Susanna J. Sturgis    

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Mimi's Revenge

for Carol

Because you nourish rancorous
ill will toward persons
Whom I intend to protect:
I send you out before you've time
to do harm here.

Euripides' Medea

When Mimi's daughter was married to Carol's husband, Mimi planted mint outside her cabin in the woods. Now Carol's garden sprawls nearby, enclosed by a chicken wire fence planted two feet in the ground. Three strands of barbed wire above the fence keep deer from jumping in. Mimi died last winter but the mint keeps coming back, its small fuzzy heads peering out from under mammoth rhubarb leaves, running with sweet woodruff, sneaking around the strawberry beds, looking for a way in. Carol, who wasn't one of Mimi's favorite people, calls it "Mimi's Revenge."

I remember mint growing modestly at the southwest corner of my parents' house, catching drips and splashes from the outside faucet, sometimes tangling with the coiled green hose. In hot weather I picked mint for tall glasses of iced tea. My mother planted and staked tomatoes in a little plot at the edge of the field. Some years, pumpkin vines grown from last year's jack-o'lantern seeds ran down the hill between the lawn and the woods. I didn't plant, I just picked: tomatoes, pumpkins, mint, buttercups, wild daisies. When the dandelions went to seed, I blew them across the next-door neighbor's lawn.

Mimi's daughter kept a garden too. Her old garden lies within the fence, uncultivated. There, lengthening with the spring, wild grasses and mint grow up to the roughly placed path stones, and they look over the tended places.

Carol goes away for a month, mid-April to mid-May, and hires me to clean up her garden. Before she leaves, we spend two afternoons together, weeding, clearing away withered tomato vines and last year's stakes. She draws me diagrams of each plot. The peony near the gate needs two trowels of lime, a violet has jumped its bed and needs transplanting before someone walks on it. Hens-and-chickens sedum, geraniums, gold-dust alyssum, an "I Don't Know" that is clearly too big to be a mistake, spiderwort, barrenwort, monarda. Rhubarb, leeks, onions and chives, comfrey. Two beds of straw-mulched strawberries, and enough spillover plants to start a new bed. And mint. Mint shy with cool weather but still everywhere. Carol says she shakes her head when she sees people buying mint at the garden store. She wants to tell them to watch it. "Be ruthless," she tells me.

On my own, I start with the strawberries, then plant two flats of lettuce and one of broccoli. Spring is playing touch-and-go. It's bleak and chilly; it rains six days a week. I never planted a garden because I was afraid everything would die, everything would die even though I wanted it to grow, everything would die because I wanted it to grow. Carefully I dig up the strawberries growing in the path or tangled in the weeds behind the concrete block beds. "You're going to a nicer place," I tell them, "just over there. You'll be OK. Here someone might step on you by mistake." I mix goat manure and bone meal into the new bed, then make three rows of young plants almost a foot apart. I dress each seedling with a mound of manure and meal, work it in with my fingers, visualize strong roots reaching into the dirt.

I never planted a garden because I was afraid I didn't know enough: I would mistake the tiny seedlings for weeds and pull them up; nothing would fruit because when it grew I yanked it out of the soil. Spiderwort looked like grass till Carol showed me how the stem is purple growing out of the dirt. I know apple mint by its furry leaves and its strong minty smell. I love pulling up mint. There is something vaguely phallic about those pale weeds when I tear their thin, hairy rootlets out of the ground. A small sprig of mint reveals a long network of roots and with fingers and two-pronged weeding tool I delicately follow one vein to another as each pulls its neighbor into the light. I dump them in a pile to rot.

In the elder days, the king was the earth's consort who waned and died with the sun at year's end, died to give back what was used of the soil. I marvel that he accepted the crown under those terms. Perhaps he did it as he goes to war or sticks dirty needles into his arm, assuming that the ultimate sacrifice will not be asked of him. Eventually he changed the rules, took wives and fenced them in, so that he and the world would know that their sons were also his. The new king has ploughed under the old ways and planted himself a garden.

Carol tells me that mints have squarish stems. Monarda is a mint, and so is the borage growing along the fence behind the strawberries. Monarda and borage are intentional mints. They don't smell minty. I don't pull them up, just Mimi's Revenge. Are you a good mint or a bad mint?

Minty, mint tea, varmint, peppermint. Money is made at the U.S. mint. Each new coin comes out identically stamped and milled, shiny as a newly minted coin. When irregular coins, double-struck perhaps, slip into the world, they are worth far more than their face value. Valuing rarity above all else, collectors compete for the idiosyncrasies.

God, opined some pundit, must have loved the poor, He made so many of them. There are so many weeds. Weeds grow in the wrong place, a dandelion in the strawberry bed, mint rampant among the Egyptian onions. Someone told me that dandelions are parthenogenetic, females that reproduce without males. I was the precocious ten-year-old who blew them over Mrs. Shepherd's lawn.

At The Franklin Mint they make items to sell to collectors by special subscription. Vintage cars engraved on silver ingots, porcelain dolls in authentic native costumes, plates painted in the bucolic fashion of Currier & Ives. Subscribe now, they say, buy heirlooms to be cherished and passed down in your family from generation to generation. They are manufactured in limited editions and accompanied by engraved certificates of authenticity; they are most valuable when collected into complete sets, like baseball cards.

From Mimi's apartment I have a set of octagonal dishes and a pocket camera. From my paternal grandmother, I have a brown Wedgwood pitcher, four delicately etched sherry glasses, and a well-crafted chest of drawers, all stored away because I move so much. Traveling with me are the Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer cookbooks, both annotated in my grandmother's handwriting; a tall and sturdy glass pitcher, four nested blue mixing bowls, two of them broken and successfully fixed; and the scratched cedar chest that has become my altar. Heirlooms.

Our fertilizer is goat shit and meal of the blood and bone of creatures slaughtered for food. Blood meal keeps foraging critters away from the leafy vegetables. When my bladder fills, I pee in the dirt. Earth lodges comfortably under my finger nails. At the end of the afternoon I scrub it away with a white brush.

In fifth grade my class visited Sturbridge Village, where employees dressed in colonial clothes demonstrate spinning wool, weaving cloth, churning butter, forging pewter candlesticks. We took pictures of our teacher standing in the stocks and sitting in the pillory. I bought postcards and copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, printed on parchment treated to look over 100 years old.

Both my grandmothers belonged to the D.A.R., the Daughters of the American Revolution. I can trace my ancestors back to the Revolutionary War, to forgotten women who sat by their fires so that generations could weave on. Their names were ploughed into the soil and their sons were admitted to the garden.

Broccoli and other members of the cabbage family take so much from the earth that they should not be sown in the same plot more than once every four years.

My women ancestors wore black widow's weeds for men who would not return. Black takes all light into itself. Black dogs rarely take good pictures; the flash glints off their eyes and turns them red or scatters in the fur and leaves no eyes at all. Try to distinguish the separate strands of hair on a black dog's face.

The whites want the garden for themselves and banish the blacks beyond the barbed wire. Black takes light and gives back heat. The whites sow automobile plants, steel plants, and nuclear power plants. They plant false evidence and bugging devices. Their seeds fall on concrete. They harvest lies, black smoke, and radiation.

The king who sowed his seed and brought forth only one extravagant odorless flower is growing old. The king seeks a man to tend the garden, a man willing to be grafted to another's stem.

In flanders fields the puppies grow
like black-eyed pennies in a row
the sun comes out they grow so tall
they scrape the sky if they don't fall
if they don't crawl they knock their heads
and fall among the startled dead
pretenders flee and poppets show
the warriors where their sons will go
beneath the crosses row on row

Packed soil resists roots like concrete; earthworms turn the soil over and make room for roots. Roots hold the earth together. When I tear up a weed, the earth turns over. When we turn the soil over, earthworms come exposed to the surface and one by one merry Robin catches them in his beak.

Across the royal table, the king's eye falls on the aging but still ambitious hero, who for many years has dined very well on his adventures. The hero's common-law wife is a woman of unpredictable temper and strange powers. The king suspects that his lovely, compliant, and adoring daughter will suit the aging hero well. And that at the same time the aging hero will occupy his daughter, her mind, her time, her womb.

I lift the stepping stones and find the roots of infiltrating weeds, a tangle of white cords under the earth, tenacious, burrowing under stones and reaching for the garden. Once within the borders, they take on the outward appearance of their hosts. Mint slips among the violets and casts a violet glamor. It shelters under rhubarb leaves as big as elephants' ears and duck its heads behind green horizons.

The widow wears black and the world sees Mrs. Absence of Light. The world is wary of the widow. She's buried at least one husband.

Witches know the gift of each weed: which takes sting from a cut, which made into a tea settles the stomach, which eases a woman's monthly bleeding. Witches were burned at the stake, or drowned, or hung, that their knowledge might not infect the community, the women of the community. The women of the garden.

Penis envy, they call it; if you keep long hairy appendages lodged in your soil, it is said you wish you were a man.

From raw metal the mint stamps out men in one image. Marriage stamps out women in black who wait for their men to return. Military men are the coin of the realm: They turn gray in years of passing from wallet to hand to hand to drawer to hand to pocket. The military men were ripped from the soil. When they come back, there is no life in them. They drain the earth like cabbages.

The wheel of fortune turns. When the revolution came, the old order was ferociously uprooted. The women were told, "Unbind your feet and run!" but tiny feet do not grow back and the women with unbound feet could only hobble.

When I work in the garden, dirt works into the knees of my jeans; woodticks find their way under the cloth to tickle up my calves. I find a mint bud above the ground and follow the stem down into the earth. Sometimes it breaks when I pull it so I use the pronged tool to reach down into the earth for all the roots linked together. I imagine finding the master root and freeing the garden of Mimi's sweet smelling revenge and it would never come back again.

Cancerous cells root in the body and keep coming back. A malignant cancer is out of control and cannot be extracted with a weeding tool. Benign means quiescent. A benevolent despot means well. A dictator rides with a tight rein and is ruthless about pulling up weeds. Sown by mistake, an unwanted fetus nests in the womb and grows, full of its own life, oblivious to the garden. God must have loved these cells; He made so many of them. Where ordered rows are celebrated, cancer is the dread disease.

The revolution's cells are linked one to another. No one knows everything. When the dictator's forces attack, each captured revolutionary can betray only a few of the comrades; unexposed, the rest of the network is safe underground.

Your minty smell overwhelms me. You clutter my orderly rows; you sap my soil and rob my strawberries. I am king in the garden. I pick ticks from the dogs, the cats, the hidden hairline at the top of my own neck, and drown them in a glass jar of kerosene. I pile uprooted weeds near the shit pile and in the wild places of the garden. Before you confound my vision, you have to go, you and all your linked conduits for life, reaching ferociously into the earth. You die so that my flowers and fruits can live. What I say, goes.

Which side are you on?

I come of well-bred stock; I have kin in the garden and kin in the wild. I think of willing my body to science but I would rather they made meal of my blood and bones and worked it into the soil where the food of my daughters will grow. I want to be dead first. I don't want to be uprooted and laid on the heap for the convenience of someone whose fortunes are rising, whose wheel is revolving, whose revolution has come.

In a U.S., city, the police bombed the house of a group called MOVE; eleven people died and most of a city block went up in flames. Opinions about the group's members were diverse: they were inconvenient, they were dirty, they were black, they were dangerous, they were radical, they should have been left alone. Black absorbs light, "radical" means roots, and "inconvenient" means unsuited to the garden. When I yank up the mint, sweet woodruff comes out by the roots.

Killing takes root in the spirit. Among the Nootka people of Vancouver island, it is said that murder takes four generations to work its way out of a people. My people have been killing continually for centuries. How long does it take being uprooted and slaughtered to work its way out of a people? My people have been killed for centuries. I am afraid of disorder and loud voices.

Carol straightens up and shakes her head. "Mint!" she says. I hear a woman looking at an unpredictable sister. I remember the long going away of Mimi's life. Once Mimi's garden was the whole country, then the island of Martha's Vineyard, then an apartment in Hillside Village, then the bedroom of that apartment, then the bed in that bedroom. I remember Mimi sitting gaunt in her bed, struggling for breath, and I see the mint coming back.

To harvest green onions is to take them roots and all. If you leave a few in the garden, they will reseed and grow again next year.

The music of the earth is drowned out by the singing of wires and the drumming of pistons. We drive spears toward the heart of the earth and oil shoots high into the air like aortal blood. Steel braces the wound open.

"Don't leave your family defenseless," admonishes the ad to sell you an over-the-counter cold remedy. Good fences make good neighbors, good mothers, good wives. We defend ourselves with first-strike missiles. The disease of being without defenses is AIDS.

The gardener decides which plants remain, which ones are cast from the garden. The telling of history is the deciding of what is a flower and what a weed, who is the host and who the guest and who the parasite. Not even the library at Alexandria was big enough to contain it all. I remove ticks from my skin, the ones that still drawl and the ones that suck on the peripheries of my hairline. I dream of one crawling up into my vagina and lodging there, growing bigger and bigger like a fetus. How could I root it out? And that is why they burned the library at Alexandria.

One night, the lovely daughter sits up in bed, looks down at her spent hero, and asks, Is that the best you can do? And his exposed flesh blushes red in the dark, and he says, You're getting like her, the other one. When she shakes her head, my tales turn old in the mouth like the morning-after taste of a peppery meal.

She grows from the soil of an older order. She glorifies no gardener. Her wildness seduces flowers; She is no longer welcome inside the fence.

The witch goes into the garden and says to the ivory flower, We are sisters, hear what I hear, know what I know. You don't need the gardener or your hero either, you don't even need the sun. You won't need me either when you feel your own power, and yet I will show you how to feel it. Then they rise up together in the garden, and they say, You will not choose between us, we come together, you will have no gardens before us. We are dandelions, we produce and reproduce without men, and when we take men at all, it is for our pleasure.

We come back in strange forms: bone meal, blood meal, piss and goat shit, buckwheat and cocoa hulls, straw, fuzzy-headed apple mint. We come back as ivy that grows up the stones, that breaks down the rock. We return as the widows, dancing and wearing all the colors of the sun. Our fathomless eyes are black.

 

Published in Trivia 16/17 (Fall 1990)

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