Joni sits cross-legged and hunched over on her lawn chair as she nears the end of her novel. Her nerves intensify with every page she flips. It’s her second favorite book, a thriller, naturally, and she lost count of how many times she has read it. The suspense has a way of ripping the air from her lungs every time. It’s almost mandatory she read it in the most serene place she knows of, otherwise, she might suffer nightmares after such a bone-chilling tale.
Her backyard is roughly twice the size of her house, which is relatively small, but for her, it’s the perfect size. She never has guests visit, so a two-bedroom home means a room for her and room for all her books. It’s just the right kind of cozy for Joni. The exterior is plain white, nothing dramatic, but a simple foundation allows for unique decoration. Joni considers the house itself to be a pedestal, there to display her vision of design, and for Joni, greenery is the name of the game. That is more obvious standing in her backyard, though.
Out back, there is no denying the color scheme; mostly green with hints of white, to keep everything looking clean and crisp. She made an exception for some plants that produce small, barely noticeable flowers, only because some of her favorite plants bloom that way. Besides, they’re impossible to see from most of the yard. The house’s exterior is buried in ivy and, even with a sizable patio space, there is a large area of well-kept lawn, so lush even the least outdoorsy folk would be tempted to nap on the soft grass. That still leaves half the backyard for Joni’s green thumb.
Large, sturdy trees break through the ground and shoot up toward the sky. They don’t stick to one area but are scattered throughout the entire yard, giving Joni the feeling she lives in the middle of the woods, rather than the middle of suburbia. The privacy that comes with a yard full of large trees isn’t too shabby either. What she calls her garden is by no means traditional, but it keeps the remainder of her space full of foliage. She likes odd things, things that are often overlooked, which means she never chooses anything based on popularity. Besides, she has a green theme to maintain, and bright, obnoxious flowers simply don’t fit the bill. The whole landscape, from corner to corner, is a sea of beautiful green plant life, with a dash of white lawn furniture to view it from. It’s her safe space.
An unusual sound brings Joni out of her story, looking around the yard for its source. With so many trees in such a big space, it’s easy to hide anywhere, but she doesn’t see any movement, so she shrugs and goes back to her book.
There it is again, a scratching kind of sound. She thinks maybe a squirrel is stuck in a life and death battle with a tree somewhere toward the back of the yard. Again, she hears it, interrupting her story at its climax.
“Damnit, what the hell!” she marks the page she leaves off at and sets the book on her seat as she rises. One hand on her hip, the other shielding the sun from her eyes, Joni probes the dark patches of her garden near the fence. She searches every tree, every bush, and every blade of grass with her gaze. A small plant near the back gives a tiny wave.
“A-ha!” She darts toward it, assuming the squirrel will be startled right up a tree and leave her alone. Instead, a happy Corgi leaps from her garden heading straight at her. The unexpected visitor frightens Joni at first, causing her to stop in her tracks, but once the shock wears off, she relaxes and smiles. The Corgi jumps up and up at her feet, tongue dangling out of its head, exploding with excitement and ready for attention. Joni chuckles softly and kneels to give the Corgi the attention it demands.
“And who are you sneaking into my yard?” she asks trying to grab the collar around its neck for a tag. The dog, clearly a puppy if its energy levels had anything say, bounces back and forth keeping its collar just out of reach. Thankfully, Joni’s answer is about to come from a different source.
“Max!” The shout comes from nearby. Joni stands up and looks to her neighbor’s yard on her right. She pauses, listening.
“Maximillian!” This time a little more desperate. Joni recognizes her neighbor’s voice.
“Ruth?” She questions as she approaches the fence dividing their yards. Movement between the slats in the fence tells Joni that Ruth is also on her way to the fence.
“Hey Joni, sorry for all the screaming. Our new puppy is really stubborn about coming back inside when we call.” Ruth giggles not too bothered about it.
“This puppy wouldn’t happen to be a small Corgi, would it?” Joni asks, already knowing the answer.
“Uh, yeah,” Joni hears the confusion in Ruth’s voice and can’t resist a smirk, “I didn’t realize you knew about him already; he’s only been home for a day.”
“I didn’t, he found his way into my yard.” Joni turns around to check on Max, but he has already disappeared back into the jungle that is Joni’s yard. “You should pop over and collect him, he’s pretty slick and I can’t promise my plants are safe if he decides to eat something.”
“Be right there!” Ruth must run through her backyard to reach the gate on the far side, then run through her front yard to reach Joni’s gate. Joni feels a stab of panic. She does have some poisonous plants around, maybe not lethal to a dog, but she remembers more than one occasion she found a dead squirrel next to chewed on plants. She’s not convinced Max is out of the woods.
Ruth bursts through Joni’s gate and meets her near the middle of the yard. They immediately call to Max as they scan the yard for any sign of the tiny pup. Joni whistles and crosses her fingers. She doesn’t want to scare Ruth if she doesn’t have to.
“There!” Ruth points to another dark patch of Joni’s garden and they both take off. Max greets them with a smile and exposed belly, his tongue still flaps against his face as it falls from his jaws.
“Max, you absolute rascal!” Ruth can’t contain her relief as she picks him up and holds him like a toddler on her hip, she laughs at his adorable antics. “I’m so sorry he bothered you. We’ll block whatever hole he climbed through before he returns to do any more damage to your, uh, yard.” Ruth says the last bit with slight reluctance. She isn’t sure if they’re standing in organized weeds or deliberately planted, albeit ugly, shrubbery.
“I would definitely recommend that.” Joni pinches one of Max’s paws, smiling back at him. “Most of my plants have medicinal purposes, but under the wrong circumstances can be poisonous, so I can’t guarantee anything is safe for dog consumption. Like that plant,” Joni points to the thick and spiny-looking plant at their feet where they found Max, still not breaking eye contact with the dog, “probably wouldn’t kill him, but Aloe will definitely make a dog sick.” Joni releases the paw and stands up straight to face Ruth, still smiling.
“That’s part of the reason I don’t have a dog, they’d probably get really sick back here.” Joni looks at her plants with a sense of pride.
“Aloe Vera, yeah! I use that stuff when my kids get sunburnt. So, depending on the problem, you could rub some of these plants on yourself to seal a cut or alleviate a cold?” Ruth asks as she gently rocks Max, almost subconsciously.
“In a manner of speaking, sure.” Joni laughs. That’s usually the idea people have about medicinal plants, otherwise, they think it’s something you smoke. “When a plant is used as a medicine, it’s more commonly used as a tea or something.”
“Oh. I guess that makes sense,” Ruth cranes her neck to check out the top of the nearest tree. “I wouldn’t love rubbing bark all over my face for the sake of getting rid of a cold,” she cringes.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t consider my garden a medicine cabinet, my plants are more a collection. I guess you could call this my museum!” Joni loves the way it sounds, committed to the new name.
“I’ve never met anyone with that perspective on a garden before,” Ruth inspects the plants at her feet, she thinks about the careful placement in nurseries and wonders if she might find little placards at the base of each plant in Joni’s museum. “This is really impressive” she gawks.
“Thanks. I never really bring people out here, so it’s kind of nice to hear someone else also thinks it’s neat,” Joni says in an aw-shucks sort of way. Realizing that’s true, she wonders why she doesn’t have company over more often. She already knows the answer; it’s one thing to cook dinner for a friend, but it’s another to give someone access to such a vulnerable part of you, she tells herself.
“So, what’s this guy?” Ruth gestures toward a plant nearby with her foot, Max still wrapped in her arms and starting to squirm.
“That? That’s Sassafras!” Joni giggles at the word, Sassafras. She always does, not for any reason. “Sassafras albidum. Its main use is reducing pain, like period cramps or afterbirth pain. Only the bark though, the its oil will just make you sick.”
“Geez, that’s scary. I’d be the person to use the wrong part of a plant and get even sicker when trying to use a plant to feel better,” Ruth laughs at herself. “Okay, what’s that one?” She walks toward another plant a couple of rows over. She starts to see where narrow paths cut through the plants. The plant she’s looking at now is tall, maybe a few feet high, but she’s drawn to the silvery sheen of its skin. Joni follows her over.
“That one’s fun, it’s Mugwort, or Artemisia vulgaris. It’s supposed to be super common in Russia, not that I’ve been to prove it. They call it chernobilnik. Neat, huh?” Joni lights up at the opportunity to share what she knows. “Depending on who you ask, the claim is this guy can cure almost anything: tumors, epilepsy, labor pains, and even somnambulism!”
“What’s somnambulism?” Ruth thinks she’s heard the word before, but she can’t put her finger on it.
“Oh, sorry, it’s like a fancy way of saying sleepwalking. It goes to show how old the idea is that Mugwort can cure it, considering nobodies used that word in forever.”
“I don’t know, I like the sound of it. Kind of fun to say! Sah-nom-bewl-ism.” Ruth stresses the syllables to imitate Joni’s word. “Alright, so what’s this one?” Ruth walks a few yards down until they’re standing feet away from the fence separating their yards. The plant she points to is shorter than the others, maybe 10 or 12 inches tall, but it looks solid and strong. The flat, disc-shaped leaves almost remind Ruth of lilypads, but she knows that’s not what they are.
“Ha-ha, you sure know how to pick them! This one has some fun nicknames, like hog apple and raccoonberry, but usually we call it Mandrake, or Podophyllum peltatum,” she’s enjoying her chance to stretch her plant-based knowledge a little. She worries for a split second that she’s showing off, but she brushes the thought aside. “Apparently this one is just about fatal if consumed before it’s ripe. So, when it’s solid green, don’t eat it. It’s been compared to mercury poisoning.” Joni squats down to get closer and grips a leaf lightly between two fingers. She looks up at Ruth, whose face has gone completely white.
“Well mission accomplished, you won’t catch Max back here ever again!” Ruth chuckles nervously, half joking and half serious. “I can’t believe you planted so many bizarre things like that. I’d feel a little uneasy with so much poison sitting around.”
“Actually, everything back here is native to some or all areas of the country. You can find that Creosote Bush in a lot of the southern states, that Witch Hazel anywhere in the country that’s wooded, hell, you might even find the St. John’s Wort over there on the playground where your kids go to school.” Joni hopes to calm Ruth’s fears about living next door to a patch of potentially poisonous plants, but it doesn’t restore the color to Ruth’s face. Joni thinks it might have been a mistake to mention her kids and dangerous plants in the same sentence, even though St. John’s Wort is basically harmless.
“Well, thanks for the botany lesson. Some really cool stuff, but I’d better get home and fix up that hole in the fence to keep Max out.” Ruth puts on her most convincing smile as she brushes past Joni, hoping she hasn’t offended her. She starts to wonder if her ankles are itchy or if she just learned about too many scary things and has a bad case of hypochondria.
Joni watches Ruth run out of her yard, Max’s face smiling at her over Ruth’s shoulder. Joni pays no attention to the hasty exit but waves at the puppy, feeling satisfied that she got to meet Max today.