“Planting Life” Fiction by Halle Gulbrandsen

Image by Chloe Price

Planting Life

Fiction by Halle Gulbrandsen

There I am, ripped overalls and parted bangs, digging under the hazel tree out back.

I’m planting teeth. Two baby teeth came out in an apple that morning, milk white in the browning fruit. My tongue fits perfectly into the soft space the teeth vacated and it tastes like that chainlink fence we pressed our tongues to last winter.

He watches me from the kitchen window, steam from his coffee making clouds on the glass, not saying anything. That’s our relationship: a quiet presence. In the evening, he cocoons me into the duvet and we never say goodnight, but he squeezes my toes before he leaves the room.

When I wake the next morning, I rush out in wet socks to the base of the hazel tree and growing beneath it is a tiny cluster of forget-me-nots. I rub a petal soft between my fingertips. They’ve grown in milk white and delicate.

He comes out of the house in slippers and a flannel robe, head shaking, eyes squinting, and touches them with his callused hands.

“Gentle, gentle,” I say, as he pulls them from the soil.

The tangled roots flow like thread from the flowers and meet at the base of my baby teeth, which hang like beads at the tips of finely braided hair and clink together when he moves his hand.

He places them in a tea cup filled with water on the kitchen window sill and two days later, they wilt to the color of wet soil.

***

There I am, losing my virginity to some guy named Matt or Mike in his parents’ car. The low throb of the party spills from the trees at the edge of town. I can’t stop thinking of the knit blanket I forgot beside the bonfire, probably absorbing so much smoke it won’t ever wash clean. Voices call to one another, probably just outside the car, probably within spitting distance.

“Yes,” I say, when Matt or Mike, asks for the fourteenth time if I’m alright. I’m alright, I’m alright, I’m alright. Just stop asking.

Later, I walk home alone and dizzy in the dark, trying to decide whether I liked it or not, trying to remember his name. It’s probably Matt. Probably.

I bury my underwear beneath the hazel tree then sneak in through the side door of the house.

He’s fallen asleep on the couch, the flashing blue and white light of the television washing constellations on his grainy face. It’s on mute and the silence settles in the dusted corners, the cracks in the hardwood, the small gap between his front teeth.

In the morning, I sip slow at a hot coffee, hoping to steam away the hammer being taken to the inside of my head. From the kitchen window, I see two white flowers growing from the bare ground at the tree’s base, already wilting and bending to gravity. They look like tattered weeds bowing low to the sweeping arms of the hazel tree.

He walks into the kitchen, looks at the flowers and says, “Lilies.”

He doesn’t ask what it was I planted that sprouted lilies, not even after he sees me tear them from the ground and toss them into the compost bin.

***

There I am, giving him a long hug at the airport before stepping into the gentle push and pull of adulthood, the rhythmic waves of drifting in and out of relationships and jobs. Sometimes he calls and listens to me talk about my life. I ask him questions, but his answers are distant, often clumsy. Sometimes we sit in silence with phones pressed to our ears, listening to the static of all the miles between us.

When I come home for Christmas, my old bedroom is completely empty, except for the curtains and the ceiling light. My clothes, books, even bed, have all been cleared out. But in the yard, sunflowers have grown from fence to fence, standing well over ten feet tall. Their golden faces lean into the setting sun, reflect off the unmarked snow; their leaves half-heartedly wave in the wind.

With bare hands numbing in the snow, I dig up one of the flowers. At the base of the green stalk, roots erupt from the binding of one of my old picture books. A few ants crawl between the pages and I flick one from my arm before replanting the book in the ground and sweeping the dirt and snow back over.

Once the sun sets, I lie on the couch, my childhood glowing in the night, the sunflowers hanging like summer lanterns. He sits by my feet, hand resting on my toes and stares out the window. The orange glow highlights the lines on his face, which have grown deeper since I last saw him, his age leaving crevices in his skin.

There I am, three weeks later, deciding to stay. I stay until the sunflowers waste away, then help him plant everything and anything else. We plant cookbooks, photo albums, even the old computer we kept crammed under the stairs. From these, we grow blueberry bushes, snaking vines interspersed with wildflowers, even plastic roses which we end up having to recycle.

We plant our static lives under the hazel tree and fall asleep every evening to the glow of a silent television.

***

And there I am, three Christmases later, planting ashes under that same tree. The hem of my black dress dips into the snow, rimmed with white icing. The ceremony had ended quickly, as only three of us showed up.

So there I am, alone, burying the ashes, planting the quiet.

And there I am, watching all through the night, waiting for miracles to sprout.

And there I am, empty as the patch of snow under that tree.

Where are the sunflowers? The wildflowers? Not even something small as a dandelion?

Five cups of coffee in and still nothing.

Slippers on, flannel robe draped and coffee cup in hand, I open the door. A crisp wind cradles the soft hum of music through the doorway.

Piano keys, violin strings, wind chimes, all swell from the earth and there I am, catching symphonies blooming into the morning, stubborn as wildflowers, bright as sunflowers.

Within the hour, the entire neighbourhood has gathered to listen. People sit on folding chairs that squeak when they shift in their seats and on knit blankets soggy from the snow.

Every so often, the music breaks for a half second, so quick I’m sure people miss it, but I don’t. And that break, that brief eclipse of silence, sings louder than anything, and I think, there he is.

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