by Dan Coxon
During the first week at the house I spent as much time on the Internet as in the garden. We had been living on the Peninsula for only three months, so the plants were all strange to me, their foliage familiar yet unknown, distant cousins of the greenery I’d grown up with. I spent hours comparing leaves with the photos on websites, holding them up to the pale glow of the screen to find a perfect match. But most of all I reveled in the names given to these aliens in my backyard. Swamp lantern, monkey-flower, bearberry, bunchberry, stink currant. Goat’s beard. The names conjured a new landscape, an unknown jungle to explore. A stack of boxes remained unopened in the kitchen. My fingernails gradually grew packed with dirt.
The plant arrived in a cardboard box, cocooned in bubbles of plastic. Two slender stems poking through the soil, six pale leaves, their surface covered with a soft white fuzz. There was no card with it. No name on the delivery note. I tried calling the courier, but after twenty minutes on hold with Taylor Swift’s “Today was a Fairytale” circling like a predator, I gave up. Why did it matter who had sent it? David’s work kept him out of the house at all hours, and the garden had become an enthusiasm of mine. I must have mentioned that to someone. Somebody had taken note and sent a gift. That made sense, didn’t it? I grabbed my trowel and headed out into the yard.
I tried placing the plant in several locations before I settled on its new home, in front of the sticky myrtle, among the ferns and the fleabane. It looked comfortable there. When I teased the pot away, the roots were a tight mass of tangled white, each one as thick as a strand of spaghetti. Pot-bound, more root than soil. Still, it looked healthy. I teased out those I could get a purchase on with my fingertips, then settled it into the hole. Once I’d filled it in and tamped it down I stepped back, admiring my work.
I asked David about the plant when he came home that night, eating his lukewarm lasagna as we watched the local news. No, he hadn’t ordered it for me. No, he had no idea who might have sent it. Through the dark mirror of the patio window I could still see its foliage, glowing pale in the moonlight.
The next day it rained solidly from dawn till dusk, so it was Thursday before I managed to get out into the yard again. Everything always looks brighter after a storm, the leaves were greener, the dust and the dirt washed away. But even that didn’t account for what I saw. I had to take a moment, to force myself to think clearly. There was no doubting it—the plant had grown. That wasn’t unusual, but the rate of its growth was uncanny. It made me doubt my own memory. In the end I fetched the box from the recycling, folding its flaps back together, reassembling it among the ferns. Propping it next to the plant, it barely came halfway up the stem. “My, you are a vigorous one,” I muttered to myself, stroking the white fuzz that coated its leaves. “I’ll have to keep an eye on you.”
I would peer out the window at regular intervals, trying to catch it growing, but by the time the sun went down there was no noticeable difference. I put it down to the natural spread of the foliage once it was free from the box and did my best to forget it. The night was overcast, and without the moon to see by, my attempts to spy on it were in vain. On Friday morning it was bigger again, but only slightly. I laughed at my overactive imagination.
David had planned a trip for us that weekend, two nights at a spa hotel in the mountains. I spent my time soaking semi-comatose in the baths, or drifting mindlessly between our room and the restaurant. The pathways were dotted with tiny alpine plants, their leaves fleshy and ripe, like immature peas. So small, so fragile.
We arrived home a little before midnight and tumbled into bed, exhausted from our weekend of doing nothing. I slept late in the morning, barely registering David showering and leaving for work. It was almost twelve by the time I uncurled, stretched, and pulled up the blinds.
What I saw made me so dizzy that I had to sit down.
The yard was a tangled explosion of fuzzy white foliage, half the plants vanishing beneath the newcomer’s onslaught. The fleabane had disappeared completely. Somehow the new plant had sent out runners as far as the path, growth sprouting from every available patch of soil. The stems twined around the ferns, choking them. The myrtle was already yellowing and drooping in defeat.
I didn’t think to dress before I ran outside. How was this possible? Grasping the nearest stem I tugged at it, pulling it from the ground. It snapped at soil level, leaving the roots intact. When I had two fistfuls I carried them to the compost bin. Turning around, I couldn’t see any significant difference.
I spent most of the morning searching the Internet, trying to identify the culprit. Maybe there was something I could do, a specialist I could contact? I’d even napalm my yard with chemicals if it solved it. I Googled invasive species for hours, trying to match the leaves, hoping for a lifeline from somewhere. When it didn’t come I ate a late lunch in silence, my back to the windows.
That afternoon I toiled on my knees until the sun was sliding low on the horizon, pulling up foliage, digging into the root system as far as I could go. The compost bin was overflowing, and I filled two empty packing boxes. Stepping back to look at it in the failing light, I had made a little headway at least. The ferns would survive another day.
Walking back into the house, I noted two fine cracks in the surface of the patio.
I was already asleep when David returned home, wiped out from the day’s toil, but I managed to catch him for a few minutes the next morning as he bolted down his breakfast. He smiled indulgently as I told him about the yard. He said he’d give it some thought, in a way that meant he wouldn’t.
The plant had spread again overnight. I almost cried when I saw it, all my hard work undone by one night of growth. It was even taller now, in places as high as me, and the myrtle had succumbed, its leaves withered and brown. When I stepped outside I found shoots pushing up through the patio, at least twenty of them, maybe more, their tips emerging from the broken surface like tiny aliens. I crushed them underfoot, but I knew there would be more. Turning around, I went back into the house and pulled down the blinds.
I spent the day unpacking what was left of the removal boxes, settling dining sets into cupboards, arranging books on shelves. Several times my hand reached to open the blind, but I withdrew it again. Better not to know. I couldn’t face it, not yet.
It was as I ate my dinner, alone, that I noticed the crack in the wall. It ran from the floor almost as far as the ceiling, pencil-line thin but unmistakable. I found I could fit my fingernail into it at the base, near the floor. Shaking, my hand reached for the blind. Now I could hear a sound out there—or was I imagining it? A creaking, scratching noise, as if a door was opening very slowly somewhere and something was creeping in. As if something was growing out in the darkness. My hand shook as I clasped the cord, and pulled.