LTLO Non-Winning Story: "Weeds" - Com...
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|Tue, 10-31-2000 - 9:51am|
LTLO Non-Winning Story: "Weeds" - Comments and Stark Feedback welcome
The house the Campbells rented in Setterville that March was a little, old thing – a box with two bedrooms and only one bath – but it had a yard. For the first time in ten years the family had a safe place for the kids to play outside with a small patch left over for Mama’s garden.
"I expect you’ll be quite pleased with the privacy," their landlord had said as he showed Anna Campbell around. Mr. Astel was a short, squat man who claimed only to be forty-years-old although he looked closer to sixty. A wild-horse wind with rain clouds in its wake whipped the small man’s long, silver hair around his head as they toured the backyard. "Nearest neighbor’s over a mile away and not much traffic on the road. Plenty of space for your young ones to play…" He squinted his pink-tinged eyes and wrinkled his crooked nose in an almost hungry look as he gestured toward Karen and Steven who were competing to swing highest on a rusting playset.
Anna Campbell frowned, shouted out a warning to her children that was unanimously ignored, then turned her attention to the south-side strip of land off the main yard. She could imagine sunflowers swaying in a summer breeze under the kitchen window, like drunken courtiers intoxicated with the heady perfume of pretty sweet peas clinging the wall. Tomatoes could climb at the far end, and corn in the middle, or perhaps some pumpkins for the kids’ Halloween jack-o-lanterns next fall. For the rest of that area she imagined stepping-stones through ground-cover herbs, oregano and thyme, rosemary hedging the gate and a patio table and chairs surrounded by the scents of sage and lemon verbena. Come summer it could be a paradise – her retreat from ringing phones and blaring cartoons and her children’s sibling squabbles. She raised her hand to her belly, still slim in her second month of pregnancy, and thought of how welcome such a sanctuary would be.
"Those bushes" she said, pointing to four large, black, barren things, which dominated the area. "May I remove those?"
"Ah…those." A strange sort of smile, like a sorrowful satisfaction, twisted Mr. Astel’s face. "They’ve been there, always. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but no one’s ever rid me of them."
"You mean you can’t kill them?" asked Anna. She wrapped her arms around her, shivering as a cold breeze flowed by. It tore through the ugly bushes, making them moan.
Mr. Astel shrugged. "You can try," he answered. "Maybe you’ll have better luck."
The next sunny morning after getting the kids off to school Anna headed toward her soon-to-be garden with a shovel, a handful of garbage bags and a pair of pruning shears. She stopped before the largest of the bushes and stared at its tree-like trunk. The bush was almost as tall as she was and with a trunk like that…she’d probably have to get her husband to help her on the weekend. The other ones were smaller. She might manage them alone.
As she started past the biggest bush her shirtsleeve snagged on one of its thorns. As she carefully unhooked herself she found that the branch was surprisingly soft and warm – almost like flesh. She squeezed the stick between her fingers. A foul odor, like rotting meat, engulfed her and she heard a sound like a low, breathy moan.
She paused and stared at the branch, struggling to quell the queasy uneasiness rising inside her. Damn morning sickness! This offshoot was one of five extending from the tip of a long, thicker limb. She could almost imagine it as a finger of a hand. It was black and wrinkled with rose-like thorns – some needle-thin, some thick and hooked, spaced a few inches apart. She brought up her other hand and, grasping it carefully, bent the branch.
The bush shuddered and struggled like a living animal to pull itself out of her grip. With other branches it battered her, thorns ripping her top, tearing into her skin. It tangled in her hair and clawed at her eyes.
Anna screamed. She dropped the branch and raised her arm to hide her face while pulling frantically to free herself. At last, breathless and shaking, she managed to back out of the plant’s reach. She turned to stare at the bush now covered in handfuls of hair, bits of cloth and blood. The plant stared eyelessly back at her.
"Is it a war you want?" she demanded. "Do you really think you can win? I’ve bested briars and blackberries and I’ll beat you!"
The plant swayed softly from side to side, although Anna could feel no wind. Its upper branches twisted as though it were shaking its head. She grabbed her shears from the dirt at her feet and started toward the plant.
"Come for me," she dared it, snapping the shears open and closed. The bush quivered and cringed away. "You can’t run. You can’t hide. Today you’re going to die!"
It was almost like fencing, she imagined, as she dodged flying branches while snipping and slicing. Every time she cut a branch a thin, red fluid gushed out like spurting blood and the plant audibly moaned. Its flailing grew weaker, however, until at last it lay in pieces, stuffed in Anna’s trash bags. All that was left was a bit of its trunk and the roots.
Flushed by her victory, Anna grabbed her shovel and began to dig.
The plant had powerful roots, thin as yarn, flexible and difficult to break. They radiated in every direction through the ground crisscrossed by others that Anna assumed came from its fellow plants. They were so thick they left no room for anything, even grass, to grow.
Anna focused all her strength on the ones nearest the dead bushes, painstakingly slicing them one by one until at last she managed to upend the truck.
Wearily she dropped her gaze to the hole beneath and saw, to her shock, something staring back at her. Wrapped like the desiccated remains of a fly caught in a web was a human body so decayed she couldn’t guess if it had once been a man or a woman. She stared in paralyzed fascination as an earthworm slithered over the only remaining eye in the rotted face. The corpse’s head shifted suddenly, as though trying to get a better view of her.
Anna startled and would have jumped but found her feet anchored to the dirt, completely enshrouded by thin, white roots, which were quickly entwining themselves around her legs. She struggled and beat at the roots with her shovel but couldn’t stop them as they pulled her beneath the ground.
When her children came home from school Mama wasn’t there. It looked as though she had been working in the garden. One of the plants she planned to remove was rotting in a garbage bag. Her tools lay scattered on the ground, except for the shovel, which was half-buried in the new-turned dirt, but no sign of Mama.
By summer a new bush had grown where the old one had been and late that autumn a new, tiny one sprouted next to it.