A Garden of Fists

by Barth Anderson

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 highest windows. 

The conch was a gift to my mom, given to her the day she left Denmark. Back then, it was a seashell small enough to hold in her hand. Mom always said she didn’t appreciate what the conch was back then, that she was even angry a shell was all her grandmother had given her. It wasn't until she got to the other side of the world that she understood she'd been given a miraculous gift. Chamber by chamber, floor by floor, the shell became the giant conch, as it is today, our home on a lake in northern Minnesota.

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 the sea.” 

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 strolling.

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 here!”

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?”

But seven-year-olds 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.

*    *    *

While in school, I met a St. Paul woman named Faye. She was a racing cyclist with a hard little body that I grew to crave. I used to skip class and wait for her in my West Bank apartment, and when I heard her de Rosa bicycle come clicking down the hill, something deep in my body started clicking too. Sex was a sporting event with Faye. I loved her drive. After the first heat, as she called it, I’d skip my next class. And my next. We would make love until Faye had to leave for her bartending job, and I would wander to a campus library and pretend to study. Books open and pen in mouth, I drifted away, following that rapid click in the core of me and imagining what my strong lover and I would do to each other the next morning. I was eighteen and free.

But Faye needed a new landscape. Her racing team sponsored by Tanqueray was moving to Austin, Texas, and Faye saw this as her step to the next level in competition. “My terrain,” said Faye of the flatlands, low hills and dry desert air of central Texas. Faye asked me to come with her, saying things would really take off for us if she could make this jump. Maybe even a shot at the Olympic team. So without a single question I quit school and packed her Italian bike and my futon into a van I bought with the last of my financial aid, and we drove down Highway 35 to Texas.

While 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 Lake Travis, and we outfitted our “jungle bungalow” with second-hand dishes, a couch, a used Hoover upright, and a microwave. We pieced together a home that was a pretty good approximation of normal, I thought.

That’s what I wanted more than anything. Normal. It was real, not a fairy tale, and reality is what I wanted.

Those 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 for you.”

Faye said nothing. She was a woman with drive. In her tight-mouthed silence, I could tell I had somehow driven her away.

Neither 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.

I had 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 the Hibbing First Methodist Church letterhead, signed by Reverend D. E. Utholt, and I had to say to myself, “This really happened.” No hide-and-seek. No fairy tales. “This really happened,” I said again, that terrible letter in my left hand. Faye was far away in a race in Tucson. The jungle bungalow’s huge picture window looked north at a turquoise sky. Amber hill-country and a narrow Lake Travis cut its city in half. Alien terrain. I stared at my reflection in the window, a titanic phantom holding that letter over the empty expanse of the Congress Avenue Bridge. I saw how unreal were cowboy fraternities, a hodge-podge home, a lover driven by resentment, all viewed through that colossal, transparent me.

The next morning I drove myself north to Hibbing, back up Highway 35. I left that life for good so that I could be on my lake in northern Minnesota.

*    *    *

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.

Reverend Utholt didn’t know my parents, so the funeral was brief. He called theirs the “typical American 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 hips.


“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 Minnesota.

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.

Lone Star Stories * Speculative Fiction and Poetry with a Texas Twist * Copyright © 2003-2004


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