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This month’s Sunday Short, “We Were Trees” is from Georgina Beaty’s debut short story collection, The Party Is Here. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Freehand Books.
We Were Trees
The bang of the fireworks in the distance makes the French girls jump. It sounds like gunfire but it’s just a boda, a wedding procession, coming towards them. The girls laugh with relief and take a shot of tequila from the passing groomsmen.
We sit in El Árbol, an open-air bar. The scene. The place where all the top artists, the painters, sculptors, and all of the extranjeras of every nationality go, in a city known for its arts scene, to eat tlayuda and drink mezcal.
The names of mezcal are onomatopoeic; potrero, papalometl, picometl, pechuga, and have little stories contained within them—stories of being harvested at midnight, of growing in fields of butterflies, of fermenting with a raw chicken breast or fresh strawberries. Mezcal has replaced poetry.
These are the nights. Cobblestone streets, papel picado banners with bright plastic cut-out images of virgins and skulls. Every once in a while, a beautiful woman excuses herself from the conversation, gets up, seemingly to go to the washroom, and instead bursts into a tree. Everyone claps. To burst into flower suddenly, pale blossoms falling—it’s spectacular, if unnerving.
Aren’t we all there for the violet-static of possibility in the air? The night goes on, our shoulders bare, the air still warm, and the proprietor brings out a round. He foraged for the oldest hearts of agave to treat the girls who know the place to be. Salud! Clear burn with an aftertaste of earth—the subtle flavor of distilled-in-clay.
What did I miss? We turn to see Dara, always late but stunning—and now, a tree.
Some nights there are more trees than people. One night Genevieve, Carmen, and Natalie went one after another and the place turned into a spontaneous, haphazard arboretum.
The artists gaze at the limbs in awe, pour a bit of mezcal into the roots as an offering, or take out a sketchbook and a piece of charcoal. You can draw without touching.
Eventually, the trees are part of the background scenery. The visiting band sets up beneath a solid oak known earlier in the night as Madison. The internationally renowned Maestro holds forth on frescoes, the shifting shadow patterns of street light through the leaves on his old skin. Someone takes a leak—one hand against a smooth grey trunk.
No one’s around later when the party trick’s over and the girls become girls again, walking home, heels in hand.
It’s unclear what causes the transformation. If you knew, you could feel it coming on and decide not to go out for the night, or at least step aside before bursting into a tree and sending the glassware flying (the snap of a necklace, beads skittering on tiles). To avoid it, some girls stay in motion, or stay in the open, ask a friend to keep an eye out, but it’s no guarantee.
There’s no visible damage the next day, nothing that would be noted by a colleague, acquaintance, passerby, but it does just take it out of you. It’s hard to be productive, you know, when you weren’t planning on spending the previous night as a tree. Some women say they enjoy it but I don’t know. They want to see photographs of people sitting in their branches. Others say, God, don’t remind me, and stay away for a few nights. Still others are out the next night in their best backless dress, laughing a bit too loudly.
I did not like it when it happened to me. I thought maybe if I had wanted it, it would be fine, but I didn’t want to be a tree. At the same time, at least now I know. What did I think would happen at El Árbol.
The sculptor in question, in relation to me, sculpts angels in the church. The sculptor in question is known to treat trees well and even set up a barricade of chairs around Audrey when one of the other artists got his hands on some crayons and wanted to do leaf rubbings. But have you ever known a sculptor to admire a tree and stop there?
From the way people were talking, from the way the sculptor ran his hands along the lenticels in my bark and remarked upon the dark knots, I deduced that I might have been a birch but I couldn’t see. All I know is that I was hardwood and difficult to carve (the sculptor was verbal and told me exactly how long it would take to finish.)
As the sculptor carved into me, he talked about how he listens to the tree and simply releases the sculpture within—the wood tells him what it wants to be. Which is bullshit.
The girls marvel at their capacity to absorb the artistic impulse.
What to do. Genevieve with stretch marks on her inner arms, the rapid reach to twenty feet. Aline coughs up a chunk of amber. Rivka, sent a bill for the damage her root system caused to the bathroom tiles. I inspect my body and find it accounted for, nothing missing, no physical trace from the carving the night before—though I do have a sensitivity to light the next day, the last of photosynthesis still in play?
How do you tell your husband, over Skype, that you spent last night as a tree, you aren’t even sure what type? You just do. This is hard for husbands. A great deal of art has been made about how hard it is for husbands when their partners have spent the night as trees.
Will you come home? My husband asks. No. It could happen anywhere, it could have been far worse. At least I wasn’t tapped for sap, grafted, picked, chopped for firewood. I will stay. Everything is okay.
In Spanish class, the talk is about verbs. Subjonctif is a grammatical mood to express a state of unreality. I wonder if my teacher could help write a letter to the sculptor in question, to explain his effect on me. But Spanish class is for things which are supposedly neutral, like the weather, or which verb tense to employ when something is in the past and finished or when something is in the past but continues into the present.
Things stay romantic for the sculptor. He sends a Facebook message with a huge smiley face with hearts for eyes so it is blind and can’t actually see a thing. He types: mamita, preciosa. I pee blood.
I go to the market and look for a cure. Green jugo to scrape my insides clear, yellow-skinned corn-fed chicken, the seeds of fresh papaya.
Buenas tardes! At a corner stall, there’s my friend, Geraldo, his ex-votos laid out on a blanket for sale. Postcard-sized paintings on tin or wood in bright colours, little scenes to thank the saints for helping you to make it out of a close scrape (a car accident, a robbery). Will he take commissions? Paint me a woman at the point of transformation. Or just a tree. It doesn’t matter what type. Geraldo obliges but wonders where the action is, maybe it could be a bit funny?
For now, you hang out with the girls. You all just get it. You walk past El Árbol and don’t even check to see what the courtyard looks like today. Were we ever trees, ever drinking down small stories in the moonlight? Will the dry heat ever stop and will the rainy season come soon?
“We Were Trees,” by Georgina Beaty. From The Party Is Here. Copyright ©2021 by Georgina Beaty. Reprinted by permission of Freehand Books.
Georgina Beaty writes fiction, and for film and theatre. Her debut collection of short stories, The Party is Here, was published by Freehand Books in 2021. Her work has appeared in New England Review, The Walrus, The New Quarterly, PRISM, The Fiddlehead, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia and has been supported by fellowships and residencies at MacDowell, the Canadian Film Centre and The Banff Centre. She is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University.