the seedling wife
I was fifteen the first time I felt death. I had no language for it. It was an echo, a tremor in my bones. They said cancer, and I thought I would die. But it wasn’t my death I felt approaching. All those nights I slept in a hospital, I felt things, heard things, knew things. I was never surprised when the next day brought weeping. Distraught mothers. Frightened children. Heartbroken wives. Eventually, I left the hospital. Eventually, they said remission. Eventually, the quiet returned and my bones stilled.
Until the air began to vibrate around my mother and didn’t stop until she was in the ground. And then with others. Many others. I was never wrong. I could feel their last breaths gathering weeks before they were gone. I felt what remained in houses where someone had died. I stayed far away from cemeteries and hospitals. As soon as I realized that there were places where the ground didn’t throb with the blood of the lost, I moved away from the border.
Noxochitzin, I murmur against your hair. You hear nothing, because even in your sleep, you are never completely silent. Always murmuring, as if a river running south or a broad-leafed tree swaying in the wind or a rainstorm greeting the spring lived inside you.
The years do nothing to dull my desire for you. I ache for the scent of you, the feel of you, the heat of you. The softness and the firmness of you. The fullness and the hollows of you and the sweet and salt of you. There is nothing like the sound of my name on your lips.
The thunder woke me. It hardly took a second to register your arm around me, your soft snoring.
You’re so still against me, unlike yesterday.
It was thundering then too. The still air and the heavy clouds and the light drawn tight and tense told me rain was coming. I took your hand and drew you away from your garden shed and pulled you down with me to the ground because I wanted you to feel the thunder rippling through the earth. Wanted for your flesh to hum against mine as the earth hummed against the both of us.
Lightning branched across the sky, and there was a boom of thunder almost simultaneous with the light that lingered behind our eyelids. Darkness descended—darkness too heavy for day—and then the rain came, stinging and sharp against my skin. I covered your body with my own, and then I was brushing against your lips, and you exhaled hot hot, and your hands were strong on my hips, and you made that low guttural sound in your throat that also felt like thunder.
Rain in my eyes, rain on my face, rain in my mouth against your mouth. Your hands firm against my back, on my waist, kneading my thighs, and your hands didn’t stop, didn’t withdraw, didn’t soften. Your hands were on me, and my face was against your neck, and my mouth was panting against your skin.
You unbuttoned my jeans. Shoved them down enough to slip your hand against me, inside me. And my body bucked against you, and your mouth was on my throat, and my hands were clawing into the earth. You withdrew your hand and used your whole body to push me to the ground beneath you, and I tasted the rain on your cheek. You tried to pull my wet jeans off until we collapsed in laughter, and I had to help you, our mouths filling with rain. Cool, green grass against my bare thighs, my hips, my backside. You knelt between my legs, and we pulled our shirts off at the same time, colliding, flesh against flesh. Warmth of you against me.
And, oh, the wild sweetness of your kisses, and the muscle of your arms and thighs under my hands. And the softness of your breasts, your belly, the insides of your thighs. You gasped, then grunted as I bit at your collarbone, your ribs, your hip bones. Rain and thunder and the smell of the earth and my body and yours undulating against each other. Your face on my thighs and mine on yours and our mouths sipping and tasting and sucking. I spiraled and thundered and crashed, and I could hardly concentrate, but the taste of you was so, and the feel of you was so, and the heat of you was so, and I felt your body shuddering, and I could not stop. We cried out together, and as we collapsed, shivering still and the rain falling still, I thought I smelled flowers. We lay there, breathing and breathing and breathing.
This morning, I went to bring in the clothes we’d left scattered on the grass and saw that where we’d lain, full-grown lilies had sprouted in profusion everywhere, already blooming, the white and gold and pink and peach and tangerine and scarlet of Easter lilies and Asiatic lilies, of Sonatas and Sumatras and Stargazers.
I woke, and the seedlings were cool against my skin. Tiny roots raking my legs, my arms, my face. I woke, and my hand was in the space between your navel and your hip. The tiny, red leaves of a Japanese maple were curled against my thumb. There was a tiny sound as I lifted it up and pulled it away from you. I laid it in the shallow basin we keep on the nightstand with an inch of water in it.
You shifted in your sleep, turning onto your stomach. From the back of your knees, I pulled the leafless twigs that would become a Texas redbud. You didn’t move. I brushed the dark hair away from your face, felt the raspy green of Arizona cypresses behind your ear before I saw them. One. Two. Three. Four of them in your hair. I ran my hand down the center of your back. Without waking, you turned back toward me.
That’s when I saw it. It must have begun unfurling before we fell asleep. Six leaves, green, rounded but slender, glossy. A lime seedling. The first of its kind. In all my years with you, you’d never released a lime seedling. Its roots reached from your neck to the corner of your right eye. As if tears had pooled in the hollow of your neck. Grown solid, grown green, grown into leaves. When I pulled it away, it released the scent of sweet, wet earth. I dug my face into your neck, breathed you in. Tightened my arms around you, sighed, and fell asleep again.
I don’t know what alchemies you perform. Only that every morning, while I am making coffee, you take the seedlings out to your workstation beside the deck. Sift soil and sort the tiny pots. There are shelves and shelves and bins and bags with different kinds of soil, with river pebbles and sand and moss and bark and perlite and other things I still can’t name. No moments of hesitation, no wasted movements. You find each seedling its best home, placing each one in the sunlight with care, breathing on each one as if you were kissing me. Even watering them, you are tender and careful, as if you wish you could be the morning dew.
In our first years, I thought you would tire of me, tire of them, tire of all the work—this work of plucking and sorting and potting and watering and weeding and sunning and growing and feeding and planting and tending. But you are as delighted now as you were then, and you emanate peace as if you were the earth itself, breathing in the sunlight.
To love leafing things is to know how life flows into death and back again. How many seeds have I planted and never seen emerge from the ground? How many tiny, green limbs lost to the sun? Lost to cold and frost. Lost to darkness. Lost to too much or not enough water. Lost to pests. Lost to bitter soil. Lost for no discernible reason. Each green life that flourishes eases the ache of those that were lost. The ache of all the tiny, yellowed things I held in my hands. Shriveled and brittle and breakable.
But every budding flower, every unfurling leaf, every new, green-tipped limb is a whole new miracle. From earth and sun and rain, they make and re-make themselves. It seems impossible. The journey from leaf to seedling to tree. Incandescent. All the green life furiously alight. Death kept at bay.
This is what you are. Sunshine in my hands.
It’s impossible to count four hundred rabbits, but I know that’s who they are. All of them white and slightly iridescent. Their eyes look at me intelligently. They possess no fear. They came in ones and twos at first. Then in threes and fours.
They come into our yard at dusk, emerging from the magueys that grow along the east side of the backyard. Sometimes the magueys are there, the flower spikes unbearably tall, twenty feet high and more. Sometimes the magueys are only shadows.
I created a second garden just for the rabbits. Right at the very edge of our yard. Where the grass gives way to the woods. I planted everything they seemed to like most there. I don’t know when it came to me that they were your brothers. They give me a solemn look, knowing that I watch them as they emerge from and return to the magueys, as if the magueys were a doorway to another world. Sometimes they call me sister-in-love. All their ears twitched furiously the one time I was brave enough to say the names of your real mother and father. When I asked the four hundred rabbits, they told me you were what the old gods chose to make when they decided to make something new.
The first time it happened, I didn’t know what to do. I was only thirteen. First, there was the hint of red in the water streaming from my body in the shower. I touched myself and thought it was so strange to bleed and yet not hurt. And then I felt tiny leaves brush against my hand, and a sharpness pricked my fingers. I reached in further, took a hold of it gingerly, and pulled it slightly. It didn’t come free. I pulled harder. Panicked a little bit. But finally it came away from my body. I wasn’t sure what it was, but the leaves looked like the leaves on the trees we had had in the backyard. So green, so green. The roots were twice as long as the little tree. A baby mesquite.
I didn’t know what to do with it. I wrapped it in a hand towel and put it in my backpack. On my way to school, I tossed it into the creek when I passed over the bridge. Every morning, a single new seedling tossed into the creek.
Until the morning that there were three. The night before, I’d made myself come for the very first time. My friends and I had whispered about it, I’d read about it, had even talked to my mom about it, but I knew somehow that my body was different. I tried so many things, tried touching myself soft and hard, quick and slow, here and then there, tried fingers inside. Tried thinking, not thinking, and finally it happened. Like nothing I could have imagined. Leaves and roots erupted from my body.
The next morning, I found three seedlings instead of one. Other times there were two or four. Every morning, I launched them into the creek. On weekends, I rode my bike and found somewhere to leave some of the seedlings. So many different kinds, sometimes in my hair, from the corner of my eyes, from my nostrils, my lips, my underarms, my navel, my hips, my thighs, from between my legs, from behind my knees, from behind my ears. Most of the time, I didn’t know what they were called or where they were from or what they needed. I just knew I couldn’t keep them. Knew my mother would ask me questions I couldn’t answer.
I learned to lock my door at night and to search my body first thing every morning. It was hardest my first year in college, when I had a roommate. I learned to wear concealing pajamas, to always sleep under covers, to wake several times in the night to check myself. I never allowed anyone to fall asleep in my bed, and with every lover, I feared a seedling would emerge and leaf under their hands. I was afraid to see fear in their eyes, and it wasn’t long before that fear turned my body inwards. Blunted my desire.
Sometimes it feels like I’ve spent my entire life waiting to hear that word again.
The doctors are oddly careful. They won’t say it. They’ll say, No signs of reoccurrence. Strangely, I believed them more when the tests were more invasive.
What they do now, decades later, is too easy, too quick.
I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t there holding my hand. If you weren’t there to stay up with me the nights before I go in for the results. If you weren’t there the nights I wake up gasping for air. And I tell you my dreams. I’m in the shower, always in the shower, running my hands over myself, checking for lumps and tenderness and worrying over the flesh that, in its fifties, is no longer as smooth as it once was. I feel a small bulge in my side and press my right hand over it. It throbs under my fingers, and then I’m holding it with both hands as it pushes and pushes. And I can feel my insides being overrun, my organs swallowed, and it grows and grows while the rest of me crumbles. And no one hears my cries, and no one can help me.
I wake up because you’re calling my name. You’re already pressed against me, kissing my wrists, the palms of my hands.
It’s not enough to thank you. And I know I can’t ever really know what it costs you. But I’m grateful. And my parents are grateful. And of course, they’re grateful too.
Mom and Dad started taking me with them when I was ten or eleven. They wanted to teach me that action was necessary, that compassion was never wasted. We worked with a group of people who left water and food and clothing along the border. They wanted no more deaths. Each life saved was a victory. They’d seen too many dead bodies, starved and desiccated, killed by thirst, hunger, and the heat of the sun.
For years, we hardly saw anyone when we were out there. And then you and I went to visit my parents on the border. You came with us. That changed everything. We learned to go where you told us to go. You’d tilt your head to the side, with that faraway look in your eyes and your hands clenching into fists. How many did we save once you joined us, arriving when things were at their most desperate?
Your Spanish is like mine. Like my parents’. North-of-the-border Spanish. Enough to make ourselves understood. But we could speak to them and help them. Though sometimes we had to say lo siento because we were too late.
Mom and Dad weren’t too late for me. They’ve shown me the retama where they found me. Golden blooms falling in cascades. They said I was humming and smiling. Not starved, not thirsty. Lightly swaddled in the early morning heat. No signs of a mother or a father or other people. No diaper. No bottle. No toys. No name. Wrapped in a length of sky blue cotton.
On a summer day so long ago, you took my hand when I asked you to dance. Our friend Leticia was throwing me a welcome-to-Austin party. Tons of food. Sangria and margaritas served by the pitcher. Cumbia and salsa and rock en español playing in the backyard. You were the first woman in Austin I asked to dance. The first and the last.
We danced. We laughed. We drank. I followed you back to your place. We talked till the sun rose, and when I kissed you, our mouths tasted like coffee and dawn.
You were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The morning light golden on your dark skin. Only traces of eyeliner and lipstick left after so many hours.
I woke before you and found the seedlings in your hair spread across my face. I didn’t question them. I had tasted you. Earth after rain on my tongue. I’d smelled the green behind your ears, behind your knees. And the first time I made you come, there were colors blooming in your eyes. Your skin itself sang life life life under my hands, under my lips.
When you woke and saw me, you smiled and then rose in a panic, rushing to the restroom. I caught your arm, waved towards the seedlings I’d placed on the nightstand. It’s okay. I’ll take care of them. Come back to bed. Your eyes were wide, and you bit your lip, but you came back to me.
In that first week, only flowered trees were born from you. Small things. Barely more than twigs and roots and a leaf or two. I pored over the leaves, tracing their fragile edges with my fingers. In my mind, their future colors bloomed. The soft pinks of magnolias and redbuds, purple bauhinias and jacarandas and mountain laurels, blue paulownias, white manukas and dogwoods, yellow huisaches and retamas. All the fruits: orange trees and grapefruit trees and apple trees and peach trees. Crepe myrtles of every color. I plucked each one from you with wonder.
Morning sunshine streamed in from your bedroom window. I brought soil and bark and string. Made tiny baskets for each seedling, setting their roots in the soil and bark. I cut the string to different lengths, hung each seedling so that it would receive as much sunlight as possible. I wanted to delight you.
You cried and told me about all the seedlings you’d tossed in creeks and parks and other people’s yards. Never again, I said, I’ll take care of them.
And I have. Trees grow slowly, but there are at least two hundred potted seedlings in our backyard at the moment. I’ve donated at least five hundred trees that were at least seven feet tall to local parks. There’s a twenty-five-mile stretch of highway outside of town that we supplied with native, hardy trees.
Every now and then, I’ll take a few into the forest and plant them where I think they’ll flourish. I’ve dedicated twenty acres on the other side of the house to growing fruit trees.
All the time, I am surrounded by your leaves. Your flowers. Your fruit. Your seeds. Your scent.
I’ve dreamt it, you know. I know what will happen the day I die. You’ll need to stay close to me. You’ll need to be there before I take my last breath. There won’t be much time to carry me out to the empty land beyond the fruit orchards. In the moment I take my last breath, leaves will start emerging from every part of me, from every pore. Tendrils and branches. Leaves and blossoms and fruit and seeds. All of my flesh, all of my organs, ruthlessly rooting and seeding. You’ll try, but you won’t be able to pluck them from me fast enough. They’ll fall from my body and take root as soon as they touch the earth. You’ll have to run, my love, you’ll have to run as fast as you can. As soon as you lay me down, run. Without hesitating. It’ll seem as if my body’s exploding—entire tree trunks and branches bursting out of me. The green will spread in every direction, so quickly that the earth will shudder and roll, heave and sigh. All of me—my eyes, my skin, my limbs, my blood converted into flowers, into vines, into a green river shot through with sunlight.
I’ve dreamt this, my love. I’ve dreamt this and your tears, but you’ll never be alone. I’ll always be with you. You can sleep amongst the roots of my trees. You can touch each blossom to your face and feel my kisses. You can eat any fruit and taste me. Live in my garden after I am gone.
It will take years, perhaps decades, but a strange flower will bloom—and you’ll see a seed, pearl-white and the size of your fist. Take it to the desert where I was found—take it when you feel your days coming to an end. Embrace it and you’ll be embracing me.
Age hasn’t slowed your parents down at all. They’re flourishing in the heat, attending protests, registering voters, translating for refugees, fundraising for various nonprofits, still trekking out into the empty spaces to leave water and dry foods. I’ll come along too and do what I can.
And then we’ll come back here, our home, our garden, our little forest away from the city. To days and days with you. Nights where we have dinner on the patio, and the candlelight causes the first few gray hairs on your head to glimmer like silver. Mornings when the first thing you say is my name. My hands will harvest the seedlings from your body. I’ll wonder at how they emerge from your skin. How they multiply in number each time I make you come, again and again and again. And they’re not always trees nowadays. I’ve been surprised by tiny orchids from your thighs, passionflower vines from your feet. I went to nibble at your neck and followed the scent of roses until I found them rooted behind your ears. I want to know what else your body will learn to make, what else will emerge—will there be little succulents on your back, green, thumb-sized balls of cactus on your legs, bougainvilleas branching out of your hair? Will I see plants that have not grown in the Americas in centuries, in millennia?
We live in a paradise of our own making. We are still a long way from goodbyes, my noxochitzin. I hear no whispers in the wind. Today is not our last day. Tonight we’ll sleep in each other’s arms. And tomorrow morning, I’ll find pots for the new seedlings.