The Mandrake Loves the Olive

(First published in Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth, Speculatively Queer. Nominated for a Pushcart for best short story, 2022.)

I could tell you my true name in accents that would make you lose your mind — if you’re lucky. The language of my clan is for the killing of the diggers, the rapacious, the breakers of roots, the severers of wetness flowing from taproot to glossy leaf. When you are in a gentler mood, when your kind watches with fascination as we appear in the disturbed lands beyond the margins of your homes and dwelling places, you can call me “mandrake.”

Tuneful, their tongues said Mandragora officinarum; later, tuffah el majanin[1], for we do bring ecstasy and oneness to the broken-minded trapped in duality. And we take away this gift, for we are also beid el djinn[2]. Your kind comes to us when you seek the transcendent, erring though you may be. We forgive you a trespass or two — but not all.

The story is in my root’s skin. Above the soil, you can see the scars of these many trespasses, where blades and rough hands in violence touched my sanctified being.

Rough winds shake the grove where the cultivators gather their fruits in the margins of well-drained terraces. The heads of the trees thrash about, and even my humble leaves fan the baked soil of the wasteland margin.

Blessed is that wind! Through barricades and across stony ground a frond of the beloved wends, tumbling and turning this way and that as the wind sweeps its shining silver leaves, reflecting the sun, past the bounds of the tamed and into the wilds.

It lands on me.

I have never touched such heady holiness as that branch. My limbs can only reach so far, and all in darkness, beneath the crust of the earth. My hands cannot stretch into the skies above, where this talisman of peace has waved and grown in the sweet air.

My flowers envelop their branches and leaves. The hair of my beloved has become a crown. The winds drag the branch from my grasp. My leaves are too feeble to hold onto its silver and green, and I watch as love trails away, deeper into the wadi. The kiss has stolen my mind from me, and I am lost. That moment of oneness has shaken me. I wish for my roots to unwind and crawl over detritus and pebble, up, up to where the source of the glorious silver is planted.

A despair as piercing and as deep as my taproot twists my guts. I am a plant of the wastes, and they are a blessed tree of the cultivated lands above. They might as well be one of the sainted spirits who spring from high place to high place, their feet hardly touching the mountains as they bound free of mortal laws. My being is an anchor and to the natural law I cling. All my life I have revelled in the deep places, burrowing my limbs down, down, and darker.

I resolve to try, at least, to fight against fate. To love the olive tree.

I turn my leafy head and see them high up on the hillside. Into a firm and tidy terrace are they planted. I look down. The pebbles around my stem are fine and white. Aching, I draw up my lower limbs — slowly, slowly. Some of the roots snap as I withdraw from the crevasses in the limestone, bones of the sea. I look, I know, like one of the cultivators down there. This is why they dig at my stem. I use this to my advantage and walk as they do, through the wastes.

I push on, gently, inching along farther up the rift and closer to the cultivated lands. Many generations of the cultivators come and go. If any notice my approach, I am unaware. I only have eyes for my beloved. Oh, to but touch the shade of their canopy! My aims are humble, and I pray their humbleness grants a blessing to the work.

Before I can reach them, strange cultivators arrive. They fight with the natives, and the cultivated land becomes waste, my roots sliding easily through the soft soils. I am wary of being dug up, without the stones of the ancients to anchor me. Still, I rush to my beloved, heedless of the danger. At last, after my long journey, I can touch their shade!

The cultivators come again. I am in bliss, too enraptured to realize that I should twist down to reach for stones and hold on to save myself. A blade is unclothed and laid against the skin of my beloved.

Into my wail, I place all of my love, my impotence, the righteous rage of a lover. The cultivators pause. The blade is removed, and they look around for me. I scream again, and their dog howls in agony. Leave, I press into my being. Leave this place to me and my beloved!

The cultivators do not die — perhaps the tamed place nullifies my deathly song. I look up — my beloved olive tree is still, but their hair moves gently in the breeze. Their trunk remains uncut. And the cultivators leave, wandering down the valley, searching out the cause of the scream.

My love is resilient. You rightly call them el sharjarah el mubarakah[3], el sharjarah el nur[4]. And they are wild, and sweet. No hand reaches for their silver-grey branches. No flame, no blades come near, for it’s then that I raise my voice. Their ancient bark is folded deep. I seek out their roots, to let them know that I am here; that from now on they will never be alone.

[1] Apple of the mad.

[2] Eggs of the djinn.

[3] The blessed tree.

[4] The tree of light.