The Elderflowers by Jo Moody (Lucent Dreaming Issue 10)

The first time Jessica became aware of her approaching transformation, she was in her back room, as she so often was now that her centenary was drawing near. She was just finishing afternoon tea when, as she placed her teacup back into its saucer, there was the sudden, overwhelming sensation that her fingers were no longer arthritic pegs but lithe new shoots. They wrapped about the china and merged seamlessly into the dainty white blossoms printed upon its side. She released the cup and turned her hand over, then back. When still, it was her hand as it always was – ruckled skin, dark veins, crooked tips. Yes, held still, her hand was its familiar self.

When she moved it though, it was a quietly unfurling series of stems and leaves. She was certain that if she pushed her sleeve back she would see not her arm, but the branch which supported this new growth. Before she could try, Robyn returned to the room.

“Alright, Aunt Jessica?”

Jessica smiled and moved her hand back onto her lap, wondering whether her niece would see the shimmer of green in the action. When Robyn simply returned the smile, Jessica tucked her fingers under her blanket, eager for Robyn’s visit to be over so that she could be alone to explore her new hand properly.

Each day after, the glimpses became longer and the sensations stronger. Soon, there was an afternoon when Jessica replaced her teacup and it was clearly nestled in a mass of green foliage. The new stems were clustered with lightly serrated leaves. More leaves pushed at the sleeves of her cardigan. Her spine was no longer nibbled away bone but a strong, sapling trunk, and her feet tugged in a persistent, but not unpleasant way, trying to root into her carpet. If she let them, her legs might grow down through her floorboards, navigate the cavity below and then plunge into soil that had not supported plant life in a century or more. For the first time, she was aware of all this not for fractions of a second nor for a minute, but continuously.

On that afternoon, as Robyn returned from the kitchen with two slices of cake, Jessica saw her jump. The cake dropped and the china rolled, one plate coming to a rest against the piano, the other against Jessica’s footstool. Jessica tried in this moment to say something reassuring, to explain that she didn’t mind her leafy new form, but found that the words would not come. Jessica’s vision blurred and the shock on Robyn’s face fell a little out of focus, but remained perfectly lit, as though her niece stood within a clearing and Jessica herself amid dappled shade. Then the moment passed, and Jessica was as arthritic and human as usual.

“It’s alright, Robyn,” she said, reaching out to her niece with a hand. A real hand.

Robyn looked down at her aunt, then at the lost cake.

“Christ,” she said, “Christ.” She began to tidy up. “I’m seeing things Aunt Jessica, sorry.”

Jessica watched her hunting about the floor, gathering everything onto the plate closest to her. She remembered her own ancient-faced great aunt, living out the waning weeks of her life in an armchair and whispering about becoming rooted to the spot. Jessica had never suspected, until now, that the old lady spoke literally.

“Don’t forget this plate, dear,” Jessica waved a finger at the foot stool, “and there’s plenty of cake in the kitchen. Why don’t you fetch us some fresh slices?” Robyn finally looked up at her aunt. “‘I promise I’ll still be here when you get back,” Jessica said.

As spring rolled onwards and Jessica’s hundredth birthday drew ever closer, she experienced more and more episodes. With them came two realisations. The first was that, by concentrating, she was able to resist the urge to change. Whenever it would be inconvenient, or just too shocking to transform, she would pay close attention to her heartbeat, her muscles at work, or some other detail, and the desire to take root would subside. It took increasing effort though. She could sustain it for the relatively brief visits from carers and daily visits from Robyn, but more and more she looked forward to resting in their absence and to slipping into her sapling form. Once alone, she could allow herself to stretch to the corners of the room, let her leaves brush at the walls and ceiling and let her vision blur away into the soft woodland light. In time, her leaves were joined by fragrant umbels of blossom and her trunk thickened out.

Jessica’s other realisation, each time she returned from her tree form, was just how fragile and elderly her body was. The years had crept up and she couldn’t pinpoint the moment when her hearing had become muffled, her eyesight less acute, and her hands clumsy. She didn’t quite know when the occasional ache had become a constant presence. At eighty? Ninety? She couldn’t say. Yet now, each time her leaves receded, and her old bones returned, the change was immediate. Jessica knew that her body was reaching the very edge of its capabilities. No others in her family had managed this great age, not even her ancient aunt.

And so, one cool June morning, as Robyn wheeled her about the lanes at the edge of the village and unavoidably past the vast expanse of the rapidly filling county cemetery, Jessica asked her to turn in.

“Whatever for?” Robyn asked as they passed through its gates.

“I’d like to see it for myself,” Jessica said, “just in case.” She could feel Robyn’s unspoken, in case of what, Aunt Jessica? as the pushing of her chair slowed.

“I should like to know what it looks like, how suitable it is, and I can’t very well do that on the day.”

Robyn fussed Jessica’s blanket back into position, tucking it in to swaddle her calves against the morning air. The blue-green wool Jessica had chosen was bulky and soft, but couldn’t quite hide how thin and hard her legs had become. Thin, hard, and rather unreliable.

“I didn’t know you had a plot.”

“I don’t, not yet. I had to wait for the time to be right to see the place properly. Now I should like to.” Jessica waved a hand and as she did noticed that her skin was much corkier than it should be. “We need to go to the end of all the rows, and I’m getting a little tired.” She tucked her hand back in.

Robyn began to push the chair forward again, past strip after strip of poured concrete beams. Each one supported dozens of tidy headstones in black, grey and a strange reddish brown, which was possibly meant to look like marble. Every now and then there was a bench, but mostly it was graves and their attendant dead and dying flowers.

At a broad bend in the road the headstones ended, although the concrete beams stood ready for more. The final few graves were marked only by wooden crosses and freshly heaped earth.

“Here?” Robyn gently pushed the brakes on. Jessica watched a couple of miniature flags flutter against one of the wooden crosses.

“Yes, I can see from here. What do you think?”

Robyn raised her hands in a shrug. “I think it looks like a cemetery, Aunt Jessica.”

“Yes,” Jessica said, “it does rather. Are there any trees here at all?”

“Trees?” There was a pause, during which Jessica was unable to see what Robyn was looking at or thinking about, then, “No, just around the edges, on the boundary. Maybe they don’t allow them, the roots, you know….”

Jessica felt, rather than heard, her niece take in a long breath and the brakes moaned as Robyn leant a little into the handles of the chair.

“Yes, this is no place for them,” Jessica looked again at the patchwork of greys, blacks, and browns, then back at her blue-green swags, “I’ve seen enough now, Robyn dear, shall we go home?”

That afternoon, Jessica phoned her solicitor and the following week he paid her a house call. He was a neat, youngish man, by Jessica’s reckoning anyway, who seemed to wear the same ill-fitting suit to every meeting. On this occasion, in deference to the growing warmth of the season and to Jessica’s urging, he had removed his jacket. He was just shrugging it back on at the front door, the papers Jessica had signed safely in his briefcase, when Robyn arrived.

“My niece,” Jessica said, by way of introduction, “Robyn is my lifeline.”

“Samuel Taylor,” Samuel said, shaking Robyn’s hand, “I’ll leave you to it,” he said to Jessica, shaking her hand as well. His grip was a fraction too strong and she felt him quickly loosen it as her fingers curled.

“Goodbye, Samuel,” Jessica said, “and thank you for all your help.”

When the front door had clicked shut, Robyn moved forward to give her aunt a hug. “Everything ok?” she asked.
“Oh yes.” Jessica walked slowly back to her chair. As she sat down, Robyn began to adjust cushions and straighten the room a little. Jessica watched her examine a stray twig, its serrated green leaves still bright and unbroken. Her niece paused.

“Samuel’s a solicitor,” Jessica said. Robyn dropped the twig into the waste paper basket and Jessica found herself breathing out.

“A good one?”

“I knew his grandfather. Lovely man. Samuel’s just been helping me to finalise a few things.”

“You’re not getting all morbid because of your birthday next week, are you?”

Jessica shook her head and smiled. “No, but I do need to tell you what I’ve decided.”

“No, you don’t.” Robyn went back to fluffing cushions, “I’d rather talk about your party. I know you were a morning baby, but we’re all set for the afternoon, it’s much more civilised for a celebration.”


Robyn laid her hands over Jessica’s and planted a kiss on her cheek, “all I care about is that you don’t leave anything to anyone too soon, ok? Make sure the dogs, or the cats, whatever, wait a bit longer. We still need you to stay with us.”

“I’ll do my best,” Jessica said, “but I want you to know that I’ve set out all my wishes,” she gestured to the room and the garden beyond, “and you’ve always taken great care of me.”

Robyn nodded, “Whatever you want, it’s ok. Now, can I go make the tea and we can talk about nicer things?”
“Don’t forget the Battenberg,” Jessica said.

“Battenberg it is madam.” Robyn stood up and threw her scarf onto the sofa. She stopped at the door to the kitchen and looked back at Jessica, “Can you smell elderflowers?”

Jessica shrugged, but focused on her breathing. “Don’t skimp on the slices. You know I’m partial to marzipan.”

Robyn left the room and Jessica sighed, pressing her back into her chair, allowing the tension to dissipate and the familiar sensation of rising sap to take hold. She could hear birdsong, but maybe it was her kettle whistling, the sound drifting through as though from another world. It made her think of Robyn, fetching china out of the cupboard, pouring water into the pot, slicing the cake. She opened her eyes and focused on Robyn’s scarf, tracing its soft folds. The birdsong receded.

As the longest day dawned and Jessica turned one hundred, she lay propped up in bed, feeling the clumsy flutter of her heart. She panted slightly, and although she tried to focus on her best clothes, all laid out ready for the little gathering that Robyn had organised, they stubbornly remained a dim, distant outline. She had awoken feeling part human, part not, and when she willed herself back into her body the effort was the greatest it had ever been. Her fingers were normal one moment but slipped away from her and into foliage the next.

As the daylight grew stronger and warmer, it also grew greener. Jessica knew that she would have to act today, and that there would be no birthday party after all. All that mattered, as the morning continued to spread through her little cottage, was to get outside.

Slowly, slowly, she urged her legs to nudge round and her feet to touch the floor, and slowly, slowly, they responded. To get out of her bedroom she needed to surf between pieces of furniture, balancing from bed to chair to door handle to banister. Fingers became leaves became fingers again, but what she lost of her aged human dexterity she gained in sapling strength. It was just as well, she had not attempted this journey alone for some time.

At the top of the stairs. she paused and contemplated letting gravity do the hard work, but there were thirteen steps bent round in a narrow U shape, and her survival rate would be slim. She wasn’t sure that she could transform properly as a crumpled mess of a woman and besides, transforming indoors would be no good at all. So she reached for the wooden rails and slowly, minutely, pushed a foot over and down onto the first step. She could only do this with her right leg, so repeated the action again. Over, down, feet together. Over, down, feet together. After four steps she rested. Then set off again. Another four. Another rest. More than halfway. She felt dizzy and took some extra time to count the swirls in the design of the stair carpet. She had to make it. Who ever heard of a tree halfway up a staircase?
The final five steps down were her slowest of the morning and, quite probably, the slowest of her entire life. As her feet touched the hallway floor, Jessica let out a cry and grasped at the hall table to steady herself. It was cool and dappled and she was tempted to let go, but if a tree on a staircase was ridiculous, one in a hallway wasn’t much better. She moved into her back room, ignoring the call of her armchair, and on through her kitchen. Finally, she could open the door, shuffle down the ramp, and feel the outside air.

There was a bench just beyond her kitchen window and Jessica let herself fall onto it, panting with effort. The morning breeze brought with it the sounds of birds and the rustling of leaves. Jessica closed her eyes and dug her toes into the grass, her arms and fingers spreading across the bench and beyond, exploring their way into the midsummer sun.

Later that day, Samuel knocked at the door, bouquet of flowers in hand, and was surprised to find the curtains still drawn. The side gate was ajar and so he let himself in, assuming that the celebrations must be round the back.
“Hello?” He emerged into the garden. All was quiet and still. The lawn was empty with no sign of a party, but he recognised Jessica’s niece sitting on a bench near the house, shaded from the afternoon sun by a handsome tree. Its creamy blossoms filled the air with a familiar scent and loosened drifts of tiny petals to fall onto Robyn’s hair and shoulders.

“The gate was open.”

“I’m afraid we’ve had to cancel the party, Mr Taylor,” Robyn said, looking up. “My aunt is indisposed.”

Samuel noted her reddened eyes. He shook his head, “I’m sorry. Your aunt, Miss Sylvester…” He waved a bouquet, “I brought her a present.”

Robyn didn’t respond.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“I’m sure there will be, in time, but not today.”

Robyn seemed to go back to her own thoughts, reaching an absent palm out to touch the trunk of the tree.

“It’s a beauty.” Samuel said. “Elder?”

“Yes. It wasn’t here yesterday,” Robyn said, seeming to address the tree more than Samuel.


“I mean, it didn’t look so beautiful yesterday,” Robyn said. She stood up and he passed the bouquet to her.

“The scent of the flowers, I think I caught them last week, carrying into the house…”

“I think you probably did.”

“I can see why your aunt is so fond of the garden.”

“Yes. She told me she’d laid out her wishes. It was about this, wasn’t it, about taking care of this place?”

Samuel looked away and smoothed his jacket with his now-empty hands.

“No need to answer.” Robyn smiled and sat back on the bench. “Thank you for the flowers, Mr Taylor.”

Samuel left her sitting in the delicate shade of her aunt’s tree, the scatter of tiny petals all around, and her face turned into the quiet summer air.

Buy issue 10 today.
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