Aspidistra Elatior. Adiantum Raddianum. Calathea Makoyana. Alcasia polly. Ficus pumila. Argyroderma testiculare. Ceropegia linearis. Parodia magnifica. Ferocactus glaucescens. Mammillaria spinosissima.
Temperature-controlled rooms. A regimen of watering, individualized. Pythagorean theorem of sunlight, each pot angled perfectly.
Until the Mammillaria spinosissima, I had never measured plants. I trusted they would grow in their own time, and they always did. Everyday an inspection, sure, which some people say minimizes the appearance of growth. I disagree. The magic is in the small changes. I know each and every one of these plants. I know each leaf and branch, the way they reach for the sun, which parts flower and when, the way the veins bend and spread throughout the leaves, the various shades and minute differences between millimeters. This can only come from constant observation. Of course there are days when I discern no change, which is fine. Every plant—every being—needs a stasis period from time to time. Growth takes energy. Even cells need to regenerate.
So charts were never necessary, until Mammillaria spinosissima.
Weeks went by with no growth, no change. Weeks turned to a month and a month turned to two and so on. I would have welcomed signs of death by then, but spinosissima couldn’t even give me that. Just nothing. I tried testing the “don’t look” theories, but even avoiding observation for weeks didn’t help. There was no change. I double checked the before picture I took. There was nothing.
So I switched to the opposite approach. Each morning and each night, I measured its length and width, and the length, bend, and shape of its acicular spines, monitored the production of glochids. Recorded them in a journal.
I wasn’t crazy.
There was no change. I repotted it, recorded the measurements and color of its roots. I set up a camera with a one-hundred-millimeter lens to take pictures every thirty seconds. After a week of no change, I started keeping vigil with the camera.
I redid my research, ensuring it was the plant I thought it was. It was. I checked my sources and notes on watering and sunlight to ensure I was giving it the right amount. I was. I moved the plants around it—they were growing just fine despite the snow outside. I made sure of the proper climates and soil types.
I sat and watched this stupid plant mock me. How dare it defy its own nature? Just to spite me.
More weeks went by. If my anger and diligence—my own spite—wasn’t working, since science wasn’t working, I changed my approach again. I started talking to it. I named it. Sissima. Told it I loved it every day and started to mean it. Comforted it as I measured each part three times a day. I told it everything—
And still no change.
I don’t understand why you won’t grow, won’t change. That’s what you’re supposed to do, you know? That’s how you prove to the world that you’re alive, that you’re okay, that you can take care of yourself.
But you don’t take care of yourself, do you? I do that. I water you. I open the blinds and let light in. I climate-control the room so that you don’t have to die during the winter, so you don’t have to know when the rain would have drowned you or the sun would have burned you. I test your soil for proper pH balance. I do away with bugs that would ruin you—eat you from the inside out, sapping all your nutrients. Me. You would die in this fucking pot without me, Sissima. And maybe I should let you? Leave you here to see what life could be like without me.
And I do.
For two weeks, I ignore it. I give it no water, move it to the furthest corner of my plant stand, away from where the sun’s rays could find it. I disregard it completely. No monitoring, no chats, nothing. I don’t even look at it. I want the change to shock me.
Part of me yearns to see its body limp, turning to mush, dying. I’m preemptively angry that I will come back to see it in full bloom, thriving on my neglect. If it dies, at least I’ll be able to wash my hands of it.
I wait to look until the night of the fourteenth day like I’ve forgotten how long it’s been, like I was in no rush to check on it.
I see no difference.
I stoop and inspect it, incredulous. I check the last photo I have—there is no notable change. I check my notes and do all my usual measurements. Absolutely no change.
I’m not even angry. Just baffled. I sit and stare at it for I don’t know how long.
I guess you didn’t need me to take care of you, Sissima. I guess you were fine just doing your own thing.
I wonder if I were to throw you out what would become of you. Would you die then? Or grow despite all odds? I can’t bear to do it anyway. I need a resolution, one way or another. So I’ll keep you. Keep trying to figure you out. Maybe you’ll surprise me one day. Or maybe you’ll just stay like this forever, content as you are. No blooms, no decay. Just existing.
Maybe sometimes growth just looks like this, like survival. Maybe it’s just proving that you haven’t died yet.
About the Author
Emily Fontenot is a writer from south Louisiana. She is currently working on her PhD in Creative Writing at Illinois State University. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress is now available in South 85 Journal, where it has been nominated for the 2022 Best of the Net Anthology. Her fiction has also been published in Children, Churches and Daddies, Quail Bell Magazine, Gone Lawn, The Southwestern Review, and others and is forthcoming in The Dodge. Her poetry has appeared in Antenna::Signals and in Buddy, a lit zine, where her poem, debris, won their first annual poetry contest. Her book, Hurricanes, Cypress Trees, and Other Synonyms for Home, was published by Press 254 in December 2022.