by jade crystal harmon
Outside the air had a bite leftover from a cold March night. Frost had grown its ice flowers over Danny’s bedroom window panes. He’d worn a sweater that morning and been grateful for it as he’d walked to work at the old man’s greenhouse.
As he walked through the door, just as he’d done a hundred times before, he felt the same little electric thrill. No one on the island but he and the old man were allowed in this greenhouse. It was humid. He tugged uncomfortably at the wool and pulled the sweater over his head, tossing it onto the black fabric floor as he walked through a narrow tunnel in the understory of tomato vines.
The light was greenish, dappled, smelling of leaf mold and peat moss. Condensation dripped heavy, unexpected blobs onto his skin, making him startle. He was nervous. He knew he mustn’t ever go beyond the edible gardens, but the old man was away.
Danny tended the tomato vines that grew fist-sized, blood-red fruit in the middle of winter. No one quite knew how the old man did it, and Danny didn’t either. He just watered and thinned, pinched off suckers and loaded trays with the delicate fruit. The vines grew high above his head, tethered with plastic clips to long metal ropes like rock climbers. One of his duties was to blow a puff of air into the tiny, star-like blossoms as he worked among the vines. Pollinators were scarce in a winter greenhouse.
The islanders whispered about the old man, gone so often on his trips to faraway tropical places, returning with crates packed with straw or bell jars holding rare orchids, mosses, and lilies. They whispered, but the islanders were protective of their own, even a little proud of their eccentric gardener, as long as the cafes had ripe tomatoes and fresh arugula year round.
Danny was just the tomato boy, putting in an hour before school and another after for ten dollars a day, but he loved it. He would often finish his work early, then sit in the humid hush of the plants, listening to them grow and studying their leaves. He brushed his hand along the foliage now and brought it under his nose, that slight bruising touch enough to coat his skin in the tangy nightshade smell.
The dairy farm boys at school wore the perfume of their livelihood throughout the day, the smell of manure never really coming off of their skin. Danny wondered if the other kids could smell the tomatoes on him. He was a shy boy, but proudly wore some of the old man’s second-hand mystery, even if the man himself was a total mystery to Danny, as well.
He knew he should be turning on the drip pipes, not sneaking into the forbidden room. The ladies (as he called the tomatoes in his mind) were expecting their morning drink. The old man was adamant about regular moisture levels. But it would only take a minute, he told himself, just a peek.
Tomatoes gave way to eggplant, their lobes of white and purple fruit glowing in the dim light, long thorns waiting. Vines heavy with grapes hung above, their sticky tendrils catching at his hair. Hundreds of seedlings sprouted from a battalion of pinch pots, petering out at the door, the one he was not to pass.
The greenhouse was divided into two sections, the front for edibles, the rear for the old man’s mysteries, connected by a slider made of glass. It wasn’t locked, but fear had kept him away. The door was blurry with condensation, dirty with streaks of yellow pollen and flecks of compost. The old man spent a lot of time behind that door, going in with pruning shears or a spray bottle of fish emulsion, lately wearing a kind of respirator over his nose and mouth. If Danny asked about it, he would just say, “Not for you. You stay out here with the edibles.”
Danny assumed he was growing something illegal, probably psychedelics. He knew the old man was a collector, a botanist. He’d glimpsed the scientific books in his house, the apparatus and grow lights. Surely he couldn’t afford Borneo, Kualalmpor, and Papua New Guinea on a gardener’s income.
Lately whenever the old man came out of his secret room, he carried on him a smell Danny could not place and could not stop thinking about. It reminded him of his favorite things, his sweetest and most secret memories, and also something a little dangerous. It was at one moment heavy vanilla and cinnamon, then raw meat and overripe peaches. It made his stomach clench and his head spin. The smell seemed to stick to him, surprise him when he was far away from the greenhouse. Sometimes he went to the greenhouse even when there was no real work to do, just hoping to catch a whiff.
He slid the glass door open and stepped through, his chest tight. The smell came pushing through the humid air. It wrapped around his body and pulled him on. His eyes passed over the respirator hanging from its hook, but walked past it through more rows of plants potted and climbing, little tags tied to their trunks. Bright grow lights made him squint. An automatic mister hissed on and Danny jumped, breath catching in his throat. Then he laughed. Why was he so nervous? These were plants. Nothing was going to eat him.
The smell became stronger, changing from his mother’s scent to thunderstorm ozone. It made his head fuzzy, pulled him. He was surprised when he realized that the source of the smell was just a shrub no bigger than a washing machine, branches gnarled and curving, leaves the earlobe-thickness of a succulent.
It was the flowers that were making the smell. There were about a dozen of them, June-sky-blue, thickly petaled like a lotus, each the size of pumpkin. Their long yellow stamen tickled his cheeks as he leaned in to breathe the scent. Up close it was ripe strawberries, gasoline, sourdough. Then it was the smell of a baby’s head, old books, roasting coffee, and a salty funk that made him blush fiercely.
His feet crunched and he looked down to see the dried husks of old seed pods, leathery and curling on the soft soil. It looked very comfortable. As he lay down beneath the blooms, Danny forgot about watering the tomatoes. He forgot about school. He forgot about his family, the island, and the old man out there hacking through some jungle with a machete.
The blooms filled Danny’s eyes, the smells pulling him deeper.
It took hours. Plants are not hasty. Gradually the blue petals sensed their pollinator and leaned in, inch by groping inch, to brush his face, his bare arms. They closed around his legs, sucking at his hair and skin with gentle flutters.
After a while, Danny forgot Danny.
. . . . .
The old man came home to a lot of worried messages on his house phone from Danny’s parents. He was already in a foul mood. The trip had been cut short—the guide got the fevers and the rains started sooner than expected. He had been so close to getting his own tawari tree.
He stalked out to the greenhouse to see if the tomatoes had been neglected in his hired hand’s sudden bout of truancy. Even a day of irregular watering could toughen the fruit.
But worry creased his annoyance. It wasn’t like Danny to shirk his work. He was practically half a plant himself, sitting in the rows so quietly it was as if the old man had planted him there, his own exotic.
The old man walked down the greenhouse isle, jerking on the spigots, muttering as he noticed overripe fruit unpicked, when he found Danny’s sweater on the floor. His eyes darted to the the sliding glass door, left half open. He lunged for his respirator and ran.
Danny woke from a long, blue dream full of turkey dinner smells and feather-light touches, but also of a darkness he could not pull himself from and an annoying tightness around his limbs that he could not fight.
He blinked. The old man was over his face, sunburned and sweating, eyes wide. His respirator was clamped to his face. The old man hastily ripped layers of thin leathery shell off of Danny’s body and he spilled out onto the floor, limbs cramped, groggy and head pounding. The old man slapped his cheeks and pressed a flask of something horrible and fiery to his mouth, the liquid burning his throat and spreading like molten lead through his chest. Then he tightened a second respirator over Danny’s face and the smells faded, the fog finally clearing.
“There boy, you’re alright now, it’s over.” Danny winced. Even muffled by the respirator, the old man’s voice was thunder in his sore head. “Headache will fade. Drink a lot of water tonight.” Danny looked down and realized his clothes were grayish, the color drained from the fibers. His skin was puckered as if he’d been in the bath for too long.
Danny looked furtively over his shoulder at the shrub, it’s blooms bobbing innocently as the automatic mister clicked on and doused them all in a thin rain. A sluggish horror was beginning to fill his chest. “Was I… in…?”
“I told you to stay out of here, Danny.”
“Was it…eating me?”
“Not strictly speaking. This one’s not carnivorous. Can you stand?” He pulled Danny to his feet. He wobbled, but felt surprisingly clear-headed now and let the old man lead him out through the sliding door into the edible garden. The old man shut the slider door with a click. He pulled off his respirator and tossed it into an empty plant pot. He nodded, and Danny did the same. All he could smell was tomatoes and soil.
“But, I was inside it. It drew me to it.” He smiled a little, but felt a wave of sickness. “Like an insect.”
“Yes, well, this one requires a very unique form of pollination. Didn’t expect you’d get tangled into this. I did tell you to stay out. What on earth were you thinking, boy?
“I… couldn’t stop smelling it. It was everywhere.”
The old man reached up to pluck a grape from the arbor overhead, then chewed it thoughtfully.
“Not every boy on the island gets swallowed by blooms for minimum wage. I expect you will be wanting to look for new work.” Danny’s stomach dropped. He’d messed up. The secrets of the greenhouse that he’d only just stumbled onto, that no other islander had ever glimpsed, were being shut off to him as soon as he’d found them. He clutched at the old man’s shoulder.
“No—please. I’ll never go through the door again. I’ll—I’ll work without pay to make it up to you, I’ll—“
The old man was laughing, a cracked rasping sound he’d never heard before. He looked at Danny kindly and began to lead him through the rows of seedlings, toward fresh air.
“Well, Danny boy,” the old man said over his shoulder, “I think we’ll need to reexamine your job description. Something tells me that after this, tomatoes will not quite satisfy.”