Does the flower remember who built it? Is it trying to tell me? Is that why I’ve kept having these dreams whenever I consumed the formula?
The dreams of the man who made the flower?
I never thought I would be one of those scientists who experiments on herself, but after all, it’s just a bottle of flower juice. A carefully titrated, formulated, engineered bottle of flower juice. A more concentrated concoction of the same stuff I consumed when I chewed on the petals that first day. But still, just flower juice.
The dreams are like none I’ve ever had before. They’re proceeding in sequence, like the chapters of a story.
At their center is a man. A man who challenged Nature. He is a great builder, the foremost engineer of his time.
There was a grand festival in his native city. The engineer boasted to the gathered crowd that he could build a machine that could mimic anything they called out to him. The crowd, though friendly and enthralled by him, was not easy on him. They began to shout out things like “stars” and “comets.” The engineer laughed and corrected himself, saying that he could build a machine that could mimic any earthly thing. The crowd began calling out again. But this time, whatever they called out, he had already built.
“Clouds,” they said. But he had already built machines that summoned clouds above the rainless city in the west.
“Land,” they said. “Earth.” But he had already built an island in the southern sea, by request of the overwhelmed magnate of a crowded coastal city. The machine he made induced a mountain of fire jutting from the waters far beyond the shores to spew out molten metal and earth. When the metal and earth cooled, a new land came into being.
“Housework!” called a tired young mother, bearing a baby on her hip and the weight of a small child leaning sullenly against her legs. The gathered crowd laughed and nodded. The engineer had already built a broom that could sweep floors on its own, a machine that could weave and stitch cloth on its own, and even a machine that could cook simple meals.
“Fairies!” a young woman said. And smug smiles were smiled by all, even though it might be debated whether fairies were earthly.
But then, the engineer answered. He had built dolls for the princess that could move on their own, and moved so cleverly that the princess soon became frightened of them. She claimed that she feared they would carry her off and leave a changeling in her place. But her father, the king, was utterly impressed and claimed them for his own. He would bring them out to show guests. And when he wished to lay aside the burden of rule for a short while, he watched them move about and live their small and simple lives.
“Love,” someone cried out. The engineer winked at the crowd. For he had built machines that could capture secret spoken messages between lovers and send them back and forth, skipping above the heads and past the ears of all others.
It went on that way for a while. The crowd calling things out, and the engineer shaking his head or winking or chuckling, and telling them that he had already done it.
I’d wake from the dream shaking my own head.
So, I’d think to myself, the man invented cloud-seeding, the sewing machine, and the telephone.
I worked for a company that had such grand aspirations of invention. They sought to engineer the ideal food plant, capable of growing in any soil, any climate, and with a number of different resources, and converting those resources into the most efficient energy source. I had little to do with that project.
But about a year ago, I took my first trip into the desert, the actual desert, just about fifty miles from where I live. While we were traipsing around, I discovered what I thought was a new species of flower. It was growing in odd patches here and there in this sort of depression or basin within the general area. We searched for it in our databases of what we expected to find in that climate and location. And we found nothing. But we didn’t have much time to do thorough searches out in the field, while still gathering samples, snapping pictures, and surveying.
My “discovery” was debunked fairly quickly after we returned, and performed a more thorough search of existing databases. But I was still drawn to the flower, enough to request some time to study it. I hadn’t made any special requests in the three years I’d been working there, so I was due, and my supervisor approved it.
At first sight, it was nothing special. Just a purple flower. Not even that pretty, according to common standards. It had a bright yellow-orange sunburst at the center. Its petals were dark purple on the underside, and a lighter blue-purple on the tops. An overlapping brick-work pattern flared along the tops of the petals. It reminded me of what butterfly wings look like under some magnification. The flower’s bipartite leaves were long and tended to curl up at the edges.
Not much was known about the flower. It was given a placeholder name, panfloria, which meant something like “all flowers,” and was considered a bit of a weed. It was classified as edible and had some nutritional value. I found all of one paper written on it half a century ago, by a lone researcher. I read the paper, and I chewed on the petals, just to get to know it.
Despite having very little fragrance, panfloria’s petals tasted slightly sweet with a refreshing licorice aftertaste. If anything, it would make a nice breath freshener.
“A flower,” said a quiet voice, in the moment of silence while the rest of the crowd was thinking.
My dream was on its next chapter.
This time, the engineer’s eyes grew wide and his gaze searched the crowd for the speaker.
It fell upon the child, who was sitting atop his father’s shoulders, so he could see above the heads of the gathered crowd. The sound of laughter and music echoed into the pavilion from the other parts of the grand festival.
The engineer rubbed his chin.
A shuffling and a murmuring could be heard amidst the gathered crowd. Other gazes shifted toward the child who had spoken. The child who had, it seemed, finally stumped the great man upon the stage.
The engineer began to nod, then he smiled. “A flower,” he proclaimed. “A flower more beautiful than any found in nature.”
At that, quite a few gasps seized the gathered crowd. It was one thing to mimic Nature. But to boast that one could surpass her…
I grew panfloria from seed. It grew easily and effortlessly. I watched it grow from bud to bloom. I photographed it from root to pistil. I peered at it under a microscope. I searched beyond the walls of its cells. Beyond the membranes of its chloroplasts. I searched beyond xylem and phloem.
I think I’ve isolated a unique set of biochemical pathways related to properties of panfloria that definitely have the potential to be useful. Maybe not medicinally. But why does everything have to be medicine?
I had already experienced hints of the effects myself, from consuming the raw petals and leaves, either by chewing them or grinding them into a juice. Despite having such vivid dreams and getting fewer hours of sleep than I normally needed, I was waking up feeling rested and refreshed. I came home from work tired, but not drained. So I’d actually started working out for the first time in a year.
Then I got paranoid about becoming addicted to some unknown substance in the flower, so I stopped consuming it. Within a few weeks, I was back to normal. I’d be sleepy if I didn’t get my seven hours. I kept up the working out, but I felt somewhat sluggish and clumsy at it. I wasn’t jittery or anxious. I didn’t crave the flower, or turn to some alternative, like energy drinks. I didn’t feel like I’d lost any special powers. I could still do everything that I could always do. I was just slightly off. Slightly…sloppier. Like a pencil that needed sharpening.
I watched the engineer work in his shop. It was a few days after the festival. There would be another a few years hence, after the harvests were done and before the weather turned frosty. The engineer had vowed to have the flower made before then.
Over time, I watched him build machine after machine to help him create the perfect flower.
He first filled his shop with all the flowers in the region, and had his apprentices bring him sketches and paintings of flowers from countries beyond their own. Being as renowned as he was, he had the king’s favor. He asked to borrow the court painter so that the man could study all the flowers that Nature had made, and imagine one that had the best of all their qualities. A flower of supreme beauty. The court painter did not refuse the request, but he did warn the engineer that his skill was not superior to Nature’s. He would do his best and trust that the engineer’s skill would fill the vast gap he would surely leave between common beauty and supreme beauty.
The painter painted a stunning flower. Its translucent petals glowed bright and milky as moonlight with a blush of blue. Its dark green leaves cradled the petals and furled around them as if they were joined in a devoted dance. Even the delicate drops of dew that were perched precariously upon the petal’s edge glistened prismatically.
The painter was pleased, but also dissatisfied. He told the engineer that the painting was one of his best works, but was nowhere near as beautiful as the most beautiful flower that Nature could create.
The engineer studied the painting. Though he agreed with the painter’s own judgment, the engineer thanked the painter and kept the painting for his reference.
At last, the engineer was ready to begin. He built a machine in which he placed all the most beautiful flowers he could find, and he tried to bake them into a superior flower.
He failed. The results were nothing but mud and slime.
Then he used the best parts of that machine to build the next one. In the next machine, which also appeared much like an oven, he placed flower, after flower. But he did not bake them this time. After a flower had been in the machine for a while, he would remove it, then place another inside. He repeated the process until all the flowers in his workshop had been placed in the machine. Then he fed seeds into a receptacle at the top of the machine. And he waited.
I realized that he was trying to teach the machine about the flowers he had placed within it. Once it learned, the machine itself would determine how best to combine the seeds to create the most beautiful flower.
This time, the machine made an extraordinary thing. A patchwork flower, whose petals bore sections of different colors and textures, and whose leaves were as varied. Some leaves bore serrated edges, some smooth. Some had networks of veins, and some had parallel-running veins. I noted a familiar brick-work pattern in some of the petals. The flower was delightful.
The children gathered at the workshop windows seemed to think so too. But the engineer placed the flower with the others. He would tend to it until it died, but he gave it no name, and no further regard.
If a flower like that were to grow in the real world, it would be a prize-winner.
But it was not beautiful by common standards. So, the engineer kept trying and failing.
He used all the best parts of the machine that failed to build the next machine. But he judged that he needed more help. I thought he would seek out more assistants or apprentices. Instead, he made another request of the king. He reclaimed the clever dolls he had made for the princess, and entreated their help in building the new machine. That was when I realized the engineer’s secret to his extraordinary feats. His secret was that he would build things that were cleverer than he was, and that taught him how to build the next thing that was even cleverer than the last.
This new machine worked by receiving a growing flower, then studying it and absorbing that knowledge, then repeating the process with another flower, and another, and another. After its study was completed, the machine produced a seed. The engineer planted the seed.
While it grew, he rested, for he had grown weary from month upon month and season upon season of building and growing.
The next grand festival had begun.
But the engineer was not ready. He had run out of time, and the best flower he could produce was the one he had grown after his machine learned the best qualities of all the flowers that he had placed within it.
The tiny dolls lay strewn about his workshop. He had forgotten to wind them up the night before. He wound up the dolls and he brought them to the field where the flowers were growing.
They were the same flowers that I had found in the desert. The purple flowers with the long curling leaves and that brick-work pattern on the tops of their petals.
They were not ugly, but nor were they particularly beautiful.
I don’t recognize some clusters of cells that I’m finding at the bases of the ovaries in the newest flowers that have bloomed. I likely didn’t notice them before. The images I took of earlier flowers, especially the ones collected from the desert are no help. I’ve made some slides, done some staining, to take a closer look. I’ll need to study the cells at even higher magnification. But I can see something, even with just a light microscope.
I’ve been working on that concoction of panfloria extract to maximize the “pencil-sharpening” effect. But I’ve also started feeling somewhat…guilty, about drinking the stuff. And about poking and prodding at the flower.
I’ve started growing some potted panfloria out on the balcony of my apartment. They look the same as the lab-grown ones. They’re not any more vibrant or robust from being “free and wild.” I feed them. I give them drinks of water. I brush the dust off their petals and leaves. I keep the neighbors’ cats away. And I tell them the truth, about my research.
The next part of the dream story alternates now, and follows two different paths.
Some nights, I dream that the engineer never shows up at the festival, and is never again seen in the kingdom. His workshop is found to be empty, save for the many different and strange flowers he had made, the parts of many dismantled machines, and the wound-down dolls. Those who search the workshop report to the king that the engineer is gone. They merely give the king back the dolls, as a last and only remembrance of a once-great man, who brought renown to his kingdom, until the day a child’s challenge moved him to hubris, and he failed at last.
More often, lately, I’ve dreamt of the other path. The engineer arrives at the festival with the purple flower. He goes upon the stage, with no warning to the eager and captivated crowd.
The story of his boast had spread, and the crowd before that stage was even thicker and more raucous than the one who had gathered a few years past. So mired had the engineer been in the work of creating a flower more dazzling than any Nature could create, that he had neglected any other work or challenges placed before him.
He unveiled the flower, and as he did, he looked upon it with a fondness he had not felt before. He typically had regard for all his creations, but he had been so anxious about the challenge, that he had not looked upon the flowers that were made in his workshop over the past few years with anything other than disappointment and dismay.
At first, there were chuckles and shakings of heads. The crowd believed he was teasing them as he had done before. They waited, expecting a wink and a rubbing of his hands, and the unveiling of the true flower that he had made to surpass all others.
Instead, the engineer told them the truth about his attempts.
He told them of the many flowers that had graced his workshop, starting with the court painter’s painting, to the patchwork flower, to the humble purple flower that sat beside him, bowing slightly in the breeze.
While there were some within the crowd who were glad to see that the engineer had failed, and instead had been humbled by his rash attempt to surpass Nature, most had come to see him succeed. To at least see him come close. If not to surpass Nature, than to mimic her and do so as skillfully as he had done before.
Instead, there could be heard the sounds of grumbling, of claims that one’s own garden at home was filled with flowers more beautiful and deserving of a stage than the common-looking weed that the engineer had brought with him. Many walked away with a shake of their heads. Some began to throw insults, and some began to throw rotten fruit and eggs.
The engineer leaped in front of the flower before an egg could strike it. He turned and kept it covered until the crowd was dispersed, and sent along to enjoy food and music and other pleasures of the grand festival.
When the engineer returned to his workshop, the king’s men were waiting for him. The engineer feared that he would be punished for bringing shame upon himself and his people, as he had been rewarded for once bringing renown. He hoped the worst the king would do was to denounce him. Or perhaps banish him.
When he was brought before the king, he gave the monarch back the dolls he had first gifted to the princess. But the king asked to see the flower, the flower that was the cause of so much anticipation and disappointment.
The engineer held the pot in his hands. He hesitated before handing it to the king.
The king peered at the flower. “It is intriguing,” he said.
The engineer held his breath.
“What do you call it?”
“Magnificence…is the name I had first intended.” The engineer bowed his head, for the flower was far from magnificent.
“Did you make it with the help of your friends?” the king asked, turning to the motionless dolls that his men had set upon a chair.
The engineer merely kept his head bowed, afraid to speak again.
“I wonder if it is as clever as they are.”
“Then you are the only one who wonders so, highness,” the engineer said, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. He bowed at once and asked the king’s forgiveness.
“It is I who must seek your forgiveness,” the king said, “on behalf of my people. But you cannot blame them for expecting something more spectacular from the man who built an island, and summoned clouds, and made fairies out of wood and straw.”
The engineer calmed somewhat and the king spoke on.
“Beauty can be seen. But cleverness is often hidden.” The king handed the flower back to the engineer and picked up one of the dolls. “Your friends, for instance. They don’t appear clever when they’re all wound down like this.” He smiled then. “If only they could wind themselves.”
The engineer peered at the flower and then at the dolls. “If only they didn’t need to be wound,” he said.
The engineer returned to his workshop. Though some deemed him a charlatan for failing at his last challenge, most were quick to forget the claim. The failure and his consequent humility endeared him even more to many, including the boy who had first challenged him. He and his father came into the workshop to tell the engineer they were sorry for the grief they had caused him. The engineer corrected them, for it was he who twisted the boy’s humble challenge.
The flower was no more beautiful than any other flower one might find in a neighbor’s garden, or growing wild by the side of a well-traveled road. But the king was right to call it clever, for like the engineer’s other creations, the flower had much to teach its creator.
The boy was delighted by the little dolls walking about the workshop. He remarked that they had no winding mechanism upon their backs. Only polished stones.
The engineer smiled and explained. The stones on the backs of each doll gathered energy from the sun, the way a tree or a flower did. It was that energy that moved the tiny gears in their bodies. So long as they didn’t stay out of the sun for too long, they could keep moving without needing anything to wind them up.
The engineer moved away from his work table then, to show the boy and his father some of the other machines he had built.
But my gaze did not follow them. Instead it fell upon a large purple flower, in the peak of its maturity. The flower was so big that one of the dolls slept inside it, curled at its center. Another doll sat at the edge of the work table, only it was no longer the engineer’s work table. It appeared more like mine, my lab bench. And there was a figure hunched over onto the bench, sleeping. A dark-haired woman in a lab coat, with a bottle full of bright green liquid sitting beside her.
My eyes widened when I realized I was looking at myself. There was a strange palm tree next to the table, bearing viney palmate leaves. A doll climbed down one of the large leaves and hung suspended from it with one arm, right next to the sleeping figure. The doll put her free hand next to her mouth.
“Wake up!” the little voice whispered fiercely.
I woke up.
The reflexive twitch of my right hand knocked over the bottle of flower formula that I’d just prepared, and neglected to properly secure. The cap was loose. It popped off and fell to the ground. The formula spilled over the bench until the bottle was emptied.
I sighed and righted the bottle.
“So now you’ve invented the solar cell,” I said to the subject of my dreams. I couldn’t help but to chuckle.
All was not lost. It wasn’t late. And I could make another batch of the formula before I left for the day.
I went to fetch a drink of something more normal, some cold water to help refresh me. I thought about the sun-catching stone from my dream.
Early on, I’d noted some variations in panfloria’s photosynthetic pathway that I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t take a closer look then. I figured, just because I observed something I’d never encountered before didn’t mean that no one had ever encountered it before.
Since enjoying the latest chapter of the engineer’s story, I’ve been taking a second look at the way this particular flower converts sunlight into sugar. At those slight differences. A difference in an intermediate molecule here. A shift in the shape of an enzyme there.
As tonight’s accident indicated, I probably needed a break from working on the flower formula anyway. So I sipped my water, and started looking up all the ways people had tried to adapt a plant’s photosynthetic ability to some tool or technology capable of converting solar energy into forms of energy usable by humans.
When I started nodding off while trying to read, despite my eagerness to keep going, I realized it was time to head home. I wasn’t on the flower juice anymore. I had to go get my seven hours. My dreams wouldn’t have any answers or solutions. But maybe my dreams would have more interesting suggestions to throw my way.
I keep the blinds to the balcony drawn unless I’m out watering the plants, or on occasion, entertaining a guest. Before I dragged myself into bed that night, I flipped on the balcony lights and peeked through the blinds at the pretty purple flowers growing in a corner pot.
My eyes couldn’t see what my mind knew about those flowers, and what the engineer’s heart came to feel for those flowers. Our eyes are keen. But they don’t perceive everything. So much can be hidden from the sense of sight. Cleverness, for one thing. Love. Brilliance.
Copyright © 2017 Nila L. Patel.