“Let Down, Set Free” by Nino Cipri
I figure you’ll be the first person they’ll call. The ink’s barely dry on our divorce papers, after all, and you’re still listed as my next-of-kin. Hell, the state hasn’t even sent me the new house title yet, the one with only my name listed on it, all by its lonesome self. In some bureaucratic parallel universe, we’re still living together in wedded bliss. Ha!
Now, I told myself that this letter wouldn’t be bitter, but that’s probably a lie. I told myself that it would be straightforward, and then laughed at the audacity of that fib. You always liked to accuse me of talking around subjects, and I never could disagree with you. But that’s the nice thing about a letter: it provides a captive audience. No interruptions, no impatience, no eye rolling at my digressions. You’re just going to damn well let me tell this story in my own time.
So here’s the first thing: the floating trees. Have you been following this story? I wasn’t, though I know more about them now, obviously: big-ass seedpods that looked just like a milkweed fluff, only grown to the size of an oak tree. Grey-brown network of flat, feathery branches, dense as a cloud and just as light, carrying around a dark seed that’s the size of a truck tire. More of them after every full moon, floating in the air with the greatest of ease. They’ve been spotted everywhere from the Carolinas to Florida, but nobody’s sure exactly where they’re coming from, or what kind of plant they grow into.
Personally, I was too busy being miserable to pay much attention. Getting a divorce doesn’t leave much room for other concerns, at least for me. When you can see the rest of your lonely life stretching out ahead of you like some rusty railroad tracks, everything else sort of fades into the background. Until this afternoon, anyway.
I still take my walks up to the cliffs by the river, every day, just after lunch. It clears my head. The house is so quiet now without you in it. I’m used to constantly hearing your godawful hillbilly music from some hack that should be shot for his crimes against the mandolin. Anyway, I was on the part of the trail that butts up against the Morgan’s property when I spotted a floating tree in one of their pastures. Some of the branches were caught in the fencing wire. It had thoroughly spooked Nancy’s quarter horses, who were all crowded against the far edge, snorting and eyeballing the invader.
I decided to let Nancy know. It was only neighborly, after all. And I know I’m not much of a neighbor, but Nancy’s been sending her grandnephew over to mow the front yard, since it became apparent I wasn’t going to do it after you left. Half the neighbors avoid me, like having your husband run off with one of his interns is a contagious disease, while the others keep offering to set me up with bachelor cousins or uncles. Nancy just sends over a fine-looking college boy to mow my lawn in his bare chest once a week. Bless that woman.
Nancy opened the door, and after exchanging the necessary pleasantries about the lovely spring weather and all, I told her, “There’s one of them floating tree in your east pasture. The horses are pretty spooked.”
“Oh, sugar,” said Nancy. “Let me get my boots on.”
We walked together back to the pasture, chatting amiably about her grandnephew and the price of gasoline and what-all else. I do still love the way Kentuckians talk, sweet and smooth like their whiskey.
We crested the slight rise that led to her east pasture, and Nancy jumped a little when she saw the tree, caught against the fence.
“Oh!” she said. “Oh, it’s so…”
She couldn’t seem to think of an adjective, and neither could I, so I nodded and said, “It sure is.”
Even though I can describe all the features of a floating tree, it’s hard to describe how this one made me feel. I’d seen the footage of them moving through a landscape of blue sky and clouds – but the shots don’t give you any sense of scale, the enormity of it, how it was constantly in motion, straining to catch the smallest breeze. Remember when we went to Paris for our tenth anniversary, and I dragged you to the Louvre? That statue, the headless one with the wings: we must have stared at it for twenty minutes, longer than anything else. And I’ve seen pictures since, but nothing has moved me the way seeing it in person did. The tree had that kind of presence.
“It’s lovely,” she said, and I could tell she meant it, that she felt the same way that I did. “I didn’t know they were so…”
“It seems such a shame to burn it,” she said.
“What? Burn it?” It seemed like blasphemy, Bobby. More than that, it just seemed cruel. I felt such an odd surge of protectiveness for the thing.
“Well, sure, honey. That’s what the government said to do with them if one landed on your property. Call it in to some hotline and then burn the thing so it don’t germinate.”
It seemed like one thing too much. I could handle the divorce, the quiet of the days and nights spent alone. I could handle knowing I’ll probably die a lonely old woman, stuck on this piece of property I’ve won as a consolation prize for our failed marriage
But I could not stand to let this tree go up in flames, just because the wind died in the wrong place. I’d have rather seen our house burn down – all the last reminders of the years we scraped some happiness together – than that tree.
“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t call it in. I’ll take care of it somehow.”
Nancy looked at me, probably thinking that I couldn’t even take care of my own damned lawn without her help. But she put up both her hands and said, “Tell you what. I’m gonna move my horses over to the north pasture. Get it out of my fencing wire and then we’ll figure something out.” She smiled at me, and then went to chase down one of her horses, who’d all been watching us from the far side of the field.
It took me twenty minutes to untangle the thing from the fence. The seed felt warm in my hands, probably from sitting in the sun. Its branches waved and rustled above my head. What would it be like, I wondered, to see it planted? What kind of soil did it need to set down roots? What would it grow into?
My hands on the smooth, wrinkled casing of the seed; my fingers wrapped around the rough bark of the trunk. Tell you this, Bobby: it felt like touching a lover for the first time. Not in the heat of sex, but in that giddy flush when you realize youcan touch someone, as much as you like. Now you’ve got permission, and you can run your hands over his shoulder or slap him on butt when he gets fresh while you’re cooking dinner.
After I got it free, the wind picked up, and the seed nearly lifted itself out of my arms. I latched onto it, and it damn near pulled me off my feet.
I suppose that’s where I got the idea. Where the seed of it germinated, you might say.
(I always hated your puns, Bobby, but I find I miss them.)
I looked up into the sky through those gray branches, with that seed pressing warm against my belly and chest, and I felt like – well, the way I’d felt with you, about a million years ago. Young and alive and ready to make some real questionable choices.
“Melissa,” Nancy said from behind me. “You get that tree free yet?”
I suppose I don’t have to tell you that I was a little embarrassed to be caught feeling up a floating, alien tree.
“It nearly got away from me,” I said.
Nancy came and stood next to me. “I thought that was the idea.”
I looked back up into the crown of the tree, feeling all jumbled up inside. “It should be free,” I said.
“It’ll just set down in someone else’s yard,” Nancy said. She was carrying a leather lead in her hand, and she swung it against her leg thoughtfully. “Seems a shame.”
“A damn shame,” I sighed. Then I confessed, “I’m getting an idea. A real dumb idea.”
“Are you, now,” Nancy said. “‘Cause I think I’m getting a similar one.”
We looked at each other: two old women standing in muddy meadow. And after a second, we both grinned. Nancy handed me the lead, and I lassoed it around the trunk of the tree. Together, we towed it back to her barn.
When Nancy offered me “Tea, or something stronger?” I took her up on the latter. We sat on her front porch, drinking her husband’s bourbon. We’d roped the tree behind her barn, hidden from the road, and I could just see the tops of its branches.
“It’s picking up some,” Nancy said. “The wind.”
I nodded. I’d noticed.
“I got an old saddle that I wouldn’t miss,” she added.
“Lord, Nancy.” I set my glass of bourbon down. “Are we really gonna go through with this damn fool idea?”
“Not we, girl. Just you. God knows I can barely keep my seat on a horse these days, and they’re stuck on the ground. You’re young enough to make it work, though.”
She didn’t add anything else, but I know what she was thinking: she had Tom to think of, and her kids, and the nieces and nephews and grand-nephews and all. If I got killed, only you and Nancy would mourn me. The rest of my family would think it’s only what I deserved for running off with a balding hillbilly from Bumfuck, Kentucky.
(Mother’s words, dear. Not mine. I always thought your receding hairline made you look sophisticated.)
I had nothing and nobody. And instead of feeling trapped by that thought, God help me, I felt freed by it.
“I’ll fetch that old saddle, soon as you’re done with your drink,” Nancy said. “You can get the wheelbarrow out of the barn.”
I went home long enough to pack a little bag: granola bars, raincoat, wool blanket, all the rope I could find, and a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, because if I was going to die doing this crazy thing, I sure as hell wasn’t going to die sober. And I packed a picture of us, because even though I’d as soon spit as look at you most days, I’m still a sentimental old woman.
The moon was coming up as we wheeled the seed up to the cliffs that overlook the river, a fat and generous moon just a few days past fullness. It took ages to get there, trying to keep the tree’s branches from getting tangled up in the maples and oaks along the path. Each step we took, I tried to talk myself out of this stupid, dangerous plan. I’d likely kill myself. At the very least, I was certainly breaking some law or another, and it’s impossible to think that nobody would notice. And yet, we kept walking, listening to the music of the hollow branches rustling against each other.
By the time we arrived at the cliffs, the moon was high above the horizon, and the sun was just sinking below it. Come summer, these cliffs will be populated with locals, mostly teenagers. They’ll sunbathe, dare each other to jump into the water. Maybe some of them will sneak back here after dark to get drunk, fool around. You and I walked up here together, when we were first looking at buying the house, and again just after we’d bought it: we made love just like teenagers, only with better booze and less fumbling.
But it was never our spot, despite that. It was always mine, where I took my bad moods and suspicions and tears. And now I carried this strange invader, a tree-sized seedpod that even now was catching the strengthening wind.
I set the seed down on the ground, only a few feet from the edge of the cliff, keeping one hand on the rope we’d lashed around the trunk, just like a pair of reins.
“Ready?” Nancy said.
“Like hell,” I answered. She held out her hand, and I took it. The old hag even had the gall to slap my butt as I got into the saddle we’d roped onto it.
We sat there, the tree and Nancy and I, considering the edge of the cliff.
“I feel like a damn fool,” I said. I touched the tree for reassurance, trying to pull back some of the warm glow that had infused me back in the pasture. Lord, maybe this was why the government was telling people to burn the things. The trees got inside your head, inspired you to all kinds of foolishness.
“Well, you look–”
I never got a chance to find out what Nancy thought I looked like. A gust of wind picked the tree and I up and tossed us into the air.
I screamed as we tumbled over the edge of the cliff. I shut my eyes, pressing my face into the seed’s trunk, the stiff fibers scratching my face. I might have peed myself the tiniest bit.
I realized that I wasn’t falling, though. I opened my eyes, still clinging to the trunk of the tree, and looked cautiously around. We were floating, a few dozen feet above the river, level with the canopies of all the earthbound trees rooted below. As the wind picked up, the seed tilted, catching the passing breeze in its branches, lifting us higher. I sucked in lungfuls of the night air as we drifted, my weight an apparently negligible addition in the face of the strong wind.
Nancy was whooping it up on the cliff, just like one of the teenagers that haunts it in the summer. As I looked back and waved, she fell back onto her butt, hands at her mouth as she watched. She got smaller and smaller, then disappeared entirely.
I have never believed it when people said you should never look back. When we took off, the tree and I, I craned my neck until I could see our house – and it’s still ours, even though that new deed is probably in the mail. It looked tiny from up here: all those times when I’d rattled against its walls like a marble in an otherwise empty box, they shrank in my memory as the house shrank in my sight, and eventually, they’ll both recede into nothing at all.
We left the river behind and floated onwards, on a northeast bearing. Now, we’re floating above the green Kentucky hills that you love so much. I’ve never managed to drum up anything more than vague ambivalence for them, at least not before now. Bathed in the moonlight, they look as beautiful as you always said they were. Even the fields of soybeans, the rusting trucks and trailers propped up in dirt driveways, the giant Wal-Mart with its acres of asphalt parking lot: it’s all lovely, given a little bit of distance and a healthy dose of moonlight.
I don’t know where we’re going to set down. And I don’t know what will happen when we do. Hell, Bobby, I’m not 100% sure I haven’t hallucinated this whole thing, and I’m really writing you from some state mental hospital. It seems more likely than me scrawling this on a clipboard, set against the pommel of a saddle that Nancy and I roped to a thick branch on a damn floating tree.
I tell you, though: I feel a lot lighter than I did when I was still on the ground. And when we do set down, if it’s a good enough place, I’ve got a mind to dig a hole for this seed, to cover it over with dirt, and see what grows. Maybe we can both put down some roots.
Not all my love, but probably more than you’d guess,
About the Author
Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago. A graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Nino’s fiction has been published in Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, and Daily Science Fiction. Nino has also written essays, plays, reviews, screenplays, and radio features; performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer; and worked as a backstage theater tech.
One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.