Return of the Corphid


汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2016年1期

A tale of a mysterious plant, mummies, and obsession


Francis telephoned right when I was in the greenhouse studying a rare species of Amazonian passion hemp. I had discovered this plant in the north of the rainforest a month earlier. It was an extraordinary species that secretes a neurotoxin capable of inducing paralysis and hallucinations.

“What do you want Francis? Im busy,” I took the call through bluetooth headphones and continued jotting my observations on a pad of paper while we spoke.

“Garry, whats your schedule like? I need you to come over.” He sounded nervous.

“What time? Not now. Im on a date with my latest discovery—Amazonian passion hemp,” I chuckled.

“Forget your passion hemp! Ive got something thatll stop you dead in your tracks,” Francis raised his voice.

I paused for a second. He rarely took that tone, “Alright, alright, but Im warning you, if I dont stop dead, tonights round is on you.”

“Deal,” Francis replied with relief in his voice.

His strange call had distracted me from my work. I turned on the greenhouses autonomous control system, picked up my car keys and left.

I wasnt bothered by the interruption. In fact, I was growing curious about this thing that would “stop me dead in my tracks”.

Francis was an archeologist and taught with Professor Nash at Columbia University. We had been good friends since high school and went to college together. He had studied archeology and I botany.

His work with Nash took him to far off places around the globe. We usually spoke via video calls online or by phone. There were rarely opportunities like this to meet in person, especially the last few years.

I followed the highway to Franciss for an hour before arriving in the small town.

He must have heard the sound of my car. Opening the car door I saw him standing on the porch waiting. I walked up the steps and gave him a brusque hug.

“Dont forget our deal!” I threatened, as we walked into the house.

I stepped into the living room and froze.

“What do you think? I told you this would stop you dead in your tracks! Haha, Gary, your eyes! And your mouth, its so open I could shove a potato in there,” Francis teased me, slapping me on the shoulders. But I was in no mind to respond. I stared blankly into the center of the living room, my mind spinning with excitement.

There was a purple plant growing straight out of the floor. It was roughly 1.7 meters tall. The stem was as thick as an arm. The leaves were purple and in the shape of pentacles. There was one big, white flower that had four purple-red stamens and four pristine, white petals that overlapped. Even though it was blooming magnificently, it was not emitting a scent.

“Is this real?” holding back an urge to shout in amazement, I walked towards the plant. It was certainly genuine and definitely mysterious.

“Of course it is. Youre the botanist, thats why we asked you to come see it,” Francis wife, Alina smiled and offered me a cup of coffee.

I accepted the coffee with my eyes glued to the plant and sat down in a nearby armchair.

“To tell you the truth, Ive never seen a species like this. Can you tell me Francis, how did it grow out of your 1,000 dollar floor?” I finally gained control over my excitement and turned to the couple.

“Oh, over ten days ago, wouldnt you say Alina?” Francis furrowed his brow and turned to his wife.

“Its been a month. We were just coming home,” Alina corrected her husband.

“Oh, right. It was a month ago. We had just returned from a holiday. I think I mentioned it to you. We went to Switzerland. When we got back Alina noticed a light green stem growing out of the floorboards.

“Yes, and Francis wanted to pull it out. But I thought there was something rather magical about it, so I left it, waiting to see what it would grow into,” Alina said with a laugh.

“Yes, maybe its a beanstalk thatll shoot right up into the clouds——haha,” Francis joked.

“You really dont know what this is?”Alina asked, turning to me.

I laughed awkwardly. I was a well-known botanist, and it wasnt often that I was stumped.

“I could find its species category, but I would have difficulty determining its name. This is certainly a rare breed. Hey Francis, did you think to ask the floor company what type of wood your floorboards are made from?” I knew most plants would die in those conditions, but in special circumstances it was possible for some to come back to life.

“I asked them, but they didnt believe me and insisted on coming to inspect the floor themselves. Of course they had no clue what it was. At least they agreed to give us a new floor free of charge,” Francis said and lowered his head to take a sip of coffee.

“Alright, Ill take some photos back and tell you what I find,” I started taking photos with my pocket camera.“What are you going to do with it? Allow it to continue growing?”

“Alina likes it and it isnt getting in the way. It is also a rare occurrence worth appreciating. Well wait for it to wilt before getting rid of it. Its already stopped growing,” Francis answered.

“Thats fine. But Id prefer it if the two of you didnt spend too much time in its proximity. We still dont know if its poisonous.”

“I wouldnt worry about that. Its been blooming for over a day now without any side effects,” Alina said, looking at the flower adoringly.

I snapped more photos, making sure I captured every aspect of the plant and then we chatted for a while longer. It was dark by the time I was on the highway again.

The whole drive back I couldnt stop thinking about that strange plant. It was making me nervous.

At home I spread prints of the photos out on my desk and started to research. I worked until the early hours of the morning, but found nothing. Was it an undiscovered species? I was doubtful, but a little part of me was starting to get excited.

I spent the next ten days searching, but there was a void of information. So I sent the photos to some specialists in the field. While I waited for their responses, a strange thing happened.

I was preparing material for an international biology conference in Paris and received another call from Francis.

“Gary,” he said, sounding panicked, “I need you to come back here, Alinas sick.”

I was stunned, “From what? What did the doctor say?”

“Theres no clear diagnosis, the doctors never seen anything like this,” Francis paused, “but I think its the plant.”

“Has it changed in any way?”

“Not really, it looks exactly the same. But a few days ago it started to produce a strong scent. I had someone come test the air and they said it wasnt toxic.”

“Then how can you be sure this is related to the plant?”

“Because I noticed that the flower turns, and I remembered something important. Its got to be related to the plant. It would be best if you came over to help me work this out,” Francis said with a sigh.

“Alright, Ill head over this afternoon,” I hung up. It was almost noon, but at least my presentation was nearly ready. I called my assistant, told him I needed to go out for the afternoon and explained what was left to prepare.

I didnt want to keep poor Francis waiting. He and Alina were a close couple. Her strange illness must have been upsetting him. Instead of sitting down for lunch I stopped to pick up a burger for the road.

Just as I drove into their town, Francis called. He gave me the name of a restaurant and asked me to meet him there. He was already waiting at a table.

It wasnt hard to find in that small town. The lunch rush was over and there were only a few customers inside. I saw Francis waving at me from by the window. He had lost a lot of weight in the ten days since I last saw him. His usually meticulously crafted hair was a mess and he hadnt shaved in days.

“Thanks for coming Gary,” he said, forcing a smile.

“Hows Alina? Is she at home or in the hospital?”

Shes at home. Shes obsessed with that plant. She wont leave it for a second. Theres something very peculiar about it,” Francis knitted his eyebrows and laughed bitterly, “I should have uprooted it when I had the chance. If only I had known then...”

“What exactly is wrong with her?”

“Im not sure. All her organs are functioning normally, but shes losing a lot of weight.”

“You told me you thought there was a relationship between the plant and her illness. Can you explain further?” Franciss face darkened and he let out a long sigh.

“Do you remember that expedition I told you I went on a few months ago?”

I thought for a minute and nodded, “You mean the new tomb that was discovered in Egypt.”

“Yes, organized by the Egyptians. Professor Nash has done extensive research on mummies and tombs, so he was invited. I had just finished a project and had some spare time, so I tagged along.

“But when we arrived we were told they had discovered a whole cluster of graves. These were different from tombs found in the Pyramids. These ones were built into a mountain of stone with a circumference of a few hundred meters. Myriad pathways and tunnels had been cut into the rock and crisscrossed like an intricate spiders web. Signposts were installed to keep people from getting lost.

“The leader of the expedition told us that tombs had been discovered in a few places, but because the area was so large there were sections that needed further investigating. It was possible that more tombs were hiding behind the dark passageways.

“That excited Professor Nash. Discovering a tomb meant gaining access to a lot of primary data that would advance his research.

“The work started quickly. The Egyptians had already marked the previously discovered tombs and put up signs inside the tunnels. I am fascinated by graves built into mountains. But my work consists mainly of analyzing data and desk research. And none of my projects cover the topic either, so I rarely get the opportunity to visit this type of site.