He’d thought the green would keep him from dreaming of the memory of arid sterility, the red and waterless horizon.
His body was racked with chill and he hunched in his bed, trying to breathe with the rhythm of tides, to slow his heart to growing things. Yet even the warm night air of the Coromandel summer, straight from the coast and rustling through rātā trees, couldn’t dispel the cold. The nightmares still came regularly, suffocating waves of homesick regret. Strange that they hadn’t passed now that he was home again and anchored to the world of the living, and even stranger that they came from an adventure marking him a hero. He’d even felt heroic at the beginning, but all the bravery of heroism had come from ignorance, the assumption of a strength not yet tested because the testing was unimaginable.
An astronaut on the first manned mission to Mars! All the psychological tests he’d undergone had been for other things: socialization, conflict resolution in close quarters, the ability to cope with long-term and claustrophobic isolation. Alan had passed them all and felt himself stable enough, had never wavered either in ambition or explorer’s faith.
They’d never thought, none of them, that what brought him down would be a different sort of lack.
Earthsickness, they called it. He was the worst affected of the three, but neither Paola nor Sarya had escaped it. It was nothing any of the psychologists had predicted—but how could they? There was no possible substitute for experience, and no terrestrial creature had ever been so cut off from a living environment before.
Alan was offered support, but didn’t take it. “What I need is already here,” he said, returned to the environment all his ancestors had adapted for. “I’ve just got to convince myself that I’ve come back to it.”
The rātā, especially, had proved an anchor, its bright flowers—the red of new blood, not old iron—were in one delicate and extraordinary shape the symbol of a living planet. Beneath it, he felt his nature reasserted, felt again the relation to other living things that defined a terrestrial creature, tried to forget that small unconscious part of himself found uneasy and set to screaming in barren plains.
The summer nights were still a trial, although better than their winter counterparts, with the lingering warmth, the noise of the mosquitoes and moreporks a reminder that seeped into his dreams, woke him gasping from the memory of Mars, and grasping for connection. More and more often, he found himself barefoot, taking the dark path down to the rātā, wanting to feel the Earth beneath his feet, to hear the small sounds of night, the feel of the flowers on his palm.
“I wish I could see you,” he said, but artificial light made the rātā blooms look washed out, a nightmarish cast to color that made him think he was dreaming still, and liable to wake from a horror of solitude.
It was easier to fit himself against root systems, to fold up in fetal position at the foot and wait until morning. Bare skin pressed against bark was less of a contention than that altered color, and he laid his head against branches, imagined he was hearing the pulse of sap in time with his own heartbeat because with his eyes open he saw the stars and remembered, and with them shut he couldn’t see even the shadow of trees, and was in need of substitute.
Easier still, when he remembered that the dirt he crouched on was also living, in its way, and filled with organisms: bacteria, beetles, the small decomposers and recyclers of organic matter. Alan smeared himself with them, scrabbling, rolled his naked body until his nails were clogged with dirt and his body caked with it: a sedimentary creature, a biological scaffold for the microscopic. Earth to cure Earthsickness, he thought, and even the small scent of iron from torn fingertips didn’t take him back to red plains and loss, but reminded him of blood cells and life.
“For me it is swimming,” said Paola, “in the night, where I can see the phosphorescence of the plankton.” See how it coated her skin, see how it lit the warm Caribbean waters of her home as she wallowed there.
For Sarya, it was the steep stone cliffs behind her parents’ house. “When I lick them I taste lichen,” she said, shrugging. “I know it is a strange way to behave.” She offered no excuse. It was enough that the three of them could share in understanding. That they could use what helped without comment, if not entirely without judgement.
They were the only ones who had been to Mars, the only ones to share the experience of Earthsickness. “No one else can understand.”
The trip to the Red Planet had been long, six months of growing fretfulness, close-caged in metal. Anticipation made it bearable, that and the tethering of the daily routine, but the closer the ship came to Mars, the more his anticipation soured within him. Alan had thought it was nerves, the strained culmination of childhood hopes, for how could the moment of contact live up to the weight of dreams? Was it possible there’d be an iron streak of disappointment to color the experience? It was the peak of his life’s effort, that voyage, and he couldn’t conceive that anything after would ever hold the same fascination for him, or the same purpose. He’d wondered, silently, what would happen to him when Mars was behind him, what shape the lack would take, but he hadn’t wondered long. The tests the three of them had undergone were of a type to weed out the melancholy, the personalities prone to brooding and quiet undermining, and he’d assumed his qualms were normal ones, and shallow-rooted.
It was only when he stood upon the cold, dead planet—he was not the first to do so, but got his chance nonetheless—that he felt himself gorged on the horror of it. A quiet, still dread that lingered even amidst the exultation of the explorer. He could see the same repulsion in Sarya’s eyes, could see Paola hug herself for comfort as his padded arms wrapped around his own body. They felt the awe as he did, the vast expanse of dry and cold opening up before them, and the sheer towering emptiness of the place was something to shrink from, not to fill up.
Afterwards, on Earth, they talked to each other sometimes over video link. They were the only times when Alan didn’t try to hide his hands in front of other people, the ends of all his fingers raw and bloody. “Have you been biting them?” said Sarya, and Alan shook his head.
“I’ve been digging,” he said. Tools didn’t give the same satisfaction at night, at the base of the rātā. Tools were a layer between skin and soil that he couldn’t tolerate. The earth was the only thing could calm him, until the sun came up and the rātā flowers anchored him back to planet. He rolled in it, gouged up soil in chunks and scrubbed himself with it, with the damp living smell of it, the pieces of snail shell and bird shit and annelid, the knowledge of bacteria.
Supplicant, his hands were soft. He bled as he worked, but the earth was soft with summer and humus and his blood didn’t pool on its surface when his scrabbling broke skin. It soaked into soil—and into the roots of the rātā as well, he liked to think, a connection between them built of more than need and gratitude and common home. In the days that followed, Alan thought that the tree’s blossoms grew brighter, as if in response to his nightly sacrifice. The thought made him happy. Surely only one who belonged could have such an effect?
“I always feel like I belong, when I’m in the sea,” said Paola. “There’s salt running through the both of us. Through everything that swims in it.” Through everything that came from it, a reminder of evolution and heritage. “I take the sea in my mouth sometimes,” she said. “It doesn’t do to swallow too much, but there are times I can’t help myself.” The bad times, the ones of nightmare-waking and the remembered bite of Earthsickness.
“The bad times,” said Alan. “I know.” His bad times had begun to come with slicing instead of gouging, quick cuts across his fingers, across his palms, that let loose more blood than he could offer up by digging. He watched his blood disappear beneath the rātā, absorbing easily into earth. He rubbed the moist dirt into his cuts, revelling in the symbiosis between them; rolled in it and felt the rolling again as a relief. He could taste his kinship in the blood-soaked earth whenever it touched his tongue. Iron and earth, they were relatives.
It was on Mars that Alan had begun to feel homesick. Not the mild nostalgia he’d experienced in lesser travels, but a shuttered, wrenching longing that closed his throat and took his hands to shaking in misery and loss. Its depth was primeval, the severing of a second umbilicus.
It was a wretched trip, one where everything had been blasted but for yearning, with long hours spent in strained silence. None of them responded well to the queries transmitted from Earth. Those seemed to possess an unhealthy tinge, shrill and feverish, incapable of sensibility and excited, still, about what they’d seen. About where they’d been—as if Mars should have been a wonder to them yet, not a monster of sterility and no place for life. And he’d known, had always known it was that way, but until he’d stood on that hideous and barren surface he’d never really understood.
Mars was rejection all through. It didn’t want them, didn’t want any of them. I think it hates the living, he thought, but he didn’t say it aloud because that was insane, wasn’t it. A planet didn’t hate anything. It couldn’t help being hostile to warmth and life, it was sun-distance and thin atmosphere that kept it from an ecology of its own. Insane, but he thought of the polar regions of Earth, the dark crush of deep seas, and there was life there instead of emptiness.
A living planet, a dead one. Alan never thought the difference so disturbing it could unnerve him—not until he stood upon the dead, and stood reminded that he was not.
He came home to winter, and it felt like a thaw. He shivered through it alone in the family bach, away from anxious colleagues and prying reporters.
Still he did not feel as if he had truly returned. The Earth, ambivalent to his distress, rejected him in turn. He felt a stranger to it. The stars, which had once mesmerized him beyond all bearing, leered down upon him. Alan felt he had torn himself on them, had not returned whole. They gleamed in the frosted night, disembowelled him. He was snagged and separated: aware that as he had once cast it off, so now in some strange way his home planet had done the same to him. He imagined it rejected his touch, his traitorous touch that had yearned once for the perfection of sterility and, tainted, had brought that sterility back to a planet where sterility was anathema.
Night after night he woke, screaming at the red remembrance of void. Night after night he fled outdoors to try to reconnect with living earth. The dirt was hard and chill beneath his scrabbling fingers; he broke his nails in it. All winter it rejected him, but in spring the world seemed to shake itself, to cast off torpor and resentment. As spring mellowed into summer, and the pohutukawa and the rātā spilled color upon the coast with their bright red blossoms, Alan was comforted.
The days became easier to bear. He spent most of his days in the small hollow beneath the rātā, soaking in the dry scent of the bark, the sound of birds and insects, wrapped himself in biosphere to make up for the time when he’d gone without. It was warm and sunny there and he could feel the Martian chill seep from him—felt as if he could, perhaps, be forgiven his preference, the old dream of distance that had led him to forsake one planet, no matter how temporarily, for the cold embrace of another. But the relief was only temporary, and did not outlive the sun. Always he dreamed of the moment when, secure in the pride of his own disconnection, his padded foot had borne down upon a dead planet. It had crunched, a flat, mummified sensation that Alan could not forget, an imprint in a soil lacking the deep pulse of the Earth. Born to a living planet, how could he process such a land of lack? Even the lunar astronauts had been able to look up from absence and see the blue-green swell above them. Mars had no such comfort. By the nature of his birth Alan was wholly unsuited; and that nature, meeting vacuum, broke him down and abandoned him.
“Your hands are worse,” said Sarya, lichen-mouthed, her tongue scraped raw against the Himalayan mountainsides. “Perhaps you should talk to someone.”
“It’s enough to talk to you.” Privately, he wondered if even that was too much.
The rātā, at least, never talked back. All its communication was done in drink and color, for it bloomed longer and brighter throughout the summer than any other on the coast. “Is it because of me?” said Alan. “Are you so alive because of me?” The earth beneath drank from Alan, and the rātā from the earth, so that was a connection between them, wasn’t it? Something to draw together, living things together on a living planet and it didn’t matter that they were so different, because the difference in living things paled against the difference between the living and Mars, and he could only block out the dead and sterile red of that hideous landscape by the reds of blood and bloom, each of them alive in their own ways, and related.
The rātā knew nothing of Earthsickness and questions, and as the season began to turn, the tree seeded. Alan collected some of the small, wind-blown seeds, plucked them from the earth with fingers that were of a scarcely different color. He set the seeds to germinate in soil-filled trays, kept them wet with water and blood.
“I need something to look after,” Alan explained to the rātā. Its flowers had faded, and he found it hard to open his palms for blood when there were no flowers to reflect the color. “I’ll not let your seeds die.” They were the same now, he and the rātā, and though he kept his nest at its root—the hollow shaped perfectly to him now, and the earth all tinged with red—he spent more time with the seedlings than the parent plant.
“It’s what living things do,” he said, trying not to think of a world where nothing living had done anything, ever. “They reproduce.”
Yet come as they were from a tree that had a passing familiarity with his veins, still only one seedling survived into winter. It grew at a prodigious, unnatural rate. Metrosideros robusta, the strong.
When it reached 50 centimeters, the seedling was old enough to transplant. Alan could have planted it in any number of places, but rātā could be epiphytic and he’d spent so much of himself in nurturing it that he couldn’t bear the parting that planting would bring. It was pure selfishness on his part. The chill of winter gave him unpleasant memories of empty plains and dry rock, and he was leery of losing the connection.
He wasn’t the only one so afraid, the only one looking for affirmation.
“It’s Paola. They found her floating in Havana harbor.” Sarya leaned forward, her face taking up the whole of the screen. “Alan, they said she drowned herself. They said when they found the body… they said she was smiling.” Her lungs full of sea water, of diatoms and phytoplankton, her fingers bitten away by little fish.
Earthsickness never truly went away. Mars was gone but the choice to go there remained, the deliberate abandonment of biosphere for a planet that held none, and that Alan was ever so foolish as to make that choice was more haunting than absence.
He kept the seedling entwined about him, the weight of it borne in a loose-draining basket hung about his neck, resting on his ribcage. Even without the summer flowers its presence, nestling into the hollow of his throat, gave him comfort. He imagined he could feel it pulse in time to his heartbeat, and every day his bleeding hands stroked the stem, added to the basket-soil. “You’ll be so beautiful when you grow,” he said, picturing the flowers: glorious and delicate and bright, anchor and symbol of a living planet he wished he’d never left.
The daughter plant grew faster than it should have. Every day a new tendril curled about him, every day it grew heavier to bear.
“You’re growing strong for me, aren’t you?” he said.
“It’s growing strong on you, you mean,” said Sarya. Alan caught glimpses of her tongue as she spoke, and it was less red than before, less vivid.
“You worry about your lichen and let me look after my own,” he said.
“I don’t want you drowning too—” but drowning was a water death, and if it had been a welcome one for Paola he’d never have risked it on his own account, for the rātā seedling would have drowned with him and that was something that, after Mars and Earthsickness, he would never be able to tolerate. On his blood and scaffold the rātā grew thick and glossy, insulating him from the bite of winter, the small cold a small reminder of a greater one.
The old rātā stood on the coast, and the path to it was rocky and uneven. With the weight of the young upon him, Alan couldn’t walk it easily but he liked to do so often, to take the epiphyte to the hollow beneath where he’d huddled in Earthsickness and had found/seen a way forward in flowers and flowing blood. The hollow was a place of communion for him, and the rātā a symbol of the bond between flesh and ecosystem. It took him longer to walk there every day—hands pink with new lines and slow seep, the ever-increasing weight of epiphyte—but with care and rest along the way he could manage.
It was sheer chance and compromised vision—the leaves about his head, the winding roots—that caused him to trip over a hanging tendril on the last steps. A quick fall, a sickening crack: His head opened on a half-buried rock at the edge of hollow, his thighbone, weakened from so long at little gravity, protruding from one of his legs and the color of rātā flowers spreading around.
In the bright, bristling flare of pain Alan forgot, for the first time, the horror that Mars had made for him. Shock, he thought, and stunned, but it set all his senses open, magnified them, and he felt himself alive there, and in the midst of life. The sound of the wind in the leaves, the vivid red of blood, the smell of warm iron and humus… The rock beneath his head was sharp, and cut his groping fingers in red-flowering stripes. He could even see it from the corner of one eye—lichen growing on the top, lacy circles of pale green that were almost white where the sunlight hit them. The bottom of the rock, where he’d knocked it from the ground, was crusted with living dirt, dark and rich. Beneath it, several insects crawled deeper into the disturbed earth.
He was certain that he’d never seen the world so clearly. His world, and he was aware, splintered open as he was, of nothing but his capacity for belonging. Pain, yes, a shrieking agony of it, but he was a creature of the Earth still, lying in that earth as a billion other life forms had lain there before him. The knowledge soothed him, made the pain of his shattered leg easier to bear. He bit down on epiphyte, bore down on it as he dragged himself so that his back was against trunk and kept his teeth in until the worst of the dizziness passed and he could breathe clearly again.
No one knew he was there. He’d seen them all off—the journalists, the psychologists, everyone from the space agency who thought they knew Earthsickness and couldn’t understand because they’d never left Earth, never gone beyond its orbit and outside its influence. Even Sarya had stopped calling; at least, he’d stopped taking her calls.
“Alan,” she said, over and over, messages left for him over voicemail. “Do you think Paola was the lucky one?”
There’d been talk of cremation, of sending her ashes up in a shuttle to spread across space. But it was talk that was over quickly, because her will had specified they be scattered at sea. “There’s nothing that can take me away now,” she’d written, burial wishes sealed and witnessed. “I don’t ever want to go back.”
He couldn’t crawl to the house, not with his leg.
It was a relief to know there was nothing he could do. Not drowning, not for him, but enough. He’d found his own way.
The rātā epiphyte was bound around him still. He unwound it as best he could to keep from crushing it, his back against the parent and the little rātā in his lap, the roots resting in the bloody puddle, and he couldn’t see the bone for foliage.
Blood loss, dehydration, shock. It was easy to imagine the rātā easing one of its tendrils into his wound, sucking at him, drawing his blood up into itself. Twigs lengthening on it. New leaves sprouting. More branches beginning to feed from him, forcing themselves into his body, the body of the host. It was easy to imagine the flowers bursting open from epiphyte, flowers the color of his blood and born from him, and he didn’t try to stop the imagining. He didn’t want to.
“Home,” he said, at last. “I’m home.”
Octavia Cade has a PhD in science communication and loves writing about oceans and science history. She once backpacked around Europe with so much telescope in her pack there was hardly any room for clothes. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Apex, and a poetry collection on the periodic table, Chemical Letters, has recently been nominated for an Elgin. Her latest novella – not about science at all! – is the highly disturbing Convergence of Fairy Tales, because when she’s not messing about with seagrass or dead scientists she’s having fun with all the horror she can get her hands on.