I stepped onto my porch and inhaled the evening breeze. It had been drizzling on and off throughout the day, and the scent of the grass, damp earth, wild mallow and mustard filled my lungs. The burbling of the creek across the road masked the sound of the interstate, two miles away, and I smiled as I got into my truck to pick up Linda. I looked back at my house — a restored Victorian painted orange, black and white, just like the painted lady butterflies flitting among the lantana. Taking in my garden, the wild space surrounding it, full of Spanish grasses and the song of a meadowlark echoing over it, I realized, not for the first time, that I had been very fortunate in the place I lived as a child, some forty years before.
The empty fields around my parents' house in Abrojo, a hundred and fifty miles to the southeast of my home now, had been tied up in court pretty much during my entire childhood; the city had laid the streets, the developer had built a few houses and then had gone bankrupt. Even better, the neighborhood was surrounded by a golf course that went to seed shortly after we moved in; it was supposed to be the draw for the region, but it failed too, and was even wilder than the lots surrounding my house. This meant that kids in our neighborhood grew up exploring roughly ten square miles of a feral garden space that turned bright green with Spanish grass every spring, and that hawks, burrowing owls, and ground squirrels were our neighbors. Best of all, the song of Western meadowlarks on early mornings echoing across the fields made me feel as though time and space, and my childhood and adolescence, could go on forever. There was no intrinsic reason why those random events in the dream hills where my childhood lay should have become the center or perhaps better to say the foundation of my adult life, but here I was nonetheless, still smelling the wild grasslands which accompanied my earliest memories.
I got out of the car to watch a garter snake a moment, recalling that I had spent much of that childhood roaming those hills with my best friend Jamie, digging for fossils and semiprecious gems, looking for snakes and lizards, hunting tadpoles, tree frogs and Western toads in the flood channel, most of which is now concrete but which still had earthen banks when I was a kid.
My friendship with Jamie sort of ran its course about the time we got into high school. I lost interest in herptiles, having decided I would rather be a poet than a scientist, and spent a lot of time smoking my brother Reed's or sister Paula's weed when I could find it, wandering the fields writing poetry or memorizing someone else's, and dedicating my performance to whichever girl I had a crush on at the moment. That was safer than actually speaking to her.
It was while I was wandering in a direction that took me as far away from Merrie, my latest crush — and I hope she reads this someday — that I discovered the thicket and what it contained. What I found there shaped the rest of my life. I was trying to get to the wilderness of the nearby hills — cactus, sweet and bitter sages, and feral eucalyptus — to see if it would inspire me to new poetry, when I stumbled upon the grove. It was mostly willow trees and that odd smelling plant that grows in damp places — arroyo willow (Salix lasiolepis) and mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia), I discovered later. I got out the flashlight I usually carried, and looked in.
I breathed in mud and mulefat, heard Pacific tree frogs calling, and a stream purling past my feet. I was looking at a building of some sort, maybe twenty feet on this side, the roof in really bad shape. The door, facing east, had long since rotted away.
Inside, the moon's beams sloped in through the open roof at a forty-five degree angle, shining on the reeds and grasses filling the space. The ground was so marshy, I discovered, because the shed had been built around a spring, which ran through the space in an earthen channel and out the front door to the east, burbling as it went. I stepped on the creek's edge, and the fresh cool scent of the spearmint growing there rose up and filled me as I inhaled deeply. Scattered about the place were hoes, rakes, and other tools, but also the remains of a desk, a mossy mattress, a portable cooler, and a broken chemical toilet. On the western side was a painted iron bench with a floral design cutout.
Stretching out on the bench — it was just long enough to hold me — I smelled something like fresh turned earth after a spring shower, and another scent I later identified as heliotrope, a surprisingly pleasing combination which I have since been able to reproduce through experiment. I felt like I was coming home. With my sweatshirt and bookbag as a pillow, I opened my book — I was re-reading Swann's Under the Greenwood Tree, his novel about Robin Hood (he was a faun, and Maid Marian a dryad), but then put it down for a while, listening to the creek, the wind in the reeds, the tree frogs, smelling the mint and the wild Spanish grasses, and cool clear fresh water running under my bench.
I left only when my flashlight started to dim, realizing with a start that I was probably late for dinner. Having come from the cottage, I noticed, not for the first time, that my parents' house smelled mostly of stale cigarette smoke, fried chicken, and cat piss. I need not have worried about getting there on time. "Where ya been, Robbie?" my dad asked, smirking as he opened another can of beer.
"Uh, exploring," I said, "snake hunting."
"Aren't you a little old for that?" my mom asked, not looking away from the screen.
"I'm going to be a herpetologist," I said.
"Well, you better not bring any of those STDs into this house," my father said, and they both laughed, and turned back to the TV. It was some sword and sandal flick, and they ignored me as I watched the actress — she was Spanish, or Greek, or Mediterranean, anyway — nearly fall out of her tunic with her every gyration. Leaving when some Roman centurions hustled her offscreen, I grabbed some chicken from the table and headed up to my room.
"Do your damn homework, Robbie," my father called out as I headed up the stairs, "I'm only paying for college if you start getting better grades!"
I could hear Paula and Reed laughing in her room as I passed. They weren't all bad, but they weren't very good either. I still remember my first drug trip, on my twelfth birthday, when they took me to a nearby field and pressured me into taking mushrooms. After they turned into crows and flew away to perch on the moon, I woke up at about three am, freezing, with leaves in my hair. "Don't be a fool, Robbie — quit jerkin' your tool or you're off to military school!" Reed called out as I pass Paula's room, repeating my father's frequent threat of packing us off to some institution or other. I shut the door against their laughter and picked up my math book, but got distracted by a Robert E. Howard story and the nudie mags I'd borrowed from my brother. Crawling into bed and imagining myself with Hibiscus, the South Pacific beauty from last month's Hustler, I fell asleep. The next day, school just dragged...I couldn't wait to get to the house, finish my paper route, and head back to the cottage.
For the first week, I had it made. Every time I went there, I brought books, snacks, and soda, tuned Reed's old transistor radio to a mellow rock station, and I was set. The walls disappeared behind the ecosystem surrounding me, becoming the only world that mattered. If I planned well, I imagined, I could make this a permanent thing, while the rest of the world went on without me.
Never mind that it didn't work out that way, that it certainly couldn't have worked out that way. There are times now — when I smell heliotrope or hear the bubbling of my fountains, when I close my eyes and listen to the wind blowing through the leaves of the tree mallows that surround my garden, that I can recreate that space. I've since calculated that I enjoyed that cottage for six weeks and one day, but in such moments, it seems that that time lasted forever, and that somehow I am still there.
Eventually, someone would have figured out my new schedule, but my time there didn't last that long. Even Paula and Reed, one and two years older than me, and who came and went as they pleased, were passed out by two a.m., so I stopped going to the cottage in the afternoon, waiting until everyone was asleep to slither down the sycamore outside my window , and crawled back up around five.
The first night I tried that, the place was a little creepy. An occasional moth was drawn to my flashlight, startling me, but I learned to set it up so that they didn't fly in my face, at least, and I settled down to read, eat, drink, and be merry. Other than that, nothing seemed to be creeping about to bother me — I was worried there would be mosquitos, or spiders, or worse, but I guess it was too early in the year for them to have shown up. "I'll worry about them in the summer," I mused aloud. If only. In retrospect, I was lucky that no one in my family found out about it — not that it mattered in the end.
So I settled into my new routine, going to the cottage and then crawling into bed just before it was time to get up, dozing through my classes, passing out under a tree during lunch most days, living, really, only for the time that I could get to my safe space again.
The fifth night I went there, my lack of sleep caught up with me, and I dozed off on the bench. I awoke, or dreamed that I awoke, to the sound of rustling vegetation. Sitting up, I saw a shrub in the southeast corner moving, as Merrie slipped from the between the leaves, dressed like the woman in the sword and sandals film. Looking right at me, she walked toward me, but disappeared before she reached me...
That woke me, for real. Getting up, I saw that there was a plant exactly like the one I had dreamed of — I must not have noticed it when there was enough daylight to see it, as it was mostly invisible by night, being in a dark corner. Its leaves and flowers were soft, and carried the scent of earth and heliotrope I had noticed earlier. Its flowers had showy purple petals and an even showier pistil and stamen, bright yellow, thrusting forward.
While investigating the plant, I stubbed my foot against something — a stack of plastic tubs. Pulling them out, I spent the next few nights looking through them. There were a lot of odds and ends — receipts and other paperwork dealing with gardening and so forth, dating to about five years before, but also for food and other essentials, from which I gathered that the owner, a fellow named George Minopoulos, was a caretaker who had turned his storage shed into a living space (I later did some research and discovered he was found face down in one of the ponds, a butterfly net in his hand; the coroner announced that he died of a heart attack. He was golf course owner's son, which is probably why he was allowed to live in the cottage. He was only twenty-seven at the time — which was old to me, then, but now, not so much.)
There were also notebooks with his work. He was an amateur naturalist of some knowledge and artistic skill; the books contained drawings of the local terrain, plants and animals. There was also a narrative of the seasons, of migrating birds and those that lived there year round, and this poem about a heron and himself, I think (one of the few I can recite from memory):
a heron leaning
toward the pond; I crouch behind
cattails watching him
One tub held a geologist's pick, binoculars, a microscope, and specimen jars; another had books by Keats, Whitman, and Thoreau, and of Greek myth, which must have inspired this poem:
goat's hoofprint in mud
stream's bubbling and syrinx song
a dryad's giggles
Though I had preferred sonnets until then, I started to write haiku after discovering George's, and even though my early poems are lost, I still dabble in it today.
There was another tub with more notebooks, some sort of net, a jar of dried leaves and flowers, and a hookah. "Stoner much, George?" I said, and opened a notebook. The first page had a drawing of the flower I had just discovered, with the words Malva foumára beneath it. It gave instructions for preserving flowers in the herb dryer (which is what that net was) and a lot of poetry about someone named Foumára — the inspiration for the plant's scientific name, I assumed. There were also drawings of her — a slender girl with pointed ears and bright green hair, to judge by the poetry and the drawings — Foumára pouting, Foumára reclining on the bench smoking the hookah, Foumára sleeping, Foumára rising like a cloud of smoke from the plant. "Weird," I said aloud. My druggy experiences included the time a friend had borrowed an older brother's water pipe, so I was sure I could figure out how to work this one. Matches in my pocket, water from the spring, and the hookah was ready to fire a few moments later…
Dried, the petals had become a dark brown, the stamens a pale tan, and both crumbled easily if I wasn't careful, but George had dried them intact. There were about fifty in the jar.
The smoke was thick and sweet, like honey, with no bitter aftertaste. I smoked until the flower was gone, and stretched out, feeling as if my body were rising off the bench to meet Merrie's astral body, which drifted down from the ceiling. The stars in their courses played music of ever shifting time signatures, and we danced to it, whirling around each other until we became a single being with its roots deep in the earth. The earth, the sky, the wind called my name, liltingly--"RO-O-O-bin…" I began to understand why George had written all that poetry. I felt like writing some myself, so I took one of George's empty notebooks and began an ode to Merrie, the star maiden, complete with illustrations. I wasn't much of an artist, so the drawings were very sketchy, nothing like George's beautiful images, but I wrote down my dreams, a description of the place, and haiku about both. Afterwards, I took it to my room and kept it in a hollowed out copy of a Reader's Digest edition of Great Expectations.
The next day dragged, and my head was foggy, but I was happy. That afternoon, I finished my paper route and stopped at the local supermarket to load up on soda and snacks for the cottage, and Mrs. Brown, Jamie's mom, came up behind me in line, her cart full of the week's shopping.
"Hello, Robin, how have you been? How's your family?" I answered in monosyllables, then told her I'd started writing poetry, and that I'd memorized "La Belle Dame sans Merci" (I knew that Keats was one of her favorites) "Oh, Keats! The way he blends awareness of death with a celebration of life...poor tubercular poet! I haven't read anything by him lately, alas. You should stop by sometime...I'll cook you some chicken piccata, is that still your favorite?" I nodded, and then she said, "Jamie's out in the car, why don't you say hello?" I thanked her, headed out to the parking lot and soon located Jamie. We caught up on this and that, who the hottest girls were, and decided to walk back to our neighborhood together. I really wanted to get to the cottage, but I realized I had missed Jamie, too.
We'd been walking for a bit when I decided to tell him. "I found something cool on the golf course...there's a storage shed that someone made into a cottage, and he's got all these notebooks and naturalist's equipment. And he also wrote all this erotic poetry that's really quite hot!"
"Wow, that's cool — hey, remember those Playboy mags your brother had? Does he still have them?"
I was about to answer when three of the local bullies drove by and called us names. We kept our heads down, and by the time they had passed Jamie had forgotten the cottage. I didn't bring it up again.
For three days I smoked those flowers, and I started to have weird dreams every night for the two or three hours I slept in my bed, before I went to the cottage. The seventh night, I think it was, I imagined that I was staring at the poster of The Sea Witch that I had pinned flat up against the ceiling. The Sea Witch turned and stepped out of the painting toward me — except it wasn't the woman in Frazetta's painting, it was Merrie. She drifted down from the ceiling, whispering my name in a foreign accent, disappearing before reaching me.
The next night, Merrie appeared as Faye Dunaway's character from The Three Musketeers, and then as Ann Wilson from Heart's Little Queen album. The dreams didn't bother me, but I was pretty out of it most of the day, and napped wherever I could — break, lunch, before my paper route. Still, that was a good week.
The effect of the chemicals must have been cumulative, because about two weeks after I started smoking the flowers, I felt as if all of my senses were on fire — I felt the wind stroking the leaves of the nearby plants as if they were my skin, I could hear the roots of the mallow reaching into the earth, taste the earth as they were digging into my tongue.
A moment later, I felt someone stroking my lips. When I looked up, I saw a pair of hazel eyes staring back at me. "Merrie?" I said, and she just laughed lightly, then kissed me. Her tongue inside my mouth was soft and moist, and tasted of earth and heliotrope. She pushed me down on the bench, then, unbuckled my pants, and we did the deed — it was over pretty quickly. Only after, as we were lying there wrapped around each other, did I notice that her hair was pale green, and her ears, though soft and flexible, were pointed at the tips.
"Who are you?" I asked, and she laughed.
"Who do I look like, louloúdi mou?" she asked, in the same accent Merrie had used in my dream the other night.
"Just like a girl from school. Why do you look so much like her?"
"I am the spirit of that plant," she answered, pointing at the shrub in the corner with the mouthpiece of the hookah, "and you helped me appear with my flowers," and she leaned back and exhaled a cloud of smoke. "I'm partly real, partly born of your imagination...which is why you see me thus."
"Well, you feel real to me," and I put my hand on her shoulder, and let it stray down towards her breast.
Her laughter was delicious, and full — nothing imaginary about that — and contagious. She snuggled against me, as I asked "What should I call you?"
Yawning, she said, "You can call me Merrie, if you like, but my name is Foumára..." Her sleepiness was contagious, too, and so I drifted off. When I awoke, smiling, she was gone.
I barely made it back to my room before my parents' alarm clock went off. I pretended I was sick, but my father dragged me out of bed. I managed to sleep through lunch and fifth period, which helped a bit. I spied on Merrie, but her behavior didn't change. If her astral body had visited me in my dreams last night, I thought, she was doing a good job of pretending otherwise.
My days became time I killed while waiting until I could return to the cottage, until I could smoke Foumára's flowers again. She appeared first as a mist among the leaves, then drifted upward like exhaled smoke, coalescing into human form. The longer I smoked, the bigger she grew and the more substantial she became, until she settled atop me, gaining weight as the flowers' active chemical ingredient — I still haven't found out what that might be — shaped the way I saw the world, until she was stretched out, all five and a half feet of her, atop my body.
Afterwards, as she curled up on my chest and legs, I smelled her hair, touched the bridge of her nose, her lips. "I've been waiting for that for a long time," she said, sleepily, exhaling a lungful of smoke from her own flowers.
"Yeah, me too," I said.
"Am I your first?" she asked.
"Um, well, yeah. I'm only fifteen!"
"Well, you're a natural..."
"So are you," and then we both laughed at the double import of those words.
I asked what it was like when she was in the plant, and she told me that she felt her roots stretching out between the rocks and other roots and into the earth, finding streams and pockets of nutrients, like a mind wandering through a maze. The connection she felt while making love with me was an entirely different sensation, a different sort of belonging, of merging with something new. She remembered being brought across the water by George's uncle from Crete, when he came to America; the effects of her smoke had been a family secret for generations. Or so I have pieced together from what little she told me, and what George wrote about her — I was too young and callow to ask her much about herself.
"How did you get this?" she asked, gently touching a bruise on my upper arm.
"Oh, yeah. My brother Reed grabbed me there because I had borrowed something of his without asking."
"Reed? Is he a plant like me? Maybe he should be here with me instead," and she smiled as she blew a stream of smoke out of the side of her mouth.
"Uh, no. I do not think that would be a good idea."
"Relax, lover. I was just joking," and she kissed the bruise with her soft lips. "Maybe I'm the one who should be jealous. Tell me more about this Merrie."
"Oh, you know, just a girl...she likes some cool stuff, dresses like she belongs at the Ren Faire" — I had to explain that — "and is almost as hot as you are. Except you are bigger, here," and I laid my hand on her breasts.
"Typical male," she said. "Sounds like a sweet girl. Maybe you'll settle down with her someday."
"Yeah, no. I don't need her now — I've got you, lolodi mou," I replied.
She laughed at my stumbling Greek, said, "Good answer, Robin," then put her lips on mine.
Sunday mornings for some reason were the only times my family ate together with the TV off — a replacement for the church we had stopped attending, I guess. I was thinking about the phallic nature of sausage, and how the scrambled egg's yellow matched the color of Foumára's flower, when I felt a sharp pain.
"Hey, Robbie, I'm talking to you," my dad said, flicking my ear again. "What are you, high?" and everyone except my mom laughed as I turned my face down and started eating again. To my dad's question about my plans for the day, I mumbled something about homework. "Damn right you are," he said, getting up to leave the table.
I was increasingly tired every day, and that Monday more so than most. I was dozing in my Anthropology class when I heard Ms. Dellinger's voice right next to my desk, saying "Earth to Rob, come in Major Tom, are you receiving?" She smiled at me and repeated her question about rice Christians. When I couldn't answer, she asked another student.
"Rob, could you come over to my desk, please?" she said, as the other students filed out when the bell rang.
"Yeah, what's up, Ms. Dellinger?"
"You've been zoning out a lot, and not doing well on your exams. What's going on?" she asked, in her soft low voice.
"Yeah, I'm ok. Just tired."
"Is there something you'd like to talk about? Something going on at home?"
"No, really, I'm okay. I'll do better on the next test."
"Okay. Let me know if you ever want to talk," she said, squeezing my shoulder, and I turned and left. I remember feeling the place where she had touched me like a cool breeze on my shoulder the rest of the day. Still, I wondered why she thought I was troubled, when my troubles had just ended, and I was happier than I had ever been in my life.
Going over to the cottage a few days later, I walked slowly, noting the world around me. A mockingbird trilled, something slithered through the grass, the stars were burning bright in the clear cool skies, cornflowers were growing in the fields. Singing that we had to make this garden grow, I entered the cottage.
"Nice song," Foumára said, settling atop me the moment she materialized. "What's it about?"
I explained a bit, and she replied, "Perfect for the first night of spring...isn't it lovely?" and she bent down towards me, her lips finding mine.
I remember that Foumára was particularly voracious that night. "C'mon, lover," she said, "gonna bless these seeds you sow!" Afterwards, she collapsed upon me, stretching along my body with her legs bent and pressed tightly together. She whispered, sleepily, "Have you ever thought about what it would be like if you were to become like me, louloúdi mou?"
"Is that possible?" I said, starting to sit up, but she protested, "Don't get up, I need to lay still. I don't think it really is," she went on, "but maybe we could do something else. We could find a way to move my shrub, build a place like this somewhere else, maybe even start a family. We might be able to have children, you know."
At that, I did sit up, and I saw mischief in her eyes. "You can't be serious," I said. "That simply isn't possible."
"I think it very well might be," she said, taking my hand right hand and placing it on her belly. "Our child will be made of dreams, and bones."
I thought about it...and my heart told me it was the right thing. Maybe I could dig up her plant, move her somewhere safer — somewhere outside, even. I was almost sixteen — I could move out, get a job, become an emancipated minor, I think they called it — and we could raise our half-human, half-dryad child together.
"Why not?" I responded, and then she kissed me. We did it once more, for luck, and then I headed toward my bed. "Got any eggs for me?" I asked a rabbit that crossed my path. "The year's at the spring," I recited, "I'm in Foumára's bush, and all's right with the world." I got into my room just in time to sketch an image of the three of us — me laying on a grass bank, Foumára stretched out and snuggling against me, and our child, with pointed ears, suckling at her breast. Smiling, I tucked the journal under my pillow and passed out.
School was the same as always, and I couldn't wait to get back to the cottage to see Foumára again, to talk about our future, but coming in through the back door, I ran into Paula and Reed on the porch. "You left something out last night, sweetie," Paula called to me. I froze for a moment, then rushed upstairs to my room. The bed had been fitted with new sheets. My journal wasn't under my pillow, it wasn't in the hollowed out Dickens, it wasn't anywhere. Rushing downstairs, I ran out the back door, screaming "What the fuck did you do with it? Give it back!"
"Hey, we don't have it," Reed said, "Mom found it." Shit. Mom was out shopping, so I started ransacking my parents' room, looking in all the likely places, but I had only gotten as far as her dresser when my dad walked in. He was back from work early — never a good sign.
"Looking for something, Robbie?" he said, his face impassive. "These came in the mail today," and he handed me progress reports in math, PE, and anthropology. "Failing every one of them. You wanna mess up your life, that's fine, but you're done messing up ours. Time to try something different." At his command, I followed him down to the den, where we sat as he watched The Praise the Lord Club; a guest was explaining how Debbie Boone's "You Light Up My Life," played backwards, described, graphically, the singer's sexual liaisons with Satan. I wasn't alone for a moment until we got into my dad's Jag, right after my mom returned from shopping. She loaded a suitcase in the trunk, her face expressionless, until she turned to me, tears running down her face, saying, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Reed and Paula stood off to the side, mute.
"Get ready to drive, Reed," my dad said, and so my brother started the ignition while my father and I got in back.
I avoided my father's eyes as he said, "This is for the best, Robbie. I'm taking you to a place where they can straighten you out. You can't understand that now, but you will someday." I said nothing, but hopped out at the next light and ran full speed in the direction of the cottage, knowing that it didn't make much sense to go there. I didn't make it half a block before my dad caught me, punched me in the belly and knocked the wind out of me. "Next time you try that, I'll do something that'll leave a scar," he said, dragging me back to the car.
Ten hours later, we were in the registration office for Salt Flats Military Academy, which was about as good as the name made it sound; an hour after that, I had a crewcut, a Bible, a bedroll and towel, and a butt ugly khaki uniform with the tag "Private Heron" on it. I survived by getting passing grades, managing the garden, and daydreaming (I didn't dare write anything down.) I had a single flower in my jacket pocket when I left, which was soon nothing but fragments. I rolled it up in a page from my Bible and smoked it, to no effect.
Two weeks after I got there, I dreamt that Foumára was whimpering my name — three or four nights I had that dream. That Friday the students were allowed into town to see a movie; I slipped out during the trailer and got as far as the city limits before the sheriff caught me and brought me back. When the vice principal took away my gardening privileges for a month, I decided that another attempt wasn't worth it.
There were seven hundred and thirty seven days between when I was dropped off and the day I turned eighteen, and it took me twelve hours on a Greyhound to get from the town outside Salt Flats to my hometown. I showed up at Jamie's house just as he and his family were sitting down to dinner. I looked in the window, they stared at me a little too long, and I was turning to leave, when Mrs. Brown said, "Oh, my goodness, Robin, come in, come in and join us!" Everyone got up to hug me, and then I sat down to Mrs. Brown's pot roast, mashed potatoes and gravy.
I laughed when I noticed the little whine that the refrigerator gave off every twenty seconds, like clockwork. "The Ghost still here, huh? He's been there since Jamie and I were in junior high! " I said, and everyone laughed. "He's part of the family now," Mrs. Brown said, "we wouldn't dream of exorcising him!"
That night I wept until I fell asleep.
Mr. Brown, and Jamie, who worked at a local auto mechanic's on the weekend — he would be good at that — were gone by the time I got up, so it was only Mrs. Brown and the twins in the kitchen when I made my way down there.
"How'd you sleep, Robin?" she said, pouring me coffee. I shrugged, thanked her, and sat down. The twins — twelve years old, now! — finished their waffles and, getting up together, headed toward the door.
"Seymour, Zooey, aren't you forgetting something?" They came back, rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Mrs. Brown patted their heads as they passed.
"Have you been to see your folks?"
"No, not yet." I looked out the window. Across the street, a crow with a clubfoot, carrying a branch, flew deep into an ash tree and flew out again a few seconds later. "I don't think I'm going to anytime soon."
She looked down at the empty plate in front of her as she spoke. "We suspected something was going on in that house, Robin, and once I called a friend who works for the county — she said that it didn't seem like, as bad as it sounded, that it wasn't bad enough for Child Protective Services to get involved."
"Yeah, things were weird in my house. I've had a lot of time to think about it, and, as broken as my parents were, I think they really did the best they could, even if it wasn't, very." I paused then, and went on, "Your house was one of my safe spaces. I can't thank you enough for that."
She smiled, said she was glad that they could help what little they could, and then I went on, "I really appreciate your letting me stay here, Mrs. Brown. I won't stay long." I took a sip of coffee, then asked, "I met your brother Jim and his wife a few times, when they were visiting — don't they own a nursery in Alondra?"
She answered affirmatively, and I said, "I can't stay in this town, but I like the general area, since I grew up here. I was in charge of the garden at Salt Flats, and so I have some experience with plants. Do you suppose he might have an opening for me?"
"Maybe...I'll call and find out."
"Thank you," I said, finishing my breakfast and heading upstairs to shower.
When I came back downstairs, Mrs. Brown told me that her brother was expecting my call. A short while later, Jim and I had come to an arrangement satisfactory to both of us — I would start out helping to water and feed the plants — my title would be Gardening Assistant — and could stay with him and his wife Monica until I found a place of my own.
I turned to Mrs. Brown, and thanked her, tears in my eyes. She squeezed my shoulder, and I turned away as she started to load the dishwasher.
I headed out the front door, cawed at the clubfoot crow carrying another branch to the ash tree, and set out for the Greyhound station to buy a ticket to Alondra for the next morning. That done, I walked quickly through my old neighborhood until I found the place where the cottage had been. At dinner the night before I had had lots of questions — had the ownership dispute been resolved, was the golf course a golf course finally, or had something else happened? And my heart was heavy with the answers I had received. From the hilltop I could see that the wild garden of my childhood had been filled in with ticky tacky houses, many of them with plumbing installed by my father's company, probably.
There was no trace of the cottage, and the willows and mulefat that had surrounded it had been replaced by sycamores, much older than two years, and Kentucky bluegrass. Someone on the city council had decided that it would be nice to preserve the spring, though, so a local artist had created a stone and brass sculpture of a river through which the water flowed. I didn't follow it to see where it ended up. I sat there until dusk, but even in the twilight hours when the veil between the worlds is supposed to be thinnest, I could get no sense of Foumára's presence.
Mrs. Brown's chicken piccata was waiting for me when I returned. Jamie and his steady girlfriend, Jenny, who I recognized from high school but hadn't really known, was there too, along with Mr. and Mrs. Brown and the twins. We talked of this and that, of Jamie and Jenny's plans to get engaged after high school, how Jamie hoped to get a full time job at the auto repair shop.
That night, while Jenny was helping Mrs. Brown with the dishes, Jamie and I talked as we had not talked in years. We spoke of how we had grown apart, and why, and how fond we were of the good times that we had had. We healed some old ruptures; only later did I realize that it didn't mean that we were actually friends again. I don't think there's a word in English for that relationship.
I slept badly that night, but I couldn't remember any of my dreams.
The Browns all dropped me off at the bus station the next morning, waving as we pulled away. The next time I saw them was at Jamie and Jenny's wedding. I still see them a few times a year.
I stayed at Jim and Monica's for a month, found my own place, and moved up to assistant manager of his nursery in three years. I worked there for eleven years total, and that was a good time for me. Every day, I helped people find a plant that would attract hummingbirds and bees, that would grow in that shady spot, that would produce the most fruit. Every day my hands, marked with the earth that touched them, cradled plants as I transferred them from one home to another.
I started taking night classes at the community college a few months after I moved to Alondra, then transferred to the state university, where I earned my Bachelor's and Master's in Botany. I now teach full time at the community college where I started. I wrote my thesis on the taxonomy of the Malvaceae of Crete, where I go almost every summer, now. I have discovered four new species in my trips up and down the hills and valleys of the islands of the Mediterranean, and I have named them after a few people in Abrojo and Alondra who are important to me.
I have not yet discovered any individuals of the species Malva foumára. I'm not sure that I ever will.
Scratching my upper lip, I smelled the redwood mulch still stuck under my fingernails. I had led my students on a tour of the local redwood forest that morning, and the scent brought to my mind images of my favorite part, the moment when the students and I kneel down in the twilit space beneath the trees to smell the dark moist earth, born of centuries of microorganisms breaking down the fallen leaves, bark, and branches of the giants towering over us, sheltering us from everything outside.
A truck zoomed past. "Shit!" I said, realizing how long I had been standing there. I texted Linda that I was on my way, and headed out.
Linda was on her porch when I arrived, dressed in that gypsy blouse she knows I like. She smiled as she hopped into the truck, then leaned over to give me a smooch. Settling back, she said, "I think it's time that you brought me to that Greek restaurant you like so much. We've been doing whatever we're doing for a year now, and you still haven't taken me there."
"That sounds like a good idea," I replied, and, throwing the truck into gear, burned a little rubber on the way there.
The owner, Mrs. Georgiou, kissed me on the cheek as I came in. "Your usual place is ready, Professor," she said as she led us to the patio. I ordered in Greek from the matron's son, who smiled at my errors; when the family platter arrived, Linda tried everything. Every taste brought back my summer trips to Greece, and to this restaurant.
After dinner, I asked Linda her about her plans for her dissertation. She had been one of my sharpest students at the community college, and I was pleased at how far she had come — farther than I was able, in fact.
"I've been thinking about doing a study of the dewy pine, the only carnivorous plant that grows in dry soil."
"That sounds like a good idea. Would you go to the Mediterranean?"
"If I chose that subject, yes," she said. Mrs. Georgiou brought us fresh fruit for dessert, on the house. She caught my eye as she did, nodded her head at Linda and raised her eyebrows in approval.
Dessert finished, I lit Linda's cigarette, and she reached across the table to lay her hand on mine. "Robin, we've known each other for seven years, since I was one of your students seven years ago, and we've been doing whatever it is we've been doing for a year, as of today," Linda said, "which I understand is about your limit for relationships."
I snorted, said "Where'd you hear that?"
"Like I said, I've known you for a while, and I've learned a few things about relationships in forty-five years."
"Well, I hadn't really thought about it, but that sounds about right."
"Ok. You don't have to tell me where we stand on it, but I just wanted to know where the edges of the map are." Blowing out a stream of smoke as she got up, she said, "It's a nice night to relax in your backyard."
My home is a Victorian house in an unincorporated area, surrounded by wild spaces and backing up to the wilderness, my garden bordered by tree mallows — the perfect place to enjoy the hash I cultivate, reputed to be the best in the area (the sheriff's son is a fan). Linda lay aside the pipe we'd been sharing and pushed me back on the iron bench; I knew that I would be remembering this moment for a few days, as my bones ached from the floral cutouts digging into my flesh...
Afterwards, as she stretched out across my body, I said, "I've been thinking about this summer. As Homer observed, 'Light is the task when many share the toil.' What do you think about combining our forces this summer?"
"How do you mean?"
"Well, I'm going to Crete, and Portugal is just around the corner. If we plan things right, we could go to each other's research sites, help each other out. ¿Hablas español?"
"Não, mas falo português," she replied. "I think a trip together would be delightful, and instructive," and she blew a series of smoke rings at the moon, a few days past full, and settled down again.
A mallow flower landed on Linda's hair, and I picked it up and stuck it behind her ear. "Maybe I can help you find that mallow that started your love for them, this summer," she whispered.
"Maybe," I replied, stroking her hair. She smiled, snuggled closer, and drifted off to sleep, all five and half feet of her stretched out on my bare body. Smelling the smoke in her hair, the hash residue, and the redwood mulch, feeling the breeze on my face as the moon disappeared behind the trees, I composed a haiku to mark the moment:
iron flowers bite my skin
mallow in her hair