The houses in South Dakota were worse than I expected. People told us before we moved how the wind in the north prairie states had gotten vicious from the sudden lack of trees and tall foliage, but I didn’t realize how bad. I didn't realize it would feel so much like waves, big angry breakers smashing against me, heavy and full of ice even though it was already April. Most buildings were capped with a Plexiglass-ceramic hood covering all but one wall, the one with the door, from peak to ground. Pane windows had been replaced with convex plastic portholes, like tiny aquariums with people’s faces swimming in them.
“They look like bomb-shelters,” I said as we drove past a cluster of them, a neighborhood of sorts. “Like alien igloos from Plastic Planet.”
“Ours doesn’t look much different.”
You sighed and raised your eyebrows at me, like a father, but I slumped in my seat and imagined posing with you in front of our shiny round house, grinning like it was exactly where I wanted to be.
It wasn’t until a couple of months after we moved in that you got clearance to show me your research forest. It used to be part of a national park, with a mountain trail, a lake with a dock and a little gift shop/café, but it had been closed for years because of the massive fire hazard. We hiked for more than an hour, the sun swollen full at the peak of sky. The wide gravel path, closed to everyone but you and your research team, was lined with stark ash-colored pines, naked and uniform as telephone poles. At the lookout point, I climbed up the jutting rocks after you, watching the muscles in your calves bunch and tighten with ease, feeling the warm ache and tension in my arms as I pulled myself up beside you. I felt like I could fling myself out into the rushing wind, into all that space, and never come to the end of it.
“There it is,” you said, pointing out your test forest. “From that edge there, to that ridge.” The miles of pine swept away beneath us, iron grey cut through with thin swaths of rust, the forest so bare I could see the ground even from this height. I watched for movement, the gold silk shadow of a cougar. Despite the endless articles my GoogleYou displayed each hour about how mountain lions were moving closer to cities, forced south in a search for food and cover, I had yet to see one. At least the updates on the species’ looming extinction gave our dinner conversations a topic besides my nonexistent sculptures or your trees.
I half-listened while you told me the orange trees were pretty much dead, leftovers from the insecticide sprays before the FDECA got involved. Since there hadn’t been much success with GMO versions of the pines with insecticide implanted right into the tree’s DNA, science was now looking for mutations to deal with the crisis.
“Enter my husband,” I said, “the mad scientist ubermensche.”
You grinned and shook your head, a little too pleased with what I meant as sarcasm, and I got that resentful itch in my throat, that feeling of being on a field trip with teacher, and turned away, rubbing the tips of my left-hand fingers against the inside of my right palm.
About a month before, I’d found a callus on my index finger while I was unpacking, a little dome of skin, white and brittle as an eggshell. I thought it was just a flake of clay from the pots I’d been messing around with, but of course, it wasn’t. It felt like it was hooked in with little claws, or actually part of my skin, and when I tried to rip it off it bled under the edges, like a scab.
But I didn’t say anything then, and in the next month, while we unpacked and shopped for the things we’d left, while you got to know the other researchers in your lab and I started sketching out my next series of sculptures, following a rough theme of neutron stars, nebulas and collapse/renewals, while we called home to friends and parents about our new place, our new lives, I ignored the callus, and it spread, little dots of stiffness rising, until by that day, the upper halves of all the fingers on my left hand had been enclosed in calcified skin.
“But it’s not all doom,” you said. “Saplings are popping up in places the fungus is supposed to have already killed all the trees. They don’t make it far but some of the saplings are blue from the beginning, like they’re coming from infected seeds.”
“So the seeds aren’t actually from dead trees?” I asked.
You shrugged. “It could be the trees are adapting, coming back for a little bit, or dropping seeds even while they’re dying.” You grinned and pretended to gnaw the top of my head. “Zombie trees. Sort of.”
“Why don’t they just burn the dead forests?” I asked. “Boom. Dead beetles, clear land, everything fixed.”
“Are you kidding?” You laughed. “Think of how big that fire would get, more than half the continent is covered in dead trees. It would kill everything in its way.”
“Well, the London fire stopped the black plague,” I said.
“Yeah, but the plague killed more people than the fire,” you said. “So far, this is only killing trees.”
It was that night I finally showed you my hand. You’d been working a lot, and hadn’t noticed somehow, and I’d made sure to not touch you with it. The local doctor said essentially nothing, I told you, except here’s a specialist I know, call him, I’ve never seen anything like that.
You hugged me against the kitchen counter. “Make an appointment, call him tomorrow.”
“I made one.” I pushed against you a little, needing air. “In Omaha, day after tomorrow.”
“Can you drive?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes. I’m not dying.”
You put your chin on my head, trapping my face against your neck, and offered to take off work to go with me, even though you were leaving for a three-day helicopter tour of some forests in Saskatchewan. I’d helped you pack a duffel for the trip and you could barely sit still, describing the infrared goggles that translate a tree’s stress level in waves of colored light, turning the still struggling pines into candles against the dead grey ones.
And when you left the next morning, I hugged you and wished you miles of bright yellow trees to burn out your corneas and short-circuit your brain. You smiled and wished me a know-it-all doctor who would be bored with my mundane condition. But, of course, we both knew better.
It turned out the specialist could barely contain his excitement, and chipped away skin samples with a tiny chisel, promising to send them to every major disease lab he knew. Later, he wouldn’t be so modest and I would leave some appointments with deep pocks gauged out of my nerveless arm. Not once in that first four-hour exam did he hint my disease could become more than an embarrassment, the cause of scars difficult to explain at parties after too much wine. I suppose I didn’t ask many questions either.
It wasn’t until the beginning of November that my doctor told me what the lab results found—nothing, except that it’s a new disease. He started talking about comparable diseases, ossification, experimental treatments. I started taking baths, scalding myself in the plastic tub for hours, something I’d never had patience for before. Despite our little house’s calculated design, it felt like a basement, and I could never get rid that still, settled cold.
A week before I started my first round of experimental antibiotics, I made a list of things I couldn’t do until I got healed, ranging from rock climbing to typing faster than twenty words per minute to sculpting the intricate stretched-wire and bead messes I’d been goofing around with.
“Maybe this will at least make me focus on real sculpting,” I said, but you didn’t take the bait, only remarked I’d never wanted to go rock climbing before.
“Remember,” you said, “you backed out on the course I wanted us to take in college. You said the practice walls looked like gum stuck to the wall in the subway.”
The next morning, I found a fake certificate for a course at a jock-gym nearby on the bathroom counter, the hokey baby-blue script proclaiming me entitled to three months of clinging like a beetle to plastic walls while body-builders stare at your butt.
“Is this a threat?” I yelled.
“It’s a challenge,” you called from the kitchen, and I kept it tacked it above my worktable for months.
The night before my first skin graft, before the doctors chipped away a band of skin around my forearm and replaced it with someone else’s skin, you cooked my favorite pine-nut and red-pepper pasta dish, and we drank heavy dark wine and didn’t say much while we ate. It was mid-December, and snowing gently, though I knew just thirty feet out, past our windbreak wall, the wind could knock me over with enough force to break a bone.
The plan, my doctor told me, was to start with skin grafts, removing and replacing the newly hardened skin to stall the spread while they researched more aggressive treatment. My disease had no name, no known cure, and was progressing faster than the doctors expected, the skin cells calcifying at a rate similar to the growth of cancer cells. He scanned my stiffened arm with an infrared camera to show me, in splashes of lurid green projected onto my white skin, how my limp, atrophied muscles were stiffening too, but at a much slower rate.
I worried about the pain, but more, and this was hard to admit, about how different the donated skin would look from my own.
“It could take years,” you said. “You probably have years and years for them to figure this thing out.”
We were lying, spent, on the old Persian rug I’d doggedly cleaned, rolled, and bagged each move. Sex with you had become a tentative thing, and though I felt more and more each time I wanted to break you, to wrench your head back by your hair, you’d become so cautious of me ever since that first operation, though the shiny new skin was only a three-inch wide band. The graft had been successful, and we had celebrated, but earlier that week I had noticed the edges hardening, the slightly-too-olive shade of the stranger’s skin blanching to a softer pale to match the calcified skin around it.
“I won’t be able to move,” I said. “You’ll have to feed me through a tube.”
The stiff silk strands that felt so plush under my feet scraped the fragile skin on my face, stinging, and I rubbed my cheek back and forth. The world outside had become a searing, colorless blur of cold and noise overnight, one I was afraid to go out into, and only watched from the window. Neither of us had ever lived this far north, and already people were predicting the worst winter in forty years. Your beetle team was ecstatic, cheering on the incomprehensible cold while you shot pine cells with gamma rays all day, looking for mutations. The climate change to slacker winters and dryer summers had been major factors in the plague, and you told me the four months of permafrost was the beginning of the end.
I stopped tracing the scrolls and vines of the rug, and turned in your arms to touch your hair, my hard fingertips rapping against your skull. You caught my hands, holding them against your temples, and kissed the inside of my wrist, the stone one. I could never shake the feeling I might give my disease to you, though the doctors told me over and over it wasn’t contagious.
“It could go slow,” you said again, desperate. “It might take years.”
“No,” I said. “I hope it goes fast.”
The disease crept past that graft and began crawling across my elbow, making my left hand twice as heavy. Sculpting wasn’t impossible, but by dinnertime each night my entire arm became one pulsing, cramping muscle, the pain shooting up my shoulder to fan across my scapula. I scrapped model after model, most of them unfinished, and my idea for the exhibit theme kept changing. Some days I couldn’t look inside my workspace, and some days I didn’t leave it, and you would bring me a plate of food before leaving me in silence. Those were good days. I only finished three models by January, all continuous nestled-ring systems, out-flung orbits on a nucleus, a tightening knot. I didn’t even bother looking into foundries close by, though, just started sketching new projects.
The second graft was tricky—a re-patching of my elbow, preceded by daily collagen and elastin shots and two types of antibiotics that made me sick to my stomach during the ice and needle-sleet of early January. This time, it took longer to fail and I worked frantically, my jaw locked shut like the frozen ground outside.
The sun began to disappear at three in the afternoon, and in the dark, the rooms with their sloping brick walls grew cavernous, swelling and bowing out until my ears rang with the echoing dead space, the growing silence, and on those days, I locked myself in the bathroom with all the lights on, the water blistering my still healthy skin and thawing the slush in my veins back to blood.
When spring came, it turned out that the beetle army was only stalled by the cold, and they resumed their march. The winter seemed to have sped up my disease, though. When the second graft failed, the stiffening spread across my upper body, the texture and toughness reminded me of leather, dunked in water then molded into a shape and left to dry. The skin wrinkled slightly at first, like paint, and tightened, drawing my breasts up, deforming them, puckering the fragile skin at the base of my throat. In this stage, I couldn’t touch my own skin without gagging. It was a strange relief as the wrinkles smoothed, the texture turning to porcelain, the final stage at least not hideous.
“What does it feel like,” you asked one night, tracing the ridges of tendons in my left wrist, where the disease had seeped down to bone level. “Like a cast? Like you’re trapped?”
I thought about how to say it, to make it sound less terrible, but something made me say, “No, it doesn’t feel like anything. Just a dead arm.”
On the way to my third graft, you were silent, but kept your hand on the back of my neck, fingers skimming under the knit collar of my sweater, sliding across the smooth, cold skin. My nerves barely registered the pressure. Ten months after our move here, the skin across my collarbone and shoulders had become creamy and hard, like a polished marble, giving a whisper of translucence.
I knew you were worried about your grant funding getting extended, but still, you abandoned precious hours in the lab to drive me to all the way to Omaha. By now, my disease had advanced far enough that while I could still clench the fingers in my right hand, my shoulder rotation was mostly gone, and after two failed grafts, several series of experimental antibiotics, a round of radiation and even chemical peels, I just wanted this to work.
At this point, though, I figured we all knew better. The diseased skin now reached across my left shoulder and upper back, down across the top of my breasts. What would happen when it reached my heart, my lungs?
After I was prepped and you went back to the waiting room, before the anesthesia kicked in, I watched the doctors washing and laying out delicate chisels and long curved blades, remembering the day two weeks before when I tripped as I ran up and down the basement stairs during one of my frantic attempts to exercise. I’d knocked my elbow hard against the edge of the kitchen counter, and watched the seeds of blood push out along the hair-width crack in my skin, swelling until gravity pulled them free. I touched the little spats of red, rubbing them between my fingers, looking for a difference—a thicker consistency, chalky clumps, something. But it had seemed like normal blood—deepening red, a sticky film forming. I tried to imagine how much I would bleed during the operation, and wished I could stay awake to see it.
And when I woke up, what felt like months later, it still felt miraculous, what these doctors could do. Even though twice I’d felt the donated skin turn chalky and hard at the edges, until I could barely see the needle-fine seam where the edges had been pieced together, even though I expected this attempt to end the same way, it was just as strange and holy.
Before I was discharged the next day, my doctors were already discussing other options, other research hospitals. I asked for a list of doctors in warmer places. They sent me home with vitamins, to wait and check the new skin every day.
It took me two weeks to sell most of my completed models online, piecemeal, to private buyers or universities—none of them very prestigious sales. I saved my favorite, got it cast in pale bronze, and sent it to my parents.
“I thought you were going to have a show,” you said when I told you at dinner.
“That would take ages to put together, lots of time and energy.” I was careful to keep my voice matter-of-fact, casual as possible.
“I can help. I would help. You know that.”
“You don’t have time either.”
You reached under your glasses to rub your eyes, and something in my stomach clenched hard, like a fist. I stood and started clearing dishes.
“Besides, do you really think anyone up here would be interested in an art show when the wind is knocking down buildings?”
“You make this place sound like the apocalypse.”
“Of course it’s not. It’s wonderful.”
You let this go, but started telling me about an article you read, about how just a few years after they built the Keystone extension, there was a hushed-up leak that caused spikes in uncommon diseases, like lupus and rare cancers.
“We should start drinking bottled water.”
“Okay,” I said, “Sure. But who’s going to be here to twist off the caps for me? Maybe you can just line them up in a row on the counter for me each morning, with a little bendy straw and everything.”
You closed your eyes and laid your head flat on the table. “I don’t know what to do anymore.”
I wanted to sit and lean against you, tell you it’s more than the water and the dead trees and the melting ice and the spreading fire someone started in Canada three days ago. I wanted to tell you everything now is grinding down to a halt, but instead, I walked to the sink, saying I’m tired. I’ve just been so tired.
A week later, you woke me up early, promising me a surprise. You packed a lunch and me into the car. The edges of my third skin graft were beginning to buckle and harden, and in a week we would move to Texas for a research hospital my doctors are recommending for “continued treatment,” leaving this place for good.
You started telling me the latest mountain lion story. This one was cornered in a woodshed after it grabbed a woman’s poodle. The lady chased it in there, spraying Pine-Sol at it, and then shut it in until the game people came to shoot it.
“The paper’s saying it was a young male, thirty pounds underweight,” you told me. “Thirty pounds.”
“What about the poodle?”
“The dog?” You shrugged. “It was dead by the time they got there.”
“They should have just let him have it then. If it was already dead.”
You sighed. “I doubt they saw it that way.”
This was somewhere above the ninetieth dead mountain lion that year, you told me. I stopped reading the stories somewhere around number sixty. All hunting seasons were cancelled again, had been for the last five years. Without trees, the animals had nowhere to hide, nowhere to build nests, nothing to keep them up in the hills. I hoped they burned that lion’s body, but mostly likely they skinned him and stuck him up on someone’s wall.
I tried to imagine you coming here again, after everything, to look at these forests stabbing into a low grey sky, textured with smoke, and the rushing sound of fire, but instead, all could think of was the plane we would take next week, how you would have to kneel and remove my shoes for me to walk through security, and people behind us might grumble, and you would flush and drop our things clumsily into the bins, and I would watch you, pleased at your helplessness. I thought of us bobbing up into the wind, and how easily this place would burst in my mind, a frail bubble of memory.
Finally, you turned down some gravel drive, parked, and said, “We’re here. It’s just a ways up this trail.”
“Are you joking?” I said. “I can’t hike.”
“No, it’s ok,” you said. “We’ll take a four-wheeler up most of the way and then it’s just a short walk.”
My doctor was constantly reminding me how lucky I was I could still bend my knees. Lucky. I could still walk, but that didn’t change the fact that my left arm was a solid bone-spur cemented to my stone clavicle, that I felt like one of those women hauling water with a yoke, invisible buckets of water included.
“It isn’t far,” you said. “I promise. I promise it’s worth it.”
I turned my face to stare out the window. Early on, when it was just my left arm, I had joked that instead of a wheelchair you would need a luggage dolly to cart me around.
“You could dress in coveralls,” I said, “and wheel me into my art shows like a statue. It would be a surprise for anyone that didn’t know me. Ooh, they’ll say, that’s got to be the most lifelike statue I’ve ever seen. My masterpiece.”
You hadn’t laughed, only said stop it, just stop, and I was strangely pleased with your response. You looked ready to break something. Maybe you knew then what would really happen, that my disease probably wouldn’t have a chance to reach my legs before it crushed the delicate webbing of my lungs and drowned me.
You helped me onto the four-wheeler, arranging my limbs like a doll’s and I looked away into the trees, looking for starving lions.
After about twenty minutes on the RV, and what felt like an hour of hiking, you smiled and said we’re here. I didn’t see it at first, and then, in a flash of understanding, painful like blood returning to a nerveless limb, I did.
Twenty feet ahead there were four green pines, nonchalantly standing to the side of the trail, cinnamon-barked and impossibly fragrant. I could see budding pinecones near their crowns. You waved me forward, and I asked you how, how is this real?
You shrugged, watching my face, smiling a little. “We don’t know yet. All of them are large enough to be attacked and killed, but, well, here they are.” You pointed to the pitchtubes where beetles went in and told me for some reason they were immune.
“How?” I wanted to say it over and over. How? How could this happen? How could this happen?
“Who knows. Natural selection?” You shook your head. “Sometimes things just fix themselves.”
I stumbled closer, my breath coming faster and thinner. I tried to imagine the face of the person who found these, maybe one of your researchers, a young eager kid on a paid internship. Did she know what these were, what they could mean beyond just their own life?
“I wish we would be here to see this forest come back,” you said.
“And I’m making you miss it.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Of course you didn’t. Of course not.”
You sighed, tracing the bark. “I wanted you to see this so you’d know something was going to happen. That it’s going to change.”
I pulled in a great breath of thin air, and started coughing. You watched me, until finally I tried to sit, exhausted, and you grabbed my elbow to help me down. I lay back, staring up at them. There were deep scratches in the bark, shiny and scabbed with resin. Do mountain lions sharpen their claws? I pointed them out, and you shook your head.
“Those are from us, actually. We’ve been taking sapwood and resin samples to see if we can find out how they adapted at this age. With any luck, the team will be able to start seeding these forests with faster-growing genetic replicas of these four trees. I think it should work. Eventually.”
“A whole forest of cloned trees.” I said. “Won’t that just make everything worse?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I hope this place will just sweep us all away someday,” I said. I had to catch my breath with every few words. “When it’s finally had its fill. And all this grass with its long roots, and all these new trees can just stand and watch us go.”
It was easy to forget sounds like the wind whistling through stiff green needles, I thought, watching the pine boughs and sun paint across my closed eyelids. I listened for the soft, desperate padding of a starving mountain lion moving down the slope towards me, imagined lying still as he cracked my hard skin with those jaws, carefully lapping the slow blood, tearing my stiffening muscles away from the shell in long pulls. Would he be nourished? Would he become diseased himself? Maybe months from now, you and your researchers would find a perfect statue of a lion, crouched in stone, each sculpted muscle and hair etched in minute, breath-taking detail. I imagined the statue unveiled with ceremony at the Museum of Natural History, a central piece for their exhibit of extinct animals. You would make sure my name was on the placard—my masterpiece, finally.
You said my name, quietly—once, twice. Are you asleep? When I didn’t answer, you were silent, and I watched from under my eyelids as you traced the shallow rise and dip of a tendon inside my wrist, a touch I hadn’t felt for so long.
Lydia Melby is currently an MFA candidate at Iowa State University, where she is the fiction editor of Flyway. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, LIT, The Rumpus, Ruminate, Sphere and The Austin Chronicle.