The Sycamore and the Sybil

(Content note: sexual coercion/assault and suicidal ideation.)

 

Before I was a sycamore I was a woman, and before I was a woman I was a girl, and before I was a girl I was a wet seed wild in the hot-pulp belly of my mother. I remember it: a pulsing blackness, veins unfurling in the dark like roots spreading through the hidden places of the earth. You remember things different, once you’re a tree.

Of course that’s about all trees can do: stand there and remember. We can’t run or spit or sing; we can’t fuck or dance or get good and drunk on a full moon; we can’t hold our mother’s hands or stroke the cheek of a fevered child. We’re towers without any doors or windows; we are prisons and prisoners both, impregnable and alone.

But they can’t hurt us any-damn-more, at least not without working up a sweat, and that’s not nothing.

(If you’re wondering why a woman would trade her limbs and her beating heart for a little slice of safety, well—maybe you’re young. Maybe the world has changed. Maybe you’re dumb as a moss-eaten stump.)

It’s the same bargain we’ve been making for centuries, one way or another: give up your life in order to keep living. Give him your saltwater skin; give him your voice; give him your thousand stories. Give up your body and live forever rooted to the bank of the Big Sandy, dreaming and watching. Do what you can to stay alive. That’s just how it is.

But sometimes I think, in the slow tree-sap way I think now: It shouldn’t be.

It was early fall the first time she came running through my woods.

September is one of my better months: my leaves go all gold-speckled and copper-kissed, and my bark shines white as a knuckle-bone. I arrange my fallen leaves like a skirt around my roots, a graceful arc of rust and red, and when the sun slants just right even the squirrels have to stop their gossiping to admire me.

But she hardly noticed me. She kept her eyes on the ground, footsteps pounding. You don’t have time to admire the view when there’s a wolf snapping at your heels.

Oh, not a real wolf—there hasn’t been a real wolf in Crow County since I was a girl with legs instead of limbs and the state paid $3 a pelt for them, and anyway those poor creatures never hunted women except in fairytales.

This was one of those two-legged wolves who wore a coat and a tie, who waxed their hair smooth as brass and smiled too damn much. He was a handsome wolf, nicely-dressed and clean, but so was mine. They’ll eat you just the same, in the end.

The girl was a looker, too—sugar-maple hair curling around a white face, legs like pale birch branches beneath her skirt—but it didn’t really matter. Wolves don’t hunt deer for their looks.

“Wait,” he called, voice honey-soft and pleading. “Please.”

It was the please that did it, that thin coat of politeness like paint over a rotten fence-post. The girl stopped, so close to me now I could smell the clammy uncertainty rising off her skin, and turned back to face him.

“Kat, my love, don’t run from me. Never run from me.” His face was fetchingly flushed, a single waxen curl hanging against his cheek.

“I didn’t—I’m not sure—” She was backing towards my trunk, leaning away from him.

He stepped closer. “Not sure of what? My love for you?” He reached for her hands, trapped them limp and white in his grip. “How could you doubt it? I’ve loved you since the moment I saw you.”

The owl that lived in my hollow branch gave a small cough of disgust. Ain’t the first time he’s said that, she muttered. Owls tend to overhear a lot of this kind of thing, given their habit of swooping silently through the night and perching in haylofts and trees, and in general they hold low opinions of romance, sex, and menfolk. Minnie, who was almost twenty and had seen more human night-doings that most owls, was bitter as twice-brewed coffee.

The wolf reached a hand to cup the girl’s face, his eyes shining with earnestness. “Tell me you feel the same way.”

She hesitated. I felt the tremor of it through the earth, the way her weight shifted back and away. “I—” But then he was kissing her and her hands were still trapped in his like a pair of fresh-killed rabbits and her back was pressed against the coolness of my trunk.

Once when I was still a sapling, a hunter staked a steel trap among my green roots and a fox found it two days later. I’d felt every panicked heartbeat, tasted every hot-penny drop of its blood. The girl wasn’t scrabbling or whining, but her pulse beat the same desperate rhythm against my bark. Trapped.

Maybe you’re thinking: No, she isn’t. Maybe you’re wondering why she hasn’t tried to run or scream or put her hand to his chest and say, “No thank you, sir,” because after all he’s a gentleman-wolf in a button-down shirt, not some slavering beast. But I could feel the hunger of him, the way he pressed her against my trunk hard enough for my bark to carve patterns in her flesh. She wouldn’t have gotten far.

There was one other thing she could have done, of course, but I guess she didn’t know the words.

My Great Aunt Daphne taught them to me when I was young: old, secret words, the ones you say when the wolf is at your throat and there’s nowhere left to run and you don’t know any witching strong enough to strike out at him, so you strike inward, instead.

You say the words and you are no longer a woman. You are a slim little maple, leaves damp-pink in the spring, or a juniper with powder-blue berries, or a sycamore rising tall and round on the banks of the Big Sandy. You are fleshless and voiceless and alone, and so you are finally safe.

I could have told them to her. I could have written the words in the shadow-pattern of my leaves against the sky, or whispered them in a puff of pollen, or pressed them into her skin.

But I didn’t. Because speaking them would have stolen her beating heart and her pale-birch legs and her maple-red curls, because she would never have seen her Great Aunt Daphne again or her Mama or her baby brother with his dandelion-fluff hair. Because her only friends would be chickadees and moles and the grumpy barred owl who lived in her dead branch, and her heartwood would turn dark and hard as a coal-seam.

Because I was no longer sure it was a price worth paying.

I didn’t see her again until January. January is a sleeping, blind month, when my sap runs deep and slow in the center of me and my leaves rot around my ankles. The woods turn stark and bony-fingered, and only the hollies and hemlocks still gleam green through the grayness. Mostly people stay away.

But not her. She came slowly this time, unpursued. The bright red of her hair was swirled beneath a winter cap and muddy snow speckled her skirts. I was glad to see her—being a tree is lonely business, even with Minnie around—until I saw the way her hand was tucked between the buttons of her shapeless coat, cupping her belly.

Oh, hell. Now that I was listening for it I could hear it thumping away in the middle of her, that dove-wing echo of her own pulse. A green seed growing in the dark.

The girl watched the river hiss below her, frost-eaten at the edges and slate-gray in the center. Her expression had a dangerous sort of idleness in it, as if she were wondering what might happen if she stepped off the bank and into the Big Sandy, but didn’t much care. It wasn’t a desperate expression, because the chase was already over and she’d been caught and eaten and swallowed whole. It was how Red Riding Hood might’ve looked as she curled in the darkness of the wolf’s belly.

I could still have given her the words. I could have offered her a kinder death than the suffocating ice of the river. But—

It’s not fair, goddammit.

It wasn’t fair that we were always the ones who had to lose, to change, to become-something-else. To give ourselves up. It wasn’t fair that all we had in our defense were these few, desperate magics that hurt no one but ourselves.

I think it used to be different. I think we used to know more. Sometimes when I sink down into the deep-down sleep of trees I can almost remember the wild times in the land-before, when we painted ourselves in madder and clay and danced around solstice bonfires, when every witch had a familiar loping or slinking or winging beside her, when we flew through the night on strips of alder and ironwood. I remember when our magic turned outward rather than inward and the wolves stayed in the shadows, fearful of our flames and the words bright and sharp as knives on our tongues.

(You remember things different, once you’re a tree.)

But then we forgot, or were made to forget. Something happened—a plague, I think, something cruel that swept across the world in a cold tide of suffering—and fear made the wolves brave. They came for us, and then there were no more midnight bonfires. Burning was for books, then, and for witches.

(I can remember the taste of smoke, the hiss and snap of burning flesh. Sometimes I think I can see her face, my great-great-great-something-or-other tied back-to-back with the rest of her coven, looking up out of the deepness of time with red-cedar eyes and a sad smile. Sometimes I even think the smile is for me, somehow—as if she’d been suspended in this last second before her burning, waiting for her daughter’s daughter’s daughter to remember her—but it’s probably just the lonely dream of a sycamore who used to be a woman).

All we have left to us now are weak, domestic magics—“the natural womanly arts,” my school-teachers called them. We charm peonies into blooming early; we convince the wash-water to stay hot and the bread to bake evenly; some of us can soothe a colicky baby or deliver a breech birth safely, but I don’t know how much of that is magic and how much is just know-how, or if there’s any real difference between the two.

A few pitiful scraps of the old spells have survived, whispered from mother to daughter and aunt to niece, but they aren’t what they used to be. They can’t be. If women went around turning men into pigs or conversing with thunderstorms or calling winged demons up from Hell—well, they’d be staked and burned and their precious words would be nothing but ash and bone. Scattered, forgotten, buried.

The girl was still looking down at the river, half-mesmerized, but her hand was no longer hidden in her coat. She was twisting and worrying at her finger, as if something chafed there. It gleamed gold in the weak winter light.

Huh. It was Minnie, watching from her hole. He’s caught her good and proper, now.

My wolf hadn’t ever intended to marry me. He was the oldest son of a judge, the kind of boy who’d never had to chop his own wood or wash his own clothes, and I was nobody. Just a stringy-haired, under-sized girl with pox scars pitting my cheeks and black-stained fingers from gathering walnuts in the woods. But he’d seen me and he’d wanted me, and he’d been raised to think wanting something was the same as deserving it. So he’d chased me down the Big Sandy one day at dusk, a wolf in white linen, and his jaws had closed around my throat and I’d said the words because there was nothing else to do.

Would it have been better if he’d wooed and wed me, instead? If I’d had to wake up every morning with that golden collar wrapped around my finger, smelling the stink of him on my skin, facing an endless line of the same mornings like a mirror reflecting itself forever?

Minnie was right; that girl was caught good and proper. And all women’s witching could offer her was a slower, safer death.

To hell with women’s witching. I’d let her drown herself before I’d help her build her own lonely prison of wood and sap.

But she didn’t drown herself. She pressed both hands to her middle, right over the thrumming green seed in her belly, and turned away from the Big Sandy. She left the woods with her head bowed, mourning.

Minnie’s wingtip brushed the soft punk of my wood inside her hole. Oh, Sylvie, hon, ain’t nothing you can do. It’s just the way it is.

I went to sleep for a while after that. I’d been doing that more and more often over the years—letting my woman-self curl down deep in the heartwood, unseeing, protecting her from the endless turning of seasons and the things she can’t fix and the words she doesn’t know. But this time—maybe it was the mournful tilt of the girl’s head, the weariness of her footsteps over my root-tips—I didn’t intend to wake up again. I was finished with watching and longing, with loneliness and rage and the-way-things-were.

I slept deep, and remembered deeper.

I remembered way back down the centuries until the line of my mothers and their mothers fractured into a thousand branching roots. Until I found her: the woman with the red-cedar eyes and the sad smile.

I could see the bloody glow of flames along her cheekbones, the blurred outlines of women burning beside her. The heat lifted their hair from their faces, as if they were floating in river-water rather than flames. A blackbird circled high above her, calling a mournful song down to his mistress.

I flinched away from their suffering and all the nothing-I-could-do-about-it, but I was held fast by those red-cedar eyes.

It’s not so bad, really.

She didn’t speak the words: she thought them, and the memory of their thinking echoed down to me through all the births and deaths between us.

My own thoughts were scattered and half-sleeping, but I managed something along the lines of the hell it’s not.

Her smile twisted, wry and weary, so like my Aunt Daphne I felt my branches shiver way back in the here-and-now.

At least I saved my daughters from the flames, and I have my sisters beside me.

Jealousy wormed in my heartwood, like a woodlouse burrowing. Even my dying would be lonely.

And at least all my words won’t burn with me.

She smiled again, and this time it wasn’t sad or wry. It was fierce, shining white through the rising red of the flames around her. The blackbird trilled in triumph.

Some of them I gave to my daughters, and some of them I will give to you, Sylvia.

The memory of my own name was like an axe blade against my trunk, biting deep. I’d left my name behind me when I sunk down into my sleeping, forgotten it along with every other human thing (fresh-pressed cider on my tongue, laughter, a hand held fast in mine). How had she known it?

I knew you before your mother’s mother was born. The witch’s thoughts were faint now, sundered by smoke and pain. Before they burned me, they called me the Sybil of Saxony.

In the final seconds before the flames stole her voice, the witch shouted the words to the smoke-eaten stars.

And oh, they were good words. Words of change and transformation and reckonings long-overdue, vengeance passed like a coal from mother to daughter to niece. Powerful words, burning so bright I could feel the heat of them even through the greasy weight of centuries.

They were the words I’d needed when I was young and still-breathing, when the wolf was nipping at my heels. Now it was too late—I was lipless and voiceless and the wolf had already won. If I had eyes, I would have wept at the waste.

Then the witch’s hair caught fire and the words became screams became nothing at all.

I wanted to save her somehow, to help her—I wasn’t a woman anymore but I still remembered what we owed one another—but I couldn’t. Because her death had already happened, because I was just a sycamore, not a sybil, and the only words I knew were the slow secrets trees whisper to one another through the turning seasons.

But when you can’t do what you want, you do what you can. I lingered in the depths of my own memory and gave her the tree-words for rainwater trickling through the earth, the delicate lace of frost on my bark, the feather-touch of the first snow.

I watched her face ease and her eyes close. And then the Sybil of Saxony was gone and I was alone in the deep-dark with nothing but the words she had given me. The words that had come too late to save me.

It took a long time drifting in that lonely dark before it occurred to me, with a feeling like the first leaf unfurling after a long winter, that the words weren’t meant for me at all.

It took me a while to wake up.

I slept through the green froth of spring, the flowering of the tulip poplars and the hesitant greening of the fiddlehead ferns. I swam upward through the years, following the memory of my true-name and the thin hope that I wasn’t too late.

The pennywort and laurel were in full bloom by the time I came back to my sycamore-self. Minnie was waiting for me, watching me with her gas-lamp eyes full of worry.

Bout time, she snapped, and winged off to kill something furred and small. I thought of the sybil and her blackbird and wondered idly if familiars had really been Satanic spirits the way the preachers said, or if they’d just been pleasant company.

I wished I could follow Minnie out of the woods, smell the sunset on her feathers and her claws on my true flesh—but all I could do was wait.

It was past the summer solstice, when my crown turns deep emerald and the sun soaks into me like honey wine, before she came again.

 I’d been just about to give up waiting—figuring she’d settled into her cozy cage and decided to survive, like so many of us do—but seventy-odd years as a tree will teach you patience.

She came slowly down the bank, and she wasn’t alone: her wolf was at her side. She was swaying, flat-footed, as round and ripe as a peach; he was sweating through his suit. They held hands, and I could see the red mark where the ring cut too tightly into her puffy fingers.

He pulled her beneath the thick summer-shade of my canopy. He leaned close, pressing himself against the hard roundness of her belly, hands moving over her body. It should have looked like tenderness or at least lust, but it looked more like a man rubbing down his prize horse, delighting in his ownership.

“William, I don’t feel well. Please.” He ignored her. She looked up at my tangled leaves, reeling and desperate and almost-resigned—and saw something that made her eyes spark and catch like twin matches.

She shoved the wolf away from her. I could tell from the open hole of his mouth that she’d never touched him like that before, never turned her silent no into a physical thing.

He ran his tongue over his teeth as if testing their sharpness, then smiled wide and false. “Kat! Is that how a married woman should behave?” It was her chance to laugh and take it back, to turn defiance back into deference, to kiss him and make it better.

But I saw her eyes flick backwards to my trunk, to the place she’d been trapped and taken nine months before, and then to the riverbank where she hadn’t drowned herself. I could see them reflected in the paleness of her eyes: the choices she’d had taken from her, the choices she’d made. The choices she could still make.

Her chin lifted. “No. It isn’t.” The fine muscles of her throat were drawn tight. “But maybe I don’t want to be a married woman anymore.”

I watched the change come over him: the languid ease left his limbs, the tolerant patience evaporated like dew. “What are you saying, Kat?” There was a lowness to his voice now, almost a growl.

“I’m saying—I’m saying I don’t want this. Me and the baby are leaving. We’ll go to the city, I’ll find work—we’ll be fine, the two of us—here.” Her voice trembled on the last word. Her hands shook as she wrested the ring from her finger and held it out to him.

Minnie made a high, worried croon.

The wolf didn’t move. He just stared at her, panting a little, sweat pearling on his forehead. The charming smile slid like hot wax from his face, leaving something bare-toothed and animal behind it. Something strangely afraid, like a lean winter-wolf watching his prey escape.

He took a single step towards her and the whole shape of his body was a promise of pain. His hands curled into fists, his lips peeled away from his teeth—and I knew when he reached her he would make her take those brave, doomed words back into herself, make her choke on them—he would take this last and bravest choice from her, too—

Except he never reached her. Because I had already given her the words.

I had sung them in my sap, written them on the sky in the patterns of my leaves, woven them atop the earth with knotted roots. I had carved them into my own white bark.

The girl wasn’t a witch, but she’d gone long enough without power to recognize it when it danced naked in front of her.

She spoke the words, and oh, how sweet they sounded.

They cost her, I could see that, burning her deep inside wherever we keep our souls. But this time the hurt didn’t stay locked-up inside her, turning her organs to tree-knots and her skin to wood-grain; this time it soared outward, wildfire-hungry, and found a worthier mark.

There was a long, wrenching moment when the world seemed to shudder with the force of his changing, and the sound of a scream or a howl lit the forest, but then it was over and there were no more words left to speak.

Instead of a man there was only an ugly little tree rooted on the riverbank where he’d stood: a stunted chokecherry, its bark black and its leaves curled with blight.

My laugh was a summer breeze rustling through my leaves.

The girl stared at the chokecherry tree with her arms wrapped tight around her belly and her chest heaving. She didn’t scream, or weep. Instead she knelt and scrabbled in the dirt at its feet. She dropped something small and golden into the hole and buried it. Her eyes when she stood were a bright, molten amber. Wolf-like.

And now she would leave, and I would stay behind on the riverbank, waiting and watching from my lonely prison until I hollowed from the inside out, until finally I keeled over into the Big Sandy and nobody was left to remember my name.

It would have to be enough.

(It wasn’t enough. I wanted more—the softness of skin, the taste of witchspeak on my tongue, the whole world mine for the walking—but at least I had the memory of her wolfish eyes. At least my words wouldn’t die with me).

But the girl didn’t leave. She turned back to me, a queer half-smile on her face and her maple-hair curling around her cheeks. She stepped close, raising her pale fingers to trace the letters that had appeared on my hard flesh. Her mouth moved, soundless, as if she were remembering the heat of the words on her tongue.

It was only then that I wondered what else those words might do. If they could turn a heart to wood, could they turn heartwood back to flesh?

Oh, oh, please.

“Thank you,” the girl whispered. And then she said the words a second time.

And this time they were mine. They burrowed into me like hacksaws or drill-bits, hot metal. They burned but it was a drunken, delicious blazing, like the first blush of a sunburn in summer.

Somewhere in the deep heart of me, in a place that had almost but not quite turned to rot and sawdust over the years, something woke up. It thudded back to life, clumsy and faint but alive, and I thought: oh, it’s like this. It’s like one hand reaching for another, words whispered from witch to woman, sybil to sycamore, down through time in a long unbending line, despite the snapping of wolves and the crackling of flames. It’s like each woman doing what she can until one day, somehow, it is enough.

The words cost her, I could tell, but she was young and brave and she had the strength of that second life hammering away below her ribs. She leaned her forehead against me for a few minutes, eyes closed, shivering a little. My newfound pulse thudded against her skin.

She straightened, rolling her shoulders back, and patted my shuddering bark.

Then she left. She strode from the woods with her spine straight and her fingers bare, with all her choices laid out before her like the rich fruit of some endless orchard, a new myth in the making. She did not look behind her.

In September I went walking out after her.

It took me a while to finish up all my changing, see—trees are slower than women. I spent the whole summer turning my sap to green-scented blood, my leaves to silver hair, my wood-grain to muscle and bone. It was a second birthing, but I remembered my first one well enough to know how it was supposed to go.

Minnie was patient with me. She perched in a tolerant willow across the bank and offered a steady stream of oh honey’s and shit, girl’s .

Don’t stop now, hon, she told me. And I didn’t.

When I walked out of the woods and into the bright September dawn, tall and old and naked as a jaybird, she swooped after me and perched on my shoulder.

Alix E. Harrow

A former academic and adjunct, Alix E. Harrow is now a full-time writer living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral toddlers. She is the author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Hugo award-winning short fiction. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter.

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