Bonsai by Shaenon K. Garrity
Uterine cancer, the doctor is saying, and the world ends. Stage Four. That means advanced. It means bad. Your arms and legs and throat go numb. All you can hear is his question, looping: when was your last exam? You can’t remember. Not that it matters now.
In cases like yours we require inpatient treatment. It may take anywhere from several months to. Static. To when? To forever. To death. You’ve never left the U.S. or finished Ulysses. You haven’t done enough of anything, really. You shove back the thoughts.
“Because the cancer is still localized,” the doctor is saying, “green therapy may be possible.”
You don’t remember packing for the hospital, but you must have, because there are the suitcases. You remember signing papers, a lot of papers. And the sickly-pink hospital smell. A nurse puts you in a wheelchair, ignoring your insistence that you can walk (you can hear the high-pitched whine in your voice, you’re already turning into a peevish invalid), and wheels you into an elevator.
At the top floor, the elevator doors open, and everything is different. It’s the smell. Like wet moss and freshly cut grass. Like your trip to the California redwoods when you were nine. Like a cedar chest. The corridors are the same bland medicinal colors as the rest of the hospital, with the same unconvincingly cheerful paintings of farmhouses and flowers, but the air smells alive.
Speeding past one room, you get a whiff of a different smell. It’s green, but not alive; it’s the smell of the damp pit where the neighbors tossed their lawnmower clippings when you were a kid. At the beginning of the summer, it smelled good back there, but then the grass piled up and rotted and the sticky smell of fermentation filled the August air. You turn to peer into the room, but you’ve already rolled on.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. You’ve seen survivors on talk shows, glowing with health, talking about it. Sometimes it never takes in the first place, and sometimes it takes but something goes wrong.
Don’t think about that. Think about the faces of the survivors. Their energy, the warm green blush still on their cheeks.
The nurse backs you into what must be your room. For a few seconds the sunlight blinds you. It’s hothouse warm in here, thanks to the skylights that open the entire ceiling to the sun. You see a bed, a table, railings to the tiny bathroom. No plants. In primetime dramas, these rooms are always full of plants. The nurse wheels a TV in.
Now you’re alone. Classical music plays over a speaker. You don’t know what kind, you don’t know anything about classical music. Violin and piano. There are no light switches on the walls. You read about that in one of the pamphlets the doctor loaded you up with. Non-natural light interferes somehow. A lot of things can interfere. It’s a delicate process.
A woman comes in. She’s very old and very small. It takes decades to master the technique, according to the pamphlets. Gently she removes your clothing, whisking your shirt over your head, unfastening your bra, pulling your socks off. The last thing she does is remove your earrings and drop them in a cup, plink plink. You lie on the bed and she runs her gloved fingers over you, pressing here and there with quick jabs. Her fingers are soft and fast, like little heartbeats over your skin. The palpitation of your uterus is done so quickly and smoothly it’s over before you notice it. The same goes for the exploration of your ears, the small fingers opening your mouth and running over your teeth, the careful stroking of your eyeballs. The woman smiles at you and leaves.
Without electric light, the room goes dark early. You fall asleep watching TV. Food shows, mostly. You haven’t eaten anything all day, and starting tomorrow, with the treatment, everything you eat will be carefully regulated.
You awaken at sunrise to find a china plate and a glass of water by your bed. On the plate are six apple seeds. They look like apple seeds. You swallow them with the water and lie back. The TV has been removed from your room. The light would interfere with the treatment. You listen to music and worry.
Around noon, with the room drowning in sunshine, the old woman comes in. Smiling, she hands you a shallow dish of pollen. You breathe it in, surprised that it doesn’t make you sneeze. Almost immediately it hits you, the golden vibration, like bees buzzing inside you. You recall college lit classes, Zeus descending in a shower of gold to, who was it? The mother of Perseus, the one who killed Medusa. A hero thrusting up a mass of poison tentacles, triumphant. You don’t realize how broadly you’re smiling until you see the old woman’s eyes crinkle in amusement.
“Whoa,” you say.
It’s almost like being high, but instead of the muddled, comforting confusion you always used to get on weed, your mind hums with benign clarity. You realize how numb you’ve been for the past weeks, ever since the diagnosis. Well, that’s over now. It’s taking.
You take a CAT scan. You’re very calm. There’s plenty to think about. Danae. You looked it up. Danae, the mother of Perseus, sealed in a chest and cast into the sea. In your plastic coffin you close your eyes and imagine waves. Back in your room, a book cart comes around. You read until the darkness forces you to sleep, then you wake with the dawn and read some more.
The doctor who gave your diagnosis—Greg, he’d like you to call him Greg—stops in to examine you and share the CAT results. “Well, you’ve got roots. Even some green growth already. So far it’s looking very hopeful.”
“How long do I have to stay?” you ask, pacing the sunny room. You have so many things to do, so much energy to burn, and the Mozart concertos they keep playing don’t help. They just remind you that you’re wasting time. Mozart would be writing if they locked him up in here. You want to be writing.
Greg taps his pen on his clipboard. “I’m sure you feel like you’re in the bloom of health. That’s my little joke.” You roll your eyes. “But we can’t discharge you until the tendrils start ejecting the cancerous cells.”
“And when will that happen?”
“It varies from patient to patient. But when it starts, you’ll know.”
“I need more books.”
“That’s fine. All you have to do is ring for them.”
“But I’m basically better now, right? The seeds took root. That means a 75% chance of recovery.”
“Another little saying I have,” says Greg. “You’re not out of the woods until the woods are out of you. Be patient. And Dr. Phipp agrees with me.”
Dr. Phipp is the little woman, the green therapist. She comes by that evening with another dish of pollen and several brown capsules. You swallow them with water. You’re drinking a lot of water.
Two nights later, a searing pain in your gut jolts you out of bed. You have just enough time to run to the bathroom and get the toilet lid up before vomiting a mass of red-black goop laced with white tendrils. For a long while you stare at it. Then you close the toilet lid, rinse your mouth, and call a nurse. The golden clarity rises back.
Greg was right. When it starts, you know.
Greg is pleased. What you threw up used to be the tumor. Your body still harbors cancerous cells, and it will take time before the therapy cleans them out. But the worst is over. You can go home. Dr. Phipp, still smiling, gives you a list of foods to eat. Asparagus. Tomatoes. Sunflower seeds. Your stomach feels fine now. Everything feels fine.
The neighbors comment on how good you look. You’re surprised by it yourself; it’s been weeks since you bothered to check yourself in a mirror. You’re tan from all that time in the sunny room, but you can see the powdery blush of green on your skin and hair. The veins in your wrists run green-blue. Your interior is woven with tiny vines, microscopic tendrils of ivy and clusters of daylily, spider plants birthing smaller spider plants to infinity. They suck the poison from your body and release it to the air.
It’s summer, and walks in the warm rain feel good. On dry afternoons you sit on your back stoop, where the sun is best, and listen to Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Apollo was the god of music and the sun. You’re working on a children’s book about Greek myths and an article about surviving cancer.
You don’t throw up again, but sometimes there are streaks of red in the toilet, and sometimes your sweat seeps out black and oily. The Internet tells you this is normal.
You go back to work, but sitting in a cubicle all day, under your medical sun lamp, makes you restless. You go for long runs in the evening and think about taking time off to write. And travel. In college, travel was all you thought about, but then you got a job and car payments and chronic headaches and somehow there was never enough of anything. Now, you tell yourself as you jog around the local reservoir, you have a second chance.
Then comes the relapse.
You sense for a while that something is off: your skin is greener, your chest lighter, you gulp water but feel hungry less and less. You brush it off for as long as you can. But when you go into the back yard to garden one morning and notice tiny leaves poking from under your fingernails, you know you have to call the hospital.
Dr. Phipp’s smile is wistful this time. She prods you with her delicate fingers in a room with the curtains drawn. You lie in the dark, restless. You don’t feel sick; you feel better than ever. You feel light.
It’s Greg who gives you the bad news, as you knew he would. “There’s a second tumor,” he says. “At some point the cancer migrated to your brain.”
“But the treatment was working,” you say. “It should take care of the cancer, shouldn’t it?”
You only say it to delay the inevitable. You’ve read up on your symptoms. You know what’s going on.
“Unfortunately,” says Greg, “there’s a lot of cancerous material in your body for the treatment to feed on. Far more than we allotted for. Instead of finishing its job and withering away, the treatment will keep growing.”
“I feel fine,” you say.
“I know, and you’ll continue to feel fine. I’m going to give it to you straight, because I know you get upset when I’m not honest with you. Ultimately, either the cancer will consume you or the plants will.”
“How long do I have?”
“It’s hard to say. Less than a year.”
“It’ll be the plants,” you say. And when you say it out loud, suddenly you aren’t afraid at all.
You empty your bank account and go to Greece. All the long flight over, your legs won’t stop jiggling. You lean against the tiny window, watching a distant sun roll over the clouds, and dream of stepping out into the sunlight.
You sail to smooth white islands nestled in infinite blue. You swim for hours. You sit on beaches, feed pelicans, and read from a paperback collection of myths you picked up at a secondhand store. The other tourists try not to stare at you. There is ivy in your hair now, and your eyes glow with chlorophyll. You don’t mind the stares. You go to tavernas for water and wine. You don’t feel hungry, but moussaka is delicious, and so is yogurt with honey.
You visit Serifos, the island where Danae washed ashore after being cast into the sea. From the boat, it looks like a pearl rising from the ocean; up close, it’s a maze of white buildings winding up dusty hills. It was on one of these little yellow beaches that Danae washed up, maybe the beach you’re walking now. She was condemned to death, but she lived, and her golden child Perseus slew all her enemies.
Some monks invite you to dine in their hilltop monastery. They speak as little English as you speak Greek, but they recognize your condition and are kind. They serve olives from their own grove, small and wrinkled and luscious. Your palms are softly mossy, and the monks laugh in amazement at your handshake.
You circle the Cyclades and end on Aegina, the island closest to the Athens mainland. In contrast to the blue and white of the outer islands, Aegina is old gold: rose-colored brick, red clay tile, weathered stone, and pistachio trees. Cars shoulder around the weathered streets. Green and gold. It feels like home.
It’s a bright, hot day, the sky almost as blue as the sea. You feel stronger than ever, bursting with energy, but somehow it’s getting harder to walk. That’s all right. You wander down a dirt road and stumble into someone’s family farm: an olive grove, imperious geese, a stone rabbit hutch that looks as old as the gods.
You lie down in a patch of tall yellow flowers. You don’t know what kind. Probably named after some enchanted nymph. There are lots of stories like that in the books you’ve been reading. Syrinx, pursued by Pan, who was changed into a cluster of reeds. Daphne, loved by Apollo, who became a laurel tree. Gifts of the gods.
You are going to die, more or less and eventually. Everything dies, even the evergreen laurel. But the cancer is gone. Your breath is flowers. You will be devoured not by death, but by life.
The last sound from your throat is laughter. You wish you had time to finish your article. You would tell other patients, and Greg and Dr. Phipp, not to be afraid. But the golden light is already flooding from within. Part of you falls away, and the rest digs into the blushing earth, stretches tendrils to the sky, and blooms.