Once upon a time, long ago, when bees were flowers and flowers had knees, there lived a group of primordial squash in a wide field near a stream under the star-riddled sky. There were other groups of squash around, mixed in with other plants, but they were out of thrumming distance and barely perceived except after heavy rains, when thoughts carried. Old, Older, and Oldest squashes, from the first vine, dispensed wisdom to Young and Youngest, who were of the fourth vine (though they believed it the second).
When animals drew near, Old counseled, act casual. Think to yourself, “One of many, I am only one of many,” and the animal might choose to eat something else. Animals couldn’t speak, of course, but they could sense fear. It was what they truly hungered for, but in the end they settled for flesh. Just be thankful some animals prefer to eat each other, rather than squashes, Older put in. And if ever there came a time when it seemed an attack was imminent, Oldest said, they should puff. Puff? Young and Youngest attended eagerly. When they were in danger, Oldest explained, if they were frightened enough, their skin could puff somehow, releasing a smell that animals didn’t like. It could drive them away. How do you know, Young asked? Because we have been here forever, Oldest thrummed, hulking beneath the giant leaves close to the Mothervine. Disregard our wisdom at your peril. Then he would say no more.
A full dark and light passed before Young apologized. The moon was high in the sky, but the first viners were cloaked in shadow. Only Older was awake. Why do you three sit beneath leaves, Young asked, while Youngest and I are always in light?
Light is good for you, Older said.
But you seem more difficult for animals to see under there. Hidden. Our leaves are so small.
Light will make you grow, Older said, and one day your own leaves will be large and cover you as mine do. Perhaps you will grow even larger than I.
Impossible, cried Young! Since you have been here forever, you will always be larger.
Perhaps, Older said.
Dark and light, dark and light, and then one morning, as the sun was halfway to all the way above, a great bristling beast loped near, moving slowly, its tongue lolling from its mouth. There had been no rain for some time, and all creatures were thirsty. Youngest noticed that the first viners had immediately gone silent. Young had been quiet, thinking long on an answer to something Older had asked, and Youngest feared he would cry out if he suddenly noticed the beast. He debated, and then sent, One of many, to his vine brother. The animal turned and came directly at them. Fear flooded through Youngest, and his skin pulled taut. As the beast nosed and snuffled, Youngest remembered Oldest’s words and knew they were true. He puffed. A wonderful draining sensation seized him and his skin went loose and flabby, and as he was torn and swallowed in great bites, he felt no pain. Young watched it all, and grieved over the shattered remains of his brother.
Many lights and darks passed in silence, and Young, who was now Youngest, noticed that the darks were growing colder. What did that mean, he finally asked? Nothing, said Oldest. It had been warm forever, and it would be warm again.
Perhaps, Older said.
Just before the next dark, the animal returned. As it approached, Youngest tried to be one of many, but he didn’t understand what that meant. The animal grew closer, terrible snout drawn back from its teeth, and Youngest struggled to hold himself in. He knew that to puff would doom him; he knew that Oldest had lied. When his brother had puffed, a smell had washed over Youngest in a wave, wonderful and also terrible, because while the smell was his brother, the essence of him, Youngest knew it had attracted the beast, rather than repelled it. Yet that which is planted first takes hold strongest, and he couldn’t resist. He puffed, riding the ripe wave, and then the teeth descended and he was gone.
Beneath their nodding leaves, beneath the early October stars, the first viners were three among many. Later, before dawn — which was coming later now, he was certain — Older sat and pondered the limits of immortality.
Ian Breen lives and writes in Western Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared in Black Heart Magazine and Storyglossia and is forthcoming in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.