Every road looked the same, twisting and turning, splitting and merging back into each other. GPS had failed her three miles ago when it tried to send her down an unpaved track unfit for vehicular traffic. Another time, her way had been blocked by a barricade and a six-foot “bridge out” sign.
Peering through the windshield, Avery studied the creek now running parallel to the road. It looked annoyingly familiar. Hadn’t she passed this spot about twenty minutes ago?
The farmhouse sat atop a rise, back from the road. Its gently sloping front lawn ended with a profusion of orange tiger lilies growing along the ditch at the edge of the pavement. Avery cranked hard on the steering wheel. Gravel crunched under the tires.
She considered sounding the horn and asking for directions through a half-open window. Then, seeing pink impatiens and spikes of blue-purple delphiniums nodding in the gardens along the front porch, and baskets of red geraniums dangling from hooks in the overhang, Avery decided to get out of the car. The sweetness of roses and the pungent tang of dill scented the air.
“May I help you?” a voice called to her.
Looking down the driveway, Avery saw an older woman, a basket over her arm and clippers in her hand. A long silver braid coiled over one shoulder.
“Sorry to disturb you. I’m looking for Landeau’s—the bed and breakfast.”
The woman pushed back the brim of her sunhat, revealing a tanned face. “That’s ten—maybe twelve miles from here.”
“Should I just keep going?” Avery sliced her hand through the air toward the road.
The woman turned around. “I think you should have some lemonade in the garden while I draw you a map.”
“I don’t want to impose, I—” A bee jetted through her line of vision, and Avery stepped back. When she turned, the woman was gone.
Avery followed the driveway to the rear of the house where a path of flat stones led into a garden that took up most of the backyard. The woman must have gone into the house, she surmised, then directed her attention to the abundant spread of squash and cucumber vines; rows of eggplant, peppers, beans, and leaf lettuce; the spiky tops of onions and the feathery foliage of carrots; potato plants sprouting from neat mounds. Beyond the vegetables grew herbs both familiar—parsley, basil, peppermint, thyme, oregano, lavender—and some she could not identify by sight. Reaching down, Avery fingered the narrow leaves of a rosemary plant, which felt like soft pine needles.
“Good for muscle pains and circulation.”
Avery turned her head toward the woman who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, a tall glass of lemonade in each hand.
“Me? I just love the smell. Nature’s aromatherapy,” the older woman continued.
Avery pinched off a small sprig and breathed in the fresh, sweet smell. “So, you’re an herbalist.”
“That’s one name for it.” Deep smile lines creased the woman’s face. “I’m Lucinda—Lucinda Nanz. Everybody around here knows me.”
“Avery Albertson. I’m—” She paused. “Visiting.”
A buzzing black dot darted through Avery’s line of sight. Following it, she saw more bees in one place than she’d seen in years. “Are you a beekeeper, too?”
“I like to think they keep me,” Lucinda replied. “They work as hard in this garden as I do—probably harder.”
Avery followed Lucinda to a wrought iron table on a small brick patio off the garden and pulled out one of the chairs with a patchwork cushion. The sun warmed her skin through the rumpled t-shirt and jeans she wore, and a light breeze mussed Avery’s short dark hair that she’d impulsively had cut off at a discount “walk-ins welcome” place the day before. She ran her hand over her head, hoping to smooth the mess.
“So where are you from?” Lucinda asked.
“North Carolina,” Avery replied. “Drove here today. I left at four in the morning—ten straight hours.”
“Oh my, that’s a long way. And all by yourself.”
“Plans changed.” Avery’s thoughts turned reluctantly to Alice. The two them had planned to travel here together after reading about hiking in the area through rocky gorges and thick forests. Perfect for the two of them—Alice the geologist, and she the botanist.
“Welcome.” Lucinda raised her glass in salute. “What brings you here?”
Avery watched a trickle of condensation slide down her glass. “I’m a botany professor. I’ve been doing research for the better part of two years, and I wanted to get away to finish writing the paper.”
“How marvelous. My husband taught in the agriculture program at the community college in the next town.”
“Does he help you in the garden?” Avery asked, reasoning that this property exceeded what Lucinda—who had to be in her late 50s, maybe 60—could do on her own.
“He did. We put all these gardens in together. Now I keep them up myself. Len’s been gone for six years.”
“I’m sorry,” Avery murmured.
“I can still hear him out here, telling me that the potato mounds ought to be higher and the tomatoes need afternoon sun.” Lucinda chuckled. “But I’ve been working this garden for forty-eight years, and I’ll be doing this until somebody plants me in the ground.” She paused, then added. “I’m seventy-two.”
Avery set her glass down. “I never would have guessed.”
“Just a number. So, what’s your research about?”
Avery recalled Alice’s remark after too much wine one night. Manatees are dying, kudzu vines are devouring everything in their sight, pythons are taking over the Florida wetlands, and you’re worried about gardeners planting the wrong kind of honeysuckle. Give me a break.
The next day, Alice had apologized numerous times, and Avery had assured her all was forgiven. But she’d never forgotten.
Pushing past the unwelcome memory, Avery replied, “I’m studying invasive and native plants of the same species. I’m focusing on native honeysuckle and non-native, ornamental varieties. The berries produced by invasive honeysuckle do not match the nutritional needs of local bird populations. It upsets the ecosystem in subtle, even invisible ways.”.
Just like Sarah had done when she invaded their life, Avery added to herself. But Alice had not been passive to Sarah’s advances, like some patch of fern trampled underfoot. No, Avery argued silently, she had been the one who did not resist—allowing Alice to convince her that she had imagined it all. Then she saw Alice and Sarah together in an embrace too intimate for mere friends. Alice had actually said he was glad to have it all out in the open where the three of them could discuss it. She’d sat in an armchair across from Alice and Sarah together on the sofa while they explained to her how they’d fallen in love.
Avery took a deep breath and exhaled audibly. “My research looks at unintended consequences of what might seem like harmless gardening choices.”
“Harmless until it takes over,” Lucinda agreed.
Exactly, Avery thought.
Avery followed the map Lucinda drew to Landeau’s, a large Victorian home with a wraparound porch, converted into a bed-and-breakfast. She went through the motions of checking in, acknowledged the invitation to happy hour at five o’clock in the parlor with the other guests, though she’d never attend, and hurried upstairs to her room. The bedroom held a queen-size four-poster and a large chest of drawers; in a separate sitting area, a writing desk occupied a corner, flanked by upholstered chairs and bookshelves. One door led to a closet, the other to a private bathroom.
Avery sat on the edge of the bed and wondered yet again if coming here alone had been a mistake. But where else did she have to go? She had moved out of Alice’s condo, where she’d been living for almost three years, taking only two suitcases of clothes and a box of personal belongings. She had checked into a motel the first night but found it impossible to sleep in such an anonymous place. When friends reached out with offers to stay with them, she had accepted the sofas and guestrooms. Then came the email from Landeau’s—a reminder of the reservation she had made three months ago and paid in advance. Her plan had been to write her research article while Alice relaxed and explored the area. Together, they would hike the trails.
Avery stretched back across the bed, her eyes tracing the plaster ceiling until landing on a cobweb in the corner. Spiders made those filaments as they moved from surface to surface, the way mountain climbers used guide ropes. She imagined the tiny creature that had traversed this huge expanse, as vast as an Antarctic glacier compared to its tiny body.
A light scratching sound turned her attention to a square pink sheet of “While You Were Out” message paper being pushed under the door. Curiosity pulled her upright, and Avery walked across the room to retrieve the paper—a phone message from Lucinda Nanz taken by the front desk. “Come back when you have time. I have something to show you.”
Avery called the number and Lucinda suggested they meet early the next morning, before it got too hot. “Eight?” Avery suggested.
“I’ll be in the garden,” Lucinda promised.
Avery headed out right after a breakfast, arriving at quarter to eight. She apologized for being early.
Lucinda looked up from her weeding. “If the sun is up, so am I.”
While Lucinda went inside the house to change out of her rubber clogs into sturdy shoes, Avery followed the path through the garden toward clusters of irises—brilliant yellow, deep purple, and a two-toned bloom of russet and gold. The tall flowers with their dragon-like faces stood like sentinels between the garden and the grass that grew long and tangled all the way to the woods at the edge of the property. As she admired the irises, Avery noticed a half-dozen bees dancing in a figure eight.
“They like you,” Lucinda called out.
“Botany wouldn’t exist without bees,” Avery replied.
“For sure, but I meant the irises. You’re drawn to them. Or rather, they’re drawn to you.”
Lucinda pointed to the backpack on Avery’s shoulders. “Set it down for a moment. Close your eyes and quiet your mind.”
“I’m not very good at that. I can’t even do yoga—”
Lucinda held up one finger, and Avery obeyed.
“Open your palms toward the flowers. Tell them in your mind that you mean no harm and ask if you can approach.”
Protests inflated like bubbles in her brain, then popped just as quickly. No harm done, she told herself.
“Cup one of the blossoms with your hands.”
Avery felt the brush of velvety petals against her fingers.
“What do you feel?” Lucinda asked.
Avery’s thoughts immediately turned to Alice and Sarah and how to navigate the fall semester on campus. Could they all carry on professionally as if nothing happened or would one of them have to leave? Alice was tenured; she was on track for it. The research paper would help, Avery knew, but found it hard to finish right now.
“Quiet your thoughts and focus on your feelings,” Lucinda intoned.
With the inhalation of deep breath, Avery sensed something, but dismissed it as nothing more than the power of suggestion. As it resurfaced, Avery named it. “Courage.”
Lucinda’s face crinkled pleasantly. “As if you were on a mission?”
Avery hesitated, not wanting to retrofit whatever she had felt to Lucinda’s suggestion. Yet that matched what she had experienced fleetingly. “Something like that.” She picked up her backpack from the ground.
“That’s the energy irises give off. It makes them grow so tall and vibrant,” Lucinda explained.
Avery tried to summon the sensation again but couldn’t detect anything. Had she just imagined it? “Yesterday, when I asked if you were an herbalist, you said that was one name for it. What’s the other name?”
Lucinda cackled with laughter, bracing herself with her hands on her thighs. “Oh, honey. Isn’t it obvious? I’m a green witch, though most people drop the ‘green’ part.”
“Oh—” Avery began, her scientist’s mind flashing warnings about wasting her time here. She could imagine one of Alice’s eyerolls.
“I just know plants and they know me. I can feel their properties, for healing and for harm.” Lucinda ran her hands over a patch of snapdragons. “These sweet ladies have a mild energy, but they’re very good for protection. That’s why I always plant them at the entrance to my house. If someone is coming here to fool me, I want to stop that energy in its tracks.”
Avery grunted. Maybe when she went back to North Carolina, she should put a pot of snapdragons outside her office door.
Twigs snapped underfoot as the two women pushed into the woods. Lucinda chatted pleasantly about the land and how it had changed over the years: farms and pastures going fallow; the land overtaken by new growth, then woods. “But this has always been wooded,” Lucinda added. “I suspect it’s virgin soil. No one has ever plowed this ground.”
Avery stopped walking for a moment and took in the hallowedness of that statement.
When Lucinda asked about her life back in North Carolina, Avery skimped on the details at first. Then she mentioned Alice, and everything came out: Sarah, the breakup, her current living situation.
“I just couldn’t handle it emotionally, so I left,” Avery explained. “When I go back, I need to rent a place. It’s not a matter of money.”
When Lucinda didn’t respond, Avery regretted sharing something so personal.
“Four or five years ago, a fire wiped out a couple hundred acres of woodlands not far from here. They suspected arson—or at least stupidity. Everything burned before they got it under control,” Lucinda said.
Avery pushed back a branch to keep it from slapping her in the face. “Oh, uh-huh.”
“Every time I saw those charred trunks of dead trees and the blackened grass, I felt sick,” Lucinda said. “But you know what happened? The next year, it started to come back. There’s new growth everywhere. A lot of those old trunks have toppled over and started to decay, right back into the soil.”
Avery got it then. This wasn’t an abrupt change of topic; it was a story with a purpose. “So, I’m the scorched earth?”
Lucinda shook her head. “No, you’re the new growth. But you couldn’t flourish until what was no good for you was burned away.”
Avery’s vision swam with the tears that sprang suddenly. The relationship with Alice had always been tumultuous—flirtations and jealousy, professional rivalry, an acute lack of support that Avery had always felt no matter how much Alice protested to the contrary. Sarah, or someone like her, had been inevitable.
The two women walked in silence for another ten or fifteen minutes, then Lucinda stopped. Avery waited for a shift in direction, fearing that Lucinda had gotten them lost. Then she saw it: multiple crooked trunks branching skyward, dark blue-green leaves, and a few remaining clusters of pale pink blossoms.
Avery fingered the leathery texture of the foliage and looked up to the crown of the shrub, a good nine or ten feet tall. “Native rhododendron,” she said aloud. “You don’t see specimens like this every day.”
Examining the interconnected trunks, Avery surmised the cluster was actually one shrub—at least ten feet wide and six or eight in depth. “How old is this?” she wondered aloud.
“Oh, I think she’s been here for more than hundred years,” Lucinda said. “And look who she’s guarding.”
Avery followed to where Lucinda pointed with crooked finger. There, interspersed among the hardier shrub, rose the spindly trunks of native honeysuckles, dangling their delicate blossoms. She examined both shrubs for signs of stress but found none. Instead of being toxic, their proximity seemed completely benign—even companionable.
Avery took a dozen pictures with her phone, her mind buzzing with ideas. Maybe she’d come back, take soil samples, a few small cuttings from the shrubs. Suddenly, she wanted to finish her current research paper as quickly as possible so she could move on to the next project. There might be something here or maybe nothing at all. It felt good to have a plan, something to look forward to instead of constantly being dragged back into a painful past.
“Thank you,” Avery said.
“Oh, no need. I knew the rhododendron was here, but I didn’t see the honeysuckle until yesterday, after you left. I was out looking for jack-in-the-pulpit. You make a tea from it, and you won’t get another cold. My mother used to mash up the root and put it on her knees when her rheumatism acted up.”
Folk remedies and kitchen wisdom, Avery recognized, hardly the stuff of scholarship. And yet there was much to learn here. “Show me where it grows,” she asked Lucinda, and together they stepped more deeply into the woods.
Faith Hope and Fiction.com