spattered with specks of wood--you understood, in that instant, absolutely everything that she felt.
and is still feeling. as she clutches the side of your trunk, images of all she’s recently seen course through you. most of it is pure familiarity, things you’ve come to know about her almost a dozen years ago, when she was a mere child, just four, and your friendship started that one day her nanny took her on an outing to the woods. since then, she’s come to you often, in times of joy and despair, noon and midnight, a few times with young friends. once with another fair-skinned fellow, a boy, barefoot and with brown hair and eyes like crystal whenever he looked at her. for weeks and weeks after, whenever she touched you, that face would implant itself inside of you--most often tilted to the side, grinning, the boy’s hands and cheeks and feet smudged with dirt from laughing in the forest with the girl.
now, although you do not sense thoughts of the boy, things that you already know are being told to you yet again. you feel images of the girl’s family’s mansion; of the wide and sweeping library, with gold lettering of book titles glinting along the--you feel a pang--dark oak shelves, and windows so high it takes the tallest ladder and the tallest servant in the house just to scrub off a patch of grime. of the light-haired girl’s own room, with its deep carpet and extensive wardrobe and four-poster bed and curtained windowseat offering a view of the gravel front drive. of the grounds, trimmed by countless weathered hands that didn’t own an inch of what they were touching; the foliage, buds bright green and pink as the girl, your girl, ran through them to you.
but the cause of her weeping goes before then, back. an hour--no, half an hour earlier. in the image playing over and over in the girl’s mind, her father is standing outside the carved dining room door. the girl tries to exit, but he grabs her by the arm to talk to her. the girl struggles against him; her father just grips the sleeve of her long mauve dress tighter, opens his mouth wider. sweat stands out against his temples as it becomes clear that he’s started to yell. by now the girl is crying, jerking away from him. she talks back against him, but her father raises his hand above her face. the girl’s tongue stills, yet tears continue pooling in her pale blue eyes, streaking silently down her face, dripping off her chin onto the bodice of her dress. when at last her father lets the girl go, she runs through the hall, downstairs, past the front drive, into the forest--alone--to you.
if only, if only you could be some consolation to whatever affliction she’s suffering. if only you could provide simply a human shoulder to cling to, or the quiet comfort of a woodland creature, or even the warmth and pleasure of a hot meal or a fire to heat the chilly spring air. but the girl simply weeps harder, her tears pouring into you, breaking her delicate fingernails as she grasps at your bark, asking, begging, for any kind of deliverance.
suddenly, she sits up and turns her head. you cannot hear--nor smell nor taste nor even see, without her breath pouring into you--what has inexplicably called her attention, only feel her light feet on your exposed roots, feel the muscles within her body tighten as she begins to stand. and in less time than it takes for a wind-blown acorn to fall to the moss, the fair-skinned girl is up--she’s running back--and the last you ever know of her is of that soft pad of a foot arching away from your trunk as she takes off running through the woods.
now another girl, perhaps even a woman, is touching your weathered bark, her back and head against you as she looks up at the sky. this woman’s hair is in braids, unlike the loose mane of her predecessor, and it is red, not the young girl’s pale blonde. her skin is also light, although not quite as fair as that of the girl, and this woman has freckles, too, around her nose and cheeks, as though god had held a handkerchief of melanin to her face in the imprint of her genes. she’s wearing a yellow straw hat, you’re sure, and a patterned green dress, much more practical than that of the fair-skinned girl’s voluminous gown. the dress is long-sleeved, and hems just below the woman’s knees; she has on worn boots and her legs are crossed at the ankle. you can feel her stretch and yawn, and look out towards the field, an expanse of waving overgrown grass where a forest, full of your brothers and sisters, once stood. but now, there is only you, spared by some miraculous mercy, a patch of shade in a place where nothing exists for miles but sun and dust and heat.
another person--again a woman, again with light skin--sits down heavily at the base of your trunk, then almost immediately turns to look at her companion. the new person taking rest below your branches has wavy dark hair, and brown eyes, and skin like snow, but despite all these, you can feel her open her mouth and laugh. soon, the redhead girl joins in, joyful for a reason you cannot perceive; even so, you are glad for them.
the dark-haired woman picks up an apple from a basket lying next to her, right under you, takes a bite out of it, then tosses it to her friend. the braided girl also partakes, once, of the waxy ripe fruit, then tosses it, in all manner of casualty, behind her, to your other side. the two women each chew for a moment; then, in a manner of ways which you’ve never even known to know, the woman with the freckles and the woman with the cold skin, still both sitting against your trunk, lean the short distance towards each other until their lips meet. they stay like that for several seconds, then pull apart--both laugh, you think, and the dark-haired one touches the tip of her partner’s freckled nose--and then their faces come together again.
you don’t know how long it is before the two women, as if both yanked by the same string, scramble upwards. their breath is heavy. their feet are still planted right by you, so you can feel their eyes looking in the same direction. far, far off, or perhaps rather close, through the ground you sense thudding footsteps coming your way, see the large muddy shoes at the end of faded overalls, vaguely detect grizzle across a weathered face, hairy hands clamping what might be a stick or a pole or a gun.
the two women look, for a fraction of a second, at one another, and then the dark-eyed one scoops up the basket and a patchwork blanket and the one in the green dress quickly gathers a few books to her chest and they take off running, in some purposeful direction, their boots slamming against the dirt as the feeling of their steps grows fainter and fainter every moment you feel.
finally, there is another person. she stands just a short distance away from you in the grass, in the park where you are among trees futilely planted, trees a twentieth of your age, in the middle of miles of asphalt and electricity and brick. she has cool dark skin, and big dark hair, and glinting dark eyes, and her thumbs are hooked on to the straps of her backpack. it’s nighttime outside, and cold, and she is alone; you don’t know why she’s come to stand in front of you, especially so late.
a rust-colored beanie hangs off her head, and she’s wearing thin sneakers. her eyes are large behind tortoiseshell-framed glasses. she continues standing there, just looking at you; but she isn’t there long before your roots detect quiet footsteps creeping through the grass behind her.
you become frantic, but you hope that maybe, this isn’t what you think it is. Desperately, you try to warn her; but what can you do?
the girl is grabbed around the waist, from behind. you see hands that look almost white that disappear into heather jacket sleeves, and a hooded head behind one of her shoulders. you expect, with dread, for her to freeze or panic; but instead, swifter than you could’ve ever thought, she jerks her elbow back, slams the man in the face, then stomps down on the toe of his shoe while clawing at his hands around her. just a little bit, he lets go, and she takes the opportunity to headbutt him in the face. he staggers backwards--she slips her backpack off and swings it at him full force--then she drops it and takes off running through the park.
it takes several seconds for him to recover, and by then she’s gone, you can no longer feel her. her attacker, after a few seconds peering in the direction she went, stalks off the other way, and like it was mere minutes ago, the city block is once again quiet and dark.