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a tree by any other name

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Zach’s brushing his teeth, doing a very good job of it, the way he was taught as a child, gently, carefully, for a full two minutes, or at least he tries. He counts down from 120 in his head as he brushes to keep track of time. He’s proud of his teeth — proud of himself for playing hockey for so many years and keeping them as intact as they are. Plenty of that’s luck, but he isn’t going to take anything for granted.

He’s built a wonderful life, with a wonderful partner, and it’s important not to take anything for granted. It’s important to floss. A small boring part of his bedtime routine, but it’s important.

And then there is a sudden shift in the fabric of reality. He’s an ordinary man brushing his teeth, and then he is something else all together. Instead of flesh and bone he is bark and branch. He is a tree! Yes, yes, a tree!

This is no place for a tree — a hotel bathroom in Nashville — but he is here and he is indeed a tree, with roots and leaves. There is no dirt for his roots here, except for how there is. This is no place for a tree, except for how he’s here. This is impossible, except for how it’s happening.

There’s nothing he can do about it. As a human, Zach is very bad at doing nothing, but it’s different as a tree. The whole world is different, for as long as it lasts.

Well, nearly the whole world. Somethings are constant. Ryan is, for him. Ryan, responding to the commotion of the transformation, enters the room. (Zach, no longer having ears, does not know what the transformation sounded like, but it must have made enough noise to make his partner worry, or maybe it was the following silence.)

Zach doesn’t know what Ryan will make of this. Ryan, the skeptic, who puts up with Zach’s superstitions and ghost stories with good natured disbelief. It takes a lot to phase him, but Zach turning into a tree is more than a lot.

Ryan will figure something out though. He always has.

Ryan says, “I love you,” and Zach can only rustle, not repeat the words back to his lover. He is no better than the wind. He must have faith that Ryan knows he is loved in return.

Ryan goes, and Zach must be patient. He longs to photosynthesize, but not here, in the fluorescent hotel bathroom. This is not a space for growing, it is a space for waiting for his lover to return and rescue him. Patience is not a strong suit when human, but patience is the only option left to him. He will be a tree, until Ryan comes back. It’s the only thing he can do. Trees can’t go anywhere. Trees can’t run away. Trees can’t leave.

Maybe, it wouldn’t be so bad to stay like this. He’s built a wonderful life with a wonderful partner, and it would be wrong to leave all that behind, but there’s something beautiful about this. He wants so little — water and light, to grow. Subtle wants, automatic wants, not like the passion of love, the drive for victory, the pressure for excellence.

If he stayed like this, the rest must fade away. He can feel it even now, the instance of transformation fading, the idea that he could be anything other than what he now is echoing impossibility.

Thinking in sentences becomes more difficult. Thinking in sentences becomes passe. What does someone like him, grown so strong, have use for words designed to fit mouths, to correspond to lines on paper?

Lines are such a human frailty. Instead: a knot of roots, curving branches, stillness of water, taste of sunshine, rhythm of rain. Color, impression, from impressive vistas to hidden wonders, life lurking in tidepools, hollow logs, underground.

Flora, an explosion of foliage, an abundance of forests, no space for the neat punctuation of human thinking.

verdant, viridian, so many shades of emerald
grown in dirt
heart of stone
polished to shine like a flame
trusted to a lover

they first met as saplings
over time their branches intertwined
interlocked, interwoven, integral
each year another ring
time shown in their bodies
time on the earth
time together
bringing them closer and closer
root to tip
increasingly tangled

opportunity arose
to set down real roots together
the same city
the same team
endless in all directions

to get there
they had to leave this behind
namely the city they’re in today
and its claim on Ryan’s soul

this may be its revenge

to change Zach
to take his voice from him
to take his body
and make him this
hunk of wood
not breathing
in a real way

Zach does not blame the city for its bitterness
it is hard to blame another
for falling in the same love

The night wears on
Ryan comes back
Zach does not change
is the only option

the night black outside
stars hidden
by streetlights
fluorescent bulbs overhead
Ryan sitting at his roots
on the tile floor
waiting for transformation
waiting for morning

Zach wakes up where he belongs — safe in Ryan’s arms. He doesn’t stay there long. He showers, and then goes downstairs to find some coffee and the paper. That’s what he usually does in the morning when they’re on the road. He wakes Ryan up, then leaves to find coffee and the paper, and by the time he gets back Ryan actually has his eyes open.

This morning he woke up sticky, but not in a familiar way, not from falling asleep after sex. Tree sap, his still hazy brain supplied. He woke up sticky with tree sap, left over from a night he still doesn’t understand.

This morning, Ryan was sleeping so peacefully, he couldn’t bring himself to wake Ryan up. If he woke Ryan up, they might have to talk about it, and he doesn’t know what to say. He might never know what to say. But he thought the odds were slightly better if he had some coffee first.

Now, sitting at the end of the bed, coffee in hand, he isn’t so sure. He still doesn’t understand what happened. Doesn’t really want to understand what happened. Doesn’t want to wake Ryan up when he looks so peaceful. He does it anyway, because they have to get up and leave for morning skate soon.

He shakes his partner awake. Ryan blinks at him for a while, trying to make sense of the world. Zach sips his coffee, and lets Ryan watch him.

“I love you,” Ryan says.

Zach has a human mouth, with a human tongue, and mostly his own teeth, and he can use all that to say, “I love you too.”

They love each other. That’s something they know. That’s something they understand. With something that important being obvious, it’s alright if some other things are allowed to stay inexplicable.