The Contrary Gardener (Part 1 of 2)
By Christopher Rowe
Kay Lynne wandered up and down the aisles of the seed library dug out beneath the county extension office. Some of the rows were marked with glowing orange off-limits fungus, warning the unwary away from spores and thistles that required special equipment to handle, which Kay Lynne didn’t have, and special permission to access, which she would never have, if her father had anything to say about it, and he did.
It was the last Friday before the first Saturday in May, the day before Derby Day and so a week from planting day, and Kay Lynne had few ideas and less time for her Victory Garden planning. Last year she had grown a half dozen varieties of tomatoes, three for eating and three for blood transfusions, but she didn’t like to repeat herself. Given that she tended to mumble when she talked, not liking to repeat herself made Kay Lynne a quiet gardener.
She paused before a container of bright pink corn kernels, their preprogrammed color coming from insecticides and fertilizers and not from any varietal ancestry. Kay Lynne didn’t like to grow corn. It grew so high that it cast her little cottage in shadow if she planted it on the side of the house that would see it grow at all. Besides, corn was cheap, and more than that, easy—just about any gardener could grow corn and a lot of them did.
There were always root vegetables. A lot of utility to those, certainly, and excellent trade goods for the Army supply clerks who would start combing the markets as soon as the earliest spring greens were in. Rootwork was complicated, and meant having nothing to market through the whole long summer, which in turn meant not having to go to the markets for months yet, which was a good thing in Kay Lynne’s view.
She considered the efficacy of beets and potatoes, and the various powers carrots held when they were imaginatively programmed and carefully grown. Rootwork had been a particular specialty of her run-off mother, and so would have the added benefit of warding her father away from the cottage, which he visited entirely too often for Kay Lynne’s comfort.
It would be hard work. That spoke for the idea, too.
She strode over to the information kiosk and picked up the speaking tube that led to the desks of the agents upstairs.
“I need someone to let me into the root cellars,” she said.
Blinking in the early morning light, Kay Lynne left the extension office and made her way to the bus stop, leaning forward under the weight of her burdensacks. The canvas strap that held them together was draped across her shoulders and, while she thought she had done an exacting job in measuring the root cuttings on each side so that the weight would be evenly distributed, she could already tell that there was a slight discrepancy, which was the worst kind of discrepancy, the very bane of Kay Lynne’s existence, the tiny kind of problem that no one ever bothered to fix in the face of more important things. She could hear her father’s voice: “Everything is not equally important. You never learned that.”
The extension office was on the south side, close enough to downtown to be on a regular bus route but far enough to not fall under the shadows of the looming skyscrapers Kay Lynne could now clearly see as she waited at the shelter. Slogans crawled all over the buildings, leaping from one granite face to another when they were too wordy, though of course, to Kay Lynne’s mind they were all too wordy. “The Union is strong,” read one in red, white, and blue firework fonts. “The west front is only as strong as the home front. Volunteer for community service!” The only slogan that stayed constant was the green and brown limned sentence circling the tallest building of all. “Planting is in EIGHT days.”
A shadow fell on the street and Kay Lynne looked up to see a hot air balloon tacking toward the fair grounds. The great balloon festival was the next morning in the hours before Derby, and the balloonists had been arriving in numbers all week. It was part of the Derby Festival, the madness-tinged days that took over the city each spring, at the exact time when people should be at their most serious. The timing never failed to dismay Kay Lynne.
The stars and stripes were displayed proudly on the balloon, and also a ring of green near the top that indicated that it was made from one hundred percent nonrecycled materials. It was wholly new, and so an act of patriotism. Kay Lynne would never earn such a ring as a gardener; careful economy was expected of her and her cohort.
The balloon passed on, skirting the poplar copse that stood behind the bus stop, and was quickly obscured by the trees. Kay Lynne’s cottage was northwest of the fairgrounds, and the winds most of the balloons would float on blew above her home. She would probably see it again tomorrow, whether she wanted to or not.
Belching its sulfur fumes, the bus arrived, and Kay Lynne climbed aboard.
The bus driver was a Mr. Lever #9, Kay Lynne’s favorite model. They were programmed with thirty-six phrases of greeting, observation (generally about the weather), and small talk, in addition to whatever announcements were required for their particular route. A Mr. Lever #9 never surprised you with what it said or did. They made Kay Lynne comfortable with public transportation.
“Good…morning, citizen,” it said cheerily as Kay Lynne boarded. “Sunny and mild!”
Kay Lynne nodded politely to the driver and took the seat immediately behind it. The bus was sparsely occupied, with just a few tardy students bound for the university sharing the conveyance. To a one, their noses were buried in appallingly thick textbooks.
“Next stop is Central Avenue,” said the driver. “Central Avenue! Home of the Downs! Home of the Derby!”
The bus ground its brakes and came to a stop along the Third Street Road next to the famous twin spires. A crowd of shorts-wearing families hustled onto the bus, painfully obvious in their out-of-townedness and clucking at one another loudly. “Infield,” they said, and “First thing in the morning,” and “Odds on favorite.”
Kay Lynne love the ‘Ville, but she was no fan of its most famous day. She appreciated horses for their manure and for the way they conveyed policemen and drew the downtown trolleys, and she usually even bought a calendar of central state views that showed the Horse Lord Holdings with their limestone fences and endless green hills, but truth be told, she usually waited until February to buy the calendars, when they were cheapest, and when they were the only ones left. People in the ‘Ville liked horses, but they didn’t like the Horse Lords.
“Grade Lane,” said the bus driver. “Transfer to the fairgrounds trolley,” and then a whirring sounded and it added in a slightly different timbre, “See the balloons!”
All the tourists filed off happily chattering about the balloon festival and the next day’s card of racing at the Downs, and Kay Lynne breathed a happy sigh to see them go.
The bus driver said, “They get to me, too, sometimes. But we’re more alike than we are different.”
Kay Lynne turned around to see if anyone else on the bus had heard. Only the reading students remained, all in the rear seats, all still staring down.
“Excuse me?” Kay Lynne said. She had never directly addressed a Mr. Lever of any model before. If there was a protocol, she didn’t know.
“Sunny and mild!” said the bus driver.
Kay Lynne considered whether to pursue the Mr. Lever #9’s unexpected, almost certainly unprogrammed, comment. It had not turned its head to face her when it spoke—if it had spoken and now Kay Lynne was beginning to allow that its not having spoken was at least within the realm of possibility—and usually the spherical heads would make daisy wheel turns to face the passenger compartment whenever speaking to a passenger was required, or rather, done. She supposed that they were never strictly speaking required to speak.
This was a thorny problem, and Kay Lynne reminded herself that she did not have authorization for thorns. She set her feet more firmly either side of her burdensacks on the floor, retrieved the pamphlet of helpful information that the agents had given her on programming root vegetables, and willfully ignored the bus driver for the rest of the trip.
Kay Lynne loved her cottage and its all-around garden plot more than any other place in the world. It was her home and her livelihood and her sanctuary all in one. So when she saw that the front yard plots had been tilled while she was away on her morning errand, she was aghast, even though she was positive she knew who had invaded her property and given unasked for aid in preparing the grounds. Her father was probably still poking around in the back, maybe still running his obnoxiously loud rotor-tiller, maybe nosing through her potting shed for hand tools he didn’t have with him on his obnoxiously loud truck, which yes, now that she looked for it, was parked on the street two doors down in front of the weedy lot where the Sapp house had been until it burned down. Kay Lynne did not miss the Sapps, though of course she was glad none of their innumerable number had been harmed in the fire. Corn-growers.
Not like Kay Lynne, and, to his credit at least, not like her father, who was a peas and beans man under contract to the Rangers at the fort forty miles south, responsible for enormous standing orders of rounds for their side arms that pushed him and his vassals to their limits every year. Her father did an extraordinary amount of work by anyone’s standards, which meant, to Kay Lynne’s way of thinking, that he had no business making even more work for himself by coming to turn over the winter fallowed earth around her cottage. And that was just one of the reasons he shouldn’t have been there.
Yes, he was in the potting shed.
“Don’t you have an awl,” he asked her when she stood in the doorway, not even looking up from where he had his head and hands completely inside the dark recesses of a tool cabinet. “I would swear I gave you an awl.”
Kay Lynne hung her burdensacks over a dowel driven deep into the pine joist next to the door and waited. There was an old and unpleasant tradition she would insist be seen to before she would deign to find the awl for him. He would just as soon skip their ritual greeting as her, but you never knew who might be watching.
He dug around for another moment before finally sighing and standing. Kay Lynne’s father positively towered over her, he was by any measure an enormous man in all of his directions, as well as in his appetites and opinions. This tradition, for example, he despised mightily.
He leaned down, his shock of gray hair so unruly that his bangs brushed her forehead when he kissed her cheek. “My darling daughter,” he said.
Kay Lynne took his calloused hands in her calloused own and executed an imperfect curtsy. “My loving father,” she replied.
Protocols satisfied, her father made to turn back to the cabinet, but Kay Lynne stopped him with a gesture. She opened a drawer and withdrew the tool he sought.
“Wayward,” he said. “That is a wayward tool,” but he was talking to himself and sweeping out the door to fix whatever he had decided needed fixing. The imprecation against the awl was a more personal tradition than the state-mandated exchange of affections—it was his way of insisting that his not being able to find the tool had somehow been its fault or possibly her fault or at least anyone or anything’s fault besides her own. Kay Lynne’s father was always held blameless. It was in his contracts with the army.
Since he did not pause to sniff at her burdensacks, that conversation could be avoided for just now, for which Kay Lynne breathed a sigh of relief. She did not look forward to her father’s inevitable harangue against rootwork, rootworkers, and root eaters. She did not know whether his round despite of all such things antedated her mother’s running off, as she had no memory of that occasion or of that woman, but his rage, when he learned of the carrot seeds and potato cuttings hanging just by where he’d shouldered out the door, would tower.
She trailed him out into the beds around the well house behind the cottage. He had lifted the roof up off the low, cinder-blocked structure and propped it at an angle like the hood of a truck being repaired. He was bent over, again with his head and his hands in Kay Lynne’s property. “Pump needs to be reamed out,” he muttered over his shoulder, “You weren’t getting good water pressure.”
Sometimes, when Kay Lynne thought of her father, she did not picture his face but his great, convex backside, since that was what she saw more often than his other features. He was forever bent over, forever digging or puttering, always with his back to her. Maybe that’s why people say I mumble, she thought. I learned to speak from a man with his back turned.
“It was working fine this morning,” Kay Lynne claimed, forcefully if in ignorance as she had not actually drawn well water before setting out for the extension office that day. And besides, now that she thought of it, “They’re hollering rain, anyway.”
Her father snorted and kept at his work. He was famously dismissive of weather hollers and any other mechanical construct that had a voice. He never took public transportation. “There’s not a cloud in the sky,” he said. “It’ll be sunny and mild all day long, you mark me.”
His repeating of the Mr. Lever #9’s phrase made Kay Lynne think back to the odd moment when the driver had seemed to break protocols and programming and comment on the out-of-towners. She wondered if she should ask her father about it—part of his distrust of speaking machines was an encyclopedic knowledge of their foibles. If a talking machine failed in the ‘Ville, her father knew about it, knew all the details and wasn’t afraid to exaggerate the consequences. He even harbored a conspiracist’s opinion that such machines could do more than talk, they could think.
Another conversation best avoided, she thought.
Her father finished whatever he was doing to the well pump then and stood, careful to avoid hitting his head on the angled roof. With a grunt, he lowered the props that had held the tin and timber construction up then carefully let the whole thing down to rest on the cinder blocks. “You were at the office this morning,” he said. “Making a withdrawal from the seed vaults. What’s it going to be this year?”
This was his way of not only demonstrating that he knew precisely where she’d been and precisely what she’d been up to, but that he knew very well the contents of her burdensacks and his not saying anything so far had been a test, which she had failed. Failed like most of the tests he put her to.
Kay Lynne’s father was not an employee of the extension service, but when he said “the office” it was the extension service he meant because it was the only indoor space he habituated besides the storage barn where he kept his equipment and his bed. All of the extension agents were in awe of Kay Lynne’s father and she should have known one of them had put a bug in his ear as soon as she had requested access to the root cellars. Bureaucrats could always be counted on to toady up to master cultivators.
Nothing for it now but to tell him. “Carrots,” she said, point to the beds between the well house and the cottage. “They’ll come up first.” She leaned over and drew a quick diagram of her plots in the dirt at his feet. “Turnips,” and she pointed, then pointed again in turn as she said, “Yams and potatoes. Radishes and beets.”
Her father’s lip curled in disgust. “The whole ugly array,” he said. “You did this just to challenge me.”
Kay Lynne stood her ground. My ground, she thought, this is my ground. “I did it because the market for roots is excellent and I’ve never tried my hand at rootwork.”
Her father snorted. “And oh yes, you so very much like to try new things. Well, that’s good to hear, because you’re going to do something new in the morning.”
With that, he took a dried leaf from the front pocket of his overalls and unfolded it. Inside was a thin wafer of metal chased with a rainbow pattern of circuitry and magnetic stripes. Kay Lynne recognized it, of course, she had grown up in the ‘Ville after all. But she had never held one until now, when her father thrust it into her hands, because she had never, ever, wanted one.
It was a ticket to the Derby.
(Continued in Part 2…)
About the Author
Christopher Rowe’s stories have been published, reprinted, and translated around the world. He has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and other awards. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky with his wife, novelist Gwenda Bond.
Instagram is @cvrowe1234.
About the Narrator
Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History and specializes in Science Fiction/Fantasy and Indigenous American Studies. She is staff on the StarShipSofa podcast, Editor in Chief of Hocus Pocus Comics, and faculty at Lenoir-Rhyne University and Signum University. She lives with her husband in the Blue Ridge highlands of Virginia in the United States. Her website is amyhsturgis.com.