“Did you hear me?” Dr. Bergman leaned forward, put his long, crooked finger on her knee and tapped it three times, punctuating the words, “Do you understand?”
Lilifer Greene understood. On the surface, it wasn’t complicated. Her body was infected. There would be no more Greenes. She would be the last. This was the prognosis she had been waiting for. This was the moment that had come for her mother, her mother’s mother, and now it had come for her. She’d read every book in the Greene library the way an athlete prepares for a race. She thought she’d be prepared. But here it was, happening to her. And it was too soon.
“The surgery is complex. There are risks, even at your age. It’s imperative you understand.” The doctor averted his gaze, choosing instead the view beyond Lilifer. His tenth floor corner office overlooked the gentle meanderings of the Chanthee River. Once the most fertile land in Camden County, the banks of the Chanthee, like Lilifer’s loins, had known better days. “Let’s bring in my nurse, Dawn. Maybe she can explain it in a way you could understand—”
Lilifer sighed and pulled on her gloves. It had taken thirteen months to see Dr. Bergman. He was a renowned specialist with an astounding track record of producing results in the most dire of cases. If Dr. Bergman said it could not be done, well, what choice did she have but to believe him? And there’d been signs, if she was honest with herself. Her hair, which had once been so thick and lustrous it had required special care, had grown dull as Sunday service. Her smooth, delicate skin now caught and snagged on even the most silken of fabrics. She pushed her tongue forward in her mouth and wiggled the teeth she found there. Then, there was the forgetfulness. Her mother’s journal had laid bare these warnings and many more, but Lilifer had found excuses for all. She’d pulled them from her mind, one by one, like thorns snaring the fibers of her clothes. She’d stood before the bathroom mirror, a hand gently cupped over her belly, hoping she would be different. But her belly would not swell with life. Her body would not transform as life inside her grew. The vast knowledge she guarded—lessons secreted down for millennia—would be lost. The land she protected, with soil more fertile than the banks of the once-great Chanthee, would lie fallow and be, eventually, forgotten. The wealth and assets at her disposal, all would be lost. She stared at the side of Dr. Bergman’s face, narrowing her eyes. Of course she understood. She would be the last Greene, unless she took matters into her own hands. As her mother had. As her mother’s mother had.
“I want it out.” She gestured to her womb with a balled-up fist. “All of it. As soon as possible.”
To do a thing, to plan it and see it through, takes a certain courage of will and strength of character fought for and won by few. Getting started wasn’t the problem. Every day, people started things they would never finish. It was the going forward that tested a person. It was the sticking to a thing long enough to see a result that revealed what one was made of. Tending the crop she intended to sow in her mother’s garden would require everything Lilifer had, but she couldn’t move without the sensation of red hot knives stabbing her from all angles.
“Recovery time is two months. Minimum,” Dr. Bergman had advised. “Bed rest. Little movement. Think of it as a vacation.”
She had never taken a vacation. There was always something that needed doing, in the cottage, on the estate, or in the shop. Even then, as snow fell in swirling gusts, blanketing the windows of the small sunroom where Lilifer made her recovery nest, there were a dozen little things needling for her energy. She turned her attention from the failure of her body to moon phases and their gravitational effect on subterranean water. It seemed advantageous to wait until March. The vernal equinox. Day and night in perfect balance. A full moon would follow. Peak moisture. Perfect for planting.
There was a wealth of bio-organic material the doctor had wrenched from her body. It had cost a handsome sum to acquire those cast-off pieces of her own body, but what was money in this case if not a tool? As for her monthly blood, there surely was not enough, but, by the time she had absorbed the prognosis and made a plan, the calendar was against her.
It will have to do.
She arranged her materials and opened the Greene family gardening manual to chapter one. There, she found the familiar inscription of the Botanist’s Prayer which she traced with tapered fingertips.
“In all things,” she began. “The Earth is Mother. She is eternal. To care for the earth is to provide for—” She bent over the age-worn pages, squinting. Her nose wrinkled. Suppose she substituted “human” for “man,” would that still work? It was just a word. Would it even matter? She shrugged and continued. “To care for Mother Earth is to provide for humankind. To respect Her is to respect thyself. To give unto Her is to receive.”
She took a deep breath and raised the blade. Lilifer pressed down hard, forcing the knife through the deep red tissue. It squelched and oozed a green-black fluid. Her stomach tightened.
A piece came away. Then another. And another. Three pieces of equal weight. Three tries.
At moonrise, Lilifer took a flashlight and set out on her task. The soil was damp and cool against her bare feet. The trowel went in and out of the dark soil until a neat hole was prepared. In went the tissue. She unscrewed the lid of the Mason jar and dribbled some of her blood into the hole. With bare hands, she lumped and patted the soil over it. She began the Sowing Prayer.
“Mother Earth, accept my humble offering and hear my plea. Give unto me, in one month’s time, a garden of limbs that I might call mine.” Short. Sweet. Maybe too short. Was she forgetting something? Lilifer sat back on her haunches, dirty hands folded between her thighs. The moon was thinly veiled behind the curves of a white cloud. Her mind filled with visions of green. Vines stretching through wet grass to her feet, climbing softly up her legs, twining themselves about her. She felt her body lift as if she were floating away.
The Ritual Offering demanded nocturnal watering. At this, Lilifer balked. Had she enough blood? Maybe if she was moderate, if she skipped a day or two, here or there. She settled on every third day and, at midnight, crept into her mother’s garden to unscrew the Mason jar and dribble her blood on the mound.
The crop grew daily until, on the sixth watering, it was clear the offering she’d put into the ground had established itself. She knelt in the garden and leaned over the lump. Tiny pink nubs poked through the soil. Her heart skipped. With shaking hands, she extended a finger and put it to one of the nubs. It moved against her skin. She dribbled more blood onto it and she smiled.
On the eighth night of watering, she sat beside the earthen mound, astounded. There, twitching in the soil, was a miniature arm. She leaned over it. It clawed at the dirt and convulsed as she neared. Could it sense her presence?
“Oh, my little darling, not much longer now,” she cooed. She held its little hand and caressed its digits. The flesh was soft and cool to the touch. Is this what it was like for her mother all those many years ago?
She woke one morning to the alarm on the NOAA radio. Unseasonably wet weather meant flooding was expected in all rural areas of Camden County. She pulled on her robe and pressed her face to the small window overlooking mother’s garden. The arm was erect, fingers twinkling in the morning sun. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Still, Lilifer couldn’t stand to take a chance. She gathered her materials and headed for the garden.
Beyond the neighbor’s house, a dark green sports car maneuvered onto the long, pea-graveled drive. Plumes of beige dust rose, billowing in its wake. As it neared, the car slowed and quickly reversed into the parking lot of the Greene Thumb Floral Shop.
“We’re closed,” Lilifer said over the white picket fence. A man at the shop’s front door stepped back, face tight.
“It’s just that, I’ve really bunged things up.” He pushed a handful of salt and pepper hair from his brow and tried a smile. Lilifer drew together her robe. “I’ve forgotten my wife’s birthday. Again. I’m awful at dates, you see.” He took several quick steps towards her. “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind putting something together.”
“We’re closed.” Lilifer turned to leave.
“I’ll pay extra.” He shouted. There was the sound of crunching gravel as he pursued her. “For your time.”
“We’re closed,” she said. There was a chill to the wind. A bite. The downy hair on her arms stood up. The air pressure shifted as clouds formed, obscuring the sun.
The gate squeaked behind her. She spun on her heel, mouth agape.
“I beg your pardon,” the man said. “It’s just that… things haven’t been going so well with the missus. She adores this shop, your flowers. Been coming here since she was a girl.” He managed a brusque smile which faded. “You’d be doing a foolish man a favor.”
“You’re on private property.” She stepped in front of him, hoping to block the view of her mother’s garden and the delight which grew there. She crossed arms over full breasts and her still-healing stomach. “I’ll do you the favor of not phoning the police.”
“There’s no reason to be such a bitch about it.” His once-sloped shoulders straightened, hardened, and he seemed to grow in size. The delicate pallor of his skin ran red. “They’re fucking flowers, lady. How hard is it to pick a few?” He side-stepped her and bent down to a row of tulips, his meaty hands grabbing. “Fuck. I tried to be nice.”
“Stop that,” Lilifer said, pulling on the man’s sleeve.
“Let me finish,” he scowled, his fists full of tulips. “It’s nothing to you. You have so many.” His attention turned to the section of garden behind Lilifer. “And what’s back there? Do you have roses, too?”
“It’s not the season for—”
The man shouldered past and blundered into her mother’s garden. He shrieked, “What in Christ’s name is that?”
In the nights that followed, when sleep eluded her, Lilifer entertained the idea that the intruder never felt the shovel strike his head, that death had come as gentle as sleep. But she knew better. He’d lain in the garden, beneath a darkening sky, twitching for fifteen minutes before his wild, questioning eyes stilled.
The intruder’s car was heavy, but she managed to roll it into the carriage house and get it covered with a tarpaulin because she had to. In recent months, Lilifer was pleased to find herself capable of a great many things. Following the book’s instructions for bloodletting, she strung the man up behind the cottage and made the best of a bad situation. Waste not.
The sky opened up and the rains came. She darted to the garden in time to see streams of water washing out some of her other bulbs. The limb thrashed against the flood. Its fingers drew into a fist. It was scared. Scared! She knelt beside it and began to dig. Surely it would be grown enough. It would survive. It had to. She plunged her hands into the cold ground, running fingers down the limb’s length, searching for the end. The limb was icy, hard. She wrapped her hands around it and pulled. The rain sleeted against her in fat, cold drops. She dug her feet into the earth and yanked. The limb came free.
There was no child. No offspring to continue the Greene’s line. Here was a limb. Just five fingers, a hand, a wrist, a forearm, an elbow, and a bicep. Beyond that, no shoulder, no neck, no head. No torso. No penis or vagina. No legs. No knees or ankles or foot. No ten little toes that would go to market. Just a nub of bone and a tangle of veins that dripped thick black blood onto the soil.
She’d try again. She’d be more cautious. This time there would be enough blood for nightly feedings, thanks to the stranger and Lilifer’s quick thinking.
The night before the full moon, she pushed the trowel into and out of the earth and laid within the hole another piece of her womb. Over it, she dribbled a mixture of blood harvested from her monthly agony and the man’s last mistake. She mounded the soil and fed more blood over it.
For twenty-nine days and twenty-eight nights, she tended the offering and it had grown into another limb. This time, a pale and plump leg, with a perfect set of toes. She marveled at its dainty toenails, so soft and pink. She tickled them and kissed them and longed to see the rest. She had waited so patiently, drawing a thick red “X” through each day on the calendar, marking the time until the next full moon.
On the 29th night, she knelt in her mother’s garden and read the Harvest Prayer from the book.
“I thank thee for thy bounty, Mother. Make me a vessel through which your love and nurturing may flow to this new life.” Her voice caught. “Make me a worthy steward.”
She plunged her hands into the soil and pulled. Beyond the neighbor’s acreage, a coyote bayed at the moon. Lilifer sat back into the dirt, a heaviness upon her shoulders. In her lap she held the leg. A perfect leg with a perfect set of toes, but nothing more.
She dug a little grave beside the cottage and laid the limb to rest.
In the morning, she raised the Mason jar and looked at the final piece of her. Maybe it had been too diseased. Maybe she’d read incorrectly from the book, missed some critical step. She’d do better this time. She’d follow every instruction to the letter. She’d wait until the full moon was at its apex. She’d do it right. And, in just about thirty days, she’d take the child in her arms and they would be a family. She would be complete, her destiny fulfilled. The Greenes would live on and she would be a mother, at last, if only for a little while.
She dug the hole and held the final offering in her palm. It glistened in the moonlight, like hot black sludge. Strange that it should come to this, but for millennia this was the way of the Greenes. She’d been foolish to think it could be different for her, that she might carry a child in her body, rather than outside it.
Following her previous failures, she’d returned to her mother’s journal, scouring for clues like a truffle dog in a wet forest. The notes were detailed with elaborate drawings and time tables. They held nothing to suggest natural conception was possible. They were explicit in their assertions about the Ritual Offering, and though Lilifer understood her mother’s warnings, she did not particularly care to heed them. Nothing worth having arrived without cost, without sacrifice. She would have this child, as Mother had cultivated her, and Mother’s mother before. Damn the expense.
With a heavy sigh, she let the last piece of herself fall into the dark, ready soil.
Three days later, she was surprised to see a bulbous, pink mound sprouting free of the dirt and she hurried to investigate. As she approached, eyes—as blue and clear as the spring sky—opened and flicked toward her. It had sprouted head first. Was it an omen?
She tended the firstling day and night, making a little bed beside it where she spent the hours reading from a book of fairy tales and a set of encyclopedias. She read quickly, fully, hopeful to imbue the child with as much knowledge as possible before the harvest for, afterwards, there wouldn’t be much time.
Soon, a nose appeared. It was a fine little nose with a button end. She held a finger beneath it to feel the soft, warm push of air in and out as it slept. Hair had begun to grow, downy and white, atop its head. By afternoon, a set of full, red lips made their way from the dirt and hours late, in the moonlight, the firstling said its first word.
Lilifer woke from a dead sleep. The firstling was staring at her, eyes wide. It repeated its word. She hurried with the blood. It was nearly empty. She dribbled a few drops into its open mouth. It smacked its lips together and giggled.
“Hungry,” it said.
“I mustn’t feed you anymore,” Lilifer said, screwing the lid back on the jar. “This has to last another fourteen days, little one.”
Its eyes grew stormy and it began to wail. “Hungry. Hungry. Hungry.” Its voice was thunderous. It echoed off the stone cottage walls, and it was then Lilifer felt certain the child would survive until harvest. Assuming, of course, she kept it fed.
“Here,” she said. She drew the pocket knife across the flesh of her palm with a quick flash of the blade. She held the wound over the firstling’s mouth and squeezed. Fat, bright red drops of blood fell onto its waiting lips. It giggled and opened wider.
The next morning, the firstling had grown a neck. By afternoon, shoulders. Every time she cast her gaze upon it, it had seemed to grow more. When, at long last, the firstling had produced two perfect arms and a long, lovely torso, it reached out for her with twinkling fingers and a smile.
“Mother,” it said. Not with the voice of an infant or toddler, but with the affectations of a school-age child. She squeezed blood from a fresh wound on her forearm into the child’s hungry hole.
“You will take me into the house soon. Yes?”
“Soon. Yes.” Lilifer felt weak. She had lost her appetite some days ago. Her complexion had turned gray and waxy. Her dressing gown, stippled with rust-colored stains, hung loosely around a once-ample body.
“When the moon is full. As it reaches its apex, I will pull you from the soil and you will be mine.”
“And we will be a family?”
“Always.” Lilifer smoothed the child’s cheek. It was cold.
“Couldn’t you take me in the house, now?” The firstling reached for her and ran soil-stained fingers through Lilifer’s dull brown hair. It seemed to love the long tendrils. “I’m tired of the wet. I want to be inside.”
“We must wait.” She rose to her feet and dusted her gown. “There are things I must do to make the cottage ready for you.”
The firstling smiled. Lilifer took the winding stone walkway to the cottage, alone, for the last time. There was wood to chop, linens to launder, and food to prepare. She consulted the book a dozen times, fraught with the fear that she had forgotten something.
As the sun dipped down below the stand of alder trees lining the far edge of the Greene’s estate, she finished the final entry in her journal and set it aside with a note sealed in an envelope which she labeled: “Asher.” She took up the knife from her mother’s tool kit and went to the garden.
By candlelight, she read Asher their favorite story, “The Juniper Tree.” The firstling giggled when the mother—who had longed her entire life for a child—died of happiness, a child in her arms.
“That will be you, Mother.”
Lilifer closed the book and looked upon the moon. “I’m still alive, and this is the happiest I’ve ever been.”
“Or ever will be?” Asher wiggled. The firstling’s hips were above the soil.
“Stop wiggling, my child.” Lilifer put her hand on Asher’s head.
“But it’s nearly time!”
“Nearly, but you must be still.”
“That’s the way it’s done. You must wait until Mother is ready.”
“But I’m ready now.” Asher’s bottom lip quivered. Had she been this impatient when it was her time to be pulled from the soil? She bent to kiss its forehead. Something sharp dug into her jaw. She pulled away as pain spread across her face. Blood dripped from a row of teeth marks. Her eyes grew wide.
“Asher! What have you done?”
“Hungry,” it said in a low, deep voice. Its thighs were above the soil.
“Soon!” She pressed a cloth to the wound. It bloomed red with blood.
“Gimme,” it said, reaching out. Its blue eyes looked black in the moonlight. It lunged forward, hands groping. Lilifer considered the soggy, stained rag and threw it. Asher snatched it up, wringing it out onto a thick, pink tongue. “More. More!”
Lilifer checked the moon, then her watch. It was 11:55. She crawled several feet away, then stood. The silver blade of the harvest knife glinted in her hands.
“More. More. Hungry!”
“When I take you from the earth, you must promise never again to drink blood.”
“But, I like it.”
“When you are free of the Earth, you will walk it as a human. Humans don’t drink blood.”
“But, I am not human.”
“Aren’t you?” Lilifer turned to the firstling. Its shins were above the ground. It was nearly six feet tall. All over its body, hair had begun to grow.
“It’s time, Mother. Cut me free.” The firstling’s ankles were now visible. The ground moved in ripples as it shimmied its toes in the loosening dirt.
“You know what will happen when I do?”
“I do.” It reached for her, eyes wide.
“And after, when it’s done?” She took a step toward it, amazed at its size. Had she grown as quickly, as fully? Had her mother been as scared as she? Lilifer stepped into its arms and felt the weight of them around her.
“I will lay you in the earth next to grandmother,” it whispered into her ear. It was squeezing her so tightly she felt the vertebras in her spine go crack, crack, crack. “And we will be a family.”
“Always,” Lilifer gasped.
Asher wondered for years whether Mother knew how much it had loved her, needed her. It wasn’t until Asher found her journal, and read the attached note, that it finally understood its place in the world. Like countless Greenes before him, Asher took to the duties of the floral shop and, in time, planted a garden of its own.
C.L. Taylor is an author of speculative fiction who makes a home in the Pacific Northwest. Her short fiction has appeared in Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Brisk and Alyson Publications anthologies. She identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities. Follow her twitter @ctaylor