The Thing in the Garden
Aug 12 ● BY Celia Bell
1. I watered the thing, and it grew.
2. Keep in mind that this is the desert. Was the desert, rather. Is still, if you stick a spade beneath the soil. They keep pouring water into the land, and the land drinks it dry. Golf courses with burning sand a hand’s length beneath their rolled turf. If you drive out onto the freeway it’s like the color’s been leeched out of the world and into the sky. It’s the same color as the swimming pools, the color of someone’s imagined idea of heaven. A shade of blue that stings like chlorine, hot as sunlight, the color of every desert traveler’s dream of an oasis. Like the earth opened up, and inside lay this perfect blue mouth full of burning, sterile water. The desert drinks it up and makes more desert.
When Jodie and I moved in to the retirement community, I biked around the preplanned streets in the heat, past the golf courses. All of the houses looked the same—the same roads and cul-de-sacs, the same white stucco buildings with red tiled roofs, no stairs to trip and fall on, gravel driveways, dying grass on the front lawns. They were saving the water to keep the golf courses green.
It was easy to get lost, and in the midday heat my sweat beaded my skin, then soaked my bra, then burned my eyes. I have nerve damage in the two smallest fingers of my left hand, little roots that shoot out from the scar where the knife went in all those years ago. As I clenched my fingers around the sweat-slick handlebar of the bike, the tightening band of numbness crept up my fingers to my elbow, as if some alien muscle had been grafted onto my body, the way they graft grapefruit and orange trees onto unrelated roots. As if it were a new bloom that lived off of me but had nothing to do with me.
I was lost in the identical streets, and I could feel the sun sucking me dry. I wondered what would happen if I knocked on a door. I imagined biking back to the golf course and crawling across the fairway, over the dead grass on the fringes and the green living grass, until I could put my mouth on one of the automated sprinklers and suck on it like a nipple. Instead, I retraced my bike route, and when I got home I told Jodie what I imagined, and she laughed.
3. All of these developments are built along a fault line. We’re old people, retired, and the land is cheap enough. They built half the planned community, and then they ran out of money and water and senior citizens, so now the golf course has dry patches, and if you walk or bike out to the edges, you’ll find houses swathed in Tyvek, windowless, never to be finished. If there is a quake, it will all come tumbling down, but there hasn’t been a quake.
4. Jodie’s body is a garden. After the cancer came they took off her breasts, and over the thick belt of scar, she tattooed Eden. Those gnarled green branches, that tongue-pink tropical flower, peaches so ripe and round you’d think you could squeeze them still. I held her hand in the tattoo shop, while the girl she’d worked with on the design bent over her body, holding the tattoo gun. She was a skinny girl, her head half shaved in the way the young kids are wearing it now. She asked Jodie if the pain was too much, and Jodie ran her hand through the short cap of hair that was just now growing back gray over her eyes and said, “No, baby. Compared to cancer, nothing hurts.”
I saw the way she looked at us, the girl, when she wasn’t bent over Jodie’s body with her tongue poking through her lips in concentration. That look of, Here are my elders. The gratitude of knowing that we’d survived as long as we had. Sometimes they get the look, and sometimes their eyes slide right over us, seeing just two women. Someone’s mothers, maybe.
After the tattoo healed, Jodie stood in front of the mirror, turning to see her flattened profile. I came up behind her and ran my hands from her foliage down to the softest part of her stomach, where the flesh folds over the band of her underwear like an empty purse, and she kissed me and said, “Guess I get to be the butch one now, huh?”
It’s some Jungian kick she’s on. At night, she props herself up on three pillows in bed and talks to me about animus and anima. She says, “Everyone has masculine and feminine energy. I’ve used my female energy my whole life, and now I feel like maybe I ought to learn to work with the part of me that’s a man.”
She’s still the woman I’ve always known. She’s grown out her hair since the chemo and wears it in a gray snake down her back. She buys crystals at the hippie shop in Palm Springs and a tincture that’s supposed to give you lucid dreams. She buys some white men’s shirts and wears them open low enough that you can see the wild garden of her tattoo licking up against her collarbones, kissing the places where I kissed her after the bandages came off.
5. I found the thing years ago, when we first moved here. Before they passed marriage, before Jodie’s cancer. When we bought the condo, it had a green lawn out front and rose bushes under the windows. It gets up to 120 in the summers here, and despite the automatic sprinkler system, the rose trees died and the grass went brown. The maintenance crew came and dug up the lawn and replaced it with gravel and cactus to reduce the community’s ecological footprint and provide an appropriate habitat for the local wildlife. The price of keeping those golf courses green, I said to Jodie.
Before they dug it up, I went out and walked around on the dying grass in our cube-shaped back yard. The ground sloped down to a funnel-like hole near the western corner of our privacy fence. It looked like a burrow. I sat down beside it, feeling companionable, imagining the quickening heartbeat of the rabbit or vole that must be down there, hiding out from the heat, listening to the tremors in the ground as Jodie and I walked around over top of its head.
“I bet it’s hot down there, honey, isn’t it?” I asked the air. Then I thought a bit and brushed the bits of dead leaves off my ass, and went in to get a bowl of water to set at the burrow’s entrance.
Jodie brought the bowl in the next morning while I was sitting at the breakfast table, dry except for a scum of dirt in the bottom. “Why’d you leave my good bowl outside overnight?”
“Thought the rabbits might be thirsty with the drought.” I shrugged, and Jodie came over and tousled my hair and pressed my face into her stomach.
“You old softie. Letting the rabbits drink out of my nice china.”
But she filled the bowl up again and put it back where I’d left it.
6. It was strange when we first moved here. We went out to eat at the Mexican restaurant down the road, and over enchiladas Jodie waved to a neighbor, some woman she knew from yoga at the fitness center. The woman blinked at her and said, “Oh, I think it’s lovely that you’re such good friends. It can be hard being single at our age.” And I watched Jodie’s smile stretch tight across her face, tight like a coiled spring.
“I’m Jodie’s wife,” I said, although I wasn’t. Not legally.
“Oh,” said the woman.
You’d think she’d never seen a lesbian before, that Palm Springs wasn’t a twenty-five minute drive down the freeway.
That night Jodie lay facedown in bed with her nightgown bunched up around her hips and asked, in the darkness, “Did we make a mistake, June?”
“It’s fine,” I said. “You wait, we’ll be just fine.”
But I lay awake for a long while after I heard her breathing, slow and beginning to rasp. I turned my head towards the French window and looked at our fenced-in yard, waiting to see the quick silhouettes of rabbits coming out to drink.
7. As well as Jodie and I did for ourselves, San Francisco came to an end. Rent went up and up. We’d never bought a house or an apartment, had stayed in the same rent-controlled unit for fifteen or twenty years, the landlord working himself gradually into an ice cold fury over how little we were paying, turning off the hot water, turning down the thermostat, so that every time I turned on the shower or washed dishes, Jodie joked that she could hear him whispering, Leave, leave, through the pipes.
We left. The rent in the rest of the city had outpaced our savings. Jodie was sixty-five. I was a year younger. She said she’d always loved the desert.
8. The thing stayed like that for a while, a little burrow hole behind the condo. I left water and sometimes carrots out for it, but it only ever touched the water. Nothing else touched the carrots either. Sometimes there’d be birds in the front yard, crested lizards sitting panting on the front steps, but I never saw anything in the back garden. No rabbits. I felt a strange affection for the thing, like I’d found some dry shy creature that didn’t want to venture out of its dark protective hole, and I had to defend it.
It started to change around the time Jodie got diagnosed. First the California Supreme Court ruled that we should have marriage, and Jodie told me to take her down to the courthouse and make an honest woman out of her. We didn’t have a honeymoon, we didn’t have rings. We went out to dinner in Palm Springs, her in a yellow suit with the flowers still in her hand, a table full of friends down from San Francisco for the weekend. All night strangers walked across the room to say, “Congratulations,” and “How long have you been waiting?”
Then a month or two later she stepped out of the shower, pink and steaming, and dropped her towel and said, “June, come feel this, I think I feel a lump. That’s a lump, isn’t it?”
We got the tests back, and Jodie went to her yoga classes and drank gallons of green tea and cried. She started chemo. When she was zonked out on the bed in the afternoon, I’d go out and pace around the back yard, door to fence, china bowl to wind chime, and as I paced I saw that the burrow was getting larger. It had been a little vole’s hole. Now it looked like I could put my fist down it. It was—glimmering. A strange green shininess to the dirt. I scratched at it with my toe, I talked to it, and then, after weeks had passed, I got down on my hands and knees and looked into the depth of it. I saw a sheen way down deep, dark, like the contracting pupil of an eye. I blinked at it, and when I wiped the tears off my face, I swear I saw it blink back.
“Please,” I said. I’m not sure what I thought I was praying to. “I need someone to make this okay.”
9. I used to think that I was the stronger one. When we were first dating, she called me “Miss Strong and Silent,” and I took it to heart. Not that Jodie was weak, but she was gentle. She liked to take care of people, and everything that touched her left an impression on her skin.
They passed Prop 8 in the first months after Jodie was diagnosed with cancer. We sat up late into the night, watching the election, Jodie nauseous and nodding off through the poll results, the map of states coming up in blues and reds. Every fifteen minutes or so she’d get up to pee, dragging her feet when she walked, leaning on the wall. She didn’t want me to help her, but I was used to getting up at night to let her lean on me. And I was happy enough to leave the television. The local news was reporting polling numbers on Prop 8, and I saw how the tide was turning, hoped Jodie was too fogged out to follow the numbers to their conclusion. She hadn’t said anything. There’d be time tomorrow.
I held her by the shoulders as she eased herself down onto the toilet, and I flushed away what was left after she’d finished, a green cloudy mess that stank up the room. I thought she was out of breath at first, not crying, but then she put her face in her hands and slid off of the toilet, her underwear still around her ankles, saying, “Why do they hate us so much?”
I put her bald head in my lap, and she said, “I never hated anyone. I don’t know what we’ve done to make them hate us so much.”
What could I say? There was a moment when the thought passed through my mind—if you don’t hate them back, then you’re a damn idiot. I hated myself for thinking it. I sat there and stroked the peach fuzz that remained of her hair, and wondered what I’d done that the world didn’t want to let me protect her.
10. There was a while when I thought she would die, and I walked around feeling a knot of cold in my throat, mourning her while I was making her breakfast and driving her to her doctor’s appointments, while she was right in front of me.
Instead she came home from the hospital without her breasts. She lay in bed for two days, getting up just to empty the drain from the surgery site, watching the empty yard through the French windows and the thing in one corner of it. Then she got up, made a lasagna, bought new yellow curtains for the bedroom, dragged me out to Joshua Tree at dawn to watch the sunrise. Her chest healed, her scars came in. The doctor declared remission. She made friends with the tattooist.
11. I didn’t think about the thing so much then. I watered it. I had asked, and I figured that it, in its imperturbable way, had maybe listened.
Meanwhile, the burrow grew scales along its walls. They were so fine they looked almost like sharkskin, little needle-like plates of armor. It took me a while to notice, and longer before I followed my impulse to kneel down and run my finger along them. They were smooth one way and rough as a cat’s tongue the other.
I called Jodie over to look at it.
“Huh,” she said. “It’s a mystery beast.”
“Should we do something with it?”
“It’s not hurting anyone,” she said.
And it wasn’t. Sometimes when I watered it, I’d see a flash of gleam down the burrow. Once when I woke up in the middle of the night and looked out the window, I thought I saw a lone thin stripe of tongue rooting around the water bowl. But it was shy. It never drank when it thought I could see it, back then.
12. Jodie made friends with the straight women who went to the community club. She learned to golf, badly, duffing the ball up and down the fairway and laughing the whole while. I biked with a liter bottle of water clipped to the cross bar of the bicycle, and when I came back I collapsed in a puddle of sweat and flipped through the news channels on the television, while Jodie sat in the bedroom, doing her meditation in a straight-backed chair.
I liked to park my bike and walk along the edges of the community, where most of the houses were empty and you could see the brush growing back. I was starting to lose my breath easier when I biked a long way. Sometimes I’d look out across the highway to the horizon and feel my fingers prickle. I’d thought the scar on my hand had mostly healed long ago, but now I was noticing it more and more, the pins and needles that crept up my fingers and down to my elbow when I lay with the wrong arm under my head at night. Sometimes I wondered if it was really the scar, if it wasn’t some other disease, hiding so it could crawl out the next moment that things looked alright.
Because they were alright for a while. For a few years—evening walks in the desert—sitting outside with a beer late at night and talking to the thing, whose scales rustled a bit sometimes when we laughed. The case for marriage moved toward the Supreme Court. Jodie started going in to Palm Springs more frequently, where she made friends with the woman who owned the all-women’s resort and volunteered to help coordinate the lesbian book festival they hosted up there. On some weekends we’d go up and swim in their pool, Jodie sometimes in a red V-necked one piece and sometimes in a pair of the men’s trunks that I preferred, her chest bare to show the tattoo. And the young women would watch us, some days, with a look like they were watching history.
13. So, quietly, we became history. Jodie was the face of it, pulling me forwards, talking of marriage and equal employment and the new ways the young people were talking and organizing and cutting their hair. She learned their language, called them her grandbabies, and they loved her. And I looked backwards, into the distant past. What we’d lived hadn’t seemed historical while we were living it. It had seemed, sometimes, like a specter eating just a few square blocks of San Francisco, and a far away nightmare outside of it. At the height of the AIDS crisis, Jodie and I had sewed quilts and cooked dinners and visited hospitals and marched, the ordinary work of death, and not enough, ever, and now the writers at the lesbian literary conference were calling it oral history and asking if they could interview Jodie and me. Jodie said yes and I said no, mostly. I was remembering things often enough. When my hand ached. When they talked about marriage or health care or the financial crisis or the war on the TV, and I thought, Maybe this time, but with all the weight of every other time behind it.
History kills everyone. I had more than one quiet place in my mind for the dead. I didn’t want the world to forget, but I couldn’t speak about them. I’m not going to now, either. This is a story about the living.
14. We drove out into the desert and walked until we couldn’t see the car anymore, touching the spines of the Joshua trees, Jodie holding a black umbrella over both our heads against the sun. The heat shimmered across the horizon, as if it were changing the landscape, making it new again, asking, Like this? Like this? As if everything in the world was just one step away from transformation.
15. I was in my thirties when I met Jodie. We were regulars at the same bar. She had long dark hair in those days, and it took me a couple weeks of getting my nerve up before I got my nose out of my beer and asked her out. I’d had bad luck with women before, kept falling in love with girls who brought out the worst in me. My friends told me that I had a taste for heartbreakers. But with Jodie, I knew.
It was the ‘70s. AIDS hadn’t hit yet. When we left the bar the night I cut my hand, I didn’t notice if the pair of men were waiting outside it, but I guess they saw us come out. Or they saw the way my hair was cut and knew from that. Because when we turned the corner there were two of them, the first grabbing Jodie by the hair and the second brandishing a knife at me when she screamed, his hat pulled way down over his face, laughing. I saw, for a moment, the way she froze, her neck going somehow simultaneously stiff and limp, and then I had already reached out and grabbed the knife by the blade, not feeling even pain, but just the slick pressure of it slicing through the muscle of my hand as I barreled into him, ramming my head into his nose, forcing the knife back until the point was in his own face, and he dropped it. And ran. His friend ran with him. I tried to chase them for a strange, stretched-out second, still gripping the knife by the blade, thinking I was going to kill anyone who hurt Jodie, and then Jodie grabbed me and peeled my fingers away from where I’d cut myself.
The pain hadn’t caught up to me yet.
The wound was a new mouth that ran from the heel of my hand to the base of my ring finger. The blood was running down to my elbow. It hurt all at once. Everything had happened so fast that I felt like I had been moved by an invisible hand rather than moving myself. I was still looking around for something to fight, but Jodie had unfrozen herself, was wrapping her scarf around my hand and trying to put pressure on the meat of it while I hustled her down the street, sprouting eyes all over my skin to look for danger.
In the hospital, when they stitched me up, I said, A man with a knife, and mentioned a different street than the one we’d been on, dipping my head down so that I wouldn’t see if they were looking at my haircut. Jodie sat on the chair beside me without touching, crossing her leg when her knee brushed mine. She waited outside when the doctors saw me, and when we went home we didn’t mention it, the not-touching, the way we’d been careful to say my friend, the false street. She said, instead, “I love you,” and “I was so scared.”
And maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything if we’d told the truth. But maybe it would have.
16. The point is, there’s no safety except what you make for yourself.
17. We grew old despite the world. Jodie grew outward, wearing the scars on her chest like a medal. And I grew inward, quietly, like a plant sending roots down to find deeper water, to sink down more firmly against disaster, waiting for the next drought, the next beast to come around to dig and see if it could topple us. Jodie called me prickly pear and stubborn and old softie. I called her Jodie, mostly. I turned seventy. I still biked, a little slower, not quite so far. The night I cut my hand, I’d promised that whatever happened I’d protect her.
Some nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d go out and sit in a lawn chair and pour out a beer for the thing and talk to it. Sometimes, if the moon was full or I’d stayed out especially late, it would stick its long rough tongue out of its hole and slurp the traces of beer from its bowl. Once it stretched the tongue right to the arm of my lounge chair, and I put out my hand, gingerly, and patted it. It was dry, quite dry, soft spines running up its length like a baby cactus, too jelly-limp to prick the skin. It was as thick around as my bicep.
“Do you worry about the end of the world?” I asked it.
They had been good years for us. But the droughts were getting worse. There’d been wildfires nearly every year, further north. We’d spent a lot on Jodie’s cancer, and things kept getting more expensive. Except for gasoline, which peaked, then fell. We didn’t have children to care for us. Jodie jumped with delight every time she saw a bee, they’d become so rare.
The thing didn’t answer, just sat with me for awhile and then snaked its tongue back underground.
18. The next election brought the fall. In the run-up, Jodie’d flipped the TV off every time she walked past me watching it.
“I can’t stand to hear his voice,” she’d say. “Running with that snake behind him for Vice President. I can’t wait to watch him lose.”
I’d shrug and turn the TV off. I watched the blue strip of sky outside the window, hanging above the privacy fence as if freshly painted.
Afterward, everyone said they hadn’t seen it coming. The ground had shifted, at some point, without anyone noticing, and suddenly nothing that looked solid was safe. I thought, privately, that nothing had been solid—not the ground, not the sky, not my body or anyone else’s.
19. Jodie tells me I have to get out of the house. The news is North Korea and wildfires and immigration. In San Francisco, friends call coughing, tell us that they can taste the smoke in the air, that it hangs like an old coat over the Bay, darkening the sky. The news shows pictures. I sit on the couch and watch them. I don’t feel like biking. I feel like watching the burning.
Jodie stands in front of me with her hands on her hips and says, “You’re just going to lie down and die, huh? You’re going to make it easy for them? Come on, June, I know you, fight.”
She’s stronger than I am, now. She’s calling her representatives and driving down to Palm Springs to volunteer and organizing a fundraiser for trans rights. It’s like she stored up all the water from the good years and is ready, now, to burst into bloom, barreling forward into the distance carrying everything she needs with her.
“I’m tired, Jodie,” I say.
She sits down on the couch and strokes my back, neck to tailbone. Humming to herself a little. I watch the fires spreading on the news and think, Burn it down.
20. The thing is growing. I don’t talk to it much anymore. I don’t feel like talking. But I can see the way the hole is widening. From the size of my fists, like the size of a birth canal, it cracks open, becoming a shaft I could lower myself into if I wanted to get down and touch it, if I wanted to stroke the curve of the colossal skull that I’m seeing for the first time. I can see its glistening, egg-white eye, the stiffened spines that surround it.
It’s thirstier these days. I water it morning and evening, and sometimes its tongue snakes up into the yard at the hottest part of the day, questing. If I go out and water it then, it drinks a pitcher dry and then licks the sweat off my face with that soft, gritty tongue. It’s lonely, I think. It’s thirsty. It drinks and drinks. When I look down at it, I feel like I’m looking at the bones of the earth.
I don’t say anything out loud this time. But I sit next to it, and water it, and all the time I’m thinking, This is the end. And, Burn it down. The thing blinks at me and moves its vast head, fractionally, underground, and I know that this ancient, alien thing is as tender and unhappy as any of us.
21. I wake up to an earthquake. The bed is shaking. The suncatcher Jodie hung in the window is tinkling against the glass. I turn over in bed and find Jodie is awake and looking at me, her gray hair tucked in the collar of her nightgown, her expression as resolute as I’ve ever seen. I reach out for her, put my head next to hers on the pillow. We’re going to stay where we are, and if the house falls down, it falls down. We’ll go together. She puts her palm against my cheek.
Nothing breaks. When the quake quiets down, I get up, and Jodie follows me outside barefoot in her nightgown. There’s a chasm in the back garden, earth torn down to thick clay, and the empty space left behind doesn’t look like the shape of a body. It looks like a gash torn by machinery, a strip-mined mountain, a quarry. The back fence is gone. Most of asphalt on the road behind us is gone. Some wings of the houses lining the road, pink insulation spilling out of walls like cotton candy. Electric wires down. The sun’s rising behind us, painting everything soft and peach-golden, and the thing is heading west, towards the coast, and where it has passed it has torn up the earth, like it’s too momentously heavy to walk on the ground, like it’s under the sort of blind, helpless rage that makes you want to pull down everything in your path.
I can’t see it, not even on the horizon. There’s just the wreckage.
“Where’s it going?” asks Jodie.
“I don’t know,” I say.
But I look down the trail of where the thing has passed, and I imagine it vaster than galaxies, thirsty, eating up the land under the desert until it finds what it’s looking for or burns itself out. I take Jodie’s hand.
And we walk in the wound.