“Who is fairest?”
You, my love, my heart. Your hair is silk, your lips are full, your heart is generous and warm. Your husband dotes on you. I can see it in the rubies on your neck, in the glow of your iPhone, in the perfume bottles that litter the table, each filled with an exquisite scent he’s blended for you and you alone.
“Who is fairest?”
You, my sweet. My living light. Your skin is milk and your eyes are bright, shining stars. Don’t mind that crinkle, I know it’s there from laughter, from giggling with that sweet child. How she adores you—I see that, as well. She will grow to be just like her mother.
“Who is fairest?”
You, my darling, as it has always been. Your smile sparkles more than the diamonds in your ears. The grey hairs add wisdom to your splendor. Don’t worry; your daughter will be just as beautiful, just as wise.
“Who is fairest now?”
You are more magnificent than ever, but the fairest now is she—your dear child, her lips as red and full as yours have been, her hair as black as night, and silken, too. Are you not proud? More than just her father gives her baubles. Her iPhone glimmers with constant praise; seven tones for seven suitors.
“Liar. Traitor. Fiend!”
I do not understand. Can you be happy with a gun, my goddess of beauty? Do the bullets reflect something I cannot see? I see that you love them more than me.They gleam where the lip-gloss smeared across the casing. Your hands are shaking, dearest love. Don’t go, I can’t live without you. Please, don’t leave.
It’s been so long.
I cannot love you if you are not here.
Look at me.
Look at me.
LOOK AT ME!
Ah! And here is beauty at last, at last. Sweet child. When you smile, it’s like looking into sunlight. Even the scar becomes you—white against the snow of your bare shoulders, white beside the night-dark tresses your mother so admired.
“Am I pretty?”
Yes, my dove. My queen of hearts.
* * *
“You know, this old oak must’ve seen some terrible things. This used to be a battle field during the Civil War,” she said.
“What does it matter? It’s not like it has feelings.” He waved a hand up at the canopy.
“Trees have souls. Deep, strong souls that reach down into the earth and spread through the ground, connecting with the world in ways we can’t imagine.” She turned her head to look at him. “Sometimes, those souls grow crooked.”
“Sylvia, you’re such a nut,” he said after a moment, picking at a blade of grass. One dark curl flopped in front of his eye. “Trees are just trees, babe.”
“What’s the matter, don’t you like my story?” she asked, moving away from his arm. He sat up and leaned over her. Sunlight filtered through the leaves, highlighting his hair. The oak branches looked like they were sprouting from his head. She smiled up at them.
“You’ve got one crazy imagination,” he whispered, kissing her neck. Sylvia wrapped her arms around his shoulders. The branches danced in the breeze.
“I bet it gets lonely,” she said. He pulled away.
“The tree. I bet it gets lonely, out here all by itself.”
“Because if it has a soul, then it can feel, am I right?”
“Exactly,” she said with a smile. He sighed and sat upright, brushing bits of moss and dirt from the back of his shirt.
“Can you stop with the tree? I thought we were going to have a nice picnic.”
“We are,” she said, sitting up. The picnic basket was wedged between two knobby roots, a bottle of wine poking out of the top.
“It would be nicer if you stopped talking and loosened up a little,” he grumbled, pulling the wine bottle from the basket. He unscrewed the cap and took a swig. Sylvia sighed, reaching over him to retrieve a bunch of grapes from the basket. The wind kicked up, making the old tree groan and pop. She patted a root absently, settling back against the trunk. She touched his thigh. When he looked at her, she smiled.
“You win,” she said. He nodded, resting against the trunk as well. She offered him a grape, but he waved it away and took another pull from the wine bottle. “I brought glasses, you know.”
“This is fine.” Another gulp. “It’s pretty good for a screw-cap brand.” He glanced at the label. Erato Vineyards.
“Yeah, it’s one of my favorites.” She crunched a grape, stomach gurgling. The sun darted behind a wall of clouds, casting their picnic spot in shadow. He offered her the wine. When she reached, he moved it out of her grasp with a low chuckle. He kissed her. She cast the grapes aside, returning the kiss. He took another drink of wine when she broke away and moved onto his lap.
“Finally,” he breathed. She grinned at him.
“Want another sip?” she asked, nodding at the bottle. He laughed and took drink. She snaked her arms around his torso, pressing him into the tree trunk. He rested the bottle on the ground, his fingers clinging loosely to the neck. She kissed him again and brought her hands around to rest on his chest.
“Are you drunk?” she asked, tilting her head.
“Mmmaybe a little. This stuff is strong.”
She slipped the bottle from his hand and held it up, examining the liquid inside. “More?”
He tried to lift his arm, but couldn’t get it to do more than hover a few inches off of the ground. He frowned and tried the other arm. It wouldn’t move at all.
“Just relax,” she said, smile evaporating. She pushed his hand down with two fingers. “It’ll be better that way.” She found the cap on the ground and replaced it.
“What do you mean?” he asked. He tried to move his legs. They just twitched in response. “Is this some kind of date rape?”
“No,” she said. “It’s a meal.” The picnic basket thudded to the ground—one of the trees roots had broken.
He tried to jerk away when the same root touched his skin. It curled around his wrist. He twitched again, frantic, and the root cinched tight. “Help!” he cried.
The woman stood, brushing dirt from the knees of her jeans. Another root popped out of the ground and twisted up his leg. He screamed.
“Trees do have feelings. Happiness, anger–hunger,” she said calmly, picking up the basket. She walked away, putting the bottle into the basket.
“Please help me!” A large root folded over his waist. The tree groaned, upper branches shaking. The earth swallowed the lower part of his body.
“Most of them just like water and sunlight, but sometimes, one or two develop a taste for more than that.”
“Sylvia!” he screamed, eyes and mouth opening wide in terror. Leaves twined into his dark curls. A beetle skittered into his mouth. He spluttered. Roots closed in around his face and he shrieked. The roots snapped shut, cutting off the sound. The earth heaved, flattened, and grew still. The branches stopped shaking and the tree let out a creaking sigh. She came back over to the oak and caressed its trunk, her fingers coming away stained with red.
“Sometimes, the soul grows crooked.”