art by Jeffrey Redmond
Surrounded by the Mutant Rain Forest
by Bruce Boston
A weak December sun falls like a faltering beacon against the shadows that surround us. We enter another vine-choked alley. The red breath of our laser rifles sizzles through the intrusion of leaves, blackening them to ash. The forest is driven back one more time, but we know it will return.
Once we lived as civilized residents of a civilized metropolis. Now we retreat, losing ground to the mutations of the wild. As their multifarious forms multiply, their mythology invades our lives, a compulsion for those who embrace the heresy of a bestial faith, a prison for those of us who resist the onslaught. We survive as a pocket of humanity in a deluge of green terror, cut off from the North, facing a relentless enemy from the South. Already more than a third of the city has been abandoned to the wilds.
On a routine sweep of City Center I find her in a decaying subbasement of the old Opera House where the classic tragedies of Verdi and Donizetti had once been performed. The beam of my torch momentarily blinds her dark eyes, unaccustomed to the light. I can see from her stricken glance that she is one the Mutant Rain Forest has made good use of. She has become a tragedy all her own. The stalk binding her bare body to the bare dirt, a curve both graceful and horrific as it clings to the base of her spine, resembles that of a mushroom, thick and spongy, white blotched by patches of gray. And she is now its naked human cap.
My happenstance comrades, roaming the deserted stage and hallways above, sound the all-clear. And after a moment of indecision I answer in kind, turning my torch away from her eyes, leaving her to the shadows of her damp fungal hermitage and whatever monstrosity she has become. Not a word is exchanged between us.
Of course I recognize her in those flash seconds, despite the intervening years and how pale she has become. Yet it is only hours later in the dim hall of the barracks, lying sleepless on my cot among the unending noise of sleeping men--snores and sighs and dream whimpers--that I replay the details of our past together.
A wealthy landowner's daughter and the son of a servant, we had played together as children. The forest was distant then, no more than a threat sometimes used to frighten us into obedience. We played together for hours and days on end, oblivious to our origins. Until time and age made them manifest, forcing the adult world into our existence. Then she left me behind for a life of rich parties and shopping sprees, private tutors and trips abroad, a privileged world I was never allowed to enter.
Still I watched from afar as the girl I had known began to mature into a woman. And fool that I was, I nurtured an adolescent infatuation that I called love. I embarked upon an awkward courtship, sending her furtive notes to which she never responded. I once stood beneath her lighted window with a cheap guitar and serenaded her with a cheap love song. Only the night answered. And eventually her father's rage; he insisted that such nonsense must come to an end.
My thoughts had returned to her more than once over the years. Wistful and unfulfilled. Now I wonder what hazardous course her life had taken that has transformed her into a prisoner and slave of the forest. I know that her father is no longer the wealthy landowner, that the forest has long since claimed his cultivated fields and mansion. Yet how has it seduced her when I had failed? Harboring vague regrets, I drift into a restless sleep.
I wake to a scream engendered by someone's nightmare. I don't realize I am the culprit, the scream my own, until I hear the exclamations and curses of those around me that I have awakened. Whatever that dark dream, it instantly flees from my consciousness. Yet my troubled sleep has formed a resolution in my mind.
I dress hurriedly in the dimness and make my way to our makeshift armory. There I choose a machete whetted razor sharp. When I test its edge a small drop of blood purls upon my finger. With my laser rifle strapped across my shoulder and the machete shoved into my belt, I enter the dark streets.
It is a cold night and a bone-raking chill fills the air, heightened by a light yet steady wind from the south that carries the fragrances of the Mutant Rain Forest into the city. Some claim that it is only this cold that protects us from the forest's ruthless onslaught. They say that with the rains of spring and the heat of summer the mutations of the forest, both animal and vegetable, will thrive. They will grow more profligate and insistent, attacking with renewed vigor.
Others of my kind, those who sleep by day and guard the city by night, now patrol the streets. I pass freely among them, nodding or exchanging greetings with those I know. I make my way to City Center and the old Opera House, a hulking shadow against a cloud-clotted sky that absorbs and diffuses the city lights. There are no stars visible.
As I descend into the depths of the building, my torch guiding me, I begin to shiver. It seems even colder here than in the streets above. I have decided that I will either free her from her enslavement or end her life trying, for surely death is a fate preferable to the one she now endures.
I find her as I had before, in the same dank subterranean chamber. This time, as my torch exposes her naked body, she gives out a short sharp cry, more avian than human. Yet her eyes do not blink from the light. Instead, they meet mine in a grave and curious stare. I wonder if she knows who I am, if she recognizes me from our shared past. In my fatigues, with my untrimmed beard and shaggy hair, I appear a far different man than the youth she once knew. Just as she must be a far different woman, if woman you could still call her. I wonder how much of her mind and thoughts remain or if her human awareness has been completely stripped away by the forest.
I approach her and raise the machete. Yet as my arm descends to sever the stalk that binds her body to the dirt, she reaches out swiftly to grasp and hold my wrist with a strength I did not expect from her slender form. The blade falls from my hand.
She rises up, her arms encircling my neck, and pulls me down toward her. She begins soundlessly showering my face and neck with kisses. And fool that I once was, fool that I remain, I fall to my knees beside her, dropping the torch and returning her embrace. It rolls away, throwing its beam against a rough stone wall, leaving us in relative darkness. Her bare flesh is not cold but warm to the touch, radiating a heat all its own, stripping the chill from my body. Her mouth and tongue are feverish and urgent.