I am on my bicycle and a woman is chasing me. There is a mist in Indiana. The treads of my tires catch tiny stones and fling them aside as I go. I keep toward the middle of the road. She rides on the verge. Should she get close to me she may flank me. She may cock her wheel and create a dangerous angle. I will be channeled into the wet bushes. This is one of the tactics available to her. Should she choose to punish me when she catches my heels.
A woman is chasing me. She keeps her head down, against the mist, so I cannot get a good look at her features. I am on my bicycle and she is on hers. Mine is a new model and hers is old. This is my great advantage over her. Never has she been within reach of my back tire. Nevertheless she pedals on. Her shoulders are pulled in and tucked down against the chill. Her feet are pointed in, pigeon-toed, on the pedals as she pushes. Her tires suck up mud in great handfuls and sluices it out in wet ribbons. My tires catch pebbles and cast them into the puddles. The surfaces of the puddle give wishing well ripples.
Why she is chasing me you probably wonder. I do too. Who I am you probably do not wonder, because the attention in any story is on the woman and not the man, and rightly so. A woman is an object of curiosity and intrigue. A man is just a sack. Take me for instance. My first name is Fletcher and my second name is unimportant. By trade I am a farm reporter. How high will the White crest, will an early frost jeopardize the tomatoes, how will overseas demand affect the price of corn. Stories about suburban gardens. In Bloomington I trained to cover business, but there was no shortage of business journalists and not many interested in the farm beat. To accept the farm beat means relegation to the professional sidelines. There are few moves a man can make from farm. Maybe he might take a lateral step into horses.
This year the weather has been trouble. Hot and dry. Pole beans cooked right on the vine. Then came the rains and they have not stopped. A tricky time for gardeners and farm reporters. Most days I take the bicycle from my house in the Babe Denny neighborhood to the farms. There are quite a few farms in Indianapolis, especially in the southwest of the city, right underneath the airport. Most days I make a ride of it: under the highway and past the shadow of the big football stadium, by the block of gambrel-roofed houses with chipping paint and the low and eyeless industrial buildings, to the river and the uniform streets beyond, the windsocks and cyclone fences of the airfield, the subdivisions, and finally the flat brown vegetable fields on the city edge.
As a child my only exposure to gardening was decorative: my mother grew towering rhododendrons in the front yard, and I was forbidden to touch them. Never go into the rhododendrons. There are wasps by the blooms and they will sting. Around the massive pink pile of rhododendrons was a thick carpet of pachysandra. My friend and I tossed the ball in the yard. He threw the ball in a long lazy arc. The sun was out and I misjudged the trajectory. The ball bounced off of my wrist and rolled deep into the pachysandra. Our ball was small and the pachysandra smothered it. How far in it had rolled I could not tell. It might have reached the rhododendrons.
To find the ball I began to thrash the pachysandra with a stick. With the side of my boot I scraped the leaves aside. No sign of pink rubber beneath the green. I listened for the buzz of the wasps as I approached the rhododendrons. The plant looked big as a room: big as a house. I could bend the lower branches and step inside. I did.
That was the first time I saw an angel. She knelt beneath the cover of leaves with her chin in her hands and a frown. She had two pairs of wings: one tucked under the other. The outside wings were feathery, like that of a bird. The inside wings had the tightness and sheen of an umbrella. What are you doing in the rhododendrons child. Looking for a ball, I answered at once, because I was not afraid of an angel. Your ball is gone, child, you can get another. And while you are here, you mind the growing things. Mind the leaves and the petals. You can move and they cannot. Only the wind can take them and even then it is never their choice. Do not thrash the defenseless pachysandra with a stick. Do not tear apart the rhododendron branches.
I recall the pachysandra looked defenseless by no means. I thought it both ravenous and proprietary. But I did not backtalk the angel. It is a common misconception that they are benevolent. Even then I sensed this was a lie.
The woman who is chasing me is no angel. At least I believe she is not one. Her posture in the saddle is not that of an angel. She rides hunched against the wind and wet and hides her face from the night. Also the sandy brown hair beneath her hood does not correspond to any angelic hue. She rides with determination, but erratically; she splashes mud. The pedals are slick and her pointed-in shoes are unsure on the rubber. There is an overt violence to her pursuit of me that would be beneath the dignity of an angel. She would cut her wheel in front of mine and drive me into the hedge. An angel would not. Moreover an angel would have caught me by now, frankly.
I have a hypothesis about who she is and I hope I might share it with you. I believe she rides hard because of something I did. My route to the farms takes me through the houses of the very old. As I said it did not rain for a long time. The blades of grass in the yards of the old turned brown and scrubby. No one tottered out of the dreary houses to water the gardens. Cracks opened in the dirt as the parched soil drew together in clots. All around the plants begged for a drink but could not move to get one. All along the route was one continuous cry: water, water from everything green or that had been green and now faded to a weak yellow or spotted beige.
In the side yard of a wan house with a screened porch and a bird feeder with no birds: a single box euonymus. Some of the foliage was still perfect green with the chalk white outline at the verge of the leaves. But most of it was blasted. Was the plant dead? Or could it still be saved. Day after day in the heat I passed the little plant and watched it suffer. Finally I could not take it. I returned that evening after filing a feature on a bush that had won a prize. On the back of the bicycle I tied a spade. There I knelt in the grass, or what was left of it, and I dug up the euonymus and a hefty quantity of dry topsoil and wrapped the roots in a plastic bag. Then I pedaled home, unsteadily, with my right arm on the handlebar and my left gripping the trunk of the bush. The ride was no struggle. The poor plant was so parched that it did not weigh much.
If the very old people in the wan house had seen me dig up their yard, they might have called to me to stop. Would I have stopped? I am not sure. To my mind they had relinquished their claim to the plant. It is a living thing and they had no right to strangle it. But they did not come out to stop me. Instead I was aware of a face in a window across the alley. I could not make out details, but the rough shape of the face was there: a cheek, half a nose, a single unblinking eye. A woman’s eye. She watched me dig, and worry the roots out, and wrap them, and mount my bicycle with my hand around the trunk of the bush and pedal away.
It was long after midnight when I returned home with the box euonymus. Although my arms ached, I dug a fresh ditch in my yard in the Babe Denny neighborhood. Then I snipped away the plastic and guided the root system into the topsoil. Now the euonymus was mine and I was responsible for it. I headed to the bathroom with the watering can and there was an angel in the tub. You stole a box euonymus from an old woman. Had you been worried about it you would have brought water to it. You would not have traumatized it by ripping it out of the ground where it had grown. I pulled the curtain down in the face of the angel and slammed the door. The plant is mine now. It will get better care here.
The next day the rains began. They have not let up. Intervals of rain followed by mist. The health of the euonymus improved at once. The leaves became waxy again and a vibrant green. I passed it every day on my way to the shed where I locked my bike and knew I had done the right thing and the angel was wrong. And there is a woman chasing me. She is on her bicycle right behind mine and chewing up mud. Water runs in rivulets parallel to the road. I ride in the middle and she keeps to the edge. Her breath in clouds under the hood. Windsocks and cyclone fences, subdivisions, flat brown vegetable fields. Will a frost jeopardize the fruits. How high will the White crest.
One night Fletcher met the woman who pursued him. It was in a dream. He had fallen asleep with a pen in his hand and a story yet to file. It was fine. His editor had plenty to fill the page. Nothing pressing, get it to me tomorrow.
And there she was, out on Prospect Street past Fountain Square, across the street from the rust-red coke plant with her back against the chain link fence with the white slats. Arms crossed behind her, bicycle beside her. She had caught a flat. The rain had stopped but the earth was still damp. Somehow Fletcher was beside her. He reached to touch her and his fingers met no resistance. Fletcher’s hand swung right through hers and out the other side.
He tried the chest. This time there was a slight shiver as the fingertips slipped into her chest, as if he’d popped a taut membrane. He could just barely feel the thrum of her heart, the pulse of music down a far hall. She looked up at him. Her sandy brown hair had matted under the hood. Were her eyes grey or was it only the evening light?
She was roughly his height and shape. She did not need to stoop or stand on tiptoes to kiss him: her lips were right there before him, like a plum he’d already brought to his mouth. Again Fletcher felt the membrane stretched tight over his lips, and then the tickle of its torn segments as it teased his chin and sagged against his neck as she drew closer. In she floated. Soon her face was buried in his face. Then his head swallowed her head. Fletcher expected her to slip out the other side.
Instead she pivoted. Fletcher felt the arc made by tip of her nose as her head swept around to the front. It was like a chalk mark on the bones of his face. His skin became a glove that she fitted on. Her chin found the tip of his chin from inside. Her fingers slid into the sockets of his fingers. Her eyes squeezed into the back of his eyes and her pupils opened wide behind his. Even the short cut sandy brown strands of her hair found their many analogues on Fletcher’s head. Each one pushed up into a separate follicle with no hair left over. When her toes snapped into his, Fletcher knew the assumption was complete. She was affixed to him. Right below the surface of his skin, barely a scratch away from the light, but completely contained.
He raised his arm and she raised hers within him. He took a step and she came along. He focused his eyes on the setting sun beyond the coke plant. He felt her pupils dilate. How sensitive he was to minor variations in motion, the slow rhythms of the breaths she now took through his windpipe, smaller straw inside of larger straw, the buzz of her cognition and the sweet fruit of her consciousness. The soles of her feet pushing down through his toward the topsoil. He knew the pliability of flower petals. Beneath the cover of the skin they now shared, he was the stamen, quivering and heavy with pollen, and she was the pistil. Then the breeze caught them and they began to move.
Now that they were together, Fletcher felt a surge of awareness and a desire to hold her fast inside the container he’d become. He was conscious of her gaze: how she bent forward in the wind as he did to see the branches of the trees as they rustled, or to measure the size of new buds or new blooms. He took her to the farms. It was after dark but there was so much to measure. So many stories to write. Although he had no access to what she was thinking, he knew his cognition had been enhanced. Surely she could feel the stalk of the corn as he took it in his hand. There was almost nothing between his fingertips and hers. He could feel the rush of double breaths as they scored his tongue and heated his lips. He could feel the flush beneath the flush of his cheeks.
A delight it was, having this woman inside him, filling him. Yet Fletcher knew it was no merger. She had simply taken residence in his body as wind inhabits a balloon. Although he had felt her pour herself into place, she could drift away at will. He maintained command through her consent only. In the farmhouse Fletcher stared into a mirror, tracing the outline of her cheekbones, her determined expression, the ragged edge of her sandy brown hair as it fell over her forehead. He could just see the face beneath his face — subterranean, a wrinkle beneath his skin. The more Fletcher looked, the clearer her features became, until Fletcher fell away and it was only the woman he was looking at.
All at once he realized he had made a mistake. His curiosity had forced her to surface. Fletcher had halved himself. The woman had become loose. Suddenly she was abject, a wisp, floating toward the cold corner of the living room. He reached with both arms and grabbed for her, but she ran through his hands. Then she was seated in a wide red upholstered bench, a sofa, really, facing away from him, toward an observatory window facing the cornfields. Hold right there he said. I wish to contain you again. With your permission. Fletcher circled around and interposed himself between the window and the woman. If she were to fly away, she’d have to go through him, and at the very least, he would feel the electric tickle of the membrane as it tore once more.
For a long time he looked at her. Her eyes were indeed grey. She cocked one shoulder forward and another back. Her feet were perfectly parallel, knees bent together, legs close but not touching. Then the woman jerked. Her body folded up into a flat sheet and she was drawn into the crack in the sofa. She was a film run backward, a letter thrust into a slot. The room became very bright. When he searched between the cushions and jammed the palm of his hand into the slit, he felt nothing but heat.
Fletcher woke up. It was daytime. Rubbing his eyes, he walked into the kitchen, where two angels were having breakfast. He was always relieved to see them eat. If they were full, and content, it followed that they would not consume him. Of course angels do not eat people the way a lion would. It is more subtle than that, but it is digestion nonetheless.
Have you given any thought to the euonymus, the smaller one asked him. Will you return the euonymus to the place you stole it from. No. No, said Fletcher. As you can see the euonymus is thriving here. It has rained and it has taken root in the yard. If I were to uproot it again it would be traumatic for the plant. Moreover it is healthy now and heavier than it was when I took it from the yard where it was strangled by the sun. Here I can watch over it and care for it. It is better off with me.
The angel disagreed with Fletcher’s analysis. The plant, it said, has no preference. It is unaware of its place in the chain of being. The curse of man is not merely that he has some idea of his place. It is that he is under the illusion that he is at the top of a pyramid of being. He believes he is the crown and all the animals and plants are under his dominion. If only he was more conscious of the race of angels he would understand that he is subject to the same predation that he visits upon the creatures that he judges inferior to him. It would also help explain his misfortune. Of course the horror of his predicament might overwhelm him.
Fletcher had heard this before. He had no reason to doubt the powers of the angels. But he wondered if they had not made the same mistake the humans had. Perhaps there were beings they could not sense that sapped them and used them and fed on their vitality. He saw no reason why the chain should stretch long past the vanishing point. But it was all a matter of perspective. If he was a plant he would not be aware of his cultivation at the hands of the humans. But he would nonetheless produce the poisons in his pits that all plants do. Arsenic in the stones. He would not give his foliage willingly. The ground, he would feel, belonged to him. In his fronds and twigs, if observed carefully through four eyes, a quantum of contempt for the usurpers would be discoverable. They would see what he was busily, and silently, producing: a barb that could catch in the throat of the invader.
I am on my bicycle and a woman is chasing me but she is far away. I have seen her strength and endurance flag. Now I am three, four, five city blocks ahead of her and she is a smudge on the mist. No longer can she expect to cut her wheel in front of mine and drive me into the hedge. Instead she presses on. I believe I could lose her: take detours and cut through the tangle of alleys until she found herself knotted in the folly of her own pursuits. But then I might never see her again. Best not to go too fast. Best to keep an eye on her.
My name is still Fletcher and still I write farm stories for an area newsletter that believes it is a newspaper. The farm beat is unglamorous but I believe it suits my temperament. It is just the same that there was no need for an additional business reporter. I have a certain empathy for growing things and a capacity to tell their stories. How is the corn coming up. What about peppers, will there be bushelsful for market this weekend. What assistance from the garden can we count on today.
In my first semester at college I received a houseplant as a gift. It was a potted ivy scarcely larger than a succulent. Small thin light green leaves the size of a thumbnail. Each leaf ending in a perfect point. I called it Fenro and placed it on the narrow windowsill of my dormitory room. Each day I fed Fenro and turned the little pot to best position the leaves. Light but not too much light. Water but never too much water. I had no guidance in these matters, mind you. I followed my instincts.
That winter my dormitory hosted an around the world party. Each room in the dorm would contain a different type of alcohol and attendees would go around the world and drink a drink from each room. By lot I got the grain alcohol. It was wheeled into my dormitory in a large flower-shaped punchbowl and set at the foot of the bed. At night the rowdies came in. Big boys from other schools. When they learned about the grain alcohol my room became the place to congregate.
The room was so crowded I couldn’t get in. I crouched for hours on my haunches in the hall, outside the door to my room, and waited for the rowdies to disperse. When I angled my way into to the room in the early morning, it smelled both sweet and rotten. The punchbowl had been upended and the floor was sticky from spilled grain alcohol. Fenro had been knocked to the linoleum. The pot had shattered and the plant had been mashed down into the grime layer of grain alcohol and foot dirt. I knelt. I could see the swirly patterns of the bottoms of sneakers imprinted in the leaves.
The next morning the angel was in the cafeteria. One of the large ones — the colloquial ones. I heard you cried over a plant last night he said to me. I heard you wept like a turned out punk. Yes I did I said and I am not embarrassed to admit it. I don’t care who saw. I am aware it is silly not to mention uneconomical to lavish so much love on something that cannot love back. But I loved that plant and that was it. Oh you have respect for all forms of life, I suppose, said the angel, mocking me. Don’t you, I asked, because I still did not apprehend the brutality of the angels. We have respect for the forms of life we have respect for, he said. Then he ate a student on line at the cafeteria.
You’d better toughen up boy. Plants get trampled in this life. Rowdies have big feet and they are always on the move. Toughen up and grow thicker skin. Right now you are light as a popover. So much lightness, so much empty space. Who knows what will take residence inside you if you do not thicken up.
I have decided to lay a trap for the woman who is chasing me. In the mist she will not see me creep behind a bush with my bicycle ready. I will crouch there with hands on the handlebars. Then I will watch the road and count mississippis. By ten mississippi she should be on the verge of the road in front of me, ploughing furrows in the mud with her tires, shoulders hunched, hood down against the rain. I will charge out in front of her and interpose my bicycle between her and the road. Then she will stop, or swerve, or crash straight into me.
The bush is large but easy to see through. Dozens of tiny windows between leaves, apertures widening and shutting according to the wind. A spray of small yellow flowers like those that bloom atop the wild parsnip. Last spring, because of its importance, my story on the wild parsnip was taken to the front of the newspaper. A group of farmers just beyond city limits reported an infestation in their fields. It was a matter of great local concern that this invasive species had reached the edge of Indianapolis. It was crowding out native plants, as wild parsnip does. Wild parsnip is pernicious and hard to uproot. No gardeners want to tangle with the plant. The poison on the leaves is activated by contact with sunlight. It eats away at exposed skin and leaves permanent scars. The skin blisters and burns and crinkles and opens. Get the sap in your eye and you will be blinded.
Four mississippi. In six more mississippi I will hear the squeak of her rusty pedals and I will charge through the bush and block her path. She will stop and hop off the bike and look straight at me. She is my height, more or less, maybe a hair shorter. Our builds are similar. She is not afraid of me. Thief!, she will say, thief, stealer of an old woman’s yard plant. My grandmother planted that box euonymus to memorialize a long gone friend. Or it was a gift from my grandfather who succumbed to mysterious forces, old age as they say, three years ago yesterday. Or it was a present from me. I had not been able to water it or even go outside because of photosensitive poison on my skin from a brush with a wild parsnip. I watched it strangle in the sun too. If you had just waited the rains would have come. If you had just trusted. What sort of farm reporter meddles in the cycles.
I will not give ground. Patiently I will provide my best rationale and carry the day because it is airtight.
All was silent on the street. No traffic noise on the narrow road. The rain had started again: a light rain falling on the leather seat of my bicycle. Water beaded on my glasses. Six mississippi. The smell of activated earth, wet and open, ready to accept seeds. Pollen dragged off leaves by the heavy moisture. Seven mississippi. Tops of trees lost in low clouds and little yellow flowers at the wand end of barbed stalks. Eight and nine mississippi. I will explode into the road and confront her. There will be shock in her grey eyes. A second to wait. The squeal of my shoe sole on the rubber pedal. The scrape of wheels on gravel. The rush of daylight as I charge from behind the plant. Ten mississippi I am here.
I am alone in the middle of the road. Nothing in either direction, no smudge against the mist. Perhaps she gave up the chase or turned off the road when she no longer saw me. Perhaps she is still coming. My mississippis have been known to go too fast. I wait on the divider for many minutes. Eventually a produce truck comes. I am forced to the curb.
Of course I must open myself up to the possibility that the woman was never there. Because I see things that others do not, I am occasionally misled. But I have learned from the weeds that sight is a conceit. Because we have eyes we think we can see what preys on us. We are like the plants really. It is a question for the angels but I never enjoy my converse with them. It is why people hate angels. Indeed they may have something to say before I go to bed half empty. Tonight I will dream and tomorrow I will wake. I will take my bike on this same road as I always do. Maybe she will chase me again.
– Tris McCall