The word “heliotrope” can refer to a plant that turns toward the sun, particularly a Heliotropium arborescens, OR a light purple color, OR a bloodstone (a variety of quartz), OR a triangulation instrument that uses sunlight and a mirror. Phew!
With all these delightful meanings, I couldn’t help but write a science fantasy piece inspired by the Russian fairy tale Snegurochka. You can read the story below, or download an illustrated version of “Heliotrope.” Enjoy!
Heliotrope by Christy Jones
Chancellor Morrou and his wife Vesna had never been more depressed. They had just left the happiest Nativitas celebration ever hosted by the Celestial Consortium. At first they had enjoyed sipping hot caldaglog with their colleagues while watching the group’s many children run eagerly back and forth between the stations of games and sweets. But after a few hours, they grew weary with the realization that yet another year had passed with no new additions to their family to show for it.
“I know we have a great life, Rou, and I shouldn’t be jealous,” Vesna sighed as she climbed into their gently swaying pod. The material flexed beneath them and warmed to their touch.
“I understand,” mumbled Morrou as they peered up through the glassy ceiling at the stars that both of them had devoted their entire lives to studying. While Morrou might look up at the heavenly bodies and see only great balls of gas, distances to measure, and equations to fill in, Vesna still hadn’t lost the joy of seeing them simply as twinkling lights sprinkled blithely across the sky.
“Do you think that constellation, Fialiatavoy, looks like an angel?” Vesna pointed.
“Don’t know…” Morrou yawned, “They’re only described as bright and unexpected.”
Any further ponderance of the heavens was interrupted by a shower of supposedly unshatterable ceiling. As they shivered beneath the gaping hole, they peered over the edges of the pod, then descended to make a careful search of the debris. Their efforts finally yielded a small lump of stone, not much bigger than the tip of Morrou’s thumb. It was smooth to the touch, dark, almost blackish green and flecked with distinctive bits of bright red.
“A bloodstone, or ‘heliotrope’,” Zima pronounced when they took it to the department of mineralogy. “A cryptocrystalline quartz. Where did it come from?”
Morrou shrugged. “Up there.”
Zima’s eyes narrowed. “I would expect a more specific answer from you, chancellor.”
“Would you like us to splice and analyze it?”
“No!” Vesna rushed forward to reclaim the heliotrope. “I’ll keep it with me.”
Zima’s eyebrows arched further when Vesna cradled the lump of rock as if it were a fragile egg about to hatch.
Even Morrou couldn’t understand his wife’s attachment to the object. She seemed distracted, yet happy, and was often humming a little tune as she went about her work, pausing occasionally to take the stone out of her front pocket and stroke it gently. Stranger still, the heliotrope seemed to be growing steadily. What was once no bigger than a thumb tip was soon the length of a forefinger, then the size of a fist. Vesna scoffed at her husband’s observations, and claimed that he just didn’t remember things properly, until the day it would no longer fit into her pocket at all.
Still, Vesna refused to give up carrying it until she was forced to attend a gravitational lensing conference, and Morrou persuaded her to leave the stone in his safekeeping. He put it on a well-lit table next to his notes and promptly forgot about it. Not until he was on his way home for the evening did his mind finally leave its puzzlings over the dark flow around Degna-422 and return to the need to retrieve the stone immediately if he wanted to spend the night in the pod.
He rebooted the lights, and was stunned to see that the bloodstone had nearly doubled in size. One end had become completely globular, two deep cracks had appeared on each side, and a fissure threatened to split the smaller end. The bright red flecks that had randomly dotted its deep green surface had transformed into thin, spidery lines, all leading to a large single red spot in the center. Despite its time in the dark, the stone was still warm to the touch, and as Morrou picked it up, he could have sworn for a moment that he felt it move. He stared at it for several minutes, then carefully carried it home, hoping that Vesna wouldn’t notice the difference. She made no remarks, but accepted it eagerly. As Morrou watched her cuddle and coo over it, he realized, with a violent start, exactly what its shape reminded him of.
“Vesna…” he began hesitantly.
“It… it’s a baby,” he blurted.
She regarded him quizzically. He said no more, but that night he rested little and slept less. He must have finally drifted off, since he was awakened out of a strange dream by his wife’s insistent shaking.
“Morrou! Morrou! Wake up! The baby’s not breathing!” Vesna held the heliotrope in her arms. The cracks and fissures had resolved themselves into tiny arms and legs, complete with perfectly formed fingers and toes. The vivid red center visibly pulsed, and the surface was no longer green, but a bright, unoxygenated purple.
“Of course it’s not breathing, it’s a stone,” Morrou muttered, but the sight of that little body, with closed eyes and slack mouth, spurred him to action.
They rushed to the nearest medical facility, and the staff treated it as any other code blue. The shocked parents waited in a cold room, their agitated breath coming fast enough for three people. At last, the physician emerged, and they overheard exclamations of “still purple” from the room behind her. Vesna and Morrou managed to rise from their seats despite their heavy hearts, and dragged themselves forward.
“Hi Mommy! Hi Daddy!”
They came to a halt, stunned to see a young girl waving to them as cheerfully as if they had come to pick her up from an ordinary birthday party. Her face was still an incredible shade of pinkish purple, framed by twisting locks of lilac, and her eyes sparkled like amethysts. She jumped down from the table, and her white gown fluttered as her bare purple feet landed softly on the floor.
“Can we go home now?” For a moment, Morrou looked as if he might need the resuscitation unit himself, but when Heliotrope (as she so obviously must be named) came over and put her warm lavender fingers into their pale, middle-aged hands, no further bonding was needed. No explanations mattered. She was theirs.
If Vesna and Morrou had been hoping for a typical, or even talented, child to brag about at holiday parties, they would have been seriously disappointed in their new daughter. Not only was she purple, but, stranger still, she showed no interest in formally studying astronomy. Despite apparently being of an age to enter school, the administration could not get her to even attempt their standard tests, and recommended that the new parents oversee their daughter’s education themselves, an arrangement that could not have delighted all three of them more. Heliotrope had an innate ability to draw anything, and a keen eye that could spot things even their most sophisticated equipment had missed.
“Papa,” she pointed out on one such occasion, “It’s not coming out right because the orbits are the wrong shape.”
“How do you know?”
“I can tell by looking at it. It should be like this.”
Vesna looked on fondly as her daughter sketched, and her husband adjusted his calculations accordingly. More often than not, she was right, or at least got him thinking along a new path that eventually led to the answer. At first, they had worried that Heliotrope would continue to grow at the alarmingly rapid pace she had showed early on, but so far she had seemed to advance in neither size nor age. When asked about her development, she merely smiled and answered, “Being a baby was boring, so I changed.” About future changes, she would not speculate.
At the next Nativitas party, Vesna tried in vain to get Heliotrope to mingle with other children, but she seemed to have no understanding of the purpose of such interactions or the games people her size played. The only game she played in the lab involved setting up a series of mirrors, in patterns no one else understood, and observing the reflections in them.
“I know what it’s like to be raising a special child,” one mother, whose son had autism, confided in them.
Everyone’s child is special, Vesna thought, but I don’t think anyone has ever raised one quite like mine.
As the years passed, Vesna and Morrou grew older while Heliotrope stayed much the same. She had gotten a little taller since her parents needed help reaching things, but that was all. Finally the time came when Vesna and Morrou retired from the consortium. They weren’t sure how Heliotrope would take the transition, but she handled the news as cheerfully as everything else. After they cleared out all their equipment, Heliotrope still visited the lab for a short time each day and, to everyone’s surprise, developed a particular friendship with one of the new tenants, a young space explorer named Lel. Whenever Vesna commented on the new arrangement, or on the fact that Heliotrope’s height seemed to be increasing steadily, her husband only issued vague denials such as, “She just likes the old lab, that’s all.” Her visits with Lel, who seemed surprisingly unperturbed by her color or her strange growing patterns, continued until they received word that he had been commissioned to go on a space exploration mission. Heliotrope was forced to cope with the realization that he would be gone for some time.
The next day, she refused to come out of her chamber.
“What’s the matter, Heliotrope?” Vesna tried to conceal the rising panic in her voice.
“I’ve changed.” Her voice was strained with emotions that Vesna had never heard from her before. “I didn’t mean for it to happen. I don’t think I even started it.”
“It’s okay,” her mother soothed. “We’ll love you no matter what.” Still, she couldn’t help but wonder what their daughter looked like now. The intercom clicked, and slowly the wall between them slid aside. With the same suddenness as her change from strange new baby to little girl, Heliotrope had become a young woman. Her purple skin had faded to a smooth alabaster, and her hair had softened into twists of flax and honey. Only her eyes remained bright, sparkling amethysts.
“I’m not just different outside, I feel different,” she struggled to explain.
“It happens to everyone. Most people just go through it much sooner and much slower than you.”
“I feel like I’m divided. Like part of me wants to be with you and dad, and part of me wants to be with Lel… is that bad?”
“No, you’ve always been just what we needed,” her mother clasped her daughter’s newly pale hands in her worn, wrinkled ones. “This is what we need most from you now.”
Heliotrope’s smile returned. “I’ll leave part of me here with you,” she promised.
Vesna smiled back, and tried not to think too much about what that might mean.
On the day of the launch, Morrou and Vesna behaved themselves tolerably well, although any onlooker would have excused them an occasional sniffle if they had recognized the beautiful lady standing beside Lel.
They would be back. And in the meantime, Morrou would track every movement of their journey. Vesna would spend her leisure hours on the patio. She had thought about doing something with the empty space for years, and finally mentioned her desire to transform it into a garden the night before Heliotrope’s departure.
In the morning, she had discovered a sea of plants with bouquets of intense purple flowers, all constantly turning toward the light.
Story & illustrations copyright 2014 by Christy Jones.