I study the pile of debris. “How long has this been sitting here?”
“Week, few days, time’s a blur at this point.”
“Well, I’m not touching it, anything could be living inside.”
George hands me a rake. “Give it a good poke first, that should send things running.”
I shove the handle through the mound. A black snake about six feet long shoots out. I hate hurricanes, the before, the during and the overwhelming after.
I evacuated before the storm hit and prior to my return home, my neighbor in his obsessive way took it upon himself to gather scattered debris — oak, palmetto, pine and God knows what else — into heaps all over my side yard. Most people would be appreciative, particularly with the power still out and no air conditioning to collapse into after sweating long and hard in the yard. Myself, I was merely suspicious.
George has had his eye on this section of my property for the good part of the year and at best, I describe my relationship with him as keeping a wolf at bay. He is the neighborhood land baron, quick to pounce on residential houses for sale and bold enough to make offers to owners with no previous intention of selling. Adult children eager to rid themselves of houses left by aging or deceased parents are his best customers. More than a few times, I watched him approach the bereaved between the coming and going of piling a lifetime of possessions on the street. He sidles over, offers to take hold of an end of a well-worn couch or shift the burden of heavy boxes from weary arms to his own, all the while, making his pitch to buy before the house is listed for sale. I presumed he came into an inheritance or made good in the stock market, affording him the finances to purchase heavy into real estate market loaded with octogenarians. Once money changed hands, every conquest ended in the same George ritual. He’d climb aboard his Kubota, drive the tractor to his new property and plow under the lawn. With so many buys under his belt, ever so gradually, George systematically obliterated much of the lovely green space gracing our neighborhood.
He touts himself as some sort of agricultural arborist, professing to “build up from the blank” – spreading mounds and mounds of mulch over the upturned earth for use as a rooting medium best for planting fast growing fruit trees. Papaya is his favorite, the tree basically an unsightly long stem, all I noticed snapped like toothpicks during the assault of the hurricane. When I declined to sell my green strip adjoining his latest coup, he approached me again a few weeks later. He had rented out the house next door and planned to provide his new tenant additional privacy by planting a line of fruit trees along our shared property line. George asked my preference to what type as whatever fruit fell on my side would be mine to keep.
The wolf stood at my door. George had me and he knew it. Legally as the homeowner, he could plant whatever he chose within city ordinance on his side of the line. My days of an unobstructed view of what remained of neighborhood rolling green were numbered. Vowing silently he would never under any circumstances get my land, I asked he not plant mango trees, having endured an unsightly allergic reaction back in my college days. The pustule skin rash eruption windshield wiped across my lips and jawline as if I had intentionally rubbed poison ivy into every pore south of my nose. “Noted,” he said, taking triumphant leave.
Sixteen trees were planted the next day. Eight were mangoes.
“Offer still stands,” he says. “Cash.”
“I’ve got it from here, George.” He takes a slight as-you-wish bow, adjusts his pith helmet and strolls the few yards to the tree line separating our properties. “Mangoes are in good shape,” he calls over his shoulder. “The leaves may brown and drop due to the sustained force winds, but my guess is, the trees will green up soon enough, maybe fruit by spring.”
“Can’t say the same for the papaya.”
“Your property is still under water in places,” he answers with a so-long wave. “You’ll need a good pair of snake boots.”
I follow him to the trees and rake the grass on my side with short, furious stabs. My call to code enforcement following the tree plantings reaffirmed the legality, even though I played my mango allergic reaction wild card to the hilt. “We get these calls all the time,” the clerk said. “Drives many to sell and move to a subdivision overseen by a homeowners’ association where every clip, mow and planting is monitored.”
“I’d rather rub mangoes the length of my body than live under such a self-imposed regime.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” the clerk said. “Keep in mind, yes, your neighbor is correct, you can keep the fallen fruit. But the law also stipulates, if a tree encroaches neighboring property-in this case yours-say, a limb extends across the line and overhangs your yard, you are within your rights to cut that limb back.”
George had followed the letter of the law. He had been careful to plant each sapling the ordained one foot back from our shared boundary and because the trees were too young to grow limbs of any magnitude, it would be years before my property was impacted. I had no choice but to accept what couldn’t be changed, other than to ignore both the trees and George as he went about methodically fertilizing and watering his grove.
I lean on my rake and look out over the pummeled neighborhood, assessing the storm damage. The palms stood tall, a few oaks were uprooted and huge pine limbs lurked heavy in standing water like patient alligators. George’s spindly trees lay across the neighborhood like snapped matchsticks. Fruit by spring, doubtful, I think, turning my attention to the property line to discover the hurricane had swept all sixteen trees to hang over my yard in sweet encroaching karma.
I wrap my gloved hand around an overreach of the jackfruit tree, a future bearer of grotesquely oversized smelly-to-high-heaven fruit and study where the sprout joins the slender trunk. One snap, a toss into my debris pile and on down the tree line, the shearing so easily attributed to my rights as a property owner. I imagine George stopping short in the street, his pith helmet pushed back in examination of his line of oddly cropped trees. I give the limp branch a slight tug.
My thoughts turn marigold. I planted five hundred of the flowers early in the spring for use as a natural dye. With my wicker basket draped across my arm, my bed of merry extended their blooming heads in sacrifice for a few dyed orange-yellow tee shirts. No amount of inner fortitude could compel me to deadhead the flowers. I simply was unable to stand in daily witness of a garden full of headless blind stems.
I shelved the harvest and learned to naturally dye another way, with turmeric and tea, red cabbage and beets, leaving the marigolds to serve as a natural mosquito repellent. I couldn’t strip George’s trees anymore than I could the marigolds. I release the branch to the heat of the morning and stare at my hands. Knitter hands.
I can knit, purl under duress, but by no means consider myself an accomplished knitter. Patterns escape me, I constantly carry too many stitches and embraced felting early as a furtive strategy to transform my many mistakes into work I can honestly boldface reference as art.
Technical knitters awe me, tactile wizards wanding needles with skills so beyond my beyond, any encouragement offered from those on high to dabblers like me, cheered my belief absolutely without a doubt, the beauty of knitting is in the mistakes. I know enough to know if by clicking my needles together for a few hours in the evening under a bright Coleman camp light, what can be achieved within my humble degree of knitting finesse is enough stitches to throw George a good old-fashioned yarn storming.
I rise early, pockets full of wool, rake in hand, ready. Unlike the obvious tactics used by George to gain green space, I will yarn graffiti with far more stealth. The whole idea is to make a statement and not get caught. The piles of debris and ongoing hurricane cleanup provide the perfect cover. Gloved up, muck boots to the knee, twigs and small branches crunch underfoot like tiny broken backs as I trudge to dump my overloaded wheelbarrow at the curb. George drives by with a tap of his horn, but I pay him no mind until after he passes. A blue tarp restrains branches and palm fronds poking out every which way in the back of his truck. I watch him take the turn out of the neighborhood and reach inside my pocket.
I focus on the tree closest to me, the young jackfruit. Gently within its center, I wrap a knitted yarn chain around a slender shoot, loose enough to allow for growth. It looks like a mossy green caterpillar camouflaged against the stem. The color is so dead on perfect, I doubt George will ever notice. Quickly, I wrap a couple more chains and rake my way back to the curb in time to see George round the corner.
He stops and thumbs back at the empty truck bed. “I’m dumping debris on the lot behind my house. Easy pick-up for the wood-chipping crew.”
I give the rake a rest. “Nice to have personal access to Asplundh.”
“True.” He leans out the truck window in examination of my piles.
“It’ll be weeks before the city picks up. Happy to take this mess off your hands before the snakes move in.”
I look down the line of slumping trees and back at the land baron, working me like an octogenarian. “It’s all yours. Thanks.”
“At your service, ma’am,” he says with a tip of his pith helmet. “I make a lot run on the hour. Whatever you haul to the curb, I’ll toss it in the back.”
Good to his word, George proves as predictable as church bells at noon, trading the truck for the Kubota as the day drew long. “Not as young as I used to be,” he calls out, massaging his back. I wave in affirmation, but once he drives off, I divert from my covert position to continue yarning the line of trees in daisy-chain magic. By day’s end, sixteen trees bow stormed, the mangoes as well, the woolly infestation carefully coiled by the tines of the rake, without risk to my exposure.
My last pile sits at the curb, but George has called it quits, heading home to start up the generator that will keep me awake for hours, humming through windows left open to cool off the house. I fall back into a patio chair, exhausted. A glass of wine would be perfect, but the thought of rummaging through a hot dark refrigerator full of spoiled food changes my mind. I fan off a mosquito, too tired to move closer to the protective marigolds and settle in as the sun sinks into yet another night without the soft glow of electric street lights.
I wait and watch. The woolly caterpillars, knit with fluorescent yarn, switch on within the windswept trees, solar charged luminous against the pitch-black sky. My hope is, the power will soon be restored, but for now, the power is all mine.
Sheree Shatsky writes short fiction believing much can be conveyed with a few wild words. She was selected by the AWP Writer to Writer Mentorship Program as a Spring 2018 mentee for flash fiction. Recent work has appeared in KYSO Flash and mac(ro)mic with work forthcoming in Sleet Magazine and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, among others. Read more of Ms. Shatsky’s work along with her adventures with Wild Words at www.shereeshatsky.com . Find her on Twitter @talktomememe.