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Green Thumb

by James C.G. Shirk

part 1 of 5

Molly has the magical power to make plants grow. That is in itself a useful and life-saving “wild talent.” But it carries a cost to Molly, because it is unique to her and is not something others can quite understand...

“Molly, don’t touch that!” Carla Hinderman yelled at her daughter.

Molly pulled her hand away from the upturned, brown leaf and looked toward the garden where her mother was working. Tears welled up in the little girl’s eyes; she didn’t mean to make her mother angry, but she seemed to do exactly that more often lately.

Carla jammed the trowel into the soft, black dirt, pulled herself off her knees, and stepped carefully across the new seed beds. When she got to the dogwood bush, Molly looked up at her. “Why can’t I touch it, Mommy?”

Her mother smiled and wiped an arm across her sweaty forehead. “I think the bush has some sort of disease, and Mommy put some medicine on it to make it better.”

Molly frowned. She doesn’t know, but I do, she thought. It’s not a disease; the bush just doesn’t like being so close to the new shed.

From her first shaky steps as a toddler into the backyard, she knew, because she felt it. Life throbbed and surged through all the plants in their yard with a voice as deep and rich as her father’s baritone singing. It was in the grass, the trees, the bushes, the leaves, the roots, the trunks — everywhere and seemingly all at once. And, most importantly, she heard their interaction. Not with her ears, but someplace deep inside, someplace... special.

So it was, too, that she intuitively understood it was best to never mention it to anyone. Grownups didn’t seem to like things they didn’t understand.

“Mommy doesn’t want you to get any of the medicine on your hands,” her mother continued.

“Why not?”

“The medicine is just for plants, and if it got on a little girl’s skin, it might make her sick. Okay?

Molly caught the change in her mother’s tone. It was best to let it go, versus prompting one of her moods. “Sure,” Molly said.

Carla smiled, “Good girl. Let’s go inside and wash up for lunch.”

As Molly followed in her wake, she looked over her shoulder at the dogwood. Its drooping branches and curled up leaves did remind her of someone who was sick, and she was glad at least that her mother could see that. She hoped the bush would get better soon — she didn’t like it when plants got sick, didn’t like it at all.

* * *

The spring turned to early summer, and Molly continued to help her mother in the garden, planting and weeding according to the specific week of the year. Her mother had a chart and followed its instructions without question. Molly just listened to the plants, and they seemed to like what her mother was doing, so she was happy.

The little girl kept careful watch over the dogwood bush too, and her concern grew by the week. It wasn’t getting better; in fact, more and more leaves were looking sick. She asked her father if they could move it away from the shed to where it would like to live, and he told her that it would be too much trouble for a bush that large, and if it died, that’s just the way it was.

Molly didn’t like the answer.

One late August afternoon, Molly decided to see if she could ‘talk’ to the dogwood — say something to make it feel better. Maybe it just needed encouragement. She could hear the plants, so perhaps they could hear her too. It certainly can’t hurt, she thought, so off she went.

Against her mother’s wishes, she took one of the sickly leaves in her hand and thought about what the bush looked like when they first moved into the house. Back then, its full green/white leaves cast a shadow on the soft grass underneath, providing a space out of the sun for her to sit and play with her dolls — she loved that. As she stroked the dried and wrinkled leaf, she imagined it being in perfect health as it had back then.

Grow, she thought.

The tingle, running along her arm, began ever so slowly. It started at her elbow and gradually crept across her skin, over her wrist, and snaked up to the tip of her fingers. A strange warmness gathered there before a little snap of light arced between her fingers and the woeful leaf.

She jerked her hand back, afraid that she’d done something wrong or the medicine her mother had put on the bush in the spring had somehow infected her. Turning her hand over, she examined her fingers to see if there was anything on them, but there wasn’t... they just felt a little warm.

Thankful, she immediately dismissed the incident and went into the shed and got the little trowel that she used to weed around a small patch in the garden. Her mother had set aside the space for her to grow late-season carrots, “Molly’s Fall Carrots.” She spent the rest of the afternoon happily tending them until her mother called her to supper.

Later that night, after her father read a story and put her to bed, Molly thought about her experience with the dogwood. She pulled her hand from beneath the covers, leaned over the edge, and examined it in the glow of the Mickey Mouse nightlight next to the bed. Still no change; it wasn’t tingly or warm or anything. It just felt normal. She rubbed her tired eyes and slid back beneath the soft, cozy covers. The feeling she got when she touched the leaf made her feel funny — but a good kind of funny — almost like she felt now, warming up after being cold for a time. With that pleasant thought, she drifted off with a smile on her face.

* * *

It was just after nine o’clock when Molly and her mother came out the back door of the house. It had rained overnight, breaking a long period of dry, sun-drenched days, and her mother was in a good mood today. They headed through the wet grass toward the shed to get a basket and trowels (one big one for her mother, and a small one for her). Abruptly, her mother stopped walking. “Oh, my God,” she gasped.

Molly looked toward the shed, and a huge grin spread across her face. The dogwood bush dwarfed the shed’s right side, long branches and huge bright green/white leaves hung halfway down the doorway. It was at least a foot taller than it had ever been. “Oh, Mommy,” Molly yelled, “it got better!”

“But... but, that can’t happen,” her mother managed to choke out.

“Why not?” Molly asked.

“Honey, bushes don’t just get better overnight like that, and they certainly don’t... grow. There’s something wrong.” Carla backed up, pulling Molly after her as she looked around the yard, surveying everything in sight. “Let’s go back inside. I think we’ll weed another time.”

“But Mommy--.”

“Molly, no ‘but’s’, we’ll do it later!” With that, she ushered Molly into the house.

That night, when her father got home, they all went into the backyard, so he could examine the bush. After several minutes of walking around, touching leaves, and shaking stems he said, “It looks fine; in fact, it looks great. I don’t see anything wrong.”

Her mother frowned. “Gimme a break, Jason. Yesterday that bush was almost dead, and today it’s loaded with new leaves and has grown at least a foot. That just doesn’t happen... except in cartoons. We need to get someone out here who really knows what they’re doing to look at it.”

The tips of her father’s ears began to turn a bright red. “I know I don’t know squat about this gardening and yard stuff, and I haven’t really looked at this stupid bush for a while, but are you sure it was in that bad a shape?


“Okay, okay,” he said, waving his hands in the air as he headed back to the house. “I’ll call someone to check it out.”

Molly felt her bottom lip quiver. She didn’t like her mommy and daddy fighting, which they seemed to do more often lately, and this time, it was over something she had done. Even if it was accidental, to her, it felt like it was her fault.

The following week, a woman from the nursery inspected the bush and tested the soil, and a plant biologist from the local agriculture office examined and tested the leaves and bark. Results of all tests proved the bush was healthy and contained no toxins or unusual chemistry. Carla didn’t buy into it, and over Molly’s vociferous objection, she told Jason to cut down the dogwood the following weekend. They planted a new one several feet away from the shed, just for Molly, but she never sat and played beneath it.

* * *

Summer turned to fall, at least on the calendar, and Molly started first grade. Molly’s teacher asked her parents for an early consultation — she was having trouble with Molly’s lack of concentration in school. Molly couldn’t help it, and it didn’t make any difference how much her mother and father begged her to “be more attentive”. Sometimes, she just felt she’d blow up if she couldn’t get outside and run around, or climb a tree, or something.

September was mostly warm and rainy — nothing resembling the more normal cool and dry days that typified early fall in Minnesota. By the middle of the month, Carla and Molly had picked all the remaining vegetables in the garden, except for the small patch of “Molly’s Fall Carrots”. The little girl couldn’t wait to harvest them, bragging to both parents that they’d be the biggest and best ones they’d eaten all year.

The first of October, Carla pulled up several carrots from different locations in the three small rows Molly had planted. They were poorly developed and more yellow than orange. Molly was devastated. “Mommy, why didn’t my carrots grow right?” she asked, tears rolling from her blue eyes. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No honey, it’s not your fault. Sometimes, plants don’t grow the way we want, and we can’t control that. I don’t think your carrots liked it so warm and wet, so you didn’t do anything wrong — it was just the weather.”

She pulled her daughter close, lifted her chin, and stroked her hair. “We’ll plant some more again next year, and they’ll grow better, I promise. Tell you what, Mommy’s going to go inside and make your favorite dessert for supper, okay? Let’s go see how many apples we have.” She released Molly, dabbed at the little girl’s eyes with the corner of her pink gardening apron, and walked toward the house.

Molly smeared the back of her hand across her eyes; that wasn’t good enough, not near good enough. She wanted the carrots, her carrots, to be the best ever — it was important, very important to her.

Before she thought about it, she crouched down, jabbed her fingers into the soft soil, and pictured the photograph she’d seen in her mother’s gardening magazine — the one with the woman holding a big batch of huge, orange carrots she’d pulled from her garden. Those were the carrots she wanted.

Grow, she thought, hard — real hard — and the funny feeling in her elbow started again, only stronger than last time. It built for a minute, gathering itself, and then shot down her arm into the moist earth. An audible “snap” echoed in the air above the ground, and Molly fell backward, landing on her bottom.

Her mother, almost at the back door, stopped and spun around. Seeing her daughter on the ground, she ran to pick her up. “Are you okay?” she asked as she grabbed Molly around the waist and lifted her to her feet.

“I... I think so,” she answered.

She brushed Molly’s blonde locks away from her eyes. “Did you step on something, like a stick?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Did you trip?”

Molly’s whole body seemed to quiver from the inside out, exhilarated but at the same time so... so relaxed and content. She looked down at her fingers. They were covered with black dirt, where she had stuck them in the ground, and they felt a little warm but otherwise okay.

What did I do? she thought. If her mother found out, she would probably get mad about it — just like with the dogwood. A lump climbed up her throat. Why didn’t I just leave the carrots alone?

“Molly, answer me! Did you trip?” her mother asked again, this time with an edge to her voice.

“Yeah, I just tripped and fell over Mommy, that’s all.”

“But, what was that noise I heard?”

Molly looked around. “Don’t know. I didn’t hear nothin’.”

Carla shook her head and patted Molly’s head. “Okay, come on inside, and let’s get you cleaned up before I start supper. Daddy has to work late again tonight, so it’ll just be you and me. We’ll bake that big ol’ pie and eat the whole thing ourselves!”

That night, when Molly went to bed — her stomach full of two helpings of apple pie — she drifted off, anxious to see what her carrots would look like in the morning. She just hoped they wouldn’t cause trouble.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by James C.G. Shirk

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