I wrote this story in 2019 as part of a personal challenge; Ray Bradbury said that if you write a short story a week for a year, it’s impossible to write 52 bad stories in a row. My friend Kat Bradbury took this up in her podcast last year as well.
This story came about because I read in a scientific article that trees have a heartbeat. This led me to speculate that trees might perceive the world at a very different rate than we humans do.
I’m sharing this (until now) unpublished story with you because I saw some time-lapse photos of trees with fireflies surrounding them at night, and it reawakened my sense of wonder the idea of what it’s like to be a tree.
By E. Chris Garrison
The rhythmic buzzing of locusts lulled River into a half doze. She sat up against her favorite willow tree, beside her favorite creek in her favorite woods. The humid summer heat covered her like a thick blanket. She’d come here to read, but reading often gave way to naps on lazy summer afternoons.
In fact, that was kind of the point. Especially since this was River’s last fully free summer before her senior year and college and what lay beyond. She was nearly grown up, and grownups didn’t get whole summers to do as they please. She savored the afternoon even as this last free summer slipped away.
And so, River let the locusts’ song pull her into a thick, sweet dream.
She had been coming to this particular tree since she was first allowed into the woods on her own, as a little girl. She’d named the tree “Willard” back then, but had since nicknamed the grand old thing “Mister Weepy”. Under this tree, she’d written countless super-secret diary entries, read bookcases full of books, and even kissed the occasional boy, or girl, depending on her fancy.
This nap was different. Since it was one of the last times River would nap here, it was a special and magical occasion. And sure enough, something special and magical happened.
In her sleep, River stood tall, her many arms reaching and drooping about her. Her feet plunged deep into the ground, where the soothing and delicious waters flowed up into her body. The sun was like a lover’s touch, all over her body, and for a long moment, she just existed this way, not questioning her many arms or tangled toes or great heavy trunk in any way.
And then her thoughts rolled around in her—well, she didn’t have a head—mind and it came to her: I am Mister Weepy.
Except, things around her were different. She would say “looked” but she had no eyes. She did have a sense of the world, or rather many senses, most of which she couldn’t have described or mapped to her own five human senses in the waking world. Her toes tasted the nutrients in the water, and she could tell it had rained recently. She could certainly feel, and even taste, world. Breezes and winds passed intimately through her branches and leaves. She adored the warm sunlight filling her with such delicious energy. She felt the sun rise, pink and orange, building to a wonderful nourishing yellow, and then fading gently into pinks and purples and inky cold night.
She could not see the stars, but she felt their presence calling from the sky like old friends.
The creek rushed past her like a raging torrent, barely confined within its banks. This seemed strange to River, who only thought of it as a lazy babbling sort of thing, not this roaring cascade of water that rushed by in an incredible firehose hurry.
Everything sped by so fast. She didn’t expect a heartbeat, but she (or rather, Mister Weepy) had something like one, as her skin expanded and contracted to move sap up from her roots and down from her branches. Lub dub. Lub dub. Lub dub.
Her skin tingled with furious activity as animals blurred up and down and around her trunk too fast to perceive a single one. She found it more comforting to just ignore them, otherwise the idea of being crawled upon by so many speedy little things gave her the heebie-jeebies.
Day followed night, and night followed day, in what seemed like rapid succession to her new senses. A full day seemed to go by several times a minute, though really time seemed to be a confusing and muddy concept from the heart of a tree. Certainly, time moved forward at a terrific rate, all the same.
Lub dub. Lub dub. She fancied that each heartbeat must take an hour or two, though it seemed only seconds to her.
After a while, she noticed large animal in particular acted differently than the smaller ones; it sat still for several of what passed for heartbeats for Mister Weepy. As the hot days sped by, the thing came to sit under her arms more times than it didn’t. She found the pressure pleasant for the moments the creature leaned on her.
Oh, it’s me! Her perceptions told her the animal was a smaller version of her, back when she was just a girl. River-girl stayed for a heartbeat or two every day. The visits brought her joy, and she looked forward to the next one almost immediately after the girl left for home. She could sense the girl’s approach a long way off, by some sort of scent or vibration in the air.
She wondered if what she experienced were her own feelings, or if Mister Weepy had felt this way about her all those years ago.
Fall came all too soon, and her leaves dropped off her branches, the ground and air chilled, and worst of all, her younger self stopped visiting. She felt the sorrow of this loss, and couldn’t even find comfort in her own memories, knowing she’d be back to visit Mister Weepy next Spring and especially Summer.
Winter set in, bringing despair and pain along with it. The cold seeped deep into her, and her heartbeat slowed, almost to a stop. It was a bitter thing to be a tree in winter, and if she could have, she would have cried.
Spring took forever to thaw the world, but when it finally came, it brought hope and warmth and excitement as she budded and grew.
Summer followed spring, and River-girl returned almost daily, and the world became a wonderful place again.
The years flowed past like hours on a clock. Fall, winter, spring, and glorious summer, over and over. Winters became easier to bear, with promise of spring growth and comforting summer companionship.
After a dozen such hour-year cycles, River became more aware of her own sleeping self, separate from Mister Weepy, as she slipped back from the Willow world. I have caught up to now.
Was only a breeze that brought a slender willow branch down to brush her face? Could a breeze imitate such a loving touch?
River opened her eyes and peered up at Mister Weepy and said, “I love you too, old friend.”
She vowed to always return here when she could, no matter what grownup things waited for her in the future.