Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. Nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press and was short-listed for a Lambda Literary Award.
by Jean Ryan
The savages are waiting; they know I’m outside the door. Some I will feed, others I won’t. It’s not like dinner arrives with any predictability in the wild. This way they stay keen and ready, like nature intended.
The carnivorous plants I tend live in a long narrow room with glass on one side, and I control everything they need: light, temperature, food, water. I keep a close eye on each of them and can usually save the ones that get sick. I’m a better mother than most.
My mother gave me a feeble name, Carol Ann Walker, which I changed. I wanted something distinctive, with no ties or tracks, so I opened an atlas and let my finger fall on a town in West Africa called Masso. That sounded fine. My first name, “Kinra,” I pulled out of the air. Kinra Masso. Try figuring that one out. You’re stuck with your genes, but your name is a wildcard.
No, I am not pretty. My eyes are too small and I don’t have much of a chin. What I have too much of are hips—I have those freakishly wide hips some women are cursed with; otherwise I am normal and not fat at all. I don’t use make-up because it’s a lie, but I do keep my clothes and body clean—there was a time when I couldn’t.
Aside from cold wet weather, that’s what I minded most about living on the street. Sometimes, when I’m in my bathtub or sitting on my toilet, I remember when I didn’t have either, when I took care of my business in Safeway restrooms, filling a plastic water bottle with hand soap on my way out. With a cardboard roof over your head you get canny in a hurry; you see that most everything has value, especially the people you spend your days and nights with. Sharing is how you stay alive.
We were all towing trouble. Some had been displaced by bad luck; others lived on the fringe by choice, preferring privation to whatever hell they came from. A few had lost their sanity, which reminded the rest of us how close that world was. We were cells of the same body, old and young and in-between. When we looked at each other, we saw ourselves.
I don’t have friends like that anymore.
What separates meat-eating plants from other plants is the ability to digest. Methods of capturing a meal depend on the variety. Pitcher plants sit there with gaping mouths. Sundews ooze goo. Venus fly traps attack. Their teeth-rimmed lobes snap shut, and the world becomes a green tomb for the luckless bug inside. The terror thrills me every time.
Most plants move constantly, their stems twisting and turning, their blossoms opening and closing, but these changes happen slowly, beyond detection. Venus fly traps strike, commit murder, right before your eyes—you can understand why kids can’t resist them. Not that I approve of children toying with these plants, tormenting them with pencil tips and dead house flies (individual traps—a plant makes several—can close and reopen only seven times before they die, and only three times if they actually digest something). Deadly though they are, Venus fly traps fight for their lives like everything else.
From their strange looks and behavior, you might think Venus fly traps are found in steamy, perilous jungles south of the equator. In fact they are native to North America, the Carolinas specifically, where they flourish on the coastal plains—sunny wet savannahs or pine-studded grasslands. Of course we are robbing their habitat, draining the wetlands to harvest lumber and throw up more houses. Preventing naturally occurring brush fires is another of our blunders: fly traps are choked out by thick scrub and need the fires to give them room.
Why are we here? Seriously. Why were we ever allowed access?
My brother Matt died surfing, smacked in the head by his board. Hollowed out by the death of his only son, my father was unreachable, distant as the moon. When that phase ended, I wished he’d never come back to earth. He started drinking then, steadily and on purpose, and one night he slapped me around just for the hell of it: I wasn’t pretty, I wasn’t Matt. My father never liked me, only faked it when others were around, and after Matt’s death, he stopped pretending and just said whatever hateful thing came into his mind. He was mean to my mother, too, sneered at everything she tried to do for him. One morning he shoved aside the breakfast she’d cooked and said her food make him sick, that she made him sick, and then he stomped out of the house. I walked into the kitchen and found her huddled in her chair, shoulders heaving. “Leave him,” I said. She looked up and gave me this stricken look; it was clear I was my own. She loved me, I knew that, but love without teeth is no help at all.
I couldn’t talk about Matt, or write his name, or look at pictures of him, or go anywhere near his room. My mother reacted differently. For hours at a time, she would lie in his bed. This amazed me, how someone who didn’t have the nerve to leave a rotten marriage could be so brave.
Venus fly traps are precise. It takes just the right trigger to close up a trap and just the right insect—too small and they slip through, too big and the trap, unable to close, leaks bacteria and poisons itself. Large ants or tiny crickets work well, spiders too. The victims don’t have to be alive, but a bug that struggles is more easily digested.
Fly traps don’t need to eat; they absorb everything they require from the sun. Their snares are an add-on, insurance perhaps, in place if need be; or maybe a reward system that benefits the achievers, the ones who bother to use what they were given. The plants that don’t eat look fine, but you should see the difference a meal or two makes. The fed plants are not only greener and bushier, they hold their leaves higher. They move when my back is turned; when I face them again, their traps are wide open and canted toward me. They would speak if they could, and what they would say is: “More.”
My father laid into me a second time, shoved me hard on his way to the bathroom. I banged my head against the wall and saw stars. He stopped and looked at me, his face red, his eyes like cinders. I thought he was going to hit me, but instead he staggered back a couple steps and started to cry. Disgusted, I brushed past him and locked myself in my room. I could hear him in the hallway, blubbering apologies, and then I heard my mother, who was crying too. I just kept shoving clothes into my backpack, and as soon as those two sad sacks went to bed I got away.
So this is what happens when a Venus fly trap gets sprung. The bug, usually an ant, smells the nectar and hikes up to a trap (in her shrewd way, nature spares the pollinators, who cruise past without interest). If the ant brushes two of those white hairs on the edge, or one hair twice in twenty seconds, the trap swiftly closes—in fact, it changes shape. An electrical current runs through the two lobes, and the cells on the outer walls lengthen, doubling their size in less than a second. The convex lobes turn concave, and the teeth at the top intermesh. The struggling ant stimulates the trigger hairs even further, and soon the lobes are pressed tight and the trap seals itself. Glands on the inside of the lobes begin to secrete digestive juices, drowning the victim.
It takes a week or so for the flytrap to digest its prey. When the trap reopens, all that’s left of the insect is a dry exoskeleton. Spiders, lured by this crusty morsel, often become the second course.
When I think about the planning involved, from the eager ant to the unwitting spider, I get goose bumps. I wonder what I’m walking around with, what components I’m not using. Then I wonder who’s pulling my strings.
Some folks live out their lives on the street, scabbed over with skin cancers, blinded by cataracts, hobbling along on ruined knees. It’s surprising how many afflictions you can carry. When you have your health, you have everything, the saying goes. Not really. Health, beauty, those are extras; you can live without them; you can even be happy, or close to it. You’re not alone, that’s for sure.
I stayed on the streets of East L.A. for eighteen months. It wasn’t awful. The weather was mostly tolerable, and there were quite a few places to get at least one decent meal a day. I spent a lot of time in libraries, and the churches were a comfort, too. Sometimes they let us sleep on the pews. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, scared at first, and then I’d see the stained glass windows, the light coming through the saints and angels, and my heart would slow down. You don’t have to be Catholic to love those windows.
One morning when I was picking cans and bottles out of a nightclub dumpster, I noticed the owner, who was fat and sweaty, hauling out trash cans and rubber mats. I walked right up to him and asked if I could help him, and he frowned at me and shook his head. I didn’t blame him—my hair wasn’t clean that day, and I was wearing clothes that didn’t fit me from a Goodwill drop box. But I kept at it, told him I’d hose off the mats and swab the bar floor and clean the toilets, whatever he needed, and he finally said okay. He gave me a little cash each Friday and let me sleep on a Naugahyde bench in the poolroom, and not once did he try anything creepy. In a few weeks, I was able to buy some new underwear and two decent outfits, which is how I got the job at Milo’s Diner. Tammy, the other waitress at Milo’s, told me I could rent a room in the house she was living in. It was a crummy house in Glendale, and nothing worked right, and you had to pass through the cubby I slept in to get to the bathroom, but I was fine with it. I had a bed, a real roof and an address. There were four of us in that house, all women, and we all waited table. I really wanted to be a cocktail waitress—they make gobs of money—but you need to be pretty for that.
People and animals begin with an egg. What I love about plants is that you can start one from seed or scrap—scraps are faster and more fun. You just pull off a leaf, set it on a bed of sand and peat, put a pinch of soil on the base and keep it moist. In two years you’ll have a full-grown plant, whereas a fly trap born from seed takes about five years to mature. I use both methods, and right now I have a total of 184 plants, some of which are ready for division, which is another way my collection grows.
They are not identical. Some are all red, some have red traps, some are saw-toothed. These variations can occur naturally or breeders can coax them into being. I’ve bought some nice specimens from a nursery near here, but I am not much interested in raising cultivars; my focus is quantity. Besides, whatever odd features I coddle here will be winnowed out in the wild. Left to their own devices, plants always revert to their robust origins. That’s why you see variegated plants turning green again; the white parts can’t make chlorophyll and are shouldered out.
Venus fly traps must be kept wet, and any black leaves should be trimmed off—that’s all the care they require. They can go without food, or you can give them a bug now and then. Never fertilize. Most plants use their roots to suck up nutrients from the soil; fly traps live in wet sand and use their roots as anchors. They have no idea what to do with food that comes from beneath them, a meal that doesn’t thrash. Still, I give them new medium each spring—equal parts sand and peat—to keep their lives fresh. It’s a serious task. Each 4-inch pot must be inverted and refilled, and while I am doing this with my right hand, the fly traps wait upside-down in my left hand. I take great care with this event, and I am sure the plants trust me.
Working breakfast and lunch at Milo’s left my evenings free, and I spent most of them at the Central Library. First I was studying for my GED (a breeze, by the way), then I moved into the natural sciences, which is when I learned about carnivorous plants and other strange things. For a while I was keen on books about viruses and bacteria, the plagues we miss by a hair’s breadth (or not). We fight back with our pills and shots, but nature catches up: vaccines are hurdles she thrives on.
Some folks believe we’ll be swamped by melting ice caps; some think rampant pollution will do us in; others say a maniac will pull the trigger and we’ll bomb ourselves into oblivion. I say a microbe will get here first—we’ll scarcely know what hit us. A few people may be left standing, subsets with lucky genes and a big responsibility. I’d like to think the wise will be spared—they are rare enough—but nature doesn’t work that way.
Each year on Halloween I put the savages to sleep. It doesn’t take much. I lower the humidifier a notch and pull a gray mesh shade over the windows so no bright sun comes in. Beyond keeping the water trays filled, there is nothing the plants need from me in the cold months. I always miss our time together and can hardly wait till Valentine’s Day, when I wake them up again.
When fly traps go into dormancy all their summer leaves go black and are replaced by smaller, low-growing traps. This feral clump—just a waiting set of teeth—is what gets them through the winter. They don’t eat during this period and will ignore any meal you offer. Imagine knowing yourself that well.
When I was homeless I used to walk up to telephone poles and study the photos of missing persons. My face was never there—not that I expected it to be. I knew my father wouldn’t bother, and I doubted my mother had the gumption to go after me like that.
They’re useless anyway, those photos. I could look at one and never realize I’d just shared a sandwich or gotten a haircut from that person. Minus certain amenities, people’s looks change in a hurry. Men grow beards, and women, without make-up and hair color, are also hard to spot. Bodies change, too. A lot.
You can’t tell that your body is adapting—it does that without you. One day you notice your nails are thicker, your skin tougher, your calves more firm than they’ve ever been; even your night vision becomes keener.
Oh—and your periods stop. Most of the women I knew back then had stopped menstruating. It was as if nature, seeing we were not equipped for motherhood, had taken away the option. Considering the mess and expense involved in fertility, we were grateful.
Have you heard of tissue culture? It’s a way of creating quantities of plants, cheaply and quickly, in a sterile environment. Many people collect carnivorous plants, and without tissue culture, there would not be enough plants to go around. There’s nothing natural about making plants in beakers, but it does discourage poaching. There’s a $50,000 fine for digging up fly traps in North Carolina or collecting their seeds. That’s how scant they’ve become.
I was tired of L.A. I had lived there twenty-one years, and every day it looked the same, a dirty playground stretching in all directions. I didn’t think the city had anything left to teach me, and staying on seemed lazy.
I had heard some nice things about Northern California, that it was nothing like the southern half of the state, so I found a Frommer’s guide and started looking at pictures. For sure, there were more hills and vineyards in the north, and the beaches looked mostly empty. I did not quite believe the blue perfection of Lake Tahoe—were the photos retouched?—or the proportions of a giant redwood looming behind a thimble-sized man. But what charmed me most was a photograph of Jenner Beach, where the Russian River meets the Pacific. There were sloping cliffs on either side dotted with yellow flowers and feathery stands of pampas grass, and sea lions were stacked along the shore like sodden logs, and sun spilled down on the whole scene, spangling the river and ocean. Everything looked exactly as it should, even the man and woman walking on the shoreline, a dog trotting beside them, and that big green river pouring itself into the sea. Surrender, that’s what it looked like. Eternal surrender.
I changed my name to Kinra Masso, bought a used Corolla, worked my last lunch at Milo’s and headed north. For a couple hours I kept checking the rearview mirror, as if I had stolen something and gotten away with it, but that was just freedom settling in.
I wound up in Guerneville, a town covered in redwoods just fourteen miles from Jenner Beach. First I found a cottage to rent, a damp little place that came with a greenhouse in which the owner had tried and failed to grow tomatoes. I scrubbed it clean and cut down the over-hanging branches, then started ordering trays and pots. There was never any question of what I would grow there.
I also got the job I wanted, a job with a future. If you think being a Safeway cashier doesn’t sound like much, you have no idea what unions can do.
I miss Matt as much now as I did when he died, but these days I let myself think about him. I feel closest to him in the dark, with no hard facts around. Sometimes I lie in bed and conjure his image, and for a second I can see him clearly, his face a fleeting hope. “Matthew Curtis Walker” I say out loud, to make his name matter still.
I’ve seen my mother three times since I ran away. The first time she didn’t know it; I watched her from our backyard, after dark. She was making dinner, a pot roast, I think.
The second time was right before I moved up to Guerneville. I wanted to come clean, to be done with the secrets and the drama. Out of respect, I called first. I thought I’d give my father the opportunity to clear out, and he did, which pretty much answered the question of whether he was still an asshole. Being with my mother again was just what I expected: hugs and tears and long, helpless looks. We both apologized, for what it was worth, and then we sat there.
The last time I saw her was after my father’s funeral—I knew he wouldn’t want me there so I didn’t go. My mother was thin and listless. I tried to talk her into spending some time with me here, maybe even moving up this way, but she looked at me like I had asked her to spend the rest of her life on the International Space Station.
Next month, when the savages are still sleeping, I’m going to rent a box van and take them across country. When we reach the boggy plains of North Carolina, near Wilmington, I will take a spade and plant each one, letting the water flow in and claim them.
It makes me smile already, thinking about those fly traps and what they have in store. When they wake up in the spring they’ll be right where they belong. They will know it in an instant.
Copyright 2016 by Jean Ryan