The following story is by guest contributor Bo Fu.
The plants wave their fruits at the sky. When the first rays of sunlight hit them, their leaves swell and spring as if lifted by invisible strings. I am already up by the time the sun arrives, hobbling between the rows of plants with my watering can and shears to survey each stalk and flower. We gardeners are a prideful race. Each plant has its peculiarities, its moods, its longings. Left to themselves, they will tear each other apart like a pack of hungry children.
My garden lies on a half-acre of land. A hut sits in the corner, and plants fill the rest of the space. There is no fence, so my garden mingles with the dandelion and thistle and crabgrass at the edges. Some gardeners will tear out their hair at that, but I have always felt that weeds help enforce discipline in unruly gardens. And my plants are certainly unruly, despite their likeness; each has a single stem with five whorls of leaves, bearing a single fruit. The fruit is the precious thing. Some are red, some green, some round, some square, some smooth, some coarse – no two fruits are alike in the way no two stories are alike. In the afternoons I water, kill pests, snip away diseased leaves, mulch the soil; in the evenings when the light is gone I do all that and more with an oil lantern in one hand, stooping close to see the plants with eyes that have begun to fail me in my age.
Sometimes, so rarely I cannot pinpoint the frequency, I hear the rattling of wheels from a ways off. I don’t know how they hear about my little half-acre of the world, but they come, still, intermittently as summer rain. I hear it now as I make my rounds, or maybe I feel it more in the rumbling of the earth. When the car pulls up in front of my plantation, the visitor gets out and shields his eyes with his hand. He squints even though the sun is not that bright. I’m not sure what he has expected to see, but his expression says this is not it.
“Are you the gardener?” he asks. His face is a blur to me – I’ve always been terrible at remembering faces – but he is well-dressed and his car looks expensive, if a bit dirty.
I nod and lay down my tools. He walks over to me, picking his away between the plants, eyeing each one. He stoops down for a closer look at a particularly vivid fruit, then stands back up and pats down the sides of his pants even though no dirt is on them. He makes a show of dusting his hands. He turns to me.
“I hear you’re selling memories.”
The term they use differs. None of them are quite right, but I play along.
“In a fashion,” I say, “so long as you pay the price.”
He chuckles. The word “price” has elicited some joy in him, but the chuckle is more bitter than happy.
“I can pay any price you name, old man, so long as you give me what I want.”
“And what’s that?”
A not-uncommon request. Most people, I wager, would like to be happy, even if that happiness is not theirs.
“There are many kinds of happiness,” I say.
“A happiness worth living for, a happiness to blot out the sadness, a happiness so sweet that when I’m old and dying I can return to it and live it again.” Closing his eyes, he smiles, and the wrinkles vanish from his face. “A happiness like the first day of summer vacation when I was a boy, like the first fish I caught with my father, like hearing my mother sing Blowin’ in the Wind as she washed our clothes. Can you do that, old man?”
For a long time I do not speak. Happiness is easy enough, but the precise blend of joy and bittersweet, satisfaction and longing, passion and complacence, must be handled with care. Occasionally, there is a request so specific, so demanding, so bizarre, that I cannot fulfill it, but not this one. Getting down on my knees, I search for it in a patch of rainbow-colored fruits, brushing aside the leaves of more assertive plants. There it lies, nestled shyly against its stem like a timid child. I pluck the fruit and hold it up to the sun. It is light orange, the color of a bleached tangerine, shaped like a heart tapering to a point so fine it tickles my palm. The skin is smooth and slightly hard – it is not yet ripe, but that is the best time to savor it.
He peers at it doubtfully. “What is this?”
“The memory of a first love.” I cradle the delicate thing in my hands. “Nothing is as sweet as a first love. She fills your thoughts and consumes your every waking moment, and when you go to sleep you dance with her in your dreams. When she leaves, her laughter remains beating inside your skull until she returns again. In warm summers, her skin cools you on the bed. In winter, her body is hot beneath your own. You are convinced she is too good for you, that she will vanish and leave you as miserable as you were before, and so you seize the chance for fear it will vanish forever. The moment she accepts you your happiness reaches its peak. Even if the rest of your life is a steady decline, the first love always stays pristine.”
Softly, he says, “I’ll take it.”
Hands trembling, he reaches into his pocket and withdraws a wallet. I shake my head.
“That’s not the price I ask.”
His fingers freeze over the crisp green bills. His voice carries an undertone of menace.
“Then what do you want?”
“A memory.” I reach into my pocket and take out a single seed. It is small and colorless, ready to become anything. “A memory for a memory, that is my price. First you must give me one in turn, to replace the one in my garden. Any memory, but it must be heartfelt – your most brilliant, whether it be good or bad.”
He takes the seed doubtfully. “What do I need to do?”
“Hold it, and remember.”
The seed is tiny inside his palm and vanishes altogether when his fist closes around it. He closes his eyes, brows furrowed. Sometimes they smile, sometimes they scratch their head, sometimes they cry. He simply presses his lips into a thin straight line. The act highlights the wrinkles at the corner of his mouth, the skin pulled too tight across the bones, and I realize that this man I thought to be middle-aged could be no more than thirty. After several minutes he opens his eyes again. Uncertainly, he stares at the seed in his fist.
“That will do,” I say, plucking it from his palm. The seed has taken on a reddish tinge. It will be many years before it bears fruit, before I can cut a piece of it to savor the memory. Carefully, I slip it back into my pocket. With my other hand I offer him the fruit.
He hesitates, then gently takes the fruit as if taking a baby. Turning it in his hands, he looks at it from all angles, runs a nail along the skin and observes the indentation it makes. Finally, he takes a bite. He chews slowly, contemplatively, as if deciphering every ounce of flavor. He frowns and runs a tongue over his lips. The second bite comes faster, the third even more so, and by the fourth bite he is devouring the fruit as if in panic, juice trickling down the corners of his lips. When it is gone he stares at his sticky hands, a smile slowly spreading across his face.
“So beautiful,” he murmurs. “I remember her now. How could I have forgotten?”
Without another word he walks back to his car. No thank you, no good-bye. Memories are awkward things. Much like a diseased branch, the body recognizes it as false and rejects it. The memory must be pruned, its edges rounded out, any roughness sanded down, so it can integrate successfully with the rest. In time, he will no doubt forget this visit.
The car door slams shut, the engine starts, the earth rumbles again; soon he and his car are no more than clouds of dust dwindling to dots on the horizon.
I am used to abrupt goodbyes. Stooping down, I pick up my tools. It will be several more hours until the sun goes down, and there is much more work left to do.