IN THE SUN’S SHADOW
Justin Dolby’s fantastical short story of sentient plants is guaranteed to produce a sniffle. Illustration by Vector That Fox
It was in the year of Tau K’earn that Atoll finally acknowledged his wife was dying. At first he hoped he was just imagining the discolouration around her fronds. Then as the pale, creamy residue became an undeniable fact he tried to convince himself it was a minor ailment, Phylospordia fungus or some other common, easily treatable condition.
It was while cleaning their nest-room that he first had the awful sinking realisation, when he discovered some of her foliage had withered in the night. He carefully lifted the brittle pieces from the moss they slept on and placed them onto the compost heap at the back of their garden. He stood looking at them for a time trying to imagine a life without Oulia and failing, as far above him the three moons of their homeworld continued their stately march toward full alignment.
A trip to their local doctor confirmed what he already knew; a sample of Oulia’s foliage had been taken for analysis earlier that week. The nurse asked her to relax while she used a sharp instrument to scrape a few flakes from the affected area into a jar. It was capped and labelled, then placed into a sealable bag to be sent with the other samples collected that day.
Now they sat in the doctor’s surgery surrounded by faded posters encouraging regular pruning of one’s branches, warnings of the dangerous side effects of recreational pesticide use, and the usual range of well meaning reminders for the elderly. Outside, the first preparations for Tau K’earn were being made, with lights and festive decorations strung high above the main street. The sound of laughing workmen drifted through an open window.
I wish they wouldn’t put them up so early, Atoll thought as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
‘…and of course, we’ll do everything we can to keep you comfortable,’ the doctor was saying.
Atoll glanced across at his wife who sat attentively in her chair beside him. She had been nodding along, asking questions and leaning forward to examine diagrams for what felt like hours. He did not understand how she could be taking this so calmly; his lower foliage had become damp and clammy during the appointment, and he felt an acute pressure around his trunk, as if his body were being squeezed in a vice.
To be born into a generation that would witness Tau K’earn was considered the luckiest event a Seratreen could wish for
He knew he should be concentrating – trying to absorb as much information as possible – but right now he was struggling not to violently expel his morning nutrients. ‘A nurse will visit you every week,’ the doctor continued, ‘and I’d like you to come back in for regular checkups. For now, though, I think we should just let nature take its course.’ He stood up from his desk and motioned them towards the door. ‘You know, death is a natural part of our life cycle; there’s nothing to fear. Spend time together, maybe take a trip somewhere…’ He beckoned them forwards and handed Atoll a lea et on their way out, before closing the door behind them.
As they stepped back out onto the street, Atoll looked up at the decorations and wondered whether the universe was playing a cruel joke on him. To be born into a generation that would witness Tau K’earn was considered the luckiest event a Seratreen could ever wish for and yet, as he felt Oulia’s fronds gently wrap around his trunk, he felt cursed.
‘You really should come to Vi’s party,’ said Furldew. He was sitting in Atoll’s office, a modestly sized room packed with neat piles of dried grass paper, and decorated with diagrams outlining the varying degrees of sentience among the local ora..
‘Martle’s friend will be there; you know, the dancer.’ He leaned forwards to examine the collection of miniature Thytophores on Atoll’s desk. ‘I’m tired of you moping around here all day; it’s about time you met someone.’
Atoll stood in his usual position by the window gazing down at the main entrance, watching the new arrivals swarming around like ants dismantling a leaf. He shifted his gaze upwards to the enormous Kable tree that stood like a guardian in the central courtyard, wondering how many hours he had spent looking at it over his career.
‘Um… I’m not sure I’ll be able to. I have a lot of prep to do for my first class.’
‘Rubbish! Everyone will be getting drunk for at least another week. And I know you still have your notes from last year,’ Furldew said, gesturing around the room.
‘I don’t know. I never have anything interesting to say at these things.’
‘Nonsense, you’re a perfectly ne speaker; you just need to loosen up a bit. I guarantee you’ll have a good time.’
‘Oh all right, I’ll come,’ Atoll sighed.
The party was at the home of one of his colleagues, a professor and author of popular science books. Atoll tried to arrive at a time when a sufficient number of guests would already be there, but not so late that he might be considered rude. That afternoon he had spent a considerable amount of time obtaining a bottle of Ambleson’s Nectar in the hope it might provide a talking point.
The guests were the usual assortment of academics, artists and musicians, with the occasional doctoral student thrown in. Atoll looked around hoping to see Furldew when he noticed a woman on the opposite side of the room talking to the dean of the university. He was struck by the deep, mottled crimson colour of her foliage – quite unusual for a young woman – and her slender trunk which tapered sinuously upwards towards her neatly cropped canopy. She wore a slim diadem: a silver band adorned with three small stones, which Atoll took to be the three moons Athros, Diocene and Lae. ‘That’s Oulia,’ said Furldew, who had appeared beside Atoll holding a large, elaborate-looking cocktail, ‘the one I was telling you about. Why don’t you come over and say hello?’
‘Um, I’m not…’ Atoll began, but Furldew had already clasped one of his branches and was pulling him towards them.
‘Oulia, my dear! How are you? You were simply wonderful in that performance of The Spring Maiden last week, just exquisite. I have someone I’d like you to meet.’ He thrust Atoll forwards and made a theatrical gesture. ‘This is my good friend Atoll, from the botany department. He has the most wonderful collection of Thytophores.’
Oulia extended one of her branches in a formal greeting. Atoll tried to reciprocate but misjudged the distance between them and became entangled.
‘I’m so…’ he began, as they performed an awkward dance. The dean stepped aside as Furldew helped them to disentangle themselves, while trying not to spill his cocktail.
‘It’s quite all right,’ Oulia smiled at him. She had the most delicious fragrance Atoll noticed – a sweet scent that hung lightly in the air around them.
‘I love Thytophores, especially the northern varieties; they used them as set decorations in my latest piece. Perhaps you could show me your collection some time.’
The growth was soon joined by others, each accompanied by more of the pale residue
A few weeks after their trip to the doctor Atoll noticed a small lump under one of Oulia’s fronds. It was dark green and covered in a fine fur. They had been told to expect this but the sight of it still made him feel sick.
He had attended a group session advertised in the doctor’s leaflet, but found it to be an isolating and unhelpful experience. The other husbands had spoken about the pain of losing their loved ones, their worries of the future, but to Atoll their words offered little comfort. He couldn’t connect what they were saying to his experience and the terrible, paralysing fear he could feel encroaching upon him.
The growth was soon joined by others, each appearing at the base of a frond and accompanied by more of the pale residue. Oulia had continued to dance after her diagnosis, but had agreed not to perform again after the current season. Instead, she made a short statement saying she had decided to retire for personal reasons, and asked that the press respect her privacy; aside from the odd interview request, the couple were left in peace. Atoll could not bring himself to watch her final performance, electing instead to stay at home and prepare her favourite meal.
‘Perhaps we could invite my brother to stay,’ Oulia said. She was sitting at her dressing table, applying powder to her fronds; the discolouration had now spread upwards and was affecting her leaves. The deep crimson colour – such an asset to her dancing – had begun to fade and was now being replaced by a dull grey.
‘Yes, that might be helpful,’ Atoll said, watching as she dusted the powder down another frond, taking care to cover the affected areas.
The growths had stopped multiplying but were beginning to grow in size. Oulia had not admitted to experiencing any pain but at night, as Atoll lay awake, he could hear low creaks emanating from deep within her trunk.
From their discussions with the nurse he had learned the growths would begin to compete with Oulia’s body for resources; the oxygen her fronds absorbed would be redirected making it hard for her to respire. Similarly, the food she consumed would feed the growths, slowly starving her of the nutrients she needed to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
‘He could give you a bit of a break,’ said Oulia, checking the effect of her work in the mirror.
Oulia’s brother Bosephrin had taken ownership of the family homestead after their father died. It was half a day’s travel from the village, so Atoll hired a vehicle and arranged to collect him once he had taken leave from his post at the university. His new students had settled in, and would continue being taught by a colleague, while Furldew would pop into his office occasionally to water the Thytophores. On his way out, the Kable tree had indicated it wished Atoll to select a flower from its base to take with him.
As Atoll left the village, he looked up towards the summit of Arin Tor and saw the large viewing platform that had been erected for Tau K’earn. Tickets had sold out in seconds since the platform promised a sensational view of the alignment and a reworks display afterwards – the culmination of the festivities.
Once he had settled in, Bosephrin helped Atoll to convert the downstairs office into a bedroom. It overlooked the garden and had large, ornate windows adorned with climbing flowers inlaid in coloured glass, which could be opened allowing fresh air to circulate. They cleared away papers and removed Atoll’s desk, then constructed a new sleeping frame from pressed fibre boards and dressed it with moss collected from the garden. The nurse came every few days to check on her and replenish their store of pain-suppressing medication.
Oulia’s fronds were now dry and wilting as the growths below them continued to swell. She creaked alarmingly whenever she moved and spent a lot of time asleep. Atoll would sit by her bedside attempting to read, but would eventually give up and just look at her, wishing to imprint every last detail on his memory.
When she was awake, they would talk. She told him about growing up in the eld at the rear of their family home; about the time Bospehin was uprooted by a storm and had only just been saved by their father the next morning when he realised what had happened and re-planted him. As the days turned to weeks, Atoll found his mind returning to his own childhood.
He could feel his stem solidifying, and his first fronds beginning to bud
It began in darkness: his first glimmer of consciousness was pure sensation; the earth around him warm and all encompassing. Time had no meaning yet. All he could feel were his root structures extending outwards and moisture slowly absorbing through them like ink drying on a letter. Eventually this sensation was joined by others: first he sensed his orientation, that his roots were facing down, and his stem facing up. Then he began to sense warmth coming from above, gentle and pleasant, radiating downwards through the earth around him. Atoll only had the vaguest memory of this stage in his growth, but when he thought about it, it made him feel profoundly safe.
The next thing he remembered was being above ground and feeling the warmth of the sun on his stem. He began to sense his leaves being blown by the passing breeze. Time began to take form when he noticed regular inpourings of sweet liquid every few days – a sudden rush of excitement as his roots were bathed in delicious syrup. He could feel his stem solidifying, and his first fronds beginning to bud. Finally, he became able to differentiate between light and dark; his world shifted from a sea of infinite black to discernible planes of colour, and then to see shapes within those planes. He began to associate being fed with the arrival of a blurred outline in his eld of vision; each time the shape appeared it took on a little more definition.
Atoll instinctively knew this was his father. He sensed he was being cared for, and felt safe and comforted each time the shape arrived. At night, when he was plunged into darkness again, he felt afraid and was sometimes buffeted by strong winds. During these times, he thought about the nurturing presence and told himself it would return again the next day once the storm had passed.
Atoll had become accustomed to his view down the hill, a small lake glistening at the bottom, and to his father’s regular visits. He had grown to almost a metre, and the winds that shook his canopy no longer frightened him as they once had. He had begun to experience sound when rain would gently pitter-patter against his foliage. He learned to communicate using simple phrases at first, and discovered that the other Seratreens he could see growing further down towards the lake were his two sisters, Brona and Ultana.
Atoll’s fronds had grown into a cascade of green down his trunk. He could feel his roots becoming redundant as his respiratory system made use of the oxygenating foliage adorning his body. Soon his roots would dry out and he would detach from them, marking the beginning of his independent life. His sister Ultana had already detached and came to see him regularly. She told him about her view across the lake, and the flying fish she had seen glistening like little stars as they leapt out of the water.
‘I like to think it’s the universe’s gift to us for putting us here without any explanation’
When it was Atoll’s turn, Ultana and their father came to offer encouragement. His perambulatory muscle structures were already well developed since he practised moving them daily as his father instructed. His roots were now completely dry and they broke away easily as Atoll concentrated on moving himself in one direction. He was initially unsteady and worried he might topple over, but his father supported him and he was able to move a little way forward – away from the spot he had spent his first years – and turn around to see for the first time the house he would call home.
Bosephrin helped Atoll wheel Oulia’s bed out into the garden. The growths that hung from her body had halted their swelling and each developed a tough outer shell. Her respiration had slowed further and she had shed most of her foliage, leaving a bare tangle of twigs in their place.
The three moons Athros, Diocene and Lae had been moving closer to one another over the previous weeks. Each day Atoll would check their progress while he worked in the garden. By some astronomical coincidence, the moons were ordered by size with the smallest moon, Lae orbiting closest to the planet and the largest, Diocene furthest away.
Atoll remembered seeing a diagram in a textbook at school of how this celestial configuration allowed the moons to align once every eight generations. Their system’s star would create a sight unique in the known universe: a series of concentric rings with the sun’s coroner outermost and the three moons neatly stacked within.
‘I can’t believe it’s just a coincidence,’ Oulia said during one of her increasingly rare moments of lucidity.
‘I know what you mean,’ Atoll replied, looking up at the moons, a small sliver of sky separating each one.
‘I like to think it’s the universe’s gift to us for putting us here without any explanation.’
‘It certainly seems too good to happen by chance, but then life itself is a statistical anomaly. Far more unlikely things must have happened to allow us to evolve into sentient beings capable of witnessing and comprehending it.’
‘True, but not very poetic, darling.’
They sat in silence for a few moments before Atoll said: ‘I don’t know how I’ll cope without you.’
‘You’ll be fine, my love. You’ve always been more capable than you think you are.’ ‘I know I’ll be able to take care of things but I don’t want to, not without you.’
‘Dad told me that he’d felt the same way before Mum died,’ said Oulia. ‘He said the thing that helped him the most was remembering all the fun they’d had together and channelling that energy into raising Bosephrin and me. You’ve got a whole new chapter of your life to look forward to and I know you’re going to be great.’
On the day of Tau K’earn, Atoll was sitting at Oulia’s bedside under a cloudless sky. He laid some of his fronds over her to create a rudimentary blanket, then carefully placed a sun visor across his eye-stalks. Diocene was the first to begin its transit appearing to eat into the Sun’s south eastern side, while Athros approached from the west. Lae – whose velocity was much greater due to its proximity – was speeding in from the north, looking set on a collision course, had there not been millions of kilometres separating it from its neighbours.
As the moons continued on their trajectories, Atoll noticed a change in the atmosphere: the temperature plunged, and the light around them began to dim. In that moment, he experienced a sudden and unexpected feeling of tranquility. The birds and other wildlife which gave their home its acoustic backdrop had fallen quiet, leaving him in a state of blissful silence. Oulia let out a soft sigh and opened her eyes momentarily; she looked at Atoll and gave his fronds a gentle squeeze. The growths which adorned her body glistened with a shimmering opalescence in the coronal light. Atoll returned to this moment many times over the following years, the scene forever frozen in his memory.
Oulia never regained consciousness. Over the next three days, her body continued to shut down: her last remaining fronds fell to the ground and the creaking from within her trunk became weaker and less regular. Atoll and Bosephrin decided to leave her in the garden. They took turns sitting with her until, on the third night, Bosephrin came hurriedly upstairs. He found Atoll sitting in his nest-room, an unspoken look passing between them.
Atoll made his way out into the garden and saw Oulia lying on her bed. Her growths had begun to split open, filling the air with the brittle crackling of a log fire. He moved to her bedside and watched as one split lengthways from the top downwards. The two halves slowly hinged open, revealing a collection of black grains, each coated in a ne, gauzy tangle of silken threads. A passing gust disturbed them, catching the threads and lifting them high into the sky. Atoll watched as the seeds danced through the air, before they settled softly into the freshly ploughed expanse of garden he had prepared for them.
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