The Girls Who Turned into Trees
Like Daphne fleeing from Apollo, we’ve grown bark and branches trying to protect ourselves
Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What book was your feminist awakening?
1. A Warning
I have to tell it slantwise. Straight on, you will not understand. You have not understood. You do not have the language.
Listen close, now. Listen and do not forget.
2. A Story
I read the story in a book when I am ten. There is a picture but I can’t understand it, not then: the woman tree, her reaching.
Once she was a nymph of Artemis. She roamed the woods. Free with her sisters. Freely alone. Once, the trees looked like shelter and she ran, naked, with the wind on her skin.
Then Apollo came into her woods. Shot with Cupid’s arrow, startling nymphs with his needing. He didn’t seem scary at first. He wasn’t Zeus, the woman-chaser, or Hades, kidnapper of virgins. He was the god of music and poetry. He was artsy. He was sensitive.
Still, he chased her. But who could believe it? So unlike him. Must be a mistake. Must be a misunderstanding.
Daphne, nymph of Artemis, roamer of forests, fleet-footed runner, is scared. She is running. He is chasing. She is tiring. She is sure she will be caught. She is calling for help. She is begging her father, the river god, to save her. We are no longer safe in these woods with the nymphs and the trees and the goddess — we are caught in the desires of powerful men. They make currents to sink us, whirlpools to swallow us whole.
What kind of father turns his daughter into a tree and thinks that is protection?
She is changing as I watch her. I cannot look away. I feel her bark edging over my skin. I feel limbs grow long. I harden. I feel feet sink down until I cannot move them. The wood masks my face. I hear my leaves rustle. I see the man coming. I am frozen in place.
He steals a lock of hair, a branch of leaves to make a crown. He shouts apologies. He weeps for what he’s done. But I have lost my girl shape.
When the first cat-call comes I am running, late, for my mother. Mothers wait and mothers worry and I don’t want my mother worrying. I run through the shadows of trees in a neighborhood that is peaceful and leafy and safe. The shout is out of place. The passing car is gone in seconds. But the shout lingers, a dissonance hung in the air. I won’t remember the words. I will always remember the feeling. Bark growing. The strangest sensation. Fear and strength at once. I stop running. Running makes them think that you want to be chased.
Breasts draw attention. Fleshy. Womanly. Escaping from barked-0 up neutrality. We are told even bra straps scream sex at the boys. Hide. Hide. Cover up. Eros is not to be toyed with. Keep the budding breasts concealed. What terrors they’ll bring if they blossom.
The kiss is quick, unwanted. The grab, the hold, the lurch of lips. New, wet, leach in my leaves.
Ass grab in bar. Who? Can we see? What would we do if we could?
The man lays himself in my bed and I curl myself small in the corner. Polite. Be polite. Good girl. Nice.
Come outside. Smile. Come with me. Smile. Kiss. Smile. Now. Smile. Fuck. Smile. Take it off. Smile. Smile. Smile. Hand
in hair on bus. Not mine. Stranger
hand. Eyes. Always
Words do not mean what they mean. No means maybe means yes. Stop means maybe means go. Maybe is not a word. Maybe is something invisible. In between. Unsure. Not certain. These words do not exist. These words default to yes.
the binarium. All this binomial business
does not mean what it means, means different to you. You say this word means extra-sexual woman, super-sexual woman. It means woman wanting sex with any everyone. And if there are no bounds on potential desire then she must desire you desiring her. This word means woman wanting all the time. It means “she likes it.” It means “she wants it, bad.” It means she must invite your leer, your touch, your kiss, your grab, your hard, hard
Push that word down into roots. Bury that word deep in the deep underground.
Father always said, tell women they’re beautiful. Had to come over and say it. Number now? Kiss? Fuck? Smile. I gave you a compliment.
Watching Titus. Smart women, grad school women. Watch a woman tied up, see her stand bearing arms replaced by tree limbs and blood. Such blood. There is Daphne in an image so inhumanly literal we cannot believe. Too fantastical, too familiar, too —
Roomful of women. Watch like witnesses. Can only try to talk about it after.
The student — the adult student — is angry. Looms while he tells me I don’t know what I’m doing, don’t understand, am not correcting correctly. His brilliance. My stupid. Door blocked by his body. Does the window open? Could I move if I had to or am I rooted in place?
Other students walk in. Man moves away. Hands shake for the rest of the hour. I teach over leaf-rattle nerves that no one hears but me.
It happens every term. Some version. Some old/new iteration. Listen to a roomful of women talk teaching and you’ll hear it repeat. Again and again. We rarely tell anyone. We start to see it as part of the job.
All the men are talking. About sexual harassment. Good liberal feminist men meaning well. They are having a serious discussion. About sexual assault. They are mourning fallen heroes. They mourn men they admired. Good liberal feminist men meaning well just like them. Sensitive men. Artsy men. Men of Apollo.
There are women in this room. We do not speak in words. We rustle our leaves at each other. We
try to meet eyes around bark.
The men watch us, expect explanation.
11. A Question
What can we say to you? You rose up through different dimensions. You turned into creatures apart. Words mean different to you. What root whispers, what leaf rustles, what branch groans, could you hear? You speak a different language. You do not have our words.
What if our foundational story of difference isn’t Babel, not the sin of aspiring skyward? Not Adam and Eve and the sin of seeking knowledge?
What if our story is Daphne and Apollo? Tale of power unacknowledged. Sin of power misapplied. Sin of power made to harm until, dividing, we change to each other.
Tell me what shapes you grow into. Men are animals. Chauvinist pig. Wolf in the hen house. Bear-wolf.
12. A Story
Our girls grow into trees. Subject to an ancient curse. Shaped by your burdens. Bearing those burdens in branches.
Too quiet. Too loud. Emotional. Bossy. Frumpy. Hysteric. Mom/whore. Smile/bitch.
We give you funhouse femininity. We give it just for you. Just because you threaten so nicely.
You don’t see the bark. You don’t see the branches. You don’t see the forests we make, the vast underground systems of roots we have built. Generation over fallen generation. Secret language
we push underground, so deep even we can forget it.
Fury of words. Fury of story. Fury that rends on the inside.
I dream in angry forests. Simmer of sap in deep winter. Awakening trees rising. Lifting battle
hardened roots to run. Not away. This time we run toward you. A whole forest of fury.