As he was pondering these thoughts, taking a sip of coffee, there was a
sudden pounding at the front door that made David startle, spilling dark drops on
the graph paper. People very rarely came to their house. It was too late for the UPS man. There were a few little houses down the way, but it was a long hike up their long private driveway, and no neighbors knew them well enough to drop in casually. He switched off his desk lamp and went to the door.
Standing on the floodlit flagstones was Ernest Stevenson, the elderly man who lived by himself on the main road in an old saltbox style house with rotting shingles. He was known to have dementia. One morning, reading the paper on the deck, David was surprised to see Ernest in their woods, wearing pajamas, an expression of stunned wonder on his face as he stood like an apparition in the mist and the ferns.
David sighed with relief and said, “Ernest, what can I do for you? What are you doing out this late in the wet and the mud?” He felt kind, magnanimous. After all, Ernest was alone in the world, but for the sons that would come to look in on him out of obligation. He had no wife. No sanctuary of marriage. David laid a hand kindly, onto his shoulder. “Won’t you come in? Jeannie can get you something hot to drink.”
But the old man was agitated, wringing his gnarled hands, rolling his large eyes back and forth. “I…. came to get you. You’ve got to follow me, come outside….”
“Why? What’s going on?”
The old man seemed to grasp for words for a moment, a glaze coming over his eyes. Then he snapped back to alertness and said, “There’s a body in the road. You have to come and identify it.”
“Really?” David tilted his head, furrowing his brow, in an imitation of deep concern. He would drive the confused old man home, maybe see if anyone had the number for one of the sons.
“It’s in your road, at the end of your driveway. At the edge of the woods. You have to come.” Ernest seemed not ready to take no for an answer, so David told him, “Hold on, then, I’ll be right out.”
He walked up to the bedroom to put on his old boots. Then he called out, “Hon?”
No answer; he went downstairs, through the kitchen, through the side walkway that connected the original house to one of the several add-on structures. Entered the silent billiards room. Hon? Up the stairs to the in-law apartment that had no in-laws. Not there. But he knew he was only avoiding going to the one place she he always knew her to be. The solarium.
And that was just where he found her, in her private jungle. Your bountiful refuge, he sometimes called it, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. But she was not fussing with the plants this time. She was looking outside. She had a view of the front entrance. She had been watching the whole time.
“Hon, Ernest’s at the door, he’s all hepped up about something, wants me to see something outside, blah blah blah. He thinks he found a dead body. I thought I’d humor him and go look, and then drive him home…”
She did not answer; he slowly walked into the room. He stood next to her and followed her gaze through the rain-speckled wall of glass: The old man was standing in the flood light, looking about him wildly, his long shadow stretched out behind him. Like a man on a stage set.
“I won’t be but a few minutes, Jeannie. You can go to bed and I’ll join you later.”
After a pause that was so long that he was about to repeat what he said, she answered. “No. I’ll come with you.” She shook her head. “Maybe I can calm him down. Poor Ernie. He seems so upset.”
“Poor Ernie.” He put an arm around her waist, and they stood for a moment before they made their way out, stopping to grab a flashlight from the kitchen drawer.
It was a cool night. The moon was reflected in the large sheets of water on the ground as the three walked down the long curving driveway. “Some rainstorm we had today,” said David. “I have one big branch down in the back I need to buzz saw when I get around to it. Thought the weather guy said the storm was headed west of us, but they’ve been known to be wrong before….”
The old man looked at him sidewise, frowning, as though David were insane or an idiot; he slowly shook his head.
“Well, anyway, I was just drawing up plans to build Jeannie a big new walk-in closet. I guess I’m only happy if I’m tinkering. My mom always called me–”
“It cannot be helped,” Ernest muttered under his breath.
Ernie sighed. “Such a great tragedy, and it couldn’t be helped.” In this light he looked unlike his usual self. He looked shadowy and noble, like a ruined aristocrat, a Russian duke. And he spoke with such somber finality that David had no response.
They walked without speaking, listening to the heavy dripping from the dark branches that still sounded like rain showers.
As they approached the end of the driveway, Ernest pointed his finger. “It is there.”
David scanned the area with his flashlight. There wassomething at the end of his driveway. Right near to the edge of the woods. Something lying on its side, smaller than a man. Roadkill. A dog, maybe.
He came closer. The thing was vaguely torso-shaped and was covered in mud and slime. It didn’t seem to have fur.
“Well l can’t even…” David squatted down to get a closer look.
The thing had vines, spiky tendrils, growing like many arms from its top half. There were twisting, root-like appendages in place of legs. On a knobby, gourd-like head it seemed to have a rudimentary face.Is it some kind of… fetus? There were two little depressions that looked like primitive eye sockets. For a moment David had the thought, No, this isn’t real. I’m not seeing this. A wave of nausea swept through him, and he said, “Okay, let’s go.”
Jeannie was now kneeling down beside the thing, transfixed. There was a look on her face that was unfamiliar to him. Her eyes were wide, her lips were parted. Even in the dark he could see her cheeks were flushed. Her breathing had quickened. She never looked this excited, this alive.
He had an impulse to grab her by her arm, yank her away, hard. Instead he rose to his feet, cleared his throat.
“Come on, hon, I think our work here is done. Let’s go back. I’ll call the police, I mean, it’s technically on the city street. I don’t know what this thing is, probably came from the swamp, or…or got dragged from there, but it’s not our problem.” He held out a hand to help her up
But Jeannie wouldn’t even look at him. “No! Don’t call the police. It’s just a…a… plant.”
“How do you know? That doesn’t look like any plant I’ve ever seen! And it can’t just stay there. Ernest, what do you–”
But when he turned, it seemed Ernest had disappeared, as though he had never been there in the first place.
He stepped back and threw his arms in the air. “So what do you suggest, then?”
“We’ll bring him home, of course…” she said in a voice choked with emotion. Her face seemed congested with blood. Surely, there could be no reasoning at this point. She was not acting like herself at all. This was not his wife.
“How do you know it’s a him?” was all he could think to say, his voice cracking on him.
But she didn’t answer, she was already lifting the creature into her arms and David was too baffled at this turn of events to even follow her as she started to run to the house. He stood, alone in the dark, staring into space.
He heard the rushing of water in the pipes as he mounted the stairs. She was in the master bathroom.
She had placed the thing in the tub and was tenderly wiping at it with a washcloth. Where the mud came away he could see that the thing was covered in a type of membrane, delicately veined, a pale sickly yellowy-green.
“Whatever it is, it’s dead…”
“Don’t say that!” Jeannie hissed at him, as though afraid the thing could hear him.
“But it’s repulsive! What if you catch some disease from it? It would be the responsible thing to just call somebody.”
But she was not listening. The bathwater had turned black with filth. And the more he could see of the thing, the worse it looked. The head looked like a cross between a melon and a flattened football. Its back was humped, giving it a curled-up, vulnerable look, like a mollusk pulled from its shell.
But surely, those could not be eyes. Merely wizened little knobs, like on a potato. He was just projecting humanism onto it…
When some time had passed and the water finally ran clean, David had to admit that the thing’s skin looked a little bit plumper. As though it had taken in some nourishment. It looked…healthier.
He fetched a thick white towel, which he held out for her to lower the thing onto, then together they dried it off.
As they held it between them, he looked at her with her head bent down, her face hidden by a sheath of long blonde hair that had grown coarser over the years. He thought to hold out a hand to stroke it, then changed his mind because he had the irrational feeling that it might set off sparks, burn him.
Maybe they should have had a child, after all.
“What will you do with it?” he asked, trying to make his voice soft.
She smiled, but not at him. “I will put him in the solarium, of course.”
And so she went to find her largest clay planter, filled it with soil, and gently nestled the twisted root-like legs of the creature deep down in. She smoothed the dirt on top, careful not to pack it too tight; the roots needed oxygen. Then she gave it a good dousing with her watering can.
Afterword, she stood back and looked at it with an unreadable expression on her face. And David thought that maybe…that was that. This would be the end of it. They wouldn’t speak of this strange night again. After all, maybe it was just an ugly plant. Just like the others.
“Don’t get your hopes up too high,” he said, squeezing Jeannie’s hand. “We don’t know what the future holds.”
“All the good intentions in the world…” she murmured, but did not finish the sentence. She wrapped her arms around herself and rocked lightly back and forth.
“Come on,” he said, “It’s late. Let’s go to bed.”
Reluctantly, she came away, pausing to turn once more to look at the creature that was slumped over to one side, head drooping.
“Well if it’s going to die like you keep saying it will,” she said heatedly, “I want to at least give it a name.”
“Okay. What should we call it?”
She traced a finger over her lower lip, as she did when she was pensive, and said quietly. “We’ll call it Andro.”
“Andro?” he laughed uncertainly.
“Short for Androecious. Technical term for a male flower.”
He almost asked again, how do you know it’s male?, but changed his mind, took her lightly by the elbow, and steered her away. “Come on.”
That night they made love, but strangely David could not really feel it; it was like he was disconnected from his own body and was watching from a distance. His sleep afterward was abrupt, but uneasy. The doors to the balcony were open to let in the breeze, which also carried in the sounds of the swamp forest. The singing of cicadas, crickets, and katydids. Mysterious clicks and whistles. Low growls and grunts. And occasionally the loud keening scream of a fox that sounded just like a screaming woman, making him jerk awake, heart pounding in fear.
It was midday at the worksite, hot and bright. The other men were still on their lunch break. David, who was there to supervise, couldn’t help but get in on the action. He cast the blueprints aside and was soon at the top of the ladder, collar unbuttoned, tie pulled to the side, enjoying the satisfaction of hammering a nail into a piece of PVC trim. The apartment building was going to be built to last decades. Centuries. Fiber cement siding. Virtually maintenance-free. And it existed because he willed it so.
He stood still on the rung for a moment, feeling the sun on his face. Feeling the minute vibrations through the aluminum rungs. Hearing the tinny radio music from far away, down below. The guys were talking in Spanish, having a last smoke. They called him “the boss.” Or “the man.” But really, he knew their language, even if he couldn’t speak it. He was one of them, even if they didn’t know it.
But something had been troubling him all day. That morning as he was leaving for the site, he had poked his head into the bathroom where Jeannie was taking a shower. “Need me to bring home anything tonight?” he had asked. A lot of days Jeannie did not like to make the drive into town just for one thing.
The shower steam had been thick. The room smelled of her. A smell that was green, like plant life. But lately, with something else dark underneath. Like rot. Dirt. Turning leaves.
At first she did not answer, then she spoke:
“There’s nothing I need that you can give me. Nothing but time. I’ve already lost too much of it.”
The voice was deep and throaty. Declarative. Not his wife’s voice, which was light and airy as dander seed. This was like the voice of a ventriloquist. This was…not right.
Her words made him feel sick in the pit of his stomach. He said nothing, and closed the door and went to work.
He thought being at the site would distract him, but it didn’t. His mind always lurched back to the thing, the thing in the solarium that she had named Andro. What could he ever tell anyone about that? Even if the crew talked to him like he was just a normal guy, he couldn’t tell them about it. The way the thing was thriving under Jeannie’s care. It was growing tall and straight, more human-like. Obviously a male, its sex a veined stump between its legs. (“Please, it is called the stamen!” she had said in a light, teasing voice that was infuriating to hear.) Its skin had ripened to chloroform green with patches of fleshy pink.
And its pulse. It seemed to have a pulse when he touched it! But he would not touch it, never again. Because he was starting to hate the thing. There was something obscene about it. And it was living in his house, growing stronger and stronger. And it seemed there was nothing he could do to stop it.
But then, when he came home that evening, Jeannie was demurely contrite, kissing him on the cheek when he walked in. And David was not the type to hold a grudge. He was happy to be home. Happy to be at their dinner table, where his wife served him grilled haddock and asparagus.
“So how was work?” she asked. “Did you hang out with the boys at all? Go out for a beer?”
“Nah.” He took a large gulp of chilled white wine. His hands were clumsy and he dribbled onto his shirt. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re great guys. They just think I’m a little soft, you know? Because all I ever talk about is my beautiful wife and how perfect she is.” He gave her thigh a playful squeeze under the table. “They look at me sideways sometimes, but I think they’re just jealous.”
Jeannie turned her eyes down to her plate, smiled faintly. “You really talk that much about me?”
“You bet. Ever since that first time I saw you. Working in that restaurant, wearing that black apron with the pad tucked in your pocket. It’s…it’s like I found a beautiful rose growing in the rubble!”
She snorted. Rolled her eyes. But in retrospect it now seemed true, that he loved her at first sight. She was so fragile, with her quivering wet eyes and sad pink-stained hair. And the scars on the insides of her wrists were just barely visible, they had healed so much. He did her the kindness of never bringing them up. He would not do that to her. After all, that was another time. A time before him.
The weeks went on. The summer became hotter. The air was thick and hard to breath, and the sun shown weakly through a haze that never seemed to lift. The sky was always orange-tinged, and everything smelled like ash.
One day, David decided not to go to the work site. He said that it was the heat keeping him away. But it was really that he felt an overwhelming need to be at home. Home with his wife Sometimes it felt like it was all slipping away from him. If he just focused on the matter at hand, he could fix it. He just needed to know what the matter was. Because he couldn’t bear the feeling of being afraid.
So he set out to work on building the new closet. He’d already marked out the bottom, sides, and top, now he began cutting 2 x 4’s for the wall plates. It was hard to concentrate. His mind was trained on Jeannie and her quiet movements through the house. He may have been imagining it, but she did not seem to want him there. Every time he glimpsed her in repose she was preoccupied, on edge. And always seemed to be looking out the front windows. Aas though expecting someone to approach.
Apparently, the thing that made her maddest was when David tried to say something nice to her.
He came up behind her as she worked in the kitchen and put his arms around her. Did I ever tell you that you are the most perfect woman in the world?
She drew back from him, wincing. Oh, is that so? She asked in that new strident, sarcastic way she had. Why am I so perfect, anyway?
It was as though his love spurned nothing but contempt from her. And anger.
He let go of her and strode out of the room without another word. He could get angry, too. Hadn’t he done so much for her? Hadn’t he nurtured her back to life when he first found her, wild and helpless as a wounded animal?
Hadn’t he built this house, all of this, only for her? He didn’t know why this was happening. He had always done what he was supposed to in life. People liked him. (Except for when those ones who showed up with the picket signs. SAVE OUR WETLANDS! $TOP THE DEVELOPERS! CLIMATE JUSTICE! SHAME ON YOU! But he was in the right. The land wasn’t jurisdictional, but still, he gave them the money anyway…)
His head was spinning. He needed something to ground himself, but it was hard to know what that was. So he went to his office and sat at the drafting table. He would make more plans. Plans for another wing. He would call it the observatory. It would have a retractable ceiling where they could watch the constellations, together, through a telescope.
And then maybe he would build a new parlor room. And a wine cellar, and a room for an indoor pool. He would show her. He would keep going, and going, and going. Exponential growth was real. She would know his love if it killed him, she would know his love if he had to strike terror in the heart of every egret, heron and white-tailed deer in the whole goddamn wooded swamp.
He needed to lure her away from the solarium, and from that thing that was growing inside. She was probably there right now, tending to it. Its green, sickly smell was all over her! And the last time she shed a “tear,” he swore that it was plant sap that trickled slowly from her eye.
It was a Sunday. He had been banging away at the closet, cutting studs, screwing joists. But he wasn’t doing well. He kept hurting himself, banging his finger so badly he knew his nail would turn black and fall off.
He decided to break for the day. His head just wasn’t in it. He walked away, tool belt still clattering around his hips, and went to find his wife in the solarium.
Again, the crystalline white heat of the place made him see spots, made his head hurt. But he could see her, stroking and murmuring to the thing, to Andro. The horrid plant-thing seemed to be looking over her shoulder, staring at him with its shadowy eye spots. David snarled back. Jeannie whipped her head around, startled to see him standing there.
“Hi, babe,” he said, “You want to eat soon?”
She smiled at him and brushed her hair from her forehead; that’s when he saw the thorns stuck into her forearms.
“Jeannie, your arms! Are you hurt?”
She held her arms out, and looked at them, frowning. “I guess not so I’d notice…”
“You must have been leaning against Andro and gotten thorns stuck in you. That could get infected! Wait…” He reached to his toolbelt, got out a pair of needle- nosed pliers.
“Hold still.” He pulled the first one out.
“Ouch!” She looked up into his eyes, her expression stunned and open, wavering with tears, as though he had hurt her on purpose.
“Well, someone has to do it. I’m trying to be gentle!”
He pulled each thorn from her flesh, nine in all. Unbelievable. She didn’t know how to take care of herself! God knows, her parents never did their job. Leaving her to fend for herself like a feral creature. Maybe that was the problem. She didn’t know how to let herself be taken care of.
Two in the morning. He was restless, couldn’t sleep. He touched her on the shoulder. He eased himself onto his elbows, up over her sleeping form, gently kissing up along her hairline. She murmured something indecipherable but did not resist.
“I want you,” he whispered. “I want you.”
He ran his hands through her hair, then along down the sides of her body, hoping his touch would gently rouse her into consciousness.
When he ran his hands under her nightgown and down her sides, something scratched his palms. He drew back in surprise and turned the lights on, yanked the nightgown up. There were new thorns, in her sides, her flanks, the insides of her thighs…
“What is this?” he bleated, his body flooding with adrenalin before he could even process what was going on. Like an air raid siren blaring in his brain, drowning all rational thought. He saw flashing lights in front of his eyes.
Jeannie, suddenly fully awake, looked him steadily in the eye, and said calmly, “David. They are growing. Growing out of me. They are a part of me.”
He looked at her, wide-eyed and incredulous. “How can you be growing thorns?!”
She cut her eyes away. “I guess I’m absorbing a life form. Like seeds in soil.”
She giggled, a strange, tight, mirthless giggle. “A life form. First my body attacks. Then it absorbs. And then? Symbiosis.” Her eyes widened, and her mouth was pulled into a strange quivering smile.
He jumped up out of the bed, away from her. “I don’t know what you’re telling me. But it’s wrong. It’s sick.” His voice was trembling, his anger incandescent now. The scratches on his palms began to throb along with his accelerating heartbeat. “I’ve been married to you for twelve years, damnit!” He paced back and forth thrashing his arms. “Do you remember the state I found you in? I nurtured you! I was the one who brought you back to life…”
“Maybe I brought myself back to life.”
He looked at her for a stunned moment, then went on, “I worshipped you, I built all of this, for you!”
“But you don’t know me,” she said quietly. “You never knew me.”
He closed his eyes, took several long deep, breaths, then said slowly and patiently, “Don’t worry, I’ll let you take that back.”
“I will let you take that back! We never said these things. This never happened.”
This time, Jeannie looked at him in disbelief. And then sadness. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really, really sorry. And you have been very good to me. But this is happening. I don’t love you anymore.”
“Please wait, listen, I don’t want to hurt you…”
But he ran out of the bedroom door and down the stairs. There was that shrieking alarm ringing in his head, he couldn’t think, he couldn’t see, but yet he knew what he was doing.
He ran through the twisting maze of his house until he got to the solarium. Once in, he lunged forward and tackled the thing, the source of all this misery. The thing that had grown humanoid, massive and hulking, from feeding on his wife’s care. Life force, throbbing and green, had seemed to flow from her slender fingers into the soil, into its roots. And it thrived, as it did all the living things in this room.
It was heavy. A living, sickening weight of a creature of flesh. He was lost in its branches, its thorns were tearing into him, trying to dig into his face, his eyes. He heaved it upwards and shook it loose from its clay pot. Clods of dirt fell onto the tile floor as he carried it out of the solarium.
David, please! He heard his wife’s voice call from a distance, but it was faint, like the cry of a seagull, carried away on the wind.
I will put it back in the road where I found it, he thought, panting, because the thing was heavy and he couldn’t breathe through his nose because of its sickly smell, and it was hard to get the front door open, but he did, and he/they were running down the driveway.
He would put it back, and then everything would reverse, be undone. His marriage would be intact, his life peaceful. Through the power of his force of will, the force of his wanting it so, time would reverse. The river would flow backward. It could, it had to. And if Ernest ever knocked on his door again, he would know he was a harbinger of bad omens and not answer.
At last, he was at the end of his long curving driveway and facing the edge of the great wooded swamp that he never bothered to go into, though he used to like to hear its sounds from his balcony. He stopped, then hurled the thing onto the road, gave it a kick, and another, and another. Then, exhausted, overwrought, not feeling able to go back to the house, he sat down on the ground beside it and put his head in his hands. Just to think for a few minutes.
He could not say how long it was that he sat there, trying to get his head together. Waiting to feel okay again. Because he just couldn’t make himself walk back into the house until he knew in his heart that his magical thinking had worked. That this nightmare was over, that his wife was the woman he always thought she was. That his life was what he thought it was.
But he couldn’t do it. He could feel life moving inexorably forward. In the way a dark cloud drifted over the moon. In the sound of the owl, hooting in the dark branches, looking for prey. By the rush and lurch of blood in his own veins. Nature was indifferent to his pain. Life was moving forward.
In the moonlight he could see the silhouette of his own house. It didn’t look like a home. It looked like sprawling, ancient ruins. Alien, unknowable, though he built it himself. The only light was coming from the solarium, that distant star.
He should have felt alone at such a moment, but he knew he wasn’t. Andro lay in the dark beside him, a silent companion. One who didn’t judge, but just was. There was the smell of swamp algae in the air. He swore he could hear the burrowing of roots, the soft spreading of moss, the bloom of a night mushroom. David resigned himself to the solace of plant life; he listened deeper.