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Xenograft Polylepis

Although technology avails us of miracles that the combined knowledge and wisdom of esoterica may never approximate, there are some instances where it is still surpassed.


While artificial prosthetics have been being crafted for almost as long as humans have been using stone tools to work other materials, there is at least one rare but quasi-natural alternative - Xenograft Polylepis - that surpasses even the most modern scientific technologies in terms of restored functionality. Only found in small and isolated clusters among the more commonly recognised examples of the polylepis genus, and generally those at the highest elevations in their harsh Andes habitats, they are marked out from their neighbours by the subtle, flesh-like dimpling of the bark around their base.

Even with this detail in mind, the differences between the Xenograft and the similar species within whose cover it camouflages are so understated that they are more typically located by memory. Generational guides pass down their locations, along with the details of the proper methods for the harvesting and preparation of the bark, from parent to child; a pragmatic practise that has more of the trappings of medicine than ritual. Scarce as the Xenograft Polylepis is, the protection and preservation of the resource has been given priority over potential exploitation.

The destruction of the trees, even as they are harvested in the name of scientific interrogation, is the central concern. Since the earliest days of the discovery some people have attempted to take the trees away, despite how sensitive they are to changes in the micro-climates where they grow. People have tried to cut and cultivate captive versions of the Xenograft Polylepis with some attempting to create hardier cultivars, crossbreeding the tree with plants from all around the world to find a pairing that can be grown industrially but retains the incredible healing potential of the fragile and untameable originals.

No matter how ill-fated these efforts have been, the threat to the Xenograft Polylepis remains; particularly as every successive generation of agricultural science promises new opportunities to wreak havoc in the pursuit of a financially-lucrative miracle. In the meantime, while we wait for the wider world to be ready, responsible and able to share and spread this scarce boon, we can only investigate its legend and the stories of those who have been saved or restored by it - even if the details may seem incredible.

First the red, papery bark of the polylepis is shredded into long thing strands, chewed until it begins to pulp and then gathered and braided into sodden knots. Attempts to pulp and soak the bark in water or in other liquids have been made, but there is clearly some kind of interaction between saliva and the bark that is essential to growth and healing. Perhaps the contact with human DNA in this process activates the pulp’s biocompatibility, or instils it with the pluripotentiality that allows it to grow into the required form?

Typically employed on deep, penetrating wounds or where digits - sometimes even entire limbs - have been severed or amputated, the knotted fibres are packed tight into flesh that has been ripped or rended and are then sewn into place. In contrast to the glacial pace at which the tree grows, the knots begin to loosen and reorganise in a matter of minutes; creating a crude facsimile of damaged tissues and allowing blood to keep circulating unimpeded. Over the next few days they differentiate further, darkening and hardening as they set and settle and growing to replace whole limbs in less than a week.

The grafted material never fully assumes the appearance, nor the characteristics, of the original bones and organs, the muscle or the skin. Too deep and red, too fibrous, it moves like it ought, but cannot be fully disguised. Where a more substantial regrowth has taken place the effect is more obvious still: Fingers slight and gnarled, albeit maybe even stronger than before, arms or legs stripped down to taut musculature with a hint of their inhumanity in their reconstruction and a certain wildness straining against the fine motor control that people have over them.

As the complexity of the replacement tissue increases, so too do the chances of complications. These are usually only cosmetic in nature, an atavistic resurgence of budding achenes - fruit-like growths with, in these instances, gentle spines - which appear and poke through the faux-skin that can sometimes grow over the regrown tissue. Already more delicate than what it is approximating, this covering can sometime slough off, particularly if the buds are excised carelessly, and reveal the nature of the hybridisation beneath. Improperly attended to and monitored, the new flesh can even sprout tiny branches.

Whilst these growths can be cut back easily and painlessly, they represent a possible instability - a potential incompatibility - in the merging of the human and the plant. For this reason, some injuries were deemed to be too severe or too uncertain to be healed, with head injuries of particular concern. Some sources suggest that these rules were created after an attempt to save someone who was badly hurt in a fall went terribly wrong. Their skull, crushed and caved in, was packed and rebuilt with Xenograft Polylepis, but it had never been used to repair a damaged brain before.

While, at first, the recovering victim seemed psychologically unchanged, the regrown tissue never settled. Instead of returning to a somewhat normal appearance in the space of a few days or weeks, the Xenograft Polylepis kept shifting, growing out a thick horned plate before the fibres spread into other, previously undamaged body parts. Banding into thick cables, these growths pulped and pushed out the undamaged parts of the brain then grew through the optic nerves until they had replaced the eyes with smooth wooden facsimiles that sat too-still in their sockets.

Understandably afraid as the transformation continued and a former friend became increasingly and undeniably alien; the healers planned a confrontation, a mob-handed intervention, but their quarry had disappeared into the mountains and groves and troubled their hearts and their consciences only in fading and infrequent pangs. It is perhaps a fear of this, whether legend or memory, that so informs the secretive and protective duty with which the Xenograft Polylepis is guarded: Even a resource with an almost limitless potential to do good can be misused, abused, and remake its potential in horror.


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