Brisk Fiction- A Burr in the Woods

The “Point of Living”. That’s what the billboard had promised.

Pemmican Point Seniors Community had long lost hope of achieving that glossy vision. The economy had softened like an overripe peach. Worse, to “save the environment” the district had banned mowers and blowers, whippers and whackers, making gardening a struggle for the Pemmican Point residents who bought up early to capture the growth potential. The place was growing, alright: out of control. The unfinished golf course sprouted razor sharp cogon grass. The unsold lots from the second phase, slashed to the dirt every year, were disappearing under privet and honeysuckle. During the hottest week in July, a bear with a bucket on its head jogged past the hair salon.

Jessica Cusper tensed her neck and the tendons jumped like sheets on a clothesline. She refused to dwell on any of these unsavoury facts. The nozzle of her Weed-Wilter spray-pack hovered in her candy pink gloves. At any hint of green along her sparkling quartz gravel driveway she squeezed the trigger. The polypropylene mechanism grunted mechanically as the venom squirted.

Chaos was not welcome here. Not in her dream house.

Her husband Jimmy panted through gritted teeth as he pushed the electric mower to the limit of the extension cord. For years she had pressured him to lose weight. Now that it was happening due to the ravages of early retirement, well, she wasn’t so sure it suited him.

Further toward the street a fresh crop of the mysterious new weed had sprouted. Jessica snapped a close-up on her rose-gold phone: no ID. Salt might stop them on the drive, but that wouldn’t work if it spread into the lawn. An eyesore like that would knock ten percent off their sale price, easily: one less trip to Tuscany. Jessica had first seen the weed months earlier at Monica’s house. Time to investigate the source of the infestation, before it got out of hand.

Before Jimmy finished, Jessica slipped inside and stashed the gloves and spray-pack in her handbag, making sure the bear-spray was also packed. She flicked the switch on the extension cord (paused to enjoy Jimmy cursing the flimsy contraption)and locked the door.

“Walkies!” she called to Jimmy. “Doctor’s orders for your blood pressure.”

He limped over. “Didn’t the new doc say to rest my knee?”

“Then hop and do both. It’s just to the end of the street.” She tilted her head at him. “How would you feel if a bear ate me?”

Jimmy pressed his lips shut and shuffled behind.

They passed a towering mansion with genuine marble columns holding up the Styrofoam portico. The proud owner, Myra Winslow, swayed through tai-chi moves as a team of Mennonite labourers tended her lush lawns and vulgar roses with gleaming hand tools. With the southern border shut tight only folks the next step up the ladder could afford hired help anymore. Myra wouldn’t divulge the price tag or share their contact details, not even when asked twice.

Jessica nearly tripped. Hammered beside the sidewalk was a tasteful for-sale sign, the computer enhanced cobalt sky in the photo a bald-faced lie to anyone who cared to look up. Acid burped in her throat. Better call the real-estate first thing, she resolved.

To get to Monica’s house they then passed two vacant investment properties, the curtains closed so long a square had faded in the middle. Jessica hadn’t spoken to her old friend since Boomer vanished, not since Monica had refused to share the “Missing Dog” post on LinkedIn. Unprofessional, Monica claimed. It left a bad taste. A week later Monica asked to borrow their electric mower. Jessica claimed it needed repairs; looked her right in the eye while Jimmy pushed it about behind her.

To avoid crossing paths, Jessica hadn’t wandered this way in months. The turquoise paint on Monica’s modest reproduction bungalow flaked like psoriasis. More disturbingly, the drainage ditch beside the drive overflowed with the same felt-leafed weed, grown taller than a man and topped with vicious purple thistles. Around the bungalow, newly laid turf, scarred like a fresh cut tray of brownies, barely concealing the woolly shoots of the unstoppable weed. The threat was real.

A discreet photo of the mature leaves once more failed to produce an ID.

“Some kind of daisy, isn’t it?” asked Jimmy. “The bees are loving it.”

Jessica frowned and put on her rubber gloves (to protect her fresh manicure) and started spraying the infestation, leaving Jimmy to nervously swivel for witnesses. Before Jessica could do much damage, Monica hurried out, dressed in her nightgown and in desperate need of a fresh tint at the salon.

“I’m glad I got to see you,” Monica blurted. “Another week and I’ll be in Florida.”

“You sold as well?” A hint of lunchtime chardonnay returned to the back of Jessica’s throat.

“As well? You’re also cutting your losses?”

Jessica nearly asked to hear the final price, torn between wishing it was low out of spite and high out of self-interest. Jimmy distracted her, muttering as he pulled spiny seed heads from the pastel sweater around his shoulders.

“What’s this dreadful weed? Can you have it sprayed before you go? It’s spreading everywhere.”

“I phoned Weedbusters but their van is in for repairs,” replied Monica with a shimmy of satisfaction. “But it isn’t coming from here. Just outside Pemmican Point the stuff is everywhere. You know the old Asian lady? Lives on the abandoned farm? Buys nothing but bags of soup bones from the supermarket? I caught her wandering on my property in the moonlight, right here where the stuff first sprouted.”

Past the spiny thicket a narrow dirt track burrowed into the tangle of mimosa and Chinese elm. The afternoon sun was still high above the leafy horizon. Jessica set off, hand on her hidden bear-spray, without stopping to consult Jimmy.

“You can’t just march in there,” he pleaded. “Write a letter. Try a new weed spray. I’ll pull the damn things by hand.”

Jessica planted her feet on the spongy path. “It could take months to sell. I won’t throw away tens of thousands of dollars because of some weed.”

“Oh. You decided…” he mumbled, but she had already taken off.

Further down the path, where the saplings had been hacked back and the sun once more fell on their faces, the fuzzy weed grew in dense thickets. Here and there something had been digging, leaving roots as thick as her arm exposed.

“Do bears dig like that?” Jimmy asked. “Maybe hogs?”

Jessica had already turned down a side path, towards the source of a thin streak of smoke in the vacant summer sky. Limping, Jimmy caught up to her standing in front of an old wooden farmhouse, windows clogged with a conjunctivitis of cobwebs. The porch slumped sideways like a stroke stricken mouth. Overgrown raised beds lined the path, clogged with variations of the felt-leaf weed, with flowers in every imaginable shade of purple.

“The bumblebees are having a party,” said Jimmy.

Scowling, Jessica tried the digital identifier once more. It got a match, or rather several. Woolly burdock. Wood burdock. Greater burdock. Lesser burdock. Every damn species in the database came up positive. This nonsense had to stop.

“Hello?” called Jessica, to no reply save the twitter of starlings in the eaves.

Before Jimmy could beg her to come home, she pushed through the front door. Inside, the hall was stacked with fruit boxes filled with empty jars, bundles of multi-coloured string, stacks of yellowed newspapers from a decade ago. Everything smelled clean and savoury, suspiciously welcoming despite the clutter and chaos. A portrait on the wall showed a smiling Asian woman beside a bearded bear of a man. The unintelligible caption had a backwards letter R: one of those communist languages.

“Maybe she’s unwell,” offered Jessica. “We could call the authorities to take her away, clean up all this junk.”

She pushed on to the kitchen, where a rusted woodstove radiated warmth. A great, iron pot bubbled gently, filling the room with mouth-watering steam. A pile of bones sat cooling on the table beside a pile of thick roots, freshly peeled to reveal their white insides.

“She can’t have gone far,” started Jessica, before the sight of a bright red collar caught her eye.

“Boomer?” her voice shook, as she lifted it with one finger, dropping it when she revealed the embossed nametag. “She ate Boomer?”

“Don’t be racist,” suggested Jimmy. “I threw out his things when you said no to another dog. Look- there’s that old coat you tossed last fall.”

“She’s been picking through our trash can?” Jessica rushed to inspect the pile of salvaged clothing. “Look, those awful seedpods are all over it. We have to report her before she spreads them everywhere. The old thing must be out of her mind, living out here alone, eating weeds and dog-meat.”

“Good food!” barked a voice from inside the rag pile.

Jessica jumped back, gripping the bear spray inside her bag. A stunted Asian woman, hair still black despite her age, emerged from between the mish-mashed drapery.

“Good food,” she insisted. “You eat.”

She pushed forward and ladled two bowls. Only Jimmy accepted his, so the old woman set down the other with a disappointed bow.

Jessica scrunched her face in disapproval at Jimmy, then pointed to the tangled coat. “You Are Spreading WEEDS In My Yard!” Jessica spaced her words awkwardly.

Jimmy interrupted with a sigh of satisfaction, followed by noisy slurping as he abandoned the spoon and drank directly from the bowl. He exhaled a puff of steam and said “Incredible. I had something like it in a fancy sushi joint.”

“Like Ueong? Gobo? Lopukh? Bur-dock?” the woman beamed. “Good food. Grow all type. Mix and go big.”

“You’re breeding them? Like Luther Burbank?” said Jimmy.

“Look at your coat! MY coat.” Jessica snatched the hem. “You’re ruining everyone’s gardens.”

The old woman picked up a bucket filled with chaff and crushed a dried thistle head into it. “Gobo go all place.”

“She’s spreading it on purpose?” Jessica clutched her husband’s sleeve, forcing him to lower his now empty bowl. He reached for the second serving but she slapped his hand away. “We have to report this, this act of… vandalism.”

“Good food. Everyone eat. Money go. Then everyone hungry. I show.” The old woman picked up a massive cleaver and deftly peeled a root.

Jessica pulled the bear spray free. “Put the knife down,” she ordered. The old woman smiled blithely.

“Honey, you have it backwards-“ Jimmy suggested, pointing weakly towards her hands.

“DON’T you contradict ME! This woman is a menace to the community. How DARE you suggest I’m a danger to her-“

At that moment a massive, dirty beast bounded through the door. Jessica screamed and unleashed the bear spray, but the nozzle was facing the wrong way, so she took a full dose to the face.

“Boomer!” shouted Jimmy, as he knelt to embrace his missing companion, ignoring the dirt spreading from paws to polo shirt. He barely noticed his wife sputtering and struggling to breathe.

The old woman poured a dash of vegetable oil on a rag and held it firmly against Jessica’s eyes as she started screaming. After a few changes the burning became bearable.

“Dog-dog dig Gobo,” the old woman said. “Chase bear.”

“So you did run off for an adventure.” Jimmy couldn’t hide his smile.

Jessica blinked her watery eyes in silence as the old woman led them to the paved edge of the estate, beneath the shady canopy that blocked the last orange rays of the day. Jimmy had accepted a gift: a bundle of dirty roots, held against his clothes that the dog had already ruined. He didn’t suggest that Boomer accompany them home. He was happier in the woods.

Jessica bit her tongue. None of it would matter after their house sold. If they had to drop the price they could cut back on cruises. Jimmy could do without that new sports car.

“You know what?” Jimmy surprised her with a thought of his own. “It’s nice here. I don’t want to sell up after all.”

4 thoughts on “Brisk Fiction- A Burr in the Woods

  1. Jessica reminds me of a woman friend who bought a special whizz-bang tool to dig dandelions out of her lawn (without stooping!). In vain I protested that they were good food and even a useful wine could be made from the flowers. *Sigh* There are still plenty of Jessicas about, but also many people running ‘edible weed walks’. Maybe there’s hope yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved this. It’s bleak, dark and cold here in Tasmania at the moment and everyone seems to be down in the dumps. Prices are rising, everything is starting to look a bit hopeless but this, this brought a bit of light into my early morning. Thank you 🙂

    Like

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. It’s raining here in Qld again after all the flooding earlier in the year. I definitely see a need for hopeful science fiction despite the core themes of the collapse of industrial society. We should be working our hardest to imagine a different world on the other side of the down-slope.

      Like

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