By Denise S. Robbins
The walls of his house are breaking down. He doesn’t care. He’s a Bradyrhizobium japonicum bacterium, his name is Flick, and he’s bored, lonely, and wants to die.
Flick floats around his root nodule, a single polar flagellum whipping softly through the muck. He’s listless: no more lust, no more lists. No more possible places she could have gone, no more new things to try. No more Bradyrhizobia japonicum; he’s the only one, and he’ll never reproduce, not without her. He sits in one place and gets drunk on the root’s sugars; he burps out nitrogenase from time to time. His thick-walled, one-cell rod body has fattened into a perfect circle, and as the moons have come and gone, he’s leaned horizontal, staring sideways at the nodule walls, watching them turn from pink to green to brown, degrading.
It’s been ages. Ages of dirt, dust, emptiness. Searching, searching, then nothing. Nothing. He gave up searching for the love of his life, Beanie. Useless. Pathetic. Who gives up? Flick gives up. After several generations’ worth of searching, he gave up: he built a drab home in the roots of a soybean plant — the only one he could find — but now it’s dwindling, and soon it will be gone, and he won’t build another; he will die. What’s the point of staying alive? The farm field is abandoned. There’s nothing, no one. Beanie can’t survive out there. She’s dead. That’s the only truth left.
Flick found this soybean root nine moons ago — it was the most promising he had found in ages. For so long, everything else was empty, dead. He introduced himself with flavonoids; the root responded by curling towards him, curling around him, letting him enter the root hairs. Safe inside, he built his home; rather, he instructed the plant what to do, to form the potato-like bulb around him.
His house is more than a home: it is the mouth, lungs, and blood that keep him alive. For ages, he lived on his own, free-living in the dirt and grit of what remained. Every day was a struggle for food, water, and safety. Now, in his nodule, the soybean plant gives him food, carries him oxygen through the roots like blood through a vein, and keeps his shelter safe and tight.
Not without cost. All his efforts are focused on churning nitrogen from the air into ammonia, so his soybean plant can take it in and build amino acids, proteins, chlorophyll, nucleic acids, enzymes … everything it needs to be alive. It needs nitrogen. The soybean plant is hungry and needs him. Flick’s left with no time or energy to reproduce. Otherwise, the plant will kick him out or suffocate him. He doesn’t know or care how it works, but he knows the plant needs his refuse. So he churns out nitrogenase and thinks about nothing at all.
He’s gotten tired. He’s gotten lazy. He’s taking breaks between cycles, giving the root less and less, and in return, the walls of his nodule are falling apart. The plant is rationing his oxygen. There’s not much time left here. What next?
Once, ages ago, he and Beanie had a mansion. A nodule big enough for a million rhizobia. It was a beautiful home with thick walls and delicious red innards. They planned to find a quiet corner and reproduce together: he inserting his genes into her, she reproducing for them both. They were too young to begin; they were too naive to know better. They didn’t realize their world was already falling apart. They thought everything would continue as it was, and, to their detriment, it would.
There was an edge to the beauty of their lives. A fear they all felt, passed down from their parents, that no one would quite explain. Perhaps they couldn’t. No one could explain the thunderous noise that came every six moons. No one knew why it shook the entire earth in a manner that strengthened as the noise approached. No one knew why metal claws descended from heaven and tore into everything, throwing their home into the air, breaking roots and piercing nodules nearby. No one could explain the thick blanket of fertilizer salts that shriveled up their neighbors into nothing. They’d all lost someone they loved, many someones: brothers, sisters, children, cousins, lovers, friends. The Great Tilling of the Hundredth Moon took many; the Salting of the Thousandth Sun took many more.
The brethren in Flick’s nodule knew life was precious, and they lived that way. They ate each grain of sugar as if it was exquisitely prepared for just this moment. They breathed in beauty with their oxygen. They told each other they loved each other fifty times a day.
But no, no one in Flick’s mansion knew what was happening, and no one knew why their nodule had been spared over the generations. But everyone knew it was only a matter of time before it wasn’t.
“Hey Flick, it’s Freddie!”
Flick’s woken from a drowsy nap by the voice of a friend. The Sinorhizobium fredii has come by and is poking his head into Flick’s nodule, waving a flagellum around excitedly.
Flick normally welcomes the sight of Freddie, but right now, he wishes to remain dreaming; he dreamt, as he often does, of his last moments with Beanie, reaching towards each other before the great metal claw drew her away. In this dream, he was closer than ever, and with a few more moments, he could have reached her, grabbed her, saved her ….
“Flick!” Freddie moves in, and his many hairy flagella follow. He floats up and down, side to side, unable to keep still. “Your house is looking rough. Just wanted to check-in. Everything okay?”
Flick grumbles and turns away with his single flagellum facing Freddie. “Fine.”
“Haven’t seen your face in the rhizosphere. What’s up, man?”
“Am I not allowed to nap?”
“Come on. You’re still down about Beanie?”
“I’m not down about anything. I’m simply lying down. I’m old. I’m tired.”
“You’re older than me by one day, and I live faster than you. I should be saying I’m tired.”
They were neighbors when they were young, and when Flick found him again on a nearby root from the same plant, he welcomed the memory of home. Flick turns back to face Freddie and tries to smile but finds he cannot.
Freddie twitches in the silence. “I’m bored. I miss you! The others around here are weirdos.”
Flick shrugs and goes back to his bed. “Sorry. I’ve got work to do.”
The others around here. Long after Freddie leaves, these words stick in Flick’s mind. He hasn’t left his nodule in nine moons. When he first came back, he didn’t recognize anyone. After the Disaster, there was no life. But recently, other creatures began to show and grow. All of them strangers. He’s known only his own kind, and that of Freddie. Rhizobia understand each other. These other things are alien. He doesn’t know if they’re good. He doesn’t care to know.
Flick dreams of it every night — The Great Tilling Disaster that took his Beanie. The trembling that came before the noise. It came as if from the center of the earth, signaled by an involuntary twitch of flagellum, simultaneously, from a million of his brethren at once. Then the growl, quiet but not soft, far away but all-encompassing even so, and a tremor in the nodule, an unaccounted-for shift. Everything began vibrating, and the growl became a hum of anger, and more, a roar, as if the surrounding soil was fighting with itself, a melee of grit and detritus, and everything shook.
With the fifth bang of nodules, their mansion wall split open, leading his brethren to cascade down into a sea of poisonous nitrous fertilizer salts. Screams began—the release of flavonoids, nod factors, nitrogenase, everything. Nitrogenase disappeared into thin air. Then madness. The metal claw cracked into the earth and punctured the membranes of countless rhizobia. The soil churned and exploded. Flick and Beanie were pressed against each other, flagellum holding flagellum. Another claw appeared. The world did not stop roiling. They were thrown up, down, sideways, up, and, finally, apart. He saw her, beyond a third claw that came down. She was thrown backward. He rushed towards her, thrusting with his flagellum as hard as he could, almost reaching her, until a fourth claw came directly for him. He leapt out of the way and was carried through the soil’s flow down, down. He understood: down, below the topsoil, he was safe. He wriggled into the untouched hard subsoil as a fifth, sixth, seventh claw came through, holding his flagellum close to his chest, pulling himself in.
The deafening roar remained, yet further. He came up to find her. But she was nowhere to be found.
They had a plan. If they ever got separated, Beanie would stay put, and Flick would search so they wouldn’t pass each other by. They wouldn’t search in an endless cycle.
For ages, he searched. Oh, how he searched. He rode the legs of spiders and centipedes. He knocked on every nodule he could find intact. But after the Disaster, little life remained. He searched and searched, and there was nothing. The soil was dead. The few plants that remained wilted and shriveled. The roots fell apart. He searched, even as he knew there was only one answer: Beanie had died.
Eventually, he found a single soybean plant. He burrowed down into the earth, found its root, found Freddie, and made a new home.
Now his life is filling up with strangers: bacterium, endophytes, nematodes, actinomycetes, fungus. He hates their presence: they remind him of what he could not find. There is life again, but not for him.
Beanie is tired of this. She’s exhausted and hungry, starving, after munching on whatever paltry sugars are carried her way: a dead leaf, a spare mosquito leg. She’s been sitting in one place for ages, and Flick the prick still hasn’t found her.
She saw him once. Ages ago. She was resting on a piece of grit, staring at the sky, when he ran right past her, grasping the leg of a red-and-blue spider, faster than she could hope to catch up. But she followed the plan. She stayed still. That was the plan. She tried to reach out — oh, she tried, she emitted every flavonoid and nod factor she had left to give. But she was weak, her signals weaker. He left for barren ground.
Throughout the ages, things have changed. Life ended, life was abandoned. Then the giants tried again.
After the Disaster, the giants planted a new crop of soybean seeds, but smothered them in nitrous fertilizer salts, helpful to plants but deadly to her. She watched millions of her brethren survivors poke a salt and shrivel up to die. So she stayed safe in her speck of grit, floating on the top of the soil, safe above the salt, where she could poke her head out and look at the air.
This new crop of soybeans failed. They refused to grow. They refused to move. There was nothing in the soil except for nitrous fertilizer salt. They had enough nitrogen for a million trees, but not enough of anything else, and not enough ground to grasp. The tilled soil was blown away or flattened. Then came the ages of barrenness, nothingness. The fertilizer salts blew away. The rains flooded and leveled what remained. Her grit got stuck in the subsoil, steady, letting the water rush ahead. A thousand soybean seeds degraded.
The tilling machines never came back. The giants left as well. Everything was left to empty.
But things are changing once again. Under there, those degraded soybean seeds were food, like Beanie, scattered through the farmland, scant microbes survived. And now, without the nitrous fertilizer salts, they could grow.
The giants returned, but without their tillers or poisonous salts. They brought their eyes to Beanie’s direction, eyeballs enlarged yet further within giant panes of glass. They brought fungus and dead leaves, scattering different things in different places, then left, then returned once more.
She watched her neighbors expand; she listened to their titters, their chatters, their disbelief at being able to live once more. The ground filled up with sugars. There was food, shelter, oxygen, blood. Life began fixing itself into place.
Except for Beanie, stuck to her piece of grit, alone. She refused to replicate herself without Flick. They had a plan, a dream. She couldn’t bear to bring children into a world without a home.
Now she can’t bear … it … any longer. Sitting. Waiting. Barely surviving. The next time a centipede comes by, heading the same direction that a red-and-blue spider once bore her Flick… she grasps a leg with her flagellum and lets it run.
The centipede carries her far, over colonies of nematodes, around ground nests of miner bees. They arrive by a pond at a mountain of a rotting log, filled with worms and mosquitoes and … red-and-blue spiders. Beanie frees herself just before the centipede disappears into a hole in the log. The spiders leap from the log to the ground and back, around hundreds of baby spiders, each baby a hundred times the size of Beanie.
“Has anyone met Flick?” she cries to the masses. They hardly pay attention, continuing to jump or dance among the silk threads beneath the log. She approaches a thread and strums until a spider pays attention. It bears on her, with huge eyes, a red furry mouth, and a teal blue philtrum.
“I carried ‘im ages back, love.” The spider is kind and matronly. “Left him off beyond that pond there. I could show ye. Ain’t far.”
The spider extends a hairy leg. Beanie grasps it, grateful.
The world moves in a flash, a leap: so quickly through the air, it jostles her insides to a nauseating degree. Her view is a mash of blue and green, but she can’t see. She can’t think. It takes everything she can to hang on. Then it stops; her innards throw themselves forward. She takes a breath but can’t let it out before the spider jumps once more. Three hops later, they’re on the other side of the massive pond.
“Good luck, love,” says the spider, and hops off before Beanie can say thank you.
On this side of the pond, she discovers a feeling. A scent. Knowledge. It’s a flavonoid from Flick, degraded by time, but everywhere, all over. A sign for her to find, and it’s right here, leading to that stream, away from the pond. Here the scent stops: the water rushes past faster than the speed of chemicals.
Beanie discovers the flow of water.
She is brought to a puddle of mud, where earthworms are writhing in glee, paying no attention to the hungry birds overhead. But their safety is not her concern.
“Has anyone met Flick? He’s a rhizobium, one rod-shaped cell, looks just like me.”
An earthworm contracts his body forward and sets his head on the ground near Beanie. “Ages ago,” he says quietly. “Looking for someone named Beanie. That you?”
She affirms it is.
“Come with me.”
The earthworm travels all day and night, then leaves Beanie at the top of a dusty pile of loose grains of dirt. The dirt flows around them like water. “It was a windy day, blowing southerly. The rest is up to you.”
She understands she must follow the wind.
Beanie travels with the wind. She meets millipedes, fungal networks, and beetles. She travels through tree roots and underwater streams. Eventually, the trail ends. No scent, no mention of Flick.
It ends in a solitary soybean plant.
Flick hears a voice. A voice so lovely it wakes him from his dream, where he finally, almost, has reached his love, and in the dream, the voice calls him forward and back at the same time. It calls him closer yet pulls him away, into waking life.
The voice. The scent. It fills him with peace. But he cannot bear to turn his head. He cannot bear to discover that it’s still nothing but a dream.
“Flick.” The voice says again. “It’s me.”
It’s real. He turns. It’s real.
Beanie barely recognizes him.
He’s different. He’s round. He’s flattened out. His membrane has weakened to a light sheen. She can see every one of his innards. He should be happy and ecstatic, but his flagellum weakly waves.
“You’re back.” He says.
Flick expects … what? She does not run to him in joy. She does not embrace him. She stands at the entrance to his falling-apart nodule and glares.
“Why didn’t you find me?” Beanie asks.
“I tried. I tried.”
“You’re here. You’re fat. You’re letting everything fall apart.”
“I know. I know.”
She’s quiet. But he needs to hear her voice. He needs to know.
“Do you still love me?” He asks.
She does not respond.
What joy he once had leaks out of his membranes. He turns back to the wall, away from his love.
Beanie can still hardly believe it. She’s home with her love, but her love is hardly a love anymore. Where is the Flick that danced with her at midnight, flagellum in flagellum? Where is the Flick that had beautiful dreams of building a new mansion for their children? “You’re sick,” Beanie finally says, not knowing what to do.
“You’re not well.”
“I know,” Flick replies.
“I can get better. Now that you’re here.” But Flick doesn’t seem to believe his own words. He flattens himself into a corner.
All her life, she’s been waiting for this. She’s been waiting and waiting and waiting.
Flick feels himself falling apart. She hasn’t answered the question. Her lack of an answer is an answer. Flick knows he’s not worth loving. He gave up on her. He gave up on life. Is it too late to get it back?
He turns to face her. She is as beautiful as ever. Her rod walls are thick and covered in delicate hairs. Her flagellum pulses with thoughtfulness. She floats in a manner as intentional as a poem.
But it’s too late. Life is falling apart all around them. Even if they were together again, what then? One paltry root nodule does not a life make.
Her poem approaches, and then she is here, holding his flagellum in hers.
“Come with me,” says Beanie. She feels the weakness in Flick’s grip. Pulling him gently out of the nodule and through the soil, she brings him toward the surface. The act of moving invigorates him slightly. He stretches out his body to move around the dirt. They approach and avoid hundreds of strangers. Azotobacter, Azospirillum, Clostridium. Fungi, nematodes. But he’s still weak and slow. It’s a laborious task, moving twelve inches to the surface.
Finally, they emerge.
There is life.
Flick’s plant is the only soybean plant to be seen. But it is no longer alone. Hundreds of different plants surround them: a forest of leafy greens, long grasses, and bright red berries. Buzzing bees fly among them, and a bird dive bombs to steal a grasshopper away.
Flick is stunned into silence. Beanie watches him watch life return. He turns in circles, taking everything in.
“But what if the giants come back?” he eventually asks.
“They’ve been back. This is their work.”
“What about the tilling machines?”
“The tillers are gone for good.” Beanie doesn’t know if that’s true. She doesn’t know if this is all going to be destroyed tomorrow. She looks at Flick, who looks anxiously back towards the return journey to his root nodule. She wonders if some things are too broken to be fixed.
But she knows there’s no good wondering about these things. She’s here, and Flick’s here, and there is life. Every grain of sugar they’ve eaten, every inch they’ve traveled, it was all to prepare for this moment. She grasps Flick’s flagella and brings him close. “They’re gone for good, my love.”