Bark Like Skin

Jennifer Fliss

The craggy striated bark of the western red cedar felt like her mother’s arms, coated in eczema so rough, the little girl had always thought her mother might be part tree.

Her mother wasn’t there with her in the forest. Her mother was in bed, her immune system ensuring no young child with fingers sticky coated in the residue of youth or breath like noxious fumes, could come near. Hush now, her father said, or perhaps did not say, but hurried the girl along the hallway, past the door which was slightly ajar, out of which purple TV light lightninged and the scent of astringent things wafted.

The girl had wandered outside. Past their garden, through the broken-down fence, and beyond the faded signs that indicated the edge of their property, she came to the forest.

Before her mother got sick, before conversations became silent directives, when fears were only uttered sotto voce, her parents would never have allowed her this far from the house alone.

Her mother had taught her the mushrooms: Morels, chanterelles, chicken-of-the-woods. Scrape them from the log this way. Wash them with a cloth, no water. These look dangerous but they aren’t. Don’t touch that one; it’s called the funeral bell. The world’s largest organism is a honey mushroom mycelium. There is always so much happening underneath, bubbeleh, so much you can’t see.

They would forage and tromp through the woods and run their hands along tree trunks, rubbing leaves between their fingers. See the ridges there? Shhh, listen, do you hear that? I think it’s a great horned owl.

They always returned to their tree, an ancient western red cedar to picnic, tell stories, rest. Its arms swooped over them protectively, and on their branches lived intricate rosebud cones and in what her mother called tree-lets, their leaf structure neither leaf nor needle exactly.

Cedars swoop and hemlocks droop, the girl reminded herself as brown leaves and soft earth squelched underfoot. Millions of organisms braced themselves with each step, a million tiny unknown tragedies.

She approached their tree. The one her mother had called Methuselah. Her mother had called it a wonder. Her mother had called it home. Cool raindrops from the previous night’s rain slipped off the leaves and onto the girl’s face and bare skin.

Stretching her arms wide, she wrapped them around the trunk, desperately searching for her fingers but unable to fully encircle the circumference. It began to rain again and she listened to it pelt the overstory while she rested her cheek on the rough bark.

Her cheek grew itchy, and it was then that girl pulled out a small mason jar from her coat pocket and kneeled at the base of the tree. Scooping loamy dirt into the jar – the scent of urine and earthworms sighed from the ground; her fingernails blackened. She would bring this proof of life to her father. Together, they could fix her mother. They would go back and rub the soil onto her mother’s chest the way her mother had done for her when she was sick. They’d tickle her nose with the leaves, bring the earth to her instead of the other way around. This was how her mother would beat death, the girl thought.

She collected up several sprays of the needle-like leaves that had fallen and curled them into each other, smelling the sharp nuttiness, and pushed them into the jar. She tried to pry off a piece of the tree’s skin, but the bark was doing what bark does: protecting the life within it. Splinters embedded into the delicate skin under the girl’s nails, but she kept scratching, tearing at the tree. She slapped the bark, pummeled it with her fists before falling to the ground, the softened forest floor giving to the weight of her.

At the base, she continued to scrape and tear at the bark, snot running freely from her nose. Then a piece broke free. No larger than her pinky, she clutched it, the sharp edge pushing into the soft heel of her palm. She placed that too into the jar and ran home.

Through the broken fence, past the garden, into the door, halfway up the stairs, and then a pause, her chest heaving. She couldn’t hear the sounds of the TV, no muffled voices, no purple lightning. The door was fully open now and her father sat on the edge of the bed pulling his fingers through her mother’s hair. She had given up on brushing it months before and it had become a wild tangled thing.

You’re hurting her, the little girl said.

I’m making her beautiful, he said, sniffling.

It’s her nest, she said and threw the jar at her father.

Not waiting to see if he caught it, the girl flew out of the dark room, down the stairs, out the door, into the spitting rain and the forest. She dug and dug and dug at the base of her cedar, her clothes soaking through, until finally, a space between the roots gave way. The girl shimmied her body in tight and crawled up inside the tree.

The western red cedar can live for over a thousand years, her mother had told her. That’s almost forever, the girl thought and the rings hugged her tight as she waited.

Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, The Rumpus, No Tokens, and elsewhere, including the Best Small Fictions anthology. She is the author of the collection, The Predatory Animal Ball and her collection, As If You Had a Say will be published in 2023 by Curbstone Books/ Northwestern University Press. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,