by Julia Carey
|Sam made things grow. He knew how to touch and water and prune and when. How the martyring of a weed liberated the life of another. And how, after death, something evolved in value as it shifted into compost, giving what it once was to that which still existed. Life never really ceased; it changed. Inside that palm tree was last year’s lawn, and last year’s lawn had been fertilized by used eggshells and vegetable scraps. At church on Sundays he would watch his fellow parishioners devour slices of his wife’s strawberry pie, the fruit of his garden clinging to smacking lips, and wonder if they could taste the sweat that had dropped from his brow. It was time to pick the peppers. Sam’s daughter was helping, since several rows of bushes were kneeling to the earth with their bounties. The summer rains had been heavy and frequent, and small weeds were multiplying through the mulch. The tomatoes were ripening and begging to be harvested, weary of clinging to their vines. With the July sun long and lingering, Sam and Rosalind swatted away mosquitoes and inched their way through the rows, filling their wooden baskets.Louisiana ended just beyond the levee that protected their backyard. A wall of lawn negotiated their property with the bayous of the delta branching into the Gulf of Mexico. As a girl, Roz had climbed and straddled the twenty-foot berm, looking one way to water, one way to land. Her father always said that Plaquemines Parish was just like a person, mostly water and just as unpredictable.
Sam had routines in place from years of cultivating vegetables and flowers and fruit, and rarely consulted a book or almanac anymore. Two rows away, Roz could hear his breathing labor while he leaned over each plant with the pruners, clipping and catching the fruit that surrendered to his gloved hands. She patiently prodded through the soil with a digger to pull out the weeds and pushed the disturbed dirt and mulch to an even surface. The mundane work pleased her, but also gave her license to observe her father’s worsening health.
Sam watched Roz stand and carry her basket down the aisle to the next group of plants in the bed. She was now the same age that his wife Audrey had been when they met so many years before, and the resemblance was clear to him. Rosalind had gotten his laugh, his doggedness, but physically she was all Audrey. If he hadn’t been so sure his seed had helped to make this little person that had taken over their lives, he would have wondered if Audrey had made a little cutting of herself, put it in water, and watched it grow. Roz flipped her long brown ponytail over her shoulder, hitched up her jeans, and lightly hummed as she resumed her work on the peppers. Her brown eyes reflected the dirt she worked.
Sam grew uncomfortable, remembering Audrey’s beauty as she helped him pick strawberries in the spring Louisiana twilight. He recalled walking over to his newlywed wife on many of those evenings, kissing her softly on the neck, and lying down with her between the rows, hoping the neighbors couldn’t see. Looking over at his daughter working the garden, her long arms moving with her mother’s angular grace, Sam grew uncomfortable as he felt a tightening and throbbing below his belt. He blushed and turned away, returning to the crabgrass.
When Roz had been born, everything changed. Their nights of tangled married sleeping were interrupted by the brash crying of an infant. Audrey’s body swelled from a tan country girl built for making love to that of a stretched and worn woman, focused on making milk. Her taut muscles became round and supple. Like an overripe tomato, she was fragile and ready to burst at the slightest abuse. A careless word or a thoughtless moment from Sam sent her reeling. Leaning over the planter, he panted. Such memories left him feeling tilled and undone, so that he finally turned over and sat down.
Inside, Audrey was ripping apart lettuce for a salad, and she watched her husband and daughter zigzag through the planters from the kitchen window. Rosalind had always been happiest in the garden, even as a child, preferring to nap on a blanket beneath the embracing oak tree in the backyard than in her own soft bed. She and Sam would work for hours in the sun and mud while Audrey balanced the checkbooks, sullen that she’d been only halfheartedly invited. She would usually decline, reasoning dinner would not be made or the taxes filed.
Audrey ran the office of their nursery, where Sam sold houseplants and garden herbs, bromeliads to housewife collectors, flocked trees at Christmastime. When she was young, Rosalind would drag the hose around the greenhouse, do the filing, and greet customers on the busy Saturday mornings with her little girl charm. Then suddenly Roz wasn’t a little girl anymore. Breasts poked through her t-shirts, making her father look away from her, and young men came sniffing around the house for her attention. When Audrey and Roz stood arm in arm for pictures, they looked to be two flowers stretching from the same bush, one opening from a bud, the other wilting, about to fall away and disperse with the breeze.
A sunset was blooming, reflecting camellia clouds, glowing hibiscus, and streaks of verbena. They had been spared a summer storm that afternoon, but distant thunderheads sparkling with electricity promised a dangerous downpour that night. Sam walked, wheezing, to the palette of colorful roses lining his back porch to cut a promised bouquet for his daughter.
Roz gathered the baskets, now full of fruits and vegetables, and washed away the dirt. The end of a day of harvesting was always her favorite part of gardening. She loved watching the prisms of water bounce from the hose over the pieces of colorful produce, the smell of wet leather from her rinsed gloves, her cooled and cleansed feet. She collected the garden tools, and while she dried them for storage, Sam folded over in a barreling cough, alternately choking and gagging. Roz dropped the tools with a clang and hurried to him, watching water and phlegm run from his mouth. His hands buttressed his body against his knees and she caressed his spine. She tried to disguise her alarm with peaceful concern.
“Daddy, I think it’s time you went to the doctor.”
Sam raised his watery gray eyes to her, peering out through sun wrinkled cheeks. “It’s just allergies,” he said, his wind rasping again through his ribs.
“These allergies haven’t given up all summer, and they’re gettin’ worse. Go get checked out. They can give you medicine to make you feel better.”
Sam shrugged and took a drink from the hose running in her hand. “Maybe so.” He straightened and cleared his throat to declare his coughing fit over. “Maybe not.” He guided her up the porch and in the back door of the house, carrying the cluster of roses in his still-gloved hand.
Audrey had made dinner, and though the evening was hot, they sat with the doors and windows open and listened to the crickets and frogs begin their arguments. Mother and daughter awkwardly carried a conversation intermittently, at best. Rosalind had learned to look for tenderness in her mother’s comments on the neighbors’ mare or how the climbing price of sugar would be good for the parish, but was always disappointed. She had memories from her childhood of a doting mother, loving and caring. But when she became a teenager, Rosalind had to grasp for any gesture of pride or affection she could find from either of her stoic parents. If Roz spent an afternoon with her father, Audrey would subtly alter the mood of the house, like she had changed the color of the paint on the walls or rearranged the lamps, so that all three could feel the shift. Sometimes if Roz and her mother connected and laughed together, her mother would comment, “Girl, how you remind me of myself,” and Sam would become quiet and embarrassed. The few moments she could invoke the approval, even delight of both, were like the bouncing glitters on the bayou water behind their house. As soon as the ripple rocked back down, the brightness disappeared. Living with this longing made her conciliatory, always looking for peace, whether she was managing the chaos of her kindergarteners, stumbling from her mother’s occasional curtness, or probing her father’s guarded words. The young children she cared for volunteered their love and forgiveness, and her wilted heart gladly drank it in.
Sam ate little, said little. They lingered together over homemade peach cobbler and the sweet hay smell of storm invited itself into the house, dampening the old cushions beneath their legs. Roz stayed until the thunder began to rumble closer, and after kissing each parent on the cheek, rose to leave for her own home.
“Love you, Daddy,” she said with worry. She gently released the screen door handle into place. He muttered an incoherent response that Roz optimistically interpreted to be the expected requite and trotted to her car, dodging the bold first drops.
Sam watched her from the house, and even after her headlights had disappeared down the road, he stayed there in the doorway. He was still, thoughtful about the moon working the tides and egrets roosting in their shelters while the clouds twisted and tumbled in their choreography. Earthworms were scooting through the manure pile he would grind the next day, sunlight still coursing through his zucchini plants gently fed the verdant stalks. How beautiful it was to know that he was part iris, part ocean, part oyster, part Rosalind. Comforting to imagine his little life, over as he knew it, continuing, dispersed into so many other little lives. Half lives. Halves of halves. Never really reduced to nothing because of a mathematical impossibility.
It was dark when the rain came, ribbons of light streaming through the porch lamps. Audrey clanged the dishes from dinner and talked to herself, wiping down the counters. She tried to recall the last time she had received the last word from Roz. It felt like Sam and Rosalind had some secret that she would never share, and it was unclear which betrayal stung more. Neither of them had thanked her for a delicious meal, assembled with thought and care around their likes and dislikes. But then, it was so rare that they noticed. This is what life had been like for twenty-five years.
Leaving a pile of vitamins for Sam with a glass of water on the kitchen table, Audrey left him staring out the back screen door, a rain-driven breeze lifting the white hair away from his ears. His t-shirt was ratty and thin, dirt smeared in odd places from scratching his leathery skin or slapping at bugs. Before climbing the stairs to their room, she studied his back and watched his shoulders lift with his lungs’ labor. She was tired of being concerned for his health. Sam believed the world took care of itself. If he sliced open a finger and bled all over the eggplants, he’d have no issue getting it stitched up so he could get on with his week. But this was different. The darkness of his breathing hinted that there was probably no quick fix. What had started as an occasional cough six months before was now a way of life that had grown to keep him company. She was worn out from fighting his stubbornness.
She looked away from the storm in the doorway, and turned to walk upstairs. There was painful pressure behind each kneecap with each step she climbed. The rich brown hair she had once shared with her daughter had weakened and faded into a sandy braid strung with silver she let hang to her waist. While the water warmed through her basin tap, she glanced at herself in the bathroom mirror and wondered whose image looked back to her. The older face with its creases and fatigue did not match the image she had of herself in her mind. After washing her face and changing into a cotton gown, she began her nightly ritual of rubbing lotion into every patch of skin on her body. Lately she would dwell on her wrists and knees and ankles, massaging the stiff joints that felt swollen, like wooden reeds left out in the rain.
The sheets were cool and fresh, and she heard Sam’s heavy feet downstairs. She turned out the light. Watching the lightning flash through the room, she realized she heard hail slamming the roof, resonating through the attic. No doubt Sam would stay awake until the storm passed so he could inspect the garden with a flashlight. The narcotic storm lulled her to sleep.
Hours later she stretched through her dreams and felt emptiness in the bed. As Audrey’s eyes adjusted to the dark room, she saw Sam’s pillow wasn’t creased. The clock told her it was almost two. The rain lightly pattered, now a soft apology for its earlier tantrum, and Audrey creaked her way across the bedroom to the hallway. Glancing down the stairwell, she could make out a dark mound in the middle of the steps, propped against the wall like a sack of potatoes. As she made her way down, she found Sam sleeping in his coveralls, his hands gripping the flashlight between his knees. Audrey might have thought him dead, except his torso lifted with each terrible breath, a drowning wheeze sputtering his hunched body. She waited to wake him until she had dressed and called Roz, and then escorted him to the car. He was groggy, and nodded in resignation. They drove the hour in silence to the hospital. The bleached lights of the emergency room felt foreign and cold, where nothing was allowed to grow in such sterility. It was impossible to tell the time of day.
“I was climbing, the stairs, to come to bed,” Sam panted, “after the hail, had stopped,” he explained to a young doctor with soft blue eyes, “and I had, to sit down, and rest.” The doctor ordered some chest x-rays, started an IV in each arm, and gave Sam an oxygen mask. “I was so tired,” he whispered, and closed his eyes.
Roz and Audrey sat close to each other and watched him rest, Rosalind holding her mother’s chilled hand, wide-eyed and impatient. She hoped the fear that turned her stomach was not steeping to her mother. After many minutes had passed, she rose and walked around, unable to sit still and wait, when Sam called from the bed.
“Rozzy? Where’s Rozzy?”
Audrey silently seethed. Her eyes flared with an anger she couldn’t place as their daughter hurried to the side of the bed.
“Right here, Daddy. We’re both here.” Roz looked over to Audrey with scared brown eyes. Sam was working hard to breathe, and working even harder to speak. He finally gave up trying to form words. His eyes grew wide and unfocused. His shoulders were rising with each rattling breath and Audrey moved to stand next to the bed and lean over him while Rosalind ran to the hallway to call for help.
“Take care of her,” he rasped and looked to the wall.
Audrey looked over her shoulder but couldn’t see what he saw. His eyes closed under the trouble of his lungs.
A nurse and a doctor hurried to the room, and Audrey fell away like wheat from a reaper, tucked into the corner and out of the way. They laid him flat as the doctor said things like, “tube him” and “RSI sequence.” There were tools and clicking noises and her old husband laying there in a tissue paper gown, his dirty coveralls and rubber-toed boots crumpled in a corner. The doctor with the soft blue eyes was leading a curved metal tool down Sam’s throat when he stopped and muttered.
“What the hell? What is that?” He pulled the metal out, using the light at its tip to study Sam’s open mouth. Looking over at his nurse, the doctor gestured with his eyes. “What does that look like to you?”
Her head stretched out like a turtle to examine closer. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Something’s coming through his vocal chords.”
The doctor nodded. “Right, right. But what is it?”
Sam gagged, and the doctor continued to try and get a breathing tube down, but kept meeting resistance. He shook his head, pulled his hands away, and studied Sam closer. “It’s gone now.” Sam was gasping for air.
“What?” The nurse leaned over. “Maybe you poked it down into the bronchus?”
“I must have. Whatever is in there is blocking the tube from going in.”
Rosalind clutched her mother. Sam struggled to inhale. He tried to breathe with his neck, all of the muscles and tendons flexing, blood vessels like ropes as they worked hard to expand and force air through. His voicebox grated the air he gasped.
“Thirty beats per minute,” the doctor said, looking at a monitor. “I’m going to try one more time.”
But he didn’t have a chance before Sam’s arms started to flail, swinging at invisible enemies, clutching for unseen nooses. The seventy year-old body bounced against the metal bed violently and the doctor looked at the nurse and said, “Air hunger.” She nodded and hustled from the room, returning with half a dozen other nurses and medical students. Audrey buckled into a flimsy chair, unblinking with disbelief, squeezing Roz’s hand until their fingers crushed each other. Words floated around her, and she caught a few like bugs getting trapped in a spider web, but was unable to understand them. “Anoxia.” “Run the code.” Many of the words flew away and escaped in her bewilderment.
Rosalind fought a painful knot in her throat that was swelling and swelling, pressuring and pushing tears to her eyes. Swallowing was almost impossible. For twenty minutes the medical team took turns pumping Sam’s chest and trying to give him air until finally the doctor with the soft blue eyes turned off a beeping machine and gave one long blink before lowering his head with a slight shake. Slowly they stopped their various tasks, each reluctantly moving away from Sam before finally leaving the room. Audrey sat with one hand over her mouth, the other still torturing Roz’s. The doctor crossed the room and studied the women before tucking his hands in the pockets of his white coat.
Audrey turned her glassy eyes to Sam. From her seat, all she could see were the calluses of his feet, his belly that she now realized was much smaller than it was a month ago, and the dark holes of his nose, through which, just thirty minutes before, air had passed. The two women stared into the doctor’s face.
“I’ll give you a few moments before I send someone in to help you,” he said.
And then they were alone. Still holding hands, they walked over to the bed and stood next to his placid body.
“He’s so quiet,” Audrey marveled, waiting for that awful wind to rise in his chest. She freed Roz’s hand and bent over him, putting her cheek against his and stretching an arm across his chest. Rosalind walked to the other side of the bed, and watched a tear tumble from each of her mother’s eyes, drop down his neck, and water the small nest of hair on his chest. She sat on the edge of the bed and held her parents together.
Soon a young woman near Rosalind’s age lightly rapped on the door and leading with her freckled nose, introduced herself as a social worker. Roz shook the red-head’s hand, listening to her explain that Sam had to be taken away for the coroner to look after him.
“You mean, like an autopsy?” Roz thought of gashes in her father’s chest and was horrified.
“More like an investigation. Whenever there’s a sudden onset like this, the hospital insists there be a record made.”
“A sudden onset of what?” Roz asked.
The social worker steadied her eyes and evenly replied. “Of death. We know that he has been sick, but the coroner might be able to tell us why, since we didn’t have much time to learn that while he was here.”
Audrey straightened up and tried to sniff through her pinched sinuses. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. Her muted words sounded saturated with sleep. “When can we take him home?”
The social worker produced a business card. “I’m sure that the coroner won’t take long with his exam, and I’ll let you know as soon as he’s ready. This has my cell phone number, and we can work together with whatever arrangements you need.”
Audrey watched two nurses roll Sam away like he could be just switching rooms, IV’s still in place. She trailed them to the doorway where she stopped and watched them head for the elevator down the hall. While they waited for the doors to open, they draped him with a white sheet. The doors closed, and he was gone.
Sam was welcomed by the medical examiner who was accompanied by his pathology resident. Opera bellowed from a small set of speakers in the corner. They signed for the body and moved him to a steel table in the middle of the room. The coroner was strong for his small stature, and he lifted Sam’s torso for his resident to prop a block beneath the shoulder blades. A ring of white hair circled his lowered head and he began to study the chart.
“Seventy-one-year-old, non-smoker from Empire, Sam Gaudin. Presented with dyspnea, fatigue, and excessive sputum at 4 am. Began fluids and oxygen immediately, chest x-rays ordered.” The coroner sighed, flipped the page and skimmed. “Looks like he crashed before they could get the films done, so let’s do those and they might tell us everything we need to know.” The resident stood with his arms crossed, listening intently to the examiner talking over an aria. “But they did get an ABG done, and the lab will send those results soon. Looks like they tried to tube him, CPR started at 5:40, time of death called at 6:05. I’ll tell you what, those coonasses don’t mess around.” The coroner shook his head and tossed the chart to a table on the side. “By the time they get here, they’re comin’ to die.”
Hours later, the resident had breezed through the external exam, made his incisions, and was working to remove the chest plate. He processed the heart, and searched the surrounding veins and arteries for clots. Careful to leave the aortic arch intact for an embalmer, the resident moved to the bronchus to remove the left lung at the hilum. As he cut into the roots of the lung with his scalpel to pull it away, strange ghostly leaves pushed out of the tubes and stretched into the light. A resistance prevented him from removing the lung. He moved in closer and discovered small brown hooks, vine runners, penetrating the bronchus from the inside out. Sam had been taken over by a vine that was growing in his airways. The resident cut open the breathing tubes to find the smaller leaves, curled like multiple fetuses around each other, nascent and handicapped. Pale stems ribboned around and between, wiring the plant into the man. The pliant passages of his lungs were embroidered with the vine runners, little stitches quilting a mosaic of botany. Blind tendrils had already begun to coil their way into the darkness of his chest cavity.
“You gotta come see this,” gushed the resident, disturbing the coroner from his notes.
The two women were sitting across from each other in silence at the old wooden table, Roz holding a mug of tea. The weight of Audrey’s head was cupped by her hands and she stared ahead of her. The morning was glaring and painful for the eyes, the pools of rainwater in the yard reflecting and refracting the sun. Audrey was tired, but it felt rude to sleep. She found it disrespectful to lose her husband and simply return back to bed. Roz sighed.
“Should we call Father Thomas, Momma?”
Audrey dropped her hands to stretch out her arms in front of her. “I s’pose. But then he’ll tell the altar guild and then half the parish’ll be over here before noon.” Roz nodded. Audrey’s voice lowered. “Let’s just wait for a little while. That red-head said she’d call us when she knew something.” After several more moments she whispered, “I don’t even know what to tell people.” Roz draped her arms out over her mother’s. The air conditioner clicked on and whirred motion into the air, sending a breeze over their heads. The wooden floors from the bedrooms above them cracked with the changing temperature. The neighbors’ Bassett hound started to croon. Eventually the daughter said something else into the heavy air.
“Should we pray, Momma?”
Audrey leveled her brown eyes to look at the ones she’d given her daughter. “For what? For Sam? It’s not like our prayers are gonna get him into heaven.”
“Well, I was thinkin’ for us, or just in general, you know, it seems like the thing to do.”
“Sounds like a good way to feel sorry for ourselves.” Audrey pushed away from the table and walked over to the sink. “Go on for yourself if you want to.”
The phone rang and interrupted them. They were being called back to the hospital in the city.
They found themselves awhile later in the center of a fluorescent office at the hospital, sitting in chairs before a desk covered in papers and medical texts. The coroner’s white hair collared the oval dome of his bald head. He turned on a screen in the corner of the office and a pair of lungs glowed into the room.
“Are you familiar with kudzu, Mrs. Gaudin?”
Audrey crossed her legs, mildly annoyed that the conversation was already sounding like one of Sam’s botany lessons. “As in the vine that has taken over the South?”
The coroner nodded. “I learned this morning that kudzu has two primary ways of reproducing, through the runners that spread out from the stem, and by seeds that come in little pods, which can live for years until they germinate. At some point, your husband inhaled a seed, perhaps while clearing a field or something, and the seed sprouted and strengthened into a viable kudzu plant. The lungs are rich with carbon dioxide, moisture, and trace chemicals that plants love. Kudzu doesn’t really need sunlight to grow, it thrives in jungle conditions, and it multiplies very quickly. Your husband cultivated this vine in his airways, and it eventually grew so thick that it was impossible for air to pass.”
Roz and Audrey exchanged looks.
“My husband was killed by kudzu?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the coroner scratched at his tan scalp, twisted his head, “and I’ve seen some things over my years.” He pointed to the x-ray. “It wouldn’t have shown on film since botanical features don’t respond to this kind of test. His blood was nitrogen rich, which is a byproduct of kudzu.” He settled into a chair behind the desk. “The whole reason the plant was brought here was to help rejuvenate used soil, until, of course, it took over.”
Rosalind shook her head in disbelief. “Foot-by-night vine?” Her eyes stared at the linoleum where the desk leg met the floor. She tried to imagine the field he had cleared. Saw in her mind the dust and debris flying into his face from the tiller. If only he had worn a mask, which he never did, this would not have happened. She would not have spent months hurting for him, worrying. It had been easier suspecting he’d had cancer, or asthma, something terrible that just happens to people. If only. A silent spell passed before she asked, “If we’d gotten him here any earlier, do you think they could have done something for him? Removed it? Killed it?”
The coroner shook his head. “Hard to say. The runners had actually embedded into the tubes of his airways, penetrated them. I don’t know how they could have removed it. There are some sophisticated weedkillers in the world that are carbon specific and can kill one thing while being safe for another, but I don’t know many doctors around here that would have been willing to consider that kind of experimental treatment.”
“Unbelieveable,” Audrey muttered.
The doctor studied the two grieving women. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Gaudin, Ms. Gaudin.” He looked to each intently. And I’m happy to try and answer any questions you may think of about Sam’s unusual circumstances.”
Loss. Audrey mused about the word and felt her femurs begin to ache through her flesh against the hard chair. Loss was not the right word for the moment. She was overwhelmed. She was overtaken by all of this extra information, these extra emotions that were not there the day before. She had gained, and the weight made it difficult to hold her weary head upright, keep her eyes open and wondering. She didn’t want to know anything more. She didn’t want to see anymore.
Audrey sat up in her chair and slowly asked a barely audible question. “Is it still alive?”
The coroner cocked his head to her, not understanding.
“The vine, I mean. Is it still alive or did it die with Sam?”
The coroner nodded. “Well, yes, yes, I suppose it is. It certainly won’t survive embalming, but for now.”
“Then I don’t want to embalm him.”
“Unless you are crossing state lines, you don’t have to. You can take him as he is, vine and all, if you like. My resident has closed the incisions, but we did not remove the plant at all.”
“Sam would want the vine to live.”
The funeral was held two days later, early in the summer morning. The men from the Knights of Columbus came over and helped Rosalind dig a grave under the sprawling oak tree in the back yard where she once napped as a baby. Father Thomas said the burial service with all of Sam’s friends and family and neighbors clustered around. The mourners branched out through the planters. Their minds and eyes wandered through the readings and the prayers, and they admired his tomatoes, his cucumbers, his herbs, all thriving and bountiful. Even at that early hour, the sun was stifling. The women fanned themselves of the humidity and the men squirmed in their sweaty shirts. The ceremony came to a close and a neighbor bowed a lonely tune on his fiddle. Each person took a handful of dirt and tossed it over the simple wooden casket. The wiry tune lilted and floated, ebbing and flowing with the breeze, rather like the scent of jasmine in the evenings. The music pushed and pulled over the strings, and so did the force of emotion within their chests. At one moment the attendees remained strong and grateful, the next, mournful and moved.
Father Thomas softly repeated while the people processed past, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The Gaudin women squeezed the hands that engaged them, meeting each guest in the eye as they helped to bury Sam. After filing past, those attending started in on the potluck buffet the church women had organized on the back porch. Roz and Audrey were left alone to observe Father Thomas and two other men with their shovels close the grave. Unable to just stand and watch, Rosalind fell to her knees and used her hands to help push the muddy, clay filled soil into the hole. She allowed the tears to roll from her face, rubbing her running nose against her sleeve periodically. Audrey longed to comfort her daughter’s anguish, but was too easily withdrawn into her own emotions. Eventually she settled to a sitting position and helped to pat the dirt into place, the way she would comfort a baby with colic. As Sam took more weight over him, Audrey felt lighter with each clap of dirt. She gave him her confusion, her accumulated heartache and resentment, for him to leech. He would be able to take her anger and longing and turn it into something valuable, usable. In a way, she thought, it was his responsibility.
Eventually they reached the bottom of the pile of dirt. The five stood around silently for a moment, marveling at the dark mound mottled with the sunlight that passed through the leaves of the tree. They were about to nod in resolution and move on to fill their plates, when Rosalind cried out.
Her bare feet sprinted across the lawn, her black dress bouncing around her muddy knees. She hurried to a series of bins along the side of the tool shed. She scooped something into a large tin can and loped back, brown hair falling from the ponytail she had earlier pulled away from her face.
“Daddy would have lectured us for forgetting the fertilizer.” She sprinkled the contents over the top of the disturbed earth until the can was empty and nodded with satisfaction.
Roz wrapped an arm around her mother, who it seemed had shrunk a few inches in the past days. Rosalind could feel her mother lean into her, join her weight, and though sadness was most prevalent, Roz relished the intimacy. Whatever had been between them was gone, weeded. One of the men leaned against his shovel and wiped his brow with a kerchief from his back pocket. He hesitated before he spoke his mind.
“You’re sure this is how you want to leave him? Plaquemines Parish is made of water, you know. He might just float away down there.” The sets of brown eyes looked up to him. “It’s not too late to put him in a tomb above ground. I don’t mind doing the work if…” His words fell away as the women shook their heads.
“The last thing Sam would want is to be stuck in a cement block. If he ends up in the Gulf, he won’t mind. He’d rather be part of the world than locked outside of it.”
Eventually they joined the rest of the group that had dispersed in chairs over the lawn. The distinctive exhale of propane was followed by the whoosh of ignition for a boiling pot to cook the shellfish various neighbors had brought. They ate and drank all day long. It was a steady grazing over each pot of shrimp and crabs with corn and potatoes, dumped onto newspaper-covered tables, spicy and hot. A second wave of well-wishers passed through in the afternoon when the fishermen came in off their boats, unable to take a day off during shrimp season. The sounds of cracking shells and licking fingers accompanied various stories of Sam, what they remembered, loved, and hated most about him. Another cloud folded into the others with each guest that arrived, so that by early evening, the sky was smoked with an impending thunderstorm. The sunbeams disappeared, and so did the people who had come to say goodbye to Sam.
Father Thomas helped the Gaudin women move what they could to the compost heap and left the card tables up for the rain to rinse. They moved the trash to the street and Audrey stretched out on the sofa. The priest and the women of the altar guild quietly washed the dishes remaining in the kitchen with only an occasional tinkle of glass or gush of water from the tap. Roz kissed each on the cheek with a word of thanks and waved goodbye to them from the front door. She watched them to their cars, their feet crunching down the path made of Cajun pavement, gravel and old seashells dredged from the bayou.
A month later Audrey was still sleeping on the couch every night, unable to move to the bedroom that she’d shared with Sam. Roz had taken over care of the garden and spent each day weeding and watering and harvesting. She had remembered that the z’herbe greens were planted in August, and was proud to watch the slivers of mustard and collard poke through the mulch, broadening into maturity. Instead of returning to a new crop of kindergartners, Roz had taken Sam’s role at the nursery, rotating the plants by age, ordering seeds, explaining to customers the difference between an annual and a perennial, hiring help for the greenhouses. She and Audrey talked about building a produce stand at the nursery to sell what could be reaped from the garden. Maybe Audrey would even offer some homemade salsas or pies.
On the six week anniversary of his death, they received the small, flat stone they had chosen to mark Sam’s grave. They took their dinner under the oak tree, the new marble completing their triangle at the edge of the sheet they spread out. The women passed a cold carrot soup between them, and pushed their salads around through the dressing. Now they had little to say because they didn’t need to speak. The cicadas hummed and pulsed, relaying their buzz over the delta. Rosalind and Audrey stretched on their backs, fingers touching, and sensed the day move through its course. The roots of the tree bumped through Audrey’s spine. Roz could almost feel the water table so close below her, flowing beneath the firm ground. The sun dipped below the plush berm of the levee, a reaching rose sunset scenting the air with twilight. The grass, though still mangy, had mostly healed over the mound. From the center of the grave, several strands of vine had grown out and away, and with quick runners, had already begun to stretch and climb the old live oak, ready to take it over.