By Nick Wolven

Weeds rise from the roof.  We live beneath an accidental garden.  It got worse with the summer rains.  The shingles grew moldy, and yellow stalks rooted and sucked at the tar, turning black as they drank it like little oil wells.  Then the mushrooms sprouted, and then the bushes, woody stalks that make me think of mountain laurel.  Our ceilings bulged and split around the roots; tendrils poked through our bungalow’s rotting walls.  In the backyard, green gourds proliferated.  Purple vines constricted and killed the orange tree.

And then the radishes came.

I call them radishes because of the color.  But they’re smaller, sharper—-meaner, somehow.  Melody noticed them the last time she went to the hospital for bread: bright nubs clustering around the front door.  She tried to pick one, but it was rooted fast, and the thing began to stink when squeezed.

She shrugged it off.

It’s evening, now, and we sit down to talk strategy.  The bread ration is smaller than ever, the last of the potato plants has died, and our peanut contact has dried up.  Literally.  He was an old mummy of a man, more rawhide than person, with twenty inches of plastic intestines and a transplanted lung.  Some drifter switched his water for brine, and he didn’t think anything of it until the convulsions hit.  I can still remember the last time I saw him, puffing and shaking as he handed over the Shop-Time bag of nuts.  We figured he had the DTs.  Turns out he had gotten his taste buds yanked out at the local hospital, after the cafeteria closed.  Couldn’t stand the taste of home-grown food.

I understand that attitude.  The dinner Melody sets on the table looks like something from a mad scientist’s laboratory, and I suppose that may be precisely what it is.  The bread is a dense, spongy substance that you can squeeze into a ball and bounce off the walls.  Our last potato looks like a giant turd, and the stuff we’re calling corn makes me think of skin diseases.  Fat, pale kernels like blisters full of mucus, big as an eyeball and tough to chew.  It may be good for making fuel, but it sure isn’t something you’d want at a picnic.  No matter how hungry I get, it makes me gag.

“Let’s see,” Melody says.  She sets the latest government binder on the table with a thump.  Melody’s always been a practical type.  She still keeps up with the binders, running down the lists of foods approved by the Colonial Department of Agriculture, checking off the ones that grow locally with strokes of her felt-tip pen.  It’s painful to see her heaving blocks of pages over the metal rings with her trembling fingers, searching with straining eyes for plants we can identify.  Nearly everything in our town is either poisonous, untested, or an unidentified species, new and uncataloged.

“We’re a week behind on our donations to the commune, which means we’re pretty much SOL for meat, this week.”  She licks her finger and turns a page in the binder.  “Not necessarily a bad thing, really, considering the chickens they brought in last time.  But it means we’ll have to search for alternative sources.  I wish we hadn’t lost our peanut guy!”

I remember the chickens: white balls of fat with necks like wet tube socks.  “What about soybeans?  Are there any of those left?”

“Soybeans, soybeans….”  The pages flutter from her thumb.  “Not around here.  All our local oilseeds are from the Hay Baby brand; that seems to have pretty much taken over this continent.  Internal bleeding, itchy eyes, anal leakage, mild hallucinogenic effect….  We’re probably better off looking for haricots.”

Continent.  Hay Baby brand.  It’s painful to be reminded where we are: on a remote world’s one, small habitable land mass, with all our resident biomass provided by big agribusiness gene doctors.  The colony founders told us that government scientists would be incapable of building and managing a human-friendly ecosystem, that only the free market could build a biosphere in a “natural” way.  I’m sure they were right about the government scientists, but we always winced at the market idealism.  It was the word natural, I think, that made us nervous.  Even then, we knew that nature is not exactly a friend.

“They used to have haricots,” I reminisce, “at the cafeteria inHastings.  Before the June riots, at least.”

“Yeah, right.”  Melody isn’t listening.  She taps the butt end of the pen against her remaining front teeth.  She does this a lot, now: goes off into a reverie, shuts down for five or ten minutes at a time.  A kind of waking sleep.  Preserving energy, I guess.

At last she snaps to attention, shuts the binder, smiles at me.  Her face sags around missing teeth and her cheeks are drawn, but she still looks pretty, to me.  I know it’s cheesy to say it, but it’s personality that counts.  There’s something inside Melody that really glows, something that’ll look young and beautiful till she’s eighty.  If the two of us ever make it to eighty, that is.  These days it seems like thirty-one might be ambitious.

“Last I heard,” Melody says, “they were still shipping haricots out ofMichigan.  We’ll put in a request at the meeting.”

#

On Friday night, we head down to the hospital for the commune meeting.  It’s only a mile away, but the trip takes half an hour.  Melody’s dizzy spells are getting worse.  I’d packed a pretty good amount of weight onto my bones by the time the shortages hit, a post-college padding of burgers and fries, and I seem to be lagging a few steps behind the general decline.  No such luck for Melody; she’s always been petite.  She still insists on walking by herself to pick up the bread ration, but whenever we take walks together I make sure to put an arm around her, give her that little extra support.  I try not to touch the tender bruises on her arms.

The commune meetings are held in the hospital’s main waiting room, an ugly fluorescent-lit space where patients used to languish after going through triage.  We shuffle along the rows of bolted-down seats like kids playing the world’s lousiest game of musical chairs.  There are twenty-two of us left now that the Renfroes have decided to trek west in search of cropland.  Roger, our coordinator, passes out coffee, nodding his bald head drowsily over the paper cups.  Seems like coffee is the only thing we have in abundance these days–superabundance, in fact.  Everyone put plenty of money into protecting their cash crops, and now we get vast shipments of them every month: New Columbian beans and ethanol-corn in big cardboard boxes, unloaded straight from the inter-zonal shipping modules that come in each month on the government’s superlight planes.

“All righty.”  Roger lowers his grey frame slowly into a seat.  “We have a few pieces of news before we get to the agenda: good and bad.  The good news is that I’ve been talking, as you know, with the fine fellows in the mayor’s office, and we’ve worked out a new schedule for the bread ration.  The amount itself will be scaled for increased sustainability, but we’ll be getting the allotments twice as often for enhancement of contingency management.”

Groans all around.  We’re well-versed, by now, in the special jargon used by Roger and those “fine fellows” in the government.  Delonda, from the end of our street, sums things up.

“More deliveries, less bread.”

Roger can’t deny it.  He nods.

And it gets worse from there.  Avocado shipments have stopped throughout the county.  Not that I’ve seen an avocado lately, but it was always nice to think those monounsaturated fats might be waiting out there somewhere.  Melanie’s and my request for more protein is flatly shot down.  And the herbicide for the purple vines has been withdrawn after being linked to a spate of allergic reactions.  Finally Delonda speaks up again.

“Not to be rude, Roger–but is anything looking up?”

“Well,” says Roger, straightening his glasses, “I don’t know if you’ve been reading the news, lately.  But they’ve been working on a new breed of cucumber–”

More groans.  Delonda shakes her head.  “Sorry, Roger.  We don’t want more monster cucumbers.  We don’t want more super foods.  We just want something decent to eat.”

“I know,” says Roger.  “I know.”

“We just want them to get a grip on this thing, and start growing the stuff they used to grow.  Instead of one monster food after another, making a crop to compete with some other company’s killer crop, or a weed to kill some other company’s killer weed, or–to be honest, I don’t even know what they’re doing anymore.”

Killer crops: that’s what they call them.  First they kill the competition.  Then….

Roger says, “It’s hard for us all.”

“And I’ll tell you what they need to do.  They need to back up, and get back to basics, and—”

“Actually,” Melody interrupts, “I’ve been thinking.”

We all look at her in surprise.  Melody rarely speaks in meetings.  When she does, it’s usually to console someone who’s breaking down.  We sit expectantly while she touches her forehead with her fingers, closes her eyes, waits for a spell of dizziness to pass–and then leans forward with her elbows on her knees.  “I think it’s pretty clear now,” she says, “that it’s not going to get better.  The advisories aren’t even keeping up anymore.  Whatever’s happening, whatever set this off, it’s not going to stop anytime soon.”

“Your point being?” Delonda says.

Melody pushes her hair back.  “I think…I think we’ve got to try new foods.”

There’s a long pause.  Delonda, again, is the one who speaks out loud.

“New foods?”

“You know.”  Melody glances around, as though expecting to find new foods right there in the room.  And indeed, there are some large, evil-looking mushrooms in one corner, feeding off the rotted floor.  “Some of these new breeds have to be edible, even if they haven’t been tested or approved.  Those yellow roots we’ve started to see, for instance.  They look fine.  They smell fine.  It’s just a matter of experimenting.  That’s how our ancestors did things, ten thousand-odd years ago.”

“Well, great for them,” says Delonda.  “But what happens when I put one of those yellow roots in my mouth, and next thing I know my guts are falling out?”

“Well….”  Melody sighs.  “You’ll die a little faster.  Look, I know it sounds harsh.  But we’ve got to take the risk.  I don’t think we can wait any longer for the government to take control.”

I look down into my coffee cup.  I can hear shoes squeaking on the vinyl-tile floor, bolted chairs creaking as people shift their weight.  Melody’s always been the weakest of the group, and I know what people are thinking.  Maybe you can’t wait any longer, Melody.  But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who still have some flesh on their bones?

I know I should come to her defense.  I just feel so tired.  Before I can work up the strength to speak, Roger puts in his two cents.

“I don’t know, Melody.”  His remaining hairs wisp like smoke around his ears as he shakes his head.  “People may have relied on trial-and-error once.  But it took a long, long time.  And a lot of them got poisoned along the way.  And…well, what was it all for, if we’re just going to throw it all out and start again?”  He glances around the room uncertainly.  As always, it’s difficult to tell from Roger’s expression whether he’s concluding an argument or looking for advice.  “I like to think–I, personally, like to think–that we’ve learned a few things from our mistakes.”

#

The night is difficult, as always.  We spray down the sheets with our all-purpose Windex bottle, filled, at the moment, with a chemical that’s supposed to kill the latest crop of mold.  The bed feels sticky and smells funny.  Melody reaches for me under the blankets.  “Thanks.”

“For what?” I say.

“For being there.  At the meeting.  Giving me moral support.”

I go stiff in her arms.  I don’t want to, but I can feel myself doing it.  I keep thinking of those yellow stalks on the roof, sucking the tar like blood.  Of the sound the orange tree made when it fell, constricted by the thick purple vines.  Of how I failed to speak in the commune meeting–failed, in actuality, to offer support of any kind.

“I hope they weren’t upset by what I said,” Melody continues.  “I just keep thinking….”

I wait for her to finish, but she goes into one of her silences.  Her arm gets heavy on my chest, her breathing grows fainter.  It happens to both of us, these days, though it happens to Melody more often.  An intermittent lethargy assails us, stifling speech and thought.  Sometimes we come to our senses, five minutes or half an hour later, and resume a sentence left unfinished.  It’s probably the lack of carbohydrates.  I cry for no reason, sometimes, too.  I don’t even realize I’m doing it until Melody reaches out and taps my face with her finger, plucking the tears from my skin.

In a moment, lulled my Melody’s faint breathing, I feel my eyes slipping shut.  I used to be an insomniac, but not anymore.  Now, I find it all too easy to retreat into sleep.

#

When Melody and I moved down fromLakeCity, we didn’t care that our off-world colony was in crisis.  We were young and in love and we wanted a house.  It’s hard to pay attention to things like economics and crop imports when you first figure out how to have good sex.

Bayside seemed like the perfect scene for a honeymoon that would last the rest of our lives.  It was some kind of planned town, Plato-Urbanist or Agrarian Revival or something along those lines: the kind of town popular in the colonies, a make-a-fresh-start sort of place.  Every street had a bike lane and the houses were all neocolonial with pillared porches and lots of gables.  The attached bungalow colony by the sea had its own tiny hospital, its own adorable post office, its own DMV: a whole miniature infrastructure tied together by pedestrian walkways of concrete and brick.  Our bungalow had an orange tree in the backyard, decorative shutters painted to match the sea.  We planted jonquils around our new verandah.

Even when the first warnings came out and the riots started–when the colonial administration decided our free market had enjoyed its freedom enough, thank you–even then, we brushed off politics.  I had a job at the spaceport and Melody was writing technical copy for a biotech firm.  I used to say over and over that we were in a fertile climate, at least—-as if that had any bearing on anything.

It seems funny, now, in a sad sort of way.  I remember when Melody’s first tooth came out.  We were sitting on the verandah, eating sandwiches made with fake cheese and slabs of stale bread, and Melody put her sandwich down, poked it, plucked something out, and released a small mew of surprise.  A white thing rolled in her palm.  She stood, her sandwich spilling from her lap, its dry ingredients flapping to the concrete like the remains of a torn-up sneaker, and shoved past me.  I found her at the bathroom mirror, mouth open wide, wiggling teeth with her thumb.  She plucked out one, then another; they clattered and spun in the basin.  I put my arms around her just as she started crying.

“Hon, it’s all right.  We’ll get false ones, it’s all right.”  The hospitals were still running then; you could get surgery cheap.  Tools, tests, prosthetics–anything but drugs.

We still worried about appearances, you see.  Bright smiles, healthy complexions, everything like that.  And as things went on, as she gradually broke down, Melody had horrible tantrums.  She would say nasty things to me, tell me I was patronizing her, mocking her, I was just like all other men; and she’d throw things with her stick arms.  It always ended with crying, shaking, both of us so weak we could hardly stand.  Eventually, we got too tired to fight, and that seemed to solve the problem better than anything I could have said.

In the end, the whole thing brought us closer.  How can anyone care about white teeth, now?  This thinning girl, with her drawn face, her missing teeth, black circles around her eyes and bruises on her arms; whenever she touches me, it’s like sunlight on my cheek.  And if we can get in one walk together each week, just the two of us, arm in arm, helping each other down the sidewalk under the vine-choked trees, it’s like having all the summers I experienced as a kid back on earth–the willow trees and the lawns and the pond in Menotomy Rocks Park–compressed into one intense experience…as though some pitying god has taken the joy we would have had in a longer life and packed it into a half-hour.

#

In the morning, I wonder if I’ll be able to get out of bed.  My body feels like wood and my eyes are crusty; my tongue is swollen behind my teeth.  The sheets cling to me as I move my arms, peel from my shoulders like sunburned skin.  I stagger through the house.  In the kitchen, Melody is frying mushrooms in Canola oil.  They look familiar, the mushrooms, but it takes me a while to place them.

“Those aren’t from the roof?”

She doesn’t answer, just shoves a few onto my plate with the spatula.  I poke them, lift them slightly with the fork.  “Are these in the CDA binders?”

Again, no answer.  Melody pulls out her chair.  She scrapes the rest of the mushrooms onto her plate and picks up a fork.

Twenty minutes later, I decide I’m going to die.  A bubble of awfulness swells in my stomach.  It pulls the strength from my limbs, pulls heat from my body, pulls everything into itself like a private black hole.  I run to the verandah, and thin vomit explodes from me, soaking the red weeds that grow through the concrete.  Chewed mushrooms spatter the ground around my toes–thoroughly undigested.

Melody’s no better off.  We spend most of the day recuperating, running tap water through the filter and talking about electrolytes.  But that afternoon we feel better, and Melody decides to try the purple vines.  She chops them up, bakes them in the oven with oil and salt.  The things sit on our plates like butchered snakes, tough as garden hose, the color of a finger slammed in a door.  I jab at one with my fork, but it’s too rubbery; I have to scoop it up.  I do my best, but I can’t get it down.  I gag and gag, and eventually spit it out.  For minutes afterwards, the taste eats like acid at my gums.  Melody seems to be doing better; she slips one purple section into her mouth and closes her lips over it solemnly.  But a moment later she retches, turns away.

“What are we going to do?”  She dumps the vines like so many severed toes into the trash.

I don’t answer.

The evening wears on.  We sit on the couch holding hands.  It occurs to me that we’re making a sacrifice of sorts, for people who will never appreciate it.  We’re the front lines, the lab rats, the explorers who may not come home.  I squeeze Melody’s fingers, and from the way she squeezes back, I can tell she’s thinking the same thing.

Just before bedtime, Melody goes out the front door.

“What are you doing?” I call, but there’s no answer.

I hear tearing, snapping, cutting.  Melody comes back with the clippers in one hand and something hidden in her fist.  I follow her into the kitchen, where she’s busy at the sink, running water.  She turns, says, “Hold out your hand,” and drops two round things into my palm.

I’d almost forgotten about the radishes.  They sit there, pink-red, beaded with water, curved and sharp at one end like canine teeth.  Somehow they almost look intelligent, trembling slightly in my hand.  I lift one to my mouth, and Melody does the same.  The thing stinks to high heaven, but it has a nice texture.  Tough but not rubbery.  Succulent.  It tastes different from its smell, salty and satisfying.  The taste is oddly familiar.  It’s the taste of meat.

We eat the whole batch–six radishes in all–and go to bed.  When Melody says good night, I love you, the words are heavier somehow.  As I stare into the darkness, they sit in my mind like stones, pulling me down into sleep.

#

I wake in darkness, but I can see.  The air forms shapes, textures, smells: an arch of fibers, a square of grains, a patch of warmth beside me.  I identify them slowly: blanket, window, sheet.  It’s as though I can taste them, the various textures and shapes, curl my mind around them like a tongue.

I rise and move.  It’s wonderful.  My arms fly through their motions, fleet as thoughts and tough as rope.  My fingertips probe the air like rodent noses.  My feet pad the rough floor, sucking up its texture like two pumps.

The world has a rhythm, a steady thump that drives me forward like the beat in a song.  It’s my heartbeat, grown huge with presence and power.  The walls respond to it, the floor, the darkness itself.  The world responds to it like a valve to blood.

I step out onto the verandah, and Melody is there.  I taste her before I see her, a thing of water and salt.  I can see her hair growing slowly, crawling from her scalp.  She turns and acknowledges me, lips slithering back from the moist hole of her mouth.  I see something in there, a white shape on her tongue.  One of the mushrooms we tried to eat earlier.  She seals her lips around it, chews, smiles.

Her hand extends.  Another mushroom rests in her palm.

I take it, hesitant, but intrigued.  Somehow I know it will be different this time.  I can feel the difference inside me like a word recently learned.  The mushroom, crushed in my teeth, is impossibly rich, impossibly tender, impossibly satisfying.  It is better than steak, better than chocolate, better than cake.  When I swallow it I feel its presence inside me, joy instantiate, a tiny star.

Melody bends over, the skin of her groin chafing faintly, grinding tough hairs between her thighs.

The last jonquils sit in stone pots by the door, their soil protected by paper plates with holes cut in the center for the stems.  Melody lowers her head.  The white tip of one flower vanishes into her mouth.  She clamps her jaws shut, rotting teeth and raw gums interlocking in a rough puzzle, and drags on the stem.  The paper plate shifts and dirt spills onto the concrete.  She swallows the flower head and sucks up the stem, the withered leaves, the dangling hairball of roots and dirt, looks at me with soil on her lips like chocolate.  I can see it all, the facts of her, the whole of her: mucus pooling at the corners of her eyes, the pupils breathing light, the filigree of blood vessels, the million hungry bonded molecules.

The remaining jonquils nod beneath her, and when I touch them, I can see them, too, the tiny bonds that hold them together, the fire hidden inside.  I bend over, just as Melody did.  It’s as though I’ve learned a secret, a new skill.  The flowers dissolve inside me like an image dissolving in bright light.

I glance at Melody, and together we step forward into the backyard–into a monstrous dark garden throbbing with life.

#

“What the hell was that?”

Melody sits at the table, the government binder under her hands.  She looks better than yesterday: brighter, more alive.  Even–it sounds strange to say–more intelligent.  Her lips are a deeper red; her cheeks are firm.  Her hands, resting on the vinyl cover of the binder, are smooth and strong.  Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I think her nails have grown.

“Was that a hallucination?” she says.  “Was there some sort of chemical in there?  A natural drug?”

“Probably,” I say.

Melody doesn’t seem to remember the flowers.  She tells me she went out on the verandah, took a deep breath, and felt as though she were drinking moonlight.  I suppose that supports the hallucination theory.  But I’m not sure I believe it.  I can still see things clearly: the pale bulge of the mushroom on her tongue, her lips squirming over that flower stem, a smudge of mud on her chin.  I can see the backyard spreading before me, dark and inviting, full of flavor and nutrients.  And I still feel a kind of hungry power in my body, a new vitality, the sense that I’m sucking in the essence of the world like soup.

“I feel so much better,” Melody says, looking vaguely at the ceiling.  “I feel as if I’ve grown bigger, somehow.”

I nod deeply, point at the binder.  “Any mention of…you know.  In there?”

She shakes her head.

The day passes slowly because we both know what we’re going to do, and yet we’re putting it off.  We fuss around the house, spraying vainly at encroaching mildews and molds, trimming back the tendrils that come through the walls.  At last, in the late afternoon, Melody heads to the front porch with her clippers.  The radishes once looked sinister to me, but not now.  I snatch them eagerly from her palm and stuff them into my mouth, pushing them back to my strongest teeth.  I savor the tenderness of their flesh, the warm meaty taste.  And then I sit down at the table with Melody, and we wait.

The change happens quickly, yet it still sneaks up on me.  One moment I’m in the kitchen with Melody, the next I’m in a garden of smells, textures, shapes.  Language fades from my mind.  I have to dig for words in the chaos of sensations, the stew of flavors and feelings.  Slick and damp, thin and tough: that’s linoleum on the floor.  Warm and fibrous, hard and rich: the wooden table.   Rich, sweet, foul, thick, heavy with rot and yet wetly delicious: the air.

Melody is no longer Melody.  She’s a presence hunkering near me, a thing of great variety and weight, a reek of damp involutions and oil and grease, a stench of tooth decay, an odor of salt, a symphony of hair scratching and fluid pumping and wet tissues sliding one against another.

We stand.  I leave the kitchen, enter the living room.  The house spreads before me, a cornucopia of smells.  I find a green shoot poking from the drywall and examine it, fondle it, savoring its small delicacy, triumphing in the hungry alertness of my nose and skin.  The shoot already has a frail leaf, a tiny bud.  The bud pops free easily and rolls in my palm, teasing my skin, a sweet little bead.  It bursts between my incisors, washing my gums with a tart coolness.  I look at the shoot.  Once I would have been unable to eat it, would have turned away in revulsion.  Now the shoot offers itself; it has grown here for me.  I grasp, pull.  The wall cracks and crumbles.  Green ropes pour out and drape me like scarves, and I can’t help myself, I scoop them into my mouth like noodles.  It’s not enough.  I make my way down the wall, scraping off the lichens and mold.  I tear up fistfuls of the rotted carpet.  It’s not enough.  I discover the slimy paradise of the bathroom.  It’s still not enough.  The cells of my body, those innumerable small stomachs, scream for satiety.  I lose track of what I’m doing, where I am; I only know that the world is offering itself to me and entering me and exploding inside me, an eternal fuel dying violently in an eternal engine, a green spark traveling a wire with no end.

#

In the morning, I don’t even need to think about getting up.  Sun hits my face and I’m out of bed, muscles and senses responding like a tuned machine.  The air rushes up to me, eager to be inhaled.  The thousand odors of the world rush up to me, eager to be savored.  Somewhere out there is a banquet of succulent things, all of them eager to be eaten.

When I go to the kitchen, something is waiting for me there.

It sits at the table, hunched and pale, a mass of respiring flesh.  Stringy muscles, wrapped in weak hide, cling to its thin bones, interspersed occasionally with meager pockets of fat.  Its mouth is a raw hole, supplied with five corroded teeth that seem ready to snap off at a tap.  Its fingers look thin and breakable as crayons.  I see how the fingers could be crushed, the teeth driven in, the warm belly exposed.  I see how the belly could be divulged of those last reserves of vitality, the wet organs in their bone hollow–the muscular heart and the liver rich with fat, the salty pasta of the kidneys.  So, then: this, too, has been offered to me, or rather offers itself to me.  But when I advance I see a fierceness in the eyes, a latent tension, a secret threat that warns Not yet

I shake my head.  What am I thinking?  It’s Melody, of course, my own Melody.  Laughing at my confusion, I sit at the table across from her.

“I feel weird,” Melody says.

I don’t answer at first because I’m still distracted, overcome by the richness of everything.  God, it’s wonderful!  I didn’t realize how sick I was getting.  It happened so gradually that I took it for granted, forgot who I really was.  But now I remember what it means to be alive.  The blood runs here and there inside me on its urgent errands; the cells greet it and exult and swell.  I feel disgusted by who I used to be.  I could take that person, the person I was only a few days ago, and break him in half with one hand.

I sense Melody’s eyes on me and realize she’s waiting for me to say something.  With some effort I recall her last words.  “Yeah,” I say, “weird.”  My voice is like an involuntary sound, a sigh or cough.  “I know what you mean.  Strong, right?  New.”  I take a napkin from the holder, pick at it absentmindedly.

“Strong,” Melody says, narrowing her eyes.  “Yes.  I feel stronger.”  Dry creases form in her face as she frowns.  “But wrong, somehow.  As though I hurt someone, and can’t remember how it happened.”  She looks me in the face.  “Do you remember anything about last night?”

“A little.  I remember eating the radishes.”

“After that?”

I tell her what I can recall of my forage in the living room, the roots spilling from the wall, the sweet bud in my palm.  “I felt…confident.  As though I knew what I had to do.”

Melody nods slowly.  I can hear her nod, the flexing of her skin.  If I listen closely, I can hear all sorts of things, wet events happening inside her.  “But didn’t you also feel…different?  As though you weren’t really you?  As though you were…just a thing, like anything else?”

“Not really.”  I laugh.  “I felt more like me, really!”

Again, she nods slowly.  Then pushes back her chair.  “Would you come out to the verandah, for a second?”

I shrug and follow.  On the verandah, Melody stops just outside the door and stands looking down at something, holding the storm door open with her hand.  I stand behind her and look over her shoulder.

“What do you think it is?” she says softly.

It seems obvious what it is, so I don’t say anything.  After a moment, Melody adds:

“Where do you think it came from?”

“Maybe one of the neighbors?” I say, though I’m not sure why it matters.

“Do you think it could be someone’s–oh, God!”  She breaks off suddenly, putting a hand over her mouth.

I stoop and prod the small shape, surprised at how stiff and heavy it feels.  If you turn your head so that you can’t see the front end, it almost looks alive, ready at any moment to dart away.  “I don’t think people keep pets anymore,” I say.  “Too expensive.”

“Even so,” Melody says.  “I mean, it looks well fed.  Or as though–”

She breaks off.  “Maybe a stray dog got to it.”  I straighten.  “There are still some around, even with the patrols.  They say a dog killed two children in Parksville, last month.”

Melody doesn’t seem to be listening.  She keeps staring at the little shape on the ground.  “I’m worried,” she says softly.  “I really am.”

#

That night, Melody issues a decree.  No more radishes.  We’re through.  She was wrong about trying new foods.  We’re going back to the old strategy, relying on the commune and the CDA binder, eating approved foods and supplies off the government planes.  At the next commune meeting, we’ll say we’ve reconsidered our proposal.  No more experimenting.  No more trial and error.

We nod solemnly and even shake hands on it in a formal, semi-ironic sort of way.  No more.  We prepare a little package for the FDA, using one of the special envelopes marked with a modified biohazard symbol, placing a radish inside along with a wad of forms, little checkboxes marked next to ominous phrases: “Suspected unsafe;” “May contain toxins;” “Mood-altering or hallucinogenic properties.”  We agree to bring it to the commune for the bulk mail pickup.

By evening, we’ve ripped open the package and eaten its contents, and we’re back at the front porch, clipping and tearing at the vines around the door.  The radishes have a friendly appearance now.  Their pointed ends curl like beckoning fingers and their red-pink skins are a bright invitation.  They seem to beg to be inside us.

This time I know what to expect, and it’s wonderful, even better than before.  I walk out into the backyard and wait for the effects to kick in.  Life sneaks up and possesses me.  The gourds, which the CDA binder lists as poisonous, crack open around microcosms of yellow mush and panicked ants; I open whole universes to the light before sending them down to a deeper darkness, laughing at the fermentation of tiny legs in my mouth.  I reach for the low-hanging roots that depend like hairy icicles from the roof and tear down chunks of the rotted structure, woody branches and velvet leaves and clumps of shingle and mud and leaf-litter washing me with their esculent rain.  Even the purple vines are no match for me now, once I’ve ripped them from the orange tree.

It’s like tearing open a pastry to find hidden cream, like ripping the soft parts from a boiled lobster.  It’s like saying the cruel words that can destroy a person, cut away his confidence and strength, bring him completely under your control.

#

Things are better, now.  I’m stronger.  I don’t cry without reason.  Weeks have gone by, and I no longer need to rely on the plants that grow around the house.  I go foraging far afield, hunting for different flavors.  I chase things, too.  Even things that are quick.

Best of all, I can see clearly.  I used to be confused.  I couldn’t tell one thing from another, the things that are growing from the things that are dead, the things that are sweet from the things that are sour.  Couldn’t tell the weak from the strong.

Take Melody.  She used to be a mystery.  Now I see the cords that move her fingers, the fibers that move her legs.  She has lost all her teeth, but she is still strong.  She carries a pouch with her, a ragged tote bag full of stones and knives and sharpened bones, and these have become her teeth.  For big food she begins with her hands, pounds with stones, slices with knives, pries with bones, then licks her fingers clean.  For small food, she sends out a hand–fast–sometimes there is a small cry–and she swallows, and that is all.

She is like all things: a little fire burning a little while.  I am a bigger fire, but not by much.  Of all the things I see clearly, these facts are the clearest.  We are strong; for now, that is enough.  Even the stray dog we encountered was too weak.  A big animal, but sickly and uncertain.  He bit once, and missed, and exposed his throat.

The radishes are everywhere.  The more we eat, the more there seem to be.  They have overtaken the roof and filled the backyard.  They have even invaded the house.  They line the doors and litter the carpet, pale and firm, pointed at the ends.  At night they catch the moonlight and shimmer like enamel, standing out brilliantly from the soft moldy darkness, the whole house like a mouth lined with teeth.

#

On Friday, we walk to the hospital for the commune meeting.  The mile-long trip is no ordeal now.  There are plenty of things to eat along the way.

The hospital stinks of chemicals and artificiality.  The people inside stink of salt and urea, of the sour vapors that ooze from organisms in crisis.  Their bodies are shriveled and tender, dead fruit.  As we enter, they stare at us with a watchful intensity, the watchfulness of the weak in the presence of the strong.

“Hello, there,” Roger says.  “Haven’t seen you two in a while.”  His voice has the thin, inconsistent quality of something running on low power.

We seat ourselves on chairs at the rear of the room.  A rustle passes through the group, as the people unconsciously lean away from us like grasses bending away from a helicopter.

“Are you two all right?”

I struggle to remember the speaker’s name.  Delonda, that’s it.  She looks at us with one eye squinted, an unmistakable expression of disgust.  But it’s she who is disgusting, with her sagging, wasted face.

“You look dirty.”

“You smell bad,” someone else says.  “And your clothes…”

“Now, now.”  Roger pats the air, silencing them.  “We’ve all had some hard times.  But let’s try and stay focused.  If we all can stick together–”

“It’s not just their clothes.  There’s something else about them.  Something wrong with their mouths.”

“I said,” Roger continues, in his low-wattage voice, “if we just stay focused…I have some news from our friends in the government.”

Pointless sounds tumble out of him, words and terms of a lost world.  Something about the CDA and protein shortages, arthropods, gastropods, annelids.  I’m more interested in the response of his audience.  They stare at him in horrified disbelief.

“Let me get this straight,” the woman named Delonda shrills.  “They’re asking us to eat bugs?”

I look at them all with sadness, with disgust–these creatures who can’t bring themselves to eat bugs.  I suppose I am sad because their very presence seems wasteful.  No meat on their bones.  No will even to grow strong.

Shouting ensues, protests, arguments.  But the people soon fall silent.  Melody has stood up.

She approaches them slowly, holding out her hand.  Roger and Delonda and the others stare at the radishes in her palm.

“Well, what is this?”  Roger adjusts his glasses, trying to sound amused.  “You…you want us to eat those?”

Melody shakes her hand, and the radishes tumble about, beckoning with their pointed tips–seeming, as always, to sue to be consumed.

“Jesus.”  Delonda looks at Melody’s face, turns to Roger.  “You see?  You see what could happen?”

She swings her arm; the skin wags like Spanish moss.  I watch, intrigued–attracted, really, by the sight of this dead-yet-living thing, this walking carrion animated by anger, by her eyes that are round and wet like sweet seeds.  I pinch a lock of her hair.  It comes out easily, just as I had expected.  And now I can taste Delonda, her special mixture of salts and oils, her tickling particularity in my throat.

I almost laugh at the roomful of silent, dazzled faces, the weak jaws and trembling cheeks, the muscles that shrink and loosen by the second.  Delonda waves a finger.

“Sick…crazy…”

“Now, now,” Roger keeps saying.  “Now, now.  Now, now.”

Melody and I step forward together.  The silence, at first, is marvelous, a tense quiet full of reserved strength.  I wonder if these creatures, in their fear, might actually be dangerous.  But Roger says again, “Now, now,” and with these words, a spell is broken.  People scamper from their chairs.  Roger’s voice dies the way all things die, with a quiet inevitability.  He stares at us with an absorption close to rapture: a sick animal in a healthy world.

Melody passes me the remaining radishes.  As she does so our hands meet, and she does something strange, curls her fingers into mine.  We stand there holding hands, the radishes between our palms.  I realize it is a gesture of farewell.  I study this animal I have lived with for so long.  Sadness, which I thought I would never feel again, comes to me from a distant and mostly forgotten place.  Perhaps it is not sadness, exactly, but awe, amazement, before the sheer invincible fact of Melanie’s face.  Delonda is shrieking something about monster crops, about success and failure, and I admit into consciousness a thought which has been waiting for a long time at the back of my mind: that in a perfect world, the monster always wins.

Still holding Melody’s hand, I pluck three radishes from the warm cell of our clasped palms.  I chew slowly, savoring the peculiar flavor, salty, complex, reminiscent of summer barbecues and smoke.  When I swallow, my Melody goes away forever.  It is no longer a person holding my hand but a joining of many tiny beautiful animals, free in a trapped way, like a billion tiny flickering fires rooted to one log.

The people are fleeing now, actually running for the doors.  They’re too weak to run far.  I release the hand holding mine.  I’m independent, solitary at last, and yet have a strange sense of communion–as though innumerable beings are at my side, wandering severally to a single place, back to a bounty that waits to receive us all.

Nick Wolven lives in New York City. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and other journals.

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