The Hemlock That Was Afraid of Heights
By E. Lily Yu
In the middle of a forest on the west side of the Cascades, halfway up a mossy slope that bloomed with chanterelles, orange spines, and black cup fungi every fall, there stood a fifty-year-old hemlock that suffered from a terrible fear of heights. Due to this fear, which sometimes caused it to quiver and shake even in the absence of a stiff breeze, the hemlock never grew more than nine feet tall.
In the ordinary course of affairs, the firs, hemlocks and pines that did not compete, inch by inch, year by year, to rise above the rest would wither and die of sun-hunger in the shade. This ought to have been the fate of the hemlock that was afraid of heights, except that the slope was so steep, and its neighbors so obliging, that shafts of sunlight penetrated even to its low and anxious needles. And so it lived, bark steaming in the rainy springs, roots digging down, and was content.
For the hemlock that was afraid of heights was not half so afraid of depths. It wove itself into the mycorrhizal network, mixing root hairs with mycelium, and listened to the forest’s gossip and warnings of fire and deer. It drank from aquifers and fresh-filtered rain. And when it could, it passed sugared sips of the best vintage to its neighbors and the fungal lacework that fed them all.
The hemlock’s tall, triumphant neighbors, splashed with sunlight and crowned with eyries, told the hemlock of snagging clouds in their branches and turning red and gold at sunset in the last rays sweeping over the mountain.
Come up and see the view, the Douglas firs told the hemlock.
I like the warm, low, and damp, the hemlock said.
You should hear what the birds on our shoulders say. They’ve seen oceans. Deserts. Other mountains.
The red huckleberry is good company, the hemlock said. So’s the Western toad. And this rock, right here.
Suit yourself, said the hemlock’s neighbors.
With the sunlight that fell on it, and the nitrogen and phosphorus that the mushrooms fed it, the hemlock reached down and further down, cracking through stones and ancient bones, digging for secrets. It was preoccupied with one boulder for a decade or so, before wrapping its roots around the mass and continuing down.
One day in fall, when the hemlock was eighty or so, and still a compact nine feet tall, a woman with a wicker basket came into the forest. This was not unusual. Several dozen humans wandered through the forest every fall to cut the golden chanterelles, frilled and scrolled and pleated like silk.
But this woman had, through long hours in many forests, learned to read the pictograms of sunlight, leaf, and needle. After cutting and placing six chanterelles in her basket, she stopped to squint at the hemlock, hands on her hips.
“You’re older than you look,” she said.
I’m afraid of heights, the hemlock said in needle flicker and twice-crossed twigs.
“So you don’t grow any higher?”
I only grow down.
“We do that too,” she said. “Refuse to grow.”
You could be taller?
“We all could be giants if we chose. On the inside, anyway. Tall as trees. Ears full of birds. Heads scraping the stars.”
But the snow could bow you down and snap you. The wind could tip you. It’s safer down low.
“You’re very human, for a tree.”
And you’re a very arboreal human.
“It’s none of my business, either way,” she said. “You have enough light, it looks like.”
“Mind if I come back? In a year, maybe?”
I’m not going anywhere.
Autumn after autumn, the woman returned to chaff the hemlock and pick chanterelles. She told it where she had been and what she had learned. Twice she brought her full-grown son, though he was not interested in mushrooms and did not understand the speech of trees.
Then the woman stopped coming.
Meanwhile the hemlock grew downwards, chewing on what it found. In the way of trees, it was growing old and wise.
Once, and then a second time, the woman’s son brought a daughter, who also did not know how to speak to trees. But the girl climbed the hemlock’s branches because they were low and thick, and her father let her, because the hemlock was short and safe.
Ten years later, the girl returned, a woman now, passing the hemlock quickly and without a second glance. She huffed out generous lungfuls of carbon dioxide, which all the trees around her greedily drank in. They gave her phytoncides to breathe as a gift in exchange, though she did not know it. Up the trail she went, dripping salt, then back down.
She came on several weekends, staying away on others. It was summer, and weeks could pass without rain, but her presence pleased the hemlock more than water.
One day, after she had run up and down the mountain and out of sight, the earth rolled.
The hemlock was quite used to this. Six or seven times a year, the earth shook, and all the trees swayed and shed needles and cones. When the wave passed, they were again still.
But this wave was tremendous, like nothing the hemlock had ever known. It squeezed the mountain until stones screamed. Worse, the soil was wet from the previous night’s thunderstorm.
All around the hemlock, roots came ripping from the ground. Trunks toppled. Fir and pine crashed down.
The hemlock that was afraid of heights held firm. Its roots ran down to the heart of the mountain, broader and deeper than the hemlock was tall. Other trees swept into it, shearing off several of the hemlock’s branches and scarring its bark. They dragged their roots behind them, drowning in air.
In the parking lot at the trailhead, a woman crouched in her car. But the hemlock withstood the slide of logs and mud, and the mountain did not swallow the parking lot.
The earth shuddered once more, and then the wave passed.
Months later, humans brought chainsaws and chains and freed the hemlock from the corpses of its neighbors.
And the hemlock found itself in a great silence, with a mountainside of sunlight to itself and no one left to talk with—for the fragile white threads of mycelium had been torn up in the quake.
Having at last nothing better to do, it spun sugar from the sunlight, drank rain, and grew: a little at first, to see if it remembered how, then a little more.
From buried cones, tiny hemlocks and Douglas fir sprouted, so tenderly green the hemlock could have wept.
Grow tall like me, the hemlock said to the seedlings.
It sent sugar and water to them, to help.
Where are our mothers? the young trees said.
No longer here, the hemlock said. But I’m here now. Stand up straight, or the wind will get you.
After twenty years, the hemlock had its own small forest around it. It was the tallest tree in that forest, at fifty feet or so. But when it shook with nervousness at its own height, the trees around it stretched their boughs out and steadied it.
When, at last, insects hollowed the hemlock’s heart out, and a ranger came and cut the hemlock down, the trees around it murmured through the mycelium of its felling. They fed the old hemlock’s roots and sent it water, as if it were their own mother tree.
A boy stopped by the hemlock stump, where a red huckleberry bush was flourishing. He tilted his head to one side, struck by something or other, then scratched the dead bark with his pocket knife. To his surprise, he found not rot but a streak of living green.
You look like her, the old hemlock said.
Not hearing, the boy ate a sour red huckleberry and went wondering and whistling down the trail.
"Oh that was great," Maya says.
"That is the best tree point of view story since Ursula Le Guin's The Direction of the Road," he says, leaning back in his chair. "Wow. That is so good. E. Lily Yu is one of the best people writing at short lengths right now."
"You know what I was saying about Hugos and the Nobel prize before? That's another one," Maya says. "And you're not even complaining there wasn't any food!"
"Well, it was good enough I wouldn't even have noticed food," he counters. "I am getting a bit hungry though. How about seeing what we can find in the next book?"
"I just want to think about the tree and the forest and the sun and the way that people are part of everything for a moment," Maya says.
"So many things don't consider people as part of nature," he says, "And of course you are. Very arborial for a human! Delightful."
"We are," Maya says.
"Well I'm not exactly human," he says, picking up another book. "How about this? Naomi Libicki''s The Waning Moon and the Waxing Moon."
Maya takes the book, looking at him. He looks human. But he did come out of a book. But so has everything she's been eating for days. She wants to ask him how it works, but she also doesn't really want to know. She takes the book, and they read.