So just when humans started dying due to mass suffocation for lack of air to breathe, the teens took it upon themselves to solve the problem and took root—literally. The adults weren’t so surprised, as one would imagine, when the first girl turned into a sturdy Narra tree with dainty yellow flowers. Wasn’t that what rebellious teenagers do anyway? It was just a phase, they said; soon she’d shake off that dark brown bark and carry on with life. When another teen, a boy this time, turned into a Banaba tree with delicate purple-pink flowers, they believed it was more or less the same thing.
It started with the teens stubbornly standing their ground, until their feet grew roots spreading earthwards, until their slender torsos expanded in diameter, until their hands became branchless stems extending skywards, until they started eating the sun, until the wind gushed shadowy and restless among them. When they refused to return to their human forms in time for dinner, their mothers pleaded and cried in front of them. But didn’t mothers often cry for their children anyway? So it was the same, I suppose. The teenage trees remained quiet, and yet their silence was alive, palpable even.
My mother feared for my sister, who had then just turned fifteen. When she stood on the same spot outside for minutes on end, Mama would go hysterical and shove her back into the house. She would then obsessively scan my sister from head to toe, looking for telltale signs of transformation: hair that resembled a lush canopy, stretch marks that started to feel like deep furrows on a trunk, a hangnail so jagged and torn it looked like lateral roots. There were none, and Mama would give a sigh of relief.
The thing with teenagers turning into trees, though, was that there seemed to be no discernible pattern. First it was that girl who never missed Sunday church services, then the middle boy of the seven Santos children, then four seniors secretly smoking a joint behind the dumpster, then an entire group of youth volunteers. Some boys grew into fruit-bearing trees, some girls never bore fruits. All turned into providers of shade and drinkers of rain water. No one knew if the change had anything to do with genetics. The change came sudden, too. Maybe it was a wordless breath of wood, inhaled and nurtured within the body until it was ready to merge with the soil; maybe the seed had been there all along.
A Facebook Live post—that was how we learned my sister had turned. Our phones buzzed with the incessant vibration from consecutive notifications. We saw it, Isabel planting her feet firmly on the ground, her hands reaching out to the sky, a serene smile on her face. Then her human body was enveloped into the darkest of trunks, her arms lengthened until stunning fire-red blooms shaped like sea anemones appeared on her hands. My sister had turned into a Mangkono tree, and, in a way, it made sense to me. Her love for the color red manifested in the flowers she carried. Her sheer stubbornness, in the hard wood that required a sturdy diamond-point saw just to slice through it. And, of course, she chose to plant herself just outside the city library.
My mother had never missed a day dropping by the library since then. Often, she brought my sister’s favorite treats with her, as if these might somehow make her change back and enjoy all humanly pleasures. All across the city, it was not uncommon to see people talking yearningly to trees, while some even took to sleeping in tents just to be beside their trees. As months passed, the trees grew in number and in strength. We watched as birds started flying in to nest, we watched as what had formerly been an asphalt furnace turned into a lovely tree-lined street. And the air . . . it was just so, so much easier to breathe.
The teens continued to change and I knew that soon it would be my time. My friends and I, we skipped school. What was the point of school anyway, if our future meant simply standing still and dancing to the wind with our leafy branches? Instead, we read about photosynthesis, pollination and meristematic cells. We figured things would become second nature once we turned, but there was no harm in having theoretical knowledge as well.
The teens had not matured into adults, so a number of universities had to shut down, and the younger children were allowed to run wild. Several families had moved out of the neighborhood, thinking that the epidemic was contained in our tiny portion of the world, only to find out later on that it was all the same, except their children turned into foreign trees like pines and willows.
A year had passed and I watched as our bustling city turned into some sort of a ghost town. Not so long ago, the parched earth was slowly puckering into shingles. Now, trees of different types towered around us, their roots sinking deep into the now fertile soil. Every day, we looked up and saw the leaves forming an umbrella over us and said a prayer of thanks. Every day, I looked up and wondered if enough teens had turned for us to have another shot at surviving.
The trees stood stubborn and tall, giving us air and shade, and saved us from this drowning world. I had always wanted to become a doctor, but I had never said it out loud. Instead, I kept this hopeful wish to myself and only whispered it to the gibbous moon. A breeze stirred in our quiet neighborhood—the silence only broken by the birds nestled in the branches above me, saying good night to one another at the same time. I stood perfectly still and allowed the night’s calm to embrace me.
Then I tried lifting my leg to head back home, but I found myself unable to move. I sighed. Perhaps I could still save humanity this way. Perhaps, one day, we would all be saved. But, for now, I could only watch as white cottony blossoms of a Salimbobong tree began to surround me, as if falling from my own head.