Post Road Magazine #28

Murmurings

Jane Buchbinder

For the years leading up to the siege, the little white house on Walcott Street contained a wild thicket of giggling, a red, wee-wah delight, and hope. It also contained grace. And a rounded, rocking ease. The new owners-at least our peripheral sense of them-seemed an affable addition to the landscape. The short, bumpy one seeded our yard; the tall, weedy-looking one pruned the bushes. While she planted the flower garden, he snipped parsley and plucked sugar snap peas. They came outside in the early evenings just to smell the earthen, fertile air. Just to spy on gestation. It wasn't uncommon to see them pressing their faces together in that strange human way-a slow, sienna, humming motion-over their herb garden. Because we had heard them so many times before, it was easy to imagine the rolling and moaning rituals they would engage in after they went inside.

We had been casually observing the couple, though not in the crude manner of humans. Grasses have their own way of looking and listening. With great precision, we perceive emotion through vocal tone and intensity rather than words. We "see" form and color through the density of visible light waves. This is how there had been thousands of witnesses to the couple's fizzy, golden dinners with friends. The bounce of their laughter. Their indigo wooing and snuggling at night.

Meanwhile, we enjoyed our mindless cohabitation with the crisp New England April, the shining showers of May, June's chlorophylatinous surges, and the sweat lodge of a long, purging summer. Our bodies reveled in their unfurlings. We never complained about droughts, though we were depleted and frequently trounced upon. We didn't challenge or question our fate. The truth is that before ingesting their liquid we hadn't thought about our survival-much less anyone else's.

But that came to an end early last spring. That's when we started to feel the couple's heat. The chartreuse weight of their wanting. They were craving to grow something of their very own. Their nighttime passion turned into sad, violet contortions; their mornings into a rushed, yellow, mechanical pumping. Each smashing session was followed by an odd stillness that lasted only through a lunar cycle. Smash and rest. Smash and rest. This went on for months. Until, that is, they opened the spigot behind their faces and released a slow, steady stream of water-their eyes, noses, and mouths turned, by some trick of human magic, to leaky hoses.

*

From their windows, we witnessed how a steady mist of sadness can turn piles of books and magazines into tiny waterfalls. Trusty appliances rust into squeaky lamenters. Cheerful figurines become weepers. A rainbow tried to make the best of the situation by arching between the living room and kitchen. But the tall one just grimaced at the ceiling, while the bumpy one coughed into a dirty handkerchief. Then a thick fog rolled in.

By the end of winter, the sorrow spores had expanded to droplets. Drizzle replaced by downfall. The humans seemed to slide into sedation, so sunken and dampened, so ochre-smudged and dissolving. They were oblivious to the fact that they had changed from a perambulating demolition to a destructive force. But a house is different. It has perspective. And sharp boundaries. It can only hold so much.

Eventually rivulets of sadness pushed their way through the old stone foundation. Thin sheets of groaning squeezed through door and window frames. The yard was doused, even if it was frozen. And so it happened that, with the spring thaw, we-the lawn surrounding the sobbing house on Walcott Street-drank in the human's fluids. It was our feeding season, so we slurped them in, in great gulps. Then, like them, we started to drown.

*

We were awakened by the stench of our putrefaction.

As if we had been slumbering. As if the little lives we had lived up until now flittered any which way, directed by the nutrients that fed us.

It was just nine months ago when the little white house on Walcott Street began its awful raining. We didn't question why we had been chosen to receive the alarm; we weren't yet capable of such thoughts. On instinct, we rallied to the call.

All of us-thousands of inert, gurgling seedlings-shimmied like tadpoles, beneath the surface of our small yard. We popped from our soggy shells to form a dense, husky mound, and then vomited until the poison freed us. Awakened and cleansed, as if someone had breathed life into us for the first time. So greenly prickled, so sharply alert. But those strange sensations are not what moved us.

Their suffering had nearly killed us. It was no longer possible to root beside them like a benign appendage. That's why we convened on their marshy yard. We gesticulated at one another with wild flickering colors until we determined a plan. This is what started our murmuring.

We set to work immediately. Even though we had no idea how to multiply or move. Over and over we flung ourselves into a mad, useless snarl. A repeating humiliation. Why had we gained awareness without ability? And what exactly was ability? Conceiving, itself, seemed impossible. Yet the home, and all it held, roused us to action.

We murmured for months without understanding one another. Our sounds, a vibration within our roots. It was agonizing at the beginning-all sharps and points-as fear and longing filled our bodies. And then something more powerful overtook us.

*

By early spring, the house was surrounded by a shallow, widening moat. Its seepage attracted a swarm of mosquitoes. Mad spawners. Within days, the air was animated. It gyrated and hummed within its own ecosystem. Our yard would have been uncomfortable for visiting humans, had there been any. But the couple had ceased their social customs. They were flattening, softening, muffling to a dull, smothered pink. Their mouths puckered. Beige and dryness invaded them. When they left the house in the morning and returned at evening they didn't even notice the buzzing or biting. Their ears and eyes seemed glazed, as if they were turning inside out.

This worked out well for the mosquitoes, whose feasting was a rapid competition. During the seconds that they were privy to flesh, the man's and woman's hands, necks, and faces were freckled with dense, raspberry clustered bites. The mosquitoes were swelling as the humans were shrinking.

Around the same time, we discovered that our dearest friends, the worms, had not been as lucky as we. A flotilla of their bodies spun by us in slow spirals, inspiring us to work faster, harder. We stretched to touch their bodies one final time as they drained toward the slope of the driveway.

We weren't the only ones to say good-bye to the worms. Their ambidextrous bodies attracted a bevy of birds to the plot. How we despised their waxy cawing! The swollen, viscous scent of bird genitals invaded the air, creating a hot, amber dome above us. But it also led to a fertilizing rain of the most sensuous droppings. Our private thrill! By late spring, their shower, along with the long-awaited sun, helped us to spawn in grandiose proportions: the first of our milestones accomplished.

There was no time, however, to pat each other on the back. Even as we were thriving, the house and its inhabitants were withering. Drying. Pucing.

With a force of multitudes, we set upon phase two: migration.

*

We were working on advanced ambulatory techniques, one summer day, when the bumpy one surprised us with a visit. Her purposeful gait had been replaced by something too slight. Her hue too pale, almost, for color. She had turned into a cold, floating mass. Sunlight glinted off of the pruning sheers dangling from her grasp. The shrill sound of her clipping turned us to witnesses of a massacre. One by one she decapitated our companions: the sleepy-headed roses, the frenetic lilies, the vainglorious dahlias. Even the buds-she had no mercy-then the bud-less stems! If we had had mouths we would have awakened her with our screams. If we had had hands we would have grabbed the clippers before she snipped the magnolia limbs and rhododendron leaves into jagged claws. We watched the force of life bleed from our friends. We were in a rage, clicking and flashing as the woman floated back toward her house, but she didn't notice us. She just walked away, a lime desperation vibrating inside her footprints.

We took off the rest of the day. We cried, wishing we had never been roused from our grassen slumber. Never cared or hoped to make a difference. We didn't understand our new understanding. Why, we wondered, had we been chosen? Then we wondered who or what could ever answer our wondering. Exhausted by too many things, our bodies fell limp.

The next day, we agreed to abandon our thoughts-our aptitude was discouraging-and focus upon the simple sensations of work. We forced ourselves to new levels of vigor. Our murmurings grew to grunts and moans. Over time, we became stronger, more flexible, while the white house continued to shrivel: shingles gap-toothed, rafters warped, corner studs buckling.

*

By June, the couple's sobbing had ceased. They came and went in their burlap shroud. Their speech depreciated from grunts and moans to murmurings, and then vaporized into the air. They no longer touched each other. Their exhausted sobbing turned a brittle acid yellow.

Meanwhile, we, the grasses, had learned to labor together. We worked furiously for months while the humans were sleeping, a powerful indigo ringing up from our blades. By some inexplicable trick of will and adaptation, we learned to transport ourselves.

The hardest part was turning the corner from the yard to the foundation of the house itself. The physics were confounding. The most eager among us uprooted but could neither secure their roots nor find their way back home. Some among us were dedicated to the dying, so others could focus on the journey itself. By the end of September, a couple of young shoots caught hold of the space between shingles and coached our kindred on the passage. We hissed, in awe, trying to conserve our energy for the work ahead of us. Triumphant little tufts began to sprout around the foundation. Soon enough, grassy rows bent their backs to help a next row knit itself between the clapboards. We were taking over the house. We never felt so alive.

*

It is late December, now, and we have fully consummated our union with the little house on Walcott Street. We have arrived. Every moment of doubt, every ounce of confusion and despair, the tonnage of exhaustion we have ignored until now: trivial. The residue of striving oozes from our roots as tears stream from our tips. The soft cloak of our bodies, at last, wraps around the drying house. We share our breath with its skin. We are home.

Thousands of beaming blades on the yard huddle around us, nodding furiously at our accomplishment. We hum a celebratory tune, then burst into a gross, convulsive laughter. Most of us are tone deaf. Who knew?

After delirium slides off our bodies, stillness falls upon us. As if the air is a blanket weighing us down. We vegetate for a couple of days, nearly forgetting about the humans. When the house's sadness starts to chill our roots, we know it is trying to pull us under its spell. Too tired, still, to rouse ourselves, we whimper feebly, understanding that we are just another shadow in the couple's blinded lives.

An idea to form an idea and then an action plan floats among our brethren, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, and the generations of parents and grandparents still with us, but it can not seem to find a form or language. And then the new we-a furry and flocculent home-slump against the pallid landscape and fall asleep.

Days pass and the winter sends the last shining slivers of life underground for safety. Our bodies, stiff and tense from stagnation, awaken then stretch into the frosty air. We watch the man and woman shuffle in and out of their verdant den, utterly unaware that we have moved in.

Again, we drink their poison and spit it out. We cough and wretch, but we aren't afraid of the malignancy. We have already suffered the vaccination. The frozen ground also refuses the contagion; it rolls off the driveway and into the sewer's vast annihilating dilution.

And then, late one night, as the first snowfall drifts down from the sky, the blanched couple tiptoe outside, tenderly brushing the cracked tips of their fingers against us. They circle us, a crusted curiosity on their faces. Then they step back to drink us in with their sad eyes-a surprising role reversal-their rounded shoulders and heavy arms drooping toward to the ground. A fallen awe unclenches their jaws; their breathing reveals a sour, umber wind.

A sigh seeps from us. We suck in the frigid air, trying to absorb the heat of their sadness. We are silent but weeping, now, as their dry eyes moisten and their boney, oddly fiery frames make their way onto the barren yard.

The humans help each other to their knees. Then they strip, revealing their beastly, pendulous bodies. They slouch against one another up for a long time. A bonfire of bones. We still ourselves at 90º against the force of gravity. We will not miss a sound or an emanation.

Their rubbing begins only after the frozen air forces the bulbs of their joints to shiver. It starts slowly; they are tentative, like humans who are unfamiliar to one another. But as they recall the iridescent feel of one another's skin, their kneading hastens then turns to a fury. They smash their mouths together, as we had seen them do so many months ago. Then they start to cry: a stream we must taste so we can know, from the inside, if they are going to survive. We are sobbing-we can't help it-as they send great gulping sounds into one another.

Have we helped, or did it hurt them to answer our call? Groaning sounds rattle our roots as the humans grunt and squeak. The small one grabs the tall one's face, her voice scratching the word "Roy" into his eyes; he looks into her, choking on the sound "Bev." The entire light spectrum is flashing through our bodies as they lower themselves to the frozen ground. They pull at each other's hair and skin. They bite each other's mouths. They beat their flesh against one another like giant frenzied birds. When their howls flare into the sky, we can't stop ourselves from joining in.



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