As you know, in recent years, I’ve begun writing fiction. As we’re all locked in now, I thought I’d share a short story I wrote a while back, about someone who is locked in.
If you read it, I think you’ll find that being locked in at home isn’t so bad after all.
a short story by Helen Johnson
“This one?” Maia, the child who should never have been, hair braids the colour of ripe barley, takes the box from the desk drawer.
Inside the box, cushioned on a bed of cotton wool, is my most treasured possession.
With the utmost care, I lift the stem.
Gooseberry-green eyes widen. Maia sucks in her breath.
“Don’t breathe too hard,” I warn. “It’s so fragile, you could blow it to dust.”
She watches as I turn it. A flat, roughly oval shape, filled with feather-light, grey filigree.
“What is it?”
“It’s part of a tree.”
“Tree.” She tries the word. A word she’s never used.
How can I tell her what a tree is? She’s lived her whole life inside these cabins. Yes, we have windows. But nothing lives in that view. Yes, we have plants. But they are slaves of the plant world, confined indoors, living out their lives in tubes and vessels, their roots never touching dirt, soil, earth.
“A tree,” I mused, “Is a living thing. A giant, five times – ten times – higher than this room.”
Her slender child’s body twists inside outsized adult overalls as she scrutinises the ceiling. “Five times….That’s HUGE!”
“But that,” she indicates the net of dust, the leaf skeleton in my hand, “Is tiny.”
“The tree makes thousands – millions – of these.”
How can she imagine it? She looks around the room – our living space. Two metres by three. Our bed fills half the room. Shiny white walls; dark blue bedcover; bare window with no shutters or shades. The space I have occupied for forty years.
“Where does it live?”
I remember. Clusters of beech trees on soft hills, misted palest green in spring; a haze of purple twigs in winter.
“They live outside.”
Silence. In Maia’s world, nothing lives outside.
I remember. Sunlight dappling through the canopy, carpets of bluebells and dogs mercury.
“They? There’s more than one?”
I laugh. “Oh yes.”
A stab of pain as I realise that Maia will never rustle through ankle-deep piles of fallen autumn leaves.
Wide grey green eyes, the pupils huge and dark, as she tries to imagine this thing. “What do they eat?”
I shake my head, half in laughter, half in sorrow. “They don’t have mouths. They live on air and earth.”
Air. Earth. How did it happen that I, who loved the freedom of the outdoors, should spend forty years with never the feel of the breeze on my skin? Yes, we circulate the air, pumping it through tubes of algae to regenerate oxygen. But it is never fresh: never the scent of dew, nor of new mown grass, nor of spring-damp moss: just the faint musty smell of algae.
Maia asks another question: “Where do they go at night?”
“They don’t go anywhere.”
As surely as I will not go anywhere now. Forty years since, full of excitement to explore the universe, I came to Mars. Thirty years since the realisation that Mars is a prison to an earth-grown creature. Twenty years since a new Government abandoned the Mars programme.
I pack the leaf back into its box.
“A tree is a miracle of the earth,” I explain to Maia. “I can never tell you what it’s like. It has to be experienced.”