Tree With Chalicotheres
First, there was the tree. When it was small, builders ran a bulldozer over it. The tree retaliated by sprouting eleven trunks and uncountable branches. Forty years on, it loomed over the house. Trunks sprawled into mossy platforms, twisted and joined, leaving gaps like parted lips.
Then, there was the house: old growth cedar nailed into a rambler. In 2005, it belonged to Carla. She fought the house’s straight lines with frilly lamps and splashy wallpapers.
Last, there was the girl. Magda, just thirteen, dark hair, dark eyes. Lanky. Wiry. Strong. She had a bed in the house, but spent most of her time in the tree.
Carla explained to visitors that “The child has no” (her mouth made a big lipsticked ‘O’) “one. My ex-husband’s — who dropped dead after I dropped him. His batty old mother kept the kid ‘til she dropped dead. Then — no one. What else could I do but take her in?”
Magda would cover her ears, run out the door, and climb into the tree. She’d built her own place there: plywood walls, soda bottles for windows, blue plastic wading pool for a roof.
“An eyesore,” Carla would say. “Like you. You ever consider wearing something besides a ratty t-shirt and jeans? Like something the dog chewed. You could at least comb the sticks outta your hair.”
Magda looked down at Carla, chewed up by the beauty parlor, eyelashes like centipedes. She looked up into the tree. “Feathers, not sticks,” she said under her breath. “Braided into my hair.”
One afternoon she overheard Dillon, Carla’s boyfriend, down on the deck. “I’m sick of cleaning leaves out of the roof gutters. You should cut that tree down before I break my neck.”
Magda admired Dillon for his craggy looks, slow drawl, vast t-shirt collection, knit hat, peppery smell, and lovely way of sorting Carla out. But the tree was none of his business.
Carla nodded along. “Without that tree, we could have a lawn. That tree sucks the life out of everything.”
“Plenty lives under it,” Magda shouted down through the branches. “Just not what you want.”
Nothing happened for a while, which was normal for their household, except the tree kept growing. When branches began to scrape the roof, Carla called in Harris Davis, a born-again Christian with a biblical beard and a chainsaw.
Magda climbed the tree when he arrived.
Harris said, “I can’t cut this tree until you remove that child.”
“I’m not coming down ’til Harris leaves,” she announced.
“You’ll be down by dark. Nasty things come out in the dark. Things with teeth,” said Carla, showing her own extra-white ones.
But Magda was still there the next day, and Carla called the fire department.
They didn’t possess a ladder truck, so the firemen hauled out an extension ladder. Magda climbed into branches too slender for the weighty child-rescuers. Frustrated, they milled below, cajoling Magda through a bullhorn until Dillon said, “Leave her be. She might fall.”
The firemen left.
The following day, Carla called in the police, but they didn’t attempt a climb. They knew their limitations, and called Child Protective Services, which sent a woman too skinny for her suit jacket and hair scragglier than Magda’s. Magda was reluctant to come within conversation distance. The woman looked like she could climb.
“Hello, Magda. My name is Leah. Are you afraid to come down?”
“Is anyone hitting you?”
“No one hits me!” A lie, but a true lie. No one hit her for the joy of hitting. Carla hit when Magda did things she considered bad. This was hard to predict, but Magda didn’t think it would help if Leah-like persons told Carla to quit.
“Dillon… has he ever…”
Magda shouted, “No.” She climbed higher, losing herself in tender new leaves.
Leah withdrew. The daylight faded. Rain set in.
Magda slipped into the tree house and wrapped herself in her grandmother’s quilt. If she stared at that quilt long enough, she could see stars or baby’s blocks. Rain pattered on the wading pool roof. She slept.
Magda spent the next day reading, but ran short of provisions. The morning after that, she stared down at the north-side neighbor’s hounds, wondering how bad dog food tasted. On the south side, a brown-haired, brown-skinned boy about her size sat on a deck, slurping cereal from a bowl.
“Psst,” she said.
The boy looked around.
He looked up with wary eyes. Carla would say shifty.
“You got any more cereal?” called Magda.
“Oh, you,” said the boy. “The girl who won’t come down… Why not?”
“They’ll cut down the tree. You know how old this tree is? It took a long time to get this way. They shouldn’t just cut it down. It’s older than them. It was here before them.”
“Can I come up and see it?” he asked.
“Can you bring food? And something to drink?”
He went into his house, reappearing with a loaded backpack, and almost leapt up the trunk. He hunkered next to Magda, handing her a corked stoneware flask.
She pulled the stopper and sniffed. Ginger beer. “Nice. Thanks.”
He looked all elbows and knees, scabby, skinny, and a little dodgy. His eyes, now that she saw him up close, were streaky brown-green, like the crowns of trees.
“I’m Tycho,” he said. “Like the astronomer. He could see farther than anybody. Most people call me Ty.”
They settled into the tree house to eat.
“How old are you?” she asked.
”How old are you?”
“How come I never saw you before?”
“Homeschooled,” said Ty. “And we don’t get out much. Okay if I look around?”
“Sure,” said Magda.
Ty climbed up to a dark cavity in one of the trunks. Bits of bark rattled down.
“Watch it,” Magda shouted. “Something nests in there.” She’d heard scuffles and thrums, and she left that trunk alone.
But Ty swung himself in. When he didn’t pop out right away, Magda climbed over and peered inside. The top of his head was sinking out of sight. She hadn’t realized the hole was that deep. “What’s down there?” she called.
Sneakers thudded. “Wow,” his voice rose up from below. “Lookit.”
She boosted herself in, braking her downward slide with her arms, stirring up an earthy, musky smell. She squeezed through a tight spot, ear pressed against wood. Tiny ticking, crawling, and chewing noises startled her, and she slid to the bottom, catching herself on a network of roots when the hole opened to a low dry-stone chamber.
An arched door broke the winding courses of stones. Something bugled from the other side of it. The door cracked open. They scrambled backwards. A horse-like head emerged, A coppery blaze ran down its nose, and a blue mane sprouted from its shoulders. It lumbered out the door, revealing a heavy, potbellied body. Long forelegs ended in hooked claws like a sloth’s. Its back slanted down to short, muscular hind legs. The beast was the size of a llama and moved like a gorilla, knuckling on its huge claws. It raised its head and bugled again, wiggling a flexible snout.
They fled, scrambling back up the hole. Once out, they climbed into the highest branches that would hold them.
The creature, in no hurry, snuffled and thrummed and slowly clambered out after them. It settled into a low, fat crotch, curled its upper lip, sniffed, reached out with its hooks and pulled leaves into its mouth, making a humming noise through its nose. Its mottled brown and yellow pelt blended seamlessly with sun-dapples. Surrounded by leaves, it was nearly invisible.
A chainsaw drowned out the hums. Harris was back. But before the saw could touch the tree, the beast flicked out a long arm fast as a striking snake, hooked the saw, and tossed it. The blade sunk into the ground and the saw stalled. The beast carried on stuffing itself and chewing loudly. A heavy musk wafted from it.
Harris Davis shouted, “Dear Jesus, child. Be careful!”
Carla shrilled, “Magda, what are you doing? You could have killed Harris!”
“I didn’t do it,” said Magda.
“Don’t give me that. Get down this instant! Harris is going to cut down the tree.”
Harris said, “Not ’til you get that child out.” He pulled his chainsaw out of the ground. “‘An undisciplined child disgraces its mother.’ Proverbs 29:15. I’m going home to reset my saw.”
Carla clicked across the deck on her espadrilles, shouting, “Incorrigible!” She swayed back into the house.
The beast suspended itself like a hammock, resting its head on its chest, hidden again amidst the leaves. It started to growl — no, snore.
Magda climbed a little lower. Its ears — spotted, fuzzy — flicked. Magda scrambled back and caught Ty with a wide grin splitting his face. “What’s so funny?” she said. The beast sighed and shifted its rear.
Deck doors slid open. Pizza smells drifted out. “Magda, sweetie, I got your favorite: pizza marinara,” said Carla in a syrupy voice. Something bad always happened when she used that voice. She put a platter down on the deck table. “And lemon-lime soda.”
The beast opened its eyes.
“Melted mozzarella. Soda-in-a-bottle.” Carla clicked her nails on the glass, then swiveled around and went inside.
The beast whinnied and climbed down, dropping onto the deck.
“Maybe it will eat her,” said Magda.
“It’s vegetarian,” said Ty.
The beast sat on its haunches and grabbed a soda, popping off the cap with a claw and sticking its long blue tongue inside. It swallowed a few times, hooted, swung back up the tree and scooted down the hollow trunk. Through the deck doors, Magda could see Carla, turned away from the deck, on the phone, coral-pink lips flapping.
Ty said, “I gotta go. You can come with me. Just… my gran’s a little…different.”
“I lived with my gran. Old ladies…” Magda shrugged. “They’re weird.”
“My gran likes to keep things.”
“Like a hoarder?”
“I gotta stay with the tree,” said Magda.
When the light turned long and golden, the beast returned to the low branches, and so did Harris, revving his chainsaw. Magda moved into view. Harris cut the engine and roared, “Mrs. Fiascuro, you said the child was out of the tree!”
“She can take care of herself. That tree is ripping my roof off. Plus it has vermin.”
“It’s not, and it doesn’t,” said Magda.
“It has you, doesn’t it?” said Carla. “Get down now. Or…we’ll girdle the tree. That’ll kill it.” She moved toward Harris’s chainsaw.
Harris Davis said, “Excuse me, ma’am, but you cannot touch my chainsaw.”
“So I’ll get an ax!” She went round back toward the woodpile.
“Harris,” Magda said. “Don’t cut it down, please.”
“What’s your name? Mary?”
“All due respect, Magda, but there are lots of trees in the world, and some of them are in the wrong places. You should respect and obey your mother.”
“She’s not my mom,” said Magda.
“I’m happy for you. But it’s just a tree. There’s plenty others. Ponder that, Mary.” He hefted his chainsaw and drove off.
Carla returned with the ax, raised it, and struck. Magda screamed. The ax bounced off the trunk. As Carla raised the ax for a second blow, the beast swung its arm, flicking the ax into Ty’s yard in a motion too fast to follow.
Carla howled, “You want blood? I’ll give you blood!” But she retreated to the house, locking the door behind her.
Magda hoped Carla had seen the beast. That would teach her. She took refuge in the tree house and wrapped the quilt around herself. Eventually, she slept.
When Magda emerged the next morning, the beast was gone, but Carla was pacing the deck. It was like being above the bear-pit at the zoo.
When Carla disappeared into the house, Ty climbed up and joined Magda. He brought cold pizza and soda.
A car pulled up. Ty scrambled out of sight. Leah pattered onto the deck, craned her neck, and said, “Good morning, Magda. Carla tells me you’re incorrigible. She’s requesting mediation. You’ll need to come to the agency.”
How foolish could Leah be? Harris Davis could have the whole tree down by the time she and Carla got back.
“You realize you could be declared a Child in Need of Services? And if you’re declared incorrigible, you might be adjudicated? Detained? The mediation is scheduled for tomorrow. If you don’t come, we’ll only hear Carla’s side.”
Magda just looked up into the crown of the tree: branches rising over branches, drifts of leaves soughing in the wind. Ty scrambling into the hollow trunk.
Leah shook her head and left.
Magda followed Ty down into the tree. At the bottom, light poured from the open doorway. Through it they could see smoke curling through the gaps in a dome-shaped hut of huge interlocking bones. Beyond the hut stretched a treeless plain, the horizon lost in a yellow haze.
The light from the doorway turned Ty’s eyes an elvish leaf-green. He extended his hand to her and drew her through. The air poured over her skin like syrup. Everything slowed, heartbeat, and thought, and breath.
The beast shambled out of the hut, knuckling on its hooks, and bugled.
From the hut a voice as dry and cracked as old book bindings called to them. “Come in. Come in!”
“My Grandmother,” Ty said.
“But the beast!”
“He’s Chaco. He’s hers. Come on, he’ll look after the tree.” He led Magda through a gap in the bones into the hut. Sunbeams shot through colossal ribs, lighting an old woman bent over a fire. Like Magda’s gran, she wore a cardigan, but hers was sleeveless and long past her knees. Tattoos laddered her bare arms and curled over half her wrinkled face, shadowed by dozens of short braids stiff with red clay. She smelled like wool and pitch, smoke and ancient dust.
“Grandmother Nal, Magda,” said Ty. He sat on the earth floor and Magda sat beside him.
Nal held out a rounded ivory cup with uneven edges. Magda held it close and looked. The inside was imprinted with the marks of delicate veins. Tight, wiggling lines joined the bits of ivory together, and when, all at once, she recognized what she held, she trembled, and nearly dropped it. “This is a human skull!”
“The cup belonged to grandfather. Was grandfather. She’s honoring you. Drink.”
Grandmother Nal’s black eyes snapped at Magda. Magda took a sip of the smooth pale liquid and relaxed. Like yogurt. Pungent, sour, bubbly. And a taste of almonds and sun-warmed grass. Warming.
“Pass it,” nudged Ty.
Magda handed the cup to him. Someone’s thoughts had been inside there once….
Ty turned the cup, sipped, and passed it back to his grandmother. She turned it, sipped, and placed it in a hollow in the floor. She smiled at Magda, showing crooked, yellowed, but strong teeth.
“Gran, we can’t keep Magda…”
The old woman nodded. “Time’s a-moving.”
Magda stared as they passed through the door. It had been morning, but moonlight shone down the trunk. “It’s night!”
“They say time is a river. My gran stores things in the backwaters. Time eddies. Slowest of all in Chaco’s place. She’s held on to him a long time…”
“Why didn’t you tell me you knew the beast? What is it, anyway?”
“A chalicotheres. They’re mostly extinct, since, um, around the early Paleolithic? I don’t remember exactly,” said Ty. “I told you, Gran’s a hoarder.”
“What is your gran that she can do that?”
“Just Gran,” said Ty.
Back in the tree house, Magda crawled under her quilt, spent. She heard Ty’s deck door slide open and shut, and then sleep took her.
She panicked when she woke up, but the tree was fine. Ty showed up with dried figs, bread, and cheese.
“So you live in a time eddy?” she asked.
“Gran doesn’t like me growing up too quick… She admires how you won’t come down, but you can’t stay up here forever. Come stay with us.”
“Maybe I could stay here forever, with the eddies.”
“You can’t use them that way. They don’t go steady. And Gran can’t keep letting Chaco out. She’ll lose him. She doesn’t like me being out either. You saw the tattoos on her arms? She cuts those lines when she loses someone. Rubs their ashes in the cut, makes the mark.”
“Too many cuts and the tree falls.”
“Gran heals. Nal means pine needle, part of the whole tree, the whole forest, all connected. Like this tree. Its roots go deep and wide. They’d have to kill the forest to kill it.”
Ty left and Magda sat, thinking about her tree twining with an entire forest.
The deck door clattered. Carla stood below, wide-legged, hands on hips. “Time for our mediation, sweetie.”
“You can’t kill this tree.”
“Suit yourself,” shrugged Carla, and drove off.
Harris Davis showed up minutes later. Magda waved to him.
“Still holding out,” he said. “Well, ‘Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial.’ James 1:12.” He put on his climbers.
“Harris, you said you wouldn’t cut the tree down with me in it.”
“And I keep my word.” He looked past her.
She caught a movement and was starting to turn when Dillon grabbed her round the waist from behind.
“You’re not the only one who can climb,” he said.
She kicked and howled. Dillon hung on. She kicked again, hard.
“Dang it, Magda, that hurt. Look, we’re going to take down the tree. You can make it easy or hard, but you can’t stop us.”
She went limp.
“That’s not easy,” said Dillon.
“It’s not hard, either,” retorted Magda.
Dillon and Harris bundled her into what Carla termed “Magda’s room,” a loft at the top of the house with a cot, a dresser, and racks of Carla’s clothes.
She gave them the filthiest look she could muster.
“You don’t want to get in the way of a chainsaw,” Dillon said. “I’ve left you pizza and soda.” They locked her in.
The chainsaw started up. Branches crashed. Magda went to the window. A two-story drop right into Harris’s growing branch pile. She unzipped the vinyl covers of Carla’s clothes racks and tore down camisoles, capris, pants suits, fake pashiminas; Lycra, linen, silk, spandex; tangerine, turquoise, cream and leopard-spotted; all reeking of Carla’s perfume. She ripped them into strips and braided them into a technicolor rope.
Another look out the window made her speed up the destruction. Finally, she anchored the finished rope to the dresser, cinching it with bras and yoga pants. The men had seven trunks down by the time she’d got her escape route set. Beneath the branches, she spied the wreckage of her tree house.
The tree-butchers were intent on their work. Magda dropped the rope out the window and shimmied down. As the saw revved, she retrieved her quilt.
She took a last look at Carla’s wardrobe, hanging from the window in a festive braid. The butchers were still engrossed. Magda scrambled over onto Ty’s side of the fence, clutching the quilt.
She wriggled through overgrown rhododendrons to Ty’s deck, drifted over with dead leaves. She tapped on the door. No answer. If Harris or Dillon looked up, or Carla returned, they’d see her. Magda dropped into a basement window well and pushed at the window frame. It opened an inch and stuck.
The whoosh of an approaching car. She pushed harder. It gave all at once.
She slipped through and dropped down to the floor. Honeyed air, slow heart, long breath. A time eddy. They didn’t go steady. She might never get back. But at that place in time, where they were killing the tree, where she had destroyed Carla’s clothes, where she’d be adjudicated, detained, locked up, Magda had nothing to lose.
In the dim light, she made out pots and figurines; axes — copper, bronze, iron, single, double, corroded green and red; potshards and bones curling around a forest of standing stones, amphoras, spindle whorls, and jeweled crowns all spilling into each other in swirling interlocking heaps, blocking the way, blocking the light. After working around dozens of piles, she found herself back where she started. Maybe. She shivered and called, “Tyyyyychoooooo.”
A muffled hoot. She stumbled that way, found wooden steps, stumbled blindly up, and fell into Ty as he opened the door.
“They cut it down,” said Magda.
Ty pulled her into a hall lined with chests. He took the quilt from under her arm and spread it out on a wooden, iron-banded chest. “Sit. I’ll be right back.”
He came back with a plain thick mug of steaming brown liquid.
She sniffed. Cocoa. With marshmallows. “I lost the tree,” she said. She felt like a treeless plain, horizon vanished in a yellow haze. She put the mug down and cradled her head in her hands.
A scream from next door hung in the air like the whistle of a passing train. A small smile flickered across her face. “Is your gran here?”
“She’ll be back. She likes it here. This house, it’s made of the bones of old trees. Old friends. Your house too — cedar and fir, a thousand years old. But young to Gran. She remembers. She asked me to give you this.” Ty pressed a walnut-sized orange lump into her hand. Like a rock, but warm and light. “Rub it between your hands,” he said. “Then sniff.”
Magda rubbed and sniffed. It smelt like a pine forest on a sunny day. She held it up and it glowed in the light. “There’s a face on it,” she said. Huge wide eyes and a mouth with a slight smile.
“Yeah,” said Ty. “That’s amber, fossilized from a forest alive back when Chaco was born. Like a time eddy. The face was put on later. Gran says it’s supposed to be her. She said to tell you nothing lasts forever but some things last a long, long time. Some things come back.”
Magda spent the night in a feather bed under her grandmother’s quilt, the amber strung round her neck. If she stared at that quilt long enough, she couldn’t tell which way was up. She could see stars or baby’s blocks.
Ty pulled her out on the deck the next morning. They looked up into the crown of a tree: branches rising over branches, drifts of leaves soughing in the wind. She counted, twice. The tree had sprouted twenty-four trunks.
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“Tree with Chalicotheres” © Vicki Saunders
Vicki Saunders lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest where you can’t see the houses for the trees. You can find other stories by her at Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and archived at Ideomancer. She distracts herself from writing by laying out publications and working for the Clarion West Writers Workshop.
“Girl and Chalicotheres” photomainp by Fran Eisemann. Stock used:
“One of the Boys Stock 31” photograph by Samantha AKA Adeline
“Old Cypress Tree” photograph by Oxana Frolova, a Russian artist and graduate of Moscow Institute of Business and Law.
“peeking is a nono” photograph by Caitlin
“Tree House” stock photograph by ELA, German newspaper editor
Chalicothres from Wikimedia Commons
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