Kudzu, a Novel
They followed the cats.
The cats spread out across the shoreline, perching on any outcropping branch that gave them access to water deep enough to support the small fish. But when they left, they all headed the same direction.
A Siamese with loose skin on her belly and enlarged teats caught Colleen’s eye. The cat held a fish — relatively large for the shallow pools the cats trolled — still gasping and flapping in its mouth, and walked purposefully down the shoreline.
Colleen nudged Michael, ignoring the way he flinched at her touch, and pointed.
“That one,” she said. “She’s got kittens, so she’ll head straight back to them. No aimless detours.”
“Fine,” Michael said.
It pissed her off. Yes, he was talking now, but it was all fine and sure and if you want.
She tied her waterskins to her belt and stomped off after the cat. Michael followed.
The cat led them to a convoluted section of wall with a narrow opening, easily big enough for a cat to pass through without difficulty, less so for a human. Without her pack, Colleen could have wriggled through, but Michael would have a difficult time. The cat slipped through the opening and disappeared into the foliage.
Colleen poked her head through. The tunnel itself was much wider than the opening. The kudzu obstructing the opening was more of an espalier than a hedge, and she was pretty sure they could break it open easily enough.
“We can widen this,” she said, “enough to get through.” She pulled at the kudzu, which gave, but didn’t break. “A little help would be good.”
She heard the rustling of foliage moving, and looked over her shoulder at Michael to see what he was doing.
He wasn’t doing anything, just standing back with his arms crossed.
“I don’t think you’ll need it,” Michael said.
Colleen felt something moving under her hands, like a snake. She let go and jumped away, tripping over her feet and landing on her ass.
The vines moved across each other, twisting more tightly together. The gap widened like a slow-motion shutter, an iris sliding open to create an aperture through which they could pass.
“Okay,” Michael said. “Now that’s just creepy. Like it’s watching us.”
“Plants respond to their environments,” Colleen said. “Typically what we consider a significant event passes too quickly to be more than a blip to the plant, and a plant’s movement is too slow for us to notice. We’ve already seen this plant exhibit directed growth in response to an external stimulus, when it acted to seal an atmospheric breach. It’s genetically programmed to grow in certain ways under certain circumstances. Why should this be different?”
“It’s still creepy.”
“The bigger question is, why bother putting a door here? We didn’t see door-like structures in any of the other tunnels we’ve been through, so it’s not a default state.”
“I think I can answer that,” Michael said. He pointed at the wall of the chamber. There were faint lines on the leaves and the bark of the vines.
“It’s sediment, not soil, but fish poo and leaf bits, or whatever passes for sediment here. Looks like the lake floods every once in a while, and the door keeps the floodwaters out.”
Michael stepped through the open iris and examined the wall on the other side.
“No sedimentation here,” he said.
Colleen ran her hand over the tightly bound vines that made up the open door.
“Whoever designed this is a genius,” she said.
“Whoever designed this destroyed the world,” Michael said.
“Yeah. But still.”
The tunnel wound around enough that, if they hadn’t already been lost, they would have been by the time they found the Siamese with her litter. She sprawled on her side in a small alcove in the tunnel wall, licking her paws. Five kittens fought blindly for their positions at her belly. The fish lay in front of her, half-eaten.
“Well, hello, you,” Colleen said, crouching down in front of the cats. “Aren’t you adorable?”
The Siamese eyed her warily.
“Don’t disturb the feral cats,” Michael said. “Remember, we don’t have any antibiotics to treat an infected scratch. If we end up having to amputate your hand, how will you punch me in the face?”
Colleen spun to face him.
“Look, I’m sorry about that, all right? But you can’t do that to me. You need to respect my boundaries.”
Michael stared at her, then turned away and walked further down the tunnel.
“Jesus.” Colleen chased after him. “Don’t fucking start this again.”
Michael stopped abruptly enough that Colleen collided with his back. He didn’t look at her.
“I was asleep. I woke up because of what you were doing to me. Where the fuck do you get off accusing me of crossing boundaries?”
“I…” Colleen let out her breath. “Fuck.”
She watched Michael as he walked away, until he disappeared around a bend in the tunnel. She sank to the floor and buried her head in her knees.
He came back for her.
She didn’t know how long it had been, or how far he had gone before he realized she wasn’t following. Or whether he’d stopped and waited, or had kept going.
She didn’t even know he was back until he spoke.
“The tunnel forks up ahead,” he said.
Colleen stopped rocking and looked up at him, framed against the tunnel’s lights.
“I didn’t mean for any of that to happen,” she said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I’m going to take the right fork.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
“If it forks again, I’ll keep going right.”
“I was sleeping with Bill Williams.”
There was a pause. “If a tunnel ends up being a dead end, I’ll backtrack and take the left fork. If I do that, I’ll leave something as a marker so you know.”
“I didn’t even fucking like Bill. I don’t know why I was sleeping with him. I don’t know why I was cheating on Henry. I wasn’t unhappy. I wasn’t dissatisfied. I wasn’t mistreated, or ignored, or, or anything. I didn’t even like him.”
Michael didn’t say anything. He didn’t move.
“It lasted over three months. We tried to be discrete. I thought we were discrete.”
“You were,” Michael said. “I worked closely with Bill. If anyone would have noticed anything, it would have been me.”
Colleen realized she was rocking again. She tried to stop, but it didn’t work. She couldn’t bring herself to tell the most terrible part. Couldn’t make the words form, couldn’t push them out of her lungs.
“I never kissed Bill,” she said, instead. “It’s the only way I didn’t betray Henry. It’s the only thing left that’s just ours. I can’t kiss you. I can’t kiss anyone, not now. Please tell me you understand.”
Michael was quiet for a long time.
“I understand,” he finally said. He looked away from her, then back, catching her eye and holding it.
“My first husband put me in the hospital,” he said. “Twice. And there were always reasons, and excuses, and apologies. Please tell me you understand.”
“I’m going to take the right fork up ahead. You’re welcome to come with me, if you want, or follow later. Or whatever.”
Colleen watched him walk away and vanish around the bend. Then she grabbed her waterskins and ran to catch up.