PseudoPod 858: Flash on the Borderlands LXV: Fecundity
“Concerning the Fantastic Native Flora of the Indo-Chinese Padma Valley” is inspired by the giant flower found in Southeast Asia, canonised into Western science by Thomas Stanford Raffles and Joseph Arnold as Rafflesia arnoldii.
“The surface of Earth heaved and seethed in fecund restlessness. Earth was most fertile where the most death was.”
On the Getting of Husbands and the Spawning of Children
by Sophie Sparrow
Deep in the woods, where the sun’s light never reaches to break apart the shadows, through a thicket of brambles and stinging shrubs, there stands a house. It is not made of gingerbread, nor does it walk on chicken’s legs. But it is, for want of a better word, home.
My devil trees need feeding. When there’s no flesh to be had my moon-blood will do, and when there’s none of that for months on end they scream and keen and shiver in the night, hungry like wolves. Their branches rat-tat-tat on the roof, wood scraping on wood, and I feel the chills run up my spine and my palms go clammy and I know that I must marry again.
So many husbands. First I must get them here, which isn’t difficult, and then I must keep them here, which barely takes more skill; and then, afterwards–afterwards, they are easily dispatched.
I sell eggs in the village on market day, and if their yolks are tinted green, and if they sometimes hatch into bony chickenlings with red and scaly eyes, that’s no concern of mine. The villagers will tolerate my presence, so long as I deal only with travellers. One approaches me now: a rich man, with deep green eyes that rake across me as I avert my own.
“Eggs?” he asks, by way of an introduction.
“Each a copper penny,” I reply, meeting his eyes properly at last.
“And how much for you?” he asks with a grin, as though he is giving me a present. The attractive ones are all the same: entitled.
I take his arm and lead him into the forest, abandoning the eggs to the crows.
“Whore,” one of the village boys spits as we walk away, arm in arm.
I wish it were that simple.
You remember the stories. Princesses with hair so fine and blonde; woodcutters’ daughters who look after sick mothers, girls with tiny, delicate feet. They prove their worthiness and gain the prize; to end their stories at seventeen, married, their lives concluded.
No one ever asks if they are really, truly, happy ever after.
The boneheap leers at me; my garden stinks of blood. My latest husband-for-the-moment has gone to join the others.
I am pregnant again, and the trees are sated. In time, their spirits will step out from beyond the bark to demand the baby, long nails clawing and scratching at my eyes. I don’t know what the faerie devils want with so many human children. Can they not make babies of their own, and leave me be?
I stamp the feelings down like errant sparks. They only make the sylvan devils happy. It’s better not to care.
The swell of my belly has long since deflated; set back to a virginal, nubile flatness. How many times must I swell, diminish, start the whole process over?
This life is a cyclical nightmare; a millwheel that won’t stop turning, even when the river that powers it has long since dried up. It keeps going, to no end or purpose.
This is what you wanted, I remind myself, this is what every woman wants. Beauty and eternal youth, any man for the asking, a thousand pretty babies. This is the soil in which happiness must grow.
Too bad it’s fertilised with blood and shit and lies.
I am pregnant again, and selling herbs at market. Rosemary, sage, marjoram–not the soporifics and stupefacients the curse bids me use on my husbands. The scents drift up from the table to my nose; a hearth-and-home bouquet, its cosiness tainted by the knowledge that it comes from a garden of bones.
A woman, old by any reckoning but my own, approaches the stall. She’s not anyone I know, must have stepped down from the stagecoach like the husbands.
She smiles a wizened smile at me and I nod, grimly silent.
“Oh! Rosemary!” she says, clutches a handful to her nose. “My mother always said that rosemary smelled like hope.”
She says it confidingly, as though to a child, and of course that’s what she’ll think me; twentyish is close enough to make no difference. How odd that we two crones can look upon each other and see only youth.
“Have you any eggs?” she says. “Nothing like eggs and rosemary for baking a good herb cake. Nutritious, you know.”
And for a moment I see her as she used to be, a young child always underfoot, getting in the way of the baking for the sake of the smell of a few dry leaves. The image leaves me breathless, shaking, suddenly violently nostalgic.
“Not today,” I say.
I can’t go back. It is far, far too late for that. But perhaps there is something else I still have the power to do.
I stop eating. I stay in bed for three days and stare at nothing, biting my fingers red raw. The faint scraping of wood on wood is the musical accompaniment to my nightmares.
The jellied mess that slithers out from between my thighs on the fourth day goes straight on the fire, despite the shaking of my hands. It pops, crackles, falls silent: to me it is the sound of freedom.
I thrust the poker deep into the flames and hold it there until it glows.
And then all it takes is a red-hot skewer driven through the heartwood, right to the core. The trees howl like foxes in heat as I expend all the strength they’ve given me in one final conflagration.
I walk away, throat sore from the smoke, and the years start to pour back on me; an avalanche of stolen time. The world is fuzzing over, its edges creeping black, and the last thing I know is a welcoming, familiar scent–
The Chairmaker’s Daughter
by Gretchen Tessmer
My father makes rocking chairs for rich people in the city. They crawl over each other to buy one, eyes sparkling on his unique designs and choice of lumber, dark and light wood twisted together in ways most limbs would never allow, fragrance of blackberry, cherry and wintergreen heightened by sanding down to the heartwood of rare trees—blackwood, Maisie’s cherrybark, willowtwine and velvet ashglove. He finds the trees and brings them back from the shadowy, hidden glens in Marshalsea Wood, where the rich folks won’t ever go, for fear of ghosts, giants and mud on their pretty shoes.
I’ve been helping my father in his workshop since I was as tall as a jane-apple sapling. My nimble fingers twist the willowtwine to shape a scrolled rocker and braided backrest. I slide the drawknife over Maisie’s cherrybark to carve out its softer, sweeter interior as Father wields a froe club to break apart the blackwood, which always resists so stubbornly.
I pick splinters out of my fingers and shavings out of my braids at the end of every day. I like working with wood. I like the smoothness of a worn grain and the crack of bark tearing off the wood beneath.
Or I did, anyway, until last Wednesday, when Father said I should come with him to Marshalsea Wood to find a blackwood with white bark to fill a special order.
“Would you like to go with me tomorrow, Aurelia?” he asked at the end of the day, with the iron head of his adze held loosely in his brawny right hand.
I nodded eagerly. He’d never let me go with him before.
“Good. You’re old enough now and I want you to understand what we do,” he said, in a distant tone that betrayed the existence of secrets. I felt a chill go through me, like someone cracked a window open in early March, and I narrowed my eyes at his words. But he said no more and I didn’t press him. Neither one of us is very fond of talking.
We left the house at dawn the next morning, with early autumn frost painting the edges of our cabin windows in tinsel threads, all silver and white. The ground crunched underfoot and I could see my breath as I followed him out the back door, looping my scarf around my neck twice.
Marshalsea Wood is old. The moss and ivy that twists around the tree branches has gone gray with age. The forest floor is a mess of tangled roots that must be crawled and stumbled over.
Father’s long stride knew the path blindfolded, but I tripped over every knot and stone that jutted out from the dark earth. In the deep woods, where Father led me, sunlight is sparse. It filters in through the thick canopy above only where it can find a hole to squeeze through.
But the trees down there! Maisie’s cherrybark fills the air with such lovely scents, ten times stronger than in the hunks of dead wood on my workshop table. And the cold beauty of velvet ashglove, cluttered in a grove together, with their soft, slate-blue bark smoothing out any blemishes or imperfections in the wood beneath—oh, I had to touch it.
So I did. With my palm flat against the trunk of the first one I saw, I stretched my fingers out against its unusual skin, noting the small, nearly invisible hairs, all soft as velvet.
But then, so suddenly, at that first touch, I heard a ragged voice in my head, rushing through a memory that wasn’t mine:
…the burning of great towers in a king’s country while the knives bite, bite, bite against my sister’s ankles and they tear us to pieces! They flay our skin from the bone. I’ve tried to tell him! Mother, I’ve tried to scream. Your silence will splinter my heart! I can only beg for fire, fire, fire to make it stop…
My hand came away just as suddenly, though I wasn’t the one who pulled it away. With touch severed, I heard no more of the voice and the vision of hot flames, which had grown louder and louder in my head while the voice lamented, vanished. I was kneeling on damp, green moss, where the morning’s frost was melting. It shouldn’t be melting. Without sunlight, the air in the forest remained frigid late into midday.
My wrist was in my father’s grasp. He had pulled my hand down from the velvet ashglove, and he was shaking his head grimly.
“No, maid,” he said to me. “Not that one.”
He released my hand. My fingers curled back into my fist and I was surprised to feel the sting of heat lingered, despite the chill of the morning.
“Are the others…,” I couldn’t finish the strange thought. Not out loud. But he must have guessed my thoughts. Are the others like that? Do the trees talk to you, Father? And still, you cut them down?
Father shrugged, the expression on his face seemed conflicted. He explained gently, “The others are quieter. And we need the money.”
I suppose I should have seen it sooner. I thought we were just making furniture.
As father turned and continued on, I followed him. But I rose from my knees slowly, still rattled by echoes of the velvet ashglove and her haunting voice…
Your father’s a murderer, Aurelia. And you’ve been carving up bones.
Concerning the Fantastic Native Flora of the Indo-Chinese Padma Valley
By Wen-yi Lee
“To tell you the truth, had I been alone, and had there been no witnesses, I should, I think, have been fearful of mentioning the dimensions of this flower…” – Joseph Arnold, 1818
My dear professor,
Forgive the delay of this letter; I have been feeling rather unwell. I am quite unsuited to the climate here still—how bright, and the air so thick with latent precipitation! Doctor MacPherson assures me it is not the pestilential dengue fever that besets so many here, and yet the queasiness in my belly and aching heat in my muscles makes me fear the worst. But then I have always been predisposed to paranoia.
But how tedious an introduction for so thrilling a subject! Had I not fallen ill, this report would already be in your hands, so anxious have I been to share it. You will find enclosed my drawings as always, but I am afraid the notes alone do no justice to the discovery, and so I will belabour to capture it in words here.
I arrived in Sumatra some weeks ago, and was received by Thomas with exuberant hospitality. He was greatly anticipating a jungle expedition, having heard rumours of a valley of mythical flowers. He was giddy as a schoolboy, and I found myself swept up in his enthusiasm.
The servants were trepidatious of the whole endeavour. It was from them that Thomas had received these rumours, yet it took a great deal of cajoling and instruction before three of them agreed to accompany us. Curious, I asked after their fear, and learned that the padma flowers, as they were called, were believed to be some dark spirit manifest—those who visited the valley never returned. Certainly, the Malays possess great tales of things that lurk in the jungles. I was perhaps even more keen to see these flowers in person after hearing the story, as so rarely does one encounter a corporeal folktale!
We set out on the morning of the eighteenth of May. It was predictably humid, the jungle of the wild sort that would swallow one whole. A true haven for naturalists such as ourselves, if the weather were not so disagreeable. How much unchartered knowledge that lives in these shadows, waiting only for illumination? But I digress with my ambitions—we trekked the path that Thomas had cobbled together from hearsay and estimation. Truly, he is a pioneer of Indo-China; I doubt any other knows the terrain and its spectres so well as he. He led us with acuity, and no little good spirits. We discussed his exploits in Malaya, with intervals of noting some plant or another, or the glimpse of some creature amidst the trees. I hoped for a tiger, though we were underequipped to battle one. We saw no feline, but all around us the jungle murmured, and the jutting roots and dangling vines seemed to shiver as we passed. Something always scuttled, whether overhead or underfoot.
It was perhaps the early afternoon that the smell began to permeate. A ghastly gallows odour—the stench of death, pouring over the sweet loam of the trees! One of the servants cried out, and looked pale. “Masters,” they bid us, “we must go back. This is the warning of the demons.”
I must admit to being taken aback, but where will science advance if we are frightened by something so ridiculous as an unpleasant smell? Thomas shared my mind—in fact, he was excited by the stench.
“We must be near,” he said, examining the ground. The land was beginning to slope on either side; we were approaching a depressed terrain. The servants trembled and begged us once more to turn away. But even as they pled, Thomas shouted in triumph. He had seen something in the near distance. We moved with haste, chopping at the tangling vines, and within minutes Thomas’ discovery opened ahead of us.
I doubt words can do the sight justice. Picture a valley of fairly regular proportions, thick in the upper slopes with the usual jungle growth. On the declines, however, picture great flaps of pitted red flesh attached around cavernous mouths. Picture hundreds of these, blanketing the lower floor of the valley, each from tip to tip the length of an arm. Such were the padma flowers, like monstrous flayed lotuses, gaping at the sky. Here was the source of the stench: each flower grew and yet rotted, flies teeming by the dozens over each mouth.
Upon the sight, the servants ran. Thomas and I shouted after them, but they were already gone, vanished in the undergrowth. It was no matter; we knew our way back. More significantly, we bent to examine the nearest bloom. Closer inspection revealed protrusions within the flower’s maw: long, flesh spines, like teeth or bloated hairs.
Yet more perplexingly, the flower seemed to have neither stem, nor root, nor leaves. It did not seem plant in any scope of my knowledge of the vegetal world. How did it obtain its nutrients? There would be plenty rainfall, but how did it absorb the precipitation?
The smell was overwhelming, and we pressed our sleeves to our faces as we conducted our examination. My notes provide observations in more scientific detail. Simultaneously, we fended off a seeming swarm of insects. Ants and flies crawled in and out of the gaping mouths, likely fooled by the carrion stench, and they spilled over our boots in their paths. Some crawled up our shirts and bit with irritating stings. The things we do for science! I suspect the insects are pollinators, although I see no reproductive organs.
It was I who knelt to peer under the flower proper—discovering that I could have fit my head in the flower’s looming mouth with room to spare—and realised that it was not, in fact, untethered. Rather, it burst forth from a brown vine that snaked against the ground. The disproportion in size was nearly comical, and frankly fascinating. Dozens of the flowers sprouted along one narrow vine. How did it support them all? Nevertheless, there was our answer—the flower was a parasite.
By then it was growing late. We cut a specimen of the flower to take with us, and a portion of the vine as well. I have never feted such a heavy bloom! It was damp to the touch, and spongy, the roughness of each petal truly reminiscent of dermis.
I write this days later to share our subsequent findings. The padma is truly a most remarkable organism. The flower itself is only a small part of a much more extensive plant—the only visible part! When I examined the cross-section of the host vine, you see, I found a teeming mass of foreign tendrils worming through its walls. It seems that the seed implants itself in the vine, and bursts through to bud when it has leached enough nutrients. It is a wonder that the vine still lived at all, so choked it was with the parasitic haustoria. I imagine each tendril stretches on and on, twining up the vine. That solves the question of nutrition, but there are so many more mysteries to be unveiled! How long does it live? How does it reproduce? How do they grow in such abundance, when there are certainly not so many vines?
I must conclude; Doctor MacPherson will arrive soon. This illness is like nothing I have ever felt. My limbs feel heavy, and I struggle to breathe. Something in this foreign place has clogged my arteries. I am tired no matter how much I rest. My stomach feels bloated, and yet my appetite never seems to cease! Thomas’ wife never fails to remark how much we eat for sick men. She jokes that we are like women with child!
I suspect we fell afoul of some virulent insect. Upon our return from the valley, my first bath revealed swollen bites on my stomach. The swelling has now abated, but there seems to be a growing weight in my belly, just beneath the bites. Yesterday I felt it for the first time, a budding lump the size of my palm pressing at the flesh. Faint lines radiate from it, running under my skin like freshly formed veins. It is strangely beautiful. I feel an inexplicable tenderness toward it.
Perhaps it is my lack of sleep. I confess, professor, to an obsession with the valley growing within me, winding through my veins. I see that field of gaping red in the shutter of my eyelids. I dream my name rooted in its furrows—I cannot help but feel as though this is the epiphany from which my legacy will arise. Thomas has been equally indisposed, but he admitted last night that he feels the same way. Something momentous is about to bloom. We are being drawn to greater purpose—one that transcends us as individual organisms. We must return soon.
In the meantime, I bid you visit us, so that we may show you our wondrous place.