J A Howe
The roses were dying. Tab poked at them and sighed.
Her oldest cat Monisha rubbed her white and black head against Tab's leg.
"It's the end of the regulars, Moni," Tab said. From up in the rafters, Harras the kitten yowled as if in mourning.
"The regulars" had been dying for a long time. Tab's friend Colleen the vet had said time and again that the composition of the world had been changing for ages; "We just can't expect to keep the same plants around for long anymore. Sure, there are some ancients that will probably survive this, like ginkgos and maybe that stinky ailanthus. But it's the chemicals and things that have been introduced into the world. They're in the water, the air, the soil. Human beings are different now; so animals and plants change."
Tab was making business only because she was the only gardener in the area who actually sold "the antiques" as they were now called. Roses, petunias, hyacinths, heliotrope, bougainvillea. The flowers she remembered from childhood. The ones that wouldn't grow well anymore. The ones that were dying out.
Agrobacterium, it’s all your fault, she thought, passing around the little greenhouse. That bacteria was in the ground everywhere. It caused tumors on trees, on plants, and sometimes sucked the life out of them. Or at least it used to simply do just that.
She closed up shop and headed for a walk, out into the world that had changed so much since her parents were children. Warmer now, more -- swampy? Since 2003 the world had warmed up by 4% per year and was steadily rising in temperature, enough to make the winters milder and milder. She remembered one or two blazing snowstorms when she was a kid; you were lucky these days if you got slush. The average temperature for a winter now was about 40 degrees.
"But it's really just nature taking her course," Colleen said and said often. She'd never believed in the Greenpeace movement; she certainly didn't now. "You think human beings had anything to do with this warming? Please. The earth warms and cools in its own cycles, on its own time. Krakatoa, Mt. St. Helens, Pompeii, they put out ten times more carbon monoxide than any human vehicles do." Colleen drove a Hummer and a black pickup truck. "As for the mutations, that one is human-created for the most part."
Wrong there, Colleen, Tab thought, sniffing the air. Agrobacterium, better known as crown gall, thrived in warm, moist environments as most bacteria did; and something else that the humans had put in the atmosphere, in the ground, had set it off. Who knew what that catalyst was by now; probably nobody would ever be able to tell, thought Tab. Too many possibilities. There had been an article about that in her "Botanists Unlimited" magazine; talks at the Greenhoser Society meetings. All agreed: Once crown gall started, in such an environment, it wouldn’t stop.
Tab sat down under a large willow on the edge of the swamp. Max Fielder's house was on the other end. This used to be a field when she was a kid. Now the area was full of trilliums and skunk flowers, little ginkgo plants and hawthorn and dead oak trunks, dying ashes, rotting vetch and moss, tons of moss and mushrooms that were thriving on the destruction all around them.
She looked out on a world where eating tomatoes from a certain man's crop had killed three people so far before the cause was figured out. Those particular tomatoes had been growing next to a patch of poison ivy and the itch gene had jumped plants through an insect bite, or a bruise in the fruit or the vine. Not long after, in that same world, white sunflowers had started giving off deadly seeds full of cyanide. Their owner, delighted at the beauty of the plant, had died when he chewed on the seeds unknowingly. She could picture his fingernails turning blue as he lost oxygen, stopped being able to breathe, collapsed.
Roses, in this new world, began growing edible fruit. Meanwhile, pumpkins started in some places to grow smaller fruits than normal, which exploded upon reaching a certain size, like the seed pods of a jewelweed. Two kids had been injured while trying to pick in a pumpkin patch that was now long gone, fumigated and destroyed by officials. The mutation appeared again across the country three months later and somewhere else in a year, spread by animals. Now it was common and people didn’t go near pumpkins anymore.
The mutations were numerous and endless, and they spread like the flu over the country and the world, over the years, unstoppable despite everything that scientists tried to do. Genetic engineering experiments to make hardier plants just seemed to make it worse. The case in Minnesota of the treated cornfield that had become susceptible to a hallucinogenic substance (Claviceps purpurea, the great wheat killer) led to the Minnesota Madness. People living near the field, eating its produce, began seeing blood everywhere, and an entire town killing itself by jumping into a lake where the mayor saw gold. A herd of sheep that ranged near a field in Wisconsin that had been treated with the same engineering spontaneously wandered out to the Dells, where they plunged off the cliffs there like lemmings. Other folk simply lost limbs. Afterwards, the scientists said that it was because the plants had become more sensitive due to the engineering, and the families who’d survived had been recompensed. Those people crazy enough to still insist on living in the area, were still trying to kill off the tiny purple fungi, Tab had heard.
After that, genetic engineering became less and less popular with farmers. Eating fruit and vegetables from farms in turn became less and less popular with the general public, which turned to a new old craze of gardening. Roof gardens appeared everywhere in cities; window boxes and small indoor plants were common. The FDA in its turn kept on trying on its own for genetically engineered tough plants that wouldn’t mutate. But it was hard to make plants with skins that wouldn’t break to allow the bacteria in.
As the stronger mutated strains took hold, their predecessors began to die out one by one, going sterile, or becoming unworthy of pollination. Tab had watched just last week as a new strain of clementines with brilliant flowers was picked over its paler, prettier (she thought) sister plant. She watched the bees swarm over the new plant, ignore the former for the most part like last year’s fashion. The new plant, she noticed, grew seedless fruit.
Tab got up and continued walking, brushing her fingers on the grass that was in places higher than her waist. At last she reached the vet's office, just in time to catch Colleen on her way out.
"Hi, what are you doing out today?"
"Went to check on some things at the greenhouse," Tab shrugged.
Colleen laughed. "Hon, they aren't going to run away from you. Want a ride?"
"Sure." They got into Colleen's old pickup. New design painted on the front doors: a rose vine winding around a sword. New boyfriend, Tab thought. She looked at the plastic bags in the back, the gloves.
The vet shrugged. "What else are they going to do with them? There are too many to simply bury, anymore," she said, her voice softening. "It's a weird future we've come to, isn't it?" she asked.
"Listen, you don't have to come to the hospital. Inside, I mean."
"I'll guard the truck," Tab agreed as they made another turn past the pink house nobody had ever bought, not in thirty years. The wall was crumbling. "Remember passing that on the way to school?"
"Yeah, it was the marker: pass that and two miles down you'll hit the fertilizer stink and the fog on the downs."
It did make a weird combination, didn't it, Tab thought, looking back at the empty windows where she knew the high school kids still broke in every weekend to fool around. Death and death and more death. Then again, you needed fertilizer to make life. Death for life, the cycle that pagans always talked about. The one that farmers talked about in more mundane terms. It was swampy here too.
"Did you know, the fern population in this area has gone up by 20% in the past five years?" Tab asked.
"I believe it. At least they're pretty."
When she was a kid, Tab remembered, there was a huge forsythia bush in her backyard. Her parents used to make her trim the thing every year, cutting through the hard branches, snipping back the crawling plant so that it couldn't get too far into the yard, so that it would be tame. When she wanted a place to hide, she used to crawl into the bush, to use its leaves and bright yellow flowers for cover. And then she'd be in another world: an elf world where nothing mattered but plants and life in general. When she was bigger, she would tell herself, she would let the forsythia grow. Let it take over as it really wanted to go, to ripple in waves over all the roses and logs and the septic tank and the honeysuckle and the clothesline, all the way up to the front door. She would let it grow and grow, as it wanted to, because it was a plant and she knew what it wanted to do.
She'd dreamed of that once while she was in college: the waves of yellow upon yellow, marching on and on forevermore like the raven in Poe used to say. She thought about it sometimes, especially when people called her at the greenhouse with questions about how to deal with that particular plant. That old forsythia that would bloom anytime it wanted, even when it snowed. She remembered that from when she was a kid; forsythia blooms poking out brilliant yellow after an ice storm. What did they care? Somehow she admired their spunk. Her dad always used to complain they were housing places for mice and used to make her chop it way back.
Colleen came out the back of the hospital with an attendant carrying the now filled bags. Tab shuddered a little while she was loading them up. "How much do you get for this?" she asked as they drove away.
"$300, flat fee," said Colleen who kept her eyes on the road while driving. "It's a service, after all."
Yes, it was a service. In these days you had to have such a service, Tab thought trying not to grimace. She knew from her friend May the nurse at that hospital that the government had stopped all burials of bodies, since the contamination fear, that they insisted on burning bodies, any and all, these days. But out here in the middle of nowhere, who was to say? Colleen's pet vulture was fed, the bones were shipped back and bleached, and then they were buried secretly in their family plots.
"Let's get dinner," Colleen said after they had dropped the bodies off. Tab crossed herself silently. "Come on; you'll feel better."
They drove to the Canteen farther in town, in the small section near the post office that could be called the busy section. The town garage was here, as was Jackal’s, the local florist/odds and ends place whose owner got dried flowers from Tab every few months.
"How's Maury?" Ed Petrov who owned the place asked as he said good evening to them.
It was considered good form in town to ask after the health of the vulture. Everyone knew what Maury did; they just never talked about it. But, Tab guessed, it was for people a sort of religious thing, like making sure you get in good with the IRS once was, back when there had not been a flat rate for making a living.
"She's fine, thanks," Colleen smiled and ordered for them both. "Come on, eat. Something's bothering you and it isn't my baby. So you better tell me now because I'll find out eventually."
Tab shrugged, thinking of her rose turning to muck in her greenhouse back there. "I'd rather not."
"It isn't men, it isn't your health, it isn't your cats... do you have a new cat?"
"No, no, it isn't. Really..."
Colleen's gray-green eyes were intent on her. "How are those ancients of yours doing, anyway?"
Tab sighed. "Okay, you've got me. Right now, well, they're going..."
Ed came back over and Colleen quickly changed the subject. "...unicorn. Really, I'm not kidding. Ever since they cloned that kitten way back in '02, special made animals are the thing for the rich. So this guy tells me..."
"What do you expect?" Ed cut in, shaking his head. "People trying to change the world to their standards. As if it isn't changing enough on its own already, huh? I mean, a unicorn would be wonderful to see, but..."
"That's exactly what I told him, too," she nodded emphatically. "Besides I don't do that, I'm not in that business." He nodded. No, Tab thought, you're the local undertaker. "Go to the guy up in Stockbridge, I told him. I wonder what he did."
"Well, people will be people," he sighed. "Food's okay?"
"Oh yes, it's fine, thanks." He nodded and toddled off. Colleen switched back immediately. "Going under, aren't they?"
"Yes," Tab nodded. "And I mean, I just don't know. There are over two thousand new types of plants every week now, not just completely new ones but new versions of older plants. White roses are the rare ones now; purple and black ones come easily by the truckload. You can find them wild, I read in this past month's ‘Botanists’. At this rate, I'll be out of business in a month."
Colleen shrugged. "I told you, sell the new stuff ."
"I am," Tab protested, "but that's not interesting to people. You can get it anywhere, you know. Too much variety for anyone to care; if anything, I secretly think that scares people. Rare stuff is the old stuff, before mutation. The stuff that they’re used to, that I’m used to."
"Not everything is mutating, dear," Colleen said, shaking her head. "Come on, be reasonable now."
"Okay, you're right," Tab said and made a list. "Birds and most lizards aren't really affected. Mammals are mutating like crazy, however, from people to mice. Marsupials are dying out. Fish are mutating faster than people, maybe because it’s in the water. I never thought crown gall got in water, but I guess so…"
"Oh, forget that, it isn't significant," Colleen cut in, shaking her head. "Honest, I deal in death al the time; pollution is only responsible for a small percentage of this. Did you know frogs have been found long before this with various limbs and head numbers? No, come on, now, you know what it is; plants are different now and different plants lead to different animals. I’ve seen a lot of it lately; do you know the number of plants making cyanide now? We have a list now in the office of plants you just can’t grow where your pets might get at them, for fear of the mutation. Lemme think: apples, oranges, lavender, jewelweed. Do you know we had some poor guy come in last week to tell me that a jewelweed exploded poisoned seeds in his dog’s mouth? We couldn’t do anything for him. Hell, that used to just be a pretty weed. There’s something in the environment, I’ve been telling people for years… well, here it is at last doing something."
"You're right," Tab remarked, and told her more about the crown gall. "You've seen it, I know; everyone has when they were kids. Those huge balls on plants and trees? Who’d have thought? The point is, my plants are going."
"What's immune? Anything?"
"Some plants that are already fairly hardy. Ginkgo trees, I guess because they've already been around for ages and seen it all, they're doing just fine. And maples for some reason have always gotten it but without much bother, so that's okay. Conifers, they’re old as ginkgos at least, so that’s probably why; they just don’t seem to give a damn. No problem with them. Otherwise, it's just grasses and some stuff in the lily family like onions." She sighed. "Those ferns seem to like it."
"And there's no cure at all?"
"Well, crown gall gets into a plant normally, in the natural world, via wounds. That's why there are some plants that just haven't been touched yet, and so there are now some crops of tomatoes that won't kill a person by asphyxiation, while others you’ll drop the instant you bite into your pizza if it’s made of the wrong batch."
Colleen shuddered. "So you're out of business, you're basically saying."
Tab nodded. "Have to find something else to do with my life."
Colleen squeezed her hand. "Maybe something will come up and you won't have to," she said.
Tab went back to her greenhouse, thinking of all the plants she used to sell before the changes came in. Robert Carter passed by on his unicycle, tossing flyers about The British Are Coming and singing the Star Spangled Banner. She looked sadly at her dying rosebush, the last one she had that was normal.
Right now, she thought, Maury would be dining as carefully as possible on the bodies that her mistress had brought from the doctor's office. Maury was unusually neat for a vulture, Tab knew. Picked the bones very, very clean.
Suddenly Tab had an epiphany. Grabbing her coat again, she got on her bike and road towards Colleen's house.
The huge mansion had been built back in 1776 by a soldier returning from war with an injury. By now it was a rambling shadow of its former glory, a strange place that housed all the strays in the neighborhood, rooms for the broken wings and hurt animals that worried children and adults brought, one big room downstairs for Maury the vulture. The rest of the house was comfortable, done up in a riot of paisley and checker and swirl, all in dark shades; Colleen kept two skulls on her mantelpiece between purple candles and black ribbon, a large bouquet of dried purple and black roses with one single iris in the center. That was Colleen, very Goth.
"Hey, what's up? You look like you've had a thought," Colleen said her eyes lighting up when she saw Tab. Tab shrugged.
"Kind of. I don't know how you'll take it, but..."
"Well, come in. So?" Over by the mantle were Colleen's Dockers; she was wandering around barefoot even though it was cool inside.
"I need bones."
"You converting, dear?" Colleen raised an eyebrow. "Because that’s not the way to do it, unless you're doing voodoo on some client..."
"No, no, no," Tab said impatiently. "The marrow, the dried bone. People used to grind bones and use them as part of the fertilizer, you know. I'm sure you know." Colleen nodded.
"But this isn't liable to help you keep your roses, Kid. Remember, some of these people they died of -- well, who knows what?"
Tab nodded, gulping. "I know. I don't want my old roses. If they are going to die, they are. I can't stop them, any more than any human could ever keep a species of plant or animal from dying out. But what I can do is use them to make different roses, roses that are entirely mine."
Colleen stared at her as she realized what Tab was thinking. "Blood and bone, stock and stone, as they say. Why do I have a feeling your church would excommunicate you for this?"
"And yours?" Tab countered. "My blood, their bones. It's fertilizer, isn't it?"
Colleen frowned for a minute then her eyes brightened. "Blood, bones and beer. Let's go."
How do you explain growing fantastic flowers out of your own blood, out of the blood and the bones of the town in which you live? Tab thought as she and Colleen plotted and potted in the back room of her greenhouse. It would be the new rage, she thought madly, waving her arms. Everyone would want to do it. Everyone! And she'd have roses that were hers, at last, roses that were entirely hers.
The vet came by every day to check and see what was growing where they'd put the remains of Tab's old plants, last of the ancients. They watered the little garden with beer every three days. "Three," Colleen insisted. Tab had nightmares about burning crosses. "But my job…" she would wail in her dreams and get no answer but the howling wind.
The guy who wanted a unicorn got his wish a few months later, and it was proudly displayed on the front page of the newspaper. It would be sterile as most of the creations like it were, but Tab had to admit it was adorable. A sleek and pretty little thing, of no sex at all. It just was. She wondered what that was like: to have no gender, to just be.
She went for walks in the swamp now, watching the changes in the world. Gray and green cats yowled and swung through the bushes near her; white doves sang overhead as she stared into murky pools. Tetter’s Syndrome, the human version of crown gall disease, which was becoming more and more common, had struck down a famous actress just last week. She’d only had cancer before but the Syndrome tended to go after people who had weak immune systems, and she’d been on a visit to her ranch where there was an apple orchard.
Summer's thunder brought Tab’s new flowers. One day she came into the greenhouse to see them, burst into bloom. Roses like she knew she would never see again any other place glowed along the walls; a giant hyacinth with little white pearls of flower along the tips of its brilliant purple leaves sat nearby, its scent almost overpowering. A sweet tiny ladyslipper with two heads grew nearby, next to a strange version of narcissus that she'd never seen before: it was a whitish-blue tube lifting out of crimson-purple flowers with gold edges, a tube out of whose top glistened golden streamers of pistols and stamens. The leaves of this amazing plant were gray as a cat's soft coat, and veined in red. A scent of almonds came from that particular bloom. Poisonous, she thought, reminded of the guy with the white sunflower.
Tab just stared, wondering if she had done the right thing. How many others of these had gone poisonous? Which ones of these were now bee-pollinated, which were edible? She was going to go poor eventually if she just kept on like she was now; people truly seemed to be afraid to buy new plants. But her own genetically-engineered plants, she would put signs on them, right? She’d ensure folk that these flowers were okay. Right?
"They're beautiful," Colleen said quietly when she came over next day. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know... I don't know if it's right..."
"Only you can decide that one, Kiddo."
That weekend, during a thunderstorm, Tab took her plants to the graveyard. "I'm sorry," she said to them, to the bodies lying invisible far down below, to the earth so rapidly changing. "I thought I could flow along with this change, thought I could make my own changes. But it isn't right. They don't belong to me, they belong to you." She planted one on the grave of each person there; she'd found their names out from May.
"So you've closed up shop at last, huh?" Colleen came over and found her in the yard. Tab nodded.
"I have a little money to live on; I'll get by. Going to help out at Jackal’s by day and -- I think -- paint, at night. Paint the ancients. That's the best way to preserve them."
A few weeks later she came by again. Tab had sold two paintings and was beginning to make a small name for herself; apparently other people wanted to remember what the ancient flowers and animals used to look like, back before the world was warm. "You know those flowers you made..."
"I know," Tab said wryly. It had been in the papers; they had spread all over the place, had settled in among the other new plants that were thriving these days. People loved the poisonous narcissus, even though they couldn’t grow it anywhere near their pets or their children. Rich people were putting it in their bouquets because it smelled so nice. "Funny, that." Tab was just waiting for someone to poison their jilting lover with it.
"Nature has a funny sense of humor," Colleen shrugged. "... you know, I kind of like this."
She looked out into Tab's yard, out at the ocean. Wave upon wave of forsythia greeted her, brilliant yellow, flowing and growing everywhere her eyes could see. Somewhere out there was the clothesline, made taller so that Tab could actually still dry clothes. The bush grew almost right up to the old house. "It's a promise I made long ago," Tab shrugged. "I might have lost most of my plants but this one at least is still around."
"You should paint it; it's gorgeous." Colleen could see where Tab had tied colored ribbons to the stems, that flowed in the wind, making a lovely rainbow of color.
"No, I paint the dead and honor the living."
The vet nodded at that and they both fell silent, staring at the endless twisting ripples, each wondering when and if the time of this particular plant would come. Or maybe, thought Colleen, it would be lucky and survive them both.
© 2006 by J. A. Howe
Bio: J. A. Howe tells us "My latest work can be seen at Ultraverse. I also have an upcoming serial which will be published at thereadersretreat.com." Ms. Howe's story Give That Man a Hand appeared in the December/January 2005 Aphelion.
E-mail: J. A. Howe
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