This story is by Amy F Kaufman and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I’ll be in the garden!” Victor yelled out to his family but mostly, to the wind. Victor rarely went anywhere else these days. It wasn’t much of a garden, just a lot of hopes and unsprouted seeds because the salt from the sea air made it hard to grow anything.
Victor didn’t care though, just being near the beach made it all worthwhile. Plus, his lavender hedge with its purple spikes framed against the teal of the Caribbean Sea were better than any English garden he had seen.
“Hello, my darlings.” He grazed his weathered hand across the tops of the lavender flowers, stirred the scent awake and wished he could sink right inside, be a flower himself, bobbing in the wind with all his flower companions.
Victor hated his old body, he couldn’t squat to pull weeds anymore, only plop himself down and weed the areas within his reach. It was a challenge to get up because his cane couldn’t catapult him from a sitting position. He twisted and turned, pivoted on his good leg and always somehow managed to right himself. Except that one time when he had to call out to Rose for help.
“Dad, you’re getting too old for this”, she scolded.
“If not this, what else do I have?’ Victor asked.
“Oh, dad, you have us. Jake and me.” Rose wished she and her six-year-old son Jake could do more for Victor, but he was so stubborn, so set in his ways, and after everything, she couldn’t blame him for not wanting to participate in the world anymore.
Victor got accustomed to weeding only what was in reach and never asking for help. A butterfly landed on the grey Artemisia that flanked the deep green of the kale and crimson beets planted in rows that Victor had managed to eke from this sandy earth, and he breathed a satisfactory sigh. The Sea Holly brushed scratches across the dry skin of his arms as he reached down to grab one last weed in his circumference, then suddenly something bit him like a rabid dog. In the soft area near his left wrist, a brilliant black thorn protruded outward. He tried to grab it and pull it out with one swoop, but it held on, it didn’t want to budge. So, he left it there.
Back at the house, Rose had boiled a soup of kale and barley. It was only 5 o’clock and the sun would hang in the sky for four more hours, but after Victor ate, he went right to sleep.
He woke the next morning with a dull throb in his wrist. The area where the thorn had gone in wasn’t red or swollen but a dull green flecked with hues of brown. He again tried to remove the thorn but as he pulled, a tendril popped out through the wound! Curled into an exquisite spiral, Victor was sure this was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him. He closed his eyes when he saw the tendril, and wished for things that he knew could never be.
Back in the states, there had been divorce and death and bankruptcy and criminal charges. He escaped to the Caribbean to start over, but he felt so deflated that all he could think about was how much easier it would be to be a flower or a tree.
He spent his days eating and sleeping and gardening and walking along the beach, collecting driftwood and shells and pods that he stacked in piles in the garden, just because. It didn’t feel like much of a life, and he wished it would end. Victor was tired.
But the tendril! This gave him hope.
He pulled on his old red checkered flannel shirt and buttoned the wrists to keep his secret tucked neatly inside the fabric. Rose would surely want him to see a doctor, but he was far past wanting to repair anything on his old body.
He spent his day as always, weeding and pruning the yellow buttoned Santolina, pinching bits of seaworthy kale and trying to coax flowers from the Kniphofias, the Redhot Poker plant. Victor tried for years to plant different trees; but nothing held onto this sandy soil.
Again, he ate and went to sleep before the sun, and he did this over and over and wondered what the point was. Except for one little secret he kept beneath his red flannel shirt, the tendril! Every day it grew a little more, sprouted leaves and its stem thickened until the tendril touched the ground like a lovely yoyo spiraling out from his hand.
“Why do you wear that dirty shirt every day? Let me wash it for you.” Rose insisted.
Victor just huffed at her and walked away, keeping his secret close and under wraps. Once in the garden, he let the tendril unfurl. It was a full plant now with five narrow leaflets per stem. Victor drizzled water ever so carefully on it from a cracked clay pot. He knew his plant would need soil, but he didn’t know how to manage it except to pack small bits around the base, near the wound, that didn’t look like a wound anymore, but more like a tiny grassy meadow. If Rose ever saw it, she would scold him for being so dirty and worse yet, so silly.
Victor had lived a long time and being reduced to a “silly old man” hurt his dignity. He had been a husband and a business executive, a member of the community, a pillar, some might say. That was, before the trouble started. He wished he could just forget it all and die peacefully. He knew he had passed his expiration date.
But his tendril, this little plant, truly kept him alive. He knew Rose would never understand, she would try to kill it and tell him to do something useful. Victor was tired of useful. Rose had her life ahead of her with all the desire for purpose that young people have.
Another week passed and the plant proliferated around Victor’s left arm like tattoos he had seen on a woman in Bangkok. The plant grew and wrapped around his waist and Victor had never known anything so luxurious or sensual. All night long, the plant grew and surprised Victor each morning with its beauty and strength. Victor wondered if this was what it was like to carry a baby inside a womb, each day, every second, growing a life inside you. It was a miraculous feeling: it felt like true purpose.
Victor sprung from bed before daylight and stayed in the garden all day because the plant was getting too big to hide. He was so thirsty! He drank and drank and seemed to never be able to quench the thirst of the plant. The stem turned to a trunk, thickened, and sought roots. Still, Victor could not identify it. He could barely move now; he was so bound up. He plodded towards the garden but could not weed or prune, he could only sit and admire the garden, the sea and the birds that came to visit.
Steadfast in the garden, he saw a shock of red and realized the Redhot Poker flowers had bloomed. How he wished he could touch them, but he couldn’t move, only shuffle side to side. He couldn’t reach the Kniphofias but when he looked upward, he saw the tendril that circled his torso was covered with the most fantastic purple flowers.
The next morning his legs had fused together so he hopped toward the garden, tucking flowers through the buttonholes of his shirt. As the sun rose higher in the sky that day, Victor surrendered. He surrendered to his hopes and dreams. He surrendered to end the pain of his human body and he even prayed, and soon, it happened. Victor was firmly rooted in the garden, his toes skintight in the soil. His wish came true, he had a sturdy trunk and strong limbs with leaves and viny tendrils covered in flowers that reached out towards the heavens. Victor was a tree. He didn’t even care which kind. It was the most magnificent feeling, the way the air brushed against his branches, the way the sun glistened across his leaves, clouds almost touching his head, and his trunk rooted in the soft ground.
“Dad, Dad! Where are you?” Rose rushed towards the garden looking for her father. She stopped when she saw the tree, it was so familiar although she had never seen it before. She knew it wasn’t possible that a tree could grow overnight, but there was something so serene about the tree that she leaned down against it and fell asleep in the middle of the day. When she woke up, she was sure it must have been a dream, except for what was falling from the branches: scraps of red checkered flannel.