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art by Jeffrey Redmond

Surrounded by the Mutant Rain Forest

Bruce Boston lives in Ocala, Florida, once known as the City of Trees, with his wife, writer-artist Marge Simon, and the ghosts of two cats. He is the author of fifty books and chapbooks, including the novels The Guardener's Tale and Stained Glass Rain.

His poetry and fiction have appeared in hundreds of publications, including Asimov's, Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and The Nebula Awards Showcase. This is his second publication in Daily Science Fiction.

One of the leading genre poets for more than a quarter century, Boston has won the Bram Stoker Award for Poetry, the Asimov's Readers Award for Poetry, and the Rhysling Award for Speculative Poetry, each a record number of times. He has also received a Pushcart Prize for Fiction and the Grandmaster Award of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Currently, in addition to his writing, he edits speculative fiction and poetry for The Pedestal Magazine, and is an acquisition and book editor for Dark Regions Press. For more information, visit bruceboston.com.

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.
Lying by her side, I awkwardly remove my clothes with one hand, holding her close to me with the other. Although I do not know if she is human or an extension of the forest, it no longer matters. My reason is lost, my senses trapped by a rising passion that has endured for years without consummation. I begin whispering endearments to her in the dark, speaking her name over and again. She does not answer. No sound escapes her lips except for her heavy breathing and the sighs of passion. Then I enter her and although my body and senses remain engaged in an act both terrifying and sublime, my mind and my vision are all at once traveling elsewhere
I take on the form of a great bird of keen eye and iridescent plumage sailing high above the Earth, flying through the stratosphere, far higher than any bird has a right to fly. I see the continent spread beneath me, the mottled blanket of mutant infestation stretching forth from the Amazon Basin to cover near half the land, its tentacles snaking north to the Isthmus and south to Patagonia. I swoop lower and am suddenly plummeting downward through dense green leaves and a riotous florescence of blossoms to the forest floor. I am a horned jaguar standing over sixteen hands high, gliding sinuously through the foliage, my nostrils flared, testing the fragrances of the thick night air in search of prey. I am a millipede python, dropping hundreds of feet through the tortuous branches of a towering mahogany onto the muscular back of that same jaguar, my spurred legs digging through its fur and into its flesh, injecting a soporific venom, my body winding round its torso, crushing the breath from its body. I am a miniature winged albino monkey, no, a whole tribe of winged albino monkeys, a hive mind, no larger than insects, flitting and leaping and chattering through the highest branches of that same tree. I am a copse of huge black and gold orchids being devoured to extinction by a herd of ravaging tapirs, their variegated hides shaded by saffron and amber and celadon. It is as if through the union of our bodies the forest and its manifold incarnations are speaking to me, immersing me in their beauty and their horror. I am imbued with the sentience of the forest, not a singular sentience as some believe, but a thousand warring ones that conspire to a whole, eliciting an overriding consciousness that wars against the world at large, as if the acts of slaughter and consumption within its borders, the endless round of creation and death and recreation, provide it with further sustenance and growth. And as my final thrusts within her seal our union, I am hurled from the sum of that consciousness into exhaustion and down the black well of a dead sleep.
And it is blackness to which I awaken. I have no idea how many minutes or hours have passed. The batteries in the torch have run down while I slept and we lie together in complete darkness. I try to rise only to find her body rising with me, pulling me back to the earth. I feel a sharp pain along my chest and stomach and thighs. I cry out and she cries with me, in that same piercing avian tone I heard before. Reaching between us I feel the ropey fungal tendrils that have spread from her flesh to mine. In rising panic, I grapple for the machete, but wherever it has fallen, it is beyond my reach. And it is probably useless in any case. Even if I could stand the pain of severing those tendrils, I am no doubt already as infected as she.
So I wait in the dark, bound irretrievably to a lover I have desired and sought for so long. Or at least a simulacrum of that lover. Just as I am bound to the mind of the forest. Already I can feel my individual thoughts becoming increasingly cloudy and intoxicated.
And I know this is how they will find us, with their lasers rifles in hand. Unless our forest finds them first.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Author Comments

The Mutant Rain Forest was first created by Nantucket author Robert Frazier in the mid-1980s. I responded to a poem he had published set in the Mutant Rain Forest with a poem of my own, and we were soon collaborating on poetry set in the MRF. Our collaboration “Return to the Mutant Rain Forest” won the Odyssey Poetry Award, 1988, and was chosen by readers in the 2006 Locus Poll as their all-time favorite sf/f/h poem. Our collaborative poems, along with solo poems by both of us, appeared in the collection Chronicles of the Mutant Rain Forest (Horror’s Head Press, 1992), the first shared-world genre poetry collection. We also collaborated on the novelette “Holos at an Exhibition of the Mutant Rain Forest” which appeared in Amazing Stories (July, 1991). Over the years, poems and stories set in the Mutant Rain Forest have also appeared in Asimov’s, Weird Tales, Tomorrow, Strange Horizons, Year’s Best Horror (Daw), and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin’s). “Surrounded by the Mutant Rain Forest,” my first solo fiction set in the MRF, will be included in Tales from the Mutant Rain Forest, forthcoming from Dark Regions Press late this year or early next. The collection will contain all of our collaborative and solo poetry and fiction from this world.

- Bruce Boston
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