Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde

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Cloud Forest

On her second day studying in the Monteverde, Arminae Ganit stared at damp sky framed by beech leaves and fiddleheads and wished she could photosynthesize. She touched fingertips to the thick loam at her feet. Moist air slicked her cheeks and dampened her t-shirt so her pack’s straps rubbed at the skin beneath. The forest’s shifting clouds dappled Arminae’s hands dark and light. She imagined her fingers exuding roots; her hair, fruit and leaves.

Very unscientific,” she scolded under her breath. Her father, a poet, might have appreciated the thought, but Arminae aspired to science, was already training her mind away from myth, toward analysis and exacting data. Still, she smiled to think of this particular transformation’s direct benefits: To not need to crouch to pee while most other students on this research trip stood and marked the leaves; to become impervious to the damp; to not hear colleagues chewing their dinner, grinding meat with their molars. To acquire skin that abraded her classmate’s touch—a hand on a shoulder, nothing meant by it, an accident—or that trapped his fingers in unyielding wood.

Laughter nearby broke her reverie. “I’m serious,” a young man said, punching the arm of his friend. “Gray warts all over his skin, looked like an Ent or something. Gross. Like an allergic reaction.”

The sound of a thin waterfall struck the undergrowth.

“That’s not what I heard.” The other laughed. “I heard he got it from a girl.”

When they were gone, Arminae rose, brushing dirt from her fingers as if they’d never be clean. She placed a palm against the beech beside her. Skin like bark; got it from a girl. Rumors and myth, not data.

Arminae pulled a notebook and pencil from her bag and began sketching. She ignored the boys; traced the structure of bark and leaf, the web of connections. She wrote oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen below then sketched the tree’s three elements, the chemical makeup—not elements like sun and rain and wind. She committed the beech to line and memory instead of rumor and myth.

beauty01Once back at her midwestern college, she dropped her mud-stained bag on her apartment floor and video-chatted her parents in London. Learned so much. Very beautiful. Everyone was nice. Her hands sketched carbon structures in the air instead of leaves. Far away, her father nodded, her mother listened. The distance between them contracted, and Arminae felt their happiness through the screen; was warmed.

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Palisander

In a Northeastern university physics lab, enormous roots tore up the linoleum. A canopy of Dalbergia nigra blooms pressed against the ceiling, broke windows.

“I don’t know whether to call an arborist or the police,” the dean said. The janitor who’d found the tree shrugged and didn’t respond. The dean kept talking. “Graduate students sometimes work very late, did no one see anything? This is an outlandish prank.”

Rumors spread that it was more than a prank: a student worked so hard, they’d rooted to the spot; someone’s experiment had gone gravely wrong; a seed, planted years ago, had sprouted in another dimension and grown into this one. Everyone would get an A for the semester.

Over the course of a week, most of the lab’s students came to the doorway to see the extent of the foliage. Their professor filed a damage report and finally told the dean, “I caught a graduate student dozing here last week. He hasn’t shown up for work since. He abandoned his notebooks. His research. He was … sensitive. But I do not see him behind this.” The professor gestured at the tree, and at the workmen cutting it from the floor.

The rosewood was valuable, even so.

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beauty02Our woods were transformed into shelter and fuel.

Trees became houses and furnishings and the cardboard boxes that bore the furnishings to fill the houses, all stacked neatly where trees had once rooted. We began lopping trees at odd angles, splitting their crowns to give cables and networks safe passage.

Wires, streets, and intersections seamed the once wild hills. The valleys divided in neat grids filled with brown and gray boxes and colonial blue trim. The cardboard containers were delivered by 5:00 p.m. or earlier. It was orderly, tight. The very air could barely breathe.

The dreams started then. The tree-dreams, the vine dreams.

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Laurel

What it took for Sam to turn into a laurel tree was a river dream.

Curled up on his futon, he’d been mulling differential equations and next week’s midterm when his eyelids drooped. He pulled his duvet over his head while his roommates Benjor and David watched a fishing show at peak volume in the next room.

In Sam’s dream, numbers glittered blue-white starlight over rushing water. Fish leapt and a river chuckled and echoed across the dream and Sam leaned into the beauty of it. His dream fingers reached up to the number-stars and his toes stretched rough and knobby until they rooted through the duvet with soft ripping sounds and crumbled the apartment’s old plaster down to the slats and chicken wire.

He woke thirsty and stiff. Panic ran his limbs like a cold breeze.

There’d been years of rumors on the Internet, mostly debunked, then a few brief news clips from faraway places. Those came mostly on weekends, when no one paid attention. And once the photos of bark-skin men and that woman whose hair turned to vines got out? Proliferation: Garish images from safely distant rural locations accumulated beneath Sam’s computer’s placid screen.

But no one Sam knew had ever woken up as a tree.

He shivered when his bark sloughed in patches. At the memory of late-night dissection videos from those distant places; ones he’d viewed surreptitiously online, some nights. Last night too, for a moment.

Sam didn’t want to be dissected.

To hide a laurel tree in a fourth-floor Boston walkup was nearly impossible. Sam’s two roommates made jokes and threatened to use him for a gaming table, but they watered him. They told his teachers Sam had flu and they patched the wall with dirt.

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Dreams used to spread like myth and rumor. Tendrils and smoke.

Now they rolled like streets moving out into the country. Long tongues of influence, leading permanence, like city lights seen from space, reaching in neat blocks for the dark.

A child dreamt of petals while his parents dreamt of roots. A pilot remembered where a mother planted rosemary. A whispered word became a month-long corridor of trunks, of soft bark, and starlit rivers.

“I dreamed that too,” your lover said the morning after you mentioned the gnarled roots of your dream, which were all you could recall.

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Rosewood

Arminae, after two years and a hundred calls home, delivered a thesis on flavonoids in cloud forests: Ruellia Macrophylla from South America, Nothofagus Fusca from New Zealand. Her parents knew Ovid and finance, myths and money, but still, she tried to sketch the structure, drawing a ladder in the air: Twenty-one carbons, twenty-four hydrogens, ten oxygens! She told them everything.

beauty03In the lab, she modeled carbon spines and cellular signaling. She kept her gaze on her faraway trees and the messages they hid in their cells. Still felt her skin prickle when her mentor passed by.

“I can recommend you,” Dr. Vini said more than once, age-spotted palms flat on his old, rosewood desk. Then he turned his hands up, an invitation. Pink, lined skin, soft with paperwork. “But you must focus on our research.” His focus, not hers: Inosculation: when plants grafted to one another, veins and roots signaling and tangling until they were one. More recently, if plants and other organisms might graft to humans.

Philemon old and poor / Saw Baucis flourish green with leaves, and Baucis saw likewise. Arminae remembered her father reciting Ovid at the dinner table, the wrath of gods denied turned on unkind villagers; the rewards for being kind. She wavered. Tried to break her choices into data. But her professor pressed. “What kind of scientist will you be?”

Her skin was not bark. Blood rushed anger and confusion to her cheeks. Her parents’ pride fell away like petals onto water. She knew she could not pass this last test, but refused Vini’s upturned palms anyway.

“I would rather,” she began.

“I thought,” she started again.

Already, he’d passed her their paper on paired trees and transplant research, where he was first author, Dr. Vini, and she, second, Dr. Ganit.

She set nothofagins and phenols aside, kept out of arm’s reach, a constant state of flight. Her smile grew impervious. She published and wrote weekly notes to her parents to tell them of her studies, or her travels, ink spines of linked letters on pressed white leaves: I am fine, I am doing well for myself. I am busy. She rarely called.

She ignored the pale trees whispering beyond her lab window: birch, not beech. Touching the glass with gnarled fingers.

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Myth passed from one generation to the next, shaping memory, uprooting knowledge. On a hillside, by an ancient temple, a linden and an oak intertwined their branches, but did not embrace; they inosculated.

A movie of trees with faces, with moss-hung beards. An army of trees rising up on the stage, in music. Our poets always knew these trunks and roots for more than furnishings.

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Magnolia

Even Dr. Ganit’s letters grew sparse—a few a year. She’d published more, become an expert, gained tenure far away; her small apartment at the end of the world filled up with papers and clippings. A clearing on her bedside table held their photo: the two who’d joined their cells to make her, holding hands. One night she dreamed them planted in the dirt of a cloud forest.

Her first call went unanswered. She left a message and, distracted, she let time pass before she tried again. Marked revisions on her first phenols paper since moving to the end of the world, replied to reviewer’s questions. Called again. No response.

In a café near her Dunedin classroom, a wall-hung television blared, “An entire Melbourne neighborhood overrun by Panicum effusum—a tumbleweed—residents missing.” The screen showed explorers in headlamps, plowing through a weed-filled house. Dr. Ganit sketched four carbon molecules on a napkin, the base structure of the weed. If carbon dioxide can be transformed to organic material, can organic material be transformed too?

“A house in Wales filled with nettles, owners disappeared,” the television replied. A headline ticker flashed news of trees growing from apartment windows in London.

Ganit booked flights from Dunedin to Auckland, then home to London. I am fine. It is cold here, and gray, but the plants are wonderful, she’d written once.

Tired and gritty from the transit, she pushed the door of her parents’ flat open, pressing hard. The apartment windows had been shut tight, and the steaming air was thick with the sweet scent of blooms. Of plants gone weeks without water, without a phone call—

—until she’d finally found the time

—and the call had never connected

—and she’d flown.

Her parents’ weight, spun together into a double-trunked magnolia, blocked her entry.

She begged them wake, squeezing through the gap, hands pleading, pressing, like a fault-filled god in a myth, until the ambulance came.

“Can’t fit trees.” The attendants shook their heads. Removed their gloves. One touched her shoulder. “They’re beautiful like that, at least. Egg magnolia. Rare in this climate. There are worse ways to go.”

Broad petals of cream-colored flowers had darkened and fallen long before she arrived. Curled now, yellowed like wood shavings, collapsing to sawdust.

Tears streaked her face, the top of her collared shirt, soaking the cotton dark blue in patches.

She yelled until the attendants left and the landlord came with an axe.

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/What kind of tree would you be?/ one friend asked another in a chat window. Glowing square on a lit screen. The real sunset pressed its face against the glass in reverse.

/A Baobab/ typed the other in darkness. It was midnight, there.

/A Maple/ typed the first.

They traded emoji that didn’t look like either kind of tree. They smiled together, across the night’s distances.

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Rose

When Eleni slept as a child, she’d dreamt of flying, or sailing, until one time she dreamt a blackberry bush fruited with eyes, picked at by birds.

After that, she ran every day until she fell, exhausted, into bed, and slept dreamlessly. An adult now, she ran ten miles daily with her spouse.

She ran from her shadow. She ran right out of her skin sometimes.

“I am tired,” she said, “I don’t want to fear my heartbeat, my dreaming cells, my bones.” She rubbed her skin soft and braided her shower-damp hair down her back, then turned to find her spouse snoring.

Months later, in the maternity ward, she fell asleep nursing. Her new baby, unfamiliar and squalling like a gull.

They dreamed the same milk-dreams, Eleni knew, because she saw the baby in them, blooming. When Eleni woke, she was a rose-strung hedge, and filled the room. The doctors had to cut the thorns away to get the baby out.

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Before the dreams began, there was art and myth, Arminae’s father said. Nymphs turned to laurel and poplar in exquisite refusals. Kind Baucis and Philemon became twined oak and linden.

Now, not one dreamer ever turned back. Hair hardened into knots and whorls. A few kept their mouths, their eyes.

/It doesn’t hurt/ Sam blinked in Morse while Benjor carved their initials in his trunk. /I can hear others. There’s a network between sky and ground. They whisper yes. They say come./

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Swamp Maple

When Sam’s roommates left for Thanksgiving, they turned the humidifier full blast. They’d been dreaming for days about streams and the smell of loam. Couldn’t wait to get away from the crawling roots, the quiet rustling. Their grades had suffered.

Benjor headed south, to his grandparents, eleven hours on the interstate. He slept on the bus, a rolling dream of networks and circuits, exams and summer jobs in Silicon Valley or DC. When sunrise broke over the Blue Ridge, gilding the black hillsides, swamp maple roots ran the length of the coach and pushed greedily into the water tank.

David drove north all night, a 64-ounce Big Gulp sweating caffeine between his knees as he peered into the darkness. He reached the border awake and shaky as hell.

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Hypotheses? A call went out. Dr. Ganit had plenty of research and data. She sent messages flying, sketched theories. From the end of the world, she caught her mentor’s notice again. She pictured inorganic carbons transforming like myths, like nymphs.

“I extrapolate from the evidence that pheromones may be triggering some commonality long dormant in our DNA,” she told an emergency committee broken into squares on her laptop screen. “We’re not too distant relatives from plants. Our cells signal, too. Bananas, for instance—though no one’s turned into one of those yet, have they?”

Dr. Vini, who led the call, ground his teeth. “It only seems like they’re turning. It could be fungal.”

She heard him ramping up an argument for drawing her back into the lab. Didn’t wait for it. “We’ll need to do tests. Set protocols. There’s a rational explanation. I’ll work with you.”

Saw him smile.

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Sara and Bell

They’d run away one night while Bell’s parents watched a show, the screen glowing blue like a storm in a box. They’d run across the lawn and into the thin stretch of woods across the street and deliberately curled up below the last of the oak trees. They’d uncapped the Thermos of chamomile. They’d pulled Bell’s old wool blanket up around them and slipped from their clothes. The air had touched their skin and puckered it. The tea was warm on their lips. They’d whispered the things they’d said a thousand times to each other in their minds, always and never and forever. They’d slept in one another’s arms and when Bell woke to sunrise, Sara wound over Bell’s limbs and covered Bell’s mouth in creeper and Bell couldn’t fight for long. Sara hadn’t meant to grow so fast, bind so tight. She hadn’t meant it.

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A Bee-Loud Glade

Dr. Ganit, in her lab at midnight, pushed “record,” retreated beyond the video screen and lay down on the Army cot.

No blanket.

Her mentor scowled remotely. “I’ll keep watch too,” he’d said. He liked to watch.

The timer ran as the scientist slept, a blinking red dot, two white colons, six digits in constant change. Sun filled Dr. Ganit’s small room after seven hours, five minutes, thirty-two seconds.

Her clock radio began to spell the news, each word in the perfect flesh of her ears an announcement that she’d failed to dream. Failed to change.

She felt the pull of her parents like longing; deep roots, or the spaces where roots had once been. She feared the dreams, but wanted to dream of them. She couldn’t remember their voices.

Her mentor, overnight, had grafted with the frame of his chair: mahogany over birch frame. Arminae did not want to guess at his dreams.

The news sounded panic; in a capital city, a vice president had become a stand of cornstalks, harvest-ready. An Italian soprano, a glade trapped beneath the deciduous tenor she’d lately been screwing, buzzing with bees.

Dr. Ganit flew to Bethesda, to the military’s best hospital, egg magnolia cuttings in her carry-on. She would help find a cure for dreaming if she couldn’t find one for trees.

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beauty07Everywhere, dreamers turned, if they were lucky, to plants that fit their containers: the houses, apartments, and parked cars where they’d slept; to trees that broke hulls in motion if they were not.

People drank gallons of coffee in a bid to outrun sleep. Strained to keep moving. Collapsed and died from exhaustion, or slept and dreamed and changed.

One in a million, the scientists said. One in a thousand. Desperate parents pinched children awake. There was no cause. Drinking wine could stave it off. Drinking wine sped the process. One in a hundred.

Not one dreamer turned back; they stayed tree and vine, rock and hill.

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Cuttings

Dr. Ganit moved Eleni and Sam and others like them to the NIH facility near Fort Meade. All concrete, with long windowed rooms edged with grow-lights, ringed with barbed wire.

A fleet of landscaping trucks threaded the highway. Homes and apartments receded. Some reached for their families with rustling leaves, saw segments of themselves put on slides, lit up on screens, pressed between pages of medical dictionaries.

She worked around the clock—no time for interviews. No dreams of photosynthesis permitted, transformation merely a structure, a dataset. The world depended on science. On Ganit finding the right question, and then the answer.

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A dream of smoke. A dream of sun’s rays breaking through cloud to touch skin. A dream of snakes. Of a birthday. Of running and roots.

The news gave over to readings: children’s stories, poems, mythology, the Bible. The news played recordings from the London Symphony, the Beijing Philharmonic. Nothing live. The woodwinds echoed.

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The Forest

A crowd waited outside Fort Meade’s boundary. They’d come, crazed with sleep-deprivation, hyped up on sugar, caffeine, and what amphetamines they could steal from the branch-tunneled hospitals. They came for answers, for a word with a scientist.

beauty08Dr. Ganit begged them to go away. She couldn’t think amidst their screams at night, however distant. At the thought of so many awake, for so long.

She tried distilling stronger pheromones. Injecting RNA drawn from her samples. She could remember the edges of dreams pulling at her, once, but nothing came for her now.

After a week of restless, dreamless sleep amidst the noise, Dr. Ganit woke to silence. Outside, a new forest, pressed against the barbed wire, reached for the concrete.

A few stragglers wandered among the trees, but Dr. Ganit didn’t go to them. She watched from the windows, until the stragglers, too, lay down.

She watched them dream, but couldn’t follow.

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Grapevine

Dr. Ganit looked through her computer to other labs as her peers fell one by one. Their skin pulsed taut, then rough; trails of moss ran green veins from fingertip to neck; hair twisted with vines. She watched them turn to sedum; to rhododendron; to a willow beautifully gripping a cot.

She took more samples from the gardens that accumulated. Oak. Grapevine. She turned down the water to drive her living plants into stasis. Hoped that would buy time; hold the changes at bay.

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Some days, careful listeners could hear whispers in the trees. A chuckle as a house uprooted and the branches within rose to the sky.

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Creeper

After months, Dr. Ganit began speaking to the plants surrounding her like patients. None but the rose hedge listened much; they’d long since ceased answering her.

She only talked theories, cures. Never the right questions.

Dr. Ganit tried playing music. Classical. Rock. What remained of the news. In distant places chants of food riots.

She tried ignoring the plants, too. Not very scientific. They ignored her right back.

The plants waved tendrils, sent out slow shoots, to no notice. One—a still-fast creeper vine, despite the water shortage—tore angry holes in the speakers late one night. The music—classical, by Benjamin Britten—stopped.

In the silence, Dr. Ganit sometimes imagined her father’s voice, almost taunting: Apollo clasped the branches as if they were parts of human arms, and kissed the wood. But even the wood shrank from his kisses.

Her skin grayed, but didn’t patch over with bark. No vines grew in her hair. She replayed bad movies and ate strange food—the ration tins left open, the stale water—and slept like a beggar before the magnolia cuttings on her desk as dreams avoided her.

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The cameras, left on, captured changes before the vines took their lenses. Anyone could view the live shots, direct-to-web. Anyone with eyes to see. Ears to hear.

Until there was nothing to cure.

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Root and Carpel

After six months, Dr. Ganit forgot and left the grow lights on around the clock, let the fertilizer spill on the floor. Science had no answers and the elusive dreams were their own cure. The world was verdant and getting more so and that was that.

She wrapped herself in blankets and laid her cheek on the cuttings from London. She whispered “Where did you go?”

Her parents’ whispers echoed in her ears. So proud. So kind. She remembered their faces, finally, their encouragements. She remembered their dreams for her, her dreams for herself. Arminae closed her eyes.

She dreamed of magnolia carpels, ancient and sleeping; she dreamed of magnolia roots, rolling over floors and doorways. Through the lab window, smoke. The skylights turned dark, the grow-lights stayed on.

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Breakthrough

Outside, vines tapped at the facility windows, pressed through foundation walls. Inside, tendrils spread across the form in the lab coat, a trunk, sprouting leaves and, from one pocket, a cluster of daylilies, tubers digging at the cold cement floor.

The lab’s watering system dripped and broke. Indoors, it rained.

beauty9The trees awoke and Eleni stretched her branches to the lab’s edges. Memories leached from her as she grew again, dreaming awake this time—a kiss became new buds; the soft spot on her baby’s skull and the smell of it, a cluster of rosebuds. Everything beyond the walls pulled at her, drawing her out. The hedge reached a window pane, tapping, then scraping at it. Pried the sill and stretched. Beyond the grate, seeds caught breeze and lifted, scattered.

The creeper pushed past and through rose thorns and was gone. Rude as ever, angrier too.

The laurel waited for the birds to come and pick its drupes clean. Magnolia pollen and petals clouded the breeze.

They were a river of roots, a star-dream, a rose hedge, magnolia blooms, grown beyond fear. A myth told to no one; vines wove through emerging orchards where fruit trees embraced sturdy ornamentals. Bushes sprouted from cardboard boxes, trees from furniture, and whole forests crowned over houses and factories. Roots and vines ungirded the hillsides and fell through the cracks in bare roadways, and everything escaped, until there was green, everywhere, green.

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fran-by-stephen-gould
photo by Stephen Gould

Fran Wilde’s work includes the Andre Norton and Compton Crook Award-winning, and Nebula Award-nominated, novel Updraft (Tor, 2015), the upcoming novel Cloudbound (Tor, 2016), and the novella “The Jewel and Her Lapidary,” (Tor.com publishing). Her short stories also appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny, and Nature. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com. You can find her on twitter @fran_wilde, and at franwilde.net.

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