Sitting on the plane to Chicago, Mila wondered when exactly the idea had taken hold of her. Did the idea have an infancy or a childhood, or did it ground itself in the soil of her imagination like a full-grown poison tree? What Mila did know was when the idea finally hit it grew within seconds, its roots clawing their way into the depths of Mila's mind, drawing on her thoughts and the very marrow of her dreams. The branches grew robust with leaves that rustled in the wind of every breath that Mila took.
She could never say with certainty but it may well have been the day Nip was forced to retire from his position of more than thirty years at Frontier Airlines, that the idea took root in her mind. Frontier was restructuring. Because the old cost too much, Nipun Sen, Senior Ground Engineer, was one of the first to go.
Clutching his temples, Nip delivered the news to Mila.
"At least five years of my work life have been cut short. Can you imagine, once the severance runs out, there will be no salary coming in?" He fixed Mila with a vacuous stare as if it was not a job that was taken from him but life itself.
"I'm sure we will manage, Nip, it's not the end of the world." His wife soothed him but in the secret chambers of her heart, a terrible dread ensconced itself.
Nip's parents had fled to Toronto in the early seventies as refugees during the Bangladesh war. Nip was barely a teen at the time. Lacking language skills and the perseverance necessary to adjust to an alien culture, the elder Sens struggled all their lives, working odd jobs; sometimes two to three at a time. Every cent they could spare they put towards the education of their only son with a passion they could hardly contain. Nip did not let them down. But just as he inherited his parents' dreams of a solid education and the security of a worthy job, he also inherited their colossal diffidence and fear of life itself. Nip Sen came to lead a life devoid of the present. He prowled the corridors of a future haunted by spectres of impoverishment until his very existence was rooted in an obsession with saving for a nebulous future.
He managed the purse strings of the Sen household with a set of ruthless rules. A new bag of flour could not be opened till the old bag had been shaken out completely. Every tube of toothpaste was beaten hammered, for the last bit of its contents, to a tormented strip of plastic and the final dregs of body wash sloshed out till not a single soap bubble winked inside. He had a single-columned ledger in his head whose title read Necessary Expenses.
And Mila, who could not think of herself as separate from her husband, allowed her dreams and desires, whims and wants to masquerade as Nip's fear of the future because his future was hers too.
It was her decision to not work outside the home. She knew she would not be able to manage the pressures of a job with the demands that Nip made on her. It helped her to believe she had a choice in following Nip's rules; that she chose to make their joint future secure together. To reward Mila's delusion, Nip allowed themselves the luxury of a monthly night out to one of the restaurants on Gerrard Street. To this rare treat, Nip's wife looked forward with an uncommon excitement in her heart.
Mila gazed out from her window seat at the cumulus clouds below, pudgy like her grandson, Noah, when he was a baby. She felt calmer now and again thought of the idea and when it might have entered her mind. Was it the time when she had bought a scented candle that a mother from her Moms and Tots group was selling?
"What do we need a scented candle for, uh?" Nip had asked.
"Well, all the mothers in our group bought one, Nip, it's to support this lady. She's trying something on her own."
"Can you please return the candle?"
"How can I? What will I tell her? It's only ten dollars, Nip."
"Just tell her, I'm allergic to its scent. Scented candle my foot! A waste of money this, and nothing else."
Mumbling an excuse, Mila had returned the candle without meeting the lady's eyes. Like many times before in their marriage, she felt like a tiny pebble on a mighty ocean shore, denuded of its own streaks and veins to a smooth polish but with no light shining from within.
Mila lowered the window shade and accepted a glass of water from a smiling stewardess. The idea may even have sprung the night Nip's old school friend and his wife had come to dinner. To impress then, Nip had bought two lobsters. Only for Bill and Polly.
"The lobster is just out of this world." Bill said at the table, with an appreciative belch. Noticing a slice of haddock on Nip's plate, he arched his eyebrows. "Hey, buddy, what's with you, aren't you trying this lobster?"
Mila paused, waiting for Nip to mention their allergy as he had planned.
Nip's silence screamed in Mila's ears. It almost seemed he was waiting for Mila to pull an abracadabra and put a lobster on his plate. Did he forget he had brought only two?
"Mila, why are you two eating haddock?" Polly broke the silence, straightening her diamond pendant.
Anxiety thickening her voice, Mila spoke.
"We are both allergic to certain kinds of shellfish, so I have made haddock for us. I am so glad though that you like the lobster. Nip picked them especially for this dinner."
After the guests left, a furious Mila landed on her husband.
"Nip, why did you do that?"
"Why didn't you say something about your allergy, or whatever?"
"Well, you said it much better than I ever could. It's the same thing, you or I, does it matter who said it?"
"Yes, it does matter who tells the lie."
"Mila, I am now retired." Nip looked up from his phone. "We have to watch how we spend our money. Remember, it's fixed income." He wagged a finger at her as if speaking to a child. "We can't waste money on such fancy stuff. For the guests it's another matter, with them we have to maintain a standard."
Mila tasted bile in her mouth. She thought of Polly's diamond pendant, the one she kept adjusting at the dinner table. Life was passing her by, and that fleeting feeling, that thought, which she would later come to call the idea, hissed through her mind like the wind in a poison-tree. This time, she didn't feel as ashamed of the idea as she had in the past.
It was Tisha, their daughter, that Nip could not get a handle on. With Tisha there was a minimum of three different boxes of cookies open at the same time, much to Nip's chagrin. "Variety is the spice of life, Papa." Ripping open a fresh pack of Oreo cookies Tisha swung her long legs over the sofa back and tucking a pillow under her head, focused on her e-book.
"It's all for a reason honey. When you have your own family and start paying the bills, you'll know how important it is to save for a rainy day."
"The future can take care of itself, if you let it, Papa."
"Not really. Why don't you put aside a few bucks from that weekend job of yours towards a university fund rather than buying those ridiculous tattered jeans?"
"I thought you are going to take care of my uni fees." Mischief glinted in Tisha's eyes.
"Maybe if you stop letting that carton of chocolate milk spoil every week, I can think about it, No promises, mind you. By the way, your piano lessons, your dance classes don't come free, do they?" Nip uttered the last words pulling himself up to his full height, his shoulders squared.
Like her mother, Tisha had no answer to that and unlike her mother, did not care.
In the end, she did not need any assistance from her father. She left for Ann Arbor on a generous scholarship to pursue a degree in medical sciences. After she left, Mila left the door of Tisha's room shut for weeks. The empty room emptied out her heart and filled her eyes with tears. She often wondered how she could have survived Tisha's departure without her garden. She tilled and weeded and pruned and shaped and grew her garden with the same zeal with which she had tended her only child.
Over the years, the pie-shaped garden came to represent the very geography of Mila's world. The flower beds had razor-sharp edges that Mila honed to perfection every spring. She reached deep into the roots of the perennials adding pureed banana peels, crushed eggshells, and discarded coffee grounds she obtained from Starbucks across the street. The beds rose in a gentle hill meeting the ridge of the property line with a smart head butt. In one corner of the garden, Roshan, her son-in-law, had dug a tiny pond in which water irises nodded in the breeze and an electric fountain tirelessly emptied its silvery arcs. In recent times Mila created a sandpit with a small slide and a swing so when Noah visited, he could play in his granny's little desert. Nip would look around the garden and proclaim, "We don't need to go anywhere on a vacation, do we?"
Their monthly date night was the first casualty of Nip's forced retirement. Next, desserts of every kind were struck off the grocery list as were many other items that to Mila were indispensable. It seemed to her, The Column of Necessary Items in Nip's mental ledger was growing leaner by the month.
Next, something happened that appalled Mila. As a matter of habit, she measured out a cup of rice every afternoon and left it on the counter. She cooked it minutes before their supper so it would be hot and fluffy. A few days ago, Mila noticed after serving Nip there was hardly any rice left for her. The next day she increased the rice by a handful but still, there was not enough. Nip ate his fill, but Mila woke up at midnight hungry. After a couple of starving nights, she came in from the garden for a drink and caught Nip returning a fistful of dry rice from the bowl on the counter to its container.
"Why are you putting the rice back?" Mila's eyes burst out of their sockets.
"Well," for a nanosecond Nip stopped in his tracks, "I was just making sure we don't waste any rice …" his voice trailed off.
"Really? You want me to go hungry?" Mila looked away from her husband, unable to bear his poker face. "How could you do this?" Resentment, piling in her heart for months, rolled as tears.
Nip stopped removing the rice but his vicious cost-cutting continued. Mila felt she was in a prison where the four walls held hands and closed in on her until she was left gasping for breath. If she had always loved her garden, now she began to crave it with an exceptional yearning.
One crisp morning in late summer, a year after Nip's retirement, Mila put out their tea on the deck and found there was no Nip waiting there looking over the news on his phone. He was at the far end of the yard, digging the earth, beads of perspiration on his forehead glittering in the sunshine. Mila stared in dismay as out came the tulip and crocus bulbs along with some of the dying annuals.
"What are you doing, Nip? These bulbs have been in there for a long time, they will come back next Spring."
"You know, Mila, I was chatting with Ben and he is right. If we can have our own compost, we do not need to spend a single cent on fertilizers, can you believe that? All the money you spend on Miracle-Gro and manure and mulch, not required anymore. And we have so much space here that we do not know what to do with."
"This is not just space, this is my garden. I do not need compost." Mila could not believe Nip would rob her of her only delight. "Who pulls out perfectly healthy bulbs and plants to make room for a compost pit, huh? This is crazy, really crazy, I tell you."
He was not listening. Mila could very well be the dogwood standing at the end of the garden.
Within days, Nip dug a rectangle of considerable size; deep as it was wide. It looked quite huge and a little frightening to Mila. Noah's sandpit was completely gone as was the herb spiral. In time, the trench turned into a seething, boiling, rolling roiling mash of dead scrap. Invisible micro-organisms scurried around in its secret depths releasing a smell so foul that it completely defeated the fragrance of Mila's roses. Ah! the winding bower of rambling roses that was slung over the arbor, Mila's pride and joy.
Beyond the arbor was a neat vegetable patch that gave her bunches of zucchini, tomatoes, cucumber, and radishes all through the summer.
The perfect order from the perfect garden vanished. Stench replaced scent, hideousness trumped harmony, and a beast ravished beauty.
Mila no longer went to her garden. Instead, she began to look forward to her visit to Chicago. The Covid-19 pandemic had stopped Noah and his parents from visiting them in July as they usually did but now the U.S.-Canada border was open again leaving Mila free to use her ticket. That her ticket was purchased on Nip's Frontier staff account, was a matter of considerable solace to Mila. She shuddered to think what avenue would have been left open to her had the plans been made after Nip's severance was cut off.
Mila opened her bedroom window to check for clouds in the night sky. She had packed her suitcase a week ago. It was filled with toys for Noah. He had specifically asked for a dump truck. "What do you plan to dump with your new dump truck, Noah?" Mila had laughingly asked on FaceTime.
"All of your garbage. Dida." The four-year-old had replied.
Like always, her eyes misted over thinking of Noah.
"I hope it doesn't rain tomorrow. If it rains too hard my flight might get cancelled." Mila said, pulling the window shut.
"Nah, it's not going to rain." Nip said from the bed. "The weather-man says there is only a fifty percent chance, which means it won't rain. I need to get all those leaves into the compost pit first. What time is your flight again?"
"If you are going to be busy with the cleaning up, I can take a taxi to the airport tomorrow." Said Mila.
"No need, I can very easily drop you."
Mila didn't say anything, but she recalled a time when Nip had dragged his feet so much that she had arrived at the airport after her gate had closed. It was her pathetic plea that had finally melted the hearts of the authorities, and they had made an exception for her so she could board the plane.
Confirming Mila's fears and toppling Nip's challenge to the weatherman, it rained the whole night. Fall rain that would not stop falling. Mila turned on her side. Nip was snoring. She lay listening to the susurration of the falling rain thinking of Noah. Her heart beat fast as his little face floated before her eyes, and with that vision printed on her mind, the rain lulled her to sleep.
The brightness of the next morning put both Mila and Nip in a happy mood. She walked into the spare bedroom and once again checked her suitcase. Yes, the dump truck was there, the top for Tisha she had bought from Cleo's and the scarf too because it went so well with the top. And for Roshan, a shirt from The Bay. She always bought the best gift for Roshan. Such a caring boy. He still bought chocolates and flowers on a whim for Tisha.
"Nip, we have to get going," Mila called from the patio-door. "It's two already. I should leave in about an hour."
"Plenty of time. You'll get hungry if you reach too early."
She stood watching Nip raking the semi-wet leaves and mulching them, though Mila knew mulching was not necessary and then piling them by the pit. He would layer them in the compost with the green waste he had collected from the weeds.
Mila walked over and stood by his side. The night's rain had turned the compost into a sludge making the pit look deep and murky.
"Ah! You cannot imagine how much carbon we are putting into this compost with all these brown leaves. We have gone completely green. Now, isn't that something?" She felt like saying too much carbon slows decomposition when the nitrogen is used up and some organisms, crucial to the composting process, die. But she held her tongue because she no longer cared. Instead, she said, "I can't wait to see Noah."
Nip's face was turned to one side and with a shock, Mila saw how closely little Noah resembled his grandfather.
"That little man will find a wife one day and he will forget all about you." Nip threw back his head and laughed. Mila studied the veins standing out purplish on his neck. They stretched from his chin and disappeared into the neck of his golf-shirt – longitudinally. What if they stretched like latitudes around his neck, wrapping themselves around and around and around?
"Was just kidding." Nip glanced at her. "But I'd say don't get too involved with that kid. He's not yours." Many times in her life, Mila would wonder if that was the point when the idea, as a full-grown poison tree, first struck her. She could never be too sure. And then, it no longer mattered.
"Milaaa." One careless moment and Nip's right foot began slipping on the edge of the pit. Mila watched his knees bending and his arms flailing like oars cutting the watching air as he tried to regain his balance. The rain-slippery clay refused to give Nip a chance.
"Mila, give me a hand." Nip screamed, his eyes bulging.
His wife of twenty-nine years stepped back as he crashed into the morass of scrap, the rake flying free from his hand and landing at Mila's feet as if begging for retribution. She grabbed the rake and began to comb the pile of leaves, that moments ago Nip had gathered, into the pit. She could see Nip at the bottom, his eyes exploding with disbelief. He thrashed wildly, trying to clutch the sides of the pit and haul himself out, but the more he tried the deeper he sank into the cesspool. He was on his back, gasping. Mila aimed the leaves straight at his open mouth, stuffing them in hard with the butt of the rake, gagging him, pushing his breath down his own windpipe with the carbon and the nitrogen.
She couldn't remember for how long she raked the leaves and the weeds into the compost but she stopped only when the idea released her. A terrible stillness ruled. Mila looked down at her hands, the knuckles stood out white from holding the rake so tight. It hurt to unclench her fingers. She threw the rake into the pit and as she turned to return to the house, her eyes caught a shiny pebble gleaming in the grass. She kicked it into the pit with the tip of her toe and it fell on the compost with a soft thud.
She could not stop her teeth from chattering as she stood in the hot shower. Later, she dressed and called for a cab.
Walking into the kitchen, she opened the freezer and pulled out the packets of special flatbread and kababs she had made that the children loved so much. The ones for Noah, without chopped green chillies, she had frozen separately. She unzipped her suitcase and laid the food on top of the other presents, then closed and zipped it again. Ziiippp! At the airport, when the U.S. customs officer would ask her, "Any items of food, Ma'am?" without batting an eyelid she would say, "No" and then, with emphasis, "None." She would walk towards her gate, her head held high, pulling the suitcase full of dreams behind her.