My mother was a gardener. She saw something in nature—in dirt and bugs and effervescent flies—that I never have. Under light skies and bright weather, she’d kneel for hours in our mediocre garden, weeding and watering or whatever it is that gardeners do.
I am now doing the same in my aunt’s yard. When my mother passed, I was transferred to my father’s sister’s care. No one else was willing to take me on, I suppose.
It was not easy to receive this space. Unlike my mother, Aunt Jan detests gardens; being white and wealthy, she follows her roots in ascribing to the European practice of owning a tapis vert. She first resisted my requests to desecrate her mowed grass; I persisted, refusing to relinquish my mother. At last, she understood and granted me four square metres of dirt.
In one half of my garden, I am growing my fibre and flesh. I dedicate these to my mother—or perhaps they are grown from her—who refused to eat chunks of meat and always protested the way I prepared our food. “One bite, one piece,” she’d say, “that’s how it’s done.” It is disappointing to know that I have finally perfected her favourite cuts on what nobody will eat. The tufts of my muscle peeking out from the soil feed on recycled vegetable rinds. That is one half of me, I want to shout; and I want to cry, because that is the half from my mother that I am only now paying homage to.
In the other half of my garden, I am growing my fats. I do so in the name of Aunt Jan. It’s only fitting, considering how she scrapes fats from her food with the same pursed expression as when looking at my garden. But for me, I know she has patience. From the dirt sprout pale and reaching fingertips, soon to scrabble for purchase to unbury themselves; they keep their ambitions in mind—or in their nails, as they do not yet have a conscience—not unlike the way Aunt Jan edges me towards greatness. A person must have meaning, she likes to say, though she insists I define that for myself.
Torn between two selves, I self-inflict meiosis: I am becoming and unbecoming. I am searching for a middle ground, a wholeness I have never been nor found.
My mother used to propagate aloe plants from broken clips of old ones. The same premise applies here: the pieces of myself bloom into wailing babies.
Distinctly, I must confess to being impressed; I seem to have been more than I expected. There are more than two bodies—more than four—but still an even number. My division is clean.
As I uproot the little bodies, Aunt Jan comments on how I am noticeably lighter. I am much less than I was last year, when I had yet to begin gardening. There is concern in her voice, but I pay it no mind. She has no power to stop me; I have determined my greatness. Through planting my body, I will become someone new.
Aunt Jan was a teacher in her prime. English is her native language, so she’s only ever needed to be herself. That, I admire. I too wish to need only be myself, but I fear—no, I know—I will never attain naturality. The inherited clumsy tongue entrenched in my mother’s joys will never leave me. Even if it could, I could not bring myself to ask for that to happen.
But Aunt Jan has always kept her eyes forward, and she has taught me to do the same. When I curl over a desk, she keeps by the curve of my back, waiting for the right moment to tousle my hair and keep me going. Before teachers and during other awkward moments, she speaks her mind the way she has learnt, upholding the right balance of placation and her disagreement; then she turns and tells me to do the same. This is to say I am striving for success the way Aunt Jan has taught me: with patience, resolution, and wit.
Perhaps she is strict with me, but it is not without kindness. She told me, once, that she only held fortune in her later years, once her employment paid off; she put in hours, and luck came to her. So, she said, I could achieve that too.
My mother lived in the present of the past, tending to each action to cultivate rapture; Aunt Jan seeks the future. I should do as Aunt Jan does, being in her care, but—what of my mother? This warring strips me down, peeling buds from stem, which I must then replant into the ground by way of my mother’s aloe.
I harvest my selves—not to keep but perhaps to sell, so that they will be far away from one another and avoid my current predicament—and Aunt Jan reads to me her old slides speaking of social identity. A woman has got to keep her mind, she likes to say.
Breaking through her monologue mid-sentence, my harvest runs up and about, screeching at the top of their miniature lungs. Somehow—despite all that I have done—they have no compunctions about playing with one another. I give chase, reel them in.
Aunt Jan pinches her eyebrows together, as she always does regarding my garden. Once silence returns, she rests her elbow on the arm of her chair and slowly asks, “How do you define yourself? Do others ever ask you who you are, what you are, where you are from?”
“I usually say I’m half.”
“Well!” she exclaims, somehow surprised. “Don’t.”
I want to ask what she would have me say instead—“mixed” is too crude, but “biracial” too many syllables for when put on the spot. I want to ask why she now raises the question; so she has noticed my division—what of it? These little bodies will be at ease where I am not.
But there is no point to ask, for the harvest comes only after the planting, and I have done both with enough care to bring forth fulfillment.
Cross-legged in the kitchen with my bare thighs against the tile flooring, I tilt the serrated knife in my hands. The metal catches the moonlight let in by the clear back doors. At midnight, Aunt Jan is likely snoring away upstairs. The night provides me escape from scrutiny.
To my right sits a large but empty Ziploc bag; before me lies a neatly-folded pale pink blanket. The blanket is not large—just enough to cover a torso—and was once my mother’s. If I remember correctly, it was her mother’s before that as well. Sewn into it are little flower heads, resulting in varying thicknesses that makes the blanket largely uncomfortable to sleep with.
But there is a reason I took it—of all things—with me when I moved in: a staple by the corner of my childhood bed, just in case I got too cold at night, it accompanied my growth. My mother wrapped it around me the morning of my final exam, six months before she died. Though we were both sick, she still wanted to provide comfort.
I press the knife into one thigh and slice out a sizeable chunk. Under the blade, I come apart like putty; it hardly takes effort. Thin lines of fat separate muscle, as if I had instead cubed a salmon steak. I wonder if I smell as I look: fishy, unfresh, soft enough to crush with bare hands.
One of the many reasons I stopped eating fish in public was the incessant complaints. It smells, people would say. It’s weird. I had wondered, for a long time, whether it was the fish they were protesting or the way my mother made it. In her decades post-immigration, her cooking never budged, even after the cheapened, Westernized versions started selling out at the local take-out restaurants.
Hurriedly—for I must not let myself drip—I slide the cubes of myself into the Ziploc bag. It will marinate in itself for a moment, after which I will divide and peel my muscle from the fat. My mother did not waver, so I must honour her in kind; as I’m planting the muscle in her name, they must first be sliced into her preferred thinness.
And I will fit fine into the soil; after all, my mother never believed in flowers. Utility was of the utmost importance. A garden is to eat. I will not feed from my garden—instead I will feed my garden. Detritivores will tear me apart and recreate me whole.
It is not as though my mother didn’t appreciate beauty. She simply found it in everything, and so it was not a priority. The aloe was not about maintaining appearances, but rather preservation. It had a use: she’d rub its juices into my skin whenever I foolishly followed her into the garden to get devoured by mosquitos.
Everything has a use, I suppose. I have a use.
I use the blanket to sop up my blood. Hygiene once a tenet of our household, she’d have berated me for the action. It’s a waste of cloth, what I’m doing. But my mother is gone, long buried, and I need not worry about what she’d say.
The air is thick and the dirt damp. I scuff the ground cover with the flat of my foot. My wailing babies have disappeared; I know not to where exactly, but I imagine they are doing well. By either my mother or Aunt Jan, they are only half of what has made me. They are whole; they are enough.
With each planting, I become less. Today is the culmination of my efforts, for there is only so much of me left. It is the beginning of the new season—after the final frost—and so from my garden, I have dug a deep pit; I now stand at the edge, peering into it. Little critters crawl out of their homes to slide down the walls and collect at the bottom. That will soon be me.
The idea is laughable. My mother would never accept unliving. Someone firm, I never knew her to regret a decision—my existence included. If she saw me now, I think she would yell for me to recollect my selves from the marketplace. Despite the way I had so painstakingly separated flesh from fat, she’d say it’s unnatural to force such a split. Counterproductive.
I’d tell her: I’ve got to try, though, don’t I?
From inside the house, Aunt Jan yells for me to replace the displaced dirt that I had dug up to build the pit. It is blocking her view, or so I think I hear her say. I look through the window to double-check and see her ask if I need help. She must think myself too wispy to do it all, which is understandable.
Had I known what would come of me—where I am now due to my mother’s passing—I would have moulded myself in Aunt Jan’s shape rather than my mother’s and done away with needing to grow a new self. Surely, I cannot belong to both sides of the family. Without my mother, I have nothing backing my choice.
But the pit has been dug and all but my bones have long since been planted; I am here and cannot deracinate what I have freely given. I cannot undo photosynthesis. There is nothing to glue back onto my body to make me whole. I can only hope—faintly—that in offering the last of myself, my wishes will come true.
I step forward and, like the bugs, trickle down into the pit. The wind whistles. Dirt rains down upon me. A centipede crawls onto one foot; I can feel each of its legs on my tarsal bone. At some point, they will eat out a home from my marrow.
This is my beginning: I am planting myself. I am growing myself a body. The soil will birth me in grandeur. By returning to nature, I have another chance at sprouting ripe, turning out right. I have been torn into twos, but not for much longer.
S.L.W. is a biracial first-year computer science student from Ontario, Canada. Her work has previously appeared in Southchild Lit, Ice Lolly Review, and A Coup of Owls. She can occasionally be found on Twitter @slwwrites.