The Night Gardener, Pt. II, by Benjamín Labatut

I met him in the mountains, in a small town where few people live save during the summer months. I was walking at night and I saw him, in his garden, digging. My dog crawled under the bushes, ran towards him in the dark, a short white flash in the moonlight. The man bent over, rubbed my dog’s head, went down on one knee as she offered her belly. I apologized, he said it was okay, that he loved dogs. I asked him if he was gardening at night. “Yes,” he said, “it’s the best time for it. The plants are asleep and they don’t feel as much, they suffer less when moved around, like a patient etherized. We should be wary of plants.” When he was a boy, there was a giant oak of which he had always been afraid. His grandmother hanged herself from one of its branches. Back then, he told me, it had been a healthy tree, strong and vigorous, while now, some sixty years later, its huge bulk was was ridden with parasites and rotting from the inside, so much so that he knew it would soon have to be removed, as it towered above his house and threatened to crush it if it came down. And yet he could not bring himself to fell the gargantuan thing, for it was one of the few remaining specimens of what used to be an old-growth forest that covered the land where his house and the whole town now stood, dark, foreboding and beautiful. He pointed at the tree, but in the dark I could see nothing save its massive shadow. 

It was half dead, he said, rotten, yet still alive and growing. Bats nested inside its trunk and hummingbirds fed on the ruby red flowers of the parasitic plant that crowned its highest branches, the hermaphrodite Tristerix corymbosus, known locally as quintral, cutre or ñipe, which his grandmother used to cut back every year, only to see it regrow with stronger, denser blooms. “Why she killed herself I still don’t know. They never told me she had committed suicide, it was a family secret, I was young, no more than five or six at the time, but later, decades later, when my daughter was born, my nana, my nanny, the woman who raised me while my own mother went to work, told me, ‘Your grandmother,’ she said, ‘she hanged herself from that branch at night. It was awful, terrible, we could not cut her down until the police arrived, at least that is what they told us—“Don’t cut her down, leave her there”—but your father could not leave her hanging like that, he climbed the tree, higher and higher—no one understood how she had climbed so high—and removed the noose from her neck. She fell through the branches, landed with a thud. Your father started hacking away at the trunk with his axe, but his father, your granddaddy, would not let him. He said that she had loved that tree, she always had. She had seen it grow, tended and nurtured it, pruned and watered it, and fussed over every tiny detail. So it stayed there and it’s still here, though it’s going to have to come down, sooner rather than later.”

Labatut, Benjamín, from The Night Gardener, Part II, in When we Cease to Understand the World, trans. by Adrian Nathan West. The New York Review of Books, New York, 2020: 176. 

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