Tend to Me
by Kristina Ten
Nora is a serial becomer. She has become many things in her life, though rarely on purpose. The first time, it just sort of happened. The second time, it was a coincidence. Now, it is a habit she cannot seem to break.
In the past, she has become a rock climber and a scuba diver, a beekeeper and a gardener and a mechanic specializing in European cars. For two months last summer, she was a stand-up comedian. Her senior year of college, she amassed New England’s largest collection of antique coins.
Nora has no interest in any of these things. She has, in fact, an acute fear of heights and depths and stages. Exhaust fumes make her sick, and she is allergic to bees.
But Nora cannot help herself: she is prone to absorbing the interests of whoever she is dating. She is caught in a pattern. She cannot get out.
“How wonderful that you two share hobbies!” say friends of the couple, whatever couple she is part of at the time.
Or: “You must never run out of things to talk about! I wish my Philip and I had so much in common.”
It is not an equal exchange, Nora knows, nor a lasting one. Do you think the rock climber asked about her interests? He did not. While they dated, she scaled sheer cliff faces in his presence, then went home to her apartment and sank weeping to the floor. She spent hours flat on her belly, clawing at the horizontal surface beneath her calloused palms. All the jargon she had learned—quickdraw, hand jam, pitch—tumbled out of her mind. Alone, she was completely vacant. The next time they saw each other, he would fill her all over again.
The same with the comedian: she pantomimed laughter for him until her cheeks ached, then went home and stared at her blank expression in the mirror, as if trying to commit it to memory.
The same with the gardener, the beekeeper. Nora is trapped in malleability. It is an uncomfortable transformation each time. She wakes up tired, eats a bowl of bland cereal, then she goes to meet her lover and she becomes.
Currently, Nora is dating an amateur acupuncturist. They met at a bar, where he told her a bad joke about why acupuncturists shouldn’t be trusted, something something something because they are a bunch of backstabbers.
He turns out to be neither of these things: a backstabber or an acupuncturist, professionally speaking. He is sincere and loyal, and he performs acupuncture only at the hobbyist level, though he hopes to get an apprenticeship soon. For now, he practices on himself often, on her less often, and most frequently on the bumpy, porous skin of grapefruits.
When Nora becomes this time, she is reclining on his living-room sectional, the amateur acupuncturist focused on the cap of her knee.
“Do you feel anything?” he asks, inserting a fourth needle experimentally. “More relaxed, maybe?”
“Sure,” she responds, feeling nothing, though maybe a slightly less dulled version of the nothing she usually feels.
Suddenly, a patch of rough, faintly green skin blooms in the space between the needles. It is thicker than the surrounding skin, and when she pokes it, it has a bit of give.
She looks up at the amateur acupuncturist. “Is that supposed to happen?”
He examines the patch thoughtfully. He doesn’t think so, but also, maybe. Which is to say, he hasn’t seen this before, but there’s a lot he hasn’t seen before. After all, he isn’t an expert.
“Hm,” he says, and brings a cold compress.
“Hm,” she says, and tries over-the-counter eczema cream.
Nora has a strong reaction. Over the next few days, the odd patchiness spreads until she is rough and green on her arms, legs, and chest, and on the small of her back, and in the divots of her hips. The patches aren’t itchy or painful, but the amateur acupuncturist avoids them all the same when his hands roam across her under the covers in the dark.
The pale green grows more vibrant, tinged with yellow in some places and with blue in others. Nora loses her appetite. She is cold all the time. She feels so thirsty she might die, but bloats if she drinks more than a swig of water.
Then she sprouts her first needle-sharp spine.
As Nora becomes a cactus, it is a big adjustment for them both. For her part, she must reevaluate what she understood to be the rules of becoming. Was it that he was so amateur, or was this some kind of glitch? For his part, the amateur acupuncturist has to get accustomed to her being taller than him. If he’s being honest, he never did like when she wore heels; he prefers to have at least a couple of inches on any woman he’s dating. Now, Nora shoots up a foot and a half over the course of a week, and on top of that, is growing an extra arm.
Nora’s posture improves dramatically. She stands still and straight, a commanding presence. She lingers near windows and craves the sun. When she reaches eight feet tall and has to stoop to walk around her basement apartment, the amateur acupuncturist suggests she move in with him.
They are on either side of her doorway, having just air-kissed goodbye. She looks down at him, considering. She cannot remember how she feels. Now that her body is covered in spines, he doesn’t touch her anymore, nor she him, and when they sleep together, it’s on the far right and far left of the bed with a row of pillows in between. Still, his apartment is in a nice condo building, with fourteen-foot ceilings and south-facing windows that are difficult to pass up.
Nora is not an easy roommate: She turns the heat way up in the daytime and blasts the AC after dark. She hogs any piece of furniture she lies on. She hardly ever cleans.
“You look beautiful,” he says one night. They are getting ready for a party, the birthday of one of their mutual friends. She is putting on lipstick; he is straightening his tie.
“I know,” she says. “Isn’t it lovely?” She admires the flower budding from the top of her head. It is larger than palm-sized, with a honey-colored center and creamy petals unfurling to a shock of pink. She parts her hair around it and strokes the petals appreciatively.
At the party, they dance with careful space between them. She only stabs him twice, both times accidentally, and when she has too much wine to drink, he brings her water from the bar. In the taxi home, he wraps his hand in his pocket square and interlocks his fingers with hers. The thin fabric does little to protect against Nora’s inch-long spines, but the amateur acupuncturist holds on anyway, wincing at every stop light and speed bump. By the end of the ride, she is fast asleep beside him and the pocket square is soaked through with blood.
The next morning, Nora is retching into the toilet, holding the bowl with all five arms. The amateur acupuncturist brings her glass after glass of water: the only thing he knows to do.
Hours later, her condition has worsened. Her skin is blanched in parts and waterlogged; her spines are coming loose and her feet smell of rot. The amateur acupuncturist sits with her in a bright pool of sunlight, then second-guesses himself and moves her into the shade. He frets over her flower’s wilting petals. He paces and cries and finally he calls her ex-lover, the gardener, to come over.
“How much water did you give her?” The gardener doesn’t mask his anger. Nora is crumpled in a corner, too weak to speak. He maneuvers her distended limbs gently, wearing industrial-quality gloves.
“You don’t get it.” The amateur acupuncturist is despondent. “I didn’t want her to be hungover. I was trying to help.”
“Oh, help?” The gardener scoffs. “Oh, I don’t get it? She’s seriously sick. You could’ve killed her. Don’t you know anything about succulents? The last thing they need is this much attention.”
Tears swell in the amateur acupuncturist’s eyes and he furiously blinks them away. The gardener softens.
“Look, man. I’ll clean up the fungus, then we’ll have to wait for her to dry out. She’ll be okay. But she can’t stay here. It’s not the right environment. She’s a saguaro. These things grow to be, like, sixty feet tall. What are you going to do when she busts through the roof of this place, or tries to put down roots? You can’t take care of her forever. Hell, you’re doing a pretty bad job of it now.”
The two men square their shoulders, each challenging the other: Who loves her more fiercely? Who knows better what to do? In the corner, left to her own devices, Nora begins to heal.
Once she is back to her usual self, reading by the windows, cutting holes in dresses to accommodate her new arms, Nora breaks the news to the amateur acupuncturist:
“I think it’s time for me to go.”
They are on opposite ends of the room. The bookshelves, newly stocked with texts on horticulture and succulent maintenance, are drenched in golden light. She is nearly twelve feet tall and her shadow stretches across the floor to meet him. He steps into it, letting himself bask in her touch without the danger of spines one last time.
He smiles sadly. “I know.”
In the midday heat to beat traffic, in a borrowed truck with a sunroof in the cab and a bed full of forty-pound bags of potting soil, Nora and the amateur acupuncturist drive to the desert. She positions herself so that she rises out of the sunroof from the torso up, the whipping wind a tickle against her resilient skin. The gardener insisted the potting soil would be useless, that it wasn’t even the right type for cacti, but the amateur acupuncturist brought it anyway, wanting, as always, to be necessary.
They drive in silence, their faces too far apart for conversation and any sounds they make muffled by the wind. The city dissolves into a two-lane highway surrounded by low shrubs, then wind turbines, sprawling jojoba farms, signs for man-made roadside attractions, and finally red rocks that, as they get further out, double and triple in size.
Nora points to a spot in the near distance: a cliffside grove of cacti, all different kinds, lively looking but not too crowded.
“There?” The amateur acupuncturist turns the wheel toward the dirt path.
It seems unusual for them to be clustered together like that: prickly pear wearing crowns of fat, vivid fruit; teddy-bear cholla, whose soft-looking spines betray when they strike; stout golden barrels nestled around the bases of saguaro giants like her. It’s this strange camaraderie that draws her to them.
Though the sky is the clearest blue and the sun hangs low, white, and probing, Nora feels no urge to shield her eyes.
They part without embrace, for an embrace from her would be enough to kill him. Before he leaves, she grits her teeth and pulls, from the region of her heart, a long, sharp spine: something for him to remember her by.
Alone on the other side of sundown, Nora sees every cloud as a fading bruise: deep purple at the edges, then muted blues and greens ringing an otherworldly yellow. No real division between skin and sky.
The desert comes alive at night. So punishing in the fever of day, it is all tenderness now, all apology, and creatures crawl out from the shelter of boulders and burrows to offer their forgiveness. Jackrabbits and big-eared foxes, scorpions and lizards with beady eyes.
Nora digs her roots into the hard-packed earth and finds it welcomes her graciously. She extends them deeper and in all directions—how pleasant, the way the sand shifts and dirt clots crumble to make room for her—until she comes in contact with the roots of the nearest cactus: a statuesque saguaro draped in enormous pink blossoms.
Nora the cactus finds herself remembering things differently than Nora the human. Her mind is neither empty, nor full of beekeeping terminology or important facts about scuba diving, like the rate at which you can resurface without getting the bends. Everything is the color of stillness, the taste of scurrying, the scent of a star-filled darkness, the sound of shade in light. What relief, she thinks, this change, this constancy.
Then a single, distinct movement. The saguaro nearest Nora coughs herself awake, sending a thorny lizard darting from the hole in her trunk. She shakes her whole grand body and the ground beneath it, and the dust that’s settled on her petals comes billowing up.
“Girls!” she shouts, singsong. “We’ve got a new arrival!”
Dozens of eyes blink open in the blue-black. Dozens of cracked-lip mouths break into wide grins. In the moonlight, Nora sees the cactus women stretch their bulbous limbs, hears them greet one another with sleepy hi-hellos.
“All right,” says her flower-covered neighbor. “I know you’re just getting settled in, but don’t get too comfortable yet.” She rolls her shoulders and pulls up her roots.
Nora tests her own roots and the earth frees her easily. She could get used to this: the ability to come and go, to shape the things around her. She enjoys her neighbor’s plentiful floral display but decides she prefers her own solitary bloom.
The neighboring saguaro turns toward Nora and winks, her eyes shiny and conspiratorial. She holds out a green arm stuck through with spines.
“At night,” she says, “we dance.”
About the Author
Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer with work in Lightspeed, Weird Horror, Diabolical Plots, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. A graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop, she is a current MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.