12891

Daphne

Deirdre Maultsaid

 

A tree grew out of Daphne's eye. The branches made such a mess weaving across her face that almost all she saw were annoyingly lacy fronds of yellowish green. She had to stay calm;it was a temporary problem to be overcome. Since waking up in her apartment this Monday morning and finding the tree, Daphne had tried to be systematic. She called in sick at work. From the plant-identification book the courier slid under her door she learned that "a Western Red Cedar could grow to be a thousand years old," and that although the tree had been popular with both coastal and Okanagan Indians for making everything from canoes to shampoo, the wood was now "more renowned for making weather-resistant posts and shingles."

As Daphne dumped all the dirt from her houseplants into a bathtub of cold water, shed her night-gown and gratefully sat down in the mud, she thought how pathetic she was. It had only been one morning and she was already trying to adapt to the situation, like hostages who begin to side with their captors.

She had spent the weekend at her co-worker Kay's Gulf Island cabin. After Saturday's lunch she and Kay sat on the porch drinking coffee with lots of brandy in it. Daphne considered her permanent frizzy enough even without a swim and she was too scared to struggle through the thicket of salal to reach the beach.

"He would have my neck in a sling for telling," Daphne said about their supervisor at Statistics Canada, "but I heard Mr. Booth fighting with his wife on the phone."

Kay leaned forward, interested. "What about?"

"I guess he's jealous because she's never home. She just came back and now she's going somewhere in Africa to do research again."

Kay said, "Why let men's paranoia control us?"

"Maybe I sound paranoid, but I've heard about places where crooks run up to you and rip the earrings right off your ears. Or women get snatched off the street and sold into slave rings."

Kay picked up their empty cups and went inside, calling over her shoulder, "This weekend the cabin on Gabriola Island. Next weekend an African Safari!" When she marched back onto the porch with fresh cups of coffee and brandy, she said, "No more talking about work!"

"That reminds me. Did we get that redraft of the quarterlies out?"

"Relax, Daphne," Kay insisted. "Have another drink."

The women heard footsteps behind the cabin.

"Hello?" Kay called.

"Auntie Kay!" A small, wiry man bounded onto the porch.

"Gee, is that Glen?" Kay asked.

Kay's nephew Jonathan had brought his friend Glen to the cabin before. Glen now explained that he had been tree-planting (new dirt and old stains covered his jeans and plaid shirt), but that he had finished the contract early and so, for fun, was cycling along Vancouver Island. He had decided to make a side trip to Gabriola. "I stopped for a swim. I didn't know anyone was here."

"Go ahead!" Kay told him, "though I don't know how you can force yourself into that icy water!"

"No problem!" Glen said. "Hey, any word from Jonathan yet?"

"No, but he'll be fine at the U. of Waterloo. What about you, Glen? You look as if you have been working hard."

"You break your back for a thirty percent survival rate."

"Of trees?"

"Trees." Glen leaned backwards over the porch railing to look at the grey sky. "What have you been up to here?"

"Nothing," Kay flung her arms wide. "Daphne and I are on vacation!"

"Just eating, drinking and being merry?"

"Can I offer you something?" Kay asked.

"Not off these paper plates," Glen pointed at the remains of their deli lunch. "What a waste of resources. Jesus Christ!"

"Glen," Kay said, "remember that you and Jonathan and all your friends gave me my lecture last time? How about a drink instead?"

"No, I mean, no thanks. I need that swim."

"Let me tidy up." Daphne said to Kay.

While Daphne was wiping Kay's counters she heard Glen go into the bathroom. As she crossed back through the dim living room, Glen, in only his underwear and trailing an odor of campfire smoke, brushed past her as if she were a stranger on the street. He looked back and bared his teeth in what might have been a smile. Suddenly he seemed like a troll - a grubby little creature with a fierce glint in his eyes. The hair stood up Where he had brushed against her arm. How disgusting! But under her disgust Daphne had a pleasingly eerie feeling. It had been so long since anyone had touched her. Glen whooped through the bushes and splashed into the ocean. Now she wanted him to come back, to put his small, strong arm around her and hold her.

As Daphne sat in her bathtub she decided that her condition must have started last night after Kay had driven her home.

"Will wonders never cease, you're hung over," Kay said when Daphne phoned her at work.

"How are you?" Daphne asked carefully.

"Recovering!" Kay said. "Relax, I won't tell on you. Bye-bye."

The sun was shining on Daphne through the open balcony door. Better keep out of the light, stall the growth, the, what was it? - photosynthesis. What was she going to do? Clean the kitchen cupboards? Write to her parents?

Daphne was too tired. She stayed in the mud all day, staring with her one overworked eye through the cedar tree at a light reflected in the shower nozzle. Sometimes she thought she heard the telephone ring. Sometimes she thought she heard someone calling her name from under the balcony. She daydreamed. When she stroked one of the tree's branches the leaves were more blunt than she expected. They didn't prick her fingers. She thought about pine needles and patches of briar, princesses who sewed cloaks of nettles while their fingers bled, princesses who slept for a hundred years inside a fortress of thorns. Finally she fell asleep.

Unexpectedly revived when she woke up in the evening and with an urgent need to escape the apartment, Daphne dressed and tiptoed down to her car in the underground parking lot. With a rag wrapped around her wheel wrench, she smashed a jagged hole in the front windshield and angled herself into the driver's seat with the tree, still a manageable size, arching out over the hood. She drove up the ramp and paused in the alley. Where could she go?

Suddenly a vehicle with blinding headlights drove straight at her and screeched to a stop. A man with a ski-mask over his face ran towards her car, yanked open the driver's door and yelled, "Here she is!" With one arm around her chest and one hand over her mouth, he pulled Daphne out of the seat. He wrapped a large burlap sack over her head and another over the tree. Daphne could smell raw onions. Louder than her own shocked croaks for help stifled by the branches pushed into her face, Daphne could hear another man's voice chanting, "It's okay. Trust me. It's okay."

Daphne struggled but the man locked his arms around her chest. Several pairs of hands hoisted her up. When she felt a cool metal surface under her and heard doors being shut behind her with a restrained clang, she realized she must be in a van. One man held her down on her side with a gentle but firm pressure, while another tied her hands behind her and the third man, from the front of the van, again said, "It's okay." What was okay? There were at least three men: one talked at her, two lifted her. They were prepared for her, Daphne, as she was.

As the van sped along she could only think, "oh god, oh god, oh god," which wasn't enough of a prayer to help her. The only passage from the Bible about trees she could think of was when the burning bush talked to Moses, but she couldn't remember what it said.

A man who Daphne thought was the leader because his beard had wide streaks of gray in it and because he strode around the camp checking on various tasks, put his hands on his hips and shouted, "Everybody, symbiosis is happening! But we've only got two days to finish. Let's haul ass." Glen, who Daphne recognized from his dirty plaid shirt even in the gloomy dawn light, was up on a flatbed truck hooking wires to stereo speakers. He stared at Daphne as the leader spoke. Other men and women were also at work in the clearing of fallen trees, but because they had put Daphne downhill of the campfire, and because everyone else seemed to be avoiding her, she couldn't see their faces clearly. They hammered and banged and chattered. One man roamed around with his face hidden behind a video camera. It looked like they were building a parade float on the back of the truck with lights and a sound system and a giant turquoise sign which two women were painting to read: "Free Forests..." Daphne could hear the crackle of what must have been a radio from inside an old-fashioned canvas tent.

She had to think. She had felt the van descend steeply to a terminal; they rode a ferry with her restrained in the back by two men the whole time; they left the boat and drove for several hours, slowing in towns, and finally winding up a long, bumpy road. She had somehow been turned into a tree by Glen and these people, who were so confident that she was a helpless hostage that they had taken off the onion sacks and untied her. They were right. She couldn't just stumble past all these people in broad daylight and try to radio for help. She had to think. But she felt so tired again.

When the gray light of day filtered into the clearing the group perched on logs in a circle to eat breakfast. Glen walked down to Daphne and, blocking the vision of the other people with his body, held out a granola bar. When she didn't reach for it he sprinkled some water from a cup onto the tree roots growing down her back. Daphne didn't speak. It felt like splinters were choking her throat. Glen glanced back up at the breakfast circle. He whispered, "What can I say? You were just in the right place at the right time." Daphne knew she should be spitting in his face, but instead sudden undignified tears streamed from her one eye. Glen bent down and squeezed her hand. "Hey, sh-sh." Everything that had seemed small and troll-like about him before was gone.

While Daphne stared all day through her tree branches into space and inhaled the mouldy smell of fungi and rotting logs and felt the ground soaking into her skin, the group worked on their float. Sometimes drizzle fell. Sometimes, for a minute, Glen would crouch near her. He would gulp water from a plastic jug and then trickle water from his hand down her back. Daphne heard him murmuring, "Now what, Jesus, now what," to himself.

In the evening they held a meeting to prepare for a media conference. In the wavering firelight Daphne watched each person rehearse their speech. The wanted a television station or a politician to attend. Daphne learned that she and the leader would only be at the conference on video (the leader because of certain "police warrants"). The leader fingered his beard as he practiced talking into the camera about his group, "Free Forests", who now had the ability to populate the whole country with his special symbiotic trees if there wasn't an immediate end to all logging.

When he finished everyone around the fire clapped and cheered. Except Glen. He stood up abruptly and said, "Listen, I don't want to be a part of this any more." A man yelled, "Glen!" The woman sitting next to him choked and said, "What?"

Daphne leaned closer so she could hear over her thumping heart.

"I keep thinking..." Glen said, "We forced her, didn't we? We didn't really get her cooperation."

The leader bent around the fire and poked his finger into Glen's chest. "You should have said something when we were debating this project. It's too late, Glen. It's all arranged. What did she have before? Nothing. What does she have now? Everything. Any sacrifice she has made is worth it! We are going to present her as the essence of rainforest life and make our demands. We will get everything we ask for. And as a bonus we'll probably get the fucking Nobel Prize."

Glen stepped back, "But look at her. Can you believe it? Can you? Listen, I can't go through with this now."

"You agreed to this plan," the leader said icily. "You will do your assigned tasks."

"Yeah, right. Now you're the king!"

"No, Glen, and neither are you."

"I know that."

"Good. Then let's get on with the job."

"Kiss my ass," Glen said.

The leader pointed at each member of the group and said, "Tell me right now that you are going all the way. No more weak fucking links." There was a frightened hush interrupted only by a log hissing as it burned. Finally a man said, "I'm in." The rest of the group rushed to say, "Me too" and "Yeah". Glen was silent. The leader shrugged at him and sat down. The woman next to Glen tried to make him sit too, but he pushed her hand away and stood with his arms folded looking into the forest while the group talked about the weather and road conditions and then, for a long time, about finances.

Daphne stopped listening. Now what? Now nothing. Despite her despair this place was affecting her. She had never been so close to a real rainforest. It was alive! Now, if she listened hard, she could hear the soil shift and breathe, sense the spiders designing their webs. Once in a while a salamander crossed the forest floor, whispering to itself, avoiding the circle of people. Oh yes, the people, whose voices went up into the forest canopy and were lost.

The trees arched over Daphne. They were strong. They were conscious. From their interconnected roots to their spreading, touching branches, the trees formed a community. Daphne could sense them now. They hummed, the wet, potent sound of each sustaining and confirming the others until there was no pause long enough for the trees to acknowledge any significant life beyond themselves. These busy people only seemed like the other tiny animals foraging for food, because the trees did not know, did not want to know, what was being done on their behalf. Listen, look around, their community was closed, too shrewd to share anything. Change was not allowed: no outside noise should disturb their own mighty sound; bright light or warm sunshine must not penetrate the canopy or ever, ever reach the forest floor.

Was it an inspiring rainforest? None of these cedars, or firs, or hemlocks, would ever change the world with their proclamations or burn with a divine fire that did not consume them. As the trees became aware of Daphne and all that she meant, the awareness travelling from their thickest roots, up their trunks, to their highest boughs, their hum changed to a stingy wail.

So what? Daphne would make a claim. It could take a thousand years for her to be transformed into the magnificent growing forest spirit that people imagined. She slowly, quietly and deliberately wriggled herself further away from the camp, through the dripping bushes, behind a log, deeper under the cover of the forest until the firelight didn't reach her any more. Daphne stood up. It could take a thousand years or one flash of faith.

At the camp a member of Free Forests said, "Let's take a break." As Glen turned away from the fire, the leader called, "Hey, Glen, we're still waiting for your answer." Glen walked quickly down through the bushes, hissing, "Christ Almighty," and sat on a log and held his head. In that damp shadowy forest, with thin streamers of hanging moss quivering gently where his shoulders had brushed under them, Glen did not sense who the particular tree was that stood so proudly and spread over his head with such generous green fronds.


© 2000 - Deirdre Maultsaid

Deirdre Maultsaid grew up and was educated in Vancouver, Canada. She have been published in the literary journals Zygote and Other Voices (Canada), a Rowan Books anthology (Canada) and on-line at Conspire (U.S). She lives in Southern Spain with her husband and children where she is revising her novel "The Cold Ashes of Her Shelter" and looking for a book publisher for this work.

deird@bigfoot.com

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