Adam stood over his mother’s bed, the same bed she had always owned. The room glowed green as sunlight sifted through massive and veiny leaves that resembled elephant ears and between thick stems and flowers from the garden that pushed against the sliding glass door on the far wall. On the opposite wall was a shelf cluttered with a multitude of knick-knacks his mother had once collected: glass figurines, wicker dolls, vintage clocks. The bed looked unmoved and untouched, made on a morning many years ago. She lay in it stiffly, her eyes funereal. The bed was her, and she was the bed. Inanimate. She looked as if she was dying, but according to her, his mother, she was already dead.
He was seeing her for the first time in over a year. After his father had divorced her, Adam chose to stay with his mother but ended up with his father. She had been declared mentally unfit to raise a child. As time passed Adam had gotten updates on his mother’s worsening condition from Eliza, the house nurse and an old family friend who had helped take care of little Adam during bouts of sickness, bathing him in oatmeal to treat prickly chicken pox or feeding him soup to fight a common cold. Her recent death was part of the reason he was here, the other motivation being an unnamable compulsion. Why, he asked himself, did he dread visiting his mother, being able to count on his hands the number of times he saw her since the divorce? It had been a stagnant adrenaline that basted his brain, made it comfortably numb after so much time away. The exact nature of his mother’s condition, he knew, was implacable and unknown, akin to a delirious coma or some form of catatonia, but never diagnosed with any certainty. There were rumors that a slothful spirit had possessed her body or that Adam’s father had poisoned her with a slow-acting neurotoxin before he left, but such myths died soon after leaving the anonymous lips that produced them.
Feeling as if he had walked through cobwebs to her room, he rubbed his forearms and the back of his neck as he continued to stare at his mother or some distant version of her. Curly hair that was black in areas and gray in others, the knuckled nose, the eyes of carbonized pearl, the lips that gave themselves an inward kiss. He stared at her as she stared through the sliding glass door at the garden. It took up the entire backyard, a piece of the Amazon in the perimeter of a southern Florida pine house located in the vacant expanse of a large forest. As the walls, the floorboards, the porch, and everything else decayed and became dilapidated, the garden, as if to mock his mother, went wild with life.
Adam stepped closer to her and saw dust. It was the most unnatural thing. How could dust accumulate on the skin and hair of a living person? He wanted to blow it away, perhaps into a small cloud that would float above and shower her with rain, but he was disturbed. Actual dust. On a living person. He placed his hand on hers, the tips of his fingers against the stone wrist, feeling a dim pulse. As if the little vein was really an invisible string connected to the farthest star, tempting the scissors of Atropos.
She cleared her throat.
He thought about that single action for what seemed like minutes. It sounded like a shuffling of bolts or beads or pills…Adam didn’t know the details, only that when his father left, she tried to kill herself by swallowing handfuls of sleeping pills directly down her paper throat. That was after she drove him up north to his father’s, a twelve-hour drive right through, silent as she gripped the wheel and stared ahead as they listened to one CD over and over again until it skipped, skipping for three hours until it finally unhooked and continued…. He both imagined and dreamed of his mother in that bathroom, getting ready to kill herself, to snuff what little light was left. He had seen it hundreds, no, thousands of times. She is standing in front of the mirror, looking at herself, this emaciated ascetic, and swallows the pills with a steady or shaky hand. Sometimes the pills are seeds, sometimes her hand is empty, but still she swallows and her face turns white then blue then green. And she falls down and bundles up against the hard cold tiles, limp and skeletal. This would usually be the moment Adam awoke, regained himself, yet during some viewings of this dream-film he’d watch the body decay in fast motion, the collapse of her structure followed by a spontaneous generation of maggots, and when parts of her had naturally dismembered, holding on by ligaments only, arachnid crabs would crawl out of the nearby tub, their exoskeletons spiked and spired, and probe her remains with black-beaded stalks. They’d crawl over the mass and cram tufts of pincer-tugged flesh into their wiry gullets.
Regardless of how the suicide happened, it happened. And now she was like this. How could she think she was dead yet still breathe, still talk, even if it was sparse and myopic? Anything she had ever said was scribbled on letters Eliza sent to him, although Adam would have preferred not to know, to be unaware of her Alzheimer’s-like blabbering that struck and shook him darkly. Sometimes, Adam would imagine the letters that reported on his mother were really from his mother and described a deranged vagabond that she was taking care of out of mercy and kindness. But the strength of that belief was always weak. When Adam attempted to show his father some of the writings, he snatched them from Adam’s hand and clawed them apart. Adam thought that maybe his mother was in denial of her suicide attempt. If she couldn’t keep her husband around then she could at least have the initiative to kill herself, she must have thought, and she did, but she failed that too. He was awed at the mind’s ability to refuse reality.
Her dried eyes creaked up and down and scanned the glass sliding door. “Why won’t it die,” she slurred. “It needs to die…why won’t it?”
It was the first time Adam heard her speak since his arrival and the voice wasn’t hers, wasn’t human. But it had to be hers. However slightly, her flaking lips had moved, he witnessed it. She was referring to the garden, he knew that much. He remembered when his mother first tried to grow it. Nothing would take hold of the earth. Anything that did manage to root itself soon turned brown and shriveled, never spreading its thorny vines or petals, never blossoming. It smelled like a compost heap. His father had funded it, buying all manner and variety of seeds for her, whatever she asked. She tried hydrangea, arborvitae, nasturtiums, forget-me-nots, parrot tulips, jonquils, peonies, irises, narcissuses, and venus flytraps. The mail-delivered seeds became increasingly exotic, that of the bulging baobob, titan arums, corpse flowers, dragon trees, bois dentelles, seeds shaped like watermelons, the end of medieval maces, albino strawberries, the yawning wings of angels, and a sole seed sculpted as the face of Christ, which, after she had planted it, produced a Gomorrean sinkhole where daddy longlegs fornicated in an orgy that only ceased when vengeful rainwater inundated them. When little Adam had tried to bite into one of the petite strawberries, after finding it in a wooden box on the kitchen counter, it broke like a capillary and filled his mouth with a copper liquid and stained his tongue with the taste of a battery. His mother had been upset with him for a whole week for wasting that single seed. Later, while little Adam tried to climb a nearby tree of the forest, he fell and knocked his head against the ground. She had seen him from the garden and the shock caused her to drop a coconut-sized seed that split in half on impact and sent spark-lit spores to singe her legs. Following the accident, she ignored him for nearly a month.
“Why can’t I do it,” she had asked early on, wearing a blue t-shirt under one of her worn out denim overalls. “Green thumb is a myth,” she had told Adam as she held the wilted leaves of a geranium in her hand. “I plant it firmly and water it, and the sun comes up every morning as it should, why won’t anything grow?”
Being a seven-year-old, he didn’t know the answer. In fact, he didn’t care much for the garden, living or dead. He was fascinated by the various spindly and crawly forms of life he would find within the brown leaves and under moist rocks—aphids, roly-polies, ant larvae—but not the plants themselves. One evening, when the clouds shimmered like the skin of chameleons and made everything clear and bright, he had spotted a white moth that was resting on a falsely promising honeysuckle shrub. It was more than white, he could see the world right through the skin of the moth, through its organs and wings, yet he still saw the moth itself, outlined, like the jet of Wonder Woman he had seen, or not seen exactly, during cartoons on Sunday.
“How marvelous,” his mother whispered over his shoulder. “You can barely make it out. Don’t move. I’ll get the camera.”
As his mother rushed inside the house, he continued to stare at faint outlines, the dots, and dashes, of the moth. She can’t take a picture of it, he thought. What would the flash of a camera do to something like this, if she used it?
“Please leave,” he said.
The creature remained.
Adam let out the smallest gust of air from his open mouth to stimulate it as if trying to see his breath against a cold mirror. For seconds, he could see deeper transparencies and then reflections, as if it became glass. The creature glowed brighter and brighter until finally, it popped, like a bubble released into the summer wind.
“Oh no,” he said.
His mother returned with the camera. “Where’d it go?”
He looked upward between rays of light that came through the overhanging screen and he saw a sparkling flash, lasting a millisecond, just enough for perception. He knew. That was the moth, turned to crystal, flying into the air.
Adam wondered now if the moth he remembered ever existed at all or if the memory was tainted. Perhaps it had simply been a brown moth and his childish imagination had fooled him. He wished his mother could confirm either way, yet he didn’t dare ask. When the garden was dead, it spread before him as a wasteland of possibility and wonder. What empires could materialize? With the garden’s new radiance, its herculean maturation, such derision in comparison to his bed-ridden mother, he loathed it.
She sighed with a toad’s croak. “It needs to die.”
After she repeated her plea, an idea occurred to him. Even though Adam didn’t know how to help her if it was even possible, he wondered if destroying the garden would at least bring her some sort of peace. The more he thought about orange flames turning the green into black ash, the more he liked the idea. From dust to dust. He’d pick up some tools later, after feeding his mother—shears, a burn barrel and gasoline, a chainsaw. He still needed to find a new house nurse. He didn’t want to hire just anyone. He would have to set up some interviews and start from there.
Within the cabinets of the kitchen, Adam found only two small containers of Gerber baby food, both carrot-flavored. Eliza had mentioned that it was his mother’s favorite. Knowing she must be famished, Adam let the spoon hang in front of her lips for some seconds until her jaw instinctively fell open. He moved the spoon forward a few inches into her mouth and her jaw closed again. Out came the spoon, clean and shiny. Her swallowing was a bit labored and her neck tensed as the mush gradually descended. He repeated this until he was on the last few scoops left in the container. She stared, blinking intermittently, at the garden. From his current position in the room, leaning over by her head, he followed her eyes. He had been mistaken. She wasn’t looking at the garden. She was looking at herself, at the vague reflection of herself in the glass, superimposed on a green canvas like an oil painting, a youthful version staring back, the expression as ambivalent as the Mona Lisa.
“Why…why won’t it die?”
A breeze came into the room, as though from nowhere, or from the outside world, it reminded him of the air he breathed when he opened his window as a child during sleepless nights, balancing on a stool to reach the latch. This breeze was sun-infused and laced with the garden, of wet and rooted soil, of pollinated flowers and bursting seeds. He wanted to tell his mother something, even though she wouldn’t consciously hear, or maybe she would.
“That sparkle in your reflection,” he explained, “is more than sun on glass, it’s you. Don’t you realize?”
She blinked once, slowly. He could almost hear it.
The next morning, Adam stood in the baby food aisle of the grocery store, considering the flavors, earthly and pastel colors commingling. Occasionally the squeaking of a cart could be heard, but he saw no one. The store was mostly empty and stank of sanitation. He decided to go with carrots only, to be safe. He didn’t want to risk his mother not eating. He grabbed a basketful, along with water and other essentials. Waiting in checkout, he became mesmerized by the beep of each scanned item. His thoughts transcended and became one, or many, pulsing to the electronic chant. He fantasized about his mother becoming well again and being elated by the garden’s growth. She would want to trim and groom it, take care of it like a congregation of messy-haired waifs. Adam would bring her a pot of strawflowers or the seeds of a heliotrope and she would love him.
“Boy or girl?”
He noticed the clerk, a smiling brunette with a spherical stomach. She was holding a container of Gerber in each hand.
He stacked the containers neatly in the cabinets, filling them up, and did the same to the antique refrigerator. When he opened the freezer to see what was inside he found a mummified mandrake, its face petrified with pain. A rotted apricot donned its head and the bruised, wooden folds of its limbs and withered penis were lined with frost. He slammed the freezer shut and a gust of pickle juice stung his face. Unable to breathe, he coughed into the sink. His eyes watered and he wiped them with the back of his hand. There was a pile of expired fruits and vegetables in that freezer, nothing more, he told himself. He was tired, that was all, but he didn’t want to check again. He listened for the sound of birds but heard none. He tried to remember the songs he used to hear being played in the evening by feathered throats, expelled from winged bodies somewhere high on a tree or power line, but he couldn’t form them. Then he thought of his mother, and how she used to hum those same melodies, nature’s music. How did they go? He tried to relax and hum them, too, as he began to moisten a towel in the sink and breathed in the air which filled the house now, an air of small, gentle winds, which must have been filtered through the garden, for they carried unfamiliar particles of fertilizer and foliage, of wilderness.
Using the damp towel, he removed the dust from his mother’s face. He had been afraid that she would somehow disintegrate, but he couldn’t allow her to be in such a condition any longer. He rubbed the dust off in slow and tiny circles and he listened to her breathing. It was more alive, changed, affected somehow by the infiltration of the garden air. Then, out of nowhere, he heard the sound of delicate teakettles as winds lapped against the glass door. He saw numerous bored holes in the bottom half of it, with vines lazily hanging from each one, swinging as the wind blew in and sucked out. He knew of vines growing and taking over long-dead structures, anything they could climb and grab onto, like slender but persistent fingers, yet he hadn’t seen them carve and cut glass before. He wasn’t sure what to do, but he finished mopping the dust from her face and he did his best to clean her hair as well.
On the way to his old room, he stopped at the door of his father’s former office, disheveled in his memories. Adam turned the brass knob and opened the door wide enough to put his head through. The office had been stripped and emptied. Adam remembered the wooden chair at his father’s desk and as a toddler, he would waddle toward the fortress of it. But the plump feet of his father made him know it as a colossal throne. He’d find himself floating upward and he would giggle, realizing his father’s hands were under his armpits and lifting him onto his expansive lap. At the time, his father was programming fractals on a cuboid computer. Leaning against his warm stomach, Adam joined in his father’s study of the vortex, in which the phenomenon morphed into itself, changed into the unchanging. The voyaging colors painted their faces. His father spoke, as though to himself, “As above, so below.” The hypnotic suggestion of the fractal caused his father to think of the universe as being contained within a cell which was part of another, much larger being, and that being, unknowing, lived on a planet in a galaxy of a universe contained within a cell, which was part of an even larger being, until forever, forward and backward. Staring, little Adam felt as though he were falling until his father pressed the shift key and all of it went in reverse, and then Adam was rising. His father froze it with the space bar and Adam felt as though a part of him had been halted. He remembered the hum of that abrupt stop. A sob and shriek in whisper form. Afterward, Adam had tried to sneak into his father’s office to see the fractal in motion again, but his father began another project, something that involved pi, which he would write out on a large chalkboard that hung from the wall, yet that too only lasted a few days before he crawled into other holes of human knowledge.
Adam’s bedroom wasn’t as he remembered it, either. The walls were bare and the furniture, although present, was empty aside from a concave mattress in the bed frame. His childhood belongings were probably sold or missing or packed in rotting boxes. The glow-in-the-dark stars had been removed from the ceiling, yet the outline of their shape remained. He had been enamored with outer space, but also frightened of it. The possibility, the indifference. Just then he noticed a thick, cracked lens resting on the floor by the window. For Adam’s eighth birthday, his father had given him a shiny, black telescope. Its matte finish smelled of the future, of other worlds. His father had mounted it on his windowsill. They spent hours scrutinizing the moon, each crumbling chalk-like crater. That was the night he found the courage to ask his father, “What’s the moon?” And the answer caused cold water to trickle down his spine. His eyes tingled. That was the moment the temporal dimension expanded for him, beyond the quotidian, and he began to realize how much time had come before, and, perhaps even more burdensome, how much time lay ahead. The next morning he immediately scrambled from his bed and dashed to the telescope. He aligned it with the fiery disc in the sky. When he peered through he saw only a red and orange blindness, a slithering and crossing of heated shapes. With his eye holding a scoop of fire he returned to his bed and fell asleep again. He dreamt of walking on the sun, pushing the flames aside as if they were plants in a burning jungle. The ground, a beach of glowing coals. Embers spinning through the wavering air like flies. But all of it harmless, for he was a creature of that planet. Born to feed on sparks, to baptize his hair and body with lava, to breathe the inferno. His body a pyre. Then his father shook him awake, and Adam asked while rubbing his eyes, “What’s the sun?” The answer was a truth that connected him to everything, to his father, his house, the earth, to the night sky with its innumerable stars.
Rarely did a single answer satisfy Adam’s curiosity. On the contrary, answers fed the questions only morsels of what they required, making them insatiable. During a walk after a mild drizzle, Adam observed a spectral arch in the sky and asked, “What’s a rainbow?” Adam’s father put a hand on his head as if to transmit the knowledge. “That’s what happens when droplets of rain cause light to spread out.” Adam looked up and his father’s hand retracted. “Why?” They ceased walking. His father kneeled down and looked him in the eye. “Why why?” Then Adam looked at his neon sneakers, thinking, then back up, “Why, why, why?” They never stopped asking that question of questions. It was the vocal equivalent of a fractal, exposing both the majesty and the futility of human language. Adam’s mother would rarely answer his questions. She had always said, “Because Nature made it so” or “Because God wanted it to be like that.” He was dissatisfied, but in a different way, and so he’d always ask his father the questions he wanted answers to, and if his father didn’t have the answers he’d occasionally tell his son, “I’m not sure. Maybe one day you can be the person who finds out…or,” and he stopped to truly absorb the thought, “we could do it together.” One question he had never asked either parent was associated with God. He had pressed his forehead against the window, his face up at the cumulus-covered sky, and he thought about how a deity was supposed to have created everything…but who created that deity? And if someone or something did create Him, who created Them? His mind could only ever come up with celestial beings floating in a void, regressing backward and backward forever as even darker fractals. Later, he discovered there was a paradox called just that: infinite regression.
Before attempting to sleep in his childhood bed, Adam opened the window, more easily than ever before. But instead of the air he remembered it was as if the air of his room was blown in, the outside air was inside and the inside was outside. It made him dizzy and so he laid down. He closed his eyes and felt like one of those drifting creators, starlight for eyes yet nothing to see, a black, gaseous body against nothingness, ineffectual prayers emanating toward him in all directions, a terrible loneliness that caused him to hug his own body. The sound of crickets arose like shy violins and returned him to earth, to the confines of the room. Listening to their cadence, he gradually fell asleep.
On the second day, Adam tidied up various rooms in the house and tried to make his mother as comfortable as possible, propping her head with fresh, pliable pillows and setting up an oscillating fan to circulate the air in her room. But there was still more work to be done. He was returning from a clothing store where after thorough searching and deliberation he found for his mother a new floral dress with cap sleeves and a ruched neckline, something that reminded him of one she used to wear every now and then as she tried to tend the garden. He thought that maybe the dress would make her new again, that it would allow her to resemble herself, of how she once was. He walked up the porch and inhaled the air of his childhood that had been displaced to the fringes of the house, a combination of yellowing books and aging fabric. He stood in the hall and the screen door gradually wheezed shut on its own. A medley of vines had traced the floor and walls like musical notations.
He heard the melodious call of his mother’s voice, “Adam,” like when she used to be excited about the small things.
Using his body, he shoved her bedroom door open, realizing that vines had attempted to entangle the handle and hinges. When he entered and saw her, his mouth let out a soft breath. Half gasp, half exhale. Half warm, half cool. When he saw her he knew that she was truly dead. The vines—coming from as many holes in the glass as stars in the sky—had pierced into her arms, intravenously. Her veins had turned virescent, seen through her translucent skin. Golden flakes of pollen drifted through the air. Adam approached her bedside. Like flower pots, her irises each held a white and fully blossomed anemone.
George Salis received a B.A. in English and Psychology from Stetson University. He is the recipient of the 2015 Sullivan Award for Fiction, the 2015 Ann Morris Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 Davidson Award for Integrity in Journalism. He contributes criticism to Atticus Review and journalism to Stetson Magazine. His flash fiction piece, “Always on the Shore,” is forthcoming from The Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle in the spring of 2016. He is currently writing his first novel and teaching in Bulgaria.