The stone tree was leafless, its whited branches twisted by winds long since stilled. Conscious of the woman’s stare and the rows of gnarled trees surrounding them, Genny led Linnae around the back of the car. Together they accompanied Malcolm to the petrified tree.
“I want to go home,” Linnae said.
“There’s nothing to be scared of. See?” Malcolm said. To show her, he touched the tip of the branch closest to him.
Linnae made a frightened noise. It was the same vulnerable noise she made when a bee landed on her their first night away from home. Genny had been unable to move, certain that if she did, the bee would sting Linnae. The insect traversed the back of Linnae’s hand before performing a terrifying ballet on the tender skin between her thumb and forefinger. Then the bee took flight, and Genny had hugged her daughter. She remained full of relief even when she felt the sharp jab of the bee’s stinger and the burning rush of venom. The back of her neck was still itchy and swollen.
“Let’s go,” Genny said. “Laney’s scared. It doesn’t do any good to force her to look at things that scare her.”
“We can’t let her grow up terrified of trees,” Malcolm said.
“You want picture?” the woman with the fan asked. She was standing very close to the Mercers, but none of them had noticed her approach. “Photo?”
Genny shook her head but Malcolm said, “Yes. I think that would be just the thing. Come here, Laney, while Mommy gets the camera.”
“I don’t want a picture,” Genny said.
“Please, just go get the camera.”
Genny took a deep breath, and then tried to pry herself free from Linnae’s clasp. Genny looked at Malcolm. Not without difficulty, he picked up their daughter, her paper crown shifting atop her head.
“I’m scared,” Linnae said.
Malcolm straightened her Burger King crown as he spoke calming words. Genny listened to the low cadence of Malcolm’s consolation, pretending his comfort was meant for her. Behind them, the woman flicked her fan. She waved it around in the dense heat, sighing and shuffling her feet. Genny turned, ready to snap, but the woman was looking past her, watching Malcolm carry Linnae close enough that she could touch the tree.
“Don’t!” Genny said, but her warning was too late.
Linnae pressed her palm to the stone bark. For a moment, everything was as it had been. Then she screamed.
All the orchard’s blighted, gray leaves shook as if there were a breeze. Branches swayed, but there was nothing except the woman fanning herself. Genny dashed forward and swiped her daughter’s hand away from the petrified tree.
“Stop scaring her!” Genny said, blinking at the shrewish sound of her own fear.
Malcolm cradled Linnae, rocking her as he asked, “What happened?”
“It hurt,” Linnae said.
She threw both of her arms around her father’s neck and buried her face in the front of his shirt. Over the top of her bowed and still crowned head, Malcolm and Genny looked at one another. The smell of something going rancid wafted around them and a low hum skimmed and skittered through the preternatural quiet.
“You were right,” Malcolm said. “Let’s skip the picture.” He stepped around Genny to carry Linnae to the car.
Genny moved a little closer to the stone tree. A shuddering darkness not unlike the liquid dark of the road’s heat mirages seeped from the bleached bark. Genny pressed her forefinger into its shadow, but pulled back without touching the tree. The stench was worse now, thick with the gluttonous smell of a carnivore still drenched in the blood of a kill. As Genny backed away, her footsteps left reddish marks in the soil as if the whitestone dust were only a bandage beneath which suppurated a weeping and bloody wound.
With a flick of her wrist, the woman snapped closed the fan and asked, “No photo?”
“I don’t think so,” Genny said.
“Two for one dollar.”
“Ah, then they are a gift.”
The woman went over to the stand and put two peaches in a small brown bag. Then she folded the top of the bag over on itself and thrust the neat parcel at Genny. Inside, the two peaches rolled and bumped together like living things.
“Will you give me a hand over here?” Malcolm called.
Genny took the bag and said, “Thanks. I’m sure they’ll be … peachy.”
She went over to where Malcolm was trying to get Linnae to let go of him long enough to put her back in the car seat. The girl alternated between hiding her face against her father and staring at the petrified tree. Genny touched Linnae’s arm.
“Don’t worry, Laney-loo. We’re leaving now. But you need to be in your seat.”
Linnae wriggled into her seat and sat looking out at the petrified tree as Malcolm strapped her in. When he was finished, she crossed her arms over her chest, a corpse pose. Malcolm closed the door firmly, but without slamming it.
“My blood pressure is singing,” he said, the skin under his left eye twitching.
“Do you want me to drive?” Genny asked.
“No, I’m okay.”
“If you’re sure,” Genny said.
Malcolm opened the passenger door and gestured her inside. When Genny was seated, Malcolm walked around to the driver’s side. He passed close to the woman at her fruit stand. She was chanting, a repetitive sound that mimicked the rise and fall of the hum that started when Linnae touched the tree. Malcolm could make out only the end of the chant. “La Zalia,” she said, but it was nothing that he understood.
“Good day,” Malcolm said.
“Sí,” she replied, and then resumed her chant.
Malcolm got in the car and cranked the key in the ignition too hard and too long. In the backseat, Linnae kicked her feet against the back of Genny’s chair. It was a normal thing devoid of its normal annoyance.
Can you hear it, Mommy?”
Malcolm put the car in gear, and backed them away from the trees.
“Mommy, hear it?” Linnae repeated.
“That’s the car,” Genny said. “Just the engine.”
“No! The tree. It’s singing,” Linnae said.
Mother Nature isn’t just a metaphor. Stolen Climates – online starting 02.2012!