The geese are drowning. My mother-in-law insists she can see the lake from her window. They’re diving headlong into the water, she says, never rising to the surface.
She’s always cooking up ways to lure me to the lake. She can’t leave the bed, knuckles obscenely white as she clutches her sheets, so she sends me in her stead. The lake has turned black and blue. The lake is burning. The geese are drowning.
The horses spook near the lake, so I tie my mare to the closest tree.
Daniel, who’s late and leisurely as he heads to the fields, laughs when he sees me unload my gun. “Again? What did she see this time?”
I give a smiling, helpless shrug. Everyone thinks my wife ran out on me a year ago. The greater crime, in their eyes, was leaving her mother behind.
The house belongs to my wife’s parents. For six generations, they’ve owned sixty acres of the land, including the lake. Their women are renowned beauties, with red hair that curls, possessive, around the fingers. My mother-in-law wore hers to the waist, plaiting it with cardinal flowers from the laughing-stalks. Her hair faded to a slow, cruel white after my wife disappeared.
There are no geese, not even a speck in the sky. Despite myself, I stare at the lake. The surface is still rippling. Leaves float, some green, some gray, like feathers.
I poke my gun between the laughing-stalks, parting them like a curtain. Slender and lanky as a teenage boy, they grow yearlong and bloom in the summer. When the petals open, laughter is said to echo for hours until they wilt by sundown, shriveled and brown, as if they’d been sucked clean of blood.
Some say the laughter is shrill and pleading like a child. Some swear it was deep, the belly-shaking mirth of a drunken bearded man. There’s a lot of superstition against swimming or fishing in the lake during the summer. Don’t go near the lake when the flowers are laughing.
The petals are closed tight, but when I touch them, they peel back and mouth at my fingertips, like lips wrapped around a secret. I need to cut the flowers before they bloom.
The petals clamp down, as if to draw blood. I yank back. A whine fills my head. The sound is unnatural and impossible. I aim my gun and pull the trigger, close to my ears. I can’t hear the bang, which means I’m awake. But the flowers are laughing. I fire again. The laughter seeps into my ears and crosses my eyes. Someone calls out my name. I haven’t heard anyone say my name since I lost my hearing as a child. It’s my mother’s voice. She stands before me, waist-deep in the lake, clutching my brother’s arm. They’re both drenched, my mother’s white shawl see-through with seawater. I feel arms wrap around me. It’s my wife, her chin on my shoulder, her red hair entangled and possessive—
My wife kept her hair short.
The gun has loosened, nosing the ground. The laughter is gone. The vision of my mother and brother vanishes. My veins have burned through the laughing-stalk’s toxin. These are parasitic, carnivorous plants that will pull out any trick to drag their victims underwater where the roots patiently wait. Free, I feel lonely.
Lovingly, a flower-man’s white boneless fingers wrap around my ankle. I kick away their limp grip and quell the desire to shoot them in the face. They’re harmless, my wife used to say. Aren’t they adorable?
Not if they’re in a horde. I count only three today, hidden amongst the laughing-stalks. A flower-man flops onto their back, flashing their privates, then their belly again. They can only crawl. Their skin is translucent with spidery, green veins. The dirt never clings to them. They’re pristine. Their hair is cardinal as my wife’s and her mother’s, and all the women in their family.
They’re pests. Symbiotic to the laughing-stalks. Daniel, showing off his strength, once cleaved a flower-man’s skull in two and from it spilled forth furry bees and butterflies with bent wings. The flower-men lure insects with their sweet scent and grab mindlessly at anything and put them in their mouths, like toddlers.
Sucking at their finger, the flower-man reaches for my ankle again. I’d step back, but the face of this one looks familiar. I want to crouch down and lift their chin with my fingertips. Those deep-set eyes and full lips. My wife preferred to close her mouth when she smiled.
My mother-in-law is on the floor when I return to the house. She pulls herself up, tangled in her quilt, with admirable composure and says, “Well?”
I’d forgotten about the geese. I thought she would have, too. I yank off my jacket and find a gray-green leaf in the hood, and hold it out to her. I sign that she must have seen the leaves floating in the lake and thought they were feathers, but my mother-in-law pushes away my hand.
“Did you see her?” she says.
Who? I sign, but she knows I’m playing dumb.
I grab her by the arms and drag her to the bed. It’s rather disgraceful, and she twists and screams. “Soon the wheat will burn and the horses will break their legs. If you don’t bring her to me, we’ll end up with another calamity like you.”
I have a hard time reading my mother-in-law’s lips, but I’m certain she called me calamity. She’s called me pest, curse, disease, since her daughter chose me.
No one was surprised when my wife left, but everyone was shocked she’d married me. I’m an outsider. My mother and I traveled across country to join my brother who was working in the fields as one of the village researchers. I used to tag along, a silent teenager with a rifle, and watch my brother collect the flower-men’s pollen. Sometimes I’d hold them down, so he could cut their stigma. My wife, who was engaged to Daniel back then, used to watch me.
It’s true, I have diseased my mother-in-law. As she flops onto the bed, the quilt pools to the floor. Her legs are brown and papery; the toes have long since crumbled away.
“Bring her back,” she gasps.
Please don’t cry, I sign to her. It’s unfair how much they look alike, mother and daughter. This is the face I would have seen every morning as we grew old together.
I’m sorry, I say, touching the tip of her braid, like a paintbrush still soaked in the blood I’ve spilt.
I wait until my mother-in-law is asleep before I return to the lake. My wife and I used to walk to the lake after sunset, even if it took hours. She told me stories about her family. When her ancestor was an impoverished young man, he used to work in another village. On his way home, late at night, he’d pass by the lake and hear the sounds of laughter. The laughter was so bewitching, he would search the reeds for the source but never found anyone.
One night, he heard a noise from the lake that wasn’t laughter. It came from a blood-red plant he had never seen before. The man peeled the thick petals open and found the baby crying inside, scalp stained red from the petals. He took the baby home. She refused milk or food, and would only sip water from a soft blanket. The baby grew into a girl in three days. The girl became a woman in two. She could neither speak nor hear nor see. The man married her.
Ever since, the laughing-stalks have invaded the lake. When the laughing-stalks fail to bloom, their bulbs wither and droop, sinking to the bottom of the lake. Days later, flower-men crawl out of the water, slick as newborns.
My wife yanked at her hair whenever she told these stories. She’d cut her hair short, close to her ears, after we began seeing each other. I used to pull her hand away and tell her about my old village and the ranch we used to own. The word for horse, I signaled above my head, then drew on her palm. I can’t, my wife signed back. “I don’t know what will happen if I leave.”
I never imagined I would stay in this village without her. The lake is all I have left. I visit it every night and feel a cold comfort whenever I see it gleaming, an unchanged silver.
I slow down as I draw close. The laughing-stalks used to stand taller than any man, their petals greedy and grasping, as if they’d swallow the moon. They’re dead now. They’ve all withered, the same parched brown as my mother-in-law. Their bulbs have sunk into the water, stems snapped in two. Bubbles tremble across the surface as one laughing-stalk releases choked laughter underwater.
Where have the flower-men gone? I comb through the grass and sift for tracks in the soil. Flower-men usually sleep like infants, napping during the day in fickle patches, waking up with startled jerks in the middle of the night. I once stepped on a dozing flower-man. Their mouth dropped in a silent scream that wasn’t quite fear but sheer irritation. I’d found them a little amusing, then.
Further from the lake, near the tree where I’d tied my mare this afternoon, I track down a flower-man, crawling. Oh, it’s that one. The one who looks like my wife, mouth pursed in concentration, as they grip the grass in clumps and pull themselves forward. As I reach for that face, the flower-man is yanked backward.
“A little help?” Daniel says.
He holds the flower-man by the ankle, an ax slung casually over his shoulder. I eye his ax, but he smiles. “Let’s bring her back to the lake.”
I feel like a teenager again, helping my brother in his field research. My gun feels cold and heavy against my back, as I lift the flower-man by the arms. Daniel seizes the legs which don’t end in feet. They taper into the slender tips of carrots and radishes, knotted with thick, confused roots. The flower-man doesn’t struggle, but they’re heavier than they look, as if their feet are tied to the earth.
The flower-men unnerved and spellbound my brother, who had intended to stay only a year to study the village’s frost-resilient crops. Every plant in the village grows red. Even the barley yields the softest, richest bread, stained pink. My brother never wanted to leave. But when he found out my wife and I were planning escape, he didn’t drag us before my wife’s family. He emptied his savings to bribe the captain and buy us safe passage, including his and my mother’s.
The guilt I feel toward my mother rattles every day and cuts me inside, but what I feel for my brother is smoother and heavier, like a stone that will always sink. I miss him.
Daniel drops the flower-man by the lake. I lay down their head, gently. Such a soft skull, the bone not quite fully formed. The flower-man flips over and carves a hand through the water. They smile open-mouthed at the ripples. Before I can recover my breath, Daniel lifts his ax and swings it down on the flower-man’s neck.
I knock away the ax with a swing of my gun. Daniel stares at me in pure astonishment, as if I’m the one who scared him.
“What?” He looks down. “Oh no. You don’t think this looks like her.”
He’s right. I palm the flower-man’s face and they close their eyes in contentment. Can Daniel blame me for my foolishness? I’m positive he doesn’t blame me for stealing his fiancée. He’s fond of me if only because he loved my brother. They were lead researchers on the same project, inseparable, as they tried to untangle the laughing-stalks’ delicate, parasitic hold of the village’s ecosystem.
Daniel rests his elbow against the handle of the ax. “I have to bleed her out. If I don’t bleed the lake, the plants start to die. After you took her, all the laughing-stalks shriveled up. Then the grass. The trees. Even the little potted plants inside our homes.”
Is there nothing we can do? I sign. The flower-man has already grasped my finger, like an infant does a newborn mother.
“We’ve tried cattle and sheep. Even a bit of our own blood. We could try bleeding your mother-in-law,” Daniel adds idly. “See if that’ll quench. But everyone decided it was too risky.”
My wife told me when her great-great grandmother passed away without bearing a daughter, her death unleashed a plague on the village. The blood-red crops turned white, then crumbled to dust, even as the rain taunted them overheard. More than a quarter died of starvation and illness.
“Some people think she’s still out there, alive somewhere,” Daniel muses. “They think she used you and then left you.”
I smile foolishly again. Daniel returns a brotherly smile. “You wouldn’t have come back if she did.”
I don’t have the words to comfort Daniel. I could sign to him that my wife didn’t take the idea of escape lightly. She’d mourned her family, her home, even her ex-fiancé. “Daniel has always been good to me,” she said. Everything she had ever known she’d left behind. Before we’d even boarded the ship, she was quaking, and whispered of dizziness and nausea. My brother checked her pulse, which was faint. My mother, who had never warmed to the village, was happy to fuss over my wife, promising it was just nerves.
“Why did you come back?” Daniel asks.
I stroke the hair from the flower-man’s face, which echoes my wife’s and of course her mother’s. The flower-man clasps my hand. Their touch is so weak. When my wife kissed me, she liked to pinch my ears. She said I had very small ears and she found that lovely. The flower-man kisses me on the lips. Their breath smells of overly sweet flowers, as if I could be drunk on them. Their kisses wet their lips with my tears. I nod at Daniel and brace myself for the swing of his ax.
But Daniel drops the ax. He grabs the flower-man by the shoulder and turns them over. He looks stunned. “Breasts,” he says, and for a moment I want to giggle because the word is so innocent.
The flower-man’s chest is no longer concave but heavy and full. Their genitalia have subtly withdrawn and peeled open. Daniel reaches for it. The flower-man’s eyes clear, as if a fog has lifted, turning bright and sharp. Their teeth latch onto his throat. Daniel’s jaw drops. He must be screaming. As the flower-man suckles blood from his throat, their hair grows red and long, swelling past their shoulders. Their root-like limbs tremble in ecstasy, probing the air blindly.
Daniel wrenches the flower-man away and with them, a dangerous chunk of his flesh between their blunt teeth. I seize Daniel’s ax, but he shouts at me. “Don’t kill it,” he seems to be saying. “Don’t kill the—don’t kill the—”
I misread his lips several times until I realize he’s mouthing “womb.”
The flower-man flops onto their back, peering up at me, eyes guileless, mouth red. My wife, as she’d clutched my hand on that ship, had made me promise. As we drew further away from her village, her hair had faded and turned brittle-white. Her skin wrinkled into coffee-stained paper. She vomited wet black soil and dead gray worms. I tried to have the ship turn back, but there was a storm coming. In uprooting my wife, I’d killed her. The storm might have taken my family, but I’d taken my wife. I’d committed the same crime as her ancestor, the man who took the baby from the laughing-stalk and cultivated her into his wife, so she could bear him infected children.
Dying, my wife had signed to me and made me promise. Cut down the flower-men before they flower into women.
When I lift the ax, the scream is startling. Sound has never been a part of my world, except when I was hallucinating from the laughing-stalks’ toxin.
It’s coming from the lake. The flower-man quakes, as if terrified. They’re trying to crawl away again. Daniel is still and pale, but breathing. I hold onto the ax two-handed but loose in my grip and wade into the waters, past the laughing-stalks. When I’m waist-deep, I find a single laughing-stalk, budding. It has sucked away the life of all the stalks surrounding it.
The screams sound muffled. I peel away the petals, velvet as flayed skin. Inside a baby is screaming. Their scalp is dyed red from the flower. Their eyes are clenched shut.
The ax trembles in my grip. My wife would whisper, Cut it down.
Not with an ax. An ax is too cruel. I’ll wrap my fingers around their throat.
The baby stops crying when they feel my touch. Their sightless eyes find mine. They grasp at my hair and tug. Their cheeks round as they laugh. I can hear them laugh.
“Oh,” I say. “Oh, oh.”
The baby’s fingers open and close. I hold the baby by the softest part of the skull and cradle her in my arms. I smell the top of her head. Sweet as rotting flowers.
My mother-in-law should be waking up soon. She’ll tell me the geese are drowning. The lake is burning. The village is sinking. But when she sees this baby, tears will fill her eyes because no matter how much we render the world to pieces, the world will find a way to dig deep and burrow into the soil, and sleep, then wake and laugh and live.
The baby tugs my hair again. Don’t worry, I tell her. You’ll grow beautiful, long red hair someday.
Lorraine Bubar is a native of Los Angeles, California. She studied at UCLA and Yale University where she studied animation. She worked for many years in the animation industry, animating television commercials, special effects, and feature film titles. Her short animated films won awards at film festivals around the world. Her watercolor paintings have always included her animation sensibilities: the passage of time, movement, and metamorphosis. Bubar exhibits her artwork across the country and has also illustrated projects such as a calendar published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a children’s book, Lullaby, with words by the songwriter Debbie Friedman. For many years she taught animation, drawing, and painting. Her love of hiking and beautiful places has lead her to Artist-in-Residencies at Denali, Zion, Petrified Forest, and Lassen Volcanic National Parks.
Silvia Park is a writer from South Korea. She’s a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction won the 2018 Fiction Prize from the Sonora Review, and is published in AAWW, Joyland, Tor.com, and the 2019 Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.