“By Any Other Name”
a short story by Liz Bennefeld
Elaine sat at the desk, telephone to her ear, nodding in response to the speaker at the other end of the circuit and throwing in an “I see” during the occasional breaks. She hated roses—especially red ones—and the stink that came with them. Useless plants! Let in just one rose with the discretionary planting allotments! There would be fifty different varieties of ornamental roses in the space habitat, and there wouldn’t be a useful plant in the bunch. Even though she knew her hatred of the plants harkened back to early childhood, when she hadn’t been allowed to plant her own little herbs in the only space available, in amongst her grandmother’s prized rose bushes, she could not overcome the distaste the memories brought up.
“Would you at least look at the specifics for the Amelanchier alnifolia before you make a final decision?” she asked, finally. “It will be much easier to get a permit to import it than for the roses.”
Elaine listened for a response, but heard nothing.
“Actually, looking at our list of desirable flowering shrubs, I think we could even find a grant to cover part of the lift fees. And purchase costs.”
Still no response.
“And if they do well and actually bear fruit for the luxury foods market, there could be a sizable production bonus at year’s end. . . . Annually! Just think!” She willed him to say something.
“Well, we’ll need some time to think about it,” the man said. “I did promise . . . maybe a dozen of the—what did you call them?
Amelanchier alnifolia? And just two or three rose bushes? What are they, anyway?”
Elaine shook her head. He was going to be a hard one to push onto another track.
“They’re called serviceberries,” she responded. “I’ll send you some URLs. Once you’ve looked over the specifications and the graphics, I know you’ll be impressed. They taste a bit like apple. Just imagine serviceberry pancakes for breakfast!”
“All right,” came the grudging agreement. “I’ll think about it and get back to you.”
She sighed as she hung up the phone and turned back to the printouts that littered her desk. “Elaine Wier, Bioregenerative and Controlled Ecological Life Support.” That’s what the sign on her office door read. “Fertilized Persuasion and Coercion” was more like it! What, she wondered, made John and—she glanced at the database display in front of her—oh, yes, “R. Bradley” so determined to use part of their allotment for rose bushes, when there were so many income-producing possibilities?
Shrugging, Elaine dismissed the Bradleys from her mind and called the next colony family on her list. Over half of the proposed personal garden space on the residential cylinder of the O’Neil cylinder space habitat pair still needed to be planned and seeds and cuttings brought up. She was determined that as many of those plots as possible would complement the drastically inadequate diversity of the food- and air-producing strips provided in the basic guidelines that the government had followed. Twenty trees per person, or their equivalent, to produce enough oxygen and take care of the carbon dioxide.
The basis food crops now on the habitat were soybeans, peanuts, potatoes, and wheat, grown with hydroponics under LEDs tuned to precisely the right wavelengths for optimum growth. For a real, self-sustaining life support system, though, she needed more plants, more varieties, and nutrient-laden hydroponics solutions delivered to soil mixtures that would anchor the plant roots and. . .and look more like the fields and gardens of Earth. Hence the flowering, fruit-producing shrubs. The crushed rock from the asteroid belt, delivered over the last six years, now coated the land-area strips, alternating with the window panels, waiting for the initial planting.
Shaped tofu is well and good, she admitted to herself after the next call also ended in indecision, but real buckwheat pancakes dotted with the serviceberries of her childhood. Ah! Perhaps the next family on the list would share her memories and opt for either the berry bushes or the buckwheat as part of their allotment. Or perhaps they would recall other childhood delights that would contribute to her dream of flowering shrubs and buzzing bees and the summer and fall gathering of fruit for jams and jellies, preserves and syrups. Sweet memories!
Perhaps, Elaine mused at the end of the work period, she should opt for habitat resident status herself and figure out how much of what she thought should be here would fit into her own personal allowance. Four years ago, at the beginning of her five-year enlistment, she and Tom, her fiancé, had planned that they both would put the bulk of their salaries into savings and have enough at the end of their enlistments to buy acres and acres of land in Canada, where they could build a house and raise a family. Three years ago, on his first Earth-side vacation at a mountain ski resort, Tom died in an avalanche, leaving Elaine to bury herself in her work. For months, she had volunteered for extra shifts and tried to ignore the fact that she had lost her goal, her purpose for living, with his death.
Well, she was happy here, she thought as she walked down the corridor toward the staff cafeteria. Or at least, absorbed in a fulfilling career. Why not stay?
She stopped a moment mid-corridor. If she could wangle a few varieties of serviceberries and buckwheat for pancakes, why not? There was talk of bringing up fertile chicken, duck and turkey eggs. Perhaps even emus and dairy cows! She smiled as she continued on her way. Maybe she would find out what correspondence courses would give her a shot at a lifetime career in gardening or livestock rearing. Elaine, the chicken farmer? Well, maybe not quite. But there must be something that would boost her chance of staying.
She quickly filled her tray and found a quiet corner where she could catch up on the latest Earth-side news while she ate. Staying on the O’Neil cylinders was beginning to look more important as the years went on. On Earth, global warming was more and more often causing instability in the snow packs and more deaths of climbers and skiers in the resulting avalanches. Soon, she thought, they would have to limit travel in some spots or take a chance on losing broad swaths of road through some mountain ranges. But wheat would grow well farther north.
The next day and the days following, stretching to weeks, she found herself at the same table by the middle of the afternoon for coffee and her search for more ammunition. Increasingly, she felt uneasy about the news from Earth and an accompanying urgency to see the necessary specimens secured and brought up to the habitats, now that she had committed herself not to return to Earth.
Elaine pulled out her latest list of “must have” plants and set herself to doing research on the next ones on the list, looking for selling points to present to the people she would call the next day. Hours slipped by as she located and compiled the necessarily persuasive facts and figures and photographs.
A shadow fell across her screen, and she looked up to see a stranger. From his dress, she guessed he was one of the lucky permanent residents, perhaps a new arrival. Maybe even one she’d talked with during the past few months.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked.
“I should be going pretty soon,” Elaine replied, “but you’re welcome to sit down.” She added, “I seem to have lost track of time.”
“Thanks,” he said, sliding his tray onto the table across from hers. “You look really absorbed in something. What are you reading? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“It’s just work. I’m the Ecological Life Support coordinator. Just going through lists of plants I think we should have in this cylinder, but don’t.”
“Oh! That must be interesting.” And he actually seemed interested.
“My name’s Elaine.”
“Just call me Jack. Pleased to meet you.”
“That’s the list of plants you want?”
“Yes,” Elaine replied. “And in this column I’m entering my reasons for choosing those particular species and varieties.” It was obvious that he was waiting to hear more.
“What sort of background do you have?” she asked. “Anything on ecology? Botany? Life sciences?”
“Matter of fact, medical research. I’m here as a medical doctor. Because of my daughter . . . the reduced gravity . . . I’m a widower.”
He ground to a halt, then tried again: “My field of research was alternative medicine. Worked for a multinational pharmaceutical company before my wife died. Medicinal uses of plants. Folk medicine. Native cures. That sort of thing.”
Elaine stared. How, she asked herself, could she be so lucky?
“Let me see your list,” Jack said. “Maybe I can add something to it. And you may have missed some candidates, too.”
Raising an eyebrow, he reached across the table. Elaine nodded, and he went ahead and picked up the printout and studied it. They worked in a companionable silence interspersed with discussion of various items on the list, and Jack tentatively offered a few suggestions for additions.
“I have to get home before my daughter gets out of school. Can I take this copy with me? I’d like to go through the list more closely and double check some of my resources.”
“That would be great,” Elaine said. “My address is on the bottom of the page. Why don’t you drop me a note? Let me know what you find.”
Jack smiled at her and nodded. “Will do!” At the door, he stopped and turned around to wave at her, the smile still there and growing. Elaine grinned and waved. It felt good, she thought, to have an ally at long last. Someone who cared about the same things she did. Someone who believed that what she did was important, that it mattered.
Still smiling, she headed off to her own apartment. Time to turn in! All of a sudden, she felt eager for tomorrow to arrive.
The note from Jack, when it arrived, was brief: “I have some more material, and there is a conspicuous oversight in your list. We can talk about it over lunch.” Before Elaine knew it, noon had arrived. She looked with shock at her task list. Everything was done that needed to be. There was an added spring in her step as she headed out the door to the cafeteria.
Jack was at the same table as before, waiting for her. Without a word, he handed her a stack of printouts. At the top of the first were the words, “Various Healthful and Medicinal Uses of the Apothecary Rose.” Elaine looked up at him and was startled to see a big grin on his face.
“My daughter, Rose, insisted that I bring along the results of her own research into medicinal plants.” He paused. “She really does want those roses for our garden, you know.”
Elaine stuttered, “You’re . . . but . . . John?”
“Yes, John—or Jack, as I prefer—Jack and Rose Bradley. We spoke a few weeks ago about serviceberries. I want to tell you why my daughter and I want Apothecary Roses in our new home, aside from the medicinal uses. My daughter loves them because they were her mother’s favorite flowers. So much so that we named our only child after them.” He grinned self-consciously. “Now, why don’t you tell me what’s so special about those serviceberries. Aside from the luxury food market, that is.”
She looked at him, thunderstruck. There was no malice or manipulation in that smile. Just an openness, that same eagerness to listen. Elaine felt the walls go down inside her. Here was a friend. A good friend at very least, and maybe more.
“The serviceberries. And the herbs and other plants on my list.” She took a deep breath and grinned back. “It all goes back to when I was a little girl, living for a while with my grandmother. She had this rose garden, which I loathed with a profound loathing…”
Note: This story was written to a prompt during the 2005 Commie Pinko 48 Hour Short Story writing competition.