Garden of Grudges
by Gwendolyn Kiste
Our mother’s first grudge sprouted up with the turnips in the fall.
It was the color of pewter, and coiled around the roots in the shape of a cyclone. Squinting and grumbling, I yanked the turnip from the ground, and the moment it broke free, the scents of earth and tears filled the air. Dread rose up my throat as I stared at the grudge.
My little sister Lily huddled next to me, her brow twisted. “What is it?”
I shook my head and tucked her hair behind her ear, my fingers nervous, hands red from the sun. “Start pulling up the other crops, okay?”
As Lily hunched over the radishes, I peeled off a piece of the grudge and cradled it close to my chest like a broken heirloom before heading back toward the house.
In her bedroom, our mother sat alone in her rocking chair. The fireplace murmured at her feet, a witches ladder made of feathers and golden thread strung up across the mantle.
I edged into the room. “I found something in the garden.”
When I held it out to her, her eyes flickered for a moment before going dark. She nudged it once with her ring finger before waving me off.
“Toss it in the compost,” she said, “and put a little plantain ointment on that sunburn, Elsa.”
I gritted my teeth. This was what I should have expected. In the kitchen, I dropped the gnarled piece in the garbage and let the back door slam behind me, not bothering with the ointment in the cupboard.
Outside, Lily was kneeling in the dirt, her face daisy-petal white.
“There’s more,” she said, swallowing a sob.
The grudge had braided its way through the roots of all the vegetables. The radishes and beets and potatoes, each one poisoned with the dull silvery growth, its tendrils curling in every direction.
I brought an armful of vegetables into the house to show our mother.
“We can’t sell these at market,” I said.
She shrugged, her gaze faraway. “Of course, we can. How else will we make a living?”
I parted my lips, ready to argue, but she closed her eyes, and all at once, the conversation was over.
My chest constricted. Please talk to me, I wanted to say, but it wouldn’t make any difference. Our mother no longer spoke to Lily or me, not really, not about anything that mattered. Not since the afternoon of our father’s funeral when she’d gone quiet and cold, as though she might as well have taken her last breath when he did.
After the mourners had filed out the front door that day, their black veils tugged tight over impassive faces, she’d stood in the flower-stuffed kitchen, her hands trembling.
“Nobody brought a casserole,” our mother said. “Someone always brings a casserole to a grieving family. But no one brought us one.”
Lily and I lingered in the corner, our black hand-me-down dresses itchy at the collars.
“I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it,” I said.
“Some of your father’s family didn’t come at all.” She plucked the petals off a drooping rose. “They only sent a note.”
She continued on like this, counting and recounting all the ways we’d been denied. Even when our Aunt Leslie would phone to check in, our mother always had a reason to cut the call short, admonishing her own sister for how she didn’t visit enough.
“They’ve all forgotten us,” our mother said, and maybe she was right. After all, the town’s well wishes seemed to dry up shortly after the funeral. People could tolerate a little bereavement, but a family shouldn’t take more than their fair share.
Now months later, grief still permeated our home, lingering in the air, as potent as a wreath of garlic, as poisonous as water hemlock.
My mother sat by the waning fire, not budging from her chair. “Go on now,” she said to me.
With my heart gripped tight, I knew what she wanted. At the kitchen table, I cursed under my breath as I trimmed off the excess growth with a paring knife, carving away the grudge, careful not to break the skin of the vegetables if I could avoid it.
When I was done, Lily and I put the produce in a row of crates on the front yard. A man would come in the morning to pick them up and haul our crop to the farmer’s markets and local restaurants.
Our strange and grotesque crop, even the heartiest vegetables faded and maimed. I could only cut away so much.
“It seems so wrong,” Lily whispered in our room that night after the lights went out.
Shivering, I reached across the empty space between our beds and squeezed her hand.
“Everything will be fine,” I said, but my quivering voice in the dark sounded like a stranger’s.
Our mother’s second grudge was made of satin and pearls. It blossomed the next spring, long after we’d collected the money for the first sullied crop.
“They’re beautiful,” Lily said, as she plucked a string of pearls from the husk of a green bean. But when she tried to put them on, the pearls crumbled to nothing at her throat.
This grudge was made of ash and smelled of regret. Stained bolts of satin stretched taut over the skins of parsnips like a sheen of spiderwebs, and the veins in the kale leaves were made of torn wedding lace. These were all the pretty things our mother once had but since lost.
Weeping and swearing, I cut away what I could before the man came and took the vegetables into town.
“Do you think they’ll notice?” Lily asked, but I only shook my head and held her hand tighter.
One afternoon, she and I rode our bikes downtown and watched from the pockmarked sidewalk near the diner as out-of-towners ordered salads made from our crop. We always knew which ones they were, because with each bite, their faces went a little grayer, and a strange look drifted behind their eyes. I shuddered, wanting to cry out, but knowing I couldn’t stop them, couldn’t explain to them how they were dining on our mother’s sorrow.
They would soon return home on the interstate, indigestion in their souls, thorns of rage splintering their hearts. All thanks to our garden.
Our father had been the lucky one in a way—gone and in the ground, his remains so deep in the family crypt that even the roots of my mother’s grudges couldn’t reach him now.
Sitting cross-legged in front of the Greyhound station, our bikes tipped over in the grass, Lily and I took turns remembering him.
“His eyes,” she said, clutching the lucky horseshoe necklace our mother had given her.
“Dark and smiling and devious,” I said with a laugh. “The way he smelled?”
“Like pine trees. Like Christmas.” Lily brightened for a moment before her face went dim again. “His voice?”
“Singing,” I said, and leaned back, my face to the sky, as though I might catch the sound of our father on the wind. “He was always singing.”
Folk songs, church hymns, it didn’t matter. That baritone, rich and vibrant, would fill up the house like wood smoke as he went about his chores, and Lily and I would giggle and follow behind him, always humming along, a little out of tune.
It had only been a year since the tumors wound up his insides tighter than a grudge, and we shouldn’t have needed to do this. We should be able to remember. But already, the little details were slipping away from us.
The sun dipped down into the trees, and Lily and I collected our bikes and rode back to a home that no longer felt like ours.
Our mother wasn’t like him. She was never one for lullabies or bedtime stories or soft words cooed over a skinned knee or a broken heart. She believed in fixing problems quickly and keeping quiet, even when you wanted to scream.
After dinner that evening, Aunt Leslie called twice, but our mother wouldn’t answer.
“If she can’t come here, we don’t need her,” she said without ever asking Lily or me if we agreed.
At midsummer, when the rest of the kale and the cauliflower ripened with a flourish of ugly silver at the edges, we put the crates of produce out in front of the house like always. But the next day, the man knocked on the door, his face grim.
“We can’t take them anymore.”
“Why not?” I asked, not looking at him.
“You know why,” he said, and turned away.
I waited three days to tell my mother.
“This town doesn’t care at all,” she said when I finally confessed it to her. “They’d rather leave us here to starve.”
I wanted to tell her she was wrong, but her eyes went darker than I’d ever seen them. The last ember in the fire went out, and I stood frozen in the doorway, not moving to relight it, not even breathing, wishing I was someone or somewhere else.
After that, my mother’s grudges wouldn’t stop blossoming. Day and night, spring and winter, nothing could quell them.
Vines crept up the house and blocked out all the windows. The grudges turned the color of bruises, blue and gray and a sickly brown, and they came alive. Late one evening, when I was making supper, a tendril slithered between the floorboards and trapped Lily in our bedroom. By the time I heard her screaming, it had already curled around her legs, tightening around the bone like a hungry python.
“But she’s okay?” my mother asked when I told her.
“She’s alive,” I said, tossing a lifeless vine at her feet. It turned to ash before it hit the floor. “Pretty cut up and bruised, though.”
Our mother closed her eyes, as if in thought. “Get the salve from under the sink. The dandelion one. That should help.”
On instinct, I tightened my hands into fists, the veins twisting beneath my skin like gnarled roots. “Lily deserves better than this.”
I deserve better too, I almost said, but didn’t. My mother’s heart was so brittle. Everything about her was brittle. She was liable to break into a thousand jagged pieces if you so much as flashed her a scowl.
But I had to help Lily. The next morning, I packed her a small duffel bag of clothes, carefully tucking her horseshoe necklace and our father’s hymn book in a side pocket. Then we walked together to the Greyhound station downtown.
“Call when you get to Aunt Leslie’s house,” I said.
“What about you?” Lily asked, fidgeting on the street.
I shrugged and held her close to me. “I’ll be all right.”
This was the best I could do—send her far away from here. Far from me and far from our mother.
After she boarded the bus, Lily gazed out the smudged window and gave me a small smile like goodbye. It twisted a knife deep in my heart, but I just waved back at her as the engine roared, and my little sister disappeared from my life.
At home, our mother hunched over the darkened fireplace. She didn’t move when I came back or when I brought her a cup of stew, a stringy broth made from canned cabbage.
“It was best for Lily,” she said afterward. “It would be best for you too, Elsa. If you got out of this place.”
I shook my head. “This is where I belong,” I said, though I wondered suddenly if that were true.
My mother’s last grudge tore the house in two.
It was in the chill of February, when stalks as thick and tough as bone plunged through the walls, their heavy leaves dripping dew like tears. The windows in my bedroom shattered, crushing Lily’s old bed in an instant, and plaster crumbled beneath the weight of the past.
This was everything my mother had held in: her rage at the town for forgetting us, at my father for leaving us, at herself for not being able to do better.
Winter slipped in like a thief through the broken crevices of our home, and my breath fogged all around me until I could barely see. But I couldn’t stop, not if I wanted to save some remnant of our lives. I sealed off the damaged rooms, stuffing old towels around the seams and locking the doors as though I could close off her sorrow.
“We’ll make do,” I said in my mother’s room, as I lit a fire.
In her rocking chair, she didn’t answer. I inched closer and held out my hand. Her skin smoldered to the touch, so hot it was searing. My body shaking, I helped her to bed, tucking her in against the cold. I already knew what to do next.
A dishrag soaked in egg whites and wrapped around her feet to break the fever.
A tea of thistle and chamomile to keep her hydrated.
An iron horseshoe tied with a bow above the door for protection.
All these skills she’d taught us. These were the ways she’d cared for Lily and me. Not with kind words, but with small moments, ones easily forgotten by a queasy, feverish toddler, or a child with a bee sting who wanted an embrace so tight it might smother her, not an ointment that would numb the pain.
This was all she could give us. Nothing more, and nothing less. I had been waiting so long for what my mother should say, to hear her speak the words that would heal everything. But I needed to say something instead.
“I love you,” I said, “and I’m not leaving.”
That was what she’d always feared. Being abandoned. Being forgotten.
I wouldn’t do that. Long past midnight, I stood vigil next to her, rebrewing her tea, changing her compresses.
The house creaked and shifted around us, as one by one, the grudges retreated, through the windows and the floorboards and back out into the night, the vines and leaves and dew turning to soot and leaking back into the earth.
The fireplace crackled with glee, and I gazed out the window. Covered in ash, our field was different, nearly unrecognizable. It was impossible to know what would grow here, but out of these cinders, something new was about to flourish.
We might make it to spring thaw. Right now, I only wanted to make it to morning.
I stoked the fire before curling next to my mother in bed. Still half asleep, she reached out for me, and I interlaced my fingers with hers. Her touch no longer burned my skin. The fever had broken at last.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Outside, snow danced over the blackened meadow, painting our garden a luminous white.
With my head rested next to hers, I hummed my mother a lullaby and held her hand until dawn. Then she held me a little longer.
Gwendolyn Kiste is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-nominated collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, and her debut horror novel, The Rust Maidens. In addition to Bracken, her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, and LampLight, among other publications. A native of Ohio, she resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at gwendolynkiste.com.