- Feedback for Episode 273
- Next week… You go to a coffee shop.
The Notebook of my Favourite Skin-Trees
By Alex Dally MacFarlane
The best part of these are the fruits, growing on their fat stem, dangling down the person’s back or from their arm. I always bow and smile, asking, “Can I taste one of your fruits? Bananas from a skin-tree are so sweet.”
So sweet and so small, a single mouthful.
I also enjoy the place where banana tree meets flesh, roots curving over and into the person’s limb — pressing my lips there, my tongue — and the small shade cast by the leaves.
Kim Cuc saw advertisements everywhere she looked in the walking street market, but only on the leaves of the skin-trees: names of shops and cafés and restaurants spelled out, Thai or English or other languages, in the bright white veins. Aside from the occasional cry from stall owners or vendors — “I have the finest grilled bananas in Chiang Mai! Come and taste!” — no other form of promotion cluttered the senses.
That had always been the intent of the skin-trees’ engineers and earliest supporters. Kim Cuc smiled often, seeing the remains of once-garishly lit billboards, or walls that several years earlier would have been covered in paper.
No smiles on this night.
She stopped every person with a skin-tree in the walking street market, to ask if they’d noticed strange discolourations on their leaves. “There is a sickness,” she said, putting urgency into the phrase she now knew in many languages, not just her native Vietnamese and second tongue English, “and it’s important to collect samples and data.” Into one of the notebooks carried under her arm, she noted the age and ethnicity of the person, the age and species of their tree, the company its leaves advertised — this for those whose trees remained healthy. In a second notebook, with frowning lizards on the spine, she noted the same information for those whose trees were not. There she added information about the duration of the discolourations, their colour and spread. Samples went into a third notebook, with little clips to fasten two pages together, and special paper to protect and preserve the leaves.
The lizard-spined notebook was not as full as the first, yet.
Late in the night, when vendors began packing away their wares, Kim Cuc followed the shoppers returning to their homes. She drank from the large bottle of nutrient-full water she always carried around. The durian tree growing on her left shoulder needed it.
She passed a stall selling Buddha-shaped lanterns, a popular tourist item. Some still glowed, yellowly and redly, and in their light she glanced at her durian. A brown circle, no greater in circumference than a joss stick, lay on the edge of one leaf.
“No!” she cried out.
The bright screen of her wrist-computer did not contradict the Buddha lights.
The banyan’s thick roots suggest a secret fluidity, like wax, uncommon to plants: frozen over Pitsamai’s shoulder, beginning where bone used to jut from her thin flesh, sliding down her shoulder blades, curling around her upper arm (carefully trained not to restrict movement), stretching across her collarbone and down her breastbone, down the neat lines of her ribs. They frame her right breast. I always think they will flow when Pitsamai is alone, even though she tells me this isn’t the case.
The thick leaves advertise Chiang Mai University. Veins curl in the letters in Thai and English, artificially white against dark green. Pitsamai loves her university.
The tangled trunks rise from her shoulder, as tall as her forehead. Aerial roots dangle from its branches, always reminding me of hair (sometimes tangling with Pitsamai’s hair), and they are my favourite part. I always tilt my head when I kiss Pitsamai’s lips, so the aerial roots brush my cheek. When I kiss the base of the tree, that special place where root is fixed to flesh, the aerial roots tangle in my hair.
I considered, years ago when no skin-tree grew on me, acquiring a banyan. Perhaps it’s retained its allure because I have to be with Pitsamai or another of my girlfriends to enjoy it: a double pleasure, like spicy meat inside a rice ball.
“I am worried,” Pitsamai, biological engineer at Chiang Mai University, said in English.
“Oh, don’t say that!”
The previous night, Kim Cuc had torn off the infected leaf and fastened it in her third notebook. She’d written in the lizard-spined one, summarising this latest infection. By the light of glowing Buddhas, she’d wiped the tears from her cheeks and pretended the sickness was only a small thing, a two-hour stomach upset among the skin-trees.
The look on Pitsamai’s face when she took the leaf from Kim Cuc’s notebook ended that flimsy lie.
They stood on the edge of Pitsamai’s lab, where the Asian skin-trees had been created. Behind them were rows of tables, glass equipment, remote-controlled machines that tended to the cultures and plants in secure and biohazard cabinets. One of Pitsamai’s colleagues sat at a table, inputting data to a computer. Graphs arced across its screen.
Several specimens in the cabinets — skin-trees grafted to synthetic limbs — bore the dark marks of the disease.
“It’s beginning to spread very quickly,” Pitsamai said, “and in many parts of the world. Örn is seeing them in Iceland now. Neroly in Venice has begun a clinic, and noticed a dramatic rise two days ago — partly due to people only just hearing about the clinic, only just getting concerned, but many were new. This afternoon I v-chatted to one of the first cases in Australia. Half the leaves on his tree are brown and shrivelling. I think the skin-trees will die from this.”
Skin-trees were not meant to do that before the person’s death.
Kim Cuc played with the amulet at her throat, hating the nausea that wriggled in her belly like a troublesome naga. “What more can I do to help?”
“Keep collecting samples for me. Talk to some of the older cases in your notebook.” Pitsamai tangled her fingers into Kim Cuc’s. “I know it will be hard, seeing their trees so ill, but I need to know if any of them have managed to
About the Author
Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian. When not researching narrative maps in the legendary traditions of Alexander III of Macedon, she writes stories, found in Clarkesworld, Interfictions Online and the anthologies Phantasm Japan, Solaris Rising 3 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2014. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters(2013) and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (2014). In 2015, she joined Sofia Samatar as co-editor of non-fiction and poetry for Interfictions Online. For Tor.com, she runs the Post-Binary Gender in SF column.
About the Narrator
Pamela Quevillon is a reader who has been falling hard into books her entire life. She narrates her on Escape Pod, and hosts Story Time on Twitch every school night. As StarStryder, she reads classic fiction and hopes you’ll be as reluctant to put down your headphones as she is to put down the pages.