What Is It to Smother

K. Victoria Hernandez

Tammy Nguyễn

          The plants like to be sung to each morning. Paloma thinks, “It must remind them of the birds,” though there are no birds here and never were. There is the sky, the greenhouse, and the clouds that stretch into infinity. Sometimes, when the wind is strong and the clouds struggle to keep up with the current, she can see what lies beneath: a mountain summit, speckled with a hundred thousand nylon balloons, kites, toy rockets, and home-flown drones.  

          She wakes in a bed of vines. They make her bed and the floor where she sleeps. The vines still like her, or rather, respect her; they understand what it is to smother. Paloma is the only one keeping the vines from lining every wall and shrouding them in darkness. She thanks them for the night’s rest, but on the stairs she’s wary for stray, taught vines. 

          Paloma rises with a song and dusts the panes of her glass fortress. The light pours in and all the plants that have forgiven her turn themselves toward her voice. The others turn their backs. When she’s done dusting, she checks the pots to see if they need more soil, more water, more room. The earth that makes the house’s foundation is tough but fertile, and by the well there is clay. 

          When the sun is above them, she pauses to pluck a fruit from the guayaba tree, who pities her but can’t excuse the past. Fruit in hand Paloma thanks the tree for its kindness, then sits against the nearest wall, expecting nothing but cool glass and quiet. 

          A cacophony vibrates against her skin. Paloma places her ear to the glass and hears an engine coming her way. 



          The plants feel it too. They are dancing, reaching, humming in ebullience. A perfume wafts from the center of the greenhouse, smelling of smoke and sweetness. It used to be a pleasant smell, made just for Paloma. Now it reeks of rotten fruit and hot, dripping fat. 


          When Paloma first smelled HER perfume, she was flying. Was it a plane? It must have been a plane. She was its pilot—co-pilot?—flying for…to…why? A glimmer of glass had caught her attention, then the perfume. Paloma turned the nose down, pressed eject, and fell gladly from the sky. 


          It smelled like bread. Her mother’s bread, and clean linen hanging by a meadow, and camping by the sea. Yeast, lavender, burning wood—SHE is clever in her lures. When Paloma fell she fell into open hands of glass (so many hands, large like blankets) cusping her gently into themselves. They folded her in, in, in. 

          Little dove, come. 

          The hands dropped Paloma in front of HER. A giant red lotus with a stone pyre at its center where one may expect a steeple and pollen to be. The sweet perfume was gone, replaced by iron, bile, and burning hair. On the pyre was an offering—oh, his name was Theo. Yes, that’s right. And Paloma was his co-pilot. Mmm, that’s it. 

          The greenhouse holds plants that are long gone and plants yet to come. The common and the rare. The benign and the very, very clever. It breathes and it flexes and hungers like a god. Paloma, SHE calls, will you betray me once more?



          Paloma—like the vines—knows who her keeper is. She kneels before HER, spreads her palms against a single lower petal and leans in, until SHE alone is supporting Paloma’s weight. The formality serves as a reminder. 

          You have grown thin. 

          As penance for her betrayal, SHE stilted the fruition and seeding of every plant in the greenhouse, so Paloma could see how little there was to eat without HER. Paloma starved in a garden of abundance. Every plant that has and could ever exist, barren for an entire season. This pained the plants as well; many still spurn Paloma and refuse to offer her their fruit. At the end, too weak to stand, the vines brought her water to lick off their leaves, the newest fruit once it had ripened, and at HER bidding, carried Paloma to HER petals, so that she may thank her keeper for another year of living. 

          “Your garden is abundance,” says Paloma. The petal is warm and thin; veins of red flow underneath. 

          Then find me cacao, cinnamon, mint, sugar cane, and wood. 

          Paloma pushes herself off the petal. She must be faster than the plane. 

          The vines used to help her with this part. She collected some ingredients, and they would bring her others. Now they twist and slither about her feet, caress her hands, play with her hair. Sometimes they pluck needless foliage and try to embed it into her skin. 

          “Why?” Paloma asked one morning—in the starving year, her jaw tired from chewing on bark and the few vegetables SHE allowed to grow—when she woke naked (Why would you need clothes? What could you wish to hide?) facedown, fungi and ferns in her hair, mouth, crotch. 

          The vines did not speak but opened their leaves wider to photosynthesize. A cruel tease. 



          The cacao, cinnamon, and sugar cane are in the back by the ruins and rain tower, where there is plenty of space to grow. 

          Paloma knows what buildings are. She’s not supposed to. The names of plants, how to care for them, which are safe to eat and which are harmful—these were the memories she was left with. And the word greenhouse. To help her mind ease into its new home.  

          In the ruins Paloma walks between what’s left and gives them back their names: fence, playground, office park, pagoda. How they came to be here is beyond her. The explanation could be mundane, or amazing. Who can try to decide the beginnings and ends of extraordinary?  

          SHE tries. SHE took the beginning and made HERSELF the end.  

          There are some structures Paloma knows are flying things. Vessels and offerings. Most of them are planes, though, there is one space capsule that never made it back home. It was piloted by a dog; a lean offering for HER tastes. They crash at the greenhouse’s center, and when SHE is done extracting all SHE can, the vines place them here. 

          The tower has started its rain. Paloma runs and hisses “sprinkler” under her breath. She doesn’t know what it means, or why it feels like a taunt. Some memories are slow returning, clawing their way back up through a series of familiar serendipities. The ingredients in her arms remind Paloma of a cup. Or, rather, the drink that was inside the cup. It was a hot drink made with cinnamon, cacao, sugar and…and…it was thick, and it was made with something else. Something SHE can’t grow nor extract from HER offerings. 

          Paloma runs out of the backroom and the rain and smiles, always pleased by the knowledge that there are things SHE can’t possibly create, or make Paloma be thankful for. 



          In one room there are rows of herbs and edible vegetables. There are rooms for desert species, a tropics room, marsh varieties and alpine grasses. There is a large room in the west, rivaling the backroom orchard, that only holds flowers. And there is a hall—the circular passage between the rest of the house and HER, sunken at the center—that Paloma must never use for HER offerings. 

          Paloma walks between rows of potted herbs. The vines shift from above, making even wider windows to the outside. “don’t you want to see it?” they sigh. The plane is flying lower now. 

          Paloma finds the mint and pinches a short sprig from its base. She exits the room back to her corner in the front part of the greenhouse, where she keeps a tall stack of dry wood prepared. It will take several trips to bring all the wood SHE needs to the pyre. Paloma braids the ingredients into her hair and grabs as many logs as she can hold. 

          “look.” A vine climbs up her back and shoulder, holding something.  

          “You should have helped me gather the ingredients earlier, then I’d care to look.” Still, she does look. In its grasp is a small fruit, still attached to a bit of branch and the leaf that sheltered it. It looks just like, but is very much not, an olive. 

          “It was a mistake.” 

          SHE choked on the not-olive that day, missing HER meal entirely and losing several petals to illness. Paloma had made an attempt on HER life, so it seemed. It wasn’t a betrayal, but SHE would hear no excuses. 

          “don’t you want to know more? more than HER voice, HER garden, HER castigation?”  

          The glass of the circular passage is different from the rest of the greenhouse. It shines with an iridescent purple-black and reflects the hues of the plants back into the room. As Paloma passes through, her reflection follows in the walls, mosaicked with the green, pink, blues, whites of the living poisons around her. She thinks of the words newt, butterfly, and worm.  

          “don’t you feel smothered?” 




          The vines stop at HER chamber doors. 

          Between the south and eastern doorways is a small table with the tools needed to prepare for the offering. Mincing knives, mortar and pestle, cup of well water, flint stones, wood ax, tinder, kindling, and a very, very large bowl. Paloma stands with her back to HER and unbraids her hair, unloading the ingredients into the mortar. 

          The fire, SHE commands. Now

          She leaves the mortar and pestle at the edge of the table and takes up the very large bowl with flint stones inside. The limbs of the vines run around the outside of the chamber and watch, waiting to see if she dares. HER petal lifts her up. The pyre is ready. Paloma sets the bowl down at the center of the wood pile and strikes the stones. Above, glass hands have unfolded with their palms to the sky; the roar of the engine is deafening. 

          When she fell—Paloma asks herself—and saw what it was she was falling for, did she feel it was worth it? 

          The embers catch and Paloma returns to grinding the remaining ingredients down to fine dust. The fire is growing hotter; she finishes just in time to pour the perfume powder and water into the bowl. Standing in front of the doorway she watches the sky, the legs of her hair curling from the heat. 

          The vines are a still wall of open leaves. 

          “I couldn’t do it,” Paloma whispers. Behind her scalp is a braided knot the size of an olive. 

          “we know,”—Thin limbs wrap around her ankles, wrists, neck. From the other doorways she sees the vines emerge and climb up the walls of the chamber, the massive fire reflecting in their verdancy.—“but we couldn’t wait.” 



          SHE smells like sweet decay and hot sap. The vines are throwing all the forbidden fruits into the pyre. Paloma joins in, at first apologizing but then throwing harder and faster. The fire outgrows HER; the petals curl and catch, they seep red into the floor. Paloma fumbles back knowing that HER blood is, at best, scalding, if not entirely caustic. 

          She trips but doesn’t hit the floor. The vines still have her; their hands always there, grasping her wrists, guiding her feet, pulling on her hair. They catch her and they lift.  

          “little dove.” 

          Their limbs wrap around her body, folding her in, in, in. Paloma remembers the word clothes, and blankets, and straitjacket. 

           “can you hear it.” 

          Suspended far above HER now, she can see the greenhouse cracking. Palms of glass unfold their fingers, feeling out the air for some direction on what to do next. The vines are fast to respond, and the windows to the outside get smaller until they are nothing. Paloma watches them smother the dying greenhouse in darkness. She remembers the words cradle, womb, C section, stillbirth. 

          “they still want to know. do you?” 

          Their hands cover her eyes, turn her around in their limbs. She can no longer tell if she is being raised to the sky or brought down to earth. The light is gone but smoke gets through: every scent that has and could ever exist plumes into the sky. The plane will come, not because it is lured but because it is curious. The pilot will circle and see a dome of what their mind will say is glass, for lack of a better word. They will meet her, either with a rescue or a crash. 


          Milk. That was the word. 



K. Victoria Hernandez

K. Victoria Hernandez is a speculative short fiction writer, early career ecologist, and 2/3rd generation Latina. She attended the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop in 2018 and graduated with a B.S. in Ecology from UC San Diego the following year. Her work has since been featured in Cotton Xenomorph and Daily Science Fiction. She lives in Southern California, surrounded by books, plants, and a few minor poisons.

Tammy Nguyễn

Tammy Nguyễn is a multimedia artist that works with 3D animation, photography, and all things digital graph-x. A frequent collaborator with other artists and musicians (Nite Jewel, Harriet Brown, Ana Roxanne, etc.), her work is best described as deep-n-phunky.