Daniel John

The strong close smell of the bulbs was like the odor of the inner thigh of a tree. I was standing in my poorly lit basement surrounded by thousands of bulbs of tulip, narcissus, hyacinth, allium, crocus, chionodoxa, star-of-Bethlehem, camassia, snowdrops, fritillaria, and more. After a while of sorting bulbs in the semi-dark I felt like a tulip myself, yearning for packed earth all around me. I started mulling about Susan’s cancer, its suddenness and inexorability.

A few months earlier, in September, she returned from her morning jog to find me in her garden cleaning out overgrown annuals. Sweat dripped down her face, her skin glowed, and she smelled like earthy vitality. "I have pancreatic cancer," she said. "They tell me I have six months to live." Her doctor had picked something up on her annual exam, ordered a test, and now her life was effectively over.

I came out of my reverie to find I’d selected hundreds of tulips for her, but with no memory of what I’d chosen. I loaded up the little red truck and drove over to her house. I walked around her yard, placing boxes and bags of bulbs according to a sense of rightness. This is the normal way I design gardens for a client. Instead of calculating color combinations and factoring in bloom times, heights, and shapes, I make intuitive decisions. But not this time. The tulips didn’t like what I was doing. It made them angry. I stood still for a minute, trying to sort this out. Luckily I don’t have any trouble with the concept of sentient plants, so I didn‘t have to waste any time arguing with the reality of my experience. Experimentally, I placed a handful of white tulips in a place where red ones were demanding to go—I stopped, scalded by the rage of tulips, yelling I was not only causing them pain, I was being an asshole. I’ve been a professional gardener for ten years, and this was a first. The bulbs glared at me even though they didn’t have eyes. I was glad they had no teeth.

Okay, I decided, I’ll do it your way. I obediently laid out a few hundred bulbs on top of the ground according to where they wanted to go. Then I jumped on the footrests of the planting tool, made an eight-inch-deep hole, placed a bulb inside, and covered it with soil. Both tulip and I felt better immediately. There's nothing like the safety of the cold, dark embrace of the earth.

I moved faster, cheerfully popping little heads in holes. As I did, I could see colors coming up in the spring . . . I slowed down. I'd never made a design like this before. What they wanted was worse than clashing colors. This was tulips to tear open heaven. Ignoring a growing anxiety, I finished the section then stood back to take a look at what I'd done.

At the end of April, near the garden swing, Susan's favorite spot to sit, large groups of short early tulips will flare with red like a fist, ivory like a chalice, and a white as bright as God. As they fade, tulips like bleached bone flushed with soft rose like the robes of the Virgin Mary will rise to glory. A few weeks later, as they in turn crumple and die, a swath of double tulips called Black Hero, each one a basket of night with no stars, will rise to one side. In concert on the other side, a grand sweep of elegant ladies will open sweet light yellow, ripen to cream, then arch upward to heaven like St. Theresa dying of tuberculosis, one slow, gorgeous ivory petal at a time. Black Hero demanded the Mother of Jesus on one side and St. Theresa on the other the same way uranium-234 demands a lead casing. Grudgingly, I bowed to the wisdom of tulips. I wouldn't have come up with that on my own.

I moved on to the main garden, the huge, roughly oval bed extending from the garden swing to the front door, and watched in dismay as I filled it in with alternating red and white stripes. When I finished planting I stepped back to see what would come. Next to a forgiveness so white it could sink ships I had planted a red that couldn't stop hemorrhaging; a double white as soft as a field of babies; an assassin's dagger of a scarlet; an ivory like a dying saint; and finally, a deep, clear, painful plum called Negrita that could make a man weep even if he had no reason to.

I was suddenly too angry to bury one more arrogant little bulb. Stripes in a garden are just plain rude, I thought, fuming — a deluge of sparrows chirped, fluttered, and strutted all around me. The fat little beady-eyed revelers peck-pecking at the ground looked like tulip bulbs with beaks and feet—I needed a break.

I sat on the hood of my truck. I got chilly as soon as I stopped moving. It was a gray and humid November day, close with coolth. As I watched the sparrows I remembered a few years ago Susan had hired a professional photographer to come to the garden. She had the best shot blown up to poster size and framed. She hung it in her kitchen so she could look at the garden all winter long . . . and when she first found out she had pancreatic cancer she was standing in her garden surrounded by a riot of tulips. Her first post-diagnosis thought was, I wonder if there are tulips in heaven. The truth was obvious: the tulips knew something about Susan I did not.

I worked hard at being obedient. But as the hours passed my aesthetics suffered. I planted Weber's Parrot on the path from the front door to the car. Parrot tulips have petals that writhe as if trying to get free of the stem, an effort that shreds their edges like a feather; and Weber's Parrot is mental-hospital white ridiculed by one manic purple streak running around the base. Next to that harebrained clutch I found myself putting in Black Hero again. I was sure I'd finished all the death tulips, but here I was putting in a whole other bag of them. I planted as fast as I could, afraid Susan would show up and ask me what I was doing. Sweat dripped down my cheeks despite the chill in the air. When I was done with the little death bombs I reached for the next bag of bulbs—Negrita. That had to be a mistake. I never repeat colors so closely. Nor ask this much of a client. Next May, if Susan turns her head to avoid insanity, death, and compulsive weeping on the way to her car, she'll find herself looking at Orange Lion, an outlaw bunch of flaming shrieks, directly in front of a platoon of Mrs. J. T. Scheepers, a 3-foot-tall tulip so dense with joy her yellow could kill.

I planted so close the petals will hold hands, making a river of color so bright after the gray of winter innocent passersby could lose their grip. My vow of obedience weakened—the bulbs stepped in like warriors, so fiercely protective of where they wanted to go that to argue with them was tantamount to child abuse. I gave in. I planted them exactly where they said until it was too dark to see and I could go home to bed.

The next morning at dawn I watered and fertilized the beds. As a final touch I scattered a few autumn leaves on top. I felt like a minister strewing ashes — except the tulips buried in the cold earth were full of sexual ecstasy, not death. Next spring they will break out of the dark like a thousand brand-new babies screaming in color life is triumphant.

10/20/02 Author's note:

Everything in this story is true. I installed Susan's small, urban garden seven years ago, and have put bulbs in every fall since.

A couple called me recently and said they always agreed to meet at the entrance to Susan's garden the day after they had a fight, because it made them feel different. In that different state, they could listen to each other better. They said I should charge for marriage counseling.

Susan's garden yearns for you. Only when you're in it, is the garden complete. Most planned landscapes or museum gardens wouldn't notice if you were not there to see them. Some even make a human feel irrelevant in their scheme of things. Susan's garden, on the other hand, misses you when you're not there. It needs you.

The last time I met her there I said, "Susan, look what you've done. This place is like a temple."

"I didn't do anything. I thought it was you."

"Nope. The garden did it, because it loves you."

Susan has outlived her doctor's prognosis by two years now.