The Greenhouse

I didn't know if he would still be there after all this time. The forest had nearly swallowed the house. The roof was gone and the walls had fallen in above the second story. I could see the tops of young trees above the crumbling masonry. Vines ran all over the remaining walls, greener than emeralds and thick as pythons.

Some of them might really be pythons. The forest harbored a very particular species, one so clever it had assumed the most convincing disguise to assuage its appetites. The very vines could not be trusted there, could be false and fatal. My uncle and his colleagues had given them a very long and useless name; I called them vinum pythons so I would not forget. They were my initiation to the nature of the place.

My uncle had kept a few specimens floating in formaldehyde in enormous aquariums. I would have preferred fish in the parlour, but I suppose the snakes were at least not pedestrian. There was one in particular I had hated, a great green monster of a serpent that I used to stare at for hours, even sneaking down at night to look at it by my small, electric lamp. It had false, voluptuous flowers on its back and sides, and tiny green tendrils like new shoots. I had refused to believe that it had been a real animal at first; I used to argue the fact with my uncle. Then I saw a live one, moving along the ground a mile away from the house. I shot its loathsome little head off.

That was what I hated most about this place; nothing was merely pretty or ugly. Everything beautiful had a shameless, repulsive habit, like the brilliant foxglove hawks, vile cannibals that reek of carrion. Everything repulsive was horribly fascinating, like the vinum pythons. Ordinarily, one expects that of animals; they are the cruder form of life. But there it was the plants that were the worst; trees with a hundred spidery legs, bark peeling like a rash and oozing noxious sap, vines that pulse and move on their own, flowers that can hardly be classed with violets or roses, their petals twisted into vulgar shapes, fleshy, damp and vividly colored. The bianco orchids were the only pretty flowers. Pale and soothing against the explosion of garish color around them, they are refined in form, noble looking even. Their trailing roots are as soft as hair. They are a dendrodium, living off the air in a strangely human fashion, and it was a comparison I never minded acknowledging. Naturally they have an objectionable habit; they are carnivorous, the inner throat lined with thousands of needle-like teeth. The older ones are large enough to eat birds, and have been known to bite fingers off of incautious admirers.

I didn't go back out of love; it was the same fascination that had made me stare at the vinum python and I loathed him just as much. I only dared it because I knew no one else was there, and I wanted to believe he had withered and died in that glass cage.

The greenhouse had always been stifling, and not so much because of the heat and humidity; it was the colors and the scents, the malevolent sense of living things all around, clamorous, overcrowded, watching. One was always being touched. I had to go there every day for as long as I'd stayed there to help my uncle tend to his specimens. He would tell me something about each one as we worked.

"Orchid is a Greek word," he'd told me once. He'd had two new, resentful pets that day. One was a monstrous lady-slipper with flowers that resembled pulped intestines. The other one, a creature so extremely attenuated it put me in mind of a consumptive and possessing that same rather romantic charm, was stippled fuchsia and chartreuse.

"Orkhis," he'd continued. "It meant phallus. Orchids always possess male souls."

The door was rusted in place, open just wide enough for me to squeeze through. A hole had been smashed in the vaulted roof, the edges lethally jagged and glinting. It was the only light in there; the many glass panes were entirely covered by a dense, faintly luminous green moss. All of the tables and shelves were in place, but the precious flora were dead, choked by the moss and neglect. Even my uncle's beloved cave lily had died, and so long ago that nothing remained of it but the labeled pot and the scant, spoiled dirt it had favored. This ruin must have taken him, too. The sunless, dry years alone would have killed him, but it was the lack of admiration that I was sure had finished him. I could imagine his impotent vanity, growing bitter with no one, not even the other specimens, to sate his need. I saw the tall, oblong shape of his glass cage deeper inside, dark and surely empty. I wanted to see it; I wanted to be certain of my triumph.

I was not even halfway there before I saw the white shape within, that supple, sinuous movement as he turned to look at me.

He had known someone would come.
Nicole Votta