An image came into my mind while I was day dreaming, and it was the kind of thing I knew immediately I had to make into a story, somehow. The image was the first line of the story, actually: A baby’s hand, sticking out of the soil, as if grasping for freedom. Creepy. I was very tempted to go with the well worn Evil Dead Baby idea, but decided against it because it’s so hackneyed I had to use capital letters just then. What I came up with was, I hope, a bit more original. As always, enjoy!
A hand, young and fresh like a baby’s, stuck out of the soil in Peter Hannet’s back garden. When he saw it, Peter’s mouth fell open and he stood, hose continuing to flood his vegetable garden unattended, and stared at the thing without breathing. Only when spots began to flash in front of his eyes did he come back to himself. A few minutes later, having turned off the hose, made a cup of tea and gathered himself sufficiently, he nodded to himself, pushed his glasses up his nose and headed back out into the garden, quite bravely, really.
It was not a hand. He almost doubled over with relief, laughing quietly to himself at his own foolishness. Then again, it wasn’t so foolish, was it? Kneeling beside it in the soil, it was like no plant he’d ever seen before, and he tended to know plants. But the stem was too long to be a wrist, and the ‘fingers’ had no joints that he could see, though they curled up as though the buried thing was trying to claw it’s way to the surface. After a few minutes of analysis, he prodded it and recoiled at the touch – it felt just like human skin! Had it belonged to a dead baby, however, he was certain it wouldn’t be so vibrant and coloured. One of the little fingers had curled after his touch, and now it began to uncurl slowly.
With each passing minute, his trepidation became excitement. This was a brand new specimen. There was a paper in this at least – maybe two. Perhaps he could even have the thing named after him – a long held dream of his since his early decision to become a botanist. A Peter Plant, or perhaps simply a Hannet tree. In the end, he did what any good botanist would do: he took pictures, made notes, and tried to make it grow.
At first, nothing worked. How it had begun in the first place he didn’t know, because within a week of discovering it, the thing began to wilt, the skin turning a light grey and flaking. It attracted flies. He tried watering it a lot and then a little, gave it one kind of soil and then another, shaded it and exposed it. He even tried giving it milk, since it reminded him so much of a child. It occurred to him, with a sickening jolt, that perhaps he’d been mistaken from the beginning and someone really had buried a baby in his back yard. And the hand had been so fresh when he found it, perhaps it had still been alive then?
But he had one last thing to try: blood. Not his own, but pig’s blood, procured from the butcher. It was probably a long shot, but the hand did remind him so much of a living thing… perhaps it was a carnivorous plant. So, once a day, he filled his little green watering can with blood and poured it onto the hand, hoping Mrs. Hammond wasn’t poking her yard long nose over his fence as she often did.
To his delight, the hand recovered completely within three days, the skin returning to a healthy strawberries and cream complexion and rising up stiffly from the ground. Less than a week later, it began to grow.
Peter was soon entirely obsessed with his new plant. He found himself daydreaming in the middle of lectures at the university – the ones he gave as well as the ones he attended. Luckily, he’d always been known to fit the academic cliché of the absent minded, anti social professor, and it suited him fine. When they found out what he’d created, the eye rolling would turn to grudging admiration and he would be at last called to higher and greater things.
Soon, the hand no longer looked like a hand. The wrist grew thicker and more solid and more fingers sprouted from its base, then lengthened into arms which sprouted still more fingers. In his mind he already began to refer to the thing as the Hannet Tree. He was certain by now that nothing like it existed on earth. He had already started his thesis and, when it was fully grown, he would present it to the world and his days of academic anonymity would be gone, as would the endless hours spent seeking funding. Money would pour into any endeavour he set his mind on thereafter.
‘You don’t think you’re, ah, burying yourself a bit in your work?’
Jerry, one of the other professors he occasionally had coffee with at the university, had taken to asking prying questions with comically raised eyebrows. ‘I mean, what is it you’re really working on, Pete?’
‘Ah, you know, just feeling at loose ends. Searching for that ever elusive breakthrough.’
‘Oh? Not, ah, there’s no… Lady in your life?’ He said, half smiling. Inwardly laughing, Peter clutched on the idea. ‘Perhaps. Too early to tell. Actually,’ he glanced at his watch, ‘I should be going.’ And he gave his colleague a roguish wink, thinking: Just you wait, friend, just you wait.
He began filling the watering can to the brim and feeding the Hannet three times a day. In three months it was already taller than he, and Peter decided it was time to conduct experiments. At this rate, the thing would surely be fully grown by the end of the year, and he wanted to have as much information as possible about it for his thesis.
Still, despite his excitement, there was something distinctly unnerving about it. Its bark was too much like skin – sweating and stinking in the sun, breaking out in tiny goose bumps at night. It was stretchy and, beneath the surface was in places knotted as if by muscle or soft as if filled with fat. The limbs stretched out in all directions, and now the arms and fingers did have joints, hard centres that he could feel beneath the flesh. Once, he deliberately snapped a twig at the very tip of a branch and couldn’t help but cringe at the sound and feel of it. Surely that was how it would be to break a man’s finger? The feeling of the bone straining and then breaking, and the shards of it poking through the skin. The finger turned black and fell off after a couple of days. He couldn’t quite bring himself to do it again.
As the weeks went on, it became impossible to conduct experiments in the clinical, impartial manner he was so used to. The more time he spent studying the thing, the more time he wanted to spend. Sometimes he would simply stand and stare at it, or walk around it in endless circles, letting his fingers run along the trunk, tracing every little blemish and mark on its otherwise smooth skin. He tended to it endlessly, plying it with fresh blood and heaping blood bone fertiliser at the base of it.
Marie from next door did stick her nose over once while he was doing this, and asked him about the strange tree, but he replied with such a long and jargon filled lecture about it that his explanation didn’t even make sense to him. She didn’t ask again, but now and again he felt her eyes on him as he worked. He took to visiting the tree at night instead, when the neighbourhood was asleep and he could be with it privately.
In his long observations, he noticed several strange things about the tree. One was that birds never seemed to land on it or near it, not even when he hung a seed bell from the limbs. Insects never set up their hives or nests as they would in other trees, though maggots did briefly infest the broken finger, feasting and then growing into flies and departing to leave a healed stump.
He managed to deliberately wound the tree only one other time, late one night when he endeavoured to sever a wedge right to the centre of the trunk, hoping to get an idea of what a cross section might be like. It was torture. He used a heavy wood saw to cut, and blood spurted out with the first strokes, horribly warm in his lap, sending a wave of dizziness over him. He persisted, but though the tree itself gave no sign of pain, he could sense it in the air like an electric field, making the hair stand up all over his body, a silent scream ringing in his ears.
When he felt the blade hit bone near the centre of the tree a second time, completing the wedge, he pulled it out and, without glancing at it, stood up and ran over to the bushes in the far corner of the garden and vomited. He was covered in blood and cold sweat, horrified at what he’d done without quite knowing why. Christ, it was just a plant, wasn’t it? It didn’t breathe, nor eat, nor show any signs of being alive, save that all too familiar anatomy. Yet it had screamed.
Tears welling in his eyes, he hugged the tree like a friend and felt it respond, a shifting of the skin against his chest, a gentle sigh as the limbs moved and twisted above him. Two of the branches managed to coil around him, as though reciprocating the hug, and the trunk gave a little shudder as he tightened his own embrace. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he whispered, half of his mind confused and the other half entranced. The sweet smelling sweat filled his nose and the numerous fingers clutched at his back, his hair, his neck.
They stayed like that for a long time, until the blood stopped flowing from the wound and Peter’s tears began to dry on the soft skin. It was so warm, that skin. Tentatively, he stuck out his tongue and licked it. It tasted salty, a little musty. One of the arms curled all the way around his waist and slid under his shirt, a hand of thirty wriggling fingers moving up his chest, exploring it.
He was dizzy with the sensations, no longer questioning what the nature of the tree really was, nor what he was doing here, locked in its sensual arms, but just went with it in a way he never had with another human being. He ran his hands along the trunk, bit it gently, the arms all over him now, firm and gentle at the same time, one of them curling between his legs and lifting him off the ground.
He gasped and his eyes opened, his heart rate ramping up as the hypnosis broke for a moment. He looked down and saw the ground already a shocking distance below him, the arms coiling beneath him and swaying as they lifted him far above the top of the tree and into the cold night air.
From here, suspended for a time, he could look straight down and see his tree from above. At the top, the trunk widened and divided into countless arms, some of which were now holding him up. But there was something there, partially hidden by the constant movement of the limbs, which by now were running over him so feverishly that there was no part of him save his face that was not being caressed or squeezed or grasped, his clothes torn from his body by their urgency.
He fixed his gaze on that central point, where the trunk ended and the arms grew, and after a few long seconds, he saw what it was. It was a mouth, a hole the size of a plate that opened and closed, rimmed with folds of skin that served as lips and lined all the way round with what could only be described as teeth, though they were more like stalactites or icicles in shape, long and pointed inward, toward the darkness inside the trunk.
Peter opened his mouth to scream, but one of the hands on his face, sensing the opening, forced itself inside and down his throat. He gagged and tried to bite down, but the arm was too wide and his jaw was forced open almost to the point of breaking. The arms tightened their hold on him, or perhaps it only felt that way because of his struggling. They were bringing him, he realised, slowly down towards that hideous opening, turning him in the air until his body was vertical, his head down.
His torn shirt fell before him and the mouth sucked it in, the lips pressing closed, then open, and it was gone. He was utterly helpless. He strained against the arms with everything he had, but it was like fighting a hundred pythons, each one tight with muscle and acting against a different part of him. They subdued him patiently, bending as they brought him, inexorably, to the mouth.
Its breath was hot on his face, and it smelled like fresh, uncooked meat. It was breathing faster now, as if excited at the prospect of the coming meal, and Peter could almost feel it building up to take a bite, the mouth widening until the lips were stretched and cracking at their limit, the arms holding him drawing back a bit, as if to position him better. He couldn’t make a sound, the hand inside him all the way into his stomach and probing deeper, but he tried all the same, the blood vessels in his eyes rupturing with the effort of it, his naked body on fire.
Without warning, the arm wrenched itself out of his mouth with shocking speed and, before Peter could take a breath, he was plunged into that dark, wet hole. The jaws closed, and there was a moment of pain as he felt a hundred jagged points dig into his skin.
He’d expected it to be over then, that he’d be dead before the pain could kick in, but a minute later he was still there, and not only that but he was breathing, too, the mouth still opening and closing around his ankles and letting in the air. He could not even hope for the relief of unconsciousness.
Frantically, he tried to wriggle back up the thing’s oesophagus, but of course that was the reason the teeth had grown inwards: at the first movement they dug deeper into his flesh. In his desperation, he tried to move further down, but the opening grew too narrow and he felt more teeth here, piercing his face.
He let out a cry of terror that was almost a whimper, but the tree was deaf to his pleas and only opened and closed, opened and closed, piercing him anew each time until he was bleeding from a thousand tiny pricks, and his blood was running down over his face and making it harder to breathe, soaking into his hair and trickling steadily into the gurgling hole just beneath him.
‘Please, oh, please don’t let me die like this,’ he whispered, but he was growing fainter by the second, and the tree was still so very thirsty. His world was reduced to the deep throb of his weakening heart, of blood running through the trunk, of thirsty sucking, of pain.
When there was no blood left in him, the mouth opened wide once again and the arms reached in to retrieve the shell. They had further uses for such healthy, fertile flesh.
It was less than three days later that the tree bloomed and the branches, now spread so wide that some of them hung over the neighbouring fence, sprouted tiny round fruit the colour of sunburn. They might have been mistaken for apples at a distance, and only up close could one have seen how horribly wrong such a comparison was. Only touching it would reveal how soft and loose the skin was, like uncooked chicken skin fit around a ball of soft cheese. There was a soft peach fuzz growth on only one side of the fruit, near the stem, and beneath it one’s fingers would quickly touch upon half formed features. Two indentations where eyes might be; a tightly drawn line where the mouth would go, even a small bump for a nose.
Marie Hammond, picking the overhanging fruit on the following morning, saw and felt all of these things, but she picked every fruit on her side of the fence all the same. My fence, my fruit and he can keep the rest of his secret little plant to himself, thankyou very much. And in that spiteful spirit she forced herself to sit down and take a hearty bite out of one of the repulsive things, closing her eyes as she did so and missing, at first, the way the meat inside looked so much like brains. Had she seen that, she might have spat it out before she got a proper taste, and that was for the good because now she found out what she couldn’t have known from merely touching and looking at the fruit:
It was delicious.