By Rekha Valliappan
‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.’ –Flannery O’Connor
The door was locked. Roma Kaldhari thought the old man looked sick, petrified,
and ready to die. There was the lifeless look about him, of a caged animal face to face
with his nemesis when vengeance is craftily festering away and there is no more
goodness left to substitute, that dominated his gaze. She had experience seeing such
things. She had an uncle once, peg-legged, mauled beyond recognition the one and only
time he had ventured on a camping trip alone and played house-guest with a visiting
grizzly, and more recently a cousin who unable to recompense for the horror of hurt, let
loosed into seeking bloody justice, had fallen victim himself to speeding on the turnpike,
when his shiny black Lexus out of control had hit the abutment and gone up like a
smoky-tailed asteroid. Both idiots, out to perpetuate justifiable retribution.
Death was Roma’s stock-in-trade. Vengeance unchained was her karma that had
delivered her to journey’s end. As head of the zoology department, responsible for
research projects impacting the environment, she was well on her way to be university
president, an honor reserved for the few who were aces at academic politics. Roma struck
the right kind of deals, than most. Able-bodied and haughty she longed to enjoy the kind
of satisfaction she craved. This was a good deal, which would land her the coveted
position, soonest. A single woman, with no children, whose family lived far out east on
the other side of the globe, her over-confidence and acumen was known to all. She knew
the death look. Several minutes passed.
What lay behind that door counted. The house was cold and quiet. The only
sounds were the fire crackling in the stone hearth and a harsh November wind, tearing up
the clouds, whistling outside in continuous moan.
“I was not expecting you for another hour,” said the old man taking a stab at her,
his voice quavering and faint. He’s obviously prepared for the encounter.
“Did you talk to anyone else?” asked Roma, ignoring his suppressed wrath and
glancing around the room for any signs of an outsider, a greenhouse abnormality,
sickness running in plants, or telltale weeds.
“Only my man Muldoon. He says you’ve spoken to him.”
“Where is the renartis?” Roma barked, stiffening with excitement. Too often
telltale signs which would predispose her towards not adopting a particular plant
specimen with a complex mitochondrial inheritance would sound warning bells. What if
the plant was half-sick? She was unsure what had occurred in this particular mutation,
where functionality was lost.
The old man–Higgins, darted forward on his motorized wheelchair. Nearer he
came, worse the stench, Roma smelt, of fear, age, mold, revenge, all mixed up in vinegar
antiseptic acidity. She gagged, feeling revolted, but the university labs’ autoclaved cell
culture waste smelt far worse. Every year when the Ph.D. students came in, a full scale
lab evacuation was put in effect. The stench almost knocked her off her feet. The
significance was to not procrastinate. End it. She wanted the plant with every fiber of her
being. She did not show any reaction. The old man’s face was still.
“The plant is right behind you,” Higgins said slowly, whatever self-inflicted
fantasies he was carrying shifting the burden.
Roma spun around. Her speed was her stock-in-trade. She had handled bucking
llamas, to reticulated pythons, colloidal protoplasm to tarry organelles. Once she was
called upon to capture a wild mongoose, whose sulfur containing chemical spray had
blinded a couple of area teenagers and their dog, rendered vulnerable to the attack. The
old man could conjure whatever he wished. She saw–a plant.
In the course of her tenure she had seen all manner of exotic and strange flora,
from giant hogweeds to liverworts, bleeding tooth fungus to venus flytraps, but this one
looked ordinary. So ordinary in fact it deferred any sense of satisfaction. What had she
been expecting? A humanoid swamp-thing? Why this was nothing more than just a
harmless little dwarf! Like the thyme that grew in her home out east. Not even a shine on
its spores. Its stem was arrow-straight, hairy, of course with unusual markings, that
alternated between pastel yellow, dust brown and green, in splotches of unruly color. So
what of it?
“Here, take it! And this.” Higgins stammered fearfully. Painfully she looked
away. He had taken a thick brown envelope from the table and held it out, his fingers
trembling. The sweet deal. Her eyes twinkled a fraction. “Five hundred thousand dollars.
My gift to the university.”
Roma found the envelope filled with hundred and fifty dollar bills. She nodded.
Disconcerted, but only for a moment. She had not believed it likely. All this money. And
a delicate plant. She liked plants. They soothed her. One reason she could not turn vegan,
like many of her colleagues was the deep beauty she saw in these living, sentient
organisms suffering the heartless laws of nature. But, the money? This was real. Once
she took it she was no longer innocent bystander. She had been paid to be the subtle
weapon of an old man’s revenge. He had shifted the burden. His rage was doomed into
her lament as agreed. A sense of importance of what was at stake surged through her,
recombining with the strange plant-life biological structure staring motionless at her, in
Muldoon appeared with drinks on a tray, in which the ice clunked noisily. His
hands shook, either with old age, or the same terror contagion that beset his master. A
whiskey for Higgins and tropical punch for Roma. She took a long sip.
“Three women are dead. I feel I must explain,” whispered Higgins, after a swig,
that spread warmth into the pit of his stomach and added color to his sallow cheeks. His
eyes were listless. He looked drained of energy to fight any more. He looked like he
wished the floor would open and swallow him whole. Roma gathered his condemnation
of the renartis was total.
“What is it?” She moved away, struck by his noticeable pallor, taking a seat
near the bay window of the living room on the far side. The strange stench from her host
was making her nauseous. Gazing outside she watched a stray mutt dodging traffic,
chasing the fall leaves, barking ecstatically, its tongue lolling in excitement. A blue Prius
with a ‘What The World Needs Is More Cows, Give Her The Cowslip’ sticker trundled
past, missing the dog by inches.
“That plant came here five months ago. I’ve never liked plants. I think they’re
nasty disease-carrying, allergen-inducing, germ-growing odor-spreading pests. My family
used to run a farm. The invasive species we dealt with led to multiple crossovers, till the
pus boils spread. It was my wife who wanted this plant. She paid the price.” He threw a
quick glance at the renartis, staring quietly, his shuddering gaze filled with hate and
Higgins related how they had a small garden. Five months ago there were four of
them living in the house–Higgins, his wife Kathy, a pleasant woman of seventy-nine,
their unmarried daughter Alicia, and Muldoon, the elderly family retainer. A day maid
came twice a week for a couple of hours. The four of them had lived this way all their
lives for the most part. They were a quiet family. Not much in common. Their only joint
pleasures were Jeopardy, the game show, and the annual trip to the Jolly Roger theme
Then the plant came.
“Happened about the time when that whole lot of controversy had exploded about
invasive growths, spotted on a blasted heath, where nothing grew. Azerbaijan. Alice
Springs. Isle of Wight. Arizona. Some suspected it was a meteor strike. Others speculated
alien life-forms. Nothing conclusive. I forget where it was Muldoon saw it first, mowing
the lawn. He did all he could to rid the garden of the plant. He stopped watering the bed.
He tried to uproot it. But it wouldn’t go. It looked little more than a sapling then, all
daffodil-yellow and pretty I suppose. We were not to know its growth patterns. Not then.”
When the plant refused to die Higgins had instructed Muldoon to use strong
quantities of ammonia and para-formaldehyde to cauterize it. A formula spiked with hard
chemicals would make the plant alter coloring as a matter of fact, thought Roma,
inconsequentially. It explained the curious markings on the fronds. The plant had kept
growing. It was at that point wife Kathy had noticed the attractive colorful plant and
insisted they take it inside, like a house-plant. She hung sprigs of it on every window-sill,
the mail-box, porch. Higgins had vehemently protested. But mother and daughter in joint
custody got their way. They always did, apparently.
“She carried it inside herself, like a baby, in her arms” Higgins said, his eyes
clouding. “She found out. ‘Oh, just look at you kootchie-kootchie-koo-thing. You sweet
little hootchie-cootchie, easy-peasy yello-polka-dotty-poppy, you! My, but you look so
dead’ she would coo, cluck and sing at the disgusting thing, watering it so lovingly,
petting it, hugging it. She found out! They knew how I felt about plants. How I hated that
thing. It didn’t stop them teasing me. They paid the price.”
In mid-July Muldoon had gotten up early one morning to lay breakfast as usual,
and had found Kathy lying in a litter of miracle-gro granular formula and broken
crockery. Blood was puddling around her. She had bled from the mouth and nose. Her
back was broken, both legs and arms were broken, and her neck had been literally cut in
half, by a twisting green vine. Her eyes bulged sightlessly at the bay window, where the
plant stood, like a decorative topiary sentinel shrub. Roma stood up startled, and moved
to the fireplace.
“I think she was planning on fertilizing and trimming the plant, and being old, and
not too steady on her feet, collapsed. The plant did the rest, entangling her with the
Yes, it could have happened that way, Roma thought. In her mind’s eye she saw
Kathy stumbling, struggling, too choked to scream. The granular formula spraying out as
she wobbled, the bowl smashing. At last she fell near the stairs, blood trickling from her
nose and ears, eyes glaring lifelessly.
“What did the coroner say?” she asked Higgins, staring at the plant intently.
“Accidental death, naturally. But I know. It was the plant!”
“Why didn’t you throw away the plant then, with wife Kathy gone?”
He couldn’t. Because daughter Alicia threatened to leave the house if he did. She
was hysterical, obsessed with the plant, as nutty about it as her crazy mother had been.
The day maid, another nonsensical girl, had told her that Kathy’s soul was trapped in the
plant, and if the plant went, she went.
“But it was the maid who went. Two weeks after Kathy’s death the maid simply
stopped coming. A month later I sent Muldoon around to enquire. The maid was dead.
Vomiting sprigs, dandelions, weeds. Buckets of string like green spirals, which kept
growing out of her stomach lining and innards. Even her pus boils were green. I know it
was the plant. To let Alicia go would have been murder,” Higgins said, too distracted to
proceed. His shoulders heaved. A long pause followed. “Besides, she lived in a specially-
controlled humidified room on the top floor, because of her worsening asthma.”
Roma nodded impatiently glancing at her wristwatch. The hour was getting late. It
had turned dark outside. She could picture the servant girl losing body nutrients with
each bout of vomit, growing steadily weaker, probably hospitalized, abdominal pain on
an unknown scale, till all her organs collapsed.
“Near the end of September, that’s when I knew this death would also be violent.
Alicia died in the night. The doctor took it as a matter of course, since she was asthmatic .
. . just wrote out the death certificate, and that was the end of it. But the plant was in the
room when she died! Muldoon told me. She would never have taken the plant to her
room. It was forbidden.”
“Accidents happen, Mr. Higgins, it would indicate your daughter was asthmatic,
that’s true, but she also loved the plant, she believed her mother was connected to it
somehow from beyond the grave, some plants cause severe allergen buildup far worse
than rag weed and rye grass onslaught. We deal with it all the time,” Roma said,
struggling to voice sympathy and bring some semblance of scientific logic to the bizarre
revelations. Compassion was the least prominent of her communication traits.
“Of course, that’s what the doctor said. But I knew. It was our house plant, the
renartis, that stole her breath away, so she could no longer breathe. I expected it, her
lungs bursting with the struggle to draw breath, after . . .”
Higgins fell silent, and Roma thought about it. Alicia Higgins, asleep in her
bedroom, the breath rasping in and out of her damaged lungs, the humidifiers whirring
loudly. The strange plant with its colorful markings creeping silently, settling in her room
undetected, as the young woman never waking up drowned in the fluid buildup–of her
own lungs. She fell deep in thought. She was troubled. The old man clearly carried a
grudge. Higgins appeared as if to be asleep. She was not an imaginative woman, but
Roma shivered a little.
“Mr. Higgins,” she said at last, “why don’t you just throw the renartis away? None
of you want it any more. The garbage collectors will pick it up. By morning it’ll be gone.”
Higgins shook himself awake and carried on as if he had not heard, “The funeral
was on the twenty-fifth of September. On October first I called Muldoon and handed him
a wooden crate. I told him to put the plant in it and leave it outside for the garbage
collectors. I never saw him do it. I fell down the stairs, which is how I’m in a wheel-
“And the plant came back?”
“Six weeks in the hospital. When I returned from rehabilitation, the plant was
back, exactly where you see it.”
“It survived sixty days of no care, no watering, no nutrition, no sunlight? An
outdoor plant?! Hard to believe.” Roma gasped in awe, even as she watched it, signs of
incomprehension struggling on her face.
“It’s what you see, Professor, that’s when I started to wonder if it’s not a . . . a . . .”
“Devil plant? . . . from hell?”
“Yes, a sort of demon, sent from hell . . . I’m afraid of it, you do see? I want you
to kill it. I want you to punish it, I want you to take revenge for my family’s deaths, call it
what you like. Retribution is not the way to deal with it, and I don’t know if there are
other families out there similarly affected, but, my family has been wiped out, and I am
next, so in this instance I have to be realistic. I’ve lived with that thing for the past five
months. It watches me. Each night I lock myself in my room and still I wonder if I’m
going to be alive in the morning.”
“He will not touch it or go near it.”
The wind moaned outside with a strange hooting noise coming through the
chimney. The fire crackled in the hearth, like all that talk of demons had given it a hellish
energy of its own. The windows rattled. An audible whistling rose up into the rafters and
trusses and was lost.
Momentarily thrown into confusion Roma hesitated for a fraction. “Very well,”
she then said, rising “I accept the plant Mr. Higgins on behalf of the university. I assure
you it will make an interesting subject to dissect for our labs.”
“Kill it. Dissect it. Experiment with it. Bury it. Burn it. Shred it. Vaporize it. I do
not want to know,” replied Higgins, with a shuddering breath. He looked like an ill-fed
ostrich hunched low in his wheel-chair, the color receding from his sallow cheeks.
If he had told the tale to anyone, as he had to the professor, they’d think he was
mad and he’d end up in the state mental hospital. Maybe even accused of murdering his
maid, if not his wife and daughter, with Muldoon for accomplice. He thought of
Muldoon, his longtime trusted companion, always the first to do his bidding, finding a
small plant in the garden one hot summer’s day. Hellishly perfect. His smile was grim.
Death was final. Here he was. There was no one left. Time left scars. Life had left him
few choices–with the plant. With it gone, he was still terrified.
Roma Kaldhari left the house at a little past 11.30 that night. The frat houses on
the edge of campus were an hour’s drive. A mystic silver half rind of crescent moon
stained the cloud-tattered late November skies, coloring the ether ash, carrying with it a
hint of snow. She shivered, not with cold, but because the terror seemed to seep into her
clothes and wellingtons and bones. She did not like it. The cold was numbing.
She thought of her lectures on cell biology and papers to mark. She thought of
Kumar, her bright young grad student with his Princeton education and the Robert
Redford good looks, who was fine mapping the complex interstices of environmental
factors and its correlation to animal and plant genotypes. The stuff he carried–contour
maps, calculator, notebooks, graph sheets. He spent many hours littering the tables at the
She could hand him the renartis as another specimen to work on. He would be
thrilled. The longer she dwelt on the strange plant the more she thought of the different
species of similar looking growth affecting parts of the soil, east of the Rockies. She
thought of the animal pens at the back of the labs and the forty crates of impedimenta
waiting to be transported. She thought of the boxes of National Geographic and supplies
to be moved. She thought of her office desk littered with cigarette butts. And she thought
of her rich cache of five hundred thousand dollars. Quite a day.
She tried calling Kumar to tell him of her latest acquisition and that she was
heading to the labs, to meet her there, but her cell phone was out of coverage. He could
be anywhere charting the continued out-migration of wood beetles or chasing up a
promising lead. Killer plant?! He would joke as usual, accuse her of working too hard,
the simian in him bursting into cackles of mad rowdy laughter. She could picture the
scene. Professor, really, a manic plant? A plant from hell? She did not know what he
would say or think.
She was aware her thoughts were growing garbled. She could hear Kumar
cheerfully murmur “Holy crap, seeing devil’s tongues again, eh?” The story was crazy,
no question about it. The implication that an innocuous little plant could kill was raving
mad. She didn’t believe it. She didn’t disbelieve it either. What did she believe? Her
BMW convertible moved nicely, humming at a little over seventy. She was in a lonely
stretch. The road was empty. The curious plant was in a double thick brown paper bag,
tied tightly at the top with heavy twine. The shopping bag was in the passenger seat.
Strange growth she thought, surprised to find that she actually liked the plant. This plant
could be a breakthrough. And a killing machine of a growth, with power, well . . . more
power to it.
She could kill it of course, if it came to that, easily, boil it in a microwave oven
and watch it disintegrate, pepper it with organic solvents, or shred it with a pocket-knife.
She could feed it to the grubs, maggots, or the rabbits, hares, and gerbils in the animal
pens, always on the lookout for greens.
Roma Kaldhari was thinking these things as the car moved through the night like
a white ghost in flight, when the plant silently crawled in front of her eyes, on the
dashboard. She blinked, glancing swiftly at the bag on the seat and saw a hole in it, like a
large worm had crawled through. The spit dried in her mouth and was replaced by a
metal taste. A curled tendril of cocoon-silk brushed against her forehead. She tapped it
away with a small cry of fear and loathing. The car wobbled. The headlights threw a wild
zigzag arc. She coughed dryly. The plant shifted, emitting a kind of sound like a teakettle
whistling, only more hysterical, like a child throwing a tantrum, an ugly one. The
whistling sounded too familiar. She had heard it in the house. She thought it was the fall
winds tearing through the chimney. Then it started to growl savagely, with a squelchy
primitive sound. It made Roma’s hair stand on end. Her eyes widened. She could not see
straight. The car careened out of control.
Several tendrils of green spiraled outwards, gouging her eyeball. Blood and
membrane juices splattered the windscreen. Roma screamed, the sound slicing
like a box-cutter into her heart. She jammed the brakes. Her head bent backwards as the tendrils
snaked around her neck. She struck at the plant. The car hit a boulder and came to a rest,
The crazed snarling went on and on. Part of her arm came out of its ball and
socket joint, suctioned clean off, and Roma saw to her horror the sleeve of her oversized
blazer soaked with blood. She was a zoology major. She was used to the sight of blood.
But nothing had prepared her for this. Something incredibly strong was yanking at her
legs, snarling and gobbling. And all the while there was the breathless whistling. Roma
screamed again, a long ululating sound that bounced around the closed confines of the
With her good arm she reached behind and dragged her handbag within reach.
Pulling out her eyebrow-plucker she jabbed viciously at the plant, stabbing it repeatedly.
It produced a funny hsssssssss sound. A tendril leapt at her again, and again, clawing,
spread-eagled on Roma’s chest. She bit it clean off, spitting the bits of vegetable matter.
Gagging. The pain was excruciating as several more tendrils leapt at her, replacing the
ones that were lost. She could feel the warm blood trickling down her cheeks. Maybe a
passer-by would spot her. She thought not. Miles back she had veered off the highway to
take the shortcut through the back lanes. At this late hour of night she did not think any
help was likely on this remote stretch.
Suddenly the plant retreated. What was it doing? Why had it moved to the back
seat? She tried to see through the rear view mirror. But it was useless. Her busted eye
had caused the good one to tear up that she could not see. The plant was planning to
murder her. Was she not moments ago planning the same? It could do plenty from
behind. She would teach it a lesson or two! Just you wait renartis! The wind
picked up moaning through the air vents, sending a draft of cold. That was when she felt
the spring of coiled fury. As if the plant could read her thoughts. As if it was aware. As if
seeking a retribution of its own.
The plant rocked back and forth. Writhing. She had not dreamed such savagery
from something so little. The body of the professor lolled grotesquely firmly grasped by
bands of green spillage that filled the car. Savage sounds rent the air. The crunch of bone.
In her ears she could hear that damned teakettle whistling recombining with the winds.
Her throat knotted as her jugular vein was severed. A moment was all it took.
Vomit ran down her windpipe into her stomach. Blood began to pump across the steering
wheel, the dashboard, the windscreen, pooling on the car seats, and jetting onto the roof
of the car. Her good eye bulged open, and stayed open. That last moment Roma Kaldhari
knew the plant was no ordinary renartis, as those invasive specimens cushioning parts of
the Rockies, but possessed of a malignant murderous intent and force, such as Higgins
Dawn came stealthily over the cold morning air of rural Pennsylvania. Not a bird
sang. The ground was covered in a thin layer of hard frost. Winds had died down. A
farmer in a truck pulled over, spotting a half-turned vehicle in a ditch. “Why lookee here
ironman,” he spoke to his truck, grinding to a screeching halt, “What’ve we got?” The
professor’s BMW convertible smoked in a grassy patch. An elderly man, the local farmer
worked his way slowly toward the vehicle, then sucked in his breath sharply. The woman
inside was sitting bolt upright, headless. Her neck had snapped clean at the base. Her
body was covered in blood and seepage. She was wearing her seatbelt. “Damn!” he said,
looking green, the bile rising in his throat. His Adams apple bobbed like a six flags
structure on a roller coaster. He looked around. No sign of another vehicle, or an animal
crossing, or a tree, in sight. The surroundings looked peaceful. Not a soul was in sight
He reached in to gently remove her seat belt when he spotted her handbag
pixelating into tiny dots in the cold breeze. “What in God’s name?” he barked hoarsely.
Thousands of dollars fluttered inside. “Someone’s sure misplaced a great deal of money.”
Hidden in the folds was a torn piece of paper with an address inside and a number,
“Higg–s,” he read aloud, slowly, scratching his head.
The old farmer shuffled around the vehicle, seeing there was nothing more to be
done, except call the authorities. Sturdy car was his observation. Not much damage to the
outside. He rubbed his hands, stroking his hoary bristled chin, pondering. Not many folks
came down this stretch of country road. He yanked open the back door. Sitting daintily
on the back seat was a fresh green plant, pretty as a picture, partially hidden in a brown
paper bag, its strange colorful tendrils more pronounced, looking innocuous and dwarfed.
The renartis held so still, it barely twitched.
“I sure can’t say what’s happened here, missy. All I can promise is we’ll get you
home, ironman and me,” the farmer said to the plant picking it up in one strong sweep.
About the author: Rekha Valliappan is a multi-genre writer of short fiction and poetry. Her speculative fiction features in a variety of popular journals and magazines including Lackington’s, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Aphelion Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy, NonBinary Review’s HG Wells Anthology, Third Flatiron’s Kurt Vonnegut Anthology, Theme of Absence, Coffin Bell, The Punch Magazine, Across the Margin’s Best Short Fiction, Schlock! Webzine’s Best Short Stories, and elsewhere. She currently reads for Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores. Website: http://silicasun.wordpress.com/
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