by Elise Blackwell
Editor's note: This piece of flash fiction, by the author of The Lower Quarter, was originally published in The Newport Review.
The passion with which she took to the house and garden surprised him. She told him her grandmother taught her to cook when she was a girl. She’d just been waiting for a kitchen. She cooked hard, rolling pastry, stirring sauces with a wooden spoon, punching down yeast doughs and reanimating them with the warmth of her hands. She domesticated what she brought in from the yard, pounding great loose piles of basil or cilantro into pestos, transforming fat figs into glossy jewels suspended in glass jars, re-envisioning weeds into the bouquets that sat between them as they ate what she made.
“You’re an alchemist,” he said, “turning mud to gold.”
She shook her head. “Just a painter of still lifes.”
Outside she seemed tireless, turning the earth with a shovel, releasing its scent, revealing swarming life. The soil crawled with earthworm, ant, and what the child next door called doodlebugs.
When he stepped onto the porch in the summer gloaming to beckon her in, the air was perfumed with just-pruned lavender, rosemary, and mint. Mostly he watched, but from time to time he helped in some small way: putting away her tools, sweeping dirt from the stone pathway, coiling the garden hose according to her directions, its brass head resting in the center.
“Bring your passion to our bed,” he said sometimes, and she always did, the smell of garden still on her, their sex fierce.
It was a cool morning when he heard her cry out and ran downstairs to her. “The gutter was clogged and I was trying to open it,” she said, presenting her arm, the ring finger marked by two red punctures. “Cuts?” he tried, but she shook her head.
“The snake smelled like cucumbers.” She wilted into the passenger seat as he drove her to the hospital. Her hairline was sweaty, her face the strange yellow of dusk coming to a dirty sky when the refineries worked round the clock.
She came home that night with her arm bandaged elbow past fingertips. “We wait,” she said, “and I am not good with time.” For two days she stared out the window. He brought her sandwiches she didn’t touch, milk she did not drink.
On the third morning he awoke to the odor and saw her changing her bandages. The closest thing in his experience was when the neighbor’s dog dug up a weeks-old gopher from the compost pile. Now he tried not to compare the smell, afraid that any analogy would mark it in his memory.
The doctor had thin blond hair and the look of a woman grown suddenly old. Her cheeks and forehead glowed unnaturally red. “A side effect of a medication I’m taking,” she said, pointing to her face. “Not contagious.”
When she unwound the final pieces of gauze and released the smell he turned away—bile already in at the top of his throat.
“Cytotoxins in the venom,” the doctor said, “have caused local tissue death.”
He heard the word amputation and was surprised to hear his beloved ask, “the arm or the hand or just fingers?” as though she were comparing items at the market. In the end, they took the bitten finger and part of another. She cried when she emerged from the anesthesia but was otherwise stoic, taking less morphine than they offered, never complaining of pain or speaking of phantom digits, careful to cover her disfigurement but not seeming to dwell. Yet she did not go outdoors, except from porch to car door and always on the stone path. And she did not look him in the eye for more than a nervous moment.
Six weeks later the garden had gone wild. Tomatoes burst with their own weight, huge basil gone to flower collapsed sideways again the front fence, fruit rotted on the ground, attracting birds, bugs, small mammals that skulked away when he turned on the porch light.
Inside she cooked one handed: grilled cheese, pasta from a bag, soup bought somewhere else and heated, a bowl of grapes grown a continent away.
Upstairs they did not make love, coming only as close as his hand on her back, brotherly, or a workday’s goodbye kiss, lips closed.
One evening they lay on the bed, him in only pants and her in a white gown, watching shadows scrape the ceiling, not touching.
“My hand disturbs you,” she whispered and at last gave him her full gaze. “I know it looks horrible.”
But it was not the way her fingers looked that kept him on his side of the bed. And he knew that if he inhaled she would smell like the lavender mist she sprayed on her face after she washed it, like the mint in the toothpaste from the health-food store, like her beautiful hair. Yet only the stink of necrosis filled his nostrils, and his stomach clenched.
To leave her now would be to admit he is a bad man, one permanently immature, and so he rolls over to make love to her as though she is a person who will not decompose.