Jesse never heard the knock at the door, the gentle clink of the ceramic pot on his doorstep, or the Ford pickup truck rolling off into the distance. For all he knew, the potted plant which he could barely spot through the gauzy window curtain had descended from on high, a little blessing from the Almighty himself. In that case, He could have just sent Jesse some rain instead. But Jesse would never look askance at a gift; after all, he built his whole life on “squeezing a nickel until the buffalo squealed”, as Momma used to say.
He had been tilling the backyard nearly all day to prepare the cool March soil for his summer vegetable garden. The springtime seemed to come earlier in Harris County with every passing year, and Jesse had high hopes, quite literally, for his corn, beans and okra. The crops were for him, of course; the rest of his freshly acquired 4,000 acres would be for cattle. Some to sell, some to slaughter for his own plate. Jesse never met a steak he didn’t like.
The gifted plant might help him with the cattle, he realized, as he read the pretty note bearing fine calligraphy on a smooth, thick card. The greeting, encompassed by a garland of painted blue cornflowers, was very much to Jesse’s liking: short and simple.
To Jesse Connelly
A gift of Cow’s Parsley from your neighbors
Perfect for country gardenin’ and country cookin’
Jesse chuckled deeply. Hospitality wasn’t dead in Texas, after all! The thoughtful gift was quite a departure from his frosty experience of the last few months. To tell the truth, Jesse could barely believe that he had a reasonable neighbor at all, let alone one that knew Jesse had been born in the very house he stood in now. But Jesse had last lived there decades ago, when he and Momma made do in the old farmhouse with its single bedroom, creaking hardwood floors and a little patch of land to garden out back. They didn’t even have pipes for running water until Jesse was nearly a teenager, but Momma made sure that they never went hungry. She knew the land, the nearby creeks, the flowers and herbs like she knew the grin on her only little boy’s face. Jesse smiled to himself as he thought of her, wondering what she would think if she could see the farmhouse now: two stories, six bedrooms and four and a half baths (ample accommodations in case his friends in Houston ever wanted to escape the choking heat of the city). The entry floor now boasted a “formal” dining room (Momma never even knew what such a thing was), and Jesse’s contractor had nearly finished digging out the new backyard pool. Jesse had about two months left on the renovations, but come summertime, his long-envisioned homestead would be complete.
But it hadn’t happened overnight, and it surely had not been easy. Jesse had left his Momma’s farmhouse to take a job on an oil rig when he was barely seventeen, around the time Standard Oil changed its name to Exxon. Jesse quickly proved to his crew that he had a head for engineering; pretty soon, that head got called into Houston itself, to meet the suits and the “big wigs”. Jesse was a rich man soon enough, building his fortune off of the Texas oil patch and blessing the red dirt for every dollar it gave him. Like his Momma, Jesse loved the land, but he had a different kind of green in mind.
About two decades and millions of dollars later, Jesse hit on a fine idea as he read Gary O’Malley’s obituary in the Houston Chronicle. Gary and his wife had been Momma’s neighbors, and had owned about 500 acres just east of her property. Jesse already knew that land was good for livestock; it was also, if he had the numbers right, good for oil. Grinning with avarice, he hopped in his truck and rolled up to Mrs. O’Malley’s doorstep. He sat with the trembling, broken-hearted widow at her hearth and held her wrinkled hands before he asked her, innocently enough, “how on earth will you afford the land?”
He already knew, even before her bleary eyes shut tight in anguish, that she had no answer.
“Property taxes are goin’ up every year around here,” he reminded her. “I could make you a good deal, and you can have a nice home closer to town, near your grandbabies. Won’t that be lovely to have family nearby who can take care of you?”
Mrs. O’Malley loved her marriage home, the land she had worked since her girlhood, but she could read the harrowing figures on the tax bills as well as Jesse could. Gary had been losing money every year as it was; his poor wife could never keep the land on her own. And so, Jesse added the first 500 acres to what he would soon call his “Kingdom”.
Once the thrill of getting the O’Malleys’ titles in hand and selling the exploration rights had faded, Jesse went back to Momma’s home, back to the little farmhouse, for the first time in twenty years. He didn’t go empty-handed; Momma was long dead, but what he brought wasn’t for her benefit, anyway. It was a map – a map of Harris and the neighboring counties, dotted with little lines showing farms, acreage and their owners. Jesse carefully drew a wide circle, with the little farmhouse at the very center: his Kingdom. All he had to do was build it.
Jesse worked expeditiously, deploying every trick in the book to flatter, cajole, and intimidate if he had to. One by one, he plucked the nearby farmers and ranchers off of his “Kingdom”. His years as an oilman had served him well; if waving cash under their noses didn’t work, there was always an obscure inheritance law, or the threat of an insurance audit, or his personal favorite, “eminent domain”, to get his hands on the titles. He added 150 acres there, another 400 there, a few hundred more whenever another old rancher had a heart attack or endured some other such unfortunate accident.
The trouble had started right around the time when Jesse soaked up the Nealys’ cattle farm. Jesse had scoffed that the Nealys were all hat, no cattle when they threatened to complain to the county board, but they meant their words. They weren’t alone, either; a few dozen landowners joined their cause, railed against Jesse’s tactics, demanded their property back in their hands and recompense for the pittance he had paid to buy them all off. Jesse had groaned in exasperation when his lawyer informed him of the lawsuit; it was a damned nuisance, in Jesse’s opinion, right when the renovations to Momma’s farmhouse were just getting underway.
Jesse won, of course. Jesse always won. Ultimately, it took the Southern District of Texas Federal Court to tell all of those fools that Jesse owned his land legally, that their case was hopeless, and they would be better off kicking the red dirt in spite. Well - the judges didn’t quite say it like that, but Jesse liked to think they did as he contented himself throughout the long evenings of that winter. After all, Jesse had never harmed anyone, not a day in his life. Only an idiot shouts at the wind.
Mercifully, it seemed that all of this nonsense was well behind Jesse as he carried the potted plant, with its glossy tall stems and clusters of tiny white buds, back to his garden. As he held the plant aloft and gently tapped the ceramic base to loosen the soil, the image of his Momma, back bent over the same mounds of earth he had tilled up earlier that day, came to him as clear as sunshine.
“Good for the livestock, Cow’s Parsley. Fattens the cows and good for the eggs, too. Grows wild, if you get out of its way...”
Jesse snorted, thinking how much of the past year he had spent waiting for everyone else to get out of his way. As he tenderly pressed the plant into a freshly dug hole, he racked his memory to think of anything else Momma might have said about Cow’s Parsley. He could’ve sworn there was something else…something about the roots, perhaps? He pondered the thought for a moment longer as he thoroughly watered the soil. Whatever it was, it must not have been all that important.
Once he was satisfied that his new plant was primed to grow, he snipped off the two tallest bundles of leaves and buds. Patience was not among Jesse’s virtues, and he fully intended to enjoy the early fruits of his gift tonight. He briefly paused at his chicken coop, where he flung little handfuls of the crushed, fragrant herb among the hens. The ladies furiously scooped the leaves, greedily shoving each other out of the way as indignant squawks filled the otherwise calm evening sky.
But Jesse, true to form, kept the larger handful for himself. He meandered back into his kitchen and tossed the leaves into an antique cast iron skillet, right on top of a thick ribeye steak. Between the herbs, the fresh butter and juices for a homemade brown gravy, Jesse soon had a meal fit for a king. Jesse plated a hefty portion of his flawlessly seared steak onto a ceramic dinner plate and plopped down, exhausted, at his kitchen table. As he inhaled the first few delectable bites, he re-examined the little card with its painted cornflower garland, now resting just a few inches above his fork and napkin.
This was the first night that Jesse truly did feel that he was home. Now that the farmhouse was close to inhabitable again and that foolish lawsuit was now well into the rearview mirror, Jesse could finally breathe deeply – at least, until the next thing he wanted, whatever that would be, caught his eye.
But something did catch his eye – something just beyond his square kitchen window: the chicken coop. It was nearly eight in the evening; by now, the chickens were usually tucked in the coop together. Not tonight. Strangely, several of his flock were lingering in the run. Jesse realized, as he squinted in their direction, that none of them were pecking the ground. Jesse had never seen a chicken do anything but sleep, run or peck for grub. Yet before him now were at least a half a dozen hens, staring into the distance, as if in a trance – until the hen nearest to Jesse’s window suddenly convulsed, shaking like a dried leaf, and collapsed on her side.
Jesse threw his fork on the table, but the clang of the metal on wood barely registered in his mind as he roughly shoved his chair backwards. It only took Jesse a few short strides to reach the window, but his stomach turned as another hen, then another, then a fourth, began shuddering like some bizarre ritual dance. One by one, the hens dropped like flies, utterly stiff and unmistakably dead.
Jesse rammed his fist into the granite countertop beneath him, shaking with rage as he realized that his flock was dying in front of him and he was powerless to stop it. His blood boiling, Jesse forced himself to suck in as much air as he could to steady himself, to slow the incessant chattering of his teeth which made it impossible to hear his own thoughts. But the deep breaths yielded him nothing. Jesse tried to clench his teeth, but the effort nearly shattered them as his jaw bucked wildly against his effort.
Jesse’s burning rage melted into a cold puddle of fear when the first round of foamy bile surged in his throat. He doubled over, heaving and choking, as dizziness forced him down on all fours. Jesse began to crawl, with excruciating effort, toward the kitchen table. He had barely wrapped his palm around the flat edge when Momma’s words came back to him, like a siren:
“…but you’ve got to be careful! It can be mighty hard to tell Cow’s Parsley from Hemlock…”
Jesse gasped for breath, like a man drowning, as the name ricocheted through his mind: Hemlock - better known in East Texas as Poison Hemlock.
“You have to look at the roots to really tell ‘em apart. Herbs are like life, Jesse – you forget your roots, well, then you’re lost.”
Jesse’s eyes watered as he thrust his hand onto the table and gripped the smooth card on top, crushing it in half. Panting, he wrenched it down and held it inches from his nose. His vision fading, he glued his eyes to the words that had left him chuckling only an hour before: