by Ray N. Franklin
I saw Mori one morning in early summer when I first opened my eyes. I had made camp in the dark the night before, taking this place to be a protected hollow surrounded by dense shrubs. One of those shrubs was not as it had then seemed.
He sat upon a fantasy bench made of living vines. A dozen vines, each twice as thick as my thumb, had been bent and woven into unbelievable shapes. They arced from the ground, making a springy base. On the seat, the vines were sinuous snakes, joined to their neighbors at peak and valley. The back was a fine lacework of twigs outlined with bold, solid strokes. From the top edge of the back the vines folded backwards again, arching up and over the bench, recombining into three thick trunks. Further up they all branched into a looping, green, leafy canopy that covered the bench and beyond. The canopy extended well out behind the bench and down almost to the ground. It blocked the morning sun, casting a dappled shadow over most of the bench.
He wore sturdy work clothes and a wide-brimmed hat. He leaned back into the bench, completely at ease; his rough hands folded upon his lap, looking directly at me, in silence, a slight smile upon his lips.
His skin was much lighter than my own. Although close to a proper brown, it had a slightly yellow tinge. His hair was black, straight and supple. He was clearly not of Sunari. My people are a dark greenish-brown with short brown fur on our heads. I knew four alien species that visited and sometimes resided in Datholm, but none that looked like him.
Partly unzipping my sleeping bag, I sat up, returning his stare. I kept my left hand in the bag and quietly loosened the knife in its scabbard.
He said something in an unfamiliar language. I rocked my head side-to-side, no. He picked up a smart phone from the bench seat, tapped it several times, smiled and spoke in Datch.
I bobbed my head. He slowly pulled his jacket open so I could clearly see the inside pocket, reached in, pulled out a brightly colored package and held it up for me to see. I recognized it as a popular brand of protein bar. He tossed it and I caught it with my right hand. Then he folded his hands again and watched.
I took my left hand off the knife and tore open the wrapper. My first bite took off a quarter of the bar. I was indeed hungry having stretched a small tin of fish and two stale dinner rolls over the past three days. My choice of homelessness often presented a tradeoff between freedom and food.
When I had finished the bar, he reached up into the canopy and plucked a red melfrit, which he tossed my way. I held it to my nose and inhaled the sharp, solvent tang of mountain air. I slid backwards in time, recalling a special birthday treat when I was a young girl. It was perfectly ripe–sweet at the first gush of juice, and then marvelously tart. Though still hungry, I took my time, tasting each bite slowly and fully. Then I got out of the sleeping bag, reseating my knife while it was still hidden from his view. I felt more comfortable with him, but kept my guard up.
He remained seated while I rolled up the bag, stowed it and closed my pack. Sitting beside my gear I pointed at the bench.
“Did you make that?”
He picked up his phone, tapped the screen and mimed that I should ask again. I did and he smiled and nodded his head, tipping it forward and backward twice. I must have looked puzzled. Then he smiled again and bobbed his head.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, and I heard his phone say something unintelligible in that standard computer voice they all have. He replied to the phone in his strange language.
“Thank you. Would you like to shower?”
With that he pointed toward the opening of the hollow, stood up and began walking. I slung my pack onto one shoulder and followed. Nearby was a four-wheel utility vehicle on a well-worn track. He motioned me to take the passenger seat on the left. I tossed my pack into the back and climbed in beside it. From the driver’s seat, he glanced back and smiled again.
He swung the electric vehicle around and followed the track to the north. For several minutes I gazed open-mouthed at ever more fantastical structures sculpted out of living vines, shrubs and trees. There were walls of vine with strange creatures leaping over them, single trees with trunks that flared out into cages of many branches before rejoining into a single trunk again, and groups of trees whose trunks all joined together into open lattices and weaves. As he drove I noticed the trees becoming younger and smaller, incomplete sketches of what they might become.
Soon we came to a modest farmhouse. He drove the little truck under a pole-supported roof and stopped. We got out and went inside. It was a small house. The front room adjoined the kitchen. He walked down a small hallway, opened the door at the end and stepped back, pressed against the wall.
“Here is the bathroom. I will be outside,” his phone said.
The hall was narrow and I would be close to him as I passed, so I kept the pack between us, my left hand free, near the knife.
He remained stock still as I walked by. After I closed and locked the door, I heard him walk back down the hall. The entry door squeaked as he closed it and the latch clicked home. I realized that I was stealth-breathing and tensed for battle.
Will it always be like this?
I shook out the tension in my shoulders and back. The hot shower felt wonderful.
After showering I left the bathroom and found an empty house. I walked out the front door and saw no one. Then I began to wander. A few sheds sat here and there. A small garden plot was filled with healthy vegetable plants bearing produce, some nearly ripe.
Behind the house was an old twisted tree, actually a small grove of them, all woven together into a giant, circular lattice. It was partially hidden by randomly placed shrubs arrayed in a large circle several meters from the trunks. The bark was smooth and silvery, the trunks thicker than a hand-span, and the openings twice that big. Above my head, branches sprouted out of the lattice joints, like little puffballs of leaves. Walking around it I came upon an oval opening in the side. It was framed by trunks and seemed so natural that I barely noticed how it was joined to the lattice. Smaller branches over the opening twined together making a green, leafy, arched roof over the entrance.
I stepped across the threshold and entered a room unlike any other. The floor was thick with cool grass. The walls were both substantial and insubstantial, looking and feeling massive and unmoving, but letting in an indirect light that filled the space with the glow of a million fireflies. I heard an absence of noise, but a distinct sound of tranquility, like a muffled chorus of burbling brooks, dashing waterfalls, wind-dancing trees, wave-washed gravel beaches, and tumbling sand dunes. Overhead, at the end of the silvery tunnel, was a canopy of lacy green dotted with blue sky.
I sat down cross-legged in the middle and closed my eyes. It was the most peaceful experience I had ever had. After some long and delicious minutes, I opened my eyes, arose, and reluctantly left that sanctuary.
Resuming my wandering search, I eventually came across the greenhouse. Movement inside caught my eye and I found the door and entered. Mori saw me, smiled and motioned me over. As I watched, he used a small knife to nick the bark of a slim sapling in three places. Then he tied a small, bent strip of wood to the stem, gently folded the stem along the brace and tied them together at top and bottom. The nicks, which were on the outside of the curve, were slightly opened and filling with tiny beads of sap. With one finger, he dabbed a bit of sticky poultice onto each cut. Then he covered all three with a freshly picked, long leaf and wrapped it with a bit of rag loosely tied in place.
Mori put the cap back on the tin of poultice and turned away. I looked around and saw many other saplings bent at various angles and similarly adorned with curved braces, strings and rags. Near the door the trees had no braces and the bent bark was fully healed.
A sharp crack sounded behind me and before my thoughts had begun to turn from the wonders of the marvelous, potted forest around me, I had drawn my knife, whirled about, crouched, and rolled onto the balls of my feet, ready to pounce and strike.
Mori faced me, frozen, some few paces away, in front of an old wooden cupboard, its warped and poorly fitted door still shaking from the slap of closing. I quickly stood, babbled profuse apologies as I blanched, and ran from the greenhouse.
Days later, when I was over the worst of my shame–Mori had been every bit as kind and welcoming as when we first met–I was in the greenhouse to take some of the finished trees out to where Mori was preparing for planting. I saw long lines of weather-stripping around the cupboard doors. I pulled one open and then pushed it past the self-closing hinge’s tipping point. The door rushed shut and quietly thumped home.
Inosculate is one of those odd human words for which we have no equivalent in Datch. A literal translation works out to ‘joined with a kiss.’ The essence of it is to fuse two limbs so they grow together as one. I call it the twisted kiss.
When I understood the idea I spotted it twice in wild plants on Mori’s property. It is rare, but it does happen. Mori says Sunarian plants resist inosculation better than Earth plants. There’s a thin, tough, and slippery layer of dead sclerenchyma cells between the bark and cambium. Two branches rubbing together must break through that layer on each branch so the cambium cells can join and grow together. Usually, in natural conditions, only one layer breaks, the tissue heals and no joint forms. Earth plants lack this layer.
Mori used inosculation to sculpt living wood. It takes years and he developed a long list of techniques to bend, twist and join the limbs. Once the kiss is set, it grows, expands and strengthens with the passing years. Soon it is as strong as any ordinary forked branch.
Our plants are actually better for this than Earth trees because ours are mostly evergreen. He says Earth has a large tilt to its axis and snow is common in winter. Their deciduous trees lose their leaves and go dormant for months. The spin axis of Sunari is also tilted, but only twelve degrees. Our seasons are milder and many plants grow year-round. I’ve only seen snow once, during a special siege training exercise in the far north, and I don’t miss it.
Two months after we met, I knew as much as Mori did, for he gladly taught me everything. I was not so adept as he, but my skills improved with practice. He encouraged me to create my own arboreal expressions, and I did.
I found I truly liked the work. It was peaceful, satisfying, and more importantly, safe. Trees didn’t lunge at me with knives, shoot at me, or explode in my face.
So I helped him with the twisting work, maintenance of the property, errands, and housekeeping. He gave me a room of my own in the house and a phone. We prepared and shared meals together. As we both learned each other’s languages, we conversed more, though we still had many silent meals.
“Are you happy, Tilon?” Mori asked me in his strangely accented Datch.
I bobbed my head and kept my eyes on the inosculation I had almost finished.
“Sometimes you call out while you sleep. It sounds, tense.”
I tied a strip of rag around the fresh joint of abraded twigs and poultice. There were two more inosculations to make and each would require a ladder. I turned to face Mori, who seemed eager to talk.
“You are military, aren’t you, Tilon?”
“Yes. Is this the topic for today?” I asked in his harsh, human language.
“Have you a better one?”
“Most aliens who visit Sunari land in Datholm. We are the most powerful, prosperous and open nation on Sunari. The visitors see the sights, gawk at our strange ways, and leave. But you, Mori, have stayed. Why did you come to Sunari?”
He looked at me for a long while, as though looking beyond at something far away.
“I like your trees,” he said.
I turned away and picked up the ladder.
“I don’t believe you, Mori. You could have taken photos and returned home. Any number of people would have gladly arranged to ship several tons of our soil, seeds, and saplings anywhere within the Galactic Collective for your own private arboretum. But you don’t want to return home. I think you ran away.”
He smiled then, and I knew he would not take the bait.
“How long were you in the military?”
I setup the ladder, climbed it, and began work on another inosculation. There would be no topic of conversation that day.
“Mori, I’ve been thinking,” I said on a late-summer day, during morning brulage, a deep red Sunarian beverage with ample stimulants.
“Always risky, that,” Mori said.
“Your twistings have no pattern.”
“Twistings; is that what you call my trees?”
“Do you have a better word?”
“Not really. I just make them. I don’t define them.”
“Would you prefer kissings?”
“No. Let’s use twistings.”
“I think the twistings need structure. I have a plan and I want to have a say in where each one is planted now.”
“Oh you do, do you? And what is this great plan?” Mori said.
I leaned back in my chair, the brulage mug held close to my chest in both hands.
“I’ll tell you my plan, after you tell me why you ran away from Earth.”
“Ah, the tit for tat. The fair trade.”
“If that’s the way you want to think about it,” I said.
“In truth, I prefer not to think about it at all. Let’s just say I won’t tell you about my past and you won’t speak of your plan.”
Sometimes, Mori would be gone when I awoke to begin a new day. He always returned just before supper. When I asked where he had been, he gave some lame excuse like errands–even though both his vehicles had been parked in their assigned places all day–or spiritual time.
Needing to know what he was doing, I put myself on high alert–not a big change, to be honest. The next time he crept out of the house just before dawn, I was following.
He walked north, carrying his twisting toolbox. I stayed well behind until the trees and shrubs grew closer. At first, the trees were all normal, just natural specimens. But then it all changed.
Each twisting was a thing of terror. One looked like a human, bent, broken, and pulled apart. Another was a monster unlike any ever imagined on Sunari, but evil looking and frightening nonetheless. Mori set his toolbox down beside one that was clearly unfinished.
I was baffled that this man, who had been so open, accepting, and caring towards me, could harbor such visions. Then a shaft of sunlight broke through and illuminated his face. That dark and angry visage explained the monsters in the grove better than any words ever could. That was when I understood how dark was Mori’s secret and why he was so reluctant to reveal it.
As he went to work, I turned around and crept silently back the way I had come. I said nothing about his absence that day, nor on any other day he went to the grove of terror.
At times we had the same light mood and then work became play. We joked, made fun of each other, showered ourselves with glittering sprays of water, and generally behaved like children. Those were the times I took photos of Mori and his twisted trees. They show silly faces or him standing stiffly in mock seriousness. I have only a few images of us together. The composition is usually poor–I just propped my phone against something convenient–but each one has become a favorite.
He had resisted my every attempt to pry into his past. I was reluctant to press harder, suspecting trouble if I pushed him too far, but the desire to know kept gnawing at me. We were at an impasse and as the fall days grew shorter and more brisk, as plant growth became sluggish, there would be no more twisting of trees until spring.
It was Mori’s birthday and after supper I brought out the hidden cake I had purchased in town. I’m neither a baker nor a good cook–that’s men’s work. Mori was surprised and happy. He cut it and served the pieces. Afterwards, he got a bottle of alcohol from his room and set it on the table, with two glasses.
“This is Scotch,” he said.
It was an untranslatable word. We have plenty of alcoholic drinks of our own, but nothing like this Scotch. It was smoky, harsh, and somehow smooth. I decided I liked it. I also learned it was a deceptive and beguiling drink.
After several rounds, we were, as Mori put it, “in our cups.” Mori was hunched over the table, hands cradling his glass, which held a tiny dollop of liquor. I remember being more upright, but increasingly loose.
“Tilon, is your society matriarchinal?”
“Don’t think we’re any kind of argynle,” I replied.
“No, no. Do women rule your society?”
“Of course. How could it be any other way?”
Mori smiled, as though he had a secret, which he did.
“Humans had both,” he said, cryptically.
“We had societies ruled by men and some by women.”
“Scandalous,” I said and emptied my glass with one sip, which surprised me.
“Now women and men share equality in the leadrash, leadorsh, rule, of our one-world sociality.”
“Scurrilous,” I replied. I poured more Scotch and got some in my glass.
“Because it’s wrong,” I said. “Womanifest destiny. That’s how it should be.”
“Only women in the military?”
“Naturally. Women are bigger. Stronger. Better.”
“So who makes the babies?”
“Women, but men breastfeed and take care of the li’l monsters.”
“Men; with breasts? Feeding?” Mori said, incredulously.
“It’s hormones. They synch up during pegnans, pregrans, preggers. Men lactrate when baby born,” I said.
“Tha’s amazing, but crazy weird.”
“Preggers in military?”
“Nah. Gotta take leave if knocked up on duty.”
“Duty,” Mori said. His next statement was a snore as he slumped forward onto the tabletop. I looked at my glass and the puddle of liquor around it. I sighed, pushed myself up and went to Mori’s side.
“Mori,” I said, shaking him. He moved and managed to sit up.
“Time for bed. C’mon, help me out here.”
I got him onto his feet and we shuffled off to his bedroom.
“Duty,” he said as we traveled. “Why’d you leave?”
“Boom,” I said.
We reached the bedroom and I pulled the top blanket aside so he could flop down. Then I pulled off his shoes and covered him with the blanket as I continued the story.
“Yeah, my team on checkpoint duty. Easy task. Reward for capturin’ terrorist leader. One day man walks up. Two kids, one each hand. We order him stop. Keeps walkin’ and we start yellin’ an’ he keeps walkin’. I see him sweat, kids have strange looks. We threaten shoot. Keeps walkin’. Then I see wire from his right sleeve to kid, floppin’ around. Then boom.”
“Yeah, bits of him and kids all over. Three of my team, dead. What kind of father makes his own kids into bombs?”
“I’m sorry,” Mori said, looking at me.
I noticed his shoes where he might step on them when he got up, so I put them near the foot of the bed.
“How ’bout you, Mori; why’d you leave Earth?”
He answered with a snore. In the deep sleep of drunkenness, his face looked peaceful. Did he dream of his past? That night, at least, he probably didn’t remember, even if he did dream. I kissed him on the forehead and found my own bed.
The next summer, they came in the front door without even a knock. I had heard a creaking from one particular floorboard on the porch and turned to look at the door while I set down the breakfast dish I had just dried. Mori continued washing a skillet in the sink.
Two Datch entered first, quickly and quietly, taking up positions on either side of the door. I knew the type: security, military training, maybe even covert skills. Two humans followed, one obviously a male, dark-skinned, but otherwise nothing like Mori in appearance. The other human looked quite different from the first, smaller, pale hair, paler skin and probably female, but I couldn’t be sure. After the humans, another two Datch, much like the first ones, entered and closed the door. As expected, the Datch were all female.
By then Mori had stopped washing, dried his hands, and stepped forward to greet his uninvited guests.
“Kaito Mori,” the human female said, holding a neatly bound sheaf of papers in front of her. “You are hereby summoned to appear before the twenty-third Circuit Court of Earth at the earliest possible time. If you refuse this summons we are warranted to arrest you by authority of the same said court. An extradition order has been issued and signed by the Galactic Collective and by the Sunarian Board of Alien Relations. Will you yield?”
I saw Mori hang his head and close his eyes. He moved his hands slowly upward and I knew he intended to cover his face. In his mind, whatever this was, his time was up; but mine was not.
“We will not yield,” I said as I stepped quickly forward and took a fighting stance in front of the humans. Mori put a hand on my shoulder, but I shrugged it off. The humans’ eyes widened momentarily and they took a step back, clearly not prepared to openly begin a Human-Sunarian conflict. The Datch delegation felt no such constraint.
All four came at me as one. They were younger than me and moved with a speed and grace originating from deeply ingrained muscle memory of every fighting technique known.
I landed a solid kick to the belly of the first one to reach me. I heard her explosive exhalation with satisfaction. I punched at the second goon as I pulled my leg back but she deflected it and connected firmly with my ribs. It was over in seconds and I lay gasping upon the floor, my left arm twisted painfully behind my shoulders, a rib cracked, a knee planted heavily in my lower back and a boot on my right wrist. From the corner of one eye I saw the backs of Mori’s scuffed work shoes as he trudged out the door, and then his hands cuffed behind his back as he stepped off the porch. Tears streamed down my face and dripped onto the floorboards. The goons released me and promptly left, closing the door behind. As I rolled over and sobbed, I heard a vehicle roar away, pelting the house with gravel.
I exhausted every avenue possible to discover who had taken Mori and for what. The BoAR were not only unhelpful, they were openly hostile to my inquiries. Likewise, the GC refused to divulge any details about the extradition order. The one staffer–a Sunarian male–at the Human embassy was polite and understanding, but said nothing of any consequence. When I asked to see the ambassador, he said she was otherwise engaged for the next several months.
Unwilling to concede defeat, I began writing to everyone I could think might have the smallest interest in helping me learn Mori’s fate. I cried out his story and plight to politicians, bureaucrats, celebrities, news anchors, and even my former commanding officer. Most ignored my pleas. The few that did reply offered condolences and suggestions I had explored long ago.
I had all but given up when a stranger drove to where I was working on a quartet of twisted trees. It was late afternoon on a wonderfully pleasant fall day. As soon as she opened the door of that dark green, late model, luxury car and put one richly tooled, shiny leather shoe upon the ground, I thought, lawyer.
At first she smiled and opened her mouth to speak, but then she turned and gawked, as though she had seen the trees for the first time, like she hadn’t driven past at least a hundred as she searched for me. When she had finished turning a full, slow circle, she looked at me again with wide eyes.
“Did you do all this yourself?”
I snorted and rocked my head.
“No. Kaito Mori did most of these. I just helped.” It was a half-truth, of course, but I was in no mood to give her the entire history.
She blinked, seemed to remember something, and opened a leather folio tucked under her left arm. She extracted a document.
“Are you Bai Tilon?”
I bobbed my head and she handed me the document.
“I suppose it’s no coincidence, your connection with Mr. Mori. That’s his last will and testament. It’s a precedent-setting document. The first Human will to be executed on Sunari. It took some time, but now the process is complete. You are the sole heir of Mr. Mori’s estate. You’re a wealthy woman Ms. Tilon.”
Then it was my turn to blink and stand open-mouthed. She put out her hand and we shook.
“Suntai Larom,” she said. “Pleased to meet you Ms. Tilon. My card is affixed to the will. Call me if you have any questions or need any legal advice. I think the attachments are thorough enough, but please feel free to call at any time.”
After she had left, the real meaning of the documents hit me. I sank onto the ground and cried for a long time.
I never did learn Mori’s secret. For a time I was depressed, feeling as though something important was being denied me. As I continued twisting trees and completing my plan, the depression gradually lifted. I looked at the happy and silly photos of Mori and decided that was a better way to remember him. All the ways he had been kind and generous to me became far more important than dwelling on what was lost. That one change in my attitude became one of the biggest turning points in my life.
Though he had lived simply in a cabin in the woods, Mori had more money than some of the wealthiest in Datholm. That money made it possible to expand my plan well beyond what I had originally conceived.
For the first time since returning home from combat duty, I sought out other people in town. I even found a group of women who also had trouble coping with their combat experiences. We all helped each other heal, and that lead to more relationships, and those brought me to one man. With him I learned that I was not as broken as I had thought and that we could both find happiness in each other.
“Race you to the top,” the young girl said brightly. She wore a sky-blue top with matching shorts and was already four paces ahead of her parents, one brilliantly orange-sneakered foot on the first step. Without waiting for an answer, she launched herself upward, her small legs pistoning up and down. By the time her mother took the handrail and began climbing two steps at a time, the girl was already on the first landing.
With sixteen steps per flight and sixteen landings, it was a long climb up the side of the multi-purpose tower. Several times along the way, the mother looked off to the side as shrieking children swooshed past on a slide spiraling down and around the tower. She stayed close to her daughter without overtaking the girl. On the last flight, they both had slowed, were breathing heavily, and the mother took the steps just one at a time.
“I win,” the girl announced, in between deep breaths. By the time her mother reached the observation platform, the girl had mostly recovered and wandered over to the edge. She stood there, peering over the railing that almost reached her chin, fingers lazily gripping the stout wire mesh wrapped all around the deck. Her mother came to stand behind and rested her right hand lightly on the girl’s shoulder.
A loud chorus of screams and laughter erupted from their left as another group of thrill-seekers rode The Doom drop tower to the ground. The drop tower stood well away from the main, connected by a long, narrow span. For more cautious visitors, a large and sedate elevator carried people up and down the center of the main column. All had come for the grand opening, which–to all appearances–seemed to be a rousing success.
“Mom, is that a person?” Morien asked, pointing out across the expanse of Twisted Park. She pointed not at a single person on the ground, but at the portrait in foliage, one deftly painted with texture and shades of green. Lines of black dask creeper helped delineate features that would otherwise be lost in the broader and softer strokes.
The image that emerged was of a human man wearing a dark jacket. The park road, grass, and buildings painted the light shirt underneath. His face was deeply sculpted by the treetops that passed for brushstrokes. A crop of black dask hair topped his head–the Grove of Terror, the collection of Mori’s morose and tortured works.
“Yes, that’s Mori, the man who twisted trees.”
“Mori. That’s like my name!”
“It is. In one human language it means forest.”
“Huh. Mori. Forest. Mori. Mom, did you know him?”
The mother turned and looked at her husband, who had sidled up on her left. He put his hand on the back of her neck and stroked it softly as he kissed her. Then he turned to face the view and they all three looked out over the beautiful forest of Mori.
“Yes, dear, I did. He was my friend,” Tilon said.