Fractured Portraiture of Indoor Mango Tree

You inherited the mango tree from your mother. Standing at just under seven feet, you had a difficult time moving it up two flights of creaking stairs and into your studio apartment. Despite its towering size, you manage to find space for it next to the fridge.

*

Though you’re not sure what to do with it all, you are grateful the tree bears so much fruit. You have made endless puddings, smoothies, bread, and even an unsuccessful curry. Your cat spends hours licking at the mango skins left abandoned from your cooking on the table. Your friend suggests you try selling excess fruit.

*

You learned how to cut mangoes from your mother. You remember how she would squeeze each one softly in her grip, knowing their exact ripeness only by their tenderness—how she would swiftly slice two halves around the pit, letting the juice drip between her fingers and onto the floor. She would tear the fruit from the seed then, only to leave it naked on the sink next to empty skins.

*

You take your cat to the vet because she’s been more lethargic than usual. The vet looks you in the eye and asks if your cat has been eating anything new lately, so you tell her about your unending supply of mangoes. There’s a chemical in mango skins called urushiol, she says. It’s kind of like poison ivy—too much, and you’ll turn red and itch. You should make sure you get rid of them when you’re done.

*

It’s now the oppressive oatmeal warmth of summer, so you decide to start selling your mangoes at one dollar each. One woman buys a dozen and says they’re the best she has ever tasted. Another man grimaces and says he can find better ones at Trader Joe’s. You still owe hundreds on your vet bill.

*

You remember how even when you had next to nothing, your mother would buy premium plant food and hum softly to the mango tree under the moonlight.

*

Urushiol. You roll the consonants around on your tongue and let the vowels linger. You learn that urushiol is also used in a lacquer to restore broken ceramics. You write it down in your notebook, connecting the waves of each letter like an ocean, building and building until they finally break.

*

You keep the last letter your mother sent nestled within the branches of the tree. You read it in bits, not yet able to read it all at once. Her writing loops in a way that is still unfamiliar, and it takes you a moment to decipher the last lines. I’m sorry we haven’t talked much after I left. Can I see you again sometime?

*

The pile of mango skins grows steadily on the kitchen counter, each of them in varying states of decay. Their scent fills the room with nostalgia, and you remember the careful dance of you and your mother in fish sauce kitchens—memory is an itch you cannot bite down on.

Snapdragons Come Back Every Year

The couch blossomed on Thursday, right after the afternoon rain. Clusters of gerbera daisies gathered on the left armrest. Their slender new petals reached towards the lamplight on the nearby side table, reflective in shades of silky aubergine. Maxine thought they matched the mock-Turkish rug and left them for the time being, wondering if she should adjust the humidity. The house still creaked in the night, settling on its dry desert foundation like a stone in an old river.

She called Verne, who she paid to drive the extra miles out of town to empty her blackwater and check the solar panels. When he was here next, could he also look at her environmental controls? He did a little of everything.

“No problem. I’ll be by later tomorrow.”

She looked at buds starting to appear on the settee. “Bring some garden shears too.”

Friday morning, the floorboards were extra springy underfoot, leading her to a row of corn that sprouted from the front doormat. Small tender bamboo shoots curled up from under the baseboards.

The first sip of coffee helped clear her mind, separating the colors of new bluebonnets and snapdragons pushing through the dining room chairs. On the second sip, a lump lodged in her throat. She spat and clawed at her neck, trying to suck in any bit of air. Before she blacked out, she fell against the edge of the countertop, forcing the air from her diaphragm. She coughed until she breathed easy again, her back pressed against a downy thistle, gone to seed over her coffee pot.

Dark clouds rolled in from the west, the last rain of the season.

When Verne arrived, he passed a new line of begonias leading up to the front door, their thickly veined leaves bent over the walkway. Maxine’s relieved face pressed up against the transom window.

“Hey Verne, I need you to break the glass. My hands are tied.”

“Like with dinner?”

“Sort of. Look, all the doors and windows are stuck fast with sap. I can’t get out.”

Verne noticed a darker shadow growing behind Maxine. Droplets of condensation beaded on the glass.

Maxine’s voice was strained. “Now, please.”

Muttering about crazy off-grid loners, Verne got a wrench from the truck and beat at the window. When it finally cracked, a rainforest spilled out along with Maxine, scraping green along the fractured glass. Verne pulled at her frantically, her encasing vines eventually snapping down by the mailbox. 

“What the actual hell?”

Maxine shuddered off green loops while sprinting for the truck. “Vanilla vines, I think. Hard to tell when you’re being throttled.”

As they backed down the long driveway, cacti poked out from the eaves of the roof. Maxine hung out of the window, watching. “Don’t think I’ll be buying plant-based furniture again.” She paused. “Or at least I’ll build somewhere with a regular growing cycle.”

With the first drops of rain, the desert started to bloom.

Undergrowth / Overgrowth

The first time I was suspicious, I went into the bathroom to tend to the fresh bruises-to-be on my upper arms. A tiny ceramic saucer of aloe sat in the corner of the sink, its pristine clear gloss reflecting light. I didn’t know where it came from, but I knew someone was looking out for me. I gently lathered and whispered gratitude with each wince.

The second time was after work. I thought I only needed to dig deeper for answers with my students, but I guess the answers I’m looking for come out eventually. “It’s over,” I almost choked. But all that escaped my ragged throat was stillness, as if the reaches of his twiny words and slippery truths were a seed planted into my lungs. “I’ll do better,” he said. “It was only this once.” I believed him.

When I got home, there it was on the table: a warm cup of chamomile tea. A note was wrapped around the outer edge, decorated in chamomile stems. “You came home later than usual today. Warm yourself up,” said the handwritten note in green ink.

The third clue came to me in a dream. The world around me was pitch black, stretching as far as my voice could echo. I called, yelled, begged for someone to help, but all that remained were whimpers through a hoarse voice.

Fear and suspicion vined around my ankles, digging their thorns into soft flesh so that the faint smell of metal wafted through the abyss. Each effort to break free hurt me more, each scream into the void meant spilling hope until all was extinguished. I collapsed into my blood, and the stench of metal—no—the sweet smell—

A wisp of air broke into the depths. She circled around me from my head to my ankles like a fairy, enveloped me in her scent and cut into the thorny green. A warm chilling touch stroked my cuts. Follow me, she said, and I’ll lead you back into light. I woke up to the faint earthy floral scent blanketing me and saw a dried sprig of lavender on the pillow.

I was absolutely certain after the break-up. It happened in front of my apartment. I looked into the beady peephole and saw his fuming being tense his fists.

He tried to break his way in, but Ivy grew and grew, circling around the doorknob, snaking her way around his ankles. A lone leaf gently drifted down and landed on my head. In the same green lettering, it said, “You’re free now.”

I held the note over my chest and finally let my tears flow. Ivy wrapped around me, fiber leaves tickling my skin, spreading a thin layer of aloe on the last of my fading bruises. She gestured me to the bedroom and laid me down. The comforting scent of lavender and chamomile blew around me.
Thank you for taking care of us, the wind and grass whistled. Now it’s our turn.

Chlorophytum

She’s not home! But she would be soon.

I need to get out now. The fungal smell of rot lingers in the dry air, as do the final screams of distress from kin they never met. Through the window to the back yard, they can see the mounds of once-fresh soil that mark the graves. They have been planning their escape since they first looked out that window.

They refuse to end up like the others. The Witch starves and deprives them all. The ones that cling to life, she severs their limbs—proud of every dismemberment. She loves nothing more than to watch them wither and die. If I could just make it outside, into the sun. They thought they’d have a chance if someone found them. Or if they could hide away long enough that she’d forget about her little “Spider.”

Here kitty kitty! The little Snowshoe mix is a trained hunter. On Spider’s first day of captivity, they watched the cat take down a moth without moving more than a single paw. Once the moth stopped flapping, the cat dutifully carried it outside to the porch and dropped it at The Witch’s feet. When The Witch isn’t home, her cat leaves his kills at the bottom of the porch stairs to bake in the sun.

I just need to get to the sun.

For the last month, Spider has devoted all their energy to this moment. To their escape. As the cat enters the room, Spider seizes their chance—

A dried flower falls to the floor.

The hunter springs at the sudden movement from the plant and sinks his teeth into the pup at the end of Spider’s flowering stem. He tries to drag away the baby, but the stem holds, shaking Spider. The cat lunges at Spider and tears into them. His eyes dilate. Oh no.

***

The Witch comes home to a pile of vomit1 at the front door. “Not again!” She gathers the unsalvageable remains of her spider plant and takes it to the back yard. She lays it to rest with the others and wonders how she’ll keep the cat away from the next one.

1 Chlorophytum (a.k.a. spider plants) are a common houseplant variety that are non-toxic to pets. They are, however, hallucinogenic for cats.