[This is the first story I ever wrote; available for free in all its flawed glory.]
A Taste of Ash and Mad Pomegranates | by Ryu Ando
Tell me, that which opens its wings on the breast of things
On the breast of our deepest dreams,
is that the mad pomegranate tree?
– Odysseus Elytis
Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.
She had picked purple fruit
from a bent-over pomegranate tree,
taken seven seeds from its yellow rind
and pressed them in her mouth
-Ovid, Metamorphoses Book V, 535-538
- Sprouting Undergrowth
He arrived downstairs one morning a little after his thirtieth birthday to find that the sapling of a black oak had taken root in the middle of his living room floor. Barefoot, he stood there regarding the tree with his mouth slightly open. He looked at it through his bleary eyes as if to ask: What are you doing here? And its obstinate leaves pointed upward and outward to the skylight as if in answer.
He found it easier to get through life if he envisioned its undergrowth as something like a tame, slow-moving root. One day, he believed, it would finish twining around his heart and tap into his veins, slowly draining him of life. Old age and the wear and tear of concern–worn on him so gently and with dignity like his favorite lambs’ wool cardigan-–would finally catch up to him. He could then descend into a warm, dry well, and, watching the layers of earth go past, meet his final reward. He believed the success of a man’s life should only be judged by how it ends.
The funny thing was he had dreamed of trees that night. Only in real life, as it stood there in front of him, the tree didn’t seem so bright. Instead he felt it spewing out a menacing presence like the low echo of wastepaper rustling in a dumpster.
And it was growing.
Standing there in his tee-shirt and boxers he could feel the floor beneath him moving. It felt like snakes were writhing below him and swallowing their own tails only to vomit them up again. The floorboards creaked and moaned. He lost his balance and teetered this way and that, waving his arms out wildly to keep from falling.
Branches sprouted up toward the ceiling and past the crossbeams to reach the walls, filling the room entirely. They knocked over portraits of the dog and broke the glass in the frames. Though dead, it still maintained its presence in the form of shrines, gold-plated picture frames, and even an empty plastic doghouse inhabited by a stuffed simulacra Louis Vuitton dog sewn shut by tiny hands in Vietnam. Roots from the tree now covered the doghouse and were crushing its cheap plastic walls. A root had punctured the dog’s glass eye, breaking it into several pieces, and its vinyl carcass was now twisted onto its back in a gesture of submission.
It’s just a cul-de-sac in my dream, he said to himself. It can’t be real.
If his wife came home–she was on another business trip, she explained over the phone–and saw this mess, she’d be furious. It would be another reason for her not to sleep with him, whenever she did come back. His fault in these things was not to be questioned.
No. If it were real, he thought, I’d be screwed.
And at this hour of a bright, crisp September morning he just didn’t feel that it was possible to be so royally screwed. All the promise of an early fall day was there before him. The serious dog’s breath of summer heat was behind them and winter was still a million years away.
- The Kitchen of the Immaculate Contraption(s)
He needed to think. He tried sitting down on his couch but jumped right up again.
Bamboo shoots were poking up through the cushions. Small and spiky, they had pierced right through his boxers. He saw drops of blood on the couch. He rubbed his right buttock, then his left.
Odd, he thought. That hurts.
By this time the living room was so crowded with branches and sprouting bamboo that he began to feel caged in. So he made an escape over to the kitchen, making sure not to step on the sharp ends of new bamboo plants that were poking up through the carpet.
The kitchen, all gleaming angles and shiny metal boxes, was the most immaculate part of the house. His wife ran a tight ship and expected nothing to be out of place. This meticulousness was why he spent a lot of his time in here, mostly washing dishes.
He liked doing it, actually. It soothed him. Sometimes, if she talked to him while he washed them, he would pretend to be in a warm ocean, his hands transformed into fins, and he would swim: a dolphin diving through the seas. Seen from a ship’s hull, a trireme, the rowers would remark in awe at the massive waves and the graceful dolphin atop them. Trembling in fear they pray for safe passage to the sea god roiling in anger underneath.
But now the kitchen had become overrun with what looked like mulberry bushes. Their purplish fruit ripened and fell onto the white tiles of the counter and the floor, staining them with wild abstract streaks. Flies, yellow jackets, and other insects had already taken to the scent. How they got in so quickly he had no idea. A bulbous slow-moving drone bee swooped in and clipped his ear.
He wanted a cup of coffee, but sitting right on top of the coffee maker was a coffee bush, its red fleshy fruit ripening before his eyes. He recognized their shape and color from a TV commercial featuring a manual laborer with the cleanest, most well-proportioned hands he’d ever seen. It was as if Platonic hands shining in a cave of wonders existed just to pick the perfect coffee bean.
The roots wrapped around the glass pitcher, causing it to crack under the pressure. Berries fell every few seconds onto the counter and into the sink with hearty metallic plunks.
The fridge was in no better state. Heavy kudzu vines twining around it had pried the door open. Milk poured out all over the floor, and flies were already collecting around a piece of greenish, uncooked steak. He swatted them away out of habit, but they didn’t travel very far.
He suddenly felt very tired. The thought of chasing down and killing a dozen or so flies seemed exhausting, trivial.
All of the frozen foods in boxes and plastic containers fell together in a large pile at the base of the refrigerator. A flowering weed that had settled in a gallon tub of ice cream toppled over with a plop as the ice-cream softened around its roots.
Ice cubes in various stages of melting were strewn randomly across the vinyl floor tiles. They were sliding in various directions as they melted.
Feeling as unmoored as those ice cubes, he picked up a few to keep from slipping on them.
During the summer after his first year in college he tried holding ice cubes in his hands for as long as he could. It felt good at first, but then the ice began to burn like transparent roseate flames in his palms and fingers.
He had been seeing her for only a few weeks then, and he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He thought the ice cubes would help to take his mind off her, but they didn’t. They just made it worse. Instead of one aching spot, there were now three: two hands and that area in the pit of his stomach.
She was so young and mysterious then, like an unopened flower. And he burned for her. And she did too, for him, he remembered, but only opened to him after much heated prying.
He threw the ice cubes into the sink, which by this time had a large sweet-smelling basil plant growing up through the garbage disposal.
He wiped his cold wetted hands on his neck and shivered at the chill.
III. Walking on Eggshells
He heard the breaking of glass. Running out into the living room, he saw that the front bay window had broken into several pieces. Panes of glass lay strewn across the carpet. Above him, he noticed that the black oak’s branches had punctured their skylight.
The living-room carpet, which was usually a delicate eggshell color, tinged with a pale-blue hue almost translucent like water, now looked as brown as if a dozen foot-soldiers had marched across its surface.
It was never dirty, he said to himself. Not like this. Not ever.
She did the vacuuming. From the basement, where he tested probabilities–flipping an Indian Head nickel and tracking the results over tens of thousands of attempts–he could hear her running the vacuum. Its piercing noise zeroed in on his ears like an accusation. It penetrated all the rooms only to end in a long silence that was perpetuated by an ever-glowing, ever-growing ember of annoyance. He always found it strange that the noise was the most noticeable just before it ended.
Now that she was on her trip, that chore fell to him. Every day, twice a day, vacuum it, she’d instructed him.
Of course, he didn’t. Every other day was good enough, especially since she wasn’t there. And what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Of course, he had to make sure she wasn’t coming back today.
He didn’t know how he’d fix this, though. It looked near unfixable.
Crabgrass was starting to sprout in patches on the carpet. There was a clump of it in the corner of the living room by the bathroom, filling in the spaces unclaimed by the oak tree and the bamboo shoots.
Worse still, a few of the tiny rabbit figurines his wife collected and displayed all over the house had been knocked all over the floor. One had even been crushed into a pink and white powder under the weight of a very large yellow gourd.
- To Sleep Perchance to Dream…of Respite & Rabbits
He retreated upstairs to his bedroom. Near the top of the staircase he tripped over a large black root and barely avoided falling back down the stairs. He’d felt a twinge as his small pinky toe slammed into the root.
Reaching his room, he checked for signs of trees or plants.
He took a deep breath. The room was clear. He was glad to have a little space to think. Strange as it was, the thought of trees overtaking the house didn’t bother him. It was what happened later, when his wife returned, that concerned him.
He slept fitfully for about an hour. He dreamed of vines entwining around his hands. He was holding a large red stone in them. It was beating like a heart. He realized there was a hole in his chest.
He was awakened by noises coming from outside the room. He got up with a start and looked out across the hallway. The noises were coming from his wife’s room.
The door was closed as usual, but there were sounds of violent shaking coming from inside. It reminded him of wind running through a grove of very tall cedars.
He opened her door. It was decked out in pink lace that looked like giant frilly undergarments. It was also stocked with 852 porcelain rabbits: pink ones, little ones, small ones, round ones, realistic ones, cartoonish ones, and all matter and manner of size and color and shape.
He knew it was 852 because she had kept him up to date on this figure. Over the years, that number became his number. He could see it as if scored into his palm with a pocketknife: 852.
They were also the reason why they didn’t sleep anymore in the same room.
He knocked one over by accident once, a large porcelain one–hand-painted, too, he had been told–that had been commissioned and sold by the Franklin Mint. It was one of her earliest purchases, and these early ones held the most value for her.
The later ones seemed to lose some of their charm. She returned to these early ones and held them in her palms, tracing their edges with her fingertips. She looked at something far off in the distance. She never shared what it was exactly that she was seeing–and she never would have told if he’d asked–but he knew.
Luckily he hadn’t broken it, but he was banished from the room because of his clumsiness. He was not to be trusted around them. He was not to be trusted. Period.
Once inside the room, he saw that not only had a grove of pine trees begun growing there, an actual breeze was blowing across her room through a gaping hole in the roof. All of her rabbits, their spots measured and traced in ink and labeled with sticky notes, were displaced wildly from their usual spots.
Some had been knocked over by the wind. Others had been crushed into crude rubble by the pine trees’ roots. A few more were still being knocked around by the branches that writhed and snapped against the walls.
The pink fabrics draping the room had been ripped open by the sharp pine needles. They were reduced to tiny shreds, flapping like expensive flags of surrender.
He was starting to get scared. This was either one long weird dream, it occurred to him, or he was really awake and this was really happening to him. He tried to think of a third way, but none came to him.
He started to panic.
He slapped his cheeks a few times. The sting lingered against his cheeks and fingertips. He shook his head and took a deep breath.
When she came home, it wouldn’t do to have her whole collection of rabbits destroyed and her kitchen, floors, and house an irredeemable mess.
He was screwed. He was also scared.
This tame undergrowth that was supposed to be his life was instead running wild and loose. The gentle root of those peaceful visions was now a python sprung to life from a hole leading to the dark center of the world.
- The Yellow River
And when he got scared, he needed to urinate.
He crawled as quickly as he could through the branches and roots–now fully grown and spreading throughout his wife’s room–and into the bathroom.
Here, a beautiful rose bush, flushed with oily rouge petals streaked in pinks and yellows, was growing up from the toilet bowl. A single bark strand, tough but slender with menacing thorns pronged outward, bobbed gently in front of him. It had taken root in a giant turd that resurfaced from their septic tank.
He hopped to the stairs with his penis clamped between his fingertips, praying that his bladder would hold. He made it down the stairs to the first floor bathroom, but it was overrun with about fifteen saguaro cactus plants.
A sharp pain pierced through his bladder like a spear tip.
He hopped over to the black oak in the middle of the living room. By now it was a fully grown tree. Its bark felt rough against his hands.
Placing his right hand on the bark to stabilize himself, he relieved himself on the side of the tree, guiding the stream with this left hand. Urine ran down its side like a yellow broth and foamed at the base of the tree with a thick beery head.
“Ohhh. Myyyyy. Gohhhhhhhhhd,” was all he could get out between sighs of relief.
He felt buoyant, until he thought about what his wife would say once she saw this disaster.
He shrugged it off.
“When nature calls, I guess.”
He stood there leaning against the tree for a minute before he noticed the sound of birds coming from the foyer.
Large ones, from the sound of it, seemed to be screeching and squawking at each other. Their wings snapped like heavy cloth sails.
- The Dance of the Drunken Birds
Their foyer was cavernous. Tiled in heavy slate stones ranging in color from brown rust to dark-gray gun-metal burnished to a satiny luster, the floor felt chilly on the bottoms of his feet.
He noticed that some of the tiles had shattered. Grape vines had grown through some of the weaker tiles and the shale had disintegrated into piles of long metallic shards and delicate shavings.
The broken tiles reminded him of a temple somewhere in Cambodia he once saw in a picture. The roots of a banyan tree had completely entwined into the structure’s stone blocks, crushing them like a massive deformed hand, while also keeping them suspended in place. It prevented the temple from collapsing, but once the tree got too heavy it would topple over, destroying the temple and killing itself in the process.
He found this extremely depressing. The tree could only do what it was meant to do, which was to grow, but fate had played a trick on it. Set it up to fail.
That was how it felt with her, too. Entwined and slowly crushing each other, lying together in agonizing sighs, each blamed the other, until the moment it collapses around them.
Grape vines wound all across the wall and were even growing underneath the wall paper. Huge clustered polyps of mottled purple and green hung low off the vines. Hundreds of grapes had already fallen on the floor and some had collected into the bronze spittoon he bought at a yard sale. Their skins smashed and torn open, the grapes had immediately started to ferment.
A flock of black crows, the cause of all the noise, were tearing at each other. Talons sharp and black, their expressions remained emotionless like a snowman’s coal eyes, even as they battled over the fruit. Some were sitting on a shelf near the door. One had smashed the mirror to pieces.
A few had by this time crawled toward the spittoon, its light olive-green patina stained with streaks of purple, and continued to squawk and claw at each other.
One suddenly popped out of the spittoon, staggering in an Aristophanic choral dance, fell over onto the floor, and passed out.
Another stumbled across the tile and smashed into a tiny one that had vomited up blackish juice all over their Persian rug.
He thought he heard it cry out: How dry I am! How dry I am! Nobody knoooooooows, how dry I aaaaaaaaam!
Then it, too, stumbled into a bowl of rose-petal potpourri and keeled over, sprawling across the tiles.
Startled, he saw that all the birds coming out of the spittoon were stumbling around, clumsily knocking into each other or the walls. Drunk.
One knocked over the tall end table his wife had bought to display a vase they had gotten for their wedding.
There was bird shit everywhere: white pellet splatters like careless house painters who had let paint drips fall all over the floor. But it had piled up, somehow, very quickly. Large deposits now formed in the opposite corner of the foyer, where the crows had decided to nest.
Two crows were leaning against each other atop the rim of the spittoon and had wedged themselves into the corner where it had been positioned. They seemed to be talking to each other.
“I tell you it’s a covenant of grace that gets you into heaven,” the first bird, the smaller one, was saying.
“Yeeaah?” the second one said. “You looking to start a fight? It’s a covenant of works that gets you into heaven.”
The second one was larger, but much drunker, and had its significantly larger and wider wing draped over the smaller one’s back as if to contain its thoughts.
“Shad-dap.” The small one tried to shake off the other’s wing from its narrow neck.
“Who are we but mere mortals?” it continued. “I can’t decide who gets to heaven. Why bother with the decision-making process when it’s not in your hands?”
“God will reward those who do good works, you tool,” Big One pointed the tip of its other wing into the other’s chest. “I decide in this world to do good or evil. God waits and watches. He’s testing you. Take matters into your own hands.”
“That’s blasphemy! He decides my fate. Not me!”
“Then you’re just nothing more than a bum waiting on God’s handouts,” said the larger one, with no small amount of derision. “Go walk the earth, bum, and see what you get: starvation and death.”
“And you’re just a sinner. It’s called hubris. Look it up. If you can read, that is.”
At that point the larger one slapped the other into the spittoon.
There was moment of silence where both seemed stunned by this outcome. Then the smaller one began violently flapping its wings within the container. The bowl shook as if possessed and tipped onto its base, nearly falling over, before it fell back with a clang. The bird emerged in a fury of feathers and beak and claw, aiming straight for the larger one.
The large one, meanwhile, had flown up into the air and headed toward the smaller one. Their combined forces knocked them both into the wall where they smashed the white ceramic wedding vase into a dozen shards.
They flew out the door into the front yard, tangling with each other, their feathers torn out like leaves in the wind. The small one was about to deal the bigger one a decisive blow to its heart with his beak when both smashed into the windshield of his car.
Stuck halfway in the windshield, both crows struggled until they had trapped themselves even deeper into the shards. Four clawed feet stuck out in the air at the center of two webs of broken glass. The interlacing cracks blended like two concentric circles in a pond.
He thought of trying to free the struggling birds, but he just watched them. Eventually they stopped struggling, until they bled out all over the dashboard of his car.
“I’ve got to get out of this madhouse,” he said.
But he remained there in the foyer, calmly regarding the two dead birds in the windshield of his car and listening to the flock of drunken birds tippling from his bronze spittoon getting louder and angrier.
He needed a drink.
VII. Of Writhing Olives & Mad Pomegranate Trees
He had always been mistrustful of plants. Ancient cruel methods and the arcane knowledge of how to control the fauna of the world ran deep into the tree of life’s unknowable root history.
Beat it back with sword and fire, he reasoned. Use or be used, had been his mantra. An unwanted plant was a weed, much like unwanted things were trash.
Standing in the lintel of the sliding glass door, now cracked from the pushing of branches against it, he peered out toward the back yard. It was already an unruly morass of life.
Their pool had drained, leaking from the cracks created by a group of olive trees gnarled and writhing in silent pain. The water spilled out across the back yard and left puddles running lengthwise from fence to fence.
Beyond that, deep in the back of their lot, was a massive tree spreading more branches outward to the sky and offering up a red, stone-like fruit.
And it whispered to him.
It was there just past the concrete foundation of the pool and surrounded by higher ground. It was hard and unforgiving from the dry summer. The fruit hung down low, dragging the branches downward like rocks. The fruit was being pecked at by various birds. They squawked at him as he approached it and then flew off. The tree spread out over him, its looping trunks twining around each other.
The whispering was louder here. It was an angry inquisitive sound as if wind forced through a tiny hole were made to howl and sing against its will. He took a plastic deck chair from the side of the pool and dragged it across the ground to sit below the pomegranate tree amid the dust.
Mad. The mad pomegranate tree in the back of the yard stood there waiting. He didn’t know what else to do, so he started talking to it.
That seemed to calm it down. The whispering abated. He looked down. There was a little carton of milk, sawed off at the top, filled up with grey water. A few dead bugs were floating on its surface. He poured it out at the base of the tree.
A little box of rain, he thought, to slake the thirst of the mad pomegranate tree in the back of his yard.
Later, he could not recall word-for-word what they spoke about, but he understood what it meant.
It was nearing dark. Purple clouds had formed against the sky, a series of inkblots that he tried to decipher. He could see the first star of the evening. Or was it Venus? Then he noticed another, wondering if it hadn’t been there already.
There was the solid sound of a car door closing, then a rustle of keys.
“What the hell is this?”
He heard a frantic, familiar voice with an edge of anger sheathed beneath its shiny, quivery vibrato.
“Where are you? What have you done?”
His wife was back.
“I’m out here,” he yelled back. “In the yard. With this huge pomegranate tree.”
“Yes, I can see it’s a tree.”
Her voice was closer now.
“A pomegranate tree. And it’s plainly mad.”
“I don’t care what kind of a tree it is,” she said. “How did all this get here? What’s happened?”
“I can’t explain,” he said, looking across the yard at the writhing olive trees. He really couldn’t.
“You’d better,” she yelled. “And what do you mean, ‘it’s mad‘?”
He didn’t know what to say. “It all happened so suddenly.”
But she was gone. He then heard her groan from inside the first-floor bathroom.
“Goddamn it! What’s happened to the rabbits? They’re all ruined!”
“By mad I mean a bit crazed. Lunatic. Dangerous, even,” he said softly. “It can’t really be helped at this point.”
The quiet evening was punctuated by birdsong and the drunken shrieks of the crows.
“What did you say? This is serious!” his wife yelled out from the kitchen. “And why does it smell like urine in the living room? What about the upstairs?”
He heard her rush up the stairs.
“Jeeeeezus!” she shrieked.
Then a silence fell that was always more uneasy for him than her yelling could ever be.
Minutes later she came back out into the yard, keeping her distance from the overspill of flora near the pool. Her tired face was twisted, much like the olives in the pool’s deep end, in an expression that looked to him like both exasperation and accusation. When he reflected upon this scene later with the chill of distance and calm, he realized it might also have been pain and regret that was on her face.
“They’re all destroyed.”
She sat on the edge of the concrete, holding two pieces of a broken porcelain rabbit. It was the first one she had ever bought. It was really quite a beautiful piece. Rare and actually very valuable, Chinese or Japanese, it was exquisitely crafted. She had bought it for their son, born the year of the rabbit.
“You’re just going to sit there, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Not much to be done, here. I think.”
“Did you really have to piss on the carpet?”
There was a long silence. He could hear her breathing from across the yard. He could smell her perfume, a floral scent, mingled now with that familiar, strong undertow.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said finally. “You can–.”
The last part was cut off by the loud screech of a crow.
“You heard me.”
“No. Really. I didn’t. Those drunken crows are out of hand,” he explained. “So…”
“His name’s Artur,” she said. “From work.”
“He’s a friend.”
“I guess I gathered that.”
He waited for her to respond.
“So that’s it, huh? Arturrr.” He drew out the name, trying to picture him, while rolling the R’s with his tongue. “Sounds like a good name for a cat.”
He wanted to be angry, but he wasn’t.
“So, you’ve left me for a cat.”
“You can think that if you like.”
Later on, he could hardly remember his own reaction. Had he been jealous? Had he cried? He liked to think he had tried to do everything he could to keep her from leaving.
But he knew he hadn’t. In the end he just let her go back to her car, pull out of the driveway and head to Arturrrr’s or whoever’s house it was.
He really couldn’t blame her for that, either.
He knew then that he would never see her again. Later on he had wanted to call her, but the phone had long been ruined. Vines had twined through the rotary dial and little buttercup flowers, perennials, had sprouted through the holes in the earpiece.
She may even have come by, but he never noticed. And he never thought to leave.
It didn’t really matter, though. He had other concerns. The pomegranate tree was speaking to him, and he gathered that when it spoke, it expected you to listen.
VIII. Hoplite Warfare & Games of Chance
After conversing for several hours deep into the night with the pomegranate tree he realized he could use that drink. But he had been avoiding the basement where he kept the wine.
He couldn’t face it, but the pomegranate tree told him he should go. It even gave him a large ripe fruit that fell right at his feet. He picked it up.
Offer some to him, the tree seemed to say.
So he went to the basement. He checked the lights. They still worked. He smelled the familiar odor of mold and dust. On the wooden stairs he had placed Mason jars of strawberry and blueberry preserves. These were all knocked over and their contents spilled out across each of the wooden risers. He could feel the tackiness of the jam pulling against his soles of his feet.
At the bottom of the steps, underneath the broad leaves of a nightshade plant, he saw two enormous cockroaches nearly five inches long. Their features were striking in their clarity: huge brown wings the color of yellow-brown varnish flipped up like little plates of hoplite armor.
They were taking flight, the disgusting bastards. One buzzed low to the ground and landed near his foot. It began biting at some jam on the bottom step. He could see its long slender, spiky legs supporting the heavy weight of this oversized insect. He could almost hear it creaking as it crawled closer to his foot.
He hated roaches. They reminded him of death and shadows and the chiaroscuro intimations of mortality oozed from their dun-colored wings. They were little chariots of death pulling black-hole suns in their wake waiting to gnaw on skin and bone or at least dead leaves. Disgusting.
He kicked the one closest to him over to the corner of the basement. The shell felt hard like a plastic casing against the bone of his big toe. It landed on its back, legs dangling upward like weak brown-hued horned marionettes.
Then, in a quick rocking motion, it somehow managed to get upright and immediately fled. The other one, perhaps aware of danger, or just feeling the change in air currents, scurried under the tarp covering boxes of unused toys and baby clothes.
The washer and dryer, replaced barely a year ago, had been thoroughly covered over by a yellow fungus. It looked like a yellow foam wave had flowed down from on high and froze upon the doors of both machines. A large fern had also sprouted inside the washer and its fronds poked up through the loading door.
Luckily, the rest of the basement hadn’t yet been overrun. The plants seemed to have missed most everything of importance down here, including his wine racks, his desk and chair as well as most of their boxed-up stuff.
He was relieved. He was afraid it would be impenetrable with overgrowth. He went over to his wine racks. He picked out a bottle of Pinot Noir and opened it with a corkscrew he had hidden inside his desk. He twisted the cork slowly until it slid out with a satisfying pop.
He smelled it. Smelled funny. He took a sip. He spit it out. It had turned sour.
Disappointed, he poured a glassful anyway and drank it down in one gulp. He poured another.
He felt better. Maybe he could do this.
He had used this place initially as a place to think. He felt better down here in the only unfinished room left in the house. He had moved a small leather ottoman down there to fit next to an old wood and metal schoolboy’s desk he got at the local middle school’s fire sale. The wooden desk top opened up and he could put things inside the metal container underneath.
Students had carved initials and smiley faces and mild swear words like douche or dick or asshole into its surface. There was even a marijuana leaf drawn with some talent that had been carved on the underside of the desk top.
Toke up man! it said.
He kept a few things in there such as spiral notebooks, pamphlets, take-out menus, and newspaper articles he had cut out to read. He also kept his old Indian Head nickel in there. This was what he used for testing probabilities.
He had the sudden urge one day to test whether probabilities actually worked. He found the nickel while cleaning out the spare room on the second floor in anticipation of their son’s arrival.
It had been given to him on the day his father left. You had best take this, his father told him at a truck stop near their home in western Pennsylvania, taking his hands in his and folding his fingers over it.
Remember that life will only disappoint you. If you have any expectations, the fates will take them from you. Just like they took your mama from me.
The scent of metal lingered on his fingers even after he washed them in the truck stop bathroom.
Of course, he never saw his father again. He died on a reservation somewhere in Montana. Drank too much and slipped into a ditch at 2:00 A.M. in minus-ten-degree weather. Passed out. Froze to death.
Someone had tried moving him into the sunlight to thaw him out, he’d heard, thinking that he might wake in the sun. Stiff as a board they couldn’t fit him in the back seat.
The coin-flip test had shown him that the world did have order, that it wasn’t random, and that you could hold it to certain expectations. This reassured him just like the smell of the coin’s metal on his fingers.
He hit forty-five heads in a row, once, but tracking this over 1000 flips, it wound up evening out over the course of the next two hundred or so. Ten tails in a row, and it counterbalanced. Swinging back and forth, expanding and purging, fate could still deal a mean hand sometimes, especially if you were staking a lot on it in the short-term. And what were they, really, on the grand scale, he thought, but beings with the lifetimes of fleas?
At twenty-two thousand flips, on a damp Saturday afternoon in autumn, it happened. It was 10,888 heads to 11,000 tails. He hit heads one-hundred and twelve times sequentially to reach complete balance at 22,000. Each time he hit heads it turned the screw a little tighter, until at 11,000-11,000 the pressure broke. He sat at his desk and cried in relief. Tears streaked down his face and fell upon douche and asshole, causing the ink in the cuts to run over and diluting the crude strokes they had been carved in.
He then went upstairs and tried to explain it to his wife.
“How’s this for a paradox?” he yelled out. “Improbably, rational proof of a clockwork deity and its rules of probability exist in an Indian’s Head!”
His wife, who had been sitting in the living room talking with a neighbor housewife, just looked at him. Her eyes were puffy with recent tears and her face was blotched red and white.
“I mean. A coin,” he stammered. “An Indian’s Head coin.”
He remembered the woman’s pained look. The lines were etched stern on her face as she gripped his wife’s hand.
“Really,” the woman said. “This is not the time.”
He now opened the top of the desk, rooting around inside for something. Finding it he closed the top of the desk harder than he wanted to. It made a hollow clanging noise.
He placed it on the desk. It was a small, grey cardboard box.
- A Perfect Brimful of Ashes
He sat down in the office chair he had recovered last year from a dumpster in the alley outside his office after he had been downsized. He held the glass in his left hand, sipping at the sour wine every now and then. It tasted better when diluted with a little water from the tap. He thought of adding hot sauce to it like his cousin from Louisiana, but this seemed like a blasphemous waste of both wine and Tabasco sauce. He’d rather drink hemlock.
He hadn’t looked at this box once in the five years since he put it down here. He noticed that it was slightly stained with red and grey pigment, the result of being placed next to a box of oil-based crayons that had leaked out in the heat and humidity.
He opened it slowly. There was not much in it: a navy blue velvet pouch with a gold drawstring, a saucer and a tiny, white bone-china espresso coffee cup. It said “World’s Greatest” on one side and “Dad” on the other. Inside the brim there was the small silhouette of an evergreen tree shading a sapling beneath it.
Their son had come into their lives–swollen, bruised and clenched–like a prize-fighter’s fist. It was the ugliest baby he had ever seen. He worried that it was deformed at first, but he grew to love that puffy toad’s face. And with a one-two punch it knocked them both out cold.
Their centers of gravity shifted, and they never recovered. Whatever delicate balance they’d developed over their ten years together, six of them married, immediately toppled over. It was like being permanently and irreparably punch-drunk with care, worry and love.
At least for a month and a half.
At six weeks old, he died. That already unbalanced center unhinged even further. The baby had always slept between them. It was easier this way. But he had drunk too much that night and passed out. He awoke to find that he had rolled over and suffocated his son in his sleep.
The coroner’s report ruled it death by SIDS. No charges were brought against him, but that didn’t matter to him. The punishment was really just beginning. No external penalties could improve upon the cruel efficiency of self-recrimination.
His wife knew it was his fault, and he knew it was his fault. A sucker punch to the gut.
Low expectations, son, he could hear his father’s voice telling him through his tears as he watched them carry the body, too small in its casket, to the crematorium.
He now placed the small saucer and cup in the middle of the desk. He then opened the pouch and poured the contents of it over the cup. Ashes poured out and covered over the cup and saucer. There was a lot more in there than he expected. Fragments in the powder poked out here and there. Bone.
He had just wanted to fill the cup with a few ashes. So he fished the cup out from the pile and, using a straight edge he kept in the desk, topped off the ashes. As an offering to his son, he added seven pomegranate seeds forming with them a red-fleshed aster atop the ashes.
He was very pleased with the results. He felt better already.
Why didn’t I think of this before?
He raised his glass of diluted sour wine in a solemn toast.
It was, all in all, a perfect brimful of ashes.
- The Lengthening Days of Vines & Roses
By the end of the first week, the plants had taken over the whole of the first and second floors of the house. The grasses were up to his chest and the flowers bloomed like tiny men in full. The walls sagged under the weight of foliage and roots. All the lights were destroyed, broken by birds knocking into them, flowers growing over their filaments, or tree branches cracking their glass shells. He learned to cope with the dark and fell asleep around dusk and awoke at dawn.
By the next week, the grasses were over his head and the whole of the garage had been undercut by a phalanx of cedar trees poking up through the newly patched roof as if puncturing a thin layer of cellophane. The house sagged even more, leaning over like a tired man.
By around the twenty-eighth day, the plants and trees had completely filled the basement and had destroyed his desk and chair. He started to get used to the idea that the trees were here to stay.
It didn’t do much anymore to test the bounds of reality, he now knew. Just move on and accept it.
He began understand more about his surroundings, becoming adept at identifying everything in this weird domain.
Here was a spindle tree, the Winged Euonymus, also known as a burning bush, spanning across his mother’s rocking chair. The same one she’d nursed him on. The same one she’d died upon a year later. The same one his father, at least while he was around, would never let him sit in.
Even now he would never sit in it. Too fragile.
Here were mushrooms, poisonous varieties like Amalitas, galerinas, and Pleurocybella porrigens–angel’s wings–growing underneath the coffee table and atop the books that had toppled at the base of his now-rotten bookshelves.
He could identify everything in the living room, the kitchen (still overgrown with mulberries, but other bushes cropped up too, including blueberries, raspberries and elder berries), the bathroom (one with roses of all varieties, the other with cacti), his bedroom, his wife’s bedroom, the garage, and the basement.
And eventually those words even gave way to something else entirely, like the shell of cicadas stuck to the bark of trees: all structure, no embellishment. It was something he could only see in his mind, a camera obscura projected onto the landscape signifying something. Each plant was entwined within in this mental lattice-work on the ceiling, floors and walls.
Far more powerful than words could ever be, the feeling hinted at binaries, at heads and tails, at expansions and purges all existing at once. It was the paradox of the unspoken speaking to him from between the lines.
And he believed he was now among the sage.
- That Fine Line Between a Cure & a Poison
And so that was how he stayed among the trees. Once a police man came by and tacked an orange piece of paper to the door. Another time, someone had come with a bulldozer, trying to tear down the walls of the house. They were mostly too late, anyway. The trees had already done that work. The bulldozer knocked over the walls of the garage, but the thick undergrowth had gotten twisted inside the bulldozer’s treads. The driver tried to run-and-gun it, but that burned out the engine. They tried to retrieve it, but the growth had twisted around it so thickly that they had to abandon it.
The house was now part of a steadily expanding wood, at the center of which was the pomegranate tree, twisting in the wind, surrounded by the grove of writhing olives. What had started with his plot had moved over to the neighboring plots until the whole block was overtaken. The adjacent streets were also reclaimed by the creeping foliage. No one stayed on in this new wilderness, this new green shining city on a hill, except for him. The gaping holes of broken windows and doors in the abandoned houses stared back at him.
He sustained himself by eating the fruit of the trees and bushes and sometimes the flesh of animals. He knew which plants were edible, and which were poisonous with a quick glance.
He also partook of pomegranate. The blood-red pockets of flesh soothed him. Soon that was all he would eat.
He walked through the woods, sleeping on piles of leaves, The sunlight dappled the ground beneath their dark eaves and atop their black roots, but the air grew chill. He listened to the whisperings, learning the knowledge that had been lost and conjuring the spirit of his long-dead infant son.
He sometimes talked with his son, too. Sometimes he could even remember the name they gave him, Miles, but that too gradually became lost knowledge. Too much embellishment on what was to be stark and clean.
That’s OK, his boy told him. There’s no need to relive the past. Otherwise, you’ll twist up in madness, unable to forget and unable to live.
Winter’s Coda: Remember & Mourn
He didn’t know how much time had passed. The nights grew colder and blended into empty days that were like glinting frozen platters. He could feel his joints growing stiffer with each new round of awakening and darkening until he decided that he could not move any more.
It didn’t matter, either. Looking downward he saw that the roots of undergrowth were now entwined with those of the mad pomegranate.
Winter came, yet all around him the forest grew wider. It expanded past his neighborhood. Dead leaves and bare branches spilled out across the streets to cover everything beyond the suburb and then the town. People fled further and further, corralled into ever-shrinking corners of the region.
The forest followed them and engulfed whole cities, choking freeways and bridges, destroying malls and factories, puncturing the flimsy storefronts of fast-food joints and their plastic signs. Parking lots, once vacant and aching spaces, were now covered with snow and branches.
And at its center that force driving it forward–the same chaotic force that branched further and further in fractal patterns of ever-growing complexity until all was reclaimed–that force, carried further by the borealis winds that chilled them all to the bone, was the mad pomegranate.
But he still wouldn’t forget.
His hands, now stiffened and gnarled and pointing outward to the slate sky in pain, proffered a stony red fruit to all:
remember and mourn