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What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love

After the wedding, Ruth moved into the Victorian mansion on Jack’s vast, rural estate. She brought only two bags. One was full of clothes. The other she unpacked like a devotee arranging an altar: an assortment of vanilla-scented lotions, deodorants, soaps, moisturizers, scrubs and splashes. Every morning, Jack watched Ruth stand by the pedestal sink in her white silk robe: rubbing, dabbing, spraying, powdering, and anointing. When she emerged, he took her hand and inhaled her from soft wrist to slender shoulders.

Jack had met Ruth only two months earlier, during his obligatory annual visit to his relatives in the city. Ruth was also visiting the city, on doctor’s orders; she suffered from a pair of charmingly old-fashioned diseases, malaise and neurasthenia. Her physician believed they might be cured by exposure to the warm southern climate, so Ruth’s mother, an old family friend, had arranged for an extended stay with Jack’s aunts.

Both Ruth and Jack felt out of place in high society, never sure which fork to use and whether or not it was polite to dab one’s face with a napkin between courses. “Being a person is so much work,” Ruth confided. Jack was forced to agree. He fell in love with her slender paleness like the stalk of an exotic plant; with the way drops of water lingered in her hair after she swam in the lake, like dew; and, of course, with her exquisite vanilla scent.

Their courtship bloomed brief but sweet, long enough for Jack to obtain an “I do” and abduct Ruth away from the sounds and smog of the city to his country home, a peripheral property of the family’s estate which had been left to Jack out of general disinterest on the part of his siblings. There, modernity maintained a circumspect, unobtrusive presence. Water flowed freely from the tap, but a well stood on the property; the house had been wired with electricity, but tapers and oil lamps glittered at night; the car lay fallow on the driveway for days between trips into town.

“You’ll like it here,” Jack said as he pulled into the private driveway on their wedding night. “The country air is reinvigorating. The isolation is so complete, sometimes I forget other people exist at all.”

The night smelled of cold and pine. Dandelion wisps floated through the air like tiny, gossamer spirits.

Ruth pressed her gloved hand to the car window. “I can feel the change already,” she said.

Away from crowds and city air, Ruth ripened, both figuratively and literally. Within weeks, Jack discovered a bulge beneath the waistband of her slip. In another month, her stomach drooped full and heavy as a fruit weighing a stem. She lay all day in bed wearing nothing but her camisole, hands cupped underneath her cumbersome belly.

One night, Jack woke to find Ruth standing by the bedroom window, gazing down at the vast, dark property. She turned to him, her silhouette pale and gravid, and said, “Things are different out here. I’ve never been anyplace like this before. Out here we can be anything we like.”

Jack waited for her to continue, but she only stared out the window, and eventually slipped between the covers without a word. Later that night, Jack woke in a panic, suddenly convinced that Ruth had disappeared. He reached out and his hand slid onto the round sleekness of the camisole on her hip. Reassured, he drifted back to sleep.

In the morning, Ruth was a flower.

Jack found her, or the flower that had been her, growing in front of the bathroom mirror, her assortment of vanilla bottles lying empty in a circle around her feet—or rather, her stem.

“Ruth?” he asked.

The flower stood about Ruth’s height and blossomed on a stem growing out of a crack in the tile. Two layers of frilly white petals rose from the pedicel, the inner curved over the center like women huddling to tell a secret, the outer arched backward like dancers swooning in their partners’ arms. Green veins branched over the petals, shimmering with pinpoints of light that glided from base to tip, tiny stars boating across subcutaneous rivers.

Jack touched the petals and a strong vanilla scent wafted from the flower’s heart.

“Vanilla doesn’t come from flowers,” Jack said, but the scent continued to flow.

The origin of vanilla wasn’t the only thing Ruth had failed to understand about plant biology. She bore no roots Jack could see, didn’t photosynthesize, and preferred water to be tipped onto her petals a few drops at a time. Water poured onto the tile was ignored.

When Ruth was ready to give birth, her stamens rose from the center of her petals. They shivered and a flurry of vanilla-scented grains flew into the air, swirling in eddies like a heavy snow. Jack’s shoes slid in the drifts as he went to open the bathroom window, allowing some of the seeds to waft outside.

When Jack’s shoes were buried to the ankle, the stamens gave one final shake and halted. Jack waited for them to descend again, but instead, Ruth began to wilt. Jack tried to uncurl her browning petals, but they rolled up into thin, papery scrolls. She toppled, the base of her stem sliced cleanly like a cut flower.

Stunned, Jack wandered into the bedroom and then down the hall, lost in seed drifts. By the top of the stairs, he paused to palm a handful. They sifted through his fingers like sand. And then, by the banister, Jack noticed one seed had taken root. He discovered another shoot behind the loveseat, a pair behind the square piano, a quintet nestled beside the warmth of the stove, and more, so many more that he lost count. They’d become not flowers, but people. Tiny people, the size of his thumb, wearing white robes made out of glabrous petals that flared from neck to hem like inverted lilies. Each smelled like a bottle of vanilla perfume.

Careful not to crush any new growth, Jack got down on his belly by the stove where the largest cluster grew, and squinted into the miniscule faces. Green veins branched across their alabaster skins, glowing with the same pinpricks of light that had illuminated Ruth’s petals. Jack identified the features beneath the veins—Ruth’s slender nose presiding over his strong chin—but it wasn’t until the first tiny flower-person opened its eyes that Jack felt a thrill of recognition. The gray hue was his, but the inquisitive gaze was Ruth’s.

The children grew quickly. Within days, they reached Jack’s knees, then his waist, then his collarbone. They outgrew the seeds that had held their bud-like feet in place and followed Jack around the house, peering earnestly up at him like a race of petite scholars.

They couldn’t speak, but Jack learned how to play games with them. He wiggled his fingers like rain and they crowded beneath his hands, tussling with each other for the best positions until they fell in a riotous pile on the ground. When they tired of that, Jack pretended to be a stalking insect, prowling on all fours and smacking his lips. His children darted away and then crept close behind him so that he could crash around and scare them again.

When they grew so tall that they could no longer fit in the house, they gathered outside in the sun, arms spread and heads tilted back as if they were trying to photosynthesize. The males raised swollen penis/stamens and shook out a great rain of pollen. The women raised their arms over their heads, their torsos taking on the aspect of pistils, and swayed in the flurry, trying to catch as much pollen as they could.

Remembering Ruth, Jack ran to his daughters. “Do you want to wilt? Do you want to die?” he shouted, tugging their hands down and snatching the fertile dust out of their hair.

But his daughters only let him drag them down for a moment before they sprang back into their receptive positions, and new pollen instantly replaced the grains he swept away. Defeated, Jack sat on the ground and watched as a fine layer covered the landscape. When his children were visible only as human-shaped objects cloaked in white, the stamens lowered and the last drifts settled.

The men wilted, but the women didn’t. The pollen absorbed into their flesh the way that water had once absorbed into Ruth’s petals. Jack approached his daughters and discovered them hale, their green veins alight with galaxies of shimmering specks. As he watched, their toes elongated into branching white tendrils that burrowed into the soil like roots. Their torsos erupted with extra limbs that grew into vines which in turn spread across the ground, tangling with the grass and trees and climbing up the walls of the house. Jack tapped his daughters’ shoulders and sang into their ears, but they ignored him, their dark, canny eyes focused on their changing bodies.

Jack felt an unfathomable sense of loss as he realized that, like Ruth, his daughters had evolved beyond him. He was blocked out of their lives as completely as if they’d wilted.

Jack jogged to the house. Extensions of his daughters erupted everywhere into flowers, vines, and branches, transforming the property into a jungle. Creepers stretched over the walls of the house as Jack watched, concealing it in a shell of green.

Vanilla laced the air, rising from leaves and roots as well as petals. Jack remembered his wife standing in front of the bathroom mirror, massaging unguents into her flesh. Had she summoned some kind of magic with her daily ritual? Could he summon it too?

Gently, to avoid tearing what he supposed were his grandchildren, Jack tugged open the door to the house. He worked his way across the poppy field carpeting the floor, and then leapt between tendrils of greenery on the stairs, only to find the doorway to his bedroom choked with dense flowering vines. Jack placed his hand on one of the blooms and to his surprise, the blossom and all her sisters averted their heads, opening a narrow entrance.

The plants inside the bedroom shifted out of Jack’s way as he approached the bathroom. Inside, the plants growing out of the porcelain looked markedly different from their jungle brethren. Pale, spidery ferns cast slender arms across the walls. Spherical clusters of white flowers covered in fine hair-like down circled the bathroom mirror at regular intervals like light bulbs in a dressing room. There was no sign of the wilted flower that had been Ruth.

Jack leaned over the pedestal sink and opened the mirror to reveal the medicine cabinet on the other side. He rifled through the contents of the shelves, setting aside forgotten mixtures, antique bottles, decaying remnants clinging to the bottoms of near-empty jars. At last, he discovered something pushed into the remotest corner of the bottom shelf—the last vial of a clear but viscous fluid. He opened the stopper: a whiff of vanilla.

A cold tip trailed down Jack’s shoulder. He turned. A vine with tri-pointed ivory leaves slipped down his back and embraced his waist. A second vine lifted Jack’s chin and directed his gaze to the bathroom wall.

The fern-like plants were gone. In their place, Jack could see the bathroom window, only it was larger than it had ever been before, stained glass stretching from floor to ceiling. Standing before it, bathed in the refracted lavender light, was the Ruth flower, her petals fresh and dewy.

The vine cinched more tightly around Jack’s waist. A new vanilla, somehow heavy like a musk, pumped into the air.

“Hello, Ruth,” Jack said. The vial felt heavy in his palm. “Give me one moment, please.”

The vines retreated. Jack turned back to the mirror and gave his face and figure a cursory examination. He might miss his fingers.

In the mirror, Jack watched the reflection of the jungle behind him. The foliage twitched and a new breed of flowers burst forth, carnelian-hued and shaped like birds of paradise. Leaves rustled deciduous music as a single silver creeper wound around the shower curtain rod.

Jack emptied the vial onto his hands and watched the liquid soak into his skin. “All right,” he said. The vines reached out to greet him and he followed their escort into the wilderness that had been his bathroom, waiting for his body to change so he could plant himself beside his bride.

About the Author

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and graduated from Clarion West in 2005. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Subterranean Magazine, and, among other magazines and anthologies, and been nominated for awards including the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award. Her novella, “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” won the Nebula Award for 2010. Her second collection, How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future is forthcoming from Subterranean Press at the end of September 2013.