Once upon a time, in a stolen country between two seas, there ruled a president named Theodore. He possessed all the qualities one desires in a great leader: aggressive, bombastic, well-endowed with a striking pattern of facial hair—in short, he was the kind of man who always looked good on a horse. It was inevitable, really, that he would reach such a lofty height as president. And yet, for all his success in government, Theodore detested his job. The work bored him. He thrived on danger, but what danger was there in wrangling the Congress or breaking up the railroad companies? Theodore was an adventurer at heart, which was why, whenever he could get away from the silliness of Washington, the President liked to join his friend John Muir on his journeys West.
On one such journey, Theodore and Muir ventured into the Sierras for a couple weeks of exploration. It was their third day hiking among this clan of peaks, and the President presumed to have gained an intimacy with them. He took great pride in this, Muir having told him that, even so far as mountains go, the Sierras were a particularly aloof range. Theodore, however, seemed to have charmed them into exposing the hidden passions of their hearts, for while the President was no great reader of poetry, he fancied himself a great reciter of it. Even the coldest of mountain ranges melted in the face of his spoken word.
Indeed, the President had quite the way with words. They were his monuments, his markers of personal triumph. While the pharaohs built everlasting tombs and Napoleon raised grand arches, Theodore memorialized his deeds in letters. How majestically his diaries read, full of adventure and dare-devilry and pride! A rollicking narrative was very important to him. Of those more sensitive emotions—the sting of failure, for example, or the chill of fear—the President never wrote.
Nothing elicited a finer lyricism from Theodore than a journey into the wilderness. The freshness of those empty kingdoms and their clear, open skies roused in him immense inspiration. Only in the wild was he free to become his best—and mightiest—self. The valley Muir had brought him to was one such wild kingdom, a vast and mighty nation built of rock and snow and wind. It was early morning now, and Muir was leading the small expedition up toward a promontory where they might watch the sunrise.
There was no wanting for inspiration along the hike. Everywhere Theodore looked he found another subject for his poetry: here, a formation in the stone that evoked his childhood; there, a pioneering wildflower peeking out from behind the manzanita to remind him of the woman he first loved. All around him, the scents and sounds of old-growth forest brought to mind Theodore’s proud and beautiful daughter. It was poetry of a more sentimental variety than the other men might have expected from him, at least until the party reached an elevation of six thousand feet, at which point the more tender parts of Theodore’s imagination were exhausted, and he was reduced to singing raunchy ditties about the exploits of his youth, much to the delight of his companions.
Nature, it seemed, also delighted in Theodore’s mischievous tunes. The President, by no means a novice at flirting, was keenly aware of the landscape reacting to his charms. Across the valley, the cliff faces were blushing a pretty pink. Somewhere beyond the overgrowth, a host of dryads, shy and hidden from view, giggled at his jokes. And the trees, those naughty things, groped shamelessly at Theodore as he followed switchback after switchback up the mountain. It was all very gratifying for the man, the attention from nature serving as a testament to the power of his imagination.
The final thousand or so feet of the trek were long and hard— so hard that Theodore’s singing gave way to wheezing. His lungs, degraded as they were, and his heart, weak as it was (though he had a formidable stomach)) seemed almost to conspire with the trees, threatening to halt him right then and there before he reached a more unpleasant fate at the top of the mountain. The other hikers drew equally laborious breaths alongside him, but these, our heroes, were men! And men bred of the frontier at that (though born, rumor has it, in the great cottages back east). Since these men had been promised a glorious sunrise, they braved the forewarnings of their own bodies and finally reached the summit.
They were late. The sun had already peaked over the jagged horizon, working to evaporate the shroud of fog that hung low over the valley’s floor. Theodore could not catch his breath. He bent over, clutching at his sides, assuring the other men in a panting voice that he was fine, just fine, and merely admiring this interesting pebble here on the ground. But even the clear, dry air of the mountaintop provided no relief to his breathlessness. He did not share this discomfort with the other men, who were by now listening to Muir (who in the morning light looked even more like Moses than usual) preach a rapturous sermon on the mount.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Muir said. “What a view, what a view. I told you, Mr. President, didn’t I tell you? This valley’s the real deal right here. I know you’re fond of Yellowstone, but this—this is wilderness! This is a paradise unspoiled since the Creation! This is—”
“Look!” another man cried, and the men looked up. A great flock of eagles was soaring across the sky (well, at least the President assumed they were eagles—this was America, afterall. They were actually hermit thrushes). But looking up made him dizzy. Theodore thought he might be sick.
“They’re just birds,” Muir said, interrupting the oohing and ahhing of the other men. “No need to lose our heads.”
Muir did not care much for birds or birdsong, for they reminded him of back gardens and city parks where nature endured as a sort of sickly reprieve from the even sicker human landscapes of streets and factories and agricultural fields. His interest lay more with the sequoias and the waterfalls, those mighty relics of an ancient world before men began to meddle with perfection. It was a prejudice Muir and the President shared, and had Theodore been in a better state of mind, he might have reminded the other men that they were men, not tittering old ladies sitting in their sunrooms watching birds frolic in the yard. But Theodore was huffing quite conspicuously now, and he could not bear to reveal such weakness to his companions. He was a Rough Rider, dammit! The rough edges of the nation were his domain, where he wielded even greater power than in his office in Washington. The valley was not even the roughest terrain he’d encountered. How humiliating defeat would be.
“Now, if you’d all just look toward the south, right where that break in the trees is, you’ll notice the most pristine falls on the continent!” Muir said, continuing his lecture. “Can you see, Mr. President? The ground is very interesting, I know, but I think you might like this. If you listen closely, you can hear the roar of the water, even from all the way over here!”
“Doesn’t seem as impressive as Niagara Falls,” another man mused.
“Oh yes, because some overcrowded, dirty trap of a waterfall is so impressive,” Muir snapped. “There are so many chattering tourists at Niagara, you can barely hear the falls over all the stupid conversation. But listen to this place! Listen to the thundering waterfalls. There can be no chattering here! English fails us in this valley! Everything is in the language of flood and storm and avalanche—the primal tongue of God himself!”
“Anyways,” Muir continued, “Let’s get a picture, Mr. President!”
How, Theodore wondered, completely winded, had one of these lesser men managed to carry a camera up the mountain? As they hurried to set up a tripod, Muir beckoned him forward to join him on a ledge overlooking a sweeping vista of the valley. Suddenly the cliff was overcome with the ethereal voice of the hermit thrushes. There was an angelic tone to the melody, the music so beautiful that it struck fear into Theodore’s heart. The sound was suffocating him, saturating the air until it was all that was left for him to breathe, and a man’s body cannot survive off the breath of birdsong alone. He was sure his lungs were collapsing. Perhaps the thrushes were angels after all. Perhaps a host of them had descended from heaven to beckon him on towards death. Despite how embarrassing it would be to die right here, in front of Muir and all these men, the President resigned himself to the realization that his shaky breaths were none other than the final gasps of a dying man. But Muir wanted a picture, and he could be pushy. He hollered again for the President to join him in the photo-op. And so Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, choking on the reverberating chords of a thrush’s song, hobbled to the ledge of the cliff, where, just as the cameraman snapped his photograph, there was a quake of thunder and tremors through the ground, and then suddenly…
But here there was silence, save for the scratching of pens, for the President’s company had returned to Washington by now, and to its press corps, lacking the words to describe, with any faithfulness, what happened next. Eventually, the reporters’ expectant gazes elicited a mumble or two from a bewildered Muir who explained, though in terms muddied and vague, the shocking fate of the nation’s leader. The President had not returned from his trip to the West. Instead, something quite ineffable had happened to him that morning when, suffice it to say, he was one minute standing on the barren ledge of a cliff only to disappear the next, a fully grown tree rooted in his place.
Naturally, the newspapers would not share in the reticence of those twelve men who witnessed the “metamorphosis” (Times), “transformation” (Post), or “miraculous evaporation” (the Globe had a Democratic slant) of the President. And so that day in March became known, across the world, as the Day of the Transevapomogrifimorphosis of Theodore Roosevelt—for which, believe it or not, the Indians were blamed.
Of course, despite what the Vice-President would come to successfully argue to the Congress, Theodore Roosevelt was not dead. Even after the Transevapomogrifimorphosis, that vibrant thing that had lived inside his human body, the parasite some call the mind or the spirit or the soul, persisted. It shall be called, in this record, the Creepy-Crawly, for that is what it does: it creeps and it crawls, through veins and tissue and bone; between trains of thought and swings of mood; over memories and under dreams. It is the Creepy-Crawly that identifies us. We glimpse it in the mirror, that flash of movement above our right shoulder, that prick of light behind our eyes that vanishes with a twitch. It is our Creepy-Crawly, our very own, who in those moments we catch going about its rounds.
Theodore’s Creepy-Crawly was encased now in the fibrous trunk of a conifer, and he was slow to acclimate to this new host. It was a groggy and embarrassing time. The clarity of manhood had left him. As Muir had warned, human language failed in the valley. For those first few days, Theodore’s own thoughts were illegible to him, his feelings gibberish. Was he hot? Was he cold? Irritated? Sad? Hungry? Elated? These feelings, which he once understood so intuitively, now baffled him. Though shadows of their former meanings remained, they had taken on a tone of the wild.
Wilderness thinks materially. Nature is the transubstantiation of emotion into matter, and when the Creepy-Crawly, accustomed to feelings as wisps in the æther of the human mind, suddenly finds them hardened into sugar and bark, they must learn everything anew. They must learn how to creep again, for the veins of a tree are not like the veins of a mammal—Creepy-Crawlies cannot navigate them as nimbly as they do in animals, where the cells are wall-less and there is a rush of blood to carry them in every which way. They must also learn how to read again. Unlike English, the language of trees always flows bottom to top, a slow trickle of upward thought until it eventually just evaporates. It took several days of Theodore’s Creepy-Crawly bumping up against cell walls and struggling against the upward current of transpiring water before it finally acclimated to its new domain.
Even then, Theodore’s Creepy-Crawly did little to soothe his agitation. The first legible thoughts he had as a tree were of fear and desperation. He felt imprisoned in his new form, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to move. How he hated this new immobility, which left him powerless to the whims of the valley. Birds alighted upon his branches with no shame and without his consent. Bugs crawled up his sides and burrowed into his innards and he was helpless to stop them. Once, to his horror, a bear came to claw at his trunk, and how he longed to shoot the beast dead, as he would have as a man. Never before had Theodore felt so weak.
One can imagine how frightening it would be for a president to wake up one morning and find that they have become a tree. Even more upsetting to this president was the discovery that he was no longer a man. The Transevapomorgifimorphosis had stripped the President of his mustache and replaced it with a pinecone. How, then, could his masculine power possibly have survived? It had not, though the press was reluctant to admit this and be labeled as radical feminists. Soon every paper on the continent had published the photograph taken at the moment of Transevapomogrifimorphosis: a black-and-white image of Theodore-as-tree perched on the mountain next to an aghast Muir, advising readers that, (if they would please take off their reading glasses for a moment and squint), they might notice in the top right hand corner an arrangement of boughs eerily reminiscent of a familiar swath of facial hair. A man! The papers proclaimed. And a tree! They decided to call the thing Teddy.
But Teddy knew the truth. No vestige of his manhood had survived the Transevapomogrifimorphosis. He was no longer clothed in the manly fabrics that men wear, nor groomed in the manly style men prefer. His deep voice had been traded for the powerful silence of wood. It was queer, the voicelessness of his new form. Teddy was so used to the power of speech, so accustomed to the political halls of New York and Washington, where power was won and lost through words. Was he not himself a master of this power? He knew, unlike so many of his enemies, when to shout and when to speak softly, but now he could not speak at all. He had been reduced to a big stick, and big sticks are of no use when they have no might, when they do not carry the muscle of manhood behind them. That is why, for all their supply of big sticks, the great forests of North America had fallen so swiftly to the pilgrims and pioneers.
And yet, this big stick was still Teddy. There was no denying this. Even with the loss of his humanity and manhood, Teddy had not lost himself. Even in his leafiness, he was still a product of the boy who grew up on East Twentieth. He often thought about his childhood now that he was a tree. Trees are old and eyeless. They see the world through the roots that they have spent centuries laying, and so unlike humans their memories are vast and precise. Trees recall the seed, the sapling, the slow ascent of their trunks. Trees do not forget what it is to be young and afraid, to be small and searching for sunlight. Teddy remembered all of this now.
He remembered that this was not the first time he had been with mind, but without body. He had been such a sickly child, but also a proud one, and wanted nothing more in those years to escape the fragility of boyhood and finally become a man, with a man’s body to match his precocious mind. How he quested after that body! Always running around outside, learning how to hunt, doing everything he could to escape the choking vapors of civilization. A man needs fresh air, so that was what Teddy the Boy prescribed for himself, and eventually it worked. He grew the body of a man, and with that body he went out and conquered for his nation. He rode that body into battle. He anointed that body in blood and the soot of gunfire. He stood in that body as all around him the enemies of his country fell, their shrieks of fear ringing in his ears; he heard the shrieks of dying animals, that final crescendo of a truly glorious hunt; and now he could smell the fecundity of all that death, for there was nothing that makes a man feel more alive than the stench of his felled prey. But as he filled his lungs with that stench something very strange happened. The fallen prey began to quiver, then stand, then heave its bloodied body toward Theodore, jaw gnashing, eyes gleaming, a terrible cry of vengeance wrenched from its throat.
A pine cone dropped
A limb cracked
This was not how he had remembered things as a man. Something was wrong. Something was different. Something had corrupted the memory and turned it into a nightmare, like the kinds he’d suffered from as a boy. Did he not write this memory down once? Where had he put that journal? He tried to look around for it, but he found he could not move. Why couldn’t he move? He tried to get up out of bed—he was in his bed, wasn’t he? He was sleeping. He was dreaming. He was having a nightmare, and now it was time to wake up. He needed to get out of bed, but he could not move. Why couldn’t he sit up?
Suddenly he realized he was already standing. He realized he was standing as straight as a pine tree. He remembered. He remembered in his roots. Teddy the Tree. More pinecones began to fall, dozens upon dozens of them plummeting to the ground, like tears cascading down a cheek. It had been so long since he cried. He was embarrassed. He hoped the thrushes were not looking.
He recalled that he had often cried as a boy, either when the other boys called him cruel names, or when his father scolded him for being too sensitive, or when the pain of his illness was just too much to bear. Boyhood had not suited Theodore Roosevelt, and neither did it suit Teddy the Tree. He was not just a tree now, but a young tree, and boy-trees are weaker even than man-trees. The memory of his human childhood initiated a particularly emotional period for Teddy. Days passed and all he did was cry while the valley looked on in pity.
Humiliated by the emotions it found in his upper branches, Teddy’s Creepy-Crawly scuttled down to hide in the moisture and darkness underground. There, at the edge of the root system, it came to rest. Strange ideas seeped in through the roots, so while his Creepy-Crawly lingered there, Teddy’s embarrassment evaporated away into a state of troubled dreaming. Creepy-Crawlies of a different kind loiter in the space between root and rock: funguses and bacteria and other germs. Now they communed with Teddy, and he could no longer think straight. It was as if his consciousness extended into the ground, extended beyond his bark. He felt the feelings of the lichens upon his trunk; he thought the thoughts of the microbes fixing nitrogen at the foot of his roots. These foreign Creepy-Crawlies colonized his mind. They rubbed and kissed and caressed him. They whispered notions into his root hairs and his stomata. “Don’t be ashamed,” they seemed to say. “There is no shame in being a tree.” And so, with his Creepy-Crawly buried deep beneath the ground where the watchful gaze of sunlight could not find it, Teddy’s thoughts turned toward the erotic.
He had truly become a boy again. As the Creepy-Crawlies continued to whisper, Teddy could not stop thinking about their attention. As they continued to touch him, Teddy could not stop thinking about how desperately he wished he could touch them back. There was not nearly enough groundwater in this mountain to quench the prickling desire coursing through Teddy’s needles. The valley suddenly felt very arid.
But soon Teddy’s desires commingled with disgust. As he listened more closely to the other Creepy-Crawlies in the valley, he soon realized the extent of their perversion. How wantonly they crept and crawled all over each other, no regard for boundaries of body or gender or species. Teddy grew very flustered listening in to all this sex. It ought to repel him, he knew, and the sound and the smell and the touch of these perverted things rubbing against his roots and leaves did rouse something like a terrible, itching pain beneath his bark, but Teddy could not say what the sensation was for sure, whether it was revulsion or something worse, some kind of lewd new tree emotion over which he had no control.
The sounds and smells of sex would not abate, and neither did the agitation Teddy felt trembling through his rings. For many seasons, these sharp sensations petrified him. Whatever he was feeling, be it desire or disgust, Teddy was helpless to act on it. The Creepy-Crawlies continued to creep and crawl and fuck all over and inside him, but there was nothing he could do. Even in his petrified state, however, Teddy learned from the valley. Buried ever deeper inside the mountain, his Creepy-Crawly began to learn the art of living as a tree. He learned how to navigate the delicate interactions of the valley’s ecosystem. He learned not only the language of trees, but the language of the valley itself. Soon Teddy began to see things more clearly, his stomata opening into eyes and ears and nostrils through which he came to perceive the whole of the Sierras.
As the days passed, and then months, and then years, Teddy’s Creepy-Crawly burrowed deeper into the ground, stretching his roots. One day, after many desperate seasons, his roots hit solid rock. He was no longer strong enough to infiltrate farther down. He had reached the outer wall of the heart of the mountain. Teddy marveled at the feeling, the sensation of something so solid and concrete, something so powerful. Here he had come to a place no life would ever venture, not even if laid siege to by a thousand men. Even the lustful sounds of the valley diminished into silence this deep underground, and for the first time since the Transevapomogrifimorphosis, Teddy felt a sense of clarity, a sense of purpose. His roots prodded against the rock in a vain attempt to plunder whatever lay beyond. The mountain’s heart was too strong to conquer, and yet Teddy knew he had to possess it. If he could not pierce it with his roots, he would have to find some other means of making the mountain his. Suddenly, a rush of vitality swept across the cliff side, shaking through his branches and sending a strange, prickling feeling up and down his xylem.
It was romance. The tree was falling in love. Suddenly he noticed how beautiful a monolith the mountain was, what with its sculpted bosom of rock and its soft, white face of snow, reddened sometimes in the cheeks by the glittering sunlight. Teddy vowed that he would make this mountain, atop which he straddled, his wife. A man needs a wife, does he not? If Teddy ever wanted to return to the glory of being a man, he would have to do the things that men do. So the man and the tree took for himself the woman and the mountain and married her; and finally, with this promise, Teddy the Tree cracked through his wife’s heart and began to dominate the valley.
Nourished by the riches he took from the heart of the mountain, Teddy became unstoppable. Finally, after years of boyhood, Teddy matured back into a man. His canopy spread across the mountaintop, shading the native scrub that lived there until it all died and turned to ash. His roots extended great distances through the ground, reaching even the roots of other native trees meters away, but they were nothing compared to him, and so he strangled those trees and left their barren husks to rot. And when the thrushes continued to flit through his leaves, Teddy grew poisonous berries, enticed them with the false promise of a plump, sweet meal, and in time the birds dropped dead from his branches and did not return.
A century passed. With every season Teddy the Tree grew taller, broader, stronger. His power over the valley was absolute. The mountain, once wreathed in forest, now wilted under Teddy’s rule. She was as accommodating a wife as Teddy could have hoped for. In fact, after all these years, Teddy found he liked her even more than he remembered liking his first wife.
But Teddy was a man-tree now, and it was natural for the affections of men like him to wander. One day, two women climbed to the top of the mountain and came to stand under his massive shadow. It had been a long time since any humans had ventured this close to Teddy, especially women, and it excited him. He shook his branches and puffed out his canopy. He wanted to impress the women, perhaps even entice them into climbing on top of him, though as they moved closer to his trunk, Teddy noticed how strangely they were dressed, clad in short trousers and button-down shirts as if they were embarking on an African safari. It was far too masculine of clothing to be appropriate for a woman to wear, and he almost considered refusing to seduce them, but then he saw their long hair and pretty eyes and lithe bodies and decided he could make do. They crept even closer, so close they could have reached out and touched him, but instead they set down their backpacks and began to talk to one another.
They were frowning as they conversed. Teddy wished they wouldn’t do that. They did not look as nice when they frowned.
The women continued to talk, but Teddy wasn’t listening. He did not hear when they lamented the loss of biodiversity on the mountaintop, or when they discussed the ecological restoration efforts they were participating in, or when they began using ominous words like “alien” or “non-native.” He was too busy trying to attract their attention to listen. It was strange, though, the way they did not react to his charms. He was so used to the valley reacting. When they did spare Teddy a glance, they did not look pleased. He tried reciting a poem, but found the words did not sound as sweet when voiced through the rustling of leaves and the groan of a trunk.
As Teddy recited his poetry, one of the women began digging around her backpack. Suddenly the song of angels descended upon the cliff side, and Teddy felt his limbs encumbered by the weight of a hundred perching hermit thrushes. He didn’t understand—he thought he had gotten rid of the birds, but here they were, a whole army of them, digging their talons into his wood and pressing him into the ground. Their music deafened him, sung straight into his stomata. It was a much harsher melody than he remembered, almost mechanical in its sharpness, but then he realized the song did not belong to the thrushes at all. Something else had come to sing to Teddy. He turned his attention back to the women, who now stared him straight in the trunk, walking toward him with chainsaws shrieking in their arms. He had never seen weapons like these, held so confidently in the hands of two women, vibrating with the kind of destructive power he’d only experienced in the great battles for Manifest Destiny. Teddy tried to yell out, to lash out, to reach for his gun and shoot these bitches dead, but he had no gun anymore and his roots were no use against a chainsaw. So, as the two women continued their approach, Teddy the Tree stood helpless, the roar of the chainsaws growing ever louder, the weight of the thrushes ever heavier, until finally…
But here there was a tremendous crash for the invasive pine had cracked in two, its limp trunk, once so mighty, teetering on the edge of the cliff, and then a breath of alpine air rushed across the peak, as if blown from the lips of the mountain herself, and the two women watched as the felled tree went toppling into the valley below.
Nick Kapsa Vare is a writer from Indianapolis. He recently completed his MFA at Brown University where he received the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. You can find him on Instagram @nickkapsavare.