This story is by Jennifer Santiago and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I always begin with the bananas. First, I strip the dry, brown, outer layer from the bottom of the stalk. Then, I peel one piece back. The wet, starchy, pulp of new growth revealed. The worn layer stubbornly clings to its old home where the palm meets the earth. I dig my bare heels into the ground, using my body weight to pry the end loose. I twist and pull, falling backwards onto the grass with a dull thump. Rhi and Rio, our twin chihuahuas, jump into my lap, tails wagging. They lick my cheeks, streaked with dirt and sweat. They run away again, disappearing around the corner somewhere near the herb and tomato garden, continuing their game of backyard tag.
Next, I move to the sugar cane. Saccharum officinarum. Ted loved butchering its Latin name. I grab the machete by the wooden handle and walk towards the three, towering stalks. The leaves, sharp as razor blades, fight back against the assault, leaving crisscross cuts deep in the meat of my palms and wrists. I place a wounded hand over my mouth, sucking the salty, metallic sweetness away. I lick the corner of a tiny slice in my wrist, and suddenly an odd sensation strikes my lips. A tingle that feels at first like a lover’s touch, then scorn. A white blast like a camera flash strikes my eyes, and I fall to one knee. I see the bathtub. I see the blood. I see a limp wrist. I see Ted.
A gust moves through the thick air sending an entropy of curls swishing across my face. A fingertip grazes my cheek, pushing a lock behind my ear. A cold chill kisses my shoulder. I jump to my feet, and spin around, raising the machete in defense. There is nothing there but the garden. I turn around again, and there it is. An apparition of a billion, bouncing particles. They shudder in the sky, like glitter in a snow globe. Its beauty is stunning. A body begins to re-materialize, like a Star Trek character beamed up by Scotty but stuck half-way between here and there. I want to scream, but an icy calm washes over me.
“Ted? Is that you?”
A familiar voice enters the space between us. It sounds just like, “Yes.”
Three months ago, Ted passed away. I found him in the bathtub of our home. I left Belize to bury him where he was born. I returned three weeks later against all logic, all sober counsel, so I could rest my cheek against the rim of the tub, searching for him inside. So I could cut my flesh on blades of grass in his garden, searching for a different pain. So I could fall asleep in a drunken stupor next to his ghost, searching for his soul. And here it is?
“Is it really you, babe? Have I gone mad?”
“It’s me, my love. You brought me back to life.”
The words cascade like snowmelt down my spine.
“That cut on your wrist from the sugarcane. That stalk is a part of me. I live there. I live everywhere in this garden.”
He smiles with see-through lips. His eyes are like liquid mercury floating in crystalline sockets. Only his heart is completely visible, beating crimson in a transparent cage. Lup-dup, lup-dup, lup-dup. The same sound that lulled me to sleep for the last ten years.
“You have the power to bring me back. All I need is your blood.”
Rhi and Rio rush over again. They stop suddenly at Ted’s translucent feet; tails once whipping wildly fall between their legs. Rhi turns my way with eyes wide open and begins to howl and cry.
“My blood? How does my blood bring you back?
“Every time you tend to my garden you are like the Gods. You have the power to bring everything here back to life. And because I put my life force in here,” —he extends his arms wide open like wings— “I can come back too—”
His gaze falls to the machete gripped in my palm. “— but I need your help.”
Ted poured his soul into this garden. It was nothing but a patch of sad, brown grass before he planted his flowers and trees: bright orange birds of paradise; pink hibiscus with protruding yellow stigmas; and heliconia, with ancient claws like rabid lobsters. After his death, I only felt close to Ted while gardening. It is my séance. If I prune, if I water, if I plant, I imagine I could open some mystical gateway that brings him back from the dead. But that was just my imagination, right? And why is he still staring at my machete. He takes one step forward; I take one step back.
“But Ted, I thought I was dreaming. I thought I was going mad with grief. I didn’t actually think you could come back.”
He turns and begins to walk towards the clothesline. A damp sheet billows in the breeze, a hint of bleach hanging in the air. Every time he takes a step, a trail of sparkling atoms dance behind him like dust in a shaft of early morning light.
“I can hear you,” he says, unhooking the clothes pins securing the sheet to the wire that runs from one bar on the laundry room window to the arch of a pergola wrapped in vines of Allamanda flowers.
“I hear you when you are in the garden, swinging in our hammock, reading those poems out loud, as you once did with me. Those suicidal poets. They are all here with me. We want you to know, you are not talking to an empty sky. The sky is full of lost souls waiting to come back.”
He holds the pins in his hands, then sends them flying into the air. They circle his head like a halo. He raises both arms and the sheet soars skyward. It drapes his body like a tiny tornado. He is the orphan in Cinderella, magically dressed with the twirl of a sparkling wand. Bippety Boppety. Bippety Boppety. Bippety Boppety. Boo!
“That’s fitting,” he says with a smirk. “Ghosts do go ‘Boo.’”
“You read my mind? What is going on here? What is happening to you?”
“You are bringing my body back. And, I’ll need some clothes. Don’t want to scare the neighbors.”
He continues to walk. I follow the curl of pixie dust trailing behind his toga like the train of a gown.
“We can all hear you, you know? All the ghosts. All the Gods.”
“Where are they? Where are you?”
“Here. There. Everywhere.”
He points to the damp grass below his heels. He points to the three papaya trees he planted just days before he died. He points to the rose garden, kneeling before it like a true believer at the altar.
“Unload your grief at their feet. Unload your grief, your sweat, your tears, your blood. They’re all the same anyway, aren’t they?
He buries his face in the soft belly of a rose, inhaling deeply.
“You’re going to have to bring my nose back before I can smell it.”
Ted reaches the stump of an arm towards me. I feel a hot, adrenaline dump into my veins. My legs burn and twitch begging to run. But I can’t move. The dogs begin to whimper at my feet.
“Ted, stop this. Please?”
“I want to show you something.”
He snaps the stem of a single rose. He plucks one petal, then another, then another, like a flower girl creating a path for the bride. He tosses them to the ground, crushing each one beneath his transparent feet, walking closer to me. A thorn on the stem glows like a firefly trapped in a bell jar.
“Ted, why can’t I move?
His lips are now inches from mine. They sparkle with the aurora borealis of eternity, of life, of love, of death. Of a thousand lost souls.
“Ted, I can’t control my body.”
“You will. You will control everybody. Once you bring me back to life.”
The thorn pricks my finger. A single drop of blood drips across my wrist. Ted brushes his lips along the trail of blood. They turn a demon red. His flesh begins to form, twisting around bones that branch out like the scarlet limbs of flame trees. I see his lips. His cheekbones. His neck. His shoulders. But nothing else.
“Are you punishing me, again? Do you now know how much I love you? How I mourn for you every single minute of every single day?”
I feel a twitch in my other arm, the one holding the machete. It slices through the air. The reflection of his eyes glow blood orange in the blade.
“Ted? Stop! Please!”
With a kiss from his lips my elbow suddenly bends ninety degrees, pushing the cold blade against the skin on my neck.
“You don’t have to mourn ever again.”