Federico was a houseplant that sat on a windowsill directly above the kitchen sink. At first, he wasn’t proactive the way the two cats were, or Charlie the parrot who used his beak to ring a series of chimes in his cage, but he did have a strong sense of personal identity. Even the occasional houseflies that came meandering by knew better than to mess with him.
I found him in the woods of Vermont during one of my weekend hikes.
I had stopped to take a swig from my canteen when I felt something slip under my pants leg and rest against my skin. Thinking some large insect had crawled up my hiking boot, I gave my leg a vigorous shake, then rolled up the pants leg to make sure it was gone.
I saw a leaf-covered tendril extending out about three feet from a plant at the side of the path, ending near my foot. To my amazement, the tendril moved up and over my shoe until it reached my exposed calf. One of the larger leaves pressed against my skin like a pair of lips and pinched it. I felt a tiny pinprick and realized the leaf was sucking my blood. I pulled it off my leg.
I figured it was one of those Venus flytrap things or some other species of carnivorous plant, and since I’d never encountered one before, I decided to dig it up and take it home. I loved nature and had once even dabbled in maintaining a greenhouse. The idea of amassing a collection of carnivorous plants piqued my interest.
I used my Swiss army knife to loosen the soil, and when I gently maneuvered him out of the ground, instead of having roots, the under part was a hideous mass of liver-colored worms wriggling around in all directions. Just the sight of them scared the crap out of me, but when three of them twined themselves around my wrist, and I could feel their muscles moving and the heat of their bodies, I dropped the plant and lost my lunch.
Federico seemed to be part-animal and part-plant.
I was afraid of him, so I decided to return the way I came and just leave Federico there on the ground. I started walking away backward—so that I could give it one final look—and saw the worm “roots”crawling along the ground, moving the plant back to the side of the path from where I had dug him up.
I realized this creature, plant, or whatever it was, might be a new and previously unknown species, and that I’d be foolish to leave him in the hopes that he would still be here when I returned with some science person to get him collected up.
I looked in my backpack for something I could use to transport Federico without having to physically touch him again with my bare skin. I found my rolled-up jacket, scooped up the plant into it, and tied the sleeves together to ensure he would remain completely enclosed.
I, of course, didn’t call him “Federico” back then, but I took the plant-creature home with me and gave him that name later on.
I didn’t know how long he would last out of the ground since both plants and worms obtain nutrients from the soil, so I found a decent-sized planter and some potting soil and placed him in it.
I did a thorough internet search for anything in the plant kingdom like him. There wasn’t, so I checked other areas such as worm-family creatures and even mythological creatures but couldn’t find anything even close.
I mulled over what Federico could be. While it was possible that he was a new species, or even an alien life form, what made the most sense was that Federico was just a one-time freak of nature—worms with plant-like parts growing out of them the way a fungus might grow attached to something else that was alive. Maybe the worms had incubated inside the plant, and when born, they somehow remained attached and intertwined into the bottom of it, like roots. That also explained how the leafy tendril could move on its own and glom onto my leg. Perhaps the worms still lived inside the plant’s stems, crawling around within them.
Since Federico was interesting and unique, I decided to keep him. When I placed him on the kitchen windowsill where it could get exposed to sunlight throughout the day, I said to him, “Freakarico, you’ve found yourself a home.”
He acted no differently than other plants—unless, like one of those carnivorous plants, something triggered a reaction.
When I watered him, one of his leafy tendrils would sometimes drift upward and twine around a finger or my wrist. There was something almost affectionate about it (which is why I ended up calling him Federico, instead of Freakerico), but the idea of a plant stem being filled with—or mobilized by—worms, even baby ones, made my skin crawl.
I would sometimes use a net to catch and kill a housefly, butterfly, or cricket and place it on the windowsill for him. Federico would reach out and cover its body completely with one of his leaves. When he was done, only a shriveled-up husk of the insect’s body would remain.
I took a video of him moving a tendril of his own accord. I placed it on YouTube, and it got over thirty thousand hits, though many commenters thought that it was a trick—someone out of frame maneuvering the tendril with a string. I had to admit that, even to me, it did look “unreal.”
Aside from these occasional, strange, and amusing bits, Federico normally sat immobile on the window sill, grew at a healthy (but not abnormal) rate, and looked like nothing more than a rather attractive, flourishing houseplant.
I sleep with my bedroom door open. One night, I was awakened at 2:00 in the morning by a short, high-pitched cry that broke off suddenly, like a violin string snapping mid-note.
I had taken in a stray kitten that day; my two older cats had jealous streaks and did not take well to the new arrival. I got up to make sure one of them was not riding roughshod over the baby. I walked down the hallway to the living room where the cats usually spent the night curled up on the couch and flipped the light on.
They weren’t there. I was about to turn to leave when I heard the low, hoarse meow of Mirabel, my oldest cat, a sound she only made when she was stressed out about something.
I got down on my knees to look under the couch, where I’d heard the sound coming from, and found both adult cats there. I could see their eyes, big and round, glowing out of the darkness.
The new kitten wasn’t anywhere in that room, though.
I walked across to the kitchen. There was enough moonlight coming in through the window on that side of the house for me to see that she wasn’t there either.
I walked back out, stopped, and felt my hair stand on end. There was someone behind me in the kitchen. I didn’t hear him, but could feel this creepy presence.
I spun around, then realized it must have been a prowler looking in at me through the window, and that was what had probably scared the cats into hiding under the couch.
I didn’t have a clear view outside because Federico’s burgeoning off-shoots and tendrils blocked most of the view.
As I walked towards him, I noticed many of Federico’s tendrils extending down, into the sink. At the bottom of the basin, I saw the kitten’s motionless body, wrapped tightly, completely entangled. I yanked Federico’s tendrils off, but there was nothing left of the kitten’s face but the skull, with bits of bloody meat still clinging to it, and one eyeball still intact, thrown into sharp relief by the moonlight.
I placed what was left of the kitten in a cardboard shoebox and buried it in my backyard the next day.
Two days later, I walked by the little grave, and a small plant that looked like a miniature version of Federico had sprouted from it. I poked a hole through the topsoil with a stick, and the tip of a worm’s head appeared. The idea that the plant-creature on my windowsill may have left its spore in the body of the dead kitten disturbed me.
With a large shovel, I started to dig it up so that I could throw the entire mess—worms, cat, and all—into the trash, but the blade of the shovel hit a hard, dense entanglement that wouldn’t come loose, no matter how I gouged and jabbed at it. I thought it ironic that it took mere minutes to dig Federico out of the ground in the woods, using only a small knife blade.
I realized I would need to get some other kind of implement to work this plant loose but would have to wait to borrow one from my nextdoor neighbor, Ned Sweeny. He was on a trip out of town but had a whole garden shed full of equipment, from hoes to machetes. It wasn’t going to hurt anything to leave the plant in the ground till then.
By this point, I had also decided to take Federico to the biology department of the nearby university. He was definitely an anomaly that I believed would be of interest to scientists.
Since my other two cats never went near that window or sink, and Charlie the parrot, even when let out of his cage, steered clear of that area, I had no concern about them triggering something in Federico or being accidently harmed by him if I kept him on the windowsill a few more days.
When I left my house the following morning for work, there were baby “Federico” plants sprouting all over the yard, hundreds of them.
This really pissed me off, because I would now have to hire someone to dig those tough little bastards out or do all the work myself, and I had better things to do with my spare time. This plant creature, or whatever it turned out to be, was clearly an invasive species.
The anger I felt in the light of day over my ruined lawn faded in the darkness of night into an irrational fear of the plant. As silly as it sounds, for the next few nights, I kept the kitchen light on after sunset. There was something unsettling about passing through the kitchen in the dark and seeing Federico on the windowsill, sitting there like some leafy chunk of brain matter, the edges of his ubiquitous leaves painted by the spectral light of the moon.
The lawn grew weedier and more unkempt, the hundreds of “Federico” sprouts now in the thousands, so when Friday rolled around, I planned to spend most of Saturday tackling the plantlings. I also planned to take Federico to the university then too.
That night, I had the most god-awful dream.
I was walking through a jungle. It was daytime and very humid, but the tree canopy above was so close and dense that everything below was in layered shadow. Sweating and itchy, I pushed my way through the dark underbrush, which writhed with an oozy sound each time I parted it to take a step forward.
I then realized someone was right behind me, whispering in a sibilant voice. I turned to face a snake, the top part of it hanging down from a tree branch so that its face came level with mine. The black slits in its eyes swelled and pulsed and were the most malevolent things I had ever seen.
Suddenly, in the space of a heartbeat, I was in my kitchen, and snakes were crawling over every inch of it—even sliding across the ceiling—writhing in an undulating mass like reptilian braids.
I woke with a jolt, sweating. I wasn’t convinced my nightmare was just a dream. Despite all logic to the contrary, part of me believed I would walk into the kitchen and see those snakes and a full-scale jungle that had once been the size of a houseplant.
After five minutes spent trying to convince myself that I was being ridiculous, I knew I would not be able to get back to sleep until I checked the kitchen. I felt like a kid who, after a bad dream, needed his mother to open his closet door in the middle of the night to make sure there weren’t monsters hiding inside it.
The light was still on as I’d left it, my kitchen was still just an ordinary kitchen, and Federico still looked like nothing more than a healthy houseplant. I shook my head at my own silliness and decided to make some toast and hot chocolate.
The breadbox sits by a wall, on a counter to the right of the windowsill, with a toaster, a coffee maker, and a decorative milkmaid can lined up next to it. It was only when I walked over to the breadbox that I saw a mass of bloody green and yellow feathers stuffed behind it.
I found more of the same on the floor, in a trail leading out of the kitchen into the living room. When I got there, I found the door to Charley’s cage open and bent like a twisted paperclip.
It took ten minutes of panicked searching to find his remains, which consisted of his legs, beak, bones picked clean of any meat, and more bloody feathers. It appeared he’d been dragged out of the cage by tendrils that, impossibly, had to have extended from the kitchen to the living room. He’d been devoured, and what was left, Federico had stuffed into the milkmaid can.
Charley must have fought like a raptor for his life; torn leaves and bits of stalks and tendrils were intermixed with the bloody feathers.
I’d had Charlie for 23 years—since I was a child, in fact.
I stared at the creature on the windowsill for a few moments and then, in a burst of fury, swept it onto the floor.
The ceramic planter shattered on the tile. The exposed worms wriggled frantically, and the leafy plant tendrils spread outward, rolling like water across the kitchen floor. I ran out of the room, feeling like a kid fleeing a monster in a nightmare.
I stopped in the hallway, and when I turned around to look behind me, the plant-worm thing was scrambling across the floor toward me like a giant green octopus. It was so surreal looking that I actually wondered if I was still dreaming for a moment. It seemed like something out of a cheesy, B-grade horror movie. But it closed in on me, and I could feel the pressure of many tendrils tighten around my ankles.
I grabbed my umbrella from the hall closet and jabbed the pointy end into the center of the plant. After impaling the thing two more times, it released its grip on me and slithered off somewhere to hide.
With my heart going like a trip hammer, I snatched up two cat-carrying cases, got my cats into them, and left.
That was almost two weeks ago. I went to stay at a friend’s house while exterminators fumigated every inch of my home. They covered the entire structure with a tarp during the procedure, the way termite extermination is sometimes done.
I waited until the yard was completely overhauled before moving back in. The soil had to be removed, going down many feet, to make sure all the spores were gone.
That part I didn’t have to pay for myself. There were science-type people all over the place collecting up the specimens, testing the soil, and whatever other “science-y” things get done when something like this occurs, so some agency footed the bill for the yard work. I was also “debriefed” on all the details about what happened and asked to show them the exact place in the woods where I found the first “worm-plant.”
I did learn though, that nothing like “Federico” or his offspring had ever been seen before. The biologists and other science people don’t know what they are yet, and they aren’t informing the public, either.
Who knows—maybe they are aliens from some other world, but more likely, they’re just some life form that’s been here all along, maybe living in a rainforest somewhere, transported here on a ship full of tropical fruit or something.
All I know is that I’m glad that they’re gone and in the hands of the right people and that my life has returned to normal. When I saw that thing come scrambling down the hallway after me, that was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me in my life, and there are no close seconds. It truly was like a nightmare that came to life.
The only thing left from this whole “adventure” that’s a real nuisance is the swelling and inflammation on my leg where Federico bit me that day in the woods. It started a few days ago but stayed localized, so I wasn’t concerned about it at first. Now I’ve got to lose half a day of work to see you, Doctor, because the infection got worse and it hurts like hell.
This morning, it formed into a big, pulsing lump, and I can feel it spreading beneath my skin.