Flash Fiction: The Women in the Trees by Nancy Nguyen

We were choked, burned, starved, smothered, stabbed, and beaten. But that was before. Now, we find refuge in the forest. The Cursed Forest, as our dwelling is sometimes referred, whispered as warning. The fearful men avoid the winds that howl through our branches, the creeping cold of our shade, but what is a curse if not an act of preservation? A measured response to violence and injury?

Of course, we remember the before: many of us were poor, worked until our nailbeds sank into our skin. Our husbands, boyfriends, brothers, fathers, uncles usually drank too much and stole from our coin purses while we weren’t looking. And it ended when we were at our most defiant, keeping our legs tightly crossed.

And of course, we remember the gasping, the pinpricking cold, the dimming. But then there’s brief suspension, a gentle pull, and we find the forest and take root. We discover stability in our trunks, power when we stretch and bend our limbs to match the crooks of our branches.

The world has changed rapidly. We smell it in the air, which we breathe in deep and detect cigarette smoke, truck exhaust, and factory toxins. The oldest of us date back millennia, before electricity and running water, when all any of us knew were palm-thatched roofs and pulling oxen across fields. Perhaps it began then, when other countries invaded. Funny how when men colonize, they first feast on women and children.

Then, the occupations and wars shifted more towards social progress, technology, and globalization. Perhaps we were too hopeful for what this meant for our kind. Our intellect is something marvelous, shimmering like the inside of an oyster shell. But it also happens to be our greatest downfall, as the knowing look in our eyes inflict shame and humiliation, which quickly strangle into rage.

We are many tree species, but we share several commonalities, like our stout trunks, branches that reach towards the heavens, waxy leaves that are large, spread like fans. In the fall, our leaves turn to vibrant hues of yellow, orange, and red. We admire each other’s bare forms in the winter, when our leaves have turned to mulch. Then, spring arrives, and the birds sing, and our multi-colored flowers open in laughter.

These are things we take pride in—such an improvement from before, when we made ourselves so small that some of us permanently curved our own spines.

Culling of our kind has decreased over time, this is true. But we maintain our killings have simply become less efficient and more covert. As it turns out, the world cares very little about grandmothers bent over sewing machines in hot warehouses, teenagers who try to escape poverty by way of unventilated shipping containers, the most beautiful who paint their lips crimson and meekly followed men to hotel rooms.

Then, estranged daughters from abroad began to find our forest, which surprised us. Apparently, wealth and opportunity do not shield from the world’s lustful hatred, so we’ve taken in the ones battered by lovers and stuffed into car trunks, migrant wives who endured violent husbands, the most pitiful who died alone with bellies full of white pills and weeping wrists.

When newcomers arrive, they heave and tremble, so we sing and subdue—something we did more in our old lives, when we looked after our hungry children, our mentally untethered mothers, our pot-bellied employers, who took their anger out when we came to work late or bent over without clutching our shirt collars.

We’ve given a lot of thought as to why we’ve found refuge in the trees. Some of us received formal educations and dedicated our short lives to science and research, so we theorize that it’s an evolutionary inevitability. After all, weaker organisms develop defenses in order to bring equilibrium to the ecosystem. Of course, we also invite discourse from those of us who were once nuns and practiced worship. Our circumstance could’ve just as well been the result of pity.

But in the rare instances someone enters our domain with a puffed chest and too much enterprise in their gleaming eyes, we are unified in our purpose. Before they can even start their chainsaw, we have already stretched our leaves to eclipse the sun. We pinch our branches into pursed lips, so that the wind becomes shrill. We open our maws, and we will keep the intruder into the cool relief of night, when there is the first drink of rain after a long drought. When we germinate and make space for sprouts. When we sing in unison during a perfect breeze and no one around to hear it.

Originally from Orange County, Nancy Nguyen now resides in Baltimore, where she writes and teaches. She was a 2019 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow, and she received scholarships and support from the Kweli International Literary Festival and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared in Pigeonholes, the Jellyfish Review, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Nancy is at work on a collection.

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