Forest for the Trees (editors’ pick)

fiction by Ailsa Bristow — from issue five

Jessica fell in love with a tree.

She had been walking through the forest, taking extreme close-up shots of the veins of leaves for an abstract project she barely believed in. But the grant application had been made and accepted, and so. When she first saw the tree, she snapped a quick and dirty shot of it, slap bang in the middle of the frame, no rule of thirds, or anything.

And it wasn’t even the most attractive tree in the forest. She’d bypassed stoic oaks, with their promise of stability written through the core of their solid trunks. She’d rejected the charms of the quick-silver birches, standing in aloof beauty but unable to cause as much as a tremble in her. No, she had fallen in love with a tree that if it were an animal would be described as the runt of the litter. Spindly branches waving ineffectually in the breeze. Limp and slightly browning leaves that looked ready to drop even in the spring.

The kind of face only a mother could love.

The fact that her tree didn’t have a face, nor a mother in a conventional sense was not lost on her. She found it pretty funny, actually. (She made a note to check that out later, whether you can trace a tree’s lineage somehow. Genetics, or—something?)

 

She had spent some time thinking about whether she might be loony, mad, insane, suffering from a “clinical disorder.” Whatever the politically correct term for her condition might be. She thought that maybe if she could find the word for her feelings it might make telling other people—by which she meant telling Greg—easier.

She’d found lots of words, as it happens. When Greg left for work in the morning she would flip open his sleek laptop and make notes on her research in her notebook. Pages that used to be filled with photography annotations, figures denoting shutter speeds, f-stops, white balances, gave way to detailed notes on the lacunae of romantic and sexual attractions, the unspoken gaps where the desires of so-called “atypicals” lurked. She carefully cleansed the browsing history at the end of each session, erasing her trail through paraphilia, animism, object sexuality, dendrophilia.

She spent every afternoon with the tree. Sometimes she photographed it, discovering new details, capturing it in different lights. Sometimes she would just sit, content. Often, she practised the conversations she would have with Greg, to see how it might sound to say it out loud.

“I am in love with a tree,”

or,

“I may be suffering from a condition known as dendrophilia, which is causing me to believe I am in love with a tree,”

or,

“I don’t know how to explain it. I feel connected to this tree, I feel its presence and I love that presence.”

No matter the precise formulation of the words, the imaginary conversations circled uselessly. Even though she was controlling the dialogue, Greg would always get the better of her. He would point out that you can’t marry a tree, a tree won’t keep you warm at night. People just don’t fall in love with trees. She should just join Friends of the Earth and be done with it. She accepted these arguments, found them completely logical, and yet they did not satisfy the aching love she felt.

Perhaps if she shared images instead, he would see what she did. She could bring him to the tree, press his hand against the granular roughness of bark. She could present a slideshow of the memory cards full of images of the tree, show him the timid way it arched its back to reach towards the shredded sunlight. She could play him a recording of the soft song of its rustling leaves.

But then, perhaps it was meant to be difficult to communicate. Perhaps something real, something felt in the body, cannot easily be expressed. She thought back to the early days of her relationship with Greg. They’d met at university, and everyone had wanted them to put a label on it, to endlessly analyze the alchemy of attraction. Is he your boyfriend? And: Well, what do you like about him? Exactly?

Jessica remembered a conversation like this where she’d struggled to tell her friends what she saw in this guy, this slightly pompous, not-quite-overweight law student who was a stiff intruder into their arts and music circle.

“He’s sexy,” she’d settled on. “I like how serious he is.”

And those things had been true. She had found his politics, his over-confident opinions, his need to argue every point, appealing. The minute details of him made her dizzy—the way he flicked tension out of his wrists when he was writing up his long pages of notes. Or how even the more annoying of his traits—putting on the same pair of socks that he’d worn the previous day, say—had filled her not with disgust but with a kind of tender protectiveness. I will love you in spite of and because of the very worst things about you.

 

It was strange to think of how long it had taken her friends to accept Greg, and yet now she felt it would be no easier to explain to them the end of her love for him. The distasteful dwindling of fascination into familiarity. There was nothing dramatic in the thousandth argument about her hatred of mushrooms, and no she would not be eating that risotto, she didn’t care how many hours he’d spent making it and would he please just stop shouting and listen, please?

She wondered if the fact that she has not photographed him once in the six months since they moved to London would feel as explosive to someone else as it does to her.

 

The move had been Greg’s idea and she knew that for him it signalled a new stage of maturity. Living together was one thing—buying a house was another. Taking a job at one of London’s largest corporate law firms was the moment in which his success would solidify, become an undeniable part of him. She knew that she probably should have stopped this long before she’d made it to this point. Before she’d left all her friends, moved away from her family. Before she’d sacrificed her hard-won network of contacts, steady stream of freelancing gigs. If she’d been a different type of person, a braver or more determined type of person, she would have acted sooner.

It wasn’t really an excuse that Christmas, or a birthday, or a holiday that had already been paid for always seemed to be round the corner.

And then, there had been the fact that being JessandGreg still felt good, even when Greg’s charm as an individual had worn off. The secret knowledge that single friends felt a twinge of jealousy about her rich, perfect, doting boyfriend—however mythical he might be. She didn’t want to be the villain, to be the one who threw away a perfect relationship for no reason at all. She daydreamed that Greg would cheat on her, that Greg would drain their joint bank account and disappear, that something would happen that would put her undeniably in the right.

 

They had established a routine for the weekends. Greg would have a lie-in, around 10.30 or so she would bring him a cup of coffee, and he would read her the comment section of the newspaper. She was forced to forgo her trips to visit the tree. It wasn’t that she couldn’t just say she wanted to go for a walk but—what if he decided to join her? What if he asked too many questions? It felt safer to keep everything even remotely connected to the tree a secret.

She would overdose on the tree each Friday, stock up on digital memories to parcel out throughout the weekend. On Mondays she would relapse, rushing back into the forest as soon as she heard the definitive click of the door closing. It worked until it stopped working, until she awoke one Saturday morning feeling sick and stifled. Greg’s leg was draped over hers, heavy and sweaty. She flinched from the mammal hairiness of him, the blood and guts heat of him. She longed for the clean light of the forest, the deep earth smell of the tree.

It was a little before seven. She had plenty of time to slip out to the tree and be back before Greg even noticed a thing. But—just in case—she scrawled a note and left it on the fridge.

Needed to clear my head.

The dew in the long grass tickled her bare shins. The day held a promise of warmth, but it was early enough for there to still be a shiver on the air. As she moved from the thin border of fields into the forest proper she disturbed a flock of still-resting birds, paused to watch them crack out of the branches and away.

On reaching her tree, she felt the familiar release of tension. The dawn light played across its leaves, and in that instant she felt its strength, its essential kindness. She felt enveloped by it. She pulled off her thick wool jumper, stooped to untie her bulky walking boots. She stood barefoot in front of the tree, trembling slightly. Her feet sunk into the damp black earth. Her toes crunched into twigs and leaves.

She hadn’t changed out of her night-dress, and she realized how flimsy it was. One strap slipped. She felt unsteady with anticipation, overwhelmed by the sense that something fundamental was about to shift in her relation to the tree. She moved towards it, trying to press every inch of available skin against it.

It could have been an hour or a moment. It split apart with the sound of a voice.

“What’s going on, Jess?”

She turned but kept her body pressed against the tree. Felt the bark clawing into the skin of her back. Greg was tousled, bleary, looking ridiculous in his striped pajama bottoms and a pair of trainers.

“What is it, you’re meeting someone here or what?”

 

As a photographer, she understood the way a moment could slow down. How all the elements of a photograph would magically seem to compose themselves into the shot they were always meant to be. To recognize that instant—and then to prep the camera, find the correct setting, slip your finger through a delicate half squeeze through to a decisive full press of the shutter release—to perform the series of mental and physical leaps that it takes to capture that moment was what separated a photographer from a person taking a picture.

She could see this moment composing itself. The balance between his body and hers. The way his raised arm would bisect the shot. She could picture how the soft gauzy morning light would create a jolting discord for the viewer: beautiful light flares in tension with the obvious violence of the moment. The way the splayed branches of the tree would frame the scene. She closed her eyes.

She would often wish she had taken her camera that morning, that she had the photograph of that moment. She would be convinced that it would tell the story she could not. It would exonerate him. (And then he had a stone in his hand and I don’t really think he knew what he was doing.) It would justify her. (Look it wasn’t just any old tree. It was a special tree.) It would collapse the sides that everyone seemed to want to be on. There wouldn’t be police statements, or counselling sessions. There wouldn’t be words, so many words, until Jessica felt dissected or desiccated, emptied and dried out. A husk.

There would just be a moment in which everything visibly changed, and that would be enough.

 

 

AILSA BRISTOW is a British writer currently living in Toronto. With a Masters degree in something called “Issues in Modern Culture,” she considers herself in recovery from academia, and is re-learning how to read and write for pleasure. Her fiction has previously appeared in untethered and still and still moving, and she contributes reviews to The F Word. She can be found online at ailsabristow.com