Stephanie Charette

Pulp Literature - - FRONT PAGE - Stephanie Charette

Re­cently from the wilds of north­ern On­tario, now trans­planted to Bri­tish Columbia, this cat-wran­gling foun­tain pen en­thu­si­ast writes sto­ries and is a grad­u­ate of the sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy writ­ing work­shop Vi­able Par­adise. You can find Stephanie on Twit­ter at @scri­bofe­l­i­dae and on the web at scri­bofe­l­i­dae.word­press.com.

“I haven’t shown you the prize of my col­lec­tion.” West­bury swirled his crys­tal tum­bler, slosh­ing the am­ber whisky against the ice. He added, in glee­ful al­beit hushed tones, “I haven’t shown any­one.”

Ah, Adam thought, here it comes. He shifted, feel­ing the tight­ness in the shoul­ders of his bor­rowed suit. West­bury — no, wait, Lord West­bury hadn’t just in­vited him over to crow about his recog­ni­tion by the Queen and the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety. Oh, no. Not just to gloat, but to grind Adam’s nose in it and send him pack­ing with the knowl­edge that once again Lord West­bury had tri­umphed and al­ways would. Now they sat in a cold par­lour amidst a host of botan­i­cal trea­sures, each worth a ran­som.

Adam looked at the re­mains of his own whisky and won­dered why he’d agreed to come early. He could have just ar­rived with all the other party guests tonight, but even af­ter ev­ery­thing, he found West­bury’s pri­vate sum­mons ir­re­sistible. Adam set­tled into the leather chair, hat­ing him­self. “Do tell,” he said at last.

West­bury flicked a glance to­wards his but­ler. The liv­er­ied man left, shut­ting the door be­hind him. “I wish to tell the whole world,” he said. “A lord­ship isn’t enough.”

Adam bit the in­side of his cheek. West­bury had re­ceived ev­ery ac­co­lade in their field. His seem­ingly in­ex­haustible funds, both his own and other in­vestors’, were more than enough to sup­port ex­pe­di­tions to any cor­ner of the globe, and still pay scraps to the botanists labour­ing hard at the study and tax­on­omy that West­bury wasn’t ca­pa­ble of un­der­tak­ing. Men like Adam, who saw their work pub­lished un­der West­bury’s name. A knight­hood, not enough? Adam swal­lowed the blood on his tongue and waited. “I must ask you to swear se­crecy. On your hon­our.” “Oh, come now,” Adam replied. Still, he could hear it in West­bury’s smug voice: the man was se­ri­ous. West­bury poured him­self an­other shot of whisky. Adam had never seen West­bury drink so much be­fore, nor so early in the day. Nor look­ing so old as he did now, con­sid­er­ing they were of an age. “You’ve al­ready bought my hon­our,” Adam said. “Go on, then, be­fore you lose your nerve.”

“What I have tran­scends hu­man ri­val­ries.” West­bury hauled his heavy body out of the chair and moved to the back of the room, tak­ing the whisky with him.

Adam fol­lowed. West­bury trailed a fin­ger along what looked like smooth pan­elling. Re­warded with a faint click, West­bury shifted the wood, re­veal­ing a door. The se­cret pas­sage piqued Adam’s dead­ened in­ter­est. He took a nip of his own whisky, mak­ing note of where West­bury had touched the wall.

The door swung open, re­veal­ing a steep, curv­ing set of ser­vant stairs. A soli­tary port­hole win­dow, set high above them where no win­dow had any busi­ness be­ing, of­fered an orb of golden light like a mis­placed har­vest moon. Af­ter de­scend­ing one flight

of stairs, the stair­case turned to­wards the in­nards of the manor proper and the light grew dim.

“You’ve gone to a lot of trou­ble,” Adam said. At the edge of per­cep­tion he felt a source­less thrum­ming he could not iden­tify. He loos­ened his col­lar, sud­denly warm.

West­bury glanced over his shoul­der, “You’ve no idea. I brought in two crews of work­men, one Swedish, one Ger­man. They each worked on only half of the de­sign, and shipped home sep­a­rately when they were done.”

The stairs ended at a short cor­ri­dor. Adam heard the click of a mech­a­nism, the source hid­den be­hind West­bury’s plump frame. The panel slid, but not so silently; hot, wet air hissed out. Steam curled over and past West­bury’s shoul­ders, en­velop­ing Adam as West­bury’s shrouded form dis­ap­peared into the room be­yond. Adam’s glasses fogged in­stantly, forc­ing him to re­move them and go slowly.

The air in­side the room was al­most too thick to breathe. It tasted of rich loam and the per­fumes from a thou­sand dif­fer­ent plants alien to Eng­land’s shores. The air hung with a sweet­ness heav­ier than honey. He let the taste sit on his tongue, savour­ing it, try­ing to iden­tify ev­ery strain. Veils of fog parted as he stepped for­ward. He re­placed his glasses once the fog had cleared. The hu­mid­ity smoth­ered, like a per­son stand­ing too close to bear. The ceil­ing, un­touched by the grop­ing ten­drils of fog, was con­structed of curved bronze and thick plates of green­house glass and let in shafts of bright noon sun­light. Un­der­neath was a botanist’s par­adise of un­count­able trop­i­cal species. Some Adam could name,

had even held, and some he had only wished to see be­fore he died. In the cen­tre of the room, fed by a se­ries of hum­ming hy­draulics and gleam­ing pipes, sat a gi­ant dome made of bronze-framed pen­ta­gons of high-qual­ity, dis­tor­tion-free green­house glass. In­side, there grew even more del­i­cate species: Hy­meno­cal­lis lit­toralis, less a lily than a six-legged, white-bod­ied float­ing oc­to­pus, Heliamphora pul­chella, with its deep red flutes like curled tongues, Aris­tolochia gi­gan­tea, look­ing like a white lace col­lar laid over dried blood, and dozens of other species, be­sides. But none stood so rare or ex­otic as the tree that stood in the cen­tre, a spec­i­men the likes of which Adam had never seen in ei­ther flesh or ink.

A tree? Yes. A tree. Magnolia. South Amer­i­can. But new. He raced through the cat­a­logues that had long ago taken root in his mind, search­ing for an ana­logue, for the mere word ‘tree’ was hope­lessly in­ad­e­quate. Sil­ver-barked, the trunk tapered cur­va­ceously at the cen­tre. Up above where the tree split into two sec­ondary branches, it looked al­most hu­man, a god­dess with her back arched. Vi­brant leaves sprouted along the mi­nor branches, pressed against the in­side of the dome. Scat­tered among them were fat flower buds, cream white at the tip, blush pink at the base.

Adam forced him­self to take mea­sured steps un­til he could reach out and rest his hand against the glass. At once, his hand warmed from the heat coiled in­side the dome. The vi­bra­tion he had felt all around him but could not place sud­denly rooted it­self there, both lulling and erotic. A flush crept up his neck. “What did you do?”

“What any­one would have done,” West­bury said, com­ing along­side. “I brought it back.” He spoke just loud enough to be heard over the clicks and whirs of the clock­work life-sup­port sys­tem that rooted the dome in place.

“Where?” Adam could not pull his hand away from the warm glass, nor did he wish to.

West­bury gazed deep into the dome, as if try­ing to make eye con­tact with some­one far away who should rec­og­nize him but didn’t. “An is­land off the Brazil­ian coast.” “And you found it? You, per­son­ally? Not one of your men?” “What they find, I find,” West­bury said. “You of all peo­ple should know that.”

“Too well,” he mut­tered. The for­got­ten drink in Adam’s other hand was wet with con­den­sa­tion. Adam re­garded it as a strange, for­eign thing for a mo­ment be­fore down­ing the rest and thrust­ing the empty glass at West­bury. “Why bring it here?”

“No one would be­lieve with­out proof.” He re­filled Adam’s tum­bler. “Might as well have said I’d found a uni­corn.” “How?” “Very care­fully. I hired armed men to stay be­hind while I set the ship to­wards the main­land to gather sup­plies. We needn’t have wor­ried, though. The na­tives wouldn’t set foot there and the lo­cal guides did ev­ery­thing they could to turn us away. It took three weeks to get the nec­es­sary equip­ment. We ex­tracted the spec­i­men with all the care of an ar­chae­ol­o­gist work­ing on the tomb of an Egyp­tian Queen. There were wor­ri­some mo­ments in the early days of trans­port. Some of the crew re­acted poorly.”

West­bury paused, a line creas­ing his brow. “We sealed the dome af­ter that. Hasn’t been opened since.”

“Im­pos­si­ble,” Adam said. Though he could see no door, he could see the state of the gi­gan­tic ter­rar­ium. “It’s im­mac­u­late in­side.”

“It tends it­self,” West­bury said with a plea­sur­able sigh. “Stun­ning, isn’t it?”

Adam’s eyes had fix­ated on the up­per­most part of the tree and his mind groped af­ter fa­mil­iar pat­terns: the curve of what could be a chin, a brow, even a mouth. The il­lu­sory face made the tree’s con­torted pose even more grotesque, yet cap­ti­vat­ing. “Stun­ning isn’t the word,” he mum­bled. “It doesn’t be­long here.”

West­bury huffed in­dig­nantly. “A find of this cal­i­bre? What was I to do, leave it to the savages? It was the only one left on the is­land. Dar­win him­self would have leapt at the chance to study it in the —” West­bury tripped on his own word, “— flesh.” He flicked his eyes to the tree, and back again.

Sud­denly, it all made sense to Adam. He had a hard time keep­ing his tem­per. “Is that why you brought me here? To study it for you?”

“I thought you would like a chance at it, that’s all.” West­bury frowned, al­most pout­ing. “But no, not you alone. There’s too much work here for one man. And, not yet. Tonight, I’m giv­ing a party. I’m re­tir­ing. The spec­i­men will go to the Botan­i­cal So­ci­ety. Should earn me a Chair.”

“But you de­cided to show me now?” Was he be­ing cruel then, dan­gling such a dis­cov­ery in a last at­tempt at one-up­man­ship?

“I wanted to show you what it looked like dur­ing the day. Tonight, it will ... bloom. I wanted you to see the dif­fer­ence.”

West­bury’s frown deep­ened. He looked con­flicted. “We were friends once, Adam.” “We were con­tem­po­raries,” Adam snapped back. “Once.” “Per­haps we can be so again,” West­bury replied, with lit­tle strength be­hind the words. “A lit­tle good­will, is all I ask. Good­will, and some imag­i­na­tion.” He coughed po­litely, in­di­cat­ing the tour was at an end. “You’ll change your mind.” He turned back to­wards the exit.

Good­will. Adam would have stormed out, ex­cept for the sour lump at the back of his throat that re­minded him, yes, he would stay. De­spite his pride — or what was left of it, any­way. He would hate him­self but he would stay. As West­bury led them back, Adam squinted into the shape­less­ness of the steam, hun­gry for a glimpse of the dome’s curve, or the tree’s ver­dant crown. He didn’t re­al­ize he’d been hold­ing his breath un­til the cool dark­ness of the pas­sage swal­lowed him up and forced the breath out of him.

West­bury ush­ered Adam from the par­lour and sug­gested that he could wan­der the grounds while West­bury man­aged prepa­ra­tions for the party. With that, West­bury turned down the hall and left Adam to his own devices.

But the vi­sion of the im­pris­oned tree would not leave him. He spent the hours roam­ing the hall­ways, try­ing to sup­press the mem­ory and seek out what clues he could. Ev­ery so of­ten he’d hear a snatch of a me­chan­i­cal thrum but he could never place the source. Nor, in a house that had been re­worked by a half-dozen ar­chi­tec­tural hands in just as many styles, did he find a hint of where the domed room might be.

Staff mis­took him for one of their own twice, and by then his tem­per had him tight at the col­lar. He barked some­thing nasty at one porter, then ex­ited their com­pany by step­ping onto one of the many se­cond-floor bal­conies.

He leaned against the balustrade, let­ting the fresh spring air wick away the sweat that still lin­gered on his skin. The gar­dens below flour­ished with an aban­don out­side their sea­son. Rose bushes al­ready sported the first cream and peach-coloured buds. Trees wept their fine, gold pollen. It had been a cold spring in gen­eral and in Lon­don in par­tic­u­lar, but West­bury’s es­tate car­ried on, ei­ther in­dif­fer­ent or im­per­vi­ous. Be­sides, see­ing the lush­ness of the grounds only made him think of the trea­sure down below. He was glad to see coaches, black pods led by sleek horses, com­ing up the long drive. The guests. At last. He went to join them.

The staff, dressed in their prim black uni­forms, cir­cu­lated like bees around a mul­ti­tude of flow­ers: guests that ar­rived in wave af­ter wave. And the nec­tars of­fered were end­less bot­tles of French and Ital­ian wine, ta­ble af­ter ta­ble of roast meats and fowl, pas­tries and as­pics and pe­tit-fours, heady scents that buoyed Adam even though he ab­stained from such pal­try in­dul­gences as much as he did the crowds. In the cen­tre of it all was West­bury, sur­rounded by the cream of Lon­don’s in­tel­lec­tual and fi­nan­cial elite, re­gal­ing them with tales of wild jun­gles and ad­ven­ture and prom­ises of de­lights to come.

As the sun­light dimmed, the gaslights flick­ered to life. The heat, undi­min­ished with the set­ting of the sun, had be­come pal­pa­ble, a muggy breath on all their necks that slid be­neath their

clothes with im­punity. The bal­cony win­dows were thrown open, but even the night air couldn’t cool a crowd that glis­tened with un­man­nerly sweat. They laughed too loud, they drank, they ate ... with no end in sight. Men un­but­toned their jack­ets, women read­justed ex­ot­i­cally plumed head­gear and pumped at their ivory­han­dled fans, to no avail.

Adam re­moved his clammy gloves, and aban­doned them on a nearby ta­ble. The ill-fit­ting suit itched madly, and forced him to keep mov­ing. How could they stand the wait­ing, when the great­est dis­cov­ery pos­si­ble lay buried un­der their feet? Night-bloom­ing, West­bury had said. The words would not leave him be.

Some time af­ter ten o’clock, Adam man­aged to cut through the throng to West­bury. “How much longer?”

West­bury looked at him with sur­prised an­noy­ance, then waved Adam off with fat fin­gers. “Later,” he said. “It hasn’t yet bloomed. Why don’t you be a good lad and get me an­other bot­tle of whisky? The staff can show you. In the base­ment.”

Adam coughed up a small, in­cred­u­lous laugh. “Why not?” He laughed again, darkly, and spun on his heels. The cir­cle closed in around West­bury once more.

He left them. He left them all, rip­ping his cra­vat off and let­ting it drop to the floor. He slipped through the crowd and past the ser­vants, un­til he was alone. He passed through the dark halls, not sur­prised to find him­self stand­ing out­side the par­lour where West­bury and he had taken their drink. He tested the han­dle — un­locked — and then looked to ei­ther side. The hall­way was empty. Best be quick with it, if he was com­mit­ted. He laughed at the thought.

Once in­side, he quickly crossed the room and made for the se­cret panel. His fin­gers found the latch, and the panel swung open.

While the moon filled the port­hole win­dow at the top of the pas­sage, near-blind­ing him, the stairs curved down­ward into dark­ness. Adam de­scended, chok­ing on the heat. The vi­brat­ing thrum pushed through the walls louder than ever, like an ir­reg­u­lar heart­beat.

But the hid­den door at the end of the hall­way was locked. Had West­bury a key? He hadn’t seen one. Adam thumped his fist against the door, once, twice. Harder.

His en­ergy fled. He leaned against the wood. “I’m go­ing mad.” He took a long, de­lib­er­ate breath. The smell of — what? He drew an­other breath. Vanilla. Mango. And magnolia. He could think of noth­ing else co­her­ent. He just breathed, tasted, and trem­bled.

And then, a sound, some­where hid­den be­neath the thrum, al­most a word, al­most a voice. It ate up his heart and stole his breath. He pressed his ear to the panel. There it was again — a cry? Adam swal­lowed hard, and his mind set­tled sharply on a sin­gle im­per­a­tive: get into the next room.

He ran back up the stairs and burst into the still-empty, still­dark study, look­ing around wildly un­til he found what he needed: a flat-edged poker from the fire­place. He grabbed it and ran back to the locked pas­sage. He wedged the poker be­tween the wall and the place where the door frame should be. Two strong jerks and it cracked wide open.

Adam faced a wall of thick, jun­gle steam and his body re­sponded in kind, jew­elling him in sweat so quickly that he couldn’t be sure if his cloth­ing had damp­ened more from the hu­mid­ity or his over­worked skin. His glasses fogged, but he marched on with­out wait­ing. He didn’t need them. He knew the way.

As he ap­proached the ge­o­desic dome, the body of the tree ma­te­ri­al­ized in the haze be­hind the glass, and when it did, Adam un­der­stood now that the press­ing heat, the steady thrum, all of it, started there. Adam had walked into the heart of the jun­gle, a heart beat­ing fiercely even though it lay cut from its body five thou­sand miles away. He pressed his free hand against the glass. His fin­ger­tips blazed with the heat of con­tact.

The tree — such an in­ad­e­quate word, and surely blas­phe­mous, Adam fi­nally un­der­stood — moved its sil­ver boughs, ma­jes­ti­cally in­dif­fer­ent to his pres­ence and wreathed in golden steam. A fig­ure branched from the main trunk, hu­man-shaped and un­ques­tion­ably fe­male. It, no she, knelt, her bark crack­ing at newly made joints to re­veal even paler skin be­neath. With ef­fort that eased with ev­ery step, she stood, and moved from plant to plant with slow pre­ci­sion. Slen­der, root-like fin­gers tended a clutch of or­chids as del­i­cately as any sur­geon.

Adam stood trans­fixed, his heart thun­der­ing in his chest like a trapped an­i­mal. He watched her make a slow arc around the dome. The flow­ers turned to her like lit­tle sun-seek­ers; each plant bloomed a lit­tle wider, hues bright­en­ing, un­der her ten­der min­is­tra­tions. And as she came closer to him, he felt the same in­vig­o­rat­ing flush, a re­newed stamina. The heat no longer

op­pressed. In­stead, it kin­dled him. He felt as though his skin might split, his long dor­mancy fi­nally end. He fol­lowed her un­til her me­thod­i­cal cir­cle at last brought them face to face. His heart froze in his breast for one ach­ing se­cond.

Her face, heart-shaped, perched atop a slen­der neck and framed with a tangle of over­grown vines, was not a woman’s face. In­stead of eyes, two de­pres­sions with thin lines of creased bark looked out blindly at him. For brows, a pair of fun­gal cres­cents. Down what might be shoul­ders and thighs, slen­der flower buds dot­ted the bark like pearls on gloves. Where her mouth should be, noth­ing but a line, a split along her bark. Not a woman, yet no less beau­ti­ful than one could be. She in­clined her head, ever-so-slightly, a pan­tomime of hu­man cu­rios­ity. She reached up with one of her limbs, one of many, he saw, and put her hands against the glass, root-fin­gers wig­gling out, worm-like, to­wards him.

Adam pulled his one hand back with an in­stinc­tive jerk. The seam of her mouth moved, and she ex­haled more of the golden steam that filled the in­ner cham­ber. The fo­liage around her bloomed vig­or­ously, flow­ers burst­ing near to wilt­ing in a sud­den rush of growth. The rhythm of the thrum changed, be­came a quest­ing moan, and Adam, com­pelled, reached for the hot glass. “What has he done to you?” She shud­dered, shak­ing the dome. The bound blooms that grew along her body un­furled. Her moans twisted into a mimicry of hu­man speech, then died so sud­denly that Adam thought he’d lost the use of his ears al­to­gether. Only when the faint, now-alien

sounds of the party far above stirred his stunned senses did he re­al­ize he could still hear. She was … whis­per­ing. No, singing. Adam fell to his knees, hand slid­ing down the glass but never los­ing con­tact. The singing sub­sided, and she crouched in­side the cham­ber. She sang an­other string of beau­ti­ful but non­sen­si­cal syl­la­bles that made Adam weep for lack of un­der­stand­ing. He wanted to please her so ter­ri­bly, an un­filled need that smoth­ered all other thoughts.

“Can you rea­son?” he said, thickly. His fin­gers slid across the glass, a ca­ress. Not that he had to ask. His ev­ery bit of flesh quiv­ered with her re­quest, ea­ger to carry it out.

His fin­gers flexed, then raised the poker in the air. He smashed at the glass to no ef­fect.

Two-handed now, wield­ing the poker like a mace, he beat the glass and bronze frame­work of the dome, over and over. Ev­ery blow rang out like a church bell, and with ev­ery stroke, she trum­peted as though she would call down God him­self.

Now, she roared. The manor shook, plas­ter crack­ing from where the ceil­ing met the walls. Metal buck­led. Stray pieces of green­house glass broke free from their bronze web­bing over­head, and smashed to the floor.

Adam heard shouts of alarm com­ing louder and closer. He re­dou­bled his ef­forts. At last a bolt wheeled off and landed on the floor. He wedged the poker into the fis­sure and heaved, heaved, cry­ing out, not sure which would break first, his arm or the iron. As his mus­cles screamed, the plate came free.

It was all the open­ing she needed. She pulled back from the glass. The branches of her sym­bi­otic sis­ter-tree trem­bled, then came to life, fill­ing the globe with writhing limbs and leaves. A hun­dred branch-like, mil­lipedal fin­gers filled the gap, grip­ping and twist­ing, then push­ing, peel­ing away, plate af­ter plate. The soil within the ter­rar­ium surged out­ward and spread across the mar­ble floor like a dark tide.

Un­bound, she rose to her full height, branches flar­ing like a pea­cock’s dis­play, while vine-like run­ners snaked out and took pur­chase in ev­ery nook and cranny of the room. Roots pulled up the tiles and tun­nelled into the earth below. Her crown of leaves burst through the glass of the ceil­ing, rain­ing down a thou­sand shards. The other ter­rar­ium cap­tives, ea­ger for es­cape, bloomed and pol­li­nated, died and were re­born, a year’s worth of growth in only sec­onds, all un­der the shel­ter of her canopy.

Adam barely reg­is­tered the sounds of splin­ter­ing, of force, of a ca­coph­ony of hu­man voices. But the guests, even West­bury, no longer mat­tered. They would all see, all un­der­stand — but on her terms, not West­bury’s. Adam fell back to his knees on the warm, newly turned soil, and watched the tree’s hu­man form step out of the ruin of the dome. Other trunks, other rootlings, slith­ered out and planted them­selves in the ground as she lifted her head to sur­vey the re­mains of the green­house. Fun­gal brows rose in ques­tion, then fell in dis­ap­point­ment, or dis­missal. The tree that bore her shud­dered, plung­ing its roots down­ward. With ev­ery breath she grew, con­sum­ing and trans­form­ing the raw in­gre­di­ents around her into new life. There would be no bind­ing her again.

Her hu­man-shaped body stepped to­wards Adam. He dropped the poker onto the earth be­side him. The soil around it dark­ened and the iron scabbed red, be­fore dis­solv­ing away. He could feel the soil try­ing to work at his clothes, his flesh, but she was slow­ing the process, spar­ing him, per­haps savour­ing him for just a few mo­ments more.

Her fin­gers reached out gen­tly, ca­ress­ing his cheeks. She drew him up­wards, kiss­ing him with her slit­ted mouth, cut­ting his weak flesh. She filled him with her muggy breath and drew it out again. Ev­ery joy of the flesh crawled in and crept out of him in a shud­der­ing wave, years pass­ing in rap­tur­ous sec­onds. He wept.

She re­leased him, as though let­ting a seed fall to the earth. The soil started to con­sume him in earnest.

West­bury, a cadre of men be­hind him, en­tered the room. The fog parted for him. He swept his hand wide. “Gen­tle­men, I present to you Magnolia ex­su­per­an­tia. Watch. She is fed now, and ready to bloom.” He drained the last of his whisky, eyes fever­ish, and whis­pered, “God help us all.”

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