(reprinted in Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2016, ed. Rich Horton)
A winter afternoon when she was eight, and her tiny finger traced transoceanic voyages over the blue pages of our atlas. I taught her to recite the coasts past which she sailed: Malabar and Mandalay, Ceylon, Siam. Names like incantations, terminating always in Flora’s favourite specks of the south Atlantic: Ascension, St Helena, Inaccessible, the loneliest and strangest shores she could imagine.
These lessons in geography quickly became games of concentration, as I named cities and she responded with exports and shipping routes, the trails that ivory traces from wild elephants to billiard rooms. When I pointed at the Caribbean islands she knew to bring me a lump of sugar. When I held up a translucent teacup she pointed at China.
Until—this winter afternoon when she was eight—she answered my question not with tea from the box on the table but with silence, and then, “Ceylon is so far! I’ll never ever see it.”
She knelt on her chair and trailed her velvet rabbit to the floor. “Don’t be silly, Mina, you’ve never been so far from home. You’ve never been anywhere.”
Perhaps if I had been a different sort of woman, if I had been to Tahiti, or rounded the Cape of Good Hope, her life would have had a different ending. I wonder if with another mentor—braver, wiser—she might have flowered into something authentically strange, revolutionary in her beauty, or in her violence.
But I was not brave, nor wise, and this account is not one of revolution. It pains me that I only said, “and thus concludes the lesson, we should go out before it’s too dark in the garden.”
If I had paid more careful attention would I have found him even then, when she was eight; some trace of that other world that has so haunted me since? I have many of her things in my possession—two decades of Christmas and birthday gifts, painted teacups and toilet trays and miniatures. Their subject matter irreproachably conventional, until one looks and begins to suspect something hiding in the sinuous line of her ivy or the glowering red of her sunset.
The first I saw was a figure very like a man, despite the bronze wings riveted to his shoulders, on whose wrist was mounted the deadly machinery of something I can only call a Gatling gun, but miniaturized, shooting not bullets but something molten, something poison. Around his feet lay the remains of other creatures, very like birds, very like flowers, half-hidden under the violet leaves that border her teacup.
I cannot name them, but they are familiar from dozens of landscapes in her painstaking, microscopic style, her brushstrokes so tiny that I checked her work with a magnifying glass and feared not for her mind but for her eyesight. I remember her at thirteen, hunched in the window, building whole universes in the curve of a teacup.
At fourteen, little girls are found wanting—perhaps her skin is coarse, perhaps her waist thickens or her laugh is too loud—and they are consigned to tight slippers, to the corset and the parasol. Adulthood darkens the horizon, and at eighteen she is engulfed.
Flora’s girlhood was free, disturbed only by the irregular attentions of her guardians, a great aunt and uncle who spent their winters in Italy and their summers in Switzerland. She struggled, then resigned herself to a straitened world, her pale braids fearfully and intricately bound to her scalp, her body constrained by steel and baleen as over her skin crept the apparatus of bone and padded silk, the nets and cages.
It is a strange paradox: when such artifice is well-executed, one would think the girl-creature is a product of nature rather than an illusion made of metal and bone and a thin film of silk. Often I thought, as Flora crossed the garden or the marble floor of the hall, that she was the down-hanging blossom of some slight pink flower, drifting on the sort of breeze that floats a pixie through the colour plates in fairytales.
At nineteen she went to garden parties and riding parties and river-parties, and in the evenings the carriage often carried her away to enormous rooms, adjacent to verdigris conservatories where her pale gold dresses—gas-lit, candle-lit, fire-lit—glowed against the darkness outside. When she returned in the rising day she possessed the faint luminosity of pre-dawn flowers, as though the glow of a distant sunrise permanently lit her face.
I remember turning over the huge skirt of a gown sent up from the city, oppressive in weight but possessing the texture of a cirrus cloud, a colour halfway between pink and grey.
At the mirror she said, “They call this colour ashes of rose. A holocaust of flowers. Just think, Mina, of all the burning gardens to make one dress.” Lace foamed through her fingers and down into her lap.
“Mrs. Maryat will want to see you”, or not that—something equally empty that meant ignore it and she will know better than to say these things.
“There’s a new cup on the work table, Mina. Do you like it? Another garden,” she said. “Full of roses. And ashes, too.”
“It’s very pretty. It’s as pretty as that fan you painted last week. So pretty.”
The conventional subject: ruins, roses, forget-me-nots. How delicately she had tangled ivy around the slim line of her ruined tower. An arrowslit where an archer of old must have rested his bow. And there, executed with the single hair at the tip of her cat-fur brush, a figure, a man, more or less. Something strapped to his wrist, a dreadful commingling of the cross-bow and the cannon.
And around the base of the tower, among the roots of the flowers, in the shadows cast by dark stems, there were bodies—insectoid, five-armed, three-eyed, with green skin, or dark bronze, or a sickly woad-ish blue I did not like, one that bled into the forget-me-nots bordering the bottom of the scene.
“What does it mean?”
“Why should it mean anything?” Flora picked up the ashy pink dress. “Do you think lilies of the valley?”
It must have been the gleam of the window and the shadows cast by lace on silk, but I thought I saw—for a moment—a wriggling glimpse of that other world, into which we must stoop to look, at which we gaze only with the aid of the magnifying glass or the telescope, populated—a trick of the paint, or of shadows—by the three-armed, the greenskinned, and a strange figure who brandished something unnameable and deadly.
The creatures on the ground had the heavy heads of peonies, but no natural configuration of petals would look so like a fleshy body, punctuated by spiky leaves like teeth and thorns. “Who told you about these? The man in the tower, and the airships? Are these birds?”
She trailed a finger across the glittering beadwork of her sleeve. “They’re not birds, exactly. Insects, perhaps, is a closer analogue. Some have green shells, some gold. Some have seven legs, and some three. Their compatriots are on the ground, the flowers—”
For a long time she did not speak.
“The flowers—” she began again, her voice warmer. I hoped she would stop.
“—I don’t like them, Flora—”
“—the men in the towers eat them. At first I did not realize it, but the plants are sentient, and when they are in pain and afraid, they exude a substance from their central stem that is remarkably delicious. Somewhere between a mango and a new vanilla pod. That scent—it’s a perfume, too, they use it to scent the air in the sky-cities—made me think when I first saw them they were on some southern Island, somewhere very far away. So far that I cannot imagine. So far away that the sun is the wrong colour, distant and cold and tinted faintly green. There are airships that sail from the sky-cities, which float up high, tethered by long copper chains to the mountain peaks. The people who live up there are beautiful and gold-hued, and breathe the thin alpine air, and lie naked in the sunshine, which turns their skins a handsome metallic bronze.
“And wings are not their only remarkable technology. They travel far in their minds by way of strange apparatus. I do not understand it, dear Mina, or I would tell you more. I think they touch our world, sometimes, but perhaps that is only fancy on my part. I think I see them, flickering in the air above, those god-men wearing their copper wings, dressed in the skins of the singing insects. Perhaps if we were treated in the same way we, too, would exude something delicious in our death-throes.”
“The plant-people are limited by their vegetable nature in where they may live, and are unable to run, though the adults—which can drag their stems a little—grow great thorns that snap shut around the throats of invaders. It is a challenge to find the youngest, tenderest shoots, to frighten them into silence and eat them there in a garden of their parents. I wonder if insects grieve, Mina. What about flowers?”
Should I have directed her more forcefully toward wholesome good deeds, or theological poems? Should I have drilled her in Latin verbs until she had no moment of privacy in which to think about this alien sky? I could not imagine that my charge—with her perfect composure, the blue of her eyes as shallow as an atlas’s ocean, the irreproachable whiteness of her complexion—could conceive something so strange, so unpleasant.
She handed me the teacup she held and said, “Look in the hearts of the flowers.”
The luck of a ringing bell—somewhere in the heart of the house—interrupted our uncomfortable tête à tête, and I was relieved to look away from the globular, fleshy petals, just as I saw—hidden among them—the bodies of infant flowers, otherworldly and sentient, destroyed by the gold-winged men for the tears they shed in death.
A party that evening. Another, another, and dozens more, each requiring fresh flowers and new silk slippers. She met young men in uniforms so exactly cut they might have been a secondary organ made of red wool and gold braid. She spent her days painting microscopic botanicals that seemed to crawl with detail I did not wish to examine. I wondered what I would see if, my nose close to the paper, I examined the stem of a wild rose, the delicate green of its sepal, the yellow pistol, the faint pink blush near the base of each petal.
Flora turned twenty. She was engaged to the second son of a Baronet, a coup, the great aunt said, adding “we owe some of that to you, I think,” claiming the bulk of the debt for her own. It is true, perhaps, that she made Flora what she became. Flora owed her fortune to her parents’ will, but her self-sufficiency had accreted in the long, lonely years of grief.
There were orange blossoms, I remember, and wisteria in the window. A carriage at the door, and her great uncle’s arm at the top of the stairs. The exchange of prayer books. The lych gate and the wedding breakfast. Champagne. Bridesmaids in blue silk.
All day Flora glittered, her breast a shield of seed pearls and hanging crystal, armoured with metallic peacocks; iridescent guardians so exactly matched to the hue of her gown they seemed not stitched in place but grown there, as a crystal grows from its mineral spring or the translucent eggs of insects grow in chambers beneath the earth. She was insectoid, scarab-skinned. Most dreadful, which drew my eyes even as I averted them, a ten-foot veil that possessed—somehow—the shadow of five-legged insects running down its margins, caught in the web of the lace-makers art.
They toured Italy. They returned to a sprawling house in the West Country, set in a valley of primroses and gillyflowers. There were children. There were parties on the river that ran past the foot of their garden. She painted when she could. I never saw her again.
When the third of the Misses Barclay turned eighteen I took my little savings and set off for the distant north-Pacific colony to which my sister’s family had emigrated twenty years before. In my retirement I would grow sweet peas in a little bungalow garden near the water. I would reacquaint myself with my family. I would take a few students in painting, or French.
Flora always remembered me. She sent photographs—portraits, the house, the gardens, tinted by a London artist. Flora in a pale gold moiré that glowed faintly in the artificial light of the flash, pearlescent like a lily’s thick glimmering petals. A fancy visited me as I examined the portrait, that it was not fabric she wore but her own elaborate skin, puckered and scarred and burnished into insectoid textures and gleams, the tightly braided and coiled loops of her hair another segment of that bony carapace, shining—incongruously—in the light of her green imagined sun.
For though I did not like to, I found myself examining the impeccable rooms and gardens in these photographs, fearing that they, too, betrayed another world. It was true that they seemed to teem with unwholesome detail. I am ashamed to say that I was happy to have shut the door on such rooms, on Flora herself. But I could not erase the memory of the man with the Gatling gun, and the five-armed green creatures lying on the ground below him.
I have seen—veiled by clouds in the empty green oceans of her sky—the shadow of an emergent airship, coalescing in curves and spikes from the cumulous tower along the horizon, as though she has built not the illusion of depth but true distance between the porcelain and her brush strokes.
I have learned something about her world. Of the three polities in that other world, the insects were the most loveable. The five-limbed creatures, remarkable in their asymmetry, that fluttered through Flora’s lace, within the tracery of her often-abandoned sampler; their long, segmented legs seemed to trail through her stitches. They are a social animal, who build enormous constellations out of kinship, rendered in the vast empires of song they sing both from the beak-like protuberances above their multi-faceted eyes and using the thin threads that run from wrist-bone to elbow; the human terms are only approximations. Their song so vast it filled the sky with echoes rippling tribe to tribe until they encircled the whole globe. Their dearest joy was in binding themselves in the harmonies native to their soul. The faintly greenish air, the pale sun burnished the vegetable-creatures, and the insect-birds with its glow, all rang with their communion.
So each society flourished in its separate quarters—the man-creatures up high in their floating towers and air-ships, the slow vegetable-creatures on the earth below, and between them, the creatures of the singing air.
The vagaries of Imperial Mail are such that the letter describing her first appointment with a London doctor reached me a month before the letter that told me of the first tumour. The next mail-bag held three letters describing their proliferation, her growing weakness, her plans for the children. I guessed much of what was unwritten, confirmed two weeks later by the black-barred note of her death. It contained only the barest outline of her existence, her parents’ early death, her own dates, the names of her survivors. I was not among them.
I read through the little stack of letters nearly hourly, parsing her weakness, her ennui, and—the only phrase that betrayed the nature of her condition—the strange distortions of her body. In her usual clipped and unsentimental manner, Flora said they had begun at the corner of her jaw, but further investigation revealed similar masses everywhere, in her organs, and joints, in masses beneath her skin. .
I knew enough to guess at the weight of this unnatural pregnancy, the cancerous spread of a shadow-child, a parasite, a little alien blooming inside her. I dreamed of her often, and when half-awake I seemed to feel the heavy masses beneath my own skin, fibrous like the roots of foreign trees, and others surfacing from the deep within her; these bulbous, heavy fruits, these vegetable infections, a steady imperial action beneath her skin.
Opiates to dull the pain but render her vegetable in mind as well as flesh, a chrysalis containing not Flora but the rapacious creature of her disease, gnarled and scaled, weeping, erupting.
Flora is the only charge I have outlived, and it is my grief that her illness was so sudden that she was dead even as I wrote my last letters of comfort and affection. She never received the words I sent, words I should have said to her when she was young and trailing her fingers across the wide, painted oceans of her vision. Plant-creatures blossoming and wilting and trailing their intoxicating distillate, while above them the artificial angels hunt the sky and insects fill the air with their laments.
I left this stack of papers in my little writing-desk for two months because I had no sense of how to finish the story. It was only this morning, when a box arrived whose contents—once revealed—demanded I return to my account.
It was a wooden crate, shipped at great expense from the West Country house where Flora died. It contained a sheaf of paintings she had particularly selected for me in her last illness, according to the curt note that accompanied them and china work in cotton. There is—on first glance—a richness of violets, beauties so slight they remind me of the feathered wings of a moth. The green fields and forests of her imagination, constructed in the finest brushwork I have ever seen; colours as fragile as the translucent porcelain on which she painted them, and admitting, through the thin walls of the cup, a faint greenish glow, as though from a distant sun.
I am afraid of what lies within them.
The paintings are, after her taste, tiny and scrupulously conventional. Icebergs, and Italian Villas. Roses. But what one cannot see one can still feel, and even before I took up my magnifying glass I sensed something in the green ripples at the base of the iceberg, in the shimmering whites of the glacier, in the chiaroscuro of the Italian villa, the three poplars against the gold sky, black hills scalloping the sunset. Something in the sepia shadows of the olive grove—airships and Gatling guns, and the gold-skinned denizens of her otherworldly sky. Building something elaborate and deadly, something made of bronze and iron.
Today I understand that a distant fire illuminates her paintings. It burns through even the most banal scenes: a ruined barn and a branch of apple-blossom, wild roses on a hedgerow. The terminal detonation of a weapon I cannot imagine, one that leaves only ashes in its wake, only ruined towers and the remains of a whole, dead world.
I have collected them in a glass-fronted case in my drawing room. I watch each little girl as she comes to practice her piano or to learn a new stitch. She dreams that one day she will have the honour of picking a teacup to drink from when she visits. And then she turns away.
There is one rare girl who stands a little longer, staring into the shallow surface of Flora’s world. Sometimes when her mother draws her away she seems struck, as though she has glimpsed the faintly greenish sky of a world described in no atlas, populated by the voracious cities of flying men and sentient plants, and insects whose high, sweet cry suffuses the air. A predatory sky, a secret world.
She lives not far from here, in a bungalow with her parents and sisters and brothers. I have taught her to paint flowers and insects, to sit so still in the wood that the creatures go about their duties in her presence. I have taught her to record her observations and collect them in a notebook. Of all my charges her eyes slide most often to the cabinet, and while her mother and sisters look with pleasure, say “oh, how charming!” Daisy, instead, is perplexed. I examine her work for evidence. I am determined not to make the mistake I made with Flora, and if Daisy is so inclined, I will give her the guidebook, open the door, let her through, even if the light on the other side is of a demonic kind.
And so I have selected my heiress. Her face is grave. She searches the cup for something she cannot quite grasp. Somewhere, somewhere she can’t reach, there are artificial angels, and a battle for the flowers. And its final termination with a weapon so deadly it casts a light that seems to illuminate the past as well as the future, to burn through the fragile objects that hold it; the porcelain so translucent it can hardly bear the vision, depths as strange and unwholesome as Flora’s own, so bright that perhaps she felt it burning through the casings of silk and stone, of metal and bone, that bound her.