This story contains references to the sexual exploitation of a minor.
It has been one hundred and thirteen years since our mother’s pear and red date soup slid along my tongue, and now I taste only the sweetness of soil and rot, percolating through my roots. It’s not the same. It will never be the same. Nostalgia pulses, insistent and migrainous, under my skin.
They gave me a good place, in the end. I’m halfway up the slope of a mountain. The elevation allows me to see over the heads of my companions and down into the valley. Where once everything was brown and brittle, now it’s blanketed in verdant green. The city, my old home, gleams like pond froth in the valley’s bend.
Sometimes, the residents walk up into the mountains — some alone, some in couples or threes, others in small groups. Masks tight over blotchy faces, they lift their eyes to our stretching forms. They brush their hands over our corrugated skin. They kneel at our feet, foreheads touching crisp leaves, and whisper prayers of gratitude. But we don’t pretend to be gods. We make no miracles or magic. We only watch, sustain, expand, and breathe.
Last winter, in a heavy gale, one of my arms broke off and crashed into the hail-beaten grass. I only felt a moment’s pain before the flow of numbing sap soothed me. As the thunder rolled over, echoes of the past reverberated into my core, and I shivered in remembrance.
The next day, city people crouched around the fallen limb and cut it into pieces with noisy tools. My memories, split open, many times over. Thicker, richer rings on the outside. Thinning, stretched and dehydrated, as the years rewound, compressed. And in the centre — a small dark spot, marking the first year after my transformation.
They did it to us in a bright place, bloated with heat and artificial sunlight. Wide straps flattened my torso; a cushioned brace pinioned my head. The steel bed was freezing cold against my bare back, but radiant lamps scalded my chest and tummy. Through a dust-streaked skylight, ragged clouds drifted across a murky sky.
When you were four, you asked me what clouds smelled like. Do you remember? I didn’t know how to answer, so I made something up.
We had to be awake so they could test and monitor our neural functions in real time. They flooded me with anaesthetic and split my skull. They opened channels in my arteries and rinsed me with code-changing potions. They dissolved my bones. They lowered me into amber liquid, sloughed away my epidermis and dermis, and watched it regrow in rough, textured layers.
Do you wonder how it felt, if it hurt? Can you trust a memory of a feeling? Perhaps you can’t, but I can. The tiny spot at the centre of my body is dark with scars. But if I’m honest, the physical pain dimmed beneath the terror. Nothing could have prepared me for that moment in between ceasing to be one thing and becoming another. In that brief gasp, when you’ve cut off everything that tethered you to your old existence, you are nothing. Afterwards, you must rebuild yourself from particles.
If I could answer you now, I’d tell you that clouds smell loamy, like broth squeezed from soaked mushrooms, and sweet, like a puff of air from a just-opened bag of sugared popcorn. But you’re not here anymore. You’re all dead — you, our mother, our father, and everyone else who mattered when I was a child.
I’m nineteen plus one hundred and thirteen years old. One hundred and thirty-two, in truth. But I’m still nineteen. I’ll always be nineteen, no matter how much time passes.
Hybrids are superior to regular trees. We grow faster. We’re much more adaptable, genetically and socially, to environmental challenges. We don’t reach a maximum size, so our potential lifespans are far greater — in theory, unlimited. We are superefficient factories for consuming carbon dioxide and churning out oxygen. They designed us to save the world.
The early years were a dark, compressed place. Despair brought me close to annihilation. I was once again a child of six — at the beach with our mother, scampering into the grey waves, dragged under by a hidden current, water pouring into my lungs. But I was never drowned, only endlessly drowning, unable to break the glimmering surface.
After a while, my thoughts slowed to match my new form. No longer would they flutter in the manner of restless moths, snatching tendrils of the past and the future. Instead, they began to roll through me like smooth boulders, ponderous and shuddering, each one gently pressing a path over the prior, softening an earthen groove through time. I came to see that our actions are no different from our thoughts. They, too, push through us with their singular gravity. In this gradual way, my mind and my form became one, and I felt a sort of peace.
Unable to move my body from place to place, I now savour the world moving around me, through me. The wind scampers across the mountainside, pulling laughter from my companions, bending me in its whirling dance, tickling leaves out of my crown. Legions of tiny-life roam the dirt between my toes. Scurrying in interlinked burrows, they trail chemical rumours and nourishing morsels.
Sometimes, when I’m very still, I can even feel the shifting of the Earth — a tremor from somewhere far off, followed by a great groan and a sigh, like an old woman easing her joints.
I did not know love until I knew the Sun. Of course, I loved our parents, and I loved you most of all. But that was a simple love, a one-way love, cast outward from my core as though I myself were a little sun. I wanted to give and give and give, for you three.
In my new form, I drink sunrays with unfathomable need. I open the pores of my numerous leaves. I yearn for light to pour through my tender membranes, to soak the chlorophyll pigments embedded within my coiled thylakoid spaces. Only then will I vibrate with energy. I will remove electrons, dividing water into oxygen. I will catch carbon from the air and construct newer, sweeter shapes.
All this I do out of love, and for love. Maybe my gifts drift down from the mountain, to the city in the valley, to your grandchildren’s children, if at all they exist.
The day I left, I was nineteen, and you were fourteen.
You were on the concrete balcony behind our flat, curled up on the threadbare loveseat. You were immersed in your visor, pretending you didn’t care about all of us. But I could see, in the tension of your folded legs, that you did.
Our mother had disappeared into the bedroom, leaving a waft of spices in her wake. The door was ajar. I could see her pressing her brow to our father’s jaundiced hand, her thin back shuddering with sobs. From time to time, he lifted his hand to stroke her hair. Fatigue wavered his movements.
We’d just found out that you’d been selling photographs of yourself online, to help pay for our father’s treatments.
I stood in the cluttered kitchen, observing you discreetly through the dusty window. There was an ache in my chest that felt like my heart had exploded and was leaking, dripping, congealing in the chambers of my guts. The kitchen was suddenly full of steam, fragrant with star anise and cloves. A rattling sound came from behind me. A pot of stew was boiling over on the stove. I removed the lid and turned the gas off. Beyond our balcony, blocks of flats receded into smog, grey on grey on grey.
They talked up the program in the early years, made it sound all grand and clever. They asked people to put their hands up — for science! For progress! To save the planet! The ultimate altruistic act, to give yourself up for future generations! Wheedling and manipulation, concealed behind moral posturing.
I walked out with no explanation. All three of you were probably furious with me, but it was easier that way. If I tried to explain, you’d see my terror. I couldn’t bear that. You’d never find out for sure where I’d gone. After they transformed the volunteers, they erased all connections to their former lives.
Most of us didn’t do it out of principled magnanimity. Most came forward out of desperation. There were a lot of poor folks back then, and the program paid out a generous sum to any recipient of your choosing. If I could save our father, then I could save you — and so, you see, they’re good at pretending to give us a choice. But really, I didn’t have a choice.
Thirty years after my transformation, on a clear autumn’s day with flat sky and fragrant air, I saw you for the last time. You were wearing brown hiking trousers and a purple sweater. Your silver-streaked hair was braided proudly across the crown of your head. Soft lines embraced your eyes.
You were walking with another woman, chatting and smiling. You passed by about twenty metres away from me. Of course, you didn’t pause or look at me in any special way. You had no idea who I was. They called us hybrids, but they buried our former selves within deep recesses.
By this time, we’d already begun to change the environment. Carbon dioxide levels were dropping; ecosystems were increasing in complexity again. Temperatures had reached a plateau. The program was declared a stroke of scientific ingenuity, humanity’s engineered salvation. A sustainable future, perhaps even a utopia, seemed within reach.
The ones who created the program are gone now, their bodies pressed into the ground, invaded by swarms of tiny-life. Rich bodies and poor bodies, they all taste the same when decomposing — oozy bits with the sickly sweetness of caramel, crumbly bits like tapioca biscuits, fibrous bits like the gelatinous joints of phoenix claws. They designed us to grow without limit. Our roots have crawled through the earth, spreading and devouring, communing with fungal systems as large as tectonic plates, tangling together in continent- and ocean-spanning webs. If I speak, tens of thousands of my companions will hear me.
So you see, my sister, there’s no rush. We will wait, grow, taste, and eat — and in this way, in our own time, we will slowly remake our world.