I knelt on the cool dirt of the aspen grove in my back yard as the breeze ran its fingers through the black silk of my hair before making my trees sing. Their song wrapped me in warmth, rejoicing in my presence and welcoming me home.
Join us, daughter. Wuhgah.
I hadn’t been to the grove in days, neglecting my duty to both the trees and myself. Coming here recharged me, gave me back power and life I found nowhere else, and it kept the trees going, despite the disease that sapped their strength.
The wind picked up, carrying white, puffy seeds through the air, unusual for this time of year. Another sign of their sickness. The tree song grew louder, beckoning and stirring something so visceral, so primordial, that tears formed in my eyes as it whispered my name.
They needed me as much as I needed them.
I opened my eyes and found the spot of loamy topsoil just a few feet away. Aspens are used to hard soil, but I needed softer earth. As my hands hovered just above the dirt, they tremored, shaking like the leaves on the aspens themselves. The tremors had started a month ago, the illness moving from my trees to me. I managed to hide the shaking most days, but we were running out of time.
I took a deep breath, and thrust my hands into the soft dirt. The presence of the trees nudged my senses, tiny currents of electricity nipping at my fingertips before darting back off into the ground.
Still, underneath their playful invitations I sensed stress. Disease gnawed at their roots, robbing the grove of nutrients, starving them. Above me, leaves turned from yellow to black, then shriveled and fell. More than autumn turning. Death, slow and inexorable.
My voice whispered back to them. “Not long now. Peh-nuck.”
Before I could go on, the grumble of a big block engine split the grove’s peace like an ax through a log. Metal rattled as Joe guided his old Ford truck up my crumbling driveway.
The trees held on when I tried to pull my hands from the earth, like a mother refusing to let go of their child. Still, with a gentle tug I freed my fingers, rose, and brushed myself off. I picked a twig from the tangle of my hair, my hands steadier now. “Let me get rid of him, then I’ll be back.”
But as Joe climbed down from the dented cabin of his pickup, he flashed the rogue smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling, and my knees turned to jelly just like they always did.
“You aren’t supposed to be here,” I scolded, unable to fight a smile. “That was our agreement. One week off a month.”
The autumn sun warmed my shoulders as cars slipped by on Oak Street. Joe looked at his watch and grinned again, running his fingers through his tangled nest of straw-colored hair.
“Technically your week doesn’t begin for a few more hours,” he said. “So wash up, grab your purse, and let’s go get dinner.”
“I have so much to do.” I cast an impatient glance over my shoulder at the grove. “I have to—”
“I’ll have you back here in plenty of time,” he promised. “Just dinner. Nothing more.”
He fixed me with his most riveting blue gaze, a look that compelled me as much as the song of my trees. More, maybe.
“Back here by eight thirty,” I demanded. It actually needed to be eight thirty-five, but that was cutting it close. “No later.”
“Maybe someday I won’t have to get you home at all.”
I frowned and went to get my things.
We’d talked about our future several times during the four months we’d been dating. His expectations were simple: he wanted a stable, normal family. He’d grown up in a series of broken homes. Both his parents had divorced and remarried several times, giving Joe four stepdads and five stepmoms. He’d bounced between homes, sometimes being beaten, others just ignored.
So to him, having a normal, unbroken family meant everything.
For me, he was the first guy who’d lasted more than a month. Most guys weren’t cool with that time of the month meaning a one-week breakup, but Joe didn’t care, and that made him precious to me. I longed to give him what he needed.
I just couldn’t trust myself.
Joe took me to a hole-in-the-wall place just off East Colfax specializing in organic food. The tangy smell of my organic marinara battled with the still-bloody scent of his buffalo burger as we listened to yoga music and the quiet clinking of glass and silver.
As always, he had me laughing within minutes. I found myself drawn deep into the crystal blue of his eyes and disarmed by the gentle brush of his hand. We talked and touched for hours until the sun started dipping, turning the Denver skyline orange and purple and blue.
“It’s getting late,” I said, trying to keep disappointment from my voice.
Joe frowned and paid the bill.
On the drive home, I leaned my head against the cool glass of the passenger window and let my mind wander to the day we’d met. Much like today, I’d been working in the grove, breathing in the rich scent of the soil and trying to heal my trees, when his truck’s rumble jarred me from my work.
I didn’t accept visitors at the house, didn’t like letting anyone into my world. I’d grown my hedges tall and my trees taller to keep out the neighbors’ prying eyes, and my grandparents had set the house as far back from the street as possible.
But none of that deterred Joe. With steam hissing from under the hood, he’d limped his truck up the driveway, climbed out, and flashed his dazzling smile.
“Could I borrow your driveway for a few?”
“You didn’t give me much of a choice.”
“Sorry. I had to get her off the street. Should take just a couple minutes, then I’ll be out of your amazingly pretty hair.”
Just like that he’d charmed his way into my life. Something about him pulled at me, drew me to his side to watch the muscles in his arm as he pumped a wrench. I winced as he burned his arm, and my healing instincts kicked in. Taking his forearm in my hands, I led him to the porch and sat him in a rocking chair.
An hour later we stood in my grove, Joe running his hands over the smooth, white bark of the closest aspen, his eyes closed as if he could feel its energy.
“They’re amazing,” he said. “There’s usually not enough sun for them in the city. You must work very hard.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“I worked a few years at a nursery as a boy,” he explained. “When my mom was married to the owner. I learned how to care for all kinds of trees, aspens included. So now I spend summers in Colorado, tending the orchards here. Winters I go back to Texas and work the trees down there. Trees are kind of like family to me.”
I wasn’t sure, but I thought my heart skipped a beat. Still, with the sun setting that day and Joe standing beside his truck, I felt the familiar tingle in my stomach as the anxiety to be alone in the grove returned.
“Would you like to go to dinner?” he asked.
I looked at the ground, guilt making me dizzy. “I can’t.”
“Is there someone else?”
I shook my head. “I just . . . can’t.”
The familiar tug of the grove battled with a part of me that wanted to stay with him.
He nodded, climbed in his truck, and rumbled off. That was that, until the next morning, when he showed up bearing a basket of organic fruit, fresh and clean and sweet. As I took the basket, my tremor caused out hands to brush, and a spark jumped between our skin.
“Dinner?” He fixed his blue-eyed gaze on me, and this time I couldn’t say no.
In the four months since, he hadn’t asked about my family, hadn’t questioned my devotion to the trees, hadn’t demanded sex. He never questioned my weird need for a week off each month, either. He accepted it all with that rogue’s grin of his.
He was everything I’d ever hoped for. And I knew I’d have to break his heart.
The truck hit a bump and my head bounced on the glass, snapping me out of my memories. Darkness had fallen on the city. With panic twisting my gut, I glanced at my cell phone. Eight twenty-eight, and we were still ten minutes from home.
Panic seized my chest like a block of ice. Spotting a park, I took a deep breath and turned to Joe.
As soon as the truck groaned to a stop, I burst out the passenger door and ran. The silver disc of the moon peeked through the Denver skyline as I dashed through the park.
Joe ran after, calling my name, but I made it to a small clearing inside a stand of oak and maple trees and ducked out of sight. Ignoring a wrought iron bench, I planted my feet shoulder width apart on the leaf-cushioned ground, closed my eyes, and braced myself just as the moonlight painted my skin.
The transformation began, as always, with the knotting of the muscles in my neck, shoulders, and thighs. I smothered an agonized cry to avoid drawing Joe’s attention. I couldn’t let him see this, couldn’t bear the thought of losing him.
I gasped as my toes elongated and drove themselves into the hard, dry earth of the park, one nail tearing off in a flash of fiery pain. This dirt wasn’t like the soil in my grove, where I kept it watered and soft. Here the dirt had hardened and mixed with concrete dust to form an almost impenetrable surface. Even when my roots shattered the top layer and plunged beneath, they had to weave themselves around the thicker, tougher roots of the larger trees.
My entire body stiffened as my muscles turned to wood. I felt my arms stretch, my fingers growing long and stiff. Leaves sprouted. Branches erupted from my sides, my ribs shredding my skin and becoming their own limbs, reaching for the wind with what had once been muscle and bone but was now wood and fiber and chlorophyll.
My roots took hold, pulling in nutrients from the soil, joining with the tendrils of the other trees and plugging my consciousness into the network known only to my people. The World Wide Web had nothing on the network linking tree to tree, plant to plan. It formed a giant communication grid of flora from one side of the globe to the other.
The rush of emotion and information, of the sheer presence of other plant life, was almost more than I could take. Normally, in my grove, this was a gradual process as my trees formed a kind of firewall, but here, in the unprotected park, my mind suffered a startling barrage of information and awareness. I felt exposed. Vulnerable. I knew what my ancestors had gone through and why they had made themselves so scarce, quickly becoming hermits and living in isolated groves like mine. Their human minds became overloaded, needing protection. Filtering.
As my transformation finished, my sense of self, my human self, quieted and my awareness of the park became an awareness only of the trees around me. As the transformation completed, peace settled and I felt myself rustling in the wind.
I woke with a shiver the next morning, the sun not yet high enough to keep gooseflesh from forming on my naked arms and legs. Tatters of my clothing hung from me and I did my best to wrap them around myself. I usually woke up in my own grove, so the naked part was no big deal. Waking up in a public park, well, that was different.
I managed to cover my breasts. My underwear were still in one piece. My jeans were another story, torn down the seams and laying in a heap at my feet.
To my right, Joe sat up on the bench and yawned. He looked at me and blushed, but didn’t look away.
“When did you get . . . back?” he asked.
It was my turn to blush, and I turned around. “How much did you see?”
His feet crunched on the dry grass as he approached and wrapped his jacket around my shoulders. His hands rested there for a moment before falling to his sides.
“I’m not sure what I saw,” he answered. “When I got here, there was a tree, but it was . . . different. I thought I saw your face for a minute, but then it disappeared. Now the tree is gone, and here you are.”
So he’d seen too much.
“I want to go home,” I said.
“Loya . . .” He let my name hang in the air as if it were a question I should answer.
I turned and strode toward the parking lot.
That night, as traffic whooshed by on Oak Street and the full moon rose like ripe fruit over the city, I stood in the grove behind my house and waited. As always, my stomach twisted in excitement and anticipation of the pain.
The light brushed my copper skin, and I closed my eyes. The transformation went easier at home, but it still hurt. Flesh to wood, blood to sap, plasma to chlorophyll was excruciating, no matter your location. But here, when it finished, I linked into a network much smaller and more isolated than the one from the park. The awareness that flooded me, that coursed through my system, felt familiar and kind, not strange and shocking. It was more like being naked in your own home than in the middle of Main Street.
Two voices—one man, one woman—woven into one.
“Mykh, mother and father. Hello. I’m sorry I was not here last night.”
Coming to the grove and transforming in the light of the moon had prolonged the lives of my parents. Their human forms had died years ago, and now their trees were dying, too. By coming here, I injected new life into the grove, and every full moon I missed cost them time.
I could feel the sickness creeping through every tree in the grove. Botanists describe Aspen groves as single organisms, but that is not exactly right—at least not for our kind of aspens. We’re individual trees, humans before transforming, linked by our root system when we change. The longer we’re together, the more we become one, until eventually were like any other aspen grove: a single organism. Linked in this grove were not only my mother and father, but my grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts, and some relatives I didn’t even know. The illness had spread to them all.
He makes you happy.
I couldn’t deny it, so I didn’t respond.
You must go to him.
“I have to care for our family.”
Listen closely, daughter. You’ve cared for this grove, neglecting yourself. Our time is near, and if you continue, you will die, too. Even as you help us, you make yourself sicker. This man makes you happy, and happiness can make you whole. By being whole you can be healthy.
“But it will be too late for you.”
I squeezed my eyes shut to hold back tears. I’d known all along, in the back of my mind anyway, that this couldn’t go on forever. But I’d hoped their eventual deaths were farther in the future. Now, though, mother and father pulled back a veil and the full extent of their illness swept through me like sludge. I should’ve known when their leaves started to curl and die. I should’ve realized when their bark peeled and their flesh wept sap and their branches fell dead to the ground.
But I saw only what I wanted to see.
“What will I do without you? Without the grove?”
You must start your own grove. Your family.
“He won’t want me. He wants a normal family with a mother and father and children.”
Other voices joined them now, coupled with a flood of images, as generations of my kin joined mother and father to impart the wisdom of the grove.
He wants what he didn’t have, and you can give that to him.
“How can I trust myself? How do I know it’s about him and not about the grove?”
The lie, the real question, the underlying doubt that had made me scare away every other man who’d dared to care about me. I could never know if it was truly about my love for him, or his potential to save my grove. My family.
You will never know if you do not try.
They were right.
Joe stared at me, his mouth open just a crack, his eyes piercing deep into my soul as he tried to decipher if I was serious. After a moment, he rubbed his eyes and sighed.
“I thought I was going crazy,” he mumbled. “I knew I’d seen something, but it didn’t make any sense.”
“And you don’t think I’m crazy?”
He shook his head. “No. I know I should, but for some reason I don’t.”
We sat on the old wooden swing on my back porch, the late evening sun stretching shadows long across the yard. Crickets had started their moonlight serenades early, and the scents of old leaves and good soil filled the air.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” I said. “You’re the first outsider to witness it in over a hundred years. Now you know why I needed a week away from you each month . . . the full moon makes us change.”
“There are more like you?”
“Not here,” I said. “We scattered to keep ourselves safe. We don’t want to go the way of the other species.”
“You mean werewolves?” He leaned back from me, as if I might bite him. As if a tree could become a wolf, leaves become fangs.
“That was one,” I explained. “Once there were many. Now only we remain, the tree-changers.”
“What happened to the others?”
“Some were hunted. Others died of diseases or killed one another. Rumors say some still live deep in hiding, but no one has found them. We survived because we’re not threatening. We don’t hunt, kill, or even move once we’ve changed. As you saw.”
He rose, paced to the other end of the porch, and stared at the grove. With no breeze to stir their song, my ancestors could not greet him.
“And that’s your family?” He didn’t look at me. “Your mom, dad, everyone?”
“Do they change, too?”
“No,” I answered. “When we reach the end of our human life, we change permanently into our tree form, joining the grove and becoming part of the family consciousness for as long as our family tree lives.”
“And you can communicate?”
“It’s wonderful. We know everything about one another instantly. If you thought the internet was amazing, you should see what trees have been doing for centuries.”
I smiled, but he squinted into the dim evening light, studying the grove from a distance.
“They’re sick,” he said.
I nodded. “They’re dying. Some sort of bacteria.”
“Does that mean you—”
I held up my left hand, showing him the tremor.
“Yes. Every time I join with them I sustain them a little longer, but shorten my own life.”
“Is there hope? Anything we can do?”
I shook my head. “Only if we bring in someone who’s not sick. Infusion of new blood, blood free of disease, might save some. It’s already too late for many.”
He sucked in a deep breath, grabbed his jacket off the swing, and stood by the porch steps. He looked at me with eyes that reflected the evening sky.
“So this is all about saving your family?”
“I don’t know. I never do. That’s why I always . . .”
“Hide. Drive people away.”
I nodded, unable to meet his gaze.
He turned to go, then stopped and looked back over his shoulder.
“If it’s not possible, if I can’t join you, there will always be a part of your life closed off to me, something I can’t share in. I can’t plug into that family network. It would be . . . broken.”
“It already is,” I muttered.
He shook his head and walked away.
There is still hope. You love each other.
Mother’s voice was a tiny whisper under the thrum of the grove’s collective consciousness, a mouse’s squeak amidst a chorus of birdsong. The presence of the grove hummed in me, and I reveled in the feeling of their beings flowing through mine, of sharing everything and all that we were.
I longed to share that with Joe, to share him with my family.
Under it, though, ran the thin, cold thread of death that infected the grove, wrapping itself around them like a boa constrictor, choking the life from their limbs. And making me doubt my own motives.
“Do we, really, mother? How do I know I’m not using him to save all of you?”
He will know. Trust his heart.
“He’s gone, mom. And he’s right. If he can’t join us, he’ll always be an outsider.”
It’s his life. Give him the chance to choose how he spends it.
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter anyway. He’s not one of us. He has no way to join.”
There may be one way.
As soon as the sun crested the eastern skyline, I ran from the grove. Mike didn’t answer his cell, so I threw on jeans and a t-shirt, then hopped in my old VW bus.
My first stop took me east, out of town to the orchard where Joe had been working as a foreman. I knew as soon as I climbed out that he wasn’t there—his truck wasn’t in the lot. Immigrant workers stopped loading supplies into pickup trucks and stared at me as I strode up to the most senior-looking man.
A wide grin broke out across the man’s sun-wrinkled face and he patted my shoulder.
“You’re Loya.” His English held only the faintest hint of an accent. The men behind him broke into similar grins at the sound of my name, making me self-conscious. “Joe told us you were muy bonita. He talks about you a lot.”
That took me back a bit. I’d never thought of Joe bragging about me to his coworkers.
“Do you know where he went?”
“He’s going back to Texas for the winter. Strange, though. He usually stays until the end of the harvest.”
“When did he leave?”
He glanced at his watch. “Maybe thirty minutes ago.”
I dashed for the van. “I’ll catch him at his hotel!”
But he wasn’t there, his room empty but for the maids cleaning it and chattering in Spanish. I checked his favorite watering hole, looked at all of our favorite date spots, and even went by the Amtrak station, which was dumb, since he’d drive his truck down to Texas.
By two o’clock, drizzle fell, an iron-gray lid had clamped down on the city, and my heart had been dragged through the streets behind my van as realization hit: he was gone. With tears blurring my vision and my hands shaking on the wheel, I pulled into my driveway. My brakes squeaked as I stopped short of the garage, my breath catching in my throat.
In front of me sat Joe’s truck, empty and quiet.
My gate stood open, and Joe kneeled in my backyard, his hands on the biggest tree, head bowed. Snatches of his words reached me on the subtle breeze.
He was talking to Dad.
Joe sat on the still-damp ground in the grove, cross-legged, and stared down at the cottony aspen seeds cupped in his palm. He looked like a child studying his first grasshopper, an innocence creeping into his eyes as his mind crawled through the possibilities. Across from him, I waited in silence. The tattered remnants of the clouds drifted away in the night sky, unveiling the stars. The aromas of charcoal and roasting meat filled the air from a neighbor’s grill.
“Are you sure it will work?” Joe asked.
I shook my head. “It hasn’t been done in over a century. And the seeds are old—spring is the best time for this. The last person who tried . . . well, it didn’t go well.”
Joe lifted his eyes from the seed to me. “Does it hurt?”
“I won’t lie: changing is painful. But the sensation of being linked to everyone, to everything, is worth it.” I took his hand in both of mine, his strength steadying my hands. For once, they stood still. “We’ll be one, Joe. One spirit, one heart, one mind. We’ll know everything about each other in an instant. No secrets.”
I expected him to look away, but he held my gaze.
“Will it make you healthy again? Your family?”
The question sliced through my tough façade, exposing the undercurrents of doubt I’d been feeling. It made me doubt myself again.
“That’s not important. You and I will be joined forever. We’ll share everything. But it’s … it is not reversible. Once you eat those seeds, there’ll be no going back to normal. You’ll change every full moon, like it or not.”
He closed his fist around the puffy seeds, stood, and walked to the gate, staring out into the deepening darkness of the city.
I’d been foolish. He knew my motivation was corrupt, that I wanted him for more than just his love. He knew at least some part of me was using him.
“You don’t have to decide tonight,” I said. “It’s only been four months—”
He wheeled on me.
“Do you love me?”
“With all my heart.”
“And that’s all this is about?”
I looked down at my hands. “I think so. I hope so.”
He held out the seeds and shook his head.
“I can’t do this. I know how I feel about you, but I need to know you feel the same, that this isn’t just about saving your family. I need some time. I think we should call things off for awhile.”
My heart jumped into my throat. “No, Joe, please!”
Suddenly, my heart felt like he’d sliced it in half. The thought of losing him made the thought of losing my family grove unbearable, a weight I couldn’t hold on my own.
He paused, studying me, blue eyes cold.
“I understand you can’t do this, but that doesn’t mean we have to . . . it doesn’t change how I feel about you. I still need you. I love you.”
He smiled. “That’s what I needed to hear.”
He stuffed the seeds in his mouth, took a drink, and swallowed as the full moon peeked over the rooftops. A moment later, as the light brushed his skin, Joe started to scream.
Joe looked up from his truck’s engine, grease smearing his forehead as he wiped it on his sleeve. He smiled at me and winked.
“You need a new truck,” I said, checking the date on my cellphone. “How about for an anniversary gift?”
“It’s still a good truck,” he said.
“It wasn’t a good truck five years ago,” I teased.
Little Dale dashed from the backyard, giggling with four-year-old delight, and wrapped his arms around my neck.
“Mommy, is it a full moon tonight?”
“It sure is, little sprout,” Joe said without even looking up from his spark plugs. “First one of the month.”
Dale squeezed me even tighter and squealed like a mouse. “Yay! We get to see Gramma and everyone!”
I smiled at my husband. Joe’s strength had saved Mom, driving the disease from our grove. We’d still lost many, leaving a dozen gravestone-like stumps, and Joe had wept with every stroke of his saw. I’d never hear my father’s voice again, nor those of my grandparents. We’d lost whole generations, and our family made a lot less noise during the full moon, its song more of a quiet buzz now. But the grove survived. We had a family.
Dale ran back into the yard and I moved to Joe’s side, kissing the back of his head.
“None. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.”
I smiled, but as he pulled the wrench from the engine bay, his hand shook like a leaf in the wind.