The taste of dirt coats the back of her throat, sticky soil and nutrient-dense mud grit in her teeth like blackberry seeds. Aileen does not remember when she last ate a meal to satisfy her own hunger, so all she feels is the dirt clotting her tongue and esophagus. After swallowing the teeth that were not hers, she drank a jar of water and yet the rot of soil still clings to her mouth. This is her least favorite part of her job.
She is letting the teeth root in her stomach, fertilized by the bile and acid that breaks down what it can and sheds the rest. The teeth will grow strong and soon they will be ready to be picked. She imagines what the teeth will become. Once, a pair of molars bloomed a desert rose, hardy with luscious flowers and toxic sap. Another time, an incisor gave root to an alocasia polly, all angular and indigo leaves, veined with pale pistachio. Aileen has not yet figured out the pattern, why certain teeth sprout differently than the others. She accepts she might never.
Born from moss and a forgotten god with a penchant for eternal punishment, Aileen is the best at what she does. And even if she begrudges the process, she enjoys the benefits. People here trade what they can, and Aileen’s clients appreciate the beauty in long-extinct plants and flowers. Dahlias with petals like cosmos, stars bursting forward in symmetrical symphony. Cupped tulips with stalwart petals. Sunflowers with large eyes that watch the sun. English ivy that climbs and clings. Monsteras fenestrated to provide light. Aileen wishes to grow redwoods, jackpines, but knows her body would refuse it. She wishes to be large and expansive and to grow full forests. But she cannot. So instead, she grows what she can, gardens inherited from her own skin cells and hair follicles. While the world itself no longer remembers the genetic code needed to grow sturdy stalks, her body does. Of the ground and water, Aileen’s blood contains the markers for the lost flora. She is rare. Her services expensive.
And while Aileen swallows teeth pulled from malnourished gums and then coated in acrid soils, she knows others have it worse. A planter of lost genomes, at least Aileen doesn’t need to trade in organs or bone marrow. That almost makes swallowing the bacteria-rich teeth easy. Almost. Aileen has worked on her bedside manner as much as she has cultivated her own ability to grow with intention and speed. She no longer gags when she swallows the mud-caked teeth; nobody wants to think any part of them is gross. When clients come to purchase their heirloom plants, Aileen tries to keep the process sterile. She needs to be respected and not just expensive, and Aileen knows that around these parts the path to respect is indifference.
This particular time, these particular teeth, Aileen had a hard time swallowing. They were small, but dense. Angular, not polished. They hung onto the dirt she coated them in. Stubborn, she thinks. They were stubborn teeth. She drinks another glass of water, but the dirt still clots her throat. That was hours ago. Her current client, the one who brought his own baby teeth, is waiting in the front room of her glass-domed cabin. She does not let her clients see this part of the process. She lets them watch her coat the teeth in soil and she lets them watch her swallow the teeth. If they pay well enough and are paranoid enough, she even lets them inspect her mouth to ensure she swallowed the teeth. And then they are told to wait. The plant needs time to grow. Sometimes it takes hours. Sometimes days. Rarely minutes. Aileen is good, but it is still a process beyond her control.
Even if her clients had strong stomachs, if they saw what happened next stories would spread, and Aileen would be out of a job. Aileen is surgical and precise, but all they would see is the blood and viscera. They would see her skin, her scars. Organs and bones. They would see her. And people tend to get squeamish around such things. So, Aileen adopted a strict policy: nobody watches the harvest. In addition to protecting her clients from the parts of the process they wouldn’t be able to understand, it lets Aileen focus. She is bred for this, and she has been doing her job for decades, but even still, focus is required to prevent herself from passing out. It’s an intimacy she grants no one.
(Once she had broken this rule, for a woman with her hair like a cave and red-rimmed eyes from grief. Aileen swallowed those teeth with her most expensive soil. Aileen willed a fiddle-leaf fig, large broad leaves that would grow and grow. The woman insisted on watching and Aileen, too young in her knowledge of humans, let her, thinking it would provide comfort or at least forge a bond. Aileen was lonely then and let the woman watch as she cut herself open. The first leaf popped from Aileen’s stomach like a sapling, and the woman screamed and ran and sent the holy men on Aileen. Aileen escaped and buried the fiddle-leaf next to a lake. Decades passed before Aileen re-emerged, smarter, more suspicious. Prepared.)
She told him she’d fetch him when the plant was ready to be picked up, but he refused that.
“I’d like to wait,” was the only thing he’d tell her.
And so, he waits while Aileen drinks water, trying to rid the taste of dirt and trying to will the plant to take root quickly. Aileen is tiring of this, a feeling she can’t afford to entertain. She curses the god who made her, a god of moss, a god of the earth, a god who can become green and rooted and lush in the blink of an eye. A god who saw their kingdom was ending, but who knew they’d be sought out by the humans. A god who made Aileen a servant, putting Aileen within reach of what she actually wanted (to be a jackpine, to be a redwood, to be stalwart and to weather the test of time, to be eternal, to breathe and to nourish, to be still). Aileen drinks water greedily but does not cough. Coughing would alert her client. They are separated by a door and a wall, both thin and flimsy.
Instead, she allows the water to pool in the back of her throat, softly gurgling. She hopes to dislodge the dirt, and when she spits, she spits white saliva with flecks of brown. For a moment, Aileen wonders if she sees blood. She knows this current body will not last forever. She knows her existence is finite, near eternal enough to feel a weariness in her bones, yet finite nonetheless. But she doesn’t know how long her penance will last. In her spit, Aileen looks for blood like omens, a stargazer hoping for a sign, but instead, all she finds is saliva and dirt. Her mouth still tastes of soil and her throat still feels gritty, but at least she’s dislodged a bit of the dirt.
Not enough, but it will do.
And then finally, she feels indigestion bubble up, an eruption of sharp and sour pain and she knows the plant inside of her is ready for harvesting. She moves like a vine, sturdy and predictable, to prepare to harvest yet another tooth-grown plant from her stomach.
The harvest, for all its alchemical and necromantic underpinnings, goes as follows: with a fingernail sharpened for this specifically, Aileen follows the dotted lines of scars on her stomach. She does not use tools, only her hands, to rip herself open. With precision, she peels back the layers like an orange rind. Her skin erupts in a furious pain and blood and Aileen tastes vomit rise in her throat, a bile tinged with soil. She almost gags (but does not). There is a sweet coppery smell, undercurrents of hay and wax, and Aileen feels the dirt-coated bile rush up again. She grinds her teeth and ignores the pain, ignores the smells of cutting herself open, ignores the blood settling under her fingernails. Aileen is too engaged, too eager to see what plant the teeth grew. It is curiosity that helps Aileen focus through the pain. Curiosity, Aileen knows, is the best way to bite back against fear and anxiety.
While the plant is not hers, this moment is.
She is water, she is dirt, she is DNA, and in this moment, she is the entire world. She isn’t a jackpine, but she is connected, rooted and rooting. It is because of this that she does not hate this part of her job the most. Aileen smiles to stifle a scream, imagines her bones turning to oil like molasses, and she is calmed. She no longer feels the burning sensation of scratched-open skin. Even the waxy hay smell subsides, or Aileen no longer notices it. Her body stops feeling made of flesh and pain and is instead made of soil and roots, home to worms and fossils rather than bones and blood.
Aileen sees perfectly circular leaves, richly green between pine and basil. Ah, so a pilea then. Aileen has not grown a pilea before. They are small, which is good–Aileen is already sweating from pain, even if her conscious mind barely registers it. She then harvests the plant fully, deft and bloodied fingers picking between organs to gently lift leaves, stem, and roots. It has grown so well. The baby teeth were unmarred, no rot or damage. They were a good fertilizer, despite being stubborn. Aileen gives a gentle tug to dislodge the roots from her stomach lining and then when the plant is freed, she places it on a table made of obsidian beside her. Then she folds the petals of her stomach inwards, does a fast but good stitch, and she is done.
Quick, practiced. Professional.
The next moment is Aileen’s final moment just for herself. The plant removed, Aileen closes her eyes and catalogs her body. With her mind and body in sync, she feels for her organs, her musculature, her skeleton, ensuring no damage was done in the process. She feels where the roots of the pilea dislodged like an octopus’s suction cup being pulled. She wonders what it would be like to have a redwood’s roots pulled from her. She imagines her organs and bones being ripped up with the tree, roots like fingers grabbing and pulling her apart. Aileen likes this part the best, the last few moments before the adrenaline fully drains and the pain roars and she has to move again.
In this moment, she is finally still.
Then the pain causes her to move. Aileen applies a paste to her abdomen, the stitches on her stomach aching but clean. She then gently wipes off the blood and viscera from perfect medallion-shaped leaves of the pilea, careful to not snag the roots that drape below like frayed fabric. Once the pilea is fully cleaned, Aileen pots it in a glass jar with the soil she used to coat the baby teeth it was grown from. She still does not invite the client in. Instead, on wobbly legs, Aileen opens the door to the front room of her small cottage and presents the pilea to her client. He smiles, relieved that the process is over and to have his heirloom. Then a slight shadow creases his forehead.
“What do I call it?” he asks her, suddenly holding the plant as if he is afraid it will burn him.
Exhaustion rattles at Aileen, but she’s used to this question. She knows its name, not from study but from inheritance. Aileen is made of moss and lake water, a being men have long stopped fearing. They used to fear her before their flora went extinct and then they had need of her. Aileen knows the names they have forgotten. Aileen is the name they have forgotten. But that isn’t what this man is asking her. The plant’s real name is meaningless in a world where plants and trees and shrubs and grass do not grow on their own. He is asking her how to name his legacy. It’s what everyone who buys from her wants: something to pass down their family tree, a priceless heirloom that conveys status and implies wealth, even if nobody knows why.
Aileen smiles, accepting the gold coins he is absent-mindedly extending toward her. “Name it after yourself,” she says as she says to every one of her clients, and she closes the door to her arboretum abode. Her stitches sing as she drinks water, but she relaxes, letting the liquid swish away all remnants of dirt and grime from her own teeth. Aileen feels her stomach burn with her stitches and she breathes, imagining her feet as roots, her arms stalwart boughs. Then she swishes the water in her mouth, spits out more dirt, and accesses her next appointment for the day.
Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson
First Reader: Aigner Loren Wilson
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors