The boy was only one-thousand, eight-hundred and twenty-five suns old when his first leaf, a true evergreen, was cut from his skin. The sun filtered through the glass in warped patterns that day, shining light sporadically around the pediatrics unit. The room was overzealously packed with positively charged colours, pamphlets, and posters showing happy little children with animated cartoon flowers growing from the tops of their heads, their smiles sincere and never ending. Brochures dedicated to depression littered the walls as well, with varying titles including The Grip of the Sun: A Bright Future Denied, Recognizing the Signs, Trome Care According to Host Plant Types, The 24th Century Family, and Learning to Grow; Adapting to Change in a Loved One, all careening their informative faces towards the couple in the center of the room.
‘This could have been much worse,’ the giant being slurred gravely to the humans before her. This Trome was derived from a banksia plant. Her right eye was covered by a hearty red and yellow flamed flower, and her mighty chin was nothing more than a furrow of tangled dark roots that bobbed up and down with her jaw as it moved.
‘As it is the trauma sustained will probably hinder leaf development for the rest of his life. Which in turn may lead to further complications as he grows.’
Sadly Maria the banksia had seen many cases like this abuse; many parents were unable to cope with having a child they saw as a second-class citizen. A tromo. With effort she quenched the anger that smoldered inside her. It was appalling. She looked down at the poor little sapling, still so sweet and fleshy. Trent, their son, was unconscious and worn. She watched the two drips from his monitor screen travel into the damaged limb where eventually the blood and sucrose washed together. Where eventually it didn’t matter. Maria sighed so deeply she felt it rattle around inside her like dried out skeleton leaves in the wind.
‘He still looks so normal . . . ’ Maude ignored the pointed glare she received for her comment and instead continued to look at her pale child, sprawled out on the sterilised white linen like a bundle of collapsed twigs.
‘How can this be happening to our boy, Hank? To us?’
Hank watched his finger tremble as he tenderly traced the thick, fleshy leaf he had chopped from Trent’s tiny wrist that day. Marred with blood and a hardening sap, Hank could not accept that the two had come from the same being, let alone his son. Hank shook his head. He was just trying to hang on to the boy he was. Should have been. Was that so bad? He couldn’t quite understand it all . . . he smudged the thick residues between thumb and forefinger again. They were one now, he thought with a frown. This was his son.
Maria, meanwhile, couldn’t help herself.
‘Ma’am, please. The metamorphosis of our species is a completely natural process, and may I remind you, has been so for hundreds of years now. Every human has the capacity for this genetically pre-determined condition. Without it the Earth would not get nearly enough of the oxygen it needs, it’s simply the world’s way of balance. It’s natural.’ The sun hung heavily on her words; it was all very true, so why did she always come out of such conversations feeling defeated?
‘I promise you, it’s the most natural thing in the world.’
The ghostly pair looked through her as she talked.
* * *
Two years had passed. In those orbits, seven hundred and thirty more suns had slunk over them all, claiming nearly 435 victims in their state alone, according to the talk show hosts.
‘The fact is it’s an alarming statistic. Out of 25% of the population committing this saddening act, nearly 85% of suicides are from Trome young adults alone. And it should be addressed: the amount of still-trees you see these days is absolutely heartbreaking.’ The replay of Dr Darwon Charlie stopped.
‘Well, no offense to our country’s leading Trome analyst,’ said Harry, ‘and I’m not a Tromophobe- BUT, now that most old time trees are extinct, fire wood’s gotta come from somewhere, doesn’t it?’
A woman snickered, ‘Oh Harry! You’re so bad- no honestly folks, there’s no containing this one.’
‘I am a bit of a fire- stoker . . .’ Hank could practically hear the grin in his voice. He cut the engine off on his car, the talking ceased.
‘Oh thank god! Just in time!’ Out of nowhere Maude was against the car door, duffel bag in one hand and her son in the other. She ushered both into the old sedan.
‘What’s happening?’ Hank turned to Trent, now in the backseat.
The buds that had been growing up and out of his neck had begun sprouting, Hank realised. They gently swayed as he shuffled over, little lime green passengers suspended in mid-air.
‘Dad, you need to take me to group social, we’re playing soccer today, I think.’ Trent’s hazel green eyes were lit up, this was his first social.
‘Is that wise?’ It was important for Tromes to socialise with their kind, Hank agreed, but it was hard for any Trome to walk at speed let alone run- the roots and fibers in their feet would instinctively tell their bodies to stop and taste the soil. Why do they humour this idea of normality? Of assimilation? It would only make Trent more upset later in life. Hank huffed.
‘I’m sure he will live, our baby can do anything any other little boy can, right honey?’ Trent looked at his mother. What an odd question. Trent could taste the quality of the soil simply by coming into contact with it. He swore he could feel the sun sing to him oddly at times in a distorted but comforting way, like through a shimmering body of water. He could sense the presence of another Trome, often from very far away, just because the roots in the grass and their feet were all somehow interconnected. Other little boys couldn’t do that. He considered this all for a while, long enough for him to see his mother’s confidence falter. So why was he the one who needed to keep up with other little boys then? Were these things bad? Were they his fault? Is that why his mother had worded it that way? The wind blew coolly, and the sun warmed up every little part of him that made him feel like he couldn’t communicate with her properly.
‘I guess, mum.’
‘Don’t forget to schedule in his next outing with the team leader, okay hun?’ Maude hadn’t realised she had been holding her breath until her chest fell heavily. Hank noticed too. Unfortunately so did Trent.
* * *
Larry must be very old, Hank thought as he watched the ten-foot high Trome make his way towards him later that afternoon. His long limber branches and their shimmering leaves dragged behind him on the ground as the weeping willow stomped his way over to them on thick, silvery stumps.
‘How’s it going, Trent?’ Hank cupped the back of Trent’s head as he walked towards the old Trome. Seven years old now and still it was a shock when he felt the hardness of forming roots hiding beneath his blonde buoyant curls. Masking his intake of breath Hank coughed and smiled. Trent stuck his tongue out at his mentor before holding his distorted, hard hand so tightly the wood in his fingertips creaked. From that very first day, Trent loved Larry. And being the smallest in the group, Larry looked out for him especially. For thousands of suns after, Trent was part of an active community. ‘If you dig your roots in deep enough, you won’t ever fall down.’ The old mantra was relayed always, letting them know they weren’t alone. Letting them know the call of the sun wasn’t the only thing on Earth that could keep them warm and whole. Oscar, a handsome boy with yew features, would sometimes try to make fun of Trent’s small foliage, and every time he did a snapping vine without fail would make its way to the youth with an audible smack. Strong and mysterious, Larry would wink at the stunned boys and lumber on. So when they received the call from the team leaders, begging the community to band together in this time of sadness, the family was in absolute shock. They visited his shell once, at his funeral. Along the riverbank Larry’s roots were already deep into the earth, his eyes shut forever and hardened over with a thick, deep bark. Trent became really upset when he couldn’t tell which branch was once his hand, he just had so many limbs now, so many it made all the parts that were once Larry lose meaning. The lake’s surface had sparkled like diamonds as the water churned below Larry’s final resting place, the reflecting light pierced the eyes of the funeral party as his body hung as it had in that final moment.
Wood, Hank decided that day, is no indication as to how strong a tree really is.
* * *
On his five-thousandth, four-hundredth and seventy-second sun, Trent was nearly fifteen. Gangly and undernourished, his leaf impediment had cost him dearly for all the nutrients he couldn’t soak up. His leaves, although now a beautiful deep jade, were warped. Different. It meant Trent needed more time to photosynthesise. Which of course was very, very dangerous.
‘It’s highly addictive. He mustn’t get lost in it,’ Maria was telling him at their tri-annual meeting. Hank was trying very hard to pay attention, but it was difficult after the ordeal he had just experienced.
Tromo. That’s what that stupid boy had called his son, before he had flung mud and god knows what else at him and run away. Tromo. Hank glowered darkly at the memory.
‘Tromes lacking experience can easily get swept away in the sun.’
- Those stupid little boys and their stupid words like axes. Hacking and slicing and cutting at his poor boy until there would be nothing left.
Hank had focused on wiping away the mud from Trent’s broad brow. The leaves on his face trembled uncontrollably, but Hank hadn’t said anything. Instead he took off his coat and tried draping it around the boy for comfort, not caring that it wouldn’t fit. Hank just had to do something.
‘Tromo. What a damaging, repulsive, abhorrent word.’ It made Hank sick. But most of all it made him livid. When he heard the word he saw his son in pain, labeled. Excluded. Hated and feared. It licked at his heart like a sharp, hot fire. Maria’s face became one of empathy almost instantly. She could guess what had happened.
‘What can we do for him? How do we stop this?’ Such words were lethal. His fists were as tight as they could be.
‘What can I do?’
Maria sat, glad that her banksia blossoms had bloomed early this season, that she had not pinned it back today with twine like she usually would have. She didn’t know how to answer that furious, powerless, frustrated glare. How do you change a whole society’s way of thinking?
‘Please Maria, what do I do?’ How do you accept the fact that your child would hurt for the rest of his life? Hank’s boney fingers ran through his thinning brown hair.
‘Watch him. Be ready. That’s all you can do.’
And that was all she could tell him. The bright posters of happy tree children grinned sadistically at the pair, the sweet stems blossoming exquisitely from their heads now a wonderfully cruel lie. Maria hid behind her flowers.
On Trent’s five-thousandth four-hundredth and seventy-seventh sun, he was lying at the park and the world was absolutely singing. Bright and chirpy, the star of life sprawled superfluously along the greenery like an unperturbed feline. Maude was extremely pleased with herself for forcing her son to be at this place. It had been exactly five days since the bullying incident had taken place, and finally, Trent was out of the house again. She told her friend as much as they watched Trent laying in the shade some distance off.
‘His wood is strong; it’s all that fleshy stuff underneath. The kid’s as soft as soil.’
Hailey the palm tree’s wood slunk up her slim torso like scales up her spine, until it reached the crescendo of pointed palm leaves atop her head, which flared out against the sky like malformed, jutted green wings. Nonchalant she slapped a fly off her hairy knee. Maude had met Hailey in some of Trent’s support groups, and instantly the pair had become friends. Hailey was brash and at times rather crude, but she was honest and decent. And Maude appreciated that most at a time where she felt all her other friends were stepping on eggshells around her when it came to her boy. They just didn’t understand.
‘You need to be made of tougher stuff to be a Trome. He needs to be sterner, or he’s just not going to make it,’ Hailey stated. Maude cringed.
A few yards away Trent thought he had heard a man sneer the word under his breath as he had walked past him. Absently Trent had been lacing his fingers along the roots on his arms, feeling for the fluffy organic fibers that grew from his hardening bark flesh. Not quite yet formed it was still very sensitive to touch. The underhanded comment was a rude awakening back into reality. Dismally Trent watched the old man walk off along the path without a second glance back, just another nameless, angry person. Slowly Trent pulled up his long sleeves until they covered all the skin along his skinny arms, the grey material sticking up awkwardly and obviously in places, to his anxiety.
‘Trent, what are you doing, that looks horrible! Roll your sleeves back up.’ His mother laughed at him as she walked over with Hailey.
Maude saw her son’s face scrunch up like foil before he turned and skulked off, and her heart scrunched up with it.
But he was already so much further than his legs could have taken him.
* * *
That night Trent dreamt vividly he was talking with Larry.
‘It’s hard, especially when you can feel a way out on your leaves- when you can taste it,’ Larry was saying, his vines restlessly meandering along the grass.
‘But life is a gift.’ His familiar large blue eyes pierced Trent’s muddy green ones, trying to find anchor and resonance until Trent wanted to cry. He missed those eyes.
‘Not for us,’ Trent heard his voice tell him.
‘Especially for us.’ But the old Trome was now a skeleton. His brittle, stretched bones were locked away in the confines of rough decaying bark, his many leaves flowed out of their branch sockets rapidly like fine dried ash in the wind.
Perspiring wet, Trent woke up.
* * *
The world revolved. The way it always had and would always continue to do. In the yard alone the next day, Trent was thinking about how everything was interconnected. Trent was thinking about balance. He closed his eyes and listened to the heartbeat of the Earth. Breathing himself, he too was a miracle. The soil beneath his crusty hands melted away at his touch. Inside Maude was watching a rally on television, the volume just audible.
‘If history has taught us anything, it is that assimilation is just another word for segregation- if we really want to achieve progress like the state claims it does, we should be looking for ways to facilitate them into our society, renegotiate what it means to be normal and recreate this world to include them as well. What kind of future can we offer them when they are viewed as non-citizens? When there is no future?’
The man stepped off the podium, the crowd threw flowers off of their very own heads at him, the sea of limbs cheered. After a hiccupped laugh and a moment, Maude cried. Outside all exhaled and Trent exhaled with it. He closed his eyes and opened them again, finally as clear as the sky. Hank pulled up outside and cut the engine. On Trent’s five-thousandth, four-hundredth and seventy-eighth day the world spun on its axis and the sun shone like a promise.