The Listener’, Sim Kern

Illustrations © 2021 Cécile Matthey



2019—Phoenix, Arizona

 [ A single massive oak, © 2021 Cécile Matthey ] Angie is suplexing Bo into couch cushions when I spot the wedding invitation on the fridge.

“Why is this here?” I tear it off the magnetic clip.

Bo, wearing only a pair of underpants and my pink skull scarf as a cape, climbs onto Angie’s back and puts her in a headlock.

“I think we should go.”

“We’re not going,” I say, dropping the invitation into the recycling bin.

Angie grabs Bo’s torso, flips him over her head, and slams him into the couch. “Don’t you think Bo should meet his family?” she pants, getting up.

You’re my family.” I pour apple juice into a sippy cup, sloshing some over the side.

“Well, I still want to meet them, and your brother sounds cool.” Angie retrieves the invite from the recycling. “The wedding’s at his organic, no-dig, permaculture food co-op, whatever that means.”

“Even if I wanted to go, I can’t. Spring is the worst time for my allergies.”

Angie rolls her eyes. “No one has tree pollen allergies so bad they can’t leave Arizona. You grew up there, right? You survived. We’ll bring Benadryl.”

Outside the apartment’s large picture window, the sun glares off our white stone yard and the asphalt streets. There’s a big agave near the driveway, but not a woody plant for miles around. “The wedding’s in the piney woods. I could mainline Benadryl and still be miserable.”

Bo has wrapped himself around Angie’s leg, and she steps towards me, dragging him along the floor.

“So what then? We’re never going anywhere? Bo never gets to leave the desert?”

I shrug and hand the cup down to Bo.

“You want to go to Texas, Bo-Bo?” she asks, squatting down. “You want to meet your uncle? And see a forest?”

Bo’s lips smack off the cup, eyes wide. “Yeah!”

I narrow my eyes at Angie.

“Uncle! Forest!” he cries, words he only knows from TV.

Angie’s right of course—I’m lying about the allergies. The real reason I can’t face the trees of my hometown is something I know better than to tell anyone, even my wife.

But two pairs of eyes that look nothing alike stare up at me, pleading, and when they team up like that, I don’t stand a chance. I can already picture us barreling East down I-10, windows down, scene kid throwbacks blasting out the car stereo.


2008—Conroe, Texas

The night I became a Listener, I was in my room getting ready, probably listening to Fall-Out Boy, probably flat-ironing my side-bangs or buckling on a second pyramid belt. Delia’s new boyfriend Ricky had scored mushrooms, and we were going to TRIP at a RAVE. It was supposed to be the most exciting night of my short, miserable life.

Then Carol—mom, though I’d quit calling her that a year before—came in and told me to turn my music down. I turned up the volume instead.

Carol jerked the plug of my stereo out of the wall, silencing Patrick Stump mid-scream.

“What are you doing?” I hissed. Carol coiled the cord on the 50-CD changer—my pride and joy, my sanctuary—and stooped to pick it up. “That’s my property!”

“Everything in this house belongs to your father and me. So if you don’t want to act like our daughter—” she grunted, hoisting up the stereo. I laughed at her then, bowlegged under its weight, neon windbreaker suit, helmet hair, lipstick stains in the cracks around her lips. It was funny until she started heading towards the window. Wide-open. Second story.

“You can’t be serious. Carol—Mom!” I tried to grab the stereo, but she swung it, knocking the sharp corner into my elbow, right in the funny bone. “Ow! What the fuck?”

She shook her head. “I’m doing this for your own good, Jane. Pastor Dave says all this racket is corrupting the youth, giving you attitude, making you worship these—” she bobbed her head at my Brendan Urie poster, “—ho-mo-sexual idols.”

“Oh my god, he’s not even gay!”

But Carol had reached the window. With a grin of triumph, she heaved her torso and pushed the stereo out.

Time stopped for a half-breath. It was like getting a new piercing—how it doesn’t hurt until you see the blood. Then came the sickening crunch.

Jason, watching from the doorway, went, “Ohhhh, shit.”

I grabbed Carol by the wrists then and shook her, screaming something along the lines of “YOU FUCKING BITCH!” I wanted so badly to punch her, right on her pancake-makeup’d cheekbones. Maybe I would’ve, but then Jason was pulling me off. I used to be able to beat him in every fight, but he’d gotten his fucking unfair boy hormones the year before. He hurled me away towards the door and stood between us, one hand out. Two sets of pale blue eyes watched me, wide with fear. Like I was an alien. An enemy.

“Get out of this house,” Carol hissed. “And don’t come back.”

“Honey? What’s going on?”

The rumble of Dad’s voice came from the den downstairs, and it was my turn to be afraid. I made for the back door and got the hell out of there.


“Duh you can stay with me,” Delia said. I was in the backseat of Ricky’s car—the only good thing about the two of them dating. We were driving from Conroe up to Sam Houston Forest, where the rave was supposed to be popping up, somewhere in the woods.

“I can’t believe she threw out your stereo,” Ricky said. “What’s her deal?”

Delia answered for me. “Carol’s a control freak. She thinks Jane should be this perfect little girly-girl who gets straight A’s and sings at Youth Group and, like, dates the quarterback.”

Instead, Carol got a dyslexic fuckup who couldn’t get above a C to save her life, who played trumpet like a dying parrot, and gave blowjobs in the back of the band room to prove to herself she wasn’t gay.

“When Jane was born, Carol was like bleeding out, almost died—and Carol wasn’t supposed to be able to have kids after that. So as soon as Jason the ‘miracle-baby’ came along, they started treating Jane like shit.”

I had said these same words to Delia lots of times, but for some reason, I hated hearing her tell Ricky, right in front of me like that.

“That’s fucked up,” Ricky said, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror, making my stomach go all jumbly. Baby-queer me was sick in love with Delia and confused-as-hell by Ricky. He wore girls’ skinny jeans, because they were tighter, and had a duct-tape wallet on a chain, and chucks covered in Cursive lyrics. And he had a car. He was so fucking cool that I didn’t know whether I wanted to kiss him or be him.

A few other cars were parked alongside the Farm-to-Market road that bordered the National Forest. Ricky parked alongside them and pulled a plastic baggie from the console.

He said one mushroom would be plenty for our first time, but when Delia passed me the bag, I was thinking about Carol—probably changing the locks or talking to cops on the front porch right then. She had finally made good on all those threats and now my life, as I knew it, was over. Seeking oblivion, I shoved a whole handful of mushrooms in my mouth.

They were tough as shoe leather and tasted like shit, but I choked them down.

“Damn, dude,” Ricky said. “You’re gonna trip your face off.”

“Good,” I said. “I’m sick of it, anyways.”


None of us had thought to bring a flashlight, but the full moon was bright enough to see the path between the tall pines. “Shouldn’t we be able to hear the rave by now?” I asked, after we’d been walking for ten minutes.

“Maybe it hasn’t started yet…” Ricky trailed off, peering through the trees.

“Maybe you just brought us out here to steal our kidneys,” I said. “Are we going to Candy Mountain?”

Delia laughed and imitated the shrill horses from our favorite viral video. “Candy Mountain, Charlieeee! We’re going on an adventure!”

“You guys are dorks,” Ricky said.

“Hey Delia,” I ducked a low-hanging branch. “You think there’s badgers in these woods?”

“Badgerbadgerbadgerbadger—” she chanted.

“MUSHROOM! MUSHROOM!” we shouted at the same time, busting out laughing.

“Because it’s like, actually mushrooms,” Delia said, wiping a laugh-tear from her eye.

“Ahhh, I didn’t even get that!” I cried. We were bust-a-gut laughing then—me bent over at the waist, her leaning against a tree trunk, definitely entering a drug-addled state. When I caught my breath, I tried to keep the string of references going, but Delia was too busy staring in Ricky’s eyes. Then they were sucking each others’ tonsils, and I suddenly needed to puke.

I stumbled off the path just as the visuals kicked in. The tall-tall pines had dropped millions of needles on the shorter saplings below, draping every branch in a pine-needle fringe. Now these saplings became dancers in fluttering gowns, swaying to a distant drumbeat. I threw up into a mat of writhing pine-needles-turned-worms until there was nothing left in my stomach.

When I straightened, the clearing was illuminated by fireflies—rainbow-colored ones, pulsing in time with the quickening beat. The fireflies formed a path leading deeper into the woods, and I followed, thinking they were taking me to the rave. I heard voices ahead. One was deep and booming, like a kindly grandpa, and I made for it like a compass.

The dancing trees whirled faster now, slashing my face with their lower branches, and I was starting to panic. My legs weren’t working great. Finally, I burst through grasping thorns into an open space.

Moonlight pierced the canopy, frosting all the fallen leaves in glittering ice. A single massive oak, old as the world, rose above the forest floor. Its moss-laden branches had pushed the rest of the forest aside long ago, and when a gust of wind blew, ten thousand leaves dipped and rose in greeting.

The grandpa voice boomed inside my skull.

Greetings, Listener.

The oak didn’t speak in words, of course, but in parcels of perfect meaning.

“Hi,” I said back. I was tripping hard enough that talking to a tree seemed perfectly reasonable.

The oak told me it hadn’t met a Listener in a long time. I asked what a Listener was, and it told me the obvious—that I’d been granted the power to listen to trees. I told the oak it reminded me of Treebeard. It didn’t know who that was, so I launched into a full plot synopsis of The Lord of the Rings. I’m pretty sure oaks can’t even grasp the concept of a fictional narrative, but it listened indulgently as I ranted on, drawing a map of Middle Earth in the dirt around its trunk, until a couple of humans burst into my clearing.

“Hey!”

“There you are!”

“You just stepped on Isengaard!”

“Wha—?” The girl looked at the crushed circle of twigs under her feet and stepped aside, scattering the stone spiral of Minas Tirith.

Finally, my brain recognized who I was yelling at. Delia. Ricky. My friends.

“Dude, why didn’t you answer us? We’ve been shouting for you, for like, literally hours.” The sharpness in Delia’s voice burst my trip like a bubble. I saw that my “map” was nonsense, looking like a set from the Blair Witch Project. I realized I’d just spent—how long? Talking to an oak, alone in the woods, dangerously high.

“I’m sorry… I—I couldn’t hear you over the drums, and all the voices—”

“What voices? There’s no one here.” Delia glared at Ricky. “No rave. Just, like, coyotes and shit and maybe some rednecks out hunting. Fuck, Jane. I thought you were dead.”

They wanted to go home, immediately. As I reached the edge of the clearing, the oak’s farewell vibrated in my skull, standing up the hairs on the back of my neck. But I’d sobered up enough by then to know it wasn’t real.


I woke up in late afternoon, crammed into the crack of the inflatable couch in Delia’s bedroom.

“How you feel?” She moaned, peeking at me from the bed.

“Everything hurts.”

“Same.”

We were silent for a while, and I think she dozed off, but I couldn’t. “That chanting is fucking annoying,” I said.

“What chanting?”

“Listen. It’s like hmmmm-hnh. Hmmmmm-hnh.”

“I don’t hear it.”

I figured it must be some new age CD Delia’s mom was playing. I peeled myself up, determined to silence it. I stumbled around the house—checking the stereo in the living room, the radio in the kitchen—but they were both off. Delia’s mom was out on the back patio, chain-smoking and drawing a mandala in her sketchbook. She waved. I pushed the door open.

The chanting was clearer outside. It sounded like, “Ahhhhhhhh, sun. Ahhhhhhh, sun.”

Delia squeezed onto the stoop behind me, flinching against the slam of the back door.

“What’s with the chanting?” I asked Delia’s mom.

“Dude, there’s no chanting. All I hear are those damn grackles,” Delia said. A flock of them were in the trees at the edge of the yard. Delia sat across from her mom and grabbed a cigarette out of the pack. Delia’s mom frowned but didn’t stop her. As usual, she was wearing a chunky crystal around her neck and a tie-dyed t-shirt with some kind of Indian design on it. “Are you hearing the cars on the highway, sweetie?” She asked. “I like to pretend they’re the ocean.”

“No. Listen, it’s going, Ahhhh, sun. Ahhhh, sun.”

“You broke your brain,” Delia mumbled, cupping her hands around a lighter. “You shouldn’t have eaten so many ’shrooms.” At this, I shot a cautious look at Delia’s mom, but she just grinned.

“That’s right, you girls tripped last night! How was it?”

Delia started bitching about Ricky’s non-existent rave, and I wandered towards the border of the yard. The grackles were whistling and clicking, sounding more mechanical than avian as they darted in and out of some scraggly-looking trees. With every step, the chanting got louder. Aaaaaah, sun. AHHHHH, SUN. Delia came over and rested her elbow on my shoulder.

“Remember how I said I could hear the trees last night?”

She nodded.

“I think I still can.”


According to HighTimes.com, psilocybin hallucinations were only supposed to last 8 hours. But in the forums, plenty of folks said they’d heard disembodied voices or seen trails for days or weeks after “tripping face,” so I clung to the hope that the voices would soon fade.

Those first few days, I drank tons of water, hoping to piss out the remnants of my trip. I stayed indoors as much as possible to mute the voices. Carol and Dad had made no attempt to contact me since the stereo incident, so I was still staying with Delia. I saw Jason at school, of course, but he just gave me sad looks from across the cafeteria. By an unspoken, mutual agreement, we had never talked at school. Because we looked nothing alike, most people had no clue we were family. Now we really weren’t.

My grades tanked that week, but it had nothing to do with getting kicked out. The school wrapped around a central courtyard, in the center of which was a hundred-year-old tree with droopy leaves, and that thing was a fucking nightmare.

Uuuunnnggghhh, it moaned, all day, every day. My leaves—something’s wrong with my leaves! The bigger a tree was, the louder and clearer its voice sounded in my head. This fucker was so loud that if the classroom I was in was courtyard-facing, I couldn’t hear my teachers over its moans. I was bound to fail junior year if it didn’t shut up.

Friday morning, I swiped a fallen leaf from the courtyard. It was saw-toothed and speckled with yellow-ringed dark spots. It occurred to me that this was April, not September, and it probably shouldn’t be dropping so many leaves. In tech lab, I got a computer facing away from the teacher and used a tree identification website to figure out it was a Dutch Elm. With black spot disease.

Head ducked behind that boxy desktop, I fought off a full-blown panic attack. I was already technically homeless, and now trees were telling me things. Things which turned out to be real.

After school, I paced beneath the elm, feeling my grasp of reality slipping away from me.

“What’s so important you had to text me during Seventh?” Delia asked, crossing the courtyard. “Mrs. Robison almost took up my sidekick!”

My voice shook as I told her what had happened. “The tree told me it was sick. And look!” I kicked the yellowed, spotted leaves underfoot. “It’s fucking sick!”

Delia peered up at the crown of the elm. “It does look sick. Huh. I guess I never pay attention to trees. They’re just, like, background?” She bit some black nail polish off her thumbnail and thought for a moment. “Okay, here’s what happened. Your subconscious noticed this tree looked sick, and your fucked-up, still-kinda-tripping brain turned it into a hallucination.” Delia prided herself on being a stone-cold atheist and pragmatist, the opposite of her woo-woo mother.

“It’s been a whole week,” I hissed, “and the voices aren’t even getting softer.”

“Well, maybe you have to help the tree. Maybe then your brain will get closure or something?”

It made a kind of sense to me, and I nodded, slowing my breathing. “Thank you,” I said. “For everything. I know this is crazy. I’m fucking crazy.”

She just hooked her arm in mine and said, “Rawr.”

It was a meme every scene kid knew: Rawr means ‘I love you’ in dinosaur.

That was one of those moments, when the urge to grab her around the waist, push her up against the tree, press my hips into hers and kiss her more intensely than Ricky-fucking-Chambers could ever manage was so strong it made me physically dizzy. Of course, I didn’t. I pressed my palm against the elm’s bark to steady myself.

“I know your leaves hurt,” I whispered. “I’ll try to help.”


The head custodian guy looked at me very strangely when I told him the elm in the courtyard needed an anti-fungal injection from a reputable arborist, but a week later, he stopped me outside the cafeteria to thank me. Without treatment, the tree would’ve likely died.

The elm didn’t stop talking, though after a few weeks, it stopped complaining so much. Now it chanted Aaaahhhhh, sun or Mmmmmm, rain or Oo-hoo-hoo, wind! Depending on the weather. This was an improvement. Sighs of contentment are much easier to block out than howls of suffering.

One afternoon, Delia announced she wanted to “experiment” with me. Not in the way I was hoping. We walked around her neighborhood, as I translated the trees for her.

On the first block, every tree was happy-chanting, but when we turned the corner, a wailing grated along my spine, so shrill I wanted to turn and run.

“That one,” I pointed.

“What’s wrong with it?” Delia asked, moving closer.

“It’s in pain. Everywhere. Its bark hurts. Its roots hurt. It’s very, very thirsty.”

Delia stopped beneath the tree and looked up into its canopy. I didn’t know, then, that it was a black walnut with thousand cankers disease, but I knew those dark splotches on its bark were bad news.

“Come on,” she said, skipping up to the front door and ringing the doorbell.

The woman who cracked open the door glared up and down at Delia—rainbow-colored racoon-stripe hair extensions, Emily the Strange tee, and a plaid miniskirt.

“Excuse me, Ma’am,” Delia said in a bubblegum lilt. “We were wondering if you knew your tree is sick?”

The woman’s frown deepened. “Is this some kind of prank?”

“No ma’am, my friend here—uh, her dad is a biologist,” Delia lied, “so she knows stuff about trees.”

She started to close the door. The tree wailed in pain. “Look, whatever you’re selling, I’m not—”

“See these black spots on the trunk?” I interrupted. “They mean your tree is dying.”

She stuck her head back out and looked at the tree, blocking the rest of the doorway with her body, like she expected us to shove past and rob her. “Huh…,” she said after looking for a few moments. “I guess it hasn’t always been like that…I’ll call someone out to take a look.”

Delia skipped as we rounded the next corner. “What an old bitch,” she said. “But hey, you helped that tree! You’re like that dog whisperer guy, only a tree whisperer!”

“Listener.”

“What?”

“Nevermind. Come on, let’s find more trees to save.”

We informed a confused middle-schooler that he should tell his mom the sycamore out front needed its dead branches pruned. In an overgrown lot, we ripped down a morning glory vine that was strangling a plum sapling.

But as we headed down Laurel Street, a sudden wailing from behind a high, wooden fence shook my spine so intensely, I doubled over.

“What is it?” Delia asked.

“I don’t know,” I choked, sinking to the sidewalk. The tree beyond the fence was too sick to do anything but wail in pain. “Whatever’s back there… it’s dying.”

Delia jumped up, grabbed the top of the fence, and scrambled her feet against the wood to peer over. After a moment, she jumped back down, out of breath. “There is a bushy thing back there that’s got mostly brown leaves…” Her voice sounded distant.

I pressed my hands to my ears, thought it did nothing—the tree’s voice was inside my skull.

“Should we knock?” she asked.

“It’s too late to help it,” I shook my head. “I have to get out of here. I can’t—I can’t take this anymore.” I started smacking my head with my palms. “Shut up, shut up!”

Delia grabbed my arms and pulled me into a hug, and I must have hugged back too tightly—I must’ve hugged wrong, because after she helped me stand and hurry away, after I couldn’t hear the tree anymore, and I’d wiped the tears from my cheeks—Delia cast cold side-eyes in my direction.

“How did you know?” she asked quietly. “That the tree was there?”

“Wha—? It told me,” I said. “Like all the others.”

“Yea but… we could see the other trees. We could see what was wrong with them.” Her voice was so distant. “Oh my god… did you, like, crawl over that fence last night? Are you pranking me?”

“No! I just listened to it. Like all the others.”

I hated how she looked at me then. Like she had no idea who or what I was.


Things were different with Delia after that. She started spending all her after-school hours at Ricky’s house and never invited me along anymore. I spent nights alone in her room, bathed in the glow of her desktop, reading about tree diseases and pests until I heard Ricky’s car in the driveway. By the time Delia got upstairs, I’d pretend to already be asleep on that god-awful inflatable couch. And a week or so later during chemistry class, I got summoned over the PA to the guidance counselor.

In Mr. Andersen’s office, a braided ficus in a pot by the window was scream-giggling, My roots! It tickles! Eee-hee-heee-aaarrrrghhhh! So loudly, that at first I didn’t register what he was saying.

“Your friend Delia came to talk to me this morning. She’s worried about you.”

The bottom dropped out of my stomach.

“She says you’ve been staying with her ever since you got in a conflict with your parents? And that, ever since, you’ve been… hearing voices?”

That fucking snitch. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“Sometimes trauma or stress can manifest in symptoms of—”

“I’m not having any symptoms.”

“So you haven’t been… talking… to trees?”

“Look, Delia told you a bunch of bullshit to get me—I don’t know—locked up in a psych ward or something, because she’s too chickenshit to kick me out of her house herself.”

“Do you want to talk about this conflict between you and Delia?”

“No.”

“Tell me about the tree fixation, then.”

The ficus tree broke into another fit of giggles that dissolved into a sob.

“You know, Mr. Andersen, last time I was in here, you told me to ‘take an interest.’ Find some direction in life. Well, I’ve found one, okay? I’m interested in trees. That’s—that’s what I want to do after I graduate. Tree science. Does that make me crazy?”

“Do you feel crazy?”

“The only thing that makes me crazy,” I stood and loomed over him, “is when people don’t take care of their fucking trees!” I crossed to the window in two steps, and Mr. Andersen flinched like I was going to hit him. But I just grabbed the ficus’s braided trunks and pulled. Its roots sprung from the pot, and about a thousand termites swarmed over the lip. Mr. Anderson screamed and shot back his chair.

“You need to treat this with insecticidal soap,” I said, setting the plant down and stomping some termites off my Docs. “And for Christ’s sake, get a bigger container. Look how bad it’s pot-bound.”

After school, I boarded my old bus route. When Jason saw me, he smiled, although he didn’t break away from his baseball team friends. At our stop, when I started off down the sidewalk next to him, he asked if I was coming home.

“I guess,” I said.

“For good?”

I shrugged.

When we got to the house, I stopped on the front porch.

“They’re not home yet,” he said.

“Is Carol gonna, like, call the cops when she sees me?”

“No…” he paused. “I won’t let her.”

I arched an eyebrow.

“I won’t! Come on, let’s play Smash Brothers. I’ve been practicing with Samus.”

“That’s my character!”

“I know,” he grinned. “And I’m gonna destroy you with her.”

“We’ll see about that,” I said, pushing past him into the house. The smell hit me right away—Carol’s unique blend of preferred cleaning products, with notes of freezer-burned meat. Dread and nostalgia. Home sweet home.

Two hours later, Jason and I were laying on the floor of the living room, Gamecube controllers in hand, necks propped up on couch cushions, when Carol appeared in the doorway.

“Well you have a lot of nerve—”

I brushed Cheeto powder off my chest and started to stand.

“Mom,” Jason said in a lion-tamer’s voice. “She’s sorry.”

“—Showing up here, no apology, after what you did to me?”

I wanted to scream, You’re the one who threw my stereo out the window! But this time, if she kicked me out, I’d have nowhere else to go. I looked at the ground and mumbled an apology.

“I don’t know how I can sleep at night with you in this household.”

“Come on, Mom, it’s just Jane,” Jason said.

Carol looked at Jason, and her eyes softened. She took his cheeks between her palms.

“Oh my sweet boy. Such a good brother,” She forcibly pulled his head down and pressed it to her bosom. I looked at the floor—never got used to that Oedipal shit. “You were born with a Christian heart.”

“So she can stay, right?” Jason mumbled, cheek still smushed against Carol’s tits.

Carol’s lips curled into the semblance of a smile, and she came forward, reaching for my hands. I extended them warily, like I was about to pet a snake.

“I want my sweet baby girl back,” she said, grabbing my wrists. “Remember those girl-time lunches we used to have?

She always used to take me to AJ’s Diner for pancakes on Sundays after ballet class, while I was still wearing my pink leotard and tutu. She’d always get so many compliments on how cute I looked. That’s not me anymore! I wanted to scream, And AJ’s pancakes suck! But I did my best to look meek. “I miss that too,” I said, and it wasn’t entirely a lie.

“And you need to pay your father back for that stereo.”

I bit back a cry of injustice.

“—and join us in church every Sunday,”

I barely managed not to groan.

“—and stop dressing like a Satan-worshipping prosti—”

“Mom!” Jason barked.

“Fine,” she said, pulling me into a hug. “Welcome home, Jane.”

I wondered whether her letting me stay stemmed from real affection, or if it was just Christian duty. I wondered how long it would last.


 [ One of the oak’s branches, © 2021 Cécile Matthey ] During the last week of school, Mr. Andersen handed me a business card.

“You were right—about the termites, I mean—but also about how it’s good, you taking an interest in something. I went to high school with this guy, Ed Merkel, who owns Eastex Tree Service. I talked you up, so if you want a summer job, just give him a call.”

I was too excited to sleep the night before my first day at Eastex. I had accepted by then that the trees would speak to me forever. I believed their voices were real, not just hallucinations. And I believed I’d been chosen to save them. I’d start this summer, in backyards around Conroe, but eventually I’d go to college, learn tree stuff, and find a way to save all the trees threatened by humanity’s stupid bullshit. I saw this apprenticeship as the first step towards my destiny.

The Master Tree Surgeon who’d be training me pulled up to my house in an unmarked white van. A dark-skinned Latinx guy waved from inside, and I won’t lie—climbing up into the passenger’s seat for the first time, I was scared for my life. Carol had raised us racist-as-hell, which I knew was bullshit by then, but still hadn’t fully deprogrammed. Plus, cops had taught us since grade school to never get in stranger’s vans, and this particular van was full of chainsaws.

But I quickly learned that Hector was one of a few truly gold-hearted humans in this world. I think he cared about trees even more than I did, and his head was like a forestry Wikipedia. He taught me how to treat anthracnose and spot oak blight. I got comfortable using giant syringes and chainsaws, learned to tie a climbing hitch and hoist myself fifty feet into a canopy with only a rope and a carabiner.

Every day I sweated through my clothes many times. I stopped teasing my hair, because that only made it hotter. I stopped wearing eye makeup, because it’d just sweat down my face. Even on my off days, I didn’t feel like putting on a whole scene outfit. Delia and I still hadn’t spoken, so who would it even have been for?

When I wasn’t working, I went hiking, looking for good company. The older the tree, the better the conversationalist. The ones who’d lived a hundred years or more would tell me about how things had changed since they were saplings—all of it a bummer. Fewer birds visited their limbs now. Summers were hotter and longer. New pests foraged beneath their bark. I listened. Sometimes I bitched back about Carol or Delia, though they couldn’t really grasp human relational conflicts, let alone the significance of Delia dropping me from her Myspace Top 8.

On one brutally hot day in late August, Hector and I got called in to assist all the arborists on a big job. A hundred-fifty-year-old magnolia grandiflora on the post office property was dying from verticillium wilt. It had to come down, Ed said. Left standing, it was a danger to the post office, and all the other Southern Magnolias in the area.

“It must come down,” I repeated to myself, as the chainsaws bit into its limbs, eliciting shrieks of agony. My job was hauling the smaller branches into the wood chipper. Its leaves were long as my palm—browned around the edges—but the centers were dark green and thick with sap, still bursting with life. I’ll never forget the sickening-sweet smell of that carpet of blossoms, big as my head, trampled underfoot by a dozen workboots.

After four hours of carnage, the magnolia’s voice finally fell silent. Only a stump remained. Hector and I sat in silence in his van. Neither of us had much appetite for the foil-wrapped tacos getting soggy in our laps.

“I’ve got to tell you something,” Hector said, rolling down the window, letting in a blast of heat. He lit a cigarette. “This is my last week.”

“What? Why?!”

“Because fuck Ed Merkel.”

“He fired you?”

“No. I just don’t want to work for that butcher anymore. I got another job in Houston.”

I remember ferociously fighting back tears. If I’d cried, Hector might’ve realized that he, a middle-aged family man, was the closest thing I had to a friend. It was true, but it made me such a pathetic excuse for a teenager that I was sure I’d die if he figured it out.

“Wait, what do you mean Ed’s a butcher?” I asked, once my voice had steadied.

“Verticillium Wilt isn’t a death sentence,” he spat out the window. “Prune the dying branches, water it during droughts, and stay on top of raking the fallen leaves. Do that and the Magnolia could’ve easily lived another hundred years.”

“No…” I breathed. Bile with onion and cilantro rose up the back of my throat. “Then why did he—”

Hector rubbed his thumb across his first few fingers. “Cutting down big trees pays for Ed’s yacht. A fertilizer treatment is a couple hundred bucks. That job billed five thousand.”

I worked the rest of the week with Hector, then quit without giving notice.


By the start of senior year, I was unrecognizable. The stacks of rubber bracelets, neon barrettes, and pyramid belts were gone. I’d started wearing baggy men’s thrift store t-shirts with photo-realistic wolves on them, my work pants from Eastex, and hiking boots. Kids at school called me a dyke—so not much had changed, then, except Delia wasn’t around to tell them to shut the fuck up anymore.

Delia, on the rare instances our eyes met on accident, gave me a sheepish frown, which might have been apologetic, but she never actually apologized, and that was pretty much ON HER since she’d ratted me out to Mr. Andersen. So I kept to myself, eating my lunches with the elm in the courtyard

My GPA was trash, so my plan was to graduate, do a few years at community college, then transfer to Texas A&M to study forestry. Beyond that, I had vague dreams of traveling the world and “doing tree science.” Traipsing through jungles on other continents. Humbly accepting awards for saving the planet. Stuff like that.

My dream didn’t get very far. The summer after graduation, I took Intro to Environmental Science at Houston Community College. Our professor had worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He often interrupted his own lectures to say, “Look, kids. Here’s the score,” and would tell us how the TCEQ was in the pocket of big oil, how every time he wrote up a chemical refinery for dumping cyanide into the ship channel, the company might get charged half-a-day’s profits, if that. How he fought against this-or-that plant for air violations, only to have his boss approve a permit to increase their legal emission limits.

He was possibly even more of a bummer than a dying tree, and that summer, a lot of trees were dying. We were in the midst of a drought. Everywhere I went, I heard voices begging me for a drink of water or moaning in agony as the last of their phloem shriveled.

There was no way to save them all. I told myself to just focus on school. Getting my degree was the best way to help the trees long-term. But with the voices of the dying ringing inside my skull, it felt like I’d already run out of time. It felt like the end of the world.

On my last day in Texas, Carol sent me to a new grocery store. Buying food had already become an agonizing experience for me, as we’d recently learned about deforestation and the global food supply chain in my class at HCC. I was trying to eat vegan and local, but Carol liked buying the cheapest, rainforest-sourced meat and dairy. I was trying to be helpful to her, so she’d let me keep living at home rent-free.

The new grocery store had been built on what, as of a month ago, had been a wooded lot along the highway. They’d left one big oak right in the middle of the parking lot, and I pulled into a shaded space beneath its sprawling branches.

Is that a Listener? Oh, listen, they killed my saplings. Hundreds of them. All of them. Our roots shared the same xylem, and I knew them all from acorns in my arms. Now their voices are gone, and I’m all alone—

It started to wail, a sonic distillation of the oldest and sharpest pain in the universe. I could feel the loss of its hundred children in my blood, and I doubled over the steering wheel with the pain of it.

Something in me broke then.

When I caught my breath, I screeched out of the parking lot, at first thinking only about getting away from that bereaved oak. But the moans of three hundred million trees dying in the worst drought in Texas history chased me clear across the state. In El Paso, I ditched Carol’s car in a Whataburger parking lot and boarded a Greyhound to Phoenix.


2019—somewhere near Jasper, Texas

The ceremony is held at dawn on the shore of a pond, smoking with golden mist. Goats graze the pasture behind us, bordered on all sides by a forest, where the trees mostly sigh contentedly. Their voices—even those of the few sick and dying trees—don’t bother me as much as they used to. In fact, as we sped East across Texas, as the shrill voices of squat junipers gave way to the booms of sprawling oaks and towering pines, it’d felt like greeting old friends.

Speaking of—the bride and groom, both in white linen, stand barefoot in algae-scummed mud at the edge of the pond. Many of the guests are barefoot too—an eclectic bunch, waxed mustaches and mermaid-colored hair, pork pie hats with suspenders and glittering tie-dye jumpsuits. Angie, Bo, and I, in our matching black suits and bolo ties, are the most conservatively dressed guests. Carol and Dad are not here, something I notice mostly with relief. I knew better than to expect tearful regrets and a homecoming embrace, but a small part of me had hoped for it anyways.

Jason seeks me out right after the ceremony breaks up and pulls me into a bear hug. I can hardly believe this bearded, slightly-balding, faintly-reeking-of-weed farmer is my little brother—although there’s still a hint of the straight-edge jock in his ramrod-straight spine and pulled-back shoulders. He and Angie make fast friends during a tour of his woodworking shop. She is a woman easily wooed by antique band saws. Jason carries Bo on his shoulders—safely above the finger-chopping level of the machines—and it feels right. Seeing him up there.

After lunch, Angie and Jason rally all the children in the pasture for some elaborate game of tag. From the farmhouse deck, I spot Bo wander off from the pack of happy-shrieking children. He’s headed up the hill, towards an ancient live oak whose voice has been buzzing at the back of my skull all morning. Bo moves towards it dreamily, like one who’s been summoned.

I scramble up the slope after him in a panic, muttering, “No-no-no.” I don’t want this curse for him. Cresting the hill, the tree’s greeting booms in my skull, just as Bo flings back his head to look up into its canopy, mouth open, eyes wide.

I scan his face for some sign of inaudible communication.

“Look at this tree, mommy! I bet it’s, like, a thousand years old!”

“I don’t know about that, Bo-bo,” I say, voice tight with anxiety. “Maybe a couple hundred years… Does it—Can you hear it?”

Bo just gives me a confused look and runs closer to the tree. One of the oak’s branches dips clear to the ground, like it’s resting from the burden of holding up the sky. Bo climbs on and starts scooting up the slope of its branch. His tentative movements make it clear he’s never climbed a tree before. I feel a stab of guilt over this.

“Is he a listener too?” I whisper, just loudly enough that the oak can hear me.

Your sapling? No, not a Listener.

I am sagging with relief when a human voice startles me.

“Do you still hear them?”

It’s the bride. Dew darkens the hem of her simple linen dress, and her hair hangs loose, crowned with bluebonnets. The curves of her face have sharpened over the past twenty years, and hairline wrinkles crinkle in the corners of her eyes when she smiles.

When I recover (because everything is there, strong as ever, still knotted in my chest after all these years), I answer her. “Yes.”

“What’s it saying?” Delia asks.

“The usual.”

Aaahhhhh, sun?

I nod.

“He’s beautiful,” she says, meaning Bo. We watch him for a few moments, as he scoots towards the oak’s trunk, getting higher and higher off the ground. Then Delia catches my wrist in her hand. “Jane, I’m so sorry. For everything—”

“I know,” I say. “I got your emails.” I just never responded to them. I open my mouth to explain—the speech I rehearsed to Angie the whole way here. How at the moment I’d needed Delia most, she’d betrayed me. How I didn’t owe her—or anyone—my forgiveness. But maybe it’s the smothering heat of the afternoon, or the sangria in my belly, but holding a grudge suddenly seems pointless and exhausting. I realize that the secrets I guarded so fiercely back then have no power to hurt me anymore. So a deeper truth slips out instead.

“I was in love with you.”

Delia meets my gaze and holds it. “I know, dude. I know. Shit, maybe—I mean… maybe I felt? The same way? Or something close? Hell, I married your freaking brother.”

I laugh at that, and she laughs too. It feels good, us laughing together again. “How did you two wind up together?”

“This town gets real small after you graduate. After a few years, the age difference didn’t matter anymore—nothing about high school mattered anymore. And one night at Star Bar, we got to talking—about you, actually. Just remembering things, wondering where you were…”

I turn to keep an eye on Bo, who’s rocking back and forth on the tree limb, yelling “Giddyup, horsey!” I like this idea—that my brother and ex-best-friend got together because they were basically obsessed with me.

“Jason and I both blamed ourselves for you leaving—”

I shake my head. “No, no, it was them I couldn’t take.” I gesture at the oak. “I couldn’t keep caring about things that were doomed to suffer and die.”

Delia crinkles her forehead. “But that’s… isn’t that everything?”

Even as her meaning hits me, Bo leans too far to one side of the branch, yelps, scrambles, and falls from five feet up in the air. Time stands still as he hangs there, tilted too far. I reach out, like I can still undo this moment. Then, with a sickening thud, he lands in a heap in the dirt. He’s not moving. I shout and rush forward, but by the time I reach him, he’s up and brushing off his knees.

“It’s okay, Mommy. I’m okay.” He takes off running downhill, back towards the other children playing in the pasture.

I sit in a hollow of gnarled roots at the base of the oak, and Delia finds a seat beside me. We listen to the grackles and the cicadas, the contented hum of the oak lulling my still-racing heart.

“You know, when I lived here before, I only paid attention to the sick and the dying. I tuned out all the happy trees. I obsessed about not being able to save them all.”

Delia smiled sadly. “That, uh, that was a lot of pressure to put on a sixteen-year-old.”

I snort. “I thought it was my destiny. But maybe I wasn’t meant to be their savior. Maybe I was just supposed to listen.”

Delia rests her head on my shoulder, gazing down the slope towards the wandering creek and the piney woods beyond. In the distance lay the fields and orchards where she and my brother are growing food from the earth in the kindest way humanly possible.

“Stay here,” she says, in almost a whisper. “For a while, at least. We’ve got room.”

My mind races with possibilities. Maybe Angie could figure out a remote-work-thing. I could help in the fields, or even go back to school. Not for forestry though. I read an article once about how trees give off chemicals that are like anti-depressants. I’d like to study whatever science that is.

Maybe Bo could grow up climbing trees on a farm.

A gust of wind ripples towards us from the horizon. Each of the ten thousand treetops in sight dips and rears consecutively, in a cresting wave that sweeps up the hill, sending ten thousand arboreal sighs shimmering along my spine. I crane my neck as the wind hits our oak. The sun glitters between the tossing leaves, warming the skin of my face with the fire of creation from ninety-two million miles away.

And I get it. The feeling only lasts a moment, but I finally fucking get it.

Ahhhhh, sun.


© 2021 Sim Kern

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