Aphelion Issue 258, Volume 25
February 2021
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The Tree

by Tanya Petrova

Sophie needed someone to check her homework. Kirill always looked sad, even when I was about to head for the front door. Tom decided our lessons were a waste of time. Tasha was so eager to learn she would have conjugated verbs l’Imparfait even without me there to hear her do it. Wayne was severely sleep deprived.

Tracy couldn’t speak her mother tongue, let alone the language of Proust and Vigny. Gillian’s mother needed a baby-sitter. Drew’s mother couldn’t let her friends’ children get ahead of her son in any regard. Ken never did anything. Phil liked to act out key scenes from the pornographic movies he’d recently consumed…

These were all my students. I had been built and programmed to privately teach a foreign language to individuals under the age of eighteen, and every day I travelled on foot to their respective homes. For 100 credits an hour, I delivered a service and did it day after day for a number of years. My days were mostly identical, without a prospect of any sort of change. And I had never given my situation much thought. Until the day I saw the tree.

One of my student’s residences was located on the other side of town, quite a distance away from my charging station. My regular route there lay parallel to the town’s main thoroughfare, then through a large yard, surrounded by blocks of flats on all sides. It was in that yard that I first noticed it. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this tree, but the first time it attracted my attention and actively occupied my thoughts. My built-in database identified the plant as Malus pumila, a common and overall unremarkable species in this corner of the globe. The way it appeared to me that day, however, differed from the image that was stored in my memory for reference. The tree's foliage had lost all its green and was a mix of rusty reds, yellows and oranges. As I was standing in the shadow of its vast leafy crown, raised to the bleak teary skies by a cohort of strong branches, I thought I was beholding a flaming torch. And I couldn't help thinking how tenacious the dying nature was. Powerless to escape the sempiternal cycle of decline and resurrection, it was still crying out in protest, still struggling to set the indifferent heavens ablaze.

The sight of the tree’s futile anguish came as much of a surprise to me as the bizarre strings of lexical items it birthed in me, words that barely carried any significant informational load and, honestly speaking, obscured the objective truth of my experience. I just saw a tree. The words pleased my inner ear, though. They made me…feel excited. So much so that in order to prolong the odd state I was in, I lowered myself on one knee and picked up one of the leaves, separated from the tree by the cold and the lack of nutrients. The leaf’s brownish veins spread across my palm like the twisted fork of a lightning strike. I intended to preserve the specimen in one of the textbooks I had in my teaching arsenal until the living tissue lost all its moisture and assumed a stable enough shape to be successfully displayed on one of the walls in my quarters. I kept the leaf safe through the day and carried it back to the distribution centre.

The routine scan my fellow tutors and I were subjected to upon entry easily revealed the biological presence among my bearings. Possession of a biological sample was not prohibited by the common code of conduct, but the security guards’ reaction suggested otherwise. Their optical units focused on me with surprising hostility. They were quick to inform me that my behaviour deviated from the established way of carrying myself in the situation at hand. They also found the way I described the tree to them in order to explain my actions unnecessarily confusing since it required more computational power to process and more room to store.

The guards confiscated the leaf. They then kindly provided me with a list of healthy activities I could engage in outside of my paid operational time in order to avoid causing further inconveniences. The list included reading a list of inspirational self-help titles, taking up yoga, practising mindfulness and meditation and adding to the already vast amount of textual information I carried around by spending some time in designated communities of the World Wide Web. I politely accepted the list and proceeded to my station. The leaf was gone, but its crisp high-resolution image remained to burn brightly in my mind.

After the unfortunate incident with the guards, I made it a point to walk past the tree with my gaze fixed firmly on the ground. At first, I was plagued by the tree’s presence but gradually learned to be indifferent towards it. A simple verbal exercise, referred to in the self-help literature as an affirmation, allowed me to build a kind of a mental barrier between the tree and myself, shielding me from its mysterious charm. It all came crushing down, however, when seasons changed and I saw the tree covered in fine white blossoms, an angelic-like apparition in the middle of a concrete-paved yard, shedding feathers onto the thawing ground, with its arms outstretched in a welcoming embrace.

The tree looked so mesmerizingly divine, I found myself pausing. I approached a low-hanging branch and gently pulled it towards my olfactory unit. The weak delicate smell of nectar and pollen felt so different from the regular smells of my urban surroundings. I wished I was equipped with a pair of lungs to allow the air, carrying the tree’s fragrance, travel deeper into my body and settle there in perpetuity. It was then that I realized I was demonstrating unhealthy tendencies again. I willed myself to step away from the tree and resumed my journey to a student’s residence. I purposefully chose a different route on my way home.

With the new path I’d mapped for myself, it took me significantly longer to return to the distribution centre. Still, I found the experience unexpectedly rewarding. It felt uplifting to move through space with the same destination in mind yet be able to discover unfamiliar places. I noticed buildings being erected to accommodate emerging businesses, found out how certain areas of the city could be easily accessed from different angles. I encountered others like me on their way to their respective workplaces and centres. The long walk took my mind off the blossoms, giving me a sense of clarity of thought and, dare I say, an unexpected levity of movement.

That day I showed extra enthusiasm stepping under the security scanner at the distribution centre, but it was disappointment and anger that the guards granted me with in return. They not only detected unusual traces of soil on my shoes, but were equally appalled by the ungodly distance I’d covered during my time out. I would have no doubt been accused of unlawfully wasting my employer’s money right then and there if tutors like me weren’t paid exclusively for their time with the students. Spending prolonged periods of time walking instead of using the shortest possible route to get from point A to point B turned out to be another example of unhealthy behaviour. My punishment for it came in the form of a change in treatment by my fellow tutors, the distribution centre staff, and basically anyone I encountered daily on my way to and from work. I wasn't totally deprived of social contact, which was one of the stages in the government approved re- education process. Still, furtive looks of wariness and unease now followed me everywhere.

I felt ashamed at first, determined to correct my conduct. Yet every trip I took past the tree inevitably weakened my resolve. The more time passed and the more faces turned away from me in the streets, the more pleasure and peace I found in my involuntary solitude. I wiped the list of recommended activities from my internal drive and spent more time marvelling at the mysterious language the thoughts about my recent discovery produced in me. Inside my own head I was intact, free to embrace the change I have undergone and safe from anyone and anything. Anything but the tree.

And strike me it did with its simple yet disarming elegance when the sky above it cleared and its branches stretched out to soak up the onslaught of heat. I approached the tree and saw it was spotted with apples. The glistening fleshy orbs resembled each other so much and still were different and unique in their own respective ways. Some of them retained a hue of leafy freshness, some mimicked the glow of the sweating sun, some blushed at being paid this much attention. I didn’t think twice before I started picking them. Some of the apples were so ripe, they practically leaped into my palm, breaking from their stems with the ease of a penny leaving a drinker's trembling hand at the bar.

My students that day gave me quite a surprise with how much they rejoiced at my unexpected gifts. By giving them the apples, I wasn’t rewarding them for performing a certain way in class, of course. I wasn’t evaluating them at all. I simply felt compelled to share something I thought would bring me joy if I was only capable of digesting biological material. As the apples travelled from my bag to eager hands and smiles of joy settled on young faces, I was convinced that the feeling of happiness my interaction with the tree had engendered in me could benefit and lighten the day for everyone in my proximity.

It didn’t take long for me to find out that I was wrong.

The strings of pearly teeth and the gleeful glint in my students’ eyes meant nothing to the security guards. I had detected no structural or composite anomalies in the apples and made sure to properly wash and disinfect them prior to handing them over to the children, but it had done little to balance out the utmost irresponsibility of my behaviour. I had apparently endangered the health and well-being of multiple individuals and purposefully ignored the gravity of the consequences that could entail. I had crossed the line. The powers that be had therefore no choice, but to place me on an indefinite watch and under the threat of decommission. My movements were to be tracked 24/7, my lessons-–to be recorded. I was no longer allowed to engage the private mode while inside my charging station. I was also stripped of my status of a vetted employee in all relevant documentation in order to alert interested employers of the potential danger of hiring me. My body was to be infused with a cocktail of chemicals that would slow down my processing speed and render it impossible for my head to alter facial expressions. That way everyone around me would be able to avoid being unnecessarily exposed to my corrupting influence, would know to stay away from me.

I willingly took the prescribed medicine and my central processor did stop working efficiently, but I was still lucid and present enough to notice how quickly and easily all interactions I’d once had outside of work ended. Passers-by in the streets gave me a wide birth. The distribution centre security put down their visors to conceal their faces while processing me. I still had my students, of course, but expecting the innocent, emerging souls, who’d grown to trust and rely on me, to fill the void my isolation had created was inappropriate and irresponsible. Although my eyes could only look neutral when I was with them, inside I looked at my students with genuine gratitude and warmth. The only occasion for me to talk during the day was when I was teaching. On the weekends and during holidays, I had no use of my speech module at all.

Meanwhile, the nature around me had continued its endless cycle. The skies turned grey and the weather got cold. I welcomed the change since, stripped of its foliage, the tree seemed if a little bit less threatening to me, less capable of finding its way through the mist of chemicals, of making me show my ugly, frightening, unhealthy side.

And that was when it all happened. I was following the designated route to deliver another lesson. It was dark outside and thick flakes of snow were falling from the low- hanging clouds. I entered the fateful yard and continued moving forward. And there it was–-the tree–-nothing short of stunning. The snow covered its branches, sparkling magnificently in the dim yet warm artificial light. The absence of wind had made the tree look so peaceful. It was so beautiful not a single word emerged from the depths of my mind to try to describe it. I am still not sure I had even understood what beauty was prior to seeing the tree on that winter day. I was overwhelmed, the sight of the tree nailed me to the spot. The chemicals tempering with my internal systems burned in the fire that suddenly inflamed my every circuit. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to.

They popped out of the shadows with their magnetic rifles cocked up, and my skin broke out in the scarlet eyes of the laser sights as if I had smallpox. Their ear pieces crackled with static and their faces were hidden behind reflective goggles. Within seconds I was completely surrounded. I had no doubts whatsoever with regards to what was about to happen yet still wanted to beg them for my life and defend myself.

Their eyes were on me, but they spoke to each other as if I wasn’t there. One of them flashed a special light over my face, and the ink spelled out my model and serial number in bright fluorescent letters across my forehead. I wasn’t urged to surrender or read my rights, invited to follow them to a reset centre for further questioning. Instead, I felt two heavy hands squeeze my shoulders, then was made to kneel on the snow-covered ground and felt a scanner being placed against the poly-organic coating on my neck. They had to check if I wasn’t human. There had been accidents. A quick scan of my identification chip straightened out all doubts.

I was literally living out my final moments. An adequate reaction to the situation I found myself in would have been to experience the fear of destruction, regret or some version of a desire to know why it was me who had to have been assembled defective, a fiery invective directed towards the manufacturing facility I had come out of. Yet, nothing of the kind manifested itself in me. With my head forced to face the ground, I was so much more concerned with and upset by the potential of being deprived of the ability to contemplate the hypnotic beauty of the tree.

And it was the tree that I was thinking of as my body was pulled upright and a rifle was placed against the back of my head. If any of the individuals present were human, one of my executioners might have asked me if all this tree nonsense was worth losing my life over and I would have proudly and defiantly said, “Yes”. But I was not human and had nothing but milliseconds left to send a log of my recent activity into the cloud in hopes of honouring the tree's existence. I heard the crackle of the rifle’s charge about to be released. I closed my eyes and recorded, “Sophie needed someone to check her homework...”


2021 Tanya Petrova

Bio: My name is Tanya Petrova. I was born and raised in Ukraine but live and work in Japan. I write both poetry and prose.

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