f u g u e   s t a t e    p r e s s
p.o. box 80, cooper station
new york, ny 10276


from The Stagtress

by Kathleen Bryson


Spring in the forest when the sun through the whole day has cooked the woods and ferns down to the smell of licorice by evening. They fucked in the trees and it was a beautiful thing. He held her hand and pulled her in there, and his beard was bristly against her soft cheek. He held her hand, and he pulled her into the crotch of the trees; he held her hand and no one could see betwixt she disappeared.
The greyfruit trees sway in hot summer; hairy fronds twist over the fruits themselves as on coconuts. Jungle even in a northern clime; all ripe forest and lewd fruitmeat. Evergreens bake and vines stew and pine needles burrow into Florentine's flesh and make her think about them even when they're not really there. The winds blow but the feel on her bare skin is hot puff; it does not distract her from the fruits. She keeps thinking about them; she does not want to think about them.
            "Taste one," says Puck, "imagine how it would feel in your throat. That crude red interior; the fruit-flesh sliding down, slowly, the juice like musk and strawberry."
            Florentine shakes her head no; no one has ever picked a greyfruit tree to her knowledge; they own themselves; they are not for picking, though her mother had gathered them fallen for cider. But now the idea is in her head and she cannot stop thinking of it. The tips on her antlers tighten.
            Puck's hand is on her waist, moves up over the planes of her bare back, curls round her shoulders. Her whole body is itching, as when you sleep when it's too hot outside. "We could crack it off," he whispers in her ear, "I'd peel it open and pour the fruit into your mouth, your lips open. Think of how it would taste."
            She is thinking of how it would taste.
            "Your lips would be red." His voice in her ear. "You'd kiss it back to me, all that fire in your mouth."
            She shakes her head no again, they cannot, no one harvests the greyfruits, they are free trees not slave trees, and Puck disentangles himself from her, his limbs just as sulkily purposeful in their retreat.
"You've grown more hair, you wild thing," says Puck to Florentine, and his hand brushes her thigh, where there is a pelt now, and fur over her toes and fingers.
          Like his, like his, like his beautiful self. She clasps him to her and she does not ever let him go.
          "I love your bark," she says, "your moss, your ivies."
There is bounty in summer. As summer drawled, he became distant in some ways yet intense in some forms, too. The bounty was there, wasn't there, was there. When she noted and duly informed him she was with child, as the sun dripped golden at Lughnasa, his lips went up and he patted her hand, but he looked left and right like a fox. It was at night when he became his churned-up self again, and they entangled each other in their fucks, the blood-drive in them both and the silkiness between them. It was good, but not as good. It was intimate, but not as close.
When she was pregnant she was bursting and yet she could not burst. She was endless spring that never hit summer. She would not pop like a bud trembling to expose its inners, its soft damp coiled leaves that did not yet take in space the form of a leaf. Yet.
Ewe. Yew. You. The best of stories are curious stories and so you understand that something once had been green and spicy in the woods, and then it was Autumn and not. The Green Man had been late for a fourth time now and, though she sat and keened for him by the lake, he did not come, and there was then a third promise broken. 
"The beast hath root, the plant hath flesh and blood.
The nimble plant can turn it to and fro,
The nummed beast can neither stir nor goe,
The plant is leafless, branchless, void of fruit,
The beast is lustless, sexless, fireless, mute." -- Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, 1587
Dull thrills of sickness ran through her and she pushed herself exhausted to her feet, her grandest stomach with the drum the little one sometimes played. He had promised her that he would come and he did not come. 
          She said all fifty of his favourite names three times in the water as she had done before, and she remembered how they had hustled cloven to each the other, in spring when everything green would give a click and tremble into a flower or a grass blade. They had trembled onto each other and laid down in the shallow water. They had sucked. Now where was he, her world had become darkened blue, why was he a-change? She looked in the waters of the holy spring and there was she, great horns, great stomach, great breasts. There was not he.
          There was a high keening pitch-sound in the bottom of her loins and she crawled up the bank and went to the cabin threshold where he had once left an ornament of forest gifts and she called for him. She screamed out to Brigit, Áine and even Jesu for him; the deities did not interfere. She carved F + R on a tree as an invocation. She pissed on starflowers and violets and called for him; he did not answer. She cut her arm and squeezed blood onto the ground and chanted robingoodfellowrobinhoodpuckpanosirisbaphometgreenmanlokijohnbarleycorncernnunoswildmanhollykingoakkingludgreenknight-viridiosgreengeorgeenkidufatherchristmassatyrsasquatchbigfoottlalocdergcorrafaceofgloryamoghasiddifaunuspashupatikokopellipangu-jacko'lanternjesusmaykinghernewoodwosepilosiyetisnowmandusiosinuusfiggyschratsylvesterleshyorcojackfrostalkhidrsylvanuspeterpan-jackinthegreen and he did not come. Her stomach lurched and she stumbled from the threshold into the trees, calling for him, green bird, come back.
          In the middle distance was the group of greyfruit trees.
          By the time she drew near to the glade, she saw that he had indeed escaped her. As must have been his will; she wept bitterly; he had planted himself and taken seed. A large plant directly. Gymnosperm, the naked seed; it is well known in Botanical Science that there are gymnosperms with beautifully coloured cones: silvery, purpled, greenish, marbled, such naked seeds.
          When one walks the roads for years as a false priest, as Florentine had done, one hears miraculous stories concerning vegetable lambs (Agnus scythicus), who grow from melon-seeds. Some vegetable lamb-fruits, multiple, are wooly in their pods, wet like the cruel skinning to make astrakhan wool from unborn lambs ripped from their murdered mothers' wombs; the very thought hurts Florentine and makes her eyes go blind for seconds with fury; fashionistas have their euphemisms and call it Broadtail Lamb or Persian Lamb, but we and they know how astrakhan is sourced in its sticky black coils.
          The other type of vegetable lamb is singular, one lamb grows out umbilicular from the main plant, and its veggie self eats the grass surrounding its tether until it -- the solitary vegetable lamb and the main plant too --  like the astrakhan ewe and her astrakhan lamb, both die.
          Some say that if you cut open an immature soft fruit of the first variety, that is to say the many-fruiting vegetable lamb, you see a little plant sheep already there, complete in form but without its wool. 
          The other -- singular -- variety of vegetable lamb sprouts out from the stem itself to grow as high as your knees. It has hooves, bones, wool. Its blood tastes like honey. I said it already; if its plant-cord is severed, it dies.
          "I will not die," says Florentine to herself, clutching her stomach. "It will not die."
          This is the story of the Vegetable Lamb.
          Vegetable lambs, also called borometzes, the perfect dish for your picky vegetarian college-aged nieces at Christmas, vegetable lambs are said to be mythologised from a type of fern with a hairy underground root (oh-là-là), technically called a rhizome. A rhizome with quadrupedal, ruminant qualities.
          There are also stories told by peddlers who sell mandrake root: that the mandrake is a root off a vegetable man; that if you touch a mandrake you die; that the mandrake is a plant that grows from the corpses of hanged men; that it grows in the shape of a little man; that if you light an edge of its root it glows like a candle for you (do not touch it; do not touch it).
          Florentine stares at the ground. He has sacrificed himself; he is mandrake; he is a vegetable man. There is a great green plant, taller than her. Tall as the greyfruit trees but not a tree. It should be an oak sapling, with all logic, but it is not an oak. It is not man-shaped; it is plant-shaped. It has huge pods spurting forth all over it. Ripe. It will soon drop its fruit; the scent doubtless heady. But Robin is gone. He has curled in on himself. She wishes indeed that there was a hint of his shape here; even a mandrake's hand, or a barnacle man like the barnacle geese which do not grow from beach driftwood, as rumoured, but instead grow like gourds as fruits on trees, even those approximations would do. But instead this huge plant. She touches her stomach; she touches one of the pods too, stroking both her belly and it. Will her child be a plant? Will it be green? Will her breasts spit out sap to nurse it?
          There are problems concerning whether you are permitted vegetable lambs and barnacle geese during fasts; are they meat or are they frond? There are deep-set problems; fairy tales of the soft-skinned vegetable lambs with moist curls avoid the truth of astrakhan. Dried foetal wool does look vegetative, like a carrot left too long in the refrigerator, many months. Sadism. Florentine clutches her belly. Not a rolling pain, not this time. Masochism. Where is he, is he in this bush? Masochism. She knew he was always going to seed, and yet she had loved him anyway. You bake the ruptured ram in still-hot ashes: blood sweet and a taste like seafood. She clutches her belly.
          She wept a bit and then, after further exploration, she saw that this vegetable he had become was of both varieties: there were the fertile pods as big as cantaloupes, contents unseen; but also there round the back, revealed at last, a vegetable man linked by a vine from his navel back to the plant. She had longed to see his shape in this plant and now she had found it. Robin, carding crones' wool for them before dawn, so they woke with their labours eased, but also sending night terrors to the old women to haunt their dreams. Green-georgie-porgy, blows out candles with sighs. Kisses girls in the dark, and makes them all cry. He had betrayed her; he had left her; he had gone to sleep on her and their fruit together; he had closed his eyes into Arnolfini vegetation eyelids and left her to fend the winter on her own, what could she do? She would bear it on Beltane, three months past Imbolc, three months past snow was crashing through the trees and her eyes would burn at the memory of her parents and of Eglentyne. What would she do now, what could she do? She gritted with anger towards him; seeding and rooted, avoiding his responsibility. His vegetable head like a true jack o' lantern, scooped out with a candle inside, eyes glittering, but she did not move, just saw him for the turnip he was.
          She did not in any way see him as a lamb of god, one who selflessly had sacrificed himself to Winter like a christ, not like the Blue School would have seen it. He had deserted her and ran away from her. He had grown from a plant called oak; now he grew from another like a vegetable lamb. Sheep are somehaps called lords of the field. He had retreated. Wolves compete with humans for the taste of the vegetable lamb; it is popular with them. He had abandoned her and it. The golden chicken fern, as the borometz sometimes is called, is starchy. Coward. His fingers were leaves, his subtle lips were petals, his prick a root, his arms and legs tough stalks. A re-greening, the Blue School would say, the transubstantional return of man to nature, metaphysical, beautiful, symbolic. He had coldly gutted the animal that she was.
          Florentine sat there in the woods, shaded by the greyfruit trees, and looked at him. He was bound and could not run away, but he was gone to winter. Not far from here was the place where she and her brothers had dug a hole for their mother and father. It was late autumn; she should be burying apples as food for the dead, sustenance until all re-births. Coward. Soon the green stalks would toughen and unfallen gourds stiffen; soon the colour would stretch into brown, then be greyed, and the soft follicles on it creak into their wilt.
          Curious bushes that grew bitsy sheep inside themselves, soft and tender little babies with their wailing; Florentine fancied she could hear their piteous cries even now. The green was cooling all around the leaves and calyxes and pods now as winter came.
Three months later she came back in snow and looked at it again. 
          The cold calyxes, the buds of the plant. She had heard the stories. She was quivering; her body was quivering. Her womb was quivering. She touched the vegetable man again. Unheard lips. Shut eyes. In an odd way like the almost-child. 
          Florentine was suddenly dropped with fear. She could not do this on her own. She needed her mother; her friend Eglentyne; the Blue School matriarchs.
          Numbly, she cracked off a hard gourd and cradled it in her hands. Her satchel was packed; the cabin boarded up; the greyfruit trees dead silent. Her shoes too dampened already in the snow; she should be dozing by fires, not having her early milk crust up in frost upon her bosom. Would there be a little lamb inside the melon, or a little man? She peeled the front of the plant and her fingers were raw in the cold. Inside there was no beast nor homunculus per se; there was a full-size adult penis, a facsimile of Robin’s. She had once loved its texture and its smell, but now she looked at the summer penis with indifference before pushing the fruit back down into its nest again and peeling over again the shell. Were there recipes that made use of such fruits? She plucked two more such gourds and wrapped them all and she put all three gourds into her satchel.
          Then she went round to the back side of the large plant and saw the green man, snowed over. He was still connected to the frosted stem by the fibrous roots vine that fed his navel, but he was no living thing. Florentine severed the stalk at the navel with her birthday pocketknife, let the frozen man-shaped plant fall over with a clumping sound in the drifts, put the knife back in her pocket, hoisted the satchel over her shoulder, shook the snowflakes from her horns, walked out from the glade and did not look back once.