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Erica Olsen

Daphne: The Aspen Version

In ancient Greece Daphne flees Apollo and is changed into a laurel tree. In Colorado, in the Uncompahgre National Forest, she becomes an aspen, taking root on the steep north-facing slopes below Lone Cone, looking toward Mount Wilson and El Diente. It happens in August, bow-hunting season.

• • •

Safe inside the cool, damp sheath of bark, she hears him crashing around in the forest, shouting her name.

• • •

The new girl is the subject of gossip in the grove. The other aspens don’t like her. Personal insults are their specialty. They seem to think they know all about her. They refer to her as that slut.

I only came up here with him because I wanted to go hunting, she defends herself.

You’re not one of us, says the big aspen, the one closest to her.

You’re not one of us, the saplings echo.

Apparently aspen means something like bitch.

Please shut up, she quakes back in her new aspen voice. She tries not to let them get under her skin. Bark. Whatever.

She gives them names: That aspen is Amber. That one is Megan. That one is Gwyneth.

Why couldn’t she’ve turned into a ponderosa or a spruce? The spruce trees seem more mature, dark and thoughtful. They live just a few hundred feet higher up the slope—if only she’d run up there.

Winter brings relief, a frosty silence.

• • •

Time passes. Daphne grows tall—tall and straight. She thinks less often about her mother and her father and her dog and her sister in the house on Summit Street in Norwood. She stops caring what Gwyneth and the other aspens say. She can live with this enchantment. She’s the nymph of the Uncompahgre. She’s the prettiest aspen. In May her crown is the brightest green, in September a glorious reddish gold. When it rains, her wet bark gleams. Sudden aspen decline doesn’t affect her—beetles don’t burrow under her bark. For all these reasons and more, she’s hated in the grove.

She loves being in the forest though. She loves being the forest.

Sooner or later every kind of animal comes into their grove: moose, bear, elk, fox, lynx, porcupine.

• • •

Everything is fine until the timber sale.

He’s looking for you, says Amber.

We heard he’s a logger now, the saplings say. They can gloat—for now, they’re safe.

Here she stands rooted, rooted deep. All this time she’s been growing taller and taller, attractively tall and straight in a way that is most attractive to loggers. She can hear the trucks grinding up the narrow roads. She thinks of all the trucks she’s seen all her life, loaded down with aspen whose destiny is to be sawn into wallboard or shaved into excelsior at the mill down in Mancos.

One day a stranger comes and marks them with blue paint.

When the crew arrives at their harvest unit, she finds out that it’s true about Apollo. He’s driving a half-ton Dodge Ram pickup, which he parks on the road downslope. He listens to KKXK Colorado Country from Montrose. Through the newly thinned-out grove that stands between her and the road, she can see sunlight flashing off metal.

He hikes up the slope with his chain saw, trailing the smell of gasoline.

The other aspens hiss: Take her, not us.

She hopes the wind won’t blow, making her leaves attractively quake, drawing attention to her slim, tall, attractive trunk. She’s totally recognizable, she realizes. This is fate: The color of her roots. Her split ends, which he hated—he was always telling her to use a different conditioner. Plus there’s this one weird part of her trunk that looks a little too much like human flesh and not enough like tree bark.

Sh-sh-she’s here. She’s here.

• • •

The tree hits the ground. “Holy shit,” he says. He’s a little stoned, he can’t make sense of what he’s seeing. There seems to be a girl there, a ragged, wild-eyed, skinny girl with leaves in her hair. Jesus Christ, did he almost kill someone? Is he going to lose his job? Is she a hippy backpacker? Is she anti-logging? Was she raised by wolves? Are there wolves in Colorado? What’s with the trees—they seem kind of angry? What’s with this tree in particular, which he’s pretty sure toppled without the chain saw actually cutting into it?

The girl opens her mouth. She says, “I thought you were someone else.”

Holding the still-running chain saw, he watches her flit away into the thickest part of the grove, which is dense with aspen sprouts and saplings. What the fuck just happened? “I watched her flit away,” he says later. Those are his exact words. They’re not the right words. What are the right words? He’s not the kind of guy who’d use a word like flit. Evanesce?

Who did she think he was?

• • •

Her ears hurt. Everything is loud—saws, engines, radios, squirrels, trees, human voices.

She walks down out of the mountains, walks another mile down the Beef Trail to the Dolores-Norwood Road, and then she walks the hot, shadeless highway in to town. She’s sixteen and a virgin in Norwood, with a disappearance she can’t explain and a scab on her leg that looks like bark.

That’s the nature of disenchantment, of being yourself.

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