The Gardener


    THE VIDEOTAPE OF MY FATHER WAS NEVER MEANT TO BE SEEN by me, and were it not for a chow mix ripping apart half my face, the man might have remained only a mysterious void. But it was that day when I was five, that day of growls and blood and pain and screams, when I first heard my father’s voice.

    That morning ten years ago, I waited on the sidewalk for the kindergarten bus. Next door, the Sheffers’ dog, Packer, sniffed for a good place on the lawn to poop. I’d known him since he was a pup, and it was my daily ritual to call his name and pet him before the bus arrived. But that day, when my blue untied sneaker touched his lawn, he attacked, charging at me with vicious speed. As I fell backward onto the grass, there was only time for a small squeak to escape my lips: a sound way too tiny for someone to hear, for someone to come running and help. But when my screams started, they were loud enough. Plenty loud enough.

    Two screen doors slammed in unison as both Mr. Sheffer and my mother ran outside. A swearing Mr. Sheffer kicked Packer off of me while my mother dropped to her knees, her wide, stricken eyes looking down at me as she said, over and over, “My beautiful boy, my beautiful boy, my beautiful boy—”

    Then Mr. Sheffer shouted at her, “For God’s sake, helphim!”

    Snapping out of it, my mother scooped me up and threw me over her shoulder, the front part of me hanging halfway down her back. As she ran with gasping sobs toward the garage, the driveway bounced below me, blood falling from my face, leaving shiny red flowers to bloom on the concrete.

    After laying me on the front seat, my head in her lap, she drove to the hospital, screeching around the corners so fast I had to put my hand on the console to keep from falling. In the emergency room, there were whispers mixed in with my mother’s frantic pleas and my whimpers and cries, as hands held me down to clean out my wound. The doctor plunged long needles into my face to numb it before he started stitching.

    By then, there was no more pain. My eyes wouldn’t stay open. I just lay there, eyes shut, feeling an occasional tug on my face as my mother clasped my hand in both of hers.

    “Ninety-seven stitches. He’s lucky.” The doctor’s voice was a practiced calm. “No damage to the facial nerves.”

    He left out the small detail that the damage was too close to those facial nerves to ever risk reconstructive surgery, and one side of my face would look like Frankenstein, but hey, I was lucky.

    After the emergency room, my mother drove me home. Her hand shook as she turned up the volume of a Sesame Street tune for me, and the inside of the car had a metallic smell. Half of my face was bandaged, including my right eye, which Packer’s teeth had narrowly missed. So I peered out my left eye, afraid to move my head, as one of my hands gripped a purple Saf-T-Pop.

    My prize for the day.

    At home, Mom carried me to the couch and propped me up on a couple of pillows. I still sniffled from crying so much, but thanks to the meds, I was in no pain. Mom kept pacing from room to room, wringing her hands when she wasn’t blowing her nose and wiping away tears. After what seemed like a long time, she finally stopped and looked at me. She sighed and shook her head, then went into her room and came back out with a videotape. She slid it into the VCR and sat on the edge of the couch beside me.

    With my left eye, I studied her pale, tear-streaked face. Her voice was low and calm. “Mason. I know I’ve always told you your father was … gone. But it’s not true. He just can’t be your father right now.”

    Being five, of course I asked when he could be my father, but she didn’t answer. Just played the tape for me. A recording of a man in a green shirt, shown only as a torso, reading The Runaway Bunny. He could have been anyone from anywhere. His voice was not unique, no trace of an accent. Except for the blue butterfly tattooed on his right forearm, nothing about him was distinguishable. Not exactly the father I’d been dreaming about. But I was five and I’d just been scarred for life. And he said the word son before he started to read.

    So I snuggled against my mom and listened. Really hard.

    And when Mr. Sheffer took poor Packer out back, I didn’t even hear the gunshot.


    IN THE LAST HOUR OF THE DAY, MR. HOGAN’S SOPHOMORE biology class gathered around to watch the small, green-dotted frilly snail slime its way up my arm. Taller than everyone, I looked down on heads as smells drifted up. To my left, someone had taco breath from lunch. And somewhere to my right was definitely the culprit who’d ripped the little sample of men’s cologne out of the school library’s latest issue of Sports Illustrated.

    Hogan rolled his wheelchair closer. Fridays were T-shirt day for the teachers if they paid a buck to the party fund in the office, and his declared SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE! “So this intertidal nudibranch is not just any marine snail.”

    “Looks like it has a little green wig,” said one of the girls.

    Our teacher continued. “This snail can photosynthesize. Which means?”

    As always, Miranda Collins blurted out the answer before anyone else could. “When a plant uses sunlight to make its own food.” Suck-up.

    “But this isn’t a plant.” I couldn’t tell who said that, but I was wondering the same thing.

    “Aha, we have a genius!” Hogan pointed at the snail. “That is not a plant. But it eats zooxanthellae, organisms that eat algae. And algae, of course, are plants.”

    “That makes no sense.” Although my eyes were on the snail, I felt heads turn up in my direction and it got quiet. Odd for teenagers, but it probably had to do with the fact that, after the dog incident, I didn’t speak in school until fifth grade. I’m not sure if it was due to the trauma, although that’s what both the speech pathologist and school psychiatrist told my mom. I think it was more a matter of my not having much to say. But since then, when I did open my mouth in class, it was still considered a bit of a novelty, I guess, because everyone tended to get quiet and listen. “I mean, I eat plants, but I can’t photosynthesize. Humans are…” I searched for the word we’d just learned that describes organisms that have to get their nutrients from other organisms. “Heterotrophic. We can’t feed ourselves.”

    Hogan nodded. “Exactly. The zooxanthellae evolved so they could retain the cells of the algae, which are responsible for photosynthesis. Evolution, anyone?”

    “Changes that take place in a species over time.” Miranda again.

    “Exactly. And so in the case of the zooxanthellae, you are what you eat. They became autotrophic. Self-feeders. And the nudibranchs have evolved to do the same thing.”

    “Mr. Hogan?” Miranda Collins waved her hand. “Is this on the quiz?”

    He growled at her. “Not everything is on the quiz, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth knowing.”

    I moved my arm closer and stared at the snail. “So why is this worth knowing?”

    “Well, technically, this proves that an organism can turn autotrophic.” He pointed at my arm. “Skin graft those snails all over your body in a sunny climate and eventually you wouldn’t have to eat or drink ever again.”

    A few of the girls let out groans and prolonged ewwwws, while some of the boys laughed.

    “No, thanks. I like cheeseburgers too much.” I gently picked the snail off my arm and set it in the glass tank on Hogan’s desk.

    “Thanks, Mason.” Hogan rolled back behind his desk as we took our seats. “Anyone heard of Giri Bala?”

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