The evening’s downpour still hadn’t ended, and by the time Viktor picked me up, the streets were abandoned except for a few lonesome figures tucked under awnings and into doorways. The boulevard gleamed under the streetlamps. Viktor’s mood must have been affected by the weather, because as he drove me to his apartment, his windshield wipers sloshing back and forth, the cheerful person I knew from the botany lectures we had attended had vanished. In his place was an awkward, distracted stranger who didn’t speak except to remind me to put on my seatbelt. I told myself he was trying to concentrate on the road.
He parked in front of his complex and together we hurried through the gate into a courtyard thick with dripping banana palms and bougainvillea. A defunct stone fountain hunched in the middle, filling up with rainwater. We rounded a corner and a motion-detector bulb flared up in a blinding sputter before conking back out again. I saw then that a peculiar greenish glow radiated from underneath the door of one of the downstairs units. As Viktor led me toward it, I could feel my throat tighten. He slid a key in the lock, pushed the door open.
A wall of emerald light swam toward me.
Once my eyes adjusted, I found myself staring at what resembled the inside of a giant terrarium. Plants everywhere, from delicate seedlings to furry mosses to massive green beasts that strained at the ceiling. Exotic-looking orchids blotted out the kitchen counter, vines ran along the picture rail straining to reach the windows, spiny cacti and succulents crowded into the bookshelves. Green grow lamps mounted at strategic intervals made the room throb with color. As a thick vegetative odor rolled over me, at once strange and familiar, it struck me that “Clair de Lune” was playing in the background.
“They like it when I leave music on for them,” Viktor said. He fiddled with a digital display mounted next to the coat closet. A humidity meter, I realized. “I know my place is a bit unusual, but I hope you don’t mind it.”
Under the lamps, his pallid complexion turned a faint aquamarine color, giving him the appearance of a benevolent alien. “No, it’s great,” I said.
Once I managed to convince him that I wasn’t put off by his living situation, he loosened up considerably. He showed me green wisps he was coaxing out of the dirt by giving them eyedroppers of rainwater and a dose of red light every four hours. Rare tropical flowers he’d saved from a blistering disease. “And my crown jewel.” He steered me toward a tremendous glass case that dwarfed the kitchen table and which was filled with the oddest plant life I’d ever encountered. Tube-shaped specimens with bristly lace pinwheels. Shuddering pink lumps that made me think of sea anemones. In the far corner, a trio of jellied globes quietly leaked a dark red liquid. Nearby, an octopus-like creature gleamed with a sticky-looking goo. Viktor gestured at a pot of tiny green monsters, their fanged mouths stretched open.
“Dionaea muscipula. Also known as Venus Fly Trap.” He snuck a look at me. “Named after the Goddess of Love.”
He went on to explain that the plants in the glass enclosure were carnivorous. “Of course, some people think that means you can feed them things like ground beef or chopped up hot dogs, which would surely kill them. But at the same time, they’re a lot more like humans than you might suspect. For example, did you know Venus Fly Trap has a memory?”
The thought was so absurd I started laughing. “What?”
Without a word, he went to the refrigerator and came back gripping a jar with a hunk of raw hamburger at the bottom. He held it up with the sly theatricality of a magician. “Observe.”
As he unscrewed the lid, I worried that he was going to feed the poor little plant meat right in front of me. He capped the jar with his hand as though he was trying to prevent something from escaping. The hamburger, I saw then, was crawling with green-bottle flies. He lifted a trapdoor in the top of the terrarium and placed the jar next to the tiny fanged creatures. “Watch the hairs on Venus’s lips. If a fly brushes just one of them, she won’t bother to snap her jaws shut. Doing so costs the plant a lot of time and energy. Instead, she waits. Only if the fly touches a second hair within twenty seconds or so will her trigger mechanism be activated.”
I thought this over. “So for her to eat, she has to recall that the first hair was touched.”
“You learn fast,” he said.
We turned back to the terrarium and within seconds a fly landed on one of the traps. It hesitated, as if sensing danger. Part of me wanted to make a sudden move so that it would wing away to safety. Part of me wanted to see what would happen next. The fly took a second cautious step––and the trap closed around it. Even through the hairy green cage, you could see the small creature struggling in panic. Unable to help myself, I turned my face away.
Viktor removed the jar from the terrarium and screwed the lid back on. “Nature can be a bit morbid, can’t she? But at the same time she reminds us how mysterious life is. How fleeting.” I looked at the remaining flies, buzzing in frantic circles. Was I the insect or the plant? There seemed to be a clue in what I’d just witnessed, if only I could remember. Swallowing hard, I looked up in time to see Viktor’s pale green skin flush into kelly.
He took a step forward. “As the poets tell us, seize the day,” he said.
Karen Tucker’s short fiction has appeared in Epoch, Carve Magazine, American Literary Review, upstreet, and Salamander. The recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant for Emerging Writers, she’s currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State.