Thursday, December 29, 2011

Roots

by Jean Roberta

I admire horror writers who can pull readers into their disturbing imaginary worlds, but I rarely venture into that territory, probably because I'm afraid I might write something unintentionally funny (not scary enough) or too repellent for readers who might like my other stuff.

However, I'm sometimes inspired by unlikely sources.

The following is an excerpt from "Roots," my lesbian horror story which was featured in Monsters, an anthology from Torquere Press which was launched on Halloween 2004.
(There is some head-hopping in this story -- I hope it's not too confusing.)

The actual backstory: while looking up info for a concordance on the work of U.S. fiction writer Ntozake Shange (& while teaching her work to first-year university students), I discovered that according to historical records, a better, stronger (i.e. commercially viable) indigo plant was developed by 17-year-old Eliza Lucas in the 1740s on the family plantation in South Carolina. Her father was governor of Antigua and he was often away from home. Eliza's mother was a semi-invalid, and Eliza seems to have been an only child. The family plantation would have been worked by slaves, & in that era, at least some of them might have been brought directly from Africa as adults.

My guess is that someone with a knowledge of plant-breeding developed the better indigo plant, but since that someone had no legal rights, credit was given to Miss Eliza because she was the only white adult (loosely speaking) who was present and healthy at the time.

In any case, the indigo trade helped the American colonies become economically independent, Miss Eliza married well and became the foremother of a line of prominent politicians in her state.

Indigo was originally a kind of wild grass native to the American South. Who really bred a hardier version that could be used to dye all the blue police and military uniforms of the time? Perhaps the plant-breeder still bears a grudge, long after death. Perhaps both the knowledge and the grudge were passed on to a descendant. Where could a botanist be found in our own time? In a greenhouse or flower shop.

Welcome to a most unusual store . . .

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The florist shop looked and smelled exactly as Rosa expected. The perfume of ripening flowers was like a melody over a bass line of wet earth. Sunlight poured through the windows to spotlight leaves in all sizes, shapes and shades of green, from deep-forest through emerald to fresh lime. The light glowed on the smooth features of a mahogany face that never changed expression while two sets of long, gloved fingers pressed the spongy soil around a newly-transplanted begonia. A nametag pin identified the woman as Lily.

In spite of the sweetness of sunlight on flowers, Rosa shivered. She had often passed by this place on her way to and from work, but something about it had discouraged her from coming in before now. She felt sure she had met that woman before, that she had felt those competent fingers on her own skin.

“You’ve come,” remarked Lily, the owner, “to find flowers for a special occasion?” She had a faint accent that Rosa couldn’t place, and her full, insinuating smile implied a lifetime of intimacy.

Rosa’s normally-tawny face looked bloodless. She hated feeling like a slow learner, but something was clearly happening that her conscious mind couldn’t grasp. She had awakened in the morning with a vague but strong conviction that she had to go to the florist shop immediately after work to find something she needed – something living and growing, which might be lost if she waited too long.

“No,” stammered Rosa, wanting to gain control of the conversation. After all, she was the customer. “I just – I need a new houseplant.” She glanced around as though looking for a particular type, genus, species and form.

Lily stood up, and Rosa noticed that she was over six feet tall. Her name suited her surprisingly well; she had the regal grace of one of the newer, richly-colored and curly-petaled hybrid lilies. Her breasts looked heavy on her willowy frame, and they bounced slightly with her movements under a loose green shirt. Her hair was done in neat cornrows that showed the elegant shape of her head. Rosa was embarrassed by her impulse to throw her arms around Lily and press herself against her.

“There are so many beautiful plants here,” purred the owner of this indoor garden. The gleam of her teeth did not inspire trust, but it added to Rosa’s excitement. “Let me show you.”

Rosa barely heard the names of annuals and perennials, succulents and hostile-looking cacti, flashy tropicals and plants like precocious little girls: baby roses, lily-of-the-valley and gerbera daisies. None of them spoke to her in any language.

Turning away from Lily, Rosa was startled by the impression that the tall, solid woman had disappeared. She was nowhere in Rosa’s peripheral vision. Rosa turned her head quickly, and Lily abruptly sprang back into view. “I need a low-maintenance houseplant,” the customer blurted, smelling her own sweat mixed with the smells of other life all around her. “The ones that need special care always die on me.”

The stare that Lily fixed on her made it impossible for Rosa to look her straight in the eyes, especially since this would have required looking up. When not studied closely, Lily’s skin looked exactly like polished wood, poreless and immobile. “Uh,” remarked the expert. “Their needs are simple compared to ours. And they give us so much. Would you want to live in a world with no green things in it?”

Rosa mumbled something that sounded like “No, but.” She felt both guilty and resentful, like a smug white donor to a tax-deductible charity who has been called on her unacknowledged prejudice toward races, cultures and neighbourhoods other than her own. On a deeper level, she was afraid.

Lily wrapped a cool, strong arm around Rosa’s shoulders like an old friend. Rosa shivered, but didn’t object. “These are my children,” Lily told her. “You must see the ones that need special care. I keep them in the greenhouse at the back.”

Chills were still running down Rosa’s back from the places where she had been touched as Lily strode to the front door and locked it. “Come,” she ordered softly, directing her customer’s attention to a door in the back that looked too small to accommodate modern adults.

Rosa was guided forward with a hand on her waist. Despite being shorter than average, she had to duck to pass through the opening. The narrow width made her uncomfortably aware of her fleshy body; she thought she was too fat but couldn’t resist comforting herself with food. Followed by Lily, Rosa had an unsettling sense that the taller woman had shrunk at will.

The greenhouse was humid and cool, full of rustlings and the gentle hiss of moisture on plastic walls. Rosa noticed several large-leafed plants and potted trees that looked exotic, wild and sentient. She was afraid to touch them, and she wondered if they were really for sale.

“My father studied plants all his life,” Lily explained. “I learned a lot from him, but some kinds of knowledge must be gained directly from them.” Rosa vaguely remembered reading an old story about an obsessed botanist with a beautiful, poisonous daughter. She had thought the plot was based on the author’s fear of everything beyond the limits of Victorian, white Anglo-Saxon respectability.

Rosa told herself that she had nothing to fear. By now it was clear that Lily wanted her, that anything could happen between them. Rosa was eager to discover the depth of the other woman’s passion as well as her own because she believed that this adventure wouldn’t count. Random sex with strangers would never have to be part of her official life-story as long as there were no human witnesses or mutual friends, and no commitment between her and the momentary lover except to keep the encounter buried in silence. For the present, Rosa reminded herself that plants are the least aggressive life form, and that women lack the piggish assumptions of men.

Rosa didn’t call herself a lesbian, or even bisexual. For years, she had told her parents that she would marry and give them grandchildren once she had found the right man. In the meanwhile, she kept losing boyfriends. She preferred to blame this on her weight than to admit that her air of self-sufficiency and her relationships with women, sexual or not, made the men in her life feel like mannequins in a store window.

Moisture trickled through soil to nourish roots, and trickled into Rosa’s panties as her heat rose. “My dear,” purred Lily. “Let me introduce you to the guards.” She gestured toward several large plants near the entrance. “They are related to the Venus Fly-trap, and they keep this place almost free of insects. Don’t put your fingers in them.” Rosa couldn’t be sure she was joking.

“And see this,” Lily went on. The tub of murky water that held some kind of wild grass looked unremarkable compared to the other inhabitants of the greenhouse. “Indigo,” the expert named it. “Incredibly valuable when it was the only source of blue dye. American indigo was inferior to the French kind until my father bred a stronger strain, more productive. Economies rise and fall by such discoveries. Who knows what America would be today if not for these little plants that used to grow wild? Yet my father is never mentioned in history books. His work was credited to those who owned him, according to the law.”

Lily looked like a woman of her time, but she seemed older than civilization. With a flash of panic, Rosa wondered if the storyteller knew that commercially-viable indigo for dye was developed on a colonial plantation before American independence, long before the lifespan of any human being in living memory. The woman had to be lying or deluded, probably the latter. In Rosa’s mind, the voice of her common sense screamed: Get out now! But she wanted to stay and learn all she could. She told herself that she would never have to come back.

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(Warning: the conclusion of this story is gruesome. If you want to read it, ask me for a copy or find the whole story in the Torquere Press anthology, Monsters.)

6 comments:

  1. Fascinating backstory, Jean! And I have to say, you had the chills creeping up MY spine!

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  2. I'm intrigued! And having lived in Charleston for 7 years, I love the historical aspect! I'd love to read the rest.

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  3. Dammit! I'm hooked. Rest of the story, please?

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  4. I'm guessing that she gets to close to one of the guardian plants. I love carnivorous plants, I collect them. They have an eerie alien beauty which is fascinating. I had a very large flytrap that once cleared my porch of yellow jackets and I wondered what they're last moments must have been like to have a plant turn against them.

    I like this story. It makes me wonder what Lily's story was.

    Garce

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  5. Thanks for the comments, all!
    The story was not only inspired by actual history, but by a story by 19th-century U.S. author Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Rappaccini's Daughter" (set in the Italian Renaissance).
    Please excuse me for the late response. I'm finally back in my renovated house, and the computer was just reinstalled yesterday.
    Now I'm trying to figure out the easiest way to send you the rest of the story. I'll see how soon I can post the whole story on my LiveJournal blog.

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  6. Darn. I won't have access to that story until I get back into my office at the university where the entire file of "Roots" is in my Documents on my office computer. I'm very sorry. I will post it in due course.

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