Aphelion Issue 237, Volume 23
March 2019
 
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The Root

by Dominic Lennard




"Sure ain't no carrot," Harry Woodward mumbled not quite to himself, excavating a scab of caked dirt from the side of the object with his thumbnail, a thin shower of the stuff reaching back down to the ruptured earth. "Feels a little like a carrot," he muttered a little louder, while continuing to probe the skin beneath, wary of displacing the minute hairs whose destruction would make replanting it--whatever it was--impossible. As he drew it from the earth, he noticed a score of glittered strands, spider-web thin, swoop and snake back into the earth. Snails all through this garden, he remembered patiently--just motes of snail-tracked dirt.

He'd spotted the plant a few weeks earlier among the carrots (hence his carrot-focused incredulity): a root vegetable of some kind, a peculiar shade of blue, rounded, but knobbly and nuanced, almost segmented, topped by a small fountain of blue-green leaves.

His wife Petty called to him across the yard from her deckchair, where she was pasting photographs into an album: "What're you doing, you old menace--uprooting the vegetables?"

Harry's response was thoughtfully belated. "Come and look at this."

"I'll wait till you bring it over here… What is it?"

"I don't know what it is… I've never seen anything quite like it."

"Well it's something, isn't it--put it back and leave it be."

Petty wasn't surprised at his interest in the unidentified root, being well used to his taxonomical compulsions: botany, mechanics, early race cars and biplanes, as well as animalia--especially birds and fish. Harry pored over books, losing himself in elaborate subsets of wing and gill. She'd smiled tolerantly at his fascination with the avian encyclopaedia she'd bought him for his sixty-fifth and most recent birthday. They'd wound up missing their dinner reservation as he inspected the diagrams, let it slip away down the hollow of a bird bone.

"I'm bringing it in."

"Well dust it off, I just vacuumed," she said, not having vacuumed for some time.

"Can't dust it, it'll loose the root hairs."

"Bringing it in!" Harry re-announced with sudden vigour, as if passing an order down through the ranks on a battleship (battleships were another interest): "Here we go."

Petty always planned to follow him inside, but at least ten seconds later, wary of the effect of too much enthusiasm on her excitable husband.

Inside, she leaned over the table. "It's probably just a discoloured radish. Pretty, though."

"It's too big for a radish."

"Then it's too big for a radish."

"So…?"

"So odd things grow, big whoop."

"I suppose some bird from abroad could have dropped it--the seed I mean. Some exotic thing …"

Having pecked his sandpapery cheek, Petty was already on her way back outside to resume pasting. "Mayyyy-beeee," she sang out with an elongated ironic dip, as if blown through a slide whistle.

Harry had met Petty at the funeral of a mutual friend four years ago (Frank Stark, heart attack). She was twenty years younger, floppy hat-wearing, big-hipped and quick-witted. Harry couldn't remember the exact details of their meeting, as if they'd bobbed up alongside each other like two pieces of driftwood; although it occasionally bothered him that he couldn't recall the circumstances of their union--build the case, trace the progression of her interest in him. In retrospect, with the doom of old Starky's sudden expiration thick in the air, Harry thought a new start with an old timer would be the farthest thing from Petty's mind. But she was like that: breezy, pragmatic, immune to superstition. And with a reasonable bustle at his age, he thought, perhaps she considered him a reliable model.

He held in his hands a pale blue ball, firm to touch, covered in fine moist root hairs; it was perfectly rounded and pleasantly cool from the earth. The garden was large and he frequently lost track of what was growing where. New plants were devoured by snails and forgotten, while obscure and forgotten ones thrived unattended. Five years ago, when he'd needed to move the vegetable patch from one end of the garden to another he'd been able to replant potatoes and carrots with a lot of success: "all about the hairs," he reminded himself. Good thing Petty didn't feel the same, he thought, removing his sunhat.

Three hours later Harry was still engrossed.

"Still probing the mysteries of the rogue bulb?" Petty questioned, smiling covertly while not looking up from the postcard she was writing.

"Still don't know what it is. Could be a big find. Your Harry could be famous--be in all the books. Maybe I'll call it a Pet-ato." He turned and grinned teasingly.

She looked up and smiled back. "Do you even listen to yourself?--Petunia's already a plant, you goose."

Harry paused, disassembled then reassembled his smile with tacky mock-embarrassment--a self-deprecating flourish he imagined she found charming or youthful--and swivelled back to the grotty blue mound on the table.


An hour or so later he pressed a glass of wine to his lips as he towed his gaze through another page of genera in his thickest botanical volume. Petty strolled into the room, bringing with her the benevolent comet-tail of the day's energy and sat down at the table. "I thought we might play a game, Scrabble or something."

"Well, love, I'm a little into this root at the minute."

"Oh Harry. Well… Do you know what it is yet?"

"Nope."

"You'll never be happy till you know what it is?"

"Nope."

She responded with a sigh as she left the room, flappy and overstated like a deflating balloon--determined that her defeat would be if not satisfying then playfully theatrical.

The colour seemed slightly different, richly blue, more preternaturally verdant. It had changed, he was sure of it--yes, it was visible now, plainly. Its blueness had an almost oceanic tinge.

Petty drifted into the room again a few minutes later.

"Look at this," Harry murmured, "Tell me if the colour's changed. Well, no--I'm telling you it's changed . . ."

"So it's changed. Has it? Well maybe it has."

"Doesn't that strike you as odd?"

"Should it?"

"Well, yes. I think it's odd."

He was faintly annoyed by her indifference--and her ability to phrase it with an oblique but actual intelligence, as if its oddness was in fact the most familiar thing in the world.

Harry was not a religious man, but he wondered if the vegetable was supernatural, somehow. It had an electricity, a tingling bloodwarmth. He felt its texture on his hands after having put it down--felt the bristles, the weight of it in his hands.

That night, in bed, Harry felt harassed by the impossibility of it, of something impossible already inside the realm of the possible. He was faintly horrified by its intrusion, its questioning of all knowledge: an intolerable mystery enforcing the silence of night.

Later he awoke, wheeled about by dreams, and made a cup of tea. He found himself replaying a scene in his mind, trying to orchestrate it into familiarity, rehearse it into some kind of shape. Two days ago his son, David, had come to talk to him. "I'm moving to New Zealand," he'd said, "taking Nora and the kids."

Harry's first instinct would have been to reach for atlas or almanac--contemplate population density, let his eyes waltz around the crenulations of relief maps, peaks, basins. He had been to New Zealand, or to the airport anyway; although the prospect of his son's permanent departure meant he didn't imagine New Zealand but some unreal place: lunar, darkly utopic, a pencil-coloured place with giant plants and windowless skyscrapers, with darkness that crept in the ears.

He'd drank from a glass of water on the table.

He had raised his son to take on the world, now he was.

Petty's excitement for the boy alerted Harry to his own, legitimised it--gave it daylight and some genuine satisfaction. She assigned for him a place in this event, spiriting him across a ravine with a wifely assurance he both valued and in some obscure way distrusted.

That evening Harry spoke on the phone to his ex-wife, Nancy, David's mother, without saying very much. Nancy spoke of the scene as a universal but unacknowledged pain of parenthood, some sombre twilight adolescence. She was glad he had called, hinting at her own barely managed feelings of sorrow and attachment. Harry could tell that her elation at the event itself (and she had, according to David, been elated) was the role her son needed her to play: a parental rite of self-sacrifice, the more noble and tragic for remaining unannounced.

As he sat, drinking his tea, he wondered at the differences in their relationship to David, about the boy they each knew. He had always beheld his son with a thoughtful reserve, a concise affection, potent in its economy. David grew for him like a tree, in wondrous but ultimately un-alarming extensions. He didn't know her son: uncertain, caressed by fog-fingered apparitions of childhood--tickles, wet-beds, nosebleeds, bedsocks, the warmth of hair. He did not know the language of cold toes. He did not begrudge Nancy her access to this son, but sometimes felt absorbed in his distance from it, exiled by the realisation that even in his own life there were things he could not know.

Exhausted by the thought, he walked to the bathroom and splashed his face. He raised his head to the mirror to inspect his appearance: like a gnawed apple, he felt, all sudden divot and overhang. He ran a hand down his whiskers. If he had thought longer on it--which he wouldn't--Harry would probably have considered himself a handsome enough man for his age. Not "handsome"--handsome enough: which for Harry meant tolerable, efficiently not abhorrent. He wondered dimly about his relationship to his face. He did not feel uncomfortable with his appearance, merely disconnected from it, as if its representation of him in the world, its emotional register, was totally arbitrary. If this was the face Petty saw and spoke to, well--he did not know what to think of that.

Suddenly he heard a kind of padded bump, and moved silently across the carpet toward the bedroom, uneasy but in a procedural way, like a new homeowner wary of unfamiliar geometry, of sighing beams and stowed energy. Petty lay sleeping, ensconced in the sheets like a benevolent mummy. Just the pipes groaning.

He wondered to himself whether he could sit on the bed without waking her, and did so, his eyes absorbing the peace of her sleeping form. Then he pondered how her body could be so close--he could feel the warmth coming off it--while she was so far away, rolling through the condensed time of dreams. Petty had no children, and he wondered if this troubled her dreams, whether this was something she towed through the otherworld (perhaps right now), and felt an obscure guilt--the muffled guilt of association. She awoke and sat up, as if from a trance, blinking back the netherworld.

"Honey . . . are you all right?"

"Yeah, sorry I woke you."

*


"Do you want toast?" Petty enquired at breakfast, and through a mouthful of toast.

"No thanks, love," Harry replied, turning through the newspaper without reading it, although occasionally leaning his gaze against the symmetry of the paragraphs. Petty was going to the hospital to visit a friend, veteran of some minor procedure--which of course, at their age, they all were. He vaguely resented her absence but couldn't think of a reason why, nor any excuse as to why she shouldn't go. After she left, though, he went outside and smoked a cigarette with a self-conscious petulance. Afterward, he went inside and ate toast and drank coffee, letting them decontaminate his mouth, bustle away the smell. Petty did not care whether he smoked occasionally, yet he felt beholden to the act's concealment--incriminated by the rhythms of his smoking mind, the gentle deathward sway of all secrecy.

He returned to the root, flipping back through another book, annoyed at his inability to focus on the task and at a sneaking suspicion that he was becoming a time-waster. Upon grasping the root, he imagined it was warm but could not tell whether it was merely the warmth of his meddling hands permeating the vegetable's indifferent flesh.

That afternoon he thought of calling his doctor, and did so without further thought. A man of science is what he needed--any science--someone licensed to propose and perform excision, biopsy, autopsy. He left a message with the receptionist requesting that Dr Miller call him back. When Miller called, Harry, presuming an equivalent male-interest in the Facts Of Things, launched right into a detailed description. Miller ummed and ahhed, then tried to shift the conversation to Harry's diabetes medication. Miller hung up with the advice that mutations, despite their irregularity, were regular--Harry shouldn't get himself too worked up.

A Western was on television, and Harry watched until his eyelids drooped and his body seemed to slink into itself. He dreamt of the root: it began to wobble back and forth on the table, like an egg although he knew--somehow--that it was not an egg. He felt energy radiating from it, invisible belts of energy expanding out into the atmosphere, and was terrified by what it might do next. It seemed to him volatile, explosive, some cosmic vegetative grenade. In his dream he moved behind a chair as the thing continued to judder--jump, even--it jumped on the table, its hairs suddenly singed, fired to specks. Its surface area began stripping as if planed away by an invisible peeler . . .

Petty woke him. "Let's play Scrabble."

He looked at the root on the table next to them as they played, and could not reconcile it with its dream version, so saturated in dread. Nevertheless, he couldn't channel his attention into the game. Glancing at his letters, Petty proceeded to point out three different words he'd failed to realise.

"I'm just not up to it tonight I suppose," he offered affably.

"But you love Scrabble . . ."

He smiled, weakly, and began rearranging his letters in a quiet gesture of confirmation. The letters seemed to break away from one another, as if belonging to different times and alphabets. Petty went on: "You know I don't even like Scrabble that much, I play because you like Scrabble."

This was news to him.

"Are you alright?"

He told her that he was--still touched by her fraudulence, by the truthfulness of it.


The next morning, he unsheathed the trowel from the moist earth and cleared a space for the root. He paused, considering one last time whether it wasn't worth thoroughly rummaging: photographing it, contacting a professional, cutting it open and mailing it somewhere to men with white coats and microscopes. There was a camera inside the house, although as soon as he thought of photographing it he was struck by the idea's uselessness. He then nestled the object in the hole, delicately drew the soil around it like a blanket around a sleeping child, and made his way inside.

Within a few weeks he had lost sight of it. The surrounding species seemed to have multiplied; the patch dense with explosions of green, fresh and trembling now with water from the sprinkler. He had to admit that he could not remember exactly where he had planted it. Perhaps it had even decomposed?--Its wild leaves leaching into the dark soil below. . . Ready to retire for the night, he paced idly over to turn off the tap. After easing it closed, he again padded across the wet lawn to the garden, re-saturating his socks, and rested his sleepy gaze contentedly on the puddly black earth glittering before him--a sapphire ocean holding its breath. He thought of the vanished root as he watched pools silently form and dissipate, the tiny runnels chasing each other through the ancient soil, firing off stars in the darkness.


THE END


2013 Dominic Lennard

Bio: Dominic Lennard is a writer and academic from Tasmania, Australia. He has previously published essays on celebrity, consumerism, and Batman on film. His non-fiction book Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film is forthcoming from SUNY Press.

E-mail: Dominic Lennard

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