When I was a little girl, I believed that if I swallowed the pip from a cherry I would grow into a tree. I think everybody used to think that – maybe.
Nevertheless, I never swallowed a single pip. If I had, I would’ve stuck my fingers down my throat and thrown it up, or punched myself so hard in the stomach that it would’ve shot out from between my lips, with so much force that my fist would have plunged through my flesh and into my stomach, searching for the stone with my own fingers.
It wasn’t just the thought of becoming a tree that frightened me, it was the stories that I heard growing up. Jenny, my older cousin, was turned to wood when she submitted to swallowing the deadly hearts. She moved like a puppet for months, whilst her skin dulled and her personality nested somewhere deep inside. I don’t remember this personally, but I heard it enough times that I have trusted it to be the truth.
Yet, cherries have always been my favourite fruit and my one healthy indulgence. I gorged on them, whenever I had the chance, until pink juice ran over my lips and my fingers were stained blood-red. The problem was that they were only in season during the summer, or else they would cost triple the amount. So I stopped binging on the scarlet jewels. The ripe flesh would only pass my lips and drench my tongue one time a year, just in time for my birthday.
Some would call me lucky. I’m a July-baby, born right in the middle of cherry-season. Insouciant, lascivious, red-hot summer: when sweet sweat lingers on the hollow of people’s necks and everything gleams with a golden filter. It’s the highlight of year and the one time that I get to pamper myself with a bite or two, or a box or two, or a tree or two, of my guilty pleasure. Strutting around with my homemade cherry chapstick – Katy Perry, eat your heart out.
Last summer, I turned twenty-three. I lived for twenty-two years until I reached my professional peak, pulling out the weeds and cutting back the ugly, making sure to always bask in the sunlight and raise myself higher and higher. Though, with this birthday I felt the air transform from a comforting ally to a constantly-smothering duvet. The crisp blue sky was sharp to my eyes, the breeze was so thick that it blocked my airways and the caress of the sun scorched my skin. It’s tough to fight for life and to remain sustained once you reach the top. I couldn’t hold on, I couldn’t grow higher, I was withering away.
I picked up and peeled the skin off of a cherry with my front teeth and swallowed. What’s wrong with me? Turn, another fleck of skin, swallow. What’s changed? Turn, another slice of skin, swallow. Why do I feel like this? Open mouth, chew, lick and spit. Who am I?
I used the stem to trace the veins on my arms, all the way up until I couldn’t see them under my skin anymore. I ran it over my shoulders, up my neck and over my lips. I held the tip between my teeth and pulled the length down until my bottom lip was fully exposed and looked like it was cut in two – twin cherries on one stem. I sucked on the stalk with my eyes closed and, after a while, I swallowed the resting, sweet, saliva in my mouth.
I turned my head to the basket of fruit which lay in front of me, posing themselves so that I could see their skin glimmer. I reached a hand out towards a delicate cherry-stick, raised the fruit between my fingers and began undressing my prize with my teeth.
I hadn’t been myself in such a long time. I needed something to make me feel different, to make me feel better. I needed something to make everything go away: a new life. I needed to leave my life.
Turning into a tree is nothing but a children’s story, I told myself, but I couldn’t rationalise it properly in that moment. I was delirious and full of self-doubt.
My eyes closed as my hand reached out and grabbed a handful of glistening round rubies. I opened my mouth and fed in the load. I choked slightly as they hit the back of my throat, but gradually I swallowed every last one, and I felt euphoric.
When I opened my eyes, I found that faces had become blurred and voices turned into soft songs. Touches became ghost-like and I couldn’t move. I knew that people surrounded me and that I was supported, but I felt like I was falling. And I couldn’t tune in to what they were saying, but I knew that it was loud. They kept trying to help me and hold my hand, but it felt like the walls were caving in and that I was being pushed.
I felt my body being dragged into the earth beneath me and my feet penetrated the ground and entrapped themselves.
This was when I realised that I wasn’t going anywhere but down. I would be lying if I said that in this moment I fought for balance, for my legs to abscond and for me to climb back to my peak. I rejoiced in my descent.
Soil ran up and over my toes, lending space in the ground for my feet to sink further down. The skin from the soles of my feet grew thicker, and broke apart, turning into several skin-spirals that grew longer and bled through the mud. As I was being dragged down, the skin on my calves flaked and revealed a wet, crimson, piece of meat that slowly moulded into mahogany.
The force of my feet burrowing into the ground compelled me to stand upright and watch myself cave in. I battled my body to keep my eyes closed and to slip away in peace, but that’s not how these things work. The quickest way out is never the easiest or the kindest. Against my will, I witnessed both of my legs break and the bones being pushed out through my muscle whilst being replaced by sticky green rods. Thick patches of wood built up around my knees and drowned the lower part of my legs. Forest-claws latched onto my knees and lifted themselves up my thighs, running their fingers deliberately inwards and up towards my breasts. I tried holding onto the ascending talons and pushing them down, but they locked onto me and manipulated me so that I started to enclose myself, hugging my body tighter and tighter. I moved my hands down to my knees and dragged up the hard casing until my legs were covered and looked like one single entity – a tawny trunk for my upper body to be presented upon.
The timber crawled over my torso, like millions of ants. My skin itched and burned as they climbed higher, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling. Would it have been better for no pain at all? Possibly, but mental pain can be just as agonising as physical. This pain was a constant scratching, just enough pain to give you a release after it’s faded, not so much pain that it lingered.
I felt relaxed and static, like I could stay that way forever, forever standing strong.
Yet, the bark still rose higher. It filled the void underneath my arms and pushed them out horizontally, efflorescing snakes wrapped around them like rope and cut off my bloodstream. They cut my wrists and dug under my fingernails, spraying blood onto my face, making my arms rain red. I saw each tendon and vein stretch out of my wounds and expand into branches – so many branches. They grew into my neck and pierced my skin.
My skull smashed open and my brain filled with nectar, it dug down into my thoughts and corrupted them like an attacking virus. Every membrane turned from pink to black and oozed out through my mouth and nose. I couldn’t control it and I couldn’t stop it. I was infected and weak. I gave in.
My bones crushed all at once, leaving splinters in my flesh, like tiny pips. Around me was a thick pool of red and black – the old me. The last thing that I saw before my eyes were closed for good was a veil of black over semi-familiar, blurred faces.
My face sealed up and darkness became me. I could feel my branches grow in every direction and felt the pain as more and more leaves and sprouts and flowers and fruit grew. My tears ran down and fuelled the tree.
That was the strangest thing. When I was told that if I swallowed pips I would become a tree, I assumed that we would become one and that my mind would go blank. But, I was still me, just held in a static prison.
Maybe something went wrong?
I felt something move up my throat as I expelled a round product onto my tongue. It was smooth and firm, but burned me inside. I used my tongue to thrust it out of my mouth, ripping through my sealed lips and out through a hollow in the bark. Simultaneously, I could feel a stem attach itself to my tongue and weigh it down. I was weighted down all over. A beautiful cherry tree in the middle of summer.
Somebody stepped towards me, reached up and grasped a ripe jewel from my own morbid tree. As they stole a bite, I heard droplets of juice hit the ground and then flow up through my roots. It was a small relief that I was grateful for. Slowly, I felt the weight decrease and the life inside of me grow. The most fragile parts of me were being opened and shared with people. One by one, they stepped up and picked a fruit. With every bite I grew stronger, but it wasn’t enough. I was in too deep.
Still, more people stepped forward to share my treasures, my secrets, and grabbed onto everything that they could: branches, leaves, bark, blossom, and fruit. They struggled together to bring me back to them, to raise me back towards the sun.
Synchronously, I could feel my feet being dug up and hands pulling on my ankles, whilst a chainsaw shredded my branches and broke my shell.
There I was: squished and fragmented. I tried my best to shield the worst parts of my exposed-self whilst I felt several pairs of hands on my body, trying to piece me together like a puzzle. There were a few missing parts, but we will find them in time.
And now, here I am.
I am standing bare in front of you, in full display, all my flaws and strengths on show. Yes, I am battered, bruised and bleeding – but I am here. The mud can be washed off, the bones can be fixed and skin has many layers.
I do not claim to be perfect and I don’t strive for that (not anymore). I have been born again and I am growing stronger every day.
Mental illnesses are natural, complex and real. Do not treat them like a taboo. Only by sharing experiences and talking about them will they be properly represented and accepted.
This is what my own journey felt like. It will not be the same for everyone, but here’s an insight.
I am now on the right medication, and after seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist I have been officially diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.
I have amazing friends and family and I am getting better.
I will continue to love cherries, but will never swallow one of their hearts again.
My name is Ellie: I am confident, I am kind, I am determined. I love cats, and taking my clothes off and singing rubbish songs really loudly with my friends. I study Creative Writing, but love reading the Twilight Saga, and I love the smell of sweat. I hate mushrooms, and always will. And I am no-one but myself.