At the edge of a dark and dreary forest, on the slope of a hill crowned by a dead oak tree, in earth churned by the writhing bodies of worms and slicked with the secret secretions of slugs, there was a hole, and in the hole was a mandrake root.
Mandrake roots are prized above all others by the more objectionable sort of witch. They have powerful gifts of both healing and destruction, and they are the chief ingredient in flying ointment, (along with a great many nasty things like henbane and nightshade and others that I will not mention here.) But the greatest of their gifts is that of transfiguration. A mandrake root can be enspelled to take on human shape, for seasons at a time, and though they are dour and dangerous servants, they are far superior in wit and power to any other plant. (Laburnum runs a distant second. Only idiots try to make familiars out of petunias.)
Pulling the mandrake root, however, is a nasty business. The plant shrieks when it's pulled from the earth, a terrible, mind-tearing shriek that can bring deafness and even death, the sort of shriek that chills the soul and occasionally shakes blood clots loose from veins to wreak havoc in the dark reaches of the brain. There are a number of methods of harvesting mandrake, many of which involve unfortunate dogs and unwitting neighbor children, but at the end of the day, it’s just a bad business all around. And because of this, the mandrake pried shrieking from the earth is a bitter servant, and will turn on the witch if it can, in vengeance of the rape of its roots from the clotted and familiar soil.
This particular mandrake root, however, was somewhat different.
The oak tree that crowned the hillside where the mandrake grew was old beyond telling, and it had died years before, although like many trees, it took awhile for all the extremities to get the news that they were dead. But eventually spring followed spring without sap rising, and at last the oak was definitively dead. The oak roots had threaded and gnarled all through the little hill, which it had clutched for centuries, and now, at last, they began to loosen their grip.
It took more seasons for the erosion to become noticeable. Rain struck harder, and took more earth with it. Wind lifted a few more pebbles and a little more dust. The storms of spring cut deeper and deeper into the earth. And finally, one day in late spring when the rain lashed the hilltop particularly savagely, half the hillside cleaved away and slid down in a great grumbling slush of dirt and dead roots and loose stones.
The mandrake root, still clinging precariously to the remainder of the hillside, was suddenly exposed to the elements.
Rain lashed the root, and sluiced more and more dirt from around it. It was never pulled, precisely, it never screamed, but by the end of the storm, the last bits of earth were washed away, and the mandrake fell out into the terrible emptiness of air, and lay naked on the destroyed hillside.
In the morning, just as the birds were beginning to sing, a witch came walking by.
She was nearly as old as the dead oak tree, and her sap hadn't risen in a number of springs either. Sleep held little attraction for her any more, though she was often tired. She had heard the hillside fall the night before, and came picking her way out from her little overgrown cottage to see what changes the storm had wrought.
In her youth, the witch had been powerful, and often wicked. But she was very old now, and her powers were erratic, and her mind had a tendency to wander. Still, she recognized the mandrake root quick enough, and the spell for once was clear in her memory, and before the first thrush had finished singing in the dawn, the mandrake root was a mandrake girl, staggering unsteadily along behind the ancient witch.
The witch lived alone, with a garden and a goat for company. Her pride kept her away from other people, and the memory of her wickedness kept other people away from her. (The goat was not much concerned about the wickedness, but goats are the first cousins to devils anyway.) She had no need for any of the usual services of mandrake familiars. A tireless tracker or a bark-skinned warrior were of little use to her. Her enemies were long dead, or senile, or forgotten. And so the mandrake girl weeded the garden, and milked the goat and cleaned the cottage. But mostly she cared for the old woman, coaxing her to eat when she was not hungry, staying awake with her in the nights when she could not sleep, and performing all the small tasks that the witch was far too proud to have another human do.
And one by one, the seasons slipped away.
As a year passed, then two, the witch’s health began to fail, and her mind began to wander farther and farther afield. If she had been in full possession of her wits, she might have realized that the spell of servitude on the mandrake girl must have lapsed long ago—a mandrake spell is good for three seasons at most, and then must be recast--but she did not think of it, and the mandrake, who could have walked into the forest and taken root at any time, did not think much about it either. She was not resentful, as a pulled mandrake would be, and she had learned what it was to be needed.
In the final season of the witch’s life, the garden fell to weeds and ruin, and the goat grazed in it. The cottage went unswept and the windows grew dark and dingy. Inside, the mandrake girl tended to the dying woman, patiently feeding her a sip of broth, a sip of tea at a time. At the very end, she simply held the old woman, and sang lullabies in her deep, creaking voice, and as the last leaves of autumn were whipped from the trees outside, the old witch died in the mandrake’s arms.
The mandrake girl buried her curled up, like a seed, and she stood over the grave for a long time. She considered changing back, digging her roots deep in the freshly disturbed earth of the old woman’s grave, but she did not.
She wondered if somewhere, someone else might need her.
The cottage was swept clean, and the goat was set free where a farmer might happen upon it, and the mandrake girl walked into the woods to find someone who needed her.
The woodland creatures mostly liked her. She may have looked humanoid, but the eyes of animals are not easily fooled, and they knew she was really a plant--a peculiar ambulatory plant, to be sure, but still, not a threat. To them, she was a plant that could scratch you behind the ears or remove burrs from coats. Hedgehogs in particular found her fascinating--something about the long, pointy roots really appealed to them, and she could occasionally be found accepting gifts of flowers and particularly juicy slugs from small, spiky admirers.
She did have the occasional problem with woodpeckers.
Winter came on, and the mandrake spent it under the earth, in the dug-out den of a bear. The great grizzled bear had claws as long as daggers and breath that stank of the deaths of salmon, and he had killed men in his day. But he also had nightmares more dreadful than a bear should have, and they worried at him in the depths of hibernation, so that he would frequently come shuddering awake.
Then the mandrake girl came, and he laid his head across her lap and slept. When the dreams began, she would stroke the great coarse fur of his head and sing in her queer, deep voice, and the nightmares would fade quietly away. So not quite awake, and not quite asleep, the bear and the girl passed the winter together, unmoving, until spring.
Spring came, and the sap rose in the veins of the mandrake, and she found herself restless, leaving the den often, returning reluctantly. At last, one day, she left it behind completely, and the bear, also restless with spring, stood and watched her go. He, too, left the den behind, and did not return.
She began walking, day and night, in an ambling, meandering route, her roots sinking into strange-tasting soils, drinking water flavored with unknown minerals.
And at last, one day, she saw a red light through the trees. When she approached, she saw a great tree, as tall as a tower, hung with red lanterns, and through the doors set in the trunk of the tree, people were streaming.
They came in dozens of varieties, in ones and twos, on horses and camels and riding slugs, wearing feathers and furs and cracking mud and nothing at all. The mandrake girl, who had no particular preconceptions about what people looked like, did not find this strange. What she did notice, however, was that on many of their faces, in the lines of many of their bodies, was a need.
She had little fear—plants may fear uprooting and insects and the occasional voracious grazer, but they are rarely concerned with social awkwardness—so she stepped out of the woods and joined the procession through the doors. A few of the people smiled at her, in passing.
Inside the tree was a huge room, polished and gilt and glittering, and in it a throng of people, sitting on divans, standing with drinks, talking to one another. From open doorways came drifts of music and conversation. No one seemed to be paying attention to her, and so the mandrake looked around for someone to speak to.
At once she saw another plant creature, like herself, a slim green man with striped skin and the round, green-streaked head of a squash, sipping mineral water. (He was, in fact, one of the Squash God’s sons.) The mandrake girl tapped him on the shoulder with a rooty finger, and said “Excuse me, but what is this place?”
“This is the House of Red Fireflies,” he said, turning, and then he saw who was talking to him and flushed the color of old bronze. “Err,” he said, and took a very large drink of mineral water. “Um.” Whatever a human might have thought, the charms of the mandrake girl, as far as another plant was concerned, were considerable. Plants communicate largely by chemicals, and the mild toxins bound up in the skin of the mandrake were making the squash’s head spin at close range.
“Do you think,” asked the mandrake girl wistfully, “that there is someone here who might need me?”
The squash dropped his glass.
He began babbling apologies, much to the mandrake’s bewilderment, (he was a fairly young squash and still could be reduced to idiocy by beautiful plant women.) and when the mandrake, who did understand housework, began attempting to pick up the broken glass before somebody stepped on them, the squash found himself on his knees helping her, and babbling even more earnestly and incoherently.
Fortunately for the squash’s composure, the sound of breaking glass attracted the attention of the staff, and although the staff of the House of Red Fireflies is well trained not to laugh at the clients in public (obviously if you can’t laugh at the customers in private, what good are they?) the plump warthog woman who appeared with a broom took one look at the flummoxed squash and made an explosive snorting noise anyway. Once she had swept up the glass, with the help of the mandrake, she took herself off and had a few quiet words with one of the procurers, and the mandrake girl found herself confronted by a slender hamadryad with piercing eyes quite at odds with his willowy appearance.
“Perhaps you should have a seat,” said the hamadryad gently, but firmly to the squash, “and a fresh drink.”
“Meeble,” said the squash, and allowed the warthog woman to steer him to a chair some distance away.
“Now, then,” said the hamadryad, looking the mandrake girl over from stem to root. “Hmm.” He took her hand and laid his fingers across her wrist, as if feeling for a pulse (the mandrake girl had nothing recognizable as such) and after a few seconds his eyes widened a bit and he dropped her hand. “Goodness.”
The mandrake smiled uncertainly.
“My dear,” said the hamadryad, “may I inquire as to what you’re looking for here?”
“I was hoping to find someone who needed me,” said the mandrake, a little sadly. She was getting the impression that she had made trouble, and that had not been at all what she wanted to do. “I didn’t mean to be a bother.”
“I see.” The hamadryad absorbed this for a moment, idily rubbing his fingertips together. The mandrake toxins were making his head buzz, not unpleasantly, and although gender is a somewhat nebulous concept to plants, and insomuch as it applied, his tastes went in a different direction, he had a definite eye for good plantflesh. “What can you do?”
“I can sweep a cottage and milk a goat and comfort the dying,” said the mandrake promptly. “And sing bears to sleep.” She considered for a moment, since this did not seem to be a very impressive list, and finally added "Hedgehogs like me."
“Well, we have people to do the sweeping, but you never know when the rest will come in handy,” said the hamadryad, who had at least once been in a situation where a well-disposed hedgehog would have been handy, and then in terms that made sense to plants (and which would probably not make much sense to humans) he explained the meanings of “bordello” and “negotiable affection” and “pollination-for-hire.”
“That’s it?” said the mandrake girl.
“That’s it,” said the hamadryad.
“Will the squash be all right?”
“My dear, he will be telling his friends, for years to come, about how he met the great mandragora courtesan on the night she arrived, before she became famous.”
“Oh, well, then,” said the mandrake girl, “I never liked the sweeping much anyway.”
If you go to the House of Red Fireflies, which lies on the banks of the Feverstream, at the end of a road lit by red lanterns and patrolled by irritable spear-carrying mushrooms, you will find the doors open wide. And inside, on most nights, there is a mandrake girl, who is at the center of rapt attention by plants of all species—dryads and leshies and Green Men, twigjacks and briarboys and young squash gods out on the town—and even a few humans who found that prolonged contact with a mandrake’s skin has a hallucinogenic quality, and that she is an excellent listener. She is needed, and wanted, and lusted after, and well-loved.
And once a week or so, she slips away from the House, and goes walking in the woods, and hedgehogs bring her gifts of slugs, and a particular bear, who dens nearby, will sleep with his head in the mandrake girl’s lap.