The girls of the arboretum are just girls. Nothing more, nothing less. They do not speak to one another. Why would they? The wind blows through their branches. Everything that must be said has already been said. The world is over four billion years old.
When no one is watching, the girls pluck spider webs from each other’s hair and stretch the silk across the grass, blade to blade. They spend hours measuring the spiral burrs of a pine cone. In moonlight, they find constellations within the veins of Maple leaves. The girls of the arboretum have not yet discovered the stars.
The horticulturalist is a kind old man with creaky knees and eyes that water. At night he needs an oxygen mask to sleep. The girls would be baffled by the need if they could see. Sometimes, he leaves the girls presents of honey and bread, fruit and soda pop. He snips their branches, kisses their knuckles with his shears. The girls of the arboretum would forgive him anything.
His apprentice, a handsome young man, does the heavy lifting. He plants, prunes, sprays, waters and weeds. He digs holes and forces roots down. He sees the apprentice trying to root a branch and places a hand on the apprentice’s shoulder.
Not like that, the horticulturalist says, like this, and splits the band of bark between two girdling cuts on the branch. Never cut into the wood. They feel it.
The apprentice takes a deep breath in through his nose. He’s sick of the horticulturalist warning him to stay away from the girls.
They are beautiful, the old man says. But consider the Foxglove. Lily of the Valley. Consider Delphiniums. All lovely, all deadly.
The apprentice complains to coworkers that the horticulturalist must go. He is too old. He speaks of plants like a lover. He loves the trees too much.
Trees are just trees, he says. Even when they are clothed as girls. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The apprentice thinks the girls are wild like a rabbit is wild, like a heartbeat or a sagging Willow. He is right. The horticulturalist thinks the girls are wild like a storm is wild, like a cancer or a redwood. He is right.
The girls of the arboretum make a game out of everything. They stand at pond’s edge, peek over hedgerows, run through open woodland. Tools go missing only to be found hidden deep in the briars or in the hollows of dead trees.
The girls braid their hair beneath the honey locusts and eat ripe watermelon, seeds, rinds and all. They kiss one another with mouths full of melon. They know the apprentice watches them.
The girls feel his gaze like the silk of the webworm. He defoliates them with his eyes. When he approaches, the girls become deer, tip top white tails, thin legs. They fall to all fours and scatter. The apprentice laughs and a dozen black eyes turn to stare at him.
The apprentice is not afraid. After all, what is frightening about a tree or a deer or a girl? But the horticulturalist is aghast. Never laugh at the girls. Offer them sweets if you have wronged them. Leave them be.
But, as he works, the apprentice imagines tying the girls of the arboretum down, forcing their roots into place. When they steal his trench spade, he spends the afternoon hunting it and pictures burning the girls, blighting them, cutting them down. If they were gone, the horticulturalist would go too. It’s all he thinks about anymore. It spurs him to action.
It’s so simple, the apprentice rationalizes. You cannot allow disease to take hold in the forest. It will spread, root to root. The girls are a disease. Nothing more, nothing less.
The horticulturalist watches his apprentice walk down the path to the tree line, ax in hand. The old man rushes to his office and grabs a basket. He fills it with whatever he can find in the kitchen: apples, green grapes, a half-eaten chocolate bar. As he runs down the path, he scoops up acorns and adds them to the basket.
It is too late. The girls are naked, their skin full of splinters and barbs. They have hearts of ash, black poplar and oak. The apprentice stands before them, jaw tight. He grips the ax with a righteous fist.
The horticulturalist loves the girls of the arboretum, he would do anything for them. He always keeps his tools sharp; he never prunes in the fall. He watches carefully for pests. But the girls are wild like a rain drop is wild. Rain drops build and build. They become a swollen river. Water will not be denied.
When the screaming starts, the horticulturalist drops the basket, spilling his offerings across the bed of pine needles and crisp leaves. He walks away slowly. He does not to worry for the girls. They have called the apprentice to them. The girls of the arboretum never summon what they cannot banish.