Read More: A brief interview with Sarah Wheeler
The nurses stood in a silent semi-circle around the woman.
She was sitting up against a metal headrest, having thrown her pillows to the floor when she was in labor. Her dark hair was cracking with sweat, and her skin looked as if she had recently bled out. She had a newborn suckling at her breast, and it stung more than she thought it would.
The doctor moved the nurses aside with a gesture, and sat on the edge of the bed. He was so slight he didn’t make a dent. He looked at his gnarled hands, rubbed a protruding purple vein, and said, “Do you want a specialist or a priest?”
The baby was small and red in the cheeks, with ten fingers and ten toes, two bright blue eyes, and ten bare branches the color of umbilical cords growing a few inches out of her skull. When she had first been born, an hour earlier, they had taken her away, and brought her back with x-rays, which showed roots embedded deep in her brain.
The baby tugged at her nipple. The woman said, “Don’t be stupid, bring me a man experienced with trees. An orchardist. Look for someone with filthy fingernails, who smells like apples.”
The woman, for the first time, felt old: twenty, bare-breasted, a mother –a skinbag of torn organs and milk. She brought the sheet up to cover her daughter’s head; the branches made strange indentations.
The doctor sent one of the nurses out with a limp flick of the wrist.
She went into the waiting room. “Who knows anything about trees?”
The room was silent except for a tall, thin man with startlingly blue eyes who stood slowly, grabbed the brim of his clean hat with grubby fingers and tipped it, and left through the smooth, automatic glass doors.
The nurse came back and shrugged at the doctor.
The doctor picked up a scalpel and turned it over in his soft hands. “I would be perfectly capable of nipping them off,” he said.
As Wedd grew, so too did her branches.
Her mother rarely mentioned them, except in the fall, when she made her shake her head outside of their cottage to get rid of dead leaves. They piled up in mounds on the porch and made nests for jewel colored beetles that clicked their pincers when disturbed. The wallpaper absorbed the scent of Wedd’s branches, bitter and green and so fresh a sharp inhale could cause a nosebleed. The forest closed in, the trees leaned toward the cottage, as if they too wanted a look at this tree girl.
For a house so isolated, it was rarely quiet. Her mother was a storyteller. Women called her phone at any hour, and her mother would listen for a dollar ninety-nine a minute. She idly stroked Wedd’s branches while they talked. The girl could usually tell what the person on the phone was saying: for the lonely ones, her mother saw a husband, as kind as he was chiseled in the jaw. For the sad, a vague but earnest promise of less sadness in the future, if they made sure to call back often. For the ones that called with their friends and put her on speaker and giggled into the receiver, one would surely die a virgin and be eaten, face-first, by her own pets.
Her mother claimed to know a thousand and twenty-four fairytales. She said that when she first brought Wedd home, she told them sitting inside with the lights off. This is how her mother avoided the urgent knocks from journalists, and, worst of all, young scientists and doctors. The reporters grew bored, and there were more oddities born for the scientists to stick with needles, and then it was once again only soft-faced neighbors that knocked, asking when those chisel-jawed husbands would find them.
She told stories to Wedd while washing dishes, while Wedd ran her hands along the floor, the worn hardwood more comforting than any stuffed animal. She told them to her in the bath, carefully oiling the branches – now deep gold and curved like antlers – to stop them from shredding bark.
Wedd learned of golden-haired Delvcaem, trapped in a tower by her mother the witch, surrounded by a sea that glinted with the monsters that roiled under its surface. She laughed at the Little Mermaid, who cut out her tongue and traded her shining fins for bruised and bleeding feet. Her favorite story was the tale of her namesake Blodeuwedd, who was created for a lonely prince out of oak, broom, and meadowsweet to be his wife, but didn’t want to be.
Wedd said, “One day, I’ll turn back into oak.”
Her mother pressed a hand just underneath Wedd’s stomach, so firmly the girl could feel her heart beating there. Her mother said, “Organs and bone. Why would you want to be anything but what you are?”
The next night she brought in a copy of Human Anatomy, Current Edition, and drew her finger across the smooth mulch of the page as she said, “Carpals. Metacarpals. Proximal phalanges. Intermediate phalanges. Distal phalanges. Carpals. Metacarpals,” her own fingers circling the spidery illustrations with an intensity that made Wedd squirm.
That night Wedd couldn’t sleep because of the ache of bones pushing at the skin of her hands.
By the time she turned five, she had learned all 206 bones in the human body. She could feel them move under her skin. Even when her mother didn’t speak, she heard her low, persuasive voice in the root-riddled contours of her brain. Tibia. Fibula. Wedd was afraid that if she thought too hard about her bones, they would push the branches right out of her, and leave her all girl and no tree.
She learned the anatomy of a newborn’s skull, the frontal and occipital bones in their slow collide, coming together to shield the brain. Or should come together, if there weren’t branches rising out of it, deep gold and strong, and prone to peeling in the cold. She started getting headaches deep at the base of her skull. Her mother put two fingers there and tried to massage the knots out, but they were hard and stubborn as roots.
When Wedd turned six, she went to school. She pulled her mother by her tight, cold hand to a group of children kicking rivets into the playground, bits of sharp sawdust settling in their wake. Bark chips, those sloughed off bits of tree-skin, felt soft and familiar under her feet.
Those children all had hair. Smooth hair and coarse hair, hair that spiraled so tightly it grew up instead of down, hair the color of blood and dirt and the pale yellow of pee.
One of the girls kicking the dirt stopped, and came up close behind this mother. “Can I touch?” she said.
“Is it contagious?” the girl’s mother said.
At home that night Wedd’s mother brought up homeschool. She herself had been homeschooled. There, she had learned practical skills: the right way to wrap a festering wound, and how to separate lonely women from their cash and be thanked for it. But the thought of being stuck inside with her mother’s endless litany of bones made Wedd feel as if her stomach was a nest for wasps.
“I didn’t appreciate my mother either,” her mother said, staring at her for an uncomfortable length of time before the ringing phone interrupted.
Her mother had brown eyes. Deep brown, almost black, the color of moist earth underneath roots. She could warm you with those eyes, make you remember you had hot blood running through your veins. Or she could bury you.
She wished she had her mother’s eyes.
She made a total of one friend, Evelyn, the girl who asked to touch her that first day on the playground. The other kids pushed and pinched and tripped and spat on Evelyn – why, Wedd didn’t know. She looked, to Wedd’s eyes, to be normal. But she supposed she wasn’t the best judge of that, as everyone looked pretty normal to her, even Ian with this dog-bite scars, and Kevin with his extra pinkie, and Karen with her violent facial tics.
This friendship acted as a kind of buffer, so when someone shouted some vile, tree-based obscenity at her, she could roll her eyes at Evelyn as if to say, Just wait.
If she internalized all these small cruelties she was sure she would wither and die, like most of the trees in their neighbor’s apple orchard did during the beetle infestation that struck only his small farm when she was in the sixth grade. That year their neighbor, the blue-eyed farmer, sat on his front porch and cried, his knotty hands gripping his hair like he wanted to pull it out. When they drove past the graveyard of twisted trees her mother said, “Gall pechod mawr ddyfod trwy ddrws bychan. You reap what you sow.”
So Wedd didn’t dwell. Bad thoughts and ill wishes crawled across her mind like larvae, and she let them burrow deep.
Puberty was a trial of unpleasant surprises.
While the other girls dealt with – according to Evelyn, who never understood the value of companionable silence – tender breasts, and purple scars where skin couldn’t stretch fast enough, and alarming amounts of blood, Wedd grew taller, her branches grew wider and heavier, shinier and darker, and she got dizzy often. Worse, she started flowering and then growing fruit. Big, hard, red-black fruit that no one in town had seen before. She plucked one while sitting on her bed and opened it: it was lined with seeds, like a pomegranate. She scraped out a palmful and put them in her in mouth. Bitter as soap; she spat mouthful into a pulpy mess on the sheets.
She outgrew her room. Her branches had mauled the walls with deep scratches.
At first her mother refused to let her sleep outside – she listed off the murderers, rapists, tree-cutters, rogue reporters after a long-dead story, who would attempt to cut her up, tear her up, open her up. She told Wedd that she didn’t mind that there were so many leaves underfoot, the floor alive with the sound of them, crunched and dead.
But then Wedd’s branches grew so tall that the tips, sharp as knives, scraped plaster off the ceiling, long scratches tearing cuts into the soft mouth of the house. One day, a large chunk fell down and nearly knocked Wedd on the head. Her mother grabbed the tallest branch at the base and threw all her weight against it. It snapped. It didn’t hurt. The room filled with the sharp smell of unripe apples, and her mother mutely held the branch out to her, as if she could glue it back.
In the morning, a new branch had sprouted in the broken branch’s place, green and tender and already half a foot long.
Her mother put a wrought-iron bed in the backyard, and hooked a tarp between two trees to keep out the rain. Wedd laid on the ground and felt the grass and cool moss and cool dirt on her skin. She watched the trees sway silently, a green jealousy settling somewhere in her gut, which began to itch.
“You’re turning wild,” her mother said.
Spanish moss grew in her branches, trailing behind her like a scarf. She had a musty, earthy smell. Small animals began to nest in her branches, insects and nimble mice, a small owl that nested where two branches tangled in a knot. He hooted dolefully when she made sudden movements. She named him The Vomit King for his habit of coughing up small, rough balls of undigested rodent matter, and dropping them at her feet, or occasionally on her head.
It numbed her to the feel of things in her branches, so when a few pieces of fruit disappeared, she didn’t notice. Until she saw group of boys in the hall with deep red juice on their chapstick-shiny lips.
She walked by as if she didn’t see, a reproachful hoooooo coming from above.
“Tease!” one yelled, and threw a fruit at a locker in front of her with a tremendous, metallic bang.
On a fall day in senior year, when she and Evelyn were walking home, she heard the splat of a fruit hitting the sidewalk. She turned to kick it into the bushes to give it the chance to grow – none yet had, too young – and nearly poked a young man’s eye out with a branch. He had a long, hooked nose and round, wire glasses, the left lens now cracked. He had the broken fruit in his hands; it was dripping down his wrists like a suicide.
“Who are you?” she said.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m Doug. I sit behind you in biology?”
“I’m not in biology,” Wedd said.
“I meant her,” he nodded at Evelyn, whose chest began to blotch under the attention.
If he stared at Wedd any harder, he’d be able to see right into her brain. He had the shining, quick, black eyes of a rodent.
“Listen,” he said. “Listen, I’ve got a great idea. So here’s the thing, I’m going to be a doctor, I have to be a doctor and you are just, you know, the perfect test subject. What do you think?”
“I don’t need a doctor.”
“OK, listen. So there’s this guy who became famous when he nineteen after he did a study on his sisters – the Orthrus twins, maybe you’ve heard of them? Two heads, one magnificent body – but I don’t have anyone. But you, look at you, look at you. Lovely, really beautiful. What is it? A symbiotic relationship? A parasite? I’ve been in your class since kindergarten, haven’t you noticed me?”
“I’ve noticed you,” Evelyn said.
He shadowed Wedd: lean, hungry body. He was a peripheral person, seemingly always just behind her, covering his notebook with sloppy, tiny writing, like ants crawling across the page. Sometimes he would ask questions. “Do you think a trunk will sprout, or are you the trunk? Do you water it? How bad are your headaches? If you had to choose between cutting down a forest and killing Evelyn…? What, on a scale of one to ten, is your desire for a human relationship and, follow up question, what are you doing Friday night? Does it bother you that your cells might be able to cure multitudes of illnesses, but we’ll never know because you won’t consent to be tested? This would go much faster if you’d answer me.”
He did this for months.
One day after school she saw him sitting alone on the bleachers. It was raining, the hot, damp air spinning tendrils of moisture into the air. The wet smell of almost-summer. He was eating a soggy, soft sandwich, and waved at her as she walked by.
She turned, came back to him, and dipped her head until he could reach a fruit. “Don’t get shy now,” she said. He plucked with an audible snap, tore into it with his short, clean fingernails, and smiled.
From then on, he stopped pretending not to be there. He was always fingering her fruits, until she pushed his hands away, gently or not. Some, he put them into little bags that he labeled (August 12th, Noon, Blodeuwedd unusually happy after finding fungus growing in crack in bathroom wall) or (September, Six AM, Blodeuwedd sleepy, slow to wake, angry after being woken, angrier when asked to describe level of anger). And he ate. He ate so many, some of her branches were entirely bare, leaving her feeling lopsided.
She brought him home to her mother who stood in the doorway and said, “Are you going to put her in a museum, or keep her for your private collection?”
He frowned with his juice-stained lips and said, “First, do no harm.”
Her mother shut the door.
“How is it?” Evelyn said, picking molding moss out of Wedd’s branches. “What’s it like?”
“Does my fruit taste bitter to you?”
“I’ve never had any.”
Wedd leaned back to look up at her.
Evelyn took hold of a large one from near the top and worked it off.
“Don’t watch, you’re making me nervous.”
Wedd watched the house. Her mother was at the kitchen table inside, phone cord wrapped around her arm, back to them.
She heard Evelyn’s wet bite. Red juice spilled down her chin and onto Wedd’s leaves.
“Delicious,” she said.
At dinner, sitting at the old oak table that was now stained with a constellation of rainspots, her mother said, “I’m very sick.”
There was a type of beetle that could kill a tree in weeks. It would lay its eggs under the bark and top those with a fungus, which would confuse the tree, so it doesn’t realize it should be spreading pitch to kill the larvae.
Cancer was like that.
Wedd put broccoli in her mouth and spat it back out. It tasted too rich, so many layers of hard-packed minerals and fiber.
There was a soft breeze that rustled the brittle leaves on her branches, sent insects skittering down her branches and over her skin. […]
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Sarah Wheeler has an MFA in Fiction from George Mason University and have been published in Mid-American Review, Gone Lawn, Haunted Waters Press, and elsewhere.
“Blodeuwedd” by Sarah Wheeler won the 2020 Editor’s Reprint Award (fiction/nonfiction) and was originally published by Haunted Waters Press.
Read More: A brief interview with Sarah Wheeler