Cast of Wonders 310: Little Wonders 18: Transformation
A Cradle of Vines
by Jennifer Mace
There’s a plant in the hedgerow whose berries glimmer like starlight. Gyn passes it every morning on her way to school. Its leaves are waxy beneath her hands, small as the new baby’s fingernails and greener than grass stains on knees. They leave her skin smelling of peppermint.
The berries are blacker than midnight, blacker than her new father’s hair, and Gyn first notices them as her mother stops noticing her. They like to hide under hawthorn leaves or in the joints of holly bushes, but their silver shine in the winter sun gives them away. She’s smarter than the blackbirds and the robins. She understands hidden things.
Her mother always told her not to pester the wildlife — it was kinder to leave the plants and animals to live their lives undisturbed. But her mother smells different these days, of half-digested milk and new perfume, and Gyn walks to school alone. Her mother’s words have lost their power.
So she picks her first berry one morning, in the January headlights of passing cars. It’s an act of violence: the plant recoils, quivering, shaking all the interwoven species into a rattling symphony of bare twigs and tangled vines. Gyn feels something sting, like guilt, only sharper.
But only nice girls apologise. So she raises her chin instead, and keeps walking.
She tucks the berry into the crumbling basketwork of the first abandoned bird’s nest she finds. It felt too heavy in her pocket, like a river stone, dull and lifeless from the second she plucked it. Deep down, she knows she doesn’t deserve to keep it.
After that, she doesn’t see the plant again for months.
It’s hiding. She hurt it, even if she didn’t mean to — took something that wasn’t meant for her — and she isn’t trusted any more. Lonely, she runs her fingers through the hedgerow, rattling the cobb bushes, stroking the blooming buds of elder, but it just isn’t the same. They’re just plants.
She’s stubborn. Everyone says that. Stubborn, and ungrateful. So it takes her until Easter to apologise.
It’s too late at night for little girls to be out on their own, but the baby was crying loud enough that no one heard her turn the handle on the back door. The key hangs on a string around her neck, and she’ll be back before they notice that she’s gone.
The moon sits like a balloon just a hand’s breadth above the chimneys. Under its watchful gaze, Gyn finds the puddle of streetlight where the plant once used to live. The pavement is rough beneath her feet, and she curls her socked toes into the tarmac, hesitating. Night-time dark has a different taste to the darkness that lingers before dawn. The familiar leaves are newly threatening.
But Gyn is brave. They tell her that, too. Such a brave girl. So she takes a last long breath for luck, and ducks beneath the branches.
Twigs catch in her hair as she crawls. Dirt grinds into her hands. She’s not sure that she’s wanted here, but she also knows she has to try.
There isn’t far to go — the hedge is barely a meter deep — but time passes slowly in the dark. Eventually, her fingers reach the edge of something hard, and she wriggles onto her back like an earthworm. Spring leaves have opened all along the front of the hedgerow, deepening from bright early pea green into the fuller green of broccoli, but underneath the branches are as bare and tangled as they were all winter.
She doesn’t know which ones belong to her plant, if any do. So she strokes along all she can find, reaching up as high as her arching back will let her. And as she does, she whispers, “I’m sorry,” again and again, like a lullaby.
The plant is wary of Gyn, but it begins to show itself. She sees it on the first morning of summer term, just for a moment, tiny jewel leaves shaking in a breeze.
After that, she doesn’t see it for a week. She runs her fingers through the other bushes’ leaves every morning, coaxingly, like when you first start putting birdseed out in the winter. Some birds will come to eat straight away, the starlings and the sparrows, but it takes finches longer to learn to trust.
Eventually, her fingers begin to come back smelling like peppermint.
She doesn’t see the berries again for the longest time.
It’s hiding them. She’s not sure that she blames it, and she says as much, when no one’s looking. It’s been easier, lately, to speak only when no one’s looking.
All the other bushes grow thick with fruit as summer hatches slowly out of spring. Early plums droop from the trees, bowing the branches like her mother’s arms under too many shopping bags.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” she tells the plant in a whisper. “I’ll still visit you anyway.” It shivers beneath her fingers, wary and yearning.
The next time she passes, there are tiny starburst flowers nestled in amongst its leaves.
The berries don’t come ’til nearly autumn, and even then they’re tiny, pinprick things, so small you can barely see them except from a nose-length away. But there are so, so many of them – as many as there are stars in the sky.
Gyn has started to bring the plant presents. Other berries, at first: rosehips from behind the shed; redcurrants where they poke out from next door’s fence; the hard, measly green of her mother’s failed tomatoes. Blackberries by the fistful, gathered down by the stream when no one was looking. She buries them in the dirt around its roots, so her plant can concentrate on growing. It takes a lot of food to make new life.
Sometimes she brings it other things. A chipped piece of sea glass she finds on a school trip to the beach. A perfect skeleton leaf, veins gone delicate like the drizzle of syrup on porridge. The feather of a jackdaw, all oil-slick purples and blues. Treasures.
In return, the plant keeps growing. The berries swell, slowly, going from pinpricks to pinheads to little ball-bearings, gleaming like the moon trapped in a pond. She’s careful. She makes sure no one sees the plant but her. It’s her secret.
The next time she sneaks out at night, the moon is just a sliver in the sky, and the air is so thick with bonfire smoke that the taste of it lingers in her throat like cough medicine. She doesn’t bother piling pillows in her bed. They won’t check. Her replacement has been crying more lately.
The berries are as big now as they were when Gyn first picked one. Bigger. She lies on the earth beneath her plant and watches as they sway. The leaves all turn towards her when she visits, these days. Her plant has learned to trust her.
She reaches up, slowly, and rests one finger against the smooth side of the nearest berry. It’s warmer than the leaves. Less waxy. The texture snags at her skin, just a little, like another person’s touch. Like her mother’s hand on Gyn’s forehead, testing for fever.
And then, just like that, it falls.
Gyn gasps. “I’m sorry!” she says, sitting up, scrambling desperately back. She pushes the berry up against the vine, trying to piece it back together. “I didn’t mean to!”
The berry pulses in her hand. It’s growing brighter. Bright enough to illuminate the laughing leaves of her plant from underneath.
Gyn reaches out again, fingers trembling. “Did you — is this for me?”
The leaves sigh, pressing up against her arm like friendly insects. But in her hand, the berry’s light is fading.
Something hurts, deep inside her, like she’s losing something she never knew she might find. She didn’t mean for this to happen. She just wanted to touch. To know what it felt like.
Up above her, the other berries gleam and pulse in sympathy. Gyn is certain, suddenly, that this is her last chance. If this berry dies, if she lets its light fade out of the world, she’ll never understand what might have been.
What she might be.
She slips the berry between her lips and lets the juice burst against her tongue. It tastes like candle flame and the low thrumming sound of the sun.
After that, the plant is waiting.
Gyn can feel it. She’s waiting, too. They’re waiting together. There’s something singing in her blood. Something calling out to her when the moon is in the sky.
She can hold back for now. The plant offers her more berries, sometimes two, three at a time, and she accepts, crushing them between her teeth before their flames can gutter. No two taste quite the same. She’s not sure she knows the words for what they taste like: fireworks and burning logs; the crackling of sparklers; the flickering yellow glow of a streetlamp.
It feeds her as the year fades into winter. All the birds are jealous. They make do with bitter juniper, chittering angrily as she licks the sparkling juice from her fingers. She’s growing taller. Last year’s trousers don’t quite fit.
That won’t matter soon. There’s something shifting under her skin. She can feel it. Impatient, she fizzes on the inside like sherbet on the tongue.
Sometimes, when she wakes, there are tiny shoots sprouting beneath her fingernails, too young to even turn green. Gyn plucks them out, though it hurts to do so. The vines beneath her skin she leaves alone. She traces them at night, by touch, counting down the days. There are only thirteen berries left. Only nine. Only five. Only three.
She’ll leave her shoes behind when the time comes. The soles of her feet are already rough as bark.
I Miss Bread
by Giada Zavarise
I miss bread. Not its taste, but the smell. I used to deliver newspapers during the summer when I was still alive, and every morning I passed in front of Old John’s bakery and inhaled the warm, cozy aroma of the bread coming out of the shop.
I really miss that smell. But bread usually comes out of the oven around 5 AM, and by that time the sky is already getting pale and I have to return to my crypt.
I know the oldest of us can stay outside for longer and see the stars fade away. You need to be at least 300 years or so, though, coming every year a minute closer to the dawn, to be able to resist until 5 AM while sunlight pickles at your skin.
I don’t think I’ll be able to survive for that long.
I wonder why she always chooses the frail ones.
She claims it’s because we’re not like the others; because we’re able to see past the Maya veil of mundane dreams, hopes and diversions hiding the vast nothingness of existence. She picks the goth kids, the misfits, the bullied and the nerds, glimpsing a sort of beauty in our gloomy existence.
She thinks to have saved us, giving us fully to the darkness we always belonged to. She can’t see that the night is even darker with these blood-filled new eyes.
Maybe despair, to her, is just a fetish: she likes to surround herself with grief because she doesn’t remember what emotions are anymore. She’s too old to still feel anything, her heart made of marble like her impossibly white skin.
That’s what James told me, at least, during one of his usual rants. We were perched on a high antenna, holding hands, looking at the night sky.
Me and James, sitting in a tree.
I don’t like feeding.
She taught me how to do it flawlessly, the practicalities of the act laid out like a grocery list: choose a dimly-lit hallway, favor the dazed and the drunk, bite quickly, put a hand over their mouth to muffle the screams. But she forgot how weak you are during your first years in the Blood, especially if you’re a teenager: no superhuman strength, just a pale sack of bones struggling against a kicking, hysterical adult.
People my age are safer to eat, but I can’t stomach to get near them. They move in flocks, exchanging sloppy kisses and bottles of wine, and watching them I feel at the same time scared and envious. Just like when I was alive.
I tried feeding on a dog last week–a small, fluffy brown thing with floppy ears and soft paws. It was easy to restrict with my arms, but I couldn’t bear its yips.
I liked dogs. I mean, I still do, but they don’t reciprocate the feeling now. They tend to stay away and snarl at me, sniffing the faint whiff of decomposition, my rotten aura, just sensing something wrong emanating from me.
I didn’t kill the dog. I laid it in front of its owner’s house, pressed the doorbell, and fled away.
I kept spitting brown fur for a week afterward.
James told me that it’s stupid to keep a diary, but it helps me keep track of time. I will never get used to not having school holidays anymore, the mandatory periods of apathy cleaving my life apart in clean neat slices.
I’m starting to think that the oldest of us managed to survive for so long simply because they forget about the existence of time. Daylight has the warm colors of dawn blending into blueness, noon’s splendor, the gradual fading into a new orangeness. Night, on the other hand, is always the same: you get up, it’s dark. You return to your crypt, it’s still dark. Nights melt into one another, a long slog where nothing ever changes and everybody moves with the slowness of an an animal approaching hibernation.
If I still breathed, I would feel compelled to do it quietly.
I used to come to the river all the time when I was alive, to feed the ducks. Now we still do it, me and James, but no animals want to eat our bread. The ducks and the swans are usually asleep, and when they don’t, they are… unfriendly.
I had a violent encounter with a swan, a week ago: it came running towards me, the neck low and tense, the wings flapping, and I screamed and dropped the bread bag while running away. I climbed a tree with James and we observed the scene from there, laughing halfheartedly at the swans’ attempts to eat the bread and hiss at us at the same time. “We should kill it,” said James, and he was right, but neither of us moved.
I didn’t understand, at first, why there are no scientists among us. We have poets, musicians, novelists and artists: they use brushes so tiny they only have a single hair, painting absurdly detailed masterpieces with their supernatural vision. But there are no mathematicians in the eternal court, no chemists or biologists. Wouldn’t it be interesting, to analyze our blood? Understand how we still think and feel even if our hearts have stopped beating?
The oldest ones told me that science just feels wrong to them, because what we are defies every single law of biology. There were immortal alchemists in the past, when science and magic were still considered to be the same; but as one field advanced, the other died, and the scholars’ curiosity withered with it.
The true reason for our collective disdain, I believe, is that art requires an audience, while science needs collaboration. You study to help the world–but the world doesn’t want you, 2000 years old with no passport and no formal education apart from the one you received in an acropolis centuries years ago.
He’s going to do it tomorrow. Officially, we’re going to hunt together outside the city, but he’ll go to the riverside instead. He wants to be in the water when the first rays of the sun will pierce him; he believes he’ll burn slowly this way, managing hopefully to catch a last glimpse of blue sky.
It will be painful. The river will scatter the ashes.
I asked him if I could go with him, but he replied that I am still very young, and therefore might have a chance to survive. Learn a way to keep going.
I’m so sorry I laughed at his face — it will probably be the last part of me that he’ll remember. But I really don’t know how we can possibly be saved.
I bought a small telescope online, to look at the stars. The lens, combined with my supernatural vision, let me see with infinite clarity all the vast nothingness of space. I like looking at the Moon the most, its soft white surface spotted with big and small craters. I wonder if any of the elders ever went there.
I know the oldest of us can fly. Would an ancient one be able to leave the atmosphere? And would they survive, flying in the cone of shadow, or be burned by the light of a thousand alien suns?
We could settle a little colony up there; we don’t really need air to survive. And pale and tall as we are, we’re really not so different than the gray-faced aliens you see in the movies.
The elders came for me. She was with them, looking almost sad, as if she wanted to say “I have nothing to do with this.” But she did nothing as they pinned me to the wall, slamming my face against the bricks.
They snarled and hissed at me. I tried not to listen, but I know they were asking about James. Suicides by youngsters are no big deal to them, but lying and hiding information to your master is still considered a crime.
I asked them if they still remembered how it was to be alive. The answer probably was “no”, since they slammed my head against the bricks again and again. But in the end, they left me alone.
She stayed behind the others, raising a hand towards my bruised face. I bit her.
I’m starting to miss children.
I didn’t think I would ever say that. I used to hate them with all my heart–small, whiny, chaotic, smelly. But you don’t really see them around in the middle of the night, and after a period you start to wonder what you’re missing. The world growing, changing without you.
I used to hate the ladies with the buggies walking along the narrow path near the riverside, forcing me to descend from my bike. But now, as I cycle down the same road on a new moon night, I feel as if the whole world is dead save for me.
She came to visit me again–alone, this time. She sat on the bench next to me, and simply asked me: “Can I help you in any way?”
Her voice was soft and worried, and for a moment, I felt better. But then she then tried to grab my hand, and her touch was cold, impossibly cold, like a spider made of glass coiled around my fingers. I made a little shriek, and she withdrew her hand.
We sat very still for I don’t know how long, looking at the park in front of us.
“I don’t know,” I finally said, slowly. There were many things that were wrong, but I didn’t knew how to explain them.
“Will you leave me as well? Run away to find a place to die alone, like a dog?”
I kept looking right in front of me. I didn’t knew how to answer.
She got up. I thought she was leaving, but she grabbed me instead, putting her arms around my torso and raising me from the bench. I screamed, thinking she intended to kill me, but then I noticed that couldn’t feel the ground under my sneakers anymore.
I waved my legs. We were going up, my face pressed against her neck, and she didn’t feel so cold after all.
“I admit I can’t really understand you children,” she said, bitterly. “Why do you have to be so unhappy? You are eternal, and this is yours. The whole night is yours! Look at it. Please, look at everything around you. Isn’t the world beautiful?”
I turned my head to see the city laid out before us, lines of white and golden lights intertwining like celestial circuitry. I saw the moon shining over us and the world gleaming under us. Something sticky and wet fell out from my eyes.
I made bread. I bought all the ingredients — the eggs, the butter, yeast, oil, salt, flour. Following a recipe I found online, I mixed everything.
I don’t know whether the bread is good; I can’t taste it. But seeing my blob of dough raise in the oven made something warm and small blossom in my chest.
Not exactly joy, but something close.
I don’t like wasting food, so tomorrow she and I will put the bread in a basket and go feed the ducks. I hope they’ll come to like me, with time.
I’m trying to like myself a little more, night after night.
About the Authors
Giada studied to become a comic book writer, and for some reason ended up writing everything BUT comics.
She’s currently writing and programming Selling Sunlight, a wandering merchant RPG that got successfully kickstarted last October. Her rambles can also be found on RockPaperShotgun, PC Gamer and Zeal.
Jennifer Mace is a queer Brit roaming the wilds of the Pacific Northwest in search of tea and interesting plant life. A graduate of the Viable Paradise SF/F workshop, she writes about strange magic and the cracks that form in society. Her poetry is forthcoming in Enter the Void. Find her on Twitter as @englishmace.
About the Narrators
AJ Fitzwater is stardust in your sneakers, masquerading as a human from Christchurch, New Zealand. They are the author of the WW2 shapeshift novella “No Man’s Land” and lesbian capybara pirate escapades “The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper”. Their short fiction has been published in venues such as Fireside Fiction and Clarkesworld. They attended Clarion in 2014.
Katherine Inskip is the editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and Polu Texni.