Little Strawberry Towns

story about a botanist

October floated like a glacier into town. Abigail remembered the chill from her childhood, but memory alone could never summon its sensate richness: the sawdust-dry air, the biting wind that snaked up your sleeves no matter how you held your arms and the leaves that crunched like brittle insecurities at every step. No form of retrospection, she was certain, could encapsulate autumn’s tactile blitz.

Her DSLR sat on the passenger seat. Its slumbering memory housed the shattered pixels of many beloved reunions. Having reacquainted herself with the season, and with the most prominent sites from her youth – the half-rotted farmhouse that raised her, the gravel pits where she and her friends used to break bottles, and the general store that never changed its façade despite a succession of owners – she reasoned that she had only one subject left to photograph: her father.

The drive there was a fluctuant, involving experience. Certain areas were clotted with recollection, while others were vast and indifferent as the Sargasso Sea. Occasionally a decades-old oak or a roofless barn dropped like a seltzer spritz into the stale puddle of her mind, but the excitement was unpredictable; roots appeared in startling locations, branched at unforeseen angles and intertwined in unusual pairings to create a knotted, sinewy, amusing mass of associations.

After a while, the grey and scoured fields were run off by woodland. Behind a secretive veil of shade, the trees cultivated a gentle slope. This forest was wholly new to her – as a child, she’d had no reason to visit the town’s senior care home – and it rolled by with the smoothness of non-association. Instead of tangling with her past, she was distracted by tapestries of tangerine leaves, and the operetta of songbirds that she imagined she’d hear if the engine stopped.

After ten minutes the branches unfurled to reveal the bald peak of the hill, and the compound that capped it. The structure was heavily glassy, almost alpine in appearance. As she parked, the lobby windows afforded her an aperture into the daily lives of a tableful of card-players, a knitting TV-watcher and a grim-looking blind man whose wheelchair was parked directly at the window, presumably so he could feel the sun’s gaze on his face. She slung the camera around her neck and stepped out, absorbing with her whole being the quilted embrace of bird-verse, cricket-chirp and frog-bellow. After a few seconds, however, a cutting rush of wind reminded her that the season bore edges, and she quickly strode into the building.

A young staff member, clad in a white uniform, met her at the door. ‘Are you Emmett Onil’s daughter?’ he asked.

Abigail knelt to unhook a leaf from her toe. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Have we met before?’

‘No, but you look so much like him. Nice to meet you. I’m Jeremy. I’m sure Dr Lewis would love to speak with you.’

Abigail frowned. ‘I’m really just here to see my father. I won’t be long.’

‘Even so, I’m certain the doctor would be very pleased to meet you.’ He turned and walked down a corridor of closed doorways. Abigail sighed, and followed him.

The doctor’s office was cosy, dim and panelled with dark wood. A large window loomed behind the desk, its sunlight muffled by amber curtains. A small art print was tacked on the wall beside it: Magritte’s La clefs des champs. The painting showed, in the surrealist’s playful style, a window to a lush country field which, though shattered, still bore the view’s imprint on its shards.

‘Your dad’s condition has worsened significantly since your last call,’ Dr Lewis explained. She folded her arms professionally. ‘He retains a certain sense of reality, but it’s fleeting. As a result, conversation can be a struggle. He likes to talk about his books – we have a large library of braille here – so if you’re having difficulties, you can always ask him what he’s reading. His favourite subject is botany, as you no doubt know.’

Abigail leaned forward. ‘Braille?’

‘Well, yes. Emmett’s vision has almost completely left him.’

‘Oh.’ She sat back. She recalled the man by the window, soaking himself in the sun’s warmth. After a moment of thought, she raised a finger to the Magritte reproduction and said, ‘I saw the original in Madrid.’

‘Really?’ Dr Lewis said. She turned to the framed copy and smiled lightly. ‘I’m envious. It’s one of my favourites.’

Abigail stroked her chin. ‘It was spellbinding, you know, seeing its first form… so genuine, and pure. Reproductions are never the same.’

After thanking the doctor for her brevity and candour, Abigail returned to the lobby. She and Jeremy strode between the card table and the TV area and joined the blind man, her father, at the front window. He was totally bald (that was new) and a chequered blanket hugged his lap. A braille book lay open on his knees. His fingers were delicately traversing its hillocks of meaning, wearily excavating the definitions that used to speed upward to meet his eyes.

‘Emmett,’ Jeremy said, placing a hand on her father’s shoulder. He blinked, retrieving his focus from the moorlands of the page. ‘Your daughter Abigail is here to see you.’

Slowly, she lowered herself into the chair beside him.

‘Oh,’ he said, squinting in the direction of her rustle.

Abigail cleared her throat and said, ‘Hi.’ She glanced at Jeremy, who went over to the table and sat down with the card-players. She immediately regretted his departure; the man’s absence left the pair afloat in a massive void of understanding, which Abigail struggled to fill.

Futilely, she gestured to her camera. ‘I came to take your picture,’ she said, facing away from his empty stare.

‘Already?’ he asked. His fingers hovered over the split book’s pages, tapping its dots; he looked like an eager keyboardist awaiting his cue.

‘Actually, you’re my last stop,’ she admitted. ‘I thought telling you that would give me some satisfaction, but it looks like I’ve missed my chance.’ Spying his impatient fingertips, she shook her head and said, ‘Still putting the plants first, I see. Well, go ahead, tell me what you’re reading.’

He beamed a clump of pristine teeth. They were obviously false, since they lacked the silver crown that had glinted on his younger self’s left canine. ‘It’s a book about plant propagation. In this chapter, he writes about stolons.’

‘Yeah? What are those?’

‘Axillary shoots that grow along the ground. They’re covered with nodes that sprout new plants as they spread.’ Abigail recalled receiving a similar lesson from her father at their strawberry patch, one of the few times in her childhood that he’d deigned to invite her into his leisure time.

‘Think of strawberries,’ he said. Abigail jumped. She could almost see her father’s younger face echoing into the moment, throwing its canine gleam into the room and collapsing the distance between past and present. ‘They’re a stoloniferous fruit. They’re comprised of long, sympodial runners that develop ramets at their nodes. These ramets individually grow new plants, but they’re all connected by the original runner chain, like… like…’

Like a highway, she thought, connecting little strawberry towns. She knew the lecture by heart. She didn’t speak, though – she hid the memory from him, watching as he desperately groped at the bumps, searching for his reliable simile.

‘What about potatoes?’ she inquired, remembering another of his rare garden lessons. ‘Do they have stolons too?’

‘Potatoes… yes, potato plants do.’ As he passionately explained the various proliferation methods of tubers, the sun rose to its highest point, and doused the two of them in a bath of orange light. The autumn sun, so thin and vivid, deepened the broad furrows of his face. Unexpectedly, she felt a surge of affection for the happily rambling man. She stood, quietly, and unslung her DSLR. She framed him in the left-hand third, against a tender flare of citrus light. She snapped the photo and tiptoed into the shadow to review her work.

She was disappointed. Despite the warmth with which she’d captured him, his image looked flat and clinical, more like the product of a medical documentarian than a loving daughter. She glumly re-necklaced herself and returned to the window.

A few minutes later, Jeremy arrived to announce lunchtime. ‘Will you be staying?’ he asked, grabbing the handles of her father’s wheelchair.

‘For a little while.’

‘Great!’ Jeremy exclaimed, revolving him towards the table. As he moved, she saw the old man’s hands reach under his blanket and produce a new volume, with which he replaced the book on plant propagation. She wondered how many tomes he carried under his blanket at any given time.

The meal was a simple medley of chicken, vegetables and unsurprising spices. As she fork-fed her father, he pried open his next read. Its cover, equipped with both English and braille, revealed it to be Fertilisation of Orchids by Charles Darwin.

Between mouthfuls he searched the dots, faintly reciting their substance. ‘I saw the act of fertilisation… the pollen masses of the Epipactis latifolia being removed by the wasps, and carried attached to their foreheads to other flowers…’ He downed the next bite hurriedly, keen to keep reading. ‘If wasps were to become extinct in any district, so probably would the Epipactis latifolia. They rely upon one another – and, to an extent, they are one another.’ She fetched a napkin and dusted a morsel from his chin. ‘Like other orchids, the Epipactis latifolia produces a nectar that resembles the pheromones of female wasps, which courts male wasps into the process of cross-pollination. By adopting these qualities, the orchid doesn’t just imitate the wasp, and by answering them the wasp doesn’t imitate the orchid. Rather, the wasp and the orchid literally mingle with one another on a molecular level. They construct a new map of relation, a cross-species transformation. Together, they engage in a becoming.’

‘Are you reading Darwin or Deleuze?’ she joked. She filled a fork with chicken and held it to his lips. Her father, suddenly distracted, turned the other way. He grimaced with hard-fought wonder, struggling to fish a concept from the muddled dregs of his mind. His hand receded from the page and joined its partner in a modest embrace.

‘The rhizome…’ he muttered softly, ‘is neither the one nor the multiple… it has no beginning or end…’

The fork floated in front of him. Abigail was shocked – when had her father ever read philosophy? He’d always been practical, single-minded, a scientific realist too devoted to botany to entertain the musings of speculators and creative types. That was how she’d always understood him.

After lunch, she decided to explore the facility’s grounds. Lightly armoured against the cold, she headed behind the building, forewent the finely kept lawn and dove into the fence of branches behind it. A few small, incidental compositions of nature whispered their artistry to her: an ant colony climbing a dead sapling, a desiccated nest fallen from its branch and an abandoned bicycle tire whose spokes had been infiltrated by an updraft of fluffy horseweed. She deconstructed each and every one in the belly of her camera. As she trudged, a small clearing began to insinuate its emptiness between the trunks. She stopped. There was movement and sound ahead. Squinting, she saw a woman between two trees. A fire swayed at her feet, burping up smoke and flecks of paper. Abigail knelt, chasing the shreds with her lens. Another accidental moment of beauty: a flock of crows passed overhead at the perfect moment, mingling their blackness with the doves of ash.

Lowering the lens, Abigail captured the woman in profile. Her hair was red, her clothes white, and her face sheeny with tears. Abigail stood, letting the camera fall around her neck. She recognised that face. It was Jen, a friend from her teenage years. Her existence had completely slipped Abigail’s mind since moving out of town. She was stunned. Jen’s appearance unlocked a cascade of memories, a twinkling torrent whose magic came mostly from disbelief that their presence had evaded her all these years, cloaked by the legerdemain of relevance. Their dreamy tingle was intoxicating. It was in this sentimental spirit that Abigail stepped into the clearing and jovially called, ‘Jen?’

The woman looked over, startled. After a moment of scrutiny, she grinned and said, ‘Oh my God, Abi?’ She mopped her tears with a sleeve and jogged over to hug her forgotten friend.

After separating, Abigail asked, ‘How are you? Are you okay?’

Jen smiled bashfully. ‘Oh, it’s nothing. I’m fine.’ She gestured to the crackling pile of papers, but couldn’t seem to bring herself to describe their significance. ‘I’m… don’t worry about me. What about you? What are you doing back? I didn’t think I’d ever see you again!’

Abigail recalled the weekends she’d spent at Jen’s house near the beach, and the marvellous breakfast her parents would prepare whenever she slept over. ‘Oh, you know. Just paying a visit to my dad.’

Jen rolled her eyes self-deprecatingly. ‘Of course. Obviously! I can’t believe I didn’t put that together!’ A pause followed, barbed by the crepitation of the fire. ‘We all love Emmett here. He’s quiet, but sensitive. And he loves to tell us about his plants!’

‘Hm, yes. Some things don’t change.’ A sheet of paper wiggled its edge above the flames. It was lined with handwriting. ‘He was just telling me about orchids, and before that, stolons.’

Jen wiped her nose and laughed. ‘Stolons… little strawberry towns, right?’

The wind tossed a whiff of hair into Abigail’s eyes. She pawed it away and said, ‘He told you about the towns?’

‘Yep. He tells me lots, when I ask him.’

Abigail couldn’t stop herself from staring at the fire. After a few seconds, Jen said, ‘They were, um… my mom’s things. She was a resident here until a week ago. It was why I applied for the job in the first place.’

A misplaced film reel ran in Abigail’s head: a red-haired woman winding her car down a beach road as two girls bantered in the back seat. The woman often glanced into the rear-view mirror to laugh with the kids, and sometimes swayed her hand to lonely snippets of pop music. Abigail frowned and muttered, ‘Oh, Jen. I’m so sorry.’

Jen shrugged. ‘I can’t keep her stuff around. None of it feels like her anymore. Know what I mean? It’s changed now – not really, but changed for me. None of it’s what it was, and I can’t look at it without feeling the same way about myself.’ Her face twisted mournfully. ‘I’m sorry, that doesn’t make sense.’

‘It’s okay,’ said Abigail. ‘Come here.’ She threw the camera over her shoulder and offered a conciliatory hug. As Jen’s sobs shook her shoulder, Abigail watched a string of smoke fasten itself to the slowly clotting sky.

Upon returning, she found her father at the window. He was massaging the pages of another book. She sat down next to him and asked, ‘What’s this one about, Dad?’

‘Huh?’ He craned his head back, situating her with his ears. ‘Oh. He’s writing about clonal colonies. Plants that aren’t themselves… no, that’s not right… plants that are one self…’ The sun was gone, brushed behind a bush of grey cloud.

She tucked the blanket under his legs. ‘What kind of colonies?’

‘Trees. Lots of trees reproduce through clonal colonies. Did you know that?’

‘No, I didn’t.’

Myrica trees are one kind.’ His fingers dripped down the page and pooled at the base of the book. ‘They grow berries. I tried one once… on the Canary Islands. It wasn’t good. They’re mostly used for flavouring. I didn’t know.’

Abigail remembered his trip to the Canary Islands. It was a two-week academic excursion to study the flora of the archipelago, and he’d given her free rein – at fourteen – of the whole house, while also assigning her a convoluted list of chores concerning his huge, multifarious gardens. The weeks were sluggish and stressful, since she constantly feared that the gardens would die before he came back.

Robinia pseudoacacia,’ he continued. ‘Black locust trees. They reproduce through basal shoots.’

He opened his mouth to provide another personal titbit, but then froze. His eyebrows tightened. His lips began to quiver. ‘Aspens…’ he mumbled, interlacing his fingers. ‘Quaking aspen trees…’ His knuckles whitened. ‘Pando…’

She eased a hand onto his arm. ‘What, Dad? What’s Pando?’

‘I shouldn’t have done it,’ he mumbled.

‘What do you mean?’ Gently, she removed the book from his lap and shimmied nearer.

‘I thought it would be neat. I was there during a school trip, in Utah, to see Pando. Remember? The largest clonal colony in the world – more than that, the world’s largest organism. The trembling giant… it sprawls for over a hundred acres. And it’s the oldest… thousands and thousands of years old. Science class. I was so excited…’ He looked up at the concealed sun, craving its heat. ‘I thought it would be neat… to take one. To take a piece of Pando. No, not a piece. To take Pando. And I did, even though we weren’t allowed. I took the sapling Pando and hid it in my bag. By the time I got home, it was dead.’ A beam blinked through the clouds, illuminating his face. For a brief instant, Abigail swore she saw the glimmer of a silver canine. ‘I thought I could start a colony of my own, to help Pando grow. But all it did was die.’

His head sank. After a minute or so, he grasped for the book on his lap and, feeling only fabric, extracted a new one.

Abigail fell back. She looked out the window, watching as the gloomy spider webs were vacuumed away from the sun’s edges. Once its glow was renewed, she looked down and read the title of the book he’d been reading: Pando and Beyond: Clonal Colonies in the Northwestern United States, by Emmett Onil.

Later that afternoon, Abigail said goodbye to Jeremy and Dr Lewis and headed to her car. As she sat in the driver’s seat and waited for the cool blast of AC to turn milder, she spotted Jen returning from the forest and sitting down in the empty chair beside her father. Abigail chewed her lip contemplatively. A minute passed, and then she grabbed the camera and cycled through the fragments of her homecoming, stopping when she reached her father’s photograph.

Her thumb hovered over the delete button. The longer she looked, however, the more she felt the picture changing. The austerity she’d seen before was now replaced by a bittersweet whimsy, a feeling of amusement towards his habituated devotion to the botanical. She realised, while looking at the solitary, sun-draped old man on her palm, that she didn’t resent him anymore. She loved him, and this photo was a testament to the complex, protean nature of that love.

 

 

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