Raima Larter Before moving to the metro DC area, Raima Larter was a college chemistry professor in Indiana who secretly wrote fiction and tucked it away in a drawer. Since moving to Washington to work for the government, she has taken lots of workshops and is now sending those stories out. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle, Writers Journal and the Grace and Gravity anthology series. She’s published one short story collection, The Gate of Heaven and Other Story Worlds. She teaches yoga these days, instead of science, and is nearing completion of her MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins. Visit Raima at raimalarter.com
A Short Story
By Raima Larter
A spindly bunch of green twigs behind a pot of wilting bee balm caught Rebekah’s eye. As she reached for it, a voice boomed out.
She yanked her hand back from the strange and wonderful tangle of sticks. Joann, all six feet of her, loomed behind her. “Isn’t it great?” Joann shouted. “It’s a stick cactus!” A frizz of gray hair framed Joann’s large, flat face. She wore a flower-print dress paired with bright pink garden clogs, at least a size twelve. “This cactus is so easy to grow,” she boomed.
Rebekah had been at the plant swap for all of five minutes when Joann showed up. She’d almost driven past, but pulled into the Baptist church parking lot and sat, engine idling, thinking what to do. Baptists streamed in and out through a side door, toting plastic bags with green plants drooping over their tops. Some men stepped out with boxes full of dirty flowerpots and unhealthy-looking seedlings.
She didn’t need more plants, but shut off the ignition anyway, slipped in through the side door and clanged down the metal steps and into a brightly-lit basement filled with people who talked loudly and sloshed coffee from Styrofoam cups onto the linoleum. She didn’t know anyone there, which was just as well.
Tables covered with soil-encrusted perennials lined the walls. Nothing but ho-hum things like Rudbeckia and Echinacea. She’d been yanking out both the black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers and she certainly didn’t want more. You didn’t need a Master Gardener’s certificate to know that they, along with the bee balm, which was everywhere in the Baptist’s basement, were native Indiana wildflowers—weeds, in other words.
You can tell an inexperienced gardener at a plant swap because they’ll take bee balm and mint, of all things. Rebekah didn’t want either one—introduce one sprig and soon your whole garden is one big mint or bee balm plantation. Although they both smelled wonderful, either plant would choke out everything else you tried to grow—all the Delphinium, the Nasturtium and Calendula—in short, anything interesting.
Curious Baptists craned their necks around to see what Joann was yelling about. Rebekah ignored the puzzled onlookers and tried to get a better look at the twigs—a stick cactus, according to her neighbor, who ought to know, if anyone did. “You cannot kill it—trust me,” Joann said. “It enjoys being outside in the summer, but you’ll need to bring the pot into the house when winter rolls around.”
Despite the fact they’d been neighbors for years, Joann usually strode right past Rebekah’s yard on her daily power walk, arms pumping, feet pounding. She’d wave, but never stopped to talk. Rebekah made sure of that, turning her back as soon as she spotted Joann coming, not wanting to subject herself to yet another lecture about gardening. Joann never let anyone forget that she held in her possession a rare prize: an official Master Gardener certificate, awarded to her by the state for some unspecified gardening accomplishments.
Rebekah stole a longing look at the weird bramble of green—a stick cactus, according to Joann. It was like something from another planet. Emerald skin, smooth and shiny, covered its pencil-sized sticks that branched in multiple directions. Where the green skin had been nicked, a thick white liquid oozed like glue and dripped down the stalk.
“Come on, honey! Just take it.” Joann pushed a handful of twigs into Rebekah’s arms.
Even though Joann was treating her like one of those women who would take bee balm or mint, Rebekah thanked her. Once she got home, she stuck the twigs into a pot of dirt and set it on the porch in direct sun to start her experiment. Joann said you couldn’t kill it, no matter what—Rebekah was sure she could prove her wrong.
But, the cactus grew no matter what Rebekah did. She stopped watering it and it seemed to grow faster. The late summer weather turned to fall and then winter and she left the cactus on the porch, trembling in cold blasts of wind, its little green tips turning black. Winter turned to spring and the black tips fell off, followed by a new surge of even healthier-looking growth. Rebekah hated to admit it, but Joann seemed to be right.
After the late-spring tulips bloomed, Aaron pulled into the driveway, hopped out of his truck and jogged to her side. “We got the job!” he beamed.
Rebekah looked at him for a moment, wishing he’d not said what he’d just said. She was kneeling beside the peonies, spreading mulch around the red leggy sprouts. They’d just emerged from their winter dormancy and were already twice the length they’d normally be this time of year. It looked like it was going to be a fantastic year for the garden. She pulled out another handful of mulch and patted it around the stems.
He danced around in front of her. “They want us, Keith and I both, to start in a month.” He held out a hand to help her to her feet.
She ignored his hand and sat back on her heels. “Why, honey, that’s wonderful,” she lied.
He frowned, the smile fading on his face and turned to stare at the garage door. It stood open, revealing decades of collected stuff—a dusty seed spreader, a broken rake, a sagging cardboard box full of empty antifreeze jugs, Caitlin’s old bike. “We’ll have to put the house on the market right away,” he said, not looking at her. “There’s a lot of packing to do, but I’m sure we can get there in a month.”
Her stomach clenched. The peonies would be blooming in a month. And then it would be summer and the Rudbeckia would start to flower. Even if they were just weeds, Rebekah always looked forward to their bloom—the vast swath of gold and black blanketing the corner of the yard every July always impressed her. They’d probably grown in that spot for a hundred years or more before Rebekah arrived and started rearranging all the plants.
She couldn’t go. This simply was not a good time to leave her garden.
“Your flowers look nice,” Aaron said. He jammed his hands into his pockets and walked into the house.
Rebekah stabbed at the mulch with her forked spade. She should have seen it coming, but she’d refused to discuss it with him and now it was too late. She agreed the country needed to invest more heavily in alternative sources of energy—wind, for instance. And where better than the vast plains of North Dakota to pursue this critical infrastructure need for the country? She agreed with him about that, so what was there to discuss?
As moving day approached and Rebekah became more frantic, she hit on a plan. She would dig up some perennial starts, pot them temporarily, then transplant them. She could begin her garden anew in Wahpeton. Everything would be fine.
Oh, it would take a while for the plants to get established, but, then, hadn’t her current garden taken twenty years to reach its full glory?
It would be fine.
But when she went to the shed to retrieve some empty pots, she found that Aaron, in his zeal to clean and pack, had thrown them all out. Without asking her.
She swallowed her rage. It was just a bunch of trash to Aaron, no doubt, but her plan wouldn’t work without pots.
Joann would have some. Rebekah knew she must be pretty desperate to seek help from Joann, but who else would understand?
“What zone is that, anyway?” Joann asked after Rebekah arrived at her door. She ushered her into the kitchen, past the framed Master Gardener’s certificate, now festooned with a half dozen blue ribbons from the state fair.
“It must be at least zone four in Wahpeton,” Rebekah said. “Could it be as low as three?”
At least Joann hadn’t insulted her by explaining what planting zone meant. Central Indiana was zone five where temperatures could drop to twenty below zero. In zone three they might get to forty below. But now that Joann had brought it up, Rebekah wondered: were her plants suited to zone three? Even if they survived the trip, could they live so far north?
Joann waved Rebekah into a chair. “I wouldn’t know how to garden in zone three,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll have an extension office, though. Those folks were very helpful when I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Rebekah stared. “How could you not know what you’re doing?”
Joann laughed. “Oh, honey, when I first moved here from zone seven I had no clue—no clue—what to plant or how to keep it alive. Nothing was familiar. No magnolias, no azaleas. No crape myrtle! No kudzu, either, though.” She smiled and squeezed Rebekah’s hand. “You’ll do fine. You obviously know what you’re doing—I’ve seen your garden.”
The unexpected praise brought tears to Rebekah’s eyes and she dissolved in puzzled grief.
Joann patted her hand and rose to put on water for tea. Rebekah’s story spilled out: the way Aaron pulled away when Caitlin left home, how he buried himself in his shop, and, then, the crazy idea he and Keith had come up with. Finally she got to the real problem, the ugly truth she had been unable to face: Aaron was asking her to choose between him and her garden.
Joann frowned. “Does he know what he’s asking?”
Rebekah wiped at her eyes. “Of course not. To him, it’s just a bunch of plants.”
“Surely you talked to him.”
She shrugged. “It wouldn’t help. He doesn’t understand what the garden means to me.”
“What does it mean?” Joann asked softly.
Rebekah shook her head. “Home? The home I created—you know, for him and for Caitlin.”
Joann nodded. “I understand. I do—I made the same choice, to give up my job, stay home with the kids. The garden was really an afterthought. I sometimes wondered if I should have gone back to work. My husband, rest his soul, wouldn’t hear of it though.”
Was it really that simple? The jobs Rebekah had before Caitlin came along were nothing to miss, though—teacher’s aide, assistant at the library, nothing that ever excited her. Nothing like gardening. She shrugged again. “Maybe it really is just a bunch of plants.”
Joann placed a cup of mint tea in front of her. “Drink up! I have all this mint to get rid of. It’s taken over my entire back yard.”
Rebekah laughed through her tears. “Joann, I would not have expected you to make such a mistake. You should grow mint only in a container.”
Joann gave her a chagrined look. “I know. We learn some things the hard way, right?” She laughed and sipped at her tea. “But your garden is lovely. I noticed that you put strongly scented pieces like the alyssum near the front.” Her words brought Rebekah’s teacup to a halt halfway to her lips. Somebody had actually noticed Rebekah’s garden plan. And not just any old somebody. Joann, Indianapolis’ own Master Gardener, had understood what Rebekah was trying to do.
“I thought that was clever,” Joann said, “and it gave me the idea to put Stachys byzantine in some pots I have by my front door—at finger-height, you know.”
“Oh, I see! So visitors will reach out and stroke the soft, furry leaves. That’s a good idea. I love Lamb’s Ear.”
Warmth washed over her. Is this what it felt like to have colleagues?
“I got the idea from your garden,” Joann said. “It’s always such a joy to see when I stroll by your yard—my favorite part of the walk.” She reached over and patted her hand again. “You do good work, you know.”
Joann was famous in the neighborhood for her status as Master Gardener. The title, bestowed by the Indiana county extension service, was displayed on that certificate inside Joann’s front door—a fact Rebekah had ascertained years earlier while taking Caitlin trick-or-treating.
Nobody seemed to know, though, that Rebekah, who had no such certificate, knew just as much about gardening as Joann did. Even Rebekah didn’t realize this at first. Who would’ve guessed that all the knowledge she’d absorbed from hanging around the garden center on weekends, reading tags stuck into pots while Aaron was home doing whatever he did, was certificate material?
Well before Caitlin left for college, he spent every weekend the same way, tinkering with something in the garage. Rebekah tried to ask him what he was up to but she didn’t understand it—something to do with wind turbines.
“Honey,” she asked him another time, after they’d moved Caitlin into the dorm, “do you ever wonder what the next phase of our life will be like? I mean, now that Caitlin’s off on her own—”
“No, can’t say as I have,” he’d mumbled and hid his bearded face behind a copy of Popular Mechanics. The beard had appeared right after Caitlin left, but he wouldn’t discuss it, either.
It was a normal sort of conversation for them—Rebekah would bring up an issue, he’d react and retreat, and she’d hear nothing more about it. But then, just before Caitlin came home for her first-semester break, he started talking about a new venture he’d cooked up with Keith.
Aaron and Keith both worked for a company in Indianapolis that manufactured jet engines, and although it was Keith who first got the idea of using their jet turbine know-how to make wind turbines, Aaron was the one who stumbled upon an outfit called the Wind Power Group of the Northern Plains—a start-up with headquarters in Wahpeton, North Dakota. After that, all Rebekah heard was Wind Power Group this, Wind Power Group that until the day he’d appeared in the driveway, his face alight with the news: the Wind Power Group had offered them, both him and Keith, a job.
“They call it Windmills Across the Prairie,” Aaron said, glowing. “I just think that’s so cool.”
She should have told him that a state-certified Master Gardener had praised her work. Maybe it would have made a difference if he’d known this about her. But, every time she tried, he was happily packing—and whistling while he did it, the way he used to when they were first married and he was renovating the fixer-upper that had become their home. She couldn’t do it to him. She couldn’t.
One day, she went out on the porch and spotted the stick cactus, now huge—well over five feet tall. She got her shears and began to cut it down to size so it would fit into the U Haul Aaron had just rented. She was in mid-snip, green twigs covered in white ooze scattered around her feet, when she realized what she was doing—what they were doing. They were leaving. Well, Aaron was, anyway, and apparently the stick cactus was going with him.
The real estate agent, brisk in her dark blue suit and pumps, assured them the house would sell quickly. “We’ll be in touch before you know it,” she said, smiling and showing perfect white teeth. She shook Aaron’s hand, then Rebekah’s. “It’s a wonderful home—and your lovely garden is sure to generate a lot of attention from buyers.”
Rebekah wondered if these “buyers” would know how to take care of her plants. Maybe she should leave instructions? There were so many details, though—she didn’t know where to start.
“We’ll miss you,” said the mailman as she handed him the change of address form. “I can’t believe you’re leaving,” said the manager of the garden shop, his eyes sad, when she dropped in to say good-bye. “It won’t be the same without you.”
She dug up starts of iris and pink dragonhead, even some Echinacea. Joann came over to help. They potted several bunches of bee balm, both red and purple, despite her usual disdain for the plant. “If anything can transplant well to zone three,” Joann said, “it’s probably bee balm.”
After Joann left that day, the two of them lingering in a long, tight hug, she put the stick cactus in the trailer. She’d cut it back again, but it still thrived, green and healthy. She put the perennials she and Joann had potted into cardboard boxes and tucked the whole lot into the U Haul, near the door so she could get water to them along the way.
As they drove out of the neighborhood, Aaron in his pickup pulling the U Haul, Rebekah following behind in her little car packed tight with boxes, she spotted Joann, kneeling by her perennial bed. She looked up as Rebekah drove past and lifted a green-gloved hand in a small wave. Rebekah waved back, a tight ball of tears lodged in her throat.
It was a two-day drive—a long two days. Rebekah struggled to keep her plants alive, splashing water on them at every rest stop. As soon as they arrived in Wahpeton, she hauled them out onto the wide, flat plain and doused them again. Before she’d put the kitchen stuff away, she dug into the hard, dry yard around the tarpaper-covered house that was to be their new home, and planted them. The ground was more like concrete than dirt. She bought bags of composted manure from the farm supply store, to amend the rock-hard foreign soil of the far north.
And for a while she thought the plants would make it. The iris bloomed. Rebekah rejoiced. She called Joann, who rejoiced along with her. Not everyone could successfully transplant a zone five garden to zone three, Joann said.
Rebekah told Aaron what Joann had said, but he looked at her, confused. “What’s a zone again?” he asked. “I always forget.”
Rebekah’s joy was short-lived, though. She stepped out one morning two months after they’d arrived to find the iris wilted and dying.
The bee balm and pink dragonhead never took root.
The blue starflower had dried up even before the first rest stop and the coneflowers had tipped over in the trailer and been crushed by a heavy box.
So, the plants were dead. But Aaron thrived in his new job. He and Keith were gone for days at a time, supervising the planting of large farms of giant windmills across the prairie. Rebekah saw them once, their giant three-bladed propellers arrayed in rows across the North Dakota landscape, groaning as computer-controlled motors swiveled the blades first this way, then that, to face more directly into the ever-shifting breeze. They were a marvelous feat of engineering.
Rebekah swallowed her grief over the plants—they were just plants, after all, as Aaron pointed out. She tried to make a home in the strange new place, unpacking a few boxes and rearranging the furniture a dozen times. She found a new garden shop. The manager was very nice, shouting “Okey dokey!” every time she showed up for seedlings or more bags of composted manure.
She tried planting vegetables near the row of rhubarb, an exciting find she’d made on her first tour around the yard, a rectangle of green enclosed on all sides by fields stretching to the horizon. She’d never really grown vegetables, but it seemed worth a try, surrounded as they were by wheat and corn and soybeans—all of it destined to be food some day.
She’d had to call Joann to tell her about the rhubarb, a mature stand that had been there for decades. Joann understood what a wonderful find it was, unlike Aaron, who blinked at the dark green, glossy leaves and bright red stems, and asked, “Are they weeds?”
The days were long and lonely, especially when Aaron was away planting more windmills. Rebekah would haul a kitchen chair out to the covered front porch and watch as the near-daily thunderstorm swept in from the west. Every day, around mid-afternoon, a wild storm would roll in, bringing fierce winds and driving rain that slammed the windbreak, a line of gnarled trees planted decades before along the neighboring field. Sometimes the wind won, snapping branches and tossing them across the field like blades of grass.
Despite the storms’ fury, Rebekah loved them. The wind brought a strange exhilaration into her chest as it roared in each day. She sat, barely able to contain herself, as one powerful surge after another slammed into the windbreak every afternoon at three.
And then came the rain—so punishing it flattened an entire field of wheat behind the house one day. She watched for a good, solid hour as the storm approached, first a mere darkness near the horizon, then large black storm clouds sweeping toward where she sat, protected by the porch roof, sipping at a cup of Earl Grey. Dark streaks appeared from the clouds’ undersides, suspended in stop-action motion, black tendrils reaching toward, but never quite touching, the ground. When the clouds finally arrived, the sky opened up and, with a deafening roar, a torrent of rain unleashed itself onto the porch’s tin roof.
She sat, enveloped by the noise and enclosed by sheets of water, her teacup between both hands, as small and insignificant as an ant on the vast prairie, and wondered if anybody would notice if she were gone.
Rebekah made her way through the dozens of boxes stacked in what was supposed to become her new living room. They’d sat there for almost three months, forming tall canyons between which she and Aaron navigated as they made their way through the house.
She stepped onto the porch and tied her hair back with a strip of torn pillowcase. It was a bright blue day and already warm. She made her way to the garden and knelt beside the tomatoes, wrapping each floppy vine with a long strip of soft cotton and securing it to a stake.
The scrawny plants stood in straight rows, some of the cotton ties already coming loose in the tugging wind, next to more rows of vegetables. The onions, nearly three inches tall already, seemed to be doing the best. Their bright green spikes shuddered in the wind, poking up through black soil unsullied by any weeds.
Rebekah had made sure of that, plucking each weed the moment it appeared. No weeds were going to get a toehold in her garden.
The problem, though, was that there was nothing left to do but watch the plants grow. Rebekah longed for another weed to sprout just so she would have a way to avoid unpacking all those boxes.
Her cell-phone rang and she reached into her pocket.
Joann. “Hey, neighbor. Got this brochure from the Master Gardener’s Association—thought you’d be interested.”
Joann’s deep rumbling voice soothed her. “What’s it about?” Rebekah asked, plopping onto the grass near the rhubarb. She pulled off her shoes and rubbed at her socked feet.
“A program in Washington DC. They’re putting in a new series of beds at the National Botanical Gardens—one bed for each state. I immediately thought of you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You could make a case for knowing how to garden in at least two states.”
Rebekah snorted. “You haven’t seen my garden here, or you wouldn’t say that.”
“Why do I not believe that? Anyhow, this is a scholarship program. You have to write an essay explaining why a chance to work there would help you.”
A flutter of excitement rose into Rebekah’s chest but she ignored it. “I don’t know, Joann. How could it help me?”
“Listen. I’ve heard what you’ve said about how things are up there. You alone all day in that ratty little house. Aaron out doing who knows what all. You should think about your career.”
Rebekah laughed. “That’s so silly! I don’t have a—”
“Of course you do. You just haven’t had a job yet. Your career is in gardening, and you know it.”
Rebekah cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder, pulled a stalk of rhubarb from the closest bunch and started shredding it into long, red strings. “I don’t think I can do it. Besides, where would I stay?”
“I’ve already talked to my cousin Mary Lou. Her neighbor is looking for a house sitter for her condo while she goes overseas. Some government thing.”
Rebekah shook her head and lay back on the grass. She gazed up at the sky, a brilliant blue, bluer than anything she’d ever seen. “How long have you been planning this?”
Silence emanated from the phone.
“Joann. Listen. I can’t. Aaron would never—”
“Aaron, shmarron. Like I said, time to start thinking about your career.”
About a week later, the scholarship application arrived in a big brown envelope, the address written in Joann’s loopy handwriting. Rebekah tossed it onto the kitchen counter, where it lodged up against the stick cactus, still thriving and bushy and green. Each time she’d walk past, she’d pick up the envelope and flip through the pages of questions. She’d be out in the garden and realize she was thinking about those questions, mentally composing answers.
One night, while Aaron dozed in front of the television, exhausted after yet another week spent driving back and forth across the enormous state of North Dakota, she grabbed the scholarship packet and started to fill in the questionnaire.
The next day, after Keith had picked up Aaron and they’d bounced off in the truck, heading for a job site near Fargo, she sat down at the computer, and typed a draft of her essay. She took the pages to the porch. Another storm was blowing in. She sat, oblivious to the approaching clouds, editing, crossing out lines, rethinking the way she’d chosen to write things, and barely noticed that the storm had arrived until a huge gust of wind caught at the screen door and yanked it open. The blast sent a swirl of dust and dead leaves onto the porch and tugged at the papers in her hands, but she held on tight. Only when the rain arrived, slashing sheets of water onto the porch and splattering the pages, did she finally give up and go in.
Rebekah always wondered if the iris came up the next spring. They do that sometimes. You think they’re dead and then, one day, an unexpected green shoot pokes up from the dirt and you have irises again. But if the iris survived, she never knew. By winter she was gone, leaving her dead plants behind.
She really hadn’t expected to get the scholarship. When the news arrived, she stood at the mailbox at the end of their long driveway, the ripped-open envelope in her hand, and called Joann on her cell phone.
“I got it,” she said, gazing at the sea of amber that stretched away to the horizon, a large field of wheat grown ripe and plump and ready for harvest.
“When are you leaving?” Joann asked. And that’s when Rebekah realized it wasn’t a question of if she would leave, but when.
She thought about that as she walked back to the house. She tried to remember when she’d first known she was leaving, but she couldn’t locate the moment she’d decided. It was more like the decision made itself known to her, the way a sprout breaks through the soil and comes into the light where it can be seen, and you don’t even know when the seed was planted, much less who planted it.
She’d wavered a bit when she drove her car to the end of the driveway that last morning and sat as a line of farm trucks rolled by, gazing in the rear-view mirror as he stood on the front porch, both hands jammed into his pockets, an exceedingly sad look on his face. Something clutched at her heart but she shoved it away.
The last of the dusty trucks, piled high with golden grain, rumbled past. She turned and waved. He stood up straight, lifted a hand and smiled, nodding. She looked both ways, pulled out and drove off across the prairie.
Aaron had been right about one thing. North Dakota was an excellent place to develop alternative energy, especially wind power. The wind is the most prominent feature of the place. It blows incessantly. It strips the soil of moisture and its constant flow tugs at all the tender roots some transplanted soul from Indiana might tentatively place into the ground.
No matter. Even if they’d lived, Rebekah wouldn’t have been able to bring the iris or bee balm or even the black-eyed Susans with her. In an apartment building with only a small deck for a garden, there was no room.
She did bring one plant, though: Joann’s stick cactus. It alone had survived the move to Wahpeton and was again sending out profuse tangles of green sticks from its new home in a large pot, nestled into the front passenger seat.
Just the other day, she’d discovered the Master Gardener was sometimes wrong. Despite what Joann had said, it wasn’t a stick cactus. According to the National Botanical Garden’s website, it wasn’t even a cactus but a tropical evergreen known as a milk bush—more properly, Euphorbia rhipsaloides.
Rebekah adjusted the pot’s position so that the sunshine streaming through her car window would fall more directly on her weird green shrub, a milk bush.
Whatever it was called, it was a tough little plant. And, as Joann had said, you can’t kill it no matter how hard you try.