by Chesney Parker
Bill, my ex fiancee, could hardly be accused of being malicious; stupid, maybe, but never malicious. So it really was a bit unfair; what happened to him, I mean.
It all started when my friend Angela asked me to look after her plants while she went off on another of her field trips. She’s an archaeologist with the Queensland University and spends a lot of her time away from Brisbane. In fact, it was while she was excavating an old aboriginal site in centre of the state that she found the plants. They’re really quite unusual. Her flat mate normally did the watering for her, but couldn’t this time because she was away on vacation in Melbourne.
“Will you take care of my babies while I’m up north?” Angie had said to me. She never referred to them as plants. In fact, she actually had names for them; they were written on little scraps of paper in front of each pot.
“Be careful with Betsy, she’s got some new leaves coming on, so she’s a bit fragile just now. And Jeremy’s a bit thingy at the moment too, but for a different reason; I think he’s about to flower for the first time. I ought to change his name to something more feminine, I suppose, but ‘Jeremy’ suits him so well.” She gently stoked the orange leaves and said to the plant, “Doesn’t it, my lovely.” Then she turned back to me and continued, “Don’t pick any of their flowers, by the way, and don’t, whatever you do, over water any of them, especially Big Berty over there; he can get downright cranky at times.”
Berty was a larger version of the other two. It stood on the floor in the corner and had dark green leaves with several small clusters of bright orange berries high up on its thorny vine-like branches. And, if it really was possible to assign personality to a plant, I had to admit Berty did look a bit cantankerous.
Angie left the next morning, so every day after that I stopped by her flat on the way home from work to water her “babies”. Bill, who used to drive me home each day, would wait in the car while I did my duty. It wasn’t a big chore, really. There were only three plants in all and it was really quite gratifying to see the way they all soaked up the water so quickly. I’ve never been a plant person myself. It’s just never interested me. I know some people talk to their plants. And I know a lot of people seem to get satisfaction from tending to their needs and so forth, but that’s always seemed a bit silly to me; talking to them, I mean.
But Angie’s plants were different. When I gave them water they straightened up, taking on an even healthier glow in their lush green and orange leaves. Oh, I didn’t see them move, or anything like that. But when I looked back after each watering, I could swear they were standing taller. And I could almost feel the gratitude emanating from each one of them. It was really quite a pleasure and I began to understand why people did talk to their plants. In fact, during the second week, I began doing exactly the same thing myself.
On one particular day I said, “And how are you today Betsy? Your new leaves are looking absolutely gorgeous. You know, I’ve never seen orange leaves on a plant before. But they do suit you.” Betsy seemed to glow even more as she bathed in the admiration I poured over her. I imagined I could actually feel a sense of pleasure coming from the plant. Then, just before I walked away, two more of her old leaves dropped off.
Then I turned to Jeremy, who sat on a table by the window. The light there was filtered by the large flowering Jacaranda tree that stood in the yard outside. The brilliant blaze of mauve blossoms covered the whole tree and the lawn below, absolutely dominating the entire scene. Jeremy’s leaves and the few small flowers that had emerged in the last week, were sagging a bit. They were all pointing out in the direction of the big tree.
“Now don’t you worry about that big old Jacaranda out there, my sweet. He’s just showing off. Your flowers are much more beautiful than his.” And once again I could almost feel a sense of pleasure and gratification emanating from the plant. It really was rewarding work. And when I looked back a little while later, after giving Jeremy his daily drink, I noticed all of his leaves and flowers were now erect. And they were pointing into the room, instead of out towards the light.
Big Berty was grumpier than ever that day. His large dark green leaves were almost black and the streaks of orange on his thick trunk had turned blood red. “Now don’t be such a sour face, Berty. You look much more handsome when you don’t scowl!” I laughed at myself for taking on Angie’s little game of acknowledging the individual personalities of each plant. But it was true. If you really got into the spirit of the thing, you could actually detect differences in each of them. And Big Berty was definitely a grumpy old man who had little tolerance for frivolity.
I tested the dampness of his soil, then very carefully poured just a little more water around the edge of his pot. “Now come on. Show me how handsome and distinguished you can look.” I put the watering can down, then stood back and looked at him for a while. His top branches almost reached the ceiling and the side ones extended out along each wall from the corner, like large open arms. The thorns in his outer limbs were short and stubby, a little like tiny rose thorns, but I noticed most of them were now hidden by leaves, giving him a much less aggressive appearance. It was as if he was trying to respond to my coaxing. “Well done Berty! That’s much better. You see! You can look handsome, when you want to.”
I laughed again at my little game, then looked around in embarrassment, because I had the feeling someone was watching me. There was no one in sight, however, so I packed up and returned to the car where Bill was waiting impatiently.
It was a week later, on the day Angela was due to return from her field trip, that it happened. Bill had picked me up from work, as usual, but he was in a bit of a hurry this time.
“Quick, get in,” he said, as he pulled up to the curb. “I have to meet the guys for a drink in half an hour.” As I climbed in, I couldn’t help noticing, once again, his powerful leg muscles (he was wearing shorts) and the masculine breadth of his shoulders. He works out at the gym every morning and looks fabulous in a swim suit; a real man. And he’s terrific in bed too, but I was getting a bit peeved with the frequent drinking sessions with his mates. He seemed more interested in them than in me, these days.
“Ok, but I have to water Angie’s plants first.”
“Damn it Lisa! I want to get to the pub before the traffic gets too heavy. Isn’t Angie coming home today?”
“Yes, but I don’t know what time she arrives. It might be late.” The truth was, I had become quite attached to those plants and just wanted to see them one more time before my regular visits stopped. I’d been looking forward to it all day.
“Bloody hell!” he said, slapping the steering wheel. “That means I gotta get across the river to the south side, then fight my way back through all the traffic to get to the pub.” He was pouting and the set of his lean face made him look like a spoilt little brat who had just been told he had to go to bed early.
I smiled at his reaction, tilted my head to one side and looked at him with my big green eyes. “Oh, please darling. I won’t be long, I promise.”
He looked across at me and I held his gaze while he slowly melted. Then he grinned, “Oh, all right, you sexy little vixen. But I’m coming in with you this time, to make sure you don’t stay all night. You have no sense of time, you know.”
I wasn’t too pleased about that; him coming in, I mean. I wanted to say goodbye to the plants, but I certainly didn’t want to do it in front of anyone. I didn’t know how to stop him without sounding ridiculous, however, so I said nothing. Anyway, I thought, at least I can have the pleasure of watering them just one more time.
When we arrived, I unlocked the front door, stuck my head into the cool hallway and called, “Angie? You home yet?” There was no reply, so we stepped inside and I immediately started my rounds.
Betsy had almost completely replaced her leaves by now. The last few old ones were hanging on at the base of the main stem, but they were being outshone by the vibrant life in the new ones above. I’ve never seen a plant change its leaves so quickly. I know some trees lose their leaves in autumn, but there’s always a long period of bareness before the new ones come along in spring. But Betsy had managed that feat in just two weeks; and in the heat of summer too. I sent her a congratulatory thought as I sprinkled water around her base.
“These are pretty weird plants,” said Bill, who was seeing them for the first time. “Where’d she get them?”
“Out west, past Longreach somewhere. There were lots of them growing around the site of an old meteor crater near one of the digs she was working on last year. She was telling me there’s an aboriginal legend about a flaming serpent that came out of the sky and landed there in the dreamtime. That’s why there was an ancient settlement nearby, she says. They got a lot of aboriginal artifacts from around the settlement area, but the local elders wouldn’t let them touch the crater itself. Apparently it’s still considered sacred.”
“Boy, that’s an ugly looking brute over there,” said Bill, looking at Big Berty. “In fact, they all look pretty ugly. Who ever heard of plants with orange stripes?”
“Don’t say that!” I said, a little too sharply, fearing he may hurt their feelings.
“Ok, ok. Don’t get your knickers in a knot. They’re only plants, you know.” He reached over and, before I could stop him, he snapped one of the flowers from Jeremy’s (now abundant) head of bloom. Then he turned to hand it to me, saying, “Here you are my darling, please accept this small token of reconciliation for my thoughtless words of disparagement.”
The sarcasm was heavy in his voice, but I was not listening to him; my attention had been drawn instantly to Jeremy. I had the distinct impression he was screaming in agony. There were no words, of course, but I could have sworn that the plant was very distraught. And a few seconds later, I began to feel agitation coming from the other two as well. “Bill! You mustn’t pick the flowers! These are very special plants, you know! You just don’t pick the flowers on these plants!” I realised I was practically screaming at him, because he was looking at me with a completely mystified expression.
“For God’s sake Lisa, they’re only plants. Anyway, it’s getting late. Let’s get the hell outa here, otherwise I won’t get to the pub on time.” He was pouting again.
I turned around to the two smaller plants, starting with Jeremy, trying to send good thoughts to each one in an effort to calm them down, but it didn’t work. I still kept getting the distinct impression they were terrified.
While my back was turned, Bill decided to speed things up. He picked up the watering can, walked over to Big Berty and began pouring far too much water over the soil at the base of his spiny trunk.
I still don’t know exactly what happened next, but it must have been awfully fast, because the next thing I knew, Bill was calling for help. When I turned around, my fiancee was spread out across the front of Big Berty. Both his arms were caught in one of the high branches and his legs were spread apart and tangled in the vines near the base. He had his back to me and his voice was muffled as he spoke through the densely packed central foliage. “Come and help me get outa here. I got myself tangled up in the branches.”
“Oh, Bill! Do be careful! Don’t damage the plant.”
“Jesus! Don’t worry about the bloody plant. What about my shirt? Look at it. The sleeve’s torn!”
“What were you doing to get yourself hooked up like that?”
“I was just trying to reach the berries at the top. That’s all.”
“Well, it serves you right! I told you not to pick the flowers or anything.” I stood on a chair and reached up, trying to pull the vines away from his arms, but it was no use, he was stuck fast. Then I looked at his legs. “But how did you get your legs all tangled up?”
He looked down through the leaves. “I don’t know. I guess it happened while I was trying to climb up to get my arm loose.” But the curious thing was, that the vines were wrapped round both his legs so thoroughly, I couldn’t imagine how he could have done it by simply climbing up.
Then suddenly he cried out, “Shit! Get me outa here! I could swear the bloody thing’s starting to squeeze me.”
“Hold still,” I said, as I tried to pry the vines away from his legs, but it was no use; they were far too tight. Then I saw little trickles of blood where the thorns cut into his flesh. Luckily they were not big enough to cause any serious damage; the thorns, I mean. But even so, it must have been awfully painful. “Are the vines stopping the circulation?”
“Not yet, but they will if they get any tighter,” he said, trying to twist himself out of the entanglement.
“What am I going to do? I can’t move any of them from here.” I was getting desperate.
“Get a knife and cut the damn things away,” he said in a strained voice. “Try the kitchen.” I hesitated, hating the idea of hurting Big Berty. “Go on then, Lisa! It feels like the bloody thing’s trying to kill me.”
I ran to the kitchen and rummaged around for a couple of minutes trying to find a carving knife. When I returned to the lounge room, I saw that Bill must have been struggling again, for his shorts had been pulled down by one of the outer branches and his very cute bare backside was sticking out into the room. I almost laughed at the sight, but managed to control myself, just in time.
“Hurry Lisa! It’s got me by the balls!” I looked down between his spread eagled legs, and sure enough, I could see quite clearly that a number of small vines were wrapped around Bill’s testicles.
I advanced on Berty, knife raised, but Bill suddenly screamed. I stopped and took a step back. “What’s happening?”
“Jesus! The bloody thing’s alive! When you came near me with the knife, it squeezed my balls.”
It was at this point Angie arrived home. She took one look at me, nervously holding the carving knife, then at Bill’s bare bottom sticking out of Big Berty’s enfolding arms and immediately summed the situation up. She dropped her haversack by the door, strode over to the offending plant and stood with her arms folded and her legs spread apart. “Berty! Let him go this instant!” Bill cried out as the pressure increased on his most delicate possessions. “Now cut that out! You’ve made your point. He will be leaving as soon as you let him go and he will not return to bother you again.”
There was a rustling of leaves as if the plant was wavering in indecision.
“Come on! I haven’t got all day. If you don’t let him go this instant, I shall take you back to the desert on my next trip and leave you to the termites.”
That did it. The top vines suddenly went limp and Bill fell backwards onto the floor, where he began writhing around, screaming in pain. He had both hands covering his private parts, which I thought, at first, was a display of modesty, then I saw blood on his fingers. I looked back at the plant and saw what had happened. Some of the lower vines must have let go later than the upper ones, because there, dangling in the centre of Berty’s foliage, was the little sack of skin containing the twin symbols of Bill’s manhood. And the funny thing was, I could have sworn Berty was laughing inside himself.
Angie realised what had happened at the same time I did and immediately went to the bathroom to fetch a box of tissues. I knelt down and tried to console my injured fiancee, but he just kept moaning. When Angie returned, I made a wad of several of the tissues and gave it to him to hold against the torn flesh, then we both helped him into his shorts and out to the car.
I drove to the hospital at top speed. He didn’t say a word during the whole trip. I couldn’t think of anything to say either. After they had dressed his wounds, I drove him home, again in silence and then I caught a cab back to my place.
He wouldn’t see me at all for nearly a week after that and when we did finally get back together, he refused to discuss the incident at all. In fact, he got quite angry every time I tried to bring it up.
He’ll get over it eventually, I suppose, but the wedding is off, of course. I mean, how could I marry someone who isn’t a man any more? His voice has gone funny too.
I tried to contact Angie several times, but she wouldn’t answer the phone. Then I dropped by her place a couple of days later and found she’d quit her job at the Uni and moved out of town, taking her plants with her. I only wish she’d left a forwarding address, though. I’d love to know more about where those plants really came from; originally, I mean.