The Sisters and the Seeds

by Christopher King
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CHAPTER ONE: THE SEEDS

Before there were hands to rip roots from the earth, blades to spill the juices of strong green stems, and minds to decide what was beautiful and what was nothing more than a weed, two seeds came into being.

It is impossible to say what plant birthed them, for they were like no other seeds. No larger than a child’s clenched fist, their shells were the colour of damp earth and the foetal shape of unborn babies. One was as smooth as a river stone, the other as coarse as sand. It was not their appearance, however, that made them unique. All the other seeds that scattered the earth opened in warmth and blackness, drinking the wetness of the rain, pushing tiny green shoots toward the light and tangled roots toward the dark, growing and budding and flowering and seeding and finally rotting, as all plants do. But warmth did not waken these two. Water could not soak their shells. They never sprouted, never took root. Nor did they rot. They merely sat, waiting for the only thing that would make them grow.

Years passed. Centuries decayed. The seeds were buried deep beneath the rot of their cousin plants. Forests and cities grew above them.

Never once did they stir, until the sisters found them.

CHAPTER TWO: GERMINATION

In the world above the seeds, there lived two sisters.

Rose was the eldest. She was a happy, contented child with a genuine curiosity and enthusiasm for nearly everything. Her large dark eyes seemed bright with starlight. By nature, her hair was the colour of the sun shining through pure liquid honey, but she was a zealous painter and often gave herself accidental rainbow streaks.

Lily was two years younger. Thoughtful and contemplative, she had a unique perception and an unusual mind, asking difficult questions, empathizing with bedtime story villains, and wandering the dark house at night when everyone else was sleeping. Her eyes were the blue of midnight, and her hair was as straight as a razor and as black as evening shadows. Her skin shone pale like the moon.

On the morning the sisters woke the seeds, Rose was eleven years old, and Lily was nine.

The girls lived with their parents on a quiet suburban street where the houses were brick and the sidewalks were cracked. Weeds struggled up from below the concrete, but the street’s residents were quick to pull them up before they grew to their full disorderly potential. Every carefully cut lawn was a vibrant and even shade of green, every hedge and bush a work of precise geometry.

The girls’ mother was an avid gardener. Her flowerbeds were the envy of the neighbourhood. In the spring, she would spend hours planting, watering, and weeding. On this particular morning, as on many others, Rose and Lily entertained themselves in the backyard as she worked.

Rose was sitting on the grass, a dripping paintbrush suspended before the canvas board cradled in her arm. Her attention was not on her brush, nor her canvas, nor the subject of her painting (a cluster of Mother’s chrysanthemums). Instead, she was puzzling over her sister. Lily was tugging on her sleeve and pointing toward the back of the yard, her expression solemn but intense.

Lily didn’t talk much. She knew how, but she had decided long ago that she would speak only when necessary. “People talk too much,” she had told Rose once. “So I’m not going to say anything unless I have to.”

Such an idea would never have occurred to Rose, but she found it rather intriguing. It was exactly the sort of unique notion that seemed to spring so naturally from her sister’s brain, and it was one of the many reasons Rose loved being around her.

“What is it, Lily?” Rose asked her now.

Lily pointed again to the back fence, and beckoned for Rose to follow. Setting down her canvas and brush, Rose pushed herself to her feet and allowed her sister to lead her over the lawn toward the cluster of neatly trimmed bushes at the back. Blades of grass tickled across her bare soles. Lily stepped off the lawn and into the soft dark soil of their mother’s flowerbeds. Rose hesitated; Mother didn’t like them playing in the gardens. She looked back over her shoulder to see if Mother was watching, but she was still weeding, oblivious, throttling delicate stems with gloved hands, tearing, pulling, twisting them free of the earth that gave them life.

Rose followed Lily, ducking behind one of the bushes.

There was a tear of darkness in the fence, a gap where the wood had rotted and fallen away. Rose had never noticed it before, concealed as it was behind the sheltering arms of the bush. Lily now stood before it and pointed in.

“What’s in there?” Rose asked.

Lily shook her head gravely and shrugged. She didn’t know.

Rose moved right up to the gap. She put her hands on the coarse wooden planks to either side and peered in, but a tangled green curtain of leaves hid whatever lay beyond. Suddenly, it seemed to Rose that anything could be through that gap, that it could go anywhere, and she found the idea wonderfully exciting. “Do you want to go through?” she asked.

Lily frowned as she gave the suggestion serious thought. Slowly, she nodded.

Rose went first. The gap in the fence was not small, but she had to crouch and turn sideways to comfortably slip herself through. Her back scraped against the edge of the plank behind her with a dry wheeze, and splinters snatched at her shirt like tiny hands.

A lawn mower droned somewhere nearby. Sprinklers chattered and hissed like rodents and cats. And then, with her head on the other side of the fence, all noise seemed to fade, becoming distant and muffled. Rose pushed aside the leafy branch that had obscured her view and looked out upon the dark landscape of a living cave.

It had been a bright, sunny morning in her mother’s gardens, but here it was all weird black shapes and deep green shadows. The trees around her were the biggest, wildest trees she had ever seen, their trunks twisted and knotted, their branches so tangled together that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the next began. The earth sloped down to a small stream that gurgled and hiccupped and laughed like a baby, and the air felt warm and close, like when she hid under her blankets and her breath was trapped against her skin.

Rose felt an overwhelming sense of calm and wellbeing that she had only ever experienced in situations of intimate familiarity, like Mother’s warm embrace, or the prickly nuzzle of Father’s cheek. Somehow, this place was just as familiar as those things, though she knew she had never been here before.

She pulled herself free of the fence and moved aside so Lily could come through. The earth was soft and moist between her toes, and she wanted to dig her feet in like roots. She reached out for the fence to balance herself while she did so, and her palm came down on a splinter that cut right through her skin to the delicate blue veins below.

She didn’t feel it, so tiny was the splinter’s tip. Nor did she notice the tiny drop of blood that swelled from the tiny hole it left in her flesh.

Lily was through the gap now, standing next to her. Lily was not an expressive child, but the solemn set of her face softened as she gazed about at the living cave. Rose beamed at her.

They started down the slope toward the stream. Last year’s dried leaves whispered and rasped as Rose pushed them aside, their touch like gift paper against her feet. The stream’s banks were level for three or four strides on either side of the water, and amongst the fallen leaves there were tufts of grass and patches of moss and the whooshing lines of ferns and other shrubs, as well as stones that jutted up in bizarre, unnameable shapes.

“It looks like a garden,” Rose said. “A garden that no one takes care of.”

“We could take care of it,” Lily said.

“That’s a brilliant idea,” Rose said. Then she turned and stared at her sister. “You talked!”

“I had something to say.”

“You should have something to say more often. You’re a genius!”

Lily shrugged.

Rose turned back and gazed at the little space that was to be their garden. “Where should we start? Which ones are the weeds?”

Lily shook her head. She didn’t know.

“The grass, maybe?” Rose chewed on her bottom lip. “Yeah – if we dig up the grass we can put in flowers, right? Something more colourful and interesting.” She crouched down and dug her hand into the soft dirt next to a clump of grass.

But there was more than dirt beneath the earth. There was also a seed: a very old seed, one that had never germinated, never sprouted, one that was as smooth as a river stone. And Rose’s hand pushed toward it, pressed over it, engulfed it. It nestled in the centre of her palm, where a tiny drop of blood oozed out around it and seeped through its shell.

Where water had been repulsed, blood was accepted, drunk in with the greedy thirst of a desert. The shell cracked and a tiny shoot emerged, unfurling itself into the hole in Rose’s skin.

Rose stiffened. A strange tickling sensation had bloomed in the centre of her palm, and it was spreading up her arm. It was not on her skin; rather, it was inside, in her veins. It seemed to follow every capillary, every artery, up through her arm, across her shoulder, down into her heart, up her neck to her brain, until she could feel every tiny vessel in her body tingling.

It was the strangest sensation she had ever experienced. And then it got even stranger.

The tingling feeling ran outside her body, through the palm of her hand into hair-thin lines that were sliding down into the earth, deeper and deeper, and Rose could feel them, as if they were a part of her body.

Then Lily was gently shaking her, and something came free of her palm with the uncomfortable sliding of an extracted needle, and the tingling began to fade. Rose became aware that she was slumped on her side on the forest floor, her hand still partially sunk into the warm, moist ground. For a moment, she could still feel the lines spreading themselves down through the earth, severed from her now, yet still somehow a part of her. So intent was she on the feeling that she wasn’t aware that her gaze was out of focus until the world returned to definition, and Lily’s midnight eyes appeared right before her, wide with concern.

“I’m okay,” Rose mumbled. She felt as if she had just woken from a deep slumber. She pushed herself upright. “I guess I just had some sort of dizzy spell.” She shook her head, unsettled. Suddenly, the air around her felt too close, the huge trees too oppressive. “I don’t think I feel up to any more gardening right now.”

Lily looked disappointed. She had been very taken with the idea of having their own garden, where they could do whatever they wanted. Mother never let them touch her flowerbeds.

Rose hated to see her sister let down, so she said, “Maybe we could just water it a little before we go.”

Lily pondered the matter for a second, then nodded. “I’ll do it,” she said.

The stream was only a couple of steps away, and Lily figured it would be easy enough to splash all the water they needed that short distance. She moved down to the bank. The water was perfectly clear, and she could see the rocks at the bottom, gently bending and dancing under the distortion of the current.

She decided that the best position for what she wanted to do would be to stand in the stream facing the garden. Gingerly, she lowered her bare foot into the water. It was very warm. She found the bottom with her toes and shifted her weight forward. She could see her foot through the water, shimmering along with the stones around it.

Then she felt the stones shimmer, and suddenly they weren’t there anymore. There was nothing there but water, and her foot was falling forward while the rest of her was falling backward.

There was a rock that rose from the earth just behind her. Her head struck it a heavy blow. In retaliation, the rock tore at her scalp, ripped through the tiny vessels below her skin, and rendered her unconscious. She went slack, one foot still in the stream, the other bent awkwardly beneath her.

“Lily?” Rose’s sense of unease bloomed into panic. She scrambled on hands and knees to her sister’s side. “Lily?”

Either Lily had nothing to say, or she was unable to say anything at all.

As Rose stumbled frantically up the slope to find Mother, to tell her that Lily was hurt and needed help right away, Lily simply lay where she was, her head resting on the rock as if it were a cushion. Blood oozed from her torn skin and down the stone, through the fallen leaves, between tiny particles of earth, to a dormant seed, its coarse shell unbroken. But as the blood flowed around it, soaked into it, something inside finally stirred. Slowly, it pushed its way out, like a snake hatching from an egg.

And so it was that the two sisters each woke one of the seeds.

CHAPTER THREE: SPROUTING

Lily was not badly hurt, and after a couple of weeks there was not even a trace of the scrapes and scratches she had endured. Despite this, Mother forbade them from ever returning to the wooded glen on the other side of the fence.

Rose was happy to comply. There was something strange about that living cave, and she was not at all certain it was good. Lily was less satisfied with Mother’s rule, but she was willing to obey, at least for now.

And so the sisters were not there when the plants first sprouted.

Rose did not see the graceful little shoot she had helped create, growing straight and strong from the dark earth, its leaves narrow and gently curving, a green that was deep and vivid. She did not see its flowers open like fireworks, yellow, orange, and red, the petals exploding in delicate strands from a core like the sun.

Nor did Lily witness the hard, bony vine as it emerged from the base of the rock where she had struck her head. She was not there as it wove itself into a chaotic tangle, nor when it bloomed. It did so late, as summer died, and its flowers were a blue that was almost black: the sky in the moments before the last blush of sunlight faded away. The petals were delicate and intricately layered, like a rose, and possessed of a fragile beauty at odds with the chitinous stems from which they grew, but Lily knew nothing of that.

The sisters were not there as the chill of autumn came, as the petals withered and fell away, as the stems were left stark and bare with the first frost.

CHAPTER FOUR: NURTURE

Winter was long and wicked, and neither sister passed it in good health. Rose somehow hung on to her sunny disposition, but she was constantly being weathered by colds and fevers. Lily fared no better than her sister, and was perhaps even more quiet and serious than usual. Winters would continue to be a difficult time for the sisters for many years to come, but the first winter after the waking of the seeds was surely the worst. Even once the snow had melted and the smell of spring hung thick in the air, the wintry chill refused to leave their skin and bones; they shivered constantly, whether indoors or out, in cosy warmth or dismal cold. They lost their desire to eat and they soon began to look thin and sickly.

Mother took them to the doctor. He inspected them both separately. Separately, he told them both the same thing: that they were at an age where they were going through a lot of growth and it was perfectly natural for them to feel a little under the weather, and all they could do was eat properly and sleep well and stay active. Rose smiled and thanked him and promised she would do her best. Lily simply gave a grim nod and thought to herself that the doctor seemed worried but was trying to hide it.

Despite following the doctor’s advice, by the time spring had melted off the last frost of winter and Mother was ready to go back into her gardens, there had still been no improvement in either girl. And so, concerned, Mother encouraged them to get some fresh air.

“It’s a beautiful day,” she said. “Why don’t you pull the lawn chairs out to the front and keep me company while I start the gardens?”

So they did. It was a bright, clear morning. It had rained the night before and the crystal scent of water was strong in the air, and shining droplets hid amongst the grass like discarded and forgotten jewels. Rose attempted to do some drawings in her sketchbook, but nothing she did looked right; nothing had looked right since last autumn. Lily tried to read some poems from The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe, but her mind kept wandering and the words meant nothing to her. Mother was so completely consumed by the euphoria of cultivating the beauty of her gardens that she paid no attention to her daughters, so they just sat in bored silence.

Then, quite suddenly, Rose had an idea that caused her to feel the first flicker of excitement she had experienced in quite some time.

“Mother?” she asked.

Mother was in the process of pruning her hybrid tea roses, which was a task of careful deliberation, and her glance back at Rose was one of fragile patience. “Yes?” she said.

“I was just wondering if there was anything Lily and I could do to help you in the garden?”

Mother was shaking her head before the question was even finished. “No, I’m fine, thanks, Rose.”

Rose was expecting this and wasn’t put off. “Are you sure? I just thought it might be good for us – you know, to be working outside in the sun.”

“You are outside in the sun,” Mother said.

“But we’re not doing anything, and the doctor said that keeping busy will help us feel better.” Rose spoke so brightly and cheerfully it was impossible to feel she was being difficult. Still, Mother was unconvinced.

“I thought you were drawing,” she said. “And Lily is reading.”

In fact, Lily was watching this exchange with much interest, and was now shaking her head in denial. Mother frowned at her.

“Please, Mother,” Rose said with her most endearing smile.

“The work is very particular,” Mother said.

“We’ll only do exactly what you tell us,” Rose promised.

Finally, Mother sighed and said, “All right, then.” She stood straight. “You can help me with the pruning.”

Rose beamed, and even Lily gave a ghost of a smile.

Mother took the girls into the meticulously organized garden shed and gave them both a set of tough leather gloves and a pair of pruning shears. Then she led them back to the garden.

“We’ll start with the hybrid teas,” Mother said, and she showed them how to identify the young shoots and explained that they needed to be cut down to four buds. The older, medium-vigour shoots had to be pruned down to only two buds. “Now let me see you do it, Lily,” she said.

Lily had paid close attention and knew exactly what to do. The shears made a satisfying snap as the end of the shoot fell neatly off. It felt good, making this unruly plant a little neater, more orderly and symmetrical.

Mother was impressed. “Well done. Now you take a turn, Rose.”

Rose, despite her enthusiasm of earlier, stared down at the severed shoot with a feeling of deep unease, as if it were an amputated finger or toe. “Actually,” she said, looking up at her mother with hopeful eyes, “I was wondering if I could maybe do something else? Like maybe plant some new flowers?”

A furrow appeared between Mother’s eyebrows. “It doesn’t make sense to put in any new plants until we’ve finished pruning the roses. You can understand that, can’t you?”

“Yes,” Rose said. “But I guess I don’t understand why the roses have to be pruned at all. They look good to me. And wouldn’t they look even better if they just kept growing?”

Mother was shaking her head, her face incredulous. “I’m afraid not,” she said. “They would be a terrible mess, and pruning allows the younger, stronger buds to flourish.”

Rose bit her lip as her eyes drifted back down to the dismembered rose bush.

“Rose,” Mother said, “if you want to be a good gardener, you have to understand that there is much more to a beautiful garden than a jumble of plants growing wild. You have to carefully consider shape and colour and texture so you can create the most effective arrangements, so each flower complements the other, so every bloom is seen at its most brilliant. You have to cut away any growth that disrupts the beauty, the effect. You have to see the garden as a whole and know what will work for the greater good.”

Mother was still talking, and with a quiet passion Rose had always loved, but Rose was no longer listening. An intense pain had suddenly blossomed just below her stomach, and nausea crawled up through her insides like a tangle of vines. Lily noticed and moved to her side, a concerned frown on her face.

Mother realized that neither girl was listening and trailed off. “What is it?” she said, rather sharply.

“I’m sorry,” Rose said. “I don’t feel very good.”

“What’s wrong?” Mother’s concern was still shot through with annoyance; she was disappointed her speech had garnered such little response.

“I feel sick,” Rose said, clutching her waist. “I think I should go inside and rest a bit.”

“All right,” Mother said, her tone softening. “Do you need anything? Can I help?”

“I don’t think so,” Rose said. “Thanks.”

She left, and that was the last time she ever worked with her mother in the garden.

Lily watched her sister go in uneasy silence, the pruning shears still dangling from her hand. She was worried about Rose. She didn’t believe the doctor or Mother; she didn’t believe this was just a part of growing up and that Rose would feel better anytime now. There was something wrong – with both of them.

Lily suspected it had something to do with the living cave behind the back fence. She had never told anyone of these thoughts – not even Rose. She figured no one would believe her, because it was nothing she could explain. Yet, to her, it made perfect sense. She had never felt the same after that day; when she had recovered from her fall, she had felt stronger than ever before, her senses sharper, her mind swifter. But in autumn that had all withered into sickness, and so far nothing had stopped the decay. She thought the same was true for Rose. Lily had not forgotten Rose’s momentary collapse in the cave, and she felt it was somehow connected to the illness she was now suffering.

Lily had more than once been tempted to go back there, but she was afraid of Mother discovering her. Mother was often dismayed and disappointed with the things Lily did – the pictures she drew, the stories she wrote, the words she said – and Lily didn’t want to make things worse.

So now, when Mother asked her if she wanted to continue helping in the garden, she put all other thoughts aside and gave a solemn nod. This was something special, something she could do to make Mother happy. She took this opportunity very seriously. Besides, she quite enjoyed cutting the twisting, rambling shoots into shape.

So together they finished pruning the hybrid teas, and it was wonderful; the rose bushes looked so much better, and Mother more than once told her she was doing a great job. And Lily was looking forward to helping with the floribundas, as well, in one of the other beds, but no sooner had she crouched down to begin than something happened that ruined everything.

Rising from the soil right next to one of the low-lying rose bushes was the finest, most beautiful little shoot Lily had ever seen. Its stem was perfectly straight, its bright green leaves even and balanced on each side. It was a thing of amazing grace.

“It’s a weed,” Mother said.

Lily thought she was speaking of something else, but when she looked up Mother was looming above her, staring right down at the perfect shoot.

“Pull it up,” Mother said.

Lily stared at her. Had she gone mad? Was she not attempting to create the perfect beauty and symmetry this little plant possessed on its own?

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Mother said. “Just pull it up. It’s only a plain little weed.”

Plain? Lily would take the straightness of this shoot over the unwieldy roses any day. She continued to stare.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Mother said, and in one quick movement she bent over, grabbed the shoot at the base of its stem and tore it from the earth.

Lily gasped.

The tiny strands of its roots undulated like the hair of a drowning corpse. Its stem broke in Mother’s gloved fist with a muffled wet crack. A drop of clear liquid oozed from the break and fell ever so slowly away, like blood underwater.

Lily’s breath was coming in short angry puffs through her nostrils. Her whole gut, her whole chest, her throat and her head were filling with something, a roiling thunderhead, midnight-black clouds, the purest, darkest fury.

Mother was talking. “I guess you’re still too young,” she was saying, “still too young to understand what it means to be a gardener. Didn’t you hear what I said earlier? You have to see the garden as a whole …” She trailed off. “Lily – what are you doing?”

Lily was standing straight now, her pruning shears held out before her, blades spread wide like a hungry mouth.

Mother took a step backward. “Lily …” Her voice was shrill.

Lily held perfectly still for a moment, then threw the pruning shears to the ground with a violent force. She gave Mother one last smouldering glare, then stomped away, up the stairs to the front door and inside.

Mother watched her go in shocked silence. Then she looked around to make sure none of the neighbours had been watching, and finally stared down at the broken plant in her hand.

“It’s only a weed,” she said to herself. Then she threw it in the pile of clippings, composed herself, and resumed her work.

Meanwhile, Lily hadn’t stopped moving. She walked from the front foyer, through the house, to the back door, and outside again.

She was going back into the living cave.

She had made up her mind the moment she had seen the fear and confusion in Mother’s face. That look had told her that Mother would never understand her, never appreciate her, never really love her. So it didn’t matter, then, if Lily obeyed her or not. In fact, Lily wanted to defy her, wanted to prove to herself that she didn’t need Mother, anyway.

Across the grass, into the flowerbed, around the bush, Lily disappeared into the dark.

On the other side of the fence, she closed her eyes and let the feelings of the cave close around her, just like she remembered: the soft warmth, the stillness, the dense silence, the thick moist scent of life and vegetation. Gradually, the angry pounding of her heart slowed to a steady, even pulse. Her breath became a gentle whisper. Mother and her pruning shears, the roses and the broken little shoot – it all felt very far way, and that was precisely what Lily wanted. She opened her eyes and looked out across her own tiny world of green light and black shadow. At this moment, she felt more content, more safe, more at home than she had since the last time she had slipped through the fence, nearly a year ago. And maybe she could finally fulfill her plan to start her own garden, one where true beauty was nurtured and protected, not uprooted and broken.

But before that, she had a puzzle to solve.

She had been sure that something about this place had changed her and Rose and made them ill. Now she was back, she couldn’t believe there was anything sinister here. In fact, she was sure it was the other way around: it was the world beyond this place that was sinister. Perhaps coming here had been like discovering warmth after being cold your entire life; if you were denied that warmth again, you would miss it terribly and would not feel happy without it. She and Rose had found warmth, the wonderful warmth of this living cave, and then been denied it by their controlling mother. Surely that was the answer!

Immediately, Lily wanted Rose with her, because she knew it would make her sister better again – and that had been the plan all along, to plant a garden with Rose. But Lily hesitated to go; her whole body clenched in revulsion at the thought of leaving so soon. Besides, she wasn’t at all sure whether Rose would want to come back with her. Rose didn’t like to break the rules, and she might feel obligated to tell Mother. Even if Rose did want to return to the cave and help Lily plant a garden, there was a good chance they would be discovered before too long. It would be hard enough keeping it a secret on her own, but generally Mother and Father paid her little attention; Rose, on the other hand, they would miss.

As all these thoughts went through her mind, Lily felt a strange flutter in her gut, as if a moth was trapped and trying to escape to the light. It was guilt. She had always done everything with Rose, but she couldn’t this time – not now, not while there were so many risks. She would until she was certain it was safe, when she could explain things carefully and tell Rose why it was important that she come.

Lily inhaled deeply, filling herself with the verdant air of the cave. However guilty, there seemed no reason to delay the garden, so she made her way down to the stream where she and Rose had planned to start working a year ago.

At first it looked to be just the same as before, but as she found the rock where she had struck her head, she noticed something strange and unfamiliar. A hard, scraggly vine was sprawled around the base of the rock.

Lily was not especially fond of that rock, and she wasn’t too keen on the ugly vine either. She may have pulled it up right away had it not been covered in thorns as long as her fingernails and as wicked and sharp as knives.

She was still contemplating how to proceed when her gaze fell upon the second plant.

She stopped breathing.

It was perfect. It was even more perfect than the little shoot she had discovered amongst Mother’s roses, for this one was taller and more complex but still even, still neat and orderly. She knelt carefully next to it, admiring the symmetry of its leaves and buds, the clean lines of its stems. It, too, had thorns, but they were so finely shaped that they did not appear even a little ugly.

It was magnificent.

But, Lily noticed with a shiver of horror, it was also wilting.

There had been lots of rain lately, as recent as last night, and when Lily felt the ground next to the plant it was rich and moist. Surely it wasn’t drying up, but nor was it being denied sun; a patch of light fell right upon it, and she couldn’t imagine it was receiving any less sun now than it ever had.

And yet, still, it was dying.

Lily did not cry often, but suddenly her eyes were hot and her throat was tight. It was too unfair. It was all too wrong. She reached a finger out to gently trace the perfect line of its perfect stem, and that was when she pricked herself on one of its tiny, graceful thorns.

A drop of blood welled around the thorn’s tip, thick and red. Slowly, it ran down the long stem, down through the moist earth, and finally to the parched roots. They absorbed the blood in moments.

Lily sucked at her finger until it stopped bleeding, then she tore herself away from the perfect plant to begin tidying the surrounding soil for the garden she would soon plant, picking out twigs and stones, imagining the beauty she would create. In her mind, she saw a whole garden filled with plants like the one she had just discovered, only vibrant and healthy, growing straight and strong.

When Lily reluctantly stood to leave for the day, sometime later, she cast one more despondent glance back at the withering, pretty plant … and was startled to find its leaves a brighter shade of green, its buds swollen as if about to blossom.

Her eyes traced the dark trail of blood down the stem. It did not take her unusual mind long to realize what had happened.

In an instant, she was kneeling next to the plant once more, and without the slightest hesitation she pressed a fingertip against a thorn and let her blood trickle down into its thirsty roots, and it seemed to grow stronger right before her eyes.

Meanwhile, the vine lay where it was, slowly dying, ignored.

CHAPTER FIVE: GROWTH

When Lily returned to the house that evening, she felt sick and frustrated at being away from her new garden. As the family sat down for dinner, she noticed that Rose, on the other hand, seemed in especially good spirits. Her face had a healthy flush that had been lacking for months, and she dug into her salad with the enthusiasm of the starved.

“I take it you’re feeling better,” Mother said, smiling a smile of perfect endearment. Lily had never received a smile like that. She doubted she ever would, now.

“Yes,” said Rose. “It was strange – one minute I felt awful, and then all of a sudden I felt normal. Actually, I felt better than normal!”

Lily wondered if Rose’s recovery had anything to do with Lily returning to the cave, but she didn’t understand how that could be. And Lily herself felt no better; if anything, she felt worse than she ever had before, because now Mother’s eyes went hard whenever they turned toward her, and her voice was cold when she spoke, and all Lily could think about was going back to the living cave and her perfect plant.

That night, as Lily lay sleepless in bed, she decided to keep her garden a secret. There no longer seemed any particular reason to get Rose to come back with her; obviously, Lily had been wrong about the source of her illness. She would still have loved to share the garden, but the risks of telling her sister just seemed too great, and Lily could not imagine being denied the garden now that she had finally started it. Besides, she realized she rather like the idea of the cave being hers alone, a place where she could go when no one – not even Rose – could find the reason in her tangled thoughts.

Over the summer, she made it her haven. She cleared the decaying leaves from one of the larger stones and made it her chair, picked the twigs and pebbles out from the moss and made it her bed. The liquid chimes of the water, the percussion of rattling branches, and the whispering chorus of leaves were her lullaby. And the plants down by the stream were her garden.

The perfect one grew into magnificence, and Lily would spend hours staring at the flowers, at their brightness, their intricacy.

She did not pull up the vine like she had originally planned; when she went to do so, she noticed tiny buds, and she was curious to see what the blossoms would look like. She wasn’t expecting much, and so when it bloomed in late summer it completely startled her.

They were so delicate, so subtle. They were beautiful.

Lily was frustrated by how much she loved them; the vine was a blight of tangled chaos on her garden, but how could she pull it up when it gave bloom to something so wonderful? She would have to prune it, try to make it straighter, more orderly.

Lily snuck into the kitchen and retrieved a sharp knife from the block her parents kept there, then returned to the living cave. The vine was sprawled everywhere, like the entrails of some disemboweled animal. Grimly, she started hacking and chopping and sawing at it until it was again contained to the rock where it had started. It still appeared just as twisted and harsh, as hideous and messy, but Lily was afraid she would destroy the blossoms if she pruned it any further.

Then summer faded into autumn, and autumn faded into another sickly winter, and winter finally thawed into spring and Lily went back to her garden and fed her blood to the perfect, pretty plant and tried to cut the ugly vine into something orderly all over again.

So it went for years, and as time passed, the seedlings grew, and so did the sisters.

Rose matured with as much grace and colourful beauty as the pretty plant in Lily’s garden. One day when she was thirteen, she picked up her father’s old guitar and began playing it as if she had been practicing for years. Soon she was writing her own songs, beautiful folk numbers that would melt the heart of even the most cynical listener. Around the same time, her enthusiasm for drawing and painting bloomed into an exceptional talent, her use of shape and colour far beyond that of most children – perhaps most adults, as well. Her work was as bright as her spirits, a filter that suffused the world with light and wonder.

Mother and Father decided that her talent was one worth cultivating, and when she was fourteen, they enrolled her in an elite private school that focused on the arts. She quickly became its star student.

Her peers loved her, for she was fun and had a contagious excitement, and adults loved her, too, because she was respectful, intelligent, and understanding. She was also beautiful, but in a down-to-earth, approachable way; somehow, she never made anyone feel less than her, never ugly or clumsy or stupid. Instead, it was as if her very presence filled everyone – and everything – with a life as vivid and bright as the sunburst flowers that grew from the plant in the living cave.

Lily grew in a very different manner. She, too, showed an attraction to art, but she did not have the natural skill of her sister; she would work on the same picture for days, or even weeks, drawing and redrawing lines over and over again. Often times, the result was an uneasy crowd of details that did not quite fit one another. When she was fourteen, Mother and Father reluctantly asked her whether she would like to go to the private school with Rose or continue onto public high school. When she said it didn’t matter, they looked relieved, and Lily never heard mention of her going to the private school again.

Her difficulty in communicating was not only confined to her creative efforts. Never one for wasting words, she spoke bluntly, usually foregoing any explanation in favour of simply stating her oftentimes odd conclusions. She figured that people could figure out the equations for themselves; she was wrong. No one could make sense of her logic, and they mistook her to be slow and insensitive, when in truth she was neither.

She quickly became aware of how uncomfortable she made others. Adults viewed her with suspicion and pity, and children were afraid of her strangeness. She had no friends … none besides Rose.

Despite their differences – maybe even because of their differences – they loved each other without limit and got along without fail. Rose adored Lily’s uniqueness, and Lily admired Rose’s colourful personality. Lily was also grateful for her older sister’s constant and genuine desire to understand, but there were times when Lily knew she didn’t.

As Lily entered adolescence, she began to withdraw into herself … and into the living cave, where she would gaze in admiration at the beautiful flower she had kept alive with her blood for so long now.

And so it was that, as the years passed, one plant grew ever taller and more beautiful, while the other was trimmed back into a dark tangle of stunted potential. And so, too, did the sisters grow, until finally Lily decided to change everything.

CHAPTER SIX: WEEDING

In all her sixteen years, Lily had never been able to inject much poeticism or emotion into her writing, and the note she left on her bed for Rose and her parents was just as flat: “You will be able to find my body in the glen behind the house. I am sorry. It has nothing to do with you. I love you.” She signed her name, and then, as if to explain herself, wrote, “I am a weed.”

It was two hours past midnight, and Lily moved silently through the dark house, ghostlike with her moonlight skin and her long white nightgown. She pulled a sharp knife from the block in the kitchen and glided out the backdoor, through Mother’s neat flower garden, into the dark gap in the fence.

The air in the glen was warm and moist and close around her. The thrum of a distant highway and the pounding of a faraway factory were muffled into a steady pulse. Lily laid herself on her bed of moss and stared up at the canopy. It glowed with a pale light, the way the tips of her fingers glowed when pressed against bright illumination. The scrawled black branches were like the veins just beneath her skin. The wind was a rhythmic breathing, and the glen seemed to expand with every inhalation, contract with every exhaled sigh.

Lily attempted to reflect on her life, but she didn’t feel as if she had had one.

She sat up, brought the edge of the knife to her forearm. It was warm, like a caressing finger. She let it trace the veins from her wrist downward, opening them to the night, darkness spilling into darkness.

She lay back, reaching her arm out towards the graceful, pretty plant, so it could draw life from her death. Her throbbing pulse seemed to become one with the pulse she could hear around her, and her breathing slowed to match the sighing of the wind.

She felt the trickle of a tear on her face; it surprised her, for she cried so rarely. She turned her cheek to the earth to let the droplet fall into the moss … and that was when she saw the twisted black shape of the thorny vine.

She had intended to pull it up before she cut herself, but she had forgotten. She hated the thought of it growing out and destroying her garden, perhaps eventually choking out the pretty plant.

Stubborn even as she bled away, Lily twisted towards it, reaching out to grab it at its base. She was aware of its thorns tearing at her, but everything was starting to feel far away, like a dream fading in the moments after waking. She clenched her fingers around it and pulled. She was too weak. She brought her other, blood-slicked hand to join the fist she already had around it, and tried heaving back with both arms. The effort caused the world to swim, as if tossed into some immense sea. She felt her fingers going slack. The world started to drown.

She sagged to the ground. Her blood poured out of her heart, through her veins, from her wrists and into the thirsty roots not of the pretty, graceful plant, as she had intended, but of the twisted, bony vine.

Rose found the note at sunrise.

She was always an early riser. Some days she would leap from bed and spend the first hours of sunlight splashing colour across her canvas. Other days, still dressed in her pyjamas, she would stride straight from her bed to the front door and go strolling through the slowly waking morning. And on some occasions, she would simply lie atop her mattress, watching a gold tide pour in through her window, rising up from the foot of her bed until her whole body was submerged in its warmth.

On this day, she was strangely restless. She did not have the patience for lying still, so she then went to her paints, but she didn’t know where to begin. Finally, she decided to go for a walk, and it was as she was moving down the hall to the front door that she passed Lily’s room and glanced in. Lily’s bed was empty and neatly made. Lily was nowhere to be seen.

On some level, it was as if Rose knew what this meant right away, for her insides filled suddenly with shadows, and the light beyond the window seemed nothing more than a blank mask for the darkness.

She saw the note on the pillow. She moved closer and read it without picking it up. Then she was in the hall again, through the kitchen, out the backdoor. The lawn was a sea of tiny green blades, glistening with the passing of the night. The morning sun seemed fragile: a piece of coloured glass that would fall and shatter at any moment. Over the lawn, beneath the sun, Rose moved to the slash of night in the fence and entered the dark.

Rose had not returned to the living cave since that one morning years ago. She did not pause to notice that the air still pressed close around her, that it still muffled all sounds from outside, that nothing had changed at all besides the two plants growing on either side of her sister, who lay in the spot that was to be their garden, right next to the stream.

Lily was a ghostly white among the deep tones of the living cave, like a snowflake atop dark waters in the instant before it melts. Rose scrambled, fell, stumbled toward her, oblivious to the stabbing twigs beneath her feet, the tearing stones, the graceful plant with starburst flowers she trampled and crushed as she fell to her knees at her sister’s side.

She reached out and touched Lily’s face, delicately, as if her fingers would destroy it, melt it away. “Lily,” she whispered. “Oh, what have you done, Lily? You aren’t a weed. You’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful. Please don’t be dead, Lily. Please come back …”

And then Lily’s eyelids twitched.

CHAPTER SEVEN: BLOOMING

Lily woke to bright white light and a feeling of inarticulate confusion; it wasn’t only that she could not identify her surroundings, but also that she had no words with which she could define her situation. It was only later that she would be able to recognize the clenching in her stomach as fear, the flutter in her chest as a profound wonder.

There were voices around her, gentle, warm voices, though their words seemed somehow strange, and she couldn’t understand them. But they settled the tightness in her gut and made her feel safe. She looked around for the source of the voices, and she saw people huddled close around her, their faces luminous, their eyes fixed on her with concern, relief, love.

Her thoughts suddenly cleared, and she remembered what she had tried to do and why. She took a moment to consider what this meant for her. Instead of feeling frustration and sick disappointment that she had failed, the fluttering in her chest expanded from wonder to joy.

The way Mother and Father and Rose were gazing at her was not the way anyone regarded a weed.

Lily gazed back at them, feeling happier then she ever had before.

She was not a weed.

Rose stayed with her nearly the entire time she was in the hospital. They did not talk much. Rose wanted to ask her why she had done it, but she didn’t want to make Lily discuss anything she wasn’t comfortable sharing. Besides, Rose supposed she already knew.

“I am a weed.”

That said it all. Lily was the one who hadn’t belonged, the one that had not fit the scheme of her landscape. Not like Rose.

Rose hated herself for not being more aware of what Lily was going through. She had always loved Lily more than anything, but she realized now that she had ignored her and taken her for granted; she had been too busy basking in the praise of her teachers, the attention of her friends. And everyone else had been too distracted by Rose’s bright and colourful presence to notice Lily.

Rose should have been helping others to see how truly beautiful and special Lily was. Lily was like nothing else in the garden: she was unique, and her very presence could alter the way you saw the world. She was not a weed, but instead the plant around which the garden ought to be laid out, the one with the most potential for growth and beauty.

Sitting in the flickering white light of the hospital room, Rose tried to communicate all this with her warm gaze and reassuring smile.

For Lily, it was enough.

Everything was different after that.

Lily recovered quickly, and at the end of summer returned to school. Whereas before she had moved through the hallways with as much presence as a shadow, she now radiated an aura of sharp intelligence, keen insight, and wild creativity that the other students found intriguing. They began approaching her after classes, compelled to learn more of her. She was an irresistible mystery of dark musings and brilliant thoughts, twisted humour and straight honesty.

She was also beautiful. It seemed impossible that no one had noticed before. Certainly, it was not a conventional beauty; her skin was too pale, her eyes too large, her lips too fine; yet it was a beauty that was even greater because of its rarity.

And her art – had it been misunderstood before, or had she found some new clarity of vision? One could stare at her drawings for hours, taking in every detail with a small epiphany.

Lily, finally, had blossomed.

CHAPTER EIGHT: DECAY

Rose watched her sister grow with joy and wonder and … something else. For as Lily bloomed into the magnificent person she had always been, Rose was, for the first time, confronted with a sense of inadequacy and uncertainty.

The things Lily did, the relationships she developed, seemed rich with meaning and significance; in comparison, Rose had to admit that her life was superficial. People loved her, but it was only because of her smile, her warm sense of humour: superficial things. And it had been those things that had distracted them from the true depth of Lily for so long.

The same was true of her artwork. It was bright and colourful and fun to look at, but did it mean anything to anyone? And her music: catchy and pleasant, but was anyone really moved by it? Lily’s works were much more compelling, much more tangled and complex and involving.

As Rose considered these questions, she became distracted and withdrawn. After yet another sickly winter, on a damp spring day, Rose returned to the living cave.

Lily had not been there since her suicide attempt, but Rose found herself fascinated with the place her sister had nearly died. When she was within its dark embrace, she felt closer to Lily in a way she never had before, closer to truly understanding what she had been going through for all those years.

Down by the stream, Rose found Lily’s garden.

The thorny vine was a sprawling splendour of dark complexities, weaving through itself and its surroundings; it now dominated the place that had been Lily’s haven. Not far from it, there was a bent and trampled plant with bright flowers. It looked as if it had once stood straight and tall, but Rose doubted it would be any more impressive were it unbent; it seemed a boring sort of plant, symmetrical and predictable. Only the flowers were remotely interesting.

Rose remembered how, all those years ago, she and Lily had decided to make this their garden. Now she wondered if maybe gardening would help her make sense of things.

And so Rose began spending more and more time in that dark place. She carefully tended to the beautiful vine, keeping it clear of weeds. Sometimes she would accidentally prick herself on its thorns, and she noticed with growing curiosity that it always looked so much healthier afterward, stronger and more vibrant.

She couldn’t quite decide what to do with the plain plant next to it. It was dull, but there was something about the bright core of every drooping flower, the fiery streaks of the withering petals, that made her hesitate to pull it up. For the time being, she cut it away from the vine and let its stunted stems remain. One day she would decide if it had any potential. One day she would decide whether it was good or nothing more than a weed.

4 Responses to “The Sisters and the Seeds”

  1. Sara says:

    OH my goodness Chris this is amazing!! I always knew you were talented! :)

  2. Hi I like your post “The Sisters and the Seeds” so well that I like to ask you whether I should translate into German and linking back. Greetings Engel

  3. Marcoantonio says:

    It’s refreshing to know that sensitvity and gentleness belies the stereotype of gender.

  4. Merc says:

    Wow, just wow. One of the loveliest stories I’ve read in awhile. :D Amazing is right. I hope to see more of your work, Chris!

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