Floating Garden

Mary LaChapelle, 2015 Fiction Prize Winner
| Fiction

Some days, half-asleep, I would feel him climb into my arms. It was as if he wanted to be a baby again, and I would be as still and welcoming as I could, but we couldn’t have what we had before. He would agitate and pick through my hair. A sound would divert his attention and he would scurry away, not to return for days.

In my bamboo nest, I occupied my mind at times with the question of how to make a floating garden. How did you weave the lake hyacinths to net the silt from the lake? What soil did you choose? Did you add fish and algae for richness? How is the bamboo staked to hold the island in place?

My grandfather made one with my father and his grandfather made another with his sons. Where was my father? I often returned to the thought of the note he had written and balled up in his hand. Did he hold that scrap of words for hours, for days, waiting to pass it to a trustworthy friend? If I ever found my way back, could my grandmother teach me? But then, imagining my grandmother on the lake, my mind wanted to put my mother in the picture. The dust of her disappearing truck blotted out my image of home and I needed to drag my water bottle to me and wet my parched throat.

When we landed in port, I stayed in my shelf with my store of food. The platform of bamboo was lowered onto a truck and driven into a big building. From my hiding place, I could see women sitting at long tables weaving the bamboo into mats and rows of men fashioning the bamboo into screens and tying the poles together for fences.

Early the next morning, I folded the ends of my brown towel back and through my legs and tucked it into the back waist, the way the fishermen did. I washed at a large sink in the corner of the building. I had long hair still, but was bare-chested, no longer a girl. I sat at the end of the table with its piles of shaved bamboo strips and began copying one of the woven mats. Others joined me at the table and nodded their greetings. A woman who was able to speak to the woman across from her but not to the young woman next to her gave me a paper cup. She held up a coin and a mat, so that I understood each mat was worth a coin.

Like one more particle of dust within the day’s sweeping, I became part of the group. The people were my color, but no one near me spoke my language and their faces were shaped differently from the people I knew.


The first time I noticed that my mother kneeled as she paddled the canoe, I had said, “You don’t stand on the bow like father and push the pole with your leg?”

She said the fishermen on our lake keep their hands free for their nets. I have never seen leg rowers anywhere else. People have their differences. “Where I come from,” my mother had told me, “we eat more yams and drink more milk than your father’s people. We carve out places in the mountain to set our houses. Our water tumbles down the hills so we have water wheels and grind the rice and other grains.”

Mary LaChapelle is author of House of Heroes and Other Stories and recipient of the Katherine Anne Porter, PEN/Nelson Algren and Whiting Foundation Awards, as well as fellowships from NYFA, Hedgebrook, Edward Albee and Bush foundations. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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