Melanie Lamaga

The Geometry of Trees

A suburban night, late, and the children sleep. Most of the parents sleep, too, or stare at boxes. Sylvie glimpses them, glowing blue through windows, as she runs along the street. Her feet push off strong, and she luxuriates in the smooth brush of wind across skin. Her breath comes deep and ambrosia-sweet.

Sylvie wishes she could run all night, straight out of Georgia to some other state. But she’s not wearing anything except her bra and panties. Not sporty ones, either, but red and white-striped silk.

A fight with her husband triggered this flight. But Suresh is just the mouthpiece of the beast Sylvie’s felt lurking ever since she turned forty. She’s angry enough not to care who sees her, but not feral enough to leave the safety of her gated community. So she runs in circles until she can’t feel the dragon’s breath on her neck.

Ten blocks down the grid from home, Sylvie starts to walk, cooling down. She passes new houses with cathedral ceilings that dwarf the saplings along the street. Though it’s October, a thunderstorm has left the air languid with tropical heat.

Under a gingko shedding golden leaves, Sylvie stops and stares down in amazement. She glances around the empty street as if searching for a clue, then stares down again. Fantastic as it seems, some of the leaves form complex geometric equations.

Sylvie and Suresh teach math at a private high school. Lately Sylvie has become interested in fractal geometry, which posits that objects, or even worlds, exist folded between dimensions—that the smallest details mirror the largest patterns. Trees themselves are natural fractals, Sylvie recalls, the structure of their veins mimicking the structure of the branches, the branches repeating the form as they grow.

In the arrangement of leaves on the sidewalk, Sylvie recognizes the Mandelbrot and Julia sets, but the longest equation, snaking in a long loop, leaves her baffled.

Sylvie tries to view the equations from another angle, but they disappear. They only reveal themselves from her original position: her back against the tree, streetlight behind. The effect, she decides, is created by the slight variations in tone between the bright yellow leaves arranged on top of a mat of darker, rain-soaked gold.

Leaning against the tree, Sylvie’s anger dissolves. She wonders how many hours it must have taken to create this, and who would have chosen to, knowing that it could be destroyed at any moment by pedestrians or wind. Perhaps a brilliant mathematician or philosopher has arranged the leaves this way as an elaborate joke, or a sort of meditation, like the sand paintings of Buddhist monks.

Sylvie glances around. She can’t imagine such an exotic person inhabiting one of these bland suburban houses. Although she realizes, looking down at her nearly-naked body, one shouldn’t judge.

She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. This is what she’s been looking for without quite daring to hope. A crack in the façade. But maybe the equations are just a figment of her imagination—the dying dream of a mouse in a serpent’s embrace.

As Sylvie opens her eyes, a movement catches her attention. It’s Suresh, passing through the amber circle cast by a streetlight. He’s several blocks down, moving crosswise, clutching her overcoat under his arm. Apprehension tightens Sylvie’s chest, and she feels the familiar urge to flee. But she also feels a craving to share her discovery with her husband, as insistent as the urge for sex.

Caught between desires, Sylvie stays put. Suresh will find her, eventually. He always does. She just wishes he’d try harder to understand.

It’s not as if she’d planned to leave the house in her underwear. She’d been changing out of her work clothes and into a nightgown when the lights had gone dark, and Suresh had started his harangue. She’d forgotten to pay the electric bill. But so what? She’d call tomorrow and have it reconnected.

“And why are you wearing those?” he’d added, frowning at her new underwear.

Sylvie had felt a flush of anger singe her skin. She’d picked out the underwear on a whim, wandering in the mall last week after buying new running shoes. She’d liked the color, the way the silk felt against her skin. She hadn’t been thinking of Suresh at all, but his reaction came as a nasty shock.

“For God’s sake, I’m forty, not four hundred.”

“You’re forty, not fourteen,” he’d snapped. “Yet we have no electricity, the living room is half-painted aqua….”

“Teal,” Sylvie corrected.

“You’ve made plans to take your summer vacation without me, to some country I’ve never even heard of….”

“Tokelau, and I invited you!”

“And now you’re wearing underwear that looks like it belongs to a stripper named Candy Cane!”

The flush had flared into dragon’s breath, then. If she hadn’t gotten out of there, she would have broken something again. Last time, it was the stained glass window in the front door. The antique brass bell she’d thrown had made a satisfying clang as it punched a jagged hole through the Art Nouveau design. She’d secretly liked it—that forbidden gap between outside and inside—but didn’t dare object when Suresh had called someone to fix the hole.

Now Sylvie feels as if the inexplicable equations have opened a hole inside her, letting the outside in—the inside out.

“Fractals,” she whispers. “The part mirrors the whole.”

Sylvie wonders what patterns would emerge if she could see herself from space: a woman in panties, bra, and running shoes, huddled under a gingko. Not young anymore, but her muscles still move with supple grace. Her arms and legs branch from her trunk, fingers and toes from limbs. Inside her chest, her aorta branches into arteries, veins and capillaries. Zoom in: DNA and electrons spiral in her cells. Zoom out: her body and the earth spiral around the sun, while the solar system spirals through the Milky Way.

Just then, a single leaf spirals down from the gingko and falls precisely into place at the end of the long, mysterious equation. Sylvie’s eyes widen and she turns to look at the tree.

“Nice trick,” she whispers.

The tree trunk seems to part from itself, a moving shadow that resolves into Suresh, circled around to Sylvie at last.

“Come home,” he says quietly, and drapes the overcoat across her shoulders.

“Wait. Look!”

Suresh sighs. “Look at what?”

“The leaves,” she says, pointing down. “Please?”

Suresh shakes his head in exasperation but glances down, just as a gust of wind sends a cyclone of leaves swirling around them.

Resigned, Sylvie meets Suresh’s eyes. But instead of pity or annoyance, she finds the amazement of recognition. He has seen.

“Did you do that?” Suresh asks.

“No.” Sylvie shakes her head and grins. “You?”

“Of course not,” he mutters. But he looks pleased that she asked.

Shoulders touching, Sylvie and Suresh stand in the rising wind. He takes her hand and their fingers entwine. Gingko fans spiral madly around them, obscuring equations, known and unknown.

Looking down, Sylvie sees their legs, four new saplings, rising from golden leaves.


Melanie Lamaga’s short fiction has appeared in Fictional International, Zahir Magazine, and UnCommon Origins: A Collection of Gods, Monsters, Nature, and Science (UnCommon Anthologies Book 2). She is the editor-in-chief of Metaphysical Circus Press, which published her collection of short fiction, The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories. She edits See the Elephant, a magazine of speculative fiction. She spends winters in the mountains of Southern California and summers in Baja California, Mexico, where she owns and operates an outdoor adventure company with her husband.