Two men walk up a gravel path together. On either side of them, carefully tended rows of plants stretch into the distance. Plants of all kinds, berries and blossoms that would never appear alongside one another in nature. There is no birdsong or insect hum in the air, only quiet machine noises. The sky has no visible sun, seems somehow too close. It’s a bright, garish tropical watercolor stain of a sky. Nothing quite casts a shadow, and yet—there is a haze across the ground before and behind the ambling figures.
One man is eighteen, the other about thirty or thirty-five. The older man is handsome in a rough-cut sort of way, prematurely balding, stocky. The younger man still has a doughy, boyish look, and beautiful smooth skin. Both wear dark green jumpsuit coveralls and heavy brown boots. Both carry metal boxes with handles and hinges. They stop at a concrete ledge surrounding a sunken lake of palm trees, each tree so defined in the sky’s consistent light that it looks solarized. They put their boxes down on top of the ledge and open them.
* * *
This is where I like to sit on my smoke breaks. Here, we can share.
I don’t like menthols.
You’re taking one anyway, I see.
Almost looks like a real sunset, right?
I dunno. I’m not that old.
Shit, neither am I. But you’ve seen videos, yeah?
I guess. Things don’t look real in videos.
Look at that gradient. Yellow, gold, pink, red.
I think it looks like bloody vomit.
Don’t be gross, Cal.
The world is gross. Like, look at this. This is my lunch. Cockroach nutrient paste. They grind up those cute little bugs for it. Like, look at those trees. You know what they grow them in?
I’ve worked here for seven years. Of course I know.
I always figured it was just compost. Before I came to work at the gardens.
It is. Human compost. Potter’s field.
I thought they burned all the dead people up on the surface.
Nah. Not everybody wants that. It’s good for the trees, anyway. It gets us a nice color variation in the hydrangeas. They turn from blue to pink in the spots where the soil mixture goes from corpse-full to corpseless. Not like we take ‘em until they’re super decomposed and processed, anyway.
Gives me the creeps, is all. I don’t think I’d’ve applied for this job if I’d known. Don’t you worry those hydrangeas might be haunted?
Don’t believe in ghosts. Except maybe up aboveground, in the heat and the storms. Ooooooh, spooky. All our dead ancestors lamenting the folly that led us here. Ooooh. Whooooo. That’s the real reason nobody can go up and out if they don’t have a permit. They’d be accosted by hungry ghosts in the dry, sterile wind. Howling about what they should’ve done all those years ago, before we had to go below.
Fuck you, Sam. God, I hate menthol. I hate it.
And yet, he smokes.
If I didn’t, I would get hungry enough to actually eat the cockroach paste.
I’d offer you some of my lunch, but I don’t have one. Just the cigs. You’re right; the paste ain’t great.
It’s so fucked up that they still even make cigarettes. When you think about it.
They still make all kinds of shit. That’s capitalism, baby. Besides, we gotta have our little vices so we don’t succumb to any big ones. And so we don’t get too dissatisfied with life. Anyway, who wants to live past sixty or seventy down here? Not me, I can tell you that.
You got a favorite plant?
Well, there’s a more pleasant question. Hmmm. I suppose I’ve always been partial to that mulberry tree over yonder. Black mulberry. Only one left in the world. Bitter little fruits, bark’ll make you shit yourself for days. That tree has over three hundred chromosomes, did you know?!
Is that a lot, for a tree?
God, it’s a crazy number. Damn polyploids. Love them.
My favorite’s the prickly pear. I don’t know a damn thing about, like, the science, the chromosomes or the ribosomes or whatever, but I like saying the name. I like the spikes.
You’re drawn to the difficult ones. A kid after my own heart.
I wish there were more cactuses left.
Yeah. Pity they couldn’t rescue ‘em.
They’re an honest thing in the world. If you touch them, they hurt your hand. Some of these trees are too pretty to be down here. They smell too good. They’re all soft and dripping petals on the walkways, and the petals are made of rotted corpses. The corpses get sucked up from the mulch through the roots, you know, and turned into flowers. And don’t make fun— don’t you dare, Sam— but sometimes I think: what if ghosts got sucked up out of the dirt that way, too? What if the tree is drinking up human souls and turning ‘em strange, into some kind of haunting that’s not quite a dead man’s whisper and not quite the sex of a plant? What would those creatures even look like? What might they want from us?
Cal, come on. Don’t be an idjit. Finish that smoke. Break time’s up in a few minutes.
Already? That’s practically nothing. Geez.
We get two more before shift change. Don’t complain. This is a cushy gig. Would you rather be in one of the factory sectors?
Only if I got to be in management.
Dream on, buddy. Make sure you put the butt in a safe disposal bag.
Yeah, yeah. I’m ahead of you, old-timer.
* * *
Sam and Cal rise from the concrete ledge where they’ve been resting. Cal runs a hand through the black scrub of his hair. It’s still a tender hand, uncallused; Cal is from a relatively well-off family, has not had to work until his recently bestowed legal adulthood. There is thick black crud packed tight beneath each of his fingernails. He carefully puts two cigarette butts in a plastic bag marked with the biohazard symbol. He puts the bag inside his lunchbox, beside the container of food he’s barely touched.
Sam’s hands are filthy, the skin so thick he can put his cigarettes out on the meaty part of his palms and not feel it. He cracks each knuckle with relish and stretches them high above his head. Artificial night will arrive in this part of the garden soon. Sam and Cal will do the next part of their shift in a starless twilight; for the last leg, they’ll move on to a sector where it’s electric blue day. This work plays havoc with a person’s circadian rhythm, but everyone’s used to that by now. No one remembers when it was different. A person might as well sleep in light as in dark.
The two men head back down the gravel path the way they came. Noises of human activity begin to drown out the quiet machine sounds. More people in green jumpsuits come into view, and some old helper robots with kindly, un-sentient faces. A few of them call out to Sam, or Cal, or both.
Behind them, unnoticed, strange pale nude figures creep through the palm trees. They stay well clear of the concrete ledge. There are perhaps a dozen of them— human-looking, and not. Their figures resemble ours. They even have genitals. But their faces are distorted, peeled open in delicate layers of soft pinkish-gray. They don’t appear to have any eyes or teeth or skulls back there, behind the layers: it’s just ruffle after ruffle of moist flesh, like the petals of a washed-out marigold. Still, they must have senses, and thoughts. It’s obvious from the way they avoid the ledge, the way they grow still when the next workers come to sit upon it and take their smoke break. It’s obvious in how they bend their petalled heads together in conference and entwine their long, nail-less fingers. Sometimes they turn to watch the smokers. Sometimes one reaches out a long arm and points at one or another of the jumpsuited people, and the others shift to point their flowers towards that person. (The figures don’t seem interested in the robots at all.)
What grows in the underworld? Even those who tend it don’t know. What do the flower-people want? Are they ghosts? Are they vengeful or kind? Will they seduce Sam one day as he removes malignant fungus from the roots of a white oak? Will they leap upon Cal one night and drag him, wild-eyed and kicking, into the palm grove? I can’t tell you these things. I can only show you the mystery. I can only show you that there will always be a mystery, as long as there are human beings with minds to contemplate it.
Briar Ripley Page grew up in Appalachia and currently lives in London with their spouse, cats, and a friend or two. They have a giant raspberry bush in their back garden but cannot keep houseplants alive. You can find Briar and their (prolific! acclaimed!) work online at briarripleypage.xyz and flameswallower.itch.io.