CONJUNCTIONS:68, Inside Out (Spring 2017)
The Botanist’s House
Mostly, she needed to put it all behind her, and by “all” she meant all of us, as well as the events of her life, what people call memories. The moment we were out of sight she opened the door to the tall house with the steep roof and went in. Right away it was as if she had never been inside a house before; even the noise the door made closing behind her seemed not to have been made by wood sliding against wood with an accompanying burst of air, but instead signaled the presence nearby of something previously unknown or imagined, something large and shifting around in a space too small for it, breathing heavily through the mouth.
Little bug, little scrub, little bead, little need. The Botanist knew she was being summoned. She was floating again, that much was for sure, her eyes like burnt holes in something not like a blanket but more like herself and consequently a lot worse to look at.
Up a long staircase and onto a landing. The windows were shut tight yet if she looked back she could see smoke seeping from the crevices, as well as from hundreds of small objects on shelves along the walls, unrecognizable, glinting as if in the light of a fire but there was no fire, no stove, no candle, no light at all. Meanwhile the smell of smoke occurred to her like the image of a little girl in a smocked dress playing jacks, not a memory but an idea. It was exactly the way she worked when she was botanizing: there would be the smell of hyacinth and there would be an old lady reaching for something just out of reach. There would be the taste of a cranberry bean and there would be a young man sharpening a pencil. You couldn’t interrupt these operations of reaching, of sharpening—they were each, in their own way, eternal.
The thing is, we couldn’t save one another. The Botanist was in danger but there was nothing we could do. Ditto the Archivist, borne on the increasingly powerful current, headed for the rapids where the Rock that Cries had ended many a life. We hadn’t heard about this yet but we were going to. There was nothing we could do. Once you were in the Savage Domain there was no escaping the Beast. Meanwhile we sat on our cloaks under the capacious beech tree, eating meat and drinking wine and planning what to do next, as if the operation we were involved in, however it might be described—Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, maybe, or fiddling while Rome burns—was not, likewise, eternal. As if we could have any say about the outcome. As if we couldn’t see the little brown dog curled on the grass at our feet.
The Botanist floated along the second-floor hallway and up the final flight of stairs to the third floor. Was it true, what they said? Once you went up you never came down? Little bug, little bud, little hug, little judge, little mug, little rug, little BUD. LITTLE BUD! On and on she drifted along the hallway, her obedience ferrying her past many doors, all of them closed tight, all of them with smoke seeping through the cracks. It is true that smoke is often used to create a barrier of aromatic vapor through which the air that carries sickness is unable to penetrate. Get out quickly, go a long way away, and don’t be in a hurry to come back: that was what the doctors were prescribing—the ones who hadn’t run away themselves, that is.
The family who used to live here had been beset by X. cheopis or rat fleas, pests known to be happiest (if pests can be said to be happy) during unseasonably mild, damp winters, which this one certainly seemed to have been. The family consisted of a mother and father and a boy, but when the boy got sick from sleeping in the bedclothes his father acquired in trade for a rooster, they left him behind. They left him behind for dead—that was the spirit of the age. The Silk Road ran in front of their house; everyone was using it, for commerce or as a means of escape. Some travelers relied on word of mouth, some on cairns or blazes. What everyone had in common was lack of destination.
The boy wasn’t dead, though. When he awakened, the place he was in was as dark as the deepest well. There seemed to be a log fire burning in the middle of the floor—though how could that have been? He was still inside his house, wasn’t he? Inside the house where he’d been born and suckled and weaned? The bedclothes too seemed to be arranging themselves without assistance. The trader had stuffed them with rat flea–infested feathers and hair; as the boy watched, the stuffing reassembled itself into a large creature that glistened like a pearl.
“Come to me,” the creature said, but it wasn’t talking to him.
The sun went down and for just one moment the sky was bathed in golden light. Then the Botanist opened the door and came floating across the threshold.
Inside she saw the boy sitting by the window, though he wasn’t exactly a boy. The person sitting by the window was older than he’d looked from below, older and bigger, and because he had wrapped himself in his cloak she couldn’t see the swellings on his body, but she could smell the sickness on him. What the Botanist saw, smelling it, was the Fairy beckoning the Prince to join her in the Garden of Paradise, even though she’d told him it was the one thing he was forbidden to do. The Fairy said if he joined her there and kissed her, Paradise would sink deep into the earth, which is where it was located in the first place.
In assembly, if you so much as thought of talking to your neighbor while the principal was telling the story of the Garden of Paradise, you would be turned to stone. The Prince drew back the branches and saw tears welling in the Botanist’s eyelashes. “I have not sinned yet,” he insisted. Even if everlasting night were to descend on him like the lid of his own casket, a moment like this would be worth it. He kissed the tears away from the Botanist’s eyes and then he kissed her lips, whereupon there came a sound like thunder, louder and more dreadful than any sound any living thing on earth had ever heard before. The chill of death crept over his limbs. The cold rain fell on his face, and the sharp wind blew around his head.
Down by the river we all heard it.
The man behind the concession stand doused the fire while a child in a faded green pinafore began closing up shop. Both of them looked around nervously, as if they were being followed. In the Keeper’s kitchen, the cake, which she had recently put into the oven, fell, but it took her a while to realize this, since the oven door was closed and it was an old oven, without a light. The cake was a One-Two-Three-Four Cake, the kind she used to make us for our birthdays, until she made one with a spoiled egg in it for Mother.
What lightning bolt devoured everyone? What earthquake? There had been a crowd of us but now we were almost one.
In the river the Archivist felt raindrops hit the side of his face each time he turned his head to breathe; at length he stopped turning his head, no longer feeling the need to do so. The Poet used to make fun of how afraid he was of everything but she never understood what a good swimmer he was; at Saint Roch he had been captain of the swimming team.
Now, in the water, he was naked, the wound on his leg completely healed, his flutter kick more muscular than ever.
The river charged over rocks and around fallen logs; it surged and eddied and funneled; it leapt into the air and then dropped a great distance in a waterfall, spangled and unfettered, foaming and loud into a moss-lined pool. The Archivist’s eyes were wet and he could see perfectly without his spectacles. Or, more accurately, he could see perfectly except for a spot in the middle that was nothing. Of course that’s where she was, in that spot, monitoring his arrival. That’s where she always was and always had been, in the spot he couldn’t see. It was what drove the Poet mad, finally.
The thing is, he wasn’t himself or what he thought of as himself, just as the farther we walked along the trail, the less we knew of what we thought of as ourselves. It was disconcerting, our titles having been so deeply imprinted in us as to become identities. The Cook hadn’t cooked anything in a long time; the Iceman had abandoned his quest for permafrost. If the Archivist was going to turn into something like a fish, no one was going to find it strange. It was all right, as long as he eluded the lure.
Meanwhile the beech tree provided us with protection from whatever was falling from the sky; beech trees allow very little light or much of anything else to reach the ground, appropriating it all for themselves. The tree was being imperial but we didn’t know that, its imperial behavior limited to trees and not people. In this way we could be certain that we were people and not plant life, though as was the case with the Archivist, it wasn’t always possible to register a transformation as it happened. Some of us were putting forth branches we couldn’t see called fear branches, like a tree whose space is being commandeered by a beech.
If the Botanist were here she could have explained what was going on. But that was how she’d always been, drifting away in pursuit of something better than anything we could offer, a keg party or a rare mushroom, a doomed boyfriend or a clump of lady’s slippers. Besides, we never paid attention to scientific explanation—none of us did, aside from the person providing it. The Astronomer walked up from the riverbank with an armload of fish, their tall dorsal fins shedding water like stars. The fish constellation isn’t very bright, he told us; it’s hard to see with the naked eye. As might be expected, we weren’t interested. The Astronomer said we should use what was left of the concessionaire’s fire to roast the fish if that infernal child would let us, and this was a side of him we hadn’t been aware of—a side of him that, unlike the scientific information he was quick to dispense, actually caught our interest.
The Cook was sound asleep on his back, grinding his teeth.
We don’t have that much time, someone said.
Our sense of urgency was strong, even though we didn’t know where we had to be, or when we had to be there.
In the third-floor bedroom in the tall, narrow house, the Botanist was lifting the person from the floor and putting him into bed. He weighed almost nothing. He was as light as a feather, almost as if he was already dead and gone and what she was lifting wasn’t his body but his soul. He looked at her beseechingly and she shook her head No. Brushing the hair back from the forehead, drawing the eyelids down over the eyeballs. They don’t know my story, she was thinking, so they can’t put their fingers into it and ruin it they way they’ve done to all the other stories. Except for the Cook, whose story was the shortest—as he had reminded us repeatedly—everyone had already told their tale.
Now she would suck the air from the sac. Extract the lights on their string of silk. The Silk Trail was far shorter than the Silk Road but the distance it covered was far greater, the compass of a human life.
Kathryn Davis is the author of seven novels, most recently The Thin Place (Little, Brown) and Duplex (Graywolf). Among other honors, she has received the Lannan Award for Fiction and the 2016 Katherine Anne Porter Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.