At one with the bracken

It started with a slow itch and a dryness of the skin. Scratching made it worse. It felt like someone had my face against a cheese grater, and was slowly removing the layers of my skin, little shaved chunks at a time, but over several days so that the wounds would form scabs and get to that annoying itchy stage only to be torn off. The process would start again. Of course I went to the doctor. Jesus Christ wouldn’t you? The pain was overwhelming, the looks I was getting not helping. I know I looked like a contagious medical freak. But I didn’t think I was contagious in the sense of having a cold or the flu. I’m sure it was contagious. Like a contagious skin thing. You would have to touch me to get it. No fear of that happening. No one had touched me for a while. Not in that way anyway. I had no family to speak of. Well not that I spoke to. They were all … how can I put this nicely? Assholes? Jerks would be a good descriptive word for them. Friends I had many, but I had not been out since this started. I was embarrassed. Perhaps a bit scared too. I didn’t want to answer awkward questions. For some reason I got it into my head that it was syphilis, though where I would have picked that up I don’t know. It was making a comeback as a VD though. Apparently.  

Anyway, back to my diagnosis. The doctor’s don’t know what it is. I have all the pills and all the creams. Nothing is helping. I’ve had all the tests and then some, but no answers are forthcoming. This is something new. I have a completely new disease. No one knows what to do. Bathing my face in water seems to help, but that has almost become a compulsion. I also seem to be obsessed with mud-masks. You know, skin therapy. You smear it on and then when it dries you wash it off? They seem to be the only thing that relieves my face for more than a few minutes. The itching and the pain. Like something is trying to force its way out. Rubbing ice against my face also helps, but I can’t do that all the time, plus it melts.  I’m learning to live with it. I guess that’s what you do when you have constant pain. You readjust the way you look at things. The way you live. You can only accept it and live in hope that something might change. A cure may be found, a procedure invented. 

That all started 6 months ago. Today everything changed. The first sprout appeared. At first I thought it was just a weird white hair on the side of my neck, but when I pulled on it the resulting pain was more than I could bear. I decided not to shave it off. I couldn’t risk another jolt like that. I flicked it with my finger and to my surprise I could feel it shrill with vibration. It was like a nerve or something. This was a new one on me. Hastily I called my doctor and made an appointment. I would need to get this checked out. I looked at my face in the mirror in despair. I was a young guy. Why was this happening to me? I hadn’t even really lived yet.  

The itching got worse throughout the day, and more ‘nerves’ appeared. It was like they waited for me to stop looking and then out they popped. I had an appointment with my doctor late that afternoon. The last appointment of the day. It was murder waiting for 4pm to roll around. Even worse when I got to the office and had to wait 30 minutes past my scheduled 4:30 appointment. Finally I was sitting in a chair across from her. She took one look at my new “whiskers” and frowned. 

‘Go right to the hospital, in fact I’ll call you an ambulance. Don’t drive. Leave your car here. Is there anyone I can call for you?’

‘Bloody hell, is it that serious?’ I asked in a strained voice, trying to stay calm.

‘I really don’t know Arthur, but I don’t want to take any chances. I don’t like how this is developing and I don’t want to risk this spreading to any other part of your body… or anyone else.’

‘Right,’ I said, stopping before I could say anymore. I didn’t know what to say anyway.

‘I’m sure it will be OK, you’re blood pressure is normal and other than this you check out fine. I don’t think it’s terminal, just weird for want of a better term.’

‘Well that is reassuring,’ I said sarcastically.

‘I’ll call the ambulance,’ she said getting up and leaving the room. Leaving me to stare at her medical diplomas on the wall and wonder why with all that training she couldn’t help me. I didn’t really blame her. After all I did have something new and undiscovered, but part of me resented her – resented all of them. Every medical person I had ever been in contact with. Resented them for not knowing. 

A few minutes later I heard the sirens off in the distance, and soon enough the red and blue lights were flashing in the window. It was time to go. The Ambos were under strict instructions not to touch me without gloves. White paper masks covered their mouths and noses. It was alienating. I felt like a specimen. I guess I was one.  
We reached the hospital about 10 minutes later. At least I got to ride in the ambulance with the sirens going. That was pretty fun. The female Ambo attending to me was asking the general questions the whole way there. How did I feel? Where did it hurt? Did I feel dizzy? And so on. At the Emergency entrance they popped me in a wheelchair (even though I insisted I could walk!) and wheeled me in. The fluorescent lights hurt my eyes for a moment as they adjusted to the stark white. The Emergency waiting area was a hive of activity, and I got no end of dirty looks as I was scooted past the waiters. Through the swinging double doors into a beige corridor. Down a hall, left, then right, then another hall, then into the elevator. I was being taken to the Contagious Diseases area to be quarantined. Just for now, they said, until they know what I had, how I got it and how to heal it. I was getting pretty anxious. I didn’t want to end up locked away. Trapped forever. They dropped me off in a room, and asked me to get changed. A clean, starched white gown was handed to me. 
‘Can we tell anyone you’re here?’ asked the nurse. I was thankful for that.
‘Yes, I’ll let you know, perhaps this can wait until the morning? I’m so very tired,’ I said, mainly to fob her off as nicely as possible. I didn’t want to bother anyone. I was embarrassed. And scared. If more people know that would make this my new reality. I wasn’t prepared for that yet. 
‘Ok, well you get settled in and we’ll be back soon with some dinner for you, would you like some water?’
‘Oh yes please!’ I replied, a little too enthusiastically, ‘water would be great, I’m parched,’ I smiled, trying to play down my early overreaction.
‘Sure, I’ll get you a jug then, oh and feel free to watch TV, there’s no charge for it in this wing, but please don’t remove the plastic cover on the remote OK?’
‘Sure,’ I said, and I must have looked sad or something because the nurse suddenly became very sympathetic. 
‘Oh please don’t worry hon, I’m sure they’ll be able to figure out what you have and how to treat it soon.’

‘I’ll be back with that water,’ she added shuffling out of the room in her paper covered nurse shoes.

The hours ticked by as I dozed on and off in the cool glow from the TV. Periodically people would come to poke, prod and generally examine me. I finally fell into a fitful sleep at about midnight, but was awoken shortly after by a strange rustling beside my bed. Opening my eyes I let them adjust before I tried to find where the noise was coming from. I didn’t have to look far. There was a woman sitting in the chair next to the bed, and a young girl not too far away. There was something wrong with their faces. I couldn’t really figure out what in the dark. 

‘Hello,’ said the woman, looking down at me, ‘you’re new aren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I answered, propping myself up on my elbow to get a better look at her. 

‘He’s not even got leaves yet,’ said the girl, moving in to get a closer look at me.

‘Yes,’ agreed the woman, ‘not even a sapling yet.’

‘Um, hello what?’ I felt I needed to say something. I hated being spoken about instead of spoken to. 

Then I realised what it was. What was odd about these two. What was wrong with their faces. At least half of their features, how do I describe this? Most of their flesh was not skin, it was like shrubbery. A mixture of leaves, branches, bark and berries. I sat up in shock, as though I was trying to physically move my body as far away from them as possible. 

‘What’s wrong with you? What are you!?’ I demanded, my voice rising in shock and anger.

‘Please try to stay quiet and calm, we don’t want the nurses to come running, we would have to leave then,’ she smiled at her own pun. 

‘But ..  your faces….’ I trailed off, not knowing what to say. 

‘Yes and some of our bodies too,’ said the girl.

‘We know what you are going through,’ said the woman, signalling for the girl to be quiet, ‘perfectly normal, mundane human beings, and then one day we started to feel it, the itching and the pushing against the skin, like something was growing, and well something was. Over the months we began to change, to sprout. We became something new.’

‘But how do you live like this? Surely people must want to?’ 

‘We can’t live among the norms now, no, no way,’ said the girl, shaking her head.

‘Mina please,’ said the woman, ‘look, my name is Silversa and I track down people like you, people who are changing, before the … authorities get too involved, before all the tests get out of hand, before the fear begins, I can offer you a new life, not far from here, where you can sit with your toes in the soil all day and just soak up the sun and water and simply grow. Until we really know what this is, this is the best we can offer you to hope for.’

‘She found me,’ smiled Mina, ‘and I’m glad of it. They really hurt me, trying to figure out what it was that was happening to me, they wanted to really cut me open, my parents didn’t want to know anymore, I was too much hassle for them, and the Sil turned up and took me away, it’s been good.’

‘So you think that’s what will happen to me? They’ll want to dissect me?’

‘Oh it all starts out empathetic enough, but as soon as the fear settles in they begin to talk of aliens and then it’s all over. You won’t be able to survive soon without access to sunlight and water, you’ll start to fade.’

This was all too much, but right then in my mind digging my toes in the soil, while letting the sun beat down its wonderful rays upon my head sounded grand. What should I do?

‘How long do I have do you think?’

‘One month, perhaps three? You’re roots are coming through and so your branches and leaves can’t be far off – we can come back if you like?’

‘Yes, yes maybe that’s a good idea, give me some time to think? This is too much, and I’m still so tired.’

‘We’ll come back in a week,’ said Silversa, patting my hand and signalling for Mina to follow her from the room. As soon as they were out of sight I drifted back to sleep and dreamt of overgrown gardens and squelching my toes in the mud. 

The week pass slowly, while my arms and legs became pock marked with bruises. I didn’t think I even had that much blood in me to test! Finally at midnight the following week, as promised Mina and Silversa returned. 

‘You have your first leaf!’ clapped Mina, obviously excited and very happy for me.

‘Yes, they’re starting to get really … worried about that,’ I said.

‘Told you,’ smirked Mina, looking smugly at Silversa, who unsuccessfully attempted to smile and frown at the same time. 

‘So have you decided?’ she asked.

‘Are we all the same… plants… or are we all a bit different?’ I asked.

‘Oh we are very diverse, and there are quite a number of us now, we have taken up residence at an old mansion, the owner of which is similarly afflicted so he’s quite happy for the company.’

‘And will we keep growing and changing?’ 

‘Who can say, this has only been going on now for about a year as far as I know, there may be more of us all over the world, we’re trying to find out if there are and if we can locate them now.’

‘And if we find them?’

‘I don’t know, I very much doubt the humans race will be very accepting of us… usually things that are different are perceived as a threat first, and then its all ask questions later. I would rather stay hidden and enjoy my time.’

‘Yes, yes that sounds good, I think I’ll come with you,’ I smiled, suddenly feeling the weight shift from my shoulders. 

‘OK, then grab your stuff and we’ll get going, we’ll have to sneak out I’m afraid but I  have a car downstairs.’

‘Alright then, let’s do this,’ I agreed getting out of bed. I was already dressed. A little too eager to go. 

‘He’s got his clothes on!’ laughed Mina, who found the prospect hilarious. 

‘Yes I can see, now shush, it’s time to go.’

We drove through the streets, while everyone slept tight in their beds and their humdrum worlds kept spinning. On through the night we drove until finally the sun began to rise. 

‘I thought you said it wasn’t far?’ 

‘Yes well, in the grand scheme of things it probably isn’t,’ smiled Silversa, getting out of the car and waving to a huge manor, ‘welcome home!’

I looked up at the grey house as it glowed orange in the sunrise. It was huge. More than enough room for an army should you need one. It felt as though everyone and everything was still asleep, as Mina showed me round the house and then to my room. Then they left me to settle in, promising to introduce me to the other when I awoke. Later outside in the overgrown garden, behind a tumbling old mansion I let the sun warm my skin, my new leaves, my roots and tiny branches. It was right. Yes, I thought, I can stay here. I think I would like that. 

This story was inspired by the amazing photography of Cal Redback. You can see more of his work on his website: