It happens often. His eyes lock in a fixed stare, trying to focus on something in the distance. Outwardly, he appears quite calm and he barely even blinks. But the twitches behind his eyelids betray the fact that he doesn’t succeed. That the focus of his gaze—a vision? a thought? a memory?—remains a blur. Sometimes when he stares off into space, he hears the words his mother would say, “Off daydreaming again.” Or with an insistent but gentle voice, “Wake up, boy!” as a reminder for him to come back down to earth.
He rakes the earth with his fingers while staring impassively through Miss Sue’s window. His gaze locks on the pane of glass and he falls into a prolonged reverie. It’s as if the things reflected in the glass invite him to enter a multitude of portals at the same time. If you were to look at Erasmus’s eyes up close when he drifts off into one of his empty stares, you would notice his pupils dancing back and forth and the irises dilating and contracting in a precise but barely perceptible rhythm. A rhythm that has also worked its way into his hands, as he sets about repotting a Monstera that has outgrown the pot he’d planted it in only a few short months ago.
Erasmus has a green thumb. He knows nothing about plant names and species, but he has a knack for bringing them back to life, taking care of them, making them green and healthy again. His clients like to watch how his fingertips run over the tender leaves, delicately pick off the dry ones, and gently squeeze the fragile stems to stimulate the flow of sap.
He cups both hands around the Monstera, feels the plant’s weight between his calloused palms, and gives the leaves a quick gentle shake. He then sinks his fingers into the pot in order to stir up the nutrients in the soil, the way Miss Sue stirs the foam on her coffee with a tiny silver spoon as she looks on at Erasmus lovingly tending her plants.
Erasmus is not a gardener. He’s a caretaker of plants, a minder of green life that grows in pots and jars, a lover of household flora, a connoisseur of indoor vegetation. He discovered his gift shortly after arriving in this country—ending up here like a tropical hibiscus transplanted to the Pyrenees—thanks to the chores he performed at the hostel where he and a dozen other unfortunate immigrants like himself had lived. He revived an old cannabis plant on the balcony, which later supplied the community with weed. Within a matter of months, his efforts had transformed the inhospitable little balcony into a thriving marijuana garden. Jorge, one of the guys who frequented the weed binges at the hostel, noticed Erasmus’s ability with the plants. One day, while they were sharing a bottle of anisette, Jorge asked Erasmus a favor: would he come to his grandmother’s apartment and plant the same thing for her on her balcony.
Doña Carmen was a morbidly obese old Spanish woman. She always wore flamenco dresses and spoke with a smoker’s deep rasp. For the past ten years, she had refused to set foot outside her apartment building. She used marijuana to treat one of her many ailments, and had constantly nagged her grandson to get her a marijuana plant of her own. She didn’t want to have to rely on him or his sleazy friends for her supplies.
Erasmus went to Doña Carmen’s apartment the following Sunday to pot up the plant. He left her some instructions and promised to drop by on a weekly basis to help her care for it. What started out as one lonely cannabis plant turned into a living herbal pharmacy that filled Doña Carmen’s balcony: aloe vera for hives; oregano for its antibiotic healing powers; rosemary as a digestive and antispasmodic aid; coriander as a diuretic; ground elder for rheumatism and sciatica; and a variety of yellow ornamental flowers to lift her spirits. In the beginning, Doña Carmen paid Erasmus a nominal amount per visit that was never mutually agreed on but that was never argued over either. In time, a non-verbal agreement was set up between them: he would receive a regularly paid wage more so as her paid companion than as the caretaker of her plants. Erasmus went from visiting her only on Sundays to tending her plants twice a week, and then three times a week, including Friday evenings when the residents of the building got together to play their weekly card game.
The apartment building for seniors where Doña Carmen lives is in a once affluent but now run-down neighborhood. The residents, all of whom are women, are retired widows, pensioners, or heiresses of impoverished fortunes; old women who have been almost completely forgotten by their families, who are caught up (unsuccessfully) in trying to recreate or relive the prosperity of former years.
On that first Friday, during the card game in Doña Carmen’s apartment, Erasmus was accosted by a bunch of geriatric residents. They all wanted what Doña Carmen now had. Word around the building—spread by the Brazilian caretaker, Bruna—was that Carmen had never looked better since the young man had started coming to her place.
Doña Carmen was caught between the pride that colonizers have in being the first to discover something like Erasmus and her reluctance and reticence to share him with the others. And all because it had slipped her mind that her turn to host the weekly card game would coincide with Erasmus coming to prune her bonsai. As hard as she tried to avoid having to introduce the caretaker of her plants to her neighbors, in the end she had no choice. That night, the job offers rained down on him. He left the building with a full list of scheduled visits to come and tend to the other residents’ plants.
Taking care of old ladies’ plants is his full-time job now, and it provides him with a steady income. It enabled him to leave the hostel where he used to live and to rent a decent room about twenty blocks from where his dozen or so clients live in an old seven-story apartment building. He has his own set of keys to the building and apartments so that he can take care of the old grandmas’ plants even when they’re not there. They’re often out, visiting grandkids, a sibling living on the coast, attending a doctor’s appointment, or else they’ve been whisked off by relatives to attend a birthday party, a Mother’s Day event, or a funeral.
Erasmus hauls sacks filled with damp earth up to the rooftop of the apartment building. The earth smells of his homeland. To prevent the sacks from getting waterlogged, he stores them under the canopy at the top of the staircase that goes up the side of the building like vertebrae.
He walks across the deserted rooftop through the cold drizzle. In the distance, he makes out the small neighboring village that spills down a hillside into a maze of streets and the tangle of power lines that tie it together like the lights of a nativity scene. Patches of green land jump out at him. So do the treetops, seemingly wanting to escape the surrounding urban chaos in one leap. The way his escaping eyes sometimes sink into the murky depths of his mind, retracing the paths that led him to this rooftop, where he will soon set up and cultivate a flower nursery that will be visible from the tallest buildings in the neighborhood. A nursery that will be on the roof of the building where he will one day live as the caretaker, replacing Bruna after she goes off with a Polish man she meets on the internet. A nursery that will overlook the entire city and that will allow him to pinpoint the location of the airport, fly to a distant shore, and board a slow, rust- and salt-encrusted ferry. And when the ferry arrives at the port, he will let himself be carried along by the breeze through the narrow streets to the doorway of the house with the hanging ferns, where an old swing hanging from a mango tree waits for him.
He swings back and forth on the swing and looks up at the clouds. He swings back and forth on the swing and looks down at the earth. He looks up at the clouds. He looks down at the earth. The clouds. The earth. Clouds. Earth.
You look at the clouds and dream of crossing through them, of leaving the town, of maturing and blooming. You look at the earth and you hear that insistent but gentle voice say, “Wake up, boy!” It snaps you out of your reverie. And as you turn to look at the porch from where your mother is calling out to you, you raise a cloud of dust from the earth beneath your bare feet. Earth that today you haul up, damp, over your shoulders, to the top of the apartment building where your future nursery will be, and from where you are now plunged in a trance, recalling it.
Translated by Paul Filev