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On the day I see my sister, a man in a metal hat leans over the ropes and says: Be honest with me, kid. Do the roots bother you?
It’s not an uncommon question. In fact, when the visitors are brave enough to speak to me at all, it’s often the first thing they ask.
They are serious people, these visitors. Bankers and politicians, lawyers and landowners. The kind of townsfolk who have spent their whole lives at the top of the hill, walking along the terraced storefronts, air free of sewage smells. They wear linen suits with whalebone inserts to broaden their shoulders and tighten their waists, or fluttering silk gowns with terracotta buttons, their trains so long they require masked attendants to walk behind them and hold the fabric away from the dirt. The sort of people with hall closets as large as the house I grew up in.
In my neighborhood, seeing them was a rare treat. If I did, they were usually sitting upright behind the tinted windows of their automobiles, staring at the drooping storefronts like the world was a problem they weren’t much interested in solving.
But at the garden, they become like children. They grip the red velvet rope that separates the exhibits from the attendees with their ruby-ringed fingers and whisper into my ear, saying: What’s it like?
This is against the rules, so they wait until the guards—sour-looking men and women in tan fatigues who nervously tap the leather holsters belted around their hips—have passed to the shaded edge of the garden. Then, the visitors thrust their well-fed bodies over the rope and ask their questions with the sly smiles of toddlers who have stolen an extra treat.
And I say, Imagine a day at the beach. Winter has finally ended, and here you are, on the first day of summer, stuffing your pink feet into the sand. Close your eyes and feel it, I say—dig your heels in and let the shore reach your ankles. Pretend your problems, like the pinprick ships on the horizon, are a long way off.
That is what it’s like, I say quietly. A perfect day at the beach.
I’ve never been to a beach like this, of course. The closest I’ve come was the old fishing pier by my house. Before she left, my sister and I would sometimes sit there, licking sticks of salted eel, and watch the tide churn the trash against the barnacled pilings, the oil slicked over its surface smearing into rainbows. But I know these upper-islanders have their own beaches, water clear as ice and safe for swimming, so I paint a more familiar scene.
What’s important to me is that they know I’m happy.
Often, they laugh in astonished delight. No doubt, they’re impressed that I can talk at all, that the bark growing in thick plates along my cheeks still allows me to move my lips. Or maybe they’re surprised someone from down below can express himself with such eloquence. They never seem very interested in my answer. They just want to know what it’s like to speak to one of us.
A lot of the kids in the exhibit are beyond words, now, nothing left of them but their widened eyes, which peer out at the visitors from within their trunks or stare absently into the distance. They’ve been here a lot longer than me, and when I think of whatever’s going on inside their heads, I imagine a dark, solid line running off into forever.
Some of the visitors are disappointed by my response. They expect me to be like one of the Bad Seeds—to wrestle and scream. They figure I’ll tell them I miss my old life, that I’m desperate to rip myself from the soil and rush over the cobbled streets to my home along the pier. Yet another street kid, hungry to move.
Today, I am talking to one such visitor. A man in a plaid three-piece and an iron helmet, its gilded sides adorned with wolves and falcons. His wife is standing behind him, her face a shadow behind a latticed veil, trying to tug him back towards the dirt path.
When I tell him about the beach he growls, breath hot on my face. Bullshit, he says. How old are you? Fifteen? When I was your age I couldn’t sit still for longer than a minute. I bet you’re going crazy, stuck in the mud.
Robert, his wife whispers. The sign says to stay behind the ropes.
The Gardener has warned me, many times, about these kinds of people. Those who don’t understand the garden. I’m about to reply the same way I always do, to tell him that I don’t miss what the Gardener calls the endless fatigue of motion, when I see her. My sister.
It’s been over a year, but I could never miss her: the strong arch of her chin, the black tangle of her hair, the way she stands, shoulders back and chest out, like she’s ready to arm-wrestle life itself.
She’s wearing our father’s best and only suit: a charcoal coat over a brocade vest, its sleeves encircled by a thin gold filigree. When she first signed up for the service, he used nearly a third of her recruitment stipend to buy it. People didn’t want to buy fabric, he said, from a man in rags.
I’d stood beside him when he lifted it delicately from the cream-colored cardboard box. He let me rub the soft material between my fingers and fiddle with the silver buttons. I never got to touch the clothes our materials were used to make, and holding it felt somehow transgressive—sacred, even.
It didn’t end up helping the business much, but he looked happier when he wore it, standing behind the counter delicately plucking lint from his sleeves. It was more evidence, to me, of how much a good outfit could change a thing. Make even the ugliest lives somehow dignified. Beneath the clothes my father remained who he always was—angry, bitter, loud—but if you saw him from the street, you’d never know it.
The suit looks out of place here, though. It’s shabby, and old-fashioned, compared to the other visitors’ outfits. But my sister doesn’t notice—she peers around the garden confidently, jaws clenched. She’s looking for something. Looking, I realize, for me.
I don’t have time to think. Don’t have time to remember the garden’s most important rule: you must never shout, never disturb the visitors. I open my mouth, lips straining against the bark, to call for her.
It’s a stupid thing to do. Ava hears me, but so does a guard. He marches down the path, glaring at the man who’s leaned over to speak to me. Confused by my sudden outburst, the man allows himself to be pulled back onto the path by his wife. He scowls at the guard, and then at me.
The boy is speaking gibberish, he says.
When I look for my sister again, she’s staring at me, with an expression so fierce I nearly expect her to start sprinting toward me over the flowerbeds. She’s no fool, though—she sees the guard. She raises her hand in a tiny salute only I can see, and then she is gone.
That night, when she is making her rounds, I tell the Gardener about Ava. She steps over the velvet rope and comes to me in her blue overalls, a clay pot swinging in her gloved hand. The simplicity of the outfit is a shock after watching the visitors all day, but the Gardener has no one to impress. She’s only here for us.
I hear you had an outburst, she says.
There’s no point in lying: my shout has cracked the wood around my cheeks. She points to the Bad Seed across the path, his trunk a dark, twisted knuckle.
Have you decided to take after your neighbor?
I thought I saw my sister, I say, my face stinging with each word.
Your sister? she says, and though she is still smiling, I see the tic of frustration in her cheek. It’s the same look she makes when she talks about visitors like the metal hat man. Islanders who don’t understand her work—who think the garden is no different than the travelling carnival that arrives, each year, to litter the streets with empty popcorn buckets. Those who love motion too much.
Why do you think she was here? she asks.
I like the Gardener. She’s been with me since my first night in the exhibit. Though she’s never said so, I suspect she’s one of the garden’s founders, because she is the only one allowed to care for us. But I also know the guards are always on the lookout for family members foolish enough to try and take back the children they’ve sold. I can’t tell her the truth: that Ava is searching for me.
I say, I was confused. It must have been someone who looked like her.
I shouldn’t have mentioned her at all. But the Gardener can tell, by the way we strain against our harnesses, stretching our trunks until our seams begin to crack, when something is wrong. Tonight, I can feel the blood leaking from my neck and shoulders, places where I’ve made my discomfort clear.
The Gardener doesn’t press me, though I know she could. Instead she says, Tell me about this sister of yours.
So I do. While the gardener reaches into her satchel and finds her little bottles of fluids, while she mixes their contents together in a stone bowl and begins, delicately, to apply salve to my arms—my branches—I tell her about Ava.
She’s a soldier, I say, and the Gardener hums, because this is no surprise. Most people from my part of the city join the service. They board the metal boats that arrive each morning at the docks to carry them off to another country, a place we’ve been sending soldiers since before I was born. I used to sit with Ava on the pier and watch them return, hobbling onto shore with their crutches, some of them wearing so many bandages that they looked like blood-speckled mummies.
It must be terrible, I’d said once, and Ava pinched my thigh.
That’s the price you pay, she said. Better than spending your whole life in the shop. Better than a beating from mom and dad.
Ava never liked our city. She hated the stink of the pier, and our slanted little house. She hated knowing there were people who lived further up the hill, who sent their servants down to buy fabric from us. People who passed their days sipping tea from fine china in high-waisted cotton trousers and frilled dresses. She was not like me, standing for hours by the gate to the city’s upper streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever odd garments the rich were wearing that week. She patrolled the neighborhood instead, looking for fights, collecting scars and bruises that she showed off like priceless works of art.
A brave girl, the Gardener says, massaging my neck’s stiff muscles. After a year, the flesh is only beginning to bind together, and there is always the threat that a miscalculated gesture will tear apart the bark growing there.
She was, I say, and catch myself. She is. She probably just got back from her second tour.
I tell the gardener everything. How, in my mind, I called her Ava the Brave. How she was forever rushing to my defense. How she used to escort me to the port to collect the fabrics, and with her striding beside me, the fishermen’s sons at the end of the block mostly left me alone.
I have never been a strong boy. Easy prey. When I made the trip by myself—only if the shipment was a small one, and my parents were too busy in the shop to go themselves—the boys pushed me to the ground and kicked my ribs, scattering the expensive textiles in the mud. But it was always Ava who found me, crying in the street. Ava who led me home. Ava who let our mother slap her while our father shouted about how much money we’d lost in soiled goods.
It was harder after she left for her first tour. I started taking a longer route back from the port to avoid the boys. And though my father cuffed my ear for being late, it was better than losing teeth to the gutter.
When she returned from the army a year later for a brief holiday, she went right back to protecting me. The war hadn’t been kind: she’d lost two fingers on her left hand—the middle and the index—and she didn’t talk when we walked anymore, didn’t impersonate our father’s endless monologues about fabric prices, or mimic our mother’s high-pitched squeal when she found cockroaches in her mattress. She kept her damaged hand in her pocket, the first time I’d ever seen her hide a scar.
When I asked her what it was like, she shook her head.
There was a jungle, she said. They gave us guns. There were people out there, hidden in the green, and we couldn’t see them. But they could see us.
That was all she would tell me.
The Gardener frowns. She places a finger on my lips, halting my speech. I am talking too much. Too fast. The little green leaves that have begun, in the past few weeks, to sprout from my spread fingers are shaking from the force of my excitement.
That’s enough for today, she says. She sounds like a good woman. But too much stress hinders growth. Memory, as you know, is its own kind of movement.
She slips a dark pill into my mouth. It tastes faintly of coffee and numbs the back of my tongue as I swallow. She gives me one each evening to help me sleep. The body grows restless at night, since there is nothing to watch except the twinkling lights of the city far below and the moonlight rippling the sea’s surface. Within seconds, my eyes begin to grow heavy.
I’ve brought you something, the Gardener says.
She pours water from the clay pot over the dirt around my ankles.
Can you feel it? she says. Is it good?
I can feel the moisture arrive in a cool trickle down the length of my roots. Can taste it, not with my mouth but with my whole body. It’s a wonderful way to eat. No violent crushing of the teeth, no forceful gulping; not at all like the leathery fried starfish and boiled mussels I used to chew laboriously below. I fall asleep this way, happily soaking, while the Gardener goes to check on the other children.
Silence is the garden’s first rule. A place of beauty, the Gardener says, is a place undisturbed by noise. It is a place where thought disappears.
Before today I have never screamed or shouted. Not once. Not even that first night, when the pain was worst. They hooked me up to my harness, leather straps and copper buckles entwining my arms above me and my legs below me, and the Gardener fed me the First Seed. It was as large as an apricot pit, and just as rough. Two other children arrived that night, and they were already yelling by then, biting at the Gardener’s rough fingers, wrestling against their restraints until their hands and ankles swelled.
But I behaved. I opened my mouth wide and stuck out my tongue. I gagged until the seed went down, slowly. The Gardener did not have to clamp my mouth shut, like she did with the others, or pinch my nose until I was forced to swallow.
Are you afraid, she said, and I shook my head, even though I was.
Fear is fine, she said. Fear is form recognizing change.
While the seed descended, she told me about caterpillars. Before they become butterflies, she said, before they earn the gift of flight, they build cocoons and digest themselves. They surrender motion for the sake of growth.
Do you think the caterpillar is afraid? she said. I nodded. She smiled.
It is, she said. But still, it does what it must. What its body knows is true.
That was when I decided the Gardener must have helped create the exhibit. How else could she speak of it so beautifully? Why else would she care for us with such delicacy?
All night, while the other children screamed, I thought of the butterfly. I prayed that the seed would take root. That I would get to stay in the garden, with its flower beds and glass conservatories, its endless array of colors and smells.
The other two children spent the night vomiting, their bodies rejecting the gift. They slouched into the dirt, fluid streaked over their naked chests. In the morning, their bodies would be buried below, and their families would be paid for their trouble—a pittance compared to what they might have received if their child had lived. But my seed settled. I felt it, the pain, all night, as it cracked open inside me and grew.
And never, not once, did I scream. While the others made themselves hoarse, I bit my tongue until it bled. A few days later, I felt a heaviness at my ankles and knew. Soon enough, I would have roots.
The next day, I try to spot Ava again. Or, at least, I wait for her to cross the small stage of my vision. The harness holds my head in one position, so I can’t crane my neck. I’ve grown used to my view: in front of me, there is the Bad Seed, who I try to ignore. Behind him, I can see the rest of the garden, whole avenues of marigolds and violets, a rainbowed carpet leading down to a tall iron gate. There, on the other side, is the rest of the island—the sloping white-washed cliffs covered in clay-tiled roofs. Though I can’t see it from here, I know that far below the buildings become ramshackle, the stone walls replaced by flimsy wood, the tiled roofs giving way to sheet metal. Down there, where no attendants wait to scrub it away, the ash from the ships’ smokestacks settles on every structure, flowing over the avenues in black rivers whenever in rains.
It was hard, at first, not being able to move. But I’ve learned to appreciate the scenery. After all, while the landscape doesn’t change, the visitors do.
This week, the theme is metal, and they amble around like knights from an illustrated book of fairy tales. Men and women lumber down the path wearing huge, sloped pauldrons, their shins and ankles enclosed within steel bracers.
Last week, it was shells. Dresses made from interlocking clams. Wide-brimmed caps built to resemble curled nautiluses. Before that: the bound covers of books. Animal skins. Precious stones. My favorite, so far, has been flowers. It was wonderful, watching the visitors drift in front of me in outfits sewn together from the plucked petals of roses, and evening gowns with necks that opened into giant Venus fly traps.
This is how the upper-islanders compete. The fashions are always changing, each visitor trying to outdo the other with more expensive material, a more elaborate display. If you pay attention, you can see the subtle shifts in taste: one afternoon, a man arrives wearing a breastplate made of polished limpets. The next morning, a woman is wearing an outfit that looks nearly the same, but the limpets are all forged from steel. Within a few days, the shelled accessories have been replaced entirely by greaves and gauntlets.
I never saw these kinds of clothes when I lived below, though occasionally someone might try to copy a style they knew was popular above. Once, I watched a ship captain saunter down the main avenue with goose feathers stapled to his patched wool coat, because he’d noticed the upper-islanders had started buying up anything related to exotic birds. The street kids chucked mud at him, and their parents were too busy laughing to stop them.
A woman in a chainmail petticoat stops to stare at me. I try to appear calm, even as my anxiety simmers. The afternoon has come and gone, and I still haven’t seen Ava. But the woman is beautiful, her dark hair cut in a short bob around her head, her neck a graceful, swooping curve. In the curls of her hair, I spot a single steel flower, its metal lips burnt orange by the light of the setting sun. She looks at me the way my sister used to look at the sea.
The woman’s eyes move slowly down my body, staring at the bark that grows outward from beneath my harness, a heavy splash against my pale skin. She turns her head to the left, and then the right, her chainmail shifting over her torso like glimmering scales. When no one is left on the path, she reaches out and places her palm on my sunken chest.
I don’t say anything, though it’s against the rules to touch me. I let the woman run her fingers up to the wood just beneath my jaw, following it to my lips, where it forms a crooked border with my flesh. I wonder what it feels like for her—the way the hardness gives way to soft skin, the spots where it’s difficult to tell where the plant part of me begins and the boy part ends.
I wish that Ava could see this exchange. I wish she would step around the corner, now, and spot the woman caressing me like I’m a priceless jewel she’s found on display in a museum. Something that even she, with all her money, can’t purchase.
No one ever looked at me this way back home. Down there, I was one more filthy boy among hundreds, my limbs too gangly and my teeth too crooked—my torso thin and concave, like something important had been scooped out of me.
If Ava could see the wonder in this woman’s eyes, I think she’d understand why I walked into our parents’ room last year and told them to sell me to the garden. Things had gotten bad by then: my father had fallen behind on rent, and my mother was pregnant. Their evening arguments, normally extinguished by morning, smoldered over into the day. Hopelessness circled our home like a vulture, hungry but patient.
The garden paid well. Even if I didn’t survive the first night, the money they received would be enough to keep the shop running for another year. And if I took root? They could expand the store. Buy better material. Build the sort of life that might once have seemed impossible.
They’d never been prouder of me than when I said those words. My mother kissed my knuckles, and my father held me tight. They thought I was making a great sacrifice for them, that I had gifted them a real future. They didn’t understand that I wanted to go.
Ava doesn’t appear, though. And soon the woman pulls back her hand, cheeks flushing with embarrassment. She gives me one final smile and begins walking down the path again. Even after she leaves my field of vision, I can hear the chainmail jingling.
That night, when the Gardener comes to me, she says, We’ve sent someone to look for your sister.
I picture Ava dragged into the street by the guards, her knees cracking against the cobblestone. My ears ring with the imagined sound of her cries as they bring their batons down on her skull. I can’t help myself—I jerk my head in distress. The motion splits a fresh growth beneath my jaw. The Gardener clicks her tongue and grabs my chin.
Do you see? She says. The way that memories hurt us here?
She gestures behind her towards the Bad Seed. I look at his wood, so dark it appears burnt. His puny branches, bent over what’s left of his head like the crusted bristles of an old broom.
Is that what you want? The Gardener says. All your hard work, rotten?
I know I’m not meant to reply. She steps back and begins searching through her satchel.
You know, she says, I came from the lower districts, too. My mother sold rice. Every day I helped her haul the sacks from the docks to our shop. I watched what it did to her. The way her body buckled beneath the strain of all that hauling. At night, she could barely stand.
She dips her pinky into a vial of blue fluid. It’s cold, and stings, when she swipes it over my fresh wounds.
I remember what it’s like below, she says. The stink and the pain. There’s no rest there. You move until you die. The garden is a chance to be at peace. You’ve done well here. Don’t ruin things by thinking about the past.
It’s the most the Gardener has ever told me about herself. But her words are disappointing. All this time, I’d assumed she was an upper-islander; that she was allowed to touch us only because of how important she was. I want to ask her if all the things she told me—about stillness, and the butterfly, and how the garden was more than some sideshow attraction—are true.
But she is already slipping a black pill into my mouth.
As it takes effect, muting the world into a pleasant blur, I think of Ava. I don’t want to envision her hiding somewhere below, stuffed into a friend’s cramped floorspace or wedged between broken machines in an abandoned factory. I try to remember happier times instead.
She often made fun of me for spending so many hours by the gates to the upper island, longing for the apparel I saw through the iron bars. Still, she’d sometimes bring me notebooks and pencils she’d stolen. And she’d sit beside me as I sketched out my own versions of the day’s outfits, never commenting on my unsteady lines, or the bulky proportions of my figures. She watched in silence, nodding her head with each addition, every bow added and every zipper removed, as though whatever choice I made on the page was exactly the one needed.
I could never make these clothes myself, of course. My parents couldn’t spare the fabric. But one night, Ava walked through the door with her arms full of satin. Though the material was muddy and frayed—she must have pulled it from a tailor’s dumpster—it was more than enough for me. I spent the next hour draping and folding it around my sister, who stood patiently in the center of the room with her arms parallel to the floor. Afraid to make a mistake, I didn’t cut the fabric, just fastened it together with pins, until I’d assembled one of my designs: a long gown with a sloping shoulder and billowing skirt. I pinched the excess satin along the back of the dress so that, from the front, it appeared to fit Ava perfectly, an ensemble crafted only for her.
She twirled under the single lightbulb that hung from the cracked ceiling in the back room. Though she treated it like a joke, curtsying and sashaying back and forth, I knew some part of her felt powerful in my outfit. We could both see how easily she slipped into that kind of grace—how, if she’d been born above, she might have ruled the world.
Not bad, she told me. And then a pin popped loose. The whole thing unraveled, and she was left standing there, a teenage girl hidden behind a curtain of dirty cloth.
Maybe you’ll make it out of this dump, she said, shrugging the now-shapeless dress off her shoulders. Work for the fancy folks who live up-island.
But she was only being kind. We both knew the impossibility of that dream. I’d either stay at the shop or be shipped off to war. My life, like hers, was a path that forked in only two directions.
The Gardener is right. Memories hurt. Tonight, I decide, will be the last time I let myself think of these things.
You’re no Bad Seed, the Gardener says as she finishes, and I fall asleep.
The Bad Seed used to be a boy. His name was Hugo, and by the time I arrived there was little of him left—his bark had grown thick enough that he no longer needed the harness to remain upright. The Gardener told me all about him. He was a great disappointment to her, because even after having spent so much time in the Garden, he still shouted at the guests. Asked them for help. Told them his family, down by the docks, was looking for him; as though they weren’t the ones who’d sold him in the first place.
The Gardener was forced to feed him a steady diet of black pills. He slept for days.
It isn’t good, the Gardener said. His leaves will lose luster.
But Hugo’s cries were a problem. He made the visitors uncomfortable. And if the visitors were uncomfortable, they wouldn’t return.
Hugo slept for a long time. Until his bark grew over his mouth. Then, there was no need for the black pellets, because he couldn’t make a sound. He just searched the world with his eyes, pupils flickering endlessly between the visitors and the sky. Sometimes he tried to look at me, and I glanced quickly away. I couldn’t stand the yearning I saw in him.
But soon his vision slackened. He took on the tired appearance of those who’ve been in the garden for years, a gaze turned inward. By then, he was a gnarled thing, his trunk leaning under the weight of his sagging branches. The Gardener was right: his leaves lacked the emerald sheen of the garden’s other exhibits. His warped body became a warning. My own branches, I reminded myself, would spread wide, rich with blossoms, my trunk a sturdy knot.
I spent my days watching the visitors pass by in their lovely outfits and tried to ignore him. But after a few weeks I looked across the path and noticed tight buds growing on his branches. I watched as, day after day, they slowly unfurled, revealing coiled white cores. One afternoon, these cores burst, releasing white tufts of what look liked cotton, and floated away in the breeze. Only two or three dozen took flight, but it was still incredible: snow on a sunny afternoon, drifting above the garden and out over the rickety buildings far below. The visitors clapped their hands and pointed at the flurry.
I knew, then, that the garden had more to offer me than I had first imagined. I’d come here to be beautiful, to be protected, but the Bad Seed showed me another way. If I followed the rules and let myself grow, I might be carried off the island entirely. I could become a hundred twirling tufts, soaring overhead.
I looked at Hugo’s eyes, and they looked back at mine. They seemed to vibrate in their sockets. Finally, they closed, and didn’t open again.
I try to put Ava out of my mind. For the next week, I fall into my familiar rhythm, watching the upper islanders traipse by like a fleet of tin soldiers, all their metal parts glittering in the sun. I focus on losing myself in the throb of my roots and branches, until the center of me, all those troubling organs and bones, feels like a slim thread between the warm earth below and the drifting clouds overhead.
Then, as I am settling back into my life, Ava returns.
It is late on a Sunday and the crowds are beginning to thin. One moment, I am staring out at the heaving sea, wondering how deep my roots will one day go—if I will tap into an underground lake, its water crisp and pure—the next, Ava is standing before me, on the other side of the rope, close enough that my arms, if they weren’t bound over my head, could reach out and touch her. She is still wearing our father’s suit, though she’s augmented the shoulders with a few rusty sheets of iron. From a distance, she might fool a guard, but up close it’s clear she isn’t from up-island. I have no idea how she’s gotten into the garden looking like this, until I see a twig stuck in her hair, and realize she must have crawled under one of the fences.
I’ve tried hard to stop thinking about her. But still, I smile. I haven’t moved my mouth in days, and already the motion feels alien. Ava doesn’t smile back, though. She stares at me incredulously, like she can’t recall how we know one another.
Eli? she says after a few moments. My name, which I haven’t heard in a year, hits me like a gust of wind.
What have they done to you?
I’ve prepared so much to say, but now I can’t find the words. My tongue is unwieldy and slow. I thought she’d look at me with the same kind of awe as the other visitors—but her eyes are filling with tears. Before I can remember how to speak properly, she is over the velvet rope, rushing towards me.
They sent people after me, she says quickly, peering down the path for any passing guards. I’ve been hiding.
She reaches out with her good hand and combs it through my hair. She smells like salt and smoke.
I’m sorry, she says. I shouldn’t have left. I didn’t think mom and dad would do something like this. I knew they were desperate. But not this. They told me you volunteered. They actually thought I’d believe that.
No, I say, but the word is slow in coming. The movement hurts. Ava shushes me.
It’s alright. I’m going to get you out of here.
She reaches for my harness, struggling to undo the buckles with her hand. My arguments disappear, drowned by a rising tide of fear. The harness, which is attached to two heavy poles, is the only thing holding me up. My bark isn’t dense enough to support me yet, and if I’m untethered, I’ll slump over, a rotting stalk.
Stop, I say, but Ava is talking over me.
I’m not going back on that boat. It’s terrible over there, Eli. The war. I can’t go back.
She is speaking in a way that I’ve never heard before. Like she’s talking to someone I can’t see.
You and me, she says, we’re going to find somewhere to go. We’re going to be safe.
I need to tell her that I’ve already found a place to go. That I’ll drift off and take root on a different island. That she must find her own safe place. But just as I’m about to speak, she starts to unlatch one side of the harness from the support beam, sending my body lurching forward. The pain runs through me like a hot wire, and I try not to shout, because if I do the guards will come running. Ava, seeing me bite down hard on my bottom lip to stifle a shriek, frantically whispers apologies, though I only catch snippets of her speech through the roar of my own hurt.
Look what they’ve done … ruined … nightmare.
The harness has two layers: a leather chest-piece that holds my head in place, and a series of straps beneath, which keep me upright. Ava gently unbuckles the chest piece, though I am mumbling through my tears for her to stop. Explaining to her how she doesn’t understand. How I need to grow. There is a snap as she frees another clasp, and the leather chest piece drops to the dirt, exposing my center. I try to keep my neck rigid, but the muscles are weak now, and my head drops forward, stretching and cracking the bark at the top of my spine. The pain is too much. I begin to groan.
So much work has been lost. I can feel the steady drip of blood down my torso. It will take me months to regrow it all.
Ava is staring at my stomach, shocked. She holds a trembling hand over her mouth and shakes her head like she might loosen whatever she has seen from her mind.
Now that part of the harness has been removed, I can see my stomach. Or rather, what’s left of it. I understand what’s scared Ava. There are thick tendrils of wood curled out from my middle, and I can see the First Seed there, a nugget at the center of the spirals. It looks like a dark, blossoming flower. This is where the bark began: spreading across my flesh like a brown stain on a linen sheet, turning my skin and muscles to timber.
When I scream, it isn’t because the sight of the First Seed has frightened me. The Gardener explained it all that first night—how once the First Seed took root, there was no returning to my old life.
When I open my mouth now and scream, as loud as I can, so loud I know that every guard in the garden will hear me, it’s because I’ve lifted my head again and can see the look on Ava’s face. The anger, and the determination. Ava the brave.
I have to scream, because Ava still thinks she can save me. She is already moving towards me with terrible tenderness, ready to unclasp the final buckles and drag me out of the soil. She will tear up my roots so thoroughly that there will be no hope of replanting me. No chance of growing.
I love my sister. I loved my sister.
But I scream.