Fiction: Elizabeth’s question

(Given how difficult the times are for so many of us at present, it seems the right time to throw in a bit of somewhat lighter relief. This short standalone story comes from the fictional Commonwealth of my ‘Viner Codex’ storyworld – see the Viner-Codex website for more details on that. There’s also another sort-of-story about this storyworld that you’ll find on WattPad as an ongoing serial: to read that online, see ‘The Viner Dimension‘ on WattPad.

This story is about innovation, and is set in an equivalent of 18th-century England – though as you’ll see, there are quite a few differences compared to our world. Chief among those differences, perhaps, is that in the story you’ll see a few references to a professional discipline called vinery. It’s best described as ‘gene-splicing with 17th century technology’ – the results of which are the ‘weird plant-things’ that forms one of the key themes in the storyworld’s tagline ‘Weird politics; weird plant-things; weird battles where nobody dies’. For the other two themes, well, you’ll have to wait for another story-fragment, won’t you?

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Elizabeth Thompson had a question: “Why do plants stay in one place?” “Don’t be silly, dear”, was her mother’s reply. “Plants stay where they’re planted. You’ll learn more about that when you go to school next year.”

Elizabeth would indeed go to school in her seventh year. There she learnt her alphabet and her times-tables and that this was the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred And Fifty Two Of Our Lord And Lady, and about the countries of the world and that this part of the world was called the Commonwealth which was part of the Greater Commonwealth but much of the world still wasn’t though they didn’t explain why or why not or what the difference was, and all kinds of other clever things too. But she didn’t get any answer to her question. The only response that she’d had, from crusty old Mr Hansall who’d wanted to be a priest but there weren’t any priests any more, he’d snapped at her and said, “Don’t be stupid, girl! That’s why plants are called ‘plants’!” Which wasn’t an answer. She knew that. But she also knew that when grown-ups talked like that, they didn’t want a different answer. So she kept her question to herself – but kept it like a treasure, wrapped up in cloth and cotton wool in its own private box, so that she could bring it out to share with someone else when the right day came.

Four years later, a bigger girl now, and allowed to have opinions of her own at times, she moved, unlike a plant, to the larger school in the larger town, a whole two miles away, travelling on the slow school coach behind its two slow plodding horses. It was time to unwrap her question once more, but this time with an addendum: why should plants not just move, but move fast? By this time she knew, for certain, that most plants had legs, of a kind, though in their case they were called ‘roots’. Big trees had enormous legs like these, so strong that the foresters had to leave them in the ground when they cut the tree down. Yet these legs did move: they burrowed through the ground as the plant grew. It was only because they dug so deep into the ground that the plant stayed still. But why was that so? Not all trees were like that: when it was blown over in that great storm two years ago, the beech tree at the house where Mr Collison lived had roots that looked more like a flat disk. So if some roots were shallow like that, why could they not lift out of the ground altogether, and let the plant move?

She tried her question again, this time with her new teachers at the new school. Still no answer as such from any of them, though at least this time there was no snarl of disparagement. “I don’t know, Miss Thompson”, said Mistress Collery, her teacher in the sciences, as the old Natural Philosophies were now known. “I’m sorry if I’ve let you down”, she said, though she hadn’t let Elizabeth down at all because she’d been the first grown-up who’d actually listened to her question. “But it does sound like something that the viners might know”, added Mistress Collery. “Perhaps try the nursery on Calendar Street, close to the hay-store. Ask for Penelope Urchin – she’d help you, I think.”

Viners? She’d heard of them, of course, though she didn’t know much about what they did. Something to do with plants, was all she could glean from her school-books, but that was all. Strange plants, though; unusual plants. Plants that couldn’t be grown in the usual way, like in the vegetable-garden or the fruit-orchard or out in the fields. Plants like the pump-tree at the village well, and the fuel-plant that could heat the water and make a house warm for the winter, and the crane-tree that they used to lift heavy things at Mr Murchland’s forge. Those kinds of plants. So yes, the people who grew those plants might have an answer for her.

They didn’t, unfortunately. Not then. But they did show her how to start looking for an answer to her question.

Twenty years later, now a grown-up herself, and now known to her colleagues, her husband, her children and all of her family and all of the villagers and townsfolk and more for at least twenty miles around, as Master-Viner Knotswoman Beth Harrow, she did at last have her answer. No-one else had given her that answer: she’d had to create it for herself, through years and years of experiments, failure, dogged determination and sheer hard work. And this was her answer: “Yes, plants do usually stay where they’re planted: that’s why they’re called plants. But if you learn how to be a viner, you can make it different. You can make it otherwise.”

While the gathered crowd watched and cheered, she stood up on the back of this strange flat tree that she had grown, as it lifted each of its own large leg-like roots out of the ground, and walked away down the road, as fast and then faster than any horse could run. And then came home again for tea.

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