How Lovely Is the Silence of Growing Things

by on May 2, 2017 in Short Fiction | 1 comment

5,000 Words

We ate all the spiders we could find. It was the easiest way. Once they decided they wanted to be inside you, it was better to choke the damn things down than have them crawl into your ears while you slept. Mel had a jar of peanut butter and we made sure to smear a little on each spider to make swallowing them easier.

“Did it work, Kate?” Mel asked, even though I must’ve told her a thousand times not to talk until the sun went down.

I shone my flashlight around the basement, checking for poets. Not that there would be any, like most things that grew in the green sun they didn’t fancy the dark much. Still, it didn’t hurt to look. I made a show of searching the corners and ceiling, motioning for Mel to do the same. She did, but only after an eye roll that made me wish Abby was here instead of me. My wife would’ve known how to make a surly teen understand that one slip up, just one, and we’d be sprouting all over the floor. Abby had always been better at getting through to people—better at understanding, better at talking, just a better person in general. And me? Well, I was a selfish piece of shit. That’s why she was gone and I was here.

It took a while to search the basement—it had grown a few extra rooms while we hunted for spiders. Every day the green light seeped further down through the earth, twisting and changing everything it touched.

After I was satisfied the dark was empty, I sat across from Mel, tongue pressed to the backs of my teeth, throat dry.

“Flowers … just flowers,” I said, trying not to flinch.

We waited. Nothing happened. After three long breaths I nodded.

“I’m starving,” Mel said, like she hadn’t spent all afternoon eating PB and spider sandwiches.

I checked my watch, still too cautious to speak in anything but the simplest sentences. Words, letters, even writing was suspect—poets fed upon the very act of creation, irrespective of medium.

“Twenty minutes ‘til sunset,” I said, at last.

Mel made a face, silent now we finally had time to talk.

“You okay?” I asked.

She gave me a look like I’d just asked where babies came from. My first thought was to slap some respect into her, but that was just my mother talking. Mom had taken pretty much any opportunity to kick the shit out of me: back talk, forgetting to weed the garden, even once when I’d laughed at some stupid line on one of her shows. There was no anger when she hit me, just narrow-eyed intent, as if her slaps and punches could shave away the parts of me that didn’t fit. That was the one thing I’d resolved to do better with Mel. I might have screwed the pooch as a parent in pretty much every other regard, but at least I’d never hit her.

I tried to think what Abby would’ve said, but the words sounded as hollow as I felt. “We’re going to get through this. There have got to be other people out there. We’ll find a way, you and me.”

“Sure.” Mel shrugged.

I flicked my flashlight off, more to hide my hurt than conserve power. I hadn’t even wanted a goddamn kid, but that had been a deal breaker. I remembered Abby, kneeling in that little garden of hers—if you could call a ragged patch of scrub between our condo and the street a garden. She never planted anything, never weeded, just watered the place to see what grew. My mom would’ve freaked.

Abby had been wearing her green sun hat and a linen dress with outlines of marigolds stitched on the hem in yellow and gold thread. There were dandelions everywhere.

I remember being tired, not sleepy, but weak and worn out like I’d just gotten over a bad cold or something. We’d been arguing for weeks, maybe months, maybe forever. Abby was watering the weeds, a strange little half-smile on her face like she was watching kitten videos online. Humor became concern as she looked up.

“You shouldn’t be out,” she said, taking my arm. Her hands were so warm.

“I don’t think we should have a baby.”

She chewed her lower lip. “I know things are tough, but it’s important to me, even now, especially now.”

“We can adopt, lots of other couples do.”

“It’s not just that I want to have a baby,” she said. “It’s that I want to have a baby with you.”

That was simultaneously the most flattering and damning thing anyone had ever said to me. There’d been more talking after that, but the die was cast as they say. I’ve always been a sucker for sweet talk.

It’d been a whole thing, though. Science had advanced enough to splice our DNA and bring the egg to term, but not enough to let two women make a baby the old-fashioned way. Also, it had to be a girl—for obvious reasons.

“Give it ten years,” the doctor had said to us, smiling like an idiot.

I wonder if, even knowing we’d have barely sixteen years before the sun hatched, Abby still would’ve wanted Mel. She probably would’ve said it was worth it. Maybe it was. But here, crouched in the dark, mildewed basement of a row house on Hamlet Street, watching our daughter gag down fistfuls of spiders, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Abby had been a selfish piece of shit, too.

“It’s time.” Mel shined her flashlight in my eyes. That dick move told me she was mad but didn’t want to talk yet. Passive-aggressive just like her mother or father or whatever—I’d never really figured out what I wanted her to call me.

“Kate, c’mon!” Mel called over her shoulder, already halfway up the stairs.

I shouldered my backpack, wondering if she’d leave me behind. There was precedent, at least on my end. I’d probably find out soon enough, no need to push the issue.

When we’d gone in last morning, the house had been a worn yet solid-looking brick duplex, a small grove of what looked to be trees with slate-shingle leaves growing on its roof. Hardly feral at all. I’d found brick and plastic were best for stopping the greenlight, better even than stone. And wood? Well, you might as well be standing in the open. I’d seen some people do that, just step right out into the glare, faces raised and arms spread to embrace the light as their flesh boiled into strange, cancerous shapes. It had smelled like hot dogs. We smelled like hot dogs.

I tried to think about something else; even remembering the light was dangerous. Green memories could germinate and take root, growing up through the cracks in your thoughts, getting bigger and bigger until your mind cracked like old pavement.

“Kate!”

“Shhh, I hear you,” I said, more from reflex than pique. Mel was watching me from the end of the concrete walk. She’d drawn the Smith & Wesson .45 I’d given her instead of the car she’d wanted for her sixteenth birthday. I’d taken her to the range, said that if she was still sore about me missing her other birthdays, she was welcome to take a shot. I seem to remember we had a great time, although the targets had been a little unsettling—purple outlines of men and women, bruised shadows with wide, frantic eyes. No, that memory was green, the targets were probably bull’s-eyes or regular old silhouettes.

I made myself remember things the right way. It’s important to recognize what parts of you are you and what parts are weeds. Mom taught me that much, at least.

We walked down to High Street, avoiding the long, stone fronds that had grown from the houses and buildings on either side. A carpet of soft moss covered the patchy asphalt, gray and blue in the jaundiced glare of the moon. It was almost full, reflecting enough greenlight to make my skin tingle.

The street was mostly quiet. A mess of limbs and grinning faces that had probably once been people was growing up the side of the convention center parking garage. It had eyes, but they were all closed. Some sort of huge, spiny urchin-thing was rolling down the sidewalk, lazily scraping across the glass storefronts with a sound that set my teeth on edge. I could see a few poets hanging bat-like from overhangs and gutters, inscribed wings folded around their soft, boneless bodies. Their eyes never shut so I couldn’t tell if they were awake or not, but it didn’t really matter. Without the green sun, all they could do was talk.

“Look.” Mel pointed with her light, as if there was something in this mess more worthy of my attention than a human tapestry.

A half-dozen gray squirrels foraged in the shadows, digging in the moss, their eyes like chipped obsidian in the flashlight beam. They looked normal, which was strange.

I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen a regular person, let alone an animal. I took a tentative step toward the squirrels, squinting to get a better look. That set them scampering back into the dark. I reached for my rifle, but thought better of it. Little bastards were just trying to get by, same as the rest of us.

“Kate, it’s coming.” Mel nudged me. The urchin-thing had reversed course and was now corkscrewing its way in our general direction.

It is Kate. COME, Kate,” one of the poets said in Mel’s voice, reaching a long-fingered hand down to sketch abstract shapes in the air above our heads as it vivisected Mel’s sentence. There was a brief glimmer on its skin like it had let loose a pinch of glitter, but nothing stuck.

We decided to follow the squirrels’ lead and run the hell away.

§

“You’re going to have to, eventually,” Mel said, holding out a fruit that sort of looked like a plum but with little ears all over.

“I don’t trust it.” I fished the last can of refried beans from my pack. We were sitting on the bleachers at Ohio Stadium at just about the fifty-yard line. Expensive seats back before the pitch had become a churning mass of gray and scarlet centipedes. Now there was no one but us to watch them tear at each other.

Mel offered me the fruit again. “How is this different than the spiders?”

“We didn’t have a choice, then.”

“Eating stuff doesn’t change you.”

“Not yet,” I said.

Before I could stop her, Mel took a bite. She chewed for a thoughtful second then spit it out. “Nope.”

I opened the beans and offered her some, feeling, if not satisfied, then at least somewhat vindicated. Abby would’ve probably tried the fruit, maybe even enjoyed it. I’d never been much for surprises; they usually turned out bad in my experience. I remembered a fruit basket, not apples and oranges, but dragon fruit, lychees, star fruit, mangosteens—all sorts of exotic stuff. I’d bought it for Abby when I was visiting her in the hospital, or maybe when she was visiting me.

I’d pretended it was a mistake, griping about how I’d ordered regular old Granny Smiths and Bartlett pears. It was an old game of ours, I think. I’d play the curmudgeon, she’d pick at me, offering bits of this and that until I relented. This time though, I couldn’t keep the food down and the afternoon had ended with half-chewed dragon fruit swirling around the hospital toilet. Even nine months pregnant, Abby had held my hair back. Afterwards, we’d just laid in the too-small bed, my hand on her stomach, her arms around me as I shook and cried. I’d felt the baby talk for the first time, little vibrations thrumming through my fingertips like the muffled beat of a bass drum.

“I found these yesterday in the conservatory garden.” Mel’s words snapped me from green memories. She rummaged around in her backpack, pulling out a plastic baggie of what looked to be gumballs. She popped a few in her mouth and crunched down. “They’re kind of blueberries, but they taste like palak paneer.”

“I thought you didn’t like Indian food.”

“I didn’t?”

“Remember Tamil Nadu?” I smiled at the memory of Abby’s thirtieth birthday. Per family tradition, she got to pick the restaurant, no questions, no negotiation. I’d been raised on bland, Midwestern food—beef, potatoes, sausage, spaghetti with canned sauce—but I’d put on a brave face for Tamil Nadu, even after the waiter informed us the whole menu was vegetarian. Mel, though—

“You pitched such a fit.” I shook my head. “I think you thought it was baby food or something. You kept screaming that you were a big girl. I had to run down the street and pick up chicken nuggets from that place where everyone was a clown.”

Mel watched me for a second like she was waiting for something. Whatever it was she wanted, I didn’t do it, because after a second or two she looked away. “People change.”

“They sure do.” I bit my lip as Mel hid her face in her hands. Stupid. “I mean … I didn’t mean—I’m sorry, honey, I …”

I hadn’t been there when Abby died, or changed, or whatever—Mel wouldn’t talk about it. I might’ve been on a plane coming back from a business trip. I had a vivid memory of getting drunk with trees, but that couldn’t have happened.

There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t make things worse, so I just turned to the field and waited for my daughter to finish crying. We ate in silence after that. Mel didn’t offer me any more of her berries.

Below us, the centipedes fought on.

§

They came in through the windows. There hadn’t been any when Mel and I crept down into the basement an hour or so before sunrise. She had wanted to push a little farther, but we needed to find someplace safe. The Cape Cod was in a little subdivision nestled in the crook of Cleveland Avenue and 161. It hadn’t looked like much from the street, another little house in a row of little houses, but it had a finished basement—couches, thick shag carpet, even a pool table and mini bar with a six-pack of warm Budweisers in a little fridge. Best of all, no windows and no spiderwebs.

There was a big, black tarp in the garage, and we spread it over the first floor carpet to keep any light from trickling down through the floorboards. Mel dug the pool balls out while I made sure the door was secure, every crack wedged with tape and plastic and black trash bags nailed over the whole thing just in case.

We made a big pile of blankets and cushions in the middle of the floor. It reminded me of the forts I used to build as a kid. Mom hated them, of course, but I got back from school at 4:00, and her shift wasn’t over until 8:30, which gave me plenty of time to breathe. She’d come home tired and hungry, usually with a bag of burgers or fried chicken from one of the fast-food places near the machine shop, too tired to do anything but eat in front of the TV. Once, I accidentally put a couch cushion on backwards and had to sweat through dinner hoping she didn’t glance up from the Law & Order reruns and notice. She didn’t.

It had become something of a game, then. Seeing what I could change without her noticing. None of the big stuff—the TV, toaster, carnival masks, but I could switch cushions, rearrange books on the shelves, even move the huge, stained-glass ferns that grew along the brick walk. Mom never caught on, although once I caught her staring at the masks on the wall, her face all screwed up like she didn’t quite know where she was. She looked so stupid, I had to press both hands over my mouth to keep from laughing. My little rebellion, the part of me that kept growing back no matter how she weeded.

After Mel and I got everything set up, I hammered the caps off a couple of warm beers and slid one to her. She raised it with a little smile, Abby’s little smile, and took a long pull, no wince, no spit-take, like she’d earned it. For some reason, that made me proud.

We still had about a half-hour until sunrise, so I racked the pool balls and set my flashlight on the bar so we could see. I’d played pool on business trips, in hotel bars and roadside watering holes, grinning at the murmuring shadows of middle managers and pharmaceutical sales reps, ties loose, the top button of their shirts undone, their laughter reeking of cheap bourbon and daffodils.

Mel was terrible at pool but I didn’t rub it in. Her first break was weak, balls wobbling into a loose mess, the cue buried near the inside corner pocket. I played it out, sunk a couple to clear the field, then set her up a nice, clean shot. She missed, grinning, and I had to tamp down a flash of irritation—a little at Mel, but mostly at myself for not being able to relax and play a stupid game with my daughter.

I finished my beer, noticed Mel’s was empty, and opened two more. It had been awhile since I’d drunk anything, and the alcohol was already making my lips and fingers buzz. We played a few more rounds, I tried for trickier stuff—double-banks, kiss shots, jump balls—and grinned when I messed them up.

“I’ve always loved pool,” I said, more to fill the silence than anything. “Something about the angles, how you can sort of see where the balls are going to go.”

“Really, can you?” Mel’s smile was tight, her face flushed.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Mom never mentioned you cared so much.” She took a drink.

I narrowed my eyes.

“About balls.”

“You are literally the worst.”

Mel’s smile might have been Abby’s but her humor, her laugh—those were all mine.

I tossed a pillow at her. She spat beer at me. We laughed, too long, too hard. Through it all I just watched my daughter, feeling like I was seeing her for the first time.

“Sorry I’ve been such a bitch,” she said as I knuckled the tears from my eyes. “It’s just, you aren’t like I thought you would be.”

I shook my head, drinking for time. “Listen, I know I wasn’t around much, or at all. My job—”

“No.” She looked away. “It’s not like—”

The sun came up.

We didn’t see it or anything, there was just this sort of buzz in the air and a light, almost weightless feeling like you were underwater. Then came the noise, like someone was cranking up the volume on a recording of jungle sounds mixed with a busy train station and some whale songs thrown in for good measure.

There was a moment or two of sweaty suspense, teeth gritted, shoulders hunched as we waited for greenlight to fill the basement. It didn’t.

I reached for Mel’s hand, gave it a squeeze. She squeezed back, nodding. We flicked off our flashlights and curled up on the pile of bedding, Mel’s head nestled in the crook of my shoulder, my arm around her. It got pretty uncomfortable after a bit, but I didn’t move.

I dreamed green dreams.

My body was buried in warm soil. I could feel little things growing up through me, seeds of memory buried deep, sprouting, putting out roots, the first tentative shoots curling up into the sunlight, leaves and stems reaching, a quick, indrawn breath of color as they bloomed. I was a riot of pigments, an educated weed, my soul a bright, invisible green.

It didn’t hurt. It never did.

I woke to fingers on my face. Soft and boneless, they brushed my cheeks, creeping down to rest upon my lips. There was light in the basement, shadows filtered through a forest canopy. Panes of translucent film stretched membranous across jagged holes where dirt and concrete had been boiled away by verdant radiance.

“Shit!” I jerked up, lashing out with one hand. My fingers pressed into cool flesh, wet and spongey like thick moss. There were no bones beneath but I could feel the edges of words pressing up through the skin, sharp like the edges of the cutting dies Mom used to bring home from the shop.

SHIT.” The echo had my voice. Poets crowded in all around us—a half-dozen, backlit by the murky greenlight that pooled on the basement floor.

Shit. The word bloomed on the skin of the nearest poet, the smell of it making me gag. Letters seethed beneath their rubbery flesh as they pressed in tighter, jostling like children to be the first to hear, to repeat, to grow.

“Kate, what’s happen—?” Mel sat up, eyes widening as she saw the poets.

I shook my head, lips pressed into a thin line, already knowing it was too late.

KATE, WHAT’S HAPPEN,” the poets repeated, then: What IS Kate?

Honestly, I didn’t know. I was struck with a sudden vision of Abby crying, her hitching sobs measured by the steady beep of the morphine drip. She was holding my hand, the bones of our fingers like sticks pressing through a plastic bag. Her hair was a mess, mine was a mess, the air smelled like antiseptic and flowers. I wanted to comfort her but I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t—

The crack of Mel’s pistol made me flinch. I blinked away colorful afterimages of the muzzle flair, then clapped hands to my ears as she emptied the clip into the grasping shadows. Three of the poets fell, embryonic words bleeding into the thick shag carpet.

I pawed for my rifle only to feel strong, soft hands close about my wrists. The poet made no sound as it dragged me from the makeshift bed and toward the gentle glow of late afternoon. I could hear Mel shouting, wordless, angry, and knew they were taking her, too. I thrashed in the poet’s grip, stomping, kicking at its doglegged knees, but the thing only bent before me, boneless and rubbery like an octopus.

There was no pain as greenlight bathed my arm, only a feeling of movement, like worms under my skin or feeling a baby kick for the first time. It was warm, cool, everything all at once, and I was suddenly struck by the sense I wasn’t alone in my own body, that I would never be again. My arm exploded into a cloud of butterflies, a bright spiral of color that fluttered up into the dusty light. I could feel the air on their wings, the joy of aimless flight, delicate antennae unfurled to taste the air—stale beer, fabric softener, the smoky-sweet tang of Mel’s hair.

For a moment, I contained multitudes.

“No, no!” Mel’s furious shriek dragged me back to personhood.

NO, NO,” the poets holding her arms parroted back, the letters rising from their foreheads to hang like cut-glass prisms in the growing brightness.

Parts of my arm swirled around the room, my vision scattered across a thousand panes of glass. I could see the poets clearly now, dark, unblinking eyes, toothless mouths, their gray-blue flesh seething with unattached meaning. It was easy to find the letters I wanted, to send parts of me fluttering down to coax the symbols from their skin, pigments swirling on delicate wings as I bent the new parts of me around armatures of the old. The words rose from deep inside my memory.

Leave. It’s what I did best, after all. Go Away.

And just like that, we were in darkness once more, empty, cool, absent even the frantic clamor of growing things.    

Feeling lightheaded, I brought trembling fingers to my shoulder, stroking the smooth patch of skin where my arm simply ended. I’d sent it away, I’d sent it all away.

Exhaustion washed over me. It seemed impossible to sit up, even the labor of breathing felt almost too much.

“Mom?” Mel cradled my head in her lap. “Just breathe, you’re in shock.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Sorry I left.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” She smoothed my hair back.

My cheeks were wet. Mel was crying, or I was. We sat there for a long time, long enough for the sun to set.

“You should go,” I said.

“We should go.” Mel slipped an arm around my shoulder, lifting me up.

“I can’t.”

“Hope you like being dragged, then.” She hauled me to the bottom of the stairs, then to the top, straining and swearing in a way that made me proud despite myself.

“Okay, okay.” I felt like a baby foal still slick with placenta, tottering around on legs that seemed too thin and fragile to support my weight.

Mel slipped under my remaining arm and we staggered out onto the street. The asphalt was pocked with fungal blooms, the leaves of the trees curled like clenched fists. Unhatched stars winked down from above. Still, the night air felt good on my skin, somehow clean.

We started off down the street, breath whistling in my throat. I winced with each step, afraid I would fall, but my daughter didn’t let go.

“It’s okay,” Mel said. “We’re almost there.”

§

I didn’t recognize the place at first. The condo was different—its roof a little more worn, the brick scabbed with crawling ivy, the front door a watery greenish-blue instead of dark red. It wasn’t until we limped onto the driveway that I recognized the big black walnut tree that had been such a pain every autumn. Its shadow stretched across the front walk and into the darkness of the porch where I knew six handprints, four large and two small, were pressed into the pale concrete near the door. Except when we climbed the uneven stairs up to the porch Mel’s flashlight illuminated only four prints, all large.

I slipped to my knees beside them, staring down. “They poured the porch when you were four or five, I remember because it was almost Halloween and you were wearing your werewolf head and the leaves were—”

“They poured this when I was fourteen.” Mel knelt to lay her hand in one of the impressions. “It was summer, but I was dressed as wolfwoman for WizardCon.”

“How?” I searched her eyes, so like Abby’s, so like mine.

“I—” She bit her lip, thinking, then shook her head. “C’mon.”

She helped me up and together we walked over to the side of the condo, down the little path to the patch of flowers and wild grass, unmarked but for a stone etched with a single line:

How lovely is the silence of growing things

I’d always teased Abby about the lack of punctuation—was it a question, a statement? Looking down at her garden I was less sure than ever.

“I brought her.” It was clear from her tone that Mel wasn’t talking to me.

The grass was pale green in the flashlight beam, the crushed velvet heads of marigolds poking up here and there amidst the bright carpet of dandelions. I was struck with a deep, almost visceral desire to see the garden in the light.

I stepped away from Mel, letting my hand trail along the tall grass around the fringes. It was soft and cool, so much like Abby’s hair.

“I used to wonder what you were like,” Mel said. “We went to your grave every month. Mom told me stories, and I had some of your things, but it wasn’t the same.”

There was a rustle in the brush off to my left. A poet slipped from the lambent dark, then another, and another. They were all around us, but I wasn’t afraid. At night, they were just an audience.

“I used to imagine what it would be like if you hadn’t died.” Mel looked away, then back. “I wanted, I wished—I mean … can you miss someone you’ve never known?”

The ground was warm beneath my hand. The grass wet with dew or tears. Somehow, I knew it was smiling.

“I went back to the cemetery, after Mom sprouted, after everything.” Mel’s voice was different, bigger, like she was speaking from a chorus of mouths. “The greenlight was in the ground, parts of you were still there, and I just sort of filled in the rest.”

The horizon glowed with the deep jade of early dawn, shadows growing, changing. I could see the garden now, dim but beautiful. What I’d taken to be marigolds were dozens and dozens of butterflies, their wings opening and closing in the growing light.

“I’m sorry. I thought—” Mel fell silent as I turned. She looked the same, but deeper, as if her body had been formed by a careful weave of a branches. My daughter, not shaped, not cut, but grown into someone I could be proud of.

I knelt in the warm grass, butterflies swirling above, the soft heads of dandelions brushing my legs.

The poets drew close, almost reverent in their silent regard.

Mel stepped close to stroke my hair. I smiled up at her, knowing that she loved me as I loved her, weeds and all.

The ground parted as I lay back, the soil lapping like warm water on my skin. Distantly, I heard the sun come up, but didn’t mind. The light was only what we made of it.

Smiling, I closed my eyes and dreamed green dreams.

By day, Evan Dicken studies old Japanese maps and crunches data for all manner of fascinating medical experiments at The Ohio State University. By night, he does neither of these things. His fiction has most recently appeared in: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, and Flash Fiction Online, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Daily Science Fiction and Chaosium. Feel free to visit him at evandicken.com.

1 Comment

  1. Totally confused, weird, strange, bizarre…basically I loved it.

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