Georgia Leland had forgotten to water her indoor garden and the leaves were fading from green to brown. Perched on a wide wooden windowsill, exposed to the bright Kansas sun, her stem-and-leaf children yawned lazily and stretched out, searching for drink. It was the longest they’d gone without it – six days, six long days basking in direct light and drying from the inside out.
Sometimes, the plants thought they had been remembered. Georgia would wander over slowly, one heavy foot thumping after the other, and stare out of the window that sunned her children. They watched, hungry for that wetness on her cheeks, vines tingling for an accidental brush of those plump fingers trembling on their sill. Just as the open window sucked in an early autumnal breeze to rustle their dry leaves in crispy song, just as Georgia’s travelling gaze began to land on their withering brown skins, her eyes halted. She seemed to be anchoring herself in the corporeal world, focusing hard on some unseen thing between the window frame and her forgotten children. Then Cora’s voice sounded in a sticky-strange emotion that stole Georgia back to the staircase, and up she went, vanishing, leaving her plants unnoticed and unwatered.
Together, the plants thought hard to uncover Georgia’s reason for abandoning them. Up late under the moon, they whispered and debated, wondering if Crown-of-Thorns had pricked Georgia too hard, or if Mint’s leaves had lost their pungent scent. It was Poppy – her blushing petals had always been a favourite of Georgia’s – who leaned through the window from her rooted spot outside and told them all that their mother had been upset by an exchange between Cora and a strange man.
The plants murmured. Most of them had been potted when Cora was just a little child. From their spot on the windowsill, hiding behind wide-lipped plastic pots, they had watched her run around the house screaming and trailing dug-up flowers, her muddy footprints marking the creaky wooden farmhouse floor. Georgia would follow her, doting and dutiful – and when most mothers would pick out leaves from children’s hair or wash away grass stains from banged-up knees, Georgia linked flowers together and wove them into Cora’s braids. She held her daughter’s tiny wrists and guided them skilfully into the wet earth to plant seeds and dig up rotted roots and pluck weeds. Cora had no bedtime; she was never shushed or quieted, put in time out or spanked. Georgia taught Cora how to paint, how to read, how to pray to the earth. At night, under a moon so full it might burst and deliver to the world a child, Georgia ushered Cora outside to burn straw effigies and pray for a bountiful harvest. They danced, wild and naked, under the stars and the dark night sky. And when the farmland flourished with green leaves, ripe berries and hearty bushels, the indoor plants watched jealously as Cora and her mother went out to harvest. They spent all day with those outdoor plants. Heat rose from their bodies as they worked, sweating under the hot Midwestern sun. But it was not tiresome, not to them – they laughed and played, tossed dead stalks and clumps of soil at each other, and came inside at dusk covered head-to-toe in the blood of the earth. Inside, on the wide wooden kitchen table that was hardly ever used for meal-eating, they spread out their bounty and set to work threshing and winnowing.
While the plants watched the mother–daughter pair play in the fields and dance through the house, they never saw the two fight – but they did fight, and the plants could hear it all from the downstairs window. Georgia and her daughter bickered like a flame – like a freshly lit match licking its way up to a quick-burnt demise. First, the shouts would rattle the windowpanes. The plants could never make clear sense of their words – Georgia and Cora shouted all at once, one shared explosive breath. The plants would sigh and watch the clock hand drop. Silence would come then, settling over everything like a scratchy blanket – too hot and too heavy. The silence always lasted much longer than the screaming. Something inside that silence built slowly – it crept down from the walls, from the corners and edges, from the places where light couldn’t wash out the shadows, and it spread through the room, wavelike and soft. And in that softness, Georgia and Cora sobbed. Georgia would smooth her hands over Cora’s back and Cora would rub her eyes against her mother’s chest, and they would hold each other and cry until the entire house heaved and sighed, and then they would share a single throaty laugh and sip tea and read together curled up with blankets until they fell asleep, drained of all tears and all heat. But as the years somersaulted by and Cora’s childhood faded away, the two bickered with increasing intensity.
One of the plants, a strong and ancient Peace Lily three years older than Cora, had been with Georgia since the tender age of eighteen. Georgia had received the plant – a barely sprouted sapling in a black glass pot – from the cold hands of a pale-faced lawyer on the day her parents’ will named her heir to the Leland farm. She sat in the dusty dining room of the old farmhouse long after the lawyer had left. She held Peace Lily on her lap in the dark and watered it with tears, and that night she put the plant at her bedside, and every night after she knelt down on the creaking wooden floors and prayed to those slowly sprouting leaves.
A year after her parents died, a wealthy distant relative started visiting the farmhouse once a month. ‘From the Leland family,’ he said sombrely on the first day they met, pressing a stack of bills into her palm. ‘We’re all here for you, Georgia.’
These visits were innocuous at first. But one day, he asked for more than just a thank you. Peace Lily remembered hearing Georgia’s cries of protest, her screams – he charged at her like a bull, over and over, until one day Georgia’s belly started to swell like the moon, like a ripe fruit. And when he saw the bulge under her dress, he tossed the family money at her and drove away.
Peace Lily watched Georgia wail and float through the house, holding her belly. She drank half a bottle of whiskey to drown the thing inside her. ‘Take it back!’ she screamed between sobs. ‘Take this child—’
And then she caught herself using the word child. It choked her, half-caught in her throat; it slipped heavily through her mouth as it formed on her lips, and the word, breathed into life, into the universe, gained meaning. She had called it what it was becoming – a child – and in that moment, for the first time in her empty house, she didn’t feel alone. All that mattered from the second she breathed that word was her daughter. Raising Cora, all on her own, shut away from the world on her farm, Georgia’s life force entangled itself around her daughter’s clutching hands.
Wormwood – the youngest plant on the sill, recently moved indoors to avoid the coming frost – declared that Georgia was a cruel mother. But the other plants knew better. They watched Cora stumble inside and fall crying into her mother’s waiting arms. They witnessed stormy Midwestern nights when heavy summer heat stuck to the dry grass and fought the incoming chill, clashing in a funnel of wind – and Cora and Georgia crowded together, buried under couch pillows and nestled deep in the cushions, ready to sprint to the cellar if the sirens blared. Georgia sang to Cora, from infancy to her last night at home – the sound hummed through the walls and lulled the plants into slumber. Her hands, calloused with toil but plump and motherly, brushed back Cora’s hair with the same tenderness, the same nurturing touch that raised plants up from the soil, from seed to stem. And Cora grew faster and stronger than any of Georgia’s plants – up like a weed, taller than her mother, as slight as a wheat stalk with hair just as yellow – for her veins pulsed with the lifeblood of Georgia herself, and her roots weren’t plotted or planted in one small patch of soil. She roamed free. ‘Perhaps,’ Poppy suggested to the other plants, ‘that is why Cora scares her mother so much.’
After graduating high school, Cora turned all her time and attention to the farm. Working night and day under the sun’s dance across the sky, under its sinking and its transformation into a silvery moon cooling the hot earth, Cora stood side by side with her mother. They played and laughed as they had in her childhood, and for two years, few sharp-edged words sank through the floorboards. The plants were convinced – wholly convinced – that Cora had resolved to spend eternity at her mother’s side.
Then Cora met him.
Autumn knocked at the door, and the windows turned fog-white as the plants caught a glimpse of Cora slipping out the back door. Poppy, the only plant plotted in outdoor soil, pressed up against the bones of the house, saw everything.
His car roared on the edge of the farm, flashing white lights through the blackness. He parked it partway down the dirt-and-gravel road, watching Cora weave through stiff icy crops and stomp hard on downed dead stalks. She held something to her mouth. Chew, suck, spit – she shed the fruit’s seeds every five or six steps, leaving little red stains on the cold earth to mark her path. When she climbed into his car, he kissed her red mouth. His headlights flashed on, and Poppy caught the glimmer of a silver skull-ring on his finger as he wove it through Cora’s hair. The night opened its mouth wide and swallowed them up – car, dust, kiss, skull-ring and all. Cora tossed out the fruit’s discarded husk as they sped past. It landed not far from the house, a bright red pomegranate sucked dry of juice and scraped free of seeds, lying beside stillborn stalks in the frost.
Cora came home the next morning changed. Overnight she’d shed the little girl Georgia had raised and stepped into the skin of a woman. She stopped accompanying her mother on barefoot moonlight dances through the open Kansas fields. She waited until Georgia’s snores rattled the floorboards, then she snuck out of her window into the dark. Poppy watched her slide across the roof and climb down the lattice, bruising vines as she went. She sprinted over those cold dead fields every night, following her red-stained trail, sucking down pomegranate juice with each step.
On that sixth waterless night, Georgia woke as Cora left. She thudded down the stairs, her cheeks red as Poppy’s petals, those petals she so tenderly loved, and cried out Cora’s name. There was no sound in response but that of insects chirping their nightly songs. For a while, she did nothing but pace, arms folded, nightgown billowing, hair sticking out like the branches of an oak tree, dark and wild. Then, facing the doorway, she crouched down low and held her face in her hands; her shoulders shook and soft whimpers filled the stillness. She stayed that way for a very long time. When she finally stood, a thin light was falling through the windows. She stumbled into the kitchen, placed the kettle on the stove, and while steam rose and screamed, she carelessly pruned ten leaves from Mint and crushed them in the bottom of a pink mug – a Mother’s Day gift from Cora when she was little. She drank from it ravenously, heat rising up around her cheeks, hot liquid burning her lips, and when her tongue found leaves floating on the surface, she snatched them up and crunched down hard. She drank it all, and when nothing was left, she chucked the mug across the room with a passion none of the plants had ever seen. It crashed against the wall, splintering into pieces, and none but Poppy knew why she had thrown it.
Six days. It had been six days since wetness and nourishment had touched their leaves, flooded their roots – and although no one wanted to say it out loud, they knew they were dying. Mint’s leaves had turned yellow and sickly, falling away at the slightest breeze. Basil’s verdures were curled and browned, tucked inward against the sunlight. All their soil was hot and crumbling and dry. Even Poppy was growing weak in the cold sun with no rain and no shelter and no Georgia to spray her down. To distract themselves from the end, they spoke of their mother and her flesh-and-blood child, and when Cora ran away for good, they were too weak to watch her leave. Just before they slipped away, before the last petal gave in to browning sucking decay, Georgia Leland stumbled through the house, the hand at her heart plump and motherly, her face as red as Poppy’s petals. She looked right at her children – finally noticing them – and they looked back at her, sleepy but smiling. Together, they closed their eyes.
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