Friday, April 11, 2014

Roots

Monsters are usually thought of as animals, sometimes imaginary hybrid animals from ancient mythology, real but extinct predators (meat-eating dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers), shapeshifters such as werewolves, or cursed men such as the “beast” in Beauty and the Beast.

However, there is a history of stories about scary plants as monsters. “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” a nineteenth-century story by U.S. writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, probably isn’t much read anymore outside of university English classes, but the musical Little Shop of Horrors (about a blood-craving plant as an alien from outer space) seems better-known. And no one can forget the classic R & B song “Poison Ivy,” first recorded by the Coasters in 1959. (Years later, the songwriters admitted that Ivy’s “poisonous” nature is code for a sexually-transmitted disease.)

Ten years ago, when I read the call-for-submissions from Torquere Press for an LGBTQ anthology on “myths and monsters,” I thought of the immense power of plants to change the course of human history. After all, it was a disease of the potato plant that caused massive famine in Ireland in 1847-50.

But plants don’t get widespread publicity. One fascinating story to be read between the lines of colonial U.S. history involves the development of a superior indigo plant on a plantation in South Carolina in the 1740s. At the time, indigo was in great demand for blue dye, widely used for police and military uniforms. After a hardier plant was developed, the English colonies were able to compete successfully with France in the indigo trade. In due course, the colonies could survive economically on their own – and colonists resented being taxed and otherwise controlled by the British crown. The rest, as they say, is history.

But who figured out how to grow a better indigo plant? The history books give credit to a seventeen-year-old girl named Eliza Lucas, daughter of the plantation-owner. Her father was often away, and her mother was a semi-invalid. It seems likely that Eliza got credit for this achievement simply because no other white person on the plantation could plausibly claim it.

There would have been African slaves there, and some of them might have been brought from their homelands as adults, with valuable knowledge of the plants that grow in tropical or semi-tropical climates. What if the real gardener who improved the indigo plant was an anonymous person with no recognized rights at the time? In that case, both the plant-breeder AND the plant would have a reason to resent being written out of history.

These were the seeds of the following story, “Roots.” Eventually, Torquere Press got so many stories that they brought out two anthologies, named Myths and Monsters. My story appeared in Monsters.

Roots

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 had a normally tawny complexion, but she felt pale. 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.

“Some of them came with us,” the strange woman told her chosen pupil, gesturing at her living treasures. “On the ships from Africa. Seeds from home that they didn’t find or take from us. Seeds that wouldn’t die.” She pulled Rosa into her arms and pressed a long, hot kiss on her unsuspecting lips.

When both women broke contact to breathe, there was an unspoken promise between them. “You know whose girl you are, don’t you, sweetheart?” demanded Lily. “You came to me.” Rosa felt as if she couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. She felt as if she had entered a sealed tunnel with no light at the end, just because she had a long-standing appointment with the invisible being that lived there.

The hard wooden bench that Lily led her to looked right, somehow. Rosa didn’t worry about splinters poking her exposed, awakened skin as she took off her jacket, her blouse, her pants and shoes, all the components of an office uniform that made no sense here. Lily impatiently unhooked Rosa’s bra, and released her breasts into her waiting hands. The seducer laughed under her breath as Rosa sighed and moaned.

With unexpected force, she grabbed Rosa’s cotton panties and tugged until the fabric ripped. “You won’t need them,” Lily explained, pulling the scraps down so that the shorter woman had to step out of them, revealing a damp triangle of dark, curly hair between plump thighs.

“Tell me,” growled Lily in a voice that no longer sounded feminine, or fully human. “Tell me what you want, my sweet rose.”

Rosa lay on the wooden slats, feeling her back and buttocks pressing into them as she watched the tall woman efficiently peeling off her own clothing. “I want you to -- t-touch me,” the willing woman stuttered. Lily looked down at her with unsmiling amusement. She seemed to be waiting for a more lurid confession.

“I want you to – fuck me, to fill me up until I’m satisfied.” Rosa took a deep breath. “I’m wet for you, Lily. It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a woman.”

“Little cat in heat,” responded the interrogator, “rolling in the grass. Everyone needs to be fed.” Her deep, expressionless eyes held Rosa’s as she descended on her as though settling herself on a cushioned sofa. She sucked each of Rosa’s nipples until they were red and stiff, and Rosa’s gasps tickled her ears. “Mmm,” commented Lily. “You don’t want me to be gentle now, do you baby?”

“No,” agreed Rosa. She didn’t know what else to say.

Long, sharp fingernails raked Rosa’s ribcage, leaving thin trails of electricity in her skin. Lily kissed her hard, and nibbled her lips with teeth that bit down just firmly enough to feel threatening. Rose moved her hips and spread her legs farther apart.

Lily held Rosa’s wrists against the body-warmed wood of the bench. Strong, flexible binding was wrapped around them, securing Rosa’s hands to the slats. She was still reasonably comfortable. She felt voluptuously helpless and desirable.

Lily licked and sucked her way down from Rosa’s collarbone to her thick chestnut bush. Her probing tongue sank into pungent wetness and teased Rosa’s clit, making it grow.

The squirming woman felt something smooth and gourdlike pressing in between her lower lips. Lily’s head prevented her from seeing the object or the harness that seemed to be holding it in place. The thing dipped partway into Rosa’s heat and withdrew to the rhythm of Lily’s hips and her girl’s response. “Oh,” moaned Rosa, clenching her hands against the vines that held them. “Take me hard.”

Rosa couldn’t see the phosphorescent glow in Lily’s eyes as she grunted, plunging in as far as her phallus could go. Ten fingers grew to twice their usual length and fingernails hardened into thorns that pierced Rosa’s breasts.

Understanding was mercifully slow to penetrate the victim’s consciousness. She gasped in pain, hoping that her playmate would realize she had gone too far. The sight of her own blood, flowing in thin streams, made the woman stare at the predator’s hands. She couldn’t believe what she saw.

“You are wet, my dear,” chuckled a voice like wind sighing through tree branches. An inhuman face grinned into Rosa’s shocked eyes, and a long tongue tickled the opening of one of her small ears. Before the victim could make a vain effort to escape, the fluid warmth of the tongue changed into the cool suppleness of a woody vine. Rosa screamed when it broke her eardrum.

The persistent sounds of vegetative life filled the woman’s head when she could no longer hear normally. The pain in her cunt became unbearable as the thick root inside her developed blood-seeking offshoots which burrowed into soft tissue. “No! Stop!” wailed the woman, bucking violently to dislodge the invader. The resulting increase in pain made her realize too late that her flesh had been claimed as food and a home for those she had casually described as lower life forms. Rosa would never be alone again.

Death brought relief and the appearance of peace. Vines lovingly embraced the still curves of the woman who seemed to stare unblinkingly at a plastic roof and the darkening sky beyond it. A tongue snaked into Rosa’s open mouth and pushed its leisurely way down her esophagus to find the richness of vital organs.

The invasion and disintegration of the body continued at a steady pace. Within a week, the woman who had once had a name and a history could no longer be recognized. In due course, the stubborn remains of fat, sinew and bones nourished all the well-tended plants in the greenhouse.

A month after Rosa’s arrival, the florist in her shop glanced briefly at an article about a missing woman as she wrapped a red rose and baby’s-breath in newspaper for a customer who was planning to propose to his girlfriend.

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8 comments:

  1. Gorgeous writing.
    Don't we go on to feed plants eventually, anyway? Or did before embalming became so widespread. I know that the ancient Egyptians made an art of it, but I don't think many cultures did until fairly recently. I prefer the idea of adding one's ashes to the soil.
    I've read about the development of indigo in North Carolina, and the version I saw (can't remember where) said that a group of slaves came to Eliza Lucas and told her that they knew how to grow indigo and would do so if she provided the means. No individual was named, but the slaves were given the credit. I have no idea whether this was based on actual records, though.

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  2. Yikes, that really was gruesome!! Like the horror stories of old that really made you shudder. Excellent.

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  3. Great reveal, Jean. Didn't see that coming. Your descriptions and sense of place created some detailed pictures for this reader.

    If someone had asked me about blue dye before reading this, I would have mistakenly thought it was extracted from a sea shell, but that was Tyrian purple, from a species of Murex snail. Hopefully, we learn something every day.

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  4. Daddy X, I think you're right -- there was a purple dye extracted from a sea shell, but I suspect this originated in a part of the world where indigo was unknown. (I don't think indigo grows anywhere in Britain or Europe.) In the 1700s, indigo from the New World was in great demand. Sacchi, I would be very interested to read what you read. I found the story of Eliza Lucas' supposed development of a better indigo plant when I was planning a concordance on the work of Ntozake Shange, including her short novel about three sisters, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo. Their plant-names are not a coincidence. I found interesting material in a book from the 1890s on the folklore of plants, and I found more info on the indigo trade in a history of the Carolinas.

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    1. I do know the Romans used Murex for dye. it was so hard to obtain, it became the color of royalty. Becoming a 'Caesar' (emperor) is referred to as 'taking the purple'.

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  5. Ah, Jean, I remember reading this before. Delicious. Somehow not terribly frightened, perhaps because like my character in Fleshpot, your Rose was really seeking a kind of extinction in pleasure.

    When I was a kid, I never liked the look of orchids. They seemed ready to devour their wearer

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  6. What a great way to end the section on monsters. I love what you point out about plants, and they certainly qualify for the alien consciousness thing that I find particularly appealing about monster stories. I loved this story, and was pleasantly surprised by how dark it turned out to be (I assumed that since it was in an anthology it couldn't go to such a disturbing place).

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  7. Thanks for your comments, all.
    Annabeth, the amount of "darkness" that can be accepted for an anthology depends on editor and publisher. The Torquere Press anthology was meant to be creepy, and was released on Halloween. Unfortunately, when I was sending a batch of my fantasy erotica to Circlet Press, I included "Roots." Bad plan, and I should have known better. Publisher Cecilia Tan reminded me that Circlet never accepts horror stories in which sex leads directly to death.

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