Listen to this story, narrated by Daniela Acitelli:
The mandrake root is the same deep brown as Kavya’s skin. Its limbs are chunky and tuberous, and its fibrous skull has the weight and feel of a coconut in her palm as she scoops it gently from the soil-filled tote.
It squirms as she slides it into the bowl of milk, but then it falls still.
A drop of blood every day, the witch at the shop had said. Kavya’s hands are shaking as she tries to prick her finger with a safety pin. The mandrake coos in contentment as she dips her finger in the milk, and even that faint noise strums her bones like a fingernail flicked against the rim of a glass.
Don’t do anything to piss it off, the witch had warned. You don’t want to make it scream.
Geoff will be here soon. Kavya sucks the milk and blood off her finger and backs carefully out from underneath the bed.
She’s distracted that night, but so is Geoff, who doesn’t notice her stealing glances at the bed. They order Chinese food and then kiss for a while on the couch, tasting black bean sauce on each other’s lips, but when she moves his hand between her thighs, he curls it back and yawns.
“We have to get this build done by Friday,” he says. “Listen, I’m not going to be able to come by for a few days. Boy who cried wolf, you know? There’s only so many times I can tell Ashley I’m working late.”
He does look tired; his eyes are squinty and his hair looks like he’s run his fingers through it too many times. Kavya wants to run her fingers through it, too.
She wants to ask, When are you going to tell Ashley about us? But she says, “Okay,” instead.
Even hidden, the mandrake’s presence is a lodestone, pulling her in as she moves around her studio the next day, working at her drafting table, scanning the sketches in so she can shift to the computer. She crawls back under the bed around lunchtime to give it its drop of blood and sees tendrils shift in the gloom at her approach.
Why did her mother leave her this? What does she expect Kavya to do with it? She should just wrap it in newspaper and throw it out with the coffee grounds, but her stomach writhes at the thought. She should shove it back in the bag it came in and leave it to dry out in the closet, but that feels even crueler, somehow.
She tells herself she’ll think of something. Maybe she can sell it off. Regift it. Find someone who wants to play parent to a tuber that croons and wriggles too much.
Geoff texts her around afternoon with a picture of a white mug that says, Keep calm and game on, half-full of coffee. Guess which.
This is one of their favourite games. Cup 3, she texts back.
Oh, babe. They must really be feeling the crunch if he’s already five cups of coffee in.
He and Ashley probably had their games too — their own private, playful ping-ponging of jokes back and forth. Back before the rot set in and things started to wither, before they strained further and further apart, each waiting but not daring for the necessary snip, the cut and the uprooting that would set them both free.
“Look, I get it,” she tells the mandrake the next day, stretched out on her stomach on the floor, chin propped on her wrist. It shifts at the sound of her voice. “Leaving isn’t easy. My mom wouldn’t have stayed thirty-eight years if it was.”
Though, in truth, it hadn’t just been inertia that kept her mother in a house she should have left. That had been having Kavya — equal parts millstone around her neck and chains on her ankle, weighing her down with responsibility, as her mother never tired of reminding her.
Kavya’s not sure what to do with the tote bag the root came in. She’s always loved the smell of soil. It reminds her of summer days helping her mother plant rosebushes and weed dayflowers; moments of peace held like glass between the slamming of the door when her father left and when he came home. This soil is rich and dark, with a fragrance she can’t place and a meaty, greasy feel as it rolls between her fingers. She doesn’t want to think about what the witch at the greenhouse-shop might have put in it.
Geoff doesn’t like the smell of coconut oil, so she takes advantage of these few days to rub it through her hair, which has always been rough and ropey, even when she grew it out and brushed it daily. She wriggles under the bed to feed the mandrake before showering it off and, maybe because the smell is concentrated in the dark space, the root twitches excitedly. It bounces its fat legs, splashing milk over the side of the bowl, which makes Kavya go tense, but then it chirps in a way that she somehow knows in her gut is not displeasure at all. It then curls a tendril towards her.
It’s grown bigger by day three. Definitely bigger. Its legs are chunkier, sticking out over the edges of the bowl, budding at the bottoms in the suggestion of tiny, tiny toes.
“Is it supposed to be growing?” she asks the witch, both hands curled around the phone and glancing cautiously at the bed, as if the root can hear. “Because it’s growing. A lot.”
The witch hmmms deep in her throat like a purring cat. “It must like you,” she says.
“It can do that?”
The bag with the mandrake root in it had showed up the day after her mother’s funeral. There had been a piece of paper pinned to the straps, with a whiff of her mother’s rose attar and talcum powder still on it, pricking her eyes with tears at the scent. A single word had been written on it in her mother’s spidery handwriting: Kavya. And the phone number for the shop that had delivered it, already paid for in full, with no refunds or returns.
Anger tightens her throat for a moment. It’s not fair. She was never good enough for her mother in life — she fought against the dance lessons her mother wanted her to take, never learned to cook, and took a visual arts degree instead of becoming a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. Not to mention the greatest disappointment of all: her failure to acquire a husband and provide grandchildren.
It’s hard not to see this as one last, petty, parting shot from beyond the grave.
Kavya knows on some level that this is her own bitterness speaking, but it’s so very easy to visualize herself through her mother’s disappointed eyes. A surly, ungrateful daughter, too dark of skin and rough of hair, choosing solitude over socialization at every turn. Nurturing nothing and no one, making no real impact on any lives other than her own, except for a relationship with a lie at the other end.
A husband and children? She probably can’t even keep a plant alive, even if it is a strange plant that writhes with some kind of foreign magic.
And despite all this, her initial nervousness around the root is beginning to melt by day five. It’s become a kind of routine to lay there with it for a little while after she gives it its daily drop of blood, talking to it in the dark. Her own captive audience — no judgment, all ears. Kavya tells it all about Geoff: how they met when she did concept art for his indie game studio; how she likes his mildness and even his ineffective peevishness. He’s as unlike her father as a man could be, and she likes that too. He would never lift a hand to her. He would never dare.
It occurs to her that she sounds like she’s trying to convince it of something. Pleading her case before a plant. That’s just sad.
Her mother would have thought so, too.
“I never told Ma about him, of course. Can you even imagine the scandal? She didn’t need another reason to disapprove of me. Hell, I’m not even sure I approve of myself.”
The mandrake coos. A tendril creeps across the carpet to her, and Kavya watches it curl itself gently around her finger. It makes her smile and, without really thinking about it, she lifts her hand to her mouth to press a quick kiss to that thistle-downed shoot, soft as sap and just as fresh.
The mandrake has no eyes that she can see, only fingernail-shaped indents to suggest closed lids, but she sees its head turn in the dark to look directly at her. It makes a noise she’s never heard it make before but recognises right away, though it is small and soft. A laugh.
A shiver travels down her spine. She pulls her finger gently free and crawls out from under the bed as fast as she can.
Geoff comes by again on day seven. Kavya meets him at the door with a kiss that lingers and then turns urgent, bowing them both back against the wall, his hands on her hips, until they have to come back up for air. She links her fingers into his to pull him towards the couch (not the bed, not with what’s under it), but he peers at it and stops, looking puzzled. “Babe,” he says. “What’s this?”
It’s the soil-filled bag, which she’d meant to move into the closet and forgotten all about. Kavya gropes for a lie. “I was thinking of getting some plants.”
He laughs, probably not meaning for it to sound as a derisive as it does. “In here? Where would you even put them?”
Yes, her studio is tiny, but she has windows and windowsills, and something in her does genuinely thrill at the thought of plunging her hands into that rich soil again. Bringing a handful up to her nose and inhaling its meaty smell. Filling planters and pots with it and seeing what grows. Kavya frowns. “I was going to figure something out.”
“I’m just saying,” Geoff says, blithe and oblivious, “taking care of plants is a little bit harder than drawing them. Ashley keeps collecting succulents. Those are supposed to be hardy, right? She’s managed to kill three so far. What does it say about someone when they can kill succulents?”
He notices the flatness of her expression then, and backtracks. “I mean….”
“That’s great,” Kavya says, tones clipped.
“Don’t be like this, okay? I just got here.”
“Sure, sure, sure. What did you tell Ashley this time?”
Now Geoff is frowning, too. He lifts his arms defensively. “Haven’t we had this conversation enough? You know how rough work’s been these last few months. I’m going to do it. I just need the right time.”
“You’ve been looking for the right time for six months.”
“Jesus, what do you want me to do, text her ‘I divorce you’ three times and call it quits? Because that’s not how we do it over here.”
A strange stiffness and calmness come over her, the stomach-dropping freefall of no, he didn’t before the cold reality of yes, he absolutely did flows over her skin and through her blood. Kavya opens her mouth without knowing what words will spring from it but stops as she hears a noise. It’s still soft, only vaguely distressed, like the whine of a lost dog, but she knows it at once. The mandrake.
And Geoff has heard it too. His head swivels towards the bed and he says, “What was that?”
“Nothing,” Kavya whispers urgently. “Nothing.” But the mandrake wails again and now Geoff is walking towards the bed. He’s kneeling before she can stop him, peering under it, and she sees his shoulders jolt.
“What the fuck,” he says.
She should stop him, but something holds her in place as he reaches under the bed, as she hears the clatter of the bowl. Inevitability, maybe, she will think later, a sense that what was coming had been coming for a while. For now, she is frozen, watching him haul the mandrake root from its hiding place. It’s the first time since she brought it home that she’s seen the root out in the light, and the realisation of how much it’s grown knocks the breath from her. It’s the size of a human infant now, its brown arms and legs chubby with the suggestions of baby curves. Ropey, hair-like tendrils sprout from its scalp.
It has ten tiny, perfect fingers and toes.
Geoff is holding it upside down by a leg.
A line of something electric runs all the way to Kavya’s heart and pulls her forward. She sees the mandrake’s small, milk-wet face screw up, and she sees its mouth open, preparing to scream, but it isn’t any thought of Geoff that drives her across the space between them to pull it from him and envelop it in her arms.
It isn’t for Geoff at all.
She splays her fingers out across the back of its baby skull, supporting it, and its sudden, half-hearted, relieved hiccup of a wail is muffled against her neck. Kavya feels it vibrate through her bones and welcomes it.
It doesn’t hurt, of course. It would never hurt her.
She looks at Geoff’s horrified face — at his weak but pleasant mouth, his curling blond hair, his loosened tie, all the things about him that had been so safe — and wonders when safe stopped being enough. “Get out,” she says.
“What is th—”
The mandrake keens with her, and Geoff flinches. He goes, almost stumbling in his haste, leaving the door open behind him.
Kavya waits till the sound of his footsteps have faded and then shifts the mandrake to the crook of her arm. Its little tendrils — not so little anymore, one curling strongly around her waist as other fuzz-spindly shoots quickly twine up between her fingers and pull flush with flesh — twitch with relief.
She feels one snake around her neck, once and then twice again, like a green choker. It holds her tight and touches her cheek as she bounces it gently, knowing just how to do it, though she’s never done so before.
It looks up at her with open eyes that are brown like her own — deepening brown, clarifying as she looks back, spots of blossoming brown opening into perfect, distinct irises. And it smiles.