Issue 21 / Spring 2020
John drives two fingers into the soil of one of his indoor ferns. When he was a boy, his mother would water the household plants on a schedule, succulents every ten days, orchids once a week, the avocado tree in his brother’s bedroom every two weeks on Monday. But John drives two fingers into the soil of each of his ferns every morning and decides then whether or not he’ll fill the watering can.
He feels connected to his ferns this way, more aware of their individual needs, their unpredictable responses to shifts in the heating system or the temperature outside.
John knows Alice doesn’t like this connection, though he’s not sure why. He remembers she caught him whispering “Would you like more macronutrients?” one afternoon in the sunroom. “What are you doing?” she asked, her voice slightly high-pitched. John looked out the window and coughed. “Nothing,” he said, “just clearing my throat.”
Today, only one fern’s soil is dry. John fills the watering can at the kitchen sink while humming a song about kidnappers he made up when he was a boy. He taps his left foot to the beat and realizes he knew as a boy that kidnapping was the most symbolic act possible: that’s why kidnappers steal from people, not because they want the ransom money, but because they want the power that comes from knowing that what they steal means more than the thing itself.
That’s why John kidnapped his mother’s avocado tree when he was a boy, the one in his brother’s bedroom. He told Alice about the incident shortly after they were married, how his mother would experiment with different plant foods, blending them until she found just the right nutrient mix, but that she’d only feed him and his brother scrambled eggs on Sundays, even after John typed her a letter explaining why scrambled eggs no longer worked for him. He told Alice that when his brother mentioned liking hamburgers better than scrambled eggs, barely saying anything, certainly not typing an explanation, his mother bought a pound of chopped meat at the local IGA that very afternoon, and he told Alice that he had stolen the avocado tree that same evening, knowing his mother would plan to water it the next day.
Alice held him extra tight in bed when he told her all this. She ran her fingers through his hair, smoothing his tight curls. The next morning, however, he didn’t think about Alice. He did some online research instead and learned that some neurobiologists believe plants have consciousness, that plants know where they are in space, and he thought he would like to know where he was in space too.
After he fills the watering can, the song about kidnappers still in his head, John feels something bubble in his stomach. He tilts the watering can and watches the water spill gently into the fern’s pot. “You have pretty leaves,” he whispers, “I’ll take care of you.”
John knows there is disagreement in the scientific community about whether plants’ ability to determine where they are in space equals actual consciousness, the way humans experience consciousness, but when the water spills into the fern’s pot, he nonetheless is overwhelmed with love. And though he knows this love might say more about him than the plant, he can’t help but believe his love is reciprocated. Spontaneously, he kisses the fern’s leaves and lets himself become aroused.
When Alice enters the room and stands behind him, he at first thinks the fern has taken human form, that the fern has readied itself for the next level of their relationship, that his spontaneous gesture has broken through the wall that has separated him from other living creatures his entire life. He turns towards Alice, the watering can still in his hand, his heart and his groin delighting in expectation. “Oh,” he says when Alice looks into his eyes, “it’s you.” He has trouble hiding the sadness in his voice.
While Alice explains that of course it’s her, that it’s always been her, John doesn’t really pay attention. Instead, he remembers how it felt to lift that avocado tree and carry it out of his brother’s bedroom. He remembers finding a nice spot near the heater by his closet and lying in the shadow cast by the plant’s leaves to write a ransom note. He remembers that’s when he realized kidnapping the plant was about more than the plant. He didn’t want money, he remembers, he wanted his mother to stop making scrambled eggs, but it was more than that too. He remembers he couldn’t figure out exactly what it was, what any of it meant, how to write the words.
He thinks Alice might cry, so he pats her on the shoulder before returning the watering can to the kitchen. He hears her following him, so he stretches and fakes a yawn, mumbles something, then climbs upstairs. While napping, he dreams about the shape of the fern’s leaves, about the way it leaned towards him when he kissed it earlier. In his dream, the fern wraps its leaves around his body, licks his neck, and tangles its roots in his tight curls. He wakes with a start, still lost in the soil.
“Alice?” John calls, but he doesn’t hear anything. He finds his way downstairs in the dark, luxuriating in his second arousal of the day. By the time he reaches the sunroom, he can barely walk. He groans before turning on the light.
But the fern is gone. He sees in its place the stain left by its pot and a note crudely assembled with letters cut out from magazines. He knows kidnapping is a symbolic act, but he still doesn’t know what this symbol might mean or why he suddenly feels nothing. He puts down the note and moves mechanically around the house, digging two fingers into the soil of each of his other ferns, suddenly terrified one might be dry, suddenly terrified one might need water.
Maria Brandt has published plays, fiction, and nonfiction in over a dozen literary magazines, including InDigest, Arts & Letters, Prime Number Magazine, Coal Hill Review, VIDA, and Cleaver. Her collection New York Plays was published by Heartland Plays, her novella All the Words won the Grassic Short Novel Prize, and her full-length play Swans premiered at Geva Theatre Center’s Fielding Stage in June 2018. She teaches at Monroe Community College and is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers. Follow her on her website.