This is Part 2 of a short story, “The Outskirts of Eden.” Read Part 1 here.
I was about to drop the delicate tendril and continue toward the mountains when I had a sudden thought. Where did this single, tiny shoot of life come from, I wondered. All around, as far as the eye could see, was only deadness and dryness. Down in the depths of this tangled mass of vines on which I walked lurked a cloud of decay and death. How could this fragile flower survive in such a hostile environment?
I looked around, and realized that this flower wasn’t alone after all. Twenty or thirty paces away, waving happily in the late afternoon breeze was another bright green stem shooting out of the tangled mass of dry wood. And a few feet over to the left, I saw another purple flower poking from the thorns.
I squatted down to get a another look at this flower at my feet. I ran my fingers along the bright green stem as it curved and coiled around the dry, woody brambles. In most places throughout this godforsaken landscape, the thorny vines were knotted so tightly together that I had only been able to fit a few fingers through. But it just so happened that where this green tendril had sprouted, the dead branches were spaced farther apart, so that I could reach farther down into its depths.
I peered down into the thicket, following the tendril with my hand, and gasped with sudden understanding. This was not a single flower. It had sprouted from a thicker branch, which I saw growing up from underneath the thorny tangle, pushing the dead brush aside. I saw other shoots coming off of its stem, twisting away into the darkness where, presumably, they burst forth into the other flowers I had seen on the surface. The scattered shoots of green weren’t separate plants; they were all one organism, growing together out of the dead undergrowth.
With my face pressed into the opening in the thicket, I inhaled tentatively. I half expected to choke on the stench of decay that had been chasing me. Instead, my lungs filled with the same fragrance that had wafted down from the mountains and rose up from the petals of that tiny flower. It seemed that these new, living vines radiated the same fragrance, filling this one spot in the bramble bush with a floral scent that pushed back the stench of decay.
I peered further into the darkness and was surprised again. In the darkness underneath the surface of the brambles, these green vines seemed to pulse with an inner light, softly illuminating the dark undergrowth. How a plant could glow in the dark, I didn’t know. But as I pondered this new development, it somehow didn’t seem out of place. Rather, it occurred to me that, well, of course they glowed. This living, breathing, glowing green plant was, in some way, the opposite of the dry, dead, dark thorns all around. And so if the bramble thicket was– as it seemed– the very embodiment of darkness and death, it made sense that this living vine should fill the darkness with gentle light.
I looked up and saw that dusk was rapidly falling. The bright disk of the sun had already slipped below the horizon, although its light still reached the distant mountains, setting them ablaze with the molten beauty of the evening golden hour. In the dazzling light of the sunset, they seemed closer than they had been before, even though I had not moved.
Without meaning to, I had lingered at this flower far longer than I had intended, and now night was falling. But where the thought of night had, only minutes before, filled me with a wordless dread, I now faced the oncoming darkness with a serene confidence. This bioluminescent vine illumined the gloom and suppressed the bramble thicket’s noxious stench. If I could shelter underneath the vine, I thought, the night would not seem so long or dangerous.
I looked down and saw, for the first time, that I happened to have a small hatchet strapped to my belt. (Had it been there the whole time, or had it presented itself only when needed?) I took it in my hand and– with some relish– swung it violently at the dead wood surrounding the green plant. The dry vines shattered and crumbled underneath its blade, and within minutes I had cleared a space around the living vine about five feet in diameter and several feet deep. The work was surprisingly easy, and I continued hacking into the thicket, farther and farther and down, hoping to find the bottom. But the tangle of thorns and dead vines went much deeper than I had expected, and after about ten feet down I gave up, concerned that if I dug much deeper I would have trouble getting out in the morning.
Ten feet down, the living, glowing vine grew thicker until it resembled the trunk of a tree– a brilliantly green, bioluminescent tree. It rose out of the bramble– how far down it went, I didn’t know– and branched out into thick, sinewy vines that snaked out into the thicket, pulsing with the same happy light. After spending all day up on top of the thorns, it somehow comforted me to know that this bright, joyful plant had been growing unseen underneath my feet. It turned out that there was more than death down here. There was also new life, new life that was slowly and relentlessly pushing the death aside.
I didn’t know where it came from or what it might mean, but as I drifted off to sleep propped up against the warm, sweetly perfumed trunk, I dreamt of wild mountain streams and alpine meadows.
Come back to read Part 3 tomorrow.