Cristina Matteis

by Cristina Matteis-Stenlund

She wasn’t born in the woods. 

She was born as far removed from the natural world as it gets. Twelve stories above ground and boxed in concrete. She spent her days surrounded by the whirl and hum of streetcar lines and construction sites. 

She shared her home with a mother. The mother’s eyes were a muddled shade of hazel, always fogged like a bathroom mirror. The girl knew when the mother was home, not by any indication of sound, but by the weight of the air or its slight displacement. What she remembers most about the mother is the way the LED lights pierced the fog of her hazel eyes. 

She fell in love with science out of necessity, grounding herself in the mathematics of it all. Laws, rules, and the order of things provided a composite set of true and false answers that guided her through adolescence. When she entered college, she resolved to learn as much as she could about the natural world. She wanted to question the connections and deviations in the problem-solving systems of living engines. 

But the first time she held a hand lens up to a patch of tiny green film nestled in the ridges of an elm bark—something changed.

Quite by accident, she fell into the overlooked world. At the edge of ordinary perception, she found a forest in miniature. Tiny leaves webbed outward from slender stems, crissing and crossing into a blooming canopy of rich green foliage. Despite their chaotic tangles, the leaves themselves were neatly arranged with a startling diversity. Some tooth-edged and some feathering out in hair-like extensions; some pleated and others spiralled or flattened and huddled together in tufts. Gripped by the unseen complexity of such an accessible microcosm, she felt—for the first time—a glimmering sense of possibility.

                                                                                  ~ ~ ~

When she noticed the first patch, she called the doctor. He said potential squamous cell carcinoma. He said best to have it looked at right away. A rough, brownish patch the size of her thumb was on the underside of her left wrist, tucked between a protruding tendon and a wide, branching blue vein. While she waited for the doctor, she lifted her gaze to the ceiling, staring straight at the fluorescent light until orbs of different sizes fell around her head. When her vision returned, she rolled up her left sleeve, simultaneously raising her wrist and lowering her head in the same practiced motion of adjusting the stage on a microscope. The patch nearly doubled in length, crawling along the tendon toward her elbow. Its colour changed too, from brown to deep green. She let out an audible sigh, softening her resolve enough to allow a worried line to cross her brows. 

Until recently, she felt indifferent toward death and suffering. She understood both as part of the biological equation—as part of the push-pull of problems and solutions. But theory is not the same as practice, and she was not immune to the pressures of endurance. 

When the doctor finally entered the room, he asked, is there anyone you’d like to call?  She said no. Years ago, there had been a lover—a researcher locked in a pursuit with the human psyche. Their love was precise, supplied in a measurable quantity. At one point, when it was logical to do so, he suggested marriage. He proposed a stable base for her to return to when her fieldwork ended. A point of attachment like a muscle, flexible but affixed. She clung to him for as long as she could. But in the end, she lacked roots. She was sure she had been born without them. 

The doctor recommended total removal of the tissue. Curettage and electrodessication. The procedure was scheduled for the following month. She left the appointment and headed straight to the lab, eager for the climate-controlled environment, her instruments tuned to sense-making, and the categorical data she meticulously maintained. Alone again, she rolled up her left sleeve, drawing her wrist back in line with her narrowing gaze. Instinctively, she stroked the full length of the crawling patch with the edge of her right thumb. Until then, she had resisted turning a lens on herself, concerned with uncovering questions she could not contort into falsifiable facts. 

The closer she looked, the more she saw.

Mosses attract and hold water, release it slowly into the environment, and create humidity. Algae, bacteria, tiny spores of fungi. Invertebrates snapping stylets into single cells, sucking out contents. Beads of water travelled up the tiny stalks and floated along the surface of the spiralled leaves, puffed clouds of condensation that settled like a fog across the surface of her eyes. She carefully recorded her findings.

Perhaps the Dendroalsia clung to her out of familiarity. Self seeks like. It’s easy to develop a liking or disliking of things merely because they are familiar. Perhaps it was simple adaptation, an exercise of the problem-solving force underpinning the wonder of organic mutation. She knew she could not own a thing and love it. 

                                                                                  ~ ~ ~

Months passed, and the Dendroalsia bloomed.

Interwoven shoots and branches, soft fronds covering both forearms. Each delicate branch stitched together to blanket the surface of her torso. Under the canopy—herbivores, grazers, predators—a whole ecosystem congregated, living and dying. 

When the time was right, she left her home. Bare feet melding into the earth as the moist air stirred the branches of the oak trees. Rain began to fall—first in large, quiet drops. Soon, the shower turned into a downpour—a jubilant celebration, a welcoming home. Each tiny leaf unfurled, outstretching to meet the rain. Stems shifted to receive—opening space. She folded her body into the earth—transforming legs into roots, trading bones for tannins, and switching skin for xylem.

Beyond the edge of control, she discovered a world guided by the energy of play. Experiments occurred on scales of time inaccessible to human understanding—a whole way of being propelled by intuition and delicate equations in balance with the quiet resilience of simplicity. 

CRISTINA MATTEIS-STENLUND studies English and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. Her writing is propelled by an insatiable curiosity and existential dread. She is the mother of an equally curious toddler, whose book collection nearly outnumbers her own.