2020 Short Story Competition Winner

“Corpse Flower” by Rachel Clements

Royal Kew Gardens, South-West London, 1889

Amorphophallus titanum. Otherwise known as the corpse flower, for its pungent scent of rotting flesh. Corpse and flower, I often think, are not words one might normally place together. Corpses are stiff and pale, devoid of life. Flowers, however, are in a constant state of metamorphosis: blossoming, shrivelling, regenerating. Even this flower, labelled so cruelly because of its stench, is beautiful. Amorphophallus titanum come in a variety of colours, though the one in my care tends toward violet and lime, as opposed to the more common combination of red and yellow. The spathe grows upwards and blossoms outwards, curving away and downwards again from the yellow spadix like the horn of a gramophone, or a lady’s lace collar. The interior is a deep indigo, lined at regular intervals like a seashell. The exterior of the spathe is darker at its base, and lightens until it gives way to a reddish-purple trim. The spadix itself is a pale yellow, and points upward, tapering off to a soft peak.

The ancestor of my own specimen was discovered in its bed of Sumatran soil by an Italian botanist by the name of Beccaria. The man plucked a seed from the towering beast and transported it back to his home country. This stolen seed flowered in turn, and it too was robbed of its progeny: this miniscule abductee was sent to London, where it now resides at Kew, under my watchful eye. I imagine that the grandmother of my ward still blooms in Sumatra, carefully guarding its seeds should the thief reappear.

The smell, though. I’ve been fortunate enough to never have encountered a dead body, so I cannot attest to their scent. My acquaintance in Scotland Yard, who by way of his employment has often had the misfortune of encountering corpses in alleys or lakes or ditches, insists that the two smells bear a terrible similarity. The sickly scent of corruption, he tells me, is impossible to forget. Upon his visit, he could not bear to remain in the presence of the flower for long: the fragrance, he said, was too close to that of its namesake, it conjured images of pale women with glassy eyes and bruised throats, of thin girls lying on rumpled sheets with necks at odd angles. He is a man who has seen too much.

I am aware that I, as much as the flower, am an oddity. Our Lady of the Corpse Flower, or Mistress Amorphophallus are my secret sobriquets, or at least that is what the other staff at Kew think. That I don’t know, that I don’t hear. She has no husband, they whisper knowingly, as if this explains me. I have overheard every predictable jest which can be extracted from the Latin Amorphophallus titanum, the most popular being the hypothesised link between phallus and my lack of a husband, or even a gentleman suitor. They smile and call me Miss Ives when they encounter me amongst the shrubbery of the Conservatory, or bending over my notes in my laboratory, but I know that they view me with the same confused curiosity as they do the Silver King’s Skeleton Woman or Balloon-Headed Baby, although they do not have to pay to see me.

***

The Conservatory that houses the Amorphophallus titanum and an assortment of other tropical plants is a marvel. Carefully temperature-controlled, walking inside is like entering a bath house, although the occupants are far less objectionable. The air is thick and dry: if one were not accustomed one might feel in danger of suffocation. As I enter I am enchanted once more, as if this were the first time I had laid eyes on the splendour. The central aisle of the Conservatory is tiled in symmetrical squares of black marble, and beneath water flows, a man-made circulatory system pumping silently, never ceasing. On either side of the aisle the flower beds run parallel. The plants rooted here twist and reach, overlapping each other. As I move through the Conservatory, tendrils wind gently outwards and brush my cheeks. The interior is almost overwhelmingly green. At the far end of the Conservatory the corpse flower rears above the other, smaller plants, and as I approach I feel as if I am nearing an altar. My breathing comes a little faster as I take in the plant. The indigo spathe has peeled outwards from the spadix, which stands proudly, banana yellow. The corpse flower has bloomed.

If the world were to meet some catastrophe in this moment, I am certain that the corpse flower would remain, like a fossil, for whichever species came after humankind to rediscover, or not. I suppose this is a morbid thought.

“Miss Ives!”

I turn. I had not noticed the presence of another. Mr Hill must have been lurking. “Come to measure the ‘phallus again?” He smiles. He is standing beside his own obsession, the Madagascar Periwinkle. The plant has opened its first, tiny pink flower of the season, and it has been the talk of the Gardens staff. I have inspected the flower myself in private, and found myself unimpressed by the miniscule thing, as fragile as if it had been spun from sugar. 

I smile back. “Good morning, Mr Hill. Yes, I’m here to measure the Amorphophallus titanum. As you will have seen…” I gesture towards the flower. 

“Oh! I had not noticed. Perhaps you could once more bring your gentleman friend, the detective? Perhaps you could enjoy the enlargement together.”

I smile and dip my head, my fingers tightening slightly around the handles of my leather bag. “Good day, Mr Hill.”

Growing closer to the Amorphophallus titanum, I note that the stench of corpse has increased as expected. My stomach heaves but I do not stop. I must take in as much of the plant as I can; by tomorrow it will have wilted and sagged, collapsed under its own great weight. The blooming of the corpse flower is fleeting. I circle the plant slowly, admiring as I try to breathe in through my mouth only. Setting my bag on the ground, I remove my measuring tape, my notebook and pencil. I measure the rigid spadix from base to tip, and take the circumference at both ends. It is harder to measure the leaf-like spathe, but I do my best and note down the figures. I peer down into the spathe to observe the clustered red fruits clinging to the base of the spadix. Inside the fruits are the seeds, most often spread by birds, attracted by the flies, who are in turn attracted by the stench of the flower. Sitting, I make sketches of the plant, then rest for a while in silence, just watching. 

As I leave I pass again by the Madagascar Periwinkle. I pause, looking around. I am alone. I reach up, tracing the soft, round edges of the petal. My fingers close around the flower, gently at first, so gently that the petals tickle my palm. Then, like the Dioneae muscipula around a fly, I clench my fist around the flower, squeezing tight. I snap my arm back and pull the head of the flower from the stem, feeling a wrench inside me as if the plant were a part of myself. Without looking at the crumpled wreckage still in my palm, I fumble with the handles of my bag and shove the torn petals inside. As I depart the Conservatory I touch my hair, expecting it to be windblown and awry, as if I have undergone some great exertion, but it is still wound into a neat bun. I rub my palms together, brushing away any tell-tale remnants of pollen or stem, inhaling the fresh morning air.

***

At home, on the doorstep, next to the boot-scraper, is Toffee. She greets me with a small mrow. Beside her is a mouse, its tiny neck at an odd angle. Mrow, she says again, as if to tell me: this is for you. 

“Thank you,” I tell her. “But I’ll fend for myself. You should keep your mouse.”

I unlock the door to the apartment and she trots inside beside me, wending around my ankles. The mouse is bobbing between her jaws. I put down my bag and crouch beside her, stroking her black fur. She drops the mouse and begins to rumble gently, treading her white paws. Lifting her nose, she sniffs at my fingers, and sneezes twice. She must be able to smell the Periwinkle on my hands. I glance at my bag, and back at Toffee. “Come on,” I tell her, scooping her up. She does not seem sorry to leave her mouse behind. “I need to forage for sustenance.”

As the fish grills, I sit with Toffee in my lap. I wonder what my colleagues at the garden would say. She does not live with a man, just her and a cat! On the other hand, they might even be mildly relieved that I had only a cat, not a raven or a bulbous toad I fed at my own breast. Witch! I smiled to myself and leant back in the chair. Toffee snuggled closer, her tiny claws pricking my thighs. She had been born feral, a litter of five comprised of two tabbies, two black-and-white mixes, and one completely black. The mother had been a tabby. Toffee was still partially wild: she hunted for herself and vanished for days on end, came and went as she pleased. But she knew me, and trusted me, as I’d known her from a kitten. Despite her independence, she liked a soft bed and to be stroked. Her rhythmic purrs and the heat of the stove have a soothing effect, and I drift to sleep.    

I dream of a theft. Of infiltrating the gardens at night, blending into the shadows cast by the plants and glass houses. I know exactly where I am going. I follow the familiar paths and scents until it is before me. I kneel first, placing my palms flat against the cold stones, my head bowed. Then I begin to dig. With a strength I have only in dreams I uproot the corpse flower and carry it away with ease, retracing my steps back through the garden. The shade of Beccaria follows me, floating, hesitating, tugging at my sleeve. I brush him off and continue. I walk to Sumatra, carrying the plant against my stomach the whole way. It grows in my arms, spreads, blooms. When I find the place in the earth from where its ancestor was so cruelly taken, I finally rest. Set it down. And begin to dig once more. 

***

The next morning I awake with the dawn, still sitting in my chair. At my feet is a saucer bearing the remains of last night’s supper. Only a few needle-thin bones are left. I must have awoken to take the fish from the stovetop and check the coals, but the memory has been washed away by sleep. I cannot recall if I ate, or gave the fish to Toffee. The hollow feeling in my stomach lends credence to the latter theory. My dream, however, remains particularly vivid. Standing slowly, I gather the saucer and my bag. Crumpled against the lining of the bag are the petals of the Periwinkle. Setting the saucer down beside the sink, I take out the petals. They have already begun to lose their vivid pink, and in my hand they suddenly feel like scraps of withered skin. My stomach squeezes and I tip my hand, letting the petals drift to the floor like old confetti. I stare at them for a moment then turn away, stepping over the fallen petals. At the sink, I fill the kettle with water and begin to heat it on the stove. It is still early enough that I have time to draw a bath in my dented tin tub. My ground-floor apartment consists of only one room, divided by a concertina screen I purchased to give myself a sense of privacy and space. On one side of the screen is my small living room and kitchen, on the other is my bed, under which I keep my chamber pot and bath. It is meagre; the sort of apartment one might expect to find a young bachelor living in. In fact, the majority of the tenants of the building are unmarried young men and widowed old women. At home, as at Kew, I am an uncommon occurrence. 

Bathed and scrubbed but no more alert than at the moment of my waking, I clothe myself in a simple dark magenta dress, buttoning myself up to my throat. It would not do to show too much flesh today: I have arranged to take lunch with my friend the detective at midday, and I do not wish to fuel the fires of my colleagues’ lurid speculations. I gather my bag, overcoat and parasol, and step outside. To my surprise, Detective Greene is outside, standing at the foot of the path that leads up to the apartments. He never presumes to approach my front door. 

“Detective Greene!”

“Miss Ives.” He removes his hat and turns it anxiously in his hands. “I must apologise for this intrusion. I fear I will not be able to keep our appointment this afternoon. I thought I might accompany you to Kew, and explain myself.” I nod, and he replaces his hat, extending his arm. I rest my hand upon it and we begin to walk. My journey to Kew is not a long one, and in the summertime I make a habit of walking to and from the gardens. In the winter when the sun rises later and sets earlier, I prefer to take a carriage rather than walk the streets alone. My long friendship with the detective has deterred me against such behaviour. For a time we walk in silence. 

Then: “I’m afraid my wife is unwell. She has to… go away for some time, and today I must pack her belongings to go with her.”

I am not entirely surprised. Mrs Mildred Greene has always been delicate, having never quite recovered from the difficult birth of her third child. She and Detective Greene had been told she would not survive another pregnancy, and I knew this was a great source of distress to her. Last year she had spent some time away from London, with her sister on the coast, and her holiday had been the subject of much whispering. 

“Perhaps the sea air will do her good. I trust her condition is not serious?”

“Ah, well… She is not in Cornwall. She is still in London, in an, ah, institution. Miss Ives, you will forgive me if I get straight to the point?”

Detective Greene stops walking and takes me by the elbow, guiding me around so that we are facing each other. He takes both of my hands in his left, and removes his hat again with his right. 

“Miss Ives, you would be forgiven for calling this an… inopportune moment. However, I feel… I have for a long time felt… and I cannot help but wonder, if this might be the moment for you and I. That is to say… for us.”

I stare at his hands for a long moment. I imagine where they have been. Have those fingers pressed against a neck beneath the jawbone, hopefully searching for a pulse which is no longer there? Have they gently pushed shut the cold eyelids of a corpse? Us?

“Yes, Miss Ives. Veronica, if I may… My wife, I am told, will not recover and I thought…” He glances up from our clasped hands and falters. “I thought that we might… take this opportunity to…” Our eyes meet and he falls silent. 

“Detective Greene! I, I, I… Your wife! Your wife has been institutionalised, and you, you, you…”

I am aware that I am spluttering, inarticulate, reddening by the second, but my indignation is such that I do not spare a thought for appearances, or decorum, or that the ladies softly clicking along the street on the arms of their gentleman suitors are beginning to pause and murmur to one another. 

“Your sweet wife, who adores you and your children, is, is, and yet here you are, Detective, making this… Did you have her put away? Is that it? Did you tell them she was hysterical?” I tear my hands from his.

“Miss Ives!” He attempts to take my hands again but I step away and begin walking.

 “I am late for work, Detective. Good day.”

 I glance back once and see him still standing there, his mouth slightly open, his hat held loosely in his hands. As I watch he replaces it, straightens his jacket and turns to walk away. Small clusters of pastel pink and blue and yellow watch him retreat, heads bobbing and gloved hands gesturing rapidly. 

***

Inside my office Professor Shelton, curator of the gardens, is waiting. He is sitting at the work desk in my laboratory, idly sifting through the papers there. I frown: I am not in the habit of leaving papers out. He must have been through my drawers.

“Professor Shelton? Good morning.”

He rises, setting the papers down. “Miss Ives, good morning.” He settles back into my chair and gestures at the guest chair on the near side of my desk. “Please sit.” I hesitate, and slide into the guest chair. I am not accustomed to being treated as a visitor to my own office. 

“Miss Ives, I intend to keep this brief. I ask only that you allow me to say what I must say, and do not speak until I am finished.”

I nod, my throat tight. 

“Mr Hill came to me first thing this morning with a rather disturbing claim. It appears an act of vandalism has taken place in the tropical plants Conservatory.”

The Periwinkle. I open my mouth and he raises a hand to silence me. I can feel myself retracting, drawing myself in, making my body as small and compact as possible. I am ready for a blow. 

“The Madagascar Periwinkle has been destroyed. As you will be aware, this flower is Mr. Hill’s particular project, his favourite, if you will, much as the Amorphophalus titanum is yours. He informs me that you and he spoke briefly in the Conservatory yesterday, then he departed, leaving you alone with the plants. When he returned to view the flower this morning, it had been ripped from its stem.”

Professor Shelton pauses for a long time, watching my face. I work to remain expressionless. I wonder if I am permitted to speak yet. He takes in a deep breath. “It has not escaped my notice that your employment here has not been without difficulty. I am aware that, as a woman and a scientist, you are viewed with a certain amount of…’ He trails off. Perhaps he does not think he ought to say how I am viewed.

“You have always been an excellent employee and a wonderful botanist–”

“How can you be certain it was me?”

“Miss Ives, I asked that you allow me to finish before you spoke.”

“With respect Professor Shelton, I have bitten my tongue for long enough. Tell me, how can you be certain it was me?”

He sighs. “Miss Ives, there is nobody else it could have been. All staff promise me that they did not enter the tropical conservatory yesterday, with the exception of Mr Hill of course. None had reason to. Mr Hill and yourself are the only frequent visitors to the plants there.”

“I see that you have taken their word as truth. Why not mine?”

He closed his eyes. “Mr Hill has divulged to me that he may have… made some rather off-colour jokes, which he fears you may have taken to heart. Please be assured that he will be disciplined accordingly. But I cannot allow this kind of petty destruction of rare specimens to go unpunished. Miss Ives, I am sorry. You must gather your belongings and leave now. Your employment at Kew Gardens is terminated.”

We stand at the same time. “You will give me a moment? To empty my desk? And I believe I left some measuring implements in the Conservatory.”

He hesitates. “I will wait outside. Then I will escort you to the Conservatory.”

I nod, and he shuffles past me. In spite of everything, I can see that he has not enjoyed what he has done today. My office does not take long to clear. I decide that my successor, whoever they may be, can keep the botanical illustrations I have hung from the walls and the indoor plants I have cultivated on the sill. I gather only my notes and place them inside my bag. I have not even had a chance to take off my coat. 

I depart my office for the last time and sweep from the room without waiting for Professor Shelton. He makes a little skip to keep up with me, and shadows me out of the staff building and across the lawn to the Conservatory. At the entrance to the glass structure, he moves as if to follow me inside. 

“Professor. Would you allow me a final moment of privacy? With the Amorphophallus titanum, I mean? I understand that you have no reason to trust me. But I feel I must say a final goodbye. Alone.”

He looks into my face for a long moment. I try to arrange my features into something that resembles penitence. After a long moment, he nods. I smile my thanks and pass through the glass door.

***

Two weeks later, my small apartment is empty but for the aged furniture. In the centre of the bare room sits my suitcase and a small metal cage with a carry handle. Toffee sits inside with watchful eyes. I enter from my makeshift bedroom and stand beside them, putting my fingers up to the cage. Toffee brushes up against them, purring. She has been remarkably calm during her confinement. I smile and stand up, opening my small purse to make a last-minute check.

Travel papers, stamped and clipped to a grey-and-white photograph of myself.

A small bundle of money, the accumulation of my pay from Kew.

A train ticket, departing from Kew Gardens Station at midday.

And lastly, nestled in a bed of tissue paper, a small red fruit. 

Like the Italian Beccaria, I am a thief. I had reached into the precious interior of the plant, into that place desperately shielded by those sagging, foul-smelling leaves. I had plucked away one of the seeds, and spirited it with me from the Gardens. It would go with me, this pulsing, potent thing, emitting a light and warmth all its own. It would be returned to the soil of its ancestors. And it would bloom. 

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