Uprooted

by Will J. Fawley

An earlier version of this story first appeared in The Northern Virginia Review, Volume 30, Spring 2016

I’ve never seen the forest, but I know it well — every branch and twig and leaf. I know the tangled underbrush that tugs my cane, and the scent of bark after a downpour. I know the current of leaves above and their crunching underfoot. I know the shadows that fall across each other and the intangible world that exists in the space between trees. Because I know this forest so well, I’m caught by spontaneous nostalgia when it arrives at my doorstep on a foggy morning in May.

My boyfriend Evan wakes me by leaning over the bed and kissing me on the forehead.

I grab his tie and try to pull him back into bed. “Can’t you call in sick for once?”

“Come on, Filip.” I hold him close to my face and his breath is warm and minty. “I have to get to work. I’m meeting a really important client today and I have to prepare.”

Oh-kay.” I let go of his tie so he can get up. “Love you,” I say.

The only response is the door slamming shut behind him.

Once I’m up and dressed, I descend sixteen floors and spin through the apartment building’s revolving doors. The world outside tastes like wet leaves and moss, and the sidewalk echoes in response as I tap my cane against it. The tapping is a habit and not a necessity in this case because I instinctively turn before the cane taps a thick root. I know these trees and their patterns. This forest was my playground when I was a child. Trunks became towers. And when I was a teenager and no one understood me, not even myself, the trees understood. This is the forest that stood behind the house where I grew up, in the rolling hills of Virginia farm country. The realization makes me feel like I’m falling through an endless pit and I grip my cane tighter to keep my balance, but it slips and I fall against a tree. What is the forest doing here in Crystal City?

I hold a hand out to feel the trees while my memory guides me over the roots. My fingers scrape the wrinkled scar of a tree that was struck by lightning years ago, the day I came out to my parents. My dad told me I wasn’t his son anymore while my mom cried. With nowhere to go, I ran to the forest in the middle of a sky-shattering storm, and my hair stood on end as a crack sliced through the heavens and split the tree in half. The electricity burnt my nose and smelled like all the times I was told boys like me were destined for hell.

I trace the outline of another tree whose branches split into a pattern I know better than the rhythm of my breath. There is no question. This is my forest.

Commuters dodge trees as they walk. If the sudden appearance of a forest in the urban outskirts of Washington, DC is strange to them, they don’t let on. They just chant into their phones as they march to the metro. The voices follow the sidewalk, halting as they pause and hop-scotch like kids over the roots in the cracked pavement. But I walk straight through because I know this forest better than any city block.

When I cross 23rd street, there is a woman in the middle of the intersection. Her perfume is strong and floral and her heels click as she paces between the trees wondering which direction she has come from and where she is going.

“Looking for the metro?” I ask.

She nods. “Yes, the trees…”

“Straight ahead,” I say, gesturing in the direction I’m traveling.

“Thank you,” she says as a click of buttons and scraping of fabric tells me she clutches her purse to her side. Her heels clack against the pavement when she steps over a tangle of roots.

While I walk with the woman, guiding her to the sidewalk, we come across a teenager who seems just as confused as the woman had been. He’s muttering something under his breath as he smacks his skateboard against a wide trunk. The board makes a thwacking sound and the wheels’ ball bearings whir in response. “Damn that thing is tall,” the boy says.

“Metro’s this way,” the woman directs him. Her phone beeps, and then clicks as she types a reply and stumbles over another root.

The teenager shrugs, but joins us on our journey. By the time I get to the metro station, I’m leading a group of seven people. The forest stretches out for another mile or so from what I remember, so we don’t leave it until we descend the escalator to the platform. Even below ground, the scent of dirt and tree musk permeates the burnt-grease air as roots crack through the seams in the concrete ceiling.

I squeeze into the train car between a smelly guy and a sweaty overweight woman in a strapless top. Her wet shoulder slides against my arm, and I have to pull my cane close to my chest to keep from stabbing someone with it when smelly guy leans against me as the train accelerates.

With the other passengers, the train transports me back to my normal life. And when I emerge above ground in The District, the sidewalk is smooth under my feet (not cracked by roots) as I walk the two blocks to the studio. The only forest here is the ghost that was logged to build houses which were then demolished to pave this sidewalk.

I ride the elevator up to the third floor of the artists’ co-op where Evan rents me a studio space. I could never afford it on my own, but he doesn’t like me getting clay and paint all over the apartment, so he pays even though we’ve only been together for seven months. He’s a lawyer who’s married to his job, not to me, so he’s happier to spend money instead of time.

I scrape my fingers across the cinderblock wall to feel for a hook to hang my messenger bag and jacket on. Then I sit on the floor with a ball of clay and ask what it will become. As if in answer, it rises up and begins to take form. I don’t know what it is or what it will be. I never know. Creation isn’t about control, it’s about giving it up and letting the moment shape you.

The clay continues rising in my hands, stretching upward. Soon the wet earth slips from my grasp and begins branching out from itself. Most of my work is abstract, but the shape this sculpture is taking is unmistakable: branching vessels, arteries, lungs. A tree.

The clay sees me. It knows what I see. No, it is what I see. I take a breath of earthy studio air and twist the ends of the branches until they split into limbs and then twigs.

On my walk back to the metro, DC seems unchanged, and I almost expect the forest to be gone when I get back to Crystal City. But as I emerge above ground, I notice that the trees have grown to block out the smog, and the sidewalks are soft with grass. Dozens of cars are stuck and idling in the road and whistles chirp as cops direct traffic around the forest. Fire trucks’ sirens blare and the men get out to set blaze to the trees that block the road.

Evan is home when I get back to the apartment. He is wearing a shirt and tie but no pants as he paces in front of the living room window. (I can tell he’s wearing a tie because his voice goes slightly higher when his throat is tied up, and I can tell about the no-pants because they swish when he walks, and there is no swishing now.) He is shouting into his phone, “Yes, I was perfectly prepared to meet her at 3:30, but there’s a fucking forest blocking all the southbound roads out of Arlington. There’s no way I can get there by 3:30 tomorrow, let alone today. Yeah, Jimmy, I do realize this client could be big for me. Believe me, I would kill to represent Ms. Saint. Yes, I agree. Okay then.”

I set my bag on the floor and wrap my arms around Evan from behind. He turns his head toward me briefly, not even long enough to make eye-contact, then twists away from me and looks back out the window at the trees as he continues to shout. “And what do you want me to do about it, Jimmy? I can’t be there. It’s not that I don’t want to. I physically can’t. Don’t you get it?” He breaks out of my grasp, walks into the bedroom, and shuts the door.

Evan’s voice echoes through the walls, but I tune it out as I sit on the sofa listening to the leaves fluttering in the wind. I wonder what’s left behind now that the forest that used to stand behind my childhood home in Greenbranch is here in the city. Does a single lonely tree stand in a field wondering where the others went? Is anything left at all?

Evan comes out of the bedroom. His phone clicks as he types something.

“Sorry about that,” he says. He’s taken off the tie. “That fucking forest is going to ruin my career.”

“I want to go home,” I say.

“You are home.” He sits down beside me and takes my hand.

“No. Home to Greenbranch.”

“Really? After everything that happened?”

“It’s hard to explain. I don’t even really know why, but I need to do this.”

“Okay. How about next weekend?”

“I have to go now.” I imagine that one lonely tree standing in a naked field behind my old house. I’ve been avoiding Greenbranch for over a decade, and the idea of returning now is tearing me apart, but the forest knows me better than I know myself, and by some invisible force it is pulling me back.

“Why now?”

“It’s the forest.”

“I want to get away from it too,” Evan says, “but we’re trapped here unless we chop it down.”

“No. I don’t want to escape it, I want to see where it came from.”

More phone clicking. I can usually feel his eyes on me when he looks at me, and I don’t feel them now. “And you think it came from Greenbranch,” he says.

“Yes.” I know this forest.

“You sound a little crazy, babe.”

“Come on, let’s go. I know representing Saint Whoever would be huge for you, but it doesn’t seem like you’ll be meeting her anytime soon.”

“It’s ‘Ms. Gloria Saint,’ and she’s CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but yeah, I think you’re right.” He takes a deep breath and his exhale is hot on my face. “I guess I could use a break from this fucking city.” His phone clicks a few more times, and then he finally puts it down. “We’ll leave tomorrow.”

I lean in to kiss him and then he gets up and takes off his shirt.

#

On the drive to Greenbranch I rest my hand on Evan’s leg, and he moves it out of the way to shift gears. The car jumps and bounces like we’re driving over an endless series of speed bumps. I squeeze the door handle.

“Shit,” Evan says, slowing the car to a crawl.

“What’s with all the bumps?” I ask.

“I-66 is torn to shit.”

“What do you mean?” I roll my window down and the scent of dirt wafts into the car, earthworms stretched out on pavement to keep from drowning.

“There are trenches dug straight through the road, like fault lines cracking apart in a movie or something. Tons of them splitting apart the road, the grass — they’re everywhere.”

“Can we keep driving over them?”

“Not with my ‘Z series’ we can’t. We’d need a truck. Oh, shit.”

“What is it?”

“They’re redirecting traffic back toward the city.”

“Just take the next exit.”

“Do you even know where we are?”

“Middleton, right?”

“Yup.”

“Okay, so take the next exit. I know the back roads.”

“How do you know any road? You’ve never driven.”

“My dad used to describe them to me when I rode with him. He’d name the roads off like he was a kid in a spelling bee.”

“I’m glad you have some positive memories of him.”

I slide my hand down Evan’s arm from elbow to wrist to hold his hand, but then pull away as I feel the extra button.

“I told you not to wear that shirt,” I say. “It’s too loud for Greenbranch.” Suddenly everything seems wrong. I feel like I’m falling into an endless pit. I’m not ready for this. But still the forest pulls me.

“Too loud? That sounds like something my grandmother would say.”

“Grandmother or not, I told you not to wear it.”

“I didn’t think you’d notice.”

“Well I did. It has three buttons on the sleeve. All your others just have two,” I say.

“My shirt is fine.”

“Don’t blame me if you get the Greenbranch deathlook.”

“I won’t. I’ll take it as a compliment.”

“You know, they’re not all bad. Just… simple.” Am I defending them?

“Simple? That’s not what you told me when you moved to DC. You said they were, and I quote, ‘homophobic backwoods Neanderthals.’”

“Did I say that?”

“Uh-huh. In those exact words.”

“Well I obviously didn’t mean it. It just wasn’t the place for me.”

“Wasn’t, or isn’t?”

“What?”

“Let me ask you something, Filip,” he says. “Did you ever really want to move to DC, or did you just not want to be in Greenbranch anymore?” The car tilts as we climb a mountain, and the tires hum against the pavement when we level out at the top. “I thought you’d be happier here — there, I mean — in the city. But now I realize you’re just miserable wherever you go.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Life isn’t fair.”

“There’s something we can agree on.”

#

My heart is racing when we reach Greenbranch, and I have to pause every few words to take a deep breath as I tell Evan how to get to the forest. I try to form the words that will make him drive us back to the city, but instead I hear myself leading us deeper into the valley.

”We must have taken a wrong turn,” Evan says when we arrive. I am shaking and sweating, and the falling-through-an-endless-pit feeling returns. It’s so powerful this time I have to grab the car seat beneath me to reassure myself that I’m not falling through the Earth.

“This is it,” I manage to say.

“It isn’t.”

“It isn’t?”

“Nope, no forest here. Just one tree in a field, and a house. Is that your parents’ house? The ground’s all torn up like it was back on 66.”

“That’s what I thought.” The air is heavy, heavier than me. Maybe it is falling and I am slipping upward. I have to pull myself together. I have to do this. “Here, park in the driveway.”

A lawn mower growls in the backyard and a hose showers the yard.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Evan asks.

“No. But I have to.” I take his hand and guide him down the brick path to the house. The mower stops, the hose turns off, and I hear the birds chirping and some insects buzzing in the grass. Sound moves through the valley differently without the trees. It hums in the ground and bounces between the mountains in an almost imperceptible echo until it’s lost.

“Filip?” my mother says.

“Hi, Mom.”

I can feel my dad’s presence. The anger toward me and toward himself knots my guts.

“Oh, Filip!” Mom comes over and squeezes me against her plump breast.

“Mom, this is Evan.”

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Greene.” He holds out his hand and she ignores it. “Filip’s told me a lot about you.”

“I’m sure he has,” Mom says. “I’m just so happy to see you. Regardless of the circumstances. I feel right awful about the way we let you just run out into the woods that night.”

Then my father speaks. “He’s a grown man, Judy. He’s chosen his path.”

“So, the forest, huh?” Evan says.

“Couple days ago we heard this rippin’ sound outside,” Dad says. “It was somethin’ awful. We got up and looked out the window and the trees were gone. Reckon some big-shot city boy pulled ‘em all up to build a Starbucks.”

“Actually, Dad, that’s why we’re here.”

“You done this?”

“No, it uh, done itself. The forest just appeared in DC yesterday.”

“What do you mean, ‘appeared?’” Mom asks.

“Just that,” Evan says. “One day we were living in the urban jungle, and the next, a… well, a real jungle.”

“Filip, this is exactly why I warned you about that lifestyle. Fills your head with all these crazy ideas. Are you on drugs?” Her voice wavers and I can tell she wants to reach out to me, to close the years that have opened between us. But she doesn’t.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I have to lean on my cane to keep from falling down. “This was a mistake. Let’s go, Evan.” My forehead beads with sweat at the thought of touching him in front of my parents, but they’ve made it clear I’m my own man, so I grab my boyfriend’s hand and we walk back to the car.

I can feel Mom’s gaze on my back and I know she’s hurting too, but she lets me walk away again. There’s a ripping sound in the dirt behind the house. It grows louder and louder but then fades into the distance. Somehow I know it’s the sound of the lonely tree catching up with the rest of the forest.

“Holy shit,” Evan says. “You were right.”

The mower and the hose start back up and their voices bounce around the valley. I call out to my parents, but the sound is loose and my lungs begin to heave as I get in the car. I don’t have a home.

It used to bother me that people in Greenbranch called the valley a ‘hollow,’ but now it makes perfect sense, and that hollowness echoes through me, escaping out of my tear ducts as we drive through the mountains.

“I’m sorry,” Evan says. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah. It’s fine. I don’t even care about my parents anymore. I’m over it.” I wipe my face. “I came here to see the forest. It moved on, even if they haven’t.”

#

“Jesus. The damn thing is taking over,” Evan says when we reach the suburbs.

“The forest?”

“No, Godzilla — yes, the forest. The whole city’s been swallowed up.”

“Just keep driving.”

“I can’t.”

“Don’t be dramatic, Evan.”

“I’m not being dramatic. I can’t keep driving.” He illustrates his point by slowing the car and then stopping.

“Do we have to do this now? Can’t we just get home first?”

“I’m not doing anything, Filip. That’s the problem. All the roads are blocked. Traffic into the city is stopped for miles.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh.” Evan sighs as his head slaps back against the headrest.

I open my door.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“Home.”

“You’re going to walk all the way to Crystal City?”

“I don’t see any other way to get there. You coming?”

Evan mutters under his breath and tugs his seatbelt off. The underbrush has grown so thick I have to swipe my cane to clear a path for us as we walk along the uprooted highway. Two hours into the trek I’m sweating, and I begin to notice a rise in elevation. “I don’t remember a hill here.”

“That’s because there wasn’t one,” Evan says. “A god damn mountain rose up from the ground while we were gone.”

We gasp and pant as we climb, and when we reach the peak, the sun isn’t as warm. It must be setting. I catch a breath of fresh air high above the city, clean and green.

“Where are we?” I ask. “This mountain has thrown me off.”

“We’re home,” Evan says.

“Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. It feels right to be back in the forest.”

“No, I mean we’re at our apartment.”

“We are?”

Evan takes my hand and leads me to the front door. In the lobby, I push the ‘up’ button for the elevator, and when the door opens, I sense a hollowness in the shaft. Evan grabs me by the arm and pulls me back. “Another damn tree,” he says.

I reach out and my fingers brush against bark. He’s right. A thick trunk sticks up through the elevator shaft. A tree this big must go all the way up to the roof. “I guess we’ll have to take the stairs,” I say.

Once we climb all the way up to the sixteenth floor, we discover that the upper level of the building has become a canopy. Vines and branches twist down the hallway, and when we open our door, fresh air rushes in. A breeze blows across my face, and I understand that the room is no longer my own. It belongs to the forest. The apartment has become a high-rise tree house.

Together, we walk to where the living room window once was. It’s been permanently opened by the trees. Roots sift through shards of glass on the floor, and a fierce wind blows through the opening, pulling me outward.

“What do you see?” I ask Evan.

“The city is gone.”

“No, what do you see?”

“Trees, mountains, a few rooftops. I can see the capital in the distance, with a tree growing out of its dome. Vines are constricting the monument.”

We stand in silence for a moment. Evan pulls me close and wraps an arm around my waist.

“Guess you’re not meeting Saint Whoever tomorrow either?” I say.

“I don’t think I’m ever going back to work.” He kisses me, and our mouths and bodies fit together in a way they haven’t in months. He is my Evan again. “Hey Filip,” he says. “What do you see?”

“Home.” My voice reverberates as it should, here in the forest. The mountain moves beneath our feet, rising higher, reaching up to become itself like the clay. This is not my forest – I belong to it now.

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