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The Heart of a Tree

This is Pam Wallace's third story to appear in Daily Science Fiction. Her stories have also been published by Abyss & Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

SiriusX12's Plain of Inda is a flat expanse, barren except for the burned-out husk of a veranya tree. Mae trails her fingers over the gnarled bark. It's at least four inches thick, the interior blackened from countless lightning strikes. A survivor, although Mae is damned if she knows why it keeps going. Seems like so many disasters would drive just about anything to give up--even an old tree.
Wiping a trail of sweat from her neck, Mae shields her eyes, gazing past her compact home on the edge of the plain toward the horizon, where the spires and towers of Port City jut into the hazy distance. A faint smell of sulphur from the nearby springs blows on the warm breeze.
Another two hours, the sun will drop, and night will fall in frigid, inky darkness. Nights are deadly on X12. Papa will be looking for her, worried near to death. Mae turns to run for home before she remembers Papa's been dead now for nigh on thirty years.
She pops the rubber band around her wrist, trying to remember what year it is. It's close to winter, because she forgot to move her ficus tree into the greenhouse last night, and the freeze got to it. Or was it last week? Or month?
Her memory's a jumble, images out of time and sequence flowing together in a kaleidoscopic collage. They make her head hurt, and yet if she wants to continue living at home she must put them in their proper place.
The veranya husk has stood sentinel on the plain for as long as Mae can remember. She and Papa have come here since she was very little, looking for zelium crystals to sell back at Port City. They never gather much, just enough to supplement Papa's mining wages and afford a few luxuries now and then.
Mae helps Papa dig for crystals until she grows tired; then she escapes to the veranya trunk to play. She loves the hollow, gnarled bark, tracing the whorls and ridges with her finger, imagining invisible pathways leading to the heart of X12. The first child conceived and born on X12, she's always thought of the planet as her very own. She lays with her ear to the ground, listening to the soft sighing sounds.
Every so often, the veranya trunk sends out a green shoot. Mae dribbles water on it when she gets the chance, but it never helps much. Under the harsh orange sun, the new growth wilts and dies.
"Why does that old trunk keep putting out shoots, Papa?" she asks.
"It's trying to live, just like you and me," he says.
"But it's all burned and hollow. Isn't it dead?"
"Naw. Its center core may be gone, but that don't mean it's dead, Mae. Burn out the heart of a tree, and it'll live on, cause the center is only dead wood. The living stuff is in the outer rings."
Her son, Jarel, will be here in the morning to take her to the sterile studio apartment in Port City. Under all that concrete and plastic, how will she hear her planet? She's lived here all her life, first in the early mining pod, and then after they married, in the little cabin Ben built right here on the edge of the plain.
Images whirl in her mind, memories of Jarel and her little brother Pete scrambled together--sometimes she can't tell which memory is who. Pete had that scar on his forehead from when he fell off the hovercraft. Or was it Jarel? She weeps bitter tears of frustration--why can't she remember?
The rubber band snaps against her wrist, but its sting doesn't bring clarity, no matter how hard she snaps. The sound is as empty as her mind.
"Mom? Mom!"
Mae startles. Jarel's expression is an equal mix of concern and impatience.
"Did you hear me?"
She hesitates, trying to recall what he said. He studies his coffee cup, lips tightening into a thin line. She wonders if an answer floats across the coffee, scudding like clouds across the sky. If it were so, she'd drink it up, memories flowing back, never lost again.
In the end, it doesn't matter--her son and the triumvirate will have their way, and she, X12's first native, will be packed away where she can be "safe."
"Mom. I asked if you think it's a good plan."
"Of course I don't think it's a good plan," she snaps. "I want to stay here, in my home."
Jarel pulls a chair from the table and sinks into it. "Mom, I want that for you, too. But it's not safe for you alone out here. Your memory...."
A shadow flits across the window. Mae cranes her neck to follow it. She catches a reflection of someone she doesn't know in the thick triacrylic--an elderly lady, hair disheveled in a white cloud around her head.
Outside, the sun shines in slanted rays across the silvered sands. Soon, it will be cool enough to go to work. She hopes Papa lets her go with him, so she can check on the veranya tree and see if the shoot is still growing. She whirls around at a noise. "Papa?"
But it's not Papa--it's Ben at the table. She grins before she realizes it isn't Ben after all. The body shape is right, but the face--it's Jarel, his expression a play of emotions--shock, pain, sadness. What did she say? It was the wrong thing again, wasn't it?
Her mind, the heart of her soul, is filled with dead wood. The husk of her body churns along, carrying her toward an inevitable conclusion.
She refuses to end like Papa--unable to walk, only an unintelligible slur for a voice. The indignities, the pain. She doesn't want Jarel--and especially her grandchildren, Benny and Grace, to see her like that.
Mae's bobbed like a cork in a swirling stream for the last several months. Carried past her life, adrift--she doesn't recognize the deeply wrinkled face in the mirror. And when she can't even recognize her own son--well, what does that say?
Ben kisses her goodbye on his way to the mine, his shock of red hair glinting in the early morning sun. Jarel's just turned five, and Mae asks if they can try for a second child that night. He laughs and pulls her in for a second, longer kiss.
Mae's out on the plain when she hears the planet scream. She falls to the ground, feeling the vibrations as it closes over the open wound of the mine. It's not the first time X12 has spoken to her, but it's the first time she screams along with it.
Waging a losing battle has never been Mae's style. A living death, a husk without a heart--not for her. Mae climbs into the hollowed veranya trunk and hunkers down. The smooth cambium layer of wood radiates retained heat against her spine. Its musky scent is like cinnamon mixed with vinegar. The sun sets; Xo and then Phi rise, casting a silvery glow over the plain. Zelium crystals sparkle in the dual moonlight, glittering shades of blue. At the far edge of the plain, golden rectangles of light mark her home.
Her time is done. X12 calls to her.
Mae shivers as the temperature drops to freezing. She leans into the veranya bark, melding her body to each fissure and nub.
She will win this battle her way. On her terms. Melded to X12, as only a firstborn can.
"That tree's lived for who knows how long, Mae. One day it'll find the right conditions to grow again. I've seen it time and again here," Papa said.
Papa's arm snakes around her shoulders. "You're part of X12, Mae." He's right. She's never alone, not on her planet. Her shivers fade; warmth seeps into her bones.
Memories flash through her mind, complete and in chronological sequence--perfect synchronicity. X12 calls her. Mae answers, expanding and growing. Her roots reach deep into the rocky soil, kilometers deep where Ben is buried along with twenty-two others.
Her heart is dead wood, but she no longer needs it. Beyond her husk, deep in her outer rings, xylem tissue flows, nurturing her roots, sending energy to her crown. A shoot sprouts, green and new. Strong.
She reaches for the sun's warmth, listening to X12 sigh.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 6th, 2015

Author Comments

This story is dedicated to my mother and the millions of other Alzheimer's patients and their families, who have had their choices stolen from them by an implacable disease.

- Pam L Wallace
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