A Tree amid the Wood

In  by October 28, 2022

That woman has come into my house again. I hear her husky voice as she grills my caregiver for anything she can learn about me. Some of the words elude me. The curtains, woven from the translucent leaves of living plants, rustle in the air, distorting the murmurs from the next room.

Often I cannot understand people. My voice is another lost gift. I know what I want to say, but the words will not come. There is a dream that haunts me. I am a boy, maybe six. A man with leathery hands and warm eyes tilts a bucket of young fish into a clear lake. He laughs as I try to catch them in the falling water, but the little silver creatures slip between my fingers.

That’s what it’s like when I try to grasp the words to express my thoughts.

The mushrooms on the large tree in my bedroom glow yellow-green . So nap time is almost over. In a few minutes, the caregiver will steer my hoverchair into the room and guide me to the kitchen table. The speech teacher will show me pictures and ask me questions. I try to talk, but can only move my lips. He asks yes-or-no questions. If I can’t mouth my answer, it’s thumbs up for yes, thumbs down for no. And that woman will be there, the one with the searching eyes, with brown hair parted down the middle into two waves, like an eagle about to enfold its prey in its wings.

Me.

She always smiles and acts like she comes here to help. But I know what she’s up to. She wants the secret of my house.

I will not let her have it. Sometimes I know what she’s asking, but I act like I don’t understand. It’s my only defense.

The caregiver sweeps the leafy curtain aside, the hoverchair at his side. He smiles, as if he does not know or care he is about to deliver me to a predator.

• • •

While I’m waiting for the caregiver to bring Franklin into the kitchen, Tomás Fuentes, Franklin’s speech pathologist, lets himself in. Dark-haired and bearded, he shuts the door behind him and narrows his eyes at me.

“Hello, Carrie.”

“Tomás.”

“You’re early. Looking forward to interrogating your prisoner?”

“You misjudge me, Tomás. I want to help him as much as you do.”

“And for the most noble of reasons.”

I take a deep breath and remind myself my goal is good. Franklin Pratt’s house, once it’s mass-produced, will convert greenhouse gasses into living homes. Affordable, sustainable homes.

And yes, this will make money for my client. Franklin left no notes behind, so my client’s only hope is to help him speak again.

I open my briefcase and power up a ShoCube. “Can you use this?” A hologram of a boy and woman fills the air before us. The boy peers sideways toward the camera, his eyes sparkling with youthful conspiracy. The woman smiles down at the boy. Dwarf pear trees, their limbs heavy with golden fruit, encircle them. “It’s Franklin and his mother.”

Tomás squints at the image, eyes darting back and forth, betraying an inner debate. He waves his hand over the image and it dissolves. “This is good. Franklin has no family now, and I couldn’t find anyone with mementos like this. He’s always been a loner.”

“I know.”

“This old picture could very well trigger memories.” His brow furrows. “And your client could learn how to make a house that communes with its owner and grows rooms and furniture as needed.”

“Which will benefit millions.”

“And make billions.”

I let his little barb go with a shrug. The curtain of leaves covering Franklin’s bedroom swishes open, and the caregiver tows Franklin’s hoverchair forward. The bioluminescent trees forming the hallway cast a blue aura, perhaps a “Good afternoon” to their creator. The caregiver pauses to let Franklin see them. Does Franklin know what he’s looking at? The bony face topped with tangled white hair is a long blank.

Franklin designed this house to psychically connect with its residents so it could respond to their needs and help them feel closer to nature. The psychiatrists my client hired suggested Franklin remain here, hoping the bond would restore his memory.

I see little evidence it’s working.

Tomás leans close to me. “Franklin’s parents were so antitechnology they wouldn’t let him or his sister have cell phones. How did you get that picture?”

“I’m an investigator, Tomás. You told me old pictures can help stroke victims recall lost memories. It took some digging, but I found a childhood friend who’d sneaked a phone onto the farm back in the 20s.”

Tomás tries to stifle a smile. “Franklin looks impish in that picture. I’d say his rebellious streak is what led him to leave the farm and study biotechnology. He and his parents never reconciled.”

“In his file I read—oh, here they come.”

The caregiver parks Franklin between us and excuses himself. We sit at a table of living dogwood, its surface flat, its edges trimmed with heart-shaped leaves.

Tomás sets an artist’s sketch pad and crayons in front of Franklin. “Good afternoon, Franklin. Did you have a good nap?”

Franklin does not answer.

Tomás takes a crayon and writes “My Childhood Home” on the first page. “Franklin, I have a special surprise for you. Do you want to see it?”

No response. Tomás motions the ShoCube back on, and the holo of young Franklin and his mother floats over the table.

Franklin regards the scene for nearly a minute. He works his jaw, eyes flickering with life and recognition. His eyes shine with tears. He mouths a word.

As if we’d rehearsed it, Tomás and I say “Mother” in unison. We glance at each other.

“Very good Franklin,” says Tomás. “Yes, that was your mother. Do you remember where you are in this picture?”

Franklin grasps the crayon and scrawls “our farm” on the pad.

Tomás takes a deep breath. “Well done, Franklin.”

I kneel beside Franklin’s hoverchair. Tomás glares at me, starts to speak, but I wave him away. “Franklin, it’s Carrie Masada. Do you understand me?”

Thumbs up.

“We don’t have much time. You had a stroke. Do you remember?”

Thumbs down.

“You have to believe me,” I continue. “You are a generous person who wants to share your gift with the world. When you had the stroke, you forgot who you were. You forgot you wanted others to have houses like this. Your house will do so much good—”

Franklin grimaces, stretches his hand toward the crayon, and grips it. His eyes burn at me as he crushes it against the table.

Tomás raises one eyebrow. “Guess you got your answer.”

I did indeed.

• • •

For a moment, she almost won, but I saw what she was doing.

She kept hitting me with questions, but I did not answer. The speech teacher took over, and I pretended not to hear.

They finally gave up for the day.

The night caregiver helps me to bed. The shining blossoms glow, edged in ruby light. My house no doubt senses my lingering anger against that woman. I close my eyes and breathe in night air that smells like rain and moss.

My eyes open. While I slept, the honeysuckle shifted on the ceiling. I gaze up and imagine it’s a face. Half-hidden behind the supporting live-oak branches, two hibiscus buds blossom where eyes would be. A woman’s eyes. The brown vines beneath them make a strong, pretty nose, and a dark shadow between the rows of ivy transitions into a knowing smile.

Far away, a voice calls. It is a pleasant voice, a woman’s voice, the pitch and timbre warm and soothing, yet insistent. It asks a strange question.

She is nowhere to be seen, though her relentless question is clear: “What is the name of our home?” I open my mouth to answer, but no words come. They escape me, as they often do.

My eyes open, and I search the ceiling above me. Nothing. The comforting image formed by the vines and self-grafting trees has vanished. Self-grafting—that’s a term I haven’t heard or thought about in some time. The word pleaching returns to me, too, and for a moment I recall how I once weaved together different tree branches to form living structures, structures sustained by walls packed with loam and clay that nourish the trees and insulate the house.

I recognize the voice from my dream. It was my mother.

The answer to her question bubbles up from deep inside, and I say, “Plentywood.” The instant I whisper that word to the dark blossoms and vines surrounding me, I recall my mother and father handing out crates of fresh corn, collards, and ripe fruits to grateful neighbours. A wave of recognition radiates through me: the man in my dream pouring fish into the pond is my father. My mother bends close and I turn to her. She says, “Why do we do this? Because we have plenty, and we share it.”

My eyes blur, and I clench them shut. I know what I have to do. My fingers find the medical bracelet, and I call the caregiver.

• • •

I return to Franklin’s at 8:30 the next morning. The caregiver motions me toward the kitchen table, where Tomás and Franklin are sitting. I do a double-take. Franklin is tapping at a keyboard, and the text appears in the holo.

Tomás announces, “We’ve had a breakthrough, Carrie. A big one.”

“Yes, I see.”

“Franklin understands what I say, and he answers on the keyboard. Now he’s typing—something else.”

I take a chair, expecting to see simple practice sentences. Good thing I’m not standing. I read Franklin’s document and slump in my seat, slack-jawed and dizzy. Franklin’s text is not only coherent, but highly technical. The instructions for grafting Franklin’s living house float before my eyes like a captured dream.

Tomás shoots me a look and exhales. “I’m sure you’re happy.”

I open my mouth, shut it, and stare. Franklin pecks steadily with two fingers at a keyboard set to the old QWERTY format.

I poke my finger through a paragraph. “Are you reading this?”

Tomás seems fixated on the holographic text.

I rise from my chair, hunch over Franklin’s shoulder, and read out loud:

“No idea how much time I have, so I want to thank you for your patience and skill. Thank you, Tomás.”

Franklin gazes at Tomás, who glances back, turns, and rubs his eyes.

Franklin types, “And thank you, Carrie.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I have not been myself lately. I had a stroke. Still, I want to apologize.”

“Franklin, there’s nothing to apologize for.”

“Yes, there is. I know I’ve been difficult, and that I’ve demanded a lot from people in my life. I want to make things right.”

He feels guilty. He has no family to share his feelings with, so I let him type.

“When I resisted you, I thought I was protecting my home. Strange as it may seem, I was even more convinced I had to fight you when I saw the picture from Plentywood.”

“Your parents’ farm.”

Franklin types, “How long have you and Tomás been working on me?”

“About three months.”

“Sometimes I couldn’t understand you. Sometimes I pretended. Especially in the past few weeks.”

“I wondered about that.”

“I often heard the banter between you two. I know what it’s like to push toward a goal so hard that you alienate others. But remember, Carrie, it takes both good intentions and toughness to do good things.”

Now Franklin is trying to justify his life’s work, including his hard-driving style. Or is he? I lower my gaze. My head spins and my thoughts scatter. When I look up, there’s a crooked smile on his face.

Copyright © 2022 M. C. Tuggle

Feature image credit:

Depositphotos

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M. C. Tuggle

M. C. Tuggle is a life-long tinkerer and science geek now retired from the insurance industry, where he worked in project management and operations research. His science fiction, fantasy, and mystery stories have been featured in several publications, including Mystery Weekly, Hexagon Speculative Fiction, and Metaphorosis. The Novel Fox published his novella Aztec Midnight in 2016, a fantasy adventure based on his extended stay in a Mexican village. He posts his literary opinions at mctuggle.com, and occasionally tweets at @tuggle_mike.

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