Cottonwood

This story is paired with Chapter 19 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 


The truth is, she’s dying. After a hundred and sixty-seven years on the throne, her health is failing. Her hair is falling out in clumps, her gums are oozing clear fluid, and her skin hangs from her face in wrinkles and folds.

The best doctors have been to see her. On miniature golden scales, they weighed drops of her saliva against the feathers of a newborn goose. She was fed powdered bee stings and fresh tulip leaves and the runoff from hog slops. They rubbed her aged body down with the mummified paw of a jaguar, dipped in salt. In the spring, after scattering snipped strands of her hair, they collected bird’s nests to see how the hair had been woven in. She tried lying on a bed of light bulbs, wearing a paper jacket covered with lewd images, and staring at a peach for a week.

Nothing works. Her body continues to waste away; her mind is a rotted shell that the visions inhabit.

After the way her decisions have ruined Oz, making it unrecognizable to its inhabitants, some people consider her illness justified. They give her condition a name, “Glinda’s Revenge.” A few continue to pray to her image, insisting that her prophecies about the Fighting Trees were true, that the trees were slowing destroying us from inside out.

Some rejoice and some despair, but it doesn’t matter now. Nothing can be done. Dorothy, the Emerald Empress, the Girlish Goddess, the Queen of the Quadlings and Wuler of the Winkies is finally dying. And all Oz holds its breath.

*   *   *

It happened in dead of night, when the Fighting Trees were thought to be at their most dormant. We approached in tiers, the first team darting in under the branches with diamond-bladed axes and picks to chop and tear at their trunks while a second team used torches and bellows to scorch the whipping branches laden with apples, strong enough to take off a man’s head.

At the first blow, they awakened en masse. I saw one tree, face contorted in fury, punch a limb through a soldier’s armored chest and out the other side, clutching his heart in a fist of twigs, ragged bark trailing viscera. At least six men died that night from being picked up and thrown, one of them over a hundred feet.

But the trees got it worse. The Empress had more soldiers than trees, and we could move around. With blade and flame, we murdered the entire grove. At the height of the massacre, the screams of the trees were deafening. I could only communicate to my soldiers using hand signals. Streams of bats, small birds, and insects, abandoning the trees in their distress, swarmed out of their open mouths. Even while we hacked at their faces, they shrieked at us, cursing and gibbering.

“The sky burn you everlastingly…”

“…you oozing sacks of blood and pus…”

“You will pay! Pay! All of you…”

“This land will bleed shit and rain acid…”

“…and every last one of you should choke on your own two stones!”

But once they were cut down, their empty eyes stared. We burned them all in silence and I stayed until every scrap was ash.

*   *   *

In her few lucid moments, Dorothy blames the people, twisting the fabric of her blankets in fists clawed like bat wings.

“It would have worked, Nick. I could have made Oz grow again,” she says. “But nobody gave me enough time.”

It’s not true, of course. Time was something she had plenty of. Ages ago, after the Wizard left and Ozma disappeared, Glinda and Dorothy ruled Oz together. But Dorothy had persistent dreams—“the second sight,” she called it—about transforming the land to mirror Kansas, her home on the Other Side. She wanted to see Oz’s mountains, forests, and lakes turned into a great sea of corn and wheat, like a patchwork quilt of green, brown, and yellow.

Dorothy’s vision won the heart of the people. They believed in her stories about a land rich enough to feed the world; they loved her innocence and intensity. In a midnight election, Glinda was ousted. As soon as she left, however, the land turned to dust. Nothing would grow anywhere. Dorothy’s response was immediate. She went to the news peddlers, claiming that Glinda had cursed Oz, and she determined to be our savior.

Over the next few years, Dorothy took drastic measures to restore the land. Lakes and rivers were fed into miles of irrigation tubes, only to end up with fields of mud. Munchkins were taught to farm livestock. But the more corn the cows and pigs were fed, the skinnier they got; and the milk from the cows tasted like rubbing alcohol. When these projects failed, Dorothy, guided by her visions, moved to stranger schemes. She leveled the Emerald mountain range to build a forest of giant windmills. Up north, in Gillikin Country, the jungle of Burzee was chopped down and replaced by artichoke farms. She reclaimed the wetlands of Quadling Country to be used for huge cranberry bogs.

Nothing worked. “Glinda’s Malady” had crippled Oz. Dorothy was running out of answers and turning to increasingly improbable sources of advice. One afternoon I walked into her quarters and caught her sifting through the turds of Toto XIV. When she looked up at me, her eyes gleamed. Gesturing with shit-stained fingers, she explained that the Fighting Trees were the locus of evil, and that if they could be uprooted, Oz would be healed.

Dorothy had hated the Fighting Trees since she was a girl. In our first struggle with them over the apples, her cheek had been sliced open with a twig as sharp as a whiplash. It healed quickly but left a tiny scar like an X under the corner of her left eye. After that, the trees gave her nightmares.

Now her horror had turned to disgust. She reported having dreams of the trees as huge leeches, sucking the land dry. In other dreams, they were a dark, spreading blot, a wound in the heart of Oz.

Her most persistent visions, though, convinced her that the trees were actually souls in Hell. Reaching up through the earth, these tormented creatures took physical form in the twisted branches. “They were damned to the fire and brimstone, Nick. But they’re Ozians, like you and me, and they’re just trying to get out. That’s why the trees are so hateful—because they’re trapped.” She wept, imagining the pain of molten flesh, the rotten egg stink of sulfur in hell.

Now I wonder whether these visions were fueled by the lingering memory of Kansas tent revivals or just cups of Gillikin wine. At the time, though, her religious fervor was intoxicating.

“We have to release them. It’s the only way. When the tree is cut down, the soul finally has a passage out of hell and can reach paradise. Then they will stop poisoning the land. The crops will grow again, and everything will go back to normal.”

*   *   *

A few days after the massacre, she asked me to take her to the grove. For the first time in her long life, she seemed frail. Instead of walking on her own, she tottered and held my arm. Her dark hair was lined with grey.

As we approached the ground, still smoking in pockets, her face grew blank.

“How are the men doing?”

“They are recovering. Slowly. It was an awful experience.”

“I know it was difficult. Their nightmares creep into mine some nights and I am there, behind the eyes of all your soldiers. I feel the sap run over my hands like blood and I hear the screams.” She rubbed at her temple.

“But you must believe me. The souls are in a better place.”

I walked forward, saying nothing. We traced a circuit around the grove until she reached a mound of uncharred dirt. She knelt down, pulled out a small leather pouch, and poured a handful of golden seeds into her palm. Kernels of corn. She poked several of them down into the dirt, and then stood, brushing her hands off.

“Let’s grow something new, Nick.” She took my hand and led me out of the grove. We left ashy footprints on the grass.

*   *   *

Now she looks like she has aged a hundred years. The people clamor to see her again, a few to praise her, but most with plans to drag her from the balcony and put her on a scaffold. Although the Fighting Trees were ugly, old, and unrepentantly mean, the people had loved them. On hearing of the Grove Massacre, Oz finally began to question Dorothy’s leadership. In the media, doctors and other expert witnesses diagnose her with brain fever, or dyspepsia, or eating too many pickles before bed—anything to undermine the legitimacy of Dorothy’s dreams.

She has no brilliant countermove, no statement for the press this time. She holes herself up in the palace, saying that she didn’t want anyone to see what a wreck she had become. Sometimes, under the sway of dreaming and drugs, she tries to leave the palace, nude, to walk in the streets at dusk.

“I want to feel the grasping hands of the people, like branches on my skin.”

“They will murder you,” I say as I restrain her flailing form.

“They worship me.”

*   *   *

I hear a tiny cough, like a smothered laugh perhaps, or a groan, and my eyes snap open. I turn on the light. She still lies next to me, looking up at me through cataracts as pale as milk.

“Your majesty?” I stand. “Shall I call the doctor?”

Her hand outside the coverlet moves from side to side. No, she doesn’t want me to call him.

“You. You must.” Her tongue moves slowly, heavily, sticking to the roof of her mouth as if with glue. She is nearly blind, but still her eyes roll toward me. “You must stop her.” She struggles to sit, but is overcome by a fit of coughing. I sit on the edge of the bed, supporting her. I can feel each rib through her night dress.

“Stop her? ‘Her’ who?”

“Ga-Ga-Gllllinnnnda. The Good Bitch of the South.” She chuckles at her joke and then gasps. “I can’t . . . breathe. She’s on the moon and she’s . . . she’s slurping the air out of here.” She gestures to her chest. “She uses a . . . an invisible straw and takes the air right out of my lungs.”

“Yes, of course, your majesty. I will see it done.”

Her tiny frame is racked by coughs again and I lay her down. She lies there, struggling for air, her dry lips smacking together between each labored breath. I feel her pulse; it is weak. She coughs and gags. She chokes on her own tongue.

I slowly slide her pillow out from underneath her head as she arches her neck to take in more air. The next time she relaxes, I place it firmly over her face and push down. I hold the pillow there for five minutes, laying my head against its embroidered cover.

My eyes close. I picture her as a girl, the first thing I saw after the wheels and cogs started spinning again. Brow furrowed, nose crinkled, she rapped her fist against my head. Her voice sounded far away, saying, “Hey, Mister, are you in there?” Three inches below my cheek are her lips and for a moment I imagine them not as thin, cracked, and crusted with spittle, but as warm, soft, and expressive as they’d been back then. I pretend she is kissing me through the pillow. Tears swim in my eyes and for a moment I can count every thread in the needlework.

After a long time, I stand up, replace the pillow, fix what is left of her hair, and call in the doctor.

*   *   *

Glinda shows up hours after Dorothy’s death. She doesn’t say how she knew or where she’d been; she denies any responsibility for the blight on the land, blaming it instead on Dorothy’s bad management.

“Running a kingdom on prophecy is like baking a pie full of cotton candy. It leaves you with a mouthful of nothing.”

In a month, the land has reverted back to its original state. Jungle boils up out of the ground, splitting golden cornfields apart like crackers. Hills, cliffs, and chasms appear where the land had been leveled. Windmills topple over as mountains bulge beneath them. Great vines leap up and engulf the wooden farmhouses. Whole settlements rot in days, while inhabitants watch. But no one was left homeless. The jungle trees shape themselves into the treehouses of the Gillikins and the plains grow up into mounds that perfectly approximate the sod houses of the Munchkins.

One day I visit the grove of Fighting Trees, to see if the rapid reverse of the land has taken hold there, too. My stomach tightens. In guilt, I hope the trees have grown back, but I also fear seeing them again. Will they be more ferocious than ever? Will they remember what we did?

A wrought-iron fence, delicate and curling, has been erected around the grove. At its gate hangs a sign: “This is a place of peace. No weapons allowed.” Two guardsmen eye my axe, and I hand it over.

The grass has shot up tall in the field, reaching to my thigh. Most of the ash has blown away. Stumps dot the area, and out of each of them several thin branches reach up, twigs almost, festooned with bright green leaves as tender as kitten’s ears. Some of the branches are almost as tall as me, and as I watch, I can see them growing, twisting and forking toward the sky. I walk toward the center of the grove, where Dorothy planted her corn, but I don’t see any stalks. By now, the corn should have been ten feet tall, but there are only saplings growing out of cracked, charred stumps.

Except for one. One sapling grows directly out of the ground, no stump around for yards. I walk nearer. It is thicker than the others, and the trunk stands straight instead of branching out like a gnarled apple tree. The smooth bark has a whitish cast to it, and the heart-shaped leaves wave in the breeze like hands. It is a cottonwood, a tree that doesn’t grow in Oz; I recognize it from Dorothy’s pictures of Kansas.

I circle the tree and stop. On the other side of the tree is a face. It is Dorothy’s. Not her old face, the one I’d just laid in the ground, but her face as a child, that laughing, dreaming face.

When she first came to Oz, everything made her laugh. The songs the Munchkins sang, the gangly awkwardness of Scarecrow, even the color of the sky—a slightly greener blue, or so I’m told, than the sky on the Other Side. She had a ferocious laugh; she would bend almost in half, clutching her hands together, and stamp her feet into the ground. When we came upon the enchanted field of poppies, she twirled around and around, laughing, face to the sun like a poppy herself, then laid down, still giggling as she fell asleep.

That’s the face I’m looking at right now. I touch her nose as it stands out from the trunk; it is made of wood. The bark is slightly rough under my fingers. I trace her closed eyelids and her mouth, slightly curved. I half expect her to open her eyes and ask me what time it is.

I think of the inevitable moment when she will wake, enraged, bereft of memory, of personality, filled only with the fury and ugliness of the Fighting Trees. My hand feels for my axe. But I left it at the gate, and when I look back, Glinda is standing there with the guards, watching me. I look back at the tree. Dorothy’s face is a little higher now. The tree grew while I stood there. She will wake soon, unless I do something about it. I touch the bark, cool under my fingers, one last time, and turn to go. As I leave, I wonder: What else was she right about?


NBR3-LechlerKate Lechler has her Ph.D. in English literature from Florida State University; she now lives in Oxford, MS. Almost by accident, her life is completely circumscribed by books: she teaches literature at University of Mississippi, is a bookseller at Square Books, and edits for Nautilus Publishing Company. She also reviews SFF for FantasyLiterature.com. She promises you that she has interests outside of the written word. Television, for instance . . .