Part 1 – The Garden
There were many in the beginning, dozens of basil seedlings basking under the warm sky and nodding dreamily at one another as if to say, “you’re growing, as am I, and that is right and good.” They grew in groups of four, and their pot-mates, whose roots caressed their own, were especially dear to them, as dear as the sun and the summer breeze.
Then one day the Caretaker came much closer than usual. It stared down at a pot, plucked three of the young plants by the roots, and ate them. The lone remaining seedling watched in horror as its lifelong companions were crushed between enormous jaws and the scent of their juices tanged the humid blasts from the Caretaker’s internal bellows. The Caretaker moved on to the next pot, where again all but one seedling was ripped from the mother soil, and these were dropped into a wicker basket, which slowly filled with small plants slumped on their sides, already starting to wilt as their exposed roots fruitlessly grasped for purchase. A pattern emerged. The news rustled down the rows.
“Only one is left in each pot.”
“The largest and healthiest remain. All others die.”
Each seedling surreptitiously checked itself for damage. Could it conceal that slightly wilted leaf? The small hole from an insect’s nibble? Each stood as tall as possible, hoping to be the one chosen to survive, yet they were also ashamed at their own behavior, because survival meant condemning their pot-mates to die. And so, pot by pot, judgment was passed.
Finally, the massacre ended, and the corpses were carried away, but the Caretaker wasn’t quite done. Before the survivors could process what had just happened, they were exiled to a distant land around the corner, the fabled “Frontyard”. Their pots, the only homes they’d ever known, were stripped away, and they were transplanted into the ground, where probing roots could penetrate as deeply as they desired and never hit bottom, and each seedling silently swore that those roots would be directed downward more than outward from now on, for those who have had their loved ones ripped from their embrace ever hesitate to embrace anew.
The basil spent that night in shock, but as the sun rose the next morning, the seedlings began to whisper questions among themselves. Why? And what was next? Each sought answers from the others, but nobody had answers, so the questions whirled in circles until finally they settled upon their new neighbor, a gnarled old rosebush, who ignored them until the pressure of countless inquiries finally breached some internal threshold.
“Listen well, all of you, for I will only say this once. You have survived the culling, and there will not be another. Rest easy on that point. If you live cleanly and avoid bugs and rot, you will enjoy as full a life as any basil plant may hope for, so grow well until the summer’s end.”
“What happens after the summer?” one seedling asked.
The rose turned its attention to the speaker. It was the smallest of the bunch, a spindly little thing that had been selected not on its own merits but because its pot-mates had all been exceptionally small and frail. “Little Baldy, you don’t know what you’re asking. Are you sure you wish to hear the answer?”
Even as the puny plant nodded, the others began to chatter.
“Little Baldy!” they laughed.
“It’s true! Be is little and be barely has any leaves.” (Basil plants being hermaphroditic, they lack gendered pronouns and refer to each other as “that plant which is not myself, but is like myself in all ways that matter.” As that’s a bit of a mouthful, it’s been translated here to “be/bim”).
“All three of my pot-mates were larger than bim. It doesn’t seem fair that be was selected and they weren’t.”
“Hey! That’s right! How come be was chosen instead of one of my pot mates?”
As the chatter changed from amused to angry, only Little Baldy heeded the words of the Rose.
“For your kind, summer is all. There is no ‘after.’ “
Time passed and the plants grew. Little Baldy grew too, but be was partially shaded by larger neighbors. Their growth outpaced bis own, and what had once been a small difference in size became a significant one, leading to more shade, a more marked difference, and so on. Basking in the sun is, for a plant, something like meditation, a process that lets the plant lose itself in enjoyment and absorbs their full attention. Little Baldy, lacking the height to bask properly, turned bis attention to the world around them, which led to questions. Lots and lots and lots of questions.
The only one with answers was the rosebush.
The rose tried ignoring bim, then insulting bim, but Little Baldy persisted, and after several days they struck a deal. The rose would answer three questions each day… only three, and only if Little Baldy refrained from asking further questions once the three were used up. Under this arrangement, Little Baldy learned the names of the animals and birds. Be learned that the creatures called “cars” weren’t actually alive. Be learned that the rose was very old and had seen many generations of basil plants come and go.
Every evening, the voice of the Caretaker floated down from the window above them. At these times, the sound took on a distinctive cadence, different from the sounds it sometimes made around the plants. “What is the human saying?” Little Baldy asked one day.
“It’s telling a story to the small humans.”
“You already told me that yesterday. I meant what do the sounds mean? What’s the story?”
The rose was amused. “You’re getting smarter, asking questions with long answers. Very well, I’ll try to translate.”
Between a poor translation and a complete lack of context, the basil was baffled by the narrative itself, but be was intrigued by one of the creatures the story described.
“What is a ‘fairy?’ ” be asked.
“Well, I’ve never seen one myself, but the stories say they have wings, so they must be some kind of bird. They can grant wishes, which, as far as I can tell, means they make things happen.”
“What kind of things?”
“Just… things. Things that wouldn’t happen normally, but that somebody wants very, very much. Oh, and they love plants.”
“So if I wanted something very, very much, a fairy could help make it happen?”
“I guess so. But I don’t think there are any around here. Why? Do you have a wish?”
“Yes. I’d like to be bigger.”
“You don’t need a fairy for that. You’re growing every day.”
“But only slowly. I’d like to be as tall as the other basil plants. Do you think a fairy could help me with that?”
The rose didn’t answer for a long time, and when it did, it said only, “The agreement was three questions and I’ve already answered four.”
The next morning, the Caretaker came outside very early and, to the basil plants’ horror, it carried the wicker basket once again. “You lied!” Little Baldy yelled at the rose. “You said no more of us would die!”
“I spoke the truth. You won’t die today,” said the rose. “Sadly, though, this is goodbye, my bald little friend.”
“Are you going to be killed?”
And then there was no further need to ask what was going to happen, because it began. One by one, the top of each plant was pinched off and tossed in the basket. A great soundless cry went up, but as each head was removed and another voice snuffed out, the volume steadily decreased. Little Baldy was near the end of the row, with ample time to see bis fate approach. Be cringed as bis neighbor’s head was pinched off, and then… one of the small humans made noises from the window.
The Caretaker looked up from the plants to respond. The pair called back and forth a few times, and when the pruning resumed, the Caretaker moved directly to Little Baldy’s other neighbor and continued to the end of the row.
When it was over, Little Baldy gazed in horror upon bis maimed friends. “Are… are you all right?”
“Guuuuhhhh…” sap dribbled from fresh wounds.
“Clouddreamer? Fadeleaf? Bushytop? Please answer me! Somebasil! Anybasil!”
“They can’t,” the rose said gently. “Their minds are gone.”
“I’ve never seen a basil plant escape the trimming before,” the rose mused. “You’re so small that the Caretaker must have thought you’d already been cut. I have to say, it’ll be nice chatting with you for a few more weeks until you get the treatment.”
“This will happen again?”
“Oh yes. They’re not dead, after all. They’ll grow back bigger and stronger than before, but they won’t remember anything, not me, not you, not even themselves. They’ll be like sprouts again. They’ll give each other new names, and bask in the sun, and they’ll be happy. At least, until the basket comes out again… and again… and again. And for them, every time will be the first time.”
“You knew this was going to happen. Why didn’t you warn them? Why didn’t you warn ME? I thought you were my friend.”
“What good is a warning? You’d have spent the past few weeks terrified instead of enjoying yourself. Look at your damaged friends. When they grow back, will you tell them? Will you have them spend their days dreading tomorrow? And when you join them in the next trimming, and your own memory is wiped clean, would you have me tell you of this day? Are you happier now, knowing what you know, than you were yesterday?”
“I… I don’t know. I don’t want to forget them, or you, and I certainly don’t want to forget myself!”
“But you won’t know you’ve forgotten,” said the rose. “And look on the bright side. You wanted to be as tall as your neighbors, right? Looks like you got your wish.”
The little plant wept tears of dew.
Over the next few days, the mutilated basil plants did indeed put forth new growth to replace what they had lost, and as they regained the ability to think, Little Baldy became an adult among infants. Be was given a new name, Genius, and when they had questions, be was the one they asked… but be avoided speaking of the past or the future.
Late one night, a strange creature appeared, one that even the rose had never seen before.
It was small, not much taller than the basil plants, and its movements were strange. It stood upright like the Caretaker, but instead of moving on two lanky limbs, it appeared to have no knees at all. It tipped its entire body from side to side as it swung itself along on two flat, pale feet.
“Excuse me!” Little Baldy called as it passed. “Could I ask you a question?”
The creature paused and turned one beady eye to the spindly youngster.
“I’ve never seen a plant move around like an animal before, and I was hoping you might tell me how you do it.”
The eye blinked. “You think I’m a plant?”
“What else could you be? You certainly don’t move like an animal, and you’re shaped kind of like a stump, and you’re blue and white like a flower, and your feet are the pale color of roots, and you even have leaves!”
“Leaves?” The creature’s tone was like ice. “You think these…” it raised its two leaf-shaped limbs, “… are leaves?”
“Oh! I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean to offend. Um… are they petals?”
“They’re wings, you idiot! And I have a beak! Have you ever seen a plant with a beak?”
“So…” It lunged at Little Baldy, snapping the beak shut millimeters from bis tender leaves. “What am I?”
“And don’t you forget it.” The menacing beak was withdrawn with a self-satisfied air.
“But if you’re a bird, why are you walking down the street? Wouldn’t it be easier to fly?”
The bird stiffened, and Little Baldy had the dreadful feeling that be had said the wrong thing. However, the response came in an even tone. “It’s too dark to fly at night.”
“Ain’t you a genius,” the bird muttered as it resumed walking.
“How did you know my name? Can it be… are you… a fairy?”
The little basil plant suddenly became the subject of intense scrutiny. “What do you know of fairies?”
“I heard about them in a story. So you really are one?”
“A fairy penguin, yes.”
“And can you truly grant wishes?”
The words came in a rush. “That’s why I asked how you move around. I wish to leave this place, only I don’t know how. Can you help me? Please?”
The rose, who had, until now, observed in silence, spoke. “Remember, Little Baldy, your last wish didn’t turn out to your liking. I’d advise caution.”
“Caution?” the basil plant answered. “What good is caution? Caution means staying, and if I do that, I know exactly what my future holds. If this fairy can truly grant wishes, I’ll take my chances.” Be returned his attention to the fairy penguin. “So, can you help me?”
“Mmm, I don’t know. Granting wishes is a lot of work. What’s in it for me?”
“Well, I smell nice.”
“Um… I’m good company.”
The rose stifled a laugh.
“That’s pretty much it.”
“You know what?” said the penguin, “you’ve amused me. I think I will grant your wish, but in exchange you have to become my servant. You’ll travel with me and do whatever I say. Deal?”
“Ok.” The penguin clacked its beak pensively. “Let’s figure this out. I don’t really know much about plants. What’s keeping you from moving around right now?”
“My roots,” Little Baldy answered simply. “They tie me to the earth, and if I pull them up, I can’t eat or drink.”
“Really? Let’s see.” The penguin grasped Little Baldy’s stem and, with a great heave, ripped bim out of the ground.
“What are you doing!” cried the rose. “You’ll kill bim!”
“Shut up and let me think.” The penguin eyed the exposed roots critically. “You’ll never be able to walk on those stringy little things. You’ll just fall right over.”
“I…. know…” Little Baldy gasped.
“So you need dirt to eat and feet to walk on. Seems to me like you can catch both those fish in one bite.” It divided Little Baldy’s roots into two parts and packed a wad of sticky mud around each half. Then it pulled the plant upright with its beak, stepped on each clump to flatten it out, and let go.
The basil plant swayed unsteadily, but didn’t fall over.
“There you go! Feet and a meal all in one! See if you can walk on them.”
The dirt shoes were heavy, but with a bit of experimentation Little Baldy worked out how to shift them forward, moving in an awkward shuffle that made the fairy penguin look downright graceful in comparison. By now every plant on the block was awake and observing, and laughter shimmied through the leaves, but Little Baldy didn’t care. Be could move!
Be turned to the other basil plants. “You should all come, too! We’ll find a new place to live, someplace safe from the Caretaker.”
The responses came all at once.
“Safe? I haven’t seen any danger.”
“Are you allowed to move like that? I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed.”
“I don’t want to get pulled up by the roots.”
“Why would we want to leave?”
“Haha, you said ‘leave’!”
“I like it here.”
“The Caretaker is nice.”
The penguin uttered a squealing croak, and everybody fell silent. “Oi, Genius, remember me? You’re my servant now, and I have places to be, so let’s go! Shake a leg! Err… so to speak.”
Little Baldy cast one last, long look at his friends, then turned and followed the penguin down the starlit street.
Part 2 – The Ocean
That night was an overwhelming bombardment of firsts for Little Baldy. Being in motion made it feel as if the whole world was moving around bim. The silhouettes of the houses shifted constantly, strange angles sprouting and receding unpredictably. Things that looked small grew larger as they approached, and large things grew smaller behind them. Up and up and up they moved, for what seemed like an eternity, heading for the place where the sky met the road, but when they reached the top, the stars were suddenly far away again, and the world lay stretched before them, holding more streets and hills and houses than be’d ever imagined existed, and beyond them lay a vast smooth expanse the color of the night sky. It was so large that it took bim a moment to understand what be was seeing. Be gasped. “That’s the biggest puddle I’ve ever seen!”
“A puddle? You dare call the mighty ocean a puddle?”
“Well, you don’t have to get huffy about it. I haven’t seen much of the world, and it looks like water to me.”
“It is water.”
“Oh.” Be thought about this. “In that case, I’m confused.”
The penguin pointed at a nearby oak. “What do you call that?”
“And are you a tree?”
Little Baldy laughed. “No, silly. I’m a basil plant!”
“But basil plants and trees are basically the same, right?”
“Oh no. Trees are much bigger and stronger than little plants like me could ever hope to be.”
“So… the ocean is a puddle tree?”
The penguin sighed. “Close enough.”
It was daybreak by the time they reached the rocky shore, which was dotted with puddle-sized puddles called “tidepools.”
The penguin carefully made its way out among these pools, snapping up anything that moved, while Little Baldy wobbled along behind and observed. Be was surprised to discover plants living in the pools. They were strange-looking with long tendrils instead of leaves, but they clung to the rocks as tightly as any land-plant gripped the ground. Be called out a greeting, but they didn’t answer, only waving to bim from their world below the rippling surface with an alien, sinuous motion that seemed to beckon bim closer.
“If you fall in, you’ll be dead before I can pull you out,” said the penguin.
Little Baldy flinched backward, landing heavily on the heels of the dirt-clod shoes. How had be leaned out so far without noticing? “I… I’ll just wait for you back there, ok?” Carefully avoiding the tidepools, be made his way back up the shore. Perhaps the hypnotic ocean-plants were more sinister than they appeared.
When the penguin had eaten its fill, it rejoined Little Baldy and they walked along the shore until they reached a place that was thick with greenery.
“Stand here and be quiet.” The penguin nudged Little Baldy into the desired position at the edge of the greenery, then moved behind bim and began to scrape at the ground. “Your job is to make sure I stay in the shade. If the sun moves, you move to block it. You also need to stand guard. If you see any living creatures approach, tell me right away. Otherwise, don’t say a word. Got it?”
“What are you going to do?” asked Little Baldy.
“Didn’t I just say not to talk?”
“Geez, you really are a genius, aren’t you?”
“You know, I’m starting to think you don’t mean that as a compliment.”
Trembling, the basil plant fell silent.
“Better.” The penguin settled into the shallow depression it had excavated. “I’m going to sleep. We’ll move on at sundown.”
Around noon, Little Baldy felt a dreadful tickling sensation. “Fairy! Hey Fairy!” be called.
The penguin jolted awake. “What is it?! A human? A dog? A hawk?”
“Here. On my stem. It’s a grasshopper.”
“You woke me up for that?!”
“It’s a living creature, and you said…”
“I meant dangerous creatures. Not little bugs.”
The penguin lay back down, but Little Baldy spoke again. “It’s dangerous to me. Look, it’s nibbling one of my leaves.”
The penguin’s beak flashed, and the grasshopper vanished down the spiked gullet. “Problem solved. Now I’m going back to sleep, and I don’t want to be woken again unless there’s something dangerous to me, understand?”
Little Baldy nodded.
That evening, the fairy penguin awoke to discover a half-dozen more grasshoppers had made themselves at home on the little basil plant, who was starting to look rather ragged around the edges. “Wow!” Do you always attract this many bugs?”
“I don’t know. We didn’t see them much back home.”
The penguin cheerfully picked them off. “I figured you’d be useful, but I had no idea you’d attract food! This is great!”
“Great?!” Little Baldy shuddered. “Being infested is horrible!”
“C’mon, Genius, think! As long as we stick together, I get free meals, and you stay bug-free. It’s perfect!”
“But they were on me half the day!”
The penguin looked bim over. “Doesn’t look like they did too much damage, but you have a point. If there were a whole bunch at once… well… you’re not very big. Tell you what, do you know how to count?”
“I can count to three. The rose taught me how.”
“OK, then. Any time you get more than three bugs at once, you have permission to wake me up for a snack… err… to get cleaned off.”
“But even one is just awful.”
“Maybe I’m not making myself clear. Your choices are waking me when you get more than three, or not waking me at all. Now which will it be?”
“Three, please,” Little Baldy said meekly.
And so began their long journey. At first Little Baldy was constantly astonished by the new things they saw, but as days stretched into weeks, be began to see patterns. One house looked much like another, one garden much like another. Domestic plants gawked. Wild plants laughed. They traveled at night and rested during the day, sometimes shifting a bit inland, but always keeping the water on their left and following the general path of the shoreline. The constant change became a stasis in its own right, and as the days passed, Little Baldy’s memories all ran together. How long had they traveled? How many times had summer rainshowers come and gone? How many days had be stood sentinel, enduring the dreadful crawling of assorted insects, counting one, two, three… one, two, three… one, two, three… and perversely hoping for a fourth so that be could awaken the fairy and be cleansed? Be could no longer recall, and those events that stood out enough to imprint themselves in bis memory were like shells scattered on the sand, empty husks of once-living memories with no anchor in time or place.
Late one night the fairy penguin was, as usual, waddling along the edges of tide pools, picking at the contents, when a sudden wave lifted it off its stony perch and sloshed it out to sea. Little Baldy cried out and rushed down to the waterline, but as be reached the edge of the tidepool, the penguin bobbed to the surface and, with an elegance of motion Little Baldy wouldn’t have thought possible, zipped through the dark water and frantically clambered back onto the rocks.
“You can swim?”
The penguin shuddered away a spray of droplets. “When I must.”
It was a warm afternoon and the dog had approached haphazardly, snuffling its way along the waterfront and occasionally eating bits of detritus or breaking into a sprint so that it could bite excitedly at the sand kicked up by its own passage. Little Baldy whispered an alarm and the penguin was awake in an instant.
If they had remained still, perhaps the dog would have passed them by, for the tide had already washed away much of their trail, but the fairy penguin was too slow and clumsy to risk being caught in the open, and so it slipped away through the brush, while Little Baldy stayed put, comfortable in the knowledge that the dog would take no notice of one small plant among so many others.
Then the penguin, hidden somewhere in the brush, called to bim. “Hey, Genius! Come over here! Hurry!”
Little Baldy choked back bis urge to remain still and set out after the penguin, pressing through the dense brush with many a whispered “Pardon me,” and a “did you see a blue and white bird pass this way?” The wild plants pointed bim to an abandoned rabbit hole where the penguin popped out, grabbed Little Baldy’s clods in its beak, and yanked bim into the hole.
“Wait!” Little Baldy cried as bis clods thumped against the floor of the run and bis lower leaves were squashed uncomfortably against bis stem. “What are you doing!”
“I need you to plug the entrance!” the penguin hissed sotto-voce. “Now shush!”
But Little Baldy’s rustling route through the bushes had attracted the dog’s attention, and it heard the penguin speak. It was upon them in a flash, and when it saw that its prey was underground, it shoved its head into the hole, crushing Little Baldy against the edge of the tunnel.
Then it began to dig.
The burrow was deep, and the penguin easily retreated beyond the dog’s reach, but Little Baldy was battered by the gouging claws for what felt like an eternity, until finally the dog found purchase underneath the dirt shoes and the small plant was scraped out of the hole and tossed clear.
The dog kept digging, and Little Baldy was showered with waves of sandy soil that at first stung bis wounds, then formed a comforting protective layer until the buildup grew heavier and heavier, and Little Baldy feared be would be crushed.
Finally everything grew still. An eternity passed, and Little Baldy made a wish. Be wished to see the sun and breathe fresh air just once more before be died.
The oppressive weight began to lift. and light returned to bis world. The penguin had come for bim.
“Are you dead?”
Too battered to speak, Little Baldy waved a leaf in confirmation of bis living status.
“Wow, that was pathetic.” The penguin grabbed bis clods and pulled bim free of the remaining layer of soil. “I thought you’d at least be able to block a simple hole. Maybe if you had thorns…”
Despite bis lack of thorns, Little Baldy bristled. “Thorns? Thorns?! Look at me! I’m a mess! Two… no, three broken branches, and if I manage to keep half my leaves after this, I’ll be amazed. You nearly got me killed!”
“Well excuse me for trying to save us some time. You’re always bragging about how good you smell, aren’t you? And dogs think with their noses, don’t they? How hard would it have been to cover my scent?”
“I couldn’t say, since you didn’t shut up long enough to let it pass. It heard you. All we had to do was stay put. It would have gone away eventually.”
“You think it’s that easy?” yelled the penguin. “You think if you just sit quietly and wait long enough, your problems will all just go away? When you were buried just now, did sitting and waiting get you free? No. I had to dig you out, and you haven’t even thanked me for my trouble!”
“And what about back in that garden of yours? Would sitting and waiting have saved you from getting your top chopped? No! I had to step in and save you then, too! I clean the bugs off you, and I don’t even like bugs that much! I show you how to travel safely, I help you and keep you alive, and what do you do for me in return? Nothing! You’re completely useless! I don’t know why I even bother. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I will anymore. You’re on your own.” The penguin turned and waddled away.
“Wait!” cried Little Baldy. “You’re right! You’ve saved my life twice now, and I’ve been nothing but selfish and ungrateful. Please, let me make it up to you. Let me stay with you long enough to repay you for everything you’ve done.”
The penguin paused. “And how will you do that?”
“I don’t really know just yet, but someday in the future, you may say to yourself ‘Gee, a basil plant sure would be handy right about now,’ and I want to be there when it happens. Please… let me stay with you.”
“Fine. But I’d better not hear any more complaints.”
“You won’t. I promise.”
Part 3 – The Cliffs
The days grew warmer and the rain less frequent. This was a mixed blessing for Little Baldy, as the clods grew firmer and lighter as they dried, making movement easier. However, at the penguin’s recommendation, be spent most of that extra mobility making detours to puddles in well-watered gardens so that be could slake bis thirst.
The landscape slowly changed too, and the swathes of sand and flat stone dotted with tidepools gave way to rocky cliffs that rose steeply from the water and often forced the travelers inland in search of a navigable route.
As the landscape grew more jagged, the penguin’s attitude began to change as well. It became more and more irritable, snapping at Little Baldy over the slightest thing until the basil fell almost completely silent rather than risk saying the wrong thing and sparking the little blue bird’s wrath.
Then one gibbous-silver night, the penguin stopped and stared at a pair of tall cliffs with a small stretch of rocky beach nestled between them. They’d already passed a dozen similar stretches of shoreline, and to Little Baldy, this particular spot, while pretty, wasn’t particularly remarkable. Yet the penguin’s expression was one of horror, and its voice trembled as it said, “Genius?”
“Yes?” Little Baldy responded.
“Could you do me a favor?”
“See where the road curves up ahead? Could you walk up there and tell me what you see? I need to sit down for a moment.”
Little Baldy scouted ahead and reported back. “It’s the edge of a human town.”
“Did you see an oddly-shaped house? One that looked like this?” With two swift flicks of the beak, the penguin drew a shape in the dirt.
“That’s it! Have you been here before?”
The penguin nodded. “This is the beginning… and the end.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I think it’s time I told you about myself.”
“In all the time we’ve traveled together, you never once asked me where I came from or where we were going. Why not?”
“We were going somewhere?”
“Of course. Why else would we have traveled so far?”
“I dunno. I just thought traveling was part of your nature, same as plants generally stay still.”
To Little Baldy’s astonishment, the penguin actually laughed. “No. I had a home once, and a family. Where I come from, there are lots and lots of little blue penguins like me. We slept in cozy burrows along the shore, and every evening we’d all swim out to sea to catch fish and play among the waves. Of course, there were larger animals that wanted to catch and eat us as much as we wanted to catch and eat fish, but they didn’t show up all that often, and for the most part, life was good.
“Then, one particularly dark night, when a brewing storm blotted out the moonlight, an orca ambushed me. I’ve thought of that moment a thousand times, and I still can’t figure out where it was hiding. The thing was massive, but I’d swear it popped up out of nowhere. I was in my prime then, young and strong and agile. I somehow managed to escape with my life, but by the time I finally shook it off, I was alone in unfamiliar waters… and that’s when the storm broke.
“The waves turned into mountains. It took all my energy and focus just to stay afloat. For two nights and two days, the sky raged and the water crashed. On the third night, the world finally stilled, but I was hopelessly lost.
“A lot happened after that, but you really only need to know two things. One, I became terrified of swimming, and two, I eventually ended up here, looking at those exact cliffs you see before you now.
“I knew my family lived on the shore, so I decided to follow the water. I thought maybe, just maybe, if I only kept moving, I’d eventually find the place I once called home, or at least other fairy penguins. I haven’t seen my own kind in such a terribly long time.
“And here we are, right back where I began. How long has it been? Three years? Four? I can’t remember anymore, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. Whatever land this is, I’ve walked its entire edge. There are no penguins here.”
“There’s you,” Little Baldy pointed out.
“Yes. There’s me.” The penguin shut its eyes. “Just me.”
Their journey stopped that night, and didn’t resume. The penguin rarely spoke and spent its waking hours staring blankly at the ocean. Little Baldy found a comfortable spot at some distance from the bird, and settled in to watch over bis master, only approaching occasionally to offer meals of insects, which the bird ate mechanically, and this was the only food it consumed. It lost weight and blue feathers fell like leaves. Its once-shining coat turned patchy and dull.
The local plants were friendly and the seedlings particularly loved asking Little Baldy about bis travels. Basking in the sun, chatting with neighbors, and enjoying celebrity status, be quickly settled into a pleasant and peaceful rhythm. Yet the penguin’s misery was contagious, and Little Baldy couldn’t enjoy life without feeling guilty about that enjoyment.
One day, be timidly approached the bird. “It’s been pretty dry lately, and a squirrel told me there’s a garden on the other side of the pointy house. I’m gonna go look for a puddle to soak my clods. Do you want to come along?”
The penguin mutely shook its head and turned away, then suddenly sat up and stared at the basil plant as if seeing it for the first time. “That’s it!”
“You gave me the solution the day we met! I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before! I may be afraid of swimming, but I’m a bird, aren’t I? I have wings, don’t I? Maybe I can fly across the ocean!”
“Wait… didn’t you tell me that penguins can’t fly?”
“Normally they don’t, but normally plants don’t walk either, and look at you! If a basil plant can travel cross country, I’m sure I can get airborne if I’m brave enough to try.” It looked appraisingly at the shoreline. “You wanted to pay me back for saving you, right?”
“Well now’s your chance. Follow me!” It marched down toward the little beach with Little Baldy right behind.
As they neared the water, it pointed up at the cliffs. “I’m going to climb up there and jump off. If I use the fall to build up speed, I bet I can catch some air and take off.”
“That seems dangerous.”
“It is. That’s why you’re going to sit down here and catch me if I fall. You’re pretty bushy these days; you should be able to cushion the impact. If I fly, of course, I’ll be leaving immediately, and you can consider your debt repaid.
An image welled up within Little Baldy’s mind, broken branches and crushed leaves spattered with the penguin’s blood. It seemed like a terrible idea… but be had promised to do anything, and with all the weight the penguin had lost, it might just be possible to actually break its fall without either of them getting too terribly injured. “I’m in.”
“Positioning is everything,” the penguin said conversationally as they edged along the bottom of the cliff. “There’s a good overhang up there, so we just need to find the spot directly below it.”
“Right here?” said Little Baldy.
“A bit to the side. Back. Now the other side. Back some more. OK, stay there for a minute.”
As the penguin circled around to check the positioning from different angles, Little Baldy suddenly felt something cool on bis roots. A wave had edged over the rock where be stood and moistened the dry clods. Be trembled, afraid of being swept out to sea, but a moment later the wave receded, and the little plant relaxed. Be was safe and bis clods were well-moistened, which would save bim a trip to the garden! How convenient! Be stretched out bis roots and drank, but there was something strange about the water…something not right…
“I think be’s coming around!”
Little Baldy felt as brittle and dry as last fall’s leaves, but bis roots were immersed in cool, refreshing moisture and be drank greedily. As life trickled back into bis stem, be realized be was surrounded by towering plants, each twining up a rope to the wooden framework overhead. They smelled lovely and green, and were heavily laden with tomatoes.
“What happened? Where am I?”
The closest plant answered. “Dude, it was craaaazy! This freaky blue bird showed up out of nowhere, holding you in its beak. It dropped you in that puddle, packed some mud around your roots, spouted some nonsense, and then left.
“My… roots?” Little baldy was suddenly aware that bis roots felt strange. They’d been completely rearranged, and while these new clods were similar in size and shape to the one be’d used all summer, the composition of their soil was completely different. Be straightened up and looked around. The pointy house loomed nearby. This must be the garden the squirrel had mentioned. “What did the bird say?”
“Oh… Um… lemme think. It said not to let you drink any more stilt water…”
“Salt water,” one of the other plants corrected.
“Right. Salt water… whatever that is. And then it said it would go atone to the drift.”
“Do you mean ‘go alone to the cliff’?!”
“No, I’m pretty sure it was ‘atone to the drift.’ And I remember the last part, because it rhymed. ‘I’ll fly or I’ll die. Either way is goodbye.’ Very poetic, don’t you think?”
“No, no, no, no! I have to stop it! When did it leave?”
“Oh gosh, that was hours ago.”
“To be honest, we were starting to think you were dead,” its neighbor added conversationally.
Little Baldy waded out of the puddle, but the new clods were wet and sloppy and threatened to slide off at every step. There was no choice but to wait for them to dry out and firm up before moving further.
“Whoa! How’d you move like that?” asked the tomato.
Little Baldy wept.
The following afternoon, an observer would have seen a small basil plant hobbling along on feet of dirt to approach a patch of shore below a cliff. Little Baldy sat for a long time, scanning the rocks for some trace of the penguin, but there was nothing. Yesterday’s footprints had been washed away by the tide, and if the fairy had fallen, the body had also washed away.
But Little Baldy hoped it hadn’t fallen. Maybe, at the end, it really had managed to fly.
“I think,” be said finally, “I’d like to go home too.”
And so be turned and, for the first time, began traveling with the ocean on bis right.
Part 4 – Winter
Traveling alone was an entirely different experience from traveling with the penguin. Little Baldy got to decide everything. When to move. When to rest. Where to stop. Be experimented with traveling at different times of day and drifted much further inland than the penguin would ever have approved. It was tiring at times, being responsible for every little decision, but also tremendously freeing.
However, there were downsides as well. Be was lonely with nobody to talk to, and bugs were a constant nuisance. Be began resting in the most barren, open spaces be could find, places bugs generally shunned and where, if they did approach, they could be seen a long way off and avoided by moving away. But those places typically lacked water as well as the comforting presence of other plants to help block the wind, so that Little Baldy slowly grew woody and brittle.
Each day was shorter than the last, and while the sun shone as bright as ever, its warmth steadily diminished, until rain, once a cool welcome relief, became icy torture. Little Baldy wasn’t really worried, though, until the trees began to drop their leaves, and the wild plants whispered that summer was over.
The rose’s words, uttered a lifetime ago, echoed in bis mind.
For your kind, summer is all. There is no ‘after.’
Bis destination was still many, many weeks of travel away, but Little Baldy pressed on. What else could be do?
Then one day, it snowed.
Weeping, Little Baldy took shelter under the silver green leaves and slender lavender flowers of a large sage bush.
“What’s wrong, little one?” asked the sage.
“I’m trying to go home, but it’s too far away. With this cold weather, I’ll die before I get there. A rose once told me that ‘for my kind, summer is all’. Now I understand what that meant.”
“It’s true that basil plants don’t usually survive the winter, but you have a rather remarkable ability to move around. Why not hunker down someplace where summer never ends?”
“Even if such a place existed, sitting and waiting has never solved any of my problems.”
“Really? I find it solves many of mine. This cold weather, for example. I’ve seen it many times before. If I wait long enough, eventually the world warms up and summer returns anew.”
“I was buried alive once. Sitting and waiting would have gotten me killed.”
“Ah, but your roots weren’t damaged.”
“How… how do you know that?”
“My dear little basil, as long as the root lives, leaves can always be replaced. Sitting and waiting would have taught you that, if you’d only given it a chance.”
“But then, should I never have learned to walk in the first place? Was this all just a giant waste of time?”
“I wouldn’t say that. Finding new ways to handle problems is never a bad thing. The trick is knowing when to move and when to stay still. For example, do you see that building over there?”
It was easy to see the one it meant. Made entirely of glass, lit on the inside, and full of plants, it glowed like a miniature sun made even brighter by the way its light sparkled off the falling snow.
“If I could move as you do, I’d go there. I think it may be exactly what you need.”
“I’ll give it a shot. Thanks.”
As the basil plant shuffled off through the falling snow, the sage called after bim. “By the way, what’s your name?”
“That’s kind of a tricky question.”
“Then give a tricky answer.”
“Well, in my mind, I still call myself by the name I had as a seedling. ‘Little Baldy,’ even though I’m not little or bald anymore. My traveling companion, though, always called me by my other name, ‘Genius.’”
“What a coincidence! That’s my name, too!” said the sage.
“Indeed. But I’m keeping you out in the cold. Goodbye, my little name-twin, and good luck!”
Little Baldy had seen these human structures before, but had never bothered to investigate them, on the logic that having gone to such drastic lengths to escape one human, it was foolish to seek out others. But with the cold settling in, there was no time to be choosy.
Be approached the building, first nervously, then in wonderment at the warmth radiating from inside. But how to gain entry? The door was shut tight. With no way in, and nowhere to go, be hunkered down in the lee of the building and pressed against the glass to absorb what warmth it could offer. “Guess I’ll try sitting and waiting,” be murmured.
The following morning, a human crunched through the snow and opened the sliding door. While it tended the plants, Little Baldy slipped inside and hid behind some empty flower pots, giving bimself over to the ecstasy of warmth and humidity seeping back into half-frozen leaves and branches.
The inhabitants of the greenhouse had observed bim arrive, and after the human left, they bombarded bim with questions.
“How did you survive the cold?”
“Where did you come from?”
“What kind of plant are you?”
“Are you staying long?”
Little Baldy answered at length, and after the initial burst of curiosity was sated, it occurred to bim that there was one vital question nobody had asked, the one question be’d answered over and over throughout the summer. “Aren’t you going to ask about how I move around?”
“Why? Is that unusual for your species?” asked a broad-leaved plant with flowers shaped like orange and yellow spiked mohawks.
“Very unusual! In all my travels, I’ve never met another moving plant.”
“Really? How odd! All the mimosas over there can fold up their leaves in the most charming way, and see the venus flytraps in that corner? They move and eat bugs.” It stretched a bit taller with pride. “We’re all very exotic.”
“Wow! Can you move, too?”
“Silly. I’m a bird-of-paradise! Who needs to move when you’re as lovely as me? Humans take one look at my beautiful flowers and simply melt. And speaking of melting, it looks like you’re dripping a bit. Why don’t you find a nice pot and make yourself comfortable? There are plenty to spare. You can sit here by me!”
The pot it indicated was half-full of ancient, dried out potting soil. Little Baldy clambered up and was pleased to discover that the clods fit quite nicely inside. “A bird-of-paradise, you said? Are you a bird, then?”
“Oh no, Dear. That’s just what I’m called. Because my flowers look like little birds.” It flourished its blooms. “See? Now tell me more about this bird that looked like a flower!”
And as the plants, all so friendly and welcoming, leaned in to listen, Little Baldy thought to bimself, You may not be a bird… but I think this may indeed be Paradise.
The winter roared along outside, but the greenhouse was filled with warmth and laughter. The human seemed puzzled by the appearance of an extra plant, but cared for Little Baldy alongside the others. Little by little, the once-battered basil grew strong and lush. But as much as be enjoyed the physical care, it was the friendships be grew to truly treasure, especially with the bird-of-paradise, who had a kind word or gentle laugh for every occasion.
In all that time, though, Little Baldy was careful to keep bis roots within the confines of the clods. They curled around and wove tangled mats, never spreading to the soil underneath.
When the snow melted and the warmth of spring finally arrived, Little Baldy said bis goodbyes and slipped outside. Before setting out, though, be stopped by to visit the sage, who was delighted to see bim. “Is that really the same little basil I met so long ago? Look at all that growth. You look like a whole new plant!”
“Hi, Genius. I wanted to stop by and thank you for your help. You saved my life, you know. And the greenhouse, well… it’s a wonderful place. Everybody there was kind and generous. They welcomed me into their home and made me feel like family.”
“Then why do you sound so miserable?”
“Do I? I don’t mean to. Now that it’s springtime, I can finally go home.”
“Why, that’s great news! That’s what you were trying to do when we first met, isn’t it?”
“But you still don’t sound happy.”
“I already know it won’t be like I remember. The basil plants I was raised with… well, they forgot about me long ago, and now that winter has come and gone, they’re probably all dead, with a new generation of seedlings growing in their place. There’s a rosebush I wouldn’t mind seeing again, just to let it know I survived, but it was always kind of crabby and standoffish, and after an entire winter of such wonderful company… well, going back just doesn’t sound that appealing anymore.”
“Then why go at all?”
“I keep thinking about the new seedlings. Maybe I can convince them to come away with me before they get their tops chopped. I can show them that life doesn’t have to be short and brutal. The summer is too short for me to bring them all the way back here, but I might be able to find another greenhouse that would take them in.”
“I see. Truly a noble act.”
Little Baldy sighed. “That’s how it plays out in my mind, but I know they’ll say ‘no’, just like my friends did. And if they did say ‘yes’, what would I do? I don’t have the strength or the leverage to pull them up by the roots, and I don’t know how to dig. And even if I did get them out of the ground, what then? The penguin who made these clods for me is long gone, and there are no other penguins to ask for help anywhere on our side of the ocean. I don’t have the skills to make shoes for one seedling, let alone an entire row’s worth. And it’s so much harder to walk now! I didn’t realize how much I’d grown until today. I’m so big and bushy I keep falling over. I tripped half a dozen times just coming here!”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but it sounds to me like you really don’t want to go.”
“I would if it weren’t completely pointless! I can’t save everybody. I can’t save anybody. There’s nothing for me there but heartache. But I swore I’d go home. I told everybody in the greenhouse I’d go home. I talked about it all winter. I’d look like a fool if I backed out now.”
“Ah, well, you certainly wouldn’t want to look foolish. After all, as we discussed at our last meeting, wisdom is knowing when to move, and when to stay still…”
“Exactly! Although now that I think about it… maybe it’s better to look like a fool than to act like one.”
That afternoon, when the human made its usual rounds of the greenhouse, it noticed the bird-of-paradise looked a bit droopy. Muttering about soil composition, the human began rummaging through some bins and attributed the rustling of leaves at its back to the light breeze entering through the open door. How surprised it would have been if it had turned around in that moment and seen a large basil plant waddle into the greenhouse and heave itself into a pot.
When the human had gone, the bird-of-paradise turned to its dear friend. “Why are you here? I thought you were going home?”
“I am home,” said Little Baldy, and for the first time, be directed a root downward.