Elbow-deep in potting soil, Gift kneads clumps of peat moss apart. It feels cool and gritty under her fingers. The greenhouse is humid, warm, in need of ventilation, plants sucking air greedily, imbuing the space with the smell of a million photosynthesizing cells. There are young seedlings all around her and the truncated stem of an older, wilder relative in front of her. She prepares neat cuttings from this tangle of branches.
Wind tears across the island outside, and the plants that cling to the sandy soil bow and wave in submission. This island is far from the world she came from, but it is the world she’s come to know. She lives among foliage and sings to seedlings, cheering on tentative embryonic leaves as they break through the top crust of soil. She rises in the morning when the leaves receive the first rays of sunlight. She grows tired and heavy in the long hours of the afternoon, eyelids drooping, as moisture is wicked out of open stomata. She fades with the sun, when leaf pores close for the night and start exuding carbon dioxide, the excess gas from a long day of life-giving chemistry. Gift wishes she, too, could photosynthesize.
Sometimes she dreams of another world. Wild curls tossed by the island’s sudden gusts, Gift looks out at the water and thinks about big cities. Of dark rooms and loud music, the stale air of a hundred people’s sweat, colors weaving as bodies dance. Of the way her body feels in motion, lost to sound, lost to mind, whirling through the air like a dandelion seed. She thinks about the way it feels when another person spins her, the comfort of being held. She dreams of laughing on a crowded street, of sweet, cold, creamy ice cream dribbling down her hand, of going to a restaurant and drinking too much wine. She thinks about trains and train tracks and metal boxes that whisk you away.
The island is small, and people are largely outnumbered by the seabirds that breed on it. She has a routine, and she is content to follow it. Others come and go, working on shorter-term projects that are not tied to the slow growth of plants, that don’t require the development of a whole ecosystem. Gift befriends the visitors to revitalize her mind, but does not become attached, and is not sad to see them go. Her colleague, Nicholas, is leaving the island. He stops by the greenhouse to say goodbye, and his thick black beard tickles her neck as she squeezes him. “Take a piece of me with you!” She says, “I want to come.” She takes the clippers lying next to her, sitting against a pile of unplanted cuttings, and snips off a lock of her curly hair. Her eyes, chlorophyll green, land upon him, and her mouth sneaks into a smile as she hands him a piece of her. “Grow me again” she says, “bury me somewhere warm, near the ocean, play me music with a good beat and drip wine on my feet.” He laughs, shaking his head, and tucks the lock into his pocket. The curl is pushed flat by the denim and begins to perceive the taut leg against it. The hair is shifted as he walks towards the dock. He steps onto a boat and is taken away.
Nicholas arrives at night, after three days of rolling oceans, and steps onto a wooden pier. The solid ground beneath his feet is welcome, and he strides towards the city. Nicholas resumes his life in the city, passing in and out of the apartment in nicer pants. The curl, still in his faded jeans tossed in a corner, feels the vibrations of his voice when he speaks over the phone, absorbs the scents of food as he cooks, warms and cools as his room does. The curl aches for sunlight and a salty breeze. It is lonely in the dark, and weak, and small. The curl is close to fading away when he rediscovers it. He is doing laundry and checking the pockets of his faded jeans. He pulls the lock out, now a tangle, and smiles at the memory. Nicholas rinses it off in the sink and buries two thirds of it in a small pot that used to have a succulent. The small cactus had withered in his absence, too young to survive without nurturing. The soil is still soft and light, and settles around the curl when he waters it. In the pot, the curl wakes, reaching for nutrients in the soil, stretching towards the few stars now gleaming through the window.
He watches as in the next few days the piece of hair seems to grow, yawning, wavering in its small pot. It doesn’t seem to him impossible that the girl in the greenhouse would absorb the multiplying capabilities of plants, her hands stained green from the leaves she works, her nails always housing a thin line of soil. One day it pours in the city, and he returns to his apartment rushed and soaked, struggling to peel off wet layers. The kitchen is dark; it is already evening, and the humidity from the rain drifts into an open window. In the pot, a curled shape pushes ever slowly at the surface of the soil. In the morning there is a small, dark shape emerging. It seems to be drawn out by the curl already growing and breaks through the soil. It has the shape of a human, curled into itself. Nicholas spots it in the morning, and whispers hello to it. The breadth from his body wafts by the curved form. During the day it grows, unfurling like a fern fiddlehead, fingers unclasping, back slowly straightening. A face lifts towards the window and seeks light, the hair that grew it still arced above.
When Nicholas returns in the evening, it has become a she, and she, the smaller, second Gift, has her arms wide open. Nicholas finds a bucket, digs up some soil from outside and transplants her. She stirs, roots reared in alarm, body tense with a movement she can’t control. Nicholas handles her gently, holding her roots in one hand and her body in another, fingers wrapped around her small, delicate form. She is the same size as one of the geckos that often dart across his ceiling. Roots spread from the tips of her toes, reaching down to the base of her old container. Once she is planted anew, he finds a sunny corner in his living room to put her. Gift’s eyes have not opened, and her face speaks of a deep sleep. She grows from the bucket, legs lengthening, shoulders thickening, hair, as always, haloed around her sleeping face. Her arms are raised, reaching for space, her feet are buried, securing her. He grows accustomed to little Gift, and watches over her growth as if she were a sapling. When he is not home, he walks through the streets tinged with compassion, holding the seed of a miracle close to his heart.
After thirty days in the bucket, Gift’s skin loses its greenish tinge and seems to flush with human blood. Her cheeks turn pink, and her lips darken. Nicholas is home in the morning, and plays music for her, the music she likes, music that demands movement and words that tug at the heart. Her hair has grown as well and reaches her waist. He can see her chest rising and falling as she breathes, and discern small drops of sweat on her brow. He remembers Gift’s words in the greenhouse: “bury me near the ocean,” she’d said. Nicholas waits until darkness falls. He wraps her in a blanket and gently places her across the back seat of his car, facing up. Gift’s body feels the movement and braces for what lies on the other side of it. Nicholas drives as if he were holding a large pot of hot soup, gently, carefully, glancing back at the bundle in the back seat. He reaches the shore, close to where his ship pulled in a few months ago, from the island where the original Gift still lives.
Nicholas steps out of the car at a beach, quiet now that night has fallen, and gently extracts her, pot and all, from the car. He looks around the shore. He plants her bucket of soil in the shallow water and removes the blanket from her shoulders. Her toes feel the saltwater seeping through, and wake. Gift’s eyelids rise a millimeter, and the darkness is replaced with another, bluer, paler darkness. Her plant mind gives way to a human consciousness, second by second ceding neurons, like a butterfly emerging from a caterpillar’s cocoon. She opens her lids ever so slightly more and sees moonlight on water. Her toes wiggle and her arms gradually lower to her sides, hands clasping and unclasping. She moves slowly, but fast enough for Nicholas to see it, and he is so absorbed with the sight, he believes it to happen on a human timeframe, without realizing that he has been standing with his feet in the waves for hours.
A wave washes over her feet, loosening the roots that still cling to her skin. Her eyes are open, and she feasts on the quiet shoreline. She walks towards the water, each movement faster and easier than the last; she is nearing the feeling of being human. When the water is at her waist, she leaps into the surf and swims through the frigid waters, feeling the ocean purify and sanctify her limbs, feeling the salt on her face, the pressure of the water on her eyelids. Her head bursts out, and she takes a greedy lungful of air. Gift is baptized by starlight. She floats on the surface, ears submerged, hearing thousands of years’ worth of tiny coral creatures now shifting into each other. Like raindrops on rock. Like tiny chaotic footsteps running along the ocean bottom. The water laps over her body, and she moves at the whims of the waves. Clouds move into the sky and face her, grey and billowing, spitting a light mist onto her lips. The glow of the sun is long gone, but there is enough light—starlight, moonlight, city light—to paint shadows on the dips of the water. The sky vaults above her, unfathomable in depth, darkening. The earth spins as she floats in its endless embrace.
She knows she is here because of Nicholas, because her last memory is standing in the greenhouse giving him a piece of her. She knows who she is. She remembers all but the many weeks of growth in Nicholas’ apartment; rather, she feels that she has been asleep for a long time and has just woken. Her body is stiff and sore, but every time she dives down again to push through the waters it feels less uncomfortable and more like home.
When the sun begins to tinge the western sky a lighter blue, she emerges from the ocean, naked. Her bare feet walk through the surf and across wet sand. She is awake and alive; she feels human; she smiles when she sees Nicholas curled up on the beach. Her many weeks of growth have made her strong, and she carries him to the car as the western horizon turns a dark orange. Nicholas wakes in the moving car, and sits up from the back seat just as Gift pulls the car into his building. She wraps the blanket around herself and they make their way towards the apartment in a comfortable silence. Words seem too soon, too crude. Nicholas fumbles with his keys and swings open the door. Gift walks into the kitchen on feet that used to be planted there, and Nicholas has to stop himself from checking the sunny corner for her, who is now awake, alive, looking around the greenhouse that nurtured her with green human eyes. She drops onto the purple sofa and falls asleep while Nicholas makes coffee and tries to turn the gears of his mind so he is ready to go to work in the city. He waits for the coffee to percolate, leaning against the counter, eyes glazed over by what he has seen. A few grains of sand fall from his hairline, and he swipes a hand across his forehead to dislodge the rest.
She sleeps for two days and nights. He grows accustomed to her form splayed on the couch; like her growth in the sunny corner, this is just one more iteration of her, and he is always glad for her presence. On the third day, Nicholas returns to his apartment to find her wearing his clothes and bustling around the kitchen over two fragrant pots. He is taken aback by her movement, stunned by her humanity; so accustomed was he to her silent, hibernating form. He hasn’t had much company here in the past few years. He finds that he has grown to be a solitary person. She greets him with a bracing hug and a wide smile. He sits at the table nursing a glass of red wine and watching her in disbelief. Her long mane is knotted at the nape of her neck and the sleeves of his shirt are rolled up to her elbows.
In the next few weeks, Gift disappears at night and returns in the early morning smelling like dark, dingy bars and cigarettes. She walks the city streets in the evening, dipping into caves that seem to emanate life and music. She watches musicians coax ecstasy from strings and befriends strangers. She buys late night ice cream cones and licks the sweet sticky drops as they ooze down her hand. Gift wraps herself in the arms of others. When she returns to Nicholas’ apartment, she is flushed from dancing, and whirls him around the kitchen when he wakes. One evening, she plants a kiss on his cheek and walks out the door with a duffel bag, leaving the scent of a new bloom in her wake. He does not see her the next day, or the next, and his heart grows heavy with the loss of her. But before long he becomes re-accustomed to his quiet, peaceful cave.
On the island, the original Gift lies in her bed, dreaming that she is walking naked in the surf on the edge of a big city. She wakes and feels the presence of her other self in Nicholas’ life. During the day she coaxes and prunes, trims and plants, thinking of him, and feeling jolts of sensation her other self is experiencing. Seeds she planted the day Nicholas left the island are small plants now, having grown four to five true leaves, roots reaching the edges of their square container. It is time to transplant them to a bigger pot. She feels tired, distracted, disconnected, like she is trying to fuel two lives. She has been fading ever since she walked out of the water in a city across the ocean.
The day the propagated Gift walks away from Nicholas’ apartment, the first Gift stands on the shore of the island, feet squirming in the warm sand. She removes her clothes and the moonlight kisses her naked skin. She looks out at the waves lapping on the beach and steps into the water. The moving maw beckons. She walks deeper into the ocean. When Gift is waist-deep, she takes a great lungful of air and dives in, swimming further and further from the shore. She dives and weaves through the water, algae whispering across her skin. The seaweed that’s anchored to the ocean floor holds her there. Like in dreams she’s had, she discovers she can breathe underwater, and just as her mind begins to fade, she sees her hands tinge green and wave in the current. Her feet find bottom, and through the thickening fog of her disappearing human mind, she feels tendrils of herself anchoring. She feels all the tension leave her and a peace that feels final washes over her. Her mind slips away, and she closes her eyes to the blue, stilled, slipping into a quieter, slower awareness. Her humanity leaks out of her in bubbles that float to the surface, delivering the last of her breath to the open sky.
Over weeks, Gift’s old body re-shapes itself to the ocean floor, limbs becoming leaves of algae that tangle with the other seaweed in the dark, cold waters. Her eyes never open again; her hair begins to photosynthesize, moving as it always has at the whim of the ocean. Gift in the city feels her old self pass into another reality, and she dreams of a dark and salty ocean floor, eels still in a cloud of seaweed, fish darting through her hair. She wakes in the city and breathes the air she shares with a million other humans. Gift stretches her fingers and shakes the sleep from her limbs, turning her green eyes to the sunlight that floods through the window. Many miles away, Nicholas waters a succulent he picked up on his way home the day before. If he peers at it closely enough, he can almost see the pores opening to welcome the dawn air, almost discern each individual cell turning light into life. He looks at his living charge fondly and whispers to it good morning.
Naira de Gracia is a writer and biologist based in Wellington, New Zealand. She worked for many years in small, remote islands doing wildlife monitoring and habitat restoration work, and is now settling into a city and working on her first book about climate change in the Antarctic Peninsula.