Sonia Feldman

“Something is changing in the greenhouse,” I tell my mother. She starts to ask what — but the phone drops. Service is shaky in the facility. When she calls back, it takes a couple of rings for me to convince myself to pick up again. First thing she wants to know is if I’ve been able to get my hours reduced or secure a week of vacation. It’s in my contract, she reminds me, the right to take days off. Have I asked? Have I made them look at the calendar? Aren’t I lonely?

“We haven’t seen you in months,” she says.

She’s not likely to see me for the rest of the year either, but it’s easier between us if I tell her truths only a little bit at a time. Besides, I’m sweaty and impatient from my day working with the plants. I wipe my hands on my legs, and my fingers leave behind streaks of sticky orange pollen. My room has a sink but no toilet. I wash my hands with the phone gripped between my ear and my shoulder and placate my mother as best I can. I remind her that I’m focused on my work; the plants keep me company; I’m fine; I’m normal; I have to go; someone needs something important from me.

“Okay sweetie, we love you,” she says.

I kick off my clothes and lie on the floor of my room in my underwear until dinner. Air conditioning hums through the vent in my ceiling. I’m only ever able to hear the loving in her voice once we’re off the phone.

The whole team eats dinner together in front of an enormous television. The screen is as large as the length of the table, and we sit in a U around it like a class observing a presentation. John stands up to make a blameless joke we all laugh at. He has no official authority over the group but is its de facto leader.

There are eight of us, young scientists hired straight out of graduate school to tend a population of flowering plants. The work is physically demanding, offers no possibility of advancement and can’t ever be leveraged into publishable scientific papers. We’ve all signed away the right to talk officially about what happens here. On the other hand, in order to work at the facility, each of us went through a vetting process that grants a level of government security clearance. When our contracts expire, we can use that clearance to apply to other, more desirable positions. Besides, working here does pay better than being an adjunct for some university.

We eat in silence with the lights off and our eyes on the television, an animated series in which it is always nighttime. There is never any talk between us, any asking after each other. I couldn’t tell you where the other scientists are from, hardly have a grip on their last names, even. I know little about the people with whom I’ve spent these past months of exclusive company. Around a half an hour later, my coworkers cautiously rise from their seats. They leave the table one or two at a time, taking their plates to the kitchen and pleading exhaustion. I make eye contact with each of them as they leave, let my eyes unfurl over their faces like sheets flung out over a bed.

When they’re all up and gone, I leave the darkened kitchen. The fluorescent white light of the hallway stings my eyes temporarily. I blink my way to the communal showers, which I’m allowed to use alone by silent group consensus — the only woman here. Small metal shower heads line the rectangular room. Each allots only several minutes of hot water per hour, so I turn them on in succession, moving around the perimeter of the room and cranking the handle of a new faucet whenever the previous runs cold. I’m never reprimanded for this behavior. I suppose no one has ever wanted to turn me in.

I loosen the first faucet and imagine the scene I know to be gathering. The men, in their nightclothes, are returning to the kitchen, where they take their same seats at the table, perhaps run their hands through their hair, and then watch spectacularly conventional porn while I take my shower. This happens every night. They must have brought physical discs with them to the facility — our internet use is monitored — or perhaps they’re unashamed. Through a vent in the ceiling of the shower room float urgent, feminine moans. I listen closely while I shampoo my hair and pick up, too, the clear sounds of my coworkers talking. Their voices reach me, seven men having what by all means sounds like a routine, personable discussion. 

This is what most astonished me when I heard them for the first time, several weeks after beginning work here — the everyday intimacy of their conversation, its even keel. They don’t talk over one another. I hear only one male voice at a time. There are never any arguments. There is never any shouting, nor any sounds of love or pleasure, nor even an accumulating or climactic silence. Once, I could have sworn, I heard them discussing their parents, vacations they’d taken as families when they were children. Someone spoke of a brother dying inebriated in a car crash, but I’ve never known which one of them. 

Sometimes I cut my shower erratically short for the hell of it. Today, I take my time, sigh in the hissing heat, my hands at my thighs. Strands of my hair run toward the drain like a pack of black threads. When at last I do turn off the water from the final shower head, the voices disappear almost simultaneously. I dry off in the adjoining locker room and then just stand for a while in front of the only mirror in the facility, remembering what I look like. My face has new shadows. My body is too small. I haven’t tried to catch them because I’m afraid they’ll stop. 

❀ ❀

I can hardly sleep here. I tend to just drift through the hours in half-consciousness and wake up in the morning with my hands on my stomach, feeling for what isn’t there. I eat breakfast alone, no television, and then exit the residential wing of the facility as soon as its doors unlock at seven. In a designated antechamber, I don my protective suit, which is made of a heavy, synthetic material and has a clear hood. I put on my boots, green and knee high, and an enormous pair of gardening gloves that extend past my elbows like eveningwear. Then I fill up my watering tank from the spout of distilled water and mix in the prescribed amount of nutrient powder. The tanks are made of a high-grade plastic. From the body of each extends a long tube attached to a hand mister. I heave mine against my hip and walk into the greenhouse.

A great, domed room, a long hallway of green — five rows of plants extend like fingers from the entrance to the far end of the room, half a mile away. The greenhouse’s arcing walls are made of frosted glass, behind which gigantic grow lamps beam diffused light onto the nearly five thousand plants lined up on the tables below. We grow only a single species here, a small white flower whose name we’ve never been told and is not listed on any document I’ve seen.

The flower has five small, gossamer petals that purse like a mouth around a cluster of electric orange stamen. The stamen are thin as strands of hair and nearly ten times the length of the petals from which they emerge. Each plant requires, for its size, an unusually large and robust root system to bloom. We grow them in deep, black plastic troughs of soil. Buds fall off dead if our care regimen falters by even a day. 

The following limited information was made available to us in the orientation packet we received when we took the job. The species was initially assumed to be perfect (each flower having both male and female organs) and therefore self-pollinating. However, experimentation revealed that any given individual plant of the species requires a second to produce seeds. The plants must then be imperfect (flowers having either male or female organs) and dioecious (plants producing either male or female flowers).

But it proved impossible to conclude which plants were producing female flowers and which were producing male. All of the flowers are visually identical. Both organs are present, but only one is active. Efforts to systematically determine the sex of an individual plant by manual pollination yielded erratic results. Plants that reliably produced seeds for several cycles suddenly stopped doing so and became able to pollinate other female plants instead.

The scientists who conducted these investigations determined that the species is actually dichogamous: the sex of the plant fluctuates throughout its lifecycle, possibly in relation to external conditions. The nature of those conditions was not expanded upon in the packet. A pattern that can accurately predict the sex of a flower at a given point in its lifecycle has not been found. 

Given these complications, we use an air circulation system to pollinate the plants. Vents blow a soft wind through the greenhouse, sweeping orange pollen from flower to flower. This system prevents us from tracking the parentage of new seeds, but then it isn’t our job to study the genealogy of these plants or even to study the plants at all. We perform no analysis here. Our mandate is the tending and expansion of an existing population of plants. 

Since the first two weeks of work, during which we proved ourselves competent enough in the tasks assigned, we haven’t had a single in-person visitor. Our progress is monitored through the digital reports we submit. We receive no feedback beyond a graph that tracks the current plant population against expected growth. That’s why we’ve been hired — ostensibly as scientists but really as caretakers, highly-educated grounds people.

I walk to the furthest row, my mister against my hip. An enormous internal watering system showers the plants every hour, but the nutrient mix has to be delivered manually to prevent overgrowth. I begin to spray the plants one tray at a time. With my right hand, I click the mister open and shut. After a few minutes, I want to switch sides. My right hand aches, but my left is too weak to be useful. Whenever I switch to my left side, I can only clamp the mister shut a few times before the spring loaded pressure tires the hand out completely and I have to change back. The ache is familiar after many days of this work, and there is a kind of satisfaction in allowing myself to be subsumed by it. I step and mist, step and mist. I grow hot in my suit, and my breath collects against the inside of my protective hood. I quickly lift it and wipe free the condensation.

A couple of hours later, the men walk in. I must be four or five city blocks from the entrance. I can see them conferring seriously. Most often, they talk about developments in the field and debate the merit of recently published papers based solely on information available in the abstracts. At least three of them wear glasses, but which three seems to change depending on the day. Eventually, I wave at them and they wave back, looking for all the world like a set of figurines.

I call my mom on the phone at night. I want to watch a movie, and I’ve forgotten the password to our shared account on the video streaming service. She seizes the opportunity to tell me — I shouldn’t be alone for so long after losing a baby. Wouldn’t I be better off at home, where she could take care of me. I hold a long silence between us — point it at her like a knife. 

“I’m not alone,” I say eventually.

“Those men don’t count.”

“I know they don’t.”

I hang up without the password. In bed, absence clamors through my body like a flock of birds.

❀ ❀ ❀

The others move through the greenhouse as a unit. They split the caretaking tasks between themselves and perform them in an assembly line. One misting, one pruning, one with a bin for seeds and so on. This arrangement should, in theory, improve their efficiency, and it’s true, I never see them wasting time. They don’t dally. They don’t stand around at leisure. They all have stiff, excellent posture. Still, I routinely outstrip their numbers, see to more plants, process more seeds, submit more robust reports at the end of the day and then again in summary at the end of the week. I’ve read their reports — entirely formal and accurate. Perhaps it’s this intermediate competence that unsettles me, perhaps their unwillingness to work alone. I don’t like to be near them. I can’t think when they’re around.

So I bury myself within the greenhouse. Easy, as I’m not particularly tall. The more mature plants, seated on top of their tables, reach my shoulders. We’re supposed to prune them, trim the long necked stems that droop into the aisles, but I allow various corridors of the greenhouse to grow close with foliage. The men don’t notice. They leave the furthest and least convenient reaches of the room to my exclusive care. Walking among these aisles, I imagine I’m near invisible.

My water tank weighs heavily against my hip, so I put it down on the ground to get a better look at the two trays of plants in front of me. They’re both in full bloom, the pursed white petals of the small flowers practically glowing against the background of their robust green leaves. The flowers in both trays have turned to face each other. Their stems strain towards one another. Their flower heads almost brush faces. Their viscerally orange stamen join. The plants look like two gusts of wind from opposite directions have blown them into a colliding peak. 

I don’t know how the plants behave in nature or if they can even survive outside the controlled environment of the greenhouse. Here, they exhibit positive tropic behavior: the flowers gently rotate throughout the day, growth toward a stimulus. Such a stimulus is normally environmental, but the environment here is static: the temperature and humidity of the greenhouse stable, the air blowing through the circulation system continuously, the diffused light of the grow lamps beaming down evenly at all hours. Instead, the flowers orient themselves toward each other, seeking pollination partners.

I’m the only one in the group who pays the plants’ behavior any mind. The men don’t care. None of us are paid to care. Still, I take down the identification numbers for the two trays in front of me. I’ll include a description of their behavior in my daily report. The severity of their rotation is unusual. In most cases, the tropism is subtle, hardly visible. It’s never uniform. You never walk into the greenhouse to find the flowers all facing in one direction or even large swaths of them moving cohesively. An unknown instinct directs each individual plant to turn and face some other. 

I straighten, my hand bracing my back, and heave my water tank up from the ground to resume my rhythmic misting, step and mist, step and mist. I feel my eyes glaze over and welcome the familiar sensation, the absence from myself. When I’m working with the flowers, a window in my mind flings open. My thoughts, like springtime animals, bound through the aperture and into the gaping distance. Something like relief. 

Then the men round a corner and stand unexpectedly before me. It’s easy to lose track of each other in here. Our protective hoods muffle sound, and the height of the mature plants limits visibility across the aisles. But their sudden appearance feels purposeful, malignant. The seven of them rarely work this far from the door.

“Nomi,” John says. 

“Hello,” I say.

The walkway is too narrow for all of us to congregate together, so John faces me and the remaining six hover behind him in pairs like school children, eyeing the overgrown aisle. The orange stamen of the flowers like long tongues encroach against their chests, slide against their necks. 

“I received a message this morning.”

“They wrote to you?” I can’t help asking. “Was there any mention of the increased tropic activity?” Instances of which I had been including almost every day in my notes.

He shakes his head, and light from one of the lamps bounces off his protective hood. The surface goes momentarily opaque, obscuring his face, and I wince back from the sharp brightness.

“None — they asked that we prepare a greater than usual number of seeds for pickup tomorrow.” 

The seeds we harvest are carefully dried, to prevent molding, and then either propagated into new flowers or else packaged and stored in the seed depository. Weekly, a portion of those stored seeds are removed to another facility. To what end, we don’t know. Why the plants merit such large scale and regulated production has never been explained to us, the purpose of our work undisclosed.

Nor have its risks been elucidated. They gave us instructions for protective equipment — the outfits we wear, the hoods and gloves and shoes that don’t leave the greenhouse antechamber, and none of it to be removed while working within the greenhouse itself. But the nature of the threat the plants could potentially pose has been left unmentioned, and while we are asked to wear protective gear, our suits are not air tight and the door into the greenhouse does not vacuum seal.

The plant has potential as a soporific agent.

I read that in a footnote of the orientation materials without further explanation. I haven’t felt so much as sleepy in months. I think the truth is they’re not entirely sure what the risks are. Better to be on the safe side, assign us equipment, but I have to imagine that if the threat were particularly serious, they would have found people more qualified to do the work. If there were a real risk, wouldn’t they be obligated to tell us about it? I could be wrong. Perhaps that’s why the job came with such thorough and appealing health insurance. 

While we’re talking, I notice movement behind John. Two of the others have taken out their shears and begun to prune the long necked flowers leaning into the aisle. The discarded blossoms drop into the men’s buckets untouched. I know they will be incinerated with the rest of the day’s debris. It’s difficult for me to concentrate. 

I try to regain my ground, straighten and say, “Leave me alone to work then. If we need to process that number of seeds — I doubt I’ll even have time for a shower.”

Feet behind John do shuffle at the mention, so I take my victory and flee deeper into the greenhouse. I spend the next four hours in a kind of trance, moving from plant to plant and collecting the seed pods that represent the final stage of the plants’ lifecycle. Some split open when I drop them into my bin and seeds spill out. I miss dinner, spend the night carefully preparing the seeds for the next day’s retrieval. Eventually, I collapse into bed exhausted and unbathed. It does please me to think I’ve deprived them of something.  

❀ ❀ ❀ ❀

Our propagation efforts are temporarily halted. Instead of planting new trays, the entire team is to focus on collecting and processing the seeds of existing mature plants. The change in routine makes me uneasy. I call my mother to complain. She asks if this means I’ll be allowed to take a vacation soon — she’s relentless.

In her quietest voice, she promises, “I won’t say a word. I won’t say a thing. If you come home, I’ll be perfect.”

I put my hand over my mouth to catch a sob.

“I’ll call again soon.” 

A week into our new mandate, my bin is nearly full of seeds. I see the men in the distance, exiting the greenhouse and wander into one of the nursery aisles to admire the neat rows of new life. The slim, verdant shoots look so small in the wide black troughs of soil where they will spend their entire lives. The plants are never repotted nor their bins rearranged. They expand until their containers limit further increase. It’s from this taboo on relocation that I’ve deduced a link between the species’ tropism and its dichogamy. If the plants grow towards each other for the purpose of pollination, then perhaps their fluctuation in sex is just another change in the direction of a stimulus. Better not to interfere with whatever process enables each plant to seek out another.

I move on to an aisle of more mature plants, some of them still flowering and others with their petals fallen off, seeds almost ready to be retrieved. I pull off my glove by the fingers and let the stamen of a flower just whisper against my palm. Then I take a plant perhaps ready to harvest in hand. Seed pods protrude from the end of its stem — a cluster of vibrant green sacs joined together like the slices of an orange. Carefully, I run my bare thumb across their green circumference. Then I brush the raised seam where they join, and the sacs split open. A swarm of hard black seeds spill into my open palm.

An hour later, I’m in the shower. I turn on several faucets at once and fill the space with steam. Air whirs through the vent in the ceiling. In fly the men’s voices, one at a time, steady, synonymous. Then the woman’s voice, pitched, theatrical, upending like a glass of water. I begin to touch myself. I know I can’t finish standing, so I get on my hands and knees on the tiled floor. I’m being loud. My voice presses against the other voices. It isn’t enough. I flatten my cheek against the tile — my shoulders against the tile — the water is burning at my back. I lock my arms together and clasp my hands together into a hard fist and push and push until my eyes flame over with brilliant and colored light.

❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀

Some disaster has happened. The plants have all turned male and none of them will turn back. None of them will bear seeds, like the descent of a plague. It takes us several weeks to confirm. We miss our reproduction targets entirely. We follow the instructions we receive by email. Prescribed adjustments to light, temperature, water and air circulation fail to provoke any response. One thing is tried and then the next. At first, the perfunctory tone of the emails sets me at ease. But a month passes without improvement, and no higher power appears in person to investigate.

More than ever, I can’t sleep. My balance is wrong. I trip on the edge of my bed at night and fall to my knees on the hard floor. My period, which was only ever a trickle, fails to come at all. I double and then triple the nutrient mix in my water tank, rearrange the troughs. The plants glisten with new vitality, but remain barren. Then they stop moving. The tropism vanishes. The greenhouse is static. The plants have stopped looking for each other.

Two months after the initial request for an increased harvest, I walk into the kitchen and find the men standing around the table with their glasses raised. Their bodies make dark shapes against the animation moving in silence on the television screen behind them. There is a general mood of triumph, a drink for me on the counter.

Our time at the facility is ending, John explains. He has received word. I think I read in him relief.

“The message mentioned you,” John says.

I start. 

“Well, it mentioned our report of the tropism as an alert to the impending change in the population, the end of the cycle. Apparently, this happens. It’s rare, but it’s happened before. After a period of increased tropic activity, reproduction halts. The population has selected a single plant to remain female and bear the reproductive burden for the whole, similar to a hive of bees serving a queen. The sole female plant can’t be identified until it actually bears seeds, which can take anywhere from a week to a year. Regardless, the production of a single plant can’t compare to the seed output of a normally distributed population. The contents of the entire greenhouse must be removed and the project begun again from scratch with new plants, raised from seeds, that have never interacted with each other.”

“They’re still alive,” I say. “They haven’t spoiled.” 

“Actually — for our purposes — they have.”

In the morning, the message is there in my inbox, addressed to the team at large, none of us by name. We are to conclude operations. We will process any remaining seed pods from the previous reproductive cycle. We will digitize and submit the final round of notes. We will incinerate the remaining population of plants. We will incinerate the remaining population of plants, I read again. A hand is at my neck or must be for I begin breathing in short gasps.

I spend the week in a madness of work. The others won’t be thorough, so I check each individual plant myself, labor in the greenhouse all day and dream of flames at night. The men, their release in sight, descend into merriment. Dinners, they grin across the table. On Sunday, our meal over, I stride into the shower room, don’t take off my clothes, just turn on a few of the faucets and stand next to the air vent. Soon, the voices reach me.

I’m back in the hallway. White lights blister. They’re never off. The sounds of the men’s conversation dim, barely audible through the thick facility walls. I can’t hear the woman moaning until my ear is pressed against the door, my hand on the handle. Maybe I just want to see her face.

I fling the door open. The men are where I knew they’d be, sitting in their same seats, their chairs drawn flush against the table. None of their hands are immediately visible. But on the television screen: an image of a single white flower bisected. The flower’s female organ, usually hidden within its white petals, blazes orange and furious against a black background. The grasping fingers of the stigma rest on the pillar like style that widens at the base into the flower’s ovary. Cut in half, the organ’s tiny, flame colored ovules arranged in twin lines are visible. They would have developed into seeds. Left in the dirt, they would have grown into flowers.

Hardly ten seconds have passed. The screen goes black, someone forcefully yanking out the cord. But the white and orange of the flower were so intense, for a moment its image burns against my eyes in the new dark. They must have taken the picture here, but we aren’t allowed to bring cameras of any kind into the facility. Even our phones are the old fashioned kind, without lenses. They must have cut the flower open themselves. The woman’s voice, I realize, has also vanished. We all look at each other in the dark.

❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀ ❀

I tell my mother I’m coming home and stomach her transparent glee. I include my resignation in my weekly report. Unwilling to ask John to deliver the message for me, I have no other means to tell anybody. I receive a response almost immediately: a car will be waiting to remove me from the facility on the date I’ve given, a precautionary quarantine to follow. I receive neither commendation for my work here nor acknowledgement that I’m breaking my contract. 

I spend my last night in the greenhouse, slip back in before the door locks at seven. I remove my hood and the rest of my protective gear, fold them neatly and carry them over my arm. I want to walk through the room like a garden. Slowly, I begin a pilgrimage up and down the five aisles, almost three miles of plants. Without my suit, I can feel the artificial wind sweeping gently through the room, hear the plants’ tender jostling. Their leaves ruffle and sigh. And the smell — for once I can really smell the flowers’ subtle fragrance. It accumulates as I walk, verdant and heady. 

I find my way to the center of the greenhouse and lie down on the ground. The plants loom above me. Some faraway part of my mind revolts against the knowledge of what will happen to this place, but I’m so tired. Leaves whisper contently above me. White heads nod. For once, sleep feels possible. My body grows heavy; my eyes flutter; I drop into warm darkness. 

I chose to keep a child once, when she was just a rhythm beneath my hand. In sleep, at last I allow for the enormity of loving that has taken root in me, love for someone who only promised to exist.

I wake feeling whole, entire, a new integrity in my body. I blink into darkness, a moment passing before I understand where the light has gone. While I slept, the plants bent across the aisle above, enclosing me in a warm, green shadow. Several white flowers dangle just above my face. I take one by the stem. The whole plant looks swollen. Its white flowering head droops heavily. Its stamen, usually hair thin, clasped by the mouth of the petals, are thick laden with pollen. My breath scatters a cloud of orange. Sitting up, I get dressed in my suit. I duck beneath the bridge of stems and flowers and make my way into the open. I get to my feet, and my chest draws in sharp and quick.

Overnight, five thousand white flowers have turned to face me. The entire room of plants strains to reach me at its center. I walk and then begin to run. It takes several minutes to reach the exit. When at last I touch the door, I turn around and watch the flowers track my body, turn their heads in a massive wave like wind rippling through grass.

Several hours later, the men find me packing in my room. They’ve come to say goodbye. Each carries a black sealed bin in his arms, plants destined for incineration. The work begins today. I consider thanking them for agreeing to go on without me, but when I open my mouth, a white flower unfolds on my tongue. The air-conditioning kicks in. A fine orange substance drifts into the air. I see it glittering like a mist of electric rain.

“Nomi,” one of them says.

Then they all fall down — asleep presumably.



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