Contemporary Fiction Urban Fantasy

Caryota mitis, the fishtail palm. It’s a hard-to-please companion, requiring strong sunlight and plenty of hydration, but this stunning catch is worth tending to. Native to Southeast Asia, it is characterized by fanning, ridged leaves that approximate the shape of a fish’s tail, like a bouquet offered by the sea. An eye-catching specimen with character and presence certain to vivify any home.

“Good to know,” Cain muttered, stowing the info card and receipt in his pocket. He hefted the potted palm in his arms, emerging from the damp greenhouse vendor into the arid summer sunlight. In his car, he set the plant to rest at the foot of the passenger’s seat. It swayed coquettishly with the breeze as the car sped along, reaching up and attempting to caress his ear with its fins. Please, we just met, he quipped to himself. And anyway, I’m already taken. In fact, the plant was a gift for that lucky other, which would not placate the already-green Miss Caryota.

At home, Cain set the fishtail palm in a corner with two adjacent windows, right next to his cat’s cushy bed. The cat was very intrigued by its new neighbour, setting its nose to work on the fin-like palm leaves, perhaps hoping the plant tasted as good as it looked. Cain drenched the plant’s roots with warm water, proudly regarding the newest addition to the family. The afternoon sun glanced off the palm and painted the floor and walls a jubilant absinthe shade, composing a halo of verdancy.

Lowly nithings, liars, quellers

Out of thy broken fealty, godborn fury

Thy daughter be thine to shield

Break not her spirit

Cain closed his front door behind him, removing his shoes with a sigh. Stepping into the kitchen, he took his keys from his pocket, along with a tiny, balled-up candy wrapper, the remnant of a minor theft in his manager's office. He set the keys on the counter and binned the wrapper. The candy had been a disappointment – stale and grape-flavoured, probably purchased a decade ago – hardly worth swiping behind his boss's back, and petty retribution for the ten-minute lecture about a "lack of backbone and gumption" seen in the workplace. Ah yes, Cain had thought to himself as the boss droned on. Give it your all in every endeavour in life, especially when you're barely making enough to cover rent and the rising prices of gas no matter how much effort you put in.

As per a well-established routine, Cain's feline housemate deftly leapt onto the counter, batting the clanking key ring with the practiced paw of a musician. Cain rubbed its back softly, feeling assuaged by the sensation of warm fur under his hand.

He fetched a glass from the cupboard, filled it with water, and had almost sat down on the couch in his living room before he noticed Miss Caryota in the corner, radiant as always. He looked at the glass in his hand, a sudden thought surfacing: did I water the palm yesterday? He racked his brain but couldn't distinguish between the images of tending to the plant each day. It probably didn't matter, anyway; one day missed out of a week of owning it isn't bad at all.

He took one gulp of his water and poured the rest into the palm's bed of soil. It was then that he noticed some of that soil had found its way out of the pot, tracked as far as the opposite wall and stopping in front of the screen door that led to the backyard. "Are you getting your paws into places they shouldn't be?" he called, returning to the kitchen and taking his cat's feet in his hand; they were spotless. "Well, you sure clean up nicely," Cain muttered. He would take care of the dirt later tonight, before his girlfriend got back from her job.

He collected two more glassfuls of water for Miss Caryota and one for himself again, at last reclining on the sofa. He gazed at the fishtail leaves bobbing as though with breath. His girlfriend didn't care for the fin-like shape of the palms, which was the biggest blow to the whole endeavor. She said she still appreciated the gesture and it would add some colour to the usually dingy residence. Cain resented the notion that the house was dingy; they had plenty of windows, coloured furniture and Cain always kept the place reasonably tidy, so as to be as pleasant as possible for the both of them. With her spending so much time at other people's houses, Cain wondered if it was worth the effort at all.

Cain grabbed the TV remote sitting nearby and began to browse for something to watch, something to take his mind off things. As evening encroached and the sun dwindled, the wall behind the couch took on the muted blues cast by the screen, aquamarine smears stretching far above the shadow of Cain’s head.

Blight upon this earth

Cower not from thine oath

All mine might, the sword of my kind

Seeks out thy barest infidelity

As a viper outside the warren

Cain placed his phone on his dresser, rubbing his eyes to soothe the blue-light strain. His head had been in a spin for the last couple of weeks, his search history full of mentions of "online therapy" and "depression symptoms" and "signs of a failing relationship." It wasn't a pretty sight, and neither was he. Most of his days played out in rote monotony. He no longer joked and conversed with his co-workers, choosing to perform his tasks in glum solitude. His nights consisted of takeout food, binge viewings of mindless reality TV and drifting straight from the sofa to his bed with little care for his normal hygienic routine. He developed the habit of ignoring his mother's calls for days on end, returning her messages with weak apologies when he felt she couldn't stand the cold treatment any longer.

Even sleep did not offer the same refuge it once had. Lately, he'd been having recurring dreams of a great shadowy force that threatened to drain the blood from his body and sow the lands with it. It left Cain with a racing heart and drenched clothes as he woke from the oppressive nightmare hours before his alarm. He'd searched that up too: "recurring violent nightmares." He was willing to take advice from any hokey website he could find at this point.

He flopped onto his bed, hoping his muscles might relax. On the bedside dresser stood a glass of water. His mind flashed to months back, cheerily filling the cup to satisfy his new tenant, the lovely Miss Caryota. She was vibrant then, she spread positivity then, her whispered laugh was contagious back then.

How long had it been since last he whet her thirst?

Cain's lungs extolled a hurricane. He would water the palm first thing tomorrow. It was an iron-clad promise to himself. He would.

A vibration from the dresser called to him. He reached over and checked the display of his phone. 10:38pm. His girlfriend's name was there. She'll be staying at a friend's house tonight. All week, in fact.

That's good. That's good.

Cain's consciousness slipped away slowly as he bathed in the screen's light, until the phone fell from his grasp, sending its illuminating rays into his chest. A poisonous white-blue, toxic to the mind and the soul, casting brilliant light waves, unnavigable and towering and scalding and chilling and enlightening.

Daughter of sylvan sea

Mine heart, it is not easily beset

Thy thirst and thy cries besiege Mother

Mine heart is wider than this kingdom

Cry to me until thy return

It was now the last night.

Cain did not move. He lay in his bed as though he were a part of it. A thousand years of shifting atoms led his limbs to rest where they did, immovable as the earth. His eyes were windows into a shell. His mind watched itself watch itself in a telescopic arrangement unto infinity, never reaching individual thought. If the world really did spin as he had been taught his whole life, would it not leave him behind, rooted in time and space?

The ambient throb of these self-indulgent musings filled Cain’s head, where nothing concrete could take shape. He would lie dreamless until the heat-death of the sun made its molecules and his one and the same.


His tethers to this life were weakening. Many had snapped, and his finger was on the pulse of the last moorings, vivacious lifeblood gaining leaden viscosity.


Cain’s right eye twitched.

Thump-thunk. Mrrr-YOWW-hissssssss.

He felt the universe move with him as his head turned in the direction of the sound, down the hallway. His form was still his own, his responsibilities tangible, for now. Rising like Atlas after his eternity of toil, he moved to the living room, to the garden, to calm the vigilant Ladon and behold his darling Hesperide.

Dry, crumbling earth spilled out of the toppled black pot, scattered across the floor in constellation patterns. The cat would not enter the earthen star field, arching its back and voicing its fear and displeasure with considerable volume. At the centre of the celestial cascade, sprawled lifelessly with her feet still anchored in the inert soil within the upturned planter, was a small girl. Cain couldn't tell if she was a child or a diminutive woman, but she was only as large as the palm that once stood there. Thin limbs the colour of ash were splayed with abandon, tipped with brittle, yellow-green fins. Leaves of the same fishtail variety joined like plate mail around her body, forming a petite dress. Her hair was woven from green, budding stems, and her face was sculpted from many more stems, aged and fused and now deadened. Her features might once have been flexible, evergreen, personable.

Cain stared for what might have been an eternity at the lifeless nymph. This being before him was the only truly real thing. Everything else fell away, and he became Atlas, tired and aching and mournful. His daughter, nymph of the evening, without name, lay as a testament to his failures. He'd been away too long. The sky asked too much of him for too many ages.

Atlas knelt by her. Ladon mewled sorrowfully. He was not to blame. He was powerless, a shamefully weak creature. Atlas bore the blame. He needed now to bear his child to a resting ground, away from this man-made Asphodel.

She curled gracefully next to her father as their chariot sped under watch of Selene and Mother Nyx and all the celestial bodies. Their frowning glares were felt heavily on Atlas' shoulders, but his back was straight. He would meet his fate with regal admittance of fault. He would not shy from his just punishment.

He cradled the fragile dryad in his great hands as he entered a murky thicket, reaching out in the darkness without fear. The trees, the shrubs, the grasses, they bent in as Atlas passed. Their leaves and blades were open like ears, their roots reaching up as if to embrace their parted sister. The entire wood was alive but still, silent, breath bated, awaiting a verdict. They saw death in Atlas' arms. Her scent was dry and tainted. Someone would answer for it.

Atlas stopped after much walking. He set the dryad on the ground, carefully arranging her in a peaceful pose. He stood, and the forest breathed at last.

No wind blew, but the trees and the shrubs and the grasses came alive like fire, trembling and swaying and crying out. The forest was one in its mournful anger. The nymph on the forest floor was surrounded by flowers of every conceivable colour and roots and vines wrapped around her, cocoon-like. She was slowly pulled into the grass and dirt, assimilated into her people once again, at peace.

The dryad was gone. Atlas' next breath was Cain's. A gasping, mortal flush of air. He saw clearly, and he could not bear what he saw. His blood rushed like the greatest gale wind, skin under siege of a million insect legs. His mind became a shaded fog, and a great presence alighted upon him, filling his skull to the point of fracture and echoing the fearsome oaths of his dreams. It was all torment, all insanity, all death, all wrath, all nature, all darkness, all truth, all void, all weight, all his own to keep.

Daughter of my queen

Sister of mine brothers

I hath taken vengeance on thy behalf

Be at peace in our embrace

And forgive me.

April 30, 2022 03:55

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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