Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
I recall when we first found the grove. The trees glowed, illuminated by late sunlight coming in shafts down into the valley, the thick smell of decaying fruit rising up toward us, sweet and sour and wonderful.
I was part of a six-person research team looking into water quality fluctuations in the Sierra valley system, following watercourses and comparing their biodiversity. In pursuit of one specific stream, we’d squeezed through a narrow crevice canyon that eventually opened up into a verdant, enclosed ecosystem rich with plants and animals previously unknown to science. That sort of thing isn’t unheard of in the region – the Andean mountains are full of such tiny pockets of life, totally cut off from each other by high mountain walls, creating Galapagos-like isolation.
But the trees – those really were the discovery of a lifetime, for any botanist or explorer – and I was both. The local natives (Puruhá) called them ‘Witch Berries’, or something like that, according to our guide. I speak very little Quichua, so I had to trust his translation. It’s not an unfitting name, though – they were bewitching. Endemic to just one valley in Ecuador, which was later made into a protected reserve, the small trees were not only beautiful, with arching, pendulous boughs and long, distinctive leaves; green above and pink below, but they also produced flowers and fruit in amazing quantity.
Walking into the grove, the berries were everywhere, emitting a heavenly scent, and we could not resist sampling, even knowing we risked poisoning. Taking some back to camp, they were run through our field toxicity test without any problems, and after we’d gone several days without any ill effects, we went back to the grove and picked hands-full of the fragrant fruit. Orange-pink, grape-sized oblong berries with a thin, fig-like skin, and a ripe mango texture. And the flavor – like burnt brown sugar and melted butter drizzled on perfect strawberries. They also dried easily, and held up unrefrigerated for nearly a week before spoiling. Almost immediately, talk of cultivation and marketing overtook our discussions, we foresaw ‘witchberries’ being the next big thing in supermarkets all across the world – and our visions soon danced with the money to be made!
The Puruhá didn’t seem too happy about us taking branch samples or eating from the trees – no doubt we were offending their religion and angering their Gods somehow – they had some sort of taboo about eating the fruits raw, which we didn’t understand, and dismissed as superstition. They used the berries for various medicinal and ceremonial purposes, cooking, drying, and grinding the fruit into a fine powder. It was easy to categorize their reverence as being similar to other cultures’ superstitions about pomegranates, apples, or honey.
So we took the cuttings back to our greenhouses in Kent, only to be pleasantly surprised by how readily they rooted and grew, thriving in warm, humid shade. Inside of five years, they started flowering, and we arranged an industry party to celebrate and taste the first crop grown in the UK. I lost track of how many people shook my hand, congratulated me and my teammates, and gushed positively about our find.
Oh but of course, we couldn’t say we -discovered- the plant, the indigenous people of the region knew about them long before us, and we had already made plans to send a small portion of the profits from our venture to the Puruhá, to improve their lives and to protect the tiny valley the trees came from.
The tasting party went off without a hitch, and we got a plethora of preliminary offers, not only from within the UK, but Europe and the USA as well. Of course, the fruit still needed FSA approval, but since the trees produced year-round with sufficient fertilizer, we could start shipping as soon as we were certified. Since our own labs had already investigated them pretty thoroughly, we knew it wouldn’t be a long process. With luck, we’d be able to get the next crop out by December, just in time for the big rush on tropical fruit for the holiday season. And when the certificates arrived, I brought in some champagne for us all.
We were, of course, fools. Not stupid, we were all educated scholars. Well, except Paul Dimsey, he was a photographer. But no amount of research or knowledge could have prepared us for the worst. I, in particular, was so blinded by fortune and success that even when I saw the signs that something was wrong, I didn’t pay attention to them. I didn’t want to. And for that I take full responsibility.
There’s a disease called ‘Pica’ that affects people with certain neurological conditions or dietary deficiencies, and it is characterised by the sufferer eating non-food items or substances. In some cases, pennies, buttons, small sundry objects… in others, clay or dirt. It was the latter that I caught Nick Blessed up to in the greenhouse, perhaps three days after we’d packed our first shipment and kissed it goodbye. He was eating the moist black soil straight out of a large plastic bag, and when he saw me watching him, he immediately stopped, guilty-faced and stuttering. He called me ‘Miss Torgersen’, instead of my first name, and tried to hide what he had been doing.
I asked him if he was feeling alright, and he abashedly admitted to me he’d had the condition his entire life, it just… happened to come and go at odd times. I told him I understood; though really, I was surprised. He’d never mentioned it, and he’d always seemed very open and jovial about his life. But then, I’d reasoned, some people act that way to better hide their secrets. Still, something felt off about the entire thing.
I regretted not listening to my instincts when Dr. Hanlon came to my apartment a little less than a week later. He asked to come in, and I offered him a drink. “Bless you, girl.” He said, and I poured us whiskey on the rocks. We weren’t best friends, but we’d spent a lot of time talking on our trip. I think our mutual love of a good bottle pushed us into each others’ company – the others in our team didn’t drink, and didn’t find our rowdiness after a few as mutually endearing as we did. Dr. Hanlon; Eugene outside office hours, hadn’t come for my delightful presence, but to talk to me about something far more problematic.
He asked me if I had felt any strange urges recently, for example, the urge to eat anything… unusual. Eugene was edging around the true crux of his question, so I supplied it for him.
“You mean like soil?” As I said it, his face stiffened. I’d hit the bullseye. I told him I’d walked in on Nick earlier, and he nodded, then told me it wasn’t just the one. He liked to sneak into the greenhouses for a tipple here and there between his appointments, and he’d spied three people – all members of our expedition – snacking on black humus. We discussed the situation for a good long while, consuming half of my bottle of Glenfiddich.
The possibility of having brought back with us some exotic tropical parasite came quick to our minds, though Eugene and I weren’t experiencing any odd urges yet. Still, I was worried, and sought a clinic as soon as they were open the next morning.
I went back to the campus in the afternoon, to ask Eugene to help me convince the rest of the expedition team to get themselves tested. There was initial resistance, everyone seemed to feel fine, even those who we knew were snacking out of the garden bed. Especially those, which just made us more worried. Our concerns were taken seriously by the department head, who ordered mandatory testing for everyone who’d been on the expedition – as well as anyone who’d been in extended contact with us, or been in the greenhouses for any length of time.
Everyone in the department submitted to various scans and samplings without argument, including the soil-eaters, their smiles so certain that nothing was amiss. And they seemed to be right. There was nothing new or unusual in any of their samples, no strange bacterias, viruses, nematodes, no extreme nutritional elevations or deficiencies, nothing to indicate why some of them were having such odd cravings.
Testing did reveal those who were affected – crapping dirt is hard to miss. Seven people came up positive for soil-eating, which meant that whatever it was had spread to at least four people who had not gone to Ecuador with us. Suddenly, the situation was -far- more serious. If the disease could be spread, it could get out, and nobody had any idea what it was, or how it was transmitted. More people started showing symptoms, some reporting right away – others only admitting their condition after they’d succumbed to dirt hunger. All the while, the lab techs ran themselves ragged looking for an explanation, but it was only after ruling out just about every cause for the symptom they could think of, that one of the techs finally noticed something common to those who’d been afflicted: Witchberry.
Well, we’d all been eating them. Some more than others, apparently. But these folks most of all. More specifically, they were finding -lots- of chewed seeds in the subjects’ stool. When asked about it, all of the unaffected said that they specifically avoided eating the seeds, while the others did not. So we had an obvious suspect, but we’d waited too long before looking at the fruit. Hundreds of pounds had already been shipped all around the world, and while we could shut down the farm and stop production, a recall and the potential panic it could cause seemed unreasonable. If we could just figure out how to mitigate the effects, maybe the situation could be salvaged.
And then the symptoms just… went away. The dirt-eaters’ cravings evaporated a few days after they’d stopped eating the fruit, starting with those who’d developed them first. They’d experienced some mild withdrawal symptoms, but it seemed the problem had resolved itself. Still, we had a lot of work on our hands. If it was just the seeds that were the problem, we could deal with that, all was not yet lost.
So we halted shipping, and on the advisement of our legal department, sent out a statement advising people not to eat the seeds, or, if they had already been eating seeds, to stop doing so. Arrangements were coming along nicely to buy a modified olive-pitting machine, that would target and elimiate the problem area. A lot of our profits were going down the crapper, since cut fruit wasn’t as shelf-stable, and we needed special packaging to keep it from spoiling – but some income is still better than none. Or none and a legal fiasco. Looking back, I would have taken that legal fiasco happily.
Dr. Godorr had been transferred to another office, so I didn’t hear about him right away. He’d been depressed since the Pica incident, and talked about quitting, but it was still strange that he’d just disappear. A police detective came by to ask us a few questions, but I got the impression he wasn’t very optimistic.
Two weeks later, another member of the expedition team went missing. She just didn’t show up one morning. The same detective came back around, but didn’t seem to remember having talked to me before. He just gave the impression of general disinterest in the case. There was a lot of pica talk in the department, both of those who’d vanished were recovered dirt-munchers. It quickly became a department-wide rumor – the witchberry curse. One of the others who’d showed symptoms early on became so anxious that she simply quit, another went on extended vacation, and a third came into work high until he got a suspension. I never heard from any of them again.
It was fall when I received a letter on my desk. I opened it to find a complaint from the resource management office, upset that our department was using a greenhouse unit we hadn’t requisitioned or been granted the use of, and that if we didn’t move the new plantings, they would be destroyed.
New plantings? I called Eugene Hanlon first, and then Maggie Hershbaum, the only other people who might use the greenhouses for personal projects. Though even then, they’d have needed to apply for them with resource management. Neither of them admitted to knowing anything about it.
I asked them to meet me at the unit mentioned in the letter, curious (and slightly irritated) about what was going on. I’d rarely even been in that unit, since it was out on the end row, a long way from our crops. Even if I felt like putting anything in, there was no logical reason to go do it out there. After work, I hiked up to the last row of greenhouses in grey drizzle. Maggie was already there when I arrived, and Eugene made it only a few minutes after. The unit in question was unlit, and I flipped the switch so my companions could read the letter. They agreed it was odd, but sometimes our students get odd ideas for projects, and they’re notorious for failing to follow procedure with some of these things.
As promised, there were a number of seedlings growing in one of the plots. They were perhaps seven or eight inches tall, representing a couple weeks’ growth. Healthy and robust despite being in an unheated, unlit unit. They had the elegant pink and green leaves of Witchberry.
“Maybe someone’s trying to selectively breed them.” Eugene rubbed a leaf, “Make them hardier.”
“Noble, but misguided.” I noted a spade left on the floor in the aisle, and picked it up. “We’ll need to move them. Maggie, could you get a pallet?”
I remember pushing the spade into the soft, loose soil around the seedlings, working down and pulling up. I remember the -rip- of fabric, and when I lifted the spade, the dull sound of dirty brown bones coming up all tangled with the roots. I didn’t recognize what I was seeing until I looked closer, down into the hole I’d made, and saw a human jawbone with still-white teeth shining out of the dark, loamy earth.
I think I went into shock at that point, since I don’t recall much else of that night, and had to be filled in later by Maggie. Within an hour, police had swarmed the greenhouses, Eugene, Maggie and I were taken to a hotel and questioned repeatedly. I was in a daze, Maggie told me, and not very responsive. Forensics specialists dug up all the greenhouse plots with any sign of recent soil disturbance, including the original crop trees, which were moved into a storage facility in plastic tubs. The bones I had found had been those of Paul Dimsey, who had actually been the first of our expedition to go missing – but he wasn’t an employee of the university, having been hired on contract, and he lived alone. I hadn’t even known he’d gone absent. Five corpses were found inside the greenhouses – and three more in some nearby woods, each one indicated by a small cluster of pink and green saplings.
Evidence suggested that the deceased had actually buried themselves, sometimes using their bare hands to dig a hole big enough to lay in, and then pull the freshly-turned earth back in over their own bodies. Of course, not everyone who’d eaten the seeds ended up in self-made graves. A couple were found decaying in their beds, with sprouts attempting to grow through the blankets. Others were still alive, but now experiencing fatigue and abdominal heaviness. And a good percentage showed no symptoms at all, regardless of how much of the fruit they’d eaten.
CT scanning revealed what earlier tests and X-rays had missed: Some of the seeds, swallowed whole, had implanted themselves into the victims’ intestinal walls, and germinated there. Invisible to the immune system, they’d quietly spread soft, fine roots all through the bodies of their human hosts, feeding and storing energy until they were ready to progress to the next stage. Somehow, the plants made their hosts want to bury themselves, their corpses providing fertilizer for the fast-growing trees.
Efforts were made to remove the parasitic plants from the still-living victims, but the surgery proved more deadly than the parasites. And worse, new cases of soil-eating Pica were starting to emerge in every place we’d shipped the damned berries. A full recall was ordered, the fruit gathered and destroyed, but there was little way of knowing how many people ignored the recall, or had already been infected.
Eugene and I went to be more thoroughly scanned, and again, we came up clean. We went for a few drinks to celebrate our one small mercy, and talked about the future. We were pretty certain the entire department was going to be scrapped. We’d be lucky to keep our jobs once the full legal reprecussions came down on us. It would be the last time we’d see each other.
It’s quite amazing how efficient the media and government can be at hiding a crisis in plain sight. The public was scarcely aware of any of this happening. Witchberries vanished from collective awareness, and a few (dozen) people came down with an unrelated illness in each of the countries we’d shipped to.
A cure was, in fact, discovered in time to save some of those people. There was a pattern to who did or did not get infected – the immune were all regular drinkers of hard liquor, like Eugene and myself. I don’t know about Maggie, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Beer or wine wasn’t strong enough to kill the seeds, it had to be something at least 30 proof. Hospitals prescribed vodka and scotch, and patients drank to their health.
Sadly, this came too late for some. Once they’d passed the Pica stage, the growth in their bodies became resistant to treatment. Or, even if they did manage to kill the parasite, the damage it had done to the host’s organs by that point was often irreversible and terminal. Some waited too long – or simply did not, or could not, seek medical treatment. This included a lot of people in the United States, who lacked any form of medical coverage. For those who got such a prognosis, suicide was vastly preferred over letting nature take its course, but the numbers didn’t make much of a blip on the world radar. People kill themselves all the time.
Witchberries are now illegal, though I’m certain there’s a black market supplied by backyard growers. The cure for infection is now well-known folklore, and new cases of dirt-eating Pica are rare.
I’ve moved on, I don’t work at the university anymore, I rarely travel, and I prefer meat and bread over greens. I do not eat fruit of any kind. And now and again, when I see a sapling coming up with pink and green leaves, I kill it.
Credit To – Smoke