The Seed

Sally was cooking dinner in the kitchen. Outside, little Janie was crying. She was screaming something about that midget. Kyle was in the living room watching television: a woman being chased down a San Francisco street.

“Go out there and see where the problem is,” Kyle shouted in to his wife. He was not angry, just distracted.

A man shot the woman. Then a beagle came on and sang about pure beef. Kyle laughed. His thick lips shook.

“She’s scared of him, Kyle,” Sally was yelling back at him. “Why don’t you kick him out? Tell him you don’t need any more handy work done around this old house. Tell him your Aunt Bet is coming to live and we need his room. Bury him in the garden. Something. Anything. Use your imagination for once!”

Kyle was patient. “Imagination don’t pay the power bill, now does it Sally, honey? And don’t you go saying neither do you, because you know I am truly trying to do my best by you and Janie.”

A German Shepherd and a dachshund had formed a chorus with the beagle. They gave a final howl, smiled, and bowed.

Sally slammed the iron skillet on the counter top, and hard chopped peppers somersaulted into the thick air. None of the boarders liked vegetables, not even her own family did, but by the end of the summer they would have learned to love them. Sally anticipated peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, beans, and cabbage aplenty – if those afternoon Georgia thunderstorms didn’t drown her plants, or if the hail didn’t crush them, or if the garden was never even planted thanks to that midget, who Sally knew to be half the man Kyle was and so did half of nothing.

The back door moaned, and Sally turned to see little Janie standing just inside the kitchen, her head bent. She kicked hard at the linoleum floor with her heel as if she were trying to free some stubborn stone in the garden, then pointed past the screen door to where the midget was scraping the reddish earth with his hands, whistling to himself. His face was hidden in the shadow of his straw Panama. Sparrows pecked the ground behind him.

“What’d he tell you now, baby?” asked Sally in a whisper to reassure poor Janie. This was not the first time he had made her cry.

Janie twisted a single curl of golden hair with dirty fingers. “He tell me something about the seed,” and she sniffed and wiped a soiled, lacy sleeve beneath her nose.

“I told you to stay away from the garden when he’s there. Didn’t I tell you to stay away from there, Janie Lynn Gibson?”

“Yes’m.”

“And now look at you. Like a little mole.”

“Yes’m.”

“And you know who is going to get a bath right this instant, don’t you? And it’s not that midget out there, is it?”

“No, mama, but he tell me about the seed. He say, ‘Look Janie,’ and he hold out his little fist, mama, and I was ascared.” With this Janie raised her hand out to her mother to demonstrate, as if seeds really were tucked away there in the palm of her hand. “But I ran, I ran hard, mama, just like you tell me when he do bad things.”

“Quiet now,” Sally said and shook her head at her poor little girl because Janie was not to blame. “But you can’t be running to me and crying every time he looks cross-eyed at you, you know honey.”

“But mama, what you said—”

“Never mind what mama told you. She’s telling you different now, so listen up,” and then Sally tried to smile as she shooed her daughter into the living room. Janie hurried to Kyle, nestled beside him on the old love couch. The lead-colored cushions sagged the more with this little added weight.

Lighting the gas burners, Sally placed the pan of peppers and an aluminum pot of water on the stove. Someone behind her said dead seriously, “Only way to remove it is from the back, around the spinal column,” and Kyle answered to no one in particular, “He should have aimed for the heart, for Christ’s sake.” A ukulele played in the background, Mr. Waters’s. Overhead, something heavy dropped. Sally listened to the scuffling of Wooly Bear slippers, and soon, the toilet flushed. Mame Grady. The old woman was surely drunk again. The pipes were thundering now with water, and the air filled with cracklings and voices, as it did on Easter morning, just three weeks ago tomorrow, when Kyle told the midget he could stay in exchange for work to be done around the house.

There had not been a moment’s peace since then, since that quiet hour before dawn when Sally sleepily stuffed her turkey, cleaned and chilled stalks of celery, arranged black and Spanish olives in a cut glass bowl, and ironed Janie’s new lilac print dress for Mass. Later, during that banging, water-running time when everyone else hurried to be ready, Sally had sat drinking her cup of coffee, the thick steam from it mingling with the other sweet kitchen smells.

The boarders had paraded past her one by one, Mr. Waters first in his faded blue seersucker, bright green shirt, and tie the color of overripe strawberries, winking at Sally and apologetic for having to ask if everything looked “spiffy,” what with his cataracts and all. Then came Chubby Philips, who was headed not for church but to his daily breakfast of scrambled eggs and Bloody Marys at Sloan’s Tavern down the road. And widow Grady, finally, pacing soberly through the kitchen, barely able to hide her silver flask in that small vinyl clutch bag.

Sally’s own family was assembling too: Kyle, handsome in his brown blazer, though his neck puffed and reddened at the collar where Sally had pulled his tie up tight; and Janie, with matching hat and gloves, swinging a patent leather pocket-book just like her mother’s. Sally was confident the day would be warm after all and that rain was an impossibility, so she had chosen a white, sleeveless cotton dress.

They were halfway out the back door when he appeared, striding up the cobblestone path as poised as a tightrope walker, a khaki duffel bag balanced under each arm. The midget stopped directly in front of Sally, bowed, but turned to Kyle to smile. He wore a turquoise Chesterfield, mended many times. With a voice as youthful and attractive as his features, he said, “I have heard such truly good things of your gracious home and hospitality.”

Janie started to cry. Loosening his tie, Kyle said to the midget, “Come on now, and we’ll have Sally here fix us up a cup of hot rum coffee. That’ll knock the chill from your bones.”

The Gibsons never did make it to Mass. Kyle and the midget had talked for hours, right through the Easter feast. Sally was too busy to be angry, fluttering about the dining room table like a hungry, nervous bird, serving her steamy mashed potatoes, portioning out the cranberry jelly, wiping the lip of the gravy boat whenever needed. Everyone was pleased and animated. Like vapor from a coffee cup, Sally felt herself being swept into thin air and vanishing there. She hovered for a moment above the others, and the hum of voices rose to her, blending with the sound of rain that had begun to fall. She thought of flying, of swallows when they shoot the thick gray sky and seem to break beyond, and she watched the lightning branch past the cottonwoods and heard the closing thunderclaps. Then lightning struck and broke a tree nearby, and Kyle slapped his knee, shouting, “More gravy for Dr. Doorman.”

No one knew whether the midget really was a doctor. No one but Kyle would ever address him as such. Sally had overheard once while he and Doorman sat on the back porch that in his youth the midget had toured the country and seven foreign lands as a professional wrestler and that his real name was Victor, Victor Fleischman. Sally was not then curious to learn more, but accidentally, some nights later, she did.

They had been in the living room, watching a wrestling match on television, Kyle, Mr. Waters, and Chubby. Sally listened from the kitchen as Kyle tried to convince the others that Dr. Doorman was a world champ once and, with a blink of his eyes, could hypnotize his opponents into pinning themselves. Old Waters said this was “bunk,” and Chubby agreed. The argument did not last long. The midget suddenly was there, grinning from the staircase. With an elegant bow, he offered to demonstrate.

“It worked equally as well with the ladies who frequented my matches,” he said, scanning the faces of the three men. “They would stare longingly from the very front rows, their beautiful diamond broaches twinkling from silk dresses like curious smiles.” The midget’s own smile had become curious then. Sally alone noticed this, for the others were doubled over with laughter.

#

The water in the aluminum pot broke into a boil now, and Sally concentrated once more on her dinner. She measured out two and one-half cups of white rice. The recipe called for long-grain rice, cubed lamb and peppers, half a tablespoon of garlic (minced), a pinch of celery salt, and oregano according to your tastes. She had memorized this, her mother’s favorite dish, but with the money coming only from the boarders she was forced to improvise. So she emptied a package of hot dogs onto the cutting board and soon grew content with the comforting dull knock of the cleaver.

“Is that delicious dinner ready yet, Mrs. Gibson?” The midget watched her through the screen door. He fanned his trousers by the knees, and small chunks of red clay fell like pennies.

Sally pretended not to hear. In the silver screen light, silhouetted by the evening sky, the midget’s head seemed large to her. But he was not a dwarf. In fact, his body was quite finely proportioned. Even Sally could agree with her husband on that point. Sometimes, on warm days such as today, the midget would wear his faded wrestling suit to dinner, and it would become obvious. Beginning at the shoulder of the dull yellow suit and disappearing somewhere between his legs was the remaining half of a brown velvet V.

“It smells simply delightful,” the midget said, displaying unusually bright teeth. He constantly cleaned them, even at the dinner table, with what he claimed was a diamond-tipped stickpin. This he kept in his lapel. Sally thought the stone was glass.

The midget removed his straw hat and dabbed a linen handkerchief on his temples and graying hair. The tops of his ears were flat.

“It is all but finished,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind…”

Sally continued to stir the peppers, which browned slowly. She could smell the fresh earth on the midget’s clothing as he entered the kitchen.

“I hope you don’t mind that we did not finish your garden today. It is quite nearly so. All that remains is the carrot, and I thought you would like personally to supervise their inception. Such fascinating vegetables, wouldn’t you agree? And Kyle has told me not a little of your fondness for the fresh, firm fruits of the earth.”

Sally passed the wooden spoon from the peppers to the boiling water. “Yes, I do enjoy vegetables,” she said as pleasantly as could be expected. The heat from the stove and the warm spring day, that and Janie starting to whimper again because something was not quite right, all pricked at her. She thought for a moment she would scream. The hot oil continued to pop, and a high school marching band played. Cheerleaders spelled out White-N-Bright.

“I took the liberty of throwing out the bad seeds.” The midget had stepped closer to Sally and stood at mid-kitchen to inspect his black Oxfords, which had lost their shine at the pointed toes. “Some were just too, too dry, and others…Take my advice, Mrs. Gibson: never store seeds in metal cans. Those at the bottom are doomed to rot, while those at the top, poor innocents, harden into stone, their life-giving moistures sucked from them. Pauvre, les enfants,” and he laughed.

“Dinner will be ready soon,” Sally said instinctively.

“Fine. But I was laughing only because of our little Janie. Such a sweet daughter you have, Mrs. Gibson. Why, the poor dear thing was working so hard today in the garden, hollowing out perfect tiny holes with her teaspoon to await my seeds, concentrating just like a big girl because she was intent on doing it right. Then, just now – surely you heard – she chanced upon a nightcrawler, a silk-skinned beauty, I must say, which caused no small outcry from the child. Imagine your own fright, Mrs. Gibson, touching that buried, unimaginable thing. A veritable serpent of the deep to baby Janie, I can assure you.”

Sally noticed a certain rawness at the tip of her tongue, and she stepped to the sink for water. The midget was instantly there at her side, spread-legged and hands clasped thoughtfully behind his back, waiting to be of assistance. His eyes seemed to glow in that brief moment when Sally was most vulnerable, colorless or all colors, like the lip of cut glass when it catches light. His eyes had cut into Sally, and she desperately needed distance from them now. Once again she concentrated, on the browning peppers, on the perfect rice that simmered in the pot. When he next spoke, his voice more intimate, a silk-like chill swirled up the small of Sally’s back and around her spine.

“It is about your husband,” the midget had said. He had paused to sigh confidentially, and the room filled with a woman’s soothing voice fading gently into violins. Kyle snickered something, and Sally glanced sharply toward the living room.

“Precisely,” whispered the midget. “You know as well as I that this slothful habit of his is damaging not only to himself but to you as well. You may think – and not without due cause – that his bleary-eyed addiction is detrimental simply for its having dulled his mind. However true this may be, there is still a graver aspect, much more devastatingly so, I can assure you. That is why I am glad for this chance to speak to you, to have our little tête which I must insist remain confidential since I do value your husband’s friendship. You may not understand all that I am about to say – granted – but I am optimistic something will penetrate.

“Now. A-hem. As the universe is composed basically of light and dark, so too are our lives divided. The darkness is inactive, a void substance, and therefore rendered harmless. Do you follow thus far, Mrs. Gibson?”

Sally shook her head. She tried not to listen.

“Good,” the midget said. “Splendid, Mrs. Gibson.” He drew a heavy breath, forced wrinkles near his brows. “But! But! Light, even that believed-to-be-harmless light from your husband’s hobby, is a dangerous element, most dangerous. It is explosive, in fact. Yes, I like that very much. Explosive as dynamite. And what, Mrs. Gibson, what do we witness when dynamite is detonated in midair?”

Sally shrugged her shoulders.

“Exactly. Not a thing. Nada. A space is simply filled for a moment. The mountain still intact, the moss yet green. Velvety green, in truth, like the ripple of a silk dress. The day continues brightly. We watch the wind gently turn a leaf.”

The midget took up a raw pepper from the countertop and held it tightly in his fist. “And what! what! dear lady, when the heart of the looming mountain is the victim of our charge, when the flicker of light is buried deep beneath its breast, a density of rock? Dust to violent dust, Mrs. Gibson. Void! That is all. No open breath of fire to emblazon your golden hair. No glow of sudden sunshine expanding like novas in your eyes. Nothing. Simply nothing. Heat smothered in its womb.”

Sally yanked at the frying pan, and a burning spray settled on her hand. She screamed. Black wrinkled peppers bobbed lifelessly in the oil. Her eyes began to tear, from the steam and the pain. She didn’t know what to do first, so she screamed again – at her dinner, at the midget’s advances. “Everything is ruined!”

Sally ran past Kyle and Janie, who watched with opened mouths, and up the stairs, screaming once more before she reached the safety of her bedroom. She slammed the door shut and pressed her face against it. “I want him out tonight!” Sally shouted down to Kyle. “Do you hear me? Tonight!” She blinked at the peeling brown paint. Then the squeak of steps, and Sally said, holding fast to the doorknob, “Just do as I say and leave me alone.”

“You ain’t going to let them good peppers go to waste, are you now honey?” Kyle asked, timid as a fat mouse, stupid as a mountain, explosive as a, as a…and Sally began to cry.

“I’m not coming out until he’s gone. Those peppers can burn to hell, and you and the rest of them can eat paint chips as far as I’m concerned.”

“Now, honey.”

“Kyle!”

No sound. Sally looked through the keyhole but saw nothing.

“Honey?” Kyle’s voice was soft and low. He waited.

“Honey? I’ll talk to him right after dinner, I promise, and I’ll straighten this whole thing out for you. There ain’t no need to fuss with him right down there in the kitchen and all, and he did get your garden in for you after all, now didn’t he do a good job with your garden? Splendid, I’d say. So I’ll just patch things up for you. That’s what I’ll do. And I’ll tell him we got a rule or something. No boarders in the kitchen when you’re cooking. I’ll use my imagination, honey, say the tiles get scuffed up, or maybe that the wax gets dingy and dull and you like it shiny so you can see yourself.”

“There won’t be any dinner,” Sally said calmly now, realizing they couldn’t last a minute without her. She listened patiently for several moments more until Kyle’s footsteps trailed down the stair. She closed her eyes. A drowsiness was overtaking her like a spell, and she moved to the bedroom window where she thought she saw the midget standing statue-still in the middle of the garden, his uplifted arms immersed in red light. She backed away from the vision, slipped her clothes off and lay back on the bed. They could all go to hell.

#

The sound of whispers or the wind humming through the screen window. I face the darkness of it, straining to hear. I try to prop myself up on my elbows, but fail. Tucked beneath me, an arm is fast asleep. It feels nothing. The breeze whispers now and then. The sheer Dacron curtains hang motionless and glisten as if with blue light. During the day they are peach glaze, the same as the bedspread, but now they are transformed. I turn my head from the window and a sliver of golden light strikes my eyes. The room darkens by contrast. Who’s there? I moan, rub my eyes. Blood edges through my numb arm.

“Kyle?” I search his half of the bed with the good one.

“She is awake.”

“Sh!”

“That you, Kyle?” It is my husband’s dull voice, even at a whisper. “Come to bed, Kyle, it must be past midnight.”

Something scrapes on the floor. Something heavy. My eyes adjust to the darkness and there sits Kyle in the big barrel chair. He has moved it to the foot of my bed. Janie fidgets on his lap, one arm slung around his neck, the other holds a bag of popcorn.

“Kyle. What time is it?”

“Late night time,” he answers. Janie starts to whine.

“You must be starving, poor baby. Mama’ll fix you something,” I say and start to curl off the bed, but Kyle orders me to stay as still as a snake in a hen house. He looks past his shoulder into the darkness, and the darkness answers with an approving laugh. The midget!

I reach for the bedspread, think instead of self-defense, and grope for the glass ashtray on the nightstand. My hand disobeys. It sleeps still, numb. The night air is oppressive.

The midget steps from the shadows, bows gracefully into the bright light. “Madame.”

“Now?” Janie says rubbing her father’s thick neck. Kyle gawks and blinks, leans forward. He never has his glasses when he needs them.

The Day-Glo painted ashtray torments me. It lodges in the corner of my eye like a match spark.

“Isn’t it a lovely summer’s eve,” the midget coos. His hand falls, accidentally, to the bed, near enough my leg for me to feel its warmth.

“A dark night, all but moonless, as soothing to the soul as a lover’s troth.”

“I don’t see no horsies, daddy. You said.”

“Hush. How do you think daddy is going to hear what’s going on with you talking? Besides, give me a handful of that popcorn,” Kyle says without even breaking for air.

I say to the midget, “You get off my bed or my husband will crack your skull,” and that knocks the corners off his smile.

He gestures toward the window with a sweeping hand. “It is the whip-poor-will and not the lark that makes me think of you.”

“Lark, my ass,” Kyle complains. “There ain’t no larks within a thousand miles of Georgia. If anything, she’s a crow,” and even my little girl giggles at this and starts to caw.

How can he say that about me, and in front of the midget, too? If I give in, I think, just a little, that will bring Kyle around. He’d be jealous mad. “See,” I say, “see what a liar that midget is.” I swing my leg as if to kick but instead touch the midget’s hand gently with my toe. He arches his fingers into a spider and crawls onto my feet. Hairy feelers tickle my ankle.

“Your skin,” he says, his voice very soft, “is as soft and sweet as the pink-cheeked peach licked gently by the dewy tongue of dawn.”

No one has ever compared my skin to fruit before. But Kyle just sits, sucking salt off his fingers. Janie throws the empty bag down and starts to sing, “Cobbler, daddy, peach cobbler.”

“Honey, I’ll give you some,” I say to my poor starving little girl, and the midget answers, “Such a gift would make me the happiest man alive.” His eyes glow red in the reflected ashtray light.

“Your eyes.” The midget sighs deeply and advances his position on my bed. His forehead is broad and slick as wax. “They are like diamonds, your cheeks brocade the finest silk merchants have yet to see. Were my lips rubies tried upon those cheeks, were my fingers threads of light woven in the fabric of your dawn.”

I test the skin of my face and remember Kyle’s handkerchief, once a satin nightgown.

Kyle drums his fingers on the armrest. Janie rocks back and forth on his leg like a cowgirl.

“What’s he telling her all that stuff for,” Kyle says. “You’d think he was selling her some kind of smelly face lotion or something.”

My hands are smoothing the skin of my thighs now. I feel the warmth there. Kyle yawns, and I think, It is working. I close my eyes and call out his name and soon he is there beside me. The bed quakes, then settles. Kyle touches my thighs. Behind closed eyes, I see a young Kyle’s face, his lips tight and salt crystals caked at the corners.

“Janie!” I realize suddenly, but the midget is reassuring: “Fast asleep, poor child, dreaming of the day’s labor,” then, “Are you enjoying yourself?” His words seem far away, muffled.

“Oh, yes,” I manage to say, feeling lighter than I can remember, light as a sparrow.

“Kyle certainly seems to be enjoying himself also. He’s breathing quite heavily now.”

I hear little but my own breathing, rushing my ears like an ocean.

“He looks so very content.” His words reach me on a southern gale.

“Oh, Kyle.”

“Like a sleeping baby.” Fainter.

“Kyle.”

“Or a dead man.”

“Kyle?”

“Or one sleeping.”

I scream and shake violently, opening my eyes to the empty air. There, cradled between my legs, is the midget’s head. He lifts it slowly, smiles. The glow from the ashtray ignites like a tongue of fire, and my awakened arm leaps. Glass shatters the midget’s temple. Ash crowds the air. My eyes burn in the darkness. Someone coughs. Finally, light from the doorway floods the room.

#

It was much too late in the morning for Sally to have been left undisturbed in bed, and this made her question what she knew was only a terrible dream. The sky was already fully blue and light. Wind moved small clouds and her curtains in waves. Silky peach glaze receding and the clouds of pure white. Mr. Waters strummed his ukulele. Three chords, the only ones he knew. They carried through the hall a richness Sally had not before been aware of, a simplicity, like the sound of her daughter’s airy singing which was just now rising up to greet her. Three blind mice. Three blind mice. Their songs seemed oddly the same.

Sally looked about her, troubling, but the signs of proof were everywhere: the ashtray still on the nightstand, heaped with yellow butts; her skin cool and white where the breeze blew and her hands touched; the smell of fresh earth, not stale sex. She had slept soundly, so soundly in fact that what might have been quite real seemed now far away and fading, like spring-clouds. Only shadows remained.

She rose and went to the window. This was always her most pleasant time, spring. She watched the shifting dogwood branches, each tipped with lavender buds. Birds cut circles in the air, frightened fledglings that would surely collide but did not. When at last they had found safety in the high branches, the sound of the garden spade chipping off rock again set them in flight. The blue sky darkened with them, and below, Kyle was stooped toward the earth, digging excitedly. He shoveled dirt from a single hole. Stupid, Sally thought. Kyle didn’t have the slightest idea of how to plant a garden. In the end it would be she who finished the job, who’d have to drag that lumpy sack of garden tools and seeds back to the shed. But there was cause for celebration, too, she suddenly realized: it seemed Kyle had finally sent that midget packing.

Sally made her mind up to pick something bright from her closet, that red polyester sheath she had not worn since her younger sister’s wedding, that and the pair of matching red pumps which were comfortable and classy and buried somewhere at the back of the closet. She dressed slowly, and after brushing her hair out so that it fell long about her shoulders, refreshing the glow in her cheeks with Moonlite pink, and applying a subtle yet sleek new shade of red lipstick, she descended.

No one. In the living room, in the den. Even Janie was quiet, wherever she was. The house seemed strangely hollow. The echo of her heels filled each room and then came back to her. A certain excitement swirled through her and settled in her stomach. It moaned, and Sally thought of bacon and eggs, toast, fresh-brewed coffee, and catsup on the eggs.

So she went into the kitchen to prepare her feast.

When everything was nearly ready, Kyle walked in. Sally noticed him first on the top porch step, though her attention had been on the hardening poached eggs. He dusted his pants and boots off with a broom, then loudly stamped the cleats clean on the welcome mat for what seemed like a good five minutes. He had said, looking sheepishly in at her, “Sure smells good,” and she had answered, “I made just enough for one.”

Kyle stood by his wife’s side now. “You won’t have to worry no more after today,” he guaranteed her.

“About your eating the breakfasts I make?”

He had almost smiled at this. “Now, you know what I’m saying, honey. He’s gone, got rid of him this morning. I been up since dawn, making things right. I even used my imagination.”

The bacon browned evenly and smelled delicious. Kyle snatched a piece out of the hot oil and pushed it whole into his mouth. “Good!” he said and hulked off into the living room to catch the early movie on television. Sally used a spoon to scoop the eggs from the milky water and lowered them gently to the toast already buttered and sliced on her plate. She drained the bacon, smothered the eggs with catsup, and assembled the plate and a cup of black coffee on a serving tray. Sally stepped out of the house, onto the back porch.

From there, she watched her garden. She listened to the laughter inside and the tinny voices. It was a comedy; Kyle loved comedies. Fat sparrows caught her eye. They sang. They searched the earth where shoots would soon sprout, almost overnight. Several had gathered where Kyle newly turned the soil, and one buried its head deep within the mound. When it rose again, its find twinkled in the sun. Sally thought she saw a diamond-tipped stickpin in its mouth.

This is a reprint of work originally published in The Twilight Zone Magazine.

Dr. Joseph Bocchi has been a writer and professor of writing for more than 40 years. Now retired, he teaches online writing courses for Excelsior College, where he was Faculty Program Director of Writing until 2018. His writing has appeared in many journals and magazines, both academic and popular, including his first publication “The Seed,” which earned third place out of 9,000 entries in The Twilight Zone Magazine’s first short story contest for unpublished writers (1982), with judges including Harlan Ellison, Peter Straub, John Matheson, and Carol Serling. His research and case studies have appeared in a number of scholarly journals. Because as a doctoral student in writing he chose professional, business, and technical writing, his university teaching has focused primarily on those genres. He has worked in human resources and marketing communications at national companies.

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