Whatever Shall Grow There, Dear
by Erin Hoffman


“And yet it was, thy gift being general:

The ground, thy heart, is mine; whatever shall

Grow there, dear, I should have it all.”

—John Donne



It was Annamarie’s eighth birthday when the north grove started eating people.  One by one the migrant workers started disappearing, and eventually none of the rest would work there anymore.  By the time Annamarie was eight and a quarter, nearly ten of them had disappeared, but then, Mother said, according to the labor laws, they had never really existed in the first place.

The Hutton family, 901 North Bleeker Street, had lived in Keller Springs since Annamarie was six and three-quarters, coaxing fruit out of the hard-baked ground with copious amounts of water and fertilizer.  Along their driveway palm trees rose like fireworks, orange pod branches spidering from their tops, great green fronds whispering a celebration of their own parched grace.

Inside the house, despite the menacing thoughts she directed at them, the old waxed floorboards squeaked traitorously as Annamarie headed for the front door.

“Where are you going?”  Mother’s voice echoed from the living room.

“To get more pine cones!” 

A pause.  “All right.”  Mother liked Annamarie to be independent.  “Be careful, sweet-peach!”

“I’m not a peach, Mom!” Annamarie yelled, for perhaps the millionth time (at least) as she ran out.  The screen door banged behind her as she jumped the three porch steps and landed on the dirt with a satisfying puff of dust.  Mother didn’t like being called ‘Mom’, but Annamarie didn’t like being called ‘Sweet-peach’, so it was fair.

A warm breeze rattled the furled shells of a white mobile hanging from the rain gutter.  Annamarie ran off to the group of bristlecone pines where she’d left off hunting for cones yesterday, back behind the house.

She searched for what felt like an hour in the sweet, crunchy bed of needles below the trees, but nothing was there.  She must have gotten the last of the cones from these trees yesterday.  The best ones, the tallest trees with the biggest cones, weren’t near the house.  They were further away, near the north grove.

Annamarie knew she wasn’t supposed to go to the north grove.  The migrant workers had come back with stories, but their English wasn’t good enough to make any sense out of them.  Mother said they were just making things up and maybe that some of them had been caught by Immigration.  Neither she nor Daddy would talk about it, and told Annamarie they didn't need to call the police, but they told her to stay away from the north grove all the same.  At this rate, though, she would never find any pine cones.  Maybe she could just go as far as the pine stand at the edge of the north road.

Coarse gravel crunched under Annamarie’s sandals and she thought of her feet as monsters grinding through the road, one mouthful per step.  When she saw the pine stand she broke into a run and they ate even faster.

Three trees into the stand she saw exactly what she was looking for.  Annamarie picked up a big cone, its large, hard petals set far apart from one another.  It would be perfect for slathering with peanut butter and rolling in bird seed for the wild thrushes and jays.  A smaller one nestled beside it, fallen before it was yet unfurled, would make a wonderful ant house.  Last week she had laboriously stacked up a hundred pine cones (at least) in the path of the anthill, and the ants had swarmed all over them.  The next morning they were scattered—probably a raccoon or possum had taken them.

She wasn’t supposed to, but the lure of pine cones was too great.  Annamarie shuffled through the bed of pine needles toward the north end of the stand.

It was a pine cone goldmine.  A pine mine!  Each pine cone she found was better than the last.  She rapidly found more than she was able to carry, and started to toss away the ones that had bad marks, or were missing petals, or were flat on one side.  Here and there she passed some strange plants—a prickly pear cactus she didn’t remember, a curling bean vine snaking across the dry ground—but surely they were less important than the trove of cones.

But then there were no more.

Whether it was the sudden absence of needles and cones or the subtle give of the ground beneath her that stopped her, Annamarie did not know.  But something did, and she halted in her tracks before a great expanse of pale dirt.  A tightly furled pine cone hit the ground with a thud as she stared at its unsettling smoothness.

Even a dirt road after a hard rain did not look so smooth after its mud had set.  There were no pebbles, no sprigs of weed, just unrelieved brown like the back of a milk chocolate bunny at Easter, the kind that are hollow inside.  It radiated waves of heat that twisted the air.

Annamarie set down her treasure, all except one large pine cone, the first she had picked up.  Knowing that a chocolate bunny’s smoothness was wrong when it came to ground, she set the cone in front of her, then gave it a good rolling push into the middle of the expanse.  It left little dents as it went, which pleased her, and then sat for a moment, not five feet away.

Suddenly, smoothly, the pine cone sank into the ground, and Annamarie’s stomach sank with it.  In the rainy season there was quicksand, sinking stomach and foot when stepped on, but something encountering quicksand resists, pulls back.  The cone may as well have been a rock tossed into a pond for how it rushed into the ground.  A little quiver passed through Annamarie’s belly, a gnawing of hunger, defying the macaroni and cheese she had eaten less than an hour ago.  Something in the ground was reaching for her, but something inside her propelled her away.  She stumbled back two steps, then fell, hitting a hard rock with her tailbone.  The shock of it jolted all the way up to her teeth.

Breathing in hard to pull back a sob, she pushed herself to her feet on quaking arms, and fled.

*     *     *

By the time she got back home, Annamarie was exhausted.  When something had told her to get away from the hungry ground, her heart had sped up and she’d had the energy to run.  Now it was all gone and she just wanted to go into her room and lie down.

But as she got closer to the house, a noise from inside made her stomach clench again and her heart pound.  The quiver passed through her even before she understood why.  A door had slammed inside, followed by an angry shout.  She wished she had picked up some of the pine cones.  Carefully she tiptoed by the den, using the pastel of grandma's Masaya burning mountain goddess hanging on the left wall to mark out the board that would not squeak when stepped on.  She imagined herself as a villager creeping beneath the volcano, trying not to wake it up.

Mother was distracted, poring over a sheet filled with numbers about last month’s orange harvest, but she stopped her pen when Annamarie snuck by.  “Did you find any pine cones, honey?”

Annamarie cringed.  “No, Mom . . . Mother.”

Mother checked off a couple of columns on the sheet in front of her.  “That’s all right.  You can find some more tomorrow.”  She sounded tired.  Annamarie felt worse than ever as she slunk toward her room.

It was still just afternoon, but Daddy and Mother never noticed what Annamarie did when they were arguing.  Usually it was over how many oranges they had.  Surrounded at last by the pinks and whites of her room, she crawled under her cotton comforter, and slept.

*     *     *

A growl from her stomach woke her.  Maybe it was from a terrible dream, or maybe she just remembered the hungry ground, but in any case the smell of leeks and garlic sautéing in the kitchen quickly banished the bad thoughts that at first quickened her breath and heart.

Pale late afternoon sunlight filtered through the gauzy white curtains in the living room and made the oiled oak floors glow burnt orange.  At the foot of the stairs Annamarie saw her mother in the kitchen, her slender shape silhouetted against the picture window as she worked at the counter.  Her thick black hair hung freely to her waist, rippling with each rocking motion of her knife on the vegetables.  The steady tokk of the knife on the wooden board and the fresh, grassy aroma of the sizzling leeks and butter filled Annamarie with warmth.

Yellow light from the window caught Mother’s high cheekbones as she turned to smile at Annamarie.  “Hungry, sweet-peach?”

Annamarie nodded.  “Mom, do pine cones come from the ground?”

“Of course, sweetheart,” Mother said, chopping more leeks.  “Everything comes from the ground.”

“That's what Grandma said.”

“That's right. We all come from the earth.  Our ancestors gave to it and it returns their gift with our life.”  She tossed the green ends of the leek into the compost bin and scraped the chopped white rings into the soup pot.  The curling steam that rose toward the ceiling reminded Annamarie of the heat waves, and the hungry place.

“Can you tell me Grandma's Masaya story again?”

“Masaya's story?  I thought you were afraid of that one.  Your grandmother's ancestors made sacrifices to Masaya in the volcano, to prevent her from being angry with them.”  Mother had almost finished with the leeks.

Annamarie edged toward the kitchen window.  “Did Grandma . . . go into the ground?”

At this Mother turned and looked at Annamarie.  Her dark eyes were clouded and her lips pressed in a silent question.  “Grandma went to a peaceful place,” she said, finally, and would not say more, even though Annamarie waited.  Grandma had left a year ago, when Annamarie was seven and a third.

“What makes Masaya angry?” she asked.

“Lots of people talk about that,” Mother said, and started washing the cutting board.  She seemed happy not to talk about Grandma anymore.  Her long hair bounced, gleaming, as she scrubbed the wooden board, and then the cooking tools.  “Some say that the poisons put into the ground make the gods angry.  Our ancestors thought that taking things from the earth without giving back would make them angry.  Dinner will be ready soon—why don’t you go clean up?”

“Will Daddy be here?” Annamarie asked quietly.

Mother’s dark hair stopped rippling.  “Daddy’s not eating with us tonight, sweet-peach.  He’s out with his friends.”  When she put the cutting board back on the counter and started chopping peeled potatoes, the tokk of the knife was not nearly so warm as it had been earlier.

Annamarie washed up, and since she stopped to play with her horses in the sink, by the time she was done Mother had already put their dinner on the table.  The sun had sunk beyond the trees outside, and the hanging glass lamp over the kitchen table made a tiny island of light in the darkening house.

Dinner was potato leek soup, one of Annamarie’s favorites.  It was warm and filling, but the table was lonely and quiet.  Daddy was not there, and Mother didn’t want to talk, so Annamarie finished her soup, all but the last spoonful, which she used to make designs in the bottom of the bowl until Mother caught on and sent her to bed.

*     *     *

Daddy was home the next day, but it wasn’t good.  Mother was silent again at breakfast, and both of her parents suggested she play outside afterward.  Annamarie lingered over choosing which doll to bring with her, but at last settled on her favorite, as she always did.  Malina had dark brown hair like Annamarie’s, but her skin was darker, more like Mother’s.  Annamarie changed her into her blue play dress and hopped down the stairs.  Her tummy clenched again when she got about to the fourth stair from the landing.

“If you can’t make this place pay off, Lydia . . . .”

“It has nothing to do with me, George—”

“You were the one whose family has done this for however-many years.”

“George.  The land is worn out.  I told you that before.”

“They were making money on it when I bought it.  That damn school thinks it’s worth something.”

“First of all, you didn’t—”

Annamarie ran the last few steps through the front door and let it bang behind her.

The sun outside shone pale and wan through an overcast sky.  Annamarie took Malina to the trench beside the main road to teach her how to plant dandelions, but a shadow where the road intersected the north grove caught her eye.  Her grip tightened on Malina; she didn’t want to go back to the hungry place.  But something was different, and it looked like it was close to the road.

She talked to Malina as her feet crunched on the gravel.  “If only you weren’t so hard to take care of, Malina, Mother and Daddy would be happy.  That’s why you have to play outside.”  She swung the doll by the arm as she walked, back and forth, and exclaimed when her fingers slipped, sending Malina into the dirt at the side of the road.  “Now look what you’ve done!  Your dress is all dirty.”  Annamarie picked up Malina and dusted her off, tsk-ing with her tongue.  “You’re going to need a bath when we get home, and no toys.”

Soon they stood at the border to the north grove, facing the pine stand.  But there were far more trees than had been there yesterday, or the day before.  The shadow Annamarie had seen came from row upon row of pine trees, pressed tight against each other, looming over the road.  Between them and the north grove was a solid wall of wrinkly pine trunks, and the scent of their needles was so strong Annamarie felt as though she drank it from the air.

A single narrow path stretched due north through the wall of trees.

“I know you’re afraid,” Annamarie told Malina, and swallowed.  “But you have to figure things out on your own.  Mommy and Daddy are busy.”  She stepped onto the path.

Though the pines were tight all around, they passed the strange plants again, the cactus and the bean vine, and this time Annamarie knew that they were afraid.  She had been too caught up with her pine cones to notice it before.  But Malina was afraid and the plants—except the trees—were afraid, and they all knew it.

For the first time Annamarie took a close look at the strange plants.  The prickly pear cactus was heavy with dusty pink fruit, spines arrayed in a spiral around each.  As she stepped closer for a look, Annamarie suddenly remembered Rosa, the worker who sometimes used to take a break from picking oranges to help Mother clean the house.  Rosa had loved prickly pear cactus, the sweet fruit with its crisp flavor.  Sometimes she had shared it with Annamarie.  But she had not believed in the old gods.  She and Manuel used to go off to the north grove to meet . . . .

Beside the prickly pear cactus, the bean vine curled, its roots near the fruit-bearing plant, its two long runners stretching away down the path, as if in desperation.  Manuel had not believed in the old gods, either.

“They went into the ground,” she whispered to Malina, before remembering that she was angry with her.  Giving her a shake that made her yarn curls bounce, Annamarie hurried on down the path.

The hungry place was where she had left it.  Even the pine cones that she had dropped were still there, all except the one that had gone into the ground.  But she didn’t want them now.  She was angry with Malina, first for making Mother and Daddy unhappy and then for falling in the dirt.

Anger welled up in her with a sudden rush.  “It’s all your fault, Malina.  Why can’t you be good?”  Malina looked back at her, polished eyes dulled with a coat of dust from when she had fallen.

Annamarie gripped Malina by the back of her blue dress, spun, and hurled her onto the empty ground.

*     *     *

The next day, the rain came.

It wasn’t the rainy season, but Annamarie woke to the sound of hard, fat drops drumming against the windows.  Her stuffed animal friends were all crowded around her, but she missed Malina.  Annamarie usually liked the rain, which meant craft-time inside and some of her favorite foods—sometimes Daddy even built up a fire in the fireplace—but not this rain.  The gunmetal grey that darkened the sky outside, stretching from a spiral of blackness to the north, rang like a tuning fork in Annamarie’s middle, vibrating until she had a tornado inside her that threatened to pull her heart into nothingness.

Mother's voice from downstairs distracted her from the storm.

“What would your organization do with the land?  Waste manage . . . .”  She stopped mid-phrase, then continued after a moment.  “An ‘anomaly’?  No, we haven't noticed anything unusu . . . well, except . . . .”  This time when she stopped, it wasn't as if she'd been interrupted.  Annamarie crept out of her bedroom and onto the landing, listening.  “At any rate, I wouldn’t want my family near any dangerous testing.”  Mother sounded hoarse.

“No, there hasn't been anyone from the government out here.”

Another pause.

“How much are you offering?”  A short silence.  “That's . . . yes, that's quite . . . If we could sell the rest of the property, we could move . . . .”

A cold crocodile curled up in Annamarie’s stomach just as a rumble of thunder rattled the windows.  The rain intensified.  Annamarie knew about moving.  If they moved it would probably be to a place with no pine cones.  Annamarie crept back upstairs.

Back in her room the rain was louder, and she felt like she could breathe again, but the crocodile was still in her middle.  The thought of men in coats putting poison into the hungry ground made the crocodile growl, and the thunder outside answered it.

*     *     *

Late that night, Annamarie did something she had never done, and snuck out of the house.  She stepped in all the right places, and the floorboards did not squeak.

Outside the rain was still pounding.  It had not stopped all through the day or night.  Blasts of white light from the storm lit the cold ground, shining with water that it could not soak up anymore, and Annamarie had to put her hands in front of her eyes to protect them from the lashing rain.  The lightning was coming from the north grove, and she fought her way toward it.  Three times on the slick gravel she fell, knocked aside by the wind, but each time she got up and grit her teeth so that she did not cry.

The storm had torn the orange blossoms from the trees and they fluttered by like butterflies out of control.  The sweet scent of orangey soft white petals made even the dark rain seem fresh like a spring morning.  But the sky was pitch black in between the flashes of lightning, and Annamarie had never known so much night.

When she ran onto the narrow path between the new pine forest the wind ceased its mad gusting, and her ears rang in the sudden quiet.  Raindrops fell heavily from the green branches overhead and pattered on the sodden bed of needles below Annamarie’s feet.

At the hungry place there was no rain and no wind.  Overhead, moonlight streamed down through a hole in the clouds, silvering the perpetual smoothness of the circle of empty ground.  In the sudden calm, under the stars, it yawned at Annamarie, and she knew what it wanted.

She remembered the legends, the stories about princesses given to the Masaya of the volcano so that the village could live in peace and prosperity.  Grandma had told them to her, before she went away, into the ground.  When the princess went into the volcano, everything was all right for the villagers, and her family.  When she didn't, bad things happened.  People disappeared.  People fought.

Annamarie’s fists clenched, and though she struggled against the crocodile in her stomach, she knew one thing: she was a big girl, old enough to know what she had to do.  She stepped onto the hungry ground and sank into it.

*     *     *

Annamarie was eight and a third when she became the ground.  It welcomed her, celebrated her youth and willing gift of herself to it, and above them the north grove bloomed again.  Annamarie was the rush of green life, the flow of little streams, the pull of things just waiting for their chance to live.  She was a stretch of lush watercress in that pocket of desert oasis, and a giant tree, covering the hungry place, that rushed up from the ground with leafy boughs weighed heavily with pale, round fruit.  And when her mother came to the grove and fell before her, hands clenching the watercress and salt tears falling to mingle with the clear spring water, Annamarie dropped her largest, best fruit beside her, its fuzzy skin as soft as a girl-child’s cheek, to tell her that it was all right now, for the ground could stop being hungry.




About the Author:

Erin Hoffman is a freelance writer and video game designer living the life nomadic. She is a columnist for The Escapist and a nonfiction contributor for an assortment of magazines including Strange Horizons and Gamasutra. Her poetry has appeared in Electric Velocipede, Not One of Us, Illumen, and elsewhere. Her fantasy and science fiction can be found in Deep Magic, the Enchanted Realms collections, and most recently in Clockwork Phoenix. For more details and her recent publication credits, visit philomathgames.com.



Story © 2008 Erin Hoffman. Photo by Menchi, 2004.