We Lilies of the Valley, by Sonja Natasha

If Yvonne presses her cheek to the thick window of the space station, and cranes her neck just so, she can see a crescent slice of Earth, marbled in desert. She traces what she can see of the western coast of Mexico. Her toes just barely graze the floor as she floats with her elbows braced against the window ledges. Beyond Earth’s curve, there’s the lingering haze of Siding Spring 4’s comet tail.

Today, she studies Siding Spring up close, collecting its space debris in The Net. She has work to do, so she cannot remain still to remember what she left behind. She pushes herself from the window, and she looks back over her shoulder, at Earth just a thumb’s smudge away. She thinks about the woman she met the day she said goodbye, in the last few hours she had left. She thinks about the woman looking up at her like a second moon in God’s eye.

Yvonne doesn’t know the woman’s name, but knows her brown skin, the curve of her brow, the slant of her nose, the way her mouth parted in surprise. She knows the amethyst crystal around her neck, the pitcher of water in her hands, how she smelled of lavender and lemon.

Yvonne pushes herself towards the center of the station. The Net has snatched her a fine catch today: something different, something pebble-round, something more woody than rock. Yvonne looks through her glasses with the smart lenses, analyzing the debris. The pieces remind her of the seeds her mama planted in aluminum cans still smelling faintly of beans, despite being washed with citrus dish soap, despite the dark soil filling them up. The cans were stationed under a sprig of grapes nailed near the kitchen window. As Yvonne grew up, the sun kissed them into raisins. Yvonne had tied prism fragments to the vine with bits of string. When the light shone through, the kitchen was splashed with flickering patches of rainbow.

Yvonne’s belly twists with homesickness. She sweeps the strange hard things the comet has given her into the palms of her gloved hands. She doesn’t seal them in the plastic bags like she’s supposed to so they’re ready for study on the planet surface. She goes to the botanical bay where she grows the crops for the astronaut who will take her place after a year has cycled by without her. She finds her coffee cup, forgotten beside the pale green leaves of lettuce, just beginning to sprout. She sets a nutri-device in the cup and plants the seeds, giving them a little water from her daily ration. Then she places the cup beside her cot so it will be there when she sleeps and when she wakes.

Seeds are hardy, strong. They can survive anything, even extinction.

She thinks about this when her phone blips a Twitter notification at her. It’s the woman from the rooftop saying hello. Yvonne recognizes her from her profile picture. She wants Yvonne to put her on the list of people allowed to send her a gift with the cargo pod that will collect the samples from the comet. Her name is Sierra. Yvonne doesn’t think, doesn’t wonder. She submits the request to her commanding officers on Earth, and they approve it, and she thinks nothing of it because the cargo pod won’t be leaving for many months yet. There is a lot of time to forget.

Guilt moves in after the surprise of hearing from Sierra dissipates into the bitter aftertaste of loneliness. Yvonne glances at the coffee cup. She should have sealed the seeds in plastic to send back to Earth. She should dig them out with her fingertips.

Instead, she goes to sleep.

The Earth spins around the sun and the station orbits with it. Yvonne tends the botanical bay and the little seeds in her coffee cup. She looks at her phone, wishing that it would light up with something. A text, a tweet. She remembers the old days, the days with the automated voices calling out you’ve got mail!

She misses even that.

Months later, the cargo pod arrives, slotting itself into the docking port on auto-pilot. Yvonne ensures the seal is secure, and the hatch hisses open. There are gifts in the shuttle from the friends she made while becoming an astronaut. Cookies and other treats, vacuum-sealed. There are new DVDs to watch in the late night when sleep eludes her.

A bag of water from Sierra. I thought you’d tire of recycled water, she wrote. I’ve read the articles.

Winky face.

Yvonne laughs; she cannot help herself. She flips the built-in straw up and drinks deeply. It doesn’t taste like tap water. It doesn’t even taste like filtered tap water. She looks again at Sierra’s letter. The water is from a well; Sierra drove into the mountains to get it. She hopes Yvonne will like it, and Yvonne has never tasted anything better.

She drifts towards her cot, where she keeps her seeds. She knows they probably aren’t seeds and should accept that they lie fallow, but she can’t. She dispenses the rest of Sierra’s water into the nutri-device.

That night, Yvonne wraps her hair in pale blue satin, turns the lights down low except for the lamp clamped to the cup. Her mouth tastes like chocolate chips because she had cookies for dinner and didn’t brush her teeth afterward. Closing her eyes, she imagines that someone sleeps beside her, this person pressed against her side rather than the chilly walls of the station. Pressure rises from her parched throat.

They had warned her about the loneliness, the isolation.

She had thought she understood, but she hadn’t.

What had she been thinking?

She’s still awake when her alarm rings, and she swipes it off quickly. Her phone tumbles from her hand when she notices a sprig of green in the coffee cup. She reaches out instinctively, not to actually touch, but the plant seems to know. The plant sees. A thin frond shifts to greet her. Yvonne circles her finger around the fronds as if in orbit, to see if the leaves will follow her lead. They do.

When she writes her thank-yous for the gifts, she tells Sierra her water caused the plant to grow. It’s probably not true, but Yvonne likes the story of it. She writes it down with pencil and paper because she thinks that maybe Sierra would like something tangible to hold. A letter from space; not many people could say they had received such a thing.

Tucking the guilt away that she is not including the marvelous plant from space, Yvonne packs her samples neatly into the cargo pod. Between them, she slips the thank-you letters to Sierra and to her friends. Tears pricking her eyes, she programs the pod’s return course to Earth. In a few days, the plant in her cup is over a foot tall. Leaves unfurl from the dark green buds, and she wonders if this species will flower. The plant is as attentive to her as she is to it. When she stretches to the doo-wop music she likes, the plant bends with her, mirroring her curved back. When she drifts across the room, the broadest leaves try to follow her. When she rests beside it, the plant reaches for her, and they sway together like they’re dancing.

Budding leaves bloom at her touch, and she traces spiral patterns against them until they are free, until they waft gently in the station air. She is proud of her work, more proud than seeing the fruits of her labor grow in the botanical bay.

The plant is a constant presence in her thoughts, even when she’s working. She imagines the ways it will have changed, how much taller it will have grown. She thinks about showing the plant to Sierra: look, she’ll say, at this thing that has come to life because of us.

She blushes as she wonders if the plant will like Sierra as much as it likes her. She hopes it will.

Soon, the plant grows taller than Yvonne. Vines, like ivy but thicker, unspool from the stem. The spade-shaped leaves seek the warmth of the cot when Yvonne leaves, slipping like guests beneath the covers. When she returns, the vines slide over her black skin, coiling around her wrist like the plastic bangles she wore as a child.

Yvonne falls asleep, and wakes to the distant sound of Sierra’s voice singing, and the smell of fresh ground coffee in the air. But when she opens her eyes, Yvonne is alone, and she discovers the plant has cushioned her head with a pillow of leaves. Buds, like small suns, grow from the plant’s crown, unfurling golden petals. It blooms as prettily as Yvonne knew it would. The flowers remind her of the honeysuckle her mama grew. As a girl, Yvonne had drunk the nectar, the sweet floral blessing on her tongue like benediction.

Vines gesture towards her and she comes. They wrap themselves around her as she cups the blossom in her hands, bends her head, and breathes. The petals unfurl around her until her eyes widen, and she asks, her voice a shard of sound in the quiet stillness of the station, “Sierra?”

The plant rustles its leaves, shaking like laughter, and Yvonne lowers her head once more, eyes closing as she breathes the flower in. A soft film of nectar coats her lips, and Sierra is present like she was when their hands touched in goodbye.

The closeness frightens Yvonne, thrills her. Her heart aches, her throat dries as the plant holds her fast. Its vines cradle her head as she slides her fingers along the base of one of its blossoms, and brings the brim of the petal-cup to her mouth that she might sate her thirst.

She knows she should be skeptical. She knows she should wonder about this strange plant from outer space that could be anything, could do anything. Maybe one day, she thinks as she folds her hand into the vines curling around her fingers, the plant will tell her.

Her phone lights up, and it’s Sierra tweeting her. Her profile picture has changed. She has yellow flowers in her hair, she is blowing a kiss from her fingers, and she is beautiful. Yvonne looks at the blossoms on the plant. They are half-closed, as if the plant is feeling particularly lazy, as if it would very much like to take a nap. They look like the flowers in Sierra’s photo. She asks how Sierra is feeling, about the flowers in her hair—they are so lovely, where did you find them? Sierra says she’s fine, she says she can’t wait to show Yvonne something wonderful.

The plant reaches out to Yvonne, its green vines curling loosely through her fingers and settling in the shallow cup of her palm.

Time passes. It is never day or night in the station. It only is, and Yvonne uses her phone to swipe the days by. She catches glimpses of Sierra sometimes—hears a distant echo of how she sings to the radio, can taste buttery popcorn as she sucks food from a bag, knows Sierra likes her coffee black. She wonders what glimpses Sierra sees, if one day she raises her eyes to the sky and sees the Earth instead of the moon.

On the day before Yvonne is to return home, she stares down at Earth through the faint reflection of herself in the glass. Behind her, the plant has grown so tall that its yellow blossoms circle the dark eclipse of her head as she shivers.

Yvonne hears someone whisper her name, and she calls to Sierra across the space between them.

A vine slips over Yvonne’s shoulder, and she twines her fingers with it. It tugs at her, and she follows. She doesn’t know how she’ll bring the plant with her when she returns to Earth, but knows she has to do something.

A yellow bud caresses her chin, tipping her face upward so she can watch it bloom against the bright lights of the station. Her mouth parts, and she can taste a golden sweetness as its petals reach towards her. The blossom escapes as she swallows it whole. There is not enough room for the entire plant, and what remains of it shrivels and dies as Yvonne wipes its nectar from her chin. Yvonne hides it in the botanical bay, where it will decompose and turn into another beautiful thing.

A crowd awaits when she finally lands back on Earth: physicians and scientists, and farther out, a crowd of spectators. Earth is heavy as Yvonne moves slowly in the bright sun, shielding her eyes with her hand. She is not surprised when she sees Sierra in the crowd, hands in her pockets, too-big sunglasses over her eyes as she smiles wide and broad beneath their shadow.

There are more yellow blossoms like small suns blooming in Sierra’s hair. Yvonne has no time to speak with her, not given the attentions of the doctors, but when at last she is released from their care, she finds Sierra still waiting.

Yvonne tries to run towards her, but Sierra sprints, her shirt rising over her abdomen. Yvonne sees the spiderwebbed pattern of green veins that had once spiraled within spade-shaped leaves and that now binds them together through the vastness of space.

Sierra throws her arms around her, and Yvonne clings back. She thinks she’s sobbing as her fingers pull at Sierra’s hair, and she sees the flowers growing through the bone of her temple. Sierra speaks words Yvonne can barely process, can barely understand, but she can smell the faint golden scent of the blossoms on her breath as Yvonne stands on tiptoe to kiss her.

They smile at each other, and Sierra loops her long arms around Yvonne’s shoulders as she guides her towards the car.

“Where to?” she asks.

Yvonne rests her hand lightly on Sierra’s as she puts the car in gear. “Home. Bring me home.”

Sonja Natasha graduated from an educational establishment of no particular note with a major in English and a minor in Creative Writing. Currently, they reside in SLC. This is not where they grew up or where they went to school but it is a particularly beautiful place to live. Sonja has previously been published in Mothership Zeta. You can find them online at https://heysonjanatasha.wordpress.com/.

More Growing Things:

Extinctions, by Lina Rather – After your mother went to prison, you stayed with your grandmother, and after she died in her sleep, you went to the city. Odd girls on their own in the city come to bad ends, but you come from a long line of people who made their livings fixing and killing, and that sort of work never goes out of style. These days you have work that suits you better, in a tattoo shop in the low-rent part of the city where you spend most of your days doing flash and sweethearts’ names.

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde – On her second day studying in the Monteverde, Arminae Ganit stared at damp sky framed by beech leaves and fiddleheads and wished she could photosynthesize. She touched fingertips to the thick loam at her feet. Moist air slicked her cheeks and dampened her t-shirt so her pack’s straps rubbed at the skin beneath. The forest’s shifting clouds dappled Arminae’s hands dark and light. She imagined her fingers exuding roots; her hair, fruit and leaves.

All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray, by Gwendolyn Kiste –  We discover the first girl in autumn. She’s tucked beneath the tallest tree in our orchard, dozing there like a ripened apple toppled to earth. I’m five years old, and the world is still gossamer and strange, my fragile memories like a soft cake that’s not yet risen, so part of me is almost certain that finding a girl one morning, sleeping where she doesn’t belong, must be the most ordinary thing for those who have lived long enough.

Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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