My Garden Fortress by Kathleen Dyck


Slugs. Slimy, revolting, gag-inducing, leaf-and-fruit-munching, plant-murdering slugs! I had arrived at my garden plot early that morning—with the sun only just cresting the tops of the houses to find that a small army of the bulbous black mollusks were advancing through my territory, leaving glistening slime trails crisscrossing the dark earth. How many of them were there, to do such damage? Following several of their shiny tracks to my strawberry patch, I lifted a ragged leaf to find four fat slugs beneath it. There were no strawberries left, just bits of pulpy pink flesh left clinging to the leaves.

Slugs—for their sheer voracity and destructive capabilities surpassed aphids, other insects, even blight and rot as my garden enemy number one. I was under heavy fire, and it was time to break out the big guns in retaliation. I hurried to the garden shed, unlocked it, and dug around until I found a Tupperware container labelled: Salt – for slugs. I carried it back to my plot to begin dispatching the invaders. It was near the end of July and the garden was in full bloom, which was what made the slugs’ assault hit me like a blow to the face. I was no stranger to these nauseating nocturnal visitors, but I had let my guard down lately, forgetting to lay down slug bait, allowing them to overrun my defenses during the night. These consisted of a border of French marigolds planted all around my garden, at some small distance away from the flowers and vegetables. The slugs were attracted to the marigolds, gathering on their leaves and buds, but this method was only useful if you regularly checked them in the evening, hand-picking the slugs from the marigolds; the weather had been so wickedly hot for these last few weeks that I’d been neglecting this chore, now to my detriment. The shiny slime trails led from the marigold border deeper into my garden, which towered with colourful blooms – a densely packed explosion of leaves, fruit, veggies and flowers. Lily trees stood tall at the back, supporting huge flowers atop their sturdy stalks. Fat, fluffy zinnia grew in pink, white and yellow; columbines and gladiolas glowed in deep blues and purples; the roses redolent in red, as always. Though most of the slugs had retreated with the new day, I still found seven or eight of them hiding under leaves, in the shade. I rained salt from the heavens upon them, gladly bringing desiccation and death to the enemy.

Ever since childhood, I had taken a cruel sort of thrill in sprinkling salt on the slugs I found in the garden; the act made me feel god-like. An angry, vengeful sort of god, smiting the slugs for having displeased me. My mother had been an avid gardener who also struggled to keep the slugs out of her garden. Being an even more enthusiastic beer drinker, she had devised a novel solution to her problem: burying beer cans up to their tops, with a sip or two left at the bottom. Attracted to the sweet, yeasty smell, they crawled into the cans and drowned. At least they die happy, my mother would crow, downing her beer and plunking it down in the earth. Later, when she would remove the cans, they were heavy with the bodies of drowned slugs. Unlike my mother, I had always seen drowning in stale beer as a hard way to go, but that was part of the appeal: torturing the loathed enemy of the garden state for having dared to invade the kingdom where I ruled from on high. Patsy the all-powerful.

After salting and removing all the slugs I could find, and laying down a line of slug bait in front of the marigolds to act as an extra barricade against future invasions, I got down to the more mundane business of mulching, weeding and watering. The city was just getting over a heat wave that had lasted several long, sweaty weeks, and seen us get no rain for over a month and a half, along with temperatures in the mid-to-high-thirties. All this meant mulching had become even more important than usual, to prevent water loss and desiccation. I used grass clippings as mulch, collected from a neighbour who lived beside my apartment building, and kept a small lawn neatly mowed, but no garden. Since I lived in a building with no backyard, I grew in an individual plot at the local community garden. It was only a short walk from where I lived, but sometimes I still drove, regardless. At my age, I knew I should be walking each day to stay active, but I figured all that time spent weeding and watering counted as exercise, too. Since the heat wave, I had taken to arriving at my plot early in the morning to stake out a water hose and give my plants a good long soak before the heat of the day set in. I specialized in flowering plants, but also grew tomatoes, strawberries, carrots and a few others. I was assessing the damage to my cucumbers when I heard a familiar, high-pitched voice:

Patsy! Hello, are you here already? It’s Iris!

Who else would it be, I wondered, looking up from my mulching. Iris was another gardener – a short, frizzy-haired woman with a high, squeaky voice, a very cheerful personality and an annoying habit of making self-evident remarks. Yes, she could be a little much at times, but she meant well, and was the only person at the community garden whom I would consider a friend.

 Good morning, love. Isn’t it a gorgeous day? Bound to get hotter, too, wouldn’t you say?

I would. Mostly it was simpler to nod along with Iris and her stream of obvious remarks. I knew I was being uncharitable; perhaps it was a product of living alone for so long, but I found I had little use for chitchat. Then again, I had always struggled to keep up my end of a trivial conversation. That was no matter for Iris, though, as she had enough chatter for the two of us and didn’t seem to mind my reticence.

Poor Toby was feeling quite nauseous this morning, she told me, as she filled a watering can at the tap.

Toby was Iris’ little dog, a maltipoo, she called him, who accompanied her everywhere. He was quite advanced in years, with fluffy, curly grey fur like his mistress and stiff, arthritic little legs that carried him neither fast nor far, as he tottered around after Iris in the garden.

He just couldn’t stop vomiting. I gave him some plain rice and pumpkin, to help his digestion. The vet told me that’s what I should do. Also, to inspect his poo for worms, so if you see him have a bowel movement, just let me know, okay?

Lovely, I thought. Sure, Iris, I said.

I told Iris about the slugs attacking my strawberries, and she commiserated, while I painstakingly removed aphids from my roses, crushing them between my fingers and depositing beneficial ladybugs wherever I found them.

From where I kneeled, I could see Toby snoozing in the sun on the sawdust pathway that ran between the garden plots while Iris watered her vegetables. Cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, squash, raspberries, strawberries, melons Iris grew them all. She had several grandchildren she had brought over to help at harvest time whom I had met. Loud, ungrateful things, they seemed; I wasn’t jealous. Family connections weren’t all they were cracked up to be, I thought, despite everything Iris said. When she spoke of her family, it was often with an undertone of pity for poor, childless Patsy. This riled me through and through, though I never said anything about it. If Iris knew what I really thought of her grandkids and Toby, she’d likely not speak to me at all. The dog was thirteen years old and slow as molasses, his fur stained much darker under his eyes so it looked like he was crying bloody tears. Honestly, what good was a creature as small as that? What earthly purpose did it serve, besides companionship? And how good was companionship, I mused, if your companion was incontinent like Toby? When he wasn’t puking inside, he was pissing or shitting, which was the reason I wouldn’t agree to watch him for Iris anymore when she went in for her dialysis. She had to pay a neighbor to watch him instead.

Iris was nowhere in sight as I moved from mulching to watering. Unlike Iris, I used a sprayer head on a garden hose to water my plants. This was the first year I planted corn, beans and squash together in the three sisters method used by native North Americans. I was already reaping the dividends: my corn was a head taller than last year, the beans climbing the stalks all the way to the ears, the winter squash enormous, flaming orange still striped with green.

Then there was movement; from the corner of my eye, a huge flash of brown, black and white. I turned my head just in time to see a huge bird—an eagle of all things—take off from the ground some dozen feet away from my garden. The creature flapped its gigantic wings and rose slowly, ponderously, up into the air with little Toby clasped in its talons. I stood rooted, amazed; I couldn’t believe it. The power! The glory! I thought I would cry from the rough, raw beauty of it; awe swamped my limbs, filled me to the brimful with a sublime sense of grace. I kept my eyes trained upwards long after they had disappeared into the treetops.

Suddenly Iris appeared at my side, looking worried.

Patsy, have you seen Toby?

I opened my mouth to speak. Closed it again, like a fish. No words came to mind, the image still clear before my eyes. How could I share what I’d seen? How could Iris possibly understand? She’d ruin the transcendental nature of the experience. She’d only see the tragedy of it, not the pulsating, living heart of the matter.

I don’t know, I heard myself speaking, as if underwater. He was here. I was watering. Then he was gone. I thought he went to find you.

Well, he didn’t!

I put down the hose that was still clutched in my hand. I’m so sorry, Iris. Let me help you look.

It was easier to be gracious when I knew of poor Toby’s whereabouts. I wondered what part of a dog the eagle might eat first. The head? The eyes?

I don’t know where he’d go. He never wanders off.

An idea came to me suddenly, an inspiration. I did see a couple of characters sleeping in the orchard when I arrived. You think they might have something to do with it?

Classic misdirection. Play off her fears of dope fiends and criminals. Anything to keep that sacred vision safe. The community garden was situated in a semi-industrial area on the border of Skid Row, and sometimes the denizens of the latter would wander into the former, using it for the purposes of camping, and drug use. “Characters” was the word Iris and I used to describe these bottom-dwellers, and my mentioning having seen some of them in the garden earlier was sure to draw Iris’ attention. I felt a bit guilty, deceiving her like this, but I also knew with certainty that I had to cover it up. What good would the truth do her, I rationalized. She’d cry, moan and grieve, and altogether dry up all the wonder and mystery that had so imbued the sight in my mind. Her dog was gone, but a little hope never hurt anybody.

Over the days that followed, I helped Iris comb the neighbourhood. We made countless posters in full colour, tacked them to power poles and message boards all over the city: LOST DOG. Large Reward. No questions asked. In the picture, a younger Toby cocked his head, stared at the camera, his eyes following me wherever I went.

You’re such a good friend, Iris kept telling me, thanking me for the millionth time for my help. Iris held tightly to the belief that Toby had been stolen, and would one day be returned to her. I knew that he wouldn’t, but I still put up posters, pretended to look. I held a vote with the garden society to use our petty cash to pay for the lost dog posters and reward. After all, I reasoned to the committee, since Toby had gone missing from their grounds, it was the least they could do. Iris was almost pitifully grateful, thanking me effusively after the vote passed.

For some time after Toby’s disappearance, Iris was either noticeably subdued or else furious, fired up with the certainty that he had been kidnapped by street people and sold on the black market. I didn’t point out that Toby’s advanced age made him an unlikely candidate for an off-the-street adoption. Instead, I followed Iris on her walks through the roughest parts of the city, asking panhandlers if they had seen Toby, telling them of the reward, tacking up well over a hundred posters. I looked forward to the day when her hope eventually dwindled, and considered buying her a puppy at Christmastime.

Life slowly returned to normal, except that I now found myself taking long walks in the fields and forest behind the community garden, among the trees where the eagles nested. As I walked, I let my eyes rove over the ground in front of me. I had read that one could often find remnants of kills on the ground surrounding an eagle’s nest, so I looked for these as I walked, especially at the base of the tallest trees. Though I knew too much time had passed, I still looked for clumps of greyish fur amidst the pine needles, regurgitated bits of bone to tell the story of Toby’s final flight, the detritus tossed down carelessly from the gods overhead.

About the Author

Kathleen (Katie) Dyck is a Selkirk College student, currently enrolled in the human services program.

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