News came from the hospital over a week ago, and Edith had stood in Frank’s house alone, gulping vegetable soup out of the can. She sat in his cushioned blue recliner and stared at the photograph of Frank with his white moustache and flecking of red moles across the pale forehead that often folded in new lines of worry or surprise. As the light dimmed, she wandered among potted plants’ lumpy silhouettes bulging from tabletops, counters, and windowsills.
She had stopped cleaning the house. A veil of dust clung to the windows, and the floors glazed over with the coffee brown color of earth.
When Lydia died, more than a year ago, and Frank was about to enter the hospital, he told Edith to water his plants, especially the spices. Some homegrown seasonings had outlived him. Some had not.
“This is Basil, the favorite of all my green children,” he smiled at Edith when he had brought in the key to his house, parading the pot with flashing green leaves and licorice-sweet scent.
His smiles were strange. Did he simper at her, think her a fool who craved a weak married man whose clay-caked gnomish fingers fondled the earth? Or had these been sad grins? Muted cries for liberation from marriage to Lydia, proper lady of charity drives and school board pickets against same-sex dancing and paranormal romances. Lydia’s contemptible taste spoiled the kitchen, pink squirrel salt-and-pepper shakers and cherubs on cookie jars.
Both Frank and Lydia had been happier than her, Edith, dweller of the one-bedroom cottage bordering the perpetually flooded river park, hostess to small animals, books, and magazine-subscriptions. The other woman, keeping vigil next door.
April, fluctuating between cloying heat and piercing cold, fatigued Edith. Caring for green children was not a task she relished. Suckling sun, draining water. Turning the pots to angle their yellow-green leaves to catch the blurry last rays of day, she knew the cookie jar cherubs smirked at her, red cheeks blushing.
Between Lydia’s death and Frank’s hospitalization, there had been no space to breathe the mist of romance.
Edith stared at the terracotta pot filled with dead basil. She reached for a shrunken brown leaf and bit it off, swallowing the scratchy fiber. Her eyes watered, the lashes stuck together. An angry red dot of sun stared through the dusty window and her clotted eyelids.
Squinting through the blurry halo of light, she saw the gardening sweater she had knitted for Frank. A single green thumb encircled by the petals of a sunflower.
From its immaculate fibers, the sweater looked as though Frank had barely worn it. Edith hoped he had put it on at least once, for then the wrinkles upon each of their bodies might have touched the same thing.
These were vapors of her fatigue. Theirs had not been a love of flesh or of things. Hardly a love at all. A dream evaporated, morning breath on Easter snow.
Edith plucked more dark crisp leaves, put each one at a time into her mouth. Chewed, swallowed. The scratching stem pricked her glottis, irritated her sinuses. She coughed, cleared her throat. She smelled the musty stain of snails in her itching nostrils.
“I knew I could rely on you, my guiding star,” Frank had said when Edith agreed to keep those plants safe and healthy, “we’ll see more of each other, once I’m done with these whitecoats, Edie.”
Why had he waited so long? Burned up in a furnace that might have fired a ceramic pot, his ashes drifted beneath the waves of indifferent seas. That he should seek the crematory flame while Lydia should fill up the earth, what message was there in that dichotomy of remains? That a gardener did not want to share in the dirt with his plants—had he felt, only by full dissolution, he could be free?
In the silence of the house, she felt no companionable spirit drifting by, no cool breeze upon her neck. No frisson of supernatural tenderness caressing her skin.
What good was this key to this house when she wandered it without hope of physical or spiritual visitation; without trepidation of opening a forbidden door, no master to rebuke her for a misstep; no chill of recognition at a joint passion so long hidden, now revealed? The shadows that moved over the drapes were all her own.
A ghost in a tomb forgotten.
Was she truly a “guiding star,” as Frank had said, that could shine forever into a void of solitude? No, not that kind of star.
In the gravity of her implosion after Frank’s death, cats gathered in increasing numbers, fluffing up carpets with dander, staining the air with their spray. When she stopped feeding them, they sauntered to other doorways, full milk saucers, and still laps.
Lines of cobwebs, kinked with bodies of gnats, linked Basil’s table to the reclining blue chair upon which Frank had sat.
Pulling at the shriveled basil plant, Edith cracked the brittle grey twigs, ashen like burnt wood, blighted by beetles and yellowed by fungus. She did not hesitate.
She chewed and pulled and chewed again. Bitter and foul, but still a tang of flavor in the filth.
And as she coughed up flecks of bark, she gnawed with grim ferocity at the dirty clump of roots — mandrake-like viscera dangling — which she had torn whole and embryonic from the bottom of the mildewed pot. This too she would swallow.
Jason Marc Harris is an MFA student at Bowling Green State University and Assistant Fiction editor of Mid-American Review. Publications include Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (2008) and (with Birke Duncan) Laugh Without Guilt: A Clean Jokebook (2007). Stories in CC&D: The Unreligious, Non-Family-Oriented Literary and Art Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic.