Floating Garden

Mary LaChapelle, 2015 Fiction Prize Winner
| Fiction

I understand now that the rust-haired woman was trying to determine my nationality in order to restore me to my home. Is that why I chose to hide in her car—to be returned to my home? Or was it simply because of the pictures of her garden?

How strange choices are. When did my ancestors choose to make the first floating garden? Did the silt simply gather in the limbs of the water hyacinth and reveal its potential to them?

Her name was Laura Wold and of course I had a name, too, but we avoided using them with each other, perhaps because this diminished the boundaries between us, which were so great from the beginning. She called me “you” and I called her “ba,” which we say in my language for “you.” To have no names between us was a pleasure, the pleasure I still feel in not belonging to a country. And now that I know your language and that I have learned others, I can tell you how far the words for things take us from what matters. A box is not a taxi. A slave is not a porter.
Because of the regime that ruled my homeland, it was difficult to contact my grandmother and eventually when, through diplomatic channels, Laura reached the government office of my village, she found that my grandmother was no longer alive. The translator who aided my benefactor’s search said it was likely that my mother was serving at some labor in the next country. I always imagined my mother at night, when she was alone and no one’s servant, pouring herself a cup of tea. It was always the side view of my mother’s face, that side I’d seen so many times as a child. Though she was in a different kitchen now, her hand was calm on the kettle’s handle.

I carved a figure with the long feet of my father and placed him on the shore of our pond for all the time I lived with Laura. I went to middle school and high school in Berkeley. I was a strange boy, smaller than most of the other boys from India, from Mexico, from Africa and Europe, even smaller than most of the girls until I reached manhood. At nineteen I went on a scholarship to the agricultural college in southern California.

I have learned through my studies about the floating gardens of Babylon. And how the Aztecs, driven by their enemies onto the marshy shore of Lake Tenochtitlan, learned to build rafts of rushes and reeds, and like us, dredged up the rich soil from the shallow bottom of the lake. The roots of the corn, the bean vines, and the avocado trees reached though the floor of the rafts into the water. How happy the garden was in that Mexican sun. Marco Polo wrote of the gardens he found in China. Had the Chinese in their nomadic days carried their ways over the mountains to our people, or is it that we ourselves were the same as those they now call Chinese?

After I left for college, Laura Wold sold the property and moved deep inland to her family’s lake. She sent me pictures of pine trees and birches leaning over its glittering surface. And a picture of the lake guardian I had carved near a little cove filled with water lilies.

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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