The Mother Tree

Corinne knocked on her mother’s door. It was quiet inside; only the soft susurrus of growing mats and the slither of the walls answered her. When she pressed her ear to the smooth warm wood, she could hear a rapid whisper, but she was not sure whether it was coming from inside the house or inside her. Her heavy belly was dragging her down, so she leaned against the wall. The riot of flowering vines above her head poured down the fragrance of hot amber, making her nauseous. One of the half-opened flowers, orange pink with a convoluted scarlet heart, dipped down, its folded petals caressing her cheek.

“Mama!” her daughter said, her soft voice penetrating Corinne’s muscles and bones, carried on the tide of her blood. She pretended not to hear.

“Mama!” More insistent now. Corinne stared into the indigo sky, the sun barely peeping above the tops of fruit trees in the plantation, gilding their upthrust limbs with the rosy morning light. Beyond the plantation, the dense thicket of pitcher trees was barely visible: just an occasional flicker of a thick orange tongue, as the waking plants licked their fleshy speckled lips. On the other side, the village sloped down to the endless marshland, slivers of water sparkling like pieces of a broken mirror.

Her left leg twitched. Corinne squeezed her thigh, leaving red fingermarks in the bronze flesh. The twitch subsided, but then her right leg moved. Like the hand of a puppeteer inside the puppet, her daughter was moving her body.

“What do you want?” she yelled so loudly that her throat hurt. There was no need to; her daughter could read her thoughts – at least those articulated in words. But it gave Corinne a bitter satisfaction to punish the body that was no longer her own.

“Mama.” Her daughter’s inner voice set Connie’s nerves on edge. “Look up.”

Connie did. Stamped on the silky wood of the upper doorframe was the sigil of the Children’s Council: a stylized human figure with its feet debouching into a network of roots.

“No!” Connie cried and beat on the door, as if she could make time run backward by sheer exertion. The furled flower buds on the roof shuddered, getting ready for their task.

“Nana is no longer here,” her daughter said. “We should visit her in the plantation.”

“It’s too early!” Corinne insisted. “She is not supposed to be there!”

Her daughter, who would now have a name, was silent. Corinne swallowed the bitter tears of futility. There was no schedule for rooting, at least not for women. Men went early, of course, having fulfilled their biological function. But some women remained mobile even after having grandchildren. Aliana, Corinne’s mother, had seemed to be of this kind: her grandson was almost into puberty, and she still smiled at Corinne and made her a snack when she came for a visit. Corinne had somehow convinced herself that the laws of nature would make an exception for the tight bond between mother and daughter. More fool, she!

Corinne turned away from the house and hurried toward the plantation, her pregnant belly jiggling under her loose shift. Behind her, the house sagged and unraveled. The vines on the roof opened up into explosions of electric pink and deep scarlet, their crimson-dappled stems squeezing the thin wooden walls until they collapsed into a pile of splinters. The thatched roof caved in. The still-growing mats on the floor inched away like flattened caterpillars. A new house would grow here when the Children’s Council decided it was time for a growing toddler to have their own home, apart from their mother whose services they no longer needed. But Corinne did not look back at the destruction of her childhood home. She ran as fast as she could, buoyed by the desperate hope of seeing her mother one last time.

“Don’t run, Mama!” her daughter cried through the drumming of her heart. “You’re making me sick!”

“Deal with it!” Corinne snarled. “You can’t tell me what to do! You still have no name.”

“My name is Aliana.”

“No. Not yet.”

The verge of the plantation was marked by a shallow ditch. Beyond it, the grassy plain where the village stood was abruptly supplanted by the green dusk of the many gnarled and contorted trunks, their branches twined and straining against each other. It was not healthy to plant so many elders in such a small space but there was no choice: the village was squeezed in between the protective pitcher tree forest and the marshland. The floating people, who cultivated their own elders in the form of bony cattails with a harvest of tough drupes, had no love of the villagers—and the feeling was mutual. Peony, Corinne’s settled village, was contemptuous of the rafts and boats of the floating people who shamelessly supplemented their diet with fish and snails. But there was no denying that they prospered and encroached on Peony’s land, making it imperative that the plantation had enough fruit-bearing trees.

A swift kick in Corinne’s ribs make her double up in pain. Her daughter was angry.

Corinne straightened up, taking long slow breaths, and forcing herself to withdraw from her own body, taking refuge in a small, protected spot in her brain where she was still herself. As her body was being taken over by her unwanted offspring, her mind was dropping parts of itself like a wilting flower dropping petals. In her sapling years, she had been the best in her grade at reading. Now it would take her several hours to read a single page. Her son Edward could read fluently, having inherited her knack, but she did not begrudge him this skill, stolen from her when he was in her womb. He was a boy, doomed to a short blooming and early senescence, following immediately by his fructifying a girl or two. Corinne’s own chosen partner, Arthur, father of Edward, had rooted long ago. Partners were not family, but Connie, contrarian as always, had visited him several times, gazing in silence at the glaucous mask of his face being slowly absorbed into the bark of the tree he had become.

The sun climbed higher into the sky, diluting its deep blue into the faded white of another hot day. Corinne’s shift was glued to her body by perspiration. The girl inside her lapsed into a sullen silence and stopped kicking. Beneath her feet, the living grass quaked and crawled, its tough stems weaving together into long green snakes that spasmed, trying to pull their roots out of the crumbly soil. The backs of the snakes erupted into the froth of small white and yellow flowers. Ahead of her, an orchid as tall as herself swayed gently in the still air, back and forth, with a hypnotic grace. This was a Queen Orchid, the babymaker. Its thick yellow petals, spotted with red and black. turned toward Connie, the tubular protrusion in the middle shuddering, ripe with pollen. But sensing the life in Connie’s uterus, the orchid lost interest and the blossom folded. Connie spat into the grass. An orchid like this one was responsible for her pregnancy. She had fought hard, remaining single and abstaining from sex since Edward’s birth. But one whiff of a Queen Orchid’s pollen, and she had rushed out to grab the first available boy whose name she did not remember. Spitefully, she hoped he would be rooting by now.

Her mouth furry with thirst, Corinne finally made it into the shade of the plantation. The trees on the margin were the oldest ones, their human features all but gone. Still, she paused, her hand resting on the smooth green bark of the nearest elder. She could not even tell whether it had been a man or a woman, though their family would know. The trunk was knobby and squat, woody muscles bunching up under the cool tegument. The long flexible branches erupting into a shaggy crown just above Corinne’s head stirred lazily, the inverted cups of beige flowers at their ends dripping nectar. The face had all but melted into the trunk, only shallow indentations marking the eyes and the mouth, still opened in the “O” of a scream. Why were elders always screaming when planted? Wasn’t it supposed to be the reward of a life well-lived—the green peace of being one with the land?

Corinne’s mouth twitched into a derisive smile as she made her way deeper into the plantation, slowly cooling off. The lacy shadows of the branches dappled the ground with broken pieces of sunshine. She was surrounded by the slow exhalation of the elders whose photosynthesis purified the air breathed by their descendants and whose sweet nectar and ripening fruit fed their children and grandchildren. When Corinne was in school, she wrote a poem praising the beauty of the life cycle. She remembered it with shame. She would like to pen a very different poem now, but her kids had robbed her of the ability to write.

The trees were becoming more recognizable as individuals the closer she got to the center. Elders could move, slowly and painfully, dragging their roots out of the soil at night and migrating to the edge of the plantation as they grew older. Those on the outer edge would eventually be recycled into implements or in severe winters, burned. Matches were strictly controlled by the Council, and no adult was allowed to possess them.

And here was her mother.

Aliana stood in the middle of a small clearing; her head bowed. Her feet were planted in the rich black soil, and a large earthworm crawled leisurely over her leg, its slimy pink head poking at the flesh, inspecting it for the future like a cook inspecting a basketful of vegetables. Her twig fingers still clutched her dress to her changing body in the last-ditch attempt at modesty. The thin fabric was stretched and torn by the erupting branches.

She lifted her head when her daughter ran into the clearing, the woody flesh of her neck creaking. Her face had begun its transition into a glassy mask that would eventually be absorbed into the trunk of the tree she was becoming. The skin was glassy-smooth and faintly greenish. The crow’s feet and laugh-lines had disappeared. The dark blue eyes, Aliana’s pride, rare in the village where most people, including Corinne, had nut-brown or black eyes, were glued shut. The black curls that Corinne had inherited were falling out, carpeting the soil.

Corinne leaned against the trunk and put her arms around it.

She remembered her own time in her mother’s womb vividly. Like all fetuses, she acquired full sentience in the fifth month of pregnancy, waking up in the warm salty darkness with her head brimming with words and concepts. And there was her mother’s regular heartbeat: the music of safety and protection. And then there were her mother’s words, blooming in her brain like a shower of stars. Welcome, little Corinne.

Aliana had been much younger than Corinne was now. And she had been bright and cheerful, convinced, against all reason, that her unborn daughter would not chip away at her humanity. They had bonded while Corinne was in utero; and this bond persisted after she was born. This unnatural connection was one reason why Corinne, despite her obvious intelligence at birth, had never been drafted to serve on the Children’s Council, composed of the smartest babies, toddlers, and kids. Until their intelligence started to wane around the age of seven, they ran the village’s affairs. Even later in her life, as a sapling, Corinne remained an unpopular and lonely girl. But she had not minded her exclusion. Her mother, miraculously preserving her humanity even into her thirties, had always been her best friend.

And now, her mother was disappearing into green silence, and no matter how fiercely Corinne tried to hold her, Aliana was slipping away.

Her recalcitrant lips twitched as she tried to shape words but no matter how close Corinne leaned in, she could not make them out.

Until she could.

“Kill me!”


Edward was sprawling on the lawn in front of their house, reading a book. Books were considered morbid. They were corpses of trees; the processed flesh of the elders. They were needed to preserve basic knowledge but every year, the Children’s Council voted down the number of permits for utilizing the dead.

Her daughter was silent in her womb, sensing Corinne’s simmering anger. She would be on the Council, of course! A cocky brat, self-righteous and convinced of her immortality; she was made for the Council whose members were recruited the moment they were weaned. Corinne’s only consolation was that her daughter would get her comeuppance when the time came for her to bear fruit. But Corinne knew how unlikely it was she would survive until then with enough mind left intact to feel schadenfreude.

Edward’s face lit up with a smile when he saw his mother. He still lived with her, but their days of togetherness were numbered. His voice had begun to break. In less than a year, he would be assigned a partner to fructify and then his slide into vegetable mindlessness would be swift and assured.

Corinne sat by his side and put an arm around his shoulder. Behind them, the flowers on the roof of their house whispered in hissy voices like a bunch of mean girls.

“What are you reading?” Corinne asked her son to forestall his inquiry about his Nana. A shifty expression passed over Edward’s face. He made a futile attempt to hide the book behind his back, but Corinne snatched it away.

The book was innocuous enough: a collection of recipes for grilling vegetables. Corinne was surprised that Edward would be interested in something so mundane, but he loved reading and would grab any book he could lay his hands on.

She leafed through the worn pages, shuddering when she thought of her mother’s flesh eventually pulped into another cookbook.

One page was marked with a dogear. Corinne could not read the entirety of it but what she grasped was enough.

“It’s a crime, Edward,” she whispered.

Edward’s lips trembled.

“And burying people in dirt and eating their tumors is not a crime?” he cried. “Telling me I’m only good for fucking and dying is not a crime? Making my Nana into a tree is not a crime?”

Corinne clamped her hand against his mouth. But it was too late: the flowers on the house had heard them, and so did the baby in her womb. Her daughter was silent, but Corinne had no illusions about where her loyalties lay.

“It’s the cycle of life, Edward,” she said, hating her own hypocrisy.

Edward wriggled away from her and looked at her with disdain.

“You know it’s not true!” he shouted. “Everybody knows it’s not true, but you’re all too scared or too brainless to say it. Because the Earth was dying and there was no food, the Ancients did something to our genes: crossed humans with plants to make us live in ‘harmony with nature!’ Harmony! What a joke! So, don’t give me this bullshit about the cycle of life! They screwed up and I’m paying the price!”

And before Corinne could say anything, he ran away, disappearing into the fragrant labyrinth of the village’s flower- and vine-overflowing streets. Corinne took a deep breath.

“I’ll strangle you if you tell on your brother,” she sub-vocalized to the baby in her womb.

“Why do you love him more than me?” her daughter asked.

Corinne frowned. She had never thought to compare her children in this way.

“Because my mother is dying,” she finally said. “You took her life, as you are taking mine. And now you want to take her name.”

“But I didn’t ask to be born,” her daughter cried voicelessly, and Corinne had nothing to say because it was true.

She picked up the book again, her lips moving as she read it, syllable by recalcitrant syllable.

“How to make fire without matches.”


Her water broke when she made a V-shaped notch in a wooden board and started collecting dry moss for tinder.

Corinne stared at the viscous puddle at her feet, grinding her teeth, and trying to push back against the unrelenting pressure in her lower abdomen. A spasm went through her body as if somebody grabbed a handful of her guts and twisted them.

“No!” she yelled at her daughter. “You are premature! You’ll be born sickly and die soon!”

Her daughter did not reply. Grimly, she pushed her way out of the prison of Corinne’s womb, turning around and getting ready to launch herself through the birth canal like a seed exiting its pod.

“I’ll do it anyway,” Corinne whispered through clenched teeth. “You can’t stop me! I won’t let you snitch to the Children’s Council!”

But she knew it was an idle threat. As long as the baby resided inside their mother, they could only communicate with her. But once out, even though helpless and floppy for some time, the newborn could use their brain to talk to other children who ruled the village. The capacity for brain-to-brain communication waned as the child grew up, along with intelligence, and disappeared around the age of seven, after which a member of the Children’s Council was retired.

Corinne hobbled inside and lay on her bed—a pallet of woven twigs. The flowers growing on the ceiling dipped down their white, pink and yellow crowns, their eyespots observing her closely.

“Fuck you!” she muttered as one of them, a lush Rosea, emitted a puff of nauseatingly sweet scent supposed to calm her down. It did make her feel somewhat disconnected from her body, which was a blessing.

Pain came in regular waves, and she rode them, clinging to her defiance like a drowning man to a wooden plank. There was an actual plank clutched in her hand.

Dead wood: a piece of somebody’s mother, brother, or lover.

Edward came in but she shooed him out. She did not want him to see her like this. His memory of his own birth was quite different: chatting to her as he crawled through the scarlet tunnel of the birth canal toward light. It had been easy. Corinne had not fought against him as she was fighting against her daughter. The girl refused to communicate as she grimly pushed her way out of Corinne’s body. She knew why the girl wanted to be born now.

“You bloody tattletale,” she whispered with cracked lips, and was rewarded with another wave of pain.

The girl would tell on her immediately after birth, and, free of her fleshy incubator, would watch with undoubted satisfaction as Corinne and probably Edward would be escorted by the cowed adults to the boundary of the village, while babies sat in judgment. And then they would have to make their way through the dense thicket of carnivorous trees, whose scarlet-veined pitchers filled with acid would open like hungry mouths at the approach of such a substantial meal. Nobody knew what lay beyond the forest of pitcher trees because nobody had gone this way for decades.

Throughout her labor, Corinne did not cry out. But now a hoarse scream was torn out of her, as with one last wrenching muscle contraction, she expelled the intruder.

Edward rushed in when he heard her cry and looked over her shoulder at his sister.

Until now, her daughter had only been only the intrusive censorious voice carried on the tide of her blood into every corner of her body. But now, as Corinne cut the umbilical and wrapped her in a piece of cloth, she was suddenly a baby—a solid little bundle with flailing pink arms and legs. She was tiny, but with a full head of curly black hair.

She opened her eyes and coughed, little bubbles forming on her pink lips. Corinne caught her breath. The girl’s eyes were dark blue.

For a moment, mother and daughter contemplated each other, and then the baby spoke. As with all newborns, her speech was somewhat slurred, but Corinne understood.

“The Council knows I was born.”

Corinne nodded, her battered and bruised body throbbing. All she wanted now was to close her eyes and sleep.

Her fingers closed over the fireboard she had prepared. When the Council members came, they would see it immediately. But Corinne did not have the strength to try to hide it. Anyway, it would be useless. The girl knew about it.

Her eyes, so large in her scrunched-up red face, moved to Edward who nodded awkwardly, clearly not knowing whether he should introduce himself.

“Brother,” the girl said and tried to reach out with her splayed hand. She could not: newborns had very poor coordination for the first couple of days after birth. Edward touched her pink fingers and looked pleadingly at Corinne.

“We won’t be around her for long, you and I.” Corinne said bitterly. “The Council will take care of it.”

“I did not tell them,” the girl said.


“I did not tell them about the fireboard,” the girl repeated. “And now you take me to Nana.”


They walked to the plantation, the three of them: Corinne carrying the baby in a sling, and Edward supporting his mother. A couple of adults looked at them dully, but it was harvest time, and they were busy gathering fruit.

They stood in front of the tree that had been Aliana, and Corinne realized that her mother was gone. The tree was lush and green, its branches heavy with foliage, its bark hardening. A small roundish fruit was beginning to ripen on the tip of a low limb, and the baby reached out to it.

Corinne slapped her hand.

“No!” she said sharply. “That was a human being. Your grandmother.”

“But you fed me when I was inside you!”

“Because I had to. But you have a choice now.”

The baby turned her blue eyes to her mother and brother.

“If you set fire to the trees,” she said in her lisping voice, “what would happen to the village?”

Corinne did not know and did not care. Edward answered instead.

“We will leave this place. Look for a new home. A human place, not a tree plantation.”

“But you are no longer what humans used to be!”

Edward shrugged.

“We’ll find out, won’t we?”

“You will die,” the girl said.

“Better die as humans than live as plants.”

Corinne, no longer listening, knelt before the Mother Tree and started rubbing the dry stick in the notch of the fireboard like it was shown in the book. Her head swam with exertion. A trickle of blood crawled down her thigh.

Brother and sister whispered to each other. And then the girl addressed her.

“I could still talk to the Council.”

“I know you can.” Corinne’s palms were sweaty, but she was beginning to see a tiny curl of smoke rising from the pile of dry moss.

“But I won’t if you take me with you.”

“What?” Corinne almost dropped the stick.

“Yes!” Edward interjected. “She wants to come with us. It’s OK, mum. I can carry her.”

“But…” And then Corinne understood.

She looked at her daughter and saw the woman she would grow into if she stayed in Peony: the woman pollinated by predatory flowers; forced to carry babies who would control her like a beast of burden; fated to lose bits and pieces of her mind, watching her humanity fade as nature subsumed her into its endless uncaring cycle. The woman who would become a tree.

The curl of smoke grew into a plume, and the acrid smell of burning cut through the sweetness of blooming trees and flowers. Corinne spread the flaming moss around the base of the tree and saw a worm of fire climb toward its crown.

She picked up her daughter and walked toward the pitcher-tree forest. Before following, Edward rushed back to the tree and picked a smoldering branch. The baby whimpered, and Corinne, with a sigh, unbuttoned her dress and pushed a nipple into her mouth.

“What’s my sister’s name?” Edward asked.

“Aliana,” Corinne said. “Her name is Aliana.”