Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Burning Bush by O. D. Hegre

A businessman who uses God to justify his ruthless capitalism buys a plot of land featuring a religious relic; by O. D. Hegre.

Millard sipped his drink and looked over at the flowering shrub. He had purchased the Scottsdale estate some six months ago. They had residences all over the world, but his dying wife wished to spend her final days back home in Arizona. She had fallen in love with the property - especially the landscaping.

The estate lay nestled in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, not far from the Mayo Clinic where she could embark on a new experimental treatment for her condition. But his attorneys had advised him that the asking price topped the range of comps. The seller had priced the estate with regard to the extensive landscaping and in particular, the rare bramble bush which now held Millard's full attention.

During the negotiations, the seller's agent, a young woman in her mid twenties, had explained to Millard that the owner - a Madame Romani - frequently traveled to the Middle East. "Twenty years ago she had obtained a cutting from what the Monks of St. Catherine's Monastery claimed to be the original bramble and planted it here, in her back garden," the agent said.

"The original bramble?" Millard asked.

"Yes," the young woman said, "the burning bush of Moses." She had taken Millard over to the shrub and reminded him of the bramble's significance in the Jewish Torah, the story in Exodus regarding Moses' confrontation with Yahweh on Mount Sinai. "God appeared to the young shepherd out of a burning bush, a bramble not consumed by the fire, and appointed Moses to lead His people out of Egypt, back to Canaan, to the land of milk and honey. Some ancient Biblical scholars believed that Mount St. Catherine's is the Biblical Mount Sinai and a monastery was built at its base with the bramble replanted on its grounds," she said. "The owner believes this," the agent pointing to the shrub, "to be a propagation of the original burning bush from which God appeared to Moses."

Millard remembered smiling, all the while pissed off at what a ridiculous superstition was costing him - time and money.

"Madame Romani claims God has nourished the garden with good vibrations ever since," the young agent had said.

Millard took another sip of his drink and stared at the plant. Madame Romani. He wasn't smiling now. All that religious bullshit - and a goddamn gypsy, to boot - had forced him to dicker around with the seller's representatives such that by the time he'd gotten the price down to where he saw it as a deal, his wife's condition had worsened. Two days after they moved in, she died.

Millard grabbed his drink and began a slow walk around the patio. He'd had enough of the trappings of religious fervor growing up in the home of Evangelical parents. And though he had left all that mysticism behind a long time ago, Millard did know a bit of the Bible - the part that suited him. That part came from Genesis and it went something like: let man have dominion over all the earth - over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Millard had taken that to heart.

Retired now - a second by-pass surgery had left no choice - the vast majority of his wealth still lay in the holdings of the conglomerate he had founded some forty years ago. Millard hated those whimpering Greenies that constantly threatened that vast enterprise. They hung on his corporation's back regarding every business it engaged in from strip mining in Appalachia to fracking in North Dakota, from lumber harvesting in the rain forests of South America to their water and air polluting factories in India. Where did those Greenies think meat and eggs came from if not the extensive stockyards and meat processing plants his corporation ran in Texas and Oklahoma and the vast chicken farms in the Midwest. Man had domesticated animals to serve - literally to serve. Christ, and just when the Exxon Valdez had slipped from the minds of the gas guzzling American public, BP screwed up. And now, according to the bean counters, the new issues with drilling in the Arctic might cost his conglomerate hundreds of millions - maybe a billion - in lobbying payouts.

Why couldn't all these environmentalists get with the program? Prosperity theology they call it - the health and wealth gospel. The Bible says man has dominion over the earth; it's his job to subdue Mother Nature and bend her to man's will. Millard had let the whole God thing slide but he liked their mantra: economic prosperity is a blessing from God. We have been given power over creation because we are made in his image. Millard raised his glass in salute.

His glass empty, Millard again took a seat, plucking more ice from the bucket. He looked over again at the bush and thought of the last meeting with the real estate agent, at the final walk through. She wanted to pass along a last recommendation from the departing owner. The agent had pulled out the slip of paper and read: "The back gardens will remain as beautiful and peaceful as they are today if you simply leave the Rubus sanctus alone." Then she handed him the paper and left.

Millard was not a botanist. His dead wife might have recognized the name... she loved to tinker in the gardens of their many homes. The only things Millard liked to grow? A new business and his bank account. That's the kind of green thumb Millard liked to claim. He sipped his fresh drink.

He had looked up the name afterwards: Rubus sanctus, the genus-species of the damn bramble bush. Millard reached into his pocket and pulled out the slip with the message. He had kept it because it had really pissed him off. He remembered the look on the agent's face, the heightened timbre of her voice and her speedy departure. It wasn't so much of a recommendation as an instruction - leave the Rubus sanctus alone. He had never liked being told what to do... by anyone, especially a woman... especially a gypsy.

Though Millard held no respect for the ramblings of an old gypsy woman, or the superstitions of Judaism (or any other religion, for that matter) in the three months of his occupancy, he had not even considered doing anything with the bramble bush until this afternoon.

His wife gone and his business career over, the days seemed filled with nothing, growing longer and longer. Despite his doctor's orders, Millard had started drinking more and more. He missed his wife and some degree of guilt had crept in about his haggling for the property and how the negotiations had cost her the last few months of serenity she so desired. It was that goddamn plant and all the bullshit that those idiots associated with it that really bore the blame, not his rational business sense but their irrational mysticism.

His poor dead wife couldn't do it, but in her stead - in her honor, he would putter in the garden for a while. The skies had turned partly cloudy in the late afternoon and Millard had decided to trim the pyracantha hedges a bit - he would just give the tops a little haircut. But first he walked over to the bramble bush. It had grown a fair amount since they first moved in and now seemed a tad untidy. It would look a lot better if he shaped it just a bit. The note lay folded and forgotten in his pocket.

The shears grasped one of the low-lying branches. Millard hesitated for a moment as the bush seemed to vibrate slightly - then the blades sliced through the flesh of the plant.

In the distance a clap of thunder - then another and another, coming closer.

He snipped off a second branch and then a third.

Now the tumult loomed directly overhead and he stopped. He looked up at the clouds that had gathered. It would rain within the hour, he figured. The bush looked a little better though a thick sap dripped from the cut branches. Despite his moderate inebriation, with the sight of the damage, Millard remembered the damn note. Well, maybe the old gypsy woman had been right, he thought. Better wait till tomorrow and see if he had done some serious damage. If not, then he'd finish the trimming. Right now he needed to work on the hedges before the rain moved in.

He sat down at the table; time for another drink. As Millard sipped the whisky he stared out at the job before him. The pyracanthas were in full bloom but now the wind had picked up somewhat and Millard could see the white petals of the flowers falling to the ground. How strange, he thought - way too early for that. Millard refilled his glass. He had only intended to reshape the tops of the bushes but now- He might as well trim the entire hedge.

The trimmer roared to life.

For the next ten minutes Millard attacked the hedge. With every pass the dull blades of the old tool ripped through the vegetation, sending branch after branch flying. Then he stopped. Millard looked down at his bare legs. The alcohol dulled the pain but he could see the blood oozing from the numerous lacerations where the thorns had cut him. He would have to rest soon. He hadn't realized how much the hedge had grown since the gardener's last visit and now, with each successive pass, the boughs seemed to be longer with more and more of them finding their way onto his body. He pushed on but within minutes, in his stupor, he sliced through the extension cord bringing everything to a halt.

He wasn't finished but darkness had set in and Millard knew he was in no condition to repair the damage. Besides, his arms ached and his neck felt stiff. He'd wait till tomorrow to rake up the debris; then he would finish the job. Now, as a slight rain began, was no time to be messing with electrical things but it was time for a drink.

The old man sat out on the patio, his back to the kitchen door, sipping yet another whisky. Heavy monsoon clouds almost completely dominated the southern sky - except for one break, through which an intense beam of sunlight emerged. Millard looked over. The light bathed the bramble bush as if lighting it on fire. The sap from the cut branches continued to bleed out, now reddish in the burning light.

Suddenly, Millard jerked forward in his chair, startled for a moment.

Things were scurrying past him in the deepening darkness.

A strong breeze had come up and Millard realized they weren't living things running past him in the twilight, but dead things - pyracantha leaves and petals carried on the gusts from the piles of debris that lay ten yards in front of him. And branches - branches with two-inch thorns - like giant walking sticks - that skittered past him, accumulating in the cul de sac of walls behind him. The wind had really picked up now and debris was flying everywhere.

The burning bush continued to glow in the deepening darkness. Kind of pretty, Millard thought. Then he noticed the three cut bramble branches. They were glowing as well - and moving. Projecting from their cut ends, the exuding red sap was coagulating into long cylinders. Each crimson tube seemed to throw itself out on to the patio bricks, flatten into an adherent mass and then contract, pulling its trailing branch forward - forward toward him.

Suddenly, a foot long bough of pyracantha struck him in the face, its razor sharp thorns piercing his cheek.

A second hit his hand, slicing across his fingers and knocking the whisky to the concrete.

Then another and another.

Millard could still see the bramble branches; the red tubes were now forked at their ends, tongue-like as they probed out toward him, pulling the now pliable wiggling branches behind them.

He tried to get up but a swirling mass of debris engulfed him from behind, pulling him backward into the chair. He looked down. Chased by the wind, white petals covered his bare legs. The once delicate blossoms were now shard-like, cutting into his flesh; their pungent odor in life now even more foul in their decay. Sounding like crinkling paper, the hardened petals sliced through his clothing.

The third bramble branch had reached his legs, wrapping itself around his ankles. The first two were already on his body - somewhere - crawling upward - upward.

He looked down at the thorns protruding from the palms of his hands. He tried to scream but leaves and branch bits had found his mouth - filling it and now forcing their way down his throat.

Something else was on his face. His bloodied fingers found the pulsating threads that slithered in his wet grasp. They slipped downward as he tried to pull them from him. One sucked itself to the nape of his neck. Then another slapped onto the front of his throat, pulling at his sagging skin. They were spreading across his flesh, reaching out for each other as they wrapped themselves around Millard's neck.

Then - the tightening began.

4 comments:

  1. It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature. Justice served?

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  2. The character of the misogynistic, racist, exploitative, earth-resource-abusing Millard isn't so much described as cast before the reader's eyes - perhaps appropriately enough - in the end - in blood.
    I enjoyed the first part of the story more than its later portion, perhaps because although I felt satisfaction at witnessing his nemesis, I couldn't help thinking that as signs of doubt and guilt had made an appearance upon the scene that maybe... there could have been an indication that he was going to survive longer in order to atone?
    Brooke Fieldhouse

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  3. Millard is irredemable. Lacking any spritual vision, he can not see beyond what he can control or touch. Very good portrait of this kind of man.
    I only wish that he could have been consumed by the 'burning bush' and that his charred remains had been discovered the next morning--observed from the brambles pov.

    James Shaffer

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  4. The initial concept was good but I thought that different elements of the story could have been tied together more effectively. Was Millard attacked because he was a bad person who didn't respect the environment or because he tried to trim the bush? He did not seem like the kind of person who would have tried to do his own landscaping - there wasn't a very clear motive for it.

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