The Greenhouse

The suffocation happened in the barn before sunrise. No one thought the beam strong enough  to bear his weight, least of all him. When later in the day his boy yanked the door open, a  torrent of white rats fled the scene—the sole witnesses to the strangulation of Lois Cline. The  rodents left white paw prints on the boy’s black boots. At the bottom of the hill, the pack dove into the pond and swam across, emerging on the other side—dots of brown and grey after the flour had washed from their fur. 

Jolly paw patterns adorned his stiff body, harmonizing with those about the beam that held  the rope to his neck. The boy had seen plenty of corpses on TV, but never in real life. His  tears plummeted to the powdery ground where they formed little heaps of dough. He was still  sobbing when his older brother called for him, and upon seeing his father dangle lifelessly,  the older one wept too. They held each other’s hand, kneading the dough with the timid  shuffle of their feet.  

In the minds of the people, Lois Cline owned Botan farm. On a paper she had never seen, his  wife Claris was sole heiress to the estate that spanned the triangular field, a multi-bedroom  house, a barn atop the dwarfish hill (a pond and orchard at its base), and the greenhouse—one building to each vertex. She came to live with her grandfather after her parents had died in a freak accident that involved a tape cassette with the songs of Michael Bolton. Though the  details of the event remained locked away at the local police station, rumor had it the tape  shot from the car’s cassette deck, hit her father in the eye and dropped to his feet, at which  point, taken aback by the attack and briefly blinded, he shuffled his feet in a panic, thus unspooling the magnetic tape that wrapped the limbs into a bind. Unable to reach the break or see the red light at the junction up ahead, he flew across and into an oncoming van. The van  driver escaped unscathed. Whether the wife had tried to navigate the blinded husband became  a matter of mere speculation. 

A social worker considered Claris in a home for children. Six-year-olds could be boisterous, perhaps too unruly for grandfathers with walking sticks to supervise. But upon visiting the  farm and the greenhouse with its sprawling, luscious greens, and floral tributes to tropical  lands, foliage standing so dense it culminated in a rich slush of liveliness, truly a place that  could leave a person weeping, she changed her recommendation.  

The plants were rarities from foreign lands Torque Botan had collected throughout his  excursions. A diplomat for the Ministry of Defense in his former days, he’d been stationed  around Asia, tasked to inspect aerial photos of jungles to spot guerilla military operations.  Once a year, he returned to the farm, carrying with him the seeds or seedlings of ferns, and  palm varieties, begonias, orchids, and chrysanthemums, gum trees, and bottlebrush to fill the  greenhouse with. A gardener kept the flowers company while their owner travelled. In  exchange for maintenance, the man lodged in one of the five bedrooms. They shared the house for three more years after Torque Botan retired, until the gardener met a woman half  his age and moved with her to another part of the country.  

The grandchild was received with open arms and the idea, half-formed, that one day she’ll  take care of this heritage of bloom. He sang her songs like Soul Provider from a Greatest Hits  collection for the child to settle fast. His low voice, muffled by the bushy moustache, soothed  her. Claris quickly took a liking to the man, the farm, and especially the greenhouse. She hid among the long leaves to read books on botany she’d borrowed from his library. During the warm season, she watched the petals unfold—corals, blushing maroons, blonds, and  burgundies frolicking between the deep, exuberant greens. The sweet, syrupy scent of blossom nourished her like multivitamins. He called her “girl of paradise” and taught her how to use the tools to revive the colors every solstice. 

Because of all the time she spent inside the greenhouse, she fell behind in school and didn’t  graduate. Torque Botan said it made no difference; life needed to be lived not studied. They survived on pension cheques the ministry sent every month, enough to cover bread, milk, eggs, and cheese she went to purchase once a week. In the autumn, when the orchard trees  were shedding fruit, they ate apple slices, apple baked in pies, and hot apple sauce. 

On a day in February, almost too cold to go outside, he sent her into town to get the groceries. She didn’t recognize the man behind the till. The one before him had a million wrinkles and  grey hair. The new one’s hair was brown and thick, one eyebrow blonde, the other red. She  stared as though it could unfurl a memory. He volunteered that he’d relocated recently from a  district far away. Lois Cline. “You can be my guide,” he said and asked for her number. Because the farm didn’t have a telephone, they made arrangements to meet in the village pub.  

She had passed the tavern many times, turning her nose to flee the bitter stench of cask ale  and grain spirits. They sat by the fire—scents of hickory and pine—enclosed by gleeful chatter. He ordered large glasses of golden brew that she sipped and spat out instantly. He  laughed and drank hers too, spoke of how ales deepened with shades of amber darkening. His  accent amused he—the way he flung his o’s. She giggled at the swollen tone and decided it  would be the kind of sound she could listen to for many hours. When it was late, she wanted to go home. He clipped her hazel hair behind her ear and placed his lips on hers. It made her  feel nauseas—the bitter taste of him. 

They saw each other often afterwards. She ran to town during the lunch breaks. Then he locked the shop, and put a sign up by the window. Back in ten. They kissed beside the buzzing freezer where butchered meats were killing time. Lois liked to feel her belly button with his hands and lean his ears against her breasts. She let him undress her and look at her  all naked just to hear the funny accent. Even his moans delighted her—the ebb and flow of their projection. Sometimes he pressed his torso onto hers and rubbed against the skin until it turned a glowing red and flaky. Then she ran home to water plants, and tucked the hose between her thighs to cool the broken skin.  

When Torque Botan shattered his hands after the fall that followed the stroke, Lois suggested he’d come live at the farm to help take care of him. She thought it was a good idea. Though not exactly delicate, her build was small and the legs often gave way to the weight of the grandfather who’d made it a habit to lean on her shoulders while she tried to guide him to the  bathroom. The old man didn’t like the boy—the silly accent put him off. But the stroke had left his speech impaired and no one knew what he was saying. Lois despised the toilet duty  and the emptying of bed pans too, and sometimes waited hours to answer the ringing of the Botan bell. On a Monday that had seemed like any of the ones before, he found Torque Botan folded by the edge of bed—breathless, heartless, voiceless. A note in his hands read: It is yours, Claris. He stuffed the note into his pocket, called for Claris, and spoke a three-part  prayer, the words of which contained so many o’s that her tears carried six giggles. 

“Marry me,” he said. She thought it was a good idea because without the old man’s pension cheques, she didn’t know how to buy groceries. The farm made no produce to be sold. “You shall never starve with me,” he promised. Lois understood how business worked; he had ideas. There was a man in town who owned a tractor and machinery one could borrow for the  day. Lois ploughed the triangle of disused soil; he walked for miles to sow the seeds. “Organic wheat! We’ll make a fortune,” he declared. She nodded and returned to study Malaysian mangrove progeny. 

The first harvest was the hardest, but by the third he had mastered the scything of the golden grain. From the money he made selling flour to prebiotic bakeries, he bought new shiny tools that he arranged inside the barn—shovels, forks, a new scythe with a brass handle. The plough, which was his favorite, he kept inside a spare room on the ground floor of the house, and sat to look at it for hours every Sunday. The wooden, vintage model wasn’t to be used,  only to be admired—a memorial to hard work and success. Claris hated the sight of the monstrosity and shut the door whenever she caught it open.  

They had two sons two years apart. The toddlers spent much time with Claris in the greenhouse, hiding in the shadow of banana trees while she read aloud passages from the  Encyclopedia Botanica. She liked the whirling motion of the sound of tiny children’s voices. The soil absorbed the little echoes of their breezy sing-song, joining her own childhood that lay buried there.  

As they grew older, the sons turned to their father’s barn admiring the tool collection which  they weren’t allowed to touch. “We want to help,” their stuffy voices barked so they, too, could touch the forks and spades. “Go help your mother,” he replied. But with extra hands, he could increase the yield, he thought. Soon he was teaching them the swing and grip of things. Each square of land unplanted, Lois turned into a fertile bed for seeds—up the hill and all  around the barn, the house, and greenhouse too. And all the shops in all the land came to him  and asked to buy his flour, which they said tasted extra natural because of the organic label. 

With each sale, he bought more tools—rakes and hoes, and wheelbarrows with golden shafts. And after a dinner of bread, eggs, and milk, he went into the barn to wipe his treasures with a suede cloth until the metal sparkled and showed his reflection. Claris didn’t mind that he rubbed tools instead of her thighs. It freed her up to read her books, and perfect the watering of zebra plants and the begonias. Occasionally, one of her boys would wander into the  greenhouse at the end of their shift. He’d pull on the hibiscus to spread the color from the petal deep into his skin. She thought she heard the flowers wail and from then on locked the door using the only key she kept chained around her wrist. The boys would rattle the handle and beg for their mother to open, but their attention span was short, and before long they  amused themselves chasing rabbits in the field or throwing stones at gold fish in the pond.  

In summer, Claris spent all day inside the greenhouse and slept among her books beneath the sago palm. “As my wife, it is your duty to prepare the supper,” Lois hissed, his accent powdery and stale from inhaling the dusty soil. The boys shrugged and ran upstairs. From then on, each afternoon she baked the bread with the organic flour, and put out cheese and tea before returning to the greenhouse. “As my wife, it is your duty to eat the food,” Lois said, the bitter stench magnifying in his breath. The boys swished milk between their teeth. She chewed a piece of bread and spat the soggy mush onto her husband’s plate. He dropped the plate into the sink, so that the porcelain clanked and almost cracked, then stomped away to polish tools in his barn. The boys swallowed curdled milk.

A drought killed all the green across the land one year. The wheat refused to grow as though it sensed a wilting imminent. Even the apple trees bore no more fruit. Only life inside the  greenhouse endured. Without organic flour to sell, they ran out of money. “We are starving,”  the boys cried and their father patted their backs. “I have ideas!” Lois declared.  

It was on a winter’s night—Claris lay asleep inside the house—the younger boy crept to her  room as his father had instructed. Cautiously, he slid the key from her puny wrist. Her eyelids  fluttered, briefly tricking him. He waited for the flickers to subside. When Claris woke, she found the house was still at rest. She poured hot tea into her thermos flask, slipped on her boots, and waded through the frozen stumps of yellow. From afar, she saw smoke plumes  confabulating, inhaled the abundance of existence carried by the smoke; a fire raged about  the apex. She felt her wrist and howled, so that wintering birds nesting in the barren apple  trees lifted into rapid flight. 

Claris wouldn’t speak nor eat. The older boy noticed the muteness but busied himself tending the crops in the glasshouse, and prayed that they’d grow fast to put an end to the pain at the  pit of his stomach. Soon they sold flour once again and at twice the price; the glasshouse had  improved the taste. The sellers ripped the sacks out of their hands. Lois bought provisions and a brand new silver shear he buffed in the evenings. The smell of fresh-baked bread now  turned her stomach. She ate one slice of cheese and a single egg a day. After three months, she could barely lift the tray of dough into the oven. She wheezed and gasped for air; her  heart beat barely audible, quieting some more when she was spoken to. The younger boy  hurried to help, but she shook her head and peeled his fingers from the tray. 

Sleep came to her at night and in the day—dreams of the fleshy drama of the bromeliads, of the tender tendrils of the Passiflora, the velvet brush of callistemon splendens. She kept the  curtains drawn to hide the sight of sandy carpet that bore monotony. A year passed, and then two. When in the third year, she no longer saw the sense in even sleep, she dragged herself downstairs and scraped the fire extinguisher from the wall. The corridor stretched out into an endless pilgrimage; the metal canister rattled shaving the parquet. Her legs pulsed more from  exhaustion than the terror of the unlocked door. Her long nails split and snapped like minor fireworks as she hoisted the canister onto her shoulders. She arched her back and, leaning  forward, let the barrel roll from her and crash into his darling plough. The fall shattered the  beams at once and the machine became six pieces.  

The echo of the popping of the wood traveled like spooked messengers. Lois dropped his spade and suede, and hurried down the hill and to the house. He found her hunched between the pieces giggling hysterically. His eyes turned red and blistery. He pulled her up until she  stood erect and shook her by the shoulders many times. He called her name repeatedly, but  she didn’t recognize his voice. There was no sign of her inside of her. She laughed at him and all his silly toys. And compelled by incapacity, he raised his hand and smacked her cheek so hard the body slumped and hit the floor where it took stillness in the pose. She didn’t move; she held her breath. He put his ear to her chest to find the silenced beat; felt her wrist to find  an absence of the pulse. “What have I done?” he screamed and ran back to his barn where  among his tools he found no faith.

Tomorrow they would call him murderer (!) and a murderer he didn’t want to be. There, below the spade, he saw the jute string. The vodka  amplified his desperation. He tied the knot around his neck and swung the rope across the beam, climbed onto stacked sacks of the flour that would spill open any minute and give way. But the flour seeped from pores at the cruelest pace; the hourglass gave rise to thoughts—the boys orphaned, the farm abandoned, a coward declared. He spoke them into dark as he waited for his death to slouch along and tried to muster up the courage to slip from the knot when one sack burst, and pulled the ground beneath his feet. Even as air crawled from his lungs, he  trusted that the brittle beam would break, too wasted like the wife had been. One breath left, he threw lofty kisses at his tools and whispered peace at them. 

The police blamed the rats for the contamination of the scene. “Looks like suicide. Overworked, the poor chap,” one of them said and handed Claris a second glass of sugar  water to stabilize the feeble circulation that had brought about her "momentary unconsciousness." Five hours had she waited in her stiffened pose beside the slaughtered plough. “My mother loved his flour,” his partner said. The man had a funny accent. 

ANNE FREIER is a writer and poet. She's currently working on a debut collection of short stories and chapbooks of poetry. Some of her work has been published by Passengers Journal. Her first creative non-fiction book was commissioned by indie press Beshu.