What makes this night unusual is that there’s a woman squatting in my garden, eating a turnip.
As Lettie likes to say, “Times are changing.” Maybe it’s true. I’ve never seen a woman in my garden before. And eating a turnip, no less.
Despite neat rows of carrots and beets, it’s my radishes that pregnant women like best. Their husbands come in the night, clumsy footsteps plodding down my poor lemon balm sprouts, frantic fingers pulling through soil to get at the pink-red prize. They are hesitant the first night. They hunch in the dirt and look over their shoulders. They feel guilty, cursing their wives’ hunger for turning them into thieves. They vow to never come back.
The next night they refuse their wives, or go to the grocery store instead. But the sweet sharpness of my radishes is like no other. I rub dirt away from their tops so they gleam in the night. The burst of green from those rubies calls to be pulled and who are men to resist?
Lettie’s radishes aren’t nearly as big. She says hers are better because they’re organic, no sorcery, no pesticides. Says that husbands come to her garden in droves, fighting each other for her vegetable pretties. But she’s full of talk, and so what if I help my radishes along with a few well chosen words? Why does it matter that I get a special batch of seeds from Monsanto? The FDA says they’re nutritionally equivalent. Anyway, husbands always return to my garden and before they know it, they’re grovelling at my feet, promising me their first-borns.
Lettie says it’s time we give up on the old ways of apprenticeship. She says it’s wrong to take them from birth. But how else will you break them down and then build them back up in your image? Lettie’s full of tips on how to create an atmosphere where people want to work, as if the wanting makes a difference. Vacations, sick days, assessment meeting, all sorts of nonsense. She says parents want their children to work with her (“with” and not “for,” she stresses), and this allows her to pick of the cream of the crop. “It’s time for a change, ladies,” she says. She prattles on and on about human rights. She has paid interns, for god’s sake.
I have issues with retention, she says. I think she’s the one with retention issues, if you know what I mean.
But. I can’t ignore that I’ve had nothing but runaways these last few decades. Loyalty is hard to breed in this century. The youth have all sorts of ideas, and there are barely any towers left where I could stick them.
So that’s all stewing in my mind when I see this woman in my garden. She’s swaddled in rags and her hair looks like it hasn’t been washed in weeks. I approach cautiously, slowly, so as not to scare her. I want to get the feel of her. See if she’s friendly.
“Hello dear,” I say.
She yips and dribbles turnip cud onto her shirt.
“Nothing to be scared of,” I say, sweet as I can.
“I’m not scared of you,” says the woman, standing up. “You just surprised me.”
“Where’s your husband?”
She’s wearing at least five sweaters and stinks of urine. A vagabond.
“You got any other food in there?” she says. “I wouldn’t say no to some bread or meat. These turnips taste pretty mean.”
I fight back the instinct to snap her bold little neck. I can hear Lettie’s shrill prattle in my mind and I smile through gritted teeth.
“For a price, you can eat whatever you heart desires. Honey glazed hams, lamb chops with mint sauce, stuffed dates, baked potatoes with cream.”
“Pizza?” she says.
“Pizza,” I say.
She licks her lips.
“I don’t have money.”
“I’m thinking more along the lines of … live-in employment. For you, and when she’s born, your child.”
“I don’t do sex stuff.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t ask that of you.”
“And in return you give me food?”
“All the food you can eat.”
The woman sniffs and then shrugs.
“Alright,” she says, and then walks toward my house, not even waiting for me to follow.
She takes a seat at my kitchen table. There are loaves of bread, a wheel of cheese, a basket of my most beautiful produce, but she doesn’t spare it a glance.
“So where’s the pizza?” she says.
I sigh and order her a medium pepperoni, which she devours in full.
“Don’t you want some vegetables? How about a radish? It’ll be good for the baby,” I say.
She takes a radish and eats it slowly, as if she’s never had one before.
“Doesn’t taste mean?” I say.
“I guess it’s alright.”
I show her to her room and she starts snoring immediately. When I leave, I don’t even lock her door.
I walk out into the garden, carefully stepping between rows of vegetables. The stone fruit trees are coming along nicely, dangling peaches and plums like pendants. Bean sprouts curl into the trellises that line my garden walls.
Then, a helicopter flies overhead, breaking the pensive silence. Music and the smell of weed waft over the neighbour’s yard. I bend down and pick a Snickers wrapper that’s crumpled on the soil. The brat must’ve dropped it when she was squatting here. I sit down among my radishes and pinch their leaves, feel the life in them.
I can’t say I like these new times, but what can I do? At least pregnant women still like my radishes best.
Natalie Chudnovsky was born in Russia, but grew up and lives in Los Angeles. Besides writing and reading, she’s also into tea and public radio.