Green thumb

Out at the rubbish tip, she was first to spot the old caravan. It sat proud amid the twisted swing-sets, crushed white dishwashers, and dejected hot water systems.
‘If you fix it up maybe we can go up north next winter, Jase?’
Jason was always up for bringing new life where others had abandoned hope. ‘The world has gone mad with all this stuff,’ he’d often say. ‘Why we need all this shit is beyond me.’
‘It’s killing us,’ she’d reply, without verve enough to please him. The same old banter, year after year. Never changing.
Ivy scratched the back of her hand. ‘Magic hands,’ her mum had called them when Ivy first learned to coax tomatoes from parched soil and summon beans like bundles of fingers. Ivy used to admire their beauty, their strength. Now her palms have thickened, nails low and grimy, broadened fingers, knuckles etched deep.
‘Maybe we could escape in that old thing?’ she said, pointing to the van.
‘Maybe,’ he replied, effort in his voice.

Heaving the peeling caravan onto the tow hitch was heavy work. Jason groaned—the sound of too many ideas crushing a man.
‘I could do with a holiday, you know. I’d love to see Ningaloo Reef,’ Ivy called through the truck window.
Jason was in his own world, too far off to hear.
‘And swim with the whale sharks,’ she said, continuing to dream.

He opened the car door and hefted a disc of grey concrete onto her lap. ‘For you, my love. The Green Man. I couldn’t leave him here for landfill.’
The gargoyle face was grey, splattered with brownish yellow moss. His round cheeks were poised to spit, his brow curling with the effort of it.
‘I think we look alike,’ she said.
Jason laughed, but she didn’t.

The bumps on the gravel track home echoed her unease. She peered at the concrete face in her lap, understanding its desperation—all its efforts intent on pushing out a little rivulet of water just to be recycled back through the fountain and spat out again. He didn’t even have water.

Jason dragged the caravan up the gravel driveway to his shed and got stuck in, straight away. ‘Fixing it up for you love,’ he said.
He worked solid for two days, peeling off the aluminium roof sheets to recycle, and fishing out the wiring to make basket handles.
For her, he screwed clear polycarbonate sheeting to the roof to catch the heat. For her, he dragged it to a sunny spot in the garden, pulled off the wheels and set it up on some concrete blocks, also from the tip. For her, he decked it out with a small work bench, a stool, some large pots and garden beds made from two old bathtubs. Then, he filled the floor with leaf litter and, to make it feel fertile, hung the Green Man on the wall above the bench.
Finally, he added some oiled and sharpened secateurs and a shiny grafting knife in a leather pouch. Said he expected her to grow things in there. Edible things. Tomatoes in winter and other mythical vegetables.
Ivy didn’t want tomatoes in winter. Besides, she said, edibles need to be outside. They are stronger in the elements—blistering sun, wild rain, howling wind—challenges, to help them grow into robust plants. To flower. To carry a heavy fruit.
‘You’re a nutcase,’ he said. ‘How does that make any sense?’
She tried again. ‘Pretty things, ornamentals—that’s what needs shelter. Not things that grow arms and produce offspring. Jason, don’t you get it?’
He didn’t.
Still, things germinated and grew. Her pretty, silent rebels that sprouted and sought the light, watched over by the spout of the Green Man. Foxgloves and pansies, marigolds, bells and slippers that brought colour and perfumes and bees. Camellias. Fuchsia. But no edibles. These, Ivy refused.

Far from whale sharks and seashells, golden orb weaver spiders knitted pale networks around the frame of it and each pot-plant, binding the whole space together. Ivy grew tangled, planting and weeding, her hands constantly in the foliage. Hours passed to the languid hum of wasps, who occasionally punctured her skin. She and Jason spoke little.

One drizzling afternoon, Jason poked his head into the van. ‘How’re the green thumbs?’ He was carrying two large pots sprouting bare branches. ‘Nectarines, from Mike’s orchard. Reckons they sold him root stock and they won’t grow fruit he can sell.’
Setting the pots down, he grinned. ‘Wants to know if you can graft them. Says there’s a couple of cases of wine in it, if you can get them growing a decent sized fruit.’
Ivy looked up at the Green Man, pondering his pursed lips cast in stone. She was soothed by his intense lack of purpose.
‘You know I’m not growing edibles in here! Even for free wine.’ Too snappy, perhaps. Her heart raced and sank at the same time.
Jason recoiled. ‘Shit, Ivy. What’s wrong with you? You just need to say no if you don’t want to do stuff.’
He threw the pots on top of the discarded wheels outside the caravan.

Growing plants outside was different—an art form Ivy had perfected over the years, by grafting various species, sometimes for a heavier crop, sometimes for beauty, often for hardiness, always for strength.
Maybe her mother was right about her hands after all. Transforming a plant from one thing to another took a special kind of magic—altering the natural process to your own will. After years of it, grafting was in Ivy’s blood, her hands carving into the inner world of the tree, changing its being.
He knew this about her, admired her for it. And it was true that the grafting, at least, took place in her green sanctuary. Perhaps she’d consider taking on Mike’s plants. It seemed the right thing to do.
Readying for bed, she opened her mouth to speak. Before she got the chance, Jason was at her again, pushing, needling. She saw her face in the bedroom mirror, distorted in its crack, fractured like a fallen teacup.
He just expected her to surrender everything but something was winding up inside her, seeded in her gut and pushing up her oesophagus, closer and closer to her throat. Choking her sometimes, taking her breath. It seemed botanical, the way it wound and shifted.

The sun rose high the following morning. Ivy hoisted a cane chair from the verandah and walked down to the hothouse, placing it between the bathtub beds. She sipped on her tea, contemplating the Green Man. In daylight, things were calmer and she didn’t want to be petty; she would graft those trees.
Ivy walked purposefully to the orchard. In summer its nectarines were large and golden, blushing when they swelled in the sun, scenting the air with their divine sweetness. Later, when their leaves had fallen and soft blossoms started to push from their dark bones, they seemed vulnerable.
Careful with the knife, she cut tiny slips from Firebrite—an early summer fruit, and Fairlane—a late ripening variety. Many days she had walked among these trees, trudging a pathway dusted with fallen blossom, pits and peelings.
Amid all this sweetness, some rot also gathered and stuck to her boots. The squeal of Jason’s angle-grinder split the air, giving her a headache. She’d be glad when the cutting was done.

Back in the cool of her shed with the burr of the grinder muted, Ivy performed the careful procedure at her work bench. Slicing into the potted trees with her shining blade, she cut just enough to lodge a small slip into the branch and align the bark.
The central core was like marrow, its tiny tongue of cellulose seeking the sap of the tree. Her own dry tongue poked from her lips as she bound the wounds with tape, leaving a small peephole to let the sun reach the bud of the new branch.
Ivy looked up at her old friend. ‘Make these take, Green Man.’
Gazing upon his twisted face, now tinged with new moss, perpetually pushing forth a non-existent flow, she kissed him, right on the spout. It was as if she expected a font to come gushing at her, fill her mouth and engorge her cells with sweet liquid. She hesitated. The stone remained firm and cold.

‘Fuuuck!’ Jason’s yelp pierced her reverie.
Ivy dimly noticed that the grinder had stopped, heard his footstep heavy down the path between them. His face appeared, pale in the doorway, his thumb wrapped in oily cloth.
He thrust the bloody bandage towards her. ‘I don’t think it’s that bad. But it feels like something’s stuck in it.’
She led him onto the worn chair and sat at his knees. ‘It’s probably not as bad as it feels,’ she said, carefully removing the makeshift wrapping.
When it fell away, she had to stop herself gagging. Blood pulsed through the torn skin, already turning bluish-grey at the edges. Sharp, coarse filaments of the grinder disc were scattered like shrapnel, barbed into the wound.
She sat heavily on the mulch floor. ‘Let me see what I can do,’ she said, her warm finger running across his thumb, soothing the reddening around the splintered disc. She picked up her grafting knife, then paused, the moss above catching her eye.
Moss grew everywhere in the hothouse in thick patches. It took hold in crevasses, damp with fertile juice. Such primitive little plants, pushing forth in the dense environment. Earlier that day she had scraped out some of the tiny spores with her grafting knife, placing them in a clean saucer. Her own petri dish, potent with life.
She considered cleaning her knife, but that would take time. Perhaps the moss would do him good, its invisible life-force working its magic. Perhaps it would soften him as it had her. Like the dirt that had filled in her hands’ creases, the mud that had permanently stained her nail-beds, a yielding to nature, blurring the edges.
She worked the blade slowly to avoid stirring the blood. Unlike sap, it flowed fast. Too fast. Not like the calm ebb of plant fluid, their slow capillary movement so peaceful. She matched her pace with the plants’, breath slow, as each cell separated from the next.
The blade scored a pathway for excision, for amalgamation. Almost horizontal.
She peeled back his skin with the tip of the knife. It must hurt but many things hurt, especially hands.
Finally, she was done. ‘Stitches might be a good idea,’ she said. ‘It would help it heal faster.’ But there was no thread in the hothouse.
‘Just tape it,’ he said, hoarsely, ‘like those.’ He nodded towards the nectarine grafts. ‘Hey!’ he said, noticing. ‘Heey!’—his voice brightening. ‘You did it. You grafted them!’
‘Yes,’ she nodded.
He hugged her to him with his other arm, apologising, then excusing himself because they so rarely had a case of wine.
‘Yeah, well,’ she replied. ‘I hope he makes a good wine, cause I’m sick of your scrumpy ciders.’
‘Come on!’ Jason retaliated. ‘We’ve got at least two years’ worth sitting under the house. You’d better bloody like it.’
They laughed together. Relief settled around them.

The temptation, of course, was to disturb the graft before it had time to take properly, but she knew restraint. Four slips on each tree and she left them alone for weeks, awaiting the emerging leaves and the push of late spring.
She considered that the hothouse might hasten progress, so she invited him and the nectarines to her inedible space and spent her days with them. Jason in the cane chair, drinking tea with his good hand. She on the mossy floor, peeling potatoes, shelling peas.
His bound hand was hot—inflamed, she supposed. It leaked and then it was cold, as if the blood inside had frozen. During nights, the thumb itched madly. She hoped that the moss had been the right thing. Cellulose and human cells were not created equal. Yet the marrow and the pith sought each other out, a tempest of replication taking control in the night.
She offered to take him to the hospital, but no, he said. He knew she had got all the fibres out and it wasn’t infected because it wasn’t hot anymore. He was healing, following nature’s cycle. ‘All in good time,’ he nodded sleepily, happy to be brought tea, to sit among her plants, relaxing in the sun.
His limbs grew stiff and he was always tired. Still, she waited for the sign of green life in the naked trees, before unwinding the tape.

Grafting was a slow process. The hard scars on either side of the mound would eventually fade, and a new branch would grow there, taking over the old tree beneath, and making it its own. Eventually, each branch of the old tree would be pruned away just above the bud, until it was only the trunk that remained, and each of these grafts became the branches of its new self, bearing golden fruits in the sun, where before they’d been tiny, white and prone to fruit-fly.
She chose a cool morning, summer not yet bleaching the chill from the air. The Green Man watched, his mosses joining him to the wall, a sprout of fuchsia curling towards his left eye. He seemed more relaxed now, though he still could not spit, despite his perpetual effort.
Ivy cut and unravelled the Fairlane grafts first, her anticipation rising with each uncurling until the gentle bump of a green bud was revealed. From four grafts, three showed certain signs of life. The fourth was a dark gash. It horrified her, so she pruned it off, firm and certain with the secateurs.
The Firebrite tree was next. It was more verdant and seemed to thrive in the hothouse. All its slips had taken. The final unwinding of tape was done.
Now, it was his turn. She tumbled inside, that rising feeling keen to tear out of her, scraping at her throat. He sat still in the cane chair as she began gently unpicking with the knife. Removing the bandage, she could see his whitened skin looking wrinkled and damp. Then, the first layer of grafting tape. Calm. Calm.
‘Does it hurt?’ she asked. His eyes remained closed.
Like most of her grafts, it appeared fertile, but this was not what she had expected. The new growth was soft and green, but this was not moss. She ran her finger over the stump and felt the gentle bump of a familiar bud just beneath the knuckle of his thumb.
She’d grafted the nectarines that day. It was their sap that had fused into his flesh, into his bone, the skin browned around the graft. There was no blood, just a slow clear juice from the wound. A little bitter.
She thought for a moment of the sharp secateurs, the ones with the ratchet for tough branches but pruning off the original branch would give the bud more energy, make it grow faster. She was pulled like a drawstring, sucked in on herself. Realising her act. That choking feeling.
It took but a moment. As he placed his bare feet among the leaf litter, roots unfurled through the cracks in his heels. As soon as they touched the water, lying just beneath the surface, the xylem flushed with life. His cells swelled with fluid, hastening his growth.
Within a few hours, he grew through the weave of the chair. His hardworking skin thickened into turgid, rose-coloured branches which replaced each of his four limbs. His trunk grew strong and slowly stilled, though he twisted a little as bark thickened around him, realigning all of his biological processes. The furthest twigs stretched out to touch the mossy face of the Green Man, and hastened the emergence of blossoms, which quickly gave way to small green fruit.
The van was fast becoming crowded. Ivy placed a gentle kiss on each Green Man. They remained quiet and still.
Over the distant hills the crescent moon rose in the sky. Ivy rubbed her hands together, appreciating their shape and strength. She picked up the two trees she’d grafted. Tomorrow, she would exchange them for two cases of wine.



Read the rest of Overland 243

If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four brilliant issues for a year

Donna Mazza

Donna Mazza is a West Australian author and academic at Edith Cowan University South West. She is author of Fauna (Allen & Unwin, 2020) and The Albanian (Fremantle Press, 2007), which received the TAG Hungerford Award. Her stories have recently been published in KYD New Australian Fiction 2020 and Westerly. She has written for The Conversation, Science-Write-Now and Antipodes on kangaroos, swearing and science in Australian literature.

More by Donna Mazza ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays