The space in the butterfly garden had not always been empty. From the faint smell of cough medicine that wafted from the splintering wood as she tried vainly to pry out the remains of a stump, she knew there once stood a girthy camphor tree. It was wide but otherwise nondescript and crumbling, level with the ground and featureless. But even now it refused to relinquish its hold on the brown space in the otherwise kaleidoscopic flowerbed. The stump simply would not permit anything else to grow.
There were no flowers when the woman first moved into the house. She tilled the manicured grass and tried to remove the stump by chopping it with an ax and then digging out pieces with a shovel. She only succeeded in lowering the surface to a height slightly below the surrounding soil before giving up the project. She covered the stump with store-bought topsoil and planted seedlings over it. While the rest of the garden burst forth with colorful blooms, each plant she lovingly installed over the stump quickly perished.
After two years with no success at growing anything there, she determined that the space must lack nutrients. Organic fertilizer was of no use, so she collected guano from an underpass where roosting bats swooped and chittered above her head. But spreading it on the soil also had no effect.
After living in the house for four years, she began to bring dead creatures she gathered from roadsides and bury them around the perimeter of the space, hoping their energy would enhance the soil as they decomposed. By the following spring, the garden contained the corpses of so many dead animals that the sounds of their spirits scurrying below her window often kept her awake at night. Yet the empty space remained barren and dry amid the otherwise lush and lively butterfly garden.
As the garden grew up around the empty space where the camphor tree once stood, an ornamental grass camouflaged it, at least from a distance. During this time, the garden’s appearance satisfied the woman as she paused in the driveway to cast a last, loving glance at it before driving into the city each morning. With the empty space out of sight, the image of her garden in her mind’s eye was a place of peace to which she often returned throughout the workday.
When asked later, she could not recall the day when the space took on a vertical dimension. All she remembered was that her eyes increasingly rested just above the wispy pink flower stalks that once blocked it from view. She became aware of this tendency because her mental image of the garden changed. For example, while she was at work, she would wonder whether the salvia had started blooming yet, only to return home and realize the red flowers had escaped her notice because they were on the opposite side of the flowerbed from the empty space. She found weeds there as well, attempting to lay siege secretly while the empty space distracted her. Gradually, the knowledge that she was staring directly at the empty space drifted up through layers of instinct and dream and wafted its way into her consciousness like a subtle smell that grows stronger until it finally discloses the memory it contains. Once a lumpy horizontal patch, the space’s emptiness now somehow began to peek vertically over the foliage that surrounded it.
The three-dimensional empty space was mostly transparent, with a faint shimmer of refracted light like heat rising from a Gulf beach at midday. It was roughly cylindrical, though the edges shifted and scattered to destroy the image when she looked directly at them, and she could never be certain how far into the sky it extended. At first, its ephemeral character caused her to dismiss what she saw as a mirage in the humid southern air. However, as she occasionally caught a glimpse of the space in her peripheral vision, a prickly feeling in her upper spine began to accompany it. The sensation began as a coolness between her shoulder blades that gradually crawled to the base of her neck and wrapped around her lower jaws, caressing her face and smoothing her hair. In this way she became aware of the empty space’s shimmying presence above ground; how far it stretched below the soil she did not know. But she discovered she could see it plainly by concentrating her focus just to its side. And she thought it was beautiful.
When she became conscious of the empty space’s new appearance, she was at first reluctant to enter the garden. She would instead stand at the window, watching it from behind the glass and spider webs. When she did venture out, she felt as if it were watching her, too. However, she gradually became accustomed to its presence and to the tingling sensation she felt when looking directly at it. She eventually found herself treating it as a silent companion, gesturing to it and sharing with it simple pleasures of a day spent outdoors: a monarch chrysalis, a blue feather, a baby snake. It seemed alive to her and somehow more sentient than the plants that surrounded it. She liked it being there and its emptiness became the place of peace she imagined while at work each day, in place of the garden itself.
One blustery early evening in November, the woman returned home to find a trail of little orange flags stuck in the grass and quivering like butterflies. The procession snaked its way across her yard right over the empty space, out of the garden, and onto the neighbor’s property. Parked along the street were trailers loaded with enormous spindles of wide orange coils. Across the street was parked a stump grinder. The prickly feeling returned to her neck, this time accompanied by a sensation of unreality that for a long moment made her feel that her head was growing first larger then smaller in a rhythm that matched her pounding heartbeat.
A voice startled her back to an appropriate size. “Do you need help with your windows?”
For a moment, her brain responded with the absurd thought that perhaps the voice meant to help her make the windows large enough for her giant head to fit through them, like in Alice in Wonderland. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Haven’t you seen the weather?” It was her next-door neighbor, Mr. Thompson. He felt it his duty to mansplain practical matters to her after he discovered she lived alone. “The cone shifted this morning and the tropical storm is supposed to make landfall tomorrow evening.”
“Oh, right, the storm. I don’t pay much attention to the news while I’m at work,” she explained. “I don’t need any help. But thanks.” She wondered if he noticed the tremor in her voice.
After offering several more pieces of unsolicited advice, Mr. Thompson turned to go back to his own yard where he was covering his windows with sheets of plywood.
“What’s going on with all these trucks and the little flags?” she called after him.
“New internet service. It’s about time they made their way out here, but wouldn’t you know that Mother Nature is going to mess it up for us,” he huffed. “The weather alert came on so quick they had to drop the supplies here and leave with the trucks. Who knows when they’ll be back to finish the job now?”
Tropical storm Ignacio made landfall the following night, howling and batting fronds from palm trees. As the woman sat sipping a glass of elderberry wine, she did not feel afraid. She thought of the tortoises in the field behind her house. Like her, they had lived through many hurricanes, placidly confident in the security of their dry burrows.
Her mind turned to the equipment parked outside and to the line of orange flags marching across the empty space in her garden. What would happen when the workers returned to lay internet cables and destroyed the stump? She had become fond of the empty space and feared that this intrusion might affect it somehow. It seemed crazy, but she feared for its safety. For so long she had tried to fill the brown space in her garden but now she knew its emptiness had value, even if she could not explain why.
Refilling her glass, she wondered how she might protect the space. It was too late to follow Edward Abby’s advice to remove all surveying flags as a matter of principle. But could she do more? Was she capable of doing violence to a piece of machinery in the name of protecting something she loved, even if that something may not even exist, except in her imagination? By the time her glass was empty a third time, the answer inside her mind had metamorphosed from a maybe into a resounding yes.
She put a rain poncho over her pajamas and then gathered some items from the garage: a plastic tube, a glass jar, a wrench. She placed the objects into the pockets of her poncho and opened the front door. The wind blew her hair around her face and straight up into the air as she stepped outside. Rain falling sideways pelted her exposed skin. Visibility was so low that her attempts to move stealthily were practically useless and she wondered if it were possible to get lost just crossing a street in her own neighborhood.
When she reached her destination, the yellow stump grinder looked so small and defenseless that she felt a little sorry for it. She took several minutes to find the gas tank and then struggled for several more to loosen its slippery cap. Once open, she pulled a rubber tube from the pocket of her raincoat and clumsily siphoned the tank’s contents onto the ground. The rain did surprisingly little to dilute the heady smell of diesel fuel. Once the tank was empty, she pulled the glass jar from her pocket and poured into the gas tank pure white sugar sand she had collected at the beach that summer. Some of it blew away and stuck to her hands in the downpour. She replaced the cap and made her way home as fast as she could.
By 4:00 am, the rain only drizzled and the wind came in occasional gusts. Ignacio was much less damaging than experts had predicted, and the worst of the storm had now passed. Around 9:00, the workers returned with their trucks and began inserting cables into muddy, sandy holes in the ground. Her heart pounding, the woman watched from the window. She saw a man in a hardhat walk slowly over to the stump grinder, insert a key, and turn the ignition. The sound of the engine roaring to life instantly relieved her tension and made her wonder if last night had just been a dream. She smiled at herself. Then the horrendous sound of metal on metal and the sudden silence that ensued caused her to put a hand out to the wall to steady herself under the weight of the memory of her actions.
She closed the curtains and got into bed, scared of what might happen next. She would just pretend she didn’t know anything about it. Surely, no one had seen her. She remained in turmoil for a short time before her exhausted mind took refuge in sleep. She was dreaming of drifting in a boat on a dark ocean when noises outside the window awakened her. She at first assumed it was just the furry little garden ghosts on their nightly prowl, but jumped to a standing position when she realized it was still daylight and that the sound was coming from two men in hardhats talking in the yard. She ran outside and immediately saw a thin trail of bare, disturbed earth curving around, rather than stretching across the empty space.
She tried to control her breath. With as much disinterest in her voice as she could feign, she said to one of the men, “Oh, you moved the flags.”
If the young, dark-haired worker noticed her disheveled appearance or the smell of diesel fuel wafting from her clothes, he did not show it. Instead, he explained how they had to go around the stump rather than remove it because the storm had damaged the stump grinder. “Sorry about your flowers.”
“My flowers?” she asked, feeling confused. “Oh, right. You had to dig some of them up.” She glanced at a pile of twisted and limp stems and resisted the urge to touch them. Instead, she just said, “That’s ok.”
“And sorry we couldn’t get rid of that rotten wood underground there, too,” the young man continued. “Your neighbor mentioned we should grind that old stump for you. But you know,” he said with a playful look in his eyes, “it actually might still be alive. Did you know other trees can keep a dead stump going for years?” He paused for effect. “It’s true, I read it on the internet. No one knows for sure, but it’s probably because their roots get so packed together in a forest that they don’t know whose are whose anymore. So, when you cut down one tree, the other ones keep supplying it with nutrients just like it were part of their own bodies. Weird, huh?”
The woman looked at him bewilderedly. Noticing at last her messy hair and muddy pajamas, he turned his brown eyes away awkwardly and changed the subject. “Anyway, um, I’ll just run the wire over this way a tad and we’ll be good to go.”
The woman staggered back inside, showered, washed her pajamas, and slept for the rest of the day. It was dark when she awoke and the little ghosts were noisily shuffling about below her window. Without turning on any lights, she got up and went outside, gently shooing an invisible armadillo out of the way with a bare foot. She sat down on the exposed soil above the newly planted internet cables, facing the empty space. The smell of dirt brought memories of when she first planted the garden. In the moonlight, she could easily make out the empty space’s shimmering presence and at this range felt a slight tingling on her hands when she stretched them out in its direction.
Very softly, she breathed a question into the space: “What do you want?” There was no reply and she suddenly felt ridiculous for having asked. But it was a beautiful night, so she sat and watched a sphinx moth sip from the fragrant flowers of a moon vine growing up the side of her front porch. She considered her recent act of vandalism, replaying the events over and again in her mind. Did anyone see her? Will the police come for her? When a cardinal announced he was awake with the first song of the day, she walked inside and went back to bed with muddy feet.
Pulling out of her driveway a few hours later, the woman paused like always to take one last look at her garden before driving into the city. She frowned when she saw the exposed dirt; but to her great relief, the empty space was still there, shimmering in the morning sunlight. She smiled and drove away.
The crew from the internet company took four weeks to complete the installation and it was another month before everyone in the neighborhood could connect to the new service. The woman planted perennials in the disturbed soil above the new cables and the earth healed itself without so much as a scar to hint at what lay buried below.
A year later, when an opportunity arose to work from home, the woman readily accepted her boss’s offer. Working remotely meant she would no longer have to leave the empty space each morning. She could be near it instead of just recalling it in her mind throughout the day. To her, it seemed that she had at last found the perfect job.
On her final Friday in the office, the woman brought a computer home from work. She installed it on a desk facing a window that overlooked the garden. She then spent the weekend outdoors, celebrating her new freedom.
The following Monday, she turned the computer on, opened her email, and saw a message in her inbox from an unknown sender. With the familiar tickling feeling crawling its way up her spine and onto her face, she read these words: “We want to exist. Thank you for asking.”
Below the woman’s garden, in the tenuous layer of earth that lay between an underground river and a sandy interface with the sky, a teeming multitude of roots and internet cables, nematodes and mycorrhizae grasped and tugged and slid past each other in a vibrating chorus of interconnected life, expressing their joy and gratitude through reciprocity. They lived as one and to exist was enough.