Written by Atticus Payne
Art by Michael L
When I was thirteen, isolation found me; said, “I am going to change your life.”
I didn’t know how much it would.
It twisted its arms around me, growing more and more, stiffer and harder until all I could see was crossed with bone-white branches, a frame of thorns that kept me safe—away from the outside world. I was better for being in it. But I was also worse.
The cage was not an embrace. I walked around for a bit, fiddling with the sprouts around it. There was nothing more to do. Things grew, and I grew.
Maybe I can grow things, too.
I peered between the bars as they allowed, and sure enough, saw that there were gardens outside it. Other cages as well, ones that I spotted for the first time, waiting out their own exile. Only they grew things, made use of their time locked away. A sprawling tree had sprung up in the one next to me, tended to for goodness knows how long. In others, the one just in front, gardens were patched instead, varied and pretty in their multitude of shades.
The others, they had flourished. I couldn’t believe how behind I was.
So I grew something, quickly. A flower, which sprouted well enough, powdery-silver blooms reaching for the sun. It grew and grew, along with me.
It grew, and it wasn’t enough.
So I grew more, adding another sapling, of a dark tree, and then another dash of flowers. Flowers were easier, trees took much longer to even see the smallest benefits of. But I kept at it. Because everyone’s tree was bearing fruit now, some even large enough to hold swings. Mine was barely a shoot of wood.
Keep at it.
I did. I grew it more, fed it more, gave water at every turn. I tended, and watched, and tended, and looked over to the cages beyond, and tended some more. Every time I made any gain on the tree, there was ever more to be seen apart from me.
But the cage whispered, then. It hadn’t spoken for ages, now saying to me, “Stay at it, just a while longer, until you’re stronger, until you’re grown.”
So I did, and so they grew.
My tree bore fruit, and I planted another. Now I was used to waking at every hour, running from patch to patch, growing my bower. The bars of the cage had spaced out even more, leaving space for more growing, more watching, more wondering.
When will I ever catch up? When will the tree be tall enough, bear enough fruit?
In time, the air grew thick with the smell of sweetness, and I could climb my tree each night, to view beyond the cage. I would gaze for hours at the growers, at their labours. All so twisted and lovely—mine are not like theirs.
So I grew more, and the cage expanded.
Soon it became a maze of my own making, endless rows of trees, burning through every minute I had. Beyond the bars, I could only glimpse for seconds at a time, now, by climbing up the tallest tree, still the first one I’d ever planted. Its smooth gray wood never bowed, never stunted. It was a good tree. An average tree. A tree not good enough.
Still, precious seconds were good enough to take in the happenings of the days as they slipped by, under the sky of endless summer. Enough for me to know what lay just ahead, creeping closer with every step.
They each wore faces I knew, though the features changed with age. Sometimes it was the master of music, and sometimes it was the mistress of money. I barely knew them, anymore. Yet I knew enough. I always knew enough, about that which mattered:
They were coming to see me. Or rather, the trees I’d grown, the fruits they’d bore. How high, and how broad, and how beautiful they were. How elegant and smooth, how sweet and carved.
This would not be enough.
So I grew. And the cage grew.
And they came, once. Took it all in, every tree that had grown.
They liked it.
Told me to keep going, make more.
So I kept going. I grew more.
I didn’t know rest, nor the feeling of the seats I was growing my trees into, anymore. Those seats were not for me, even those that had once been. This forest was not for me. They were for the bars, for the Visitors, for somebody else. I didn’t know who. But it was not for me.
The Visitors came again. By then, I had started to decay. My arms weakened, my water-pots growing empty.
They’d brought more seeds.