NOVEMBER 2023, SHORT STORY, 840 WORDS
Every year, I cut my lover down again. I begin with her fingernails, then remove the dead blossoms from her hair, combing it long and straight in the planet’s weak autumn sunlight as she tells me her hopes for next year.
“I’d like to grow wings next year,” she says with a tired smile, the one that says I’m already losing her. She offers me the shears. We both know I’m procrastinating.
“You’ll have to be very light to fly,” I warn her, unwilling to begin. I’m terrified of mutilating her, or worse.
She embraces me with all of her arms, primary and secondary. It’s like lying in a warm basket, scratchy but secure. “I’ll come back to you,” she promises. “Don’t I always?”
“It’s not about that,” I say, but of course it’s about that. I take the shears and cut back those arms, primary and secondary. Her limbs pile around her feet and clutter the research lab. Her thick, viscous blood coats the shears, a dark amber that is nearly red. I daub the wounds with a paste to help with clotting. She weeps, but doesn’t complain; she speaks only to offer advice on where to make the next cut. This process is a collaboration. We cut away the parts that aren’t serving her anymore, and make room for future growth.
When she asks for my opinion, I try not to say too much, afraid she’ll feel the need to change for my sake. But every year, she has come back a little more human. Her trunk has swelled and thickened into curves, and she has learned the art of fingers, though she grows as many as she pleases among her leaves. She isn’t what I, or the many attendants of this research outpost before me, came here to study, but she has become my everything, my lover and companion, my assistant, my sole obsession.
“I’d like to fly down to the southern continent and see the methane flowers in bloom. I could take some samples for you,” she adds, knowing how much I’ve wanted to study the southern continent. Unlike her, I can’t go far from the Habitat—only as far as an oxygen tank will last. No amount of pruning could make my body adapt like hers in this planet’s atmosphere.
I have cut her down so much it is impossible to see how she will ever fly. She is a knobbly trunk with legs and skeletal arms, already hardening for winter as her lifeblood draws inward. Only the buds remain. I can never tell what will grow from them.
“I love you,” I say. What I really mean is, Don’t leave me. Winter is long on this planet, and I will spend six months alone until she climbs out of her grave and returns to me again.
“It has to be this way,” she whispers. If she doesn’t sleep, she will die for good, those skeletal limbs unmoved by warmth or light.
I don my envirosuit and help her to her winter bed, a soft hollow in the planet’s rocks just outside the Habitat. She nestles into the dry soil, pushing aside human bones. All the attendants who came before me. For three seasons she is mine, but in the fourth she communes with her old lovers. In this way, she keeps all her loves close throughout the year, honoring the past and the present.
Winter is also my time to count my losses. Twenty-one Earth years alone here, and I have stopped receiving personal messages in the data packets from home. My fathers died years ago. I am not sure anyone remembers me now on the planet of my origin. I don’t even recognize my own body. I have become bent and cracked, my knuckles thick as a branch’s knobs. Every year, a little more of me is cut away, and less grows back.
Once my lover is asleep, I return to the Habitat to clean up the mess from the pruning. I gather up the limp arms and dead blossoms. Beloved once, then thrown away like waste.
I choke on a sob. I’m suddenly homesick, but I don’t know what I’m longing for, except I want to leave this planet behind. When she sleeps, I am dead, and I pass through this gray and empty underworld, a ghost in every way that matters. It is winter all over, and nothing will ever be green again.
But someone has to watch over her, to hope for her return. So I begin to weave the limbs into a wreath. I decorate it with fallen blossoms and thick ropes of her hair. I am also a collaboration, and each year my lover prunes me back, cuts me down to the quick, and leaves me in this shallow grave with the bones of my past. There is no new growth without loss. There is no renewal without death.
The wreath stays green above my bed until spring.
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Mastodon: wandering.shop/@RachaelKJones, or find her at www.RachaelKJones.com.