We came to an opening in the trees, a sun-bright glade in partial bloom. You went on ahead to greet the flowers, I paused at the forest edge to muse — not on nature’s wonders or the beauty before us, but on something you had said as we walked under the shadow of trees.
You asked if all the time we spent would lead to anything of substance. That’s not how you put it — you remarked on how we don’t make things — but that was the gist of your question.
All the answers I could muster sounded too simple, so I remained silent a while and listened to the woods instead, pausing as you crossed the glade. Then I followed you into the sunlight to say: “You raised a good point.”
“Oh? Look at this foxglove. I’ve never seen colors like this.”
You stood by a tall leafy stalk topped with a drooping cluster of flowers, tubular and flared at the ends, light orange outside and lavender inside, though lacking the typical pattern of dots in their throats.
“They’re shaped like hearts,” you said.
“Not like trumpets? I see a horn section here.”
You ran a finger along one of the soft flowers. “It would be a quiet orchestra — only bees could hear it.”
“Perhaps only bees deserve to hear it, as a reward for their hard work.”
“Because with all their flying about they manage to make honey.” Another hint of your concern.
“We have planted trees,” I said.
“But we didn’t make them. Or even grow them from seeds.”
“We had a garden once…” No longer. We were too often traveling — chasing rumors, encountering danger, flying about — so we let the ordered rows fall into disarray as nature reclaimed the tiny plot.
I leaned down and sniffed the flowers, to no effect. “We do things, and see things. We saved a whole mountain once. People hire us to go places.”
“And in all our adventures… what?” You plucked a leaf and spun it in your fingers. “We’re not creating or building anything, or making pieces of art… or baskets… figurines… toys…”
This notion arises in you at times, caused I suspect by a tidal pull when the moon moves into its nesting phase, aligned in some planetary beam, stirring an instinct I’ll never feel. I knew better than to offer solutions — we could take more pictures, collect souvenirs, write a book — that wasn’t the point.
“Even this plant can be made into medicine,” you said. “All we can do is tell friends about our travels, and they say ‘that’s nice, wish I could do that’.” You waved a hand in dismissal.
“Our friends who stay home because they have jobs and hobbies and kids in school…”
“They have something.”
“Yeah, safety. We’ve been attacked, abducted, and nearly killed more than once.”
“I admit, we have some good times.” You cupped a delicate flower in your hand. “But what do we have to show for it all? Nothing we can hold.”
You were right. Even the least-skilled artisan produces tangible objects that can be admired or cradled or put on a shelf to be dusted. Yet in time everything breaks, or wears out, or gets weathered down to sand and washes away to the sea. I tried to remind you of this.
“Still,” you said, “somebody made them and they existed, for however long.”
“We’ve talked of building a cabin.” That had potential.
“We’d never be there. No…” The moon slipped from the planet’s alignment and ticked into its next wavering phase. You shrugged off the waning effect. “Maybe someday.”
Our adventures and travels would have to suffice, for a while longer.
I didn’t mind. The thing about any experience is, it’s forever etched in the timeline of the universe, an entry in the Book of Existence. It will always have been. Even if we have nothing of substance to show for the hours we spend, tonight we can look back to the morning and say: We have lived this day. Often, that’s enough.
We both regarded the silent foxglove, enjoying a moment of watching the bees.
We thought the border guard was going to give us trouble. We had no visas, no letters of introduction, and certainly no official permission to enter the country. So as we walked up to the gate you said we should just nod and smile like we were on an afternoon stroll. It didn’t matter — the guard barely looked up from his book as he waved us through.
That’s how we snuck into Mrzdernistan — a tiny, unregistered country tucked unobtrusively among some forbidding mountain ranges east of Uzbekistan.
Hardly anyone knows it exists, because the citizens didn’t brazenly declare independence or hold a noisy revolution. They just elbowed their way in between a couple of countries in Central Asia and quietly set up shop — in a place where meddling Westerners can’t even pronounce the names — jotted down a constitution, elected a few folks to run the government, and went about their lives. Things are still pretty casual there, though I was sorry they don’t stamp passports so we could prove we had visited beautiful Mrzdernistan.
We had come to investigate reports about a type of tree that was either a new species or didn’t know how deciduous trees were supposed to behave. Instead of turning their leaves pretty colors in the fall and dropping them on the ground a few at a time, these trees lost all their leaves at once in the middle of summer, without warning.
And by “lost,” the eyewitnesses meant the leaves simply vanished. One minute they’re on the tree, the next, the branches are bare with not a leaf to be found anywhere.
“Well,” I said, “that would be convenient in the suburbs — no leaves to rake.”
“Why hasn’t anyone looked into this yet?” you asked.
“No research budget. Apparently the only scientist in the country is a retired geologist.”
You were thoughtful. “So they won’t be developing nuclear weapons anytime soon.” One less country to worry about on that front, for now.
Another bit of folklore — the trees shed their leaves on the second new moon after the summer solstice, so we arrived in mid-August, hoping to observe the phenomenon and see where the leaves went to hide.
The only car available for rent was a beige Yugo from last century. A bit cramped, the seat coverings were different colors, and the dashboard rattled like it was about to fall off, but the adorable little thing ran okay — it only took an hour to drive the ten kilometers to the woods and find the stand of trees we were looking for.
We pulled off the dirt road and onto a grassy meadow, but a trickling stream that ran along a deep ditch prevented us from going very far. We grabbed our equipment — a magnifying glass and a few containers for collecting samples — and started to walk toward the trees.
“Those look like beeches,” I said.
They had smooth, gray bark and bright-green leaves. Some of the trees were over thirty meters tall, rounded in shape with wide-spreading limbs, probably a couple hundred years old. Excellent shade trees, I thought — until all the leaves drop off, as they were expected to do at any moment now. The grove exuded a vaguely pungent odor, like the musky smell of termite mounds, but it wasn’t too bad.
We stopped at the largest tree, which stood in the meadow apart from the rest. It seemed healthy and strong, the bark was in good condition, and the crown was full of shiny leaves that sighed in the breeze.
“This would be a nice place for a picnic.” That was my scientific observation.
“It’s not a beech,” you said. “The leaves don’t alternate their pattern along the stems. See? In fact, they don’t seem to have any pattern at all.”
What self-respecting tree has randomly-spaced leaves? I reached up to the lowest branch and plucked off a few, collecting samples we could look at later. Then I snipped off a twig with about a dozen leaves on it and stuck it in a plastic bag. You searched the ground for evidence of fallen foliage but couldn’t find any.
“Ow!” I said. “What was—? Hey.”
One of the leaves was on my arm, and it had bit me! The end of its dark green stem had dug right into my skin so it appeared to be growing out of my arm. After the initial pinprick bite it didn’t hurt, so I grabbed the magnifying glass for a closer examination. You stood there watching.
The stem was actually the long, thin body of an insect and the leaf was its wings. The insect’s head and six legs formed a cluster at the tip of the stem, or body. It had stuck its nose in my skin and grabbed tight with its feet. I handed you the glass for a look.
“How did we not know this?” you asked.
I gently pulled the bug off my arm and placed it with the others. We both looked up into the branches at what must have been hundreds of thousands of leaf-like insects attached to the tree, with not one real leaf among them. We walked around and checked the other trees. Same thing.
Everyone’s seen pictures of stick bugs and other cool-looking insects that imitate plants to keep from being eaten by birds. But we’d never seen anything like this. It wasn’t just a few bugs camouflaged as leaves, but a grove of trees full of millions of insects that grow as leaves attached to the bark.
“They’re not leaf-bugs, they’re bug-leaves,” I suggested, trying to decide if that was a profound distinction or just a dumb way of saying the same thing.
You put one of the insects under the magnifying glass and crushed its wings between your fingers until they oozed green paste. “These have chlorophyll in them, I think. And the veins aren’t just decoration — they really are veins, like a leaf has.”
I leaned over for a sniff and got a noseful of a sour, acrid smell. “But it’s still a bug.” I refrained from putting it to my tongue, thinking it would probably taste like the exact opposite of fresh mint. Sensory analysis should only be taken so far.
The sun was dropping behind the high mountains, along with the new moon. We watched the last rays disappear before getting back to our investigation, figuring we still had a couple more hours of light left.
“What’s that noise?” I asked. The trees were starting to hum.
“They’re all flapping,” you said, pointing at some of the insects on the lower branches.
“You don’t think they’re getting ready to—”
“Back to the car, now!” We grabbed our stuff and ran across the meadow.
By the time we had tumbled inside the car, a cloud of green was rising from the trees. I took the passenger side and made sure our samples were safe. You cranked the engine and sent the vehicle bouncing over the grass and onto the dirt road. When I glanced back, half of the big tree was already stripped bare of its insect foliage.
“I guess we were here at the right time,” I said.
“They must have been triggered by the sun setting with the new moon.”
A few seconds later we were engulfed by the swarm. We thought it would fly right by us, but the insects had other ideas. The swarm veered around and flew at us in a fierce frontal attack. The windshield quickly became a gooey mess of bugs as we raced through them.
“I can’t see the road!” you said.
“You’re doing fine.” I couldn’t see anything either, but since you were driving I figured encouragement was the best strategy.
You flicked on the windshield wipers, which dragged themselves halfheartedly across the glass, but managed to clear a space we could see through. The hood was covered with the little biters, and I could hear them chomping on the roof.
“They’re eating the metal, I think.” We had to get out of the swarm before it chewed its way through the car.
“We’ll head for the sycamores,” you said, “if we can find them.”
We had passed a grove of sycamore trees on our way in and hoped they might lend us some shelter and help keep the insects away. We didn’t know if they’d be friendly to foreigners — if they were on the side of the bug-leaves, we were doomed.
“Stuck in a swarm of insects again,” I said, recalling a previous adventure. “How does this keep happening?”
“Those turned out to be drones. But yes, this does seem familiar.”
I looked out the side window at the green storm following us. “At least we know why all the leaves disappear now.”
You pointed ahead. “The sycamores. Grab our stuff, we’re going to have to run for it.” You swerved the car off the road and slammed to a stop next to the stand of trees. They were in full leaf, and many had wide trunks and sturdy branches. If nothing else, we could climb up to the higher boughs to seek protection from the swarm.
I filled my arms with everything we had brought, then at the last minute I remembered to grab the rental agreement from the glove box. We flung the doors open, leapt out of the car, and made a dash for the trees, batting our way through the insects that surrounded the car.
They ignored us. Now that the car was stationary, the bugs attacked it with renewed fury. It disappeared under a cloud of fluttering wings.
We watched helplessly from the safety of the trees while the ravenous insects ate holes in the body and tore into the frame. As they munched away at the car, their wings took on a dark gray color, then turned a rusty red.
“This must be part of their life cycle,” you said. “Eating metal.”
“I guess that’s how they get their iron — to grow into strong adults. A well-balanced breakfast cereal would also do the trick.”
In minutes the swarm had reduced the car to glass, upholstery and plastic, of which there was a surprising amount. An SUV would have provided a lot more nourishment, we agreed. Or maybe a 1950s Cadillac, if they had a taste for earlier vintages. The red-winged bugs had all flown off, sated. The green ones crawled over the remains looking for scraps, then left as well. The swarm was gone, the grove was quiet.
“They’ve completely destroyed the car,” I said.
“It’s a Yugo. No big loss.”
We enjoyed a pleasant walk back to town that evening, and mused on the enigma of the bugs.
We decided there’s a symbiotic relationship, where the insects provide the trees with food — using the chlorophyll in their wings for photosynthesis — and the trees provide the bugs with a place to stay and raise the kids, until swarming time. The adults probably lay eggs in the bark, then after those hatch the larvae attach themselves to the tree and grow into the leaf-like insects.
“Apparently,” you said, “the trees don’t produce any leaves on their own.”
“The lazy things.”
The next day we told the guy at the car rental place what had happened. We had to reimburse him, since we hadn’t taken out insect-damage insurance, but the car was only worth a few hundred dollars. We paid cash, American. He liked that.
We also stopped by the Mrzdernistan government offices and suggested how they could get rid of their scrap metal — by leaving it out on that meadow once a year about this time. The officials were skeptical at first, but they tried it the following year. It’s been their most effective recycling program ever.
When the crowd of trees tried to block us from reaching the lake’s edge, we knew they were hiding something. We intended to find out what, even if we had to chop them down one by one. At least, that’s what I had threatened.
“We’re not going to do that!” you said. “Besides, we didn’t bring an ax.”
“They don’t know that.”
“We’ll just have to convince them to let us through.”
We had been chasing rumors about a body of water that enraptured any creature who gazed into it. That’s all we knew, except that it was probably somewhere on the North American continent.
“Well, that narrows it down,” I had said. You nodded at my sarcasm as we pulled out maps to plan our expedition. We prefer rumors that are a bit less vague.
“Let’s start here.” You pointed to Minnesota. “It’s the ‘land of ten thousand lakes’ right? Maybe someone there has heard about the one we’re looking for.”
But we had no luck — being enraptured isn’t really a thing for Minnesotans, so no one knew what we were talking about. Though when I asked about lakes, a lot of the guys immediately brought up ice fishing, which was about as close as they got to a state of bliss, I suppose. I appreciated their soft-spoken enthusiasm, so that was my favorite part of the trip.
We needed a place with a bigger selection and headed north into Ontario where lakes breed like rabbits — there’s a quarter million of them there, containing about a fifth of the world’s fresh water. After weeks of talking to locals, scouring maps, studying the geological history, tracing waterways, learning about wildlife habits, and finally just using our intuition, we hired a plane to drop us off in the upper region of the province — south of some hills that wished they were mountains — and spent a few days hiking into deep wilderness.
On the fourth day, we came to a modest-size body of water surrounded by trees that were crowding in like eager fans around a rock star. They had come from all over to be near the lake and were jostling for position, shuffling forward, and blocking our view. We’d never seen anything like it.
“This is probably it,” I said.
You looked at the map. “It doesn’t even have a name, like it wants to be anonymous.”
We walked around the periphery, standing on our toes to get a glimpse of the water, but couldn’t find a path. The trees were so densely packed, their trunks were touching. We squeezed between a few pines, climbed up a poplar, crawled though the branches of a spruce, got stuck, shimmied to the ground, then got shoved back by some rather rude aspens and ended up where we had started. That’s when I mentioned chopping them down.
After some negotiating — and a bit of pushing — we were able to get through. But the trees had crowded in so close to the water, the shore all around the lake was just a narrow strip of rocky dirt.
“Maybe the water tastes better here,” I suggested. “Like a brewery that makes craft beers. Why else would it draw such a crowd? And it’s not even Saturday.”
“No. The water’s supposed to have a power over creatures that look into it.”
“The rumors said enrapture. I guess that’s a power, like enchantment. But trees? They can’t see into the water.”
“Maybe they feel it in their roots.”
We found a flat rock and knelt on it side by side. “Are you ready to be enraptured?” I asked. You gave me a skeptical look. “Well, I’m ready,” I said. Not really — I had no idea what to expect.
We leaned over the water and were immediately hooked.
In the reflection I saw someone that seemed to be me, but much better-looking — a few inches taller than my five-foot-eleven, well-built, broad shouldered and muscular. My face is okay in real life, but in the water my jaw was square, my light brown hair was styled and sexy, my hazel eyes were a piercing blue. I could have gazed into them forever.
I glanced over at your reflection, but didn’t see any difference. Your hair was still shoulder length, but for some reason you were combing it with your fingers as if it were down to your waist. And you touched your cheekbones like they were a prominent feature on your face.
Anyway, I wanted to look at my reflection some more, that handsome guy. But the water was doing something funny, swelling up just below me and distorting my lovely image. I tried to keep the picture clear, and was about to lean in farther when you tapped me on the arm. I shook off the enchantment and sat back on my heels, aching for one more look. The water calmed back down.
“Did you see me?” I asked, still intoxicated with my lake-induced vision. “I mean, wow.”
Your eyes had a faraway look. “She was perfect.”
“She? You mean you.” Then it hit me — they weren’t us, and we weren’t them. You had already figured that out. “Yes, I suppose she was. So was he.” I sighed. I’d never be that good looking. But maybe no one is, except in stories.
According to myth, Narcissus saw his own reflection in a pool and fell in love with it, because he was already quite attractive. But the water of this lake made anyone believe they were good looking, presenting an ideal image worthy of being gazed at. And we found that merely putting a hand in the water made us feel special, like we had achieved greatness, which is why the trees wanted to be so close. They weren’t immune to vanity.
“What if we drank the water?” I asked.
“We can try that experiment later, once we know more.”
We settled in to conduct our study. You pulled out your notebook, I took out my journal. We each jotted down our thoughts and observations — yours probably included a few drawings and equations, mine favored the literary approach. Such as:
Clouds floating by paused to admire their reflections below, seeing in the water perfectly puffy white forms, when they might actually be wispy and gray. They’d stop in mid-air, clustering in self-admiration above the lake until urged on by the wind, which might briefly look over its shoulder at the water, seeing itself as a sleek zephyr of crystal clear air even though it was hazy, humid, and a bit overweight.
Conjecture, sure. But we didn’t exactly conduct interviews or take measurements.
We soon discovered the lake’s sinister motive. That evening we sat with our backs against a couple of trees watching the shore for wildlife activity. Sunset colors still lingered in the western sky and the afternoon breeze had long since quieted down, leaving the water calm and glasslike. I’m quoting again from my journal.
A raccoon wound its way through the trees, trotted along the beach, and jumped up onto a rock at the lake’s edge. It made no pretense of hunting for fish or washing its hands. It just stretched itself out as far as it could over the water and stared down at its reflection without moving.
“He’s not even blinking,” you said.
“And I’ve seen better-looking raccoons.” It was an ugly creature with matted hair and an old wound on its cheek. But it must have been seeing another version of itself.
You pointed. “Something’s happening.”
The water had swelled into a bulge just below the raccoon, which cocked its head in confusion at the change in its reflection. It leaned farther down, its nose almost touching the surface. Without warning the water lunged upward, engulfed the critter in a bulbous trap, and dragged it under with barely a splash. A few bubbles broke the surface, then silence. The raccoon was gone.
“Well that explains a lot,” I said.
In a land where lakes are as plentiful as mosquitoes, there’s bound to be some variation in the species. Evolution demands it. Some lakes are big and deep, others narrow and shallow. Some are muddy, others reflect like mirrors. Some have nice personalities, others are born mean and stay that way no matter how you raise them.
And this particular lake had evolved a unique way of attracting victims — getting them to gaze at the water long enough for it to swallow them whole. Who knows what nature will come up with next?
You pursed your lips. “So it’s not vegetarian then.” Another observation for your notebook.
We decided not to drink the water after that. But we kept watching, and saw dragonflies hovering over the lake and getting grabbed by what we had first thought were leaping fish, but which were actually bulbs of water snatching the insects out of the air. Birds seemed adept at avoiding the danger — they’d learned to stay out of reach. I was happy for them.
The trees were saved by roots that gave them a firm grip on the shore. Otherwise, the lake would be stuffed with elms, pines, cedars and poplars. Or maybe it was carnivorous like you said and didn’t care for vegetation, even though pine nuts are pretty tasty.
We both wanted to take another look at ourselves in the water, but realized how close we had come to being pulled under during our bout of enrapturement.
“What if you tied me to a tree?” I suggested. “Like how Ulysses got tied to the mast, so when he heard the Sirens’ song he couldn’t jump into the sea and go after them.”
“The lake might know how to loosen ropes. I think we’ve seen enough.”
We prepared to leave. The trees were only too happy to let us back through so they could crowd forward into the space we had occupied. We never found out what a tree’s idea of its perfect self is. Probably something with no bark beetles, hardier roots, a taller trunk, brighter green leaves, maybe sturdier branches. I mean, who wouldn’t want stronger limbs?
We hoisted our packs, ready to start back. You were thoughtful. “Should I wear a sari and let my hair grow long? Maybe use makeup, like my cousins?”
That’s what you had seen in the water? The lake had gotten to you after all. I needed to break the spell, but how could I convince you I love you just as you are, without sounding trite or sentimental, or gushing about how perfect you are to me? That’s not my style, or yours. I had to appeal to your sensible nature.
“In the first place, it’s not practical.” I made a sweeping gesture that encompassed all the outdoors and all our adventures. Then I gripped you by the shoulders and looked straight into your eyes. “In the second place, no. Just… no.”