flash fiction

Gravel Gardens

They were complaining and it made sense, because who asks children to plant trees in the middle of January anyway? So they were out there with scarves up to their rose cheeks and hands shaking as they tried to wield small shovels and the whole time I’m thinking about how all the trees will die.

And then, they did. All these little sprouts withered away and the thing about sprouts is that they don’t have grand deaths. The do not crumble to the ground or pronounce death with each graying strip of bark—they just die. So we had twenty or so tree sprouts that faded away and slipped beneath the snow without us knowing they would perform a disappearing act before we saw the ground again.

When the ground showed its face again, all the sprouts were gone. All but one anyway. This kid, Julie, had insisted on planting her sprout in the gravel lot and it was cold and Henry was having another nosebleed so I said why not. But the thing is, you can’t really plant in a gravel lot so there were all these rocks in the way and she had to ask for my help and it ended up taking twice as long. So she and I hunched over this tiny tree that shouldn’t even be called a tree yet and pressed numb fingers into hard gravel until the sprout was sturdy there.

And that’s the one that lived. All the other kids were furious, of course. Julie had never smiled so big. It was still pretty cold out though, so I was sure it wouldn’t last. But Julie tried her best. She took off her own scarf and wrapped it around the sprout during recess and said it was the plant’s now. I didn’t have the heart to tell her some kids had stolen it once we went back inside so I just kept buying scarves and re-wrapping them around a tiny tree I was certain would die.

Then Julie started talking to it. Whispering, actually. Other kids would make fun and point fingers, even kick bits of gravel at her. She just looked up with this face like she was a soldier in war no one knew was happening. Then she’d jerk up the corners of her mouth and keep on whispering.

Then, all of the sudden, it was spring and I began to accept that there would be a tree in a gravel lot. We were supposed to get more trees, too. But, of course, we didn’t. Late shipment is what they said and I wasn’t looking forward to twenty more trees dying next January.

Mostly because the kids were so mean about it, you know. I don’t know why it became so important to them but seeing Julie’s tree grow was just torture. And, if even possible, a bunch of six-year-old’s began hating a tree.

In the end, it wasn’t weather that killed it. It started reaching up and the spring sunlight welcomed it. It was a strong little tree. But Kevin, with his freckled face and pudgy hands, ripped it from the lot. And we all just kind of watched as he held it in front of Julie’s face with the roots all sprawled out and connected to nothing. And I know I said that sprouts don’t have grand deaths, but Julie made it an occasion. She cried out and her voice was so raw. She left a scarf where the tree used to be and whispered to the spot one more time. I don’t know what she said, but she looked resolved when she walked away.

Someone took the scarf the moment she left.

-Lu Terlikowski