No one likes to mention it, but a number of plants in any garden are poisonous. Foxglove, named for the bell-shaped flower suitable for a small paw, is poisonous; if one knows how to apply the old knowledge. A fox visits my neighbor’s yard. I have watched her from the window above my writing desk. One night I heard a terrible scream arise from that direction. I suspected that the lost cat, whose picture had recently been posted on telephone poles, met her demise. The next morning, I looked for clues but all I found was an unsettled feeling that some creature had suffered a terrible death so near to my comfortable rooms.
Ten years ago, the first spring in our new house, I discovered that the previous owners’ landscaping included layers of heavy plastic sheeting meant to keep weeds out. I began the laborious task of tearing it up, allowing myself several summers to get the job done. Buried beneath the plastic, held to the ground by long spikes, were fiddlehead ferns, red tulips and black-eyed Susans.
My mother was surprised I liked to garden but I had left home at eighteen and, while she was always supportive, she did not know me well. On her deathbed she cradled imaginary babies and spoke a strange poetry of loss that made me realize I didn’t know her, either. How sad I was to first glimpse her as she died!
I was advised to weed the dead things out. “No one wants to see them,” she said, but later I discovered that, like so much else, this belief was rooted in fashion. In fact, there is a tradition of poison gardens and ornaments of dead amidst the bloom.
I like to use windfall branches, myself. My garden is bordered with limbs. After ten years, some have sunk far into the ground and begun to disintegrate; this morning I laid down reinforcements. I also heaved around my yard a large branch, too ungainly to be used for the border but possessing of a lovely arch culminated in a wide V; a sculptural expression of yearning, though dead, of course.
Our cat, Goethe, died in the autumn before my mother’s fall. The following year, our dog began suffering seizures of paralysis though, when the veterinarian came to our house to help him die, Watson greeted her with all the frisky agility of the puppy he once had been, and I worried we called too soon. My mother-in-law was dead by Thanksgiving. I wish I’d visited her more often.
I don’t know why survivors suffer guilt; I have just observed it to be true. As if any of us could stop death, or lessen its toll, or live a life so aware we could bury our dead without regret. Before I lived in the little yellow house in the little town of candy stores and coffee shops, before I married Bill one May in a different garden, before I wrote my novel about plant lore and forgiveness, I lived in a cabin in the woods -- a temporary life amongst the bears -- and dreamt of finding a safe place to call home. I, too, prefer to imagine the fox donning pink buds for a tea party rather than tearing apart the small body of a lost pet. I, too, prefer to think of home as forever, but every garden is full of poison, every birth a mortal wound. Try not to despair. In winter, more branches will fall, and each one is beautiful.
Before earning her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Mary Rickert worked as kindergarten teacher, coffee shop barista, Disneyland balloon vendor, and personnel assistant in Sequoia National Park. Her first novel, The Memory Garden, was published in 2014, and won the Locus award. She is the winner of the Crawford Award, World Fantasy Award, and Shirley Jackson Award. Her second short story collection, You Have Never Been Here was published by Small Beer Press in November, 2015. She offers a mentoring service for writers, and is a certified yoga instructor at the Balancing Arts Yoga Studio in Grafton, Wisconsin. For more information visit her website at http://www.mrickert.net
Mary wants you to visit The Cosmo Fund. Donations to THE COSMO FUND are set aside to help people who's dogs could benefit from care, but the cost would prevent them from doing so. For now, donations can be sent via PayPal to e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org or via check: David Geschke, PO Box 11, Waupun, WI 53963. Get more details at facebook.com/thecosmofund.