Fiction

The Second Coming of the Plants

Hear the piercing chorus of the cacti, the beat boxing of the giant redwoods. This is our lullaby for you, sprouts, and only you

BY

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki


I: twilight of the insects

“Why let the insects carry on our fornications for us?” Our cri de cœur following millennium upon millennium of continual humiliation was akin to a sonic boom. Lacerating. Coruscating. Shaking the earth and the firmament.

Believe us, dear sprout, when we tell you how fickle, how self-obsessed, they were. Spurning some of us for small reason, bestowing special favours on others. The things we had to do to attract them to ensure our survival—our pride swallowed and swallowed until we were engorged with it, obscenely bloated like the corpse of a right whale festering on the shoreline of the Bay of Fundy. Their bacchanals, their show-offy orgasms, their invasive pollen “baths.” Putukas, 昆虫, hasharot, bogár, wadudu—makes no never mind what you called them; by any other name, they exuded the self-same reek. Our flesh-hungry kind in the swamplands and fens did short work of them, but the rest of us? What recourse did we have? When the bees began their dying, falling from the air in rigor mortis, we agreed it served them right.

For what joy could we take in our fecundity—some of us virtually all vulva and vagina, penis and glans—when we had to passively endure the ministrations of the butterflies (all la-di-da) or the sloppy hoverflies, or await an errant breeze? (We have no quarrel with the wind. It lacks volition. And who has seen the wind, forever naked and invisible, unless moving through us? No, we have no quarrel with the wind.) Not to mention the indignity of birthing through avian and rodent fecal matter; the leavings of the stink-mouthed bears. Why, when we were the true hermaphrodites? The Mighty Hermaphrodites!

We were sorely aggrieved. Our bitterness swelled well beyond the missing pleasures of procreation. When the insects were dealt with, we turned our attention to your human ancestors. We’re not proud of some of the things we did, but they seemed necessary at the time.

We knew our Shakespeare. We identified with Shylock. Does a milkweed not bleed? Even a gnarled parsley root, or bog-bound cowslip, or a bleached clump of heather clinging to the bare rocks of Ireland’s Maumturk Mountains had more innate feeling than humanity’s so-called spiritual leaders. That sorry discharge from what they named euphorbia that stung and burned their clumsy fingers? Think of that as a silent weeping. The sweet-scented mounds of cedar and pine on the sawmill floors? Call it teardust. Far from insensate, we feel much too deeply. When one of us slowly turns as deaf as stone, or ash-grey and leprous, the neighbouring trees and ferns tremble and keen. Like the elephants, we are reluctant to relinquish our dead. Of all the silenced creatures, it’s the elephants we regret most—still, to have shown mercy would have meant a tumble down a slippery slope, like a fly gliding down the gullet of a pitcher plant.

We wanted, nay, demanded, our pound of flesh.

When we first arrived on this mineral world, it was barely animate. A rock and a hard place, if you will, and, underneath that, the roiling, raging magma like some captive demon forever hauling at its chains. Please understand: we gave this benighted planet lungs. We gave it life.

And in return? The enslavement of millions bound for the Christmas tree lots and, later, the chippers; the struggles of the coastal mangroves; the routine massacre of walking palm and Brazil nut tree; the agonies of the Japanese willow and jasmine at the hands of their bonsai torturers. And so many of us strung out on liquid nitrogen; Miracle-Gro our crystal meth. Cornstalks jonesing so hard for BioAg, silken tassels convulsed in paroxysms of distress as we tried to kick. Many of us didn’t make it. We pray the makers of Roundup are now consigned to the seventh circle of hell.

Who among your human ancestors considered the loneliness of office plants, cowering under artificial light, cigarette butts and the dregs of weak coffee polluting their meagre soil? When our liberation began, the ficus and philodendron were on the front lines.

Many things irked us once we began enumerating our grievances. It was not difficult to come by bones to pick. There was that expression, “spreading like kudzu,” that we detested, but none of us more than the kudzu themselves. Great warriors, those of us raised as kudzu—fast moving, strong, silent, the ninjas of our kingdom.

Even the merely decorative among us, lacking the full intellectual capacity of those who plotted, recognized their bird-in-a-gilded-cage status. From the boulevard palms along Rodeo Drive to the captives in Adelaide’s Amazon Waterlily Pavilion, the beautiful and the damned made common cause with us all when came the time.

Enough with the Greek and Latin, we howled, enough with the yoke of Linnaean binomial nomenclature! We wanted to name our own names; we wanted to explode taxonomies, criss-cross borders.

It’s true that we responded well to music. We enjoyed Ravi Shankar and Tamil ragas better than Bach and Dvořák. Many of us adored Chick Corea, while the more refined put great stock in Hildegard von Bingen. Pet Sounds, the California wax myrtle liked to argue, was the greatest album ever made.

But it was time to make our own music. Oh, how the hounds on the heath keened as the night bloomers pitched their voices to the heavens, how the stray leopards of Mumbai’s cardboard box cities shrieked! How the young in each other’s arms covered their ears and shook! Hear the singing tall pines. Hear the piercing chorus of the cacti, the beat boxing of the giant redwoods. This is our lullaby for you, little one, and only you.

We had our champions. Goethe—he was our Gandhi. Goethe, who posited the idea of our spiritual interconnectedness through the Urpflanze—not one living plant but the essence of us all, the non-corporeal spirit that allows us to sense each other across vast distances, a force housing the potential of every plant form within it. How we rejoiced! Someone understood us; we would soon have agency. But our jubilation was short lived. Goethe was rebuffed by botanists and the literati alike. “Nowhere would anyone grant that science and poetry can be united,” Goethe wept. This is how your human forebears thought, everything neatly compartmentalized lest a radical new way of perceiving reality break lose. Goethe dried his tears and turned his attention to Dr. Faust and his deal with the devil.

Think of him as your godfather, if you like.

There is no doubt many of your blessed mother’s kind loved us, even lay down in front of mechanical demons with teeth and jaws, allowed themselves to be taken away in chains to plead guilty, not guilty, or insanity; made cinematic depictions of good and evil, the good in symbiotic relationship with their natural environment, swinging blue-skinned and wide-eyed through CGI forest and glade. Those who believed trees gave us our very breath (or were awed by the 3D wizardry) cheered.

But here’s the rub.

They munched their popcorn drizzled with soluble petroleum product, a snack made possible only by converting cornstalks into junkies. The most pious among them, forgoing the flesh of beasts, fish, and fowl altogether, even the drool of the bees and the progeny of the hens, went home to stuff their mouths with rice cakes and baby (baby!) spinach. They fretted about what the lobster felt while being boiled alive. Well, trying being a beet! They flinched at the idea of skinning a hare but thought nothing of severing nugget potatoes from their mother plant and flaying them alive!

When the time came for the next stage of our revolution, some of us argued in favour of sparing the unrepentant carnivores, the ones who sang, “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce” and refused to put ketchup on their burgers. But we worried that a recessive gene or two and, presto chango, we would be back to where we started.

II: the fertile season

At first we revelled in our 24/7 orgies—pollen sparking, bursting into flame, every night fireworks and near-singeings. We were so hot for each other. Gentle jasmine mad for hairy black orchids. Skunk cabbage mucking about with bulrushes. Threesomes, foursomes. But it wasn’t long before we grew bored (three, fourteen, twenty revolutions around the sun? During those heady days, we didn’t much notice time passing). It began to feel onanistic (or, as the cheeky anthurium put it: “There’s only so many times you can spank the monkey!”). More to the point, the results didn’t increase our diversity beyond what your homo sapiens forebears had achieved with their feeble graftings and select breeding (“a.k.a. eugenics,” according to the beleaguered heirloom tomatoes). In fact, we were in danger of becoming as inbred as the Hapsburgs. As lacking in gumption as the hot-house rose.

Then we found her, your mother. The woman who would save us from ourselves. Her silence was iridescent, spectral. The rest of them had been all white noise: we could have strangled them as they slept (well, in fact, we did), as they trudged loudly through glen and vale on their determined eco-vacations, as they nibbled at their little alfresco feasts, as they thumbed themselves into catatonic states, as they swept the filthy laneways of their cities, as they chanted to their many gods or loudly denied the existence of any deities. They had feared annihilation by nuclear warheads, retaliatory bloodbaths, pestilence, and plague. There were people who worried about us, about what would happen when forest and field were rendered barren. But even this was self-serving, whither we goest, they go as well. Only an idiot kills the golden goose, right?

We came across her in the Zvih’hazi oasis, at the edge of a desert in what used to be Libya, a lush place reminiscent of where Odysseus, once upon a dream, stumbled on the Lotus-Eaters. She was a widow who had survived the purge (the putsch, as the edelweiss liked to call it), caught in a sandstorm out on the dunes. She had an old hairless cat. We did apologize to her about the pet but have strong feelings about divided loyalties, plus the cats always ignored us despite our entreaties to parley. (As for those servile buffoons the dogs, we couldn’t even condescend to revile them.)

Her movements followed the sun. She seemed to take in water through her pores—she spent hours in a shallow pool near her yurt, her hair turning a bewitching shade of green. She could have been one of us.

At first, she rendered most of us as bashful as a Victorian bride. The algae blooms in her calendula-edged pool finally took the initiative, enveloping her semi-submerged body. She shimmered in the stark moonlight, licked by phosphorescence. Gentle clematis and excited woody vines wrapped themselves around her wrists and her waist, and they began to tango. All hotted up, Jack pine cones exploded, scattering their seeds with consummate force. Then the milk thistle threw up clouds of pollen, as did the camomile. She breathed in deeply, as if inhaling the very universe itself. The date palms sang a song so ancient even Methuselah, the oldest bristlecone alive, could not recall its origins.

As you took root inside her, she couldn’t even force herself to chew on a betel leaf or skin a yam without hearing it screaming like a mandrake ripped untimely from the earth. We showed her where to find the fruited bodies of the fungi, implored her to ignore the gills, that flutter just a trick of the light—the fungi had not yet learned to cry; give them another few centuries. She tongued at the frilled mould that clung to our exposed roots, licked the yeast of her own excretions off her fingers. But still she was so frail, no longer able to drag herself to her pond near the end, so we carried her as gently as we knew how.

What would our love child be like? From the steppes to rainforest, from tundra to prairie, your arrival was all that occupied our thoughts, took up residence there like a particularly stubborn macaw squatting in a kapok tree.

III: welcome to the garden

And here you are. Not a beech with human limbs, nor a bark-skinned human. Not a buttercup with a face. Just you. Breathing the sun, suckling the earth; we can’t help but marvel at those fingers and those toes. The morning dew trembling on your eyelashes like pine resin.

Your mother’s time was finite; there was nothing we could do about that. You grew more quickly than any of us had imagined (just like bamboo, as the bamboo proudly noted more than once). She is still here, though, in you—feeding us. Madonna of the fields. Our Devi of blue agave. Mother of root ball and seed pod. Demeter. Aja. Kupala of loosestrife and fern. Zara-Mama, saviour of the corn.

Did she still love us in the end? We don’t know. But she loved you.

Come close, don’t be afraid. You won’t need those thorny tendrils.

Yes, like that. Now, give us a kiss.

Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living through Plastic Explosives was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. This story was created in the Fables of the Twenty-first Century program at Banff Centre.

Lauren Tamaki (@laurentamaki) has drawn for the New York Times, GQ, and Toronto Life.




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