Vines

Daniel Bennett

Illustration by Alex Maniezo

The vines crept through the fabric of East City one summer night, the seed falling over us silent as snow. Once landed, the roots took hold through brick, concrete or slab, emitting a moist chewing noise as the seeds exploded into their complexity. Moonlight seemed to provoke them into a state of frenzy, but the vines grew calmer during daylight, almost sluggish in their state of strange photosynthesis.

The first morning, Dolores and I picked through the garden of our house near the park. Although the vines propagated themselves along fine green tendrils, these grew quickly into stronger cords, as thick as a finger, with the heaviness of wet towel. The lengths flared with spotted white-and-purple flowers, and we watched as they consumed the existing plants: the rosemary and thyme bushes Dolores had planted for a kitchen garden, and the ancient hydrangea which we tended to grudgingly, as a totem of the previous occupant’s hold over our lives. We wandered around that morning in a state of confused excitement, like earthquake survivors traversing an exotic park. I expected the vines to smell of tomatoes, that innate fragrant fleshiness, but instead they possessed a powerful, earthy odour, like some kind of mushroom.

These were the late days after the Work Lottery, what we thought of as a great rebalancing. To align society along a spirit of fairness, the population earned a set wage, and we found ourselves ascribed our lifelong careers through algorithmic whims. People who had been homeless moved to running great corporations. Executives worked in crematoria or dog hospitals. Everyone had a right to appeal, although the process was rumoured to be Byzantine in its bureaucracy and, even if one were successful, the rewards involved either joining the military or handling the appeals process. 

These changes, laughable in their intentions, left the course of normal life mostly untouched. Our population had become numbed by a series of disasters – the avian flu, the civil war and the cult of the Death blogger, the fleeting appearance of the White Ship – and we surrendered to the fate of the Lottery. We were shuffled in our pack and allotted tasks to carry through for the rest of our days. The vines were only the latest drunk dream inflicted on our population. 

My ticket from the Work Lottery identified me as ‘Shop Owner’, which more or less made sense, as I had worked in the same music shop since moving to the city. As one of the stipulations of the Work Lottery involved changing jobs, however, I set out for myself and opened a bookshop in one of the vacant lots on the edge of the park. In truth, there was little call for books in that area, where the population was only just recovering from being decimated by avian flu, but I developed a loyal, albeit lethargic, clientele and made money on the side selling kombucha and ginger beer, which I brewed in the backroom. When I needed to replenish my stock of books, I spent weekends sorting through the ruined areas further south, picking out paperbacks and comic books and generally living like a geek archaeologist.

If the Work Lottery had treated me relatively well, Dolores – my poor Dolores – found herself ascribed the role of an insurance administrator. ‘You often ask yourself what you’re meant to be,’ I remember her saying. ‘Painter, pawnbroker, horse trainer, dermatologist. You count up the possible forks of your life. And now, I know. This is my calling.’

The appearance of the mysterious flora had disrupted our quotidian routines, but Dolores still needed to go to work. I needed to go to work. The city needed to work. That first morning, we parted, not yet understanding how our lives would be changed, but knowing implicitly that a pattern of chaos was the only constant in our lives. 

My normal route took me through the park. The vines had already invaded this stretch of open ground, swarming over the tennis courts and creeping along battered oaks and box shrubs. As I reached the top of the hill, with its views across the financial district, I saw how the vines had taken hold across the whole city, where even the bases of skyscrapers had been covered with their restless, incremental accumulation. Around me, the morning traffic of the park stopped to appreciate this sight: the old people out on morning constitutionals, the young parents with their children on the playground, the jiu jitsu class which made mortal combat around the bandstand. Everyone stood aghast, in a state of perpetual, confused wonder. Gradually, the vines set about reshaping the city we had known. 

The day at work was relatively calm. I’d chosen my shop on the edge of the flu quarter in order to capture a growing market, as people moved into the city from the country to fill these empty houses. That, at least, would have been my elevator pitch to any prospective backers, although it hardly helped footfall into the shop. The vines were less prevalent in this part of the city, perhaps something to do with the lower ground. I spent the day re-reading The Day of the Triffids, looking for survival tips. I saw no one during the day except a pale, agitated man who hung around the horticulture section seemingly in desperation. When I walked back across the park, the city had shifted ever so slightly. The vines had absorbed our hard definitions, allowed things to blur. 

It took Dolores nearly three hours to get home that first evening. I cooked up a meal of pasta and aubergines as I waited for her to arrive. As daylight faded, vines began to flop against the kitchen window, the petals of the purple and white flowers pressed against the glass like suction cups on an octopus’s tentacle. 

I expected Dolores to be angry by the time she got home, but if anything her mood was something close to exhilaration. She explained how all public transport had failed, and she had walked for most of her journeys, navigating new pathways created by the growth of the vines.

‘Don’t worry. I enjoyed it. I’m so bored of my commute, it helps to have something new. What did you cook for dinner?’

Over the next few days, we listened as people debated the origins of the vines. Some claimed they were alien in origin, others that they came from the earth, as a kind of antibody to protect Gaia from its malignant infection (that’s you and me), others that they were a new kind of warfare, either bred by domestic or foreign forces. Early tests on their origin proved inconclusive, or so conclusive that no one wanted to admit anything to us, who were caught up in the centre of this anomaly. 

We heard reports of the city being annexed and contained, of great military manoeuvres sealing off the surrounding countryside. People spoke in whispers of the insurgency and the rebellion, and I imagined febrile meetings occurring in basements rooms, where plotters talked about action and resistance. We began to refer to the city as a ‘zone’ delighting in the chilliness of it, although normal life continued more or less as before. Apples became scarce, and it became insanely difficult to find ink cartridges. Apart from that, our lives were blissfully intact. 

Soon, our thoughts turned to more practical measures. The vines caused irritation, and complexity, but seemed mostly benign. What to do with them? People had tried weed-killer and fire to clear them, but the vines proved hardier than anyone had expected, standing up to even the strongest acids and agents. You could chop them with machetes, but new growth only spewed out, with renewed fury. The city attempted a clean-up operation, although the success of this was partly affected by the lack of a specialist services department, the work services algorithm not having predicted the appearance of a strange, mutant plant. Other citizens found further uses for the vines. I heard stories of brave souls who tried eating the vines, cooking up vine gumbo or vine bigos or vine minestrone. Nothing seemed to happen to these brave pilgrims, and gradually, in underground circles at least, the vines became celebrated as a cure for hunger. Although it went unreported, Dolores and I knew of friends who had tried smoking the vines, or fermenting them into a potent mash. For as long as there has been a natural world, humans have looked to derange themselves through it. What visions would be inspired by these intoxications, I couldn’t imagine. How do you hallucinate in a world given over to dreams?

The appearance of the vines had distracted Dolores from her boredom at work, but this was only a brief respite and soon her old disappointments reasserted themselves. It struck me that by growing accustomed to the vines, we were allowing ourselves to fall into their logic. Incongruous and strange at first appearance, the vines looked to invade and consume, until they replaced everything else, and so the strange became the norm. 

‘How was work?’

‘I filed. That’s what I did. How about you?’

‘No customers. I spent most of the day reading.’

‘You trouper.’

Dolores had always resented the life I had made for myself after the Work Lottery, blaming me implicitly for the banality of her chosen profession. I knew (or at least, I felt I knew) that this was only a pose, the sort of friendly rivalry that any couple might adopt over time. 

‘It comes to something when a person has to consider hospital administration as a dream job,’ she went on. ‘At least I might have contact with people in hospital administration. Their deaths might affect me. I might actually care.’

In the mornings, she started rising early, tending to the vines. Whereas I had hacked at the vegetation with an indiscriminate carnage, Dolores cultivated the vines with a patient care. She snipped at the thinner tendrils with a pair of dainty nail scissors, and soon, I saw, she had found a way of forming topiary out of this rogue plant. Daily, I found myself offered new shapes. At first Dolores restricted herself to the banal: dogs, cats, balloons, peacocks. Gradually, however, the shapes took on a greater complexity: a human form, a canoe, a palm tree. I knew that Dolores had achieved a new level of sophistication when I came down one morning to find a model of the White Ship formed out of the living vines. The indomitable spirit of the creative forced into the drudgery of work: this was the subtext of Dolores’s story. 

These new developments were not without their cost. Dolores began the day tired and drawn, already listless and spent, having worked through the night on her creations. 

‘What happens if you get fired?’

‘You know what happens. I get passed on to some other insurance firm. None of it really makes any difference.’

I would awake, alone in bed, and part the curtains to find Dolores down in the moon-soaked garden, hard at work on sculpting the vines. And it occurred to me, the number of other times I had similarly awoke alone, to find her staring at a space above the kitchen cabinets, or lost in a dream of the bathroom ceiling, or dozing on the sofa in the living room. My Dolores was unhappy, I mean to say, and the vines had come to her during a moment of crisis. Had they provided the solution? And where did I figure in what came next?

One evening, I returned home late. Even the dream life of the small business man will inevitably be interrupted by the auditing of accounts. The procedure would be all the more painful, as my auditor had once been a famous rock singer before the rebalancing of the Work Lottery. He called himself Vlad The Auditor, wore a single leather glove and a cut-off leather jacket, and punched the air whenever he found an error over shrinkage.

The lights were out in our little house as I opened the front door. I pushed my way into a hallway, which felt unseasonably cold. Dolores stood amongst the vines in the back garden, putting the finishing touches to a topiary of an anatomically correct human heart. Revelling in her new found artistry, she had designed this piece to swell and recede in time to the vines’ natural movement. 

‘How long did this take?’

She shrugged. ‘Not very long. I’ve started to get a feel for the vines. Or rather, they’ve got a feel for me.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe I’ve domesticated them.’

‘Do you think that’s possible?’

‘I don’t really care what’s possible.’

The tone of her voice took me by surprise. I hadn’t realised that I would be entering a conversation between artist and idiot. Before I could reply , Dolores began to cough. 

‘I’m sorry. I’ve got something at the back of my throat.’

The cough took hold. I saw the way something shifted in her eyes, alarm turning to panic. I thought I saw shreds of green at the corner of her mouth. 

‘Are you OK?’

‘I’ll be fine.’

‘Dolores…’

‘It’s nothing. I’ll lie down, go to bed. It’s just been a long day.’

Of course, I followed Dolores upstairs to make sure she was comfortable. As soon as she lay down in bed, she ordered me to leave, claiming I was fussing, reading too much into things, honestly did I have to spend all my life so afraid? I tidied up the house before heading upstairs. I thought about Dolores, and her exposure to the vines. I thought about the Work Lottery, about my little bookshop over the park. I thought about how I’d always dreamed of owning a bar. A little place, on a side street, where the jukebox played Hawaiian guitar music and Krautrock, where we decorated the booths with neon and fairy lights, and pictures of Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda and Zelda Fitzgerald and Bruno Shultz and Blossom Dearie. Through the grubby windows we would watch wet winter nights slide by, warm in our phantasmagoric retreat. The drinkers would order cocktails with maraschino cherries or rare bottled beers, and would never, any of us, make any money. 

Dolores lay curled on her side of the bed, when I finally headed upstairs. She wore her underwear and the Black Sabbath T-shirt she’d owned since she was a teenager. I kissed her on the side of the face, although she didn’t stir. Her skin smelled faintly of mushrooms. 

That night, I dreamed of a world untouched by our blights, where order was necessarily allowed to flourish without exogenous demands. In the dream, I found myself in a huge room of wooden shelving with minute drawers. My task involved placing a single red counter in each numbered drawer. I had nearly finished when I awoke. Dolores’s side of the bed was empty, the only trace left behind a shape in the sheets. 

Dawn rose beyond the apartment blocks looming over us, rising in bands of orange and yellow and pink over the garden. A jet plane inched along the chromatography of morning, a little haphazardly it must be said, perhaps as it was being flown by a pilot newly appointed from the Work Lottery. I walked out of the back door, to find the vines coiling throughout the back garden, consuming all surfaces, a softly undulating carpet. At the centre the vines rose into a rigid column, dense with purple and white flowers. As I approached, the vines parted like some great banana, and I saw Dolores standing at the heart. The vines had woven through her hair, and covered her legs and chest (I could only make out the letters ‘A-K AB-AT’ on her T-shirt) and curled around her wrists like bangles. She flicked a finger, and a vine moved towards me, its heaviness animated, given a daintiness and fragility. The vine stroked my cheek, its sticky surface tagging at me slightly. As I tensed, the vine tensed, and when I relaxed, the vine bent and unbent and wrapped itself around my waist. I found myself lifted off the ground, pulled towards Dolores, until we faced each other in the green silence. She smiled. 

‘I’m not going to work today.’ ∎


Daniel Bennett was born in Shropshire. After studying American and English Literature at the University of East Anglia and the University of Colorado, he moved to London, where he has lived ever since. His first novel, All The Dogs, was published in 2008, and his fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines both in print and online. His sf novella, Requiem for an Astronaut was published in 2021 by New Con Press. He lives with his family in East London.

Alex Maniezo is a Brazilian illustrator and journalist who lives deep in the woods with cats, dogs, guans, and old people. He started drawing cars on his grandma’s wall and then proceeded to the Quanta Academia de Artes where he learned the ropes of his craft. He is also the author of the book A Estrela Preta e Lugar Nenhum, which doesn’t yet have an English version. He dreams of becoming either a wrestler or Frank Quitely, but so far has done neither.


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