Some years ago, when I taught a course on the first books of Aristotle’s Physics, I needed a way of to make the idea of nature acting for an end clear to my students. Some of Aristotle’s hypothetical examples were striking, and in a little work on the principles of nature Thomas Aquinas offered a couple of brilliant comparisons. Pulling ideas from both sources, I wrote a story for my students and we discussed it together in class. Although I never taught the course again, the story has been used at Wyoming Catholic College ever since.
Last night I edited the story somewhat in light of my recent adventures in fiction writing. I am pleased to share with you “The House Plant”.
The House Plant
by Jeremy Holmes
A slow and thoughtful, almost melancholy music hung over the apartment. A note wavered, then a careful chord, then another note in its turn, followed by another meditative chord, each taking its own time before giving way to the next. Alex hesitated at the study door, reluctant to disturb the pianist. This after all was Michael Peter Kleyes, president of the American Skeptic Society and acknowledged on all sides as one of the great minds of the day. But as hanging chord followed on hanging chord, like clauses in a haiku poem, while the taxi waited outside, he pushed open the door: “Mr. Kleyes? We’re due to leave.”
Kleyes dropped his arms and stood. “Very good, Alex,” he said in his precise way. “I’ll walk to the door now.” Brow furrowed and evidently intent on his new task, the great man took one step and then another, pausing every so subtly between steps to direct his foot anew. Alex gathered his courage to comment, “Nice piano piece, sir.”
Peter Kleyes stopped walking so as to speak. “Yes, delightful piece. It’s called ‘The Maple Leaf Rag,’ by Scott Joplin. You know, Alex, so few men today play the piano at all. Go to a concert, and what do you see? What used to be a human being thinks not at all about what he is doing, but looks out at his audience and wonders what the newspapers will say, and all the while he pushes like a machine on the keys. When I play, I really play!”
On the airplane, Alex explained the case. “It’s an odd one, Mr. Kleyes. A plant in southern Louisiana has started growing houses. What I mean sir is that the plant itself is a house, with a foundation that grows into the ground and walls that grow up into the sky and a kind of leaf-like roof that seems to gather sunlight. Young families with one child move into a house plant and never buy another home as they have more kids.” Alex sifted through his papers. “There are entire forests of these things. They spread by putting out tendrils, so one finds them in long, meandering lines. The oldest and biggest houses are next to the river, of course, where they can find water; in fact, anywhere the houses grow too close together some of them will grow especially tall to get to the light.”
Kleyes interrupted. “These are all facts. What claim have we been asked to examine?”
Alex blushed. “Well, sir, the Southern Carpenter’s Association offered us a good deal of money to investigate this hoax. Sales on houses are down, you see. A house builder by the name of Eric Stottel claims to have been visited by genie or a fairy or something of that sort”—he persisted through Mr. Kleyes’ impatient snort—“and he says that this being took the art of housebuilding from his own mind and put it into the plant. He says that’s why they grow houses.”
Kleyes rustled his newspaper with some irritation. “In the future, Alexander, I may have to sort through these invitations myself.”
Stottel was a heavy-set man of around sixty-five who did not have much time for presidents of highfalutin’ societies. “I seen what I seen, an’ I heard what I heard,” he said emphatically for the fifth time, “an’ you can just write that down. These houses build up just exactly the way I used to do ’em, to a T. It’s my skills in them plants!”
Kleyes looked about with raised eyebrows at the massive and elegant houses standing in meandering lines near the river front, the tallest closest together, the side rooms spreading like shoots from a cucumber vine. “You expect me to believe that these plants actually work to build your houses for you?” Alex whispered hurriedly at his side. “My apologies, this is not one of the neighborhoods your plants have grown. May we see the items in question?”
On site, Stottel pointed out the wood paneling on the outside of a cottage: “That there’s just the way I does it.” He demonstrated by slapping wooden panels up on a two-by-four frame, talking ceaselessly as he drove the nails without any apparent thought. “It’s my work, sure as shootin’. You can tell from the way she leans.”
Kleyes surveyed with alarm the concrete slab foundation, the thick wooden walls, and the broad shingled roof. There was no denying what the plants did: one could see houses and parts of houses in various stages of formation, spreading like a thicket deep into the forest. That plants should acquire an art was the stuff of fairy tales—but how else to explain the existence of what locals were beginning to call Grove City? It appeared that the famous Peter Kleyes had met his match. He almost wiped his brow without thinking, but caught himself in time and gave the action his full attention, placing the handkerchief carefully back in its pocket.
Nearly an hour passed as Kleyes stared, unable to speak but unwilling to admit defeat. As the minutes ticked by, he began to wonder what the press would say—what he would say to his fellow Society members. Eric Stottel was off pruning gutters and Alex was down at the river skipping stones to pass the time when Kleyes finally had his revelation. It came as he watched yet another of Alex’s stones appear to defy gravity, bouncing lightly over the water’s surface as though made of balsa wood. When the stone succumbed to the inevitable law of its own weight and sank below the water, Kleyes snapped his fingers and shouted for Stottel.
His tone was at once didactic and indignant. A damning finger pointed at the roof of a nearby three-bedroom ranch-style house plant, Kleyes addressed the placid carpenter as he would an audience in an auditorium: “Clearly the plant is constituted of a number of elements,” he began. “The heaviest materials gravitate towards the bottom to make the foundation, while the lightest elements, these thin shingle-like pieces, are pushed up to the top. The wooden beams remain in the middle, neither so heavy as the concrete nor so light as the shingles.” Kleyes jabbed the finger toward Stottel to emphasize his conclusion: “As plain as day, these plants do neither more nor less than what they have to do of necessity. Your art, Mr. Stottel, has nothing—I repeat, nothing—to do with it.” Without waiting for a response, he stalked angrily away, Alex hurrying to keep up.
Halfway to their rented car, Kleyes stopped walking in order to speak. “Observe, Alex, that not even this fellow Stottel really builds houses. Did you notice how mechanically he put up that siding? He is not a man who builds houses, but a machine—a machine, Alex.” He paused as if struck by something. “In that one respect, and that only, he does resemble these infernal growths. But never mind that,” he concluded triumphantly. “Prepare the press releases and have our website updated: American Skeptics Society president M. Peter Kleyes exposes dangerous fraud in Louisiana.”