The Listening Tree

Prose

What made me want him? That supple, brutal kingsnake of a boy, wine-lipped and longhaired. He was strange. People talked, but nothing touched him. I wanted strength like that, to find iron in my thin bones. So when he grabbed my wrist and asked me to come, I went.

He brought me deep into the forest, to the listening tree. Even before our town, people had stumbled under black boughs to press their lips to the fleshy flowers. Anything could be whispered into the ears and they would close and bear fruit. The whisperer would forget what they had said. The fruit would be left to rot or eaten by the curious. How light we could walk, our secrets and shame given away, not knowing that we had ever been cruel.

I had never spoken to the tree, couldn’t bear that someone might eat my fruit, might know shames that even I didn’t know.

The boy cupped one of the tree’s pale ears to his hot mouth and spoke. The flower swelled and folded inward, darkening like a bruise.

Hours later, he was done, eyes wet with pity for himself, already forgetting what had made him cry. Knowing I had given up nothing, he dismissed me with a look and left me behind. I waited until I understood that he wasn’t coming back.

I wanted to hold the blossom he’d warmed with his breath, but when I went under the leaves—ears open all around me—I found that his flower had already swollen into fruit. It was rot-sweet and sagging, ready to fall from the branch.

Of course, I ate it. I wanted to know him.

What a tiny secret he had. Salt in a cut, knife-tip under a nail. What a small thorn to hurt so much.

He had loved someone years ago. They were swimming in the river when her foot slipped and the current sucked her away. Her head punched a stone and the breath burst out of her. He swam after, the river tumbling her end over end out of reach.

Something in me reminded him of her. But now that I had seen that gleaming girl through his eyes, I knew I didn’t measure up. What a painful thing to know. I almost gave it to the tree, but I’ve always held my hurts close.

The next morning, the boy came to my house. He said that something important was missing. He felt hollowed out, half a person. He’d already been back to the tree, eating every secret he found, but none tasted like his. He had done this before, he said. He gave it away; he always went back.

Did I know what he had given up?

Of course, I told him. Put his arms around my waist and said, “You loved me, but then you betrayed me with someone else. I left you standing in the woods.”

“I feel broken,” he said. “Whatever we were, I need it back.”

I knew then that I had taken his iron, given away the brittleness in me, that nothing could touch me now.

“One day,” I said, “if you spend years making it up. Maybe I can forgive you.”

He kissed me, told me he was sorry for ever wanting anyone else. He flinched from the truth in me, the secret that still stained my tongue.