"The coffee's already on and the canapes made," Phyllis smiled. "And I've baked cookies, too, and whipped up a batch of penuche. What kind of a Christmas party do you think it would be without refreshments?"
"Very efficient, isn't she?" Magnolia remarked, as the battery-powered lights that James had affixed to her began to wink on, for the deep red-violet dusk had already fallen and the first moon was rising. "Have you thought, Mrs. Haut, that if you fruit today, it will save the expense of another festival?"
"I don't expect to fruit for another two months," Phyllis said coldly, "and why shouldn't we have another festival? We can afford it and I like parties. I haven't been to one since the day I landed."
"Is the life out here getting a little quiet for you, petiole?" the tree asked solicitously. "It must be hard when one has no intellectual resources upon which to draw."
Phyllis held her peace for ten seconds; then, "I wonder where those boys can be," she said. "I hope they bring some pickles along. I asked to have some sent, but I'm accustomed to having no attention paid to what I want."
"There's a surprise coming for you, Phyllis," James could not help telling her again, hoping to arouse some semblance of interest. "Something I know you'll love.... And for you, too," he said courteously to Magnolia.
"You mean the same surprise for both, or a surprise apiece?" the tree asked.
"Oh, one for each, of course."
"I see the lights of the 'copter now!" Phyllis cried and, running out into the middle of the lawn, began waving her handkerchief. He hadn't seen her so pleasantly excited for a long time.
"I don't suppose I'll need to turn on the landing lights," he said to Magnolia. "You should do the trick."
"Am I all finished?" she rustled anxiously. "I do wish I could see myself. How do I look?"
"Splendid. I've never had as beautiful a Christmas tree as you, Maggie," he told her with complete honesty. "Not even on Earth."
"I'm glad, Jim, but I still wish I could be more to you than just a Christmas tree."
"Shh. The others might hear."
For the helicopter had landed and the visitors were pouring out, with shouts of admiration. Not only the bachelors had come--and in full force--but some of the older men from Base, who apparently felt they could manage to do without their wives for twelve hours, even if those hours included Christmas Eve. He wondered where he and Phyllis could put them all, but some could sleep outside, if need be, for it was never cold on Elysium. The winds were gentle and the rains light and fragrant.
While the visitors were crowding around Phyllis and the tree, James rooted eagerly through the packages they had brought, until he found what he wanted. Then he rushed over to the group. "I know I should wait until tomorrow, but I want to give the girls their presents now." The other men smiled sympathetically, almost as joyful as he. "Merry Christmas, Magnolia!" He hoped Phyllis would understand that it was etiquette which dictated that the alien life-form should get her gift first.
"Thank you," the tree said. "I am deeply touched. I don't believe anyone ever gave me a present before. What is it?"
"Liquid plant food--vitamins and minerals, you know. For you to drink."
"What fun!" she exclaimed in pretty excitement. "Pour some over me right now!"
"Not so fast, Jim, boy!" Dr. Cutler, the biologist, snatched the jug from James' hand. "First you-all better let me take a sample of this here stuff back to Base to test on a lower life-form, so's I can make sure it won't do anything bad to Miss Magnolia. Might have iron in it and I have a theory that iron may not be beneficial for the local vegetation."
"Oh, thank you!" the tree rustled. "It's so very thoughtful of you, Doctor, but I'm sure Jim would never give me anything that would injure me."
"I'm sure he isn't fixing to do a thing like that, ma'am, but he's no botanist."
"And for you, Phyllis...." James handed his wife the awkward bundle to unwrap for herself.
She tore the papers off slowly. "Oh, Jim, darling, it's--it's--"
"You wanted a bit of green, so I ordered a plant from Earth. You like it? I hope you do."
"Oh, Jim!" She embraced him and the pot simultaneously. "More than anything!"
"It won't stay green," Magnolia observed. "Either it'll turn blue or it'll die. Puny-looking specimen, isn't it?"
"Well," said James, "it's only a youngster. I guess this Christmas is too early, but next Christmas there ought to be berries. It's a holly plant, Phyl."
"Holly," she repeated, her voice shaking a little. "Holly." She and Dr. Cutler exchanged glances.
"I told you, Miz Phyllis, ma'am--he may know the first thing about botany, but he doesn't know anything after that."
"Jim," Phyllis said, linking her free arm through his, "I misjudged you. Dr. Cutler is right. You don't know so very much about botany, after all."
He looked at her blankly. Her voice was trembling, and not with tears this time. "I love this little plant; it's just what I wanted ... but there aren't ever going to be any berries, because, to have berries, you have to have two plants. And the right two. Holly's di--dio--it's just like us."
"Oh," James said, feeling thoroughly inadequate. "I'm sorry."
"But you mustn't be sorry. I'm going to plant it here on Elysium, and I hope it will stay green in spite of what she says, and it'll have blossoms anyway ... and it was very, very sweet of you, dear."
She kissed his cheek.
"Is this one a boy or a girl?" Magnolia asked.
"You-all can't tell till it blooms, Miss Magnolia, ma'am," Dr. Cutler informed her.
"Maybe I can. Hand it up here, please."
Phyllis paused for an irresolute moment, then, smiling nervously at her guests, obliged.
"It's a boy," Magnolia announced, after a minute. "A boy." She gave back the pot reluctantly. "Phyllis," she said, "you and I have never been friends and I admit that it's been my fault just as much as yours."
"As much as mine?" Phyllis echoed. "I like that--" and was going to go on when she obviously recollected that they had company, and stopped.
"So I know it's presumptuous of me to ask you a favor."
"Yes, Magnolia?" Phyllis said, her fine cornsilk eyebrows arched a trifle. "What is this favor?"
"When you plant the little fellow--you said you were going to, anyhow--would you plant him near me?"
Phyllis looked down at the plant she held cradled in her arms and then up at the tree. "Of course, Magnolia," she said, frowning slightly. "I didn't realize...." Her voice began to tremble. "I have been pretty rotten, haven't I?" She looked toward James, but he turned his glance away.
"Just because you were a plant," Phyllis continued, "didn't mean I had to be a b-b-beast. It must have been awful for you, seeing me like this, practically crowing over you, and knowing that you yourself would never have the chance to be a m-m-m-mother."
"'Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,'" Magnolia said sadly, "'and waste its sweetness on the desert air.'"
Phyllis was crying unashamedly now. "I'll plant him right next to you--Maggie. I want you to have him. He can be your baby."
"Thank you, Phyl," Maggie said softly. "That's very ... blue of you."
"Although I think that's a jim-dandy idea," the biologist said, "and I sure wouldn't want to do anything to discourage it, being real interested in the results of an experiment like that my own self, I don't think you ought to feel so mean about it, Miz Phyllis. If all she wanted--begging your pardon, Miss Magnolia, ma'am--was a baby, why didn't she take an interest in the holly until she found out it was a male? Why wouldn't a little old girl holly have done as well?"
"Why--why, you scheming vegetable!" Phyllis exploded at Magnolia, clutching the holly plant to her protective bosom. "He's much too young for you, and I'm going to plant him far away, where he can't possibly fall into your clutches."
"Now, Miss Phyllis, we-all mustn't look at things out of their proper perspective."
"Then why did you take your hat off when you were introduced to Miss Magnolia, Cutler?" Dr. Lakin asked interestedly.
"Sir, where I come from, we respect femininity, whether it be animal, vegetable or mineral. Nonetheless, we-all got to remember, though Miss Magnolia is unquestionably a lady, she is not a woman."
Phyllis began to laugh hysterically. "You're right!" she gasped. "I had almost forgotten she was only a tree. And that it is only a little Christmas holly plant that's probably going to die, anyway--they almost always do."
"That's cruel, Phyllis," James said, "and you know it is."
"Do you really think I'm cruel? Are you going to tell the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Vegetables on me? But why am I cruel? I'm giving her the holly. That's what she wants, isn't it? Do you hear that, Miss Magnolia, ma'am? He's all yours. We'll plant him next to you--right away. And I hope he doesn't die. I hope he grows up to make you a good husband."
"She's really quite remarkable," Dr. Lakin said to James later that same evening, after the planting ceremonies were over and the rest of the party had gone into the cottage for fresh coffee and more sandwiches and cookies and penuche. "Quite remarkable. You're a lucky man, Haut."
"Thank you, sir," James replied abstractedly. "I'm sure Phyllis will be pleased to--"
"Phyllis! Oh, Mrs. Haut is a very remarkable woman, of course. A handsome, strong girl; she'll make a splendid mother, I'm sure. But I was referring to Miss Magnolia. She's a credit to you, my boy. If for no other reason, your name will go down in the history of our colony as that of the guide and mentor of Miss Magnolia. That's quite a tree you have there."
James looked at the dark form of the tree--for the lights had been turned out--silhouetted against the three pale moons and the violet night. "Yes, she is," he said.
"You're fortunate to be her neighbor ... and her friend."
"Yes, I am."
"Well, I expect I'd better join the rest. Are you coming on in, Jim?"
"In a little while, sir. I thought I'd--I wanted to have a word with Magnolia. I won't be long."
"Of course, of course. I'm delighted to see that there is such an excellent relationship between you.... Good night, Miss Magnolia!" he called.
"Good night, Dr. Lakin," the tree replied, politely enough, but it was obvious that she was preoccupied with her new charge, who stood as close to her as it was possible to plant him and yet allow room for him to grow.
The door closed. James walked across the lawn until he was quite near Magnolia. "Maggie," he whispered, reaching out to touch her trunk--smooth it was, and hard, but he could feel the vibrant life pulsing inside it. Certainly she was not a plant, not just a plant, even though she was a tree. She was a native of Elysium, neither animal nor vegetable, unique unto the planet, unique unto herself. "Maggie."
"Yes, Jim. Don't you think his silhouette is so graceful there in the moonlight? He isn't really puny--just frail."
"Maggie, you're not serious about this holly?"
"What do you mean?" And still he didn't have her full attention. Would he ever have it again?
"Serious about raising him to be your--your--"
"Why not, Jim?"
"Is it? It certainly is far more possible with him, isn't it? That much I understood from your zoology books."
"I suppose so."
"Besides, I have nothing to lose, have I?"
"But even if it were possible, wouldn't it be humiliating for you? The creature's mindless!"
Magnolia's leaves rustled in the darkness. She was laughing--a little bitterly. "Your Phyllis isn't your intellectual equal, Jim, and yet you say you love her and I suppose you do. Am I not entitled to my follies also?"
But she couldn't compare Phyllis to a holly plant! It was unreasonable.
"He may die, of course," Magnolia said. "I've got to be prepared for that. The soil is different, the air is different, the sun is different. But the chances are, if he survives, he'll turn blue. And if he turns blue, who knows what other changes might be brought about? Maybe the plants on your Earth aren't inherently mindless, Jim. Maybe they just didn't have a chance. 'Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime...?' That land isn't Earth, Jim, so it might just possibly be Elysium."
Again he didn't say anything. What he wanted to say, he had no right to say, so he kept silent.
"It'll be a chance for me, too, Jim. At least we're both plants, he and I. That gives us a headstart."
"Yes, I suppose it does."
"Intellect doesn't count for much in the propagation of the species. Life goes on without regard for reason, and that's mainly what we're here for, to make sure that life goes on--if we're here for anything at all. Thanks to your kind, Jim, life will continue on this planet; it will certainly be your kind of life--and I hope it can be ours as well."
"Yes," he said. "I hope so, too."
And he did, but he wished it didn't have to continue in quite that way. Perhaps it was a trick of the three moons, but the holly plant's leaves seemed to have changed color.. They were no longer green, but almost blue--powder blue.
"You'd best be getting on to your party, Jim," Magnolia said. "You wouldn't want to be remiss in your duties as host. And please close the door gently when you go inside. The little holly plant's asleep."
As he closed the door carefully behind him, he heard a burst of laughter coming from the kitchen, where the guests apparently had assembled--raucous animal laughter--and, rising shrill and noisy above it, Phyllis's company laugh.