Copyright J.A. Pak

The Daphnes Tree

A neglected Daphnes tree aches. Its desire is incomprehensible. Psychic roots reach out across the universe. Are you the one to answer its cries?

Pellar looked over the caught prey.

Dance, the caught prey, begged Pellar to cut her out. ‘If you don’t have a knife, there are plenty in that small bag over there. Use the one in the front left pocket. Latest model. Laser blade seals so quick, plant won’t feel a thing. Just, please, hurry. I — I can’t breathe.’

Pellar did not move. ‘I’m not so stupid I’d go around without a knife. Who are you?’

‘My name’s Dance Fei. I’m an engineer. Not a thief.’

‘Possible, probable, to be both. Your credentials in your bag?’

‘Yes. Front flap. Please. Cut me out.’ The plant’s feelers had her bound to the ground, thin tendrils wrapped intimately a hundred times around her arms, legs, neck. She was convinced a tendril was roaming inside her chest, strangling her guts.

‘Don’t panic. That’s the worst thing you can do. Relax and the kellis won’t hurt you. Panic, and the kellis will think you like to play hard.’

‘Kellis? Is that what this thing is called? Is it trying to eat me?’

‘No. Not carnivorous. The plant just likes to have a bit of fun from time to time. Especially with strangers. It will release you. Eventually. Whether the eventuality is an hour or a year?’ Pellar scanned the intruder’s credentials with a microwrist. The Federation portal purred back a confirmation. ‘Hm. Tree engineer. All in order.’

Dance’s skin was starting to itch. She was fighting every impulse in her body not to kick and scream. To be tied and bound was her worst nightmare. She’d been like this for two hours. Eternity.

‘You will cut me out?’ Dance said to Pellar, trying to seem calm.

Pellar sat down next to Dance’s head. ‘Cut a kellis? The kellis have long memories. Which they share. I wouldn’t survive my next walk if I cut a kellis. Birds, insects, fungi all listen to the kellis. Its fingers can fly a thousand miles into the sky faster than a fleeting thought.’

‘Are you just going to sit there and watch me die?’

‘No. I’m going to sing.’ Pellar’s raspy voice started cat’s cradling a tune. A familiar tune but with Pellar’s words: ‘This is what you do when caught by a kellis. One song and then another until you find a melody the kellis likes. Sing. Come join me. It will remember your voice. See. Sing. Already its arms, fingers are relaxing. It likes your voice. It will remember you. It will treasure you. Sing.

The seduced kellis shrank away. Not even the slightest sign that it’d been there at all.

‘Sit up slowly,’ Pellar instructed, the deep alto voice still sing-song. ‘How do you feel?’

‘Better.’ She could breathe again. ‘Much better.’

‘Try standing up.’

Dance was unsteady, her limbs numb.

‘You’ll be fine. Just take it easy for the next twenty-four hours. Best to take a long nap. Have a light dinner. Here. Take your bags. Now. Get off my property.’

‘You’re Pellar Truce.’ Dance was talking to Pellar’s back. She had to run to catch up with the fast-moving body. ‘I’m here to see your Daphnes. Your Daphnes tree called to me. Please. Let me see your Daphnes.’

‘I can’t pay you.’

‘I’m not surprised. Is your tree producing any lights at all?’

‘Not your business.’

‘It is. Your Daphnes tree wants me.’

‘But I don’t want you.’

‘I won’t leave until you let me examine the Daphnes. I came all the way from X-Pheobus and I won’t leave until I’ve checked out your Daphnes. I haven’t filed a report but I will. Complete with complaint.’

Pellar stopped walking and looked right into Dance’s eyes. ‘Examine the Daphnes. Then leave immediately. There are worse things than a kellis.’

The Truce Light Co had one of the oldest converted Daphneses still living. The tree was over a thousand years old, and the conversion over three hundred. The formidable plant sat inside a gigantic greenhouse, a cocoon of crystal and blue steel.

‘So, you’re the one who keeps calling me,’ Dance said to the tree. Dance had answered the call and now the two were forever bound. She felt the tree with her hands, caressing the bark. ‘You are magnificent. There, there, I know you hurt. Let’s take a look at you and see what I can do to help.’

She quickly changed into her treesuit, sealing herself from head to toe, then checking three times (rituals, superstitions) to make sure all the safety protocols were met. There were toxic fumes to worry about, as well as the sap, which could cause a gruesome death. Dance didn’t think the tree was in as bad a shape as that but it was best to seal oneself up securely before the first entry into a Daphne. Even a healthy Daphnes could reject you.

She climbed the tree. The entry was encrusted with debris. This was the hardest moment, finding that courage to begin.

Dance catalogued each piece of debris before tossing it into a bag. It was slow work and took over an hour. At last the entry was clean and the hatch operable. Dance took a deep breath. Her body had to be calm so she could receive the tree. Slowly, delicately, Dance inched her way in. There was always this period of adjustment before she could find her rhythm: she had to listen to the Daphnes, the sensors of her treesuit, which was constantly recording, warning, guiding. A pulsing universe Dance’s brain must organize as she felt every part of the Daphnes.

Pellar never left Dance alone with the tree, watching, waiting, Pellar’s body tense with anger, frustration.

More than half the day had balled away before Dance reemerged. She climbed back down, her movements reminiscent of a squirrel.

‘Please show me the lights,’ she commanded.

Pellar wanted to slap the girl. Before Pellar could do so, the Daphnes groaned and a light came down the conveyor belt.

The light was a small blob, not the healthy sphere it should be. It was also squishy. A light should be soft, malleable, but not squishy. Dance measured its energy output. It fluctuated between one and five. Unstable and useless except as an incidental ornament.

‘How often does the tree produce?’ Dance asked.

‘Depends. The tree’s always been cranky. Irregular and unpredictable.’

‘I can have a complete report for you by tomorrow. But here’s the preliminary diagnosis. You’ll have to shut down for at least six months. A lot of parts have to be replaced. There are bits and pieces that have completely fused with the tree — we’ll just have to leave them there and hope for the best. Your last engineer did a lot of workarounds, which would have been fine if you’d done the real work immediately after. Now, it’s just caused a lot more problems. The log says the tree hasn’t even had a cleaning in twenty years. I’m surprised there isn’t sap contamination. Working full time, I estimate that I can restore the Daphnes to full capacity in three years.’

‘I can’t pay you.’

‘Room and board until you can.’

‘You must be one lousy engineer if this is the only job you can get. Just barely passed your exams, did you?’

‘Look at my credentials again. You’ll see I’m a P-2 engineer. I’d be P-5 if all of my work experience counted. But only officially registered guild work counts, and you can’t register until you’ve gone through the entire program, which I did in less than three years. I’ve been around Daphnes trees all my life. My grandmother was a Grand Master Daphnes engineer. I’ve been healing Daphnes trees since I can remember. Your Daphnes called to me.’

‘I can’t afford to shut down for six months. Twenty percent of the harvest is still saleable. I need that money just to pay off the interest on all the loans.’

‘Your Daphnes is ancient. One of the oldest around. Daphnes trees like yours can get fat grants if you can prove that you’re maintaining your tree. I can get us those grants. And as for parts, your tree doesn’t need the latest tech. I can buy parts five, ten years old for cheap. I have a friend who’ll sell me most of it practically at cost. Del has a soft spot for ancient history. Del will even deliver it personally because Del will want to see the tree, I’m pretty sure. I’ll draw up the contract now and we can register it with the guild this evening. When’s dinner?’

Dinner was replicator beans and franks. Pellar didn’t say a word all evening. Neither did Dance. Both had much to think about.

Pellar’s plan was to sell the Daphnes. Or drive the company so into debt, Pellar could file for bankruptcy and run away. Let the little girl engineer tinker with the tree. In a couple of months, the girl will admit defeat and Pellar could tell the creditors, ‘See. I did my best. Even a brilliant tree engineer couldn’t salvage this beast of a tree. Take the tree. Sell it to a museum. Let me go.’ Pellar had come to hate the Truce Lighting Co.

And, yet. What would life be without the Daphnes tree?

The tree as childhood friend.

The tree as consoler of heartbreaks.

Dance was inside the tree all day long. She only ate two meals: breakfast and dinner (she had a hearty appetite and ate everything). Dance even slept at the base of the tree, cuddling up against a huge foot. Pellar could see that Dance was becoming the Daphnes tree.

‘It’s like that,’ Dance explained. ‘Engineers, I mean really good tree engineers, become one with their trees. The tree seeps into you. Psychically and physically. You breathe the tree, and, of course, the tree breathes you in. And you exchange all these microorganisms. They say engineers even begin to smell like a Daphnes, nutmegy and cinnamony. That’s why it’s so important that you’re right for the tree. Why a tree, like this Daphnes, will be so choosy in who they call, who they want. They’ve had a lot of lousy experiences, this tree.’

‘So all you engineers can hear trees calling to you?’

‘No. Only true healers, ones with the calling can hear trees. Admittedly, it’s all controversial and not part of the official program. It’s clear your last engineer did not have the calling because they didn’t listen to the Daphnes at all. Or they were a complete sadist. It makes the work easier, if you listen to the Daphnes. The tree tells you all sorts of things. They have a memory, and the memory is part of what you breathe in. What you learn is incredible, although so much isn’t something you can comprehend, not in a human way. And I think the tree takes you in too, your memories and feelings. I mean, it really is a complete exchange of being. And this weird thing happens because I have other Daphnes trees inside me and it’s like the trees are talking to each other, comparing notes, gossiping, sometimes about me, exchanging ideas, sympathizing, like I’m really just a conduit and — ’

‘What happens if you let the tree alone?’

‘Don’t maintain a Daphnes? Sadly, the trees die. It’d be nice to think they’d revert back to their original state, but you can’t go back. The trees are not what they once were. They’ve become a complete, new entity. Metamorphosed like a butterfly from a caterpillar. I mean, you can’t ask a butterfly to go back to being a caterpillar. There have been efforts but I have never heard of a successful reconversion. It doesn’t seem right, does it? We should leave the trees as they are. No need to make money off everything, right? Oh. By the way, the Daphnes thinks you’re a cranky ass too. You were much nicer as a child. But the tree still loves you.’

‘The tree told you that?’

‘Well, not in words. I’m translating.’

The Daphnes trees, in their natural state, produce sap that ball into pure light sources. Renewable, easily degradable light sources that can last 50+ years. But the fresh sap is highly toxic, and it can take a year for it to ball up into anything truly safe and useable. In the Hetmahr process, the tree is turned into a living factory. Mechanical elements are grafted deep into the tree. In this way, the sap is directly milked and processed before ever leaving the tree. Safe, clean, profitable.

Only thirty-eight percent of Daphnes trees are successfully converted. The rest die in agony.

Every fifth day Dance took a break. She’d never been to this planet before, or even this solar system. The planet was so pink and lavender, the atmosphere thick and hazy. Like being caught in a turbid dream. She explored alone, sometimes going into the nearby town to pick up supplies or just sit at a cafe and think. She often thought about Pellar, who’d inherited a hoary company and a cranky tree. Inheritances were costly. To the soul.

It would have been hard not to notice that Pellar was built a lot like a solid tree, and even talked like a tree, more with energy than with words. Dance didn’t care. She didn’t like talky people. Talky people wanted lots of nice talk about lots of nothing things. Dance’s conversations with Pellar were about one thing: the Daphnes. They were both now part of the Daphnes tree. While Dance worked inside the tree, Pellar worked outside, cleaning the glass house, the workspace, preparing meals. Dance’s energy was contagious. Pellar’s father had had that same energy. But he’d been a lousy businessman and watching his struggle had poisoned Pellar. Well, Pellar was no different. Lousy at loving the tree, lousy at biz. It was strange, the idea of being lousy at love. Wasn’t love just love? Surely, a tree understood that.

Dance was true to her word. Six months and the tree was producing again. The quality of the lights was improved. Not Grade A but Grade C, which would bring in okay money. Another three months and the lights were Grade B.

‘Good shape, nice energy,’ Dance said. ‘But we can get the size up. And I know we can get the shape lovely enough for displays. It already has a wonderful lustre.’

‘We’ve never done better than grade A. And that was too long ago to remember when.’

‘We can go Superior Grade. I know it. And look at the marbles.’ Dance pointed to the gravely by-products the tree was spitting. ‘People would pay top dollar for jewelry made from these. Look at the beautiful striations. The colors are all mother-of-pearl-y.’

There was a future. All Pellar had had before was a hiding from.

Pellar began redesigning all the packaging. New logo, labels, cartons. Bold, modern, optimistic, inspired.

Two years went by and the Truce Lighting Co was being invited to prestigious industry shows. Their Daphnes tree featured in magazines.

‘You’re not an engineer,’ Pellar said to Dance. ‘You’re a wizard.’

Dance laughed. She hadn’t changed. She still spent most of her days inside the tree. She still slept at the tree’s base, cuddling the same foot. Pellar had to admire that. They no longer ate replicator food but elaborate meals Pellar made. There were gifts too for Dance. At trade shows, Pellar bought Dance expensive foods, latest tools — whatever Pellar thought Dance would like. If Dance was taking care of the Daphnes, Pellar would be sure to take care of Dance. Pellar took pride in that.

And then the three years became five and Dance knew the Daphnes no longer needed her.

‘You’re leaving?’ Pellar said. There was this feeling. It was hard to breathe. Like the tendrils of a kellis were strangling Pellar’s heart.

‘It’s always sad, the end of jobs. But the Daphnes is strong. It’s time for me to heal other trees. I hear so many voices calling.’ The thought of new projects excited her. That’s what she craved: new trees, new places, new challenges, new stories. She was born a wanderer.

‘I want you to stay,’ Pellar said. ‘I have the money now to pay you whatever you want.’

‘You know it’s not about money for me, Pellar.’

‘I’ll give you half the business.’

‘Pellar. You and the Daphnes will be fine. The tree just needs yearly maintenance. I’m leaving you a list of names. Engineers I would trust with my life.’

‘Well, then. Go.’

‘If the Daphnes needs me, I’ll feel it and come as soon as I can. You know that.’

Their last dinner together was beans and franks. Dance laughed. They also had a glass of wine, which was not at the first dinner. Dance didn’t like to drink alcohol, but she indulged Pellar. The tannins of the wine left an unpleasant smear on her tongue. She rinsed her mouth out with cold water and then went to sleep with the Daphnes. Their last night. ‘We’ll never be apart — never truly,’ she said to the tree as she fell asleep, a lump in her throat. She always forgot how hard it was, the goodbyes. On last nights, Daphnes trees vibrated with something like mental tears.

Her sleep was deep and hard. Pellar had put a sleeping pill in her wine.

Pellar stood above the sleeping Dance. Their hands were touching the tree.

‘Well, we know what we have to do,’ Pellar said to the tree. ‘If we don’t want her to leave. And I know you don’t want her to leave. I know you love her. I love her too. It’ll only hurt for a minute or two. And then she’ll be with us forever.’

Pellar scraped the tree with a sharp steel knife. A small chunk of the heavy bark fell off. Then sap began to ooze. All over Dance’s sleeping body. Within hours, Dance had freeze-dried. A few more days, a thin layer of bark had covered the body. Dance was grafting into the tree.

Pellar took to sleeping at the base of the Daphnes. Dance was wrong. It wasn’t nutmeg, the elusive musky smell of the Daphnes bark. Closer to feathers of paradise.

A version of this story was first published in Across the Margin.

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J.A. Pak

J.A. Pak

Literary, culinary, whimsical, fantastical. Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions nominee; work in The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy, Litro, Joyland…

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