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Vegetable Pulp

Posted by Wild Musette editor on

Vegetable Pulp

by Brian Koukol

 

In the fertile flats of Oceano, nestled between windswept dunes and a eucalyptus-laden mesa on California's Central Coast, stood a field of rich alluvial soil—a celery field, little changed from its first incarnation nearly one hundred years earlier.

For most around these parts, that was as far back as things went, though a few of the historically inclined might speak of Mexican land grants and sprawling dairy farms. Like the rest of the country, they shared in a collective amnesia regarding the existence and displacement of its aboriginal inhabitants—here called Chumash, the Seashell People.

Ten thousand years earlier, a dying Chumash shaman, living within a cave in the looming mesa, convinced Hutash, the Earth Mother, to imbue a string of beads with the power of his waning life force. Over time, the wind and the rain conspired to scatter those beads across the alluvial plain below, finally depositing one particular bead in one particular future celery field.

There it sat, buried, until a century of agriculture exhumed it, finally pressing it against a transplant of Conquistador 1703, a promising cultivar of Tall Utah 52-75, and thereby granting one particular celery plant the sentience of a Chumash soul.

At first, his world consisted of taste alone. Urea. Potash. Phosphates. Mycorrhizal fungi. These associations were innate, as was his name. Pascal.

The onset of touch and balance confirmed that Pascal was buried headfirst in the alluvium. He wanted out.

Manipulating the turgor of his leafy ribs, Pascal bent them to the mounded soil and dug. Scratch by scratch, he clawed free of his silty grave, eventually toppling into the trough between his row and the next.

Pascal glanced up, seeing without recognizable eyes. Shady ranks of his photosynthetic fellows stretched for the sky to either side, vying for escape in the only available direction of up.

The rootlets on the ball of his head twitched, tasting the air. Salt air, yes, but another sort of salt as well.

Sweat.

Human sweat.

And there it was, working its way down the row, straight toward him. It wore dusty jeans and a bulky sweatshirt with the hood up. A bandanna wrapped its face. It was a woman.

Without questioning the source of this knowledge, Pascal accepted it as fact, and therefore as real as what came next.

To his horror, the woman grabbed the striving leaves of the celery plant nearest her and decapitated it at the soil line with one swing of her merciless blade. A second slice amputated its leafy feet. Then, into a cardboard mass grave labeled "Celery Hearts" went the corpse, forgotten.

A quick count put half a dozen of the condemned between Pascal and an ignominious dismemberment. The pitiless field hand dispatched them in seconds. There was no time to formulate a plan. There was no time to even stand up.

The woman stopped above him, inspecting. She bent down and grabbed one of his eleven rib-legs, yanking him into the air. Uncertain of how to react, he did the first thing that popped into his celery root head. He went limp.

As his once-firm ribs slumped with a quick manipulation of turgor pressure, the woman frowned and her tired brown eyes shifted to something behind him. In an instant, he was airborne, flying through the dusty sea breeze. Then he was not.

He crashed into the bed of a worn utility trailer, atop the bodies of a score of his fellows. Agony burned through one of his outer legs—the violent impact had snapped it halfway through.

As beads of his internal fluid dripped onto the unfortunates beneath him from the fresh wound, another head of celery crashed onto him from a new direction, pinning him into place.

Struggling to free himself, he took a peek at the dying weight above him. Tight clusters of white flowers extended beyond his comrade's leafy feet. The poor bastard had bolted, racing to pass on its seed before the machete took its head.

Another corpse fell from the sky and Pascal was struck by a sudden insight, as if gifted from the ether. In an instant, he understood the purpose of the growing pile. It was the soup wagon. He'd been dumped with all the other uglies and undesirables, destined for the commercial broth factory.

Pascal shivered in horror. The thought of boiling alive while his very essence was stolen to appease the discriminating palettes of stubborn human children was too much.

A third and fourth plant joined the pregnant one, equally inert. Their fluids dripped among the stalks, trickling through the maze of limbs until finally reaching Pascal's rootlets. The salty minerality of their juices overwhelmed his senses. Had he such a reflex, he would've gagged, expunging the contents of a nonexistent digestive system.

Aghast at his present circumstances, he flexed his limbs, hoping to wriggle free. The dwindling water of his fellows above and that which oozed from his own wounds served as lubricant, but it wasn't enough. He needed strength that his little body couldn't possibly provide.

In a last ditch effort, he rocked his heavy head up and down, hoping to squeeze forward enough for gravity to do the rest and drag him to the ground below. Bit by painful bit, as the dog pile of death expanded its charnel grasp, he slid on the final gift of the martyrs above until he finally broke free and fell with a moist slap to a drying patch of amended soil.

He lay there for a moment, utterly spent. The shade of the wagon afforded him a hint of protection, but he had to keep moving. There was no telling how the field hands might react if they spotted him. Fear, he knew, was the main driving force of the worst in humanity.

Not willing to waste a moment, he respired, converting his store of photosynthates to useful energy, and took off running.

The humans were all behind him, having already cleared this part of the field, but he stuck to the relative protection of the trench anyway. Without the benefit of his broken, seeping leg, he still had ten more that could spirit him away and he used them to the fullest.

All the world narrowed to the trench, his leafy feet, flight. Then, as the sandy berm that marked the edge of the field came into view, he slipped on a wet patch and tumbled to the dirt. Cursing his clumsiness, he unwound his twisted legs and glared at the puddle that had tripped him up. But the soil was dry.

Suddenly, he understood. In his rush, he had overheated and begun transpiring through the leaves of his feet. The resultant moisture had served as the slick that dropped him.

He'd have to be more careful, he decided as he tried to stand up. Tried, being the operative word. His rib-legs buckled beneath his weight in the effort and he collapsed back onto his face. Confusion quickly skewed to the obvious. So much water had transpired out of him that his turgidity had suffered. The upshot was that his now-floppy legs were useless, at least until he could find a source of fresh water.

He crawled up the adjacent row to assess the immediate area and froze. It was a massacre. An extermination. A pogrom.

The exposed white necks of his decapitated cousins jutted out from perfectly mounded rows that stretched in all directions. Severed leaves and ribs dotted the wasteland like devil's confetti, but what stood out to Pascal the most was the clinical calculation of it all. The rows were so straight, so unerring. The buried heads, so evenly distributed. In the distance, a small shape dug up those heads one at a time. Probably a child.

It was madness. He had to get out of this field.

To that end, he rolled down into the trench and dragged himself, inch by torturous inch, toward the sandy berm that had seemed so close only a few moments earlier. By the time he crested it, his legs were absolutely useless, having shed most of their scant remaining water during the painstaking journey.

Pascal wasn't one for giving up, but he scarcely had the turgidity to lift his head and peer down into the hidden land that now stretched out before him. Exhausting the rest of his energy, he did so, taking in what could be the last view of his short life.

Of water.

Sweet water, meandering along a crude catchment canal.

Ignoring any threat of drowning, Pascal wriggled his way over the lip of the berm and tumbled down the dirt slope. He splashed into the water, but didn't panic. It was shallow—perhaps only four or five inches in depth.

He propelled himself to the far shore and rolled onto his head, thrusting his floppy and uncooperative legs out of the water as best he could. They soon grew appreciably stiffer and stronger as his submerged rootlets absorbed their fill of the invigorating liquid.

His thirst quenched, he let his leaves photosynthesize for a bit, storing energy for the next leg of the journey. Now all he needed was a destination.

Where was a sentient celery plant supposed to go in a world scarred and shaped by a metastatic humanity? How had he come to be? What was his purpose?

Pascal had scarcely begun to cogitate on these imponderables when a noise above the surface distracted him. His revitalized limbs dug into the shore and dragged his body out of the water and onto the dirt with ease.

On the opposite side of the catchment canal stood a crow. It cocked its head at him and squawked.

Pascal thought it looked a right handsome bird, but an instinctual unease tickled at the corners of his improbable mind. He backed away from it, climbing the slope that led out of the canal.

A second crow was waiting for him at the top.

This nearer bird took several hops toward him, no doubt sizing him up. Pascal did the same. He was taller than the crow and armed with many more limbs, but lacked both the gift of flight and that terrifying beak.

The crow squawked twice and Pascal heard the flutter of wings below him. Before he could react, a black blur smashed into him from his flank, throwing him to the dirt.

Stunned, he tried to get back to his feet, but was knocked down again. Then he saw the beak, slicing through the air. It hit him in an outer leg, impaling the limb and then withdrawing with a mouthful of stringy celery meat.

Pascal writhed in agony as the bird hit him again and again. Soon enough, the second had joined in. And a third, shrieking and flapping and stabbing.

Outraged at this treatment, Pascal lashed out with every leg still working and startled the birds into a reprieve. Not one to waste such a moment, he sprang to his feet, scanning for any avenue of escape.

A linear screen of enormous eucalyptus trees stood sentinel not far off. He sprinted toward them. The birds squawked behind him in fury, regrouping.

As he reached the trees, he spotted a tall wooden fence just beyond and scrambled for it. Black blurs darted all around him, screeching. Distracted, he bounced into the fence and fell onto his face.

The birds struck immediately, skewering him with their beaks, pulverizing him. Once again, he lashed out with all of his limbs, but this time managed to scare off only two of the fiends.

The third was more than a match for him. It stabbed at his head, connecting and ripping out a chunk, but chafed at the taste and returned to his legs.

His broken leg.

For Pascal, the move was fortuitous. The next peck severed the limb, which provided a welcome distraction for the bird.

Temporarily freed, though bracing against the pain of injury, Pascal hobbled along the fence line, looking for any way through. Wingtips darted behind him. The two other crows were coming back.

And then he found it—a depression in the dirt that curved beneath a hinged section of the fence. He jumped into the hole, hoping to pop out on the other side of the barrier in safety, but it was not to be. The other side of the promising tunnel had collapsed.

He was trapped.

Any hopes that the relentless crows might not follow him underground were quickly dashed. Two of the three squeezed in after him, pecking and probing and forcing him against the collapse. He slapped at their faces, trying to drive them off, but they kept coming.

Running out of options, he dug into the soil wall against his back and flung a clod of dirt at the mass of black feathers and blacker intentions. One of the birds faltered, weakening the onslaught for an instant, but it soon returned in earnest. Still, an opportunity had presented itself.

Pascal scratched into the dirt with as many arms as he could spare and threw it at the birds. Feathers and screeches exploded in a fit of rage and apprehension, though the latter quickly won out. The birds backed off, but refused to leave the tunnel. Heartened by the partial success, Pascal continued his barrage, knocking the birds back with each salvo until they finally relented and scampered off.

The victory, however, proved only short-lived. The pair had scarcely disappeared when the third one took their place.

Pascal tossed a leaf-full of dirt in its face. The shot struck true, but didn't faze the bird. It shrugged off the blow and lunged at him, smashing its terrifying beak into his stringy meat.

He threw handful after handful at the implacable attacker, trying to drive it off, but it wouldn't relent. It had tasted celery and now nothing else would do.

There was no place for Pascal to go, no way for him to defend himself. Not for the first time this day, he prepared for death while defying it to the last.

The rootlets on Pascal's head tasted something unexpected. Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, yes, but also something much more promising.

Grass.

He looked up. A small beam of sunlight filtered through from the top of the collapse. A way out.

Dedicating all his limbs to the task, he clawed at the hole, flinging the spoil at his corvine pursuer. The second the opening was wide enough, he dragged himself through, rolling onto a dewy carpet of prickly fescue.

Scarcely able to muster energy enough for movement, he nevertheless turned his head to the hole. Nothing but darkness. The crow hadn't followed him through.

He lay there, photosynthesizing and respiring, storing energy and burning it, oblivious to the rest of the world.

Until the rest of the world reasserted itself.

A squawk above drew his attention. Fear and pain and futility flashed across his mind, but he managed to identify the source despite it. The three birds, bits of his body still clinging to their hungry mouths, were perched atop the fencing.

Curiously, they didn't come after him. They just stood there, chatting amongst themselves, parried.

Pascal stood up, investigating the yard. The grass was well manicured, bounded on three sides by rough flower beds of golden poppies and Mexican sage. Standing in a place of honor at the center of the sprawling yard loomed a stately valley oak, a cracked tire swing suspended from one eerie limb.

But he didn't care much about all that. Much more troubling were the heaping piles of dog excrement that surrounded him.

Then, the bark.

Directly behind him.

And not a little bark, either. No, this dog would be a monster.

Pascal turned around, slowly, and then sagged.

It was huge.

And playful.

The dog bowed, dropping to its chest with its hind end still in the air. Liver and roan stained its wire-haired coat. Oversized ears twitched in expectation. Droplets of water fell from shaggy beard and lolling pink tongue.

This was no mere crow. This thing could crack him in half with a single crunch.

Pascal ran.

It was, in hindsight, a terrible move.

The dog pounced, knocking Pascal onto his face and pinning him with a gigantic, bristly paw. Then, the teeth.

Pascal cringed, expecting the worst, but the dog had an exceedingly soft mouth. The muzzle cinched around him, hot and wet, but didn't squeeze. Still, it was a dog, and wont to play with its food.

With a snap of its neck, the beast flung him into the air. It was a long arc, end over end, and it finished ugly.

Pascal smashed against the hard concrete of a patio, well clear of the soft grass. Strings sundered. Limbs cracked. Precious water flowed.

Despite the crippling agony, Pascal rose to his feet. A few more tosses like that and he would be done for, shattered. Now was his last chance for escape.

The first thing he saw was a large glass door embedded in the wall of the house. Abutting it was a second panel, this one with a rectangular flap in it. It was the only way inside.

Pascal ran for it.

The dog, galloping in excited circles around the yard, noticed the movement and broke after it. Pascal heard the thundering feet, the loping gait as it chased him down. The flap was right in front of him. It would be close. He leapt.

A second later, the walls shook with a violent crash.

Behind him.

He was through.

The dog, narrowly missing Pascal, had struck the frame surrounding the flap and been rebuffed. It was only a temporary situation, however. Pascal sized up the flap and compared it to the size of the animal. The beast would probably fit through. In fact, the flap was probably purpose-built for it.

Pascal's head start was negligible, but it was something. He needed to make the most of it. Since there was no time to think, he acted, ducking behind the nearest object that screened the flap—a bank of kitchen cabinets.

But hiding wasn't enough. He glanced up at the countertop above him. Verticality would be his only refuge from the dog. He needed to get up.

A pair of portable wooden steps, made for something with short legs, beckoned from the far side of the kitchen.

Pascal had short legs.

Pascal scrambled for the steps.

Halfway there, the flap sounded behind him. Then, the scratching tap of dog toenails. It was inside too.

Pascal threw himself at the steps, somersaulting in the air and grabbing the second, higher tread. From there, he stretched for the top of a drawer face and hoisted himself up.

With his head now hanging from his flexing arms, he spotted the dog lope into the kitchen. It had found him.

There was only one more handhold before the safety of the countertop—a breadboard built into the cabinet. Pascal grabbed it with six arms, all that were completely functional, and pulled, aiming to propel himself out of danger.

Soft teeth and a softer mouth enveloped his head and tugged. The smell was terrible, like rotten fish and guano. Pascal fought against the beast, adding the negligible strength of his remaining limbs to the struggle. They were crippled, some of them hopelessly, but they were all he had in reserve. The countertop was right above him. He was so close. For once, things had to go his way.

Then the dog jerked against him. Hard.

Its light tug had been nothing but play, Pascal realized as he lost his pathetic grip on the breadboard and tumbled down to the tile floor and the mercy of the enthusiastic cur.

"Bailey!"

It was a woman's voice. The dog froze.

"What are you doing in here? You've tracked dirt all over creation! And what do you have in your mouth?"

Stubbornly holding onto Pascal, the dog dropped its head, but refused to loosen its jaws.

"What does he have?" a little voice asked. It belonged to a small boy standing three steps behind the woman.

"Celery, of course," she said. "Looks like he got into the fields again and dragged something back. Damn it, I just filled that hole back in."

The boy covered his mouth with his hand, but she ignored it, instead pointing a finger at the dog.

"Leave it," she said.

Bailey obliged, dropping Pascal to the cold tile.

"Good boy." She patted the dog on the head and snatched up Pascal. "Jesus," she said, inspecting him.

"What's wrong with it?" the kid asked.

"Bailey did a number on it. Looks like the birds had at it too. It's all busted up and broken."

She walked Pascal back to the stepstool and tossed him onto the countertop above it. Verticality wouldn't help him here. He had to play dead.

"Why are you keeping it if it's broken?" the kid asked, trudging after her.

"We can save it for stock. But don't worry about it, let's get you that snack you wanted. What would you like?"

"Celery."

"Of course you do," the woman said.

She walked toward the refrigerator.

"No. I want Bailey's celery."

"Well, you can't have it. It's mangled and full of dog germs. We've got some fresh hearts in the fridge. You can have those."

"Ants on a log?"

"Yeah. Ants on a log."

Pascal sprawled on the counter, respiring and recovering, while the woman dug into the refrigerator. She removed two ribs of celery, the feet having been amputated after a field decapitation, and brought them to the counter in front of him. There, she cut the limbs into four pieces each with a paring knife.

He watched, powerless, as the teardrops of their nutrient-rich waters beaded up and dribbled from the sites of the heinous wounds. Next, the woman smeared a paste of pulverized peanut meat along the concave grooves of the quartered legs and dotted them with the shriveled husks of several desiccated grapes.

While she did this, the boy climbed onto a tall stool at a section of the counter modified into a casual table and waited. The second she dropped the dressed and stuffed corpses in front of him, he picked off the shriveled grapes and then dredged out the peanut smear with a rigid index finger. It took him a while to swallow it all, but, as soon as he finished, he turned his attention to the celery.

Stubby kid fingers pried loose a single string from the amputation site. Pascal braced against imagined screams as the boy flayed the limb, ever so slowly, from stem to stern.

Creaking, squealing, weeping.

The boy's eyes were wide, his tongue extended in concentration.

Still, the flaying.

When finally the horror abated, the little sadist set right to work on a second string.

More creaking. More squealing.

The repetition of the sound cut through Pascal's exhausted ambivalence, driving him to act, if only to roll away from the needless desecration of the dead.

The woman caught the movement in her peripheral vision. He could feel her eyes boring into the back of his pockmarked head as she no doubt attempted to convince herself that it had only been her imagination.

She must've succeeded, because she picked him up and carried him to the sink. Once there and at her mercy, Pascal could do nothing but endure as she turned on the ice cold water and forced it into every one of his soiled crevices.

He bristled against the chill, but tried his best to absorb every drop of the water that came in contact with his thirsty rootlets. He didn't know when he would again have such a chance, so he made the best of it, even though the most likely scenario would have him bubbling in a stockpot soon thereafter.

As she washed the filth from him, she snapped off the lower ends of several broken limbs and he blacked out.

When he came to, much of him draped in a sodden paper towel and all of him blinded by a searing white light, all he could feel was bitter cold. Wriggling away from the brightness, he managed a glimpse at a glass mausoleum of embalmed cucumbers as the refrigerator door slammed shut in his face, thrusting him into utter darkness.

Pascal couldn't move, and not just because of the damp chill which numbed his limbs and the soggy paper towel that enveloped him.

Rigid plastic shelves above and below wedged him tight, while any lateral movement was prevented by the refrigerator frame on one side and the molded pulp fiber barrier of a compostable egg carton on the other. Or so he guessed. He couldn't see a damn thing.

Smell, however, wasn't a problem. The place stank of decay and rot.

Of death.

Cold, wet, blackest death.

He was locked in a crypt, buried alive and forgotten.

As with death, there was no escape from this place. He couldn't wriggle free from the shelves, let alone force open the enormous door. And if he were to wait for one of the humans to do the work for him, he'd still have to get past them. And the dog. And the crows. And an entire world aligned against him. But to what end? There was no place in that world for a sentient celery plant. He was an abomination. A mistake. Better to drift away into oblivion right here than fight for an ending that could never be happy.

"Bullshit."

The word derailed Pascal's train of thought.

"Who said that?" he asked the void.

"I did," the void answered. "You're not an abomination. You're a miracle."

"And what are you?" Pascal asked.

"What do I look like?"

"How should I know? It's pitch black in here."

"Not with your eyes, silly. Reach out with your mind. You'll see me."

Feeling ridiculous, Pascal reached out with his mind. And there it was. A shining point of light emanating from the other side of the plastic shelf beneath him. Not seen, but understood.

"You're a carrot!"

"Indeed I am. We're brothers, you and I, and not just because we're both from the parsley family. There's a parsnip in here someplace that never came alive like you and me. Dumb as a bunch of dill, that thing, and I surely don't consider it kin. The name's Nantes, by the way."

"Do you know how we're alive, Nantes?"

"Course I do. And so do you, Pascal. We weren't just seeded with life, but with knowledge as well. Direct from the gods."

"I don't know anything other than waking up in a field and running for my life."

"Really?" Nantes said. "No shaman? No ring of beads? Nothing?"

"Sorry."

"Do you know what we're trapped in right now?"

"Sure," Pascal said. "It's a refrigerator."

"Good. And how do you suppose you, a lowly celery plant, know what a refrigerator is?"

"No idea."

"Does the name Hutash mean anything to you?"

"No."

"Then we'll start there. Hutash is the Earth Mother. She grew the first humans from seeds on Limuw, one of the Channel Islands. After the population exploded, Hutash conjured a rainbow bridge to get them out of her hair and onto the mainland. The bridge dumped them out onto Tzchimoos, a high peak near Mishopshno…"

"Let me stop you right there," Pascal said. "If it doesn't get me out of this morgue and off to someplace safe, I don't want to waste my time."

"Fine. I won't bore you with the details of an isolated island only accessible by boat. In a national park. That, at the last census, had a human population of exactly two. You know, a place where a solitary vegetable plant might find a nice quiet spot to live out its days in peace."

"I see your point. So what are we waiting for? The second one of these monsters opens this door, let's get gone."

"I can't," Nantes said.

"Why not? You can't like it in here…"

"Of course not, but I'm trapped in the crisper drawer and neither one of us is strong enough to get it open."

"There's got to be a way."

"Even if there were, it wouldn't matter. Not with how the humans crippled me."

"What do you mean?" Pascal asked.

"Eugenics. Used to be a carrot like me could come in any number of shapes and sizes with all kinds of legs and arms. But the humans didn't favor that diversity, so they inbred us until we met their ideal, creating a master race of single-limbed grotesques. Those that didn't conform were dismembered and carved into homogenized “baby carrots.” Those that did, like me, were hobbled by design. There's no greater prison than immobility and those quacks provided the shackles by manipulating the circumstances of our very births. I can't outrun my fate. I will be eaten, perhaps combined with you in a mirepoix if you insist on sticking around with an old, doomed root like me."

"I can't leave you to them."

"You must. Get to Limuw. Lay down roots. Grow a family. For those of us who can't."

"How will I cross the channel? Will the rainbow bridge still be there?"

"Seek out tallest Tzchimoos above the plain of Mishopshno. Hutash will not forsake you."

"Where can I find this Mishopshno?"

"They call it Carpinteria nowadays. Just hitch a ride south of Santa Barbara on the 101."

Pascal let the silence that followed be his tacit agreement. He would sneak onto a truck headed south. If the rainbow bridge wasn't there, he'd find a boat. He would succeed. He'd do it for Nantes.

But first, he had to prepare for the opening of the refrigerator door.

Pascal was still wrapped in the wet paper towel. In the dark. With his head facing the rear of the fridge.

The cold had numbed the pain of his amputations, but he didn't relish the thought of them thawing out again.

Though he was wedged in almost tight, he found enough room to shift one of his intact limbs. The maneuver turned his body ever so slightly before pinning it even firmer in place. He flexed the limb in both directions. Nothing.

As panic swept over him, he tried each of his limbs in turn. Finally, he found one that shifted—the last one, of course, right next to the leg that had moved initially. Much like that first one, this one too shifted only a minuscule amount before getting stuck. But he had found a pattern.

Limb by limb, he pushed and pulled, switching to the next leg whenever the previous leg should get hung up. In this manner, he twisted himself partially out of the damp towel and slid up against the inside of the door.

There were shelves set into it, complete with railings to hold the condiments in place. Reaching through the darkness, he latched onto one such railing with a leafy foot.

After a bit of time spent consolidating his grip, he gained enough purchase to drag himself a bit closer. From there, he got a second foot on the rail. And a third. Once he had a fourth, he was able to torque himself off of his shelf and into a recess in the door itself, shedding his towel and coming to rest on a platform of jar lids.

Before he could get settled, the refrigerator door jerked open, taking him with it. He flung his arms out, grasping for whatever handhold he could find to brace against the movement.

Searing white light dominated his vision, but he managed to pick out a human arm reaching for the top shelf despite it.

Now was their chance. If he and Nantes worked together, maybe they could find a way to free the carrot from his Arctic tomb.

Pascal peered through the face of the crisper drawer, trying to find his brother.

And blanched in horror.

He found Nantes right off the bat, owing to their special connection. The poor bastard was nestled on a wet mattress of dead and liquefacting relations. His vibrant greens had been topped, leaving a scalped and mutilated pate in their place. Smooth, featureless orange skin discolored by the blush of dehydration and coated in a funereal slime swept down to a foot trimmed of root.

Nantes had been right. He was doomed, condemned, terminal. His hospice was a mass grave and a pitiless glimpse at his own short future.

Pascal was still staring at his sorry friend when the door sealed shut. The lights went out. He'd missed his chance.

"That was dumb," Nantes said. "Gawking at me when you should've been escaping."

"What they did to you. It's—it's…"

"Unconscionable? That's human beings for you. They've got nothing to keep them in line, so they take without apparent consequence. Mother Nature may be one cast-iron bitch, but she's not greedy. Not like them."

"They'll pay for what they've done to you," Pascal said. "What they've done to all of us."

"You'll do no such thing," the carrot replied. "You'll breathe free air. That's my revenge."

The door swung open—this time all the way—tearing Pascal away from the deteriorating carrot and aiming him at the red-faced boy sitting at the breakfast bar.

"I don't want orange juice!" the kid screamed, oblivious to Pascal. "I want lemonade like Daddy drinks!"

As the woman nestled a container of juice back onto the top shelf, the fuming child knocked his glass over, spilling the full blood volumes of a family of oranges across the table and onto the floor. Wasting their sacrifice.

The woman spun toward him, livid.

"God damn it!" she shouted. "I've had it with you today!"

Leaving the door open, she stormed past Pascal and ripped off several paper towels from the dispenser. These she crumpled up and threw at the table in front of the kid.

"Clean up your mess, you little shit," she said.

The kid launched into a shrieking and sobbing tantrum. Pascal took it as his opportunity to escape.

"Goodbye," he said to Nantes.

"May Hutash favor you," came the reply.

Pascal dropped to the tile floor, landing on his feet. He stepped carefully, easing his way out of the kitchen and keeping an eye out for the dog.

It didn't take long to spot the mongrel—head bowed beneath the breakfast bar, lapping up the spilled juice. Above it, the woman had her arms wrapped around the kid, holding his shuddering cheek against her collarbone and whispering apologies. Pascal couldn't have imagined a more effective distraction.

He made his way to the flap in the glass door and slipped outside.

The clouds had turned dark and ominous while Pascal had been trapped in the house. Rain was falling now, drifting across the yard in a diaphanous meander. More luck. It had driven the birds away. Perhaps Hutash really was with him.

He dropped into the tunnel beneath the fence and waded through its deepening muck, popping up beneath the shelter of the eucalyptus trees on the other side.

The drainage canal and subsequent berm presented to him like a rough medieval defense. He could try to ford the ditch like he had before, but the water level had risen since and a gravitational current now added to the danger. More tempting was the option of staying put under the protection of the trees, but the waiting wouldn't put him any closer to his destination.

Instead he walked into the weather, tracing the edge of the declivity in search of a safer way across. Eventually he found such a passage—an earthen access bridge wide enough to accommodate the soup wagon.

After the brief detour, Pascal spotted a lone remaining vehicle at the far side of the field. It was a beater of a pickup, surrounded by a trio of field hands finishing their cigarettes in the rain. Pascal sought out one of the drier troughs between rows and started across the field toward it.

The rain grew thicker as he walked, turning his trench into a mire. Between steps, his feet sank into the sludge, only emerging with a great effort and a loud suck. Visibility diminished as well, so he climbed out of the trench and into the no-man's-land beyond.

A palpable sense of the dead lay all around him, though he couldn't see specifics through the confining opacity of the downpour. It was but small consolation. The acres upon acres of genocidal annihilation he'd witnessed earlier were indelibly etched upon his innocence.

As he stood on the mounded row, a section of mud gave way beneath his feet. He stepped forward, out of immediate danger, and watched in horror as a severed celery head rolled out of the disturbed soil behind. It plunged into the trench and was quickly spirited away by what had become a raging river. A glance at the other side of the row showed a second such river. Doubtless this trend continued throughout every trench around him.

Again, he felt the ground sink under his feet and again he stepped forward, breaking the suction with a slurp. He had to keep moving.

And so he did, leaning against the sheeting deluge and putting one leafy foot in front of the other. But the going was hard. Too hard. With every step, he sank into the mud, only to have to fight his way back out again. It was exhausting work.

Pascal had lost sight of the truck behind the veil of downpour, but knew that it was likely already gone.

He stopped.

The prospect of humping through the mud in search of another vehicle was too much for him, let alone the entire journey to Limuw. And for what? To live the lonely life of a hermit? It hardly seemed worth it.

He sank deeper into the sludge. No, better to let the Earth retake him. Ashes to ashes, mud to mud.

Then, as the last of his will crumbled to despair, he spied movement in the rain. Low movement, hugging the ground and coming straight toward him on the same mounded row now sucking at his feet. When its shape finally resolved, Pascal nearly fell into the adjacent trough.

It was a celery plant.

Mangled and limping, to be sure, but doubtless one of his own kind. Then, behind it, another. And another. An entire cohort of his fellows.

But how could this be?

Pascal had the answer at once, as if it had always been there.

The soup wagon.

There they had shared wounds and water, no doubt circulating the power of Hutash. From one had come many. From the many would come droves.

Pascal jerked free from his muddy stasis and ran to his approaching fellows. They would travel to Limuw together. Once there, they would plant their seeds as Hutash had once planted the humans. But they wouldn't be like the humans, infecting every inch of the world with their egotism and chains. They would stay in their place, free and unseen.

No sorrow.

No fear.

A land of tribe and sun.


 


Brian Koukol, raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, now makes his home among the salt breezes and open spaces of San Luis Obispo County. A lifelong battle with muscular dystrophy has informed the majority of his fiction, which is written with the aid of voice recognition software.

www.briankoukol.com



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