This story contains racist language and behavior, depictions of violence towards people of color, and elements of body horror.
I go to the woods. What else would I do?
I sleep too long. When I open my eyes, the world is already brightening. For a handful of minutes, I waste time not moving. Canopy perchers are calling the dawn to slip over the horizon. Heat pricks the nape of my neck. Full, bright sun punctures the canopy, splashes onto the forest floor. It is light enough to be found. I must run. Again.
I crouch in the shell of a redwood cracked open by lightning. Sap drips on my shoulders, strings of bark drift into my lap. Bodies crash through underbrush a mile upstream. And the dogs shout. I want to tell them to shut they fool faces, like mom would have.
I don’t; they don’t. It’s a mess up there.
But down here? Down here, the wind walks calmly through the trees, a queen on her runway. Trails her fingers along the leaves. It feels bad on my skin. “Bad in a good way,” we used to say.
I close my eyes. I hear small things, growing sounds and insect feet. I hear something that sounds like crinkled hair lifted from a neck, shaken a little, and let fall. I listen, try to catch the resonance. Mad or playful? A twig snaps above me, derisive as a head toss. Uh-uh. Not mad.
The trees are flirting with me. At a time like this? The fuck.
I can’t help it; I snort with laughter, then clamp a hand to my mouth.
Trees must be insane as I am.
I blink sweat from my eyes, lift the hem of my shirt to my forehead. The beige cloth comes away bright splotchy green.
Hours later. I squat naked as a sun in the stream, my body torn up as a scratching post. I plash cold water on my cheeks, over my sweaty head. Plash under my arms, plash between my legs. My fingers brush against two new tendrils, slimey to the touch, pushing through the thin, tender skin of my mons pubis. The skin is red and puckery where the woody (no no not woody) base punches through me. I rip them out and bite my lip to keep from screaming.
My clothes are torn and filthy, but I put them back on. I dress, and frogs ululate in the trees like women. I stand, and an earful of crickets play the wind like an accordion. I turn in slow, reverent circles, and crows hunched in glistening, deep blue-black handfuls shout at me, guttural, hawking. Jays are screaming like I killed they mother. The stream gets louder and louder until it becomes a yell of white static, so bad it erases anything else and makes me see black and red spots. I tip and fall out. Blissful dark velvet.
First, it wasn’t an accident. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar or a child. A gun in the hand of either will kill you. Try looking up the word accident. Does it mean “a consistent pattern over a thirty-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live”? No? No.
Second, they made it worse. Before I was born, the city of Palo Alto installed industrial fans that stalked like great white guardian spiders along the west side of the highway, to blow all the bad air out of the good side of town. “Into the bay,” they said, “where it can’t hurt anyone.” Into our homes, they meant, where it would only hurt people who didn’t have the money to lobby the state legislator about it. The constant throbbing, electric burr of the fans was the soundtrack to all of my dreams when I was a kid.
Third, everyone else is dead. My mom. My dad. My aunts. My neighbors. My brother, well. I have to assume he’s dead, too.
I heard the explosion from the classroom where I was teaching, a punch of noise and a fist of smoke. I was on my bike in minutes, dialing Costano Elementary, where my brother is in the third grade, and pedaling as fast as I could toward the 101. I let it ring for five minutes. No one answered.
“No. No. No. No,” I mouthed with each pedal push, didn’t even realize I was pedaling to the rhythm of the fan’s beating paddles.
When I crossed the freeway, the smoke smelled like butterscotch and acetone. Camphor and tar.
I sat down hard in front of the twisted cadaver that was my house and didn’t move. By the time the second explosion bloomed, I was already trying to snatch lights that weren’t there out of the air with my hands.
Toxic gases trapped between the beating fans to the west and the humid air over the Bay to the east? They were like, “Nah, kaboom.”
When I came to, ghostly white shapes hung beneath the stars. They billowed like sheets draped from a long, quivering clothesline. Or giant night-blooming flowers. A whiff of butterscotch and tar.
“Mom?” I wheezed.
Hazmat suits, I realized. I was lying on my back in the middle of the street. I sat up, turned my head — the world was suddenly full of prismed light — and vomited.
One of the giant white flowers waved its hands at me. “Don’t move!” it yelled. The sound waves hit me like a wrecking ball.
“No shouting,” I muttered, grabbing my ears. I stood up, and the world tilted us all sideways.
The suits lurched toward me. I lurched away from them. I ran. I’ve been running.
I come to, famished. Scramble up the shaft of a surface root that snakes out of the ground by the stream. I wrap my arms around its warm trunk. I press my lips to its dark cinnamon bark. I snake my tongue between my teeth, press it firmly against the bark: it is surprisingly soft, warmed by mid-summer sun. I close my teeth and pull a strand of the red-brown fiber away in my mouth. I chew. Swallow. I pull back and dig one long, thickened nail into the bark, deep until I hit soft, fresh, wet wood, and I’m salivating with hunger. And then I laugh and laugh and laugh, until I don’t.
What the fuck have they done to me?
I’m out again.
I remember: The week we finished our qualifying exams, my advisor took us out for drinks. I sat and drank the strong, smokey bourbon he was paying for, and another, and in between drinks, I clinked the ice in my glass and sucked my teeth in my mouth. I laughed when I was supposed to laugh, didn’t when I wasn’t.
Two and a half rounds in, the professor turned to me and said, “And Sandra? You should feel really, very encouraged. You’ve come very far. You’ll get there.”
“Thanks,” I said. Clink.
The other students, taking his lead, chirped, “You’ll take the exam again. In the fall, then?”
“Yes, I think so.” Clink.
“It’s just the unorthodoxy,” said one boy, pink skin blotchy with white. “Implicating the university in the dumping of toxic chemicals in East Palo Alto? They were harder on you than on us.”
“Yes, right.” Clink.
“Your work will be groundbreaking. It’s brave in a way ours isn’t.” Another boy, dark swab of hair, pale blue beacons for eyes.
Clink. I did not ask him, Why weren’t you brave? Why was it just me, saying what we all know to be true?
“What will you do with your free summer?” My professor again, cheery. Cheering.
“I can’t afford to lose an entire summer,” I said over the lip of my glass. The bourbon flushed my cheeks and twirled my thoughts. “I’ll start my research, as planned. Eight weeks studying the applicability of carbon cycling in redwood trees to human biosystems. They clean their environments and heal themselves. Why can’t we?”
My professor’s lips tightened, eyebrows raised, then smoothed. “Your funding was approved?” He let one of his slim fingers, pale, peach — the nail a plate of cream dotted with berries — fall onto the table.
“No. It wasn’t.” I said. But you know that already, I didn’t add.
“You’ll be going against protocol, then?”
A tentative bubble of quiet around me, then. Someone slid their cup against the table. Fingernails scraped wood on the bench. And then, to fill the silence, to hear anything other than my heart beating like a bird, tight and fast in my chest, I raised my glass. “But here’s to everyone else. ABD!”
I drank too many bourbons. I smiled too much, said, “Really, good job,” too many times. At 1:30, I stood up and said I needed to get home. The bar, my cohort’s faces, the laughter, bright swabs of color waving around me.
“Hey, Sandra.” The boy with the anthracite hair.
I turned toward him. “Yeah?”
“You know Black people don’t go into the woods, right?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Cus when they do?” He fixed his blues on me. Smiled. “They don’t come back out.”
The quiet in the bar, in my head, after that. That’s the kind of quiet the woods is. Right before something happens.
It’s been three days since the accident-that-wasn’t-an-accident. I stand at the edge of a steep south-facing slope, head tilting up, mouth open, soothing my tongue. Soft, sore patches of green fuzz coat it like weird cakey thrush. No matter how much I scrape with my fingers, it grows back. My body is covered in the weird tendrils now. The air feels good. It feels like I could drink it.
Bristles of flower poke around my legs, upended paintbrushes dipped in vermillion and scarlet. The flowers have led me to a stand of foxtail pines. They spike thirty feet above me, straight-boled, with thick branches and flat crowns. At their feet, a mess of soft broken cones.
I scoop one into my hands and lick. Rust, metal, rot, death. I can almost taste the fleshy, orange bulbs that will be clustered like swollen blisters along the trees’ branches. These trees are dying, poisoned from the inside. It can take years, decades. But death is sure, if not swift.
I close my eyes. Tell me what death feels like, I think.
And then I hear (I hear?)
it dry. but we not lonely.
we wet we rot but we be together, they say.
Who is we? I ask, in the same not-speaking way.
And then I freeze.
A twig snaps. I whip around. The two-inch tendrils that sprout from my forearms prickle with… pleasure?
Brown eyes I thought I would never see again dart over my face, over my body. He blinks rapidly, maybe about to cry, even though he says eight is too old to cry. Too stunned to run toward me? Why doesn’t he run? Hurt? Or scared? Of me?
“How?” I croak. I haven’t talked in days. Words slide like rocks around my tongue. I swallow and try again. “How. Did you. Find me?”
He shakes his head. The tendrils that are growing from his face, his hair, are green and yellow and brown and beautiful, and they shudder when he moves. Even though they nearly cover his face, I know my baby brother when I see him.
“Sandra,” he says, his voice soft but raspier than it should be. “It’s. A trap.”
His eyes move. I turn.
Three men behind me, guns raised and trained. Another one steps from behind the foxtails. They’re camouflaged in beige and tan, their faces smudged with charcoal and dirt. They’ve even stuck twigs and rubbed mud on their rifles.
“Sandra?” A beige-and-twigs man steps forward. His foot lands softly on a twig, doesn’t even snap it.
I watch his foot; I watch the twig; I listen to the leaves. I listen to my brother, behind me. “Professor,” I sigh, a susurrus of leaves.
“You were very difficult to track. You did, really, an excellent job.” When I don’t say anything, he continues. “But we’ll have to take you back with us, now.”
When he talks, I’m only half-listening to what he says.
“No,” I say. My eyes are closed. “My family. Are they?”
“Dead? Yes. They’re all dead. Except for your brother here, of course.”
“Why?” My advisor laughs. The beige-and-twig men laugh. “There is no why. It was an accident. The plant exploded. Kaboom. Whoops. It happens. What shouldn’t have happened is… you.”
“What. Did you do. To us?”
“You know, I honestly have no idea. I will in a few weeks. After we’ve… studied… the molecular changes your chemical exposure seems to have brought about.”
“And if I don’t consent?”
“You will. Or we’ll shoot.” He raises the gun toward my chest, and I stop breathing. He smiles at what he must see on my face (jaw clenched? nostrils wide? eyes set to fuck around and find out?) and then swings his arm, his gun a few degrees to my left until it’s aimed at my brother, his heart. The three men with him lift their guns, too, fix them on my little brother’s bird chest.
Something shifts in me. Hot prickles, flashes of lightning beneath my skin, bitterness flooding my mouth. And my tendrils curl into themselves. I feel my brother shift. I feel the forest shift against this new threat. Electric pulses ping through the soles of my feet, up my legs, through my body and arms.
The forest is tight around me. The wind is picking up leaves, tossing them aside like bad kids. A branch snaps like a rifle shot. Two of the men jump.
And then, I hear nothing. Quiet. Paused. I smile. Nobody’s flirting this time.
“No,” I say. “You won’t.”
we ready? I say.
we ready, we say.
We are still standing in the foxtails, but the foxtails are flexing. My advisor twitches, his men twitch. And then, before they can run, before they can escape, the cluster of pines swell against the grooves in their broad, burnt-orange-and-silver trunks. Their glossy, green needles shiver at the ends of their branches and then tighten, and I think, Hedgehog? Porcupine?
And now the men are turning — trying to run — but roots have snaked out of the ground and twined themselves around their legs, holding them fast.
My advisor twists and writhes and raises his gun. “Stop. This. Now,” he whispers—
And the forest blooms: bright, orange, rot, and rust. I drop, cover my ears against the lightning cracks of splitting trunks and screaming men. My brother drops beside me. We find each other’s hands and hold on. We stay down. The forest does its thing. Explodes around us.
this what death feels like, hon, it says-not-says. it loud and terrible, and it pain us.
We don’t know how much time passes. But it is over. We look, me all around where we dropped, and I send my brother to check for anyone else over the ridge. I tell him to make sure no one else is coming. He leaves.
I pray he can’t feel what I feel. I know he can. The bodies broken across the ground, human and pine, splayed and splattered. Blood still sinking into the earth. We drink it in; we don’t have a choice. It tastes like metal and dirt; sweat and salt; bitter and bad. It tastes like what it is: life gone rotten.
I walk toward the thing that used to be my professor. A shard of bone rises from his rib cage, clotted with blood and bits of earth. Like a blade of white grass shooting up from the dark ground. The forest will take them, do what healing it can. Return them to something different but whole. Maybe black walnut. Maybe sycamore or ash.
Something glinting in the sun catches my eye, and I take myself over to it.
I take the phone and raise it to my face. In the reflection of the screen, I make out the rounds of my cheekbones, the poke of my nose — my dad’s nose — the curve and dent of my upper lip. Instead of smooth brown skin, I see hardened, furrowed gray plates. They slide over each other as I move my mouth to make different expressions. Yellow-green tendrils sprout in random patches — one line of growth travels the planes of my cheeks across the bridge of my nose, another darker green patch moves diagonally across my face. My eyes are green as spring.
I turn as my brother walks up and over the ridge, loping and graceful and black and green and alive. We smile, and I feel life everywhere.
it is late fall
if we close we eyes
and reach down and out oh
it’s so immense. we can feel all the way to the giant sequoia halfway
down the state.
you one of us now, it all, we all say. I hearfeel it, like a chorus shivering up all my spines and stems and rustling my leaves in the breeze.
we shiver. we happy. we joy. we together.
that boy was right
when we go
into the woods