Petals of Eden

Dane loved the rich, earthy smell of shit. He had come to know the richness of earth spiraling into his nostrils as he spent time gazing to the soft chew of cud as the cattle grazed. It had been years since those summers working on his uncle’s ranch, but when he met that earthen stink now he could almost feel his feet relaxing into the well-worn soles of rancher’s boots, could almost feel the heavy gentleness of sun forcing light into his hide, tanned like leather.

On the ranch, each day was exhaustion. At first every cow had a name to Dane. Summers went by and the cows lost those names, instead grazing onward with a purity of cow-ness and no need for titles. And Dane lost his name too, as the sun beat into him. Back then he knew all he needed to: If he worked on a ranch for the rest of his life, tilling the earth and watching things grow, he could be happy.

Dane no longer worked at a ranch. He worked as an accountant, and the only thing he watched grow were numbers—which had a nasty habit of shrinking and of meaning nearly nothing to Dane. Still, there was no doubt he had the tools for the trade. When asked, “What’s 96 multiplied by 82,” he would pause, blink once, then respond, “Just under 7900.” Which was a rough guess, but approximately right.

Janey thought Dane made love in the same way he answered these questions: Rough, approximate. Quickly, and yet surprisingly well.

*

Janey loved the silky texture of doll hair. As a child, on the evenings her mother locked her in her room, Janey couldn’t find it in herself to be angry. Her dusty hideaway was bigger than the whole house, contained a mansion of rooms—dollhouses pillared by shoebox extensions, each painted in vibrant, stolen nail-polish colors.

When the sound of breaking seeped under the seams of her locked doors, Janey dangled rosary beads as curtains between the shoebox rooms, hung toothpick crosses on the walls, lit beatified birthday candles with the names of saints scratched into the sides.

Every doll was beautiful to Janey—even the one with the missing eye and the one with cracked skin like a spiderweb scrawling out from the left side of its smile. And sometimes when the noise of the angry world grew too loud, Janey would stuff her ears and pretend she was deaf, turn off the lights and pretend she was blind. She picked up her dolls and ran her palms along the porcelain cheeks, let her fingertips wade the silk streams of hair. Even grasping blindly, she knew which name the texture belonged to. She loved them enough to make a home for them.

Her mother’s house was not a home: It was an ocean of should-be’s pouring down Janey’s throat every time she tried to open her lungs. But her cityscape of dollhouses was Atlantis. Back then Janey knew all she needed to: If you use your love to build a mansion for those you cherish, broken things could become whole.

Janey did not live in a mansion. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment with Dane where the landlord refused to let her paint the walls, where the appliances worked or sputtered based on the weather in East Asia. And her dolls had all been left behind—too childish and unwieldy to be carried with her.

*

Dane fell in love with Janey’s breathing.

She was nineteen years old then, feeling ancient and like a child. Despite her escape from her mother’s house the year before, Janey couldn’t help but feel she was drowning. Her panic-riddled lungs gulped at the too-thin air, but she forced the wind into the narrow corridors of her nostrils as her lips lay gently against one another.

Dane saw Janey breathing at the bus stop. That woman, thought Dane, is fearless.

Dane wore tattered jeans and a shirt stained by barbeque sauce—he’d paid for the last five cents of his bus fare with “take a” pennies from the gas station—but Janey saw something more. Dane was beautiful, and when his shoulders rolled back, he owned the air itself. And Janey found it easier to let the oxygen in.

*

Dane was very good at being an accountant, quite respected, secure. And he was not happy. Which was okay, because Dane didn’t spend his childhood with the thought that he would grow up to become happy. Rather, he thought he might grow up to be an astronaut or a fireman. For a time in university, when Dane’s declared major was indecision, he volunteered with the local fire fighters. But when he came home three hours late one morning, he found Janey sleepless, eyes red, hands clutching the sheets. The room smelled of salt-water, and Dane understood: The bedsheets had caught fire with her worry and Janey had opened the floodgates in an attempt to extinguish the blaze, streams of salted water flowing into a flame that only knew how to consume and consume.

So Dane chose to become an accountant. However little he took comfort in God, he knew the old wisdom: The foolish man builds his house on sand; the wise man seeks the cold, flat heaviness of stone. It made sense, given the sum of things, even if happiness wasn’t part of the equation. It was not a particularly rational thought, but at some level, Dane simply cared more about being rational than he cared about being happy.

*

Dane had failed as a man. “Weak swimmers,” said the specialist, and Dane thought of a multitude of unborn children gulping down liquid as they drowned in the ocean of never-to-become.

Janey had failed as a woman. “Inhospitable environment,” said the specialist. Janey felt weighed down by the parched soil of her body. Her children’s hearts had never started beating, but already she had failed to build a home.

The news was a miracle. Dane and Janey celebrated by buying a home big enough to house their growing dreams. Janey had waited years for this child, had loved it since before she even knew how such miracles came to be. Dane wanted to name him Casey, after the uncle whose ranch was a haven and whose heart had given out only months before.

Casey, the child who had a name in that precarious first trimester, when names so easily get etched on vaporous gravestones over unbroken earth. When the sharp pain called to Janey and she woke in the early morning cold, she felt the earth of her womb breaking, felt the vapor of the child’s unknown breaths rising into her lungs—choking out her oxygen, forcing her heart into spasms as it tried to beat for two bodies.

There are no burials for a child whose life is hosed out in clots and particles.

Janey delayed the name of the second unborn child. When Janey prayed, she only said, “Please protect our baby.” And Janey believed, could feel the best of her and Dane coalescing into this creature that had re-tilled the earth of her. Dane secretly named the child Elsa, the same name he’d given to the very first cow he saw on his uncle’s ranch. And Dane refused to calculate the odds, find figures or facts. He only hoped, and rested a hand against that firmness between stomach and sacred ground where a weak swimmer had fought through the inhospitable environment to spark life.

When the spark was extinguished, Janey had no tears. Dane wanted to hold her as she wept, but weeping was beyond her now.

Thirty-nine days after the second child wandered from them and was lost, Janey and Dane went walking in the mountains. Janey smelled life everywhere. She imagined herself as Eve.

She knew that Eve had been punished for her transgression, condemned to pain in child-bearing for all generations even as she was told to multiply and replenish—but if God made Eve, couldn’t he have made her strong enough to withstand the whisperings of serpents?

She bit down on her tears, and they splashed salt-water against her teeth, which dried out and shook against the wind.

*

There would be no third child. Silence was beyond weeping. What would Janey find if she took a step deeper? She couldn’t find out. She wouldn’t. Didn’t dare.

Each day Dane sat cowed at a keyboard, shoulders dutifully falling forward as he copied numbers, mind numbed. He heard the clacking rhythm of his own fingers, too persistent, too perfectly paced. He remembered a poem he’d read in college before he abandoned words for numbers: “Remember us, if at all, not as lost, violent souls, but only as the hollow men, the stuffed men.”

It was ages ago when he thought poetry might be a part of his life, before he learned that figures and facts and tangible reals were the sort of world you want to build your life on. The numbers meant nothing, but they made sense. He could spin them and space them, combine and

re-combine, make them dance together in any way he wanted—but in the end, each number was always the same. Like God, unchanging.

“As the perpetual star,” cowered the poem. “Multifoliate rose.”

Dane came home each day to find his wife curled on the sheets that long before had the salt-water scent cleaned from them. He clutched the hair at the nape of her neck with both hands, palms pressing into her cheeks.

For Janey, breathing was now easy. It was wanting that was hard. When Dane kissed her, her lips gave the pout of soft water relenting and then quickly re-forming.

“The supplication of a dead man’s hand under the twinkle of a fading star.”

Dane kissed again. She wouldn’t refuse.

“Lips that would kiss form prayers on broken stone.”

*

Janey wished that Dane would have an affair so she could learn to hate him. Instead, he brought her flowers plucked up from the Eden hidden away in the mountains too close to home. Janey put the velvet novas in vases but never learned to tend them. They had been torn from their roots. Already, these were dead things, decaying in her tepid water.

Dane believed stronger swimmers could make Janey the mother of all the earth. He wandered the mountain passes and killed beautiful flowers. He thought the high peaks were teeth of some great leviathan gnawing at the sky.

Some days Janey and Dane forgot to be unhappy. Dane would cling to Janey’s laughter as it rattled along her ribs, tracing that perfect curvature that Dane still longed to kiss. It was Janey’s body where the solidity of mathematics met with poetry—where the infinite irrational of Pi or Tau could measure the exact diameter of her perfection.

Some days the soft water of Janey’s broken lips forgot to re-form, and when those seas divided Dane plunged forward, eager for an exodus, searching for their promised lands. In that heat, as Dane tilled the earth, Janey pretended she was blind and deaf as her fingers waded through his hair—lost her hopelessness long enough to pray for manna lining her body with the morning dew—reclaimed her faith for long enough to think that the bronzed serpent could pull the poison from her body—and she would hold Dane in closer than touching as he gasped to breathlessness. Janey would wake with a knowledge of how foolish she had been, her lips would seal, and the quiet would sink deeper.

Janey was Eve, only ever made to be a mother. Dane retreated into numbers, concretes, absolutes. Janey had nowhere but silence. And so the story went, until the story changed.

*

When the second heartbeat cracked the quiet night and soared up high enough that it harmonized with Janey’s pulse, she woke with a start, a sudden gasp. She was afraid she’d lost a thing she hadn’t realized she had. She set her hand on Dane’s shoulder, and his snoring settled. He woke to see his wife with a hand placed on a new firmness in her. To hold her Dane had to open his arms wide, so wide it forced his shoulders to melt backward.

They said nothing. Even an unnamed child would be too much to bury. Dane thought of cattle grazing. Janey thought of underwater orchards glimmering with apples ripe as the sun.

“Please, God, take me but let the child live.”

She would speak the rosary, would hail Mary or pierce her own sides with spears, would find redemption for the sins committed in that garden so long ago, if only someone could teach her how. Dane brought home bouquets, and Janey chose to see the beauty of every petal. She learned that cutting stems underwater made the pores open wider to nutrients. She filled a drawer with packets of flower food. She closed her eyes and felt the silky texture of each blossom.

Then one by one, she watched her flowers die. The petals withered, fell down like beautiful suicides leaping in slow motion.

She dug out rows and rows for seeds behind their home. She learned a dozen names for daffodils. She planted rosemary and rue. “Take all of these, but let the child live.” In the garden, she learned that all things are born so they can die. But in between, they were so colorful.

Dane brought home thick cloth sacks filled with fertilizer, carried them like limp bodies over his shoulder. As the sun went down, Dane and Janey labored in the garden. They moved from opposing sides, sculpting mountains of manure along the flower rows until their hands met to form the final mound. From the soil, a rich, earthy smell of growth spiraled upward.

Janey forgot how to count days, trying not to smile with her sickness in the morning, trying not to feel beautiful as the skin of her stomach stretched. Dane forgot to count at all. He came home to wander the rows of his wife’s freshly planted garden. He touched her with not knowing, embraced her in that silence that threatened to break them both. When asked, “What’s 96 multiplied by 82,” he shrugged his shoulders back and said, “I don’t know.”

Janey thought Dane kissed her in the same way he answered these questions: Simple, honest. Uncertain, and yet surprisingly well.

The world was getting too big and bright. Janey’s swollen stomach made her feel she’d swallowed the moon, which now glowed out in its perfect sphere inside her. Her tender skin, her  mischievous bladder, her temperature’s rhythmic flickering—she began to believe in grace again.

At the hospital, it was too late to believe or not believe in miracles, too late to decide that this child could be anything but world-shattering. Janey no longer had prayers to offer: only a body that felt like more than a body in that moment as her husband’s hand tightened around hers.

This, this, was the space beyond silence, where the imprint of his skin into hers was more real to her than her own skin. Where her pain was a sacrament and blood and body were consumed, hoping to be forgiven the ancient sins, learning to forget the bitter taste of knowledge.

“Eyes I dare not meet in dreams.”

And Dane’s shoulders rolled back so he could clench her hand more tightly.

“For thine is the kingdom.”

And Janey’s lips rested softly against one another.

“Between the conception and the creation.”

And she knew that she’d been breathing all her life so she could breathe more powerfully in this moment.

“For thine is—for life is—”

Janey, for the first time, felt fearless. And Dane realized he loved this, this, with all the pain and grit and harrowed earth, the growth and battering heat, where he was obliterated by the unknown ecstasy of hearing or not hearing the breath of a child who still didn’t have a name.

Janey loved the silky texture of doll hair. As a child, on the evenings her mother locked her in her room, Janey couldn’t find it in herself to be angry. Her dusty hideaway was bigger than the whole house, contained a mansion of rooms—dollhouses pillared by shoebox extensions, each painted in vibrant, stolen nail-polish colors.

When the sound of breaking seeped under the seams of her locked doors, Janey dangled rosary beads as curtains between the shoebox rooms, hung toothpick crosses on the walls, lit beatified birthday candles with the names of saints scratched into the sides.

Every doll was beautiful to Janey—even the one with the missing eye and the one with cracked skin like a spiderweb scrawling out from the left side of its smile. And sometimes when the noise of the angry world grew too loud, Janey would stuff her ears and pretend she was deaf, turn off the lights and pretend she was blind. She picked up her dolls and ran her palms along the porcelain cheeks, let her fingertips wade the silk streams of hair. Even grasping blindly, she knew which name the texture belonged to. She loved them enough to make a home for them.

Her mother’s house was not a home: It was an ocean of should-be’s pouring down Janey’s throat every time she tried to open her lungs. But her cityscape of dollhouses was Atlantis. Back then Janey knew all she needed to: If you use your love to build a mansion for those you cherish, broken things could become whole.

Janey did not live in a mansion. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment with Dane where the landlord refused to let her paint the walls, where the appliances worked or sputtered based on the weather in East Asia. And her dolls had all been left behind—too childish and unwieldy to be carried with her.

*

Dane fell in love with Janey’s breathing.

She was nineteen years old then, feeling ancient and like a child. Despite her escape from her mother’s house the year before, Janey couldn’t help but feel she was drowning. Her panic-riddled lungs gulped at the too-thin air, but she forced the wind into the narrow corridors of her nostrils as her lips lay gently against one another.

Dane saw Janey breathing at the bus stop. That woman, thought Dane, is fearless.

Dane wore tattered jeans and a shirt stained by barbeque sauce—he’d paid for the last five cents of his bus fare with “take a” pennies from the gas station—but Janey saw something more. Dane was beautiful, and when his shoulders rolled back, he owned the air itself. And Janey found it easier to let the oxygen in.

*

Dane was very good at being an accountant, quite respected, secure. And he was not happy. Which was okay, because Dane didn’t spend his childhood with the thought that he would grow up to become happy. Rather, he thought he might grow up to be an astronaut or a fireman. For a time in university, when Dane’s declared major was indecision, he volunteered with the local fire fighters. But when he came home three hours late one morning, he found Janey sleepless, eyes red, hands clutching the sheets. The room smelled of salt-water, and Dane understood: The bedsheets had caught fire with her worry and Janey had opened the floodgates in an attempt to extinguish the blaze, streams of salted water flowing into a flame that only knew how to consume and consume.

So Dane chose to become an accountant. However little he took comfort in God, he knew the old wisdom: The foolish man builds his house on sand; the wise man seeks the cold, flat heaviness of stone. It made sense, given the sum of things, even if happiness wasn’t part of the equation. It was not a particularly rational thought, but at some level, Dane simply cared more about being rational than he cared about being happy.

*

Dane had failed as a man. “Weak swimmers,” said the specialist, and Dane thought of a multitude of unborn children gulping down liquid as they drowned in the ocean of never-to-become.

Janey had failed as a woman. “Inhospitable environment,” said the specialist. Janey felt weighed down by the parched soil of her body. Her children’s hearts had never started beating, but already she had failed to build a home.

The news was a miracle. Dane and Janey celebrated by buying a home big enough to house their growing dreams. Janey had waited years for this child, had loved it since before she even knew how such miracles came to be. Dane wanted to name him Casey, after the uncle whose ranch was a haven and whose heart had given out only months before.

Casey, the child who had a name in that precarious first trimester, when names so easily get etched on vaporous gravestones over unbroken earth. When the sharp pain called to Janey and she woke in the early morning cold, she felt the earth of her womb breaking, felt the vapor of the child’s unknown breaths rising into her lungs—choking out her oxygen, forcing her heart into spasms as it tried to beat for two bodies.

There are no burials for a child whose life is hosed out in clots and particles.

Janey delayed the name of the second unborn child. When Janey prayed, she only said, “Please protect our baby.” And Janey believed, could feel the best of her and Dane coalescing into this creature that had re-tilled the earth of her. Dane secretly named the child Elsa, the same name he’d given to the very first cow he saw on his uncle’s ranch. And Dane refused to calculate the odds, find figures or facts. He only hoped, and rested a hand against that firmness between stomach and sacred ground where a weak swimmer had fought through the inhospitable environment to spark life.

When the spark was extinguished, Janey had no tears. Dane wanted to hold her as she wept, but weeping was beyond her now.

Thirty-nine days after the second child wandered from them and was lost, Janey and Dane went walking in the mountains. Janey smelled life everywhere. She imagined herself as Eve.

She knew that Eve had been punished for her transgression, condemned to pain in child-bearing for all generations even as she was told to multiply and replenish—but if God made Eve, couldn’t he have made her strong enough to withstand the whisperings of serpents?

She bit down on her tears, and they splashed salt-water against her teeth, which dried out and shook against the wind.

*

There would be no third child. Silence was beyond weeping. What would Janey find if she took a step deeper? She couldn’t find out. She wouldn’t. Didn’t dare.

Each day Dane sat cowed at a keyboard, shoulders dutifully falling forward as he copied numbers, mind numbed. He heard the clacking rhythm of his own fingers, too persistent, too perfectly paced. He remembered a poem he’d read in college before he abandoned words for numbers: “Remember us, if at all, not as lost, violent souls, but only as the hollow men, the stuffed men.”

It was ages ago when he thought poetry might be a part of his life, before he learned that figures and facts and tangible reals were the sort of world you want to build your life on. The numbers meant nothing, but they made sense. He could spin them and space them, combine and

re-combine, make them dance together in any way he wanted—but in the end, each number was always the same. Like God, unchanging.

“As the perpetual star,” cowered the poem. “Multifoliate rose.”

Dane came home each day to find his wife curled on the sheets that long before had the salt-water scent cleaned from them. He clutched the hair at the nape of her neck with both hands, palms pressing into her cheeks.

For Janey, breathing was now easy. It was wanting that was hard. When Dane kissed her, her lips gave the pout of soft water relenting and then quickly re-forming.

“The supplication of a dead man’s hand under the twinkle of a fading star.”

Dane kissed again. She wouldn’t refuse.

“Lips that would kiss form prayers on broken stone.”

*

Janey wished that Dane would have an affair so she could learn to hate him. Instead, he brought her flowers plucked up from the Eden hidden away in the mountains too close to home. Janey put the velvet novas in vases but never learned to tend them. They had been torn from their roots. Already, these were dead things, decaying in her tepid water.

Dane believed stronger swimmers could make Janey the mother of all the earth. He wandered the mountain passes and killed beautiful flowers. He thought the high peaks were teeth of some great leviathan gnawing at the sky.

Some days Janey and Dane forgot to be unhappy. Dane would cling to Janey’s laughter as it rattled along her ribs, tracing that perfect curvature that Dane still longed to kiss. It was Janey’s body where the solidity of mathematics met with poetry—where the infinite irrational of Pi or Tau could measure the exact diameter of her perfection.

Some days the soft water of Janey’s broken lips forgot to re-form, and when those seas divided Dane plunged forward, eager for an exodus, searching for their promised lands. In that heat, as Dane tilled the earth, Janey pretended she was blind and deaf as her fingers waded through his hair—lost her hopelessness long enough to pray for manna lining her body with the morning dew—reclaimed her faith for long enough to think that the bronzed serpent could pull the poison from her body—and she would hold Dane in closer than touching as he gasped to breathlessness. Janey would wake with a knowledge of how foolish she had been, her lips would seal, and the quiet would sink deeper.

Janey was Eve, only ever made to be a mother. Dane retreated into numbers, concretes, absolutes. Janey had nowhere but silence. And so the story went, until the story changed.

*

When the second heartbeat cracked the quiet night and soared up high enough that it harmonized with Janey’s pulse, she woke with a start, a sudden gasp. She was afraid she’d lost a thing she hadn’t realized she had. She set her hand on Dane’s shoulder, and his snoring settled. He woke to see his wife with a hand placed on a new firmness in her. To hold her Dane had to open his arms wide, so wide it forced his shoulders to melt backward.

They said nothing. Even an unnamed child would be too much to bury. Dane thought of cattle grazing. Janey thought of underwater orchards glimmering with apples ripe as the sun.

“Please, God, take me but let the child live.”

She would speak the rosary, would hail Mary or pierce her own sides with spears, would find redemption for the sins committed in that garden so long ago, if only someone could teach her how. Dane brought home bouquets, and Janey chose to see the beauty of every petal. She learned that cutting stems underwater made the pores open wider to nutrients. She filled a drawer with packets of flower food. She closed her eyes and felt the silky texture of each blossom.

Then one by one, she watched her flowers die. The petals withered, fell down like beautiful suicides leaping in slow motion.

She dug out rows and rows for seeds behind their home. She learned a dozen names for daffodils. She planted rosemary and rue. “Take all of these, but let the child live.” In the garden, she learned that all things are born so they can die. But in between, they were so colorful.

Dane brought home thick cloth sacks filled with fertilizer, carried them like limp bodies over his shoulder. As the sun went down, Dane and Janey labored in the garden. They moved from opposing sides, sculpting mountains of manure along the flower rows until their hands met to form the final mound. From the soil, a rich, earthy smell of growth spiraled upward.

Janey forgot how to count days, trying not to smile with her sickness in the morning, trying not to feel beautiful as the skin of her stomach stretched. Dane forgot to count at all. He came home to wander the rows of his wife’s freshly planted garden. He touched her with not knowing, embraced her in that silence that threatened to break them both. When asked, “What’s 96 multiplied by 82,” he shrugged his shoulders back and said, “I don’t know.”

Janey thought Dane kissed her in the same way he answered these questions: Simple, honest. Uncertain, and yet surprisingly well.

The world was getting too big and bright. Janey’s swollen stomach made her feel she’d swallowed the moon, which now glowed out in its perfect sphere inside her. Her tender skin, her  mischievous bladder, her temperature’s rhythmic flickering—she began to believe in grace again.

At the hospital, it was too late to believe or not believe in miracles, too late to decide that this child could be anything but world-shattering. Janey no longer had prayers to offer: only a body that felt like more than a body in that moment as her husband’s hand tightened around hers.

This, this, was the space beyond silence, where the imprint of his skin into hers was more real to her than her own skin. Where her pain was a sacrament and blood and body were consumed, hoping to be forgiven the ancient sins, learning to forget the bitter taste of knowledge.

“Eyes I dare not meet in dreams.”

And Dane’s shoulders rolled back so he could clench her hand more tightly.

“For thine is the kingdom.”

And Janey’s lips rested softly against one another.

“Between the conception and the creation.”

And she knew that she’d been breathing all her life so she could breathe more powerfully in this moment.

“For thine is—for life is—”

Janey, for the first time, felt fearless. And Dane realized he loved this, this, with all the pain and grit and harrowed earth, the growth and battering heat, where he was obliterated by the unknown ecstasy of hearing or not hearing the breath of a child who still didn’t have a name.