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Image by Markus Spiske
The Sun Eater
By Daniel Burnbridge
Where plants sacrifice themselves so that humans may grow and flourish

They woke with the sun, turned their slow gaze to the morning light, their roots shivering with delight, as they did every day, come dawn.


For a while, they lingered sleepily in their heavy clay pot, in its soothing soils, listened to the sun radiate its sweet low song, while they waited for its warmth to bring them strength, so they could move into the world.


While they waited, they considered their great joy. That their fruit had come. Heavy and fragrant and ripe. They stirred their petioles to feel the pleasant weight. It was something to celebrate.


It had been many long years. It was no small feat to be alive and fruitful still. When they’d arrived, they did not think this world could feed them. The local star had seemed cool and distant. But the days were long, they’d learned. And this sun’s energy was mild and sweet and steady. Not the harsh, stinging light of their star back home.


They pulled themselves from the soil, stood gingerly on the tiled floor, drew their roots together, struggled to find their balance.


They had done this many times. It was never easy. It always took a while. Getting ready. Making the shapes that made a human form.


And then they had to remember how to move. And that knowledge, too, never seemed to stick. The inefficient bipedal gait. So different to the beautiful fluidity of a million dancing roots.


For a while, they strutted up and down, finding their rhythm, finding their way in this strange body. Then they paused and considered themselves in a mirror, making sure the basic shapes were there. The essential proportions. Nothing too exacting. Humans did not expect much from other humans or things approximating humans. Certainly not from such as lay in dirty clothes on park benches holding objects wrapped in brown paper bags.


Easiest thing in the world. To disappear into poverty.

They knew this well. They’d been doing this a long time.

They started getting dressed.


A slow torture. Everything on their body snagged. Nothing about them was made to be concealed. They’d evolved to be open to the light.


They put on socks and trousers, shirt, shoes, gloves. They made a hundred little adjustments to make sure nothing showed. So no one could see they had no skin. To hide the bark and the green, and the narrow one-eyed stalk it had for a head.


And then the hoodie. Always the hoodie. Pulled close and tight around their head.

Anything, not to be discovered. Not to see their fear. Not to feel like a monster. Not to have to flee in the resonance of their terror. Not again.

When they finally left their apartment, they did so quickly and furtively, crossed a road into a park, past a handful of back-arched hissing feral cats.


They saw the cats every day. The cats knew them and hated them.


Hands in pockets, head down, they walked deep into the park, to its very heart, to the benches by the dead concrete fountain where humanity’s discarded excesses came to sleep off their hangovers, to warm themselves after long cold restless nights, to sit in sad despair, some of them still hoping, for whatever they saw as their salvation, most of them not.


This was where they, too, came. Every day. Rain or shine. As the seasons churned. Over and over. Eating the sun. Dreaming. Wishing they could peel off their clothes. Wishing they could be open and free.


But they were nevertheless content. That they could eat. That they did not face slow starvation, as they knew some of their kind did when they ended up on worlds with bad suns.


They felt at home here. Among the plants. Listening to their dull papery plant voices, murmuring in the slow beautiful language of soil and sun, wind and water.


The woman came from nowhere. She took them from behind, by the rigid overlaid branches that acted as their shoulders. They turned fearfully toward her touch. She did not seem to feel their hardness, to see the vacuous black where a head should be.


The woman was blind, they saw. She stared fiercely but did not see. Her face was hard and old. A suffering face.


I’m hungry,’ said the woman, while the sun sang and the plants whispered. ‘I’m hungry,’ she said, and they marveled at her face, at the sad world written there.

They dug under their shirt and found a fruit that was heavy with nourishment. It would feed the woman for months. It would renew her body, and restore her sight, and make her young again. They wished for her to have that.


They took the fruit and twisted it away from their body, grimacing against the sharp stabbing pain, feeling sap bleed through.


‘Here,’ they said. ‘Take this and eat,’ they said. ‘For this is my body.’

Image by Thomas Griggs

Daniel Burnbridge is a South African author of speculative fiction, with work published or forthcoming in several magazines and anthologies, including Journeys Beyond the Fantastical Horizon (Galaxy’s Edge), Amazing Stories and Aurealis. He is the winner of the 2023 Mike Resnick Memorial Award for best science fiction short story by a new author.

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