The Water Garden
Our hydrangea blooms late, yet May comes and I’m in a swivet, no buds to speak of, and the beetles hatch or it’s too dry or not dry enough. John thinks I’m playing it up, like it’s a bit we do, the dithering old wife in gardening gloves. Of course I know it’s only a plant. And maybe I do play it up, making myself ridiculous so he doesn’t guess what I’m thinking. Play it up to play it down, that’s a trick wives know. When the buds start to swell into green suede cocoons, I count them and handle them and, inevitably, some snap off and I try to save those by floating them in a glass of water on the window sill. There’s always a week when nothing happens, when the process stalls and I’m certain there won’t be any blooms this time.
The middle of June the buds break open. The color of an inch worm at first, they bleach by degrees until the branches sag with white clusters, and I can finally take my shears to them. I never have enough vases and end up using jelly jars and juice glasses. John says I have the bush bald before the July fourth grill is cold. He’s a tulip man, and I can live with that.
I don’t have a preference for hydrangeas, but my daughter Jenny insisted I plant one after her son Ezra’s birth. A lovely sentiment even if the primary purpose was gruesome: a burial plot for the placenta.
“Be glad I’m not eating it,” Jenny had said. “Some cultures do that.”
I never know what Jenny knows. My placenta burned up in the medical incinerator. Our placenta, I suppose.
“Why not donate it to science?” I said.
“It’s not done,” she said, as I had said to her any number of times about any number of things.
John wasn’t included in this debate. He wouldn’t have been able to mow the lawn these last seven years if he’d known what was buried beneath it. Jenny had saved the placenta in her freezer until she was ready to plant the hydrangea, which we did together in the small backyard of my condo when John was out. Such a flimsy shrub you couldn’t help but pity, drooping on itself without a stitch of shadow to protect it. I’ve since read that most don’t like full sun, but ours must be used to it.
We were in Jenny’s apartment putting on raincoats when her water broke. I had recalled the sensation as a quick snap of a rubber band, but when I mentioned this to Jenny she said she’d felt nothing. I swear we all heard it, otherwise why were we staring at her shoes just then?
John took down the folded yellow towels from her linen closet. As a stepfather he tries to strike the right balance between helpful and invisible.
“Not the good ones,” Jenny yelped, and I had to smile. That’s what I was thinking, too. And she must have known this because she grabbed one from John anyway—the dear man was trying not to look—and clamped it between her legs. “Oh, what the hell,” she said. Her hands shook with nerves and delight.
We didn’t stay for the birth, which was a third-world show. We waited for the midwife and her assistant, two thick-necked women who smelled like a cheap candle shop and wheeled small black suitcases behind them. There was no talking to Jenny about hospitals. She’d been reading again. I’d read things, too–birth trauma, sepsis. She did eat some fish and eggs during her pregnancy, but only after the midwife pleaded, “Think of the baby.” That had shaken something loose; the food chain didn’t seem so merciless to her then. My fried perch, skillet eggs. She drew the line at meatballs. I set a place for her on Sundays, and as long as I didn’t mention her clean plate she didn’t mention, “I’m only doing it for the baby.”
A lotus birth is best for the baby, she was told. The most natural. Like giving birth on the prairie, except without the whiskey and the shotgun. John did not want to know, and I still wish I didn’t. The point, as Jenny explained it, is to keep the baby attached as long as possible to its nutrient source. The cord is never cut. The baby is born, the placenta is wrapped in gauze and placed in a spaghetti strainer to shrivel of its own volition. The thing is salted periodically and anointed with lavender oil and wrapped and rewrapped, shrinking all the while from a liver-sized organ to something resembling a child’s baseball mitt. Within a week the cord dries up, like jerky, and falls away from the baby’s body, leaving a cone-shaped belly button, a stem that is a sign of good health in Polynesian villages, or somewhere like that. When Jenny commented on the towels, I was thrilled–Hello civilization!–but my smile must have spoiled it.
Ezra was born healthy, eight pounds after ten hours of hard labor in the bedroom. Jenny was told her second-degree tear would heal best on its own, without sutures. “Nearly nurtured to death,” John had said into his ham steak. Midwives and their bitter tea and guilt and endless patience. Maybe because I’d given birth once I didn’t see Jenny’s delivery as particularly cruel, as John did, but rather unnecessary: Sure you could set a broken bone with tree bark or live in a lean-to, but why make things harder? Is it punishment they’re after, for having too many Christmas presents and Saturday morning cartoons, or is it plain old sanctimony that makes them create travails to triumph? I keep thinking of those skinny girls on TV eating cow eyes or sitting in tubs of centipedes. Maybe it’s like that.
John stayed home while I went by myself to Jenny’s apartment. Her friends were camped out in the living room with their dirty fingernails and those thin, ratty scarves swinging from their necks. I handed out alcohol swabs in the doorway of her bedroom. His head was conical, like the aerodynamic cycling helmets, so I covered it with a soft, blue natural-fiber cap. In my arms he opened and closed his round mouth like a guppy. There was always someone at my elbow, holding the spaghetti strainer in one hand, a plate of falafel or a drink in the other.
“This is dangerous,” I whispered to the girl with the placenta. We had to move together like in a three-legged race.
She rolled her eyes. “Jenny wasn’t kidding about you,” she said.
I lifted the colander from her fingers. She didn’t resist. “About any of it,” I said.“By the way, you don’t have to say everything that comes into your head,” I told her. For a moment her eyebrows ticked up, but she caught herself and liquified her features in the non-reaction reaction those girls do so well. “It’s not a lie of omission to be nice,” I said. “It’s not hypocritical to be polite.” She was Jenny in the dark clothes gone purply from washing, the weedy body, the pale-to-gray cheeks, except when laughing or angry–as this girl was–then their faces bloom roses, roses, roses.
“You could all be so pretty,” I said, and that made her look away.
Some of them spent the night, playing lullabies on a dulcimer. If it had been anyone else, anyone clean or employed, anyone married, this might have broken me, but I was hardened to everything then, focused entirely on germs, Jenny, and the glistening ointment around Ezra’s eyes.
“He has your father’s funny ear,” I said. I kept thinking: He’s one quarter William –he’s almost William.
“His ears are perfect,” she said, rotating his pink pinched face, inert in infant sleep. “But, see, he has a tiny birth mark here. Did dad have that?”
I leaned over the bed. “Yes. Right there.” I said. “Just like that.” William was freckled all over so who knows, but the ear–that ear was his.
Jenny settled back, stroking the curl at the edge of Ezra’s cap. “I had no idea it was this easy,” she said. I sat awake all night in the chair in her room.
John didn’t meet Ezra until he was free of the spaghetti strainer. I brought them to the condo and Jenny sat awkwardly on her foam donut, sipping raspberry leaf tea while Ezra nursed. “Your blood volume doubles during pregnancy,” Jenny said. “It has to go somewhere.”
“Is he almost finished?” John asked, looking out the window at the lawn, patchy green with April tulips and jonquils.
Jenny glanced down at her breast. “That’s so American,” she murmured, annoyed by John’s obvious embarrassment.
“We should plant something,” John said.
“Oh, let’s. For Ezra!” I clapped my hands, overdoing it like I do, repeating, reaffirming, wringing the very spirit from the idea. But when Jenny told me later that day about the placenta in her freezer, my first thought–after horror and repulsion–was John. What a rare thing to please them both with the same gesture.
I heard the placenta drop in the hole.
“Shouldn’t you thaw it?” I asked.
“You want me to use your microwave, or your oven?” Jenny pushed dirt into the hole with her foot.
Cannibalism is people eating people, but I still couldn’t look. A layer of top soil between the placenta and the plant would protect the roots from the cold. Jenny held the top of the hydrangea upright while I packed dirt around it. I made her promise not to tell John.
“I would love to see the expression on his face.” She laughed and Ezra squirmed in the sling strapped to her. “But I won’t tell.”
“He’d never come out here again,” I said.
“You’d have to move.”
“Not now,” I said, touching Ezra’s foot. “We’re bonded for life.”
That night I worried an animal might pick up the scent and try to dig it up. The neighbors had dogs and cats, and raccoons got into the trash. I slipped out of bed without John noticing and went outside. I was thinking, ‘If it dies she’ll blame me,’ and I sat on the cold steps, my nightgown tucked around my legs, wondering how many nights I would do this.
The first winter I swaddled the hydrangea in garbage bags during hard frosts, and the next two summers I held out hope for colored flowers–if rusty nails and coffee grounds made blooms blue and lime turned them pink, I expected a placenta to create something spectacular–but ours remains plain and hearty. Ezra left Aqua Man in the branches and his joints rusted.
A week ago John said he wanted a water garden, a term I now believe to be purposely misleading. I said it was a wonderful use of his retirement time. He was having difficulty adjusting. He watched too much television and his closest friend had had his prostate removed. I pictured a stone fountain at the corner of the fence with a basin like a bird bath in which to float lily pads. Bamboo was fine. And I liked the idea of those smooth black rocks they give you in Oriental restaurants for resting your chopsticks. But what John had in mind involved a waterfall and koi and mossy boulders and a ten by six hole that would take up most of the yard. I looked at the brochure and asked him where he thought he’d put this water garden, though by then I was calling it what it was: a lake. He stood beside the hydrangea and spread his arms wide.
“At night we can sit on a bench and listen to the frogs,” he said. We would need tadpoles to eat the algae. “The moon, the stars,” he said with a randy smirk. Play it up to play it down, that’s a trick husbands know.
John bought a book, Your Pond, and read it with a pen in hand. “They recommend fairy moss and duckweed,” he told me.
“Lovely,” I said.
“There’s a night-blooming lily,” he said, dog-earing a page.
“I suppose we could move the hydrangea to the front yard,” I said. “Or give it to Jenny.”
“Moving it would kill it anyway,” he said. “Hey, Russian Red lotus is in our zone.”
“No lotus,” I said.
“Did you know water hyacinths are illegal in some states?” He was shocked. “They choke reservoirs.”
“I’ve been thinking,” I said. “About not having a pond.”
Jenny has been working as a bank teller. Sometimes her drawer won’t balance and she has to stay late, so we get to watch Ezra. Sometimes she has dates and Ezra spends the night. Her hair is short now and she wears the clothes I buy her for birthdays, but I don’t know how she’ll react to digging up the hydrangea. It’s a present, I tell her, for the house she just bought. Her first house.
“Why are you getting rid of it?”
We’re in the kitchen and I’m trying to listen to her as if she’s not my daughter, as if I don’t know how each word is weighted.
“There you go,” I say, tossing up my arms.
“What, did John find out?”
“It’s your placenta,” I tell her. “So it’s your hydrangea.”
She says: “It’s your yard, so it’s your placenta.”
Ezra is playing tiddlywinks with John in the dining room. Jenny and John both like the old games–wooden toys, rainy day crafts. I bought Ezra a Gameboy because it’s hard enough to be a vegetarian in second grade.
Ezra’s first name is William, and Jenny got her father’s face. That should be enough. I have the sport coat he was wearing that day, his jar of pennies on the closet floor. And a part of William blooms every summer. Only when all the vases and chipped glasses and jars are filled do I think one hydrangea is just enough.
William’s picture hasn’t left my nightstand in fifteen years. “It’s like the Pope,” John said when I asked if it bothered him. “You get used to it. You don’t see it after a while.” On anniversaries–William’s death, our wedding–I stay in bed with the TV Guide and John sleeps on the couch. I owe him a trade. I will let him have something I don’t want to give up.
Louise Jarvis Flynn’s essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Elle, Redbook, Travel and Leisure, Self, Nylon, and the 2006 anthology The May Queen. Her fiction is forthcoming in The Colorado Review and Narrative. She lives in Durham, North Carolina. (7/2007)