The Sensible Gardener
“Only the dust of thee is here
But when mine own day closes
I will lie down beside thee, love,
And mingle with thy roses.”
from Only Thy Dust by Don Marquis
I startled a possum in the back yard one evening last week. Such a strange looking animal. It had the hairy, grayish body of an immense rat, pink toes and tail, and a mostly white, aggressively angular, poking-out-at-you face with two beady black eyes that struck me more as evolutionary afterthoughts than liquid windows to its soul. I had never seen one in real life. I suppose the sight of me shocked the animal. It was clearly in its element and I was the invader. The poor thing was within its rights to be alarmed. It leapt straight up, fully a foot into the air. Then it ran like hell for a short stretch and skidded to a stop behind the chimenea that I never use. It did not play possum, which disappointed me. It swiveled around to face me. Our eyes locked for a time. I cooed to it like you would to a puppy, or a baby. It held its mouth open, to catch its breath I suppose, but also I imagine to ingest and evaluate my scent. I believe the experts who say that animals can smell fear, the way we can smell a smoker in the car ahead of us. I was calm and focused and tried my best to emit the scent of friendship. The possum spun round, resumed its run along the back fence, fell awkwardly into the small fish pond, scrambled out, and sprinted into the deeper dark. I set off after the little beast with a lit match, which immediately blew out. My impulsive dash into the cool still night air yielded nothing but gloom. The creature had disappeared, most likely up into the olive tree, where I wished it good footing. If I didn’t live in the back yard these days, maybe I wouldn’t be so concerned about a wild animal falling on my head.
Then I imagined myself as one of the little fishes in that pond. BAM! The world is upside down! Suddenly, there is an eerie calm among our community of limp, enervated prey. Did that really happen? Are we all here? And, soon enough, comes the resumption of a captive life. This is our fate as well, yes? They say the advantage is to being human, but I wonder about that. We all end up in the same place.
My apocalyptic afterthought did not surprise me at the time. It was entirely consistent with my state of mind. The possum’s comic plunge into the pond caused me to flash on another scene, one of incomprehensible loss. One that I had not witnessed, but which had recently been reported to me, and from which I saw no recovery. A car carrying an elderly couple veered off a country road at high speed. It careened up an embankment, plowed through a tall, thick hedge, and twisted through the air until it landed on its roof in the county reservoir. The couple were rendered unconscious by the concussive force of airbags meant to save them and lay entombed in a car full of cool clear drinkable water until discovered at dawn by a passing motorist. That’s as far as I can go right now. It took all of my strength just to reveal that much.
To sublimate, to avoid the truth of the matter, I force myself to concentrate only on the first moments of my encounter with the animal. To prepare myself for the possibility of its return, I read up on possums at the library. For example, they are marsupials. They have prehensile tails. They do not fall out of trees. They can be a nuisance if they get under a porch or into an attic. Not because they are marsupials but because they are in your home and they are not house trained like your dog. They will eat garbage or pet food, or just about anything. They are not aggressive but will defend themselves if cornered. Thus equipped, I spend the better part of pre-dawn hours checking the perimeter of the house for points of entry. I may hide in the darkness tonight to see if the creature returns. You need to hide, even in darkness, because they are nocturnal. Quite the challenge if you really think about it.
Right now, my world is my back yard. It is my peace, my place, my life for the foreseeable future. It is here that I find my solace. And so, my intrusion into the world of a wild animal propels me to thoughts of loss and regret, as I have already admitted. I am not immune to nature’s reminder that I am also a creature of hers no worthier than the wandering animal, like my possum friend, on a mission to find herself a supportive mate, or fresh food, or a new home for the growing brood in her pouch. Or a creature of God whose own mother and supportive mate will never again put fresh food on the table for their grateful children, myself being one of them. See what I mean about trying to avoid the truth of the matter? No can do.
Damage Assessment. The fleeing possum dislodged a small hose that spills replenishing water from the irrigation system into the fish pond. Left as is in the dry season, over time and with warm sunny days, the evaporation can easily go unnoticed. Until it is too late. Despite plentiful plantings of pea green Myriophyllum aquaticum, otherwise known as parrot feather, to oxygenate standing water and act as a piscine food source, without the required H2O the little ecosystem will reach a tipping point and, in one awful moment, collapse into eternity. The next day, your morning stroll will bring you to a gaping cauldron lined with the festering detritus of plant and animal matter that was once a burbling, impressionistic tableau. For a moment, my mind goes to that reservoir, its dam fractured by the violent impact of a three-thousand-pound machine, and then quickly back to the fetid fish pond left untended. At first breath, the stench might cause you to revisit the flavors of your breakfast. But hey, to look on the bright side, I re-fastened the hose. The little fishes are fine. They had no idea the peril they faced. All is well for now. On the other hand, never swim in a reservoir. You don’t know what tragedy lurks below the surface. Here we go again. I cannot help myself. My world is nothing but a collision of parallel universes.
Thank goodness for Juan. He advises me to let it go. Let all of this go. I can count on him to bring me back to earth, quite literally, every Tuesday starting last week. He arrives with a clinking of keys that hang from his belt like a catch of tiny shiny lake trout. I’m thinking a dozen individuals. None is marked as to its lock-mate, but Juan knows them so intimately he can select blindfolded. Today is Juan’s day. “Enough about me, William,” he says. “How about you get off your ‘living with animals’ jag and face your real life?”
He is blunt. But he has my attention. “I will try,” I reply. That is all he has ever asked of me. It’s the least I can do for him.
“Let’s get to work,” he says. “It looks as though nothing has changed here since last Tuesday.” We go to the front yard. Juan reviews the camellias that border the entrance. Unlike me right now, they are sturdy, healthy, and highly resistant to cruel whims of the weather gods. Nothing seems to faze them. The mature red, pink, and white varieties have just finished their bloom. Their spent flowers litter the ground below and should be removed. “Trim the tops here, this way,” he says, indicating the vertical level he desires. “Bring those branches in beyond the edge of the walkway so people can pass,” he adds, spreading his arms like a policeman trying to move a crowd back a step. “Keep the growth off the structure. Do the usual clean up, and feed,” he says. Juan is so organized. He can see the bigger picture, what the garden can be as opposed to what it is.
I am way ahead of him. “On my schedule for tomorrow,” I say.
“Do it today, William,” comes the reply. It is a gentle rebuke and I am fine with it. “Do not go to the library. You have too much time on your hands. That will only corrupt your mind and deepen your dark moods. We want you to make progress. Positive progress, that is,” he says, smiling paternally. I appreciate his directness and make a mental note of my revised schedule. “Let’s evaluate the rest while I’m here.” I watch as Juan circles around maturing mounds of blue-blooming Rosmarinus officinalis, trailing spindles of a fragrant spice; takes the measure of brawny, thigh-high shrubs of evergreen Euonymus japonicus, a variegated jewel from the Far East; examines immature plugs of its cousin, Euonymus fortuna, a pink-flecked ground cover that has yet to start covering anything but itself; regards the small puffs of Pitisporum tobira ‘Shima’ in all of their mock orange splendor; crouches to commune with Loropetulum chinensis, local purple majesty, neighborhood eye candy; and inspects rows of Agapanthus africanus, the Peter Pan Lily, a favorite snack, when in bloom, of wandering deer.
It is emergent Spring. Even lowly weeds, clumping grasses, and other nasty invaders come to life unbidden. These are what Juan is after. Not the beauty of the healthy and wanted individual, which I struggle to embody, but the sloppy vagrant that would ultimately dominate, if not addressed and eliminated. Like the onset of mental illness but only a weed. I fight the instruction I expect from him, to be the remover. Right now, I want everything to live. I want everything that was alive six weeks ago to still be alive today and, if possible, by some act of a benevolent creator, to come back to life as before, unchanged and undiminished. Emergent Spring life only reminds me that there are lives we have left behind, never to witness this kind of natural beauty again. And I am compelled to join them. And that is why I am so grateful for Juan’s strength, for him to see past this time for me, and for me to witness him do that, so I may embrace the real graces of the new season rather than resent them.
“Are you just going to watch me and do nothing?” Juan asks. “We have a deal.” He is right. But right now, I am fixated on Buxus sempervirens suffruiticosa, the dwarf English boxwood hedge that runs alongside the house behind which I live. It is no dwarf. We let it grow to nearly four feet tall, trim it semi-annually to maintain the smooth-sided, squared off boxiness suggested by its common name. It is not the hideous, gargantuan version, allowed to grow to eight feet, which describes the boundary of the reservoir. A gaping hole in its midsection, the width of a late model Subaru station wagon, serves as a gross indicator of something awful that happened to a fine couple on its water side. To name it sempervirens, always alive, is such a cruel tease. That the hedge should partially survive, and the car’s occupants entirely not, deepens my vexation with Spring renewal commingling with human mortality. I am tempted to go over there and yank the whole thing from its earthly grasp to even the score. But I cannot get there without a car. That car.
“I’ll grab the hula hoe,” I say to Juan. “How about that?” It’s in the shed down by the parking area off the side of the house. The place where they found my sister. Oh yes, I’m afraid there is more to tell you.
“Great,” Juan says. “Remember to come back.” He has a point. To get to the shed I also need to pass by the rose garden. There are twelve bushes, quite mature, half of them older than I. My father planted six adolescents to celebrate my birth, and six more on my sister’s arrival two years later. Part of her is scattered among them, and the rest of her is forever encased in an elegant memorial box that sits on a mantelpiece, inside the house where we grew up.
As I somewhat expect, going to the shed does not happen right away. “Don’t know if I’m ready,” I tell him, my hand on the gate of a fence that separates front yard from side yard, the line that separates present from past. It had already taken all my strength to get from the back yard to the front yard. To go back so soon? Imagine that you are afraid of heights and you climb to the top of a mountain. Now look down. Now run down. With your eyes closed.
“Shall I go get Mary?” he asks.
“Might be a good idea,” I answer absentmindedly, knowing full well that she cannot do so on her own. Just as I will not enter the house, even though I can.
“I’ll call her,” Juan says with a wink, pulling a smartphone from his pocket, as if it is some channel to heaven. “How about that?” As he punches in the phone number, I feel the gate give way. It is surprisingly easy for me to pass through. And there are the rose bushes, all pruned during the dead of winter, all in early bud break. It pleases me that Mary’s rose awakenings match those of mine. It is right and natural that the onset of a rose bush’s annual cycle is not determined by a March planting versus an August planting, or the application of ashes. Can you imagine? It would be crazy. About as crazy as the psychosis of one sibling emerging fully formed in the mind of the other. Thankfully, Juan tells me that ours are similar but not identical, this and that. And, reassuringly, mine is easier to treat if I cooperate. For Mary, treatment was ultimately an impossibility. Nevertheless, I admire Juan’s persistence, and his willingness to play with my imagination. To be playful with the impossible.
“Mary?” Juan asks. He angles the front of the phone toward me. I think I hear a tiny “hello” but it could have been the chirp of a bird in the yard. “This is Doctor Felix,” he says. “How are you today?” Is that a tiny voice? A little squeak? It is nothing I can confirm. “That’s good to know,” Juan says. “Mary, William and I are outside right now. Yes, in the front yard. Really, dear. I hope you can join us. What do you think? Do you want to try a couple of minutes?” There is no sound that I can hear. Or there is no sound to hear. Juan turns away from me. From his movements, I can tell that he is speaking, but I cannot hear the words. Then it appears that he is listening, and nodding. He turns to me and waves. I take that to mean to be patient. Be a patient. He continues to nod as you would to indicate agreement with a person who could be physically in front of you but is not actually in front of you. I take the gesture to be for my benefit. But it is not something I can countenance because I think it is possible that he would get Mary and I together again, and at the same time I know that that is impossible. I continue toward the shed to get the hula hoe, also something only a moment ago that I would have thought impossible. “Excellent, William,” Juan says behind me, dropping the smartphone into his pocket. And then he is right behind me, with the key to the shed. “We can always bring Mary out when you are ready. Or you can go in when you are ready.”
“I am grateful for Tuesdays,” I say to him as we approach the shed.
“Every day is Tuesday now, William.” He opens the shed door. As I enter, I see the hula hoe to my right. It is one of the approved tools, according to Juan. In other words, it is one with which you cannot cause harm to yourself. But it works great harm on weeds. It is a triangle-shaped blade of steel attached to the end of a five-foot wooden pole. You push the blade forward and backward, just under the soil surface, to slice through the weed’s roots. You separate the above ground living thing from its hidden source of nourishment, just as a razor slices below the skin and opens an artery. The plant looks undisturbed but quickly dies. Along those lines, once the artery is severed, the person curls up into the fetal position. She hides the wound while her body’s nourishing and necessary fluid flows freely from her and seeps into the soil. Immediately, there is relief. The demon departs. Soon, life ebbs to nothingness. She appears to be asleep on the grass, a grotesque Monet. Her mother regards her from the kitchen window. It is an odd but not unexpected behavior, a seemingly harmless act by a disturbed daughter. Her color quickly turns from a healthy pink to a dull ashen grey, much faster than a robust green weed would wither to a drab brown. And she is discovered by her horrified father, later that day, on his return from work. Yes, the hula hoe is nothing more than a garden tool. But still, a tool of death. So this is where my mind goes with Juan’s careful guidance, to my sister’s last day. I wonder if he had calculated that in advance. I would think so. But I doubt that he anticipates what I have to say next.
Juan accompanies me into and out of the shed, past the rose garden, and into the front yard. I commence the forward and back slicing of the hula hoe. I inflict intentional damage under Juan’s watchful eye. The little ruts I create, the little guillotined cuts that cause them, cannot be seen below the decapitated weeds that stand dying at the surface. As do I. Because suddenly, I cannot move. “There were no mechanical problems with the car that I knew of,” I say. “And no skid marks at the scene.”
“Should there have been?” asks Juan.
“Skid marks,” I say. “Don’t you think that’s curious? Why were there no skid marks?”
“Should there have been?” Juan repeats his question, a technique that I cannot resist.
“It was intentional,” I say. “Convince me otherwise,” I add, with some anger. Now he knows.
“You don’t know that William.” He seems to have taken no offense at my remark. “What you just said is very important. Thank you for telling me. We need to explore this.”
“They took their peace and left the guilt for me.”
“Just the opposite, William. Just the opposite. Let them have that.”
“Is this how you plan to convince me?” I ask.
“They did grieve. I knew them well. I looked after them for decades, William. I know how hard they tried. They grieved very heavily. You saw that after Mary. You must have.”
“Why were there no skid marks? Can you answer me that?” I ask.
“We did everything we could for her. They accepted that,” Juan says.
“Mary. And then them. What am I supposed to do now?” I want to join them, but I won’t admit it. Or they expect me to follow them, and I can’t tell him that. I am trapped with no alternative.
“You don’t know that any of that is connected or is a signal of some kind to you William,” Juan says. “It may look like that, but it is not that, I am confident. Life is full of awful coincidences. And you were a good son, William.” He is right. He stands his ground like a true professional. He is transparent. There is no trick of the eye with Juan. It is all there. “Are they telling you something? What do you think they are telling you, William? What are you supposed to do?” he asks.
I know better than to answer that question with the answer that he suspects, and I know, is on my mind. If I do, I go with him to where Mary went. Look how it ended for her. “I don’t know,” I say. What I don’t know is why I feel this way. And I don’t want to.
“All right, William. All right. I understand how you can feel this way.”
How does he know? I didn’t tell him. “I really don’t know.”
“It’s all right, William. This is progress,” Juan says. “It may not feel like it, but it is.”
It doesn’t feel like progress, but it is a new thing, I’ll give him that. It is out in the open now. Another new thing is that he will stay in the house for the time being. He will provide food for both of us, wash clothing, offer me reading material for daylight hours, and bring news of the day into the back yard with my morning coffee. In return I agree not to go to the library unless accompanied by him. No more deep dives into library books, although I am encouraged to ask questions. I am also encouraged to build on my nascent vocabulary of Latin plant names by reading up on cultural needs and growing tips for all relevant genera and their species on the property. Juan tells me that this is more than useful, it is necessary.
“Why is that?” I ask him.
“Continuity of life,” he answers. He knows. The days pass, I enjoy his company, his support, and I think about someday getting back into the house. But not yet.
One morning, Juan emerges from the house with two of the three elegant cannisters. I am surprised but not shocked. Nor am I offended.
“Where is Mary?” I ask. The rest of the family, that is my interest. I now want us all to be in the same place, though not in the same state, and that gives me a good feeling. I haven’t had a good feeling in quite some time.
“In her usual place,” Juan says, “for the time being.” I so trust him that I don’t find it necessary to press him on it. “I have an idea,” he continues, “but only if you are ready.” He explains it to me, carefully and with empathy, but I tell him no, I am not yet ready. I have a sudden recognition that I have implied I might be at some future time. “Totally understand,” he replies. “We’ll save it for another day. Meanwhile, I’ll be right back. I have something else to show you.” This is a different day. I see that Juan wants to move things along, and that he must believe that I am ready to do so. But what can he show me that I haven’t already seen? I have been to every square inch of that house. Of this property. Yet, I discover soon enough, that I have not recently looked up into the crown of the back yard olive tree. On his return, Juan points to a possum hanging by its tail from a very high branch. “It is asleep,” Juan says. “Apparently, it has adopted you. What do you think about that?”
What doesn’t Juan know? I wonder. “How do you know that?” I ask.
Juan gestures to me to follow him over to the chimenea where, inside the small dark interior, sleep two little possums, joeys that have left their mother’s pouch but not her care, or the neighborhood. “That’s how I know,” Juan says. “Continuity of life. You didn’t startle the mother. She was protecting her joeys by attracting your attention and running away from the den, which happens to be your chimenea. She wanted you to follow her. And she has watched you since. You have proven to her that you are no threat to her or her joeys. So now, your place is hers. And theirs,” he says, pointing to the chimenea.
Damage Assessment. If wisdom is a telescope to the beyond, I have been peering into the wrong end. With the universe behind me, all I can see is a small black dot. Everything is reduced, crushed, compacted to a single cell. Juan has walked me to the proper lens and, as a result, I have begun to see things in a new way. Here are the facts as I consider them now. Things run parallel, they don’t converge on their own. There is the mother with her children, the father somewhere else, a situation so familiar to me. They are like the great majority of parents who protect their children, and who do what they can for them with what they have. Most times, they succeed. As I see it now, the greatest gift a parent can bestow is to give a child their independence. The child can accept that, or not. The parent’s work is done. But sometimes the child cannot make the right choice, and it can be heartbreaking. My sister made her choice. I see it now, Mary. Unfortunately, for both of us, our parents didn’t even have a choice. The universe of accidents made it for them. I miss you, Mary, and them. I am grateful for the time I had with you, and with them. And I thank them for the independence they gave me. Now their place is mine. The house houses our family, such as we are. Not as we were.
“Let’s take a walk around,” Juan says. “There is more to see. And please remember, William, that there is always s more to see.”
We stroll along the back border of the property. Almost immediately, I notice a new generation of calico colored fish swimming about in the pond, eagerly munching the parrot feather. “Continuity of life,” I say to Juan. “I feel like a proud father.”
“Beautiful,” he answers. “Just beautiful.” He takes us forward, past the shed, and then past the rose garden, and then to the front yard. It is easy for me to follow him. I don’t feel the gravitational pull of my mortality yanking me to a dead stop, but an eagerness to enjoy living things as they are, even a desire to parent them. And I tell him so. “This is good,” he says. “An excellent attitude.” Juan and I spend the next few days in our symbiotic routine of his bringing us morning coffee, having conversations about current events, me teaching him about the lives of plants on the property, and our respective ministrations as professional caregiver and resident gardener. We both seem to flourish, which is why I believe he brings back his idea, the one I was not yet ready for not too long ago. “The healing of the mind takes time,” he tells me. “And sometimes we need to arrange things in our everyday lives to make it possible for continual, if not complete, healing. One important way that I see for you to do this involves this house. And that’s why I want you to revisit my idea.” He is right, once again. And I agree with him that I need to find a permanent home for what is left of my parents and my sister. Both of us know that their presence in the house is the very thing that prevents me from entering. Yet their absence from it would be unbearable. So, I propose my own idea, which builds on his, and to which Juan agrees.
It has been two months now. We are fully past Spring and into the Summer growing season. The days are long and warm and filled with sunshine. I live in the house and take care of the property. Juan’s visits are brief, occasional, and usually just for a quick coffee in the morning. But I have persisted in inviting him to stay longer. I hope that someday he will find the time to come over for dinner with his wife. We would walk the property. I would be so proud to show them how the front yard is weed free, how all variety of amazing plants thrive under my care. In the back yard, the possums have moved on, and I have cleaned the chimenea. I would welcome their return. The pond is full of healthy fish living as good a life as they can.
I would love to give Juan and his wife a house tour. I would be careful to pause by the fireplace, where framed family photos occupy every square inch of the mantelpiece. The elegant memorial boxes are housed in their permanent places of honor, elsewhere, so that most of my family are still together. And they will remain forever together, until I join them. It is my desire for that to happen, but only many years from now. Between now and then, I have much to do, not the least of which is to take care of the house, live in it, and tend to a beautiful rose garden. It is there that persons who were mother, father and sister are no longer people. All three are amendments to the soil that nourish the roses; just as they are the dusty contents of three elegant memorial boxes in a family plot that I will someday join. Until then, it comforts me to know that when I tend to our garden of Rosaceae, I am not alone. I accept that some things are just what they are. Juan tells me that this is the sign of a healthier mind. Then he gives me his set of keys to everything on the property, including the shed.
Jeff Adams lives in California’s Napa Valley with his wife Jane and their pet hummingbird Hoover (he is an outside bird). Jeff’s short fiction appears in literary journals, and he has just completed a novel. He earned a B.A. from Binghamton University and an M.B.A. from Fordham.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.