I’ve put up a garden for the last several years, let’s say seven, since it’s a number of portent. My seventh garden. The first six, it’d be nice to claim, were training gardens, but that would mean I’ve learned something. I’m not sure I have.
It might be a matter of scale. I’ve always preferred doing things grandly. Moderation has never been a strong suit of mine. I’m no longer allowed to shop at Sam’s Club un-chaperoned, for instance, and when I decided to smoke cigarettes, a pack a day seemed an admirable quantity. I’ve moved cities at the hint of a lucrative job prospect, and later given up that lucrative job to write a novel (how hard can it be? I asked myself). I planted a garden, then six more.
Cucumbers, I’ve realized, take a remarkable amount of energy not to cultivate, but to find. They’re vine fruit, and have the uncanny ability to trail and twist their way out of my carefully constructed garden boxes and along the dry-rotting security fence outlining my property. I walk the perimeter of my land, poking about with a stick, uncovering cowardly cucumbers unwilling to give up their flesh to me and my family. Cuke after cuke: I had to learn how to pickle just to keep up with the discoveries.
Zucchinis, yellow summer squash, pattypan: they’re vine, too, but don’t seem inclined to flee. Instead, their defenses lie in the supernatural ability to turn from edible size to softball bat-size in a matter of minutes. What one day is a nice grilled salad is the next a canoe waiting to float me down the New River. I planted tomatillos, oh, four summers ago, and haven’t had to replant since: they now sprout on their own, have grown wild, even feral; drive through my neighborhood and you’ll see them sprouting from curbs, climbing fences and trees, hanging from gutters. Rumors abound of the groundskeeper of a nearby golf course succumbing to nervous breakdowns, unable to rid his fairways and greens of the progeny of my bushy plants.
I once planted ten habanero seedlings. At the time, I was unaware that one small chili plant had the capacity to produce near-miraculous quantities of tiny, spectacularly spicy (like orange zest and brimstone) fruit. Not wanting to waste food, I tried valiantly to eat every chili, adding them to whatever I consumed, to the point where my skin tingled, vibrated, didn’t feel the need to rely on bone and muscle to move. I woke one morning in Giles, close to the West Virginia border. My skin had walked me there in my sleep, trying to burn off the capsicum inflaming every pore. I was barefoot.
It’s a matter of scale. I could easily buy single seedlings—one squash, one cuke, one tomato. But there are so many varieties of tomato—that most lurid of fruit! How to choose? And what’s the point of laying down one beet, one onion, one bulb of garlic? What’s the point of grocery shopping if you can’t push a huge hand truck down avenue-sized aisles? Who stops at one cigarette, or one career, or one child? For that matter, who writes just one story, one poem? You’ve noticed, as I have, that an only child is a strange and selfish one. Are you going to write just one story or poem, or will you let your imagination twine itself around your brain and then out into the world, unbridled by boxes, rows, and hedges, following perimeter fences until it finds a hole to weave through, up and out, until your words have spawned and spawned again, become wild and evasive?
Sean Conaway’s work has appeared in Arcadia Magazine and the American Fiction Anthology. He’s currently working on a novel that he hopes one day you will read.