20 August 2010 | Vol. 10, No. 2
Ficus: A Tragic Love Story
When I first bought my plastic ficus he was small, about as high as my knees. The bottom half of him was buried in a plastic, earth colored pot that looked heavier than it really was and there was a bed of faux-moss covering his lack of roots.
I wanted him for my home office because I was missing summer in the middle of November. He had been dumped onto the sale shelf and I saw him and knew that it was meant to be. His glossy leaves reflected the fluorescent lights in a way that was perfectly unnatural and completely beautiful to me. I could picture him sitting beside me as I typed up emails and balanced my checkbook. He would fill the room with the calm, bird-chirping warmth of summer and repel the bristling cold that slammed into my windows and shimmied beneath the front door.
I was short on money that month but I sacrificed and bought spaghetti noodles instead of peanut butter. He rode proudly in my cart as I made my way to the spaghetti aisle and I saw several jealous glances tossed our way from the other lonely, luckless shoppers.
When I pulled into the line at the cash register a woman with white hair and a white blouse watched over her shoulder and smiled at us as I bent the wires inside his limbs to give them the perfect shape. "I'm out of town too much to buy the real thing," I told her. I don't know why I said that because I almost never go out of town.
When we got home I carried him over the threshold and directly into the office. I set him on the corner of my desk and then I sat down to watch the magic drip off his patterned leaves. It was a slow, whispering process. It was like watching someone you love do something they love. When he was done the room was new: there was a pale, shimmering brightness in places that had seemed like shadows before.
I realized he must be tired from bringing summer so I left, shutting the office door behind me. I got my groceries from the car and put them in the pantry. I could feel the light radiating through the wall that the kitchen shared with the office and I let my hand glide across the warmth that had seeped into the pantry shelves.
I took a shower and when I was done I wrapped myself in my bed sheet and crept down the hall to the office door. I wiggled my toes in the light that had pressed itself under the door. It was coming to find me. I pushed the door open and sat on the floor and let his light dry my hair. He was the beach's sun.
"Ellen, where's your coat?" Megan asked, protecting her ears with her mittenned hands from the cold that was whistling through the spaces between the cars in the parking lot.
"I'm not cold anymore," I said.
"What's with you?" Megan aimed her chin at me.
"What do you mean?"
"You're glowing," she said, wiping some of the light off my skin with her index finger. She held it in front of her nose to scrutinize but it dissipated before she had the chance.
Megan spun towards the bar door and I followed her. Inside she found other, less luminous people to talk to. But I stood against the dark wall and started down at the bare spot on my arm where Megan had wiped away his light. It felt like someone was holding an ice cube against my skin, like shards of wintry wind were breaking through what I thought had been an impenetrable shield.
"I have to go," I said and left.
I made a pile of blankets on my office floor and slept there, positioning the blank spot on my arm so that I could absorb his light, so that he could melt away the icy patch that had built up on the inside of my skin. I woke up several times during the night because I wasn't used to sleeping with so much light.
In the morning I rolled over in my nest of quilts and comforters so that I could see his leaves bending over me. From my spot on the floor he looked so much taller, more like a tree than a potted plant. He was still shining and I had to throw off the blanket that was on top of me because the room felt too much like a summer afternoon to keep myself covered from it.
I didn't want to leave because I knew that just outside this room and just outside this house it would be a little less warm. I knew that he was slowly enveloping my house, my life, me, in his popsicle-melting sunlight but he was only knee-high. I would have to start staying closer to home, closer to him.
I braced myself and opened the office door and tiptoed down the wooden hallway, feeling his light following me and melting the heart-shaped ice cube in my chest.
I went to work and waited patiently at my desk for five o'clock to come. The air conditioning vent was aimed at me and it shot hot air towards my cubicle. I climbed precariously onto my desk chair and pulled the vent closed so that the hot air was trapped inside.
Deborah glanced up at me from the next cubicle over. I looked down at her from my place near the ceiling. "It's the wrong kind of heat," I explained.
I held my hand to the front door knob when I got home, not quite touching it. It was warm and I felt my skin rise with the anticipation of sunlight just about to break through the clouds.
I went in and was met with the aloha breeze of swimming-pool sunshine. It was stronger now, pressurized, like May melting into June. My fingers and my heart were still numb from the air outside and they ached with the pain of the thaw, turning bright red as the blood rushed through them.
I pushed open the office door and saw him waiting for me. His limbs stretched up, closer to brushing the ceiling than they had been before and bending over me like the roof of a cage. The room was hot, sweaty and heavy like the air in a summer storm, except there was no wind. It was difficult to breath with so much heat and moisture in the air, like almost drowning. It was uncomfortable to be there.
I took him off the desk and set him on the floor. He came up to my stomach now. I crouched beside him, light and heat rolling off him like he was on fire: my burning bush. "How did you learn to grow like that?"
A drop of sweat slipped off my forehead and plopped onto one of his unabsorbing leaves and I saw his limbs creep a few inches taller as the temperature in the room accelerated to mid-July. I left him on the floor.
"Your skin's disappearing," Megan commented as the steam rose out of her cardboard coffee cup.
"No," I said, pulling my peeling hands into my sleeves. "It's being turned into ashes."
"How's your heart?"
"It's been cinderized."
I felt obligated to check on him. He was made of plastic and he didn't need things but I brought him glasses of water and set them beside his pot. The water disappeared and I was never sure if it was evaporating or if he was drinking it.
I went to him and knelt next to his furnace leaves and saw that his pot was cracked. I picked away the pieces in half-second bursts because the pot was too hot to touch for very long. I managed to pull away a large, warped chunk and I could see inside his heart, into the place that I thought had held Styrofoam or something else not alive. He had been hiding roots.
I plucked away more of the plastic pot and the roots spilled out onto the floor like rigor-mortissed tentacles. They grew across the floor, attaching and winding themselves around table and chair legs and up and over bookshelves. He spread out into every corner and the heat in the room exploded and I stumbled back into the hallway, feeling him searing through the last layer of my skin. I closed the door behind me before he could get out into the rest of the house.
I shoved open the office door, a wet towel at my mouth so I could breath. The sound of the door slamming into one of his roots was muted by the open-oven-door heat that rippled out from him. His branches (they were branches now) were shuffled up against the ceiling, some of them snapped and bowed. His roots touched everything.
"I wish you would stop," I said. "I wish I'd never brought you here."
I stopped opening the office door. I locked myself in my bedroom and opened the windows instead. I sat in front of the whipping curtains and let the frosty, December air course across my stripped skin. After the weeks enveloped by his heat it felt like jumping through the icy crust of a pond and being enveloped by something new that reminded me of something old. It was hard to decide which was worse: freezing or burning.
I could feel my skin starting to grow back, layer by slow microscopic layer. I lay in my bed on my back and ran ice cubes over my new skin to numb the pain of its growth. But it was confusing, feeling the cold again. It made me doubt how bad burning had been. It made me want to slam the windows shut and open the door again and see what was there. But I didn't. Not yet.
There was smoke under the office door. I dropped to my knees and peered through the gap between the door and the floor, blinking and coughing into the smoke. There was nothing to see but gray whispers of heat slipping beneath the door and hiding whatever it was that was burning. I decided it was time to open the door.
I fumbled the handle and pushed the door forward and a big haze of smoke curled into the hall, dragging the familiar heat with it. I watched the smoke slither down the hall until it met the cold air that was ripping through the gaping windows. They mingled and I watched.
I turned back to the open door and, now that the smoke had dissipated, I could see him. His roots were scattered across the floor like a spider with too many legs. Smoke was drifting off the roots like they were candles that had just been blown out. I knelt and ran my hand lightly over them, feeling the heat that was hidden somewhere inside the dry, stifled, plastic roots of something that had been alive.
I got my oven mitts from the kitchen and began tearing up his roots. They came easily, releasing the floor and the furniture like they had been ready for me to rip them loose. Most of them crumpled, disintegrating into little plastic twigs and pieces of bark that filled the air and swirled around in the open-window wind before they settled like dust on top of everything. I scraped them up, brushing up the tiny pieces with my hands, the splinters jabbing into my fingers, tearing my new skin.
When I was finished all of the roots and limbs and leaves were safely snapped and cut and torn and shoved into black plastic bags and my arms were covered with tiny cuts and scratches. I set them outside on the ice-shrouded curb and watched from a window until the garbage men came and tossed each bag carelessly, like the bags were holding something worthless like every other bag and trash can and dumpster on the street, into their truck. I wanted to stick my head out the window and yell at them to be careful but I didn't.
There was dust and tiny pieces of him all over the office so I got out the vacuum cleaner and soon the room began to look like it had before he had come. Except there was a glow of something mysterious hiding in the corners. It was skittish and would never let me see it fully. But every once in a while out of the corners of my eyes I would see what looked like the iridescent flash of fireflies, like there were pieces of him that were still there.
About the author:
Laura Roderick is currently earning her Masters Degree in Children's Literature at Kansas State University. She is originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma and has, up to this point, spent most of her life in school. This is her first publication.