She sits quietly and sips her tea, and we feel sorry for her at first,
this small sprite with bound feet and foreign eyes,
the bonsai dryad in the greenhouse.
She is beautiful, there is no denying that
even if you don’t take into account that she is exotic.
Her every move is precise,
not fragile as if she fears failure,
This movement may happen again,
but this moment is spun solely for now,
and cannot be held or sped upon its way.
If it is less than perfect, there is beauty in that.
If it is perfect, then it must by the nature of earthly perfection
be something that cannot last.
When she came among us at first, we felt sorry for her.
And she… jealousy is not the right word, nor envy.
She knew so much, and wanted to share,
saw that we had so much to look forward to,
and gained joy that we were to see the sun of her learning.
She wanted to see us grow,
lead us to more steps than we knew we had,
feed our roots with minerals subtle and evocative.
She anticipated, as we did not,
that flavor is more than one sense.
The bonsai dryad with bound feet and foreign eyes
sat on a shelf in the greenhouse, watching
the herbs in their large pots with their short lives
chatter and beguile.
Rosemary giggles and gossips with Oregano.
Oregano listens and watches, but doesn’t say much.
She has felt the barbs of Rosemary’s tongue before
and does not want to again.
The bonsai dryad smiles, and sips her tea.
“Maybe she doesn’t talk because she can’t,” says Rosemary,
eyes narrowed in delighted malice.
Oregano says nothing, but thinks again,
oh so many times again,
that Rosemary must feel badly about herself
if she needs to put so many others down.
“Maybe she’s just shy?” suggests Sage, eternal optimist.
“If I looked like that, I would be shy too,” snipes Rosemary.
Maybe Cilantro would be a better friend.
Maybe Cilantro would be a real friend.
The mints extend tendrils, wanting to meet and taste and meld with and overgrow.
The bonsai dryad doesn’t seem to mind them.
Most of the greenhouse denizens regard the mints as importunate pets,
beloved and exasperating and not quite bright,
and needing to be watched because they will go where they’re not supposed to be.
Ginger grumbles sleepily to herself and rolls over.
It will work itself out, given patience.
Things do, you know.
Onion, Garlic, and the cousins Chive watch warily.
They want to make friends, they really do,
but all their lives they have been the clumsy ones,
Or so Rosemary has said, and she wouldn’t have said so unless it were true,
The bonsai dryad smiles at them.
“Maybe she doesn’t hate us yet?” whispers Garlic to Onion.
“Oh, I hope not. It would be so nice to have a friend,” Onion whispers back.
The bonsai dryad sips her tea, and swings her bound feet.
There are sunbeams, and plenty of water, and company.
The bonsai dryad will see what the day brings.
The human has just left, muttering to himself about planting,
but not before cutting some pieces off of Rosemary.
The bonsai dryad nods to herself, and her eyes are softer,
gentler, upon the raw places where stems had been.
Rosemary does not whimper or complain,
but she is silent.
Aloe offers a precious bit of sap, but Rosemary turns away.
Oregano extends a hand, but lets it fall, the touch incomplete.
The cousins Chive mourn the loss of two of their own as well.
The lively chatter now seems to be nothing more than denial,
whistling in the approaching dark.
The mints no longer wish to explore.
They know that soon comes the time to give of their own leaves,
that the human might have mint tea.
The sunlight slowly fades, and the crickets begin their song.
“Love me, someone love me, anyone, love me, I love you…”
Something rustles the grass, then three quick thumps,
and the rabbit flees across the grass outside the greenhouse.
Some nights there is an owl perched on the roof.
Tonight the rabbit is lucky.
The air, still and humid when the daytime sun shone filtered light,
now has a fitful cooler wind that smells of rain and fresh-turned earth.
Little blinking stars flutter against the glass.
“Love me, someone love me, I twinkle for you, love me, anyone…”
One of the cousins Chives begins to sniffle in the dark.
Garlic tries soothing words, but soon all the cousins are sniffling,
all afraid and sad,
afraid of the monsters under the pots and of the human,
monster beyond all monsters in the dark.
Dark time monsters are scary, but at least they stay in the dark.
Daytime monsters can go anywhere.
And so the cousins Chive sniffle and whimper,
and Garlic tries to soothe, and finally
Rosemary yells, “Shut up!”
Silence falls for two seconds, three, four,
then the wails begin.
“Did you have to do that?” Onion asks. “They were starting to settle down.”
“No, they weren’t. They never do.”
Rosemary sounds bitter and afraid and frustrated.
Onion wrings her hands and bites her tongue.
There are no right words, and enough of the wrong ones would draw sap.
The bonsai dryad speaks.
“Little ones, hush now. Humans sleep at night. Hush.”
And slowly, slowly, the wailing becomes sniffling and whimpering again.
Garlic’s harried, forced-calm tones mellow into real calm.
“Little ones, do you want to hear a story?”
The whimpers fade quickly, and the smallest and bravest
(and isn’t that always the way?) asks,
The bonsai dryad settled back farther in her pot, leaning back against her tree.
“You know, I suppose, of the Velveteen Rabbit?
How one of the Not-Real became Real?”
The smallest and bravest of the cousins Chive nodded.
“Do you know, then, of the Beloved of Patch?”
All of the cousins Chive shook their heads, eyes wide.
“Who is Patch?” asked one of them.
Not, the bonsai dryad was pleased to see, the smallest and bravest.
“I will tell you, since you asked.”
And the cousins Chive settled in to listen.
“Once there was one of the Not-Real, shaped something like a cat,
only with lots of the fronds humans call hair on its head.
Some of the Not-Real are claimed by humans large and small,
and some are to look at and not to touch,
but there are other kinds.
This one of the Not-Real was made for dogs to chew
and throw into the air
and play pulling games with.
And this Not-Real was happy when these things happened,
and when the dog Patch was not playing with the Not-Real,
the Not-Real slept lightly and waited to be played with again.
To play was how the dog Patch loved the Not-Real,
with all the wagging barking heart a dog can have.
Patch loved many creatures.
The human with the face-fronds and heavy feet,
the human with head-fronds and a soft voice,
the little humans one and two and three,
the dog Patch loved them all.
The little humans would chase,
and with gentle hands would stroke the dog,
and Patch would pant and smile and wag
with full heart, and not want for more.
The little humans, one and two and three,
would play with the Not-Real and Patch,
and as the dog loved, so came the Not-Real to love,
with full heart, not wanting for more.
There was a beautiful day, sunny and windy and warm.
There were the little humans, one and two and three,
running across the grass, chasing Patch
who ran gleefully,
the Not-Real in his mouth.
There were good smells, and laughter.
And oh, my little ones, there was a snake,
and the smallest human stepped on the snake
and was bitten.
Patch bit the snake in turn, and killed it,
and barked and barked and barked until the human with the face-fronds
carried the smallest human away and into the house.
And Patch followed, with little humans one and two
clinging and the Not-Real firmly a-mouth,
and they all went to hide under the table in the kitchen
where there were no snakes.
Little humans one and two cried until they slept
while Patch watched them and whimpered.
‘I am a bad dog,’ Patch whimpered, and all the Not-Real could do
was to love.
Love the little humans, love the dog.
The littlest human was very sick, but lived.
Patch did not eat until the littlest human did,
and slept across the doorway,
and guarded against bad dreams by having them himself.
The Not-Real, too, learned to have the bad dreams,
and learned to guard Patch from them.
Patch learned to believe that he was a good dog again,
and the Not-Real and the children learned to play again,
but it was never the same.
Years later, when it was time for Patch to lay down his body
and get up with only his spirit,
he left a kiss on the Not-Real.
And when Patch was buried, under an apple tree,
and the Not-Real left under the tree,
the Not-Real got up with only his spirit as well.
That night they had a fine frolic, chase and tag and wallow in the dewy grass.
The night ended, as all things must, and the Not-Real thought to go back.
‘I will fade away. I have been happy with Patch,
and do not want to be without Patch or
not-so-little humans one and two and three,
so I will return to my body and sleep, and fade.’
But the Not-Real’s body was gone.
In the body’s place slept a cat,
orange and brown as a pile of autumn leaves,
orange and brown as the Not-Real had been.
‘This is your body now,’ said the spirit of Patch.
‘This is your choice.
You have loved not-so-little humans one and two and three.
You have loved me.
You saved me from fading before my time.
It is not your time to fade, not yet.
Let them love you.’
And come the morning,
when not-so-little human two opened the door,
she saw a cat with rumpled fur from spirit-dog kisses
and welcomed him home, the Become-Real,
and named him Cinnamon.
And Cinnamon the cat’s heart was full and he loved,
and did not want more.”
The bonsai dryad picked up her tea and took a sip.
The cousins Chive had fallen asleep before the end of the story,
but the older sprites had listened,
even Rosemary who did not face the others.
“If it takes love, I will never be real,” Rosemary murmured.
“Do you want to be real?”
Perhaps no-one was more surprised than Onion that it was she who asked.
Perhaps no-one at all was surprised when Rosemary answered, “I don’t know.”
The bonsai dryad stood, picked up her cup, walked over to Rosemary.
“Real or not,” the bonsai dryad said, “I have enough tea to share with you.”
Rosemary does not take the tea, but then,
the bonsai dryad had not expected her to.
The mints curl around the cousins Chive,
and atop Ginger’s pot,
and twine around Onion and Garlic,
and go where they are not supposed to
(but not where they are not wanted.
They are wanted everywhere,
for the comfort of touch.)
Even Rosemary is offered a tendril, and accepts the company.
She moves slowly, still pained,
but as the mints have favorites among the herbs,
so the herb sprites have favorites among the mints.
The mints are unsure whether the bonsai dryad wishes company,
but her pot smells enticing and new,
and they are curious.
And her pot is in a good spot for watching fireflies.
She welcomes all who approach, offers them tea,
strokes along the stems gently,
and somehow conveys that they may join her,
but not tonight, please.
She wants to think.
The greenhouse settles, and quiet seeps throughout like ink dripped into water.
Fireflies, confused by their reflections in the glass,
continue to twinkle their eternal devotion to someone, anyone, please…
The cool night air smells of rain to come.
The bonsai dryad watches nothing in particular,
hears the voices in the night but doesn’t listen for anything,
lets the scents and air currents ebb and flow as they will.
She watches over the others as she waits out the night.
Frogs and crickets give way to birds and engines as part of the world wakes up.
Slowly flowers face the source of their life,
and dew returns to the air from which it came.
The rain promised by the night air was a lie, but not much of one:
it will rain today.
Or maybe in the coming night.
The mints, awakened by the dawn, retreat to their own pots to wait.
Rosemary’s pain, scent-borne, has ebbed.
That is one blessing of being a sprite: smaller limbs, twigs, and lost leaves
do not hurt for long.
Those taken by humans tend to hurt longer, if only because humans
so often use metal instead of wind or tooth or beak.
The human who wounded Rosemary enters the greenhouse,
rearranges the shelves,
speaks of planting and repotting to the air or to himself.
His hands are gentle and precise as he waters, feeds, relocates, repositions.
The fronds upon his head are white and wispy,
and his skin looks like bark but moves more softly than bark can.
His eyes are the centers of Black-Eyed Susans.
He is, in his human way, as like to a plant sprite as can be.
But for all of that, he moves too fast and too suddenly,
and he smells wrong,
even for an animal he smells wrong.
The other inhabitants of the greenhouse watch,
too full of the knowledge that he will do what he will do
to be afraid.
He has his own rhythms, his own ebbs and flows,
and while he cannot be stayed or turned aside by any deed of theirs,
he is at least a familiar sort of hazard.
“Tomorrow,” he says, to himself or to the air.
“Tomorrow the weather’s supposed to be nice.
I bet you’d like some more sun, wouldn’t you, my lovelies?”
And that, too, is why the sprites do not fear.
For all that he causes harm and disruption,
he holds no malice.
He is blind, asleep,
This, too, is part of their world.
He leaves at noon, having other tasks to which to set his hands.
He takes a certain tension with him, and leaves a different tension,
that of anticipation.
Tomorrow will be planting.
Tomorrow will be repotting.
For all the disruption, all the to-be-broken camaraderie,
there is still anticipation among the mints.
They can think of no finer venture
than to feel the sun, not just see it,
to spread roots wide and deep and drink,
to feel leaves and stems moving in the wind.
The bonsai dryad is wistful.
She already knows she will not be leaving,
her with her bound feet,
as tamed to human hand as any plant may be.
Maybe she will be able to sit by a window,
and others will come and tell her stories.
There are worse fates.
Another night, another dawn, in the greenhouse.
The mints have been restless, the Cousins Chive wanting to cling to someone,
but none of the plants are safe
or able to protect.
“Shhh, little ones, it will be over soon,” murmurs Garlic.
“Day will come, and adventures.
You can be brave, I know you can.
Shhh, little ones.”
The bonsai dryad watches as the sun rises
and everyone retreats to their pots, half-wanting the sun to rise faster,
half-willing it back, not up, back, oh please just a little longer.
Today will hold adventure, true, but it will also hold pain.
The human opens the door, sets down his things, picks up Oregano.
Rosemary moans softly.
Pain to herself she can endure, she can accept, she can rise above.
But Oregano has always been a true and gentle friend,
to whom Rosemary has been cruel (and she knows it),
and to be helpless in the face of another’s pain is pain itself.
The human carries Oregano into another room,
and soon the sprites scent Oregano screaming
as her roots are torn apart, as Oregano is repotted and torn
self from self.
When she returns, her plant is half its former size
and she is clear as a dragonfly’s wing.
Then some of the mints, always the larger plants,
torn and returned as small plants and ghosts of sprites.
The greenhouse fills with the scent of green-world screams.
The Cousins Chive are taken as well, but not returned,
and while there is a scent of separation,
there is no scent of severing.
Rosemary is taken, separated, returned.
Aloe is taken, and returns in a larger pot,
fed and watered and put in the perfect place with the perfect amount of sun,
given all she needs to grow large and abundant.
Several very small pots are brought in, with the infant whispers of Tomato,
part of a staggered planting cycle for a continuous supply of fresh fruit.
Onion is taken and does not return.
And finally the human returns, washes his hands,
bids the plants good night,
and closes the door behind his chaotic harmful blind self.
He does not mean it.
All in the greenhouse know he holds no malice.
And yet, they hurt, and some are lost.
Through the long afternoon, into the warm dusk,
into firefly time and owl time and rabbit time
the bonsai dryad waits.
A story would be good, she thinks,
but none I have would be good for now.
The remaining mints prowl among the infant Tomatoes,
peering over pot edges at the large-eyed short-lived sprites.
Rosemary stands watch over Oregano,
her eyes filled with helpless rage.
Oregano does not speak.
Too much has been taken, and she must heal before she can speak again.
But Rosemary is there, and offers contact,
and Oregano’s heart is full.
It rains at some point after midnight, a good soaking rain
that quenches the thirst of roots
and carries scent-messages from the earth outside.
Garlic, once one of many close relations, now sits alone
and cannot stop looking around for her beloved cousins Chive,
though she knows they are not coming back.
Oregano sits, hand in hand with Rosemary,
hand in hand with Sage,
clear yet as a dragonfly wing, but already starting to regain a little color.
For moments, sometimes for minutes, her head tilts as though someone whispers.
The bonsai dryad knows, as many of the others do,
that a plant and sprite divided will be one mind in two bodies for a time.
At such times, messages can be passed.
The bonsai dryad has a treasure she has been keeping.
A fertile seed.
She had feared that she would never have a child,
being too small and too alone,
and her fear now that she has hope is almost enough to wither her.
Will Oregano send this seed to her other half?
Will the bonsai dryad be able to ask?
Will it work?
To stay here, to sprout here, would see ruin.
A daughter seedling would be weeded out and discarded.
Time is short.
She must ask tonight.
The bonsai dryad gathers her daughter-seed,
walks past the pungency of Garlic’s solitary mourning
to clear Oregano and clear Rosemary and Sage who is trying so hard to help.
Sage the optimist, Sage the one who sees always
the dawn of a new day,
not the fire of the rubbish heap.
Sage the one who reaches out gentle hands to take the seed.
Sage the one who sets the seed into Rosemary’s lap, saying,
“It has to be you.”
Rosemary shakes her head, tries to push it away,
but will not give the seed up when Oregano reaches for it.
Rosemary holds the seed up, but she is weak.
Oregano, too, is weak.
Together, they manage, and the seed drifts aloft and out a window and into the wind.
The bonsai dryad watches until the glow of potential life is gone.
All she has to give is tea, made of her own essence.
She offers this stuff of her life fearfully, gratefully.
Rosemary does not drink until Oregano does.
The infant Tomatoes murmur in their sleep, and Garlic,
so used to caring for the cousins Chive,
rouses to watch this new crop of little ones.
The rain has stopped, and the Grass outside whispers its contentment.
Torn self from self, translucent as a dragonfly wing,
far from who she had known and been,
Rosemary cradled the seed and pondered.
She had not known the bonsai dryad well enough to pass on stories.
Seeds are not a splitting, but a budding,
so memories do not pass, are not shared directly.
To each seedling are told stories,
family history, parables, names of those beloved and why,
how the world could be
and how it falls short and soars above.
Nurturing the seed would be simple enough.
Air, sunlight, water, soil in which to root, sky toward which to reach.
Birds and beasts with which to negotiate.
Seasons to endure.
Growth to endure, and hope for, and work at.
The dryad bud within the seed, she would require a different nurturing.
Rosemary placed the seed on the soil, tucked it in,
patted the small mound of earth gently.
“I do not know who your mother was, little one.
I don’t have her stories, except for one.
But I have my own, and those I’ll share.
First, I will tell you about the best I know,
my friend Oregano, who listened to me.”
Rosemary talked the sun down, that day and the next and the next.
And each morning, as she began again and waited
for the first tendril to seep through the blanket of earth,
each morning as she talked the sun through the sky
and called down the rain with stories and sharing,
Rosemary lost her bitterness.
And when the seedling breached the earth,
Rosemary began the one story she had that was not hers.
“Once, there was one of the Not-Real,
shaped something like a cat,
only with lots of the fronds humans call hair on its head…”