Creeping Jenny

[fiction]

To the person who took my GOLDEN CREEPING JENNY PLANT
at 2:13 a.m., I saw you on our lawn! That plant was a memory of
my mother. I can’t bring her back but you can bring back my plant.
We’ll leave the windows unwatched tonight so you can return it
without shame. DO THE RIGHT THING!

That was the sign Mom stuck in the lawn that Sunday morning. I thought she was insane, and told her so. First, there was no way the thief would see that sign. You’d have to be an incredibly incompetent thief to go back to the scene of the crime the next day, after you’ve gotten away with it. Then, of course, even if the thief was stupid enough to do it, that did not mean they would also get uncontrollable pangs of guilt over the death of a total stranger. And on top of all that? “We’ll leave the windows unwatched tonight.” Really? The thief would probably just say thanks for the favor and steal our potted yucca as well.

“Your cynicism chills my heart,” said Mom, straightening up and brushing a few fallen oak leaves from her shoulders.

“Just because you’re an incurable idealist doesn’t mean everyone else is a cynic,” I said. “I’m just being logical.”

We walked up the path to the front door, crunching leaves, weaving our way between ornamental frogs and huge clay flowerpots. The windchimes clinked in a sudden gust.

“Well, Erica, you wait and see,” Mom said, pushing the door open and smiling that maddeningly optimistic smile at me. “You just wait and see.”

*     *     *

What Mom didn’t know was, lately I hadn’t been acting very logical at all. There was this new guy at school, Trevor Wolcott. Most pretentious name imaginable. But he had these bright green eyes that gave me the shivers. And he went by Trev.

“Backwards, it spells vert,” he told me, the first time we spoke. “Green, in French.” We were in lunch detention, just the two of us, it wasn’t a big deal. I had talked back to Mr. Svensson, as usual, because he’d said something racist, this time about the Aztecs; Trev had been late to homeroom four times in a row. It was actually surprising we’d never met at lunch detention before. “Thought you as a plant person might appreciate that,” he added with a smile.

“Yeah, definitely,” I blabbered, like an idiot. I didn’t appreciate it at all. Also, I had never told him I was a plant person. I didn’t consider myself one.

Brief side-note to clarify: my mom’s a garden lunatic. It runs in the family. Let’s just say you have to duck seven hanging bromeliads on your way from the front door to the kitchen. But she’s actually a pretty mediocre gardener. She’s the first to admit it. It’s me who’s always had a way with plants. I did the propagating for her, and the difficult pruning, and got things to grow that she couldn’t. Mom said I had a gift, like her mom, and her mom’s mom, my namesake. Mom would look at our tomato beds, plump red fruit growing in almost full shade, and she’d mutter, “It’s magic. I swear.”

But I couldn’t care less about it. I did it because that way Mom didn’t make me do the dishes. I loved particle physics and playing the electric bass and I was going to be a physicist one day, with a rock band called Collider on the side. And I would live in a studio apartment with a surround-sound stereo system and if I never wanted to eat another tomato in my life then I wouldn’t.

“You have a beautiful collarbone,” said Trev.

I hated him. What gave him the right to talk like that about my collarbone? Especially now, of all times, when I was trapped in lunch detention? And what did my collarbone look like, anyway?

I cast around for some question with which to keep him talking to me. Mrs. Nguyen, our homeroom teacher and the detention supervisor du jour, would be back from her bathroom break any minute. “So why are you always late to school?”

“Homeroom is pointless.”

“Wow, what a rebel.”

“I just don’t like wasting time.”

“You must be very busy.”

“I am.”

“I’m sure.”

“I work half-time at a community garden in a subsidized housing block.”

My face heated up. “Oh.”

“See?” he said, smiling. “You are kind, I knew it.”

“What?”

“You remind me of a girl I was in love with, in a past life. Her name was Erica.”

I stared at him, sure he was making fun of me.

“She was the gentlest, sweetest girl I’ve ever met. She even had compassion for plants, because she could talk to the souls inside of them. She was an earthwitch, of course.”

“Sorry,” I said. “For a moment there I’d thought we were actually having a semi-intelligent conversation.”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed you can do things normal people can’t. You’ve probably made cooked seeds grow, haven’t you?”

I pushed my chair back, my hands shaking.

“Where do you think you’re going, Erica?” said Mrs. Nguyen, sauntering back into the classroom.

“Out of here,” I managed, and out I went.

*     *     *

All through breakfast that Sunday I wondered whether Trev had stolen the creeping jenny. He seemed to have a weird thing for plants. And it was obvious he was at least a little bit crazy. I could even see it being some messed-up attempt at flirtation. The way a boy in third grade steals a bracelet or something from the girl he likes.

He seemed to have a weird thing for plants. And it was obvious he was at least a little bit crazy.

I’ll admit that I don’t know much about guys, though. I don’t have siblings. Dad left when I was seven. And I’ve never had close guy friends. All the boys in AP Physics who you might think I’d be friends with hate me because I get all the hardest test questions right. And don’t get me started on the guys who think they’re musicians.

But the fact was, Trev knew things he shouldn’t have known.

“So what do you think?” said Mom, interrupting my thoughts. “Bronze, granite, or bronze mounted on granite?”

I should have known. While I’d been wondering about Trev, Mom had been leafing yet again through the Eternal Glow catalog of gravestones and memorial plaques. The fact that such a thing even existed kind of blew my mind. Especially because I was pretty sure Eternal Glow was also a brand of organic skin products. Mom wanted one of the plaques with a built-in metal flower vase, because she thought Grandma would’ve wanted that. She was supposed to let the cemetery know the exact order by Monday, the end of the one-week “grace period” after the funeral that they were generous enough to provide us.

“Bronze mounted on granite mounted on bronze,” I said. “Just to be safe.”

She looked at me for a moment, then back down at the catalog. “You need to figure out what it means to honor those who came before you.”

Maybe I was a terrible person for it, but I couldn’t care less about Grandma’s grave marker. She was already dead. It’s not like anything we could do would help her anymore. Mostly, I just wanted to go upstairs and play my electric bass and not think about her at all.

“Mom, do you want to play a board game?” I had no idea where that had come from.

“Erica,” she said without looking up, “you can see I’m busy.”

“Yeah, I can,” I said, standing up and shoving my chair back with a clatter, leaving my dirty dishes for her to clean up.

*     *     *

I loved my grandma because she wore enormous hats decorated with flowers. I loved her because she sent me text messages when she couldn’t sleep at night that started with “Dear Precious Erica.” But most of all, I loved her because she believed in a lot of things no one believed in anymore. She believed our imperfect country was still a land of opportunity. She believed there would always be coral reefs on this planet. She believed that each of us has our own destiny and that if you never compromise on your dreams then you’ll reach them. She believed in true love. And she believed in magic. For some reason, Mom’s optimism drove me up a wall, but Grandma’s made me want to run into her arms and hug her forever and soak it all up like sunlight.

She died because she fell off her rocker one too many times—and the sad but funny thing is, I mean it both literally and figuratively. She broke her hip the last time she fell off, and by the time she was transferred from the hospital to a nursing home she was straight-up loony. She thought I was her mother, Erica, who had been dead for seventy years.

The day I met Trev, I visited Grandma in the nursing home after school. She would be dead two days later, although of course I didn’t know that at the time.

“Mother dear, water Jenny,” she told me when I sat down in the chair beside her. The golden creeping jenny on the windowsill was a feisty, fast-growing plant with small, round yellow leaves that spilled over the sides of its clay pot like hair. Grandma had had one just like it in her house as long as I could remember. “She’s been telling me she’s thirsty.”

“Grandma, I’m not your mother,” I said. “I’m your granddaughter. Erica. I’m fifteen.”

“Yes, Mother. Now listen, she needs just a sprinkle. And then open the curtains so she can feel the sun.”

“Grandma, I want to tell you something, stop talking about the creeping jenny.”

“Oh. Oh no. Am I being a nuisance?”

“No, no Grandma, I just—”

“I’m being a nuisance. I knew it.” She looked like she was about to cry.

“Oh my God, Grandma, relax. I just want to tell you about what happened today!”

“Oh yes, tell me, I’m a good listener.” And all of a sudden she was smiling. “Go ahead, Mother dear.”

I almost screamed, but took a deep breath instead. My counselor had taught me that, just take a deep breath, and it’s the biggest cliché in the world but it actually works.

“Grandma,” I said. I pulled my chair closer. “This guy named Trev. He said I reminded him of this girl he was in love with in another life. Her name was Erica.”

“Your name is Erica,” said Grandma.

“Yeah, but it was so weird, he said Erica was an earthwitch or something. Am I—is there such a thing as an earthwitch?”

For a moment, Grandma’s eyes cleared. Something bright and beautiful appeared there, the Grandma I recognized.

“Grandma,” I said suddenly, not letting her answer, “do you remember when I was nine and we were baking chocolate-chip cookies together? And you were telling me about all the guys you used to date, and I was laughing so hard that I spilled the batter into the basil planter on the counter and it got all mixed with the soil but then I tried to scoop it all back into the bowl because I just didn’t know you couldn’t do that? And Mom was telling me no no no, but you just laughed and told me that you loved me because I wasn’t like any girl you’d ever met?”

‘Am I—is there such a thing as an earthwitch?’

I’d tried to say it fast, before she was gone again.

“Yes, precious Erica,” said Grandma with a faint smile, “and the basil in that pot tasted like chocolate ever after.”

My breath caught. Then Grandma turned toward the window, frowning, and that looseness in her eyes came back and she said, “Mother dear, Jenny’s still thirsty.”

*     *     *

I didn’t care what Mom had promised on that sign. Sunday night, as soon as she went to bed, I pushed the blinds of my window open a few inches and sat there in my desk chair with a microwaved mug of coffee. This time, if Trevor Wolcott was outside my bedroom window at two a.m., I was going to know about it.

The garden looked strange at night. All those loud colors turned down to mute. Every growing thing frozen, waiting for the sun to rise again. On the street, the porch light cast hulking hydrangea shadows that shifted ever so slightly in the breeze.

2:13 came and went.

I was starting to wonder if Mom had been right. If the thief could see me through the window and didn’t dare come back. Or if I was actually just sleep-deprived and/or insane and nobody would have ever shown up on our lawn tonight. That plant was gone for good.

At 4:27, I saw movement.

I pressed my face right up against the window. A figure, half-lit by the streetlamps, was moving down the street toward our house. It didn’t look nearly as tall as Trev, but it was hard to tell because it was hunched. It had this stealthy walk, each step slow and deliberate, one arm trailing behind it at a weird angle. That other hand, though—was it clutching something?

The figure crossed the street. Turned onto our yard. And stepped right into the pool of our porch light.

It was a girl. She was probably around my age, maybe younger, with short, curly blonde hair framing a face the shape of a strawberry. A frilly, old-fashioned dark-green dress clung to her stout, almost rectangular body. And she was holding something—a big clay pot. But as far as I could tell, it was empty.

I let the blinds swing back into place and slipped out of my room. I was downstairs and out the front door before I could stop myself.

“Hey, you!” I said, when I’d shut the door behind me. The windchimes tinkled.

“Oh hello, Erica,” said the girl without looking at me. She was bent over, smelling our roses, one arm still stretched out strangely behind her.

I tried to calm my heart down, but couldn’t. All that coffee probably hadn’t helped. I walked down the porch steps.

“How do you know my name?”

She finally straightened up and smiled at me. It was a sweet smile, a child’s smile.

“Oh please. You don’t remember me?”

I was having a hard time focusing. I was fascinated by her eyebrows—yellow and bizarrely bushy.

“I’ve met you before?” I said.

“Of course, silly. I’m Jenny!”

Something started gnawing at my stomach.

“I was very close with your grandma,” said Jenny. “Of course, I sprouted in your great-grandmother’s house, but she died so young. I’ve lived with your grandma most of my life.”

“You… sprouted.”

“Don’t be dim, Erica.”

“You’re playing a joke on me,” I said. I felt nauseous. “You stole our plant and then came back here to freak me out.”

She rolled her eyes. “Come on, Erica, I know you. You aren’t dumb. You don’t really think anyone would steal a potted plant, do you? The person your mother saw in the garden last night was just me, silly, climbing out of my pot!”

My knees weren’t working right. I lowered myself onto the bottom porch step. “I need proof.”

Something softened in her expression. She walked forward and set the pot down beside me. There was no plant inside, just soil, wet and fragrant.

She climbed into the pot.

Her feet vanished into the earth, then her legs, until her waist was level with the top of the pot. She twisted and shuffled her torso downwards, jamming one arm and then the other deep into the soil, wriggling until they vanished as well. Only her neck and head were still above ground. She smiled at me. Then she squeezed her eyes tight, and ducked, and she was gone.

For three or four seconds it was still. Then the breeze came back and the windchimes whispered and I realized I was holding my breath.

The soil burst open. A green stem sprang up, spraying dirt everywhere, and erupted into a cascade of round yellow leaves. When they settled, they were hanging halfway down the sides of the pot.

I let out my breath, but I was still frozen with shock.

And then it happened in reverse.

Stem sinking into the earth, leafy branches slithering back into their point of origin and vanishing one by one—then yellow curls emerging, bushy eyebrows, squeezed-shut eyes, gritted teeth. Arms, chest, legs.

Jenny stepped out of the pot in that same green dress, shook her hair out, and smiled.

“Oh, I love that feeling,” she said, with a shiver of pleasure. “Uprooting yourself.”

“Just—tell me something,” I managed. “Can all plants do that?”

She sat down beside me on the step. “To an extent. Slower-growing plants can usually only switch once in a very long time, and most don’t ever want to. We’re different. Why do you think they call creeping jenny plants ‘aggressive’ and ‘invasive’? We have the itch. The wanderlust gene.”

“But then, why didn’t you escape years ago?”

“Oh, it’s hard, Erica. When you’ve been fed and watered by someone for so many years, it’s hard to manage on your own for very long. Now that your grandmother doesn’t own me anymore and you left me outside, I couldn’t resist trying, but…” She shrugged and looked down. “I’m sorry I scared your mother. I’m back now. It’s okay. I knew this was only a vacation.”

I glanced at her.

“Jenny. Am I an earthwitch?”

She laughed. “What do you think?”

“Like my grandma? And my great-grandma?”

“Yes. But not your mother. Sometimes it skips a generation.”

“So I own you now?”

She frowned, drawing her thick eyebrows together. “Yes, Erica.”

“Then I set you free.”

Her head snapped up. “What?”

“I set you free. You can always come back whenever you feel like it, I’ll water you or give you nutrients, but you should travel. I’ll teach you how to ride the buses and stuff. We’ll go buy you some normal clothes too. And we can go on hikes together, if you want. You’d probably like seeing all the… wild trees.”

She was staring into my eyes, trying to figure out if I was joking.

“You would do that for me?” she whispered.

I shrugged.

“Your grandma would be mad at you, you know,” she said at last. “For setting me free. I’ve been in the family for generations. She could talk to me about her mother. I was the last one alive who knew her mother well.”

“Am I like her? My great-grandma?”

I hadn’t talked to someone like this since Grandma lost her marbles.

Jenny thought again, kicking her feet against the step. “You tell me. She cared for her plants like children. She even cared for the aphids that came to destroy her plants. She couldn’t harm one if she tried. She was all softness.”

“That—doesn’t sound like a good thing,” I said, frowning. But it did match what Trev had told me. “Hey, is reincarnation real?”

“What?” Jenny said. “Not that I know of. But I’m just a plant.”

I smiled. For some reason it felt good, sitting there, me and her. I hadn’t talked to someone like this since Grandma lost her marbles. A faint grey light was peeking out above the houses and a little bit of morning mist left its droplets on my nose.

“I miss her,” I whispered.

“I know,” said Jenny. “Me too.”

*     *     *

I felt weirdly awake during homeroom that morning. Must have been the coffee. Trev sauntered in before the bell. Miracle of miracles. His brown hair was sticking up in the back and his shirt was misbuttoned. I tried not to stare.

“Hey, witch,” he said under his breath as he sat down beside me, one side of his mouth turned up.

“I need to talk to you,” I said.

He nodded.

We stood up and walked toward the door.

“Wait!” Mrs. Nguyen squawked. “Where do you think you’re—”

The door shut before she could finish.

“So,” Trev said as we headed down the hall. “You believe me yet?”

I pushed open a back door of the school, held it for him, then walked out and stood against the brick wall of the alcove. He leaned next to me, his long legs crossed at the ankles.  The pavement was littered with fiery maple leaves blown across from the trees lining the tennis courts.

“What type of plant are you?” I blurted out.

He froze for a second, his eyes wide. Then he grinned.

“You’re blunt. I like that.”

“Well?”

“I’m a hickory,” he said. “Once, I lived in your great-grandmother’s backyard.”

“But you didn’t want to tell me.”

“I was going to eventually. By the way, I heard about your grandma dying. I’m sorry.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I want to show you how you can honor her,” he said. “How you can carry on her legacy.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ve seen earthwitches before,” he said, lowering his voice. “When I was a sapling, I was owned by one. None of them has the power you have. You should be out there making crops grow faster, making them grow when there’s a drought. You could replenish rainforests. You could feed starving countries.”

“You are wildly exaggerating,” I said, starting to sweat.

“Only a little. You have no idea what your powers might be. You have a gift like that, you can’t waste it.”

“What if I have no interest in plants whatsoever? What if I want to be a physicist?”

He bit his lip, looking out toward the tennis courts. “What if Agassi’s dad hadn’t made him keep practicing tennis, even when he hated it? The sport would’ve lost something precious forever. The whole world would’ve been deprived.” He put his hands on my shoulders. “Don’t you understand, Erica? Some people are chosen for a special destiny. Growing plants is who you are. You can’t run away from it. It’s been in your blood for generations. You may be the last of the earthwitches.”

He leaned in. “And that means, deep inside you, that gentleness, that sweet caring essence—it’s there. I believe in it. I believe in you.”

I looked into his eyes, brilliant green and sincere. Felt that flutter in my chest and that buzz in my fingers. But in the back of my mind, I could see Jenny, her eyes closed, pushing herself up out of that pot.

Trev leaned in even closer, tilting his head, our lips an inch apart.

And I shoved him backwards.

He let out a cry.

“I’m not that Erica,” I said, breathing heavily. “I’m not gentle or sweet.”

He stared at me, shocked.

“I’m not going to spend my life growing plants. No one gets to choose my destiny for me, okay?”

“Erica—”

“So don’t you ever try to tell me who I am.”

The bell rang. Homeroom was over.

“Do you have something to say?” I asked.

He looked at me for another moment—crestfallen, not apologetic. Then he opened the door and was gone.

*     *     *

Physics was my first class of the day, and it was the only one I wouldn’t miss for anything. But I had five minutes until it started.

I knelt on the pavement, my heart still pounding, and picked up the most perfect red-orange maple leaf. Dead.

You were right, Grandma, I thought. About magic, at least.

I traced the leaf’s veins, like a map of an endlessly forking river. I never thought I’d hear myself say the word destiny, either. I smiled hesitantly. I think you would be proud of me.

I stood up. I’m still pretty sure you’re wrong about the coral reefs, though, I thought, squinting toward the trees by the tennis courts. And as for true love—well, fine. I’m skeptical, but I’ll hold off judgment for now.

The fourth tree—that was the one this leaf came from. I had no idea how I knew that, but I did. It was a young one, its trunk still thin. Before I could stop myself, I whispered, “Thank you.”

The tree’s branches bent and creaked as though rocked by their own personal breeze. A few leaves floated downward.

“Is it hard when that happens?” I asked.

It hefted it branches up, then down. A shrug.

“I’m talking to a tree,” I said.

It nodded.

I laughed, feeling a brick come loose from some wall inside me. Every blade of grass around me—I felt it, the softest whisper, a tug against my mind. A tiny thing growing.

Jenny was wrong, I was sure of it now. Grandma wouldn’t be mad at me for setting her free.

I’m an earthwitch, I thought, the word tingling down through my body.

The second bell rang.

And I’m late for physics class.

I dashed back inside, still holding the leaf. Before the door closed behind me, a whoosh of air rushed in, blowing a whirl of leaves into school. Bringing the trees with me.

 

Noah Weisz received his MFA in fiction from the University of Texas at Austin’s New Writers Project. He has been a winner of the F(r)iction short story contest, a special-mention finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing, and was shortlisted for the international Bath Children’s Novel Award. His fiction for young readers has appeared or is forthcoming in YARNStew MagazineDoveTales, and Highlights for Children. Noah currently teaches creative writing and children’s literature as an adjunct at St. Edward’s University and leads after-school writing workshops at two elementary schools. You can learn more at noahweisz.wordpress.com.