by Arwen Spicer
The last gas lamp guttered, and blackness enveloped the bridge of the Hypohydron. The throbbing heart of its mighty engine engulfed Finch’s ears.
“Finch, where’s that light?” barked Abercrombie.
“Bloody match won’t strike.”
“Can’t you even strike a match?” cried Russell. “Be a man, for God’s sake!”
I was a damn fool to agree to this, thought Finch. What had he been looking for? Publication? Recognition? Proving to himself he was man enough to penetrate the Everest of marine volcanos?
On his third try, a spark sliced the darkness. Finch’s thin hands leapt back into being. He set the match to the kerosene lamp between his knees, snapping the glass shade in place as the wick flared.
Abercrombie took the lamp, passing its light across dials and knobs. “All right. I’m going to try to surface her again.”
“And if you smash us into the rocks again?” Russell’s aged face danced in the lamp light.
Abercrombie flashed his swashbuckler’s grin. “A man doesn’t plunge beneath the Devil’s Ring to live forever.”
Pointless. Stupid. Like as not, there was nothing inside that caldera but the nests of the seabirds that vanished over its peaks. Like as not, this blasted sea cave was a dead end, a deathtrap. And here they were, blind, the periscope smashed, the Hypohydron creaking under thousands of pounds of water.
Abercrombie laughed. “Six fathoms and rising. By Jove, we’re going to make it.”
As the porpoise silhouette of the Hypohydron swayed beneath them, the three men sat at the hatch and gaped. They floated on a sun-dappled sea encircled by mountains sharp as spikes. The surf sketched lines across beaches that receded into verdant hills, and the hills surrendered to the black, dagger heights, a devil’s ring, just as the native legends named it. Gulls keened and gawdy birds flitted in the trees.
“A naturalist’s cornucopia,” said Russell.
Finch had to agree. With Russell’s botanical journals and Finch’s illustrations, this discovery would inscribe their names in the annals of science.
Irritating as ever with his athlete’s grace, Abercrombie dove into the water.
“Dinghy’s intact,” he reported. “But if you’d rather swim to shore, I’m game.”
They anchored the Hypohydron in the shallows and rowed the dinghy to an inlet. The beach rambled up a gentle slope, sand melting into meadow and broadleaf trees.
As soon as they pulled the boat out of the waves, Finch threw himself on the sand, its grains soft between his fingers, his boots wet with the living tide. He sucked in lungfuls of warm, salt air.
Abercrombie towered above him, sleeves rolled to show off his Apollonian triceps. “A virgin wilderness. Ours must be the first voices to break the tranquility of this nameless cove.”
Russell chuckled. “We’d best name it, then. Let’s see. There’s the Strait of Magellan, Drake’s Bay. We’ll call it Abercrombie’s Cove, what?”
Abercrombie laughed but did not object. “Come on, then. Let us explore our new kingdom.”
They followed a stream uphill and around a wooded bend, Russell taking note of species while Finch dashed off sketches for future reference. Birds pelted their ears with song. Cicadas ratcheted. Little creatures rustled in the brush.
“Catalpa, bodhi, mulberry,” Russell rattled off, “and the mulberry’s in fruit.”
The clatter of a waterfall grew on the air, and as they rounded a thicket, the stream broadened into a pool spilling out from the slender fall’s feet. They strolled the bank, gazing down at water so clear that stones a dozen feet deep shone crisp beneath the ripples.
Finch stopped by a clump of a buttery flowers he initially identified as daffodils. They had the signature wide outer petals and an inner corona encircling the plant’s reproductive organs, but quite unlike any daffodil he knew, these grasped each other with tendrils, bending flower to flower till the stamens of one kissed the pistil of another. Direct pollination without an insect’s assistance?
Finch was sketching the flowers when Abercrombie exclaimed, “My God! Look there.” He stood a little way off, gazing at something beyond the curve of the hill.
Joining him, Finch caught his breath. On the hillside stood three young women in flowing skirts, fantastically costumed in grass headdresses and bracelets. They appeared in an attitude of prayer, hands and faces upraised as if to Phoebus.
Russell puffed up the hill and stopped short. “Good heavens.”
Abercrombie strode toward the women. “Have no fear. We are but simple travelers.”
“They’re hardly going to speak English, are they?” said Finch.
“It’s all a matter of tone, Finch.” Abercrombie spread his arms in a gesture of peace, but the women gave no acknowledgment. Several steps away, he paused. “Why, they’re statues. Russell, Finch, come here.”
They couldn’t possibly be statues, thought Finch. Their headdresses and skirts wafted to subtle movements of air. Yet they stood uncannily still. Perhaps they were statues garbed in cloth, as the Greeks used to. Each was painted head to toe, two the color of cream, one vibrant yellow. But why couldn’t he see the seams of their dresses? Their shapely bosoms were covered, their skirts down to the knees, but as he neared, he could see no join between stone and cloth. Was the whole form covered in some sort of gauze?
Abercrombie reached up and touched the yellow statue’s arm.
It sprang to life and jumped back, staring at him.
He laughed. “So you are alive. I thought so. No work of stone could exude such loveliness.”
The other two dropped their arms and blinked at the men.
“But their dresses are attached,” Finch blurted.
“Well, what are you suggesting, man? That they should fly away?”
“No, I mean, their skin, their skirts; they’re the same, can’t you see? The same color, same sheen. The only difference is the grass—and their fingertips.” Their fingertips were dusted with a light fuzz of gold.
The yellow woman looked Abercrombie up and down. “What manner of flower are you?” she said in the accents of a lady.
“You speak English,” cried Abercrombie.
She cocked her head. “Yes, I speak. I am also a walking flower.” Though her English was flawless, Finch found something misplaced about her mouth.
“You are, indeed, a heavenly blossom.” Abercrombie moved to take her hand, evidently intending to bestow a kiss upon it.
She snatched her fingers away. “My dear flower, I hardly know you.” The other two women came to crowd behind her, whispering between themselves.
“I meant no offense. Among my people, a gentleman kisses a lady’s hand to show his regard. But I see Nature has bestowed on you a more rarified modesty.”
Hardly, thought Finch. Those skirts fell in strips across their thighs so that the slightest breeze revealed the shapely legs beneath.
“But I forget myself,” said Abercrombie. “We’ve not been introduced. I’m James Abercrombie, captain of the good ship Hypohydron. This is Dr. Albert W. Russell, the eminent botanist, and this weedy little fellow’s Thomas Finch, his illustrator.”
The women appraised them as if they were vaguely interesting house plants.
“May I ask your names, dear ladies?” said Abercrombie.
“Daffodil,” replied the yellow woman; she was quite the yellow of daffodil.
“No, no, we can’t have that,” said Russell. “A girl who calls herself ‘Narcissus’?”
Abercrombie glanced at him in surprise. “My good doctor, she said ‘Jonquil.'”
“I heard ‘Daffodil,'” said Finch. “Three names for the same flower.”
“But we can’t have heard different words,” said Abercrombie.
“Different?” said Daffodil. “There is only one name for our flower.”
Finch realized what had been troubling him. “Her lips!”
“Finch,” said Abercrombie sternly, “I’ll not have you making personal remarks.”
“No. Her lips aren’t moving to the words. I think she isn’t actually speaking English.”
They all stood in silence for a moment, staring.
“My dear,” said Russell, “repeat after me: ‘I speak English.'”
“Say, ‘London Bridge is falling down.'”
She hesitated. “A rock is falling in the water.”
Russell raised an eyebrow. “Say, ‘Abracadabra.'”
She ruminated longer before saying, “It appeared?”
The three men exchanged glances.
Russell laughed. “By George, I’ve got it. She’s speaking direct with the power of thought. If she doesn’t know what something is, it doesn’t translate. Why, this is a phenomenon hitherto unknown to science.” He scribbled in his notebook.
“Speaking straight from the innermost thoughts,” said Abercrombie. “What revelations one might glean of the female heart.”
They dusted off the gear they’d purchased in Cape Town and pitched camp beside the pool. Looking up from hammering a stake, Finch gasped. At least ten Daffodils stood in the westering sun, watching their operation implacably.
“Where on Earth are their men?” mused Abercrombie. “Are they living Amazons, visited from time to time by lovers from afar.”
“What, like you, you mean?” Finch snapped.
“Hardly likely to be you,” said Russell.
Abercrombie merely gave him an ironic smile.
As the mountain shadows fell across the meadow, the other women drifted off, leaving only the first three, who had ceased watching them and sat with their heads bent on their knees so still they appeared to be fast asleep.
Russell put on his pince nez and peered at them. Tentatively, he touched one cream woman’s headdress.
“Russell,” said Abercrombie, “I’ll thank you to remember your manners.”
“She is completely unaware of me,” said Russell without looking up. He rubbed one of the delicate strips of skirt between his fingers.
She started and stared at him.
“Forgive me, madam. I assure you my investigations are purely professional.” He went on to touch her shoulder. But when he moved toward her hand, she jerked it away.
Finally, he stood. “She isn’t human.”
“Of course, she is,” said Abercrombie. “An unknown race, an exotic native girl but—”
“She’s a flower, isn’t she?” said Finch.
“It defies all we know of Darwinism,” said Russell. “But those are leaves growing out of her head and arms, and petals growing out of her waist. And from her scent, I would say she is, indeed, an offshoot of the genus Narcissus, a daffodil.”
Finch awoke warm in his blanket, the tent flap open to primrose dawn and a draught of flower-soaked air. Over the steady patter of the waterfall, birds whistled. There’d been a dream of walking flowers.
Then he heard a woman cry out, and he knew it had not been a dream.
He bolted up in his shirt sleeves. Abercrombie’s made an ass of himself. But Abercrombie was asleep beside Russell.
Another cry. Was one of them injured?
He stuck his head out into the cool of morning. All was still but for the lightest breeze and quick flash of wings in the boughs.
Then another movement caught his eye, and up on the hillside in the first glimmer of sun, he saw them: yellow and cream, their limbs entwining like Baucis and Philemon—or Baucis and Baucis. This is a matter of scientific interest, he told himself as he stumbled forward, though his body told him something else. There was no mistaking the sensuality of the way they undulated, but… was that their fingers? And that dusting on their fingers, like pollen, the vector of a flower’s sperm cells… Philebaucis and Philebaucis?
They saw him and broke apart—but not like guilty schoolgirls. More like friends interrupted in tête-à-tête, they stared at him with wide, innocent eyes.
“I—I’m terribly sorry,” he stammered and beat his way back to the tent.
When the sun rose high, the women took up their devotion, arms outstretched and leaf-crowned faces venerating the god. Abercrombie strolled among them, praising their grace. They paid him no attention.
After that morning’s misadventure, Finch was glad to be ignored. If they looked at him with those eyes again, he’d never dare to sketch them.
After a lunch of rice and mulberries, Abercrombie declared, “I’m for a bath.” At once he began unbuttoning his shirt.
Any chance to show off that chest, thought Finch sourly.
“In plain sight of those young women, eh?” Russell doffed his sun hat.
Abercrombie grinned. “Hardly plain sight. We’re half obscured by the hill.”
Finch, for his part, stood unamused and arms crossed.
Abercrombie slapped his shoulder. “Oh, come on, man. Modesty’s not for the wilderness.”
It was true the day was waxing hot and the stink of the Hypohydron clung to them. Finch contemplated clinging to his stench to spite them. Unluckily, he was a man of conscience, so he disrobed and ventured into the pool’s sharp, welcome waters. While Russell had the decency to look the other way, Abercrombie smirked, which Finch found puerile in the extreme. He’d been smirked at all his life. He knew he was puny and underendowed; it didn’t take Abercrombie to tell him.
But once he had submerged himself and given his hair a proper rinsing, the simple pleasure of getting clean suffused him. While Abercrombie and Russell chatted, he sat on the slick rocks, half toasting in the sun, half caressed by cool currents.
It was only when he was bending to wring out his shirt that he noticed the water sluice behind him.
He whirled, covering himself with his dripping garments as the yellow Daffodil broke the surface.
“Where did you spring from?” he demanded.
“She must have rounded the hill,” said Abercrombie, “and come down via the waterfall.” He and Russell were squeezing into their clothes, though Abercrombie not so hastily as Russell. “Forgive us, dear Jonquil. We meant no indecency.”
She did not reply but raised a gob of mud to her lips and slurped it.
“I say,” said Russell, “that’s an interesting behavior. I wonder why she’d do such a thing.”
Finch fought his way into his shirt and trousers, unnerved by the way her eyes lingered on him. It was bad enough to be seen from the front, but he’d learned very young never to bend over, never to let another person see that extra orifice that made him only half a man. To be seen, to be known by this floral creature filled him with dismay.
But it was not only dismay, he realized; another feeling suffused it: the relief of having nothing left to hide.
As the shadows lengthened, the Daffodils sat on the hillside with the air of young maids in contemplation. Predictably, Abercrombie sauntered up to the yellow Daffodil. A little way off, Finch listened keenly, all the while pretending interest in a fern.
“It must have been a shock to have seen us like that,” said Abercrombie, sitting beside her.
“Well, yes, it was rather,” she said. “I didn’t like to say so.”
“You seem like maidens frozen in time, you three. There is vast world out there of which you know nothing. Do but say the word, and I’ll show you wonders…” As he spoke, he reached out and took her pollen-dusted hand.
“Abercrombie!” Finch started forward.
But the Daffodil had wrenched her hand away and bolted to her feet. “What is the matter with you? Whatever do you want from me? Why, you aren’t even a real flower. When I first saw your barren stamens, I assumed you were some sort of female, a desperate female with no males nearby. But I saw you in the pool; you don’t even have a pistil.”
“A what?” said Abercrombie with some consternation.
“A pistil,” supplied Finch.
“But I do have a pistol.” He drew the gun holstered at this hip. “What does she want me to do? Shoot her a stork to prove my devotion?”
The Daffodil was still fuming. “You—you can’t even claim sterile good looks. No wonder you use those ugly brown leaves to hide that one pitiful petal.”
“My dear lady, you misapprehend me.”
“Abercrombie,” said Russell, huffing up the hill, “I fear you’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick.”
“She’s a flower, man,” said Finch, “not a girl. Don’t you understand that?”
“I understand she’s never seen a man before, so I shan’t hold a fit of hysterics against her.” He bowed curtly and made for the tent, Russell beside him, wagging a finger and lecturing. As they passed by, the other two Daffodils dashed up to huddle with the first.
“I apologize for him,” said Finch. “He’s a cad.”
“Why do you stay with them?” said the yellow Daffodil. “You are a proper female, some sort of squash, I think? Haven’t you any male squash flowers to fertilize you?”
That stopped Finch completely. His face burned. His jaw twitched. “Good night,” he said and retreated.
He would simply keep his distance. Things were getting out of hand. But as he ruminated, his sentiments arrived at a different conclusion. As soon as the birds began to twitter, he crept out of his blanket and into a lazy morning mist. The flowers still slept. He passed by the cream Daffodils and crouched softly beside the yellow. He could not see her breathe. Her petals curled as if beginning to wilt, and for a moment, he wished he’d brought his sketchbook to capture it.
Finally, some movement of his stirred her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
She smiled. “I am not startled.”
He could think of nothing else to say. Feeling himself on a slow slide into absurdity, he lifted his fingers to her face. She leaned into his palm and placed her pollen-heavy hand over his.
“Can you strip off those old brown leaves?” she asked, and he did so.
By that evening, Finch had concocted his plan, and next morning his new friend put it into execution.
“Sterile English Squash?”
Russell looked up from his breakfast in surprise. “Who, me?”
The yellow Daffodil sat beside him. “You are the one who wishes to see more flowers, are you not?”
“If you travel three hills upland, you will find several species of walking flower.”
Russell glanced at Finch, who stood at a discreet distance sketching a mulberry. From the sea came a sound of clanging metal, Abercrombie cobbling together a new periscope.
“Well, Finch,” said Russell, “Abercrombie’s itching to be off. We’d best explore while we have a chance, what?”
“Yes, do,” said Finch, his eyes glued to the mulberry. “I’m going to stay here and concentrate on some really in-depth observations of this hillside.”
“But who’ll illustrate my findings?”
Finch threw him a smile. “We each have our scientific priorities, Russell. I’m your partner, not your employee.”
“My partner? You? Why, you arrogant little poseur!”
“Yes.” Finch returned his attention to his mulberry leaf.
“Well!” Russell threw on his hat and stalked off toward the tent.
“And take Abercrombie,” Finch called after him. “Poor fellow could do with a change of scene.”
They had gone, every blessed human being, off into a gentle land, the Daffodils assured him, no savage animals—or plants. He didn’t worry about them. Instead, free of civilization’s moorings, Finch succumbed to the hands of the yellow Daffodil. Every time her fingers entered the female part of him, he surrendered himself to bliss. Days passed. Rains stampeded and gave way to hot afternoons he spent sprawled in the shade, drowsing and waking to the sight of the sentinel flowers drinking the sun. Shellfish, berries, and mushrooms proved ample food.
Yet the threads of one worry did tug at him. The Daffodils were failing. Their petals curled and browned, like every dying blossom’s. And as with every blossom, it seemed their passing heralded new life. All three grew round as their petals fell.
One afternoon as he sat on the hill, gazing up at the still form of the yellow Daffodil, he asked, “Are you going to die?”
“What do you mean? All living things die,” she said, chin raised high to the sun.
“No, I mean, are you—are you going to go to seed and die? Soon?”
She looked down at him. “You mean like our cousins the rooted flowers?” She nodded at one of the clumps where the tendrilled daffodils embraced. “That’s good enough for them, but if we died, who would teach our seedlings to speak and bask and drink minerals from the mud? We,” she said proudly, “are perennials.”
Ordinary daffodils are perennials, he thought but refrained from saying so.
“In another quarter season, when our fruits dehisce, we shall lead our little seedlings all around these hillsides. It will be quite the tour.” She peered at him. “Isn’t it the same with your species?”
“I’m sorry we don’t seem to be able to hybridize, you and I. We can try again tomorrow, if you like.” She turned a little to catch the shifting sun, once again still as a statue.
He lay down on the grass. “Yes, that would be pleasant.”
But it seemed to him his holiday was running out, and choice would soon be forced upon him.
The next day but one, he was cooking mushrooms when a trampling and blustering signaled that his shipmates had come back.
“Finch, there you are!” cried Russell. “You’ve no idea what you’ve missed: violets, orchids—my God, the orchids—columbines, all running about like pert little fairies. I’ve made some rough sketches but—”
“They’d never believe it. Finch smiled. “Regardless of the fidelity of the art.”
Russell glanced at Abercrombie, who wiped the sweat from his brow and glowered. “No,” agreed Russell. “That consideration has not escaped me. I fear we are constrained to reporting the more sessile botanicals.”
“It was not a land made for the footsteps of man,” declared Abercrombie, in a tone that made Finch wonder how many hands he’d attempted to seize. “I can get the periscope operational by—” He stopped short as his eye caught the three swollen Daffodils sunning. “Finch,” he cried. “This is most unbecoming.”
Russell laughed. “Abercrombie, your indignation smacks of the ridiculous. They’re flowers. Our two species are quite reproductively incompatible.”
Finch made a show of dusting the pollen from his trousers, pleased to see Russell’s eyes grow wide.
“Hurry up, Finch, or we’ll miss the tide.” Abercrombie lugged the last of their gear to the dinghy.
“I’ll be right there.” Finch turned to the yellow Daffodil.
“You could stay,” she said, face golden in the morning.
“I think I belong with my fellow squashes.”
“You do not seem to.”
“No.” He studied her placid face. “Will you remember me?”
“Oh, yes, till next season or so.”
He laughed. “That’s good. That’s as it should be. I’ll remember though. I’ll never forget what you’ve given me.”
She returned a tentative smile, plainly having no idea what he meant.
He hefted his rucksack and caught up with his companions.
As Abercrombie rowed them toward the Hypohydron, Russell gave Finch a sidelong glance. “I still can’t believe it. I’d have staked good money you were a Nancy. Now, I’m not sure what you are.”
Finch indulged in a lingering gaze at the cerulean sea and mountain-girded beaches, not really so devilish a ring after all. “I know, Russell,” he said. “It’s all right.” Finch knew who he was, and that sufficed.
Arwen Spicer comes from Sonoma Mountain, California, and is a professor of English at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. Her short fiction has appeared in Spoon Knife 4: A Neurodivergent Guide to Space Time, the Fabled Collective’s Women of the Woods, Dragon Soul Press’s Timeless II, and Susan DeFreitas’s anthology of Ursula Le Guin-inspired fiction, Dispatches from Anarres. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and two screen-loving kids. Her current favorite pastime is watching her cat wage war with the neighbor’s cat across the glass door.