Content warning: terminal illness
IMBIBITION: the absorption of water by a seed, stimulating the enzymes required for growth.
They’re visiting the quiet grandparents when her father says, ‘One day, you’ll find me here, too. Nothing is forever.’ His voice sounds like it’s coming from under the ground, like he’s already training her for what’s to come.
The girl is so small her feet dangle off the folding plastic bench. She stares at her grandparents’ names and oval photos in which they don’t smile, and then at the oak casting a shadow on their granite home. ‘What about that?’ she points at the tree.
Her father ruffles her hair. His fingers are cold. ‘For your purposes, that is forever,’ he admits.
She feels much warmer once they’re out in the car park, flat and hot like a frying pan, sizzling the metal boxes in the afternoon sun. A wave of heat so potent it distorts vision hits her when she opens the passenger door. She dislikes how chilly it feels at the graveyard, as if the marble slabs radiate frost out to visitors on sunny days, just to remind them of what’s in store.
‘Mama says you can be so morbee,’ the girl remembers out loud, fishing a lollipop out of the glove compartment, and her father laughs.
‘I think she means morbid.’
GERMINATION: the emergence of a plant contained within a seed.
If trees are forever, the girl reasons, then surely, they ought to plant one so that it remembers them, so that it’s grateful for the gift of existence, so that it whispers of them when they’re gone.
Her mother shakes her head. ‘Well done,’ she whispers to her husband. ‘You’re raising her some existential hippie without even trying.’
They collect rattling paper pouches from underneath an elm in the park. Her father tells her they contain seeds, and when they cut the bags open, tiny grains spill all over. She doesn’t believe her father when he says one of those will grow tall and proud in their garden.
He keeps the seed in the dark between pieces of wet cloth, and she opens it to look every day when he’s not around to bat her curious fingers away. She’s the first to know when a little stalk of green breaks out of the seed and the sight makes her squeal so hard her father can’t pretend to be angry.
SEEDLING: a young plant, especially one raised from seed and not from cutting.
‘But how will we know when to put it outside?’ she asks, stroking the tiny leaves on the elm.
Her father rubs his jeans, uneasy with the excessive tugging, but he doesn’t have it in him to slap her hand away. ‘We’ll eyeball it.’
She sits for hours, watching the stem, trying to catch it in the act of growing. It doesn’t look like anything just yet. It could be an iris, it could be a rose bush, it could be an elm. The girl wonders whether the tree knows what it will become.
She stares, but nothing ever happens. ‘It grows constantly, just very slowly,’ her mother tries to explain, taking the chance to braid her distracted daughter’s hair.
‘That’s very sneaky,’ the girl nods, her entire being focused on the tree so much that her mother’s poor combing technique doesn’t make her flinch and run away.
The tree strives for sun, trying to catch light onto its leaves. ‘It needs all the sugar it can get,’ her father explains, ‘but it’ll grow crooked if we don’t give it a spin.’
The girl turns the single stem to face her again and waves her finger at the elm. ‘So greedy,’ she says. ‘Your teeth will fall out and you’ll be hunched like that old crow from across the street.’
The girl’s father stifles a chuckle into his open palm.
SAPLING: a young tree, especially one with a slender trunk.
When they plant the elm outside, the girl’s father erects a circle of planks around it. ‘Why would you surround it by its dead friends?’ the girl asks and the father is pensive.
‘It’s to deter pests. They’d chew right through the stem.’
He’s right. Rats stop by at night, curious of the new construction. They scratch a little, but nothing smells alluring on the other side, so they leave. Tiny paws shuffle away in the grass, and the tree shivers in the still, windless night.
It grows as if fed by yeast, expanding in all directions, and so does the girl.
‘Can someone pass the salt?’ she asks at dinner.
Her mother smiles. ‘Get it yourself.’ The girl stretches her hand over the table and reaches the shaker without getting up. ‘You grow so fast you don’t even realise how long your limbs have become.’
It’s a race, but no matter how much she wills herself to stretch when lying in bed at night, the tree towers over her.
WITCH’S BROOM: a type of cancer on a woody plant, developing a dense mass with shoots growing out of it, resembling a broom or a bird’s nest.
‘And they said what?’ her father whispers and the girl listens on the other side of the door, squinting to see through the crack.
She sees her mother’s breast like an ugly plasticine figure stitched onto her chest. The lump drags her nipple to the left and the girl sees some wiry, black hairs encircling the areola.
‘That we need to remove it,’ her mother replies finally between sharp inhales, and her father draws the shirt back over the breast like a pathologist covering up a dead body.
The tree grows its own peculiar ball which disgusts the girl and reminds her of her mother’s deformed nipple. The mass is hard to touch and when branches sprout out of it, she remembers her biology teacher talking of a tumour which can grow hairs and teeth.
Her mother dies at home a year later. The oblivious tree keeps growing like nothing ever happened, and the girl does, too. She now curls up in bed instead of spreading out, trying to remember what it was in her mother’s soft belly when she was a little seed.
ULMUS PROCERA: a woody tree once popular in Britain, also known as the English elm.
The sapling is a tree and the girl is a woman. The changes are as unnoticed as they’re irrevocable. She can rest in the elm’s leafy shadow away from the scorching sun, which dries her skin out like a crouton. Nobody asks her for ID when she goes to the shop to get a bottle of wine or cigarettes for her father.
‘I hoped I’d be the first one to go,’ he tells her at the table they’d placed under the tree. ‘You told me once mum thought I was morbid.’
The woman nods. There’s little to say. She sees wrinkles around her father’s mouth.
One autumn, his face wears different shades just like the leaves on the elm. It looks a little yellowed for a while, then flushes red, and at the end, it turns ashen. If she stepped on him like she does on the pile she rakes up from underneath the tree, he’d rustle, too.
They put him to rest over his parents, and the oak is gone, a large stump like an amputated thumb sticking out of the ground. She stops by the groundskeeper’s office. ‘What happened to the oak?’ she asks.
‘It got struck by lightning and the trunk split. We had to cut it down.’
She thinks she’ll go home and tell her father he was wrong about trees, but she suddenly remembers she can’t. She leaves the graveyard limping even though her legs don’t hurt.
SCOLYTUS MULTISTRIATUS: a species of bark beetle known for spreading the Dutch elm disease.
Why she never married? She doesn’t know. She saw her mother get eaten from the inside. By the end, she could swear she saw little tumours growing underneath her eyelids, pushing out like pinheads, but maybe it was just the exhaustion.
That’s why she doesn’t sleep with men much, they ask too many questions. She’s like a suspect in a case of neglect of her own life. No children, no ex-husband, no baggage. They’re all tight on money with their alimony payments, always overdue, or mortgages they still keep up as part of their divorce settlements.
She hates the mammography scanner, pinching and squeezing until her knees feel ready to give in. They find something, not anything major, but a round of chemotherapy would serve her right. It sounds like a diagnosis of a particularly bad cold. The doctor’s voice is as milky and soft as his eyes, and she can’t see any emotion through that veil. It’s inherited, he explains. She was always a vulnerable specimen.
She’s fighting off nausea and combing her hair out, sat in the elm’s speckled shadow, when she notices a withered branch. In the middle of summer, just like that, a big branch, drooping and ready to fall off just like her eyelashes. She shrugs it off, but soon, there’s one more, and then another.
The tree surgeon explains the mechanics to her, but once she hears the word terminal, she only listens with the tiniest part of her that’s not panicked. Bark beetles, he continues, carry a certain species of fungus, and when they bore into the tree, they spread it. The tree tries to defend itself and blocks off nutrients to its branches, one by one. ‘It’s like a blood clot, but self-induced,’ he explains patiently. ‘It’s a real plague. The way it’s going, we won’t have any elms left in this country in a few years.’
She turns to him. She would raise her eyebrows if she had any. ‘That’s a bit apocalyptic, isn’t it?’
He shrugs and takes her to the tree, where he scratches some bark off and suddenly, they stare at intricate, vaguely symmetrical lines running along the trunk, looping in on themselves like footprints of some mad ant colony. ‘See, it’s like the tree’s got gangrene.’
She runs her fingers on the smooth trunk. ‘Now what? Do we just wait?’
He must hear the despair in her voice. She’s barely standing, it’s hot outside and she’s sweating under the head scarf. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘I have to cut it down.’
She would sleep with him if he wanted to, she would drop off the clothes and lead him to bed, and she would do anything he asked for in there. She’d bat her eyelashes and flirt, but she can’t, because she doesn’t have those anymore, either.
‘Please,’ she says. Begging is the only option. ‘I can’t do it without the tree. I know it’s strange, but please, please.’
He brings up his hand and goes back out into the garden. He stands under the tree and she notices now he’s not bad-looking, and some years ago she might have slept with him if he wanted to regardless of the tree.
‘Fine,’ he says finally. ‘But nobody can know. I’m only doing it because…’ He stops there and adjusts his trousers. She knows she’s damaged goods, just like her elm.
SNAG: a standing, dead or dying tree, often missing many of its smaller branches.
At night, she often wonders what it would have felt like for the tree to catch the disease. When the first beetle bored into the trunk, did it sting like a mosquito bite? Or like an injection, like all those translucent liquids she has pumped into her?
She admires the tree as it loses more and more branches. To gnaw off her own limb is something she ponders as well. What if she just got a kitchen knife and cut her breast off on the chopping board?
She doesn’t want to be the crazy tree lady who keeps a carcass in her backyard when spring comes. Spring will betray them both, her and her elm. She’ll still have to wear a hat, even though it’s warm outside, and the tree will still look naked with all the greenness shimmering everywhere around it. Its few remaining branches will still comb through the impeccable blue of the sky like a rabid, skinny claw.
The tree surgeon brings his tools into the garden and she cries silently, something she learned when her mother died. The man asks her to go inside, but she shakes her head. He looks almost too sad to bear. ‘If it makes you feel any better, many other people have lost their trees.’
She chuckles a little. ‘Is there a grief circle for it?’
‘We could start one,’ he replies very seriously and the last words drown into the barking of the saw.
Afterwards, he says he wouldn’t mind a cup of tea. The garden’s cleaned up and they sit at the table exposed to the sun again. He pulls something out of his pocket, and the rattle is so tiny she can barely hear it over the echo of the saw still bouncing from one ear to another.
It’s a brownish pouch. ‘I found those under the tree. It’s a miracle it still produced some.’ Her sob’s audible this time and he lowers his voice. ‘Do you know how to grow a tree from seed?’
He passes it to her across the table and she grabs the thin packet and shakes it like an ancient rattle toy. ‘Yes,’ she whispers. ‘I do.’