It Will Show You the Universe
On the first day of fourth grade a new tree appeared among the dogwoods outside my classroom window. Cole called it the glimmer tree and said whoever climbed it could choose to be a boy or girl. I climbed it, but I didn’t want to give up being a girl. I just wanted to know what the boys were always talking about.
The glimmer tree smelled of summer, then of winter, depending on how I turned my head. The leaves weren’t green but danced with pictures: people, places, things — some I knew and some I didn’t. Fish swam in a dark ocean pretending they were stars. Long-necked feathered things nibbled at treetops. In the leaf above my head, a mailbox’s yellow paint cracked in the sun as poppies tickled its sides.
Cole sat near the top of the tree. “See? This will be me.” I climbed up next to him. Laughing and talking inside the leaf was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and Cole looked at her like he didn’t ever plan to look away.
Beside his leaf flickered one showing my best friend Julie’s living room. I plucked its stem and put it in my pocket to give to her. “Are you coming, Cole?”
I swung down and discovered Julie reading under one of the dogwoods. “Hey, look what I found.” I held out the leaf with her living room.
She brushed her thumb across its surface and disappeared, and her leaf fluttered to the ground.
I bent to the ground and picked up the leaf. Inside, Julie was sprawled across the pale blue carpet. I thought she was dead, but she sat up and began to cry. Her parents, who ran their company from home, walked in. The shapes of their mouths read: What are you doing here? Why are you home? I couldn’t tell Julie’s exact answer, but I could almost hear them screaming.
Cole jumped down from the last branch. “Did you find Julie?”
“Weird. She forgot her book.”
I put Julie in my pocket and took her and the book home. Inside the leaf, her parents clawed at tiny windows of flat black nothing. But it wasn’t night, or even dusk, and the streetlamps hadn’t yet come on outside my house.
Julie did not come back to school the next day or the one after and then other kids said she probably wouldn’t, not ever. Dr. Sarah came to talk to us. She, Ms. Phillips, Principal York, and the police asked me and the other kids where Julie had gone. Had we seen someone take her? Had we seen a strange van? A strange man? A strange woman?
I told them no. And did not show them the leaf. I rolled up Julie and her living room and popped them up through the bottom of my turtle piggy bank that I left to hibernate on a shelf beside her book.
The bus route had one less stop. No one even knew where Julie’s house had gone. I climbed the glimmer tree every day, but couldn’t find any other leaves with any other Julies. For a while I carried her around in my pocket whispering sorries to her, but she neither heard nor saw me. I searched for a leaf of my own, but couldn’t find one.
Late in October, Ms. Phillips brought us outside to carve the class pumpkin. She sat under the glimmer tree and leaned back onto its moss. When she vanished, Cole ran to tell the principal.
I got the questions again. Everyone in our class did.
The school told our parents Ms. Phillips had left because of a family emergency. When she didn’t come back, they said she’d gone to live with her sister. No one but us could say otherwise.
Our new teacher, Mr. Richter, wore a thin, orange, dead snake of a tie. He gave us white labels to write our names on and stick to our t-shirts.
Cole sat beside me making neat letters.
“That’s not your name,” I whispered.
“It belongs to the lady in the leaf.” Cole pressed on the label and I worried.
Mr. Richter scanned the attendance sheet and frowned. “There’s no Nicholas here.”
Cole sat up taller. “Nic is short for Nicole.”
Red crushed Mr. Richter’s face and his tie lashed about, tasting the air for fear.
Cole did not look up for hours. I couldn’t think of what to say. My head, my body — I felt punctured all the way to my insides. And if I felt this bad, how did my friend feel?
At recess, Cole sat under a dogwood and wouldn’t talk or meet my eye or even look at me when I pretended to trip and fall. Up and down the playground, Mr. Richter’s anger struck. Like the rattlers and copperheads in the forest beyond school, I didn’t believe he could ever be charmed.
I peeled off my sticker and began to climb the glimmer tree, careful of the moss. “Mr. Richter! Mr. Richter!” I called as loudly as I could. “Come see our special tree! It will show you the universe!”
“Hey you. That’s too high, now. Get back down here. Hey! YOU!” Shouting and huffing, he ran to the tree. His face boiled as he squinted up, trying to remember my name.
I climbed higher.
“Get back down here! NOW!” He slammed his fist on the trunk and was gone, shouts fading with a squeak.
I swung my feet and dropped down. Beneath the dogwood Cole hadn’t moved, but peered up, waiting for me to say something. I didn’t know what to say, so I sat and leaned there too. When the bell rang, I followed Cole back inside where the principal met us with more questions.
I liked Ms. Martinez. I made sure she stayed away from the glimmer tree.
Red autumn soon fell from the dogwoods and the glimmer tree dropped oily rainbows. Nuts followed a few weeks later. These were perfect balls, so smooth, hollow, and ideal for marbles and magic money. Jeremy Duvall ate one on a dare and evaporated. I’d stayed home with a fever that day, so I didn’t get any questions. When I returned, I took a nut to put next to Julie’s book and started carrying her leaf around again, even though she was no fun to watch just sitting on her sofa, bored.
Before the snow came, the last leaves fell from the glimmer tree and the wind carried them all away into a bright ball that eclipsed the sun. They made funny spots on it, like the ones I saw on the backs of my eyelids when I pressed my fingers into them. Julie’s leaf squirmed inside my pocket like it wanted to go too, but I held tight.
Nic-Cole came over to my house. I went to his. Hers. Nikki’s. I did not show her Julie’s leaf and I only said ‘Nikki’ when no one was around. I forgot once and Ms. Martinez heard kids laughing and made them stay inside at recess. She asked Nikki, “Have you talked to your parents about your, um, new name?”
“They said I’m not allowed to change it.”
“‘Nikki’ can be your name between us then.”
Spring bloomed cream and fussy pink over the dogwoods while the glimmer tree stayed bare. I was worried it had died until one morning when it shot out icy shards of crystal that popped and crackled outside our window during a spelling quiz. At recess, I was the only one who dared to climb the tree. I sat on a branch turning my head this way and that to smell time sweet on the breeze. I knew better than to touch the flowers. When I got close enough to sneeze from the pollen, for just a moment an old woman with my face hovered before me, glittering in tiny mucus droplets.
Soon the tree rolled out fresh, greasy leaves and the flowers fell in bursts of light. Ms. Martinez gathered us at the window to watch our local meteor shower. No one wanted to play outside that day, not even me.
The next morning, galaxies puddled the schoolyard. Groundskeepers shoveled mounds of dirt into their winking abysses and yet they didn’t get any fuller. Nikki climbed the tree and again found the leaf with the woman she would become. I hunted for the flat shape of my future, but still couldn’t find it.
At home, Julie’s leaf was dying, turning brown and spidery with mold. I brought it back to school and combed the tree for a leaf-place I thought she might like.
She was fond of the ocean, but I couldn’t find the leaf with the starry sea creatures. This turned out to be a good thing. I found a sandy beach and when I pressed the two shimmering faces together, Julie, her family, and her sofa tumbled out onto the shore. Luckily, I hadn’t torn this leaf off, so I left it alone and told Nikki to tell everyone I’d beat them up if they went near the tree — not that anyone else did by then. I just didn’t want Julie’s beach to go away. Where would she go if it did?
I kept looking for my future. I found what I thought was a mirror of now, but behind leaf-me were shadows to touch, to trip over, shadows of things that would never fit here because we were their dreams.
Julie came back to school with a suntan and visited Dr. Sarah every morning before math. I was afraid she wouldn’t talk to me, but I don’t think she knew I’d kept her leaf. No one ever found her old house. She came to mine sometimes, and at sleepovers my heart pinched when she rolled off the bed with nightmares. Eventually I stopped asking her over, stopped calling her back.
At an assembly in June, Principal York told us our school was growing. We had such marvelous test scores, every kid wanted to come.
Nikki raised her hand. “Do they know that people disappear?”
“No one has disappeared. Those were just misjudgments of time. Misunderstandings. Anyway, we need more classrooms.” The dogwoods and glimmer tree would have to go. After school, I begged my parents to take the tree. They said absolutely not, it didn’t go with the Japanese maples.
Nikki and I climbed the glimmer tree one last time. We looked everywhere for my future and finally found it on a leaf so new it was sheer. Inside, future-me was older and more mysterious than I had expected.
The next day, axes collided with the tree in strange, loud phonics. Ms. Martinez played recordings of white noise and gave us coloring sheets and word searches. Even though it wasn’t on the list of what to look for, Nikki circled she on all her pages and mine.
There was a shout and a pickaxe flew through the air — not toward the tree, but back at the man who’d swung it. An ambulance came and we went home early. The next morning, Dr. Sarah was there to talk to us and Ms. Martinez put down the blinds for a few days.
Under fluorescent bulbs, we ached for natural light and strained to hear what was happening outside where the glimmer tree still glimmered and workers argued about how best to stop it. The following day, a bulldozer ate a great moat of air around the tree until its shovel struck a root and the machine flickered into nothing.
I was certain the glimmer tree would be there forever, but the next day there was no such thing — and no hole in the ground either. The tree had blinked itself out.
I kept the glimmer tree nut. Nikki grew up and attended a college on the other coast. I wrote her every week while I stayed in town and studied horticulture. I stayed where I knew the soil.
I bought my own house and planted the nut in my backyard where no one would take it away. It grew and I waited. It grew and I bonsaied my tree into a great circle of oiled green, careful not to bend it too much, careful not to touch the lichen on the north face of unknown.
The leaves on its woven limbs tell stories. Julie lives in Big Sky Country now. Ms. Martinez is retired and traveling. I found Nikki’s leaf still shining with the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. When she came back to town, she’d become the woman dreaming inside that leaf. She moved in with me, though she never goes near the glimmer tree.
I started a seasonal shipping business, World Tree Freight. We will show you the universe. Clients have their raw materials or their products. I have their destinations fluttering in my garden. Nikki says I am magic with our customers, but she’s never looked closely at my jar of potpourri, sweet with crumpled rainbows.
Kathryn McMahon is a queer American writer living abroad. Her stories have appeared in Syntax and Salt, The Cincinnati Review, The Baltimore Review, Jellyfish Review, Split Lip, and others. Her work has received nominations for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart. She has been in quicksand twice, and, not dissimilarly, on Twitter she is @katoscope. Find more of her words at www.darkandsparklystories.com.