by Claire Younger Martin
The day after my fourteenth birthday, I awoke mid-morning and lifted my head from my pillow to find a patch of sand where my hair had been. I shook my head, and from my roots fell more sand and a wavering cloud of dust. I held for a moment, letting it tremble until it settled on my shoulders. If I moved, it would fall again. I decided to remain still.
It was then that my feet began to cement themselves to my bed, followed by my legs and lower back. My spine flattened, giving way for the rest of my torso to bind as well. An invisible glue adhered me then to my mattress, but I felt it sink into the ground beneath me. I hung there, pressed against the gravity of the earth I was binding to. My hair twisted around itself and grew brittle. It budded leaves where it draped down my neck, becoming a knot of tangled vines. A glare developed in my vision then, and I realized that my eyes were burning into double-paned glass. They were clear as windows, wide enough to see through. My mouth below became a wooden door big enough to walk under. The atrium that my throat swelled into echoed with the sound of shoelaces being pulled tight, and when I tried to speak it sounded like the hum that follows a door being slammed by a gust of wind. I blinked, looked down at my body, and realized that I’d just transformed into my house.
“I better not move too suddenly,” I thought, but quickly realized that I was set into place anyways. Relieved, I unwound into my frame. The space around me sprouted tall grass and a wall of fir trees. Nearest to me was a single, ancient Burr Oak tree that bowed above my head. Some branches hung low over my face and I saw that they were bent into a grin. From where I was, I could see the canopy of his reach strewn out in all directions, hundreds of feet in diameter. Drowsily swaying in the wind, each leaf rose and fell on his arms while squirrels and sparrows chased each other through his branches. He pulled away and quivered as if to laugh me into a new form, undulating and beaming with lightness I’d never thought possible in a tree.
Then, the area of my body stretched from just less than six feet to nearly one hundred. In this length I still had an entire acre of land to grow across, but I got dizzy staring down at my body and stunted myself to make room for the roots of the Oak instead. I let my head drop to my left, turning to face outward across the expanse of the property. No longer set to the sky, I watched glistening, black salamanders burrow at the trunk of the tree. The side of my face sank into the loam too, freezing me in a position of perpetually glancing over my shoulder.
I began to recollect myself. Though I still held some resemblance of a gangly young woman, I was horizontal and solidified. My eyes and mouth were reminiscent of working windows and doors and the length of my torso had become a kitchen, a living room, a sprawling, cavernous meeting place. The stretches of my limbs held long, mirrored hallways straight down the length of my body and my hands and feet were skeletal bedrooms and closets. My view was bordered in a clear, endless frame of the grass across the lawn, the colossal, striated trunk of the Oak in the center. I nearly laughed at the thought of it, lying in an armor of bricks forever under the shade of a smiling tree. Permanence in place began to feel fiendishly comfortable.
The only movement I could manage was a rhythmic respiration, a restrained rise and fall of my ribcage. The dust that had settled across me began to build on the inside of my lungs, around which were granite islands and white, cracking kitchen tiles. Sometimes, I sighed. My back cracked when I did that, sending a split ricocheting through the rooms in my abdomen. Still, I remained pressed into the earth. The roots of the Oak slid under the dirt beneath my back, which I could feel under the floorboards lining both sides of my spine. I continued to sense everything in tact as I came together, furniture wedged between the walls of my organs and houseplants oxidizing the mantles hanging in my arm hallways. I waited for some new discomfort to set in, some indication of weariness. But I was pleasantly surprised to find the situation quite livable.
Evidently, I was not the only one to find this arrangement comfortable. Three familiar people claimed corners of me, but I could hardly feel them. They so seldom made noise that it was as if they weren’t even there. But I knew they were present from the way they came and went, sometimes sneaking in and out through the pores on either side of my neck when they were too wary of using my mouth-framed door at the end of the vestibule. I could feel them pacing sometimes too, typically without congregating. Two adults, a man and woman, hid away on the back of my shoulders. The space of my shoulder blades was just enough for them. They acted as sharp, hollowed out rooms. The woman resided on my right side and spent what little time she had clicking a ball-point pen over and over again, occasionally pressing it onto the inside walls of my skin to write notes to herself. Each letter felt the same, each time she used identical linear strokes that felt like fingernail scratches straight down my back. But the man rode on my left shoulder. He deserted no physical trace on the walls of my skin, but instead carved out my scapula for storage. When he wasn’t gathering books and broken guitar strings to hide away in me, he roamed to the bottom of my diaphragm to wait for the woman to meet him in the kitchen, perhaps for a shared meal or quiet discussion while they admired the view of the Oak. They found him beautiful, of course, but I caught myself wishing that they could feel the snaking of his roots under them.
Their daughter, an almond-eyed combination of the two, teetered between them in the middle of my shoulder girdle, right on the dip of my collarbone. She spent long afternoons running her hands across every inch of my organs, tracing the outlines of carpets and chairs, hiding under tables and leaving fingerprints on the insides of my eyes. I knew that I was intrinsically linked to her, that any movement she made was also mine. Thanks to her, I grew contented in my assumed role as shelter. She slept in my old bed and found my favorite corners to hide in, pressing the side of her cheek into the carpet to watch those familiar flecks of lint waltz through the air. I wondered if she recognized that we were the same. Perhaps differing physical manifestations of a singular being, likely both watching years worth of dust settle into our hair by the time we’d wake up each day.
Soon enough, the cadenced drum of passing years set in. I learned to tell time by counting the ticking of my heartbeat. My heart itself had sunk to the back of my body, close to the ground I was anchored in, and slowed its beating to an occasional thump. The Oak continued to count time with me, lazily arching his branches across the plot of land. Come autumn, acorns would topple from him onto my arms and stomach. He’d grow pale and tense in winter, only to bloom again during the thaw until he’d tired himself out at the end of summer. We passed days speaking silently with a dance of shifting glances and watching shadows. I couldn’t turn to see the grin winding across his face from our first meeting, but I could tell it was still there by the way he dropped leaves more slowly in the autumn than the maples did. One early springtime, a windstorm shook a low-hanging branch from his stump, sending it crashing into the grass at the end of the property. It was far from me, but I managed to count nearly two hundred rings before it was hauled out and ground into wood chips. He groaned for days, creaking and wilting in the endless drizzle of the season. I agonized with him, with my inability to help him. But even long after he’d silenced, I stared endlessly at his base where it plunged deep into the earth and wondered just how many rings sat at his core.
The family had gotten landscapers for my body and designers for my rooms. They moved me around and knocked me into shape until I was presentable. They took care of me, but inhabited me so sparsely that sometimes I wanted to ask if they were there at all. After a few hushed arguments broke out between them, I was determined to stand sturdier than ever. They started and ended with civil quarrels, occasionally a risen voice or a slamming door between mother and daughter, daughter and father. But the man and the woman seemed to avoid conflicts with an almost competitive, necessary weight until the pressure between them would burst into bouts of silence that were capable of lasting for days on end. I missed the tickle of echoes in that time. I watched all three of them swallow their grievances whole in the same way that I’d internalized and carried each of them in my walls.
One day, the young girl stayed home from school with a fever. She spent hours lying on her back under the drooping avocado tree they kept right where the afternoon light flooded through my eyes near the foyer, just leafing through the pages of a book and smelling the light, potted mulch in the air around her. A miniature of myself, lounging under the lulling branches of her own tree. I thought back to the self-sustainability I saw the first time I stared into the branches of the oak, carrying within it a perfect ecosystem, and wondered if I was carrying the same.
Even in the winter, I felt moths batting their gauzy wings in the valley of my pelvic bone. They preferred to be there near the storage spaces full of unraveling sweaters. They survived on wool socks left out for them, eating holes for toes to poke through. The family still wore them into the snow anyways, letting the Midwest frost chew away at their bare skin. When the moths died, they would fall into my stomach to decompose. By the time I’d be cleaned for springtime they’d already be gone, leaving behind only the opaque, gleaming dust from their wings wherever it had rubbed off.
But when the harshest winters hit, I stayed warm with the heat radiating out from under my floorboards. Animals from the nearby savannah felt it too, and they flocked to me to hide under the deck built straight down the length of my right leg, just before the greatest expanse of the property. The groundhogs and skunks burrowed close to me, trying hard to gnaw through my skin to reach that warmth. Eventually, they’d wander into traps set around the outskirts of the deck by the man and be carried back into the snow-choked forests. Birds came to me too, robins and chickadees would wind fallen twigs from strands of my hair into nests and perch behind my free earlobe. However, other birds were not so lucky. Transparent as it was, I thought the glass on my eyes was impermeable. One day, a young Saw-Whet Owl ventured too far from its nest and accidentally tumbled into the glass in its terror. We stayed eye to eye until it made impact, temporarily blinding me. The young girl found it perched near the tip of my nose a few feet from the door, paralyzed in fright. Against her mother’s warnings, she lifted it into a shoebox with her bare hands and ran inside. The next day, she marched back outside with her father, shoebox in tow. He got down on his knees next to the base of the Oak and drove a trowel into the grass, working until he’d dug a small hole near my temple. She lowered the box into it and stuck her hands into the dirt, burying the whole thing in the ground and patting it smooth. For the first time in my memory, I wondered just how long it had been since I’d become this home.
One summer night, a dense fog left me beaded in sweat and hailed in the first real storm of the season. The birds saw it before anyone else, flying so swiftly from me that they knocked their nests to the ground. The rain came and fell into me in sheets, seeping into the ground near my foundation. Even the Oak shook under the clouds, bending backwards to dodge a bolt of lightning. It missed and he bent again, tipping too far in the opposite direction in an attempt to throw himself over me. It was then that I heard a crack. Not a hollow one from the storm overhead, as that seemed to dissipate entirely. It was heartier, sending a tremor down through the back of my legs where roots were holding tight. It was the Oak, twisting and fighting once more before wresting free of the ground and swaying, his full weight hanging straight over me. Another snap and his stump split to reveal hundreds of rings etched in red bark, exponentially more than I could’ve estimated. The first protruding branch crashed straight into my left eye, busting through the glass and sending shards of my lens across my face and my drenched exterior. I caved in, letting sludgy water flood through my gaping chest and down into the living room. It flowed until each carpet was sopping and every mattress, sofa, and chair was swallowed. Then, the final breezes of the storm found their way in, slinking photographs off the refrigerator and knocking frames off the walls. No one was home that weekend.
When the family came back to me, they clung to my teeth as they stepped through the door together. Muted, they stood at the back of my hollowed eyes and looked out, tracing my own vision around the body of the Oak. He sat still, tied around bits of my bones and bricks. They set to work fixing me without a word, tracing the rims of my eyelids again and again until new glass would fit the pane. Just once I could’ve sworn I heard the woman breathing out a quiet sniffle in the night, but I could not decipher whether she was mourning the Oak or me. However, in those weeks where my eyes were empty, I saw the acre before me in the deepest definition, clarity in the purest saturation I could remember without the barrier of glass. The summer grass was intoxicatingly green and when I stared at it for too long, I felt dizzy like those first days of growing into myself. I had not known just what the Oak had done for me. I had never gotten to see it with my head pinned to the side.
When a woman came to take the Oak away, she took one look at his stump and told the man that he had been dead for years, rotting from the inside out. A greying slab of cement sat in the middle of the wreckage. I watched her say that the decomposition was normal, pack her things, and leave. The man stood at the garage near the back of my head, watching her while she drove away. But when the Oak had torn from the ground, he snapped only at the base. A decaying system of serpentine tree roots was still under me, where they shriveled and petrified.
It was around that time that I recognized the elements. In the searing heat of a summer day, I felt the sensation of burning pain for the first time I could remember. I kept having flashbacks of the break of the Oak, the moment he snapped from throwing himself over me. I was baking, igniting from the inside out. In a stroke of confusion I nearly screamed out, but suddenly considered my earliest moments as a house in which I stared straight up at the Oak’s fanning arms. I’d forgotten his reach. The heat boiled harder, sinking into the core of my chest and filling each room in me. Not once had I recognized the way he kept the sun from me in the bottom of the hottest season. Not once had I thanked him for shielding me from the peak of the blizzards, catching snow in even the thinnest of his branches. Not in rain or hail, not in wind, not even in the gentlest days of fog had I suffered. I felt, for the first time in years, a great urge to look up at the sky. An alarmingly human need to peek at the torment to come.
They worked fast to fix me, but there was a great shame in my exposed insulation and crushed bricks. Still, they spent the summer drying me out. One day, the woman left my front door open for too long, letting all the ragweed pollen in. I tried, perhaps for the first time, to shout through the heavy, wooden jaw that she’d left ajar.
“I’m sorry!” I cried. “I didn’t mean to break his fall.” But they didn’t hear me. The man and woman retreated to my shoulders as soon as they were dry and went back to scratching and storing.
“Listen to me!” I tried again. “I’ve caved in. You’re not safe here!” That time, the woman stopped for a moment, catching herself while slicing an onion in the fluorescent light of the kitchen, seeming to listen for me again. But when I decided to fall back into periodic breathing instead, she shrugged quickly and went back to listening to the repetitive thumping of her knife on the wooden cutting board. By the end of the summer they’d built me back together and left me to bake more in the August sun. However, I felt the three of them gathering more, often in the kitchen between my lungs or in the den near my navel. The feeling to call out again had subsided by then.
One evening just before the season had waned into September entirely, the girl left where she was hiding from a hallway in the crook of my arm. She snuck through a sandy follicle on the top of my head, as to not get caught for leaving her shoes behind, and stood at the base of the yard. She walked out across the grass, eyes straight back at the line of fir trees in front of us. I wondered how far I could’ve stretched across this plot of land, now vacant and entirely mine. A green, blooming acre. Suddenly, stopping and reaching down into the dirt where her bare feet were planted, she lifted herself upright, tilting her hand towards the sky to examine what she’d found. It was an acorn, dense and dormant. We stood there in the darkening yard for a moment, not quite big enough to interrupt the squirrels digging in the space around us.
A voice came from my door. It was the woman calling out from my foyer to come sit down for dinner. We put the acorn back on the ground and ran inside, forgetting to wipe our feet on the doormat.
Claire Younger Martin is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, where she was the managing editor for the literary magazine Hair Trigger, as well as the interview editor for its online counterpart, Hair Trigger 2.0. If she’s not writing or editing, you can find her holed up somewhere in Michigan with a camera.