Dad was the first in our family to change. It was slow in the beginning: one morning he woke to find the skin on the back of his hand had hardened and darkened overnight. When I asked about it, he told me it was just dry skin, and I believed him because I was only twelve at the time and didn’t know what I know now.
As weeks passed, the dark patch grew. It spread up his arm, across his chest, climbing over his collarbones and up his neck. He tried to hide it under heavy layers of clothes, but I noticed other changes too: his movement was slower and stiffer than before, and his arms grew so long that his fingers could nearly touch the floor when he was standing up. His legs changed too, widening and beginning to curve outward at his knees.
Late at night I could hear his bones creaking like a tree in a storm.
My twin sister Becca said it first: “It’s the change.” She whispered it to me while we lay in our room, our breaths close and our fingers tangled like branches underneath the protective blanket fort that Mom had helped us build earlier in the day.
“Like the guy in the woods?” I asked, recalling the man from the spring before.
She nodded, her face only illuminated by a yellow lamp glow diffused by the sheets.
“Are you scared?”
She kept nodding.
She squeezed my hands even tighter and we fell asleep holding onto each other.
Growths sprouted from Dad’s arms that budded with small green pods, unfurling into baby leaves which he tugged out like weeds until his fingers became so stiff that he could no longer bend them. After that, Becca and I would sit with him every night, pulling the pods out with our nimble fingers because he said it might help stop the change. And as we did so, he would try to peel the bark from his skin, spilling blood onto the living room floor.
But every morning there were more green buds than we had pulled the night before and the bark grew back over his raw skin, harder and darker. I asked him if the changes hurt and he said “No, Little Bird.”
Mom was quiet during his change. She wouldn’t pluck the leaves or cut away the bark like Dad asked her to. I would go to her, crying, and show her handfuls of baby leaves curled up in my palms like dead moths, and she would take them from me and bury them in the garden.
I heard them arguing, late one night when I couldn’t fall asleep. I got up and tip-toed down to their room and pressed my ear against their door.
“No,” I heard Dad say.
“There’s a spot by the garden—” Mom said.
“I’m not going to sit outside like a damned animal.”
“You can’t stay in the house anymore.” she said. They were both quiet for a few moments and then Mom said: “I’m so sorry, love.”
“Me too,” Dad said. “I didn’t expect this to happen so quickly.”
“It’s all right.”
“I’m not sure that it is,” he said. “I don’t know how you can be so hopeful about…about all of this.”
“Because we’re going be together again someday. All of us. I promise. Can I at least show you the spot in the yard tomorrow?”
And then they were silent.
But by morning, Dad’s legs had grown off the bed, becoming roots that dug through the floorboards into the earth beneath the house and he could no longer be moved from the bed. In the days that followed, his arms continued to lengthen, Mom had us open all the windows in their room so they could grow outside of the house.
For many nights after that, while Mom made him soup, because it was the only food he could swallow, Becca and I would climb out onto his branches and pull the little leaves until there were none. But soon his arms split into more branches and those branches split into even more and we could no longer reach all the leaves.
One night, Becca said she didn’t want to go into the room anymore because she was scared and because nothing we were doing was working. I went without her. Dad had risen from the bed until his head was nearly touching the ceiling. He couldn’t open his eyes anymore, but he always knew it was me.
“Little Bird.” His voice was coarse and quiet.
A small silence followed as I walked toward him.
“Little Bird, where is your sister?”
“She’s right here.” I lied.
“I love you both.”
“We’re right here,” I said, placing both of my palms on the bark of his trunk.
That was the last night I heard him speak. After that, he rose quickly, up and up, widening as he grew until he broke through the roof. His roots thickened and snaked through the hallways of the house. Bark covered his nose and his mouth until all that remained of him was the outline of his face in the trunk of the tree.
It wasn’t until months later, in summer, that Dad’s elm finally stopped growing at an unnatural speed. Our little house was in bad shape. Half the roof was gone, the foundation damaged, and most of the rooms overtaken by enormous roots and branches.
A heavy storm passed through in late August and poured rain in through the cracks, and flooded parts of the house. Mom moved another bed into the room I shared with Becca, where the roof was still intact, and the three of us slept there from then on.
Days after the storm, when the flooded lawn had mostly dried up, Mom strung up a tire swing on one of Dad’s lower branches for us. She said we should spend time with him, talk to him. He would want to hear us, she said.
“But he’s gone,” Becca said to me when I climbed onto the top of the tire, with the rope between my legs, and held on tight. “It’s just a tree.”
I wondered whether Mom or Becca was right. Becca pulled the tire back and let it go, pushing it forward as it swung back. We were both quiet, looking up as I swung and Becca pushed, watching the elm tree’s leaves rustling in the light wind. Mom was on the roof now, repairing the damage by hammering planks around the tree’s trunk and patching holes. I hoped Mom was right. I was pretty sure I could feel him still there, like he was standing just behind the tree, watching us.
I noticed Becca had stopped pushing the swing. I looked down to see her staring across the yard at two figures that had emerged from the woods and were walking toward us.
The smaller figure, a little boy who was maybe four or five, started running and stopped a few feet away from the base of the tree that grew out of the side of our house, his head craned backward, his jaw slack.
“Wow,” he said in a long breath.
“Jordan, come back here.” The other figure, a woman, waved a frantic hand at the boy and he rushed back to her side. As he ran, I noticed that the back of his neck was covered in a slick, black fur. I reached around to the back of my own neck, where my fingers met only soft, naked skin.
Mom stopped hammering when the woman shouted.
“Isn’t that…” I started to say.
“Yeah,” Becca said.
Mom climbed down the ladder that was propped up against the house and crossed the distance of lawn between her and the visitors.
“Lovely day,” the woman said, looking uncomfortable, her gaze flitting between the tree, Becca and I on the swing, and Mom.
“Sure is,” Mom said. “It’s Kate, right?”
“Yes, Katherine, but…Kate is fine, yes. And this is Jordan.”
“Ah, right. Hello Jordan. How are you?”
The little boy burrowed into his mother’s shirt.
“Sorry for the intrusion. We were picking mushrooms in the woods and saw the…” She pointed up at the tree. “Is that…”
“My husband, yes.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Mom said nothing for a moment, taking off her thick work gloves, and then said: “Thank you Kate, that’s very kind.”
Kate rubbed her son’s back with one hand and tugged at locks of her frizzy red hair with the other. “I was also wondering if…you tried…was there anything that helped?”
“Helped with what?”
“To slow the change.”
“No, there was nothing that helped.” Mom shifted her eyes to the boy. “Is he changing? Is that why you’re asking?”
The woman gaped and pulled the little boy to her belly, covering his ears with her hands. “Don’t say that in front of him.”
“Doesn’t he know what happened to his father? Families tend to change faster after the first. Surely you knew this was a possibility.”
“Well, aren’t you afraid for yourself? For your daughters?” Kate stared at us, concern carving deep lines across her forehead.
“It’s nothing to be afraid of.” Mom wiped sweat from her brow.
“Jesus. You’re one of those nuts, those radicals, aren’t you?”
“I’m a realist, Kate. You moved away from the city too.”
“It was my husband’s idea,” she said, raking her fingers through the hair on top of the boy’s head. “He said they would take Jordan away from us, that they wanted to do experiments on the children.”
“And he was probably right. They tried to take my girls, too. That’s when we left.”
Kate was crying now, sniffling and holding her son so close I thought he might burst apart. “He’s too young. It’s too soon.”
“It’s better this way, don’t you think? He’ll be with his father and you, well, you’ll probably change soon too. And then your family will be together again. Don’t you want that?”
“Stop it!” Kate shouted, her voice strained and her face turning pink. “I’m going to figure something out. I hope for your daughters’ sake that you do too.” She turned away, leading Jordan back home through the woods.
Mom climbed back on the roof, and the hammering resumed, Becca began pushing the swing again. “She’s wrong.” Becca said quietly, almost to herself.
“Kate?” I asked.
A week later, we heard a gunshot. It bellowed through the woods as birds scattered from the trees like dust in the wind.
“What was that?” Becca asked, pulling the spoon out of the stew she was supposed to be stirring on the stove.
“Stay here,” Mom said and ran out of the house, leaving the front door wide open and swinging on its hinges. I got up from the table and ran after her. Becca yelled after me to stop, but I kept going, following Mom’s long shadow against the setting sun along the lawn toward the trees.
We took a straight shot through the woods toward the neighbor’s house. Branches reached out like fingers scratching at my bare arms as I ran. It was almost too dark to see more than a few feet ahead in the thick of the trees but I could hear Mom’s labored breaths and leaves crunching beneath her feet ahead of me.
The trees broke into a clearing where Mom stopped. A little white cottage sat in its center and Kate was standing with her back to us, backlit by a flickering porchlight with moths hovering around it, her hair loose and wild in the breeze, a pistol in her right hand. And beyond her to the left, little Jordan, lying face-down in the grass, a red stain swelling, soaking the back of his shirt. Even from a distance, I could see that his arms were now covered in the same black fur I saw on his neck before.
I had never seen a dead person before. Something about Jordan’s body leaking blood all over the lawn made me sick. It looked unnatural, like he had been broken and opened up. I felt bile crawling up my throat, but I swallowed it back down.
Mom looked back when she heard me coming up behind her. “Stay here,” she said sternly. I nodded and tucked myself behind a tree, looking out from behind its branches. I couldn’t stop staring at the boy, lying so still in the grass.
“Kate,” Mom said, walking forward. The woman spun around, looking like a frightened animal with wide, bloodshot eyes and a mix of sweat and tears dripping down her face. “What happened?”
Kate looked down at the gun in her hand and then back up to my Mom. “I had to.”
“It’s alright.” Mom walked carefully closer.
“No, it’s not. I was going to leave with him, but it got worse and…” She looked back at her child. “I just couldn’t lose him like that. I couldn’t lose him like…” For a moment, the wind lowered to a whisper. A branch snapped at the edge of the woods and a giant boar emerged from the trees. He was enormous, much larger than the other wild boars I’d seen in the woods, with coarse wiry fur and beautiful white tusks that curled up over his snout. I thought to myself that he must be their king.
I knew that Kate’s husband had changed the spring before. We had all woken up in the middle of the night to her wailing screams and pounding fists on our door. She had followed her husband into the woods that night, near the end of his change, and found that he had become a boar. Dad made her tea and Mom wrapped her in a wool blanket while Becca and I sat at the edge of the stairs, listening to her cry.
The boar sniffed the blood and nudged the boy’s shoulder with his snout. When Jordan didn’t move, he nudged him again, harder this time, but the boy remained still. The boar threw back his head and bellowed, a guttural, mournful sound that made me shiver, even in the warmth of the summer night. Then he looked straight at Kate, who visibly shook under his gaze.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. But the beast turned away and walked back into the woods the way he had come.
When he was gone, the pistol slipped from Kate’s hand and dropped into the grass at her feet. She didn’t look back at us or down at her son, just followed the boar into the woods, where the branches and the darkness swallowed her whole.
“When I was little, people used to die in their human bodies. And we would dig holes like this and put them into the ground so they could decompose and return to nature.” It was the next morning, and Kate had not come back. Mom was digging a hole in our neighbor’s yard, shoveling clumps of grass and dirt over her shoulder.
Becca and I sat cross-legged nearby in the grass, our knees just barely touching. I was plucking blades of grass and splitting them in two with the edge of my thumbnail, trying not to look at Jordan’s body.
“Now, if we’re lucky, we return to nature in a different way.” The sun was high and sweat was dripping off Mom’s sun-tanned skin. Cicadas buzzed in the woods all around us.
“What did people used to die of?” Becca asked.
“Sickness and old age, mostly.”
“But Jordan didn’t die of either of those things,” I said.
“No,” Mom looked over at the boy who was now wrapped in the blue rocket ship sheets we had found on his bed. “Jordan died a very unnatural death.”
“Why don’t we just die of old age anymore?” Becca asked.
“So, Dad is dead then?” I looked up, shielding my eyes from the sun with my hand.
Mom stopped digging. She thrust the tip of the shovel into the dirt, leaning into it. “Your Dad is a tree, and that tree might live for hundreds of years. So, no, he’s not dead. But one day, he will die, just like all of us.” She started digging again. “Death is the natural end of all life. We humans used to think we were so separate from nature. We polluted our rivers, our oceans, we let toxic gas into our atmosphere. We made chemical weapons to make each other sick, to kill each other. The change ended most of that.”
“Where did it come from?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. There are a lot of theories, though. I suppose the one I like the most is that mother nature is reclaiming us, so that we can no longer cause harm to her or her family.”
“Who is she?”
“The earth, the trees, the sun, the stars, the grass in your hand. All life and all that fuels life.”
“When will I change?” Becca asked abruptly.
“I’m not sure anyone knows, Becca.”
“You told Kate that families change faster.”
“Typically, yes. But it’s not a certainty.”
“What will I be?” I asked.
“Oh, Little Bird. You should be a bird, don’t you think? Then you can fly.”
I nodded. I liked the sound of that.
“I don’t want to change,” Becca said with an edge to her voice. She stood up, brushing the dirt from her shorts.
“It’s the natural cycle of life, Becca. We are born, and grow, and change, and die. It’s not something to be afraid of. That,” she pointed at the little heap of body on the lawn, “that is what you should be afraid of.”
“Dad said there were experiments in the cities where they were trying to find a cure,” Becca said. “He wanted to go, he told me so, but it all happened so fast…” Becca hadn’t told me this before.
“We moved away to keep you both safe from all that. It’s dangerous there. People are desperate and will do anything to try to stop the change.”
“Well, maybe they’ve figured it out.”
“How do you know? Maybe Kate was right. Maybe you are nuts.” Becca’s fists tightened.
“Kate was very confused and hurting very much, Becca,” Mom’s voice remained calm, “you have to understand—”
“I think I do,” Becca spat and turned away from us, away from the grave, and ran back through the woods toward our house. I got up, unsure if I should follow her.
“Let her go,” Mom said. “She just needs some time.”
When the hole was finished, it was as deep as Mom’s chest. She carried Jordan’s body into the grave, delicately placing him into the earth below, like she was tucking him into bed. Then we buried him together: Mom with the shovel and me with fistfuls of dirt. At the edge of my vision I thought I caught the shadow of a boar standing in the shadows of the trees, watching us. But when I turned to get a proper look, nothing was there.
Kate never came back. Their little white cottage sat empty and alone, decaying like a corpse with each passing year. Every time I saw the boar in the woods after that, I wondered if he ever saw his wife again.
Just after our thirteenth birthday, Mom showed the first signs of change. Her eyes darkened with an inky blackness, like her pupils had been punctured, spilling out into the soft blue of her irises and eventually flooding the whites of her eyes.
Becca cried and begged her to bring us back to the city, where she could get help. But Mom said no, that it was her time, and that we shouldn’t be sad.
Her change happened quickly. The skin on her arms and face grew dusty yellow fur and she began to shrink in size nearly every day. Two slits appeared on her back just inside each of her shoulder blades. The thin translucent membranes that grew from her back felt like delicate tissue paper pressed between my fingers. The fractured morning light that came through the wings reflected a kaleidoscope of colors on the floor and walls of our bedroom.
Her black eyes grew so large they covered her cheeks. Her nose disappeared and her mouth became a thin line, low on her chin. We couldn’t understand her when she tried to speak, but she would hum a low, droning song to us at night as we fell asleep.
I woke early one morning, about week after her change started, and saw her by the window in the bedroom, hovering just off the ground, her naked toes skimming the floorboards and her wings beating so fast they were nearly invisible. Becca was still fast asleep in her bed.
Mom was humming that familiar song, which must have been what woke me up, but the sound was growing louder and less melodic. It was fractured, like more voices with different pitches had joined the chorus. Her body shook and I watched as she burst apart, like an explosion of shattering glass, into pieces that swarmed together into a dark cloud.
Hundreds of bees circled the room together, dancing and swirling around me. They landed on my arms and in my hair. I could feel their tiny insect legs tickling my skin. They didn’t sting me, but I wasn’t really afraid that they would.
Becca woke screaming and flailing her arms, swatting at the bees. “Stop,” I said, grabbing her shoulder and holding her still. “It’s just Mom.”
We were alone after that, and while we knew how to take care of ourselves, how to tend the garden, collect and sanitize rain water, and forage for edible plants in the woods, Becca wanted to leave, to go to the city before winter settled in to see if they had found a cure. I didn’t really want to go; it didn’t feel right to leave our family behind and the cities sounded dangerous. But she was my family too and eventually I agreed to go with her.
Becca spent the next several weeks packing bags and making food for us to bring on the road. Every night she leaned over maps of the country, tracing routes with her fingers, a flashlight propped between her head and shoulder.
“Do you remember if the neighbors had a car?” she asked me one night as she made notes on one of the maps.
“I don’t think so.” We didn’t, either. The car that we’d come in years before was rusted out in the front lawn and propped up on cinder blocks, one of the tires now swinging from Dad’s branch.
“It’s going to take at least five days to get out of these woods. Then we should be able to find the highway and we can hitchhike the rest of the way.” She sighed and rolled up the map. “We’re leaving tomorrow, okay? It’s starting to get cold; we can’t wait any longer.”
“All right,” I said.
The next morning, I knew that something was different. Everything in the bedroom was drenched in an eerie white light. Snow fell softly past the window. It hardly ever snowed this early in the season and I wondered if it was a sign that we shouldn’t be leaving. I wandered downstairs, stepping over the backpacks in the hallway that Becca had packed for us, to the base of the elm tree. I sat in between the roots, listening to the gentle hum of the bees, half asleep in their hive in a hollow in the tree where Dad’s mouth had once been.
I leaned against the trunk, closing my eyes and hoping that Becca would sleep for a while longer, absorbed in dreams where nothing had changed yet.
I thought about Kate, lost and wandering through the woods around her old house. I imagined that her hair had grown long and turned white, that her pale skin had sagged away from the bones of her face, that her teeth had gone brown, rotted, and fallen out, leaving holes festering in her gums. I imagined her calling out in the darkness for her husband, for her son, but no one would answer. I didn’t want to be her, to grow old like that, to rot away on my human feet and be buried in the dirt.
I began to hum Mom’s song, like a disjointed lullaby. I would go with Becca as far as I could, but I knew I would return. I hoped Becca would too. And as I laid in Dad’s arms, listening to Mom sing, I traced my fingertips along the edge of the gray feather that had grown from my wrist sometime in the night.