Our Lady of the Thrice Blooming Fig Tree by Heather Truett
The rumors and whispers of rumors said that if you were to find the Treasure of the Thrice Blooming Fig Flower, this is how it would happen: you would go to sleep in the desert, the taste of fig flower tea still on your tongue, and wake in a forest the color of emeralds. That’s why we all came here to this sandy planet of rock creatures and large serpents, the likes of which probably inspired old Terran sci-fi monsters.
I pulled the Nine of Stars card before settling into my sleeping bag, the desert sky of actual stars bell-jarring over me. Terran Guide Cards are an old habit from when I lived with my grandmother. She always pulled one before bed, telling me the card’s message would grow in her dreams and greet her upon waking. The Nine of Stars is supposed to mean the answer to a prayer is coming, and though I say I don’t believe in the cards, I was only mildly surprised when I woke up alone in a forest.
Even my mild surprise wasn’t caused by the forest, but by the waking up alone.
I drifted off five feet away from Anyla Elgin-Marks and her team. She was the treasure hunter, the leader of this expedition. I was allowed to go along because I have deep pockets.
Very deep pockets.
Deep enough to not need whatever wealth I might wake up to after drinking my fig flower tea. It was something else I was after. Also, I might have had a tiny crush on Anyla before I spent months trekking across planets with her and the constantly changing team that trailed behind, letting her bully and berate them at every turn. She was supposed to be making a documentary about the fig flower legend, but the cameras rarely came out, and I was starting to wonder if her whole plan was a scam.
I’m not sure which of the usuals were present when we found the fig flower. Chelsea, yes, always Chelsea, and also Tom. Or Tim? One group caught a ride off-planet and another crew joined us just before the discovery. I didn’t bother taking roll, just threw myself into the celebration, brewing the thick pink petals and succulent-like stem of the plant and making sure we had enough cups for everyone to get at least a sip of the tea before bed. That was difficult with Anyla trying to hog it all, but I managed.
Then I was alone in a forest that was not the color of emeralds. It was closer to sapphire with a greenish tone to the air. The overall impression was that of a galactic artist creating a Terran rain forest based solely on the description of a modern Terran like me, who never actually set foot on her home planet. It was breathtakingly beautiful but couldn’t be legit.
Except, it was. I stood up and took a deep breath. It smelled like bread baking. There was no sign of Anyla or the crew. There was no sign of anyone at all, just me and a few birds calling from the tall trees. Maybe the tea caused hallucinations. It was possible the whole Thrice Blooming Fig Flower story was just that, a story. Maybe we were always destined to end up tripping on hallucinogens in the desert of Wohstdjin, fifth planet to enter the Galactic Diocese.
“Good morning, Edin Sandoval.”
I jumped at the voice, which seemed to come from the tree closest to where I stood. Slowly, I made out a shape, humanoid but with skin like bark and hair like leaves. Then the skin smoothed and the hair became hair, though still in that vibrant shade of blue-green that colored the drug-induced dream world.
“Good morning,” I said to the person. They had a womanly shape, but I never assumed. Too many species with too many gender expressions once you leave the Terran system, and I’ve been gone from that system since I was a kid.
“You aren’t going to ask how I know your name?” The person asked.
“No, I’m pretty sure you’re not real, and anyone I think up in my own head would naturally know my name, right?”
They laughed. “I’m real, Edin. My name is Sibling Jenn. I’ve been sent to escort you to the sera.
“Yes, a sera is a hidden holy place, dedicated to a mission-”
“I know what a sera is.” It was a convent basically, a church. “But I’ve never heard of one on Wohstdjin. We were looking for the Treasure of the Thrice Blooming Fig Flower.”
“You came through the desert and found the flower. You brewed and drank the tea, but only one of you had the heart for the treasure.”
I smiled a little, thinking of course I was the one with the heart for it. I was the one who didn’t need it, thanks to an inheritance from my rich but absent father. Stories are always full of paradoxes like that.
“But… the treasure is a sera? Or it’s in the sera?”
“Something like that,” Sibling Jenn said. “Follow me.”
It wasn’t a long walk from the fig flower grove to the sera, but I’d fallen asleep without my hiking boots on, so I had to pick my way behind Sibling Jenn. My socked feet were landing on soft blue moss. The moss grew in front of me but vanished once I stepped off it.
“Wassa is taking care of you,” Sibling Jenn said.
“Wassa?” I tore my eyes from the velvety path and focused on my guide.
“The spirit of this planet, the one we call Mother.” Jenn turned left onto a trail marked by rows of neon pink flowers.
The twin suns overhead glinted off the flowers in a metallic way, but when I reached to touch, the plants pulled back from my fingers. Their movement was almost like liquid, so not metal at all.
“Those aren’t flowers, they’re people.” Jenn said. “They’re the native Wassans. They’re friendly but don’t like to be touched.”
“People?” I asked. I’d met a lot of people from a lot of species, but never anyone I could have mistaken for a plant.
“They spend the first part of the day with their roots buried in Wassa’s soil. She sustains them. Later, when they’re satiated, I’ll introduce you to one of them.”
We continued down the path until the trees thinned and vanished. We crested a hill and I stopped abruptly, staring at a building that dwarfed any I’d ever seen. It was so large it might have been a city, topped by fairy tale turrets and flags for every planet I could think of and some I could not.
Sibling Jenn turned to me and smiled. “Welcome to Our Lady of the Thrice Blooming Fig Flower. This is your first point of decision. If you want to return home now, you can go back the way we came and the trail will lead you to your group. You can greet Anyla for us. She will be devastated that her third attempt to come back has failed.”
That was a lot of information to take in at one time. I had to choose, forever? I wasn’t sure. And Anyla had been to this place before? Why had she left?
“If you follow me to Our Lady, you will have one year to stay with us before your second point of decision.” Sibling Jenn looked hopeful.
I patted the front pocket of the beat-up cargo pants I’d fallen asleep in. My grandmother’s cards were there, including the Nine of Stars. I kept my eyes on the sera, Our Lady, and took one step forward.
Sibling Jenn sighed in relief, and we were on our way.
If a year seems like a long time to spend away from your life, then you clearly have more of a life than I did. The time flew past, most of it is lost to the sort of awe and wonder that wipes one’s brain in wild situations. You promise yourself you will cherish every second, but most human brains can’t handle that kind of processing. I say most, because my husband is a different case. He’s human, but I met him at Our Lady, where he was hiding from the Galactic Diocese’s hybrid division. He’s part Mechanical Entity, thanks to a star racer accident, and the GD had been doing some unethical experiments on people like him. His brain can recall every damn second of any given day and let me tell you how much help that is in an argument.
But I digress. On that first day, I was single, recovering from my crushed crush on Anyla, and barely taking in my surroundings after the blue plants, the flower people, and the sera-the-size-of-a-city revelation. Sibling Jenn led me past stone columns and walls that seemed like part of the planet itself. She settled me in my own room where I washed up and put on a soft robe the same color as the moss that earlier grew under my feet. It was probably made from that moss. I never asked, but it isn’t beyond Wassa’s — Mother’s — abilities to craft our clothing from her own substance.
I slept a long time, my body exhausted from the weeks of desert hiking, and my brain desperate for down time to process. On the morning after my arrival, Sibling Jenn summoned me via a voice that seemed to secrete from my bedroom wall. I made my way back to the main entry by following one of the many robe-clad people I found in the hallway.
“Are you ready to see the Treasure of the Thrice Blooming Fig Flower?” Sibling Jenn asked, not a person to waste words or time.
“I think so. I mean, this place,” I gestured to the lush jungle-like wall to our side and the glittering gemstones that adorned the stone floor, “seems like a treasure already.”
Sibling Jenn smiled. “Mother is, of course, a treasure, but not the kind one can possess.”
At that moment, I was slightly disappointed, sure the treasure was going to end up being a room full of gold coins or some artefact out of galactic history. Either would have thrilled me on a normal day, a day in the years before I sipped that fig flower tea and woke up in paradise. The Terran Guide card I’d pulled before falling asleep was the Nova, which can symbolize both family and reunion. I’d dreamt of my grandmother, her hair long and white, braided down her back and tied with an indigo ribbon. In the dream, she’d sat beside my bed and whispered, “almost”.
As Sibling Jenn led me down a long hallway, I glanced at the walls, noticing how they sometimes vibrated and sometimes sprouted flowers in new places, right through the stone and moss. I had believed, until Sibling Jenn referred to the treasure as a thing one could possess, that I might find my grandmother in this place. I let the Nova card and the dream convince me that the Thrice Blooming Fig Flower had been a method of finding the thing a person wants more than anything else in the world, and maybe Anyla couldn’t come back, because she already found that thing.
This was faulty logic on my part, because if Anyla had found the thing she wanted more than anything in the world, why would she have left or why would she need to return? Logic aside, I wanted to believe my grandmother was there, behind one of the many large doors, dressed like the other people we passed with their colorful robes and serene smiles. She’d written to me, years earlier, of her plan to find the Treasure of the Thrice Blooming Fig Flower. It was right after I finished college and moved in with my first serious partner, a woman from Myrdrad, a tiny icy planet where she insisted we live. I expected my grandmother’s treasure hunt to be like any of the other journeys she made over the years. She’d pull a card, have a dream, traipse off to Terra or Phranqiré or Planet X6 in the G5 Quadrant. “Why not visit me on Myrdrad instead?” I’d asked. “You’d love the snow.”
“I would not love the snow, and you know it,” she’d replied, and she was right. None of the seemingly random planets my grandmother’s dreams led her to were cold. As a kid, I was forever sneaking to lower the temperature in our house, and she would go behind me and turn it right back up to rainforest hell.
“Edin?” Sibling Jenn interrupted my thoughts. “Are you okay?”
I forced a smile and told her yes, I was fine, just struggling to take it all in.
“Would you like to wait on the treasure?” She asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m ready.”
And so Sibling Jenn opened a large granite door, its bulk swinging inward without any sign of hinges. I followed her into a vast room, filled with shelves.
“The treasure is a library?” I stepped forward and reached for the nearest volume, bound in old leather with faded gold script along the spine.
Sibling Jenn pulled me back, using her hand to press my arm to my side. “We don’t need to touch them.”
I’m sure I gave her an odd look because she laughed. “No, I don’t mean this is a library in which you cannot even read the books. It’s just, well, close your eyes.”
I closed my eyes.
“Now, picture the book you just tried to touch.”
I pictured the book. Its cover was cracking with age. What was left of the writing was a name, an old Terran name, Juana, though the surname was faded to nothing.
And then, inside my head, the book was there. I don’t know how to properly explain this to you, but it was there. The cover opened, seeming to hang in the air in front of me. The title page read, The Collected Works of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.
I opened my eyes and the book vanished.
“See?” Jenn said. “If the book is anywhere inside this library, and you think of it, you can read it without ever moving from your place. You don’t even have to be in the library, but, as you can see, many of us prefer this atmosphere for our study.”
She was right. I’d been so focused on the shelves; I hadn’t looked at anything else. All around me were tables and comfortable chairs in at least a hundred shapes and sizes. The people sitting in these chairs were clearly from many different planets. I recognized the pale blue skin of a Myrdradan and the nearly ten-foot-tall bulk of a man from the Far Reach, Reachers we called them. They called themselves something else, a name that I’ve never been able to write or pronounce due to my human tongue and appendages. In one corner, I even spotted a Wassan, their roots planted in a circle of soil.
My grandmother would have been in heaven. She’d once quoted an old Terran writer, Borges, when I asked what heaven was. She said it would be a kind of library. Then she made me study Borges for an entire afternoon. I closed my eyes and pictured that tattered paperback copy of Ficciones. I had to turn on my translator eye chip to read. I’d been trying to summon the memory, but the book appeared in front of me.
It was the same copy. On the title page, there was my adolescent handwriting: Reading sucks. I laughed at my old self, trying to piss off Grandma by writing in her book, by pretending to hate anything she loved. It was a phase, thank goodness.
Then I stopped laughing, snapped my eyes open, and turned to face Sibling Jenn.
“Is my grandmother here?”
She looked startled. “What?”
“I just summoned a book, a book that belonged to my grandmother. Sofía Romero Sandoval. Is she here? She’s tall, like me, but thinner, long white hair in a braid?”
“There are lots of books here. Maybe it is simply another copy of a book she owned.”
I shook my head. “No, it had my writing on the title page.”
Sibling Jenn bit her lip, but she didn’t admit to knowing anything about my grandmother. She shook her head, explained that I’d have a year to explore the library and the planet, and we would talk again at that point of decision.
True to her word, I didn’t speak to Sibling Jenn again for a year. I saw her occasionally, always walking away from me, always too distant to call out to. The days passed like liquid, seeping into the cracks of my waking and sleeping. I pulled the Nova card at least every three days, and I could not believe it was coincidence. I also don’t believe it was coincidence that I pulled the Two of Suns on the same day I met Coren. He’d been at Our Lady for a week, and I found him at my usual table in the library, watching one of the Wassans sway from side to side as if there were wind inside the building.
I won’t dwell on our meeting. We met. We talked. We spent more and more days side by side in the library. And then my second point of decision arrived. Neither of us was sure what to do, but I was leaning toward going home. In a year’s time, I’d found many of my grandmother’s books, relying on her notes in the margin to verify their source, but I’d seen no other sign of her presence. I thought she might have made it to Our Lady and then left. Maybe time worked differently on Wassa. I’d yet to meet anyone who could (or would) explain the logistics of a sentient planet with a secret sera. I didn’t think I could go on living in paradise if my grandmother was still out there somewhere.
But when Sibling Jenn summoned me to the entryway again on my final morning, 400 days in a galactic common year, I could not bear to leave the books. I cared for Coren but our relationship was new then and not solid enough to hold me at Our Lady, and my grandmother’s presence elsewhere in the galaxy was most likely a fantasy. Before bed, I’d pulled the Solar Priestess, and then dreamt of my grandmother. She’d whispered, “almost” again before I woke up to Sibling Jenn’s voice flowing from the wall.
I chose to stay.
For the first week after my decision, nothing much changed. I didn’t see Coren, and now I know that was Sibling Jenn’s work. She was assigned to him as well as me, and she didn’t want him to choose to stay only because I had. Without his companionship, I found myself drawn to interact more, greeting people I had passed without notice in the year before. I finally worked up the nerve to introduce myself to a Wassan and learned they have a keen sense of humor and can generally cheer anyone at any time, no matter how low you might be feeling.
On the eighth morning, Sibling Jenn found me in the library after breakfast and handed me a slim leatherbound book. It wasn’t a metaphysical experience of a book, but a real book with thin paper pages and hand-inked words.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“This is your copy of the original plans for this place, dictated by Wassa and copied out by Our Lady.”
“I thought Wassa was Our Lady,” I said, though I then recalled Sibling Jenn saying they called Wassa Mother.
“Oh, no, Our Lady was the first person Wassa brought here, the kindred soul Mother found in her sibling’s world.”
Before Sibling Jenn found me that morning, I’d been reading a book about some of the people that found their way to the sera but chose to leave, scanning for my grandmother or Anyla on the pages. The book’s introduction mentioned that some people made their own way here and others were sent for, but it wasn’t clear who did the sending.
“Wassa brings people here?” I held the small book Sibling Jenn had given me, the old leather warm from her hands.
“Mother used to gather a soul from her sibling from time to time, before those first people were able to spread enough rumors to start drawing pilgrims. It was Our Lady that first brewed tea from the fig flower. It’s not actually magic, but it does make you sleep quite deeply.”
“You speak of Wassa like she’s a person,” I said. “How can a planet have a sibling?”
“All planets were alive once,” Sibling Jenn explained.
The Wassan I’d met that week, Sibling Bloem, turned their petaled face in our direction. “Mother is one of the few planets still living. Her sibling, Terra, is long dead.”
I squeezed the book in surprise, almost jumping at the sound of that name, Terra, the planet I called mine because my grandmother was born there, even though I was born aboard a ship after my family left for another home. “Terra is Wassa’s sibling?”
“It’s all in that book,” Sibling Jenn said, nodding down to the volume in my hands. “Once you’ve read it, you’ll be asked to write out another copy, to give to the next person who chooses to stay.”
I nodded, opening the book.
Sibling Jenn said, “I’m glad you’re here, Sibling Edin.” And then she hugged me, which I wasn’t expecting, but I hugged her back, and it was nice. It was like I had family again.
Our Lady turned out to be a Terran nun named Juana. I spent the next few days poring over her words, or Wassa’s words through Juana’s mind, and dreaming every night of Wassa, of Mother. Her chosen appearance for me (I now know she appears many ways to many people) was that of a silver-lit feminine shape, only the impression of a face, but enough that I thought she resembled my own mother, or what I could remember of her.
When I finished copying the volume, I gave the new copy to Sibling Jenn, and a few days later, Coren returned to the library with that book in his hands. It was then, as I embraced my future-husband, that Wassa appeared to me in a waking state for the first time. No one else could see her, but I spoke aloud regardless.
“Mother,” I said, releasing Coren and stepping toward her beautiful light.
Coren glanced around, but he quickly sensed what was happening. He’d been studying the same texts I had studied, after all. He didn’t try to hold me back.
Mother never spoke with a voice one could describe — nothing purely audible — though ‘hear’ is the only word I have to explain it. She told me to go to my room.
I walked up the stairs slowly, more terrified with each step, certain I had somehow done something wrong without meaning to. Barely two weeks past my choice to stay at Our Lady and Mother was sending me to my room, like I really was her child. I kept the Terran Guide cards on me, in a pocket of my robe, and I squeezed them with one hand as I climbed. My card from the night before was on top, the Stellar Empress, meaning authority and well-earned reward.
When I opened my door and stepped across the threshold, it was not a punishment that greeted me, not a lecture or captivity.
It was my grandmother.
“Oh, Edin,” she whispered. “I hoped you’d come for so long.”
“I’ve been here over a year.” I threw myself into her arms and cried into her hair, tears making strands of silver stick to my cheek.
“I know, sweetheart, but you can’t choose to stay here because of someone else. You have to want the knowledge of the library and the peace of this existence for yourself, never to please another.”
Our Lady, Juana Ines de la Cruz, wanted knowledge. Society held her back from seeking that knowledge, so she became a nun and still the ancient systems of religion and patriarchy pressed hard against her. Wassa brought Juana here, as Wassa drew my grandmother’s ever-questing spirit and, eventually, me.
Paradise is more than a library. Paradise is the freedom to wonder and study and know.
Originally published in the October 2022 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine and republished in our December 2023 issue.
Heather Truett is an MFA candidate, a slightly heretical pastor’s wife, and an autistic author. Her debut novel, KISS AND REPEAT released from Macmillan in 2021, and she teaches fiction at Interlochen Arts Camp. She has work featured or upcoming in Spoon Knife, Hunger Mountain, and Thimble. Heather is represented by Hilary Harwell at KT Literary and serves as Managing Editor for The Pinch. Find out more at heathertruett.com or visit her on Twitter (@mmerubies).