The People Around Us

Emily Ingram’s parents argued whenever a storm was coming, so she would stand outside on the porch and listen to the stories that the trees told when they thought no one was listening. The wind swept through their boughs giving them breath, like a bow drawn across a fine catgut string, and the trees’ leaves would tremble with the strength of their voices. When they’d lived in the city for a time, the Ingram family had stayed in an apartment next door to a couple who spoke Cantonese. Listening to the trees speak with storm winds felt a lot like hearing Cantonese again, not knowing what the words meant but feeling the emotion instead.

Against the churning cauldron of rain-heavy clouds in the sky, the canopies of the trees cut impressive profiles; the leaves were black as soot flakes from a wood stove, and together they waved like billowing carpets in the wind. The tallest of them, a thick red oak with gnarled roots that Emily had named Horn, towered over the rest with ease, and there were times when she could swear she felt him looking at her. Horn was a truly remarkable creature; Emily called him that, a creature, because that’s what he was, really. Her science textbook had told her that trees could grow, trees could eat, they could even breathe; so what made them any different from animals? From Emily herself?

Her teacher, Mrs. Humburger, had chided her when she asked about it in class one day. “Plants are not people, Miss Ingram, they are Plants. If you go around in the real world talking about how plants are people, everyone will think you’re a crazy hippie and nobody will want to hire you. Now, recite from page sixty-three please.”

Yet, when she got home and looked at them, Emily swore that she felt a connection with the trees. How could something that breathed and spoke not be like her in the least little way? She saw them quiver and sway before a storm, like Emily did when she knew ice cream was coming. She saw them embrace as lovers, interleaving their branches like fingers only to cast themselves apart on a rogue gust. It was all well and good for Mrs. Humburger to say she was wrong; she was the teacher, that was her job. All it did, though, was make Emily more certain that she was right.

When she told her father about it at the dinner table that night, he laughed. “That Mrs. Humburger is a real ball-breaker.” Turning to Emily’s mother, he asked “Remember parent teacher night?”

Her mother cringed in her seat. “I do not like that woman. She reminds me of a toad with a bad wig.” Emily laughed. “I shouldn’t say that; don’t laugh at your teacher, Emily.”

“Listen to your mother, honey. We might not like her, but Mrs. Humburger’s right about one thing: plants are definitely not people.”

The matter was settled for her parents, but Emily still heard whispers when the wind whistled in the treetops at night. She didn’t dare go outside to listen, but would instead press her ear against her bedroom window and strain to hear the trees speak.

One Saturday morning in July, her father’s favorite radio show was interrupted by an emergency weather announcement: a super-storm would be sweeping the entire county, and residents were advised to stay inside their homes for the duration of the event. It was bright and sunny when the announcement was made, but by mid-afternoon the skies began to darken like water with drops of ink. The wind chimes on the porch began to sound, slowly at first and then more continuously, to the point where Emily’s mother had to take them down because she feared they might break. True to form, this sparked an argument between her parents. Emily took refuge on the porch, and listened to the trees.

They sounded scared. As the wind swirled through their branches, the elms trembled and shivered in terrific fits of anxiety. The red oaks stood firmer, but their voices still betrayed trepidation; only Horn seemed unaffected. Upright and resolute, his branches didn’t even appear to be moving in the wind.

Emily sat on the porch with her knees bent, Indian-style, and felt the wind blow her hair about her face. The sky had darkened to an early-evening hue, and all around her the trees were murmuring. With an insidious tapping, the rain began to fall. The droplets were fat, and soon the sound of them slapping every surface seemed to drown out all other noises. She couldn’t hear her parents arguing inside, and even the wind-voices of the trees were barely audible. Emily was beginning to wonder just how bad the storm was going to get when a brilliant flash of light filled her vision, and for a brief moment the entire area was illuminated in a white glow. Then, a split second later, came the deafening boom. And then came the screaming.

Horn was on fire. The entire length of him was bathed in dancing yellow flames that spread quickly upward into his canopy, which was instantly engulfed. The sight was terrifying, but it was the sound that made the biggest impression on Emily. As the wind whipped through and fed the dancing flames, she could hear the great tree screaming. It groaned and cracked, and emitted a piercing shriek of what she knew was pain. The shock forced her up onto her feet, and she too began to scream.

Her parents rushed out onto the porch and saw the tree ablaze, saw their daughter crying fiercely. Her father shouted against the wind, “What the hell are you doing out here Em? You’re supposed to be inside, it’s too dangerous!”

“Horn is dying,” she sobbed, “we have to help him!”

Emily’s mother wrapped her arms around her and scooped her up off her feet, carrying her back inside. Once the door was closed, she put her daughter down and said “It was lightning baby, lightning struck that big old tree. It happens sometimes.”

The storm raged on through the night, but by the next morning it was gone. Before breakfast, Emily went outside to get a look at the aftermath.

The yard was strewn with fallen branches and leaves, and a couple of smaller trees had been brought down by the wind. Horn was still standing, but that was all that could be said for him. His trunk was charred and black, and there were no leaves on his branches anymore. Emily cried again as she stood before him, then wiped her tears and listened. She couldn’t hear any voices. There was no wind blowing, and everything was still.


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