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.”