Dark leafy trees, and woman in white shirt and pants standing with face obscured by leaves.

Savage Woodwind

My Suzy, the forest that swallowed you six years ago spat you back out like gum. You looked chewed-up. Your skin had hardened into ridges much deeper than my own. Your body became a gnarled shape, and your arms burst with long knobby fingers from which burst still more fingers. Scratching claws. And your hair—turned to leaves!

But there was your bracelet still looped around your wrist, so I knew it was you.

Your hair was full of ants and mites. Two abandoned bird nests. The gardener cleaned and clipped you into a pleasantly unobtrusive sphere, and I wept while staring at a photograph taken when your locks were last springy, golden, and smooth.

The gold is starting to show again, but in places it’s orange and red. Most likely layers of dye you used to keep us from finding you.

It’s been so long, now you are old enough to be called Susan. I use this grown-up name often to familiarize you with it. You took your backpack and disappeared one night, then spent six years in the wild without a name, and now you’re so far removed from the memory of even having a name that you only sometimes respond to Suzy—with a subtle rustle of your hair—and still never to Susan. You will learn with time.

You’ve grown too big to enter the house and sleep in your own bed, and you still refuse to dine with your father and myself. You prefer to sit silent in the yard and take only water and sunlight. I’m having the cook make your favorite Baked Alaska for your birthday this weekend, which I suspect will bring an end to this rebellious teenage hunger strike nonsense.

I’m pleased you conceded to wear the mauve dress tonight, after I made the proper adjustments, and the maid and your father helped me wrap and sew it onto your body—with no help from you. Despite constant washing up, your sap stuck and crusted through the dress in places. Your hardened skin ripped it at the collar as well as down the left side. But tonight I observe proudly that the extra seams are hardly noticeable from anywhere beyond the fifth row.

Despite your atrocious posture, you didn’t fit into the auditorium. All the money your father and I donated to have it built for the academy when you were little—if we’d only known the dimensions wouldn’t allow for our own daughter to stand onstage! It took much arm-twisting to get them to cut the ceiling and lower you through the roof, but money solves all problems, and it is our auditorium, after all. It even bears our name.

The rafters block the hole from view. The room is colder, but everyone has solved that problem for themselves by keeping their coats on.

The orchestra’s playing would help us forget the cold entirely, if it weren’t for the booming dissonance of your notes.

You refused to play your clarinet. I’m unsure whether it’s out of rebelliousness, or the fact that your current state makes holding the clarinet very difficult for you. The handyman drilled down through your trunk, split into several interconnected tunnels, and with the addition of some strategically-placed holes and a gust of wind, you can play again.

But there is an overdramatic, morose quality to your playing, Susan, that I hope will disappear over time. The rest of your classmates are currently attempting a sunny rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance, muddied by your petulant bassooning in the background.

That ceaseless howling keeps the audience from knowing when one piece has ended and another begins.

And it’s much too loud. You still haven’t learned to blend, balance, and order yourself with everyone else. I see that six years in the woods only encouraged this ugly showboat behavior. Beyond the reach of civilization, everything is competition and chaos.

Your father and I have seen to it that you never have to compete, but you must learn to conduct yourself respectably if you are to go on to university and make something of yourself.

Your falling leaves litter the stage and distract the other players. Hold them from chattering, Susan, so desperate for applause that you have to provide it yourself throughout the performance.

Now swaying and creaking, such a restless child! I told your father not to unfasten you, but administration complained that the crane took too much space in the parking lot. Let people park in the street! Don’t they see how your unbridled fidgeting is ruining the performance? Keep her restrained, I told them, she’s still too wild, I told them.

Cracking and a boom, and the whole auditorium goes black.

Thumping of seats, shoving. No more music except for yours, Susan—ugly notes, groans, and that self-serving applause.

I put my hands on your father’s back and follow him out of our row and down the aisle, other feet stepping on my toes, screams in the dark.

In the whipping wind of the parking lot we see that the blackout covers the entire street, possibly beyond.

The top of your head sways against the moon, and you’re fingering a power line.

Headlights flash and swerve, horns honk, the whole parking lot is a jam of cars and milling, panicked people. Scrape of metal and crunch of plastic. Shouts.

Congratulations, Susan. You’ve thrown your biggest tantrum yet and ruined another evening. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.

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  1. jim ilika

    I have known parents and families like this. At the risk of sounding like Chauncey Gardiner, trees sometime have to contort themselves into almost unrecognizable shapes to find the light.

  2. Stephen Weihs

    I don’t know if we are meant to think the mother is delusional, but I for one, completely believe that Susan is a petulant bitch who became a tree just to annoy her parents. Bravo for shining a light on disrespectful children everywhere who would rather become rocks and shrubbery rather than face their responsibilities. Unless that wasn’t the point, in which case, it was still fun.

    1. Zachary Dillon

      It’s hard for me to tell whether you’re reacting to a story about a rebellious child as a parent, or a story about erecting a tree through a building next to power lines as someone who does what you do for a living.

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