By Graeme Lottering
The sun is below me, bright and vivid—my lashes unable to contain it. I see glassy micro-droplets of morning dew captured in the v-shaped chute of the freshly cut grass. I see crystalline rainbow flares in the sky beneath me, and looking up, a microcosm of greenery protrudes from the top of my vision. I’m doing a headstand, part of a stretching routine I do during times of turmoil, or whenever it is particularly sunny outside. I find myself looking deep into the roots of the soil, legs balancing precariously in a rabbit-ear pose.
I am foiling gravity. Up is down and down is up.
Between the valance of green that borders my vision and the narrow strip of white light that divides the sky from the earth, I see bounding in with tremendous speed, as if she is about to hurdle the blue heavens and leap over the vertical line of red pines into the sun itself, the white dog, the jubilant puppy, Mala. Her brother, Dexter, a lazy black dog sits in the shade watching the human invert himself for some unknown reason, perhaps something to do with cleaning out his ears.
I finish the move, blood drained upwards, spine straightened, muscles stretched. I like the balance positions, they are the ones that put me in touch with this planet we live on. I feel like holding such a delicate pose represents the fine equilibrium our existence depends on. And as I get older, I realise this to be more and more true. Empires fall overnight, and a single financial crisis can end years of success. The world we live in is balancing on the edge of a knife. A lot of people feel this, not just me.
I’m at my mother’s house, on a hill surrounded by pine forest. It’s good to get away from it all once in a while. I look up and see a graceful falcon gliding over the gap in the forest. I’m sure it eyes the blonde puppy.
I’m here to pull up the vegetable garden before the first frost. Large vines of tomatoes, highly visible red clusters lay collapsed under their own weight. They form a net cast over the wooden boxes. I pull them off, thinking about how the dogs kept interrupting my yoga, but how maybe playing with them was part of the routine.
There used to be a falconry centre nearby. The old man with a silver sandpaper beard ran a delightful school retreat. He wore those old fashioned aviator glasses from WWI, and owned the most stylish collection of scarves in the district. Schools loved him because he put on a great act, launching those birds of prey off his leather glove in a flurry of wing beats, high-pitched screeching, and cries of joy from the kids. The birds could catch rabbits as far away as 5th Concession, which meant that shoppers at the Foodland™ in town could see them circling, scanning the ground with their telescopic vision. No doubt there have been times when a falcon returned with an ice-cream cone instead of prey. This would please the children even more, because most of them imagined the large bird collecting a few shiny coins to pay for its delicious treat.
I never met the guy personally, but he was a local hero.
I empty a wheelbarrow full of vines into the composters, and pitch the green fruit overhand into the linear forrest below the hill. The white dog makes chase, and I confuse her by aiming at trees around her. Tight, unripe tomatoes explode greenly, and rain down onto the needle carpet of the forest. The black dog sits in the shade and watches, wearing a buddha’s smile on his canine face.
Next is the beet, which, because they are root vegetables, shouldn’t be in the terrible slippery state of rot the tomatoes were in. I start by plucking the roots half-in-half-out of the soil, breaking the purple crown of foliage and tossing the leaves into a pile.
The purple is so strong. It is a deep intense purple of magic. It is the colour of witchcraft and miracles, kings and sorcerers, I think idly. They are unlike the beets you see in the store. These roots are long and narrow, not rotund and stumpy like the platonic beet. I stack them like logs on the side of the vegetable boxes.
Overhead flies another hawk. They are more common now than ever, my mom told me over some tea. She said that the owner had the business so long that he never noticed sometime in the mid 90s the laws changed, requiring him to obtain licenses for every bird of prey. She supposed that country folk often feel that things will always stay the same, as if they were the true societal time capsule, in permanent wait to be discovered by a future generation, who will want to emulate them and return to a simpler lifestyle. It’s a long way off, I told her, and took the plastic bowls I’m filling now with purple phallic roots. Things will get worse before they get better, I think to myself, before a generation of kids growing up with instant convenience and the internet would want to return to a simple life. I consider it myself, and think about how impossible it would be to give up and grow my own garden. Then again, the Aztecs did accurately predict the end of their own civilization, giving up all hope when Cortez in his scale mail armour arrived like a serpent out of the eastern seas, and their razor-sharp obsidian spears and arrowheads shattered on the Spanish steel in disbelief. They knew it was the end. It was abundantly clear to them. Just as it might have been clear to a Roman living the decrepit mirage of civilization before the Goths arrived, raping and pillaging and forever putting an end to the majesty of their bridge building culture. I feel like one of those Romans sometimes. It is a feeling that creeps up on me when I do my taxes, or renew my passport. It’s hard to explain, but I can say with certainty that I sympathise with that last Roman guarding his life of wine and law against the overwhelming power of entropy.
The falconer never applied for any licenses, and when confronted by some bureaucratic crusader, he gave in, claiming they were all accomplices in this because they knew about his raptors and condoned their existence because they never gave him a warning.
There is one giant beet that comes out—the beet to end all beets, I think, pulling a root the size of a watermelon out of the ground. I feel a little bad breaking the crown off such a magnificent plant. But in doing so, I notice he has an earthy beard, a long regal nose, and an almost-frown where his brow would be. I look him in the eye and think: even the King of the Beets and his realm of purple must come to an end sometime.
I can’t help but feel sorry for him, as I cart him off the the kitchen.
Yet despite the loss of a king, with all these hawks around, the natural world is firmly in control around here.
I ask my mom why there are still so many hawks sailing over our oasis of blue sky, and she tells me that the falconry centre was forced to close and pay back years of licensing fees. The Ace falcon-pilot has been stuck in litigation for over a year now, and even his farm is in danger of being repossessed, she says. I suppose since the birds were all trained to home back, none of them went very far after they were let go, she explains, wielding a sharp kitchen knife. The purple cubes of beet look more like flesh than roots. Tiny trails of blood stain the cutting board, and I find myself staring at a metaphor draining into the sink.
Outside Dexter and Mala are chasing each other in an eternal black-and-white cycle of dog meets dog meets dog. I hear her barking, finding her voice. With their Latin names, they too are a metaphor. But then again, what is not a metaphor for something in our topsy-turvy world these days?
My mother goes on to explain that to make matters worse, the aviator had been caught with a half-million dollars worth of pot growing on his property. I tell her I would try growing weed too if the government took away my livelihood and all I had was a plot of land kept immaculately free of rodents. I feel bad for the guy, I say. But in reality, I feel angry at the bureaucracy. I feel worse for the King Beet, who I put at the bottom of the bowl in an attempt to give him a little longer before he, too, is diced into little cubes. Now I realise that I did him a grand injustice. Essentially, I made him watch as every one of his penis soldiers are carved up before him.
That’s too bad about the falconry centre, I say. My mother is concentrating on cubing the roots. She is fast, and her agile hands cut methodically. I watch her for a few minutes before I burst out, Some things are just intolerable, and continue to stare at the pile of beets—an entire realm of unnatural roots offending me every time I look.
Yeah, she says, it’s a shame how they never did try to help him.
I shake my head and tell her I wasn’t talking about the aviator, but about the veggies. I explain that next year, I won’t be the one to pick the beets. Tomatoes, yes, no problem, but for heaven’s sake just not the beets. My mother is astonished. She is caught off guard with the profound emotional outburst regarding the vegetable garden. I see the confusion on her face and agree quickly that it’s also a shame about the government doing nothing to help the guy, but on a different level those beet you’ve got growing there, ma, those are offensive and intolerable, and although I will probably eat them, I refuse to pluck them out of the ground next year. They look like penises, each one more so than the last, I say, pointing at a long, curved one hanging flaccidly over the edge of the plastic bowl. My mother regards the one she has in her hand: a well-endowed, deep purple erection with a clump of loamy pubic hair. Julie will have to do it next year, I say, picking up a three-inch, uncircumcised root that resembles the phallus of a Greek marble, and I throw it back into the bowl to be washed.
What about this one? she asks, pointing at the King. He doesn’t look anything like a penis to me. I shake my head. No, he doesn’t. He is the King, I wanted to say, but quickly realised that his reign is now over. Don’t use that one tonight, I beg her. Leave him for a different meal, please. I feel like I bonded with him today.
Graeme Lottering was born and raised in South Africa at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Currently, he lives in Toronto, Canada. His work has been published in such places as The New Quarterly, The Montreal Review, as well as Intellectual Refuge and Specter Magazine. In the past, he has also been a contributor to CBC Radio. In January 2011, he self-published his debut novel, ’98% Grey: A Novel in 3 Colours’ on Amazon.com