Paradise Modified, by Cathy Bryant
Steve had done it without my knowledge or permission, and I was furious. I rattled dishes unnecessarily, and glared at him until he got the point.
“Anne, darling,” he said in an incredibly irritating tone of voice, no doubt supposed to soothe me. “That tree has canker. It’ll have to come down and be burned at some point anyway, eventually.”
“Eventually, yes,” I snapped. “But that tree has grown for over a hundred years without any pesticides or other nonsense. And cankered trees can live for ages and continue to produce edible fruit. I’ve been eating apples from that tree ever since I was weaned, and now I won’t dare to. What genetically-modified rubbish have you poisoned it with?”
Like the smug biochemist he was, Steve came out with one of those scientific words that take ten syllables to convey nothing whatsoever. I very nearly smashed a cup as I was putting it away, but noticed at the last minute that it was my favourite and placed it carefully down; as for Steve, I contented myself with an elaborate scowl.
After a bit more rowing and some glowering, we made up. Steve promised ‘to try to remember’ to consult me about household decisions that would affect me, and I said that I’d try not to get so angry with him.
Living in the country was hard for Steve. I’d been born to the valley, and loved the peace and the constantly changing face of Nature, but he’d had to adjust to the isolation and the long commute to his lab.
Later, however, listening to his snoring, my resentment welled up again. The tree’s branches tapped against the bedroom window as if asking me for help, or admonishing me for failing to provide it. I hoped that the robins nesting in it would be OK, and their four eggs – tiny, buff, speckled treasures.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, sleepless. Steve continued to snore as evenly and regularly as a car alarm, and as annoyingly. But I loved him, and snuggled up to him to get some warmth and comfort at least, if not much sleep. I dozed off just as it was getting light, to the sound of the wind hissing in the trees.
Over the next week I kept staring at the apple tree. There was a livid yellow patch where Steve had injected it, and instead of fading it was swelling, winding round the trunk. It was a grotesque shgape, vaguely phallic.
I didn’t say anything, though – it wasn’t until the robin incident that I argued with Steve again.
On a sultry still day I looked out and saw that the nest had gone.
I fumed all day and laid into him the second he got home.
“So what was the problem with the nest then?” I asked. “Did it have canker, too?”
He frowned. “What? What nest?”
“The robins. You knocked it down, didn’t you? Was it while I was at the shops? Did you kill the birds or are they going to die a slow homeless death?”
“Anne, I didn’t do a damn thing to any nest. Stop accusing me!”
“I suppose it just disappeared.”
“It probably fell. They sometimes do.”
“There’s no sign of it. And there hasn’t been a breath of wind.”
Steve looked at me coldly and walked out of the house.
“That’s weird,” he said to himself, but I just caught it.
“What?” I said, joining him. “- Oh!”
The tree had a growth – a bulge about the size of a side plate. It was bulbous and matty-looking but mossed over, as if it had been there for years. And there were small bulges at the sides, shaped like – shaped like bir –
My head knew straight away what it was, but I rejected the knowledge. There are things our minds won’t accept, so that we can stay sane.
“Is it – canker?” I asked hopefully, knowing that it wasn’t.
“No. Canker can’t do that,” Steve said shortly, and reached up to the growth.
“No!” I grabbed his hand before it could touch the – tree. I tried to laugh it off. “Curiosity killed the – the – ”
Both our hands were shaking.
“Could the nest and the two birds have fallen inside the trunk, and be pushing the bark out from the inside?”
“No. Don’t be ridiculous.”
The force had been knocked out of our argument. Back in the house we were silent for a while. Then Steve said cheerfully, “It probably is canker, you know,” and I saw that he had put it out of his mind. That frightened me as much as anything, and made me feel very alone.
That night the wind made a great hissing in the tree. I got up to look at it and caught my breath as I saw the branches writhing and twisting. Some were dark and slimy, some a bilious yellow, and some had patterns like little tombstones. The hissing noise came from the mouths at the end of the branches, and the little ones at the end of the twigs, where wormy horrors wriggled. It was obscene. I looked away across the valley – not one of the other trees was moving; there was no sound of wind apart from the thrashing of our apple tree. I hoped that I was dreaming and would soon wake up, but the sights and sounds suggested otherwise. It was all too vivid and immediate. And to think that I had felt hot and wanted to open the window.
It knocked the pane more loudly than usual.
“You can’t come in,” I whispered.
It knocked again, harder.
“Whassat?” muttered Steve, blearing into consciousness.
“The tree on the window pane as usual. Go back to sleep.”
He tried, I think, but the noise was invasive and penetrating. He slippered over to the window.
We stared at the twisted mass as it flailed and wrenched, grasping angrily.
“So what the hell was that stuff you put in – and don’t just say the long word again.”
“It was from the lab. It’s derived from snakes.”
I nodded. I’d known, really.
“I’m going to cut that bastard down now,” said Steve, pulling on a his dressing gown.
“Anne, look at it!”
“I know, but it’ll kill you?”
“No it won’t, because I’ll have a damn great axe,” he said, and stomped downstairs.
“Please – please don’t,” I begged, following him. “Not at night, anyway.”
He just gave me a look, and got out the axe from under the sink. It looked reassuringly primitive – a lump of wood and a lump of metal, attached to each other – but I knew that it wasn’t enough.
“Don’t go, don’t go,” I said hopelessly, my hands over my face as he opened the door and left.
There was one almighty THUK of axe on tree.
And then there was nothing.
Perhaps Steve had dropped the axe or hurt himself, and needed my help. I forced my feet to walk to the door, and my hand to open it a crack.
The axe lay on the ground; there was no blood on it. I couldn’t make myself look directly at the tree, but I could make out enough of the hunched, misshapen trunk, branches massed and writhing like maggots in a bait tin, from the periphery of my vision. I slammed the door closed and breathed in and out, great gulping breaths.
My first thought was the phone. Hmm, whom do you call to explain that your husband has been eaten by a were-snake tree? I laughed loudly at that and couldn’t stop.
I couldn’t explain it to anyone, and there was nothing I could do. My hysterical, horrible laughter rang round the house, but it was better than the hissing of the tree. In the morning I would go away, find someone and do something – I didn’t know what. The tree would have to be destroyed, of course. What if it blossomed – and then fruited? What if innocent children came and reached up to pluck the apples – to bite into them – and if they survived long enough, instead of finding a harmless worm inside there would be a deadly – what if they swallowed – ?
Like a child I headed instinctively for bed, to hide under the covers.
That’s where I am now.
I sat here and wrote this. I wonder if it’ll survive what’s coming.
The branches are pounding on the window pane in a slow, relentless rhythm. The sound reminds me of the fatal cough of cannon, seen in old films. Or jungle drums, ditto.
I don’t think I’ll have to worry about anything in the morning. The glass will break soon, and the branches will find a way to reach me (the tree has grown, oh it has grown so big!) where I lie sobbing under the bedclothes, longing passionately for the prosaic bliss, the intimacy and innocence, of just one more flaming row with Steve.
Cathy Bryant only started submitting her poems and stories to prove to her best friend, who kept nagging her to submit them, that no one would want to publish them… she was wrong! Her poetry collection, Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature, came out recently (Puppywolf) and she co-edited Best of Manchester Poets vols. 1, 2 and 3. Cathy’s won a shedload of competitions including the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Prize in 2012. Her poems and stories been published all over the world and yes, she has bought her best friend a drink or two. Cathy lives in Manchester, UK. See more at CathyBryant.co.uk
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