Purity started with a seed. It was just an ordinary seed for an ordinary yellow marigold.
I had arrived at 47th Street in Sunset Park Brooklyn in the late Spring, a move inspired by mother’s death. Father hadn’t managed well, spacing out during shifts and earning the men on his production line a total of seven lost fingers as well as his own termination.
With the rest of our family either gone or moved on, we relocated to New York so Father could work in a cousin’s lace factory, though it wasn’t so much a factory as it was a large hot room crowded with work tables and machines, tucked away and forgotten between the 14th and 16th floors of a stacked grey building in the garment district of Manhattan.
Our twenty acres of Kentucky woodland was replaced with a dilapidated 600 square foot apartment and musty cellar. The commute to the high school near the midtown factory involved speeding through underground tunnels, shoulder to shoulder with crowds of the most miserable and run down people I had ever seen. In homeroom, the grimaces and sloshing paper cups of coffee were replaced with bubble gum smiles and designer handbags.
The kids were a breed well beyond anything I had ever encountered. Everyone seemed to be related to someone in the fashion industry and the parties followed closely behind the latest accessories. Late weeknights out to clubs or lofts owned by designers, a bricolage of lustful deviance straight out of the tabloids, and behavior I didn’t see fit for anyone, let alone for children. Nothing about this world made sense to me.
One particular night out, complete with pink drinks, pounding rhythms and dance, proved to me that my heart belonged back in the woods. It was in an old warehouse, all turned around and dressed up as some sort of fairyland forrest with plastic trees and silk flowers, tall statuesque people partially covered with strategically placed leaves and nylon glittering wings. Beautifully crafted and completely disinterested, they were equally provisional.
A flashing strobe reflecting off a disco ball sent shredded light onto the crowd, like star fall. The girl from my homeroom who had taken me, first under her wing, and then out to these events, had me propped me up like a rag doll on the dance floor. I would find out later that she had added something much stronger than liquor to my drink.
In my addled state, the reality of the fake potted trees and concrete floor gave way to the strong memory of running through the woods, the musky smell of soil below my feet. The strobe dissolved into sunshine, filtered through a cover of leaves while the thumping bass faded into the background of my own beating heart.
I planted my first seed the following weekend.
With one hydroponic light, the cellar began its transformation and I returned to simpler times. Small at first with just one humble tray of marigolds, a good deal of research and many more lights saw the space fill up with life. I outfitted the room with an old wicker rocking chair I found discarded on the street and devoted every spare moment to growing the garden.
My heart swelled with every seed and propagation. I was away from the crowds and chaos of city life, the expectations of friends, family and teachers. I was alone and undisturbed, a solitary creature departed from society. I was finally home, the garden my refuge. I was able to turn a deaf ear to my surroundings, and instead focused on maintaining the garden. I had never intended on creating what I had, nor do I even understand how it happened.
One morning before school I ducked down into the cellar and was horrified at what I saw. Every leaf seemed to be crawling with life, the movement of hundreds of insects sending a chill up my spine as I slammed the door behind me. I skipped my classes that day, taking the train to a flea market in Coney Island to buy a powerful magnifying glass so that I might determine what kinds of pests I was up against. I prepared myself for war.
Bracing myself before descending the stairs to my overgrown jungle, I had the magnifying glass in one hand and a cheap plastic swatter in the other, which I used to bat away a small swarm of airborne pests. Under the magnifying glass, what I had thought were gnats had the unmistakable shape of miniature birds flattened against the blue plastic. I thought I was seeing things — maybe I had finally gone off from being alone all the time, but no. That wasn’t the case.
With every light on at full blast, I lifted leaves and examined each stalk. There were plenty more of those tiny birds, all different kinds and colors, winged, legged, with fur and scales, and they weren’t alone. To my amazement, a mere 10 by 15-foot cellar in Brooklyn boasted a greater variety of creatures than our entire acreage back in Kentucky. My very own Eden.
I sat in the rocking chair for hours taking it all in — what had grown under my thumb — who I was, what I was destined to be. All of the mistakes of existence flooding my mind.
When footsteps above told me that Father was home, I reset the timers on the lights back to their usual schedule. Walking up the stairs with a head thick with wonder and concern, I was reminded by something I had read in school that week, the gist of it being that those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
Quickly turning back, I grabbed my clippers off the work table and swiftly cut the apple tree sapling right at its base.
Just in case.
Meredith Caraher lives in New York City. It provides a certain amount of anonymity, however there seems to be no escaping the self. Man oh man, though, how hard she’s tried.