A Garden of
Despite whatever I
might have thought later, I grew up in a giant conch shell. When the sun stood
over the pine-serrated horizon, our conch shimmered, and between the ghostly
birches I could see the lake, silver as a mirror. On quiet summer nights, the
ocean echoed in the conch and I could see stars and northern lights from the
The conch was a gift
to my mom, given to her the day she left
I spent most of my
childhood with my parents in their garden, where my parents grew little hands:
cupped fingers, crossed fingers, hands praying. Mom and Dad were from sailing
families back in the old country, so they sang sea chanteys while we weeded, our
hands working around the hands in the dirt. A song would pass from Mom to Dad,
and then to me; I never did understand the words very well. The strange little
hands with fluttering fingers were more interesting to me.
Once, after a day in
the garden, I followed Dad up to his room on the top floor of the conch. He was
singing a chantey that Mom had given him in the garden. He took off his shirt,
revealing his cinder-block shoulders, and looked out at the lake. He stopped
singing suddenly and said in his sad, sing-song voice, “That lake is blue as
That's the only time
Dad seemed to wish he were anywhere but in the conch.
“Oh, for cute,”
the neighbor, Mrs. Lindegren, would say tartly, strolling past us and nervously
eyeing our garden of twiddling thumbs and clenched fists. Apparently she
didn’t know a good crop of hands when she saw one. She would always pause and
seem ready to ask a question, but then she'd say "so long" and keep
We knew the questions
trapped in her mouth. “What is life like in a giant conch? What are those
hands? Are they like flowers? I
mean, really, is your family normal?”
The first time I ever
considered that my family wasn't normal, I was seven. Dad and I were playing
hide-and-seek, and I was looking everywhere for him. Up and down the spiral
staircase of the conch. In the pine forest. In the garden. “Dad? Dad?”
I went down to the
lake thinking he might be hiding in the rowboat or the boathouse, but our boat
was tethered to the dock, empty, and only spiders scurried in the boathouse,
weaving their upside-down homes from the ceiling.
“Hey, kid! Out
It was him. He was in
the middle of the lake, waving at me, his jeans rolled up to his knees, water
dabbing the soles of his feet, and his broad-shouldered reflection wobbled
before him in the lake.
I didn’t question
how this was possible, though I knew it wasn’t normal. I was seven. I waved
back and laughed, wondering, “How do I get out there?”
become teenagers and teenagers eventually feel smothered by their parents, and
in no time, I started listening to the questions my neighbors and school friends
asked about giant conches and dinner parties held in finger gardens. “I’ve
grown up in a big, pink seashell! Hide-and-seek! Freshly cut fists in the
dinner-table vase every Sunday afternoon!” I shouted this when my parents
asked why I wanted to go to Minneapolis
instead of staying home and attending the local community college.
“But all of this
was for you,” said my mother, turning her head slowly, a gesture that
comprised the lake, fist bouquets, the conch whispering a sigh of tides. “The
Cities are so far away.”
“But I’ve never
been anywhere,” I sneering the word any, feeling as if eighteen-year-olds all
over the world were packing up cars and driving to Minneapolis. “I’ve never
seen anything except what you two show me.”
My mother tapped her
lips with her index finger, feeling quietly betrayed, I suppose. But my
father’s face flushed, and his eyes bulged. His English was not big enough to
hold his brimming anger, so he shouted at me in Danish. But I had never really
learned Danish beyond “I love you,” “horse crap,” and “don’t pick
your nose.” So I made the mistake that I still regret. I laughed at him.
For the record, Danes
are nothing like Swedes. We explode when angry.
That said, Dad drove
me to Minneapolis
himself, and it was the quietest four hours of my life.
school, I met a
needed a new landscape. Her racing team sponsored by Tanqueray was moving to
Faye trained for ten hours a day, I worked at a liquor store on Austin’s gaudy
Sixth Street. We found a cheap house shaded beneath a lush, deep-green magnolia, south of
what I wanted more than anything.
were salad days and I intended to see them through to the feast. But meanwhile,
my strong lover was burning something away with every mile of her cardiovascular
training. She grew too tired for me. Not just making love, which I missed
passionately, but she grew too tired for movies or asking me about my day. She
focused on her heart rate, ankle flexion, the Olympics, her competitors, and
soon, she aimed new questions at me, questions I had never asked before. What
was I doing there in Texas? Didn’t I want anything more than the liquor store? Wasn’t I going to
finish school? I was stunned. I looked up from the plate of spaghetti I had made
with tomatoes and basil from our little garden. I looked around the apartment,
at the microwave, the couch, the chairs with regal scrollwork which I had found
at a yard sale and which Faye had said she adored. I said, “But all this was
said nothing. She was a woman with drive. In her tight-mouthed silence, I could
tell I had somehow driven her away.
of us had the money to move out of the bungalow. We felt trapped with each
other. She rode miles and miles every day, raced her races, and came home
exhausted every night. I sold bottles of Celis beer to tourists and college guys
trying to act like cowboys. Faye and I still slept in the same bed. The click
was still in me. But it sounded like a bike riding away now.
left home searching for reality, but while I was in Texas, reality doubled back and went home. Three years after I left the giant conch,
my parents were killed in a two-car, head-on collision. They'd been thrown from
their car. Far. I had to read the news aloud when I got the letter, printed on
morning I drove myself north to
The giant conch
didn’t look like home anymore. It was now a split-level A-frame with a
high-mortgage value on lucrative shoreline property. The garden had overgrown
with irises and the lake was a gray lens staring at a gray sky.
didn’t know my parents, so the funeral was brief. He called theirs the
story,” and the few people who attended were kind and polite in their dark
suits. Neighbors bought me cheese baskets wrapped in orange cellophane. “House
looks great,” they would say to me. They seemed to like the somber air of
middle-class loneliness that had entered the house without my parents there to
sweep it out.
After the death of a
loved one, you are expected to conclude your emotional business in three days.
That’s all people normally take off from work, and in northern Minnesota, it's often less than that. I planned to take as long as I needed because I
didn't know how to mourn and couldn’t imagine when life would feel normal
again. Besides, I was free.
The night after the
funeral, I woke to someone shaking my shoulder. A tall silhouette eclipsed
silver light from the window. Its upper body was shaped like a “capital V”
as my mom called it: broad shoulders and voluminous chest tapering down to slim
“Coming?” Fast as
thought he moved to my bedroom door and slipped out.
I tugged on my jeans
and followed. “Wait up,” I said down the spiral staircase. I tried to walk
and put on my shoes at the same time. “Dad.”
Outside through a maze of shadows and irises I followed, listening for his footsteps in the dark. I found him sitting in the rowboat at just one of the oars, the boat untethered, his hand on the swimmers’ ladder. I thumped down the dock. Stars sprayed themselves overhead, and I was shocked to see how high the Big Dipper hung this far north. My father steadied the rocking boat as I climbed in and took my place at the other oar. We rowed in rhythm, side by side, Dad humming his three-four measures. This is how we had rowed to fish for muskie when I was twelve. This is how we had rowed when he offered me my first beer, a cold can of Miller from his blue cooler. Our arms pulling and pushing the oars, we rowed backwards over the water, and once we were far away from shore, the house just a gable over the birch spires, we stopped. I felt sleepy and seven years old, so I fell asleep next to Dad, safe in the boat.
When I woke, I found
myself alone in a kaleidoscope. Great spectral curtains of northern lights
draped the sky, soaring from the low hills to high in the night, and the blue
and green lights plumbed deep into the belly of the water as well. I sat still
in the boat. When the sky’s aurora shifted and pulsed, the aurora in the lake
shifted and pulsed too. I stood and called for my dad, but my voice sounded
small over the expanse of water.
Swallowing hard, I
swung one leg over the edge of the boat. Then I swung the other leg over. No
ripple from my feet disturbed the lake’s mirror or its reflection of the
northern lights. When I had convinced myself that the water’s glassy surface
would support me, I stepped out of the boat and stood up, looking at myself in
the water. I steadied my balance with a hand on the boat’s gunwale then let it
go, and I walked home through narrow rows of clenched fists, back to my giant
conch on that lake in northern
Copyright © Barth Anderson 2004
Photo Copyright © Eric Marin 2004
About the Author:
Barth Anderson's work has appeared in Talebones, On Spec, Strange Horizons, New Genre, and Asimov's. He received an Honorable Mention in the Fourteenth Annual Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and son.