“Teeth of the Lion”
by Jennifer Shelby
“I’m half dandelion on my father’s side,” he told me, catching a sunbeam as it trickled through the forest and weaving it between his fingertips.
I nodded and hoped he wouldn’t notice the backpack sprayer filled with dandelion killer in the back of my work truck. He looked half dandelion, with yellow hair cropped like the flower and stem-green suit out of place in the woods. He rolled the sunbeam between his thumb and forefinger, golden light flickering against his skin, until it formed a small ball of light he popped into his mouth and swallowed whole.
“I’m the nature park’s new caretaker,” I said.
His eyes narrowed, but he stepped close, running a sun-warmed finger along my jaw. I forgot to breathe. “Then we’ll be seeing a lot of each other,” he said, his voice soft and sultry.
“Tarax,” he told me.
“Tarax as in Taraxacum officinales?”
He smiled and it was the sun coming out from behind a cloud. “Yes, the Latin name for dandelions. Did you know the name comes from the French ‘dents de lion?’”
“Teeth of the lion.”
“Exactly. You impress me, Elizabeth.” He pretended to tip an imaginary hat and stepped into the forest.
That afternoon I tossed the weed killer into a dumpster behind a restaurant twenty kilometres from the nature park. A day earlier I’d been dreading a summer of working alone in a remote nature park. Now I trembled with anticipation. He may have been half dandelion, but he had a man’s physique and I was reckless with my heart.
Tarax returned, day after day. I neglected my caretaking duties but so long as I changed the garbage cans near the playground and cleaned the bathrooms once a day no one was the wiser. If we stayed off the hiking trails and the riverbanks there were plenty of places to be alone. My body grew red then brown in the sunlight, joyous from the Vitamin D and falling in love.
Tarax tried to teach me how he caught sunbeams, but they slipped through my clumsy fingers. He told me the sun tasted of honey and pineapple. I could taste it on his tongue and smell it on his skin.
“I used to be like you,” Tarax said. “My dandelion traits only appeared a year ago.”
“So not your father’s side after all?” I teased.
He shrugged, blushing. “You catch more bees with nectar, and more women with clever.”
“Did it bother you when you started changing?”
He laughed. “Free sun food and the ability to breathe in smog and exhale fresh air? Nah, I thought I was a superhero.”
“You’re my superhero,” I teased and pulled him to me.
I caught flashes of the outside world on rainy days when Tarax kept to himself, closed off like the dandelions in the grass. The truck’s radio brought news of other plant people appearing in the population.
“Scientists are calling you an evolutionary wonder,” I told Tarax.
He rolled onto his back in the meadow. “That makes sense, I guess. Dandelions are extremely capable of adapting to new environments. We can grow anywhere in the world. Did you know that plant cells can’t spread cancer?”
I chuckled. “Yeah, because plants have cell walls which don’t allow them to move like animal cells. How are you even alive?”
He winked. “Sunbeams and raindrops, milady.” He pulled his finger across a blackberry cane, a thorn tearing his skin. He held it up to show me a thick white milk oozing from the cut where he should have bled crimson.
I shivered at the strangeness of it and turned away.
Radio hosts interviewed botanists and cell biologists, asking the thousand questions all of us were wondering, struggling to understand the concept of human cells mixed with cellulose. By midsummer the usual assholes called for pure human blood and I shut the radio off.
It was the purists I thought of when Tarax taught me the joys of smashing pavement at the edges of the crumbling parking lot. We wielded hammers till our blisters bled and laughed as dandelions took root in the cracks we made.
Everything about him filled me with wonder. We made love in meadows at noon, the sun burning down on our soft flesh. His hair turned from the yellow flower to the fluffy white of a dandelion clock while he thrust away inside me. When he came, his dandelion seeds scattered as if a wind gusted them across the meadow. I spent the summer wondering which dandelion seedlings might be ours.
By late August news arrived of pureblood terrorists setting off planticide bombs across the world and our perfect summer ended. The chemicals were more insidious than anyone realized. The leaves fell from trees within a week, small flowers drying to dust in the woods. Our meadow died and Tarax sickened, his skin growing grayer and grayer until the day in September when he disappeared. I searched for him. In many ways I still do, but I never find him.
A famine followed the bombs. I’m not sure what the terrorists thought would happen or how they expected their pure human blood could save them without plants to eat or air to breathe. I survived on sunbeams. Yeah, I finally figured out how to catch them. I’d give anything to tell Tarax that. Sunbeams do taste like honey and pineapple. They taste like Tarax.
There are others, like me, who were human when the bombs hit but aren’t anymore. When I scrape my skin, I bleed white. I breathe carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. We adapted, I guess, and we survive, though I wouldn’t call us lucky.
There isn’t much left of humanity beyond skeletons and crumbling buildings, but here and there I spot dandelion seedlings growing in the rubble, and I wonder if they might be ours.
Jennifer Shelby hunts for stories in the beetled undergrowth of fairy infested forests. She fishes for them in the dark spaces between the stars. As part of her ongoing catch-and-release program, her stories have appeared in Cricket, Vivian Caethe’s Unlocking the Magic, and other places. You can learn more about her at jennifershelby.blog or on Twitter @jenniferdshelby