It was late into the morning when I awoke, so effective were the heavy red curtains at excluding daylight. The unfamiliar room still felt cold, and I hastily pulled on my clothes and boots to ward off the chill. A creaking staircase of black wood took me downstairs, where I had left my valise and the sheaf of papers given to me by the notary.
It could not ever be said that I came to this place under good circumstances. I had arrived late last night, after hours of driving through dark country lanes in the pounding rain to reach this cold and remote house. The papers in my valise included the details of my inheritance from my cousin—one half share of the desolate estate—and the power of attorney I now held on behalf of one of my closest friends.
The two of them had moved here together to set up a happy home. I sent them a gift when, stuck on assignment in New York, I couldn’t make it to their housewarming. Stéphane was an ecological botanist and the estate’s fields and forests, left to wild nature for years, had thrilled him. My cousin Christian had welcomed any opportunity to get out of the city, I think. He’d been a trader at one of the big banks, and the experience had visibly tarnished him. Still, he’d saved enough for the two of them to pack up their lives and move to the middle of nowhere.
So they’d moved, and they’d been happy, and within eighteen months, Chris had died here. It was a couple of weeks before anyone found out. They’d come for the isolation, after all. A mutual friend had finally called the police when neither Christian nor Stéphane had answered their phones or come online in days. They found Chris dead, and Stéphane—eventually—in the woods, wild-eyed and making strange, bestial sounds. It was some time later that they realised he had cut out his own tongue.
It didn’t take the forensic psychiatrists long to find Stéphane unfit to stand trial. Not only did his mental state make it difficult to conceive of his being deemed criminally responsible, but it was by no means obvious that he’d had any hand in Christian’s death. At the time, I knew little more than was luridly reported by a number of national and international tabloids but, like the esteemed persons of the press, I found it difficult to believe that the dramatically reported damage done to Chris could have been wrought by human hands.
It was eventually concluded in a narrative verdict that some horrific—but conveniently vague—accident must have occurred, leading to both Chris’ death and Stéphane’s shattered mental state. The tabloids were not satisfied by the outcome of the inquest, nor, I must admit, was I. It came as no surprise that I would inherit from Chris. We had been as close as siblings in our teens, and had only drawn closer in the face of our family’s disdainful response to our “lifestyle choices.”
Stéphane and I had shared an apartment at university, got drunk together, watched Italian horror movies together, and, when I inevitably came home complaining of another woman who just didn’t get me, he’d made me hot chocolate and patiently tried to explain the notion of monogamy. I hadn’t expected him to have a living will at all, let alone one that would request me to take responsibility for his affairs should anything befall him. But then, I never expected that anything would befall the laughing, clever friend I’d been so happy to introduce to my favourite cousin.
I didn’t cry when I got the news, and I haven’t wept since. I knew what I was supposed to feel, but was instead consumed by a numbness of emotion and a burning desire for some kind of answer or explanation. Of course I went to see Stéphane; he sits all day in a hospital and draws. The staff don’t know what to make of his work, but feel that it’s somehow helpful to him. It’s certainly beautiful. He draws strange plants and creatures and captions them in some non-existent language, like something from the Voynich Manuscript or the Codex Seraphinius. He is quiet now, except sometimes when he wakes during the night, screaming wordlessly.
I sat with him for most of a week, watching him work. For days he acted as though I was not even there. Then, one day when I tried to speak to him, Stéphane handed me a small sketchpad and a pen, tapping his head and shrugging his shoulders. So I jotted down my questions, and he took back the pad and began to write.
Outside, the rain had ceased, leaving behind it a cool, damp morning. Mist curled around the trees that marked field boundaries and clung to dips in the land. I was surprised that the sun, which hung pale but high in the sky to the east, had not yet burned away the lingering fog.
Included among the documents from the notary was a plan of the estate from the time of its sale. I downed a tin of Japanese coffee and tied on my boots. I thrust the plan, a ring of keys, and Stéphane’s note into the pocket of my hooded jacket and set out to see exactly what had been left to me. The characteristic fungal petrichor that lingers after a storm washed over me as I stepped outside, but today the scent seemed less to promise new life than to threaten it.
A number of outbuildings clustered about a central yard. While it was obvious that many of these had only been put to partial use, an old stable block showed obvious signs of restoration. New cable ducting ran along an outside wall beneath the eaves and a metal security door were incongruous alongside aged wood and ancient stone.
I tried the newest-looking key on the ring, and the lock turned smoothly. A switch by the door illuminated a bank of fluorescent strips that cast a harsh bluish light on heavy lab benches and grow boxes. An array of spotlights was positioned above the boxes. A switch below them was marked up in masking tape: “red spectrum.” The floor was tiled, with a drain in one corner.
A microscope occupied one end of a bench. Nearby, a small refrigerated unit hummed with life, while a tray of prepared slides lay open next to the scope. Cables trailed from the microscope, the computer they had once been connected to evidently among those seized by police during the investigation. There was a slide still mounted beneath the lens array. I briefly wondered if the police investigators had mounted the slide or whether Stéphane had been the last person to touch the apparatus.
I switched on the lamp and looked through the eyepieces. I don’t know what I expected to see: dead cells, perhaps, or a stained sample of something I would be unable to identify. I did not anticipate the rivulets of teeming cellular life that confronted me. Nor would I ever have expected to see what appeared to be still living mammalian corpuscles possessed of visible cell walls.
But I am no biologist, and it’s easy to jump to foolish conclusions based on little more than the uncanniness of a place. I tried to quell a rising sense of unease, dismissing the impossible slide as the result of fungal contamination. There was little overtly strange about the rest of the lab, for all its loneliness. A few incubation boxes, some containing withered looking seedlings, and some larger plants still improbably hanging on to life beneath cloches and UV light banks. Out of a momentary sense of empathy for my fellow living things, I searched for and found a switch to enable their irrigation system.
A set of rickety stairs led to an old hay loft, converted into a study of sorts. Here, books lay in piles around a desk, while crumpled sheets of paper littered the floor and filled a waste bin to overflowing. I had expected the stack of modern textbooks and journals, but nearer the top of the pile, the collection became more arcane. Musty volumes of della Porta’s Magia Naturalis, Bernade le Trevisé’s Alchymie et le Songe Verde and Bacon’s Thesaurus Chemicus were heavily bookmarked.
A heap of loose-sheet copies was annotated in Stéphane’s angular hand. I read through them all, in search of some kind of insight. I noted the seeming incongruity of notes on modern transgenetic theory alongside fragmentary texts on alchemy. Towards the bottom of the stack, amid a characteristically tedious and arcane collection of alchemical documents, I suddenly recognised the sinuous characters that Stéphane now obsessively and exclusively used.
A single sheet of paper, a degraded printed replica of some far older book, was covered in seething symbols. It showed a crude illustration of a plant resembling a mandrake root, but with clearly marked hands, eyes, and phallus. Above several symbol-groups, Stéphane had scrawled out possible translations: “to merge…differing forms of life…graft…sap/blood/essence…the old kind.”
I pulled out the note he had given me in the hospital and attempted a comparison of the symbols. I found a few matches: “blood,” “merge,” and “the old kind,” but this brought me no nearer to understanding what he had so insistently attempted to communicate. His note to me included what appeared to be a phylogenetic tree diagram and a sketch map of some part of the estate’s wooded grounds, but I still could not make out its meaning. I noticed that the symbol translated as “the old kind” appeared on both the tree and his rough map, as well as in several places in a solid block of winding text. I added the copied alchemical sheet to the contents of my pocket and left the study to its quiet disarray.
Absorbed in what I had found, I had failed to notice the setting of the sun. I checked my watch: it was a little before six in the evening, but it seemed as though I had passed from mist-shrouded morning to ruddy, tenebrous gloom with no intervening period of true day. As I stepped out into the gravelled yard, a rising wind whipped dead leaves about my ankles, papery-dry and red as rust. I retrieved a few items of tinned food from the boot of my car and returned with them to the main house.
Although I turned on all the lights, the chill rooms still seemed wrapped in shadows. I brought wood and kindled a fire in the great metal stove that squatted, pot-bellied, at one end of what I had come to think of as the great hall. Although the wood had felt dry, it was unwilling to light and burned only after considerable effort. It smoked acridly into the room, as though the very timber resented its destruction.
As I sat before the fire, huddled against the cold that seemed intent on burrowing into my bones, I went over my notes and papers again. I planned a visit to the orchards for the next day, and puzzled over Stéphane’s sudden interest in alchemy. I was unwilling to look again at the cryptic document, but as the hours passed, I could procrastinate no further.
I turned the slip of paper over in my hands, looking at it from all angles in the hope of gleaning some further understanding from the looping, branching forms of the incomprehensible language. It was only then that I noticed faint pencil marks along one edge, once written and then worn away or half-heartedly erased. Stéphane’s marginalia were in his old, familiar scrawl, quite unlike the intricate pictograms he had adopted in the weeks since his hospitalization. I squinted at the notes in the dull light, and finally had to fumble my torch out of my trouser pocket to properly illuminate the faded lettering.
“Nowhere is it possible to see the Earth untouched by human influence. The rolling green meadows of popular imagination are the product of man’s stripping away of entire ecosystems to produce something tame, placid, and easily bent to his needs. Even our prized national parks and depleted rainforests have been irrevocably tainted by the plague that is humanity. And yet… It is my hope that there may still be time to undo some of that which we have wrought. To revive Gaia, bring the old kind back and do penance before the ancient gods of root and sap.”
It was hard to know what to make of this oddly fanatical tract. I’d always thought of Stéphane as an archetypal man of science. A solid atheist of the old school, he’d never so much as wasted his time denying the existence of gods. They simply were not.
He’d been privately, tactfully amused when I brought home the obligatory labrys-wielding Dianic lesbian witch, and gently teased me when I decided I liked the pagan gatherings she’d taken me to enough to keep attending even when she was no longer in the picture. It was hard to balance my experience of his solid, comforting rationalism with…what? Some blend of the voluntary human extinction movement and perversely apocalyptic animism? This notion of nature as avenging angel seemed entirely alien to his worldview as I knew it. Had this somehow cut the path that led him to sit, voiceless, in a hospital room, painting sigils in praise of his new gods?
And what about Chris? Had he not noted these changes to his husband’s behaviour? It was with some guilt that I realised, in my contemplation of Stéphane’s actions, I had given little more than a passing thought to my cousin. He was, admittedly, beyond helping now, but the possibility that he had been oblivious to Stéphane’s mental collapse confounded me.
I made my way upstairs. Although close, the couple had taken advantage of the size of their new residence to each claim a separate suite of rooms as their own. I had thus far been disinclined to spend much time in either of their private chambers, feeling like an invader in this once-happy home. But such recalcitrance would only keep me from the answers I sought.
Chris’ study was neat, almost minimalist. He always had been the tidy one, the polar opposite of me when we were kids, but the exaggerated neatness of his study made me only more aware that he would never be coming back to it. Books on economics lined a shelf above a desk which, again, had obviously once housed a computer. I made a mental note to find out exactly what had happened to all the computers taken from here when the police had finished with them.
I was ashamed to realise that I’d never found out what Christian had planned to do with himself once he got out of trading. For a while, he’d written columns for left-leaning websites about how the spirit of fair capitalism had been broken by corrupt practices and an unending fixation with growth at any cost, but he’d not updated his blog for over six months before his death.
Piled at one corner of the desk was a selection of books on agriculture, permaculture, and sustainable farming. Christian had never been the green-fingered type, but there’s a first time for everything. A second pile contained genealogy books and hand-drawn charts mapping out his—our—family tree. In the same pile, I found a surprisingly scholarly collection of books on regional folklore and history. I picked up an unmarked volume with a cracked green spine.
Compiled in the mid-1800s by a Doctor Kermarrec, A History of Peasant Beliefs documented a range of local folk beliefs, which spanned the gamut from bird-counting charms to curses that involved nailing a warm sheep’s heart to your victim’s door. Slips of yellow paper protruded from between certain pages. Opening the book to a well-worn mark, my throat dried as I read the chapter title: “Beliefs in the Old Kind.” I reluctantly gathered up the pile of books and took them downstairs.
I awoke in an old armchair that I’d pulled up close to the stove, a heap of papers and books scattered across my lap and over the floor around me. The fire had gone out, and I felt stiff and numb. I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I recalled fragments of my dreams; I grasped after them, feeling their memory slip away.
Those dreams are now so familiar to me that I can recite every step. I am always walking down a narrow path, heavy with mist. A broken wall stands to my right, and some kind of cairn or bank rises on the left. Ancient oak and apple trees grow from it. The path leads through crooked trees, stunted and wound through with bindweed and brambles. A mouldy smell of fungi and leaf litter rises from the damp earth. Slippery brown leaves and fallen apples give way underfoot, making the footing treacherous, but I steadily move towards a clearing at the centre of the orchard, the surrounding trees growing more lush and unwholesomely verdant the closer I draw to the heart of the place.
As I approach, I see eight low, rounded stones surrounding a greater monolith, a cracked black menhir. I step inside the circle and reach out to touch the crack in the stone’s smooth surface. I feel only an instant of pain as the palm of my hand splits open. Blood pours from my slit flesh onto the stone, the only colour in a suddenly monochrome world. I try to pull back, but cannot lift my hand from that sucking thing, which seems to exert a pressure fit to drag me into the stone itself.
I watch, unable to move or scream, as crawling green tendrils with loathsome red tips begin to writhe their way from the cracked monolith and into the gaping wound in my hand. I can feel them pushing through my veins and arteries as they grow, colonizing me.
And then I wake, gasping and icy cold, just as I did that night in the armchair before my dead fire.
It was barely dawn, and the cold morning clawed at me as I cooked and ate my breakfast. Outside, mist again shrouded my view to the horizon, but I could see as far as the shrubs that surrounded the yard, still bearing golden-brown and flame-red leaves. When I pulled on a thick sweater and went out there was a hint of frost about the moist air. The sun was rising a little south of east, but its light was diffuse, veiled by the persistent fog.
I used the notary’s estate plan to find my way to the orchard, some three hundred metres from the house. It was with a shock of recognition that I saw the broken wall and earthen bank, run through with the roots of apple and oak trees. I wanted to turn and run, to get away from the mist-shrouded path at any cost. Nevertheless, I walked on as if dragged forward by a compulsion that was more than equal to my fear.
Tangled brambles wrapped around stunted trees that had already lost all their foliage, their bare branches covered with squamous lichens. My breath ghosted out in clouds that hung in the air briefly before dispersing to merge with the pervasive mist. Just as in my dream, the trees towards the centre appeared to grow more vigorously than those at its edges. Heavy with fruit, they seemed to be suffused with some unnatural life force. While the outer trees had seemed near death, half drowned in a sea of weeds and parasitic growths, these specimens positively glowed with health.
As I walked on, I reminded myself that Stéphane had been actively cultivating the orchard in his short time here. And after all, late October was exactly when such fruit trees were meant to crop most heavily in this region. Still, I was unable to shake the notion that there was something unnatural about the orchard’s tall, fecund, and half-wild trees.
The route to the centre seemed more convoluted and less clearly marked than it had in my dream. I was beginning to wonder if I had somehow passed it by when I almost fell over a low, rounded stone half buried in tangled undergrowth and leaf litter. Groping through the wet grass, my fingers brushed the broken base of another stone. I had soon found all eight stones of the circle. Some were almost entirely obliterated, others nearly complete. On one, I traced the outline of what felt like carved, sinuous script.
I jerked my hand away in disgust, making an instant connection between this and the writing of Stéphane’s distant, damaged mental state. Of the great central menhir, there was no trace, although the weeds perhaps grew a little less densely towards the centre of the ring of stones. Nonetheless, standing in the middle of the circle, I was gripped by bone-deep cold that seemed at odds with even the chill of the morning fog.
I cleared the undergrowth by hand, earning a wealth of stings and thorn-pricks for my troubles. Moist, black soil and remnants of decaying leaves collected under my fingernails, and earthworms as thick as my forefinger burrowed away as I pulled up web-like root networks with clumps of soil still attached.
Some minutes or hours later, eight stones—or their remnants—stood clear. Three were broken down to stubs that protruded little more than a thumb’s breadth above the earth. Four stood to their full, squat height somewhere between my ankle and kneecap. These had been defaced, with chunks crudely hacked from their faces. Only one retained both its full height and the full detail of the images inscribed upon it. The coiling letters and obscenely organic pictograms drew my gaze as much as they repulsed me. I tried to photograph the stone, but it seemed to suck in the surrounding light, so that all I captured was a grainy monotone shape without markings or distinguishing features. It was with profound reluctance that I pulled out my notebook and began to copy the entwining pattern of symbols.
As I sketched, it seemed to me that the images took on new meaning. Although not words or pictures with any individual purpose I could discern, the lines and stranded networks of coiling loops and branches carried with them a deeper symbolism that compelled me and drove me to reproduce them in the finest of detail. I could feel the pictograms pulse with life as the ink bled from my pen. The painstaking work made my wrist and fingers ache, while my legs grew cold and stiff from kneeling on the damp soil before the stone. I felt as though I was probing a hollow tooth or picking a scab—a sensation at once painful, consuming, and deeply satisfying. As I relaxed into the discomfort of the task, my hand moving as if of its own accord, understanding dawned.
I awoke much later, sprawled on the wet ground in the middle of the circle. The sky had clouded and fat raindrops splashed across my face. I was bitterly cold, and my hands and clothes were wet and smeared with soil. My notebook had fallen to the damp ground; I snatched it up before staggering as fast as my aching joints would carry me back towards the house.
Within the relative security of cold stone walls, I lit a fire and stood before it, shivering as I changed out of my sodden clothing. I knew. The genealogical charts would show it, but more than that, I knew. The language that Stéphane had so painstakingly tried to translate would have come as second nature to Chris, just as it did to me once I began to copy it.
I rifled through the annotated trees of our ancestors, shedding unwanted pages until I found what I was looking for: our direct antecedents. I’d never been especially interested in where my family came from, but Christian had known his origins well—this part from France, this part from Sweden, this part from Morocco—and we shared one set of grandparents. According to his notes, they’d come from a village not five kilometres from here, but left during the war. The village had never recovered from the mass exodus, reduced to a cluster of half-ruined buildings before being abandoned entirely.
We’d never known our grandfather, and our grandmother had died while we were both still young. Christian’s pile of old books included some with her nameplate in them. The family had never said much about her, even when Chis and I had still been on speaking terms with them. I remember my father telling me, when he threw me out, that I would end up just like her. She’d set herself up as some kind of dancer and spiritualist medium in Paris. Her son and daughter—my father and Chris’ mother—had left home early and stayed away, clinging closely to a rigidly traditional Catholic faith. There had been a lot of church involved in our upbringing.
Kermarrec’s book of folklore described a local fertility cult reported to exist as far back as the Middle Ages, which held that mankind could truly become one with the land and all that grew in it. He even interviewed a woman, shunned by her local village, who claimed to be a member of this cult. He’d transcribed her words and tidied dialect-heavy phrases into something “more broadly comprehensible,” but made it clear that he felt her statements to be “the inchoate babbling of a subnormal mind.” Her transcribed statement picked up where Kermarrec’s derision left off:
“It was their world. Before we uprooted trees and bounded fields, before we learned to farm, before we had so much as pulled ourselves up onto our hind legs to see over the tall grass, they were here. An ancient root network linked them, each shoot a part of the whole.
“Where the ground has been cleared and stubble burned, they wait, dormant and slumbering deep underground. They awaken only in the abandoned places, where man’s influence has waned. At first in the dark, damp recesses of the earth, then, as their seed splits open, fleshy, red-tipped tendrils burrow through deep soil, reaching for the surface, sunlight and the means to do the work of root and sap.
“In the time of man, they, too, have come to depend on our upstart race. They have an intellect, yes, of an old and slow kind. They can reproduce in two simple forms, but their range has been limited and their influence weakened. So, like many plants in the age of man, they began to rely on him to carry their seed.
“We tell stories about the first. A wandering monk who stumbled into a nest of flying seeds and spurting root-tips, enwrapped, taken in, and made part of a thing far greater and far older than his callow god. Later, much later, we drew together, we of the root and the sap. The green blessing is sacrament to our kin, and each generation is dedicated to our roots as they come of age.”
Kermarrec writes that the cult observed only two holy days. The autumnal equinox was the “dedication of the flesh,” while the vernal equinox was the “dedication of the mind.” He speculated as to whether these had descended from older pagan practices, and indicated with distaste that the believers thought the spring ritual to “give possession of a human host to their vegetal kindred, to control and bring among us a strange puppet that only looks like any other man.” Meanwhile, he wrote, in the autumn rite, “they take one of their trusting servants to feed themselves; a winter sacrifice akin to those of our brutish pagan past. It is said that he is consumed and made a part of the great botanic mind.”
The remainder of the chapter discussed the heretical nature of these beliefs from the perspective of Catholic doctrine and linked them to reported disappearances in the region. Kermarrec noted that the authorities were almost never informed, leaving the lives and loss of a handful of hermit-like farmers and lunatic outcasts more a matter of speculation than of record.
Chris had died on the autumn equinox. What little that was found of his body had been torn to shreds, seemingly from the inside, as though something had tunnelled through and burst forth from him. I sought my cold bed that night with a fluttering heart, a quivering stomach, and a sense of inevitability that weighed upon me and carried me quickly to the depths of sleep.
I was walking down a narrow path, heavy with mist. To my left, a cairn or barrow wrapped in the roots of great trees. A broken wall stood at my right hand. Stéphane was there, his mouth stuffed full of vines. He beckoned and I followed. As we moved through the trees, the season passed from autumn to winter, from fertile trees heavy with fruit and turning leaves, to twisted grey branches wound round with bare brambles and possessed of only the most dormant spark of vital force. The turn of spring found us as we approached the centre of the grove, where a cracked monolith, a circle of carved black stones, and a dead man waited for me.
Christian stood facing me as I stepped between the stones, his face serene and his back pressed close against the menhir. All around us the orchard teemed with life. The trees and shrubs that surrounded the clearing were heaped with flowers and surrounded by pollinating insects eagerly probing their depths. A sweet scent, sensed more than smelled, drew me onward. Like the insects, I was rapt by the sheer power of the life force that imbued this place. Suckers and tendrils from the undergrowth grew at a speed visible to the naked eye. Rich, golden-red light shone down on us, dappling where it filtered through shifting leaves. On the black stones, the organic, root-like symbols of our old tongue stood out bright and gleaming.
Stéphane stood silently at my right hand, inside the circle, his mouth still choked with vines. Bramble thorns pinned his lips together and a web of bindweed wove through and into the skin of his fingers. He slowly knelt before Christian and the monolith, catching my sleeve and tugging me down to join him. Caught inside the logic of a dream, I had no choice but to follow, feeling the fertile earth close about my fingertips as I went to my knees and looked up at the form of my dead cousin.
And then I saw what I had missed amid the blooming richness of hypertrophied nature. Pressed as he was against the stone, I had failed to notice the thick green and red-hued tendrils that extended from the cracked menhir and into Chris’ back. They shifted as his impassive face moved to stare at me, as a child’s hand would shift in control of a puppet. When he opened his mouth, I saw a flicker of red-tipped green where his tongue should have been. Beside me, voiceless behind a stifling gag of leaves and suckers, Stéphane let out a sob. A single tear fell from his cheek to splash onto the rich black soil.
I knew then that I would wake amid the broken stones, as I now do every night. The leaves are fast falling from the trees, carpeting the orchard in shades of black, gold, and red. There is a scar on the palm of my right hand. After the dreams began, I drew a sample of my own blood and prepared a slide. Under the microscope, corpuscles flowed, encased in thickening cell walls.
I have informed my publisher that I will not be returning from sabbatical, and a couple of phone calls and trips to the nearest town have ensured that I have supplies and fuel enough to last the winter.
Now that I am fully aware of my heritage there seems little purpose in attempting to evade the inevitable. I am haunted, both by the dreams and memory of my cousin and best friend, and by an absolute certainty that my role here is pre-ordained.
K.G. Orphanides is a journalist and writer who lives and works in West France. You can find K.G. on Twitter at @KGOrphanides and on the web at www.wyrdsmith.co.uk, where you can help yourself to a cache of flash fiction.
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Story illustration by Josh Yelle.