That Friday when my parents finished their work in the garden, my mother’s pant-legs and the tops of my father’s boots were covered in pollen. It turned into a yellowish paste where it touched damp skin, and when they tried to wipe it off it just spread and stuck to their hands, and it wouldn’t even come off with soap and a scrub-brush. “We’ll just have to wait. I’m sure it’ll wear off eventually,” he reassured her at the water spigot when they were finally forced to give up. My mother looked doubtful, shook her head and took another look at her hands, which were red with rubbing.
When they climbed to the porch, she went straight inside. Dad spied me sitting in the wicker chair at the end of the porch, where I was flipping through a nature book, although I didn’t even know how to read.
“Jeremias, it fell and broke open, and your mother and I didn’t have time to get out from under it.” His eyes burned with enthusiasm. The paste covered his bald head in blotches, and there was pollen in the gray curls that encircled his scalp as well. He took off his boots at the door. They put up a fight, not budging from his naked, sweaty feet when he swung his legs. Finally he bent over with a groan and pulled them off with his hands. Then he sighed deeply and wiped his hands on his pants, which were already completely stained with dirt and paint.
I sat huddled in the farthest corner of the porch. The shadow of the ash tree at the corner of the house had lengthened since early evening. I put the book down in my lap. My father padded around the terrace in bare feet, his calves thin and brown, a network of veins. His feet were dirty, with black globs showing between his toes, just like mine were sometimes.
“The ball was full of pollen. An unbelievable amount, it had to be a kilo.”
I could just make out what he was saying. He was mumbling out of one side of his mouth, so I knew that he was all worked up, that the fruit falling had shaken him up, just like it had my mother.
I knew what ball he was talking about. The nodule had appeared at the crown of one of the bushes growing in the back of the garden at the beginning of the summer. Over the course of the summer, the small growth had swollen into a bone-hard seed capsule. At the end of the summer, just before it fell, it had puffed up to the size of a human head and was as smooth as an eggshell.
We didn’t know what kind of fruit it was. We had combed diligently through plant and garden guides and pestered friends and relatives who knew something about gardening, but we hadn’t succeeded in figuring out what kind of bush it was. The shrub had been huddled next to the fence in a patch of lawn baked by the afternoon sun a year earlier when we bought the house, and its yard and garden. We hadn’t noticed the plant at the time, because it wasn’t noticeable, wasn’t particularly showy or attractive. It had dark-colored, smooth-barked branches as strong as your wrist and leaves as smooth as your fingers and as wide as your hand that flapped in the wind like thin sheets of metal.
Because of that sound, we named the plant the sheet-metal shrub. Later we started calling it the ball bush or the blob.
In late spring, before the nodule appeared, the branch at the crown had been graced for a week with a white flower the size of a fist. It had attracted scores of honey bees and other nectar gatherers. Sometimes its petals were completely covered by insects jostling for the mouth of the flower, and we feared that the blossom wouldn’t bear the weight of the pollinators, that it would come loose and fall to the ground.
But it seemed to have been able to bear it, and when the flower finally withered, the peculiar pod grew in its place.
After that my parents sometimes took their break sitting on the bench, where they could keep the capsule in view. I also got in the habit of leaning a ladder up under the nodule and checking it every day, carefully tapping its dark brown sides and rubbing my hands over its surface, which always felt cool against my palms, even in the most sweltering heat. I diligently measured the ball with a tape measure, until I was able to tell my parents that it was swelling about a centimeter a week. They said that I didn’t need to watch the growth all the time, it wasn’t going to go anywhere, and when I said that I was afraid that someone would steal it, they rolled their eyes.
Not long after that the branch that the pod hung from started to bend with the weight of the fruit.
In the last weeks before it fell, the branch stuck straight out from the side of the bush, looking forlorn and slightly comical.
Now it was split and lay sprawled at the foot of the bush, and I hadn’t seen it fall! I squeezed my eyes tight shut and imagined the ten-centimeter fruit snapping off from its socket, the branch suddenly free of the pod’s weight swinging upward with a swoosh, the capsule a few seconds later thudding against a stone that lay in the weeds at the foot of the bush and splitting open.
My father shuffled into the house after my mother. I lugged myself out of the chair and down off of the porch. The kitchen window was open. I could hear Mom banging the lid of the soup pot. I headed for the path that led to the perennial beds at the back of the garden.
The beds were full of splendid flowers. A roar of yellow, red, and white wove a veil of scent around me. Honeybees and flower flies whooshed through the haze and fluttering butterflies landed on the flowers only to immediately take off again. Grass grew in the hollow next to the path. It grew anywhere in our garden where it could take root.
At the edge of the garden stood a leaning scarecrow. Dad and I had hung it there, using empty cans for its arms, back, and stomach. In the still weather the cans didn’t clatter. Beyond the scarecrow a row of bushes quivered: honeysuckle, dogwood, and lilacs. It was cool under the lilacs; many times on the hottest days I had snuck under them to get some air. The weather was still so hot that my sandals stuck to the soles of my feet.
When I got to the sheet-metal shrub I was met with quite a mess—the two halves of the pod lay on their sides on the ground. One lobe had landed on the right side of the rock, one on the left. There was pollen everywhere—on the husk and on the rock, on the lawn for several meters around, on the lower branches of the bush. I was careful not to get too close so I wouldn’t stain myself.
It’s a good thing it’s not windy, I thought, there’d be dust everywhere, and it would turn to paste on my sweaty skin.
When evening came, first Mom and then Dad complained that they weren’t feeling well and stretched out on the bed. “Jeremias,” Dad said, “We’re going to lie down for a little while. There’s still some soup left in the fridge. Have some if you get hungry this evening. And there’s some bread in the cupboard.”
He closed the bedroom door and I was left to my own devices. It didn’t bother me, I enjoyed being alone. Soon not a whisper could be heard from their room. I thought they had gone to sleep, they were so tired, and not feeling well. And surprised by the pod dropping its fruit. Had Dad even remembered to protect his head from the hot afternoon sun? Mom always had to remind him to wear his sun hat.
I let them sleep, and went to skim the trace of soap lather out of the rain barrel where they had left it floating in a spongy, netlike sheet on the surface of the water. I sharpened the sickle on the whetstone, so Dad wouldn’t have to do it in the morning. He had been planning for several days to cut the grass and weeds from behind one of the perennial beds. I wandered around the garden and counted the unripe apples: one finger, one apple. But there were so many of them that I got mixed up in my counting.
I finally contented myself with sitting quietly on the bench. I was sure I could hear the plants growing: their roots rustled in the darkness of the soil. The earthworms and grubs were eating in their narrow tunnels in the ground and the moles were snuffling in their burrows under the plants. Dad had told me all about the life of the garden, and about what happened in nature.
At eight in the evening I got hungry. I ate the cold vegetable soup in the kitchen and the sweet, sour bread that had malt and sunflower seeds in it. For dessert I found some buttermilk that Mom had made in the fridge.
There was still no sound from behind the bedroom door. The rest of the house was terribly quiet, just the hum of the refrigerator starting up now and then. Some little bird cheeped once under the open window for a moment. By the time I got to the window it had already flown farther off. I could hear its nervous voice beyond the fence-rails, from the shelter of the brush.
After I had eaten I sat for a while on the porch and flipped through the book that I had been looking at.
There was a big, red picture of a sunset in the book. As I looked at it, stroking the page with my fingertips, I noticed that the sun really was setting behind the reddening tops of the trees and the bronzed meadow. There was a lightless moment before the darkness settled. The shadow time, I thought, and glanced surreptitiously around me. I was starting to feel chilled, the evening was squeezing its dew onto the grass, and the scent of earth and rotting plants drifted up to me. The buzz of the insects had already ceased, and I couldn’t hear any birds now.
I held out on the porch for almost two hours. At ten thirty it was already so dark that you couldn’t see to do anything outside, and goose bumps appeared on the bare skin of my arms. I slipped the bookmark between the pages, closed the book, went inside, and knocked on the door of my parents’ bedroom. No answer. I knocked again a little harder. No answer. I turned the latch and carefully pushed the door open.
Although it was dark in the room I saw immediately that my mother and father were still sleeping. They lay side by side on the bed on their backs, Dad on the right and Mom on the left, holding hands. They were still wearing their gardening clothes. Pollen stains showed in dark splotches on the fabric. Dad’s mouth was open, like it always was when he was sleeping soundly.
I tiptoed out and shut the door behind me.
It wasn’t until I had climbed up to my own room and slipped in under the blanket that I wondered to myself why Dad hadn’t been snoring. He always snored when he slept on his back.
My mother and father didn’t get up the next day, or even the day after that. The sickness seemed to have sapped the last of their strength. Whenever I peeked into their room, they were lying on their backs, holding hands, their faces in peaceful repose. I was sure that when I wasn’t looking they smiled at each other and were strengthened to bear up against their illness.
I took care of them as well as I could. In the mornings I opened the blinds in the bedroom and opened the window a crack to let the air circulate. I knew that they needed light. Sun and fresh air. Streaks of light seeped into the room between the narrow slats of the blinds. My parents looked rather peculiar, pale, streaked, and blotchy. And it wasn’t long before it looked to me like the color of the pollen stains had deepened, too, like their edges were stretched. Sometimes my parents tried to talk to me, as if with their last bit of strength, without opening their eyes. Their eyelids fluttered and the corners of their mouths twitched, and if I leaned closer, I could hear disjointed sentences: . . . food for you, Jeremias . . . don’t worry . . . this will all be . . . this . . . water . . . garden . . .
Twice a day, at one in the afternoon and six in the evening, I loaded a tray with food from the kitchen and carried it to my parents’ room.
I had cleared a place on the night table. Luckily I knew how to boil potatoes and fry the pieces of meat that Mom had packed in the freezer. I picked lettuce, onions, and cabbage from the garden. There was bread in the freezer, too, whole-grain bread that Mom had baked. I bought necessary things at the store: Mom set aside food money in a coffee can in the back of the pantry.
But Mom and Dad were so weak that they had no appetite.
It was no use urging them to eat. The meals were left untouched.
Gradually, as the days went by, these offerings started to pile up around the room. After a few days shiny black flies emerged from the piles of dishes and flew around, landing anywhere: on the ceiling, the wall, the lampshade, the remains of the food, the rim of a glass of juice.
The boldest even used my parents’ foreheads and stomachs for a landing strip.
The flies soon got used to me and didn’t get startled any more. They were so enthralled with the food, so hungry, that I was able to get close up and see the way they scuffled with their snouts over a piece of meat or a bit of lettuce. Every so often they snapped out of it long enough to preen their legs or wiggle their wings.
Since my parents didn’t seem to be bothered by the flies, I didn’t try to kill them. God’s innocent creatures, my mother used to say. My father thought she was too tenderhearted.
I had covered my parents with a wool blanket that usually laid over the back of the sofa in the living room. I thought they must be cold, because a few days earlier I had felt their foreheads, and they felt cool. Since they didn’t complain about the smell that drifted up from the remains of the food and permeated the room, I started closing the window at night, so they wouldn’t get any more chilled.
In the daytime I toiled away in the garden. There was plenty of work—really too much for one person—but I did what I could. Luckily my father had taught me what to do. I watered and weeded, cut the grass and used the sickle to clear the back of the perennial bed where Dad had been planning to mow before he got sick. Finally I started to build a fence around the compost. Actually I was finishing a job that my father had started, because he had already put up most of the fence posts. I nailed horizontal beams to them and hammered upright boards to the beams, leaving a three-centimeter space between them. The boards weren’t quite straight but still, I thought the fence looked great. It was too bad Dad couldn’t get up and come look at it.
Many times in the evening I sat in Mom and Dad’s room and told them what I’d been up to in the garden. I knew how important the garden was to them and how much they enjoyed hearing about my chores and knowing that I was taking such good care of things while they were sick in bed. I told it as well as I could, throwing myself into the stories and gesturing with my hands. I told them about the crickets in the field, the little pond with its splashing frogs and birds who cheeped as they drank. I told them about the border with its yellow flowers and how I had pruned the dried leaves and withered blossoms from the flower beds, and sawed the boards for the fence in the backyard on Dad’s sawhorse, and how a little pile of sawdust had formed underneath where I was cutting.
I told them how handy I was with the hammer and how smoothly the nails sank into the crossbeams. And I described the mosquitoes that swarmed over the rain barrel in the light of the setting sun.
I didn’t tell them that I’d hit my fingers with the hammer several times, that the thumb and middle finger of my left hand had turned black, and still hurt.
Mom and Dad listened to my story silently, with their eyes closed. I understood that they didn’t want to waste their strength speaking. Still, I wished that they would thank me for all my hard work. And my mother could have stroked my hair or my cheek. Once I whispered in her ear that I missed the two of them, but she didn’t open her eyes, she just kept sleeping. I started to feel shy.
It was sweet that they kept on holding hands from one day to the next, and weren’t ashamed, even though I could see them. And I was so thrilled when I sometimes noticed both of them nodding at me with approval.
One day there was a new plant growing at the foot of the blob bush. A deep green, ten-centimeter shoot was pushing its way out of the pollen-matted grass and dirt between the two halves of the pod. I put down my watering can and knelt down to examine the new arrival: were we going to have a new sheet-metal shrub? I hurried in to tell Mom and Dad.
The next day I found another sprout next to the first one. Then another, and another, until finally the bush was surrounded by a ring of sturdy, fast-growing sprouts that covered up the two lobes of the pod.
When the phone rang, it nearly scared me to death. It was evening, and dark. I was sprawled on my bed with my teddy bear beside me, when that urgent, startling sound stabbed my ears. I sat up. The jangling sounded like it could wake the dead, as my mother used to say. When the ringing didn’t let up, I got up from bed and crept down the stairs to the landing in my T-shirt. With each step the ringing sounded stronger, more metallic and demanding.
The noise must have woken Mom and Dad.
It felt like the whole house was throbbing with the repetitive, rippling rhythm, like a giant, clanking metal heart was beating somewhere in the bowels of the building. Just as I was going to pick up the receiver, the ringing stopped. I stood in the entryway, with my arm outstretched, sure that the caller would try again. But the beautiful black thing hanging on the wall at about my eye level remained mute.
I peeked in on my parents, then unplugged the telephone from the wall.
It was lucky the ringing didn’t wake them up. They didn’t even wake up when the plug clattered to the floor. I checked again to make sure that the front door was locked, and all of the windows were closed. As I climbed back up the stairs, the metallic jangling was still ringing in my ears. It rattled the walls and penetrated the darkness in the corners.
I lay down on my bed and waited to fall asleep. I decided that I wouldn’t bring my parents food anymore. They didn’t eat it, and besides, the room was already crammed with trays, dishes and serving utensils. I didn’t have time to clear them away because I had to take care of the garden. It would be nice if there was food there when they woke up, though. They were going to be awfully hungry, for sure.
The next morning the smell was so bad that you could taste it in your mouth. There seemed to be more flies than before, and some of the pieces of meat had lively little white grubs grazing among the mold.
But I still went to their room just as regularly, because I had to take care of the watering. Everything that grows needs moisture, Mom used to say. Water is the alpha and the omega, the elixir of life.
I poured water over the sturdy, deep green sprouts growing from the middle of my father’s head. My mother’s right hand was also greening up well, and so were their clothes. A mossy fluff had fallen from the pollen splotches onto the floor and sprouted hair-thin roots through the fabric of their clothing. The roots covered my parents’ bodies, and if I pinched my nose shut tight and got close enough to look, I could see them spread in a network over their skin. Their veins had faded completely from sight.
I watered them four times a week, and also picked up the bits that broke off for safekeeping.
One of my mother’s ears fell with a thud to the floor yesterday, and Dad’s whole left arm fell off after hanging off the edge of the bed for a long time. There’s a little pit where his shoulder joint used to be, and at the bottom of the pit some green is sprouting. I was careful to cover it with clean cloth to keep the flies off.
We put gauze over the garden in the spring, and it sure did grow!
Some evenings I spend a little while visiting Mom and Dad, because I know it’s important to them. I tell them how well the garden is growing and how nicely the sprouts have spread around where the pod first fell from the sheet-metal shrub. I describe how the sprouts are three meters high now, with white flowers appearing on their tips. When I brag to Dad about the pods growing nearly a meter up out of Dad’s head, he always looks pleased.
I’m sure that Mom squeezes his hand with pride when I do. I’m sure that the knowledge is a comfort, that it makes them happy and helps them heal, and maybe by tomorrow they’ll get up from their beds and continue their work, the most important work in the world: nourishing new life.
Translation of “Puutarha.” First published in Lasin läpi (Helsinki: Loki-Kirjat, 2007). Copyright Jyrki Vainonen. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Lola Rogers. All rights reserved.