Zera and the Green Man: Chapter 15


Friday, June 6

Sitting on the edge of a flower bed, Hattie picked up a four-pack of garnet-hued snapdragons. She turned over the container, gave the sides a squeeze, tapped the bottom, and scrunched one plastic cell. A single plant, along with its root ball and soil, plopped into her hand.

“Now what you do, Zera, is try not to disturb the roots. In most cases, even though they may look all twined together, they’ll be fine. When they go into the ground they’ll spread and grow.” She showed Zera the plant, gently cradled in her hand, her glitter-orange fingernail polish contrasting against the natural colors. Hattie placed the snapdragon in one of the holes she’d dug, gently backfilled the dirt, and then plopped out another “snap” as she called them. “Some folks take out all of the plants at once and leave them lying on the ground while they dig the holes,” Hattie’s brow wrinkled in disapproval, “but always try to imagine yourself as the plant; your roots have been protected and often damp since germination. Would you want your roots lying there exposed to the wind and sun?”

“No.” Zera winced, imagining that it would probably feel like an exposed nerve. She remembered when she’d once chipped a tooth and how sensitive it was. Even a cold drink hurt.

“Here you go, baby,” cooed Hattie to the young plant.

“You’re going to like it here.” She planted the others and sprinkled them with warm water from her watering can.

Hattie, Zera and Ben had arrived that morning at Elsie Mayfield’s garden. Elsie was one of Hattie’s wealthy clients in the nearby ski resort town of Pinyon. Ben was working in the front, weeding a huge rock garden and pruning rose bushes that wouldn’t be ready to bloom for at least two more weeks.

When Zera saw the roses, she couldn’t help but think about the ones at Nonny’s. They had bloomed so beautifully that day, but by the next morning, all the blooms were brown and withered, as if someone had sprayed them with herbicide. The sight had left her confused and upset. Hattie came by to see them but could think of no explanation, except maybe it could be a fast-acting and deadly virus that she’d never seen before. Zera had seen Nonny staring at the dead blossoms a few times. Once she looked at Zera like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself. Uncle Theodore still hadn’t called. He had sent them a short text saying they got to L.A. okay, and that was it. Zera didn’t want to think about it. The possibility of leaving Ute Springs in three short weeks and moving to Los Angeles was even worse than the ghost with clunky boots.

Other than the phantom of leaving her home haunting her thoughts, things were going well. It was Zera’s second morning out as a part-time professional gardener-in-training. Ben worked with his mom, too, so they had spent half the day together yesterday as well. That second night home, Zera realized she had a crush on Ben. It felt strange; Ben was a childhood friend — they had played together as toddlers! But she couldn’t deny her feelings; every time she saw him her heart would beat faster and the palms of her hands would get moist with sweat. She was pretty sure he liked her, too — she caught him looking at her all the time.

Zera found she could concentrate on the plants as she toiled beside Hattie. It wasn’t so easy when Ben was around. As they planted snapdragons and weeded, Zera thought about how much she enjoyed digging in the dirt. She loved the soft soil, the rich, earthy smell of it. Being outside in the open air, surrounded by living creatures (green and otherwise) was her idea of bliss.

“Dang, it’s hot out here.” Hattie untied the scarf from around her neck and dabbed her brow. A few long strands of her tawny, gray-streaked hair had come out of her ponytail and she pushed them from her face. “It’s about time to break for lunch.”

Ben came around the corner and joined them in finishing the planting. When Zera caught him looking at her again, both of their hands in the soil, side by side, the tension in the air became almost palpable. She avoided looking at him directly; she was sure that her feelings would show.

As the three of them hand-watered the rest of the snaps, Elise Mayfield opened the back door of the immense house and strolled out on the verandah. “Hello, Hattie! Everything looks wonderful!” The small, older woman had short blonde hair and wore elegant clothing: black pants, a white silk blouse, pearl necklace, black mules. Elsie picked her way down the steps. “I was wondering if you had a moment, Hattie, before you leave.” She lowered her voice to a smoky almost-whisper. “I want to show you what is going on in the vegetable garden.”

The mysterious way she said this piqued Zera’s curiosity.

“Sure.” Hattie introduced Zera, and while Ben stayed to load the truck with their tools, Hattie and Zera followed Elsie around the side of the house to her vegetable garden. The narrow patch ran the length of her six-car garage and was filled with rows of lettuce, chard, radishes, kohlrabi, chives, beans, carrots, and a patch of mint. Newly planted tomatoes in black plastic containers were interspersed among the herbs and veggies.

Zera saw immediately why Elsie Mayfield was alarmed. Those poor little lettuces. The outer leaves look like Swiss cheese.

“I’ve discovered that we have a terrible slug problem.” Elsie said. “I need you to apply some slug killer.”

“This is terrible,” Hattie said, “but I think what you have here is a duck deficiency problem.”

“A what?”

“If you had a pet duck patrolling the grounds, they’d gobble up those slugs in no time.”

“Oh, really!” Elsie Mayfield reacted as if Hattie had just said the most ridiculous thing imaginable.

Zera stifled a smile.

“Don’t you have something we could use?” Elsie frowned at the lettuces. “If you don’t have anything in your truck, I’m sure I could find something in the potting shed. I think I saw something in there a while back labeled ‘slug bait.’”

“Now, you know I don’t believe in using poisons,” Hattie said good-naturedly.

“Well,” said Elsie, “I don’t believe in using ducks.”

Zera scratched one dirt-stained knee and looked down at the vegetables. Awkward!

Hattie explained to Elsie a couple of other, non-toxic, slug control solutions — beer in saucers to attract the slugs (who would climb in and drown), or boards for the slugs to crawl under during the day (so they could be easily gathered and destroyed). Elsie fidgeted with her string of pearls.

“We can deal with the problem without poison,” Hattie said, “but it’ll take a little time, a little work. Now, do you want to do something good for the ecosystem, or have instant gratification?”

“Instant gratification,” Elsie said without a moment’s hesitation. She smiled sweetly at Zera. In spite of herself, Zera smiled back. She couldn’t help but find Elsie’s swagger impressive. Elsie continued, “I know what I want. I want those slugs dead. And I don’t have time to mess around with beer and boards and such. I’ll have Juan try to find the slug bait.”

“Don’t have him do it. I’ll look, Elsie.” said Hattie.

After Elsie left, Hattie mumbled to Zera that it was a lost cause, at least for now. “I think I’ve got a length of old, damaged garden hose in Ladybug we can use.” Hattie went to the truck, returning with the hose she’d saved. She showed Zera how to cut it into six-inch lengths and then Hattie put the bait into the pieces, and placed them just outside the garden area.

“At least if we do it this way there’ll be a little better chance of not harming beneficial insects. If you just put this stuff on the ground it’s going to get into the soil, and into the food, even if it’s in minute particles. This way, you can just throw away the lengths of hose when they’re filled with dead slugs.” Her expression clouded even more. “Damnit, they’ll still be in the landfill, but . . . I wish she’d listen.”

“At least you tried,” Zera said.

“I always will.”

Elsie seemed quite pleased that things were done her way.

The three left and headed off to lunch.

At a tiny park across from a convenience store, Hattie parked Ladybug. They washed up at the store’s restroom, bought drinks and a few food items, then trekked back across the street, grabbing their sack lunches from the truck and finding a picnic table.

Eating her peanut butter and jelly sandwich and playfully protesting as Ben “stole” from her container of strawberries, Zera listened to Hattie talk about Elsie’s “groovy” salmon-pink and lemon-yellow Primula denticulata, or drumstick primroses, which were in full bloom. Then Hattie informed them she’d purchased a mobile v-phone the afternoon before.

“Ha,” said Ben to Zera. “She swore she’d never get one.”

“I know I did,” Hattie said, “but with Grandma Wren getting up in age — she’s ninety now, you know — I worry about her. I want her to be able to call me if she needs me, and it’s impossible to find regular cell phones anymore. Besides, some of my clients have almost insisted on it.” She mimicked a hoity-toity voice: “‘Hattie, you can see what plant we’re referring to if we need your advice, and you’re not here’ — as if nothing could wait a day or two. It’s solar-powered. I’ve had it for a week and still haven’t used it. I tried last night, and it didn’t work; I’d forgotten to keep it sun-charged!”

Zera and Ben laughed. “What’ll be next, Mom?” teased Ben. “A home theatre, with three walls covered with LCD flat screens? Maybe a computer in Ladybug?”

“Never!” said Hattie.

“What’s the big deal now?” said Ben. “After all, you do have a mobile-v.”

As they finished their food, Ben told Zera that he’d caught two garter snakes while at Elsie’s.

“In the rock garden?” asked Hattie. She picked up a potato chip and popped it into her mouth as her silver bracelets jingled. When Ben nodded, she said, between chews, “Thought so. They like it there.” She took a long chug of water and explained to Zera, “Elsie’s terrified of snakes, and we told her we’d remove any we found. I don’t like doing it because they’re a valuable part of the ecosystem, but she said that if we didn’t, her boyfriend would kill them.”

“That’s awful,” Zera said. “They’re completely harmless!”

“Well, that’s the way it is,” Hattie said. “Did you put them in a bucket?”

“Yeah,” said Ben, “They’re in the shade so they’ll be okay. They were freaked out after I caught them and kept trying to slither out. After I put some weeds over them they calmed down.”

“We take them to our garden,” Hattie told Zera. “Would you like to see them?”

“Sure,” Zera said. She imagined Ben capturing the snakes and a lightness filled her chest. She had never even touched one.

They finished their lunches, and while Hattie went to her truck to make her first mobile-v call ever, to a nursery to check on a flower order, Zera followed Ben to the back of the truck. Ben pulled out a large weed-collecting bucket that was now covered with a work shirt and a bungee cord. He hauled it to a shady spot underneath a tree and partially uncovered it.

Zera got down on her knees and peered in. She reached in and gently pushed the weeds aside, and Ben crouched down next to her. She could detect the scent of Ben’s shampoo and a slight sweatiness, a combination that made her pulse race. It mixed in with the smells of the wilting plant material, fragrant and green. The weeds felt cool and moist as they brushed her skin. She spied them. Two snakes, around a foot long, were lying next to one another on the bottom of the white bucket. They were black with thin, almost luminous yellow stripes running down the length of their backs.

“Oh, look at them,” Zera murmured. She leaned in, keeping the shirt over the top of the bucket as much as possible. She smiled at Ben. “They’re so pretty. They’re ribbon snakes, Western ribbon snakes.” To the snakes she said, “Poor things, taken from your home. Don’t worry, Ben and Hattie will take good care of you.”

“Ribbon snakes?” said Ben. “Are you sure?”

Zera nodded. “Yeah. Garters are mottled, more irregular.” Zera blinked. She wasn’t sure how she knew this, but she was certain. She’d never studied snakes before and yet, she just knew.

The snakes, who would normally seek shelter when exposed, stayed still and calm. She touched one with her finger and it stretched out its body. Without thinking, she stroked its back with her finger, and it did not move. It felt cool, smooth. Its eyes closed drowsily. The second snake looked on, lying still. Zera watched them, mesmerized. She’d never touched a snake before, yet it seemed natural to do so and natural for them to respond without alarm. So beautiful.

Ben started to put his hand into the bucket and then pulled away, eyes huge. He quickly got to his feet. “Mom!” he yelled in the direction of Ladybug. “Come quick!”

He gaped at Zera. The snakes had slithered up her hands.

Each had wrapped itself tightly around a wrist, twice, ending with its tail in its mouth. These double circles were stretched taut but motionless. The snakes’ eyes were open and staring up at Zera. Zera sat still and tranquil, seemingly oblivious. Her lips were parted with a slight smile, and a faraway look shone in her eyes, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.


To purchase your own copy of Zera and the Green Man, visit the official website now. Paperback and Kindle versions are now available.

Zera and the Green Man is a novel by Sandra Knauf, a local author and sustainability advocate living in Colorado Springs.


Published via US Represented by consent of the publisher:
Published by Greenwoman Publishing, LLC
P. O. Box 6587, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 80934-6587, U.S.A.

First published in the United States of America
Copyright © Sandra Knauf, 2013
All rights reserved

ISBN: 978-0-9897056-0-8 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-9897056-1-5 (ebook)

Cover drawing by Paul Spielman.
Cover photography by CanStockPhoto 11569383
Cover and interior design by Zora Knauf.


This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or living-dead, is entirely coincidental.

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