CORALEE STOOD AT THE KITCHEN SINK AND WATCHED HER FATHER SMOKE A CIGARETTE ON THE DECK. The red ember of the cigarette flared up, then subsided, as he blew out a long stream of smoke. She felt a burning in her belly flaring up like the ember on that cigarette and felt it rise all the way up to her chest. The hand-shaped welt just below the line of Coralee’s cut-offs stung. She imagined the red imprint and added it to her inventory of damage inflicted by her father: bruises—many over ther the years—in the shape of a thumb and fingers on her upper arm, a scar from a cigarette butted on her palm, and once, the most painful, the scrape and purple-yellow bruise from his boot heel ground into the top of her foot. It had taken weeks to heal, and had throbbed with every step she took.
Somehow he always managed to hurt her where other people wouldn’t notice, and he never hit her face. It doesn’t matter what other people know, Coralee thought as she washed the dishes, the hot water turning her hands red. They wouldn’t do anything about it anyway.
She’d seen it happen. There was a girl at her high school whose boyfriend hit her. Nobody talked about it, not really seriously, but the girls whispered. Coralee had seen them in the bathroom, helping the girl reapply her make up, concealer and powders layered over the skin to cover the bruised flesh. But Coralee didn’t believe in hiding the marks; they were a reminder, a record. She touched the tender hand print on her thigh, then gritted her teeth as she plunged her hands back into the scalding dishwater. She would remember this, and every other injury. She didn’t want to forget. I won’t let him off that easy.
The last thing her father had said after this fight, before shaking a cigarette out onto his palm, and heading out to the porch to smoke was “You’re just like your mother.” Coralee had glared at him, hoping he could see in her eyes that it was true. Just like her, only better.
Coralee’s mother had left her behind six years ago, when she was just ten. She remembered her mother sneaking out of the little farm house so early in the morning, not even the birds were awake. Lying in bed in a half-sleep, she’d heard the crunch of her mother’s footsteps on the gravel driveway as she’d fled. Coralee had crept out of bed and watched from her bedroom window. Her mother hadn’t turned around, and Coralee had known better than to call after her.
From the kitchen sink, Coralee looked out over their small farm: the raised garden with vegetables in military rows, bean vines trained on poles and each section separated by boards. The tomato patch, had a raised bed all to itself. It was her father’s best crop; he’d won prizes for their size and velvety summer taste. The impressive yield of tomatoes brought some income and a good reputation to the farm.
Beyond the garden a long hay field stretched out, golden coloured from the late summer heat and almost ready to be cut and bailed. And beyond that the shadowy cornfield where Coralee had found the vine just a few days before, stretching out along the ground, climbing up the nearest corn stalks and strangling them.
It was unbearably hot the day she’d found the vine. The humid air clung to her like cellophane and sweat dripped down her back, staining her tank top. Coralee headed to the cornfield, where she could kneel down close to the ground in the shade of the corn stalks, and feel the coolness of the earth. The cicadas buzzed in the trees like electric razors. Dizzy with the humidity and the relentless sun, Coralee had almost tripped on the vine.
She had never seen this kind of plant before and she knelt down to look at it. It was firmly rooted, had long spreading vines and rounded deep green leaves. Beneath the leaves and vines were nodes, like tiny feet, that allowed the vine to cling as it grew. “You don’t belong here, do you?” she had asked, stroking a velvety leaf between her thumb and forefinger. The vine had seemed to shiver at her touch.
After discovering the vine Coralee had spent over an hour on the computer in the library trying to figure out what kind of plant it was. The library had a limit—only half an hour on the internet allowed. But Coralee knew no one would notice her. No one ever did.
Coralee logged onto the internet and googled ‘vine’. She flipped from link to link, examining the pictures of vines and leaves until finally she found it: a picture of a truck driving down a rural highway, and in the background a wall of green; the hillside, trees, telephone poles, even street signs were covered in the emerald leaves. The caption read “Kudzu, an invasive species from Japan, covers everything in its path on a highway in South Carolina.” The vine was rapacious. It could grow over 30 cm in one day. It was hard to kill.
Coralee logged off the internet, still unnoticed, and passed the checkout counter. The librarian, flipping through a magazine, didn’t even look up. I’m a ghost, Coralee opened the heavy door and stepped from the cool library into the humid air outside, they’ll never know it was me.
About a week later, Coralee got her opportunity. Her father was going out of town. “Your uncle has been foreclosed on his mortgage,” he said, “the bank’s putting his place up for auction, I’m going to see if I can get a deal. Might take a week or so…”
Coralee didn’t say anything. She was making sandwiches in the stuffy kitchen, four slices of white bread laid before her, slathered with mayonnaise. A package of cold cuts lay open on the counter and a house fly buzzed above it.
Coralee spread the meat over the sandwiches, and began to slice a tomato. It was from the garden, the first of the season and it was a beautiful specimen: perfect firmness, deep red and smelling like soil warmed by the sun. She savoured the feeling of the knife sliding through its flesh.
The first day of her father’s absence was a blissful day; Coralee lay around the house in her underwear, listened to her discman and ate Cheerio’s for dinner. Lying on the deck that night, the muddy smell of the lake rising up and mingling with the fragrant trees, Coralee watched the first stars appear. On the second day she walked out to the cornfield to see her vine. She carried her father’s hatchet with her.
The vine had grown and seemed to have multiplied into many plants all spreading over the ground of the cornfield. Whole rows of cornstalks were covered, and only patches of their brown, dying husks could be seen beneath the chokehold of the Kudzu. Coralee gasped, her eyes widening as a smile spread over her face.
She found the root of one plant and chopped it out with the hatchet. The vine trembled where she grasped it, and to Coralee it seemed to shudder under every blow of the hatchet. “I’m sorry,” she said under her breath, “I’ll try to make this quick.” But it was difficult. The Kudzu roots were deep and it took a long time to dig it out. When she had finally uprooted the plant, Coralee pulled the sticking vines from the ground and surrounding cornstalks. The vines were tangled and wound more tightly than she had thought, and they oozed a viscous white liquid where she snapped them free.
Cringing, sweating, Coralee emerged from the cornfield successful. She cradled a large specimen of the plant in her arms, its vines trailing all around her and tangling in her legs as she walked. She headed to the garden, and planted the vine right in the centre of the raised bed of tomatoes.
All week in her dreams, Coralee saw the Kudzu, and it spoke to her. Its voice was soft, cooing a foreign language that sounded like long oooohhhs and aaaaahhs. The vine stretched out from the garden, and the surrounding field turned into a lake. The raised garden bed where the Kudzu was planted became a boat and the vines reached out to her, like loving arms reaching out to save a drowning person. She could feel the soft leaves caressing her skin, and the kiss of sticky nodes as the vine stuck all around her, held her, rocked her.
On the last night, when she awoke, Coralee looked around her room, half expecting to see the vine there. Moonlight cast a glow through the window pane, caught the edge of her dresser, throwing the bedstead into relief against the rest of the room. She crept from her bedroom, towards the kitchen. The usual sounds of the night—the chirp of bats, frog calls—were silent. There was only a soft sighing that grew louder as Coralee approached the back of the house.
From the kitchen window, she could see the plant. The vines had covered the entire tomato patch, and spread out to the rest of the garden. The leaves shimmered in the moonlight, quivering with the movement of the vines. Coralee watched the Kudzu vines stretch out, reaching for the field, the house, and the nearby telephone pole. She realized that the sighing sound was the sound of the vine growing.
It is the hottest part of the day, and Coralee stands on the driveway and watches. The Kudzu vine hangs down from the telephone wires above the house, which looks like it has been built on a sea of green. The telephone wires sag, pull at the telephone pole. There is a groan, and a loud crack like a baseball bat hitting a home run, and the telephone pole crashes down on the roof of the house.
Coralee takes a few stumbling steps back from the house, but keeps watching. She had thought she would be cheering, but the cloud of dust settling around the house, the jagged splinters of roof and the butt of the telephone pole sticking out of it are more than she expected. She holds her breath and watches the Kudzu move quickly over the rubble, climbing silently over the broken roof.
A tightness grips Coralee’s insides, her breath is shallow, gasping. It’s perfect, she thinks, no one will know, they’ll never suspect you. But there’s a frantic feeling in her limbs, an urge to run. Coralee looks around her, but there’s no one. Don’t worry, she thinks, you’re always alone. There’s no one here. Not even the birds.
Coralee imagines her father coming home, the pickup truck rocking over the potholes in the drive way. She imagines the shock on his face, his mouth open, the breath snatched from him in a gasp. He will stop the truck, leap from the driver’s seat, leaving the door open as he runs towards the house.
She imagines him pushing through the door, while behind him, the Kudzu will creep in on its silent nodes. He won’t even notice the vine climbing up his legs. He will only notice when it’s too late, and he will want to scream but the soft emerald leaves will fill his mouth and there will be only a choking gurgle, a scrabble of finger nails on the walls.
The insects in the trees are silent; the birds have flown away. Coralee is choking, she feels stifled by the heat of the day, the humidity pushing down on her and squeezing her lungs. She doubles over and gags, coughing so hard her sides ache. Bending over, her head near her knees Coralee tries to catch her breath. She takes in big gulps of air until her insides stop squeezing and she feels calm again.
When she stands upright, she sees the Kudzu climbing in every opening to the house. She can hear the sighing oooh and aaah as it grows. The vine’s green leaves are waving, like tiny hands waving goodbye. She knows her father will be home soon, so Coralee turns, the toe of her sneaker crunching on the gravel, and she runs.
Elizabeth Boyd has a BA in Linguistics. She lives with her husband and works in Vancouver, B.C. Elizabeth has published an essay in The Globe and Mail newspaper and is currently working on a variety of fiction pieces. She is inspired by the places she visits in and outside of Canada, and by the characters who people her everyday life; her encounters with them are reflected in her work.
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