Angel Oak Tree
Photo by Andrew Shelley on Unsplash

The first time Gladys stood in front of the mirror and saw the woody knot of an ancient oak tree, they screamed.

The sound raked through their throat and bounced through the bathroom, ricocheting back into them. The knot sat along the thick curve of their belly, two inches above their belly button, dense and alien amidst their downy hair. They crumpled to the floor, hands cradling the knot, fingers grazing its rough surface. It was an intruder.

They often spent time looking at their body in the mirror, admiring the rolls of their stomach, their broadening shoulders, the way their hips had narrowed and almost disappeared. The knot hadn’t emerged gradually. It simply wasn’t there the night before and then it was there in the morning, right after the sun rose, right as they stepped out of the shower, still blurry with sleep.

After the initial shock died down, they bombarded the internet with searches.

Growth on stomach deadly? Hard stomach growth okay. Tumor that looks like bark. Bark-like skin? Side effect of testosterone bark-like injection site. Can you turn into a tree?

They thought of calling 911, but then thought better of it. What would they say? “Yes, operator, it looks like I have a tree growing out of me, should I go to the hospital?”

Even if the operator said yes, the last time they went to the hospital was when they’d had appendicitis. They’d spent twenty-four hours in excruciating desperation, trying to tell the ER doctors that no, there was no way testosterone would cause this radiating stomach pain. Finally, after hours waiting on tests and hours for an x-ray and hours for the doctor to just come back, to hear them, they finally had a sonogram that revealed that it was their appendix. No, the ER couldn’t do anything for them if they were turning into a tree.

Gladys was still on the floor when their phone rang. They blinked puffy eyes and looked at the ceiling. They weren’t going to answer. But then they glanced at the screen. When they saw their sister’s name, relief washed over them. Their sister was a nurse. She could help them, even if they had to couch their questions in bizarre hypotheticals.

Their voice was raw as they answered the phone, and they cleared their throat. “Laura, hey. What’s up?”

Laura didn’t respond immediately, silence hanging on the line between them.

“Lo? Are you there?”

“Glad, yeah, hey. Do you have a second?” Laura’s voice was thick. It was her serious voice, her bad news voice.

They stared at the pink bathroom wall and took a deep breath as panic shot through their gut. A hand moved to their stomach, fingers brushing the knot.

“Sure, Lo. What’s going on?” Gladys could feel their pulse beat in their stomach, an uneven thud.

“Nana Mia died this morning,” Laura said, her voice catching at the edge of the sentence.

Nana Mia, their great-grandmother, the matriarch of their family, mother of seven children, great-grandmother to dozens, the woman who had been ancient for as long as Gladys was alive, but powerful. Every holiday meal Gladys could remember, she would sit at the end of the impossibly long table, Gladys at her side. Her hand would be in theirs, slippery soft with bulging blue veins. She didn’t speak much, choosing instead to listen, to watch, always smiling gently. Of course, she would die one day, but Gladys could never imagine it. She was too vibrant, too alive, even as she neared one hundred. And now, she was gone.

Laura, one of the nurses of the family, had been in close contact with Nana Mia’s doctors, parsing and disseminating information to as many of them as she could.

“I’m so sorry, Gladys,” Laura said.

“I’m sorry too,” Gladys said, because there was nothing else to say. “Do they know why?”

“She had a stroke. It was quick, they said. One minute she was here, the next gone.” Laura cried in earnest then, and Gladys didn’t, instead staring at the tree knot on their stomach and wishing they could hold Nana Mia’s hand again.

That night, Gladys drank a bottle of wine, then lay on the bathroom floor with a second, back propped on the bathtub. The more they looked at the knot, the more the questions beat against their chest, heat pressing against their cheeks. So, now Nana Mia was dead, and Gladys was going to have cancer. Or turn into a fucking oak tree. How could they do that to their family, who was already going through so much? How could their body do that to them?

They took a swig of wine. They couldn’t go to a doctor. They couldn’t trust doctors. Doctors betrayed them too. Even their endo, who prescribed them the damn testosterone. He misgendered them in most appointments and made strange comments about their body, but they dealt with it, because it was worse to go through the hassle of finding another who would probably do the same anyway.

They couldn’t go to their family, who was in tragedy. They couldn’t go to their friends, because really, they didn’t have many friends, and the friends they did have were their coworkers, and they didn’t need to be fired for having a nervous breakdown. They were probably dreaming this anyway. Or hallucinating. Maybe grief caused hallucinations. Except the knot had been there before they knew she was dead.

They blinked, eyes heavy and blurred, and then they found themself in the kitchen. They turned on the sink to pour themself water, then they were teetering in the bathtub, holding the wine bottle in their left hand, and a kitchen knife in their right. They couldn’t remember if they were trying to kill themself.

No, they were going to cut the knot out. If they were hallucinating, or dreaming, they would wake up then. They would wake up, and the knot would have vanished, and Nana Mia would be alive, and they could call her, and ask her all the questions they still had. Did she have any regrets? What was her favorite memory of her parents? Did she ever love someone other than their great-grandfather? Had she ever become convinced she was turning into a tree?

They plunged the knife into the soft flesh of their stomach, dug in and around the knot, agony tearing through their body, blood pouring out onto their hands and bare legs. They cried with the pain, but they kept digging, cutting it out. It was a cancer, and they had to remove it. They would fix it. Fix it. They would fix it.

Gladys woke up sometime later, collapsed in the bathtub. The back of their head ached where it rested against the wall. Their stomach didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt at all except their mounting headache. That was it then. They were dreaming, and they had woken up. They looked down.

They were covered in blood, mostly dried now. It covered their hands, arms, torso, legs. Matted their body hair in bloody clumps. Underneath the blood, the knot was still there. It had grown, more of a protruding vine than a knot now, as if the act of severing it had encouraged the growth. As if they’d pruned it.

They stood on unsteady legs, turning the shower on to scalding. The water was red as it pooled in the bottom of the tub, then pink, then clear. When they had finished scrubbing their body, Gladys was faced with the new reality of their skin. Radiating out from the vine, where they had plunged their knife into themself, their skin had knit back together. Except it hadn’t. Except it was no longer their soft, doughy skin, but instead rough bark.

In a few weeks, the knot had exploded into vines. More of their torso was tree than not. In the morning, Gladys stepped out of the shower and stood in front of the mirror, watching the vines sprout from their skin. Thick and tangled, up their torso and around their shoulders.

The vines always grew in the night, but it felt scientific to note the growth. To watch it. To add purpose to standing in the bathroom, gawking at their own body in the mirror, naked and dripping from the shower. It made them feel in control. The vines had grown about a quarter inch in the night, they guessed. The bark that spread across their stomach and up towards their chest had grown too, maybe an eighth of an inch upwards. A quarter of an inch, an eighth, that was okay, they told themself. They were okay, they thought over and over.

They needed to go to a doctor, or a botanist.

They wanted to talk to Nana Mia, but she was gone. They wanted to talk to Laura, or their mother, but both were doused in grief, thrown into the chaos of funeral planning. Nana Mia had been cremated, and now came the logistics of planning an event the bulk of the family could attend. The funeral was the next day, longer after her death than was normal, but their extended family sprawled across continents, and entire contingents would be angry for decades were they excluded from honoring the beloved Nana Mia.

The only person left they could think of was Nana Colleen, their grandmother, who spoke even less than Nana Mia. She was a fit seventy-five-year-old who religiously gardened and speed-walked around the cemetery behind her home, and never had the patience for Gladys. Never had patience for anyone after raising her five kids. And yet, she always gave advice when she was asked.

But she had just lost her mother. Gladys couldn’t ask now.

They pulled on the tightest undershirt they owned, pulling the vines down into their body, then pulled overtop a baggy, bulky sweater. A bit of bark creeped at the edge of their neck, and they dabbed concealer over it. Their skin still looked lumpy underneath, but more rash-skin lumpy than bark-skin lumpy. It had gotten worse faster than they had imagined it would. The sweater could barely hide the shapes underneath. They called out sick from work.

Walking was harder. Their body was off balance. Suddenly top-heavy. They were dying. They knew that. Maybe they had been touched by some tree Midas, and instead of gold they were turning to bark, to branches, to earth.

They had a ham sandwich for lunch, eating it without tasting anything. Nana Mia used to make fun of Nana Colleen’s ham sandwiches. Give a condescending eyebrow raise.

“No mustard?” she would rasp.

“No mustard,” Nana Colleen would say. Voice sharp and impatient. Unyielding. “Eat it.”

“Ungrateful bitch,” Nana Mia would say, and they would both pause, then burst into laughter. No one made Nana Colleen smile the way Nana Mia could. Her grin seemed like it would rip her face apart. Their chorus of laughs were equally enormous, raspy and bellowing.

Gladys couldn’t imagine Nana Colleen without Nana Mia. Nana Colleen’s life revolved around Nana Mia. Fixing her meals, prepping her medication, knitting her bulky sweaters, shuttling her back and forth to doctor’s appointments.

What would she do now without Nana Mia? Who would she be now that she had fulfilled her role as daughter, a role that had extended for so many years longer than anyone expected?

Their apartment was cold. They were tired, even though they hadn’t done much the whole day. They collapsed into their sofa, weighed down by their torso. They forgot to turn off the lights as they walked in, but couldn’t bring themself to stand back up, so they sat in the cold brightness for an indeterminate amount of time. Their phone rang.

“Glad, are you almost here?” Laura’s voice was back to its normal cadence. Steady, deep, irritated at Gladys.

“Almost where?” Their brain was sluggish, trying to flip through commitments. The funeral was tomorrow, they were certain of that. They had dropped off a loaf of bread at Nana Colleen’s the day before, knocking and leaving it on the front stoop like a coward. They didn’t know what to say to her.

The day after it had all happened, still in shock from waking up in their own blood, from death cutting into their life like the kitchen knife, they had gone to a family gathering. Everyone wept except for Gladys and Nana Colleen. She had made eye contact with Gladys, but she hadn’t spoken to them. Her eyes were solemn, unreadable. She hadn’t spoken the whole day, and Gladys didn’t know what to say to her silence.

“At Mom’s? Did you forget? We’re having a family potluck for everyone from out of town. Tell me you didn’t forget.”

“Right, sorry, I’m almost there,” Gladys said.

Laura snorted.

“I am,” Gladys said, and pulled themself up off the couch, wobbling forward. They grabbed their bulkiest coat. “I don’t have any food, is that okay?”

“Yeah, Aunt Amber alone brought enough turkey to feed a hundred. Not to mention Cousin Patty’s lasagna,” Laura said.

The drive to their mom’s house was short, but finding parking was impossible. Their family was enormous, a battalion of Priuses and war-torn minivans taking every free spot on the block. They had to park two blocks away, trudging through the cold to their childhood home. They practiced what to say if someone tried to hug them. No, sorry, I’m sick. That’s not what anyone wanted at a pseudo-wake. No, sorry, I threw out my back. No, please, I’m turning into a tree, do not touch me.

Laura opened the door, her round face pink and swollen. She wore a clingy black dress that would have fit in at a club just as well as at a wake. They looked at their own sweater, a chunky black knit. Good, it was appropriate. They hadn’t thought about it.

“Thank god you’re here, Mom won’t stop crying into the shoulders of estranged relatives, and I can’t see her crying without crying, and I think if I cry any more, I’m going to kill myself.” Laura grabbed Gladys’s shoulder before they could stop her, narrowly missing their vines. “I need a smoke.”

And then she walked away, and Gladys was faced with a room of people related to them, by blood, marriage, choice, both untethered and rooted to the ground. All had been touched by Nana Mia’s mothering, all came to say goodbye.

They saw Nana Colleen across the room, sitting in a dining room chair by a swarm of Gladys’s cousins. The cousins all spoke, a cloud of sound that traveled out to the door. Nana Colleen turned, seeing Gladys, and she offered a small nod. It was so small, so restrained, that Gladys could barely keep themself from turning to leave.

They couldn’t be in a room with a version of their grandmother who was hollow. Who was someone else entirely. They wanted her smile to tear her in half. To tear them in half. To bring Nana Mia back from the dead.

Their mother was in the corner, crying on someone Gladys didn’t know, but who resembled their Uncle Mark. Nana Colleen turned to watch their mother, scowling. She hated crying. Always tsked at crying children or when Gladys’s mom cried at movies, rarely offered a hug of comfort. Nana Colleen didn’t cry.

The only time they remembered her getting close was when their Poppy had died, and Nana Colleen hadn’t spoken for a week, holding his wedding band in her hand like if she kept it for him, he would come back for it, and she wouldn’t have to be a widow.

Nana Mia had sat close to her daughter, humming a song that their Poppy used to sing, and laughed.

“He never could hold a tune, could he?” Nana Mia said, looking at Gladys and winking. Nana Colleen had cracked a smile at the ring.

“I wouldn’t have married him if he could,” Nana Colleen said, and it sounded familiar, like an inside joke Gladys could almost remember. But it didn’t matter if they could. It made Nana Colleen speak. Break her silence and become almost herself again.

The house was packed with people and food, the smell of cheese and meat and garlic almost overpowering. It made Gladys want a salad, which they doubted they could find in the piles of food. Salad wasn’t comfort food in the eyes of their family.

“Oh Gladys,” a second cousin, or was it first cousin once removed, said, peeling out of a conversation with their Uncle Trevor. “Isn’t it so terrible?”

She went in for a hug, and Gladys stepped back, catching her arms with theirs, keeping it an awkward forearm embrace.

“Yes,” Gladys said.

“And you were her favorite great-granddaughter,” Uncle Trevor said, his mustache dripping into his mouth.

Gladys stared at him, then smiled at their cousin, releasing her arms, and didn’t reply. They walked away, into the throng of relatives. They moved into what passed for a line for food and didn’t make eye contact with any of their relatives.

They heaped a plate with lasagna and ham and the mashed celeriac that a great-uncle behind them in line said he highly recommended. They sat in a corner, forking in mouthfuls, and wondering when they could leave. It was suffocating in this house, filled with so many people and so much grief. They longed for a gulp of fresh air.

When they finished eating, they went out to the backyard, sitting on the back step like they were eighteen again. They closed their eyes against the cold. It was dark, and no one else braved the backyard with them. It was quiet, and cold, and they leaned forward into their knees, the weight of the vines pulling them forward.

The backdoor creaked, but Gladys didn’t look at who was coming. It was probably Laura, cigarette in hand. A figure sat next to them, shivered loudly, gave a raspy wheeze. Gladys’s eyes opened, and they turned to see Nana Colleen, wrapped in one of Nana Mia’s enormous fur coats.

They didn’t say anything for a long moment, waiting for Nana Colleen, but she didn’t speak either.

“How are you doing, Nana?” Gladys asked, when they couldn’t bear it anymore.

“I’m alive,” she said, but didn’t elaborate.

“Yeah,” Gladys said, thinking of the bathtub, of blood, of the vines under their sweater, of Nana Mia’s love of blackjack. What if tomorrow, Gladys died, a tree rooted in their shitty apartment in their place? And no one knew why? Or what happened? And no one knew that Gladys had tried to fight it, to survive?

“You?” Nana Colleen said, her thin white hair blowing in the wind. She shuddered.

“I’m okay,” Gladys said first, then shook their head. The weight on their chest grew heavier. “I’m not. I’m not okay, Nana. I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

“Grief?” Nana Colleen asked, looking at Gladys. They shook their head, and her eyes narrowed. She hummed.

“I think I–” Gladys said, then stopped. They couldn’t say it. How could they explain it? They didn’t want to taint Nana Mia’s memory by losing their shit at the family potluck.

“Speak,” Nana Colleen said, her eyes still narrow.

“It started the day Nana Mia died,” Gladys said, and before they could finish, Nana Colleen was nodding. “No, I don’t mean grief. I mean, well, I probably should just show you.”

Nana Colleen was still nodding, a bobblehead, wobbling precariously on the stoop. “Show me then.”

They took her inside, slipped into their mother’s bedroom.

“It appeared the day she died,” Gladys said, unbuttoning their coat. They folded it, placed it on the bed next to their grandmother. Their hands trembled. Then, they pulled off their sweater, folded it, placed it atop the coat.

They looked down at their chest, their stomach, the vines straining against their undershirt. Rough, dark bark under their collarbone, the gnarled vines on their shoulders.

It was silent in the room. They expected a gasp, or an “Oh god, Gladys what did you do?” but they were met with absolutely nothing. Just their body in its monstrosity, just the rug under their feet.

Then their Nana Colleen sighed, and Gladys looked up at them. “I was about your age when my Poppy died, and my mother wouldn’t talk to me about it.” She gestured to Gladys’s chest. Gladys stared at her.

She unwrapped the fur coat from herself, revealing her bulky, grey handknit sweater. Then she pulled the sweater off. She wore an old-fashioned beige bra, but beyond that, her torso was unrecognizable as that of an old woman’s. It was bark, covered in dense moss, lush with bright green leaves.

“I thought it might be your mother next, but it skips generations sometimes. We don’t know why, we don’t know how. She wouldn’t talk about it much.”

It was the most Gladys had ever heard her speak at once.

“Have you told anyone?” she asked. Gladys shook their head. “Good, that’s good. Don’t.”

Gladys kept shaking their head. “Why haven’t you told us? Does Mom even know?”

Nana Colleen sighed again. “No, she doesn’t. None of them know. I think there’s one other in the family, here tonight, but I don’t know who. She told me once, but I can’t remember.”

Gladys sat on the bed next to their grandmother, tilting their head to look at her.

“I’m not dying, then,” Gladys said.

Nana Colleen barked out a laugh, her smile taking up her face again, just for a second, and she shook her head. “No, you aren’t dying. No more than anyone else. It’ll stop growing soon. Become easier to bear. Softer to touch.”

Gladys nodded. “That’s good, I think.”

They didn’t say anything for a while, looking at their grandmother’s hand on theirs, listening to her breathe next to them. “I tried to cut it out. It didn’t work.”

“It never does,” Nana Colleen said, her voice rough, and Gladys pictured her, young and beautiful as the pictures their mother had shown of her in her youth. Then they pictured her in her own bathtub, covered in her own blood, Nana Mia finding her limp, vined body.

“Yours appeared the day your grandfather died?” Gladys asked, her words finally clicking into place.

“It did,” she said. “It passed from him to me, and one day it will pass on from me.”

“Then this,” Gladys looked down at their vines, their throat tight, “is from her?” They couldn’t bring themself to say her name. They looked up at Nana Colleen, who nodded. “Oh.”

Nana Colleen lifted a bare arm and wrapped it around Gladys’s vined shoulders. “You look so much like her,” she said, and Gladys leaned into her, closing their eyes tight against the weight of the vines, of their great-grandmother’s memory. Nana Colleen’s bark-skin armpit was rough against them.

They pictured the last time they saw Nana Mia alive, sitting at the dining room table at Nana Colleen’s house. Gladys played Nana Colleen in backgammon. Gladys had won, and Nana Mia had laughed.

“They cheated,” Nana Colleen said, and Nana Mia laughed harder, shaking her head.

“One day, the young ones are old enough to beat us,” she said. “And that’s when we know they are ready.”

“Ready for what?” Gladys asked, but Nana Mia didn’t answer, just smiled and laughed.

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