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THE CYPRESS GROVE
May 18, 2007
"Are these mall planters?" Joshua asked, tapping the pot.
"They were on sale. We wanted clay amphorae from the museum but the curators objected," answered Corey. He gestured to rows of empty planters in the industrial herbarium.
"Cheap, I guess," Joshua asked.
"As a subject, you'll sit in the planter and we'll load the volcanic ash around you," Corey explained, ignoring the cheap joke. Joshua stuck his finger into the dirt, rubbing it between his fingers and wiping it on the leg of his jeans. Heated water from the furnace would keep the pots warm during the experiment.
"As I explained before, you sit in a mud composed of volcanic ash, moss, acanthus and olive oils mixed with myrrh, lotus root, palm extract and several plants found only in the Nile. The papyrus says it will put muscle mass on your chest, clear up acne, toughen the liver, improve your sex drive, give your body the stamina of a warrior and preserve you for all eternity," Corey explained.
"But does it cure halitosis and prevent flatulence?" Joshua laughed.
"Don't be silly, of course not," Corey said.
"One thousand dollars to spend a night sitting in a mud bath, that's the deal, huh?" he asked.
"That's the deal, one night of your life. I'll be working here in the herbarium if you're interested," Corey said, smiling, satisfied with his lies.
Joshua arrived late. Eleven sleeping men sat in pots planted up to their necks in dirt. A dozen workmen fitted wooden covers around the volunteer's necks effectively sealing them in the pots.
"The lids slow evaporation," Corey said, feeling a need to excuse the lids and the workers actions.
"Am I late?" Joshua asked.
"Almost," Corey said, pointing to two empty pots. "A second volunteer backed out. I have to replace him. If you hadn't shown up, I'd be in a real bind," Corey explained. Joshua nodded.
"I still think that these containers look like planters in malls, you know, the ones with the iron grates that have holes in the middle to let the ugly palm trees grow out. Except, these have ugly human heads poking out of the holes. Where'd you get all the volunteers?" Joshua asked. Corey eyed him cautiously. He didn't want to explain that these men were from the local prison. Joshua made him nervous.
"We have beer to help you relax and sleep. That's only if you're nervous," Corey said, hating himself for saying anything that stupid.
"I'm not a beer drinker. Beer makes me gassy. Does it matter to the experiments?"
"No, most guys just drink the beer. Some get nervous when the mud solidifies. You can't move much after that, you know," Corey said, over-explaining.
"Sorry to be such a pest with all my questions. My friends tell me I'm too nosy. My questions seem to bug the crap out of people. Tell me once again, do I just sit in the pot and your workmen cover me with gunk in the vague hope that tomorrow I'll be healthier, stronger?" Joshua said, acting cute – smiling and shrugging his broad shoulders. Corey didn't return the smile.
"Who am I to argue with your friends? Since I have to participate, tonight, you can just follow my example," Corey said, kicking off his sandals, removing his shirt and pants, standing naked and proud. He placed his clothes in a box labeled Controls, twisting and flexing his lean, swimmer's body to step into the nearest pot and sat down with his hands around his knees. This wasn't his choice. Earlier that day, Professor Tompkins was adamant that he, not another stranger, participate when a second prisoner backed out. The workmen poured mud all over Corey's head causing him to sputter and squawk. A workman threw a bucket of water onto Corey's face to clear the mud.
"Do they always do it that way?" Joshua asked. Corey's white eyes glared. A muscular workman poked Joshua's arm leaving a smear of dirt. Sheepishly, Joshua took off his shirt to reveal a well-muscled torso. As he dropped his pants and stood naked, he never lifted his head. The workmen whispered about his muscles and the size of his manhood. They made him self-conscious. He hated being naked. His muscles rippled as he climbed into the pot and sat. The workmen poured wet mud around his body, filling the planter but still getting mud all over Joshua's head and face.
"I guess they do," Joshua sputtered as workmen poured water over Joshua's head. The workers put the covers on their planters sealing them for the night.
"Drink a beer, you'll relax," Corey said, sitting helpless in the mud.
"Are you going to drink the beer?" Joshua almost begged.
"What the hell. I'm thirsty," Corey said.
"Hey you," Joshua yelled, "bring me a beer and get one for my friend." Startled, the workman jumped up and obeyed. He returned with a mouthpiece and a funnel. Joshua dutifully drank the beer. It had a bitter, herbal taste. Then the worker went over and nearly poured the beer down Corey's throat. Both men slept.
Professor Tompkins woke Joshua before sunrise.
"I wanted you to see your handiwork," Tompkins said, pointing to the chlorophyll-colored faces of the other subjects, their white eyes darting back and forth astonished at their new existence. Some had branches growing from their heads and shoulders. Other had necks with bark on them just like tree trunks. One had a crown of leaves poking from his head. Two workmen packed sphagnum moss around each volunteer and the rest prepared a flatbed truck to hold the planters for shipment.
"Our first cash crop, huh?" Joshua said, surveying the transformed men in their planters.
"Eleven hearty and fast growing trees, that's what the contract called for, a redwood, an oak, nine swamp sycamores and some cannabis for the workmen," Tompkins said.
"With fourteen percent of the population in prison for life, we should have plenty of volunteers to repopulate the world's forests," Joshua said, dodging the wooden lid as a workman removed it. He remained firmly planted in the mud. The workmen scooped mud out of the planter.
"I have more good news. Yesterday, while you were schmoozing Corey, I signed the prison contracts and they agreed to double the origination fees. This morning, I spoke with the warden at the local penitentiary. His entire population of lifers – killers, rapists, psychopaths and recidivists – is ready and eager to be experimental subjects. He convinced them that there was a gubernatorial pardon if they participated and the gang leaders enforced total participation. I gave him the formula just before I woke you," Tompkins said.
"That's over one thousand prisoners. What's he going to do? Set up planters in the cellblocks and courtyards?" Joshua felt the volcanic ash shift and free his elbows.
"No, he's making them build pots right on flatbed eighteen wheelers. That way, the entire population will be ready to transport. Only a select few guards will know. The mud is an effective restraint, as you've discovered first hand. Once they plant all the prisoners, the guards will cover the planters with tarpaulins to hide the prisoners' heads and that's it. The prisoners will start out human when they leave the penitentiary and by the time they reach the reforestation site, they'll be ready to plant." Joshua listened. He pulled his hands free and stretched his arms rubbing the stiff muscles of his chest and shoulders.
"Can you imagine a traffic cop discovering a human head with leaves growing out? I'm surprised you'd consent to transporting half-converted prisoners." Impulsively, Joshua scooped up a handful of dark, green water, sniffed and without thought tasted it.
"Interesting, I can taste chlorophyll, lignin, cellulose and raw wood," Joshua said.
"You sure you don't want to stay there?" Tompkins asked, laughing. He tweaked Joshua's ear playfully. Little wooden sprouts about the size of pinheads grew under Joshua's skin.
"No, I'm happy with my research in plant biology," Joshua answered. Corey moaned and woke. Tompkins walked over to his planter with a mirror in hand.
"That beer was too strong, Professor. I never intended to sleep. Get me out of this mud," Corey bellowed not realizing that his head and shoulders were completely green with buds sprouting from his ears and the top of his head.
"Get you out? Not likely, Corey, you're no longer human. You're a plant," Tompkins said, sneering, placing a mirror so Corey could see his transformation. Tompkins retrieved a bong from the workbench, shoved the mouthpiece between Corey's lips and lit it. The fragrant smoke filled Corey's lungs as he thrashed.
"Stop, get this off my face," Corey yelled, coughing as he breathed the thick marihuana smoke. A few breaths and his mind reeled. Euphoria gripped his consciousness as tiny, five pointed leaves sprouted from his head.
"Ah Corey, you failed and this is the price of failure," Tompkins laughed.
"But this batch succeeded, you say," Tompkins paused long enough for Corey to shake his head. "This batch succeeded thanks to Joshua, not you. You failed completely. Your punishment is to experience the transformation you so struggled to find and couldn't. While you're getting high on THC, your body will become a marijuana plant. We'll plant you in the arboretum and enjoy your leaves for many years to come. Consider this not as and end to our relationship, but as a new glorious beginning," Tompkins said, sneering and stoking the bong. Corey whimpered and blubbered. THC saturated his brain. Tompkins turned to Joshua still half-planted in dirt.
"Now young man, quit putting off getting out of that dirt. Stand up," Tompkins ordered. Joshua's feet slid around under the surface of the water. He tried to steady his body with his arms. As Joshua's muscles tightened and flexed, lines of green chlorophyll snaked around his thighs and hips and up Joshua's spine to the back of his head. The chlorophyll curled in swirls between Joshua's broad shoulders and around the V of his back.
"Let the workmen help you," Tompkins said, snapping his fingers. Two workmen grabbed Joshua's arms and lifted him out of the water. A third washed the dirt from his not-quite human body. White roots over a foot long sprouted from Joshua's feet. Tiny root hairs covered Joshua's legs up to the middle of his thighs. A thick taproot hung fifteen inches down from his crotch replacing his manhood. Several large roots hung from between his buttocks. Streaks of green chlorophyll crept up his abdomen as he watched.
"Oh my god," Joshua gasped. The workmen placed Joshua on a workbench, chattering back and forth in their own language, calling to their comrades, snapping pictures on cellphones. Joshua struggled against them as their hands explored his half-transformed body, grabbing and tugging his roots. One of the workmen, a big man who matched Joshua in size and strength, grabbed his wrists and held tight. Exposed to air, Joshua turned pale and weakened. He lay helpless, neither human or plant but something in-between.
"Oh my goodness, gracious, golly, the workmen must have made a mistake," announced Tompkins, slapping the sides of his face gently with each hand.
"It wasn't their mistake, you bastard. You double-crossed me," Joshua tried to yell.
"Of course I double-crossed you. You're too honest. It took me two weeks to convince you to double-cross Corey. What if in some future spasm of righteousness, you decide to reveal my schemes? I just can't risk exposure. I told the workmen that you volunteered to join them. They think of you as a comrade, a supporter, one of their own."
"Join them?" Joshua said, growing anxious as his body dried and began to wither. The workmen scattered to construct tall, thin planters – eight feet tall and two foot square from plywood and 2x4s. They braced the planters against scaffolding, waterproofed the insides and partially filling them with rich, brown topsoil, volcanic ash, sand and loam.
"Yes, these stupid peasants are rebuilding the swampy forests of Mississippi by becoming cypress trees. You'll join them in greening the wastelands, spending their lives and yours in service to mankind."
"What?" Joshua asked still puzzled.
"I suppose it won't hurt to tell you the truth. About three years ago, a rich Guatemalan in import-export offered me a great deal of money if I could find a way to save his two sons from life in prison. It seems they killed a busload of people while high. I proposed that if they were convicted, we could spring his sons as prison volunteers without transforming them, ship them home and no one would be the wiser. He agreed. I put Corey to work translating the papyrus and then waited," Tompkins stopped to watch the workmen and then continued.
"All of the money in the world couldn't stop a jury from convicting those two. Six months ago, they entered the local prison. Now, even though organized crime and drug lords have influence in most prisons, this local prison is all lifers. Being young, handsome and desirable, the brothers were punked the first night and then adopted as sex slaves. That's a death sentence inside prison. Fortunately, you came along and genius that you are, you not only solved the translation of the papyrus but proposed an experimental regimen for determining the formula's efficacy. That day, I became a rich man. My patron's sons are sitting over there, free from prison and the ravages of sexual disease. Granted, they are cypress trees but they are free. That's their cure and salvation. As for the other prisoners, we offered fortunes if they participated. Shortly, a truck will arrive to transport new cypress trees to Mississippi. These workmen are all volunteers from my Patron's village in Guatemala. The village will prosper from their sacrifice," Tompkins stopped talking as the strongest of the workmen returned bare-chested, and began to cover Joshua with peat moss and manure.
"Someday, you'll pay, you greedy bastard," Joshua growled. Streamers of emerald green wound around his body as it absorbed water and fertilizer.
"Nonsense, I'm a facilitator! Like you, these ignorant farmers, these would-be horticulturalists, all of them, volunteered. All of you will grow into splendid examples of Taxodium distichum, the bald cypress."
The muscle-bound workman wrapped Joshua in burlap, picked him up and carried to a planter about eight feet tall and two foot square. He climbed in to hold Joshua in place as dirt cascaded over both of them. The dirt revived Joshua. Even though two thirds of his body was still human, lignin and chlorophyll flowed in his veins and arteries. With the lower half of his body firmly planted, Joshua braced himself and let the workman pack dirt up to his ribcage, leaving his shoulders and arms exposed. The workman kissed Joshua's hands tenderly before planting them. In this dirt, his hands would turn into thick, mature root systems in a short time, not days or hours, but minutes. Joshua's elbows resembled the "knees" that grew on the exposed roots of bald cypress trees. The workman piled sphagnum moss around Joshua's chest and arms and climbed onto a scaffold next to the box.
"Look at the determination of those workmen as they build their own planters," Tompkins said, pointing to more finished planters. The workers hadn't wasted time. Some cut plywood, others cut two by fours, the rest assembled and braced the planters. Others rigged a dirt and water delivery system. Two naked workmen climbed into their planters and tested the equipment by filling the planter with dirt and triggering a water spray to saturate the soil. When it worked, the remaining workmen hurried to complete their planters.
"If you admire them so much, why don't you just sit on the volcanic ash for a few hours? Then you'll have first-hand knowledge of what this feels like," Joshua answered.
"Not a good idea if I want to stay human and spend my money. You started out a big, strong, muscular young man, virile and potent even. You can tell me what it feels like to turn into a plant."
"Why would I?" Joshua snapped back, aware that he was no longer flesh and blood but roots, trunk, heartwood, bark, branches and soon, leaves. He felt his mind directing the changes, enabled the transformation. He resisted telling Tompkins the truth about how good it felt. Instead, he watched as eight naked men loaded themselves into planters – one-by-one, triggering the dirt hopper, covering their bodies with dirt and watering their exposed heads. Only six workmen remained unplanted. They hurried to finish building their containers. Joshua admired their single-minded determination.
"You betrayed Corey?" Joshua said, changing the subject. Tompkins walked over to Corey's planter and removed the bong. Nothing human remained. The characteristic sharp, serrated, long leaves of the cannabis tree completely covered a wooden stump.
"It looks like THC speeds the conversion of the human body into a plant," Tompkins observed, gleefully twitching Corey's leaves and stems.
"You're so completely stupid about what's happened to Corey. You'll never understand," blurted Joshua.
"What do you mean?"
"All that THC floating around in Corey's system has most likely fried every cell in his brain making it marshmallow. He's high and he'll never come down from that high," Joshua explained, watching Tompkins's expression turn sour.
"If you had asked me, I would have told you how you could sit in a shallow planter and remain half-human. Now, you'll never know," Joshua lied. Tompkins's ego might just drive him to attempt to sit in the dirt for an hour or so just to feel the first changes. That would be enough to trap him. Tompkins's cell phone rang. He turned away to answer it. Joshua could see thin, fibrous bark creeping up his forearms towards his elbows. Most of his body below the peat moss was lignin and cellulose. A circular trunk replaced his once flat abdomen. Cellulosic structures invaded his ribcage. Lignin already replaced each hair on his head and was ready to sprout into branches and leaves.
"The trucks are at the gates. On that note, I think I'll take my leave," Tompkins said. He left through the back of the herbarium.
Next to planters, Joshua watched the workmen plant themselves. Only the bare-chested workman who planted Joshua remained. He pulled a blackberry from the pocket of his dirty jeans and slid them down his legs. Naked, he was a handsome man, well built, well put together, well hung – good stock to transform into a tree. He took the blackberry and climbed up to talk to Joshua, sitting cross legged on the scaffold. An empty planter waited for him.
"Our Boss knows that the Professor will try to cheat him. Will you tell us the formula?" the workman asked. Joshua related the formula. The workman dutifully recorded the information, sent it and waited for conformation. Satisfied the message was understood, he threw the blackberry across the herbarium into the furnace.
"Now I can join you. I want branches like you. I become tree just like you," he said, climbing into the empty planter. Dirt covered his body until only his head was exposed. Water cascaded over him and although it wasn't perfect, but it would serve.
"Tomorrow, I be leafy. We get planted," The workman rested his chin on the wet dirt and waited for his transformation. Joshua felt branches and leaves sprouting from his head and shoulders. A wooden trunk subsumed his neck and bark formed on his face. That was his last human memory and his first as a bald cypress tree.
3270 words more or less
FUTURES YET UNKNOWN
Ten Stories by Dave Fragments
*An Alien serial murderer and a furry detective with fleas.
*Murder on a world with altered humans.
*Disturbing apocalyptic visions *Monstrous dystopian societies.
*A man on trial for betraying the human race to robots.
*Devils, demons and ghosts.
*Survivors of a plague war.
*Cyborgs trying to be human.
*Six friends in a strange sinkhole.
*The truth about a world drowning in rain, without sun, without hope.
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