content warning: mild gore, discussion of depression and intrusive thoughts
Dirt sprays in Hale’s face as he yanks up the root. He spits earth, staggers back. Then, panting, he holds up the remnants of what once thrived in the vegetable plot. His eyes roam over the bulbous head, the curved spine, the diminutive limbs tucked into the body, and he almost drops the discovery.
But a closer look reveals that it isn’t anything human. The root has simply assumed a foetal shape. He indulges the fantasy that it’s waiting to come alive and imagines that, if he slapped the place where the buttocks should be, the thing would scream itself pink. Like a… what is it? The plant that screams in mythology? Chloe would know. She’s at the compost heap, her back turned to him. He’s about to call out to her, “Hey, Chlo, look at who I’ve found!” and dangle the root baby in the air. But then he pictures her expression of sadness and throws it onto the pile of weeds behind him.
What else is lurking in the soil? Last week, he emailed the previous owners—appropriately named the ‘Hardacres’—to ask what they’d planted in the four huge beds in the back garden. We lost track over the years, Mr Hardacre replied. There’s all sorts in there. Already, it looks like Chloe’s found something else of interest in the soil from the compost heap. She tips a whole bucket of the stuff upside down and starts picking through it, her russet plait falling over one shoulder and dangling into the dirt.
“What is it?” calls Hale.
“Glass. Loads of it.” She flings a shard to one side without looking where it lands.
The universe has a dark sense of humour and excellent comic timing. At that very moment, Chloe lays her hand on the ground and retracts it with a shriek.
“Cut myself,” she says, her cat-green eyes darting, her lips pulled back in a grimace.
Hale oos and ouches his way over the lank bodies of weeds. “Let’s have a look.”
“It’s all right. I’m fine.”
“Okay, okay. Give me your hand.”
One of the discarded pieces of glass has sliced into the fleshy pad of her palm. If this were a romantic film, he’d bandage it with a convenient neckerchief or lick it. They’re always doing things like that in films—silly, overblown things you wouldn’t do in real life. Does she expect him to lick it?
“Come on, let’s run it under a tap,” he concludes, and they walk across the barren garden, blood soaking into the ground like an offering.
Once he’s cleaned and bandaged Chloe’s wound, Hale goes back outside. The garden is bathed in cool, blue twilight. He uses the torch on his phone to catch glints of glass in the composting soil, then wraps up the offending shards in sheets of old newspaper and drops the bundles into a plastic bag. Having cleansed the earth, he shovels it back into the bucket.
Time to sow the seeds.
As he slides open the greenhouse door, he notices there’s a pane missing. That’ll be where all the glass came from. Scenes of conflict flash through his mind: in one, a man in wellington boots grapples with a balaclava-clad burglar; in another, a petite blonde lobs a pot at her cheating husband. Hale laughs to himself. The Hardacres didn’t seem like the types to lead such dramatic lives.
Inside, his boots thump softly on the wooden planks that stretch across the mess of wood chippings and trailed-in dirt. The greenhouse is in need of some serious TLC. Even the spiders abandoned it long ago, the only traces of them being desolate strands of web that wave feebly in the wind. Moss blooms through the roof like a virulent strain of mould. There and then, Hale decides that the next project will be restoring the greenhouse to its former glory. Thrilled by how quickly he’s taken to his new identity as a ‘green-fingered’ type, he begins to apportion the composting soil into plastic pots.
Chloe said she didn’t want to help. She said she’d ruin things. Worry nips and pinches him—Chloe’s bouts of depression always begin with the idea that she’s like a bomb about to explode and obliterate all that’s good. Hopefully, the new house will provide a distraction from those destructive thoughts.
Hale tears open the first packet and pours out its contents. Beige runner bean seeds clatter onto the shelf. He rubs one against his bottom lip, enjoying the sensation of its smooth outer coat, and places it experimentally between his front teeth. It’s like biting a stone. Hard to think that the tender stirrings of new life could come from something like that.
Into the pots, he slips the seeds that will grow into beans, butternut squashes, pumpkins and White Queen tomatoes, pats the surface of the soil tenderly, then labels each one. And, although he knows it’s silly, he bends over with an ironic smile and whispers, “Grow, my pretties.”
The utility room has become a nursery, the sideboards and windowsills teeming with pots. Amidst the splinters of twigs and clumps of soil, straggly shoots have started to grow. Each one is topped with a pair of oval leaves, like arms spread out in greeting. Chloe runs her index finger over the labels with a frown.
“Why do the butternut shoots look exactly the same as the beans?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Hale mumbles, his mouth full of salted caramel Easter egg. He examines the pots with an eye recently trained on gardening websites and forums, and shakes his head. “They might just be weeds. I was reading about this last night. We should’ve used special potting soil. That compost has all sorts of crap in it.”
He snaps off a piece of chocolate shell and lifts it to Chloe’s lips. She swerves away.
“It’s because of me,” she says in a little voice.
“What do you mean?” He wonders if she’s been watering them as well. The website said that over-watering could be fatal at this stage, though it wasn’t as if the seeds had much of a chance in the first place. Not with that inferior compost.
Tears shimmer in Chloe’s eyes. “I mean, it’s me. I’m cursed.”
Hale takes a deep breath. It’s her mystical way of thinking again. She’s always taking innocuous things that bear no relation to each other and stitching them together into a monstrous whole.
“You’re not cursed,” he says, gathering her in his arms. She has a sour, unwashed smell, even though her hair is still wet from the shower. “The soil’s just bad.”
“It’s because I touched it! I bled onto it. Everything I touch dies.”
“That’s not true. Am I dead?”
She laughs—a small victory. “No, I mean, I can’t make anything. I’m sterile.”
Oh, it’s this again.
“Look, you’re not to blame. It’s notoriously difficult to grow from seed. This was an experiment. If nothing’s grown by next week, we’ll buy some seedlings or, at the very least, some proper potting soil. Then we’ll try again. We’ve still got plenty of time before the planting season ends.”
He knows he’s not addressing what she really means. But they’ve had that conversation many times and always arrived at the same conclusion: even if they could have kids, they’d probably still choose a child-free lifestyle. It’s the idea of being infertile that upsets her, not the reality. No one wants to be told they can’t do something. And now every failure comes back to that one thing, the root that’s too difficult to pull up.
“Have you spoken to the GP?” he says.
“About how you’re feeling,” he adds quickly.
She nods. “Oh, yeah. He told me to commune with nature.”
Chloe pulls away from him, wiping tears from her cheeks, and leans over the pots on the windowsill. “You know, marry a tree. Conjure the spirit of Gaia.” She shrugs. “I guess he just meant go for walks and appreciate the beauty of the world. But I can’t see it, Hale. Everything looks washed out. And it’s hard to fit new things into my schedule.”
The shape of Chloe’s days is a mystery. Her freelance teaching only takes up three or four hours, and even with preparation and marking added in, that still leaves a large chunk of time unoccupied by work. What does she do with herself? Maybe she’s bored. Maybe that’s the problem.
“You should try this communing thing. It might actually be helpful.”
“I am trying,” she says. Then more quietly, “I will try.”
He first sees it a few days later, in the hour of solitude he enjoys before catching the early morning train to King’s Cross. Something pale gleams through the gaps in the clotted soil. Very carefully, he rootles around with the tip of a pencil until he can see it clearly. It’s a shoot, a proper shoot, in one of the pots labelled ‘Bean’. He was right about those spindly stalks—they’re nothing but cuckoos. He plucks them out with distaste. This’ll cheer Chloe right up. She’ll see that mystical thinking about sterility is nonsense. But feeling the pull of such thinking himself, he dips his head closer to the new life and, once again, whispers. “Grow strong and healthy. Make her better.”
And the astounding thing? They listen.
They grow quickly.
Chloe takes a cursory interest in them when the shoots first start to appear.
“Very good,” she says. “They look like leviathans.”
“Sea monsters, breaking the surface of a deep, dark ocean.”
He looks at them again and can see what she means. It’s both a blessing and a curse, the way Chloe’s mind works. In this instance, her thoughts delight him.
“When will they be ready to plant outside?” she asks.
“Not for a little while. They need to do some more growing in the warmth before they can face the harsh reality of the garden.” Hale brushes aside his mop of hair and points at the pot furthest away from them. “That big one there is getting the most sunlight. I’ll rotate the others so they can all have a go at enjoying the best spot.”
Chloe smiles at him—it’s the first time she’s smiled properly for days—and snuggles into his chest. The sour smell has gone. He hugs her tightly.
“Aren’t you my little seedling?” he says playfully.
Chloe loops her hands around his neck and curves her back inwards. “I am. And you’re my sunshine.”
“Or the crappy compost.”
“No.” She stands on tiptoe to kiss him. “Definitely sunshine.”
Hale admires the fruit of his labour on his morning rounds with the spritzer. Most impressive are the beans, with their coral-kissed stems and leaves like the skins of strange amphibians. The pumpkin shoots are lovely, too—furry, like moths’ bodies. Every day, he urges them to grow. Every day, they oblige, springing up with new surprises when he’s not looking.
Then one sleepless night, only a short time before he has to get ready for work, he sees something among the leaves of the tallest beanstalk. It must have grown over the past few hours—there was nothing like it on the plant when he checked earlier. It’s spherical, about the size of a cherry tomato and perfectly white.
He planted White Queens, but they’re growing in different pots. Is it a case of cross-contamination? Did one of the tiny tomato seeds cling to his nail like a stowaway and make its home in a strange bed?
He strokes it with his little finger. It’s all those words children use to describe unpleasant textures: squidgy, gooey, yucky. Spongey. Instinctively, he draws his hand away with an eww. Yet his curiosity is sparked. Some dormant biologist’s instinct now stirring in his gut, he rotates the pot one hundred and eighty degrees and leans in to examine what’s growing.
It stares at him.
Hale staggers back, his big, clumsy limbs knocking against the cupboard in the utility room and disturbing reels of tape, overstuffed toolboxes and spare lightbulbs.
It’s an eye—cat-green, just like Chloe’s.
Thinking he must be caught in the middle of a vivid dream, he stumbles towards the kitchen sink and splashes his face with cold water. Snap out of it! He dabs his dripping stubble on a hand towel and works up the nerve to go back into the utility room. Like Chloe when she’s seen a spider, he walks on tiptoe, his heart shaking all six foot two of him. It’s still there, and it’s real. The eye is real.
He’s never felt more awake. The vibrancy has been turned up on all the colours in the house, the volume on all the sounds, so now the tick of the kitchen clock is inside him like his own pulse, and the light from his phone cuts holes in the fabric of the darkness when he opens the back door.
He’s never felt more asleep. His head floats above his shoulders as he carries the plant out to the greenhouse and places it in the far corner. He covers it up with stacks of spare pots before bending over, hands on knees, and breathing through rounded lips. Options race through his mind. He could leave it outside and hope it withers away. But what if it doesn’t? What if Chloe sees it? He could dispose of it somehow. Chop it up into bits. Bury it. But he can’t do that—not to something that reminds him, however bizarrely, of Chloe.
He could keep it.
It’s that old biologist’s instinct again. Clearly, he tells himself, he’s dealing with a rare plant. What he interpreted as an eye may be nothing more sinister than a variety of fruit unknown to him, maybe even unknown to the world at large. Maybe it’s exactly the same species that produced the root baby He kicks himself for throwing that little curiosity in the green recycling bin. If only he had it now, he could compare the physical features. He won’t make the same mistake again. This new plant must be nurtured. It must be studied.
His huge hands shaking, he unstacks the pots until the eye is exposed once more. Then he picks up a watering can.
In the garage, the last of cardboard boxes from the move await their turn to be deconstructed. Chloe only has a blunt pair of scissors to work with, so it’s taking her a while, but Hale is tearing through his. There’s a pile of flattened boxes beside him and one belly up in his lap. He takes the box cutter and slips it into the brown tape. It glides down the seam.
The flaps pop up. He squashes the sides of the box together.
“Hale, are you listening?”
It gives in, buckles under the pressure of his hands. He lays it to rest with the others and nods with satisfaction before replying to Chloe. “Sorry. Go on.”
“Can you hide that box cutter somewhere when we’re done? Somewhere I can’t see it or reach it.”
She sucks her bottom lip and looks down. “I just… I get these stupid thoughts.”
Hale’s stomach twists into a knot. “What thoughts?”
“I know they’re ridiculous. I’d never act on them, but… you know… I imagine what it would be like to stab myself in the windpipe, or in the stomach.”
“Painful, I expect,” he says, trying to keep his voice light. He read somewhere that the more attention you give to intrusive thoughts, the more real they become. It’s better to act as if they’re not even noteworthy. Still, he has to at least acknowledge her concerns. “Don’t worry. I’ll store it somewhere up high, along with my stash of porno mags.”
Was that the right thing to say? Surely, she doesn’t think he actually has porno mags. That would be so old-school. He’s about to make an excuse for the joke, but she cracks a smile.
Feeling oddly self-conscious with the box cutter in his hand, like he’s been caught in the middle of an armed robbery, he retracts the blade and places the tool behind his back.
“Chlo, is everything all right?”
She goes back to staring at the broken sheet of cardboard. Everything had been all right an hour ago. They’d been playing a game in town, the aim of which was to see who could find the most hideous item on display in a shop window. Chloe won after she pointed out a glittery rainbow-striped ukulele and commented, “It looks like something a hipster unicorn shat out.”
People stared at them in the street as they laughed. Then, as soon as they got home, her shoulders rounded, her speech became deeper, slower, and her face set itself into a blank, distracted expression.
“The thing is,” Hale says, “you’ve not been yourself lately.”
“I know. I’m feeling down. It’s as if I can’t see things properly anymore. Like there’s a grey filter over everything.”
He crosses the floor and sits beside her. “What can I do to make you feel better?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know why I’m feeling this way, really.”
“Is it the stress of moving?”
“Sort of. More like the stress of what comes after moving.”
“What do you mean?”
She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. “I thought this would be it. I thought that reaching this pinnacle would make me happy. But now I’m here, at the top, it’s just given me a better view of the hundreds and hundreds of even higher pinnacles in the distance.”
“Like what?” Hale snaps, fighting down the annoyance mounting inside him. “What else could you want?”
Even as he says it, he knows it’s a mistake. Chloe turns pale. “I just want to be okay. Is that too much to ask?”
He clutches her hands and runs his thumb along her left ring finger. The gold band has been there almost a year, but still, he hasn’t got over the novelty, the enormity of it. “Look, don’t worry about anything. We’ve nearly got everything in order. We just need a big TV and some more furniture and, when we’ve got the garden under control, we can sit outside in the summer and enjoy having all this space to ourselves, right?”
Something changes in her. Whether it’s the prospect of summer or getting a job done, he doesn’t know, but blood seems to rush back into her lips. “Right,” she says. “Yeah, that’ll be good.”
Hale drapes his arm around her shoulders and pecks her cheek, wishing he hadn’t mentioned the garden.
Chloe’s eyes—a pair—regard Hale from under their green umbrellas of foliage. The second one sprouted down-stem a few days after the first. Hale tries not to think of them as part of the ‘face’ of the plant, because then they look monstrously skewed, as if they’re staring out from some melted head. When viewed as things in themselves, they’re beautiful. The whites are fat and glossy, and the taut, chartreuse fibres in their centres sparkle as if they’re covered by a sheen of morning dew. Yes, they’re beautiful. He’s in love with them. They’re the eyes that gazed at him when he selected Pink Floyd’s ‘Welcome to the Machine’ from the jukebox at the students’ union. Chloe budded off from her gaggle of artsy friends and walked across the room—straight through the middle of it, no skirting around the edges—and stood next to him. She was only as high as his shoulders, and he felt more conscious than ever before of his bear-like body.
“Good choice,” she said with a smile. “No one here plays nearly enough dad rock.”
He laughed. “Dad rock is the best.”
“Exactly! That’s what me and my dad have been saying our whole lives.”
And they hogged the jukebox for a couple of hours, until people started complaining about the music and cleared out of the bar, leaving only the two of them.
At one time, that was enough.
Hale takes the box cutter in his hand, its tip poking obscenely out of the black and yellow casing, and pushes the slider until more of the blade is exposed. He’s in that same state as before—both hyper alert and bedded deep in a nightmare—and on the verge of giving in to the intrusive thought that has been nagging him for the past few days: dissect the fruit. It’s the only way he can understand what’s going on.
Chloe’s eyes watch him, wide with terror, as he brings the blade towards them. None of this is really happening, he thinks. Yet his body seems to know that it is really happening, because he’s quaking as badly as he did when he crashed his first car, and now the box cutter feels like it’s about to slide out of his hand. If it hits the ground, reality will come rushing in like a cold wind. He can’t let that happen. Something can’t let that happen.
Tightening his grip until his knuckles turn pale yellow, he takes the last few steps towards the plant and places his free hand around the white of the eye at the top. It resists him, pushing back against his fingers like a new rubber ball. Hale focuses on the coolness of the air to quell his rising nausea and pulls the eyeball down so that he can see what’s connecting it to the stem.
Covering most of the area at the back of the eye is a dark green sepal—similar to that found at the top of a tomato, only much bigger—with a network of fine blood vessels spidering out from beneath it. Hale stops breathing. Somehow, he hadn’t expected blood.
A peduncle runs from sepal to stalk like an optic nerve. There can’t be an optic nerve. The thing doesn’t have a brain, does it?
Compelled to know more, sickened by his compulsion, he nicks the surface of the peduncle.
The leaves contract with a shudder.
A thin line of red oozes from the slit. He dabs it with his little finger and lifts the fluid to his lips. The coppery tang is unmistakable.
It’s Chloe, standing at the door of the greenhouse in his hoodie and her flowery pyjama trousers. Her gaze lingers for a moment on the red smudge across his lower lip. Then she looks behind him—at the plant.
“Are you going to harvest them?”
Hale’s whole face is numb. He can’t form words. He nods.
“Do you think they’re ready?”
Questions begin to flap about in his mouth. “How…? Have you…?”
“I’ve been keeping track of it,” she says, stepping inside. Even though it’s warmer in the greenhouse than out in the garden, she wraps her arms around herself. “Over the past few days, I’ve been checking on them.”
They both stare at the plant. Its leaves have unfurled themselves, as if it’s no longer afraid in Chloe’s presence. A drop of blood trickles down the stem.
“I thought it was giving me a child at first,” she says with a shrivelled laugh. “Like something from the faerie folk. But when I saw the colour of the eyes, I got it.”
“Got what?” asks Hale.
“It’s making new parts for me.”
He shakes his head, still not understanding. “But how could it do that? I mean, why?”
“Something must have seen,” she replies, caressing the leaves. “Something must have listened.”
“Listened to what?”
“I started talking to them. The doctor told me to commune with nature, so that’s what I tried to do. I whispered my thoughts to them, and it was amazing—for an hour or two afterwards, I actually felt okay. And now, look!” She props up the drooping eyeball with her little finger. “They’re helping me heal.”
“What are you talking about? How does this help you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“N… not really, no.”
She tugs. The peduncle breaks in two, and the eyeball comes away in her hand, spewing globs of blood. Hale scrambles into the corner furthest away from her, his heart pounding like a blacksmith’s hammer.
“Christ, Chloe! What the fuck?”
She shushes him and cradles the eye in the palm of her hand.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Shh! I’m going to put it in my head,” she whispers, her voice trembling.
“How the hell do you expect to do that?”
Her old eyes flick to the box cutter lying on the floor. “There are ways.”
Before she can reach down, Hale makes a dive for the tool and holds it high above his head. She drops the eyeball on the shelf and reaches up, pawing at Hale’s chest. “Give it to me! I need it!”
“No, no, no, no. No way. This is crazy. I’m not letting you do—”
“It’s not up to you!”
“You’re not in your right mind.”
“You think I don’t know that? I’m trying to fix it.”
Hale slides the box cutter through a gap in the greenhouse roof and holds Chloe, now trying to clamber onto the shelves, by the shoulders. She attempts to wrestle out of his grip, twisting and flailing.
“Let me go!”
“No, Chloe, no, calm—”
“Don’t you dare tell me to calm down! I’m being given a chance, and you’re taking it from me. It’s not fair. I want to be better. Why are you stopping me?”
“Because you don’t need to be better!” he yells. “I love you how you are.”
Chloe stops struggling. A sob catches in her throat. He pulls her closer to his shaking body, and she wilts against him. For a few seconds, everything is still apart from the long-abandoned cobweb that billows gently above their heads.
“I know you do,” says Chloe. She gives him a squeeze, then steps away. “But I don’t love me. I’m sick of dreading every single day. I’m sick of dragging my existence out when everything, everything, seems so hard.”
“But you were fine the other day!”
“No, Hale. I’m not fine. Something here understands. Something’s seen it and is trying to make me well. You don’t need to be scared. It’s all going to work out for the best. I just know it.”
And while he’s still trying to process what she said, Chloe grabs the eyeball from the side and, without hesitation, stuffs it into her mouth.
For a second, neither of them move.
Then Chloe starts to chew.
Hale covers his face, turns from her. He crouches on the ground, and even above the sounds of his own violent retching, he can hear it all: Chloe whimpering as her jaw works up and down, up and down, the squeak of the sclera against her teeth, the crunching and grinding of vessels, and, after a minute or so, a bubblegum-like pop.
Chloe lifts the bottle of chardonnay and gives it a little shake from side to side.
“Yeah, why not?” says Hale, holding out his glass. The wine rushes out, glugging like a natural spring. They’ve got nothing to do today except enjoy the sun in twenty-seven degree heat, getting giggly and sleepy on the patio to the boom of Pink Floyd. The aroma of charred meat wafts through the air.
“We should have a barbecue later,” he says.
Chloe quickly swallows a mouthful of wine. “Mmm. Or we could make pizza.”
“Yeah, either would be good.”
“Pizza’s quicker. I’m getting hungry.”
“But barbecues are more summery,” he points out.
“That’s true. Is there some law in England—like, when it gets above twenty, you’ve got to have a barbecue?”
“Yeah, it’s one of those weird old decrees like, ‘It’s illegal to tickle a salmon after sunset.’”
“Oh, I’d have thought most salmon tickling would take place after sunset, if you know what I mean.” Chloe grins.
“We’re a nation of wanton criminals. Anyway, I’ve never heard it called salmon tickling.”
“You innocent child, Hale.”
He breathes deeply and sits back in the deckchair. Everything is luxuriously green apart from the blushing camellias on his right and the little white flowers of the strawberries in the bed at the front left. Their kitchen garden is looking magnificent. The rhubarb crowns have turned into thrones. He’ll get some advice online about how to cut the stalks and, once he’s harvested the lot, he’ll turn his mind to making pies and crumbles, maybe even jams for Christmas presents.
It’s all coming together. There are off days, of course, but that’s normal. The big difference is that the grey filter Chloe spoke about seems to have fallen away now. She was right about everything. The garden knows how to take care of her. Every day, he finds new evidence of it.
“Want to check on our plants?” he asks.
Hand in hand, they amble towards the patch the furthest away from the house, where the runner beans twist around tipi-like structures, and White Queens are swelling on the vine. In the bed opposite, a surprise crop has appeared: fingers of asparagus break through the ground like it’s the Second Coming. And in the fig tree right at the very back, garlanded with waxy leaves and fruit that’s almost splitting its own flesh, a human heart ripens to a sweet, luscious red.
Sophia is a tutor and writer, represented by Joanna Swainson of Hardman & Swainson literary agency. Her short stories and articles have appeared in Cunning Folk magazine and on the Horrified website. She lives in Suffolk with her partner and two cats, Prufrock and Milquetoast.
photo by Jackson Pokhrel (via pexels)