The house was as old as their marriage: twelve years. And though they had lived in it for all of that time, it was still not finished being built.
David worked on the house tirelessly. It was a house that grew, that was ever expanding. Some people called it an eyesore. Some people laughed and drove up to take pictures.
Obsessed. A man in a race against time! These things were said of David. They wondered when he would ever stop. They wondered if he ever could stop.
It was impossible to tell anymore which part of the house was original. It had so many additions spreading and snaking out onto the property that it was like a compound. Or a maze. But it had begun twelve years before as a simple two-bedroom cottage. David, who worked construction for a living and knew all he needed to know, built the small house by himself, working nights and weekends.
It was to be the perfect home to start his new life with his new bride, Jeannie. The land itself was cheap, and he bought enough of it so that they would never have to deal with close neighbors; after all, they didn’t need anybody else. David didn’t tend to socialize. And Jeannie, (who was only twenty at the time that they married at the town hall) liked to keep to herself as well.
She’d had some friends at her college, where she had studied for a while and had a passion for her major, botany. But college life had felt overwhelming to her. She began to suffer from nerves. She met David one day when he was putting up drywall in the new commons building. He heard crying from outside and went to investigate. She was hiding behind a service dumpster, a slight blonde girl with dirt on her knees, books tossed in the grass. “I feel like I just can’t take it anymore,” she whispered. There were bandages on her wrists.
David touched a bandage with a calloused fingertip and said, “I know how it is.”
David liked to tell people it was love at first sight.
And though she never did say very much, it was Jeannie’s acceptance of his love that amazed him. She would lift her face to his as though to the sun’s warmth. Color came back into her face. She bloomed, became plump. She left college, they married, and he built her the little house, deep in the woods and brush at the end of a long, winding gravel driveway.
It was love that drove him to keep building. A foyer, a porch, a deck. A nursery that was never filled. An empty in-law apartment above the garage. A billiards room for parties they might one day have. The house leaped and bounded in all directions. It became so intricate that they could easily lose each other. But Jeannie could most often be found in the solarium.
It was her favorite room in the house. All glass, with curved eaves and a figure eight walkway. She filled it with tropical flowers, herbs and orchids. Lillies and citrus trees. The place buzzed and vibrated with vibrant plant life. The room was moistly humidified, and filled with distilled, bright white light. David couldn’t stay for long in the room. It gave him headaches and dazzled his eyes, like staring into a flashing, glinting prism.
It’s your natural habitat, he would joke from the doorway. He would scruff his boot shyly against the tile floor. She would smile downwards, an unknowable smile, her fingers in the soil.
There was a night in early summer, a Saturday. Like most Saturday nights, they stayed at home. David sat as his drafting table in his little home office off the kitchen. He was making plans for a new walk-in closet he wanted to build for Jeannie. It would be enormous, with full-length mirror, rows of shoe racks, sliding doors of cedar, even retractable drawers for her jewelry.
Jeannie smiled and nodded at what he described. Even though she wore no jewelry. And the only clothes she ever wore were gardening clothes, such as she was wearing at that very moment: an oversized t-shirt and pedal pushers soiled with mud. She had only three pairs of shoes. One pair of boots, one pair of sandals, and the red plastic clogs she was wearing that moment.
His pencil sketched the graph paper. The desk lamp gave a warm yellow light. There was dripping in the eaves from the afternoon thunderstorm that had now passed over. Jeannie stepped in wordlessly with a cup of the dark coffee he liked to drink as he worked; she didn’t even have to ask if he wanted it, and he didn’t even have to thank her, because everything between them was understood. She went away again, disappearing into the labyrinth of their house, roaming the endless hallways; she kept it immaculately clean.
Just as he took his first sip, there was a sudden pounding at the front door that made David startle, spilling dark drops on the graph paper. People very rarely came to their house. It was too late for the UPS man. And if a car had driven up, he would have heard it crunching the gravel as it came up the long, private drive. He stood up tall, bracing himself for danger, some bad news, and went to the door.
Standing on the floodlit front porch was Ernest Stevenson, the elderly man who lived by himself in a wood frame house up on the main road. He was known to have dementia. Some mornings they would discover him in their woods, wearing pajamas, an expression of stunned wonder on his face as he stood like an apparition in the mist and the ferns.
David sighed with relief and said, “Ernest, what can I do for you? What are you doing out this late in the wet and the mud?” He felt kind, magnanimous. After all, Ernest was alone in the world, but for the sons that would come to look in on him out of obligation. He lived alone. He had no wife. No sanctuary of marriage. David put a hand out, onto his fragile shoulder. “Won’t you come in? Jeannie can get you something hot to drink.”
But the old man was agitated, wringing his gnarled hands, rolling his large eyes back and forth. “I….came to get you. You’ve got to follow me, come outside….”
“Why? What’s going on?”
He seemed to grasp for words for a moment, a glaze coming over his eyes. Then he snapped back to alertness and said, “There’s a body the road. You have to come and identify it.”
“What road?” David smiled to himself. He would drive the confused old man home and help him to bed, maybe call one of the sons whose numbers he had stored in his cell phone for times like these.
“It’s in your road, at the end of your driveway.” Ernest seemed not fit to take no for an answer, so David told him, “Hold on, then, I’ll be right out.”
He walked to the bedroom to put on his work boots. Then he called out, “Hon?”
No answer; he went downstairs, through the kitchen, through the side walkway that connected the original house to one of the several add-on structures. Like a couple of mice in a Habitrail cage, he thought to himself sometimes.
Entering the silent billiards room. Hon? Up the stairs to the in-law apartment that had no in-laws. Not there. Only one last place. The solarium.
There she was, in her private jungle. Her bountiful ecosystem. Standing at the glass wall, looking out. She had been watching the whole time.
“Hon, Ernest’s at the door, he’s all hepped up about something. Wants me to see something outside. He thinks it’s a dead body. I thought I’d humor him and then drive him home.”
He stood next to her and looked out. The old man was standing in the porch light, looking about him wildly, his long shadow stretched out menacingly behind him.
“I won’t be but a few minutes. You can go to bed and I’ll join you.”
“No,” she said quietly. “I’ll come with you. “ She smiled wryly. “Maybe I can calm him down. Poor Ernie.”
“Poor Ernie.” He put an arm around her and they stood for a moment before they made their way out, stopping to grab a flashlight from the kitchen drawer.
It was a cool night. The moon was reflected in the large sheets of water on the ground as the three walked on. “Some rainstorm we had today,” said David. “I have one big branch down in the back I need to buzz saw, and I think I got a leak somewhere in my roof, because there’s this…”
The old man looked at him incredulously, as though he were insane or an idiot. He shook his head.
“It cannot be helped” Ernest muttered under his breath. “Such a great tragedy, and it couldn’t be helped.” In this light he looked unlike his usual self. He looked shadowy and noble, like a ruined aristocrat, a Russian duke. And he spoke with such somber finality that David had no response.
They walked. There was the sound of their feet on gravel, the heavy dripping in the dark branches that still sounded like rain showers.
As they approached the end of the drive, Ernest lifted his finger. “It is there.”
David scanned the area with his flashlight. There was something at the end of his driveway. Something lying on its side, smaller than a man. Road kill. A dog maybe.
He came closer. The thing was vaguely torso-shaped and was covered in mud and slime. It didn’t seem to have fur.
“What the hell? Is it some kind of… fetus?” David overcame his disgust to nudge it over with his foot. It had a sickening, fleshy heaviness to it as it flopped over.
The thing had vines, spiky tendrils, growing like many arms from its top half. There were twisting, root-like appendages in place of legs.On a knobby, gourd-like head it seemed to have a rudimentary face. And eyes that were open, looking into his. Startlingly alive. Searching and reproachful. For a moment David had the thought, No, this isn’t real. I’m not seeing this. A wave of nausea swept through him, and he said, “Let’s go.”
Jeannie was now kneeling down beside the thing, transfixed. There was a look in her face, an awe, that he never saw anymore.
Before he could stop it (though why did he want to stop it?) Jeannie and the thing were looking at each other.
“Well, hon, should I call the police? What is it?”
Jeannie grabbed his arm. “No. Don’t call the police. It’s just a…a… plant.”
“Well what should we do? That doesn’t look like any plant I’ve ever seen! Who do we even call? Ernest, what do you--“
But Ernest had disappeared, as though he had never been there in the first place.
He turned back to his wife. “So what, then?”
“So what? We bring him home, of course!” she said with strangled emotion.
“How do you know it’s a him?”
But she had already lifted the creature into her arms and was running to the house.
David hurried after her, panting, as she ran to the master bathroom. He heard the rushing of water in pipes as he mounted the stairs.
She had placed it in the tub and was tenderly wiping at it with a washcloth. Where the mud came away one could see that the thing was covered in a type of membrane, delicately veined, a pale sickly yellowy-green.
“The thing is half dead…”
“Don’t say that!” Jeannie hissed at him.
“But it doesn’t look good. It’s so wrinkled and puckered looking… we don’t know what it is! It would be the responsible thing to call somebody.”
But she was not listening. The bathwater had turned black with filth. And the more they could see of the thing, the worse it looked. The head looked like a cross between a melon and a flattened football. The back was humped, giving it a curled-up, vulnerable look.
But surely, those could not be eyes. Merely wizened little knobs, like on a potato.
When some time had passed and the water finally ran clean, David had to admit that the thing’s skin looked a little bit plumper. As though it had taken in some nourishment. It looked better.
He brought forth a thick white towel, which he held out for her to lower the thing onto as he dried it off.
As they held it between them, he put out his hand to stroke Jeannie’s blonde hair. Grown courser with age. But her face, now, was rapt, her eyes bright and flashing.
“What will you do with it?”
She smiled at him. “I will put him in the solarium, of course.”
And so he followed her there, held the thing as she found her largest clay pot, filled it with soil, and gently nestled the twisted root-like legs of the creature deep down in. She smoothed the dirt on top, careful not to pack it too tight; the roots needed oxygen. Then she gave it a good dousing with her watering can.
Afterword, they stood back and looked at it. It unnerved David a little less. After all, it was just… a kind of plant.
“Don’t get your hopes too high,” he said, squeezing Jeannie’s hand. “We don’t know what the future holds.”
“All the good intentions in the world…” she murmured, but did not finish the sentence.
“Come on,” he said, “It’s late. Let’s go to bed.”
Reluctantly, she came away, turning once more to look at the creature that was slumped over to one side, head drooping.
“Well if it’s going to die,” she said, “I want to give it a name.”
“Okay. What should we call him?”
She got a faraway look on her face, and smiled. “We’ll call it Andro.”
“Andro?” he laughed.
“Short for Androecious. Technical term for a male flower.”
He had no reply for this, so he took her by the shoulder and moved her away. “Come on.”
That night they made love, but to David it felt strained and hurried. There was an unpleasant feeling in his head. A wailing sound only he could hear. High-pitched, almost electronic. Like a siren in the distance.
It was midday at the worksite, hot and bright. The other men were just straggling in from lunch break, having a last smoke. David, who was foreman, was at the top of the ladder, nailing a piece of PVC trim to the shingle board house. PVC trim, fiber-cement siding… The place would be strong for its owners. Virtually maintenance-free. He took satisfaction in work well done.
He stood still on the rung for a moment, feeling the wind on his face. Feeling the minute vibrations through the aluminum rungs. Hearing the tinny radio music from far away, down below. He had eaten fast and quietly, eager to get back to work. He hadn’t felt in the mood to chat.
Something had been troubling him all day. That morning as he was leaving for the site, he had poked his head into the bathroom where Jeannie was taking a shower. “Need me to bring home anything tonight?” he had asked. A lot of days Jeannie did not like to make the long drive into town just for one thing.
The shower steam had been thick. The room smelled of her. A smell that was green, like plant life. But something dark underneath. Like rot. Dirt. Turning leaves.
At first she did not answer, but when her voice came forth it sounded like someone he did not know. “I need nothing. Nothing but time. I want to get back all of the lost time, before it is gone. Is that too much?”
The voice was deep and throaty. Declarative. Not his wife’s voice, which was light and airy as dander seed. This seemed the voice of a ventriloquist.
Hurt, confused, he had not answered. Just closed the door and gone to work.
And the thing, the thing in the solarium that she had named Andro? What could he ever tell anyone about that? He would tell no one. The thing was thriving under Jeannie’s care. It was growing tall and straight, more human-like. Obviously a male, its sex a veined stump between its legs. (“Please, it is called the stamen!” she had said teasingly when he had mentioned it.) Its skin had ripened to chloroform green with patches of fleshy pink.
And its pulse. It seemed to have a pulse when he touched it! But he won’t touch it, not again. Because he was starting to hate the thing. There was something indecent about it.
That evening Jeannie was sweet and contrite, kissing him on the cheek when he came home. And David was not the type to hold a grudge. He was happy to be home. Happy to be at their dinner table, where she served him grilled haddock and asparagus.
“So how was work?” she asked. “Did you hang out with the boys at all? Go out to lunch?”
“Nah.” He drank deeply from his chilled beer mug. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re okay. I think they think I’m a little soft, you know? Because all I ever talk about is my beautiful wife and how perfect she is.” He gave her thigh a playful squeeze. “They rag on me, but I think they’re just jealous.”
Jeannie looked down at her plate, smiled faintly. “You really talk that much about me?”
“You bet. Ever since that first time I saw you. On your knees, crying like a little girl. I was shocked. It’s like I found a beautiful rose growing in the rubble!”
She blushed, got up to refill her wine glass. She was still a beautiful woman all these years later. Thick golden hair. Her body softly plump, with a tiny waist. Tiny, dainty hands that he loved. And the scars on the insides of her wrists were just barely visible. He did her the kindness of never bringing that up. He would not do that to her. After all, that was another time. A time before him.
The weeks went on. The summer became hotter. The air was thick and hard to breath, and the sun shown weakly through a haze that never seemed to lift.
Some days David and his crew had to stop working for fear of heat stroke. He would spend the afternoon at home, which he usually enjoyed. But for some reason, he felt that his presence in the house was making Jeannie agitated. Or at least, something was. She always seemed shaky, close to tears, and unable to concentrate. She looked out the window a lot as though expecting someone to approach.
And, it seemed, the thing that made her maddest was when David tried to say something nice to her.
One day he came up behind her as she worked in the kitchen and put his arms around her. Did I ever tell you that you are the most perfect woman in the world?
She drew back from him, wincing. Oh, is that so? She asked stridently, sarcastically. Why am I so perfect, anyway?
It was as though his love spurned nothing but contempt from her. And anger.
He would retreat. He was beginning to feel angry, too. Hadn’t he done so much for her? Hadn’t he nurtured her back to life when he first found her, so sad and helpless?
Hadn’t he built this house, all of this, only for her?
In his hurt and anger, he went to his drafting table and made plans. Plans for another wing. He would call it the observatory. It would have a retractable ceiling where they could watch the constellations, together, through a telescope.
And then maybe he would build a media room. And a library. He would show her. He would keep going. She would know his love if it killed him,
He needed to lure her away from her solarium, and that thing that was growing inside of it. She was with that thing all the time, tending to it. Its green, sickly smell was all over her. And the last time she shed a tear, he swore it was plant sap that trickled slowly from her eye.
It was a Saturday. He had been working for hours on framework for the new addition, nailing away in the hot sun. He could lose himself in his work. Get lost in his effort. The heat, though, seemed to be affecting his head. Because sometimes he would pause and look back at this, his house, that had been his pride and focus for twelve years…and he hated it. I could walk away from this place and never look back.
Instead, he decided to break for the day. He picked up his metal box of tools and went into the house, walking and walking through the twists and turns (maybe I did not design it so well) until he finally made it to the solarium.
Again, the crystalline white heat of the place made him see spots, made his head hurt. But he could see her, stroking and murmuring to the thing, to Andro. The horrid plant-thing seemed to be looking over her shoulder at him. Davis snarled back. Jeannie whipped her head around, startled to see him standing there.
“Hi, babe,” he said, “You want to eat soon?”
She smiled at him and brushed her hair from her forehead; that’s when he saw the thorns stuck into her forearms.
“Your arm! Doesn’t it hurt?”
She held her arms out, and looked at them. “Not so I’d notice.”
“You must have been leaning against Andro and gotten thorns stuck in you. That could get infected! Wait…” He opened up his toolbox, got out a pair of needle nosed pliers.
“Hold still.” He pulled the first one out.
“Ouch!” She looked up into his eyes, her expression stunned and open, wavering with tears, as though he had hurt her on purpose.
“Well, someone has to do it. I’ll be gentle.”
He pulled each thorn from her flesh, nine in all. Unbelievable. She didn’t know how to take care of herself! God knows, her parents never did their job. Self-absorbed, uptight, rich snobs. They were happy when she married David. Like Jeannie’s “problems” had been such a hassle, they couldn’t wait to pass her on. Poor thing.
Later in the bathroom, he put on the antibiotic ointment. At least, he was there to take care of her now.
Two in the morning. He was restless, couldn’t sleep. He touched her on the shoulder. He eased himself onto her sleeping form, gently kissing up along her hairline. She murmured something indecipherable but did not resist.
“I want you,” he whispered, he pleaded. “I want you.”
He ran his hands through her hair, then along down the sides of her body, hoping his touch would gently rouse her into consciousness.
When he ran his hands down her arms, something scratched his palms. He drew back in surprise and turned the lights on. There were new thorns in the same places where he had just pulled the old ones out.
“What is this?” he cried.
Jeannie, blinking herself awake, looked him in the eye. “They are growing. Growing out of me. They are a part of me.”
He looked at her, wide-eyed and incredulous. Anger began to course through his veins.
“How can you be growing thorns?!”
She smiled at him, tauntingly. “I guess I’m absorbing a life form. Like seeds in soil.”
She giggled, a strange, tight, mirthless giggle. “A life form. First my body attacks. Then it absorbs. And then? Symbiosis.”
He jumped up out of the bed, away from her. “I don’t know what you’re telling me. But it’s wrong. It’s sick.” His voice was trembling, his anger incandescent. The scrapes on his palms began to throb in pain. “I’ve been married to you for twelve years, damnit!” He paced back and forth savagely. “Do you remember the state I found you in? I nurtured you! I was the one who brought you back to life…”
“Maybe I brought myself back to life.”
He looked at her for a stunned moment, then went on, “I worshipped you, I built all of this, for you!”
“But you don’t know me,” she said quietly. “You never knew me.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head, as though trying to clear it. “Don’t worry,” he at last said, “I’ll let you take that back.”
“I will let you take that back! We never said these things. This never happened.”
This time, Jeannie looked at him in disbelief. And then sadness. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really, really sorry. And you have been very good to me. But this is happening. I don’t love you anymore.”
“Please wait, listen, I don’t want to hurt you…”
But he ran out of the bedroom door and down the stairs. He couldn’t think anymore, his mind was blank. Again there was that high, electronic wailing in his head.
He ran through the twisting maze of his house until he got to the solarium. He lunged forward and tackled the thing, the source of all this misery. The thing that had grown humanoid, massive and hulking, from his wife’s care. Life force, throbbing and green, had seemed to flow from her slender fingers into the soil, into its roots, feeding it. And it thrived, as it did all the living things in this room. This room that had always felt off limits to him.
It was heavy. A living, sickening weight of a creature of flesh. (It had even seemed to look at him as he charged into the room, with an expression of shock and anger!) He could hardly see where he was going, he was lost in its branches, its thorns tearing into him. He heaved it upwards and shook it loose from its ceramic urn.
But he didn’t need to see where he was going, he had the path memorized. He had built this house with his two bare hands. Clods of dirt were dropping all over the floors that his wife had kept so immaculately clean. David, please! he heard his wife’s voice call from a distance.
It was difficult to force it through the door, but he did, scoring the doorframe with scratches, breaking off a snaking tendril that fell to the ground like a severed dragon’s tail.
I will put it back in the road where I found it, he thought. Then everything would reverse, be undone. His marriage would be intact, his life peaceful. Through the power of his force of will, the force of his wanting it so, time would reverse. The river would flow backward. It could, it had to. And if Ernest ever knocked on his door again, he would know he was a harbinger of bad things and not answer.
At last, the end of his long curving driveway. He tossed the thing onto the ground, gave it a kick. Then exhausted, overwrought, he sat down on the ground beside it and put his head in his hands.
He could not say how long it was that he sat there, trying to get his head together. Waiting to feel okay again. Because he just couldn’t make himself walk back into the house until he knew in his heart that his magical thinking had worked. That this nightmare was over, that his wife was the woman he always thought she was. That his life was what he thought it was.
But he couldn’t do it. He could feel life moving inexorably forward. The way a dark cloud drifted over the moon. The way the owl was hooting in the dark branches, looking for prey. By the rush and lurch of blood in his own veins. Nature was indifferent to his pain. Life was moving forward.
In the moonlight he could see the silhouette of his own house. It didn’t look like a home. It looked like sprawling, ancient ruins. Alien, unknowable, though he built it himself. The only light was coming from the solarium, that distant star.
He should have felt alone at such a moment, but he wasn’t. Andro lay in the dark beside him, a silent companion. One who didn’t judge, but just was. There was the smell of swamp algae in the air. He swore he could hear the burrowing of roots, the soft spreading of moss, the bloom of a night mushroom. David resigned himself to the solace of plant life; he listened deeper.