After losing her daughter in the grey days of April, Edith Thompson took to gardening. For those first few weeks, after the wake and funeral where a half-sized casket cradled her child, after the heavy-scented flowers disintegrated into piles of crunchy petals and rigid stalks, Edith reached into the earth. While her husband Ned sat at the kitchen table eating a casserole from a well-meaning neighbor, Edith wandered to her backyard and sifted through the dirt.
She bought seeds—tomato, watermelon, pepper, poppy—that rattled in their paper packets. Edith placed each one gently in finger-deep divots, and in June, after no green tips emerged from the soil, she purchased a tray of zucchini and cucumber sprouts, and planted them one by one along the garden’s edge.
“Edith, honey, they’re too close,” Ned said when he found her one morning kneeling in the dark soil. She sat back on her heels. A wandering hand passed her cheek, leaving a streak of dirt.
“They’ll cross-pollinate. You’ll have a bunch of mutant squash-cucumbers trying to take over the world!” Ned bugged out his eyes like he once did for their daughter Allie when he was telling a scary story.
Edith shrugged. Once placed, she patted soil around their bases, tucking them in with a concentrated effort.
Within two weeks, the sprouts’ leaves turned a toxic yellow. Each night after dinner, Edith watched their wasted forms from the window over the sink while Ned packed up the leftovers.
He tried to help. When Edith left to go to what she would only refer to as “the doctor’s,” he’d run the hose and soak the soil, hoping for some hint of green. These doctor visits were getting more and more frequent, and though Edith didn’t say much, Ned hoped they were appointments with the therapist in town. Edith had stopped eating, rejected his affections, and refused to say Allie’s name. The vibrant, playful woman he married lived limp and deflated—a glove without a hand.
It was during one of Edith’s appointments when Ned found the teeth. They’d been stored in the top drawer of the kitchen island, wrapped in a thin sandwich bag cinched shut with one of Allie’s butterfly-baubled hair ties. He undid the tie and poured the three milk teeth into his palm. Their jagged bottoms had once been tucked beneath his daughter’s gums, sharp as a broken bottle. He couldn’t believe how light they were. And fragile. He thought of her small, white hand in his. Alone in the kitchen, Ned let out a breath and felt his throat tighten.
Closing his eyes, Ned clasped the teeth in his fist. He couldn’t remember the sound of his daughter’s voice. The truth of it pierced him. He slammed his fist on the counter and felt the teeth bite into the flesh of his palm. Collapsing on the kitchen floor, he leaned up against the bottom cabinets and cried into the crook of his arm. He rode out the flow of grief as he always did—expelling it all in these moments of privacy.
When it had passed, Ned wiped the tears from his cheeks with his knuckles and focused on his breathing. His fist ached, and when he unfurled his fingers, he could see the teeth had broken the skin. They were tinged pink with blood. He whispered Allie’s name to them. He felt the air electrify. He remembered her giggling in the grass outside—in fact, he could almost hear it. His breath caught. Then the neighbor started his lawn mower.
Tucking the hair tie and plastic baggie with its contents into his breast pocket, Ned headed outside to water Edith’s dying zucchini plants. Returning the teeth meant risking the chance Edith would uncover them. They could trigger a breakdown, Ned thought, and he’d find her crying in the shower again, or she’d withdraw even more, sinking into herself. He could flush them down the toilet, but no . . . they were a part of Allie. He heard Edith’s car creak into the driveway and groan to a halt.
Kneeling down, Ned pulled the baggie from his pocket and tightened the tie. Using one hand, he dug a hole as deep as he could in the loose soil and placed the teeth far into the shadows. Plowing the dirt back into place, he brushed off his hands and rose to his feet. Edith was behind him. He felt her heaviness.
“Hey, hon,” he said, turning around. “How was the doctor’s?”
Edith blinked off his greeting. Her small frame was lost in the folds of her dress. A paper bag hung from a limp hand at her side.
“What are you doing?” she asked, taking in his dirty knees and the nearby hose.
Ned cleared his throat. “Just figured I’d water the plants for you . . . and then, you know, I thought I saw something popping up. Like a sprout from those seeds you planted.”
Edith barked a laugh without smiling. Ned didn’t know that was possible. She turned to the house, and he took a few big steps to reach her side. “How was work?” he asked.
“It was work. You? There was a shipment today, right?” She kept her eyes on the ground.
“It was ok. Roger called in sick, so I had to cover his load and mine, but I got out early ‘cause the new kid helped. They think next week . . .” He dwindled off. She wasn’t listening. Edith took quicker steps, and he let her get away. At the doorway, he kicked the dirt off of his shoes and brushed the soil from his knee. He followed her inside.
“Edith?” he said.
“Ned?” She put her bag on the counter and turned to face him.
“I miss her too, you know. But she loved you. She wouldn’t want to see you like . . . All Allie wanted to do was make you smile—”
“Just stop,” Edith said. Showing her back to him, she went about putting away the groceries.
That night Ned woke to an empty bed. Edith was outside, kneeling in the dirt and hunched over something. Her back heaved, and Ned guessed she was sobbing. He thought about going down there, placing his hand on her bare shoulder, and guiding her back to bed. Instead, he slipped back under the comforter. When he woke up, Edith had already left for work, and the only trace that she returned after her visit to the garden was the sheets on her side, smudged with soil.
A few days passed before Ned went back to water the garden, and there it was. Just a sprout, a tiny green spike emerging from the earth. It was just a little thing, but it looked healthy—vigorous even—when compared with the shriveled zucchini remains. When Edith got home that night, he brought it up: “Edith, did you see the garden today?”
His wife shrugged. “No. Why?”
“There’s a sprout.”
She looked at the space over his head. “Oh please.”
“Edith! There’s a sprout. You’ve grown something!”
She didn’t believe him and ventured outside in her bare feet to see for herself. The green seemed to glow in the beam of her flashlight.
Ned hugged her. “I don’t know what took, but we’ve got a green little sprout. Isn’t that great? I knew there was something wrong with those cucumber plants.”
Edith stared at the tilled earth for a moment before smiling a soft, sad smile of relief. “Yeah, it’s good news, Ned. It’s good.”
The sprout grew visibly each day. Within two weeks, it had spread across the tilled earth of their garden in a tangle of thorny stems and vines. Every night, Edith went out to tend to it, gliding under the moonlight in her white shift. Ned pretended not to notice, changed the sheets when they got dirty, and mopped up her footprints in the morning. Edith started to smile more. Her face regained color—a glow even—and her figure started to soften. There were fewer and fewer doctor’s visits, and one night they even made love before going to sleep, something they hadn’t done in months.
By mid-July, the plant filled the entire plot, and its leaves multiplied, thickening into an impenetrable mass. Ned clipped away at the tendrils that reached beyond the garden’s edge, but other than that, Edith cared for it—watering it daily and showering it with green pellets of fertilizer-like confetti. The plant’s all-consuming presence weighed on Ned—he couldn’t shake it from his thoughts. Its ever-shifting shape seemed to observe them from the backyard like a stranger behind the curtains. He noticed there were no flowers or buds—just leaves with serrated edges that clung to their clothes like Velcro—and thorny, thick vines that leaked milky sap when pruned. Ned’s stomach turned with the thought of it. He found the plant had a smell—a heavy, humid stench like overripe bananas. But Edith didn’t seem to mind. When Ned mentioned it, she laughed and told him he was sniffing too many exhaust fumes from the delivery truck.
Edith would visit the plant after dark and walk circles around it as Ned watched from their bedroom window. She’d return to bed with its putrid scent in her hair. When Ned kissed her goodbye in the morning, he could swear he tasted it on her lips.
By August, the plant had grown a head taller than him and cast a shadow over their yard. Ned was finding its leaves everywhere—in the shower, under the couch, and clinging to the back of his uniform for work. Edith wore its scent as a perfume, but she smiled more. She kissed him good morning with a new intensity and had rediscovered her old laugh, the one that had made him fall in love with her. While her happiness was a relief to him, Ned knew he was not the cause of this change and couldn’t help but eye the plant with envy.
During one of Edith’s late-night walks, Ned awoke to a giggle. He heard it—a long, lilting giggle. He sat up, alone in bed, and listened. After a few beats of silence, he walked over to the window to look out on the yard. Edith had dropped to her knees beside the plant and was reaching into it as if petting something or tickling it. Ned slipped on his shoes and went down to see what she was doing. When he was standing on the grass behind her, he could hear she was singing “You Are My Sunshine,” a tune she used to hum to Allie. He couldn’t see what her hands were touching. The leaves of the plant had engulfed Edith’s arms past her elbows.
In a breathy soprano, she sang, “You make me happy, when clouds are grey . . .” Ned swallowed hard. Hearing Edith sing those words again flooded his mind with memories of Allie’s nursery—the creak of the rocker, the softened darkness that smelled of powder and baby.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Edith yelped but laughed. “Damn it, Ned,” she said. “You scared me!” She withdrew her arms from the plant and stood up, brushing the dirt from her knees. One of the plant’s leaves stuck to the hem of her nightdress.
“Jesus, Edith, look at your arms.” Her forearms were covered with scratches, thin red lines where thorns must have caught her. “What were you thinking?”
“I was just singing to it,” Edith said, slipping her hand into his and guiding him back toward the house. She looked years younger under the moonlight. Luminescent. Magical. “I was telling my doctor about it, and he said plants grow stronger if you sing to them.” She squeezed his hand.
Ned left his hand in hers but did not return the squeeze. “At two in the morning, though?”
Edith smiled and shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep.” With that she let go of his hand, pecked his cheek, and bounded into the house. When he found her upstairs, he pulled her into the bathroom and washed her scratched arms with cotton swabs and peroxide. She didn’t flinch at the sting.
“What were you reaching for in there?” Ned said, returning the bottle of peroxide to the bathroom cabinet. His wife sat on the toilet and watched him, smiling.
“I thought I saw something,” she said.
“I’m not sure. It was dark.” Edith let out a wide yawn, not bothering to cover her mouth. Her full lips, her flushed cheeks. Ned barely recognized this person. Even so, when he reached their bed and she greeted him with warm hands, he embraced her all the same. It was like making love to a complete stranger, and afterwards, Edith fell asleep naked in their tangle of sheets and Ned stared at the ceiling, feeling satisfied but guilty.
September brought what Ned expected to be the most challenging hurdle they’d faced since the funeral—Allie’s birthday. It was this time the previous year when the doctors found the tumor, and Allie had spent her ninth, and last, birthday with that diagnosis looming over her. Diagnosis—such a big word for an eight-year-old. They brought her to the city zoo and botanical gardens, where they watched her ride an elephant and feed a giraffe. Ned could still hear her laughter as the giraffe’s blue tongue curled around her small hand.
They walked through the tropical plants in the greenhouse, and she had Ned smell all the flowers. Edith and Allie posed for a photo by the koi pond, Allie’s green eyes popping among the foliage and Edith’s thin, forced smile obvious and transparent. They visited the gift shop before they left, and Ned told Allie to pick out a souvenir. While she was debating between a stuffed lemur and a hat with tiger ears, Edith started to cry again and had to go outside. He ended up buying Allie both and then threw in some cotton candy, which she devoured on the ride home.
With the distraction of the plant outside, Edith and Ned didn’t discuss the approaching date. Ned avoided the topic, partially out of the fear that any mention of Ally would send Edith spiraling. But more so, he couldn’t fight the tendril of spite worming its way through the back of his mind. Part of him hoped Edith would forget—too busy mothering the plant to remember the anniversary. He could wait and not mention it. He could grieve privately as he had done all along—which, if he was honest, was how he preferred it. Especially now. Especially now that, for Edith, mothering a plant had apparently replaced what she’d decided was the unbearable memory of mothering their real child. So he stayed silent and threw himself into his work, covering late shifts as much as he could. Edith tended to the garden.
The plant’s height had more than doubled in the past few weeks, and in order to support it, the stems had thickened into trunks. On the night before Allie’s birthday, Ned pretended to sleep as his wife slipped out of bed once more. He sat up and watched through their bedroom window as Edith walked across the lawn and knelt beside the plant. Its shadow had grown so deep that, when Edith left the moonlit yard to stand and then kneel at the garden’s edge, Ned could only just make out her pale shape. He could see her gesturing, as if she was having a conversation. He watched as she leaned back and laughed. Sour jealousy bloomed in his chest. He didn’t even bother to put his shoes on—and was down the stairs and on the grass beside her in moments. The moon had slipped behind a cloud, and all was dark.
“Edith, honey, this is enough.” He kept his voice flat, a tone he never used with her. She stayed facing the plant as if he’d said nothing.
“You’re worrying me,” he said, a bit softer this time, and stepped forward to rest a hand on her bare shoulder. She shuddered at his touch.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Past one,” Ned told her. “Let’s go to bed.”
Edith shook her head. “She was born at 1:11. I remember. 1-1-1, an angel number. A lucky number.” She looked up at Ned, and in her grey eyes he saw pain, and anger, and defiance. But most of all, a bottomless sadness. He knelt down beside her in the grass and wrapped his arms around her cold shoulders.
“I miss her too,” he said.
With those words, the moon emerged again, and the plant began to shift as if fidgety with nerves. Leaves rustled, vines bent, and soon the entire garden seemed to shudder with energy. They stood, and Ned took a step back as the vines of the plant reached out, extending up into the air and to either side. Leaves shook free and fell around them, Velcroing to their clothes and hair. The stems of the plant bent to the left and right. Ned could hear a deep groan, but he wasn’t sure if it had come from the plant or Edith.
In front of them, the plant parted to form a path. The moonshine illuminated a clearing at the end, the heart of the garden. Edith stepped forward, and Ned reached to grab her hand. Something was moving at the end of the path; he could see it. He meant to pull Edith back, to guide her to the house, back to their bed where they could fall asleep and wake up in the morning and pretend it all had been a dream. But when he saw the movement in the moonlight—the pulse of a presence, of life—he took her hand. Barefoot, they passed between the walls of thorns and leaves.
As they entered the clearing, they saw what had moved. It was a giant bud hanging three feet off the ground and pulsing offbeat as if something inside was struggling to escape. Ned reached out, placing his palm against its soft outer skin. It was warm against his hand. He could feel something inside shifting beneath the thick layers of flesh. Edith touched it too, smiling as the bud pulsed again, swinging toward her. “It’s her,” she said, meeting Ned’s gaze with wide eyes. She smiled and looked back to the bud.
Ned couldn’t speak. He wanted Allie back—wanted to remember her voice and how her hand felt in his. His gaze fell to Edith’s arms, lined with scratches, and he inhaled the sour, putrid scent of rotten fruit. How could something he wanted so much smell so wrong?
“Come on home, honey,” Edith said. The bud jerked hard, swaying a bit in the air. Ned pulled Edith back by the shoulder and stood at the edge of the clearing with his arms wrapped tightly around her. They watched as one fleshy outer layer unfurled and then another. The sour stench filled the air, but Ned was too overwhelmed to gag. Emerging from the wet, flexing petals of the bud was a child, slippery and bare in the moonlight. A soft white child’s foot dropped to the grass, and then another. Legs thin like reeds. The small impression of a navel. With one large pulse, the bud birthed the child into the night, and it collapsed in a slick heap on the grass.
Ned and Edith were frozen as the child, shivering, rose to its knees. Its eyes were closed. Its hair, dark with the bud’s slime, clung to its cheeks, neck, and shoulders. It looked innocent to Ned, just a small child’s face with closed eyes and a pink mouth. It tilted to meet the moonlight and parted its lips, and then its eyes opened, and they were green just like Allie’s. Ned choked back a sob. Edith clapped, laughing, and the child’s face grinned, showing the pearly white caps of teeth.
Edith held out her hand, but the child didn’t move. Instead, the walls of vines and leaves around them shuddered, and a thorny tendril broke free to reach toward Edith’s waiting palm. It wrapped in a coil around her wrist. Ned watched as thorns bit flesh.
“Hi, Sunshine,” Edith whispered, smiling as the tendril tightened and cut deeper. Blood fell in quick drops to the ground at her feet. A dark tongue escaped the child’s mouth, wetting Allie’s lips and leaving them glistening in the moonlight.
“Hi, Mama,” it said in a familiar voice. In fact, it was so familiar and similar to Allie’s, the voice he’d forgotten, that it made his heart flip—yet as those two words hung in the night air, Ned knew that this was not his daughter. Though soft and sweet, the words carried a cavernous echo—a hollow, inhuman sound that hid behind Allie’s voice like rot beneath a floorboard.
He watched Allie’s gaze shift to him and squeezed his eyes shut. Ned felt a leaf tickle the bare skin at the base of his neck. He heard that same hollow voice say, “Hi, Papa.”
Ned hadn’t screamed since he was a child, but when he did, it was a tiger’s roar that shook the trees. He sank into the black depths behind his eyelids. He heard the lilting giggle of a girl in the grass and his wife’s soft soprano.