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Rated: 18+ · Fiction · Supernatural · #1713285
What if the South could rise again? Speculative Fiction entry in the WYRM Gauntlet 2010
Controlling Nature

         Jacob Fleishman gave up on sleep at 4:45 a.m. He’d managed to stay in bed fifty minutes longer than the night before, so that was something. In one motion he threw back the duvet and swung his legs out, coming to a perch on the edge of the mattress, manicured feet landing on worn floorboards. He sat still, the deafening silence pressing against him like water at the bottom of a deep pool. Not one distant siren wailed; no angry shouts erupted; no rushing traffic roared past. No wonder he couldn’t sleep.

         With only forty-eight hours left before the first day at his new job, there was still a lot to do. Adjusting to a new life in the south, one that suited him, took time and effort. He’d take advantage of the mild insomnia. There would be plenty of time to catch up on sleep when he was dead, to borrow his favorite adage. He switched on the bedside lamp and clamped his eyes shut until the sudden glare became less dazzling.

         Enough light spilled into the hall for him to avoid catching his toe on the framed artwork propped against the wall. He glanced down at them as he passed, adding ‘Hang Up Art’ to his mental to-do checklist for the day.

         In the kitchen, he set a pot of coffee to brew. Glancing around, he wondered what he’d found charming about the oak cabinetry and vinyl, yellow-and-blue-checkerboard flooring. True, it was homier than the sleek, contemporary lines of his former stainless steel kitchen in the city. But he looked forward to ventures into local antique stores in search of a few interesting focal pieces he needed to transform this space. Turning away, his eyes fell on the table in the living area. He smiled.

         Weaving through the obstacle course of half-emptied moving boxes, he made his way to a rustic table of hand-hewn walnut pushed against the wall of windows looking out onto the back yard. Unlike everything else in the house that reeked of transition, this table looked like it’d always been there. Jacob ran his fingers along the smooth table top, gazing lovingly at his prized collection of bonsai trees. Squinting closer at a Chokkan in a pale blue glazed pot, he spotted an unsightly cluster of tiny leaves disturbing the effect of the tree’s symmetrical branching atop a very straight trunk. That won’t do. He reached for the bamboo tray of tools at the table’s corner and selected a small pair of shears. Holding them at a precise angle, he snipped off a centimeter of rogue growth. Resting the cold metal against his chin, he nodded.

         Two hours and three cups of coffee later, Jacob surveyed the backyard. Keys to the brand new riding lawn mower next to him dangled from a loop hooked on his finger. The southern sun was already hot, drawing dew up into Georgia’s dense, summer air. Jacob sneered at the memory of the good ‘ol boy salesman at Lowe’s the day before, smirking when Jacob inquired how to operate the mower. What a hick. He could never appreciate the artistry in Jacob’s bonsai, but he could judge him for never having “cut” a lawn? And how hard could it be? If that dumb shit could do it, so could he.

         Jacob climbed onto the mower, dragging the back of his hand through beads of sweat already wetting his forehead. With a twist of the key in the ignition, the mower roared to life.

         He worked his way along the perimeter to start, (like that condescending redneck had instructed). He rounded the far corner of the yard when he saw a tall, stooped man in blue jean overalls and a white undershirt lumber toward him across the neighboring lawn.

         The man came to a stop at the edge of the lawn. Jacob pulled the mower up and shut off the engine.

         “Hi y’all.” The man extended a liver-spotted hand to Jacob. “Name’s Nolan Ramsey.”

         Jacob was amused Nolan addressed him ‘y’all,’ as if Jacob were more than one person. Grasping Nolan’s hand, he said, “Jacob Fleishman. How you doin’?” Jacob’s New York accent bounced in the air between them like an echo.

         “Yankee, huh? You just visitin’, or you puttin’ down some roots?”

         “Job transfer. Looks like I’m here to stay.”

         Nolan lifted his chin, then nodded. “Your family here with ya?”

         “No, I’m still enjoying the single life. Doing my own thing, you know?” Jacob landed a light, playful punch on the old man’s chest.

         Nolan dropped his gaze to the point of contact then raised his eyes. “Well son, maybe you’ll find a nice Georgia peach to take up with.”

         Jacob looked away, pushed a weed with the toe of his boot. It didn’t budge. He reached down and grasped the thin stem with two flat, heart-shaped leaves. He realized it was a vine. Jacob tugged; it snapped up, but only a short segment came free. Every eighteen inches or so there were a couple leaves concealing small roots, anchoring the plant to the ground. Following it with his eyes, Jacob saw that the vine ran along the grass before it snaked up into a stand of trees on Nolan’s property.

         “Kudzu,” said Nolan.

         “Excuse me?”

         “That there in your hand. That’s kudzu. Impossible to control.”

         Jacob scanned the yards. He hadn’t noticed before, but kudzu was everywhere. It clung to tree trunks and covered low bushes.

         “Impossible to control, huh?”

         “Yes’um, that’s right. See, we had this erosion problem here in Georgia going back to the Depression years. Story is somebody bought kudzu from the Japs and brought it home. Claimed it was a ‘Miracle Vine.’ Keeps the soil in place, for sure. But it ain’t nothing but a weed, and nobody been able to control it since.”

         Jacob thought of his bonsai. Hell, for close to eight years now he’d trimmed and sculpted a Hawaiian Umbrella that stands just nine inches tall. Left to nature, a Hawaiian Umbrella tree could easily grow four stories. He shook his head.

         “Maybe y’all haven’t figured out how to control it. But trust me, it can be done.”

         Nolan raised his eyebrows and rocked back on his heels. “I’d watch what I say, boy. They say kudzu done got ears.”

         Jesus, what fucking planet have I landed on? “All right,” Jacob scoffed, “I guess I’ve been fairly warned.” He swung a leg over the mower’s seat like a cowboy mounting a mustang. Twisting the key, he shouted over the engine, “Later, old man.”

         Nolan stepped back just in time to save his toes from the mower’s blades.

         Forty-five minutes later, both the front and back lawns were trimmed. The concentric paths left by the mower wavered here and there, but overall Jacob was proud of the job he’d done. He went inside, relishing the cool, conditioned air, and set about hanging the art in the hallway.

         By ten-thirty, Jacob finished and was in need of a break before tackling the next project on his list. With a tall glass of iced tea in hand, he wandered to the living room table and admired his bonsai trees. He looked up and out the back windows.

         The sun shone bright out of a hazy, near-white sky. A cardinal swooped down from a longleaf pine, and a squirrel hopped off to the left. But something wasn’t right. Something was off. Jacob’s eyes roved the yard, and then he saw it.

         Down the west side of the yard, near Nolan’s stand of trees, a series of spots, darker green than the grass, tainted the lawn. Jacob set his glass on the table and headed out the door.

         He knew what it was before he got to it, but he couldn’t understand. How could he have missed this vine of kudzu? He stood over it, noting how it ran perpendicularly across two tracks left by the mower. He reached down and pulled, but the vine snapped in his hand. He grasped a longer section using both hands and tugging it out by the roots, pulling until he’d cleared four extra feet of it over Nolan’s property line. Then he walked the outer edge of his yard, making sure he hadn’t missed any more of the plant.

         The near-noonday sun sweltered. Stinging sweat trickled down into Jacob’s eye. He trudged back across the pristine lawn, deciding to shower before throwing together pastrami on rye for lunch.

         A knock at the front door sounded just as he was pulling a clean t-shirt over his wet hair. He combed his fingers through his thick, black locks and reached for the doorknob. Nolan stood on the stoop with a young woman at his side.

         “Howdy again, neighbor,” he said with a smile. “This here’s my niece Harley. She brought me by some of her mama’s award-winnin’ fried chicken and corn bread for lunch. Tasted just fine. And, well, I got to thinkin’ you two’d get along real nice.”

         Caught off guard, Jacob looked blankly at Harley’s pained expression. She managed a smile, while rolling her kohl-lined eyes.

         Jacob put out his hand. “Jacob. How you doin’?” He glanced over his shoulder. “Come on in where it’s cool. But I’m warning you, the place is a wreck.”

         Nolan let Harley pass before him, and the two entered the house. They glanced around, taking in the cardboard boxes scattered about, flaps open to reveal everything from books to pots and pans, and rolled up area rugs propped up in the corner.

         Jacob gave them the ten-cent tour of the house, ending up in the living room.

         Harley went right up to the bonsai table. “Oh wow! Look at these, Uncle,” she exclaimed. When she bent down for a closer look, a curtain of straight, honey-colored hair fell over her shoulders.

         “They’re bonsai trees,” Jacob said.

         “Cool! Miniature trees that look just like big, outdoor trees. Wait, they’re fake though, right?”

         “Actually,” Jacob explained, “they are live, ‘outdoor trees’. What I mean is they aren’t fake, and they aren’t miniatures or dwarfs. They’re small because I trained them to be small.”

         Nolan and Harley turned to him wearing the same confused, simpleton expressions. Jacob noticed for the first time the family resemblance.

         He pointed to a rectangular, cream-colored pot nearest Harley, holding a tiny tree with striking blue-gray foliage. “Take this Meyeri. Every other year, I have to repot it. But each time, I use this,” he held up a tool resembling a pair of pliers, but with curved, claw-like prongs, “to gradually reduce the roots by one-third and thus control its growth.”

         Harley narrowed her eyes, staring at the root cutter. “You mean,” she said to the tool, “you’re overridin’ nature?”

         Jacob lowered the tool, shifting his weight. “What’s wrong with controlling nature? The Chinese have practiced growing single specimen trees in pots for thousands of years. The Japanese adopted bonsai as a form of Zen mediation in the 1100s. Look, training bonsai takes years of practice. And it’s relaxing.”

         Nolan nodded. “Practice ain’t nothin’ to be sneezed at.”

         Harley inhaled, about to speak, when Jacob’s eyes snapped past her face. “What the f--” he muttered.

         In the upper corner of the window behind the bonsai table, a heart-shaped leaf flapped outside against the glass. Jacob stared at it, and then spun on his heels. The other two followed him out the back door.

         A single vine of kudzu had worked its way up from the drain pipe at the corner of the house to the living room window. Tiny white, spindly roots curled into crevices in the weathered siding.

         “Damn kudzu grows more’n a foot a day,” Nolan said with a sigh. “And it’s got underground root systems that runs real shallow. Just below the grass.”

         Jacob stood tall, shoving his hands into the back pockets of his snug, narrow-legged jeans. “I don’t have the right tools,” he said. “Looks like I’m going back to Lowe’s.”

         “I’ll come along, if you want some company,” offered Harley.

         Before they left, Jacob pulled the kudzu off the house. He tore it out of the lawn well past the property line.

         They drove in silence a few miles before Harley spoke. “So,” she said, “no girlfriend up north?”

         Jacob shifted his eyes to the rearview mirror, then back at the road. “Naw, I don’t date that much. I’m in pharmaceutical sales so I work pretty long hours.”

         She pursed her lips and nodded. “And, besides bonsai trees, what do you like to do?”

         “Hmm. Let’s see. Well, I like to wander around art galleries. Oh, and I love the theatre.”

         Harley chewed on her lip, considering him. He glanced over.

         “What? Okay, what about you? What are you into?”

         “Motorcycles, acid rock, and NASCAR.”

         Jacob screwed up his nose. “NASCAR? Seriously?”

         By the time they got to the checkout register, Jacob had filled a cart with a weed whacker, a shovel, an industrial size canister of Round-Up Ready-to-Use Pump and Spray, and leather gardening gloves. Harley had joked about the gloves, accusing him of being afraid he’ll break a nail. Jacob had laughed it off, but the comment irked him.

         He pulled into Nolan’s driveway and deposited Harley, glad to be rid of her. She’d talked too much for Jacob’s taste; she made him uncomfortable. Typical girl.

         He backed the car into the garage and popped the trunk before getting out. When he’d unloaded his purchases, he slipped on the gloves and hefted the shovel. He opened the door at the back of the garage, stepped onto the back lawn, and froze.

         Kudzu completely covered the riding lawn mower where Jacob had parked it earlier. None of its cherry red body showed through the leaves. It looked like a large, green blob, a grotesque illustration from a Dr. Seuss book. Slowly, reluctantly, Jacob turned toward the house. Two vines of kudzu, one from the right and one from the left, clung to the back of the house. The ends intertwined to frame the back windows.

         Jacob trembled, lips curled. He threw down the shovel and strode to the lawn mower. He tore at the vines with his gloved hands, ripping them free of the machine. They gave less readily than the vines had earlier. There was resistance. The vines seemed thicker, more sinuous. But still Jacob hacked away, fraying and slashing the plant until the mower was freed and all that remained was a pile of leafy rubble on the ground.

         Grabbing the shovel, he marched toward the house. He ripped down the pair of vines and followed each to the spot where it grew out of the ground. And he dug. He plunged the shovel head repeatedly into the soil, tearing up the lawn, mining for roots. Just as Nolan had said, they lay there only inches below the surface. And Jacob thrust the shovel down, piercing and chopping the roots with growing frenzy. He imagined he could hear the kudzu’s tortured screams as he dismembered the beast.

         He shook with exhaustion when he was done. The sun was low on the horizon and sweat drenched his clothes like he’d jumped, fully dressed, into a swimming pool. The lawn, beautifully manicured mere hours ago, looked like a detonated mine field. He made his way back and forth, replacing divots of grass and earth and stomping them back into the holes they’d come from.

         He dragged his fatigued body back to the shower, and then fell into bed without dinner.

         Perhaps it was hunger that woke him at two in the morning, or maybe it was the unsettling quiet he couldn’t get used to, but restlessness forced him out of bed. He flipped on the living room lights and stood before his bonsai. His reflection stared back at him in the black windows. Pulling up a chair, he began pinching new shoots from a Japanese Maple.

         Tap tap tap. Jacob opened his weary eyes, dimly aware of light flooding the living room. He lifted his head off the bonsai table, wincing at the stiffness in his jaw. He reached up a hand to massage his neck, but it froze midair. Tap tap tap. Jacob cried out.

         The chair clattered sideways to the floor as he shot out of it. He stared wide-eyed at the window before him. Hundreds of large, heart-shaped leaves obscured his view of the backyard. They shuttered in the breeze, occasionally tapping against the window pane.

         Jacob’s heart hammered in his ribcage. He raced to the back door and tried to fling it open. It wouldn’t budge against the web of vines and leaves covering it from top to bottom. Turning, he dashed to the front door, terrified the kudzu had him trapped. But it opened with no problem. There was no evidence of kudzu in the front yard.

         Forgetting he was in drawstring lounge pants and a tank top t-shirt, Jacob hurried to the garage. He scanned the directions on the Round-Up package. With shaking hands, he pumped up the pressure, a crazed grin spreading across his face at the thought of dead kudzu within twenty-four hours.

         He sprayed the vines covering the back wall. It astounded him how much had grown overnight. “Die, you fucking weed!” he shouted. By the time he’d finished the back of the house, the canister was empty.

         He threw a maniacal glance over his shoulder, calculating how many more canisters he’d need to do the whole lawn. Yes, he’d do the whole fucking thing. He would show the kudzu who was boss.

         Shortly after, he returned from Lowe’s, his car packed to the dome light with Round-Up. He sprayed for hours, covering every inch of his back yard and extending his treatment area to six feet into the neighboring lawns. Coughing, lungs burning, he marched back inside the house.

         By nightfall, the kudzu leaves were yellowing, their edges curling in on themselves. The grass was also turning brown, but Jacob considered it a small price to pay. He would reseed the lawn. Maybe put in some nice Kentucky Blue Grass.

         The alarm clock sounded, waking Jacob for his first day at the new job. He felt refreshed, having actually slept the whole night. He tightened his tie knot and gazed out the back window while the coffee percolated. The lawn was a gray war zone. No birds flit from branch to branch in the trees. No squirrels chased each other. Nothing was alive; nothing moved. Jacob grinned.

         The sun was a fiery red ball hovering above the horizon when he pulled into the garage that night. He fit the key into the lock and pushed open the front door. A gasp caught in his throat.

         No light penetrated the back windows, but conspicuous movement animated the other side of the glass. Giant kudzu leaves blanketed the panes. They quivered and shuddered on tangles of thick, rope-like creepers. Bright green tendrils crept along, searching for a point of entry. Every few seconds, the whole network of vines banged against the glass.

         The sudden, splintered sound of hairline fractures in the glass reached Jacob’s ears, breaking his stupor. His keys and briefcase fell to the floor, and he raced for the table and his bonsai. He grasped at the Chokkan’s pot at the same instant the window gave.

         Shards of glass rained down on Jacob, slicing into his skin as they fell. He let go of the pot, raising his arms to protect his face. The kudzu reached through the window casing, invading the room. Creaks and groans filled the house as the vine lengthening and grew. Jacob stood rooted to the spot; his head dropped back and eyes agape. He batted frantically at the leaves brushing his face, but when the first coil tightened around his ankle, he began to scream.

         Within seconds, the kudzu had wound around his body and lashed his flailing arms to neighboring vines. He caught a momentary glimpse of the yard beyond the window, an endless emerald ocean almost as deep as the house was tall. A sharp pain zipped through his chest as the vines tightened, squeezing.

         Fury compounded his terror as Jacob realized the kudzu was wrapping itself around the bonsai pots too. “Hey!” he thundered. He flung his head left and right as a tendril thick as his thumb skated across his forehead. It snapped taut, pinning his head in place.

         Struggling against the plant, he howled, “Don’t you touch my trees!

         The end of one vine drove into his left ear. Pain exploded in his head as it ripped through his eardrum. He lost all sense of reason. Another vine appeared in his fixed line of vision, hovering inches from his face. The hideous vine crept closer and closer. One final, frantic NO! died on Jacob’s tongue as the vine entered his mouth. It expanded as it forced its shaft down his throat.

         Jacob couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. The last thing he saw was his cherished bonsai, lifted into the air by savage, organic arms and dropped, their pots smashed apart, their roots bare on the ground.


(Word Count = 3525)

Written for 2010 Round Three of:
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