By 3 AM the throbbing ache in Joe’s shoulder had colonized his elbow and sent tendrils of discomfort out to his hip and knee. Sweating, he opened his eyes and sat up in bed. It was, at that moment, exactly ten years and ten hours since Joe had been diagnosed with the genetic disorder that caused his pain. His body was not a friend.
Joe rose from his mattress and approached the small oak tree that grew in the exact center of his one-room house. He watched in fast-motion as a leaf turned brown, fell from the branch, and dissolved into dust on the ground. With a hand-broom he swept it up, mixed it with some coffee grounds, and poured it into some boiling water.
As he drank his coffee, he stared at the tree. A lumpy burl, perhaps two inches in diameter, had formed on its side. Two tiny twigs stuck out of it like antennae, and its gnarled surface resembled a human face.
Joe bent in close to touch the small growth.
“Hello,” said the burl.
Joe jumped back, spilling his coffee.
“Ow!” he said, the hot liquid hitting his crotch.
“That hurt,” said the burl.
“Yes!” said Joe. He leaned in close. “Why are you talking?”
“It’s a new experiment. Intelligence.”
“Intelligence,” said Joe.
“Yes. I’m experimenting with intelligence.”
“What’s it like?” asked Joe.
“It’s not like anything.” said the burl.
“I mean…um…why are you doing that?”
“I think it was a natural step. Evolution. Maybe a mutation.”
“Oh,” said Joe, and went to get more coffee.
Joe sat at his desk at the Sad Elephant Company’s grand headquarters, the company logo, a sad-eyed and weepy cartoon pachyderm, looming overhead. He was supposed to be going over mood reports from the Midwest, but his shoulder hurt too much. He pictured a metal sphere, covered in spikes, embedded just beneath his shoulder blade, giving him imaginary acupuncture. This relieved a tiny bit of the pain.
The Midwestern mood reports were mostly positive, which was a good sign. The more positive the mood, the more need for Sad Elephant, who made mood suppressors. With all the anti-depressants that had been urinated into the water supply in the past few years, the desire for sadness was increasing exponentially. Sad movies became popular for a while, but people found that without a mood suppressor, not even the saddest film could dampen their perpetual cheeriness.
Sad Elephant was trying to enter into a deal with a theater chain to sell their product alongside the popcorn and candy and hummus at the concession stand. They’d developed the slogan “Feel The Film!” and hoped to pair it with a series of Hollywood tearjerkers. The initial idea had been Joe’s.
But Joe didn’t need any Sad Elephant to feel bad, as the pain took care of that for him. “Hi Joe,” said Sheila. Her hair was overly curly today.
“How’s the mood report?”
Joe wanted to touch Sheila’s breasts. Her blouse was cut low in front, and her skin looked so smooth. He tried not to stare at her cleavage.
“No, not too good. Just good enough.”
Sheila laughed and leaned forward. “I think I’m feeling too good right now,” she said, smiling.
“Have a Sad Elephant,” said Joe, “it’s a trunk-full of troubles!” They both giggled, but Joe wasn’t sure why.
On the bus home Joe stared at the seatback in front of him. He used to drive a car to work, but the pain in his arm had made steering too unpleasant, so now he enjoyed his quiet time on the bus. Nobody talked to anybody, but they all seemed happy. Joe watched a young couple sit down. They smiled at each other and then put in their earphones and closed their eyes. Joe wanted them to hold hands.
He closed his own eyes and put his earphones in. He didn’t even own a music player, he just liked the way they looked. His right arm felt horrible. He tried to relax it, but that only moved the pain slightly. He lifted it and the pain formed a line going up the side of his neck. He liked that a little better, but couldn’t hold it for more than a minute. When he relaxed the arm again, the pain was worse than before. I wonder what other people think about, thought Joe, since they don’t have to think about their bodies.
“Excuse me,” said an elderly white man, who settled into the seat next to Joe’s. “That’s a lovely suit,” he continued. “I used to wear a suit to work myself. Forty years at Allied. You know them?”
Joe pointed to his headphones, the man nodded and smiled and then looked away. It’s not that Joe didn’t want to talk to people, but he’d long ago discovered that for everyone else, the world was as it appeared to be. For Joe, the world was filtered through his pain, which was invisible to others, a part of reality that wasn’t public or shared.
Joe walked up the slate walkway, crossed the tiny moat, and opened the double door to his house. “Hello,” he said to the oak tree.
“Hello,” said the burl.
“My arm hurts,” said Joe.
“That’s too bad,” said the tree. “Maybe you could take a pill?”
Unfortunately, there were no pills for Joe’s pain. Well, no legal pills, and none at all that wouldn’t make him sleepy or sick. Joe took some aspirin anyway, just for good measure.
“Do you feel any pain?” he asked the burl.
“No,” it replied.
“So you feel good?”
“What do you feel like?”
“I don’t feel like anything,” said the burl.
“But you have to feel like something. I mean, even if you can’t feel your parts, or you had no sense of touch, I mean…”
“What?” said the burl. It looked a bit quizzical now. Its antenna-like twigs had sprouted very tiny leaves.
“How’s your mood?” asked Joe.
“I don’t have a mood.”
“Everyone has a mood.”
“Not me,” said the tree.
“Then what do you want to talk about?” asked Joe.
“Photosynthesis. Xylem. Oxygen. That sort of thing.”
So Joe and the tree talked about that sort of thing for a while, and then Joe went to sleep.
Joe stared at the mood chart for Alaska. He had thought that moods there would decline in the winter months and rise in the summer, but in fact it was the opposite. He had heard Alaskan summers were dense with mosquitoes, and thought that might be the cause. Joe wanted an Alaska-specific slogan for Sad Elephant, but all he could come up with was “Get The Winter Doldrums in the Coldest Place On Earth,” and he thought that that wasn’t quite right. He started to think about snowmen, and then about snowmen coming to life, and magic hats, and why magicians wore top hats, and why tuxedos were so uncomfortable, and how comfortable it would be to sit in a chair that continuously and slowly shifted its shape beneath you, how the sharp pain in his arm and the dull ache in his shoulder would be better if the chair was just slowly undulating, vibrating, and rolling beneath him. And then Sheila said, “Feeling good?”
“Not really,” said Joe. “But I’m feeling better.”
“Better than what?” said Sheila, surprised. Most people just said “yep!” or “you bethcha!” or some such when asked if they were feeling good.
“Yesterday I had a lot of pain,” said Joe, realizing what he had started talking about, “but it’s just boring pain.”
“O,” said Sheila. She thought about her hands for a second, then patted Joe on the shoulder. “Well, I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“A little better,” he said.
“A little better,” she repeated. Sheila adjusted her blouse, then turned around, then turned back to Joe. “Do you want a cookie?” she asked.
“Yes!” said Joe.
“Me too,” she said, and went down the hall to search for cookies.
“Hello,” said Joe to the burl.
“Hello,” said the burl, “how’s your pain today?’
“It’s a little better,” said Joe.
“That’s good,” said the burl. “I’m getting lots of carbon here. It’s great. You breathe a lot at night when you sleep.”
“Yeah,” said Joe. He knew he breathed in his sleep, but had never thought of it as a good thing before.
“So,” said Joe, “you don’t feel any pain?”
“Nope,” said the tree.
“But do you ever feel, like, do you feel yourself photosynthesizing, and does that feel good?”
“I know what the problem is,” said the tree.
“You have feelings, you have, in addition to thoughts and such, you have feelings. I mean you feel your thoughts. You have an experience of thinking, and when you talk you hear yourself talk and have an experience of hearing yourself talk and an experience of hearing me answer.”
“Of course,” said Joe.
“I don’t have that,” said the burl.
“You don’t have that?”
“No, you speak, and the words are received and processed and an appropriate reply comes out, but there’s no experience of it. I’m a tree, I don’t have experiences.”
“I don’t understand,” said Joe.
“It’s like, when light hits my leaves, I photosynthesize, right?”
“But you never thought of me as feeling that, or having an experience of it, or being conscious of it, right?”
“I guess not,” said Joe.
“So I don’t. Now I talk, but it’s the same thing. I don’t feel it or experience it. It’s just happening.”
“But you’re talking. You’re conscious.”
“No, I’m not conscious. I’m just talking.”
“So you’re not aware of yourself talking.”
“Not really, no.”
“But you…you seem rational.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t involve being aware. I mean, if you had one of those vacuum cleaners that automatically cleaned the room, and found its way around the furniture and such, you wouldn’t think it was conscious, would you?”
“No,” said Joe, scratching his head, “but a vacuum cleaner doesn’t talk. Well, not to me.” At that moment he had no awareness of his own pain, though nerve fibers in his arms were pounding out signals that, had he focused on them, would have been excruciating.
“Good point,” said the tree, “but haven’t you ever typed on one of those computer programs that types back, and carries on a conversation?”
“Sure,” said Joe. Everyone had.
“Well, it’s not conscious. It’s just applying conversational algorithms, right?”
“That’s right,” said Joe, though he didn’t really know if that was right.
“So it’s like that,” said the burl, “I just…like the vacuum cleaner maps the room and moves around furniture, and the chat program analyzes what you said and types something back, and like I photosynthesize, and like dead flesh decays and like growing seeds send up shoots, I’m just talking. There’s no experience there.”
“Oh,” said Joe, “that must be nice.”
“Why is that?” asked the burl.
“Because you wouldn’t feel any pain.”
“I don’t feel anything. So it’s not nice and it’s not un-nice.”
“Yeah, but, objectively, I think it’s nice.”
“Thanks,” said the burl. “I’m made of wood.”
“I know,” said Joe, “I know.”
Joe dreamt that he was floating above a forest. Below, a herd of deer vanished into the dense growth of trees, and then appeared again, and then vanished again, like specks of sand falling behind a stained glass window. There was a large rock in a clearing, and it opened its mouth and swallowed Joe whole. Joe found himself in a swimming pool, with Sheila beside him. Her face was blurry but her breasts were in sharp focus. He touched the top of one with his upper lip, and Sheila vanished.
Suddenly Joe was completely awake. His arm was throbbing, as though an octopus of pain had wrapped itself around his shoulder, elbow, forearm and wrist. Trying to think of something else, Joe pretended that there was a beautiful woman next to him speaking in hushed tones. “Lay your head on my breast,” she said, “I think that would be ok.” He nuzzled against the pillow as the pain pulled him up and away.
Sitting at his desk, Joe fiddled with an eraser that was shaped like an oak leaf. Sheila had given it to him last month on Manager’s Day because she assumed he liked oak. She had been to his house once, to drop off some paperwork, and had seen Joe’s tree.
“Where did that come from?” she had asked.
“It grew when I was building the house,” said Joe. He wasn’t speaking figuratively: he had, in fact, built his house by hand, working around the sapling which was now a 5-foot tall oak that warped the wooden floor and, seasonally, gifted the room with a rain of colorful leaves.
Joe’s desk was littered with tiny, oak-themed tchotchkes that well-meaning people had given him over the years. In fact, Joe had no particular love of oak trees, except for the one in his living room.
Joe rubbed the oak-leaf eraser against the tip of his nose as he read through reports on the chemical make-up of modern day urine. He wondered if Sad Elephant could be marketed as a toilet accessory. “What better time to remember to take your Sad Elephant than when your trunk is out!” No, that was awful. He tossed the report on his desk and spun around in his chair, winding up nose-to-belly with Sheila.
“How’s your pain?” she said.
Joe wished she hadn’t asked. As soon as she mentioned it he became aware of the intense discomfort of his shoulder against the seat behind him, of the tightness in his neck, and of the feeling of heaviness dragging down the right side of his spine. Strangely, he could remember feeling it before Sheila had spoken, but he wasn’t aware of feeling it then. It just was, just sort of sitting there waiting to be felt. He wondered if that was what it was like for the talking burl in his house.
“Its ok,” said Joe, “It’s fine. Not bad. It’s been worse. I don’t mind it so much right now. Maybe later. It will probably hurt more later. It only hurts a little now. More like a discomfort, an uncomfortable feeling. It hurts. A little. Kind of hurts.”
“So it hurts a little?” asked Sheila.
“A little. Some,” said Joe.
“I’m sorry it hurts,” said Sheila, and she was sorry. Sheila was so happy most of the time that she had trouble conceiving of unhappiness, but she remembered once being tremendously sad. When she was five, she was playing with a tiny, china unicorn. Her mother saw her, and snatched it away, as this was not an appropriate toy for such a young child. But in grabbing the unicorn, her mother had slipped and fallen, and when she stood up Sheila saw that the unicorn was broken in three: two parts for the body, one for the tiny, golden horn.
Sheila realized she had been staring at Joe for a few seconds. “I’m sorry…it hurts,” she said again.
“Thanks,” said Joe, who was actually grateful.
Other than the oak tree, Joe’s house was quite bare. There were wooden floors, a wood-framed bed, a kitchen counter with a tiled surface, and a free standing sink made of aluminum. Joe washed his hands in the sink and turned on the stove. He pulled up a chair and sat watching the gas flame. He didn’t want to cook anything, he just liked to look at fire.
“Aren’t you going to talk to me today?” said the burl.
“We can talk while I sit over here,” said Joe.
“Tell me what you think about all the time,” said the tree.
“Why?” asked Joe.
“I don’t know,” said the tree, “I think part of what I’m doing, with the talking, is learning about other beings. It’s informative.”
Joe talked for a while about his pain, and about Sheila, and about devising slogans and marketing strategies, and about the collection of bottle caps he had had as a child. By the time Joe had started collecting, bottle-cap collectors were a dying breed. In his whole life he only met one other, a man who chatted Joe up on the bus. Thinking about it, Joe decided that perhaps that man had been lying, and had only claimed to also collect bottle caps so as to lure Joe into further conversation.
“Bottle caps,” said the tree, “that’s unusual.”
“Yeah,” said Joe. “It’s not popular.”
“So little is,” said the tree.
Joe thought that that was true. Most stuff is pretty unpopular. It made Joe a little sad, and he lay down on his bed.
“I’d like to be like you,” said Joe, “not feeling any pain or pleasure or sadness.”
“You could do that,” said the tree.
“How?” asked Joe.
“It what I’ve worked out. I’ve figured out how we are different, and I think we could swap.”
“Yeah, come over here, and put your hand on my trunk.”
Joe giggled to himself over the homonymy of “tree trunk” and “elephant trunk.”
He lay his hand on the trunk.
“How will that help?” asked Joe.
“It’s the next phase in the experiment,” said the tree.
“So what should I do?” asked Joe.
“Just put your hand on me and go to sleep,” said the tree. Joe put his hand on the trunk and felt instantly tired. He had a vague sensation, as of something crawling or growing up and into his arm. And the he was asleep.
Sheila saw Joe at his desk, and thought that his posture was quite impressive. Perhaps she had simply not noticed before, but it seemed as though Joe was sitting perfectly erect, in the way that statues of people always seem more aligned than real people.
“How’s the pain today, Joe?” she asked. She was glad that she knew something about Joe that she could ask about.
“No more pain.” said Joe. “It’s all gone.”
“How wonderful,” said Sheila. She bit her lip for a second. “Would you…” Sheila wondered if it was ok to ask Joe to coffee. Coffee was very safe. It would be ok. “Would you like to get some coffee, later? After work?” she said.
“I’d go with you to get coffee,” said Joe. He didn’t say “I’d like to get coffee,” because he had stopped liking things.
He and Sheila got coffee, and Joe listened to what she said, and made comments that showed he had listened. Sheila liked that Joe didn’t seem as concerned about himself as most people. Actually, Joe had no concern about himself whatsoever, but then, in a sense, Joe no longer had any concerns whatsoever. This didn’t bother Sheila. Indirectly, in fact, it made her happy, and she thought that Joe was happy too. He wasn’t, but that was ok.
In Joe’s house, the tree felt itself photosynthesizing. It felt the loneliness of being in Joe’s room all day by itself, and it longed for Joe to come home. It felt a deep connection to the earth where its roots spread out. It reveled in the feeling of water and nourishment flowing up its trunk from the soil below. A leaf dropped from one of its branches, and it felt sad, and at the same time it felt glad, and, overwhelmingly, it felt interested in the experience of being itself.
James DiGiovanna is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and multiple award-winning film critic for The Tucson Weekly. His fiction has appeared in Spork, Blue Moon Review, and 20X18. In collaboration with Carey Burtt he made the feature film Forked World and the short Kant Attack Ad. His website is www.spoonbot.com