“Considering reality from a certain perspective, every plant is a ghoul. They feast upon the dead in the earth. Every plant, truth be told, is a carnivore…”
— Stephen Woodgate, Sefer Etz Hayim: The Arcanum Magnum of the Plant Kingdom, p. 103.
Brit raised her glass and toasted her husband. The red wine looked like blood in the sunlight. She took a sip and sucked in a breath around her teeth as the tannins hit the back of her mouth.
“You would have loved it here. Definitely your kind of place.”
She looked around the cemetery. Dark pines stood sentinel around the fence, becoming a woods in the hills behind the graves. Smaller trees grew among the headstones, most just beginning to bud. In the summer they would shade cracked marble and alabaster statues stained with lichen. One ambitious oak was even trying to grow through a cross-shaped opening in a tombstone.
“Wouldn’t that make for an interesting painting.”
A green carpet of grass covered a couple of the graves but by no means all of them. She remembered the first graveyard picnic Steve had taken her on. He asked her why the grass grew greener over some plots.
He laughed and shook his head. “I’d bet good money that under every thick patch of grass you’d find a cracked coffin. Broken coffin means more nutrients means greener grass.”
“That’s a sucker bet. Nobody’s going to give you permission to dig and check.”
He’d laughed again and pulled her into a kiss. She brushed her fingers over the ghost of that kiss. The grass was still brown in front of Steve’s gravestone. No body found meant no coffin.
“It took seven years for them to declare you legally dead. Now that the insurance is going to pay out, I’ll never want for anything again.” She traced her index finger over the carved letters of his name. “But the only thing I want is you.”
She threw back the rest of her wine and packed the picnic things away. She wasn’t hungry any more. A cloud passed over the face of the sun, and she pulled her cardigan tighter around her. She tapped out a cigarette and lit it, not really smoking it, more letting the smoke rise to the heavens as a silent prayer. When it burned to the filter, she placed the rest of the pack on top of her husband’s marker. She kissed her fingers and pressed them against the cold stone.
“I miss you every day. Happy birthday, darling.”
Brit shivered and looked around, certain she had heard someone whisper her name. She didn’t see a soul.
“Must have been the wind in the trees…”
She looked around her again as she shouldered her bag and made her way down the hill to her car. She saw no one.
Cultures throughout the world have celebrated one fundamental truth. The Native Americans sowing fish with the corn. The priests of Attis watering the fields with their own blood. Odin hanging on the sacred oak like overripe fruit. The suicides seeking Aokigahara’s dark embrace.
The Plant Kingdom is the bridge between death and life, ignorance and wisdom. And to cross that bridge requires sacrifice.
— Stephen Woodgate, Sefer Etz Hayim, p. 57.
The day had grown darker as Brit drove home, but the rain held off until she was safely inside. It was that type of March rain that she liked least, a gray wetness that made the earth indistinguishable from the sky.
A perfect day for painting, even if the paintings she made on days like today never sold.
As she hung up her bag, the phone rang. Steve had never liked cell phones, so when he was around they never had them. When he had first gone away — when he had died — she couldn’t afford one while the lawyers wrestled over the insurance and the estate. Now that that had cleared up, she found she liked not having the distraction.
She picked up the receiver before the fourth ring and cradled it to her ear. “Hello?”
“Bridget, is that you?”
Brit recognized the voice of William Harris, one of Steve’s former colleagues at the university. “Yes.” Who did he think it would be? “Is everything alright?”
William hesitated on the other end of the line. “I received a call from Stephen earlier today.” He hurried to correct himself. “From someone claiming to be Stephen, that is.”
“I see,” she said, even though she didn’t see at all.
“It was between my classes. The charlatan rang me saying he was Stephen, even though he sounded nothing like him.” Another pause. “As soon as I was done for the day, I wanted to make sure that you hadn’t been…similarly disturbed.”
Brit managed a smile. “Thank you for your thoughtfulness, William. No. I haven’t received any crank calls. Not yet, at any rate.”
“Well, thank heaven for that.”
“Did he say what he wanted?”
“Something about a ‘major discovery’… I hung up on the charlatan.
Brit worried at her lower lip for a moment. “You’re…quite sure it wasn’t Steve.” She let the words hang somewhere between a statement and a question.
“Quite sure.” His response came too quickly, as if he were trying to reassure himself as well as her. “Probably a former student, someone who knew the rhythms of Stephen’s speech patterns. But the voice sounded nothing like him at all.”
“Yes. A student prank.” But how many students were still around that remembered Steve? Seven years were two generations of undergraduates.
“Anyway, I’m relieved to hear that you haven’t been bothered. Please don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything. You’ll do that, won’t you, Bridget?”
“Of course, William. Thanks again for your concern.”
Brit stared at the phone after she hung up. What could someone possibly gain by impersonating a man seven years dead? The insurance hadn’t been that much money.
“People are just cruel.”
She headed to her studio, even though she was no longer in the mood to paint. Still, perhaps she could turn off her brain for a while and just move pigment around. She set up her easel and fixed a canvas in place.
As she laid out her brushes, a knock sounded on the back door of her studio.
The need of our present age for ancient wisdom should be apparent to all. The Plant Kingdom has so much to teach us. Do we have the courage to embark on this quest? What sacrifices will we be willing to make along the way?
— Stephen Woodgate, Sefer Etz Hayim, p. 7.
The knob rattled as the person outside tried to open the locked door. The knock sounded again.
“Bridget? Are you in there?”
A chill ran up Brit’s spine. The words were hoarse, more like branches rubbed together in the wind than a human voice. But Professor Harris had been right. Something about the cadence suggested Steve’s way of speaking.
She went to the door. She couldn’t tell anything from the form in the small frosted window. Her throat went dry. “Who is it?”
“You know who this is. I have to talk to you, Bridget. I don’t have much time.”
She knew she shouldn’t, knew this had to be some kind of sick prank, because the alternative meant she was going crazy. Steve was dead. She had the papers to prove it. Her hands turned back the deadbolt and unlocked the door. She hesitated a moment longer, and then snatched up a pallet knife and put it into her pocket. She swung open the door.
Standing in the grey rain was Steve.
Or at least his silhouette. His frame was lean, as if he had lost a lot of weight, and he carried himself with an odd slouch, as if his bones could hardly support him. But there was no denying it was Steve.
This scene had played out in her mind a million times. What she would do if he ever showed up on her doorstep. Should she slap him? Cuss him out? Fall into his arms in a teary embrace? Bar his entry into their home until he’d explained where the hell he’d been for the past seven years?
He stepped closer. None of the scenarios fit. She gasped.
In the fifteenth century, the alchemist Zacharias Glass posited that the secret to the quintessence lay not in chemistry but in botany. Plants by nature transmute the inorganic world into organic material. The secret of the Elixir of Life would logically be found in that realm.
— Stephen Woodgate, Sefer Etz Hayim, p. 251.
She backed away as the thing in Steve’s shape moved towards her. She thought of the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the renaissance artist who painted portraits creating a man’s features from fruit and leaves. How did it even move?
Grey bark the texture of corduroy formed legs leading to a torso and arms of paper birch. She couldn’t see its feet, but its hands consisted of roots rather than fingers. Brown pine needles shaped a mockery of hair. But worst was the face.
When she was a girl, her grandmother had kept a peculiar collection of dolls. Each of them were hand-made, dressed in old fashioned clothes. She had never understood how the shriveled, ugly heads had started out as apples. The dark hollows that served as eyes always terrified her as they stared down at her from her grandmother’s dresser.
That was how the…thing’s face looked. Like someone had carved Steve’s features out of a giant apple and shrunk it down to this wrinkled brown replica.
“I know this is a shock to you…” The thing stared at her with dark depressions that were not eyes. “But I assure you. It’s me.”
“It’s a long story, too hard to explain. It would be easier for me to show you.”
Brit ran her thumb over the edge of the pallet knife in her pocket.
“You’re not showing me anything until I get some answers. You’ve been gone seven years. Seven years! I thought you were dead!”
“Seven years?” The Steve-thing looked as if he had been struck. “I thought it had been a couple of months. A year at most. You must think me a monster.”
A single tear ran down Steve’s cheek. In spite of the strange form, could this really be him? Brit almost ran to him. Then she saw the color of the tear, like amber sap.
“I didn’t know what to think. I still don’t.”
He reached out a hand. “Let me show you. You have to see. It’s important. This will change everything.”
She took his hand, swallowing at its wood plank roughness.
Zacharias Glass further theorized that humanity may not be alone in its efforts to bridge the divide. As the Plant Kingdom takes humanity into itself, it becomes more aware. We elevate them as they elevate us.
— Stephen Woodgate, Sefer Etz Hayim, p. 273.
He led her out into the rain, to a path that led to the woods behind their home. Had he been back there the whole time? Spying on her grief?
“Where are we going?”
“Don’t worry. It’s not far.”
He led her into a dark cathedral of branches barely in bud. Up into the hills that ringed the town. They rounded a bend. Brit swallowed and pointed.
“Your grave is down there.”
Steve paid no attention. “We’re here.”
Brit turned from her view of the graveyard to a tunnel in the trees where he waited for her. She followed him through the trees to a small clearing. Unlike the surrounding woods where spring had the barest of footholds, the grass in the clearing grew green and lush. Steve’s feet sank into the grass, and Brit was certain she caught glimpses of long, root-like toes.
He led her to a large tree with a jagged lightning strike down its trunk. He turned to face her. Brit couldn’t quite make out the expression on his face. Awe and hungry anticipation, perhaps.
“So… Are you going to tell me what the hell is going on?”
He rested a hand on the trunk of the tree. Brit didn’t see anything move, but she could have sworn that the tree welcomed Steve’s touch.
“All my research, my book, my whole life revolved around the hidden mysteries of the plant kingdom.”
“Yes…” Brit knew that. She had typed up his notes and made enough sense of them that the publisher finally accepted the book. “But you’re a folklorist, or at least you were. You collected strange stories, chronicled old corners of belief.”
The rain fell over Steve’s form. Brit shuddered.
“That was the face I presented the rest of the world, but behind every story lies a grain of truth.” He turned from her to the tree. Was he crying? “This… This is the Arcanum Magnum for which I searched my whole life.”
Brit frowned and studied the tree more closely. It wasn’t green, wasn’t even budding, unlike the grass in the clearing. A couple of seed pods hung in bare branches. To her eye, the only indication that the tree wasn’t dead was the long stream of sap running down the lightning strike.
She took a step closer. A pungent scent assailed her. The sap was the same color as the Steve-thing’s tears.
“I was right.” The words hissed in her ear. How had he– How had it gotten behind her? She couldn’t wriggle out of the grip on her shoulders. “The secret of the quintessence, of eternal youth… It’s here.”
“Steve, let go.” Root-like fingers dug into her shoulders. “You’re hurting me.”
“It doesn’t hurt. Only the first month or so.”
“What doesn’t hurt?” She kicked back at its legs. It was like kicking the legs of a table. She looked around, trying to find something to help her. That was when she saw the bones at the base of the tree. The bones, and the body in the raincoat.
The thing noticed her glance. “Mother didn’t like Professor Harris. But she’ll love you. I know it.”
From in front of her came a sound like a cracking tree limb. The trunk of the tree split open along the line she had thought a lightning strike. A giant sideways mouth gapes towards her. Tendrils writhed within, each dripping a slime more blood red than amber. The scent she had noticed before all but overpowered her now. The putrid miasma of rotting meat.
“Mother says we’re to be the Adam and Eve of the new creation. One kiss, and we’ll be together forever.”
With a shout, Brit jammed the pallet knife from her pocket into the Steve-thing’s eyes. It grunted and released her as it tried to pull out the knife. Brit ducked underneath its arms and shoved it away as hard as she could.
The thing’s arms flailed. Brit kicked at it. It stumbled into the slavering mouth. The trunk snapped shut around the body. Brit heard it struggle within for a few moments, then grow still.
She wiped her hands on her pants, and let out a slow breath. It was over.
“That wasn’t very nice, Bridget.”
A new Springtime is coming. Man has had a good run, and see what we have made of it. Plants do not move as we do, but they do move. The reign of the Plant Kingdom is coming, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.
— Stephen Woodgate, Sefer Etz Hayim, p. 392.
Brit turned to see another Steve-thing standing beside her. She saw no difference between it and the thing she had trapped within the tree. It smiled wide.
“We told you that Mother was the secret to eternal life, Mrs. Woodgate. You will be our new Eve or die.”
Something rustled in the branches above her head. The seed pods were moving, something wriggling inside them. She looked back at the second Steve-thing. She had a good idea what was in the pods.
Brit turned and ran. As fast as she could, out of the clearing, down the path through the woods. Branches grabbed at her sweater. Or were they the Steve-thing’s hands? She broke free and ran faster.
“We can see why Stephen cared for you so much.” The thing’s voice called after her. It was close. Too close. “You have a determination that’s quite endearing. You will become one with us.”
She made it to the house. The back door was still unlocked. She ran inside and opened her storage cabinets, flinging their contents onto the floor. She knew she had it. She had to. There.
“Here we are. You’ve had your fun. Be a good girl.”
She rose from the floor and turned toward the door. The thing stood there, a smug look on its face. Brit smiled at it while her hands worked furiously behind her back.
“Come. Mother longs to taste you.”
“Give her my regrets.”
She threw the turpentine in her hands on the thing. Confusion registered on its face. She flicked her cigarette lighter and tossed it.
The thing screamed as the flames rose up. It rolled on the floor, but Brit kept dumping more fuel on it — the rest of the turpentine, paint thinner, whatever she could find. She didn’t let the fire go out until it had reduced the thing to ash.
She sat on the floor and took a moment to collect herself. Then she went to the garage and got the chainsaw and the gasoline for the lawn mower. She raced back to the clearing. The tree screamed from its lightning strike mouth as she cut it apart. Then she started in on the fallen seed pods. The creatures within wailed like infants. A small hand reached out to her. She swallowed back her vomit and closed her eyes until the crying stopped.
Satisfied with what the chainsaw had done, she covered everything in gasoline and let the flames devour all.
That was where the police found her, weeping and cursing. She wouldn’t let them take her away until she saw it all burn down.
The mysteries of the Plant Kingdom are innumerable. Consider Pinus contorta, the Twisted Pine. Its seeds do not germinate unless the tree first perishes in fire…
— Stephen Woodgate, Sefer Etz Hayim, p. 1.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our first competitor this week. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).