Fiction by Charlotte Suttee

December 15, 2023

We Have Always Lived in the Chestnut Tree

I sank against the Poplar, the colluvium mossing her roots. Here: the swift feathers of the Carolina Wren through the low brush, the Wasp crawling over the limestone, and across from us, the fallen Chestnut, hollowed enough to hold two people lying shoulder to shoulder. We went in there sometimes and napped. I looked at Sam. Her eyes had not settled all afternoon.

CAW! The massive Crow surprised us both—CAW! And then it was off towards campus, where the Crows liked to spend most of their time.

Sam twiddled with a Gingko leaf she had picked up on our hike here. Since when did she paint her fingernails?

“Dr. Jasco’s worksheet is killing me,” Sam said. “Five pages due Monday. It’s like we should be slowing down, now, like every other class—”

“We agreed not to talk about classes here,” I said.

“Sorry, just a lot on my mind.”

Ginkgo leaf torn to shreds, she picked up a whorl of White Oak leaves still green and firm. She snapped the leaves off the stem one by one then peeled the twig bark, making hangnails.

“Summer’s coming,” she said.

“And spring is now.”

She threw down what was left of the twig. “I’m sorry I can’t leave all my problems back at the gates like you can.” Her hands felt for another thing to tear apart but then she gave up and tucked her fingers between her thighs. “You know I’d listen to you if you ever needed someone to talk to.”

“I don’t want to talk about classes.”

“I mean, just anything,” she said. “I wanted to ask you about the party, and Dean—”

“I definitely don’t want to talk about that.”

Where was the green pulsing under us? Where was that sparkle in the Cumberland sky? Where—here it is—the damp leathery bark that comes off in small pieces under the hand. The Chipmunk scampered down and over the rocks.

“Do you remember Elijah?” Sam asked.

“Hardly.” I picked up my own twig to twist. I hated Elijah. He’s why Sam was shaving again and scaring all the birds away with her talk. “This is our place,” I told her. “This is our secret garden. You and me and the forest. I don’t want to talk about anyone else.”

Sam put her head down into her hands. “You’re going to hate me.”

“What? Why?”

“I invited Elijah.”

There was not enough air in my chest to sound.

“He’s really a great guy and I think we’d all have a good time together,” she said.

“You invited him here?”

“I mean, yeah. It’s not private property. Other people come here all the time.”

I rocketed out of the nook and turned to her.

“Since when are you so obsessed with him all of the sudden? You used to be chill. I mean we never had this problem. Ever.”

“What, I’m not allowed to date anyone?”

“No, I’m just saying you don’t have to bring him here. He’s all you talk about.”

“It’s not like I give you all the dirty details.” Sam raised her eyebrows.

Closing my eyes I saw him like a big projector picture—broad shoulders triangulating down to a waist, jabbing into Sam, slimy dark smacking—I couldn’t find the stop button. Fear climbed up and forced the pictures away.

“He’s not responding,” Sam said, looking at her phone. “He must already be on the trail.”

I trained on the Carolina Wren calling from the brush but found no comfort there. The bottling emotions melted in the mantle of my body, and I had to sit down. I looked at Sam sideways. Her legs reflected dappled light in the fullest. My mind’s eye traced the dark folds of her crotch under her shorts all the way up to her smooth coin-purse breasts under her tank top.

“Wow, you’re really torn up about this,” Sam said.

I hated thinking of her this way. Again, the scene of her copulating with Elijah, the noises oozing: ooh, oh, oh!

“Hey, talk to me. I feel really bad,” Sam said. She slung an arm over my shoulders but I sunk beneath her grip and set my knees onto the fallen lichens.

Ahead was the dark tunnel—the soft, comfortable dark hollow. The Chestnut tree. It called to me.

“Elijah, hey!” Sam said. I felt her footsteps hike a small way to meet another pair. I prayed that good mother Gaia would turn me into the Squirrel. It might have happened when—

“What’s up?” Elijah’s shadow scratched my own. Good thing handshakes were out of style. I managed a hello.

“Hey, weren’t we in Comp together? Dr. Anderson’s?” He turned to Sam after my furious silence. “I brought some Whiteclaw. Thought we could pregame up here.”

“Pregame for what?” I asked.

Elijah shifted his eyes to Sam for a brief moment and I thought I might punch him and watch blood run over his teeth.

“It’s Friday,” he said. “Parties at every house.” He sat in my nook and held up a beer. “Sam?”

She bit her lip greedily. “Thank you.” The beer looked a lot bigger in her hands than it did in Elijah’s.

The red head of the Woodpecker gleaned my gaze for a moment. An invitation to steal away into the treetops.

No, this was our space. Finding another spot meant moving aside when guys and their hot breath and stinky beer bottles came to fuck my best friend and piss in the creek.

I rooted my feet and grew as tall as the Poplar, “Actually, could you not do that here?” I said. I stared down at Elijah.

“Just relax,” Sam said. Pppft, went the top of Sam’s own hard seltzer. She drank.

“Leave,” I said. It was an eruption. I was a tree on fire.

Elijah shifted. “Hey, Sam, maybe we should find another spot.”

“She doesn’t own this place,” Sam said, taking her own gravelly stand.

She had brought him to us. A violation of an unspoken, incorporeal contract. I told her again while she was still finding her footing: “Leave.”

“Bitch.” She couldn’t look me in the eyes as she said it, but she had said it, the dark of her eyes like the obsidian sample that cut my finger in last week’s lab.

Sam and Elijah walked back to the trail. It was a long time that I could hear their steps, their voices, and then time went with them.

I closed my eyes and recalled the creek fifty yards south. Here: Shagbark tumbling with the lush wind, the slow breathing of understory insects, and the fallen Chestnut, hollowed enough to hold two people lying shoulder to shoulder.

I opened my eyes. I went hands and knees towards the Chestnut, mapping the beautiful terrain under each hand-step.

I penetrated the warm soft space and felt the life of its walls against me. I laid flat on my belly with my nose to the ground. With every inhale I reached my fingers and my toes further and with every exhale pulled deeper.

Something cool and soft and rubbery kissed the tips of my outstretched hands. Maybe the Slug. Or Jelly fungus. I didn’t care to hurt either of those good friends. I looked up to the edge of my earthly cocoon where I felt it. The thing was cupped, yellow, wrinkled like a pasty human ear. I scooted closer. When my head was not six inches away I saw it.

And screamed.

My voice had to hurdle the knot in my throat before coming again full throttle. Keeping my soiled hand far from the rest of my body I wriggled out of the Chestnut which now aimed to crush me. Tight. Tighter. Move faster—free! I scrubbed my hand on the ground but the soil gave way so I then took it to the limestone rock and then I went blubbering to the creek, hardly minding the poor Spider’s nest or the saplings downed under my heels. I drove my hand into the cool water and washed it there. And then I cried.

A condom. Snotty semen tied up in the yellowed film. I washed my hands again. They soon became unfeeling from the cool water.

Someone had left it there. Elijah, or someone else? They just left it there. Toppled an entire sacred space. A space snug enough for two lying shoulder to shoulder. Snug enough for two naked bodies. How long ago had I lost this place to the lovers? How long have I marinated in the humidity of their breath and sweat?

The sun was low when I got back to the fallen Chestnut tree.

I found a stick and used it to pick up the condom. I began down the trail with it. It fell off a few times but I kept leashing it all the way down the mountain. I carried it past the forestry building and the first student houses.

Ouch. I set the stick down and picked a piece of glass from my foot. It wasn’t bleeding so bad. I walked the condom all the way to Delta Chi.

Packs of people bustled in and out of the building in route to hit all the fraternities, reeking. Most of the action was happening in the backyard. LED color lights and heavy base shook the fence.

Leading with the diseased thing at the end of my stick, I entered the backyard through the side gate. All the vomit-splashed couches and chairs were packed onto the dirt lawn. A bonfire sweated into the sky, silhouetting the bulge of partiers. Some gazes trickled in my direction. Edges melted into each other, all the energy conflating into one red mawed beast.

I let the condom fly.

And I ran. I ran, boos chasing. I ran and crouched in the shadowed side of a street lamp post. I closed my eyes and there was Sam, smiling. I hugged her. Our skin was cool and green again.

I opened my eyes to sweat and shadow. I pulled my hands from the post, sticky with Hickory pollen.

About Charlotte Suttee

Charlotte Suttee’s poetry is published in a handful of Colorado magazines, and her experimental speculative fiction novel, Weather and Beasts and Growing Things, is available through Lethe Press. She howls, cooks, and explores with her husband in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

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