Lawns and Roses, Daffodils and Weeds
In the boy’s comic book, a man swallows a potion that gives him the ability to hear plants speaking. He’s loves overhearing the conversations of flowers and trees. Even more, he loves being the only person who can hear their voices.
Until a neighbor snips a bouquet of roses, and he hears them scream. Until her husband mows their lawn, and there is uninterrupted wailing. Though the man covers his ears, there’s so much terror and pain it’s unendurable, dooming him to constant shrieking, something like a terrible tinnitus, for the rest of his life. He holds icepicks to ears in the final panel.
Despite that horror, the boy listens to daisies when he rips their petals off. He imagines a flower’s scream, high-pitched and girlish. A tree, he thinks, would groan like a man as it was sawed in half. The weeds that grew waist-high in the field behind his house would whimper like boys trying not to cry. When he cuts the lawn, whatever horrible sounds it made were drowned out by the mower.
One day, the boy believes he is the only person who can see bacteria unaided. Shapes that look like evil, transparent cells float in front of his eyes, some linked into tiny chains, some clustered into clouds. All of them shift and tumble when he blinks. He thinks they are talking to each other in voices so tiny that he will not hear them until the grow inside him.
He tells nobody, but the germs swarm so densely he is afraid to breathe. He holds his breath as if he is underwater. For a minute, sometimes. Or for as long as his father, who works in the steel mill, talks about the joy of pruning shrubbery or transplanting trees because this work, like love, encourages growth.
“Your cells renew themselves,” his father says. “You are always changing.” The boy cuts anything that looks out of place and thinks of who he is constantly turning into memory. When the branches snap, he listens to their voices as they fall.
Onions and Trees
The boy learns how a scientist, long ago, said one onion plant influenced the growth of another nearby plant unless glass was placed between them. He looks at the scientist’s face, how he resembles the plant-listener in his comic book as he crouches to measure results. It looks as if that man is about to learn something no one else knows, what sort of language onions speak with what he calls mitogenetic rays.
“Not onions,” his father says, “but trees talk to other trees through their roots.”
The boy smiles until his father adds, “Only the trees can hear what’s being said.”
Wax and Steel
His father decides to give his mother a gift of assorted wax fruit for their anniversary. “Each piece will always look the same,” he says in the store, and the boy decides the blended colors look just short of ripe, as if the next day, when the anniversary arrives, they will be perfect.
His father has memorized the size of the bowl he intends to fill as a morning surprise, centering it upon the kitchen table. He arranges and rearranges the apples and pears, the peach and bunched grapes, trying to guess which cluster is best. “Now,” he tells the boy at last, “aren’t these picture perfect? Can’t you see them looking beautiful forever?
On the way home, they passed the mill where his father worked. “It’s all been decided,” his father says. “The higher-ups say the mill’s shutting down for good next year. Our town might as well fall into the earth.” The boy thinks of the earthquake in the comic book he’d bought the day before. The earth opened in huge cracks that sucked tumbling, screaming bodies into fire. Their voices went “Eeeaayy” and “Noooo.” The boy feels the street they are riding on getting ready to split and heave, but his father does nothing but hum for the seven miles to their house, high and then low like a warning for ships in dense fog, but the boy is sure it must be the sound steel would make as it fell into the fire burning at the center of the earth.