Everything You Once Were

You are four when you decide to swim to the barnacle-covered rock where your brother likes to squat, peeling snails up in between waves. You wade and wade until your toes can’t find sand anymore. Until your eyes can’t find sun.

Pink floaties slip from your too-thin arms, and you sink for the first time.

* * *

After the water has drained from your lungs, your mouth emptied of salt, teeth washed clean, you find yourself in a garden.

You don’t remember drowning, but you know you are no longer a girl. Your eyelashes have become aphids. Your tendons are unwrapped from your bones and tied instead to mycelia. Your bones abandon their calcium in favor of xylem, phloem, sap replacing blood. Skin peels into petals.

In the wake of your water-death, you surface at last. Your eyes unspool into a carpel, unfearing, unwearied. Your lips are anthers dribbling seconds onto the breeze.

You don’t blink when the rain comes. Letting it wash over your new form, you feel that same kiss that brought you here, body altered, remade into a thing no lungs can betray.

Your blossoms are floatie-pink.

* * *

Your flower life lasts a single summer before you wither with the frost. When you wake again you are fifty, lying in a parking lot staring into the wide eyes of an EMT. Your heart beats in your too-large ears.

You use your worn wallet to find your name during the ride to the hospital. Dave. It doesn’t sound floral. You don’t like it, but you like being able to move again.

Dave has two children. A girl and a boy. The boy is four and likes painting with his hands stained green and pink. The girl is ten and hunts bugs in the garden.

You are afraid you won’t know them, but they are easy to love. You take them on hikes in the hills. The boy brings a magnifying glass and a box of crayons. The girl brings a journal and a pair of scissors, pressing leaves and flowers between the pages. Her favorites are pink, like yours.

You love these hikes most, in your third life. Your doctor says they’re good for your health. You know they’re best for your memory. You like climbing past blossoms and under trees.

You are hiking when the wildfire comes. The girl starts running. You pick up the boy and run after her until you can no longer see her. Until you can no longer see the boy in your arms, his hands wrapped around a flower you picked for him.

Smoke closes around you like ocean waves.

* * *

You sleep for a long time. When at last you wake, it is to cold wind. You feel yourself reaching—tearing fingers, toes to the bone as you hold onto all you were given: a stone.

Ah, but you have no bones. No fingers, no toes to grip anymore. As you become your next self, exhaling smoke from dissolving lungs, you are aware of the rhizinae binding you in place. Your legs have solidified into a lower cortex, insulation from the surface that will be your next home.

Your veins: medulla.

Your muscles: algae.

Your face, upturned to the cutting wind: the upper cortex of the lichen you’ve become.

Lying flat, progressing slow, you feel a memory of the fire that put you here. The sun finds you again, isolated on exposed rock. You feel its distant burning, and you warm–just enough. Smokeless, it feeds you.

Painless, you endure.

* * *

Ages wear your rock to the earth. You last through centuries, growing older than you’ve ever been. You’re conscious of others around you, growing and shrinking with the seasons. You wonder if any were once a boy who loved painting, a girl who loved collecting. A brother who loved the sea. A little sister who loved him.

No–that last one is you. Or was. Or is?

Memories mixing with instincts, you live your life in bare exile. You are afraid you will stay here forever, until a child, hiking with their parents, finds you.

They carry no magnifying glass, no journal. No floaties too large for their arms.

They carry nothing at all.

Picking up a sharp stone, they kneel by your rock. With patient concentration, they chisel you away. Your flakes fall, scattered by the wind.

The child runs back to their parents, pink sneakers floating over dry grass waves.

* * *

You do not become human this time. Dispersed, you sink for the second time. As the earth closes over you, you find yourself in eternal darkness. You loathe it, wish to breathe air again–taste food again–spread life again.

And you do.

Hyphae unravel your arteries, detangle the neurons that brought you to your first end. Everything you once were moves in another direction, spreading you through the earth that as a flower held you prisoner. You discover: you can move. You discover: you can grow.

Wrapping tendrilled hands around roots, you make connections with the spirits of others. Have they died like you? But no–they are something other, something harsh and strong and alien and familiar. You use them to spread yourself further, distribute your darkness until you feel–hear–taste–sense: it is time.

From underneath, you rise in a hundred places. Better than eyes, you see in every direction when you sprout through rotted leaves. Better than lungs, you breathe the midnight air. Better than words, you launch your spores to the gentle breeze.

You began a single being. Vulnerable, alone. But no longer.

You have become everything.