Let this growth be real and true. Let it be the start of a stalk that reaches the roof of the dome and spreads its seeds across the high jeweled panels. Let those seeds climb my body to meet those jewels. Then let them bond, and bind, and create delicate flowers of many curves and lines and colors that I can sell for good solid profit, please. This is my fervent hope. I wish it every time I sink my feet into the soil and coax up the roots that wait there.

It’s my patch, has been for years, and I know it well. It has a lot of life still to give, even though it’s old, much older than Marty who taught me the ways of it. Marty died long ago, when I was barely trained, but today she’s on my mind as I work. She was a friend of my mother’s, and she decided she wanted me right from the start, at my birth. As soon as I came forth she said to my mother: I’ll take her. She did wait until I was weaned before the trade was made, so I have a fleeting memory of my mother. Nothing more than a smile.

I’ve never thought anything bad of Marty’s decision to make me hers from the beginning. I loved her lessons as soon as we began—and that was shortly after I could stand up tall and sturdy.

“Nearly time for market,” says Gretel, from the patch next to mine. She wipes her hands on her trousers and steps around the seedlings, making for the entryway. She’s always early to leave and late to return; that’s why her plants rarely make the dome. Time is inches, Marty used to say.

The feet go in the soil and the arms reach high. A good seedling uses the feet, then the legs, then takes itself off to the sky once it can support itself, but a bad one will not detach from their human trellis, and if a gardener does not spot it early it’ll slide inside the holes of the body, the greedy seedling, and then anchor in the intestines. Then upwards, through the organs, the lungs. Marty told me she saw that happen four times in her lifetime, and those growers had to be left in their patches, could not be pulled free. The seedlings became too strong in their grip inside the body, so there was nothing to be done but to feed and water the living frames until the tendrils erupted from their mouths and broke down their brains for food, putting an end to their suffering. Then the plants would die back, grown too fast and strong to survive without that cheap and easy supply of nutrients. A terrible waste of both plant and human.

I’ve not seen that myself, a fact of which I am glad. But then, there haven’t been many growers in this dome for a long time, so less opportunity to see the worst things Marty spoke of. The patches themselves remain fertile, vivid in color and promise, but who wants to give their child to a grower any more? People out there have fewer babies and live happier lives. The dome sees to that. It is good luck and good health and I am lucky to be within it. At least, that is what the people who I trade with tell me. Life gets better and better, said one man. The gemflowers see to that. Just touching them brings prosperity.

And yet I have touched many and never felt rich. And they do not want to give their babies up any more, no matter how wonderful the gemflowers are.

Life out there is not real, Marty once said to me, although she didn’t care to talk about it often. It might have been all she ever said on the subject; it’s certainly all I remember, but then, I was very young when she said it. Finally, old enough to listen properly, and understand. Stay close to the ground. Life out there is not real, and nobody needs anything they can’t touch. It’s all hopes and happiness. Slippery dreams.

As if those things are bad! I have my own hopes, and I’m not immune to the idea of happiness. But she’s right. From what I see of the market, so much sold there is not real. A potion to make you pretty, a ticket for a prize. They don’t understand the gemflowers; but then, I don’t either. They are the end of a process I facilitate. I prefer the words I recite and the plants that rise.

That should be all, in my life, I think. That should be enough for anyone.

But now, as I age and see the beginning of personal withering, I find I want to know that this patch will be tended once I lie down and die. So I’ve saved enough for a child of my own. Thirty gemflowers. There must surely be somebody out there who will exchange their own treasure for such a fortune. A child is solid and real. I can hold a child and train it and ensure the future remains like the past: grounded, here, between the dome and the dirt.

His mother is here again. I watch them, from a small distance.

When she comes to visit he is all smiles for her and full of chatter about the way things grow from small beginnings. These are the stories I tell him, every night. And his mother then departs with her fears assuaged, I suppose. She looks around the dome with such awe and trepidation. I’ve seen her stare up and then flinch, as if gemflowers might fall on her head and crack her skull. I would like to tell her how they descend on vines when they are ready, but we have not reached that time yet and, besides, Benny should show her, once he has made something to show. I think he will be happier once that has happened, and he might start to smile—a true smile—for me.

How does one so young learn to lie so well, and not even for his own gain? He fakes his happiness so that she is content with that hard choice she made, in the market months ago. I have never enquired after her reason for selling; that is not my business. But I saw the relief in her eyes, the taste of salvation on her wet lips when she took my gemflowers. And the cost she knew she would pay when she hugged the boy goodbye.

We’ve reached the end of this visit. She hugs him one more time. He gives her that smile. Yes, it is meant to make her feel better, but I’m beginning to think it might also be part of the cost.

She has gone back to the world outside, the mother who no longer has a child. Benny stands in the small part of the patch I have set aside for his learning. He reaches up with his hands, and I feel him push down with his toes. It’s good. I feel it begin to work. Pain can be a force for great good in the work of a grower.

No. He blocks it, wills himself to be strong, to concentrate on the task in hand, and the roots lose interest. They want nothing less than his fear and doubt. I can’t tell him this—who would understand, at that age? I’m sure I didn’t. And perhaps these things aren’t exactly as I learned them from Marty. The knowledge has mutated as it has gestated in me. Marty thought plants prefer to grow to a steady head, but I’ve come to understand they are eager for emotion.

So I watch Benny practice for a while, and then I stand on my own soil and show him how it’s done, willing my pride in the task to him. I feel him striving to understand. He’s a good learner. One day he’ll smile truly for me. It’s not necessary, but it will help me forget the way the smile drops from his face once his mother’s back has turned and her figure is retreating.

At the top of the dome the jewels wait for my tendrils to reach them, but the strength it takes nowadays is exhausting. I tire more easily, but I have found such artistry to compensate. It only pains me that the two could not come together—then I would have rivaled the great growers of old, the ones Marty used to turn lyrical on. But it’s not to be, and I know this is the beginning of loss.

The extra twists and turns I coax into the tendrils, though, are so wonderful to see. I urge them to be wise in their paths, to support each other, and some even listen. Those ones make it to the jewels. Then the seeds slip inside and the flowers bloom, and the vines erupt in a wonderful moment of fast, free, speedy life, like nothing seen in any other stage of growth. And the vines, so obedient, so willing to come, so docile in their desire to place the gemflowers into my hand!

Let this never end. Let this not be the last of the flowers I receive. See, my hopes are changing still.

Benny nods in agreement as the vine gives up its flower. It’s blue, with depths of light and dark within its delicacy. I hold it out so he can see it clearly. He’s watched me do this often. He is getting to be tall and strong—not muscled, but strong in the joints and the way he moves his head and holds my eyes when he talks, which isn’t too often.

I pocket the gemflower, and say, “Your turn.”

He steps on his patch and touches the stalk he’s been coaxing for months. It’s nearly there. A straight growth, direct, supporting itself with little green buttresses that grow back down into the ground. These are fast becoming Benny’s trademark; Gretel and the others have commented on the elegant simplicity of them. He’s so young. A rarity in this place.

The first time he reached the roof of the dome his mother was there, invited in, wanted. She understood he had skill, I think. But it did not bring her pride, as I had hoped. He was too deep in his pain to hide it from her, and when the gemflower came down he cried, cried as the little boy never had, and he said to his mother: don’t leave me, don’t leave me. He put his thin arms around her and tried to keep her, but she struggled mightily and managed to push him off. Then she staggered away, as if under a great new weight, and Benny slumped into the patch and cried his tears into the soil. That’s not a bad thing, but I did have to move him when I felt the selfish roots note his distraction and start towards him.

She took my gemflower, he said, when I helped him to his feet. My first flower, and she took it. His hands were empty.

I said: there’ll be many others.

And so there will, for him.

I wonder if that’s the pain he chooses, now, to find his final push to the jewels. Easily done, it’s powerful, shockingly so, and here comes the vine, and the flower, which is a deep red this time, thrilling and angry. He takes it and watches the vine die back, its job done. He smiles at me. A real smile.

Let me never get used to such gifts. Let me never take his dear face for granted, or lose the pleasure of his talent, or my own. Let me give him everything and find that it only makes more for me.

In the wake of my failure he is a steady presence, patting my hand. He looms over me, but his shadow is a good place to be.

I have given him most of the patch already, but I’ve long kept a little corner for myself. Well, maybe the time has come to give that up too; to admit total defeat. And then what? To walk out into the world, perhaps, and see its lies for myself? Travel beyond the market on the doorstep of the dome? I could go now, while I still have a pocket of flowers and the use of my legs, although it takes a while to get them warmed up to the task of walking.

Even so, this has been my first year in which not one vine has reached the jewels in the roof. My plants will no longer make that final push. I have lifted up my arms, and still they ignore me. They are perfectly happy as they are and have no interest in what is above them.

Benny says, “You’ve been trying too hard for too long. Recover your strength, and stop worrying about it. Isn’t it market day? I’ll fetch you a treat.”

He knows it’s market day. Gretel and the others are already out there, trading and talking and giving me the space that defeat creates. Why does he phrase it as a question? As usual, he hides his real thoughts away. “No, no, don’t waste your flowers on me,” I tell him.

“That’s not a waste. What else are flowers for?”

That is a good question. Flowers buy our essentials, that’s true. We grow to buy to grow. At some point one of us will make enough to give up the life of the patch before we’re too old to enjoy it. It’ll take young legs to find truth out there, if it exists. If anyone could do it, it would be Benny. I should give him all my saved flowers before they are wasted away on my upkeep.

Or perhaps Marty was wrong, and everything out there is true and the lies lurk in here. Right in this dome, all the time. I’ve had this thought more and more recently. I hate it, but I keep having it. No wonder my plants won’t grow.

“Who built the domes?” says Benny, suddenly.

“The first growers.” I retell the old story, the one I used to recite at night so he could take it into sleep.

“No, I mean really,” he says, with impatience. He shifts his weight, stares at the jewels above. “Why would the growers have built domes, anyway? How would they have known what was needed first, dome or plant? The moment I think about it, it all makes no sense.”

“Who knows what the first growers did or thought?” But I find I want to give him answers. I’ve always had answers for him before, when he asked for things to believe in. This is different. This time, he asks to prove me wrong. He does this more and more, thinking we are separated by stories rather than brought together.

“We do these things without understanding them,” he says. “You’ve given your whole life to it.”

“Not yet I haven’t!”

He chuckles. “No. Not yet.”

“If there are answers, I don’t think they’re here,” I suggest. Let him take the flowers, all the flowers, and go. Let him not stay to watch me wither.

“I’m not sure that’s true,” he muses, and I can’t think of any question or answer to give to that.

I could not have been clear enough, loud enough, and I did not see he was in danger from the most basic, most simple of things, and even though this was his first lesson it was forgotten, how could he have forgotten it? I do not understand, cannot begin to make sense of his body and the plant wrapped around his legs, making its way inside—

“It was my choice,” he says, quietly, when I manage to control myself.

Gretel is holding me, her arms around my waist, and the others have gathered around. Such a small band, and he is the pride of us all.

Now he is dead. He will be dead, as soon as the strands reach his brain. They will need no encouragement to grow; none of his talent, or my tricks and techniques. They will use him as their food, and enter his brain, and suck it dry. I can’t bear it.

“I promise you,” he says, “this is a good thing.”

That, I cannot stand for. It is for no good and serves no purpose. It is a waste of his life. I break free and shout at him; I fill the dome with my voice, and I call him all the words I know for an idiot. Then, with a hoarse throat, I tell him, “You wanted more, yes, I saw that in you, but you could have found more. Nothing was stopping you.”

“I could have gone out into the world, you mean? But what I want is here.”

“You want this? This slow death that leads nowhere? This plant won’t even reach past the top of your head. It will impregnate no jewels, make no flowers.”

“What I want is not up there. It’s down here.”

Is he looking at me? No, he moves his gaze to his feet, deep in the soil. He planted himself deliberately.

“It is already talking to me. I can hear it.”

“The dirt talks to you. And what does it say, Benny? Tell me what it says.”

He keeps his eyes cast down, and he whispers, “I can’t understand it yet. But it won’t be long.”

So I feed him and I water him and I watch him die.

When the first tendrils sprout from his mouth, they put out those curious buttresses and brace themselves on the skin of his cheeks. They look strong and determined. He can no longer talk, and there is no way to tell if he has finally found what he wanted to know. Still, I think I see something in his eyes that once only showed when he smiled true. I think I will choose to call it contentment. Or perhaps his mind has already been taken by the plant. Either way, it won’t be long.

We grow to sell to grow to buy to grow. Where do we grow to? Is there a place we strive to reach?

He always was a boy good at lying for the benefit of others. That final soft release, the close of the eyes, the long sigh: if it is for my benefit, I thank him.

But if he had lived for my benefit, he never would have let the plant have him at all.

The plant does its best, but once it has used up the food of the brain it cannot sustain itself. It quests hard for the jewels, but when Benny’s body falls it collapses with him, and that is the end of that.

“What will you do?” says Gretel, after we push the remains all the way into the dirt. Such fertile soil.

“I have it in mind to tell his mother.”

“You know where she is?”

I point to the entryway. The market, the road beyond. I’ll know her when I see her. I suspect she’ll understand this loss but hardly thank me for bringing it, and making her feel it all over again.

Who am I kidding?

I won’t find her. It must be a vast world and she could be anywhere within it. She’ll be telling her own lies in her own way, because that’s what we all do, in and out of domes. We make the act of living easier when we can, with their telling. Finding Benny’s mother is a lie to help me find my courage. And it’s told for the benefit of Gretel, too, who shakes her head and cries at the thought of being here without me but will not leave. She was always late to the patch and early to the market, but it turns out those were just ways to pretend to herself that she was not stuck. Now, she admits it. She will not come with me.

I hug her long and hard, and she says, “I have flowers saved. You take them.”

“I have more than enough. You spend them. Spend them on the things you like.”

“There isn’t much I like. I don’t care for growing, not in the way you did. The market has its distractions, but still. I never did like anything but you,” she says, her eyes wide; I think she has surprised herself with these words. “And that boy you bought. I did like that boy.”

In the end, there’s only people. Benny should have looked there. Not up at the jewels, not down at the soil. People. There are plenty of them out there. I clutch my hands to my pocket and make my sore old legs move. They’ll be fine once they get going.

Let me get far from this place, and let me find a way to look down on the dome to see its curve for myself. Let me understand how my whole life could be so small. Let me ask the people I meet on the way if they know any stories about the growers, and the purpose of growing. I wonder if what they tell me will be real, and true.

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Aliya Whiteley's novels and novellas have been shortlisted for multiple awards including the Arthur C. Clarke award and Shirley Jackson award. Hershort fiction has appeared in Interzone, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Black Static, Strange Horizons, The Dark, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Guardian, as well as in anthologies such as Unsung Stories’ 2084 and Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction. Her science fiction novel Skyward Inn and a collection of her dark fantasy stories, From the Neck Up, were published in 2021 to critical acclaim. 

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