Can’t Hear the Forest for the Trees
By Peter Wood
THE OAK TREE WAS TRYING to tell me something. Really.
Acorns hit the roof and woke me up. For the tenth night in a row. If I wasn’t renting my townhouse, I’d go to the twenty-four hour Walmart, buy a chainsaw and cut down the damned tree.
My head was killing me. I was never going to get over this cold if I didn’t get some sleep. My shift at the N.C. State University botany lab began in five hours.
I focused on the digital clock—as if knowing the precise time would help. Three a.m.
At exactly seven past three, it sounded like a quick burst of machine gun fire.
I put the pillow over my head.
I sat up. It was always four thumps.
Seven minutes later, four thumps again. Always seven minutes.
I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.
My fellow post doc, Chen, didn’t even bother to look up from the electron microscope. “Really, Todd? Your oak tree’s talking to you?”
I wanted to slug the know-it-all. Chen was hard to take on a good day, much less on a morning when four painkillers hadn’t made a dent in my sinus headache. “The acorns hit the roof in the same pattern over and over.”
Chen slurped his usual black coffee from a to-go cup. “Your theory’s nuts—like that Berkley fruitcake saying trees exist simultaneously in all times in their lifetimes.”
We were researching how trees communicated through pheromones and the jackass was unwilling to discuss tree communication. “I’m not saying trees can communicate across time.” I wished there was somebody else to talk to.
Chen snorted. “No, just that they talk only to you.”
Chen held up the spray bottle, full of today’s pheromones batch. “You know what to do, right?”
“Yes, Chen, I know what to do. We spray every day.” Compiling readouts from the trees in N.C. State’s Teaching Forest was hardly a two man job. God, I wished Chen would call in sick once in a while.
Chen coughed. “I’m spraying the tree now. You read the pheromonometer.” He squirted a magnolia. “Now, tell me the pheromonometer—”
“I know what to do, Chen.”
A flower closed. The pheromonometer went off the charts.
I’d never seen a tree do that before. “God.”
“The reading, Todd? Anytime.”
I rattled off the number to the fifth decimal place.
“I’m going to spray this magnolia over here,” Chen said. “Try to give me the pheromonometer reading this time.”
He gave a longer squirt. An entire branch of flowers closed.
“We’re communicating,” I said.
“You better hand me the pheromonometer,” Chen said.
I gave it to him.
Chen set the bottle on a stump and studied the readings. He pulled out his iPhone and scrolled through a couple of screens. Finally he said, “Maybe we triggered the light sensors and the tree thought it was night.”
“We told the tree it was dark?”
Chen paused. “I’m not sure. We communicated with it or we told it what to do or we fooled it.” Uncertainty from a man who pretended to have all the answers was almost as unusual as the tree’s reaction.
“We can control trees?”
“I didn’t say that.” Chen smiled. He hadn’t smiled in months. “But, I have something to publish.”
“Don’t you mean, we have something to publish?”
Chen shrugged. “Sure. That’s what I meant.”
Yeah, right. Chen was all about sharing credit.
I opened the bottle and peered inside. The green liquid was genetically modified from spliced DNA. The last few weeks Chen had begun to show his contempt for the research by randomly pressing buttons for the daily cocktail. Neither Chen nor I knew the recipe for today’s batch. But, we could analyze it.
I’m not sure what happened next. I tripped. But, I could have sworn something brushed my arm and hit the bottle. Liquid shot up in my face.
Everything went black for a moment, like a moonless night. Then the day returned.
The pheromones smelled like sewage. I spat out the cocktail and wiped my face with my sleeve. I really wanted some mouthwash.
Chen rolled his eyes. “Careful, Todd.”
“Did you see that?”
“I saw you almost drop my ticket to getting published.”
“The tree tried to knock the bottle out of my hands.”
“Okay ...” Chen reached for the bottle. “Better give me that.”
The acorns did not fall that night. My nightmare made me wish the tree had kept me awake.
I didn’t exactly see or hear in my dream. I perceived crude, almost stick-figures that I somehow knew were men. It was like when I knew somebody was watching me.
I saw as a tree saw. Don’t ask me how I knew that. I just knew.
These men did menial tasks without emotion, without thought. I knew somehow. And I knew they were being controlled.
The world changed from light to dark and back again, over and over. Something, I sensed, was manipulating this environment.
The emotionless automatons kept working.
I woke up in a cold sweat.
The tree was speaking. Maybe the dousing with the pheromones had given me a special connection.
What was the message?
Light and dark. Some sort of control?
If the pheromones could affect a tree’s sensing of day and night, could they control a human’s ability?
The trees were warning me that in the future Chen’s cocktail would be twisted and used to control men.
No, that was impossible.
A barrage of acorns hit the roof and told me my crazy-as-a-loon hunch was right.
The lab was empty at one a.m. I took today’s cocktail from Chen’s locker and dumped it down the sink. I poured in two jugs of bleach, just to be sure.
I relabeled an unremarkable batch from last week and stuck it back with Chen’s stuff. I was saving the world and preventing the pompous jerk from being published.
I slept like a baby that night.
Peter Wood is an attorney from Raleigh, North Carolina. He has had stories published in “Asimov’s,” “Daily Science Fiction,” “Stupefying Stories,” and “Every Day Fiction.” His previous story for us was in the 12-APR-2016 issue.