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Saltcedars

Shannon Peavey is a writer and horse trainer from Seattle, Washington. Her story "Ghosts in the Walls" was previously published in Daily Science Fiction, and other work can be found in the Writers of the Future v.29 anthology. Contact her on twitter @shannonpv.
Today they will burn our tamarisk trees to the ground. It's a quick, hot fire, and the flames light the sky bright enough to read by. I've seen it before, with other people's trees. But this year, it's mine they're burning.
A few of my yearmates are like me--stupid and sentimental and afraid of what will come after. So we go to the grove and we find our trees and spend a few last moments with them, touching their scaled leaves and their bark and the little scraps of cloth and paper we have tied to them so carefully all our lives.
We don't look at what's written there, because we don't have to. Every choice we didn't make is part of us, written in the red spaces between our ribs. And still will be, long after the trees are ashes.
Cal breaks off a tuft of fronds from his tree and shoves it deep into his pockets. He looks around when he's doing it like he's afraid he'll be caught. And when he sees me watching him, he flushes brilliantly and says, "I just wanted to take a little of it with me. You know?"
"I won't tell," I say to him. But I don't take any trophies with me. I'm a good daughter. My mother said to me: the tamarisk isn't yours anymore. Burn it and you'll never, ever again have to wonder about the things you didn't do.
Like I said, I've seen it happen before. The tamarisks are dry and they burn quickly. And their ash filters down in a fine sand and it stinks like dead fish. And their leaves salt the ground so that nothing else will grow there, nothing but tamarisks forever and ever.
We are born from salt and fire.
They build dirt mounds around the south grove and scorch the ground around them so that the fire won't have anything else to eat, after it's eaten our trees. We wait for the day to turn to dim dusk and then we all go and tie our last choice to the branches. Mine says: I chose not to run. I don't know what anyone else's says. We hold the choices clenched in our fists and then tie them with their faces down. The wind reads them. I don't.
When we're all back from the grove, they torch it. My mother stands next to me and holds my hand. She hasn't done this since I was a child, but today I allow it. I don't know if it's that I need the touch, or that she does.
The fire starts slowly and then grows in licks and waves. It races up the bark of a close tree and rings its branches like Christmas lights. The heat sears our faces.
The wood cracks and spits and the stench of smoke and dead fish filters over to us. There's a heat and a prickle in my eyes, but it's just the smoke. It's only the smoke.
Some people talk and laugh, move around for a better angle to watch the trees burn. But not us yearmates. We all stand together in a numb, dumb little line. We don't talk, we don't even look at each other. We just watch the fire.
Eventually, they usher us away with firm hands on our backs, fingers wiping crusted smoke and tears from the corners of our eyes. The fire will run out of fuel, they tell us. Your trees are gone. Come back tomorrow and you'll see then, but you don't need to watch the rest.
"All right," I say, and my voice comes out in a grinding choke.
My mother pats my shoulder and there are big pale smears around her eyes, where she rubbed away some of the soot. "It's not as bad as you think," she tells me. "You'll feel better when it's over."
I don't believe her, but I nod anyway. Because that's the role I've chosen: I chose not to be a bother; I chose not to disappoint; I chose not to go to the party and not to go with Cal when he asked me and not to be an artist. I hung those choices on my tree and they fluttered in the wind like party decorations.
I've spent my life avoiding change.
When the ground is cooled, they let us go back to visit the tamarisk grove. I go alone, but there are others there already. Cal sits by the blackened stump of his tree with his shoulders slumped like something's pulling him down into the dirt.
"Do you know how long it'll take?" he asks me.
"No," I say, and shrug. "Not too long, I guess. These things grow fast."
"Sure," he says, and gives me a shallow smile. "It's just weird, isn't it."
I nod but say nothing. After a few minutes, Cal sweeps his hand through the ashy dirt and then stands. "Good luck," he says.
"You too." I don't know what we're wishing for.
My tree burned down almost to the ground. There's a sooty stump left spiked in the ground, and when I touch it little black flakes tumble down and disappear into the ashes. It looks like nothing could grow here again. The ground is wasted.
I sit for a while by the wreck of my tree and wonder about all the choices I'll make now, the ones that I won't write down and tie onto branches, the ones that won't haunt me with breezy flutters, flying like a flag on the long scaled leaves of my tree. I wonder: will they even matter? Does anything I do from now on count at all?
I stoop down low and brush my cheek into the ash. A rank smell burrows up my nose, but it's easy to ignore. "Maybe you'll choose to be an artist," I say to the dirt.
I hope my daughter hears me.
Cal's tamarisk child grows before mine does. We're over there looking at the new growth where our trees once stood and then he drops to his knees in the dirt, a surprised little oh puffing out of him like a sigh.
I hurry to look. It's growing out of the bark like a burl. Little twigs surrounding and supporting it. Its face tiny and perfectly formed, quiet in sleep and both just like Cal and not like him at all.
"He's beautiful," I say.
Cal reaches out to touch his son and then draws his hand back quickly, clutching it to his chest like it's been burned. I understand. He doesn't want to wake it, doesn't want to mar it.
"We came from here, too. You know? Isn't it strange." His voice trails off and he doesn't take his eyes off his tamarisk child.
"I don't remember it."
"Sometimes I think I do," he says. "I don't know."
The child's face shifts minutely and I can't stop watching it. What will this baby be like? From the same root stock as Cal, but strung through with different choices, fertilized by ashes of things he wished he'd done and things he would never do, not ever.
Everyone thinks the same thing about their tamarisk children. When their delicate limbs are still twined into the branches and their eyes haven't yet opened. We think, that child can be everything I'm not. There's still a chance for them.
Cal's thinking it now. Carefully, I reach over and put my hand over his and squeeze his knuckles. He doesn't look at me, but he squeezes back.
Months go by and my child is growing. I think she looks more like my mother than she does me. Her skin is still faintly green.
And then it's time to cut her free.
We can't do it ourselves, because they're afraid the knife might slip. The arborist goes around to everyone in turn and kneels down to slip his sharp knife between our children's backs and the bark of their trees. Sometimes it only takes one stroke. For my girl, it takes three.
She cries when he cuts her. It's the first sound she's made in her life. How strange it must be, to be suddenly severed from your trunk and hauled through the air, cold and screaming and deprived, and deposited in a stranger's arms.
She bleeds onto my hands, a thin pink dribble of sap and blood. She's so light.
"Looks like you," the arborist says.
"Thank you," I say, automatically. He moves on to the next tree and I'm left staring at this strange creature in my arms. Her little fists waving weakly in the air, her face all screwed up--I want, I want, I want--
My mother puts her arms around my shoulders and stands with me. "Congratulations."
"I didn't do anything."
"It doesn't matter," she says, and she pats my arm and then moves away. "I'll help you. You'll be fine."
"Okay," I say. We pick our way back over the loose dark soil and I think about the bent-wood crib waiting at home, about the blanket woven of fiber and leaves. To help the tamarisk-children feel at home, they say.
But no crib of twigs will be the same as being part of a living tree. I know this, and so does she.
"We'll get along fine, you and I," I tell my daughter. "We'll do things differently."
She quiets for a moment, then squalls again. She doesn't stop crying for hours.
"Can you tell yet?" Cal asks me. We're sitting together on a hillside dotted with buffelgrass. There were other people there when I came, but somehow they drifted away and it's just me and him and our tamarisk-children, sleeping next to each other on a spread-out blanket.
"Tell what?"
"What they're going to be like," he says. "You know. If yours is different from you."
"Of course she's different," I say. "We're not the same person."
"Right," he says. "I mean I guess they're going to be the opposite of us, if anything."
He gives me a funny sideways smile and then lapses into quiet. His son squirms on the blanket and for a moment we both catch our breath, waiting for him to wake, for his tiny mouth to fill with wordless demands that we don't know how to fill. But he just stretches out his arms and then quiets again, spread out on the blanket like a starfish.
I look at my daughter and I think: I hope it's true. I hope that you grow up and you take all the opportunities that you're offered. I hope you do what you want instead of what's expected of you. I hope that you grow up with delicate artist's hands, not my calloused paws.
Cal flops down to lie flat on his back, his head resting near his son's chubby, yellow-green foot. "I guess we'll just have to see," he says.
"I guess so," I say. In a moment I'll lie down next to him. Maybe our fingers will touch. But for a while longer, I watch my daughter sleep. Her soft eyelids fluttering. One day she'll be grown enough to walk, and she and I will go down to the grove together to tie her first choice onto her tree.
"Relax," Cal says. "You'll be fine."
"I know," I say. I lie down beside him. The sky presses down on us, a heavy empty bowl. The wind carding through the buffelgrass. The pale fronds flip sideways, so I can see their undersides. If there are words written there, they're in a language I can't read.
I close my eyes and make a choice.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

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