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A Conspiracy of Vegetables

Teri J. Babcock lives in the big city in a small apartment. She has no cats, dogs, or children, saving her a great deal of money which she spends mostly on books, exotic chocolates, and new plants that she absolutely has to have, but that really don't fit in her community garden plot.

She lives, writes and is rained on in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The vegetable woman at the Saturday farmer's market is completely mad.
She laughs for no reason at all, and her dirty fingernails and Brillo hair make her look like a street person; but her romaine, her leeks and peas, are the largest and sweetest in the entire market. So we buy from her, my girlfriends and I, nodding politely at her bizarre mutterings, scurrying away with our change and our bags of goodies.
You have marital problems," she says with a knowing, wall-eyed squint, one watery-blue morning in early spring. The pavement beneath our feet is dark with rain; the air smells of wet earth and sweet young winter carrots, stacked in the crate between us.
"I'm not married," I say, but she's not listening.
"He doesn't like chard," she says, tsking. "Here. Give him these." She pulls a bulging paper package from somewhere and drops it in my bag. The paper is wrinkled and dirty with fingerprints.
"Excuse me?" I say.
"You'll see." She grins cannily, like a gypsy fortuneteller who has just revealed the secret of life. I stand frozen, fighting the urge to fling back at her, until a man in a polo shirt pushes past me with an irritated look and a flat of greens.
At the corner, I look, fumbling with the crinkling paper. It is a pound of green beans.
That afternoon, tucked into the kitchen nook of my flat, I show Suzanne. She is forty, with two boys and a husband who works nights.
"Are they magical marriage-mending beans?" she says, tossing back her red wine with a resigned laugh. "Can you give me some?"
I give her half the bag, and put the rest in the crisper.
That night, I make Swiss chard and green beans, leaving the beans whole. Colin spears the beans with his fork, but leaves the chard untouched. After dinner he pulls me into his lap, presses his lips against my neck. "Good dinner," he whispers.
Late the next morning Colin and I are still in bed, two soft green seeds nestled safe in our shared shell, when the buzzer rings.
It is Suzanne. She looks radiant through her fatigue. Happiness is leaking out of the corners of her eyes.
"Tell me where you got those beans," she says.
It becomes a ritual for us, visiting Magda.
Sometimes she tallies up our purchases and doesn't say anything. But sometimes she looks in our eyes and stops, sift through our flats of greens carefully, adding some things, removing others.
"More basil," she mutters to my girlfriend Charlie, and her brown eyes widen beneath her pixie cut as she watches Magda poke through her box with strong brown fingers. "And fennel. No peppers or tomatoes." She removes the glowing red globes neatly, replacing them with a bouquet of kale, its green leaves ruffled like a woman's bunched petticoats, hiding secrets. "Potatoes in small quantities only. You must not give him so much nightshade, if you want him to stop looking at other women."
Charlie gapes, then shuts her mouth with a snap.
"How did you know?" she squeaks, but Magda only smiles and puts a finger to her lips, inviting us to be co-conspirators.
For the lovelorn, Magda prescribes sweet-scented tea of dried apples and rosehips, and fills the hands of my friend whose lover is away at school with grape leaves.
"Steam those and eat them with a little lemon, they'll bring her back," she says. "No, no charge for those. I can't cut them back fast enough."
We stop wondering how she knows so much about our lives, or why her prescriptions work. Shyly, we coax our friends and family to come to market and share our secret.
And then one day, she isn't there. Her little stall is forlorn, empty. The other farmers can't tell us anything. Bereft, we buy our lettuces and cucumbers from the others.
The next weekend we return, hopeful. But the others have moved their tables, closing the space. The market manager, a practical woman with a grey bob and a face like a horse, sees us looking.
"She's gone. All for the best," she says, with the certainty of unexamined belief. "She had mental problems, you know. She's in Green Lane. She'll be well looked after there."
She didn't need looking after, I want to say.
"Thank you," I reply.
Weeks pass. I serve Colin green beans, but the magic is gone. My friends and I go to other markets, farther and farther into the country, hoping to find another madwoman with bright eyes and Brillo hair who can read the secrets in our eyes, but there is no one.
And then one Friday in late March, I open the mailbox, and out of the pile of flyers and notices falls a lumpy little envelope, addressed to me in cursive hand.
It is full of fat, round seeds. Peas, I think.
"Plant them," the note says, "three days before the full moon. Give them your own urine, diluted ten to one, stirred widdershins, instead of water the first time. Or 20-20-20 if you don't like to use your own pee."
I look up 'widdershins' on the internet. I scavenge pots and plant the seeds on the fire escape. Five days later little green spears appear in the dirt, their tiny leaf nubs tight against the stalk.
In two weeks, when the peas have their second set of leaves, another envelope arrives, full of flat pale ovals.
"Zucchini," the note says. "Full sun. Kiss each seed before you plant. When they're ready, take them to the woman 3 doors down. She has a sad face. Keep a couple for yourself. Don't give her the seeds, she can't grow a thing."
I thought I wouldn't know which woman, but when I saw her on the townhouse steps, I knew. Shadows drifted beneath her skin, sadness etched in every line.
In midsummer I left the first of the harvest at her door, rang, and hid. I watched her bend for the fruits, shining green like hope, and clutch them to her bosom before disappearing into her house, quick as a thief.
I have a council plot now. It's getting hard to bend, with the baby so far along. Doris, the sad woman, and I conceived the same month. She had been trying for seven years. The shadows in her face are fading, like a stain bleached in the sun.
I give her raspberry leaf and dill, and of course, plenty of squash.
More letters came, with seeds and prescriptions. For me, a tea of delicate rose petals, sweet mint and marigold. I drank it every day, and gradually I began to see the unspoken longings, the griefs and their remedies, written in the faces of the women I grow for.
Each plant has their gift. Butter lettuce to soften a harsh tongue, romaine for a bad temper. Tomatoes to increase passion. Spinach for courage. Hops for grief.
I sent Magda a letter, to tell her how well the peas were growing, how the nasturtiums had surpassed their trellis, twining into the apple tree beside my plot, and how the little girl who ate the bright, peppery flowers had overcome her fear and won first place at her piano competition.
But my letter came back. Stamped "patient deceased."
Magda's last envelope revealed the secret of her opus; creating a magical seed line that magnifies the intrinsic powers of the plant. Any old seed variety will do to start, but you must believe, you must cradle it tenderly in your belief, as you would cradle a child. Then, like peas on a trellis, it latches on to your faith, and its powers bloom.
My daughter is three now. She follows me through the garden in her rubber boots, a matching red watering can in her hand. She knows without being told what the plants need. There is something wise and ageless in her eyes, and I thought perhaps I knew who she was.
Until one morning I saw Doris's little boy in their tiny yard, squirting urine into a glass of water. He stirred it counter-clockwise with his finger before meeting my eyes, his finger against his lips.
"George," his mother called, "what are you doing?"
Silently, the little boy smiled.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 24th, 2015

Author Comments

I think we underestimate vegetables. We refer to them as "garden variety"--meaning common, plain, unexceptional. Yet, after millennia of intentional shaping to our needs and wants, they are anything but.

After natural disasters, stories of the extraordinary resilience of certain heritage varieties appear, their strengths selected for by some long-ago breeder, the genes carried silently for generations, waiting for their moment. I wonder sometimes--what else might lie dormant within these time-travelling gifts from our ancestors, that we have come to think of as bland?

This story germinated from two questions: What if vegetables had secret powers? Who would believe it if they did?

I am intrigued by the idea of functional madness, of people whose different perception of reality doesn't drive them to hurt themselves or others, and who can, despite (or because of) being a square peg in a round hole, make contributions of real value. Many of our advances come from people whose contemporaries considered them to be not just eccentric, but frankly insane. People not now considered insane, because they held the light until everyone else could see what they saw.

Perhaps we need our mad people to believe in the things we cannot.

- Teri J. Babcock
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