Edition 30: Seeds of the Strangling Vine by Michelle E Goldsmith
Escaping the grief of miscarriage, Helena and Jonathan head into the tropical rainforest of North Queensland. Lena starts to accept their drifting away, while finding a renewed vigour amongst the green and leafy forest. A walk down the path of grief, of rediscovering herself, leads Helena to startling changes she could not have expected. – SY
Helena stares out the passenger side window as the four-wheel drive winds up the narrow trail, her reflection transposed over lush Daintree rainforest. Ancient trunks shrouded in moss and vines, dense carpets of ferns, conifers and prehistoric cycads; a world displaced in time, a sea of green deep enough to drown in.
In the driver’s seat, Jonathan glares straight ahead, hands gripped firmly to the wheel. Every line of his body radiates tension. It seems he still hasn’t forgiven her for her morning breakdown.
‘God, Lena. I’m doing this for you,’ he’d said, standing in the doorway of their bedroom. ‘You need a change of scenery. It’s been months now. You can’t spend the rest of your life hiding away inside the house!’
Lately everyone seems to be telling her what she needs, and what she can or can’t do. It doesn’t stop the tears though, doesn’t still her shaking hands. She never used to cry. Now she can’t seem to stop.
‘Come on, Lena. Please.’
But she hadn’t responded, just sat on the end of the bed, staring at her half-packed suitcase.
‘For fuck’s sake.’ Jonathan had stormed from the room, returning only to hurl their bags to the waiting Toyota. They had spoken barely a word to each other since.
Now, as Helena recalls their confrontation, the car’s interior begins to feel incredibly small, the air stale and suffocating. Her heartbeat quickens and something tightens within her chest. She presses down the button to open her window, hoping the fresh air might lighten the atmosphere, the calls of birds and other forest noises break the silence. It works, momentarily. The breeze on her face a caress of light, forest-scented fingers against her skin. Then the window rolls up again. Jonathan intervening with the driver’s side controls.
‘The air con’s on,’ he says.
Helena turns her attention back to the scene beyond the glass, steeling her features against response. It’s been this way ever since they returned from the hospital; the fragile peace between them succumbing to frustration at the slightest provocation. Then come the brooding, the impatience, the harsh words spoken in anger that can’t be revoked. Jonathan’s uncharacteristic writer’s block hasn’t helped matters either.
As they round the next bend, the dense foliage gives way to more sporadic growth, testament to logging in years past. At a split in the road, a sign, partly obscured by foliage, points the way to ‘Hope’s Reach Cottages’.
Hope’s Reach. Named for Lepidozamia hopei. Hope’s Cycad. The world’s largest tree fern. Helena remembers that from the brochure. That and little else. A stirring perhaps, of a long abandoned interest in botany. She’d taken only a cursory interest in planning the trip, enough to appease Jonathan without really investing anything. She has to pretend though. To act as though it might help, as though it can bring back what they lost.
‘We’re almost there,’ says Jonathan. He sounds tired now, rather than angry. ‘Then we can unpack and try to wind down a bit.’
The Toyota’s engine has barely ceased its rumble before Jonathan begins pulling their bags from the back. Although Helena’s scars are healed, he still doesn’t want her lifting anything, so she stands awkwardly nearby, trying to stretch the stiffness from her cramped muscles. She thinks to unlock the cabin door for him, but the key, retrieved from town earlier that afternoon, is still in his pocket.
Theirs is the only car in the carpark and despite the heat that pervades the atmosphere away from the rainforest’s sheltering canopy, Helena finds herself grateful for the rainy season. The thought of making small talk with strangers leaves her queasy.
Wooden signs, elaborately carved with leaf motifs, mark the separate paths that wind through native gardens to each of the four cottages. Jonathan begins to lug their bags in the direction of ‘Adenia Cottage’. Taking a wheeled travel case, Helena follows, careful to keep both wheels on the ground in case he looks back, even though the grating sound they make over gravel makes her jaw clench.
At the cottage door Jonathan fumbles in his pocket for the key, almost dropping the bags he’s carrying. Finally, the door swings open onto an interior that looks just like it did in the website’s photo gallery; clean and modern with cathedral ceilings, plush furniture and a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking private fern gardens. Jonathan unburdens himself in the middle of the main living area. ‘I’ll go get the rest. Just wait here.’
Helena is unpacking clothes and toiletries when he returns and begins on the other bags. The way he unpacks is precise, methodical and efficient. As she watches, Helena feels a slight easing of tension in her shoulders.
They are putting the last few things away when Jonathan’s mobile rings. ‘Errgh. What can he want already?’ He answers it anyway. ‘Hello? Just a minute, reception isn’t great.’ Helena watches his face as he listens. It must be his agent—his brow is beginning to furrow.
‘Still? Why so low?…But it’s a better book than Scars…I don’t want to hear about the market, it’s still too low.’
Jonathan shakes his head and makes an aggrieved motion with his shoulders. There’s a long silence. ‘No. I’m still working on it.’ He lowers the phone and shoots Helena a vaguely apologetic glance. ‘Sorry, this might be a while.’ He stalks off outside, apparently in search of better reception.
Later, when the landscape is painted with the muted blues and greys of dusk, Helena sits on the veranda looking out across the gardens. The lamp above casts a semicircle of warm light around her, pushing out against the encroaching shadows. Yet, where the gardens end, the rainforest’s edge remains shrouded in darkness, impenetrable; a single looming silhouette. In the rainforest’s presence, the gardens themselves are transformed. Now, despite the landscaper’s obvious intention, they could never be mistaken for anything other than the work of man. They are just a little too cultivated, the different levels of foliage too consciously balanced. And every so often a drip sprinkler is visible, incompletely concealed by leaf litter.
Fragments of old conversations replay in Helena’s mind. A bicornuate uterus—shaped like a heart instead of a bowl, her doctor explained—rare and often undiagnosed. It can’t stretch properly. Can cause miscarriage or premature labour, other complications.
She still wonders sometimes, how she could have ignored the signs, not know that something was so wrong inside her, her womb a place of death. Despite the humidity, she shudders.
For a moment, she is sure she senses movement at the forest’s edge. But when she looks again, the treeline remains still and inscrutable, like the surface of a calm ocean. Distant calls of birds and animals ring out across the twilight. A large black-green beetle crawls along the verandah’s handrail. In Helena’s peripheral vision, moths fly erratically, wings aglow with artificial light.
It is beautiful here, she thinks.
And she does need time to collect her thoughts. Time away from the people she knows and their looks of pity, so unintentionally condescending; from the questions, the realisations, the awkward segues and rapidly terminated conversations. She imagines returning to work; watching new parents cradling their newborns while they wait for vaccinations; sees herself smiling and lying to the patients who ask how she is when she invoices their appointments. No, she could go without that.
The secluded Daintree cottage could be the perfect place to rest—and was probably expensive, she realises, thinking of the forest outlook, four-poster canopy bed and the sunken two-person spa in the ensuite. Had she asked Jonathan how much they’d paid for the two weeks? She can’t recall. Not that he would’ve thought twice about it. He’d never had to worry about money.
This train of thought is interrupted by the tapping of moths battering themselves against the light globe.
The door slides open behind Helena and Jonathan appears at her side. He hands her a glass of red wine and makes to sit in the remaining chair.
‘There’s mosquitos,’ Helena says. ‘Let’s sit inside.’
As they move indoors to the couch, she switches off the outside light to spare the moths.
That night, long after they have retired to bed, Helena wakes to the sound of tapping. Tap, ta-tap, tap. At first she assumes it’s the moths again and that Jonathan must have turned the outside light back on. But only darkness is visible though the glass panels in the doors, and the noise comes from the wrong direction. Tree branches brushing against the side of the cottage, then. She falls back into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The next morning, Helena is late to rise. She can’t seem to shake the fog of sleep from her head or the heaviness from her limbs. Jonathan—a relentless morning person—tries to start a conversation as she moves her cooling toast around on her plate. But she is tired, so tired, and barely responds.
Eventually he stops trying and instead collects the used plates from the table and piles them loudly into the sink.
‘Jonathan,’ she says. ‘I didn’t mean…’
He turns on her. ‘Do you think this is easy for me, either? I’m trying to help, Helena. Can’t you see that? Are you just going to ignore me for two weeks? Is that how it’s going to be?
‘No, it’s just…’ Helena tries to keep her tone even despite the heat rising within her.
‘In case you haven’t noticed, this is all for you. For us!’ Jonathan says.
Is it? Helena catches herself before the words come out. If she said them now there would be no taking them back. If she said them now it might all come out.
She steadies her breathing, wills her racing heart to slow.
Jonathan is watching her expectantly.
‘We could go hiking,’ she says.
The air smells of wet moss, wood and decomposing leaf litter. The path Helena and Jonathan tread is uneven and at times cryptic as it weaves deeper into the tapestry of primordial rainforest. Helena walks in front, her earlier fatigue dissipating in the soft green light.
Frequently they’re forced to leave the track, detouring around countless natural obstacles; a fallen silky oak, slowly decaying; displaced boulders where the trail cuts a narrow path between rock ledges; places where the track has been colonised by dense new growth or flooded in recent rains. They duck beneath drapes of moss and strips of bark that hang into their path like discarded reptile skins. Above tower blue quandongs, gums, and native pines.
Jonathan keeps close behind Helena, as if at any moment she might slip on one of the treacherous rocks and he needs to be ready to catch her. But she doesn’t stumble. Her senses seem heightened, her vision preternaturally clear and sensitive to every minute detail; from the intricate patterns of the ferns to the vivid contrasts of brilliantly coloured fruits and flowers. It is Jonathan who finds himself caught in the grasp of a Lawyer Vine. Together they work to untangle its tendrils from the leg of his pants before the hook-like spines work through to the skin.
The further they travel into the rainforest the greater the diversity of life that unfolds around them. Butterflies flit amongst the undergrowth. One startles them as it ascends from the path, its wingspan over a hand’s breadth across. Birds sing from the canopy and tree frogs call from hidden places. A Boyd’s Forest Dragon pauses for a moment, eyeing them suspiciously, before dashing up a tree and out of sight. From the damp ground sprout myriad different fungi, alien blobs or delicate filaments. Others form tiny, brightly-coloured balconies on the trunks of trees. Between branches an orb weaver spins her intricate web.
The air is moist, yet cool, the heat of day filtered out by the dense canopy above. Still, Helena is no longer used to the physical exertion and her shirt dampens with sweat. Jonathan too, seems inclined to rest, sitting on a log and drawing heavily from his drink bottle.
‘Should we start heading back?’ he asks.
‘Maybe just a little further.’ Helena is reluctant to concede to the tingling of lactic acid in her legs.
She is about to sit beside him when she catches an unfamiliar scent. A whiff of rotting meat. She steps off the path and begins trekking through the undergrowth, gently bending fern fronds and branches aside, following the smell as it grows steadily stronger.
‘Wait. What are you doing?’ She hears Jonathan following behind her.
Finally, between the twisted roots of a Red Tulip Oak, she finds what she’s looking for. From the midst of a fanned pink-green base protrudes a bulbous vegetable mass, liver-red, wrinkled and placentile. A profusion of flies and other insects crawl among its swollen folds. Hundreds of tiny flowers adorn a stem, which disappears down into the gaping yellow throat of the giant lily. The corpse-stink is suffocating.
Jonathan appears, pushing roughly through the ferns. He covers his face with his sleeve. ‘What is that thing?’
‘Some kind of carrion flower?’ Helena says. ‘Like they have in Indonesia, maybe?’ She leans in even closer. ‘I’ve never seen one before.’
‘God,’ says Jonathan. ‘Let’s hope we never see—or smell—one again.’
Helena’s innards coil in revulsion as her gaze traces the flower’s grotesque form. Yet as they walk away, heading homeward as the sun dips lower in the sky, she can’t help looking back over her shoulder, again and again, until the corpse lily is far behind them.
That night when they lie in bed, Helena leans over to Jonathan, kissing him and pulling him gently towards her. But he doesn’t respond. Instead he rolls to face the opposite direction, muttering something that sounds like, ‘Not now. Too tired.’
Helena stops and moves back to her side of the mattress. Is it her scars? Is Jonathan disgusted by them? Her fingers trace the raised line of scar tissue below her belly button.
She recalls the pain, how she ignored it at first, thinking it just another bout of the cramps she’d had on and off for years, dismissed by doctors. Its escalation, becoming so acute she was sure her abdomen would split in two, skin and flesh parting like the Red Sea. The sudden bleeding; the panicked rush to the hospital. Waking from a drugged sleep to find a bloody seam sewn across her abdomen and a sensation of emptiness.
Is that what Jonathan sees now when he looks at her? Blood and stiches and a tiny body, grey and lifeless.
As she waits for sleep, Helena is overly conscious of Jonathan’s motionless form beside her. Although she can’t quite get comfortable, she tries not to move too much in case he is also lying wakeful, feigning rest. The distance between them seems far greater than the queen-sized bed should allow.
The night is too silent, too still. Something is missing. Restless minutes pass before Helena realises what it is—last night’s rhythmic tapping of tree branches against the cottage wall is absent. Still something niggles at her.
Just before consciousness ebbs away, she recalls that the gardens are pruned lower around the building. And the limbs of the larger trees are trimmed clear of the cottage—probably to reduce the likelihood of damage during summer storms and to keep them from obscuring the view.
There are no branches that could tap against the walls, no matter how strong the wind.
Despite a fitful night’s sleep, plagued by fragmented dreams in which something moved, tapping, creaking and lurching just outside, Helena wakes early, eager to return to the forest.
Summoned by the whistling of the kettle, Jonathan enters the kitchen while Helena pours herself a coffee. He raises an eyebrow. ‘You’re up early.’
Through the window, the first rays of morning light peek over the treetops on the horizon, the rest of the world still rendered in blue grey shadow.
She hands Jonathan a mug; steaming black coffee with no sugar.
Guidebooks sprawl across the kitchen bench; a lucky find in a coffee table drawer. A Guide to Daintree Flora and Fauna. Another lies open at a page on different species of fig, vibrant green shoots threatening to spill from the pages.
‘I thought we could head out early and continue where we left off yesterday,’ she says. ‘Just a bit further in there’s supposed to be some really interesting old trees and things.’
Jonathan places his mug beside the sink, untouched and glances towards his closed laptop on the coffee table. The corner of his lip twitches fleetingly.
‘Sure. Why not,’ he says.
They walk in silence for the most part. Jonathan steadily and purposefully, Helena’s progress less uniform, punctuated with pauses and sporadic bursts of motion. When they reach the endpoint of the previous day’s hike, Helena stops. Something has changed. She inhales deeply, searching for the distinctive whiff of the carrion flower, but finds nothing. They continue on.
The air grows cool as they forge deeper into the oldest parts of the forest. Initially, Helena regrets her decision not to bring a windcheater, but soon forgets as she sinks into the rhythm of the life around her.
Their path weaves between ancient trees covered with colonising ferns, parasitic mistletoes and countless epicytes; each less of an individual organism than an ecosystem in itself. Some of the trunks are so immense that even if Jonathan and Helena stood on opposite sides and spread their arms, they could never hope to encircle them. Helena almost laughs at the awkward intimacy of the image.
As she kneels before a native orchid, flipping through the guidebook to find the correct species, she realises how calm, how sure she feels. How long has it been since she felt this way?
In her final year of high school, she’d briefly entertained the idea of going on to study botany. She recalls the sinking feeling when her mother told her there were no jobs in that and she’d spend decades paying back her HECs loan for nothing.
Perhaps when they get back she could return to study part time. The idea feels right. Why hasn’t she thought of it before? She turns to voice it to Jonathan, but finds him absorbed in his phone, huffing at the lack of reception, and decides it might not be the best time to broach the subject.
Early symptoms of resentment stir within her. With his trust fund and wealthy parents, Jonathan had never had to give up anything. And even success as a writer had come relatively easily to him until recently. Yet here he was acting as though a lower than anticipated advance and a troublesome work in progress were the worst things that’d ever happened to anyone.
Helena pushes the feeling down, represses it; and feeling somewhat guilty, focuses instead on the rainforest around her. She’d thought she was past all that.
As they press on further into the forest, Helena picks up her pace, the last vestiges of her frustration forgotten. Something calls to her, urging her on. Anticipation leaps in her stomach with every bend in the track. She can’t say what she’s looking for, just that she hasn’t found it yet.
Then finally it appears before them, unmistakable, dwarfing all else. Helena’s breath catches.
Its shape is that of an enormous tree, but one constructed of twisting woody vines and hollows. The gaps between tendrils reveal empty space, pinpoints of light shining through from the other side. An enormous strangler fig, the deceased host tree rotted away to leave an otherworldly organic sculpture.
Helena’s mind casts back hundreds of years, to when the original fig seed landed amongst the ghost tree’s branches, perhaps deposited there by some long extinct bird. She imagines it sprouting, the very beginning of a kind of growth in reverse. The fig’s progress down the host tree, slowly, inexorably enveloping it in its tendrils, suffocating it. Vines finally reaching the forest floor, anchoring themselves to the earth. The slow death of the tree, doomed from the moment the fig sprouted, even as its braches continue their struggle for light above. The host’s gradual decomposition, leaving the parasite standing in its place.
Hairs rise on Helena’s arms.
There’s a certain finality to the sight of the strangling fig that makes it a fitting endpoint for the day’s explorations.
On the return journey, Jonathan forges ahead, walking as if it were a race. Helena lingers a little behind, delayed fatigue finally taking its toll, imagining bones entwined in the roots of every ancient tree.
That evening, Helena sits on the side of the four-poster bed, watching Jonathan brush his teeth. He’s just left the shower, a fluffy white towel wrapped around his waist, steam still rising from his skin.
As he flicks off the ensuite light, she stands, moves to meet him in the doorway. She places a hand on the side of his face and kisses him on the mouth. Her fingers run down his chest, over his stomach, lower. The knot of tension in Helena’s abdomen loosens slightly as Jonathan responds. She takes a deep breath and begins to undress. They move towards the bed. She feels exposed, vulnerable, has to stop herself from flinching as his hands explore the scarred parts of her body. She had wanted this, needed it, to prove that things could return to the way they were before. Soon she is lying back amongst the pillows and he is gently lowering his weight down on top of her. Using her hands, she guides him into her, then pulls him closer so that her face is beside his, where he can’t see her expression while he moves inside her. Her mind and body seem strangely detached, her responses mechanical, the result of muscle memory rather than passion. It doesn’t hurt. But it does seem to go on for a very long time.
Later, Helena lies awake watching the rise and fall of Jonathan’s chest as he sleeps. A tear spills from the corner of the eye closest to her pillow, mirroring the slow trickle of semen down her inner thigh. Everything feels so wrong, so hollow. But she has no idea how to repair it, doesn’t even know exactly why she’s crying.
Helena longs to return to the forest. It’s less of a desire than a need, a hunger, raw and consuming. But Jonathan delays. They’ll go another day, he says. He might finally have a lead on his next novel. Besides, the weather is no good. It could be dangerous. A tree might fall.
The atmosphere is hot and sticky, tingles with static electric charge. Outside, the sky is slate grey and threatens rain.
They spend the day around the cottage. Helena leafs through her guidebooks then tries to read a novel. A Swedish crime thriller, it’s the kind of thing Jonathan considers ‘literary junk food’—generic, predictable and illuminating nothing of the human condition. It’s the type of book Helena would usually have no trouble losing herself in.
But she can’t seem to focus, aching to be back beneath that dappled green light. Back with the strangler fig. She can’t seem to displace its image from her mind. Its looming presence, juxtaposed with the hollow absence it encloses.
Meanwhile, Jonathan agonises over his laptop, curses at the intermittent satellite signal. He grows pricklier as the hours tick by, the gaps between keystrokes ominously long.
He grabs his phone, dials, and begins to pace.
Watching over the top of her book, Helena feels the first niggling pinpricks of irritation. New frustrations mix with the old. She recalls the first time she discovered a scene from her childhood in one of Jonathan’s books—the image of her mother cutting up old clothing to use as cleaning rags; threadbare shirts, old underwear, a favourite nightie Helena had outgrown. He hadn’t shown her the manuscript before it was published, had never asked her if it was ok—he’d just used her memories as though he were entitled to them. Yet while he borrows freely from her experiences—plagiarising little details of her early life to give a ring of truth to his working-class characters and their struggles—he refuses to even acknowledge any trouble in real life. It tastes bitter like betrayal.
Helena catches herself, closes her eyes then looks again. Seen in a different light, the way Jonathan grips the phone betrays a kind of desperation, a grasping for lost control. He’s never paced in the past, now that she thinks of it. He’s never had writer’s block either. Is she being unfair? Perhaps their loss has affected him more than she realised. Or maybe she’s overthinking his actions, reading things in that aren’t really there.
She heads to the ensuite. Runs a bath. As water streams against white porcelain she goes back to the living area, catches Jonathan’s eye now that he’s finally put down the phone, and smiles. ‘Join me in the spa?’
‘In a bit,’ he replies. ‘I just have to make one last call. I still need to get onto Alex.’
Helena returns to the bath. Leaving her clothes in a crumpled pile on the tiles, she steps into the tub, sinks into the water up to her neck. It takes a moment for her to adjust to the heat, then she lets the warmth suffuse her, easing her tired muscles. She dips her head under, breaches the surface again when she can no longer hold her breath. Although she can’t quite distinguish the words, she can hear Jonathan talking in the other room. His agent again, most likely. It doesn’t sound like he will finish up anytime soon. She turns on the jets to drown out the noise.
Eventually, the water cools and Helena drains the tub and goes to bed. She lies between the covers, trying to ignore the sound of Jonathan pacing on the other side of the interior wall.
Later, when Jonathan finally retires—Helena feigning sleep as he slips beneath the sheets—a storm rages. Wind rattles the walls of the cottage like a beast seeking entry and sheets of rain slam against the windows. Intermittent flashes of lightning cast warped shadows on the walls. Helena is sure she can hear movement outside, audible in the gaps between thunderclaps.
The next morning, Helena is woken by a hand lightly shaking her. Jonathan. He is heading into Cairns for supplies, wants to know if there’s anything she’d like.
They don’t really need supplies. Helena wonders if he’s manufacturing a distraction from the tyranny of the blank page. She offers to come with him but he deflects her, saying it will be quicker if he goes alone. He’ll only be a few hours.
Now awake, she makes herself a coffee and tries to eat some breakfast. But she is impatient, restless with an altogether different hunger. And there is only one way to sate it.
Jonathan has taken the Toyota, but the nearest walking track is not far away. Helena’s almost out the door when she realises she should leave a note to explain her absence in case Jonathan returns first. She rips a yellow sticky note from a pad on the fridge, scrawls a hasty message and sticks it to the middle of the bench.
The rainforest has changed in a thousand little ways since last Helena was here. Sodden strips of bark litter the track, some braches have broken free in the wind and now intrude upon her path. A few larger trees have also succumbed. One, a native pine, has fallen sideways only to be caught by its neighbours, held at an acute angle, roots exposed, an open trench where they were torn from the earth.
Yet the rainforest’s colours seem heightened by the night’s downpour, achieving an almost hallucinatory clarity. The rocks and leaves are clean and wet, the soil soaked black. The air smells of earth and rain. Bird calls ring out from the canopy, are taken up in a chorus that rises and falls, begins and ends according to unfathomable avian conventions.
Helena walks briskly. She doesn’t intend to be gone too long, but is keen to take in as much of this altered landscape as possible. Her heart rate rises. Every breath is invigorating, as if she is breathing in some of the forest’s energy.
Around her, from the macro to the microscopic level, predators consume prey, parasites sap strength from their hosts, living things die, decay and provide sustenance to those still living.
Death, quick or gradual, surrounds Helena. But so does life. Growth. Birth. Renewal. Everything plays its role, has its place. Even the slowly murderous strangling fig. Even that. For after it kills it host, and the evidence wastes away, does it not provide a habitat for countless forest creatures?
Helena stops, sits on a fallen bough, closes her eyes and listens. She feels sure she could decipher the calls of the birds, animals and insects, the very language of the trees themselves, if she just spent enough time listening. It’s as if the forest is colonising her, that she is becoming a part of the inexorable cycle of one of the most complex ecosystems on earth.
Eventually, she realises how late it’s become. The sky, visible in occasional glimpses through gaps in the canopy, grows darker. She hurries back towards the cottage.
When she returns, Jonathan’s displeasure is evident in the line of his jaw as he looks up from his laptop screen. But he doesn’t say anything. And Helena carries on as normal, pretending not to notice.
The light is green and muted, the time of day unclear. Helena stands on the edge of a small clearing encircled by trees, sheltered by their overarching branches. Amongst the trunks opposite her, something moves.
A figure breaks from the shadows; a man. He’s tall, perhaps over seven foot, dark and slender, willowy and sinuous. He’s also entirely naked. But this doesn’t alarm her. Rather, it seems entirely natural; the thought of him clothed absurd. He moves towards her, slowly, as if wading through molasses or congealing sap. His hair is long and of an ambiguous shade in the cryptic light.
Helena approaches the stranger. As the space closes between them she scrutinises his face. His features seem somehow mutable, changing with every different angle, new replacing old, the memory of what was before seeping from her mind like water through layers of soil. She can’t guess at his age. He looks like everyone, like no-one, yet at the same time seems very familiar.
They draw closer until their bodies almost touch. Helena leans in, turns her face up to his. Their mouths meet, tentative at first, then growing hungrier, more urgent. They embrace. Hands stray, exploring boldly. She gasps, feels herself grow wet under the stroke of his long fingers.
They fall to the forest floor and she wraps her legs around him, pushes aside her underwear, feels the length of him enter her. He smells earthy, like the ground on which they sprawl, with an underlying sweetness, like decay. Closing her eyes she blocks out all but the sensation of his movement, in and out. She pulls him closer, deeper into her, tries to dig her nails into his buttocks, finds them strangely unyielding.
As she edges closer and closer to orgasm, the stranger seems to transform before her. He grows larger, blocking out the canopy above. His features gradually morph, losing their humanity.
But Helena’s motions just grow more frantic, grinding herself against him. His flesh is hard now, furrowed. Bark rasps against her skin. As her hand scrapes down his back a nail catches on something and tears. But this pain too is a kind of exquisite pleasure.
They roll across the ground until he is beneath her. A sweet sap scent drifts on the air. Something very like a vine twines up Helena’s thigh to caress her. Angling her hips slightly, she leans back deeper into his thrusts. She flings out an arm, hand clasping at leaf litter, toes digging into mulch, and cries out, warm shudders running through her body. Then she falls away, panting amongst the leaves and moss. The world grows dark.
Light dawns again. Helena lies in repose, aching all over but suffused with calm, finding patterns in the branches above her. Branches…She snaps alert, rises from a bed of leaves and moss. Trees and ferns surround her. She is somewhere in the forest, that much is clear. Steadying her breathing, she looks around. The brighter light of cleared space is visible between the trunks to her right. She’s not too far in.
Legs shaking, Helena begins to walk. Soon she breaks from the trees and into the gardens. As she nears the cottage Jonathan appears, his expression a mixture of anger and relief. ‘Where have you been?’ he says. ‘I woke up and you were gone, I’ve been looking all over!’
‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I think I sleepwalked.’ She looks down to avoid meeting his eye, only to see her knees are raw beneath the hem of her nightie, arms and legs covered in scrapes and bruises. ‘Then I tripped,’ she adds. Moss and soil are caked beneath her ragged nails.
Jonathan holds her arm to steady her, reaches out with his other hand for hers.
‘I’m fine,’ she says. ‘Just need a little space to breathe.’
Once inside, she heads straight for the bath.
Helena writhes in agony, hands grasping at sweat-soaked bedsheets. The pain originates in her abdomen—like a nest of rats gnawing their way out of her womb—then spreads, radiating through her entire body, up her back, down her arms and legs, into her fingers and toes. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the pain preceding their loss, of the pelvic pain she’s suffered all through her adult life, but magnified into something else entirely. Fire in her veins. Tissues rending apart. A second set of bones growing beneath her skin. No matter how she contorts her body, she finds no position that lessens the agony.
Jonathan stands by the bedside, hands worrying a list of phone numbers. ‘I’m calling an ambulance,’ he says.
‘No,’ Helena groans.
‘What about your doctor? The one from the hospital. Or one of the ones from your work.’
‘No, don’t. Please don’t.’ Her words are panicked, breathless.
‘It’s been hours now, Lena! The pills obviously aren’t working.’
He scoops his phone off the bedside table and makes his way from the room, already dialling, ignoring her protests.
Helena scrambles with the sheets. She has to follow him, to stop him, but she can’t get up, her tortured muscles won’t obey her.
Then, the pain stops.
For a moment she lies there, shell-shocked, reticent to believe the change.
But the sound of Jonathan’s voice in the other room compels her. She stands, takes a moment to find her balance, then makes her way to the doorway, smiles weakly in response to the shocked look on his face. The faint sound of hold music emanates from the phone’s speaker.
By the following morning, Helena feels better than she has in months, her only complaint a persistent itching on her upper back and occasionally her arms and legs, as though she has a bad heat rash from her fever. Jonathan seems unusually reticent to upset her, as though doing so might cause her to lapse back into spasms. When she suggests a short walk in the forest he agrees.
Helena keeps her eyes on the forest as they walk, paying particular attention to the gaps between the trees. Every so often she’s sure she sees strange shapes lurking in the shadows, that beneath the overtures of bird and insect song she can hear the sounds of something large moving in the distance. Something old and ancient as the oaks. Something not listed in her guide to Daintree wildlife.
They travel in silence, Helena absorbed in watching and listening. She strays from the path, mind awash with a cacophony of voices that seem to reverberate from her eardrums to the tips of her toes, filling her with tingling warmth, soothing her itching skin.
It’s some time before she realises that one of the voices she hears is Jonathan’s. That she’s been standing there, unresponsive among the ferns, while he calls for her.
He appears to her left, sweat standing out on his brow. ‘Couldn’t you hear me? I was calling you for ages,’ he says. ‘You scared me.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, tearing her gaze away from the undergrowth to meet his face. The look in his eye tells her he wants to suggest seeing a doctor again—probably a psychiatrist this time—but knows she will refuse.
When they return to the cottage, Jonathan heads straight for his laptop on the coffee table.
It’s evening and Helena stands in the doorway to the bedroom, watching Jonathan sitting at his computer. The light of the screen brings the lines on his forehead into harsh relief. His mouth is drawn down at the corners. She wonders if the page is any less blank than it was hours ago.
She leaves him, runs a bath for herself, studies her reflection in the mirror as the water runs. A rash has developed. Sections of skin are raised in red ridges all down her back, on parts of her chest, her arms and the backs of her legs, across her abdomen, inflaming the scar tissue there. It itches fiercely and she can’t resist the urge to scratch. This doesn’t help, just seems to increase the agitation, so she stops and sinks into the tub.
She thinks of Jonathan, wonders exactly how long they have both been so unhappy. And there again is that oldest of worries—that the only reason Jonathan ever liked her, the only reason they were together, was because she provided a link to the idealised ‘common man’ he liked to believe he championed in his books. She examines the thought as though from a distance, as if it belonged to someone else. She lets it wash away.
Then her thoughts turn to the rainforest, to life, death and that sea of eternal green. As she runs the loofah over her body, she notices changes in herself. Her fingers seem longer somehow, the skin of her hands tinged slightly green. One of her toenails is lifting. At her touch it falls away, revealing something hard and woody underneath. Her pubic hair seems strangely textured, like a soft stringy moss, the colour too has changed. Her abdomen is slightly swollen, tender to the touch. The itching intensifies.
When she’s done, she vacates the spa and stands again before the mirror, wipes away the steam and turns to view herself from behind. In a patch between her shoulder blades green shoots have appeared, forcing their way through the skin to reach the light. More push to the surface as she watches, tiny plant embryos unfurling.
She retrieves a long t-shirt from her luggage as she heads to bed. Slips it on, worried about what Jonathan may discover if he tries to embrace her. But her concerns come to nothing. When he finally joins her, he remains strictly on his side of the bed and falls rapidly asleep.
It’s dark when Helena wakes, overwhelmed by the need to be outside. She slips from the bed, leaving the sheets to cool beside Jonathan’s sleeping form, and makes her way, feet bare, through the cottage.
She steps outside, the door clicking gently shut behind her. Helena makes her way down the steps and through the gardens. When she reaches the forest boundary, she strips off the old t-shirt and tosses it aside, smiles at the coolness of the wet ground beneath her toes, the breeze against her skin. A faint aroma of rotting meat drifts on the air. Something moves among the trees.
The itch amplifies, becomes unbearable. She scratches her arms, digs her nails into the flesh. Great patches of skin slough off under her fingers, revealing fresh bark beneath, which hardens and darkens as she watches. Unimpeded, new growth bursts into life; sprouting, branching, leaves and fronds unfurling. She continues scratching, peeling, as the itching spreads. The taut skin on her distended stomach splits, flesh parting along the seams of her scars to make way for a familiar red vegetable mass. The lily’s frilled spathe uncurls from its base, like a fan unfolding, revealing hundreds of miniscule stem flowers that spread their petals, releasing a pungent perfume. Vines, rooted deep in her bones, twine around her limbs, enclose them.
Finally, brown and green and born anew, Helena roams out into the sea of trees, following the scent of other corpse lilies further into the rainforest.
Michelle E. Goldsmith is a Melbourne-based author whose writing often inhabits the shady borderlands between genres.
She has a BSc (majoring in Zoology/Evolutionary Biology) and a Masters degree in Publishing and Communications. She is currently undertaking a PhD. In her day job she works as an editor, journalist and technical writer.
Her short fiction has appeared in various publications both within Australia and overseas, including Gamut, PodCastle and The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror.
Her work has been short-listed for both the Aurealis Award and the Ditmar Award.