The day we returned home from our family vacation was the day before we found household items growing in our garden. We pulled into our driveway at 8:12 p.m. The lawn in front of our house was muddied from the unthawed frost, and our wind chime dripped rhythmically. The cold of the night hung over our heads, a thick fog that blocked the moon. We hustled out of the car, quickly unloading our luggage to get into the warmth of our house.
“Oh my,” Father said. “Our back gate is unlatched.”
Although it was dark, I could see that the gate was swung all the way open so it hit the backside of the fence. Mother, Abby, and I dismissed it for a curious animal, too tired to respond to Father.
“Oh, Margaret, honey,” Father exclaimed from the backyard. “Come look at this!”
“What, what? What’s the matter?” Mother asked.
Abby and I tumbled after Mother into the backyard. We were expecting to see a buck chewing on our plants or a grizzly bear about to maul Father.
“Oh!” Mother gasped.
Clusters of deep, purple pansies were growing in our garden. It would be surprising enough to find any flower growing in our garden, however my breath caught in my throat when I saw how tall the stalks stood. They shot up well over five feet from the ground, their blossoms as big as unabridged dictionaries. Walking through them felt like walking under shaded trees; a lattice of leaves stretching, arching, and overlapping. Their petals, the color of a sore bruise, poked the top of my forehead.
“I didn’t even plant pansies!” Mother was delighted.
My dreams that night were filled with choking on snow. A numbness had taken hold from the inside out—my mind was alert, but my limbs were dripping off me. My arm unlatched from its shoulder socket, and I desperately tried to attach it back together, lock it in place. It fell off and rattled onto the ground.
At 2 a.m., I woke up from the stiffness of my muscles. I was rigid, as if I’d been dipped in ice water. My teeth were chattering and I told myself it was because I was cold, but that last image of my dream flashed in my mind. I had been buried in snow, my limbs spread around me like I was an archaeology excavation site.
It was just another reminder of the sad image of my Mother digging in the snow five winters ago, her dress a stained red and splayed around her in a mushroom cloud. She dug into the snow until there was no bottom, and then she buried, buried, buried the stillborn—blue, hands so small, no beating heart—until it didn’t exist. Our family held our breath for the remainder of that winter, trying to forget.
I grasped my forearms to pull me out of the memory and snuck into the downstairs bathroom to swallow some of Mother’s anxiety pills. Her prescription was running low, so I only slid one out and popped it into my mouth. I looked in the mirror. The dark rings around my eyes were inset deep, and my hair was ruffled from tossing and turning. I smiled at myself and it looked weird.
“I’m okay,” I said out loud, watching the shapes my mouth formed when talking.
I went back into Abby and my room, but noticed the covers of her bed were toppled on the floor.
“Abby?” I said. But I knew she wasn’t there. She’d probably snuck out to see friends and drink booze. Once I woke up as she was climbing out the window. She threatened me that if I told Mother or Father she’d kill me in my sleep. “I swear I’ll do it, Cary.” Then she disappeared onto the other side of the windowsill.
Feeling no need to wait up for her, I tucked myself between my sheets, lying on my back like a squished fish.
In the morning, Abby was back in her bed, the covers coiled around her legs. I went downstairs and found Mother and Father tootling in the kitchen, Mother trying to find the correct lids for the Tupperware, and Father scooping almond butter out of the jar with two fingers.
“Hey, kiddo,” Father said. “It’s your first day of eighth grade.”
I sat down at the powder-blue table, my feet up on the chair in crisscross applesauce, and stared out the sliding glass door into the backyard. The lofty pansies wriggled in the wind, their leaves bouncing. At the top of the stem of the tallest pansy blossom was a blotch of radiating white. I looked away, and spots clung to my eyeballs as if I’d looked at the sun.
“What is that?” I asked.
“What’s what, honey?” Mother said.
“That,” I said pointing.
Mother stood in front of the glass door and peered out. “I’m not sure what you’re looking at,” she said.
I went outside barefoot, the sliding glass door sssshing open and closed. I snaked through the garden until I reached the pansy.
“Eggs?” I said.
I tried to pick them up but they were stuck on the stem, part of the flower. I plucked hard and they unsnapped from under the blossom, shaking the pansy with force. They were warm and smooth like the downstroke of velvet. I coddled them to my chest. One. Two. Three. I counted. Three eggs. They resembled chicken eggs with faint brown freckles. I tapped one with my nail to detect its thickness and brought them inside.
“Eggs,” I said.
“Growing in the garden?” Father asked.
Abby was at the table now, slowly scooping cereal into her mouth, her eyes floating around the room vacantly.
“Oh, how weird,” Mother said. She inspected them closely and tapped them with her nail like I had. “Maybe I should fry some eggs for breakfast,” she said. “How about that, Abby? Want an egg?”
“Mmm no,” Abby said between chews.
“Alrighty,” said Mother. “Cary?”
“I’ll have one,” I said.
Mother cracked the egg into a heated skillet. The yoke and liquid glooped down in strings.
“Looks like a chicken egg,” she said. Mother placed the cooked egg on top of wheat toast on a plate in front of me. “Eat,” she said.
I said thanks and crunched into my toast, the runny egg dripping. “Tastes like a chicken egg,” I said.
When I finished, I got up from the table to wash my plate, then scurried to my room to get ready for school. I stepped into a pair of jeans and threw a sweatshirt over my head, a hand-me-down from Abby. It had a picture of a monkey about to bite into a banana with the caption, “Got Bananas?” Abby told me I looked stupid wearing it, even though it used to be her favorite.
Mother had just finished packing me a lunch (she never packed one for Abby) when I noticed the other two eggs I had found in the garden were left out in the open of the kitchen. They looked precariously placed on a napkin, too close to the edge of the counter. I was about to move them when all of a sudden my stomach felt sick. It flip-flopped inside me and I held my tummy.
“I don’t feel well,” I said.
“You’re not foolin’ me,” Father said. “You’re going to school today whether you like it or not.”
The next morning we found a sock growing in the garden, this time attached to a different pansy. Father had found it when he was on his way to the toolshed. He brought the whole family out to see it.
“What the . . .” Abby said.
It was like another leaf was growing from the stem. Except it was a sock. The sock was very simple. It was white with a gray spot for the heel, and hung like a droopy puppy’s ear from the ribbed ankle.
“How funny,” Mother said. She grasped it and pulled a little to see if it really was attached.
I plucked it. Strips from the stalk dangled towards the ground, torn and limp.
“It has roots,” I said. It was very small and I put it on my hand, stretching it tight.
“Okay, kids, show’s over,” Father said.
We went back inside. I still had the lone sock on like a glove. On taking a closer look, I noticed the sock looked used. I sniffed it, almost surprised when I discovered it smelled like stinky feet. I was about to toss the sock in the laundry hamper when I heard Mother harshly whispering to Abby.
“Have you been taking my pills again?” she asked.
Mother had always been harsh on Abby. I thought it was unfair, but I never spoke up about it. Our family had already been through enough, and the fact that the entire family swallowed Mother’s anxiety pills was proof of it.
Abby shrugged her off, but Mother followed her down the hall, saying something to her I couldn’t hear.
“Who cares?” Abby said.
“I care!” I heard Mother’s voice ping like a ping-pong ball off the walls, an echo that repeated in my head over and over for the rest of the afternoon.
A couple of days later, we found a spool of yarn emerging from another pansy in the garden. It looked like a cocoon bunched up and wrapped around the flower. Then we found a pink crayon (or according to the label, Shocking Pink), sprouting from another stalk. It had thick roots like a claw digging into the dirt. It was hard to pull up, but Abby was able to yank it free. By the next week we had accumulated a chair (exactly like the ones we had in our dining room), a candied necklace (which I ate), and chocolate (which I also ate).
“What does this mean?” Abby asked.
We could sense that Mother and Father were unsettled.
“I don’t know, honey,” said Mother. She was busying herself with her hands.
“Mmmhmm,” said Father, clearly not listening.
My lifeless fingers broke off one by one like piano keys. I touched my face and my nose chipped off, the frost cold on my lips. I tried to touch my lips with a hand, but it too tumbled down. I slowly became a puddle of jumbled body parts paralyzed in the snow, and when I awoke, I felt like a mutated snow angel.
I was scared, and I felt like my stomach was carrying a pile of rocks.
“Abby?” I called.
Her covers were pushed to the side, revealing an empty bed.
I wrapped myself in a blanket and pattered downstairs. None of the lights were on except for the light in the backyard. A flickering shadow swished across the lit up toolshed. Someone was in our garden. The rocks in my stomach jumped, and suddenly my lungs felt too tight for air.
“Abby?” I whispered.
Abby did not seem to hear me when I slid open the door. The night was cool and bright, allowing the wind to easily carry the subtle scent of the flowers to my nose. My arms erupted in goosebumps from the chilled wind, but I hardly noticed, too spellbound by Abby. I called her name again, but I only heard my voice bounce back at me in an echo. I sat down on the top step of the porch and watched her. She fluttered through the pansies like she was dancing, swinging a green watering can in her right hand. The curls in her hair sprung wildly. I heard her laugh while sprinkling the flowers with water. She knelt down to tweak stray weeds, mud swelling up from between her toes as her bare feet sunk into the soil. She kissed each pansy on their face before turning back towards the house, walking right past me, looking through me.
Her calm face told me she was sleepwalking, but I looked up to the stars anyway as if there’d be an answer to something. There was nothing but the bleating crickets and our rooftop, glistening in frost.
I followed her inside to make sure she put herself back to bed, knowing not to wake her. I crawled back into my sheets, my eyes refusing to close. It wasn’t until I saw the sun begin to tiptoe up the wall, casting long shadows and hatch marks from my screen window onto the floor, that I fell asleep.
When I trudged my way down the crackly stairs into the kitchen after two hours of sleep, Mother and Father’s body language was like a warning sign. Mother peeped at me sideways before pretending to fold an already folded dishtowel. Father was in the living room on the couch, hunched over something.
“Morning,” I said.
My parents ignored me. I realized Mother wasn’t going to make me breakfast, so I made myself a bowl of cereal. I slurped the milk in spoonfuls.
“Mmm,” said Father.
I finished my cereal and went over to Father. “What you got there?” I asked him.
He sighed and sat up straight so I could see the mess of blonde hair on his lap. “A wig,” he said.
“This is getting out of hand,” said Mother. Her skin bristled like a pinecone.
“This must be some kind of sick joke,” said Father. He clenched his fists around the spindly hairs.
I rubbed my lips together to keep silent about how I saw Abby gardening while sleepwalking the night before.
Abby came down a couple minutes later and sat down at the table next to me. She looked clean except for the crescents of dirt ringing her toenails. Her eyes were muted and tired.
“You were in the garden last night,” I said, loud enough for only her to hear.
Abby gave me a strange face. “Um, okay,” she said.
“Ava is using your body to tell us something,” I whispered to her.
She shook her head like she felt sorry for me, and shuffled back upstairs to get ready for school.
Father perched the wig up on his fist and twirled it. “I just don’t see how something like this can grow,” he said.
“Phil honey, it’s probably just some of the neighborhood children playing a trick on us,” Mother said.
Father kept his back to her, and I could see the invisible force that separated them. He stroked the wig, fingers stopping once they encountered a knot. The wig looked like it was for a small child. I went over and plopped it on my head, but Father removed it immediately and threw it in the trash. He dug through the fridge and hurled the two eggs I had found into the trash. The spool of yarn, the sock, the crayon, all went in.
“Trash,” he said. “We are going to pretend this never happened.”
Back when Mother found out she was pregnant, she squeezed Abby and me on either side of her belly. I was still in fourth grade, but Abby had just entered middle school and knew all about how babies were born. Mother’s shirt was rolled up over her ribs to show us the swell below her belly button. Abby smoothed her hand over the skin.
“Your sister is as small as a minnow,” Mother told us.
“A minnow!” Abby indicated its size with her fingers.
“It could be a boy!” Father yelled from the living room, but Mother knew she was having a girl.
Five months later, Mother was on the phone, twisting the spiraled cord around her index finger. “It’s a girl,” she spoke into the phone. “Ava. That will be her name. It means ‘bird’ in Latin.”
I did not fall asleep that night. Instead, I waited and waited until like a baby turtle drawn to the moon, Abby slipped downstairs, out the door, and into the garden. The moon was her clock. Her nightgown hugged her body in the wind, and the skin on her naked arms looked like a reflection in water. She hummed and skipped through the garden with me trailing behind her, touching every plant that she touched, every patch of soil she stepped on.
“Ava?” I tried.
Abby continued to twirl through the flowers. The pansies had grown even higher. There was no doubt that the neighbors could see them, their petals spanning outward like panels on an umbrella.
Abby went into the toolshed and grabbed a rake. She gently loosened the soil with its teeth, and trickled what looked like seeds into the dirt before covering them up with her hands.
“Ava,” I tried again.
Abby returned the rake to the toolshed and picked up the watering can. She lifted it above her head and waterfalled it onto her curls. It drizzled down her nightgown, but she was illuminated, the happiest I’d seen her in years. She walked back inside, arms down by her sides. I felt the urge to wake her, but I knew there was a reason not to. I pulled my sweatshirt tighter and lingered in the pansies for a moment longer until I couldn’t stand to be awake.
The hands came next. They came clasped, as if in prayer, the fingers securely laced together. They were holding on to each other, refusing to let go. The stem of the pansy was pressed between the hands, and the wrists poked outward. Abby and I spotted them first.
“Should we even tell Mother and Father?” I asked her.
“I think this one’s important,” she said. “I can feel it.”
We tried to jimmy each finger loose. It took strength. As we pulled, the hands seemed to squeeze harder. Abby took one hand, and I took the other, and we tugged until they unlatched. We each held a limp hand and went inside to show Mother and Father.
“That’s fucking it,” said Father.
“Oh, Phil, don’t,” cried Mother.
Father stood up from the table. Mother, Abby and I watched from the kitchen window as he sailed outside and destroyed the garden. Lumps of soil careened against the toolshed, leaving dirty splatters on the wood. Father was on his knees, scooping and digging soil with the cup of his clasped hands. He stomped. He cursed. He spit. Abby covered her eyes, and Mother started to cry.
I ran outside. “Dad, Dad, it’s okay,” I said.
“Phil, please come inside,” said Mother. “Just come inside.”
I saw that Father’s face was wet, and I immediately looked away. He came inside and all four of us sat around the hands that were on the coffee table. They were small with rosy nail beds, the skin disappearing after the wrists. I moved towards them, and Mother told me no touching, but I did anyway. I braided my fingers between its fingers.
“These are Ava’s hands,” I said. I felt Mother beside me become a statue and Father bite his lip.
Abby yelled something along the lines of “Stop it, Cary!” but I wasn’t listening. I looked outside, expecting it to snow. Hoping for it to snow.
Mother cried into her hands some more, and I was about to tell them about Abby’s sleepwalking, but I couldn’t. The words were clinging to my insides.
I watched as my family fell apart, and realized we weren’t pretending anymore. The hands had done it. They’d lifted a veil that we didn’t even know could be lifted.
Abby spun her rings around her fingers teary-eyed, and Father ran his hands through his hair, probably remembering the soft image of Mother in the snow, bloodied and broken.
Mother calmed down and took the other hand and held it. “Ava’s garden,” she whispered.
A breeze whistled through the garden, but there still wasn’t any snow. The rocks in my stomach became lighter, and I felt like I could float as if I was filled with helium. Abby grabbed Father’s and my hands, and Father gripped onto Mother’s. All five of us held each other’s to make a perfect, broken circle.
Dorian Maffei currently resides in the Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Cease, Cows, The Devilfish Review, The Gateway Review, and Oblong Magazine among others. She is an editor at Reputation Books and is soon to become a literary agent. Follow her on Twitter at @DorianMaffei.
Artwork: Egene Koo, “Sleeping with Egg 2”