The First Frost Comes to the Garden

by marthastephens

Readers, you know me as a malcontented person who posts mostly on war and peace;  but I hope you will see that this, too, is a tale of war — on helpless vegetables!  — M. S.


        “Martha! We’re dying!” cried the peppers today.
       “Are we Martha?” said the tomatoes in one chorus, hoarsely. “Tell us please!”
       “My darlings . . . yes-s,” I began. I could hardly speak, but I had given life to these friends and knew I must stay the course with them.
       “Yes, my pretty ones, I cannot but say that tonight the cold will come, and in the morning you will not wake.”
      Sad murmurs along the rows. I steeled myself to go on. I felt they wanted to know everything.
      “Tonight, my darlings, your limbs will begin to droop rather badly, you’ll wither and go limp, and as the days pass — you’ll become stiff and brown. You’ll be nothing but the withers. No blood, no sap will run in your stems. No voice will you have. No mind to think about your fate. And that is death. That is what we call death, my darlings, my little loves. When I come to your beds again, you will not know that I am here. If I speak, you will not hear . . . .
      Silence there was for a long time. They were trying to understand the world.
      When they spoke again, their tones were as thin as locust wings.                 “You, Martha — you will not die tonight?”
      “No-o, I do not think I will die tonight, my darlings . . . my pretties that I love. When the cold comes this evening, I will go in my house and shut the door, and the cold will be outside and I will be inside. But you — your feet are in the earth, they cannot move you to warmth and safety.”
      Somehow I went on — I don’t know how. “Look at me, my pretty ones! See me — my eighty years upon me? Fix on my face your poor dear eyes. Can you see this face, half-withered even now, as I stand before you? I will tell you today a great truth. On this October day in the year 2016 of the earth, and in the name of the nature that enfolds us all — I will tell you that all creatures go down, as you will tonight, and we big ones go down. We do not know why. Why . . .? we ask ourselves sometimes. But who is there to ask this question of? There is no one — no one.

      “So we are waiting all the time for the withers to come and take us and seize all we have. Our voices. Our limbs. Our minds. The sap in our roots and stems. Our memories . . . everything!” 

      Weak expressions of sorrow trickled out along the rows.
      “Martha, dear Martha,” they said. “It is a sad thing to know and yet it is best, we think, don’t you — to know things? And it is as if we must — we must know them . . . even very very sad things.”
      “Yes-s my darlings. Somehow we feel we must, we must know things — though we don’t know why . . . .”
      The peppers spoke again. “Do you see Basil, Martha? How thin, how sere she is? She was never strong. Last night we believed she still lived — then this morning she was quite gone. Dear Basil is gone!”
      “Yes,” said another. “Dear Basil, with her beautiful scent, is no more.”
      On this late fall day, the butterbeans had long since lapsed into the weedy growth of their mounds. In the ferocious summer heat, the cucumbers had hardly lived at all, for the beetles had come; and the summer spinach had been still-born.
      “But look at Radish!” said the friends. “He is as strong today as the day he was born!”
      Only one radish remained from the early spring patch, and Radish was a splendid specimen indeed — a hero of survival, grown as bushy and tall as a pepper almost. When I had observed his peculiar strength, I had not pulled him for his root, his leaves, but left him to shade the Romas, and they had wound themselves about his arms and legs and the peppers nearby, and ripened snugly underneath.
      Radish seldom spoke. He was a Daikon after all!
      “We understand he is a sort of princeling, Martha, and does not speak to such as us. And that his great root is as thick and long as the roots of human men that grow between their legs!”
      “When tonight we depart this earth, where will Radish be?”
      “Radish, my dears, will stay on a while in all his bushy glory. The early cold will not take him, you see, but in time the snows will come, the ice and greater cold will come, and Radish will be pulled!”
      The friends spoke once more, and I strained to hear, for their tones were fading into the frosty air.
      “Take of us, Martha! Take our last fruits home with you today! And by them . . . remember us . . . and our little lives . . . rounded by a sleep. Dear Mar-tha, remember . . . remember us . . . for we can say no mo-o-r-e . . . .” ##

From Me and the Grandmas of Baghdad, a memoir by Martha Stephens (in print and ebook).ms-at-plaza