“The Roots that Roam”
by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill
The quickened-oaks smash their roots into the ground. They shatter rock as they move, root-step by root-step, miles a day. I once saw an octopus crawling on land, back when the Houston sea walls fell. Tentacle over tentacle, lumbering.
No, it’s not like that. That small creature was dying. These things are giant and living, migrating and thundering songs of bark-bone, far hills, and coming winter.
The boys come whooping with ropes to try to rodeo-ride one, though it’s forbidden. The trees buck and their boughs bend. Last year I saw a boy crushed; the trees walked right over him.
We girls watch from a safe distance. It’s my job to hold the little ones; I’m nearly sixteen. A woman.
I try to find our own oak in the leaf-herd.
Most of the trees pass, thundering to warmer climes in Mexico. Some drag rusted shells of cars and bicycles from crossing old highways. Some wear the bones of the dead tangled in their dirt clods. Mass graves are all over the country. I guess the trees walk through them like oyster beds.
Our oak comes, green and massive. It pushes through the normal pecans, sycamore, ash, and hickory that are still-rooted. I may not remember the rock that fell from space, or the pink skies, or the flu, or the storms, or any other strange thing that happened. But I do remember when some of the trees went walking.
This great oak came years ago, choosing the parking lot of our ruined town’s mall to settle in. It smashed asphalt until it sank its tap deep. Elder said it was “Joni Mitchell’s revenge,” whatever that means.
Each season it returns to its same root hole. I suppose the others do too, although no one knows why.
We tell time by migration.
“Is there-” We hardly dare ask.
Elder approaches the trunk carefully and reaches into the waterproof pack he tied on last season. We hold our breath. Every year we write basically the same thing:
“Anyone out there? We’re in Texas. Hello?”
We always sign our names, one by one. Each year the list gets shorter.
“No answer,” he says, holding the faded paper.
No one cries anymore. Instead, they talk about the coming winter.
I wish the seasons would stop and the world un-spin itself. In spring, I’m to be married.
It’s a cold winter, but the quickened-oak keeps its leaves. We burn the loose wood it made crashing through the normal trees.
Elder visits me in the warm community hut, where colored sashes hang from the ceiling, representing each of our town’s families that have passed.
I unburden my heart. “Elder, I don’t want to marry.”
“It’s important. We need more people.”
“But why HIM?”
He describes genetics and gene pools.
“Let me go look for more people,” I say.
“Many have tried. They never come back.”
“The oaks come back. Why?”
He waves his hand. “Magic? Science? Maybe something was on the meteor that hit up north. Who knows? But I do know that you can be a mother. Give life!”
I shake my head. “And die screaming with my legs spread apart?”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I find Mum’s family’s sash and kiss it. When I think of her and my dead baby sister, it hurts so much.
“We don’t have as many choices as we used to,” Elder says.
Spring’s coming. I press my ear to the ground by the oak, listening for the roots. It’s drunk our water and breathed the coastal air. Geese honk above, leaving. Does it hear?
Where does it go each summer?
How does anything happen? One day I woke up, and Elder proclaimed me grown. But I feel the same. Does a quickened-oak feel the same as other trees? Did it just wake up and walk?
We sign our names to the new letter, and Elder ties it to the trunk. I see him looking up through the leaves, frowning.
My heart pounds.
He looks at me, sad. But he nods.
Last week I hid a month of supplies in the boughs. I used the old family sashes to tie them in, and I’ll tie myself in too. The tree let me climb it and it will again; its trunk was wood-warm and ready. I whispered that I am leaf-long and girl-green, and I felt it stirring, just like something stirs in me too.
Tomorrow we’ll leave, to a far spring horizon.
Joy Kennedy-O’Neill’s stories have been published in Nature, Strange Horizons, and the Cimarron Review, among others. She lives on the Texas Gulf coast and teaches English for a small college. She is the 2018 Gris-Gris Flash Fiction Award winner, and a 2018 finalist for the Lascaux Prize in Flash Fiction.
More of her work can be found at JoyKennedyOneill.com.