Tantra Bensko

Virus on Fire

The most beautiful man you have seen is part tree. He lifts his arms slowly in front of the crowd around him. He can barely hold them up, but doing so keeps him trim. His finely formed, cheeks, square, with nice rounded edges, catch all the sun they can. His eyes are deep but you know he couldn't feel you if he reaches out. His hands extend into grey cutanaeous horns, waste material of warts that just keep growing.

He lifts his feet, with their roots, while people cheer; that gives him strong leg muscles, but he's not muscle-bound, as he can't do much work around the place. He keeps to himself, and you want to tell him stories in the corner. Everyone else is busy. Everyone else has felt many women.

You walk up to a tree and hug it, petting its bark, and glance at him. You love trees.

You wonder if anyone has ever put her arms around him. His waist is fine. People stand back, so they don't catch his virus.

You hear someone say it's because his mother must have made love with his father in a tree. But his father left when he saw the branches coming in. And his mother won't talk. Only the man's brother pours his bath, and sews special clothes he dresses him in, and gives him a hand-rolled cigarrette stuck in a stick he hollowed out; he places the contrivance between the tight branches in between the tree-fingers.

One of the other freaks performing moves his head back and forth lugubriously, making his nose, which flops down below his chin, waves squishily. Another one balances a ball on his head like a seal, and claps his malformed flippers. Tree-man can only perform with them once a month and you can see why. After he curls into a ball, uncrouching slowly, raising his giant hands to the sky, and standing on his toe roots, looking up, he becomes a little more tree. He can barely move afterwards. His sap is running downward, but you want to make it rise for you. If he could just get better, he would have so much more life to live. You would cook for him. You would clean him.

You look in the mirror at the trading circle and make faces while you dance to the drums. You like to make people laugh. One time you drew an outline of your face on the mirror. It was easy to draw it to make it look just like you. But you shouldn't call that cheating. Sometimes the sunshine feels so mellow on your face you can hardly stand it. You barely sneak open an eye, to look at Tree-man to see if he notices the angle of the sun on your sensuous face.

His brother is giving him a cigarette in a hollowed out stick to revive him. The cigarette catches his hand branches on fire. His eyes are closed as he takes a drag, meaning he can't see your dramatic look of horror, and he doesn't feel the horns at all on fire. Until the heat informs his face. His eyes get big and he screeches and rolls on the ground. But the smoldering has gone deep. Like peat moss under the ground, his brother says it will be ever really put out.

You watch, and you wait.

Some of the limbs grow brittle and break off, some harden. His brother tries making one into charcoal but it doesn't work at all; he thinks of eating it powdered to settle his stomach but the thought upsets it instead.

A fire inside makes the tree man more poetic. More smoldering. He looks at you, as his hand becomes closer to being able to feel you. As perhaps his self confidence grows, as he can wave now, relatively smoothly. The fire in his hand would leave an imprint on your body if he touched you long. Your naked body. Your long, narrow back. Your low riding hips.

It would say you are his. Only he could leave a mark that shape. His hand grows smaller, and more beautiful, the other one still tree. The small one looks like a pine cone that went mad. You make sure he can smell you. You stand close to him, as you are fertile.

Your mother always told you it's important to plant trees. You give him a look you hope he understands: you want him to plant a baby tree inside you. You want it to grow, and take you over. It is already made of fire.

Tantra Bensko teaches fiction writing with UCLA X Writing Program, Writers College, and her academy. Her newest book is an illustrated Neo-Noir Slipstream novella from ELJ Publishing. Her stories nestle into magazines and anthologies like Strange Little Girls, Women Writing the Weird I and II, NonBinary Review, Zymbol, and Holdfast. She loves life in Berkeley. http://lucidmembrane.weebly.com/

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