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"The Pumpkin Patch" by Sheree La Puma

Last December, the creature came. Blue-Eyed with freckled skin, hands permanently tattooed with oil and blood, one mark indistinguishable from another. The moon was full that night. It illuminated the fluidly of the garden. It illuminated the creature’s perversities as well. He had many, but until that moment they'd been hidden. Lost and bare, the man-creature stumbled down the oak-lined path, chugging whiskey out of a large green thermos until his veins buzzed.

Nearing the cottage, he paused, unzipped his fly and urinated on the winter honeysuckle. Their stems were young and sweet against the modest backdrop. A golden mist rose from the tiny blooms, and the creature moved west. He tore through the carefully tended garden, not sure what he was looking for but believing he’d find it. When he reached a window, he pressed his mouth against the pane, until his foul buzzard breath covered it like death.

Martha was slender, vulnerable, in a state of undress. She enjoyed her liberties, having the freedom to move about life as she wished, without the abysmal interference of societal rules. On that December night, Martha bathed anointed her skin with gardenia scented powder then padded softly to her bedroom. A meteor shower was due at 11:15 pm and she had planned to watch.

She gazed out her window into the clear night sky. As she did, she felt a vague uneasiness, listening intently as it started to rain. Hundreds of toxic white marbles pinged against the window pane. She peered out…moth balls? It hardly bothered her anymore…the pranks. She realized people would continue to exist outside her own unique space and time. That there was nothing, she could do to change it.

Martha opened the top drawer of her husband’s bureau. It was the only thing she kept after his stroke.  Her son David had picked through the house, greedily taking anything of value.  It was as if Martha didn’t matter. Yet, this piece, this dresser was significant. She hadn’t let him take it because it held her husband’s essence, along with his undershirts, shorts, dress socks, silk ties and matching handkerchiefs. It had been carved from Honduran mahogany, and he had cherished it, oiling it daily, keeping it free of dust. Now it was cracked and in need of repair. She might refinish it one day, she thought, although he would never see it again. As she touched the wood, she was overcome with sadness. At the same time, a bush outside her window snapped. Martha’s body jumped involuntarily.

Martha G. Wills lived not far from the coast, down a dirt path, in a rural solitude that suited her perfectly. She had garden tools as good as she could afford, and a collection of seeds packed in two cardboard boxes that had held respectively, a lace tablecloth and a cashmere coat, reminders of another time, a better life. At the end of the day, when she bathed and slipped into a faded violet robe, she liked nothing better than to cook up some vegetable soup and curl up in a ball on the couch. The meditation kept her in touch with all the plants in her garden.

“Hey Grandma, Grandma you home? Hope you’re prettied up.” The voice outside was deep and aroused. Its wickedness startled her. She moved towards the living room as a fist hit the door.

The warped wood flexed and heaved. “Open up Granny, “the voice teased. “I’m just trying to be neighborly.”

“Leave me alone,” she shouted, reaching for her cane. “One more chance and I’ll come in after you.”

Martha turned towards a black rotary dial phone. It was several feet away. Before she had time to move, a man kicked the door, and it slowly swung open. Martha raised her cane and struck him across the jaw.

“Goddamn bitch,” he sputtered, crimson blood dripping from his mouth. He grabbed Martha’s hair and flung her towards the floor. The back of her head stuck tile. Her face went white. The creature’s shadow hovered over her.

“You’re going to be one sorry bitch,” he sputtered through closed teeth. Before wiping a trickle of blood from his mouth and undoing his belt.

Martha’s thoughts had gone back to the bureau with its perfectly organized drawers. Her husband demanded she keep it that way and she never complained. She didn’t complain that night either. She stayed motionless as though frozen as the creature forced her to feel things she had wanted to forget. When he’d had enough, he pummeled her with the cane until bruises flowered.

Martha lay naked, shivering on the floor all night. By dawn, she had a vision, a vision that determined her future. With reborn hope flowing through her veins, she hobbled to the garden and watered the flowers with her blood. She continued like this for months, long after the physical wounds had healed. Each morning she’d pray that the vines in the yard would bloom, but they just gathered the familiar dust that drove her into depression. If not for the vision, the prophetic promise of a spiritual transformation, she might have shriveled up and died. But she had her message.

Martha believed she would fade into her pumpkin patch. Never mind folks that claimed she was nearing insanity, that she’d been entering the disease in patient stages, one step at a time. Martha had convictions. She worked on her garden continuously; believing little else mattered except preparation for her rebirth. After all, she had planted every living stem in her yard and now felt part of the organisms themselves, awaiting their signal to bloom.

Whenever Martha heard the plants calling, she hurried to them, by the end of the year, she calculated that she would be fully metamorphosed, although she was in no rush. Each new sprout meant additional life in the yard and at the rate, they were growing the garden would overflow by her next birthday. Her decaying gray house was no place in which she wanted to spend the rest of her days, but she could tolerate it for now. At 94, she had no meddling friends to complicate her life, felt no obligation to her son or husband and greeted those that dared to visit with a smooth pebble or two.

Even when she decided to work late in her yard because the quiet of the house frightened her, she had the feeling her life was beginning to make sense, that she had a glorious future ahead. Getting up at dawn, walking out into the yard as the sun began to light the rows of her magnificent orange trees, she felt privileged to be in their company.

Later in the furrows and deeply involved in work, sprinkling the delicate sprouts with her rusty watering can, she felt part of a team, part of a small universe in itself. Life, she had thought when she first planted her seeds, was a time for watching things grow, then die. She now knew better; life was a preparation for birth and Martha tended to her garden with joy because of this.

Although, it was only inside her home, meditating that she gave any thought to the magnitude of her work. Doing, it, entranced by it, she had no doubt that the time was near and she prayed for a swift deliverance.

The people who haunted her picket fence, children with sticks, curious folks with eyes that accused her of a crime that she had not committed, were another reminder of her separateness. Once a branch had struck the side of her face; she screamed and rushed out to confront the thrower. He was a young boy about seven she surmised, and he stood quivering as she charged toward him. “You beast,” she howled. Grabbing him by the neck, anger radiated out of her slight five-foot frame. She wanted him to be a man so she could strike him. She wanted to say, “Damn it, little boy, I’m making a life here.” Finally, she pulled his ears and told him to run home before she cooked him for dinner. She was good at things like that, and the villagers expected no more. Martha became the “wild woman of the beach” with long milk-white hair and a deeply wrinkled face.

Today, while pruning her antique roses, Martha remembered, experienced a flash of remorse, and quickly brushed it aside. The boy had evoked emotions that had long been buried, buried since her husband had withered with disease and was taken from her. Martha grimaced. She was too old for sentimentality towards her family and too angry to confide to a child that he had touched some weakness within, so Martha focused at the task at hand; making a 1/4 inch cut above an outward facing leaf bud, above the long, straight, needle-like prickles. She knew how important it was to prune old blooms from the cane. “Deadheading” it was called. It opened up the center of the bush, which allowed sunlight and air to caress the center of the plant. When she finished, there’d be a skeleton, which had the power to come forth again.

The phone rang. Its shrill, incessant chirp jarred Martha back into her conscious self. She clamped down hard on the grips of her sheers, then stumbled forward towards the house.

“Mom?”

“Who else would it be? Damn it, David, you disturbed my work,” she admonished.

“I need to come over, talk about your safety.”

“You’re talking to me now, aren’t you?” Martha said, wiping tiny bubbles of sweat from her upper lip.

Her son sighed.

“Ok, if it’s that important,” she relented.

Martha was dancing in the yard with a string of gardenias tied in her tousled white hair, when David arrived. He watched for a while before she noticed him.

“Come join me.”

David frowned, glanced down at the lush moss carpet as he cleared his throat. Martha continued with her dance, carefree, unburdened. All around her the world was rejoicing, from the fragrant orange grove on her left to the colorful vegetable garden on her right. The pumpkins, tomatoes, green beans, corn; even her prized rose bushes, the ones that blanketed the rotting exterior of her old wooden house, seemed to sing out in ecstasy.

 “I have mint tea in the fridge. It’s your favorite,” Martha grinned, pointing him towards a tattered screen door. “Sit down in the living room. I’ll be right there.”

He’d marched inside like a tin soldier as she’d disappeared into her tiny kitchen, moving quickly past the cracked tile counters with their stacks of molding vegetables and over to the yellow icebox, which hummed and clattered in the corner. David continued to the next room. A few minutes later, Martha reappeared clutching a tall pitcher of tea. He watched in silence, as she tried to fill a glass, but ended up splattering much of it on the dusty beige carpet.

“Damn,” she said. Then suddenly satisfied with the job, thrust the half-empty glass within inches of David's face. “Here!”

David eased it out of Martha's blistered fingers.

“How are you mom?” he asked softly. “They still haven’t caught the man that attacked you, and I can’t take it anymore. I’m worried sick.”

“It’s about you then,” Martha quipped. “I’m fine. I’ve been busy preparing.” 

“Preparing?” David took a deep breath. “It’s not safe for you to be here alone. You should have moved in with me after Dad’s stroke.”

Martha glanced around her living room. What had once been a grand home, full of antique furnishings and Persian rugs, was now almost destroyed by dust and disregard. The yellow silk Victorian sofa was stained and tattered in several places. The Tiffany lamp was blanketed in grime so thick that its once brilliant blue glass appeared to have been singed by fire. There were empty wooden crates piled three high under the picture window, and the air itself was thick and stale. She felt a sudden urge to vacate her surroundings.

“I want you to leave now. I’m needed in the garden,” Martha said.

She didn’t wait for an answer, turning to gaze out the window instead, peering past the cobwebs that partially obstructed the view. Trivialities didn’t matter. She knew her future lie out there, beyond the splintered sill, in the yard near the rainbow-colored roses.

“Your plants will wait.”

“You’ll never understand,” she huffed.

“Try me!” David said, throwing his hands up in the air.

Martha was angered by what she considered to be a pointless exchange of words. She rushed out of the room, slamming the old screen door behind her. It bounced and rattled on its hinges. Her son rose from the sofa, following her outside. He was a big man, strong, and practical, but he howled when he saw Martha face down, sprawled in the grass near a patch of bright orange pumpkins.

“Mom!”

It’s time,” he heard her say.

“This doesn’t help. Please, get up and talk to me.” Sweat began to form on his brow.

“I’m talking to my plants. They’re the only ones that listen to me.”

“Jesus Christ Mom, that’s not true. All I’ve ever wanted was your happiness. I’ve been here constantly, and you’ve rejected every effort I’ve made to take care of you.” His body shook now.

Martha coughed.

“I want to help you. I love you,” David said. There was more mumbling.

His voice was barely audible to her now. Martha took a deep breath and felt her old, sick body withering away. David reached down to stroke her arm.

“You’re burning up Mom. I’m going to call a doctor. Here, let me help you into the house,” he said, offering her a firm hand.

Martha didn’t move. Her soft white hair blanketed the earth like a shroud. “Mom?” There was still no reply, so David slipped his hands under her bony hips.

Martha heard the plants buzzing. They were angry; she felt it. She assured them she was ready for birth and concentrated firmly on sprouting roots. Her son planted his feet firmly on the grass and tried to lift her away from them.

“Oh, God, my back,” he said yanking his hands out from under her, then wincing in pain. “I’m going into the house to call you an ambulance.”

The mind is stronger than the body; she thought as David hobbled into the house. Why so full of gloom? I didn’t raise him to be like that.

“This place is a sty, a depressing little hellhole,” David shouted. “Where is the Goddamn phone?”

He searched the living room, knocking newspapers and books off a mahogany end table. All the while, Martha lay still, her breathing becoming fainter and fainter. When he found it, on the floor under an ottoman, he put the receiver to his ear and dialed. It only took a second to ring.

“Hello, this is David Wills. My mother collapsed in the yard, and I can’t move her. I need an ambulance now!”

Martha heard the panic in his voice and sighed. She wished she could help him understand that a miracle was about to unfold.

“David?” Her voice was weak, strained, a curious gurgling from her throat threatened to silence it.

“Mom, they’re on their way,” he called out. Then he dropped the receiver and hurried outside. When he got to her, he clasped her hand in his. Martha was lifeless and cold.

“No. goddamn it. No.” David turned his eyes upwards, towards the sky. If he was looking for an answer, he got one. The sun was bright, jubilant and robust. He turned away.

“I need you, Mom. I love you,” he whispered.

Then he turned her over and cradled her. A thin layer of earth clung to Martha’s cheeks, and David gently laid his head on her chest. He remained like that for some time, like an infant at his mother’s breast, believing she was gone, lost to him forever. Yet, not far from the place that she had fallen, lay a big, bright, juicy pumpkin chattering with her neighbors in her joyous new world.

© Sheree La Puma

About the Author: Sheree La Puma is an award-winning writer whose personal essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Main Street Rag, O:JA&L, Plainsongs, Burningword Literary Journal, I-70 Review, Inflectionist Review, Levee, Crack The Spine, Mad Swirl, The London Reader, Bordighera Press - VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, Gravel, Foliate Oak, PacificReview, Westwind and Ginosko Literary Review, among others. She received an MFA in Writing from California Institute of the Arts and taught poetry to former gang members. Born in Los Angeles; she now resides in Valencia, CA with her rescues, Bello cat and Jack, the dog.  

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