Nona had spent this morning, like so many mornings before, rooted in the expanse of an open field, rooted in the shadow of the great temple she now stands above, rooted in a field opened through the sacrifice of countless scores of martyred shrubs and trees; a holy site signifying the cycle of plantly existence. From mulch they are made and to mulch they shall return, and as mulch, they become a sacrifice to the perpetual care of the mighty Black Eye. The flesh of trees turned to chips, the shred of leaves turned to string, sugars to water, nectar to life. Mulch, made from the living, fed to the exalted.
Nona thought back to this field, now. She and the rest of her colony were spending the day locked in silent pose. Worshiping, as the plants do, in silent radiance. A ritual on each of the seventh day: Sun-day. The group was following the warbling instructions of their high priest, Frond Peter.
“Palms facing the sky.” He ordered. “Channel your plantly spirit: arms angled for balance and symmetry, feet rooted in soil, energy harvested from the sky, trunk strong, arms loose.”
The gathered congregation was asked to accept the direction of the breeze with unquestioned course. To submit passively to its influence. To suppress reason in favor of pure reaction to external stimuli.
Frond Peter serenaded in angelic melody:
My petals may not be sweet,
my stalks may not imbue.
My roots may not hold,
my trunk next to you.
But if I do not flower,
I know just what to do.
I’ll turn myself to mulch,
and feed myself to you.
As she listened, it gave Nona satisfaction to silently resist the prayers of the congregation. While complying outwardly in pose, she maintained control over her inner thoughts, refusing to yield her mind to their trespasses, refusing to empty herself of her own consciousness. Nona willed her thoughts to permeate her body. She pushed the freedom from her head down to her feet, spreading solitude intravenously while maintaining a barrier of compliance to the outside world. Nona imagined squeezing her mindfulness down through the soles of her feet, into the earth. In return, she absorbed the planet’s measured reason. Reason, not of man or plant, but of nature. Nona felt the strength of its support.
“Stiffen your trunk, Nona!” Frond Peter’s voice shouted. Nona pushed her legs harder, deeper into the layers of mulch and dirt beneath her.
“Own your planted spot!” A reference to the property rights of the community in which land ownership is reserved for only the plot you currently occupy. As informed by the plant realm, you control only where presently rooted. And therefore, it is a violation of logic to own a place apart from where you stand. Your space resides below you. Nowhere else. The rest is community property available for claim. Of course, each time a new space is taken, another one opens.
Nona twisted her toes a little deeper into the mulch. Snuggling further below ground until her feet were completely covered.
“Live your life En Vein” Frond Peter demanded of the congregation, a reference to the volume of scriptures which recorded the wisdom of the plants. Like the vascular network used to store and transport nutrients, this sacred text was a repository and vehicle of knowledge. Nona squirmed deeper into the earth in mockery of the instruction until her ankles locked in the soil.
From the corner of her eye, Nona saw Frond Peter tug a single hair from the worshiper standing just over her right shoulder. A symbolic gesture meant to represent the graceful shedding of a petal. After the earlier reprimand, Nona feared she was next. She waited with anticipation as she felt the priest tiptoe up behind her. The ritual itself, intended to be spontaneous, a test more so than a rite, meant to require the worshiper to remain stoic, like a plant, even in the midst of abuse.
Nona felt a subtle, unnatural, wind ruffle her hair. The fibers on her neck stood up from the threat as she tensed her shoulders imperceptibly, awaiting the prick on her scalp. She unconsciously rocked forward, away from the lurking danger. Her ankles, though, were locked firmly in the earth and struggled to hold her shifting center of gravity. Nona panicked and buckled at the knee, afraid she might topple forward. The action to compensate was too much. Nona tumbled backwards with her feet stuck like a fulcrum, leaving her with little chance to break her fall. As she collapsed backward, Nona crashed into Frond Peter, producing a yelp in surprise as they collided. He instinctively reached to catch her, reacting purely to the shock of her motion. As he tried to clutch her weight, he slipped on the uprooting hole Nona’s feet created as she broke free from the planet’s grip. His body flopped under the heaving strain and crashed to the field. Nona, still unable to brace her fall, came crashing down on top of him. The back of her head struck Frond Peter solidly on the corner of his face, directly atop his right eye.
Frond Peter wailed in anguish as his eye began to swell straight away. He shoved Nona off of him, before screaming.
“You are a dead leaf Nona! One in desperate need of a good clipping!”
Hushed awe was the only sound offered by the assembled congregation. Frond Peter swelled with a sneer before continuing.
“Or rather, with a body like that, perhaps you’d be more fruitful as mulch!”
Nona froze as the threat washed over her. Until now, her internal rebellion had manifested only in her outward isolation. But this warning by Frond Peter necessitated a new and unfamiliar trajectory. Her very existence had just been placed on notice; threatened with martyrdom before an absent insurgency. As Nona stood, a fresh resolve blossomed in her core. She would not allow her own sacrifice to be on display tonight. Rather, circumstances dictated the construction of a far grander pyre; one in reciprocal homage to the hypocrisy of society’s idolatry.
Frond Peter ascended the temple roof with a groan. He shuffled his feet along the lattice, unsure of each step in the darkness. Nona waved the flame to hold him back. She could see through the dimness his right eye was now fully swollen shut. The perimeter was banded by a deep black bruise which faded to infinite purple at its center. His functioning eye squinted with strain in the contrast of light and air. From the far corner of the roof he uttered with a shaky timbre.
“Let’s not get carried away up here, Nona. I’m sorry for what I said earlier. I really am. But, let’s not do anything you’re going to regret. This temple was built by our forefathers. Yours and mine both. It is a special place for this community. They need it. It gives them peace. En Vein.” He finished with a whisper before taking a step toward Nona.
“This is my property, Frond Peter. Planted here at the crest, all below becomes mine. By virtue of my roots, you see. If there’s to be any trouble, it’s at your provocation.”
“Listen, Nona, that only applies to property at ground level. Anyway, I just came up here to talk some sense, not debate theology.” He took another step toward her.
“Back up! Frond Peter, Back up!” Nona shouted. “Our society’s laws are clear. Title passes on possession. My dominion resides from my roots to the earth below. From the roof, down through the walls, to the soil, this is my right. This is the consequence of your divine revelation.” Nona waved the torch around to illustrate her jurisdiction. The crowd swayed in angst.
“Nona, dear, you must understand…” Frond Peter leapt for the torch in her hands.
Stunned, Nona recoiled back. Her heel caught on an overhanging maple branch and with a spell of vertigo slammed her to the ground. The torch slung from her fingers as the wooden lattice gave way under the impact. Falling through the timbered structure, she curled to a pliable pose before reaching the floor below. Plumes of freshly lain mulch were sent shooting into the air like flakes of snow swept from a roofline. The burning torch left to hiss as it rattled on the ceiling, growing with a molten fury as tiny bits of mulch popped in combustion. Vapors stirred from the agitated material before igniting in a ball of gaseous fire. The terrorized crowd below the temple screamed a hallowed cry before stampeding back from the inferno. No one thought to offer a cushion as Frond Peter leapt, stalks ablaze, from the height of the roof. No one looked back to offer concern for the thud of his charred body as it crashed into a mound of mulch on the ground below.
The gathered trees watched as the temple flames churned higher and higher. They watched as the people sobbed over the firestorm consuming their idol. And, for the night at least, the plants found trope humor in the humans’ agnosticism. Among themselves, the trees and the plants, the flowers and the shrubs, they recited the ancient wisdom with which they always found refuge, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, of mulch we are made, and in mulch we shall trust.”
Torch photo credit: Andrew Dunn, AndrewDunnPhoto.com
This is the second and final part of this short story. For the first part, click here.
The son of a biomedical engineer and elementary school science teacher, Jefferson Wallace was cast in the structure and form of the tangible world. Growing up in such an environment, he became radicalized by the tenants of order, rule, and logic; a background that propelled him into the dullest of professions: accounting. After nearly a decade, he began writing stories about characters who, unlike him, were no longer burdened by the strict conventional wisdom of our modern world.