"What are you talking about, honey? Magnolia and I--we're just friends."
"Purely a platonic relationship, I assure you," the tree herself agreed. It would have been silly for her to pretend not to have overheard, since the two were still standing almost directly underneath her. "Purely platonic."
"She's more like a sister to me," James tried to explain.
Phyllis stiffened. "Frankly, if I had imagined I was going to have a tree for a sister-in-law, I would have thought before I married you, James." Bursting into tears, she ran inside the cottage.
"Sorry," he said miserably to Magnolia. "It's a long trip out from Earth and an uncomfortable one. I don't suppose the other women were especially nice to her, either. Faculty wives mostly and you know how they are.... No, I don't suppose you would. But she shouldn't have acted that way toward you."
"Not your fault," Magnolia told him, sighing with such intensity that he could feel the humidity rise. "I know how you've been looking forward to her arrival. Rather a letdown, isn't it?"
"Oh, I'm sure it'll be all right." He tried to sound confident. "And I know you'll like Phyllis when you get to know her."
"Possibly, but so far I'm afraid I must admit--since there never has been any pretense between us--that she is a bit of a disappointment. I--and my sisters also--had expected your females, when they came, to be as upright and true blue as you. Instead, what are they? Shrubs."
The door to the cottage flew open. "A shrub, am I!" Phyllis brandished an axe which, James winced to recall, was an item of the equipment he had ordered from Earth before the scout team had learned that the trees were intelligent. "I'll shrub you!"
"Phyllis!" He wrested the axe from her grip. "That would be murder!"
"'Woodman,' as the Terrestrial poem goes," the tree remarked, "'spare that tree! Touch not a single bough! In youth it sheltered me and I'll protect it now!'"
Good of her to take the whole thing so calmly--rather, to pretend to take it so calmly, for he knew how sensitive Magnolia really was--but he was afraid this show of moral courage would not diminish Phyllis's dislike for her; those without self-control seldom appreciate those who have it.
"If you'll excuse us," he said, putting his arm around his wife's heaving shoulders, "I'd better see to Phyllis; she's a little upset. Holdover from spacesickness, I expect. Poor girl, she's a long way from home and frightened."
"I understand, Jim," Magnolia told him, "and, remember, whatever happens, you can always count on me."
"I must say you're not a very admirable representative of Terrestrial womanhood!" James snapped, as soon as the door had slammed behind him and his wife, leaving them alone together in the principal room of the cottage. "Insulting the very first native you meet!"
"I did not either insult her. All I said was, 'What beautiful flowers--do you suppose the fruit is edible?' How was I to know it--she could understand? Naturally I wouldn't dream of eating her fruit now. It would probably taste nasty anyway. And how do you think I felt when a tree answered me back? You don't care that I fainted dead away, and I've never fainted before in my life. All you care about is that old vegetable's feelings! It was bad enough, feeling for five months that someone had come between us, but to find out it wasn't someone but something--!"
"Phyllis," he said coldly, "I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head."
Dropping into the overstuffed chair, his wife dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. "She wasn't so very polite to me!"
"Look, Phyllis--" he strove to make his voice calm, adult, reasonable--"you happened to have hit on rather a touchy point with her. Those trees are dioecious, you know, like us, and she isn't mated. And, well, she has rather a lot of xylem zones--rings, you know."
"Are you trying to tell me she's old?"
"Well, she's no sapling any more. And, consideration aside, you know it's government's policy for us to establish good relations with any intelligent life-form we have to share a planet with. You weren't in there trying."
Phyllis put away her handkerchief with what he hoped would be a final sniff. "I suppose I shouldn't have acted that way," she conceded.
"Now you're talking like my own dear Phyllis," James said tenderly, though, as a matter of fact, he had a very remote idea of what his own dear Phyllis was like. He had met her only a couple of months before the scout mission was scheduled, and so their courtship had been brief, and the actual weeks of marriage even briefer. He had remembered Phyllis as beautiful--and she was beautiful. He had not, however, remembered her as pig-headed--and pig-headed she was, too.
"How come she hasn't a mate? I didn't think trees were choosy."
He wouldn't take exception to that statement, uncharitable though it was; after all, someone whose only acquaintance with trees had been with the Terrestrial variety would naturally be incapable of appreciating the total tree at its highest development.
"It's a great tragedy," he told her in a hushed tone. "There was a blight some years back and most of the male trees died off, except for a few on the other side of the planet--well out of bee-shot, even if the females there would let the females here have any pollen, which they absolutely won't."
"I don't blame them," Phyllis said coldly. Of course she would identify at once with the trees whose domestic lives seemed to be threatened.
"It's not that so much. It's that the male trees produce so little pollen."
"This would be a good place for people with hay fever then, wouldn't it?"
"And even when there is fruit, so much of it tends to be parthenocarpous--no seeds." He sighed. "The entire race is dying out."
"How is it you know so much about botany?" she asked suspiciously. "It's not your field."
"I don't know so very much, really," he smiled. "I had to learn a little, if I wanted to work the land, so I borrowed an elementary text from Cutler." Had he been a trifle idealistic in quitting his snug, if uninspiring, job on the faculty to join in this Utopian venture? So many of the other men at the university had enrolled, it had seemed a splendid idea until Phyllis's arrival.
"Daddy never had any trouble working his land and he doesn't know a thing about botany. You've been boning up on it just to please her!"
"Phyllis! How can you jump to conclusions without a shred of evidence?" Not that she wouldn't be able to collect such evidence later, because the allegation happened to be correct. If, instead of coming to Elysium, I had merely gone to China, would she have thought it so odd that I studied Chinese? Then why, where the natives are trees, shouldn't I study botany? The woman is unreasonable.
"And will her--people let you farm?"
Now he could show her how cogently and comprehensively he could answer a logical question. "That aspect of the situation will be all right, dear, because only the trees are an intelligent species and, even of them, some aren't so bright. They won't have any more objection to our eating the other fruit and vegetables than we would have to an extraterrestrial's eating our eggs and chickens, for example. We're going to try to introduce some Earth plants here, though, as the higher forms of vegetation are dying out and we're afraid the lower might follow. Pity it's too late for a sound conservation program."
Phyllis said grimly, "She doesn't think it's too late for a sound conservation program. She still has hopes--far-fetched, maybe, and I'm not so sure they are. Mark my words, James, she's got designs on you."
"Don't be idiotic," he protested. "That would be--" he attempted to introduce a light note--"it would be miscegenation."
"These foreigners can't be expected to have our standards." And she burst into tears again. "A fine thing to go through that miserable five-month trip only to find out a tree has alienated my husband's affections."
"Oh, come on, Phyl!" He still was trying for a smile. "What would a tree see in me?"
"I'm beginning to wonder what I saw in you. You never loved me; you just wanted a wife to come out and colonize with you and b-b-breed."
What could he say? It was almost true. Phyllis was a beautiful girl and he loved her, but, if he had planned to remain as an instructor with the Romance Languages Department instead of joining the scout mission, he knew he would never have asked her to be his wife ... for her sake, of course, as well as his own. He should say something to reassure her, but the words wouldn't come.
"I don't like it here," Phyllis sobbed. "I don't like blue leaves. I don't like blue grass. I like them green, the way they're supposed to be. I hate this nasty planet. It's all wrong. I want to go home."
She was very young--less than eight years younger than he, true, but he was mature for his age. They didn't know each other very well. And, finally, there were more men than women on the planet and he had noticed that the bachelors had seemed readily disposed, upon her arrival the day before, to overlook the fact that she had no college degree. So he must be patient with her.
"There's nothing wrong about it, dear. The plants here synthesize cyanophyll instead of chlorophyll; that's why the leaves are blue instead of green. And, of course, there are different mineral constituents of the soil--more aluminum and copper, for instance, than on Earth, and some elements we haven't quite isolated yet. So, you see, they're bound to be a little different from Terrestrial trees."
"A little different I wouldn't mind," she said sulkily, "but they're a lot different without being nearly alien enough."
"Look, Phyllis--dear--those trees have been very hospitable, very kind. We owe them a lot. They themselves suggested that we come here and live with them in, so to speak, symbiosis."
"That's a fine idea!"
He beamed. "I knew you'd understand after I had explained it to you."
"We provide the brains and they provide the furniture."
"Phyllis! What a thing to say!"
"I've heard of man-eating trees before. I suppose there could be man-loving ones, too."
"Phyllis, these trees are as gentle and sweet as--as--" He didn't know how he could explain it to her. No one who had never been friends with a tree could appreciate the true beauty of the xylemic character. "Why, we even offered to go over to the other side of the planet and fetch some pollen for them, but they wouldn't hear of it. Unfortunately, they'd rather die than be mated to anyone they had never met."
"What a perfectly disgusting idea!"
"I don't think so. Trees can be idealistic--"
"You fetching pollen for her, I mean. Naturally she wouldn't want pollen from a tree on the other side of the planet. She wants you!"
"Don't be silly. Incompatibility usually exists between the pollen of one species and the stigmata of another. Besides," he added patiently, "I haven't got pollen."
"You'd better not, or it won't be her who'll have the stigmata."
"Phyllis--" he sat down on the arm of her chair and tried to embrace her--"you know that you're the only life-form I love."
"Please, James." She pushed him away. "I guess I love you, too, in spite of everything ... but I don't want to make a public spectacle of myself."
"What do you mean now?"
"That tree would know everything that goes on. She's telepathic."
"Where did you get a ridiculous idea like that? What kind of rubbish have you been reading?"
"All right, tell me: how else did she learn to speak such good English?"
"It's because she's of a very high order of intelligence. And I suppose--" he laughed modestly--"because I'm such a good teacher."
"I don't care how good a teacher you are--a tree couldn't learn to speak a language so well in five months. She must be telepathic. It's the only explanation."
"Give her time," the tree advised later, as James came out on the lawn to talk to his only friend on the planet.
He hadn't seen much of the other scouts since the house-building frenzy had started, and visits among the men had decreased. The base camp, where the bachelors and the older married couples lived, was located a good distance away from his land, for he had raised his honeymoon cottage far from the rest; he had wanted to have his Phyllis all to himself. In the idyll he had visualized for the two of them, she would need no company but his. Little had he imagined that, within twenty-four hours of her arrival, he would be looking for company himself.
"I suppose so," he said, kicking at a root. "Oh, I'm sorry, Maggie; I didn't think."
"That's all right," Magnolia said bravely. "It didn't really hurt. That female has got you all upset, you poor boy."
James muttered a feeble defense of his wife.
"Jim, forgive me if I speak frankly," the tree went on in a low rustle, "but do you think she's really worthy of you?"
"Of course she is!"
"Surely on your planet you could have found a mate more admirable, high-minded, exemplary--more, in short, like yourself. Or are all the human females inferior specimens like Phyllis?"
"They're--she suits me," James said doggedly.
"Of course, of course. It's very noble of you to defend her; you would have disappointed me if you had said anything else, and I honor you for it, James."
He kicked at one of the pebbles. The tree meant well, he knew, yet, like so many well-meaning friends, she succeeded only in dispiriting him. It was almost like being back at the faculty club.
"I don't suppose a clod like her would have brought any more books along," the tree changed the subject. James's own library had been insufficient to slake the tree's intellectual thirst, so he had gone all over the planet to borrow books for Magnolia. Dr. Lakin, at Base, who had formerly taught English literature, possessed a fine collection which he had been reluctant to lend until he had learned that they were not for James but for a tree. At that, he had fetched the books himself, since he was anxious to meet her.
"A lot of the trees here have learned the English language," he had told James, "but none seems to have developed a taste for its literature. Your Magnolia is undoubtedly a superior specimen. Excellent natural taste, too--perhaps a little unformed when it comes to poetry and the more sophisticated aspects of life, but she'll learn, she'll learn."
Unfortunately, the same, James knew, could hardly be said of his wife. "Phyllis did bring some books," he told Magnolia.
"For you, no doubt. That was kind of her. I'm sure she has many good qualities which will unfold one by one, as her meristems start differentiating. I hope you don't feel I've been too--well, personal, Jim. I was only trying to help. If I've gone too far...."
"Of course not, Maggie. After all--" he laughed bitterly--"I do know you better than I know her."
"We have been good friends, haven't we, Jim? It was rather nice--these five months we spent alone together. For the first time in my life, I have never regretted being so far from my sisters. 'And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.'"
Her blue leaves shone violet in the scarlet rays of the setting sun; the gold of her trunk was lit with red radiance. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen ... but she was a tree, not a woman.
"I'm sure she'll fit in after a while," Magnolia continued. "Perhaps she isn't well. She seems to guttate an awful lot. Do you suppose she's been overwatered?"
"That wasn't guttation," James said heavily. "It was tears. It means she's unhappy."
"Unhappy? Perhaps she won't fit in on this planet, in which case she should by all means go back to Earth. It's cruel and unfair to keep an intelligent--loosely speaking--life-form anywhere against her will, don't you think?"
"She'll be happy here," James vowed. "I'll make her happy."
"Well, I certainly hope you can manage it! By the way, do you suppose you'll have a chance to read me the books she brought, or will she be keeping you too busy?"
"I'll never be too busy to read to you, Magnolia."
"That's very nitrogenous of you, Jim. Our--intellectual communions have meant a lot to me. I'd hate to have to give them up."
"So would I," he said. "But there won't be any need to. Phyllis will understand."