Seedling: Chapter Three
Snow piles up in our yard. The big, wet flakes fall and land silent on the already laid blanket covering the grass. I watch the school closings scroll across the bottom of the TV screen. I wait for Tygarts County. 2-Hour Delay. “Shit,” I say out loud.
“Why?” Book whines.
A snow plow growls by our house as we sluggishly put on our boots and coats. I step off the porch into the 8-inch snow. My boots squish it down. I take big lunging steps through the yard to the freshly plowed stripe in an otherwise unbroken sea of the white stuff. Book follows me, he steps in the deep holes left by my feet.
We stand at the bus stop for a long time. Nothing. 45 minutes go by. Nothing. We walk back to the house. Mom is making coffee as we come in the door. We dump our coats and boots, little bits of snow fall on the carpet.
“You guys not have school today?” She asks.
“Well, we thought we did but apparently not.” Book says.
I turn on the TV and wait for our county to scroll by again. Tygarts County: Closed. “I knew it, they must have changed it right as we walked out the door.” I say. “Do you still have to work today Mom?”
“Could I ride into town with you? I want to go to the library. They are supposed to have a really good index there for rare plant identification.”
“My wild and crazy kid, asking me to go to the library. Where did I go wrong in raising you?” She says sarcastically, grinning really huge.
Mom counter-steers her way up the hill. Her front-wheel drive car digs in and we crest the top. Town is pretty with all the snow. It doesn’t look as dingy as usual. The sidewalks are covered except for the stairs leading up to the library. The ancient lamp posts stand like bright gate keepers, flanking the wet clear concrete to the white doors.
Heat from a large vent blasts me as I walk in. I look around. There are some 10-year-old computers in the middle of the room, other than that, it looks like all the other libraries. Rows of books with small signs telling you which section is which.
I find periodicals. Botany and Plant Sciences. I grab a book called Natural History by Pliny the Elder and another called Chapters in Modern Botany by Patrick Geddes. They are heavy in my arms as I look for a table. I find a big slab of oak in a small corner and splay out all my things. Snow falls out the window as I launch into the weighty text of Geddes.
“This little book makes no attempt to condense a survey of its science; even within the fields through which it passes it seeks only to be suggestive, not exhaustive; its chapters have actually grown out of the syllabus and notes of university extension lectures, with their necessary limitations.”
I am already in love with this book. I read about pitcher plants and plants that move and how plants interact with animals. I am mid-skim when I hear a man’s voice break the heavy silence of the place, “Hello.” I jump and turn around to see the smallest, most charmingly-dressed old man staring at me. He has glasses, neatly-combed silver hair, and a sweater overtop of a button-down shirt and tie. “Might I ask what you are working on?” He says with a twinge of some Euro accent from long ago. He lets a small grin form after he says the words.
“Well, um, I am interested in botany sir.” I say.
“What kind of kid is in a library on a snow day?” He asks humbly, still grinning.
“My mom, she works at the little bar on main street, and she was coming into town. I’ve been meaning to come look for this book for a while, and the library usually closes before I can get here after school.” I stammer.
“I was only kidding, my dear.” He says in a kind voice. “Is there something specifically that interests you? I am knowledgeable about that field of study.”
“Well, I’ve been trying to germinate some seeds at school and my blackberries aren’t showing any progress. What do you think?”
“Tell me what your process has been thus far, Miss…?”
“My name is Flora Black.” I say with hesitation.
“Black you say, was your grandfather a Claybourne Black?”
“Yes, he was, Grandpa Clay.” I say. “How did you know him?”
“He and I worked on some mine reclamation together. He was a lovely man, quite the silent type, but a good man.”
“He was never very silent with me but I was young when he died, just 4 or 5.” I say back.
“Well Miss Black, granddaughter of Claybourne, my name is Oscar Goeteluck. Now, what has your process been with the blackberries?”
“Why are you here in this small town?” I ask him before I answer.
“I used to teach here a long time ago. Ancient history.” He grins. “How would you like to discuss your blackberries?”
“Huh,” I say out loud, “Um, yes, my blackberries. So I pulled 5 fruit from a bush near my house. I mashed them with my fingers in a bowl. And then I picked the seeds out, I had about 45. I used tweezers and held them still while I sliced them with an exacto blade. I put them all in a sandwich baggie together with some moss from the bottom of our yard near the creek. The instructions said peat moss, but I assumed moss from a few feet away from the original bush would be fine…” I take a breath. “Then, I put them in the back of the refrigerator. They’d been there since the middle of July, plenty of time. After that I filled some seed trays with seed starter soil and spread the seeds out on top, pinching the soil around each one as I went. I brought them into the lab at school and have been misting them for over a month now and not one has sprouted yet. I don’t understand.” I finish.
“You did most everything correctly. The only variable I can imagine is this, about what temperature do you think the lab maintains on average, Miss Black?” Mr. Goeteluck asks.
“Probably in the 60s. It is an old school so it stays pretty chilly in the winter.” I say back.
“There you are my dear, the colder temperature is likely delaying the seeds. They will still sprout, they may be longer than expected.” He says.
“Ok, so what exactly did you teach?” I ask him skeptical and confused as to why this guy knows anything about blackberry seeds.
“There used to be a college here. Have you heard of it? It was a very good school, well-respected and successful but it was small and could not withstand the anti-academia movement. I taught at the college, I was a professor and dean for the school of agriculture. I was close to retirement when the school began to suffer and so I completed my tenure early and began part-time work here at the library.” He says library like libbrairy, his accent stubbornly hanging onto this one word.
“What do you think of the illness that is spreading in this area?” I awkwardly spit out before I have time to sensor my curiosity.
The small man scrunches his brow up a little bit. He adjusts his glasses and says, “My dear, that is a question with a very long answer. I’m not sure we have the time to cover it.”
“What do you mean? Do you think it’s something else? Do you know what it is?” I start asking a lot of questions.
Mr. Goeteluck interrupts me. “Miss Black, we probably shouldn’t discuss it at the moment.” He pauses, “I hope you won’t find it distressing, but would you and your family want to visit my residence? I have a glasshouse you would likely enjoy, and we could talk more about the illness as you put it.”
“Let me ask my mom and I’ll let you know. She is a busy lady.”
“Of course, Miss Black. Tell her I’ll make some tea! I’d be delighted to host all of you.” He says smiling.
“Cool!” I say and I look down at my book of botany, unsure of what to say next.
I look back at him and he says, “Excuse me my dear, you were working, and I interrupted you. I’ll let you get to it. When you know a good time to visit just drop by the place of books.” He grins, his small face under his glasses warm and friendly.
I try to dig into my book but I can’t concentrate. I am thinking of Tuck. Poor Tuck. I pack up and slide the books back onto their shelves. I wish I could take them with me.
I walk to the bar and sit at the far end. Mom hands me a soda. It is icy and fizzy. Bubbles burst out of the top. I feel the mist land on my hand and my nose as I sip it from the cold glass. The place is empty except for the one drunk who never leaves, no one is venturing out in this weather. Mom has the local news on the tv. “The ‘Bouts as people are beginning to call them are spreading across the state at rapid speed.” The newscaster says at me. The bouts.
“Mom, they’re calling it something now. The bouts.” I say.
“Some signs to look for in yourself or others are dizziness and a strange hunger. They may act disoriented or even appear to be intoxicated.” The newscaster continues. “If you see anyone eliciting these behaviors, you should take them to the doctor immediately.”
The drunk at the end of the bar mutters something unintelligible.
“You’ll have to speak up Frankie.” Mom says to him.
“A lot of damned good the doctors gawwna do. Whatna hell ay gowwna do about it?” He says loudly and with intense focus, his drunkenness paused while he spits out the message.
“That’s enough, Frankie.” Mom says, underwhelmed.
I think about Frankie’s words. He’s probably right. No one can figure it out. “Mom, I met an old man at the library. His name is Oscar Goeteluck.”
Mom recognizes the name immediately. “Holy hell kiddo, I didn’t know he was still in town. I thought for sure they’d run him off.” She says to me.
“Who was he? He told me something about there being a college here a long time ago.” My interest peaked.
“Oh girly, he was a figure of much conversation when the college was being shut down by the government. They were no longer allowing private schools to operate in the state. Dr. Goeteluck was fiercely in opposition. He thought the place was a last bastion of edification for the people of this state. It became the only college not receiving funds from the government after Randolph College closed. There were protests, crazy violent awful stuff.”
Frankie chimes in, “It was all them damned smarties up there. They thought they were so much better’n all us lowly folks. Now they know, we aint going nowhere. We’ll be here as long as’em hills out there.” He slugs the rest of his beer and slouches down further into his barstool.
“Don’t you listen to Frankie, he clearly hasn’t had much success with his philosophy on education.” Mom says with a wink to old Frankie.
I giggle and motion her to come closer to me. “Mom, Mr. Goeteluck asked me if we might want to visit him at his house. He said he has a greenhouse that I would like a lot. He is going to make us tea.” I say with a lot of pep.
“When did he say it would be?” Mom asks looking a little burdened.
“He said we could pick!” I say back to her, excited about getting some answers about it.
“Mention Sunday to him, but don’t publicize it, I imagine there could still be a little bit of animosity leftover. You know how small this town is.” She says back.
I go to school the next day and catch the bus to town instead of the house. I rush to the library to get there before they close at 4. I walk in at 3:52. “Mr. Goeteluck!” I say. “My mom said Sunday would be best, is that ok?”
“Of course, dear! I will be looking forward to it! Maybe 2 p.m.?” He says back.
“Perfect! See you then!” I say and I walk out of the library into the cold air.
I walk around town. I walk up Oak Street and then I come down Main. The winter sun is setting, it isn’t even 5 and the street lights kick on. I’m getting close to Tuck’s house and my heart starts to thump. It is a big, beautiful, Victorian thing. The evergreen shrubs have a layer of snow on their tops. There is a picket fence and a lovely brick path that leads to the front door. I see lamps on inside the windows and I think of going up to the front door. I think of seeing Tuck’s mom and I think of seeing Tuck. I know he is there. I want to go to him, I want to see if there is anything I can do, anyway I can help. Instead I walk away. I walk fast away from his house and away from whatever thing this is that is stealing away our people.
Sunday comes and we eat a late breakfast and drive to Mr. Goeteluck’s house. He lives near where Nice Creek joins the lake. We come through an old stone gate and go up the winding driveway. Pine trees line both sides of the road, snow sits on their branches, the weight pushing them towards the ground. We go about a mile and just as we are beginning to see the deep winter green of the lake, the house appears. It is an old stone cottage; the thing has moss growing near its base and a sweet front porch leading to a wooden door. It looks like he had it shipped here from the English countryside.
We park and walk up the stairs to the door. I lift the cast iron knocker and bang it against its plate feeling like I’ve stepped into the fairy realm. Mr. Goeteluck answers the door. A small dog walks out the door past him and starts sniffing our feet. “This is my dear Linna, she is an old thing. She was my wife’s dog and there was a time where we did not get a long but now we’re good friends. Right, Linna?” He says to the dog and its ears perk up.
He has a similar sweater, shirt, and tie combo on today. Pointing his arm into the house he says, “Come on now, come in.” Linna goes first and then Mom and I walk in the door and the house smells like butter and sugar. Perfect.
“This is my mom, Addy Black.” I say, too late for an introduction. “This is Mr. Goeteluck.”
“Oscar, my dear, you and your mother can both call me Oscar.” He says. “Would you like some tea and cookies first or would you like to take a walk to the glasshouse?”
“The greenhouse can’t be very exciting today, it is so cold out there.”
“Oh no Ms. Black, I grow the little things all year long. Only a few times have I needed to heat the glasshouse. Only when it gets terribly, wretchedly cold.” He grins.
“What do you think mom? Walk, then tea to warm us up?” I ask.
“Sounds good kiddo, let’s check it out.” She says back.
Oscar walks us down a small path into the snowy woods. We follow footprints already laid by him on previous trips. The trail wraps around a small point and in a dip near the lake we see a lovely little building made entirely of glass. There is a small cavity around the base against the clear walls where the snow has melted. The joints connecting the glass are painted a pale green color, steam covers the panes in the corners.
Oscar opens the door to the place and a woosh of steamy warm air comes out. We walk in ahead of him and see vines growing and wrapping around a piece of metal framing. Herbs fill the air, and there are flowering plants blooming all over the place. The bright white, winter light comes in, it makes everything look rich and lush.
I look across down the thin isle and I see a bunch of lady tresses staring at me. Lady tresses. Tuck. Tuck. I think of him sitting next to me on the bus, his clothes making him smell like clean laundry. Perfect. I want to go see him, say hello, check on his mom.
Instead, I look at the exotic plants Oscar is keeping alive in this place. I ask him thoughtful questions and he answers them with warmth. We walk back to the house and shed our boots and coats and drink hot tea and eat cookies. Mom and Oscar are chattering about town and how much it has changed. I am thinking of leaving and just about the time I go to say something he says, “Now my dear, I am curious what you think of this illness?” His eyes have an air of academic stoicism all the sudden.
“I don’t know much. I know they can’t figure out what it is, how it is moving from one person to the next, whether it is some bacteria or a virus. I know they don’t know much.” I say back to him, we are all leaning in now, like we are talking about some kind of secret. Like everyone in town, in our state, on our news channels aren’t already talking about it.
“What else could cause something like this? What could be happening? How else is it that humans isolate a certain population? Think warfare, my dear.” He says back to me.
My mind goes crazy. Warfare. Poison in our water. Poison in our food. Why would they want to mess with a bunch of poor people in the mountains? Who are they?
Oscar sees me thinking, “Who have you learned about the illness from?”
I think of the news casters and the guys at the campfire talking about Blizzard and Lile counties and of Zach and Tuck.
Mom politely motions towards having a lot to get done before the week starts and we leave the place. We leave Oscar there with his strange plants and his fairy cottage.
“Mom, do you think there is any truth to what Oscar was saying?” I ask, knowing that she sees crazy at the bar all the time.
“Well kiddo, he seems pretty grounded otherwise. He didn’t seem to have any other parts of the tin-foil-hat kit. I didn’t see a shotgun anywhere.” She grins at me.
“I am really worried Mom, what if it is something like that? What if he is right?” I ask.
“If he is right, we probably won’t know it until it’s too late.” She says back to me.
I get quiet. Thoughts are running through my head. The bouts. Tuck has the bouts but he isn’t dead and he must still have moments of awareness. I wonder why it comes and goes like it does. I wonder if it is something that can be tested.
“I bet it can be tested.” I say to Mom with determination. I’m going to figure it out.