One early morning in the back gardens Alfred was burying master Jack in a hole. The butler’s fingers were cold and white from the frigid Spring morning as he shoveled heaps of dark black soil on top of Jack. He brushed his gray hair back into place, he broke a sweat between the wrinkles in his face, and then he wiped the blurry, stinging tears out of his eyes. He sniffed, took in a heavy breath, wiped the salty solutions from his face and then went back to shoveling. By now the only thing left unburied were Jack’s blond hair and pale nape, as well as the big black hose that ran out of the hole and across the lawn to the shed. After about twenty more minutes of shoveling, Alfred patted the soil like he had planted a seed, and from inside his coat he pulled out a popsicle stick that had the word “daffodil” written on it in thick black marker, which he stuck in the ground. “Good luck, sir,” he said to the buried young man and then walked back to the shed.
There, in the shed, he put the shovel back in it’s usual place. It was a clean garden shed, very typical of the estate that Alfred worked on: a lawn mower, a rake, a fertilizer spreader, pruning shears, etc. Gardening was perhaps Alfred’s favorite work to do. The shed was almost like a second home to him, and he had been spending quite a lot of time out there recently, preparing to bury master Jack. Now, he would be able to catch up on some things with him gone, especially those plum trees in the orchard, which he looked forward to pruning later today.
But it was the black hose that ran through a crack in the window and that life support monitor in the corner that made the garden shed a little atypical. Alfred walked over to it and picked up a clipboard. He was perturbed as he watched Jack’s heartbeat create waves on the monitor, and he took note of his oxygen levels and adjusted the output of the oxygen tank a bit. He noted that the intravenous nutrients were dripping and functioning, and he would be back later this afternoon to check the catheter drainage bag. Alfred marked all this on the clipboard, clicked his pen and then decided to go inside for a cup of mid-morning tea.
He left the shed and walked over the grass that was still trying to revive itself from the weight of winter. Many things around the estate were much like the grass, which was halfway between the freezing hell of winter weighing on its green life, and halfway under the soil rooted in safety. And yet other things were much like Jack, completely underground and safe. Like a child in a mother’s womb, or like the seeds that had slipt under the snow last Autumn and slept for a whole season having the confidence of a mother’s embrace. Alfred felt better that Jack was safe underground like that. But he couldn’t help but feel that he wasn’t safe, but was rather like the grass—somewhere between hell and a mother’s womb—and less like a daffodil.
Alfred sat in the kitchen with his tea mostly in his cup, partially rising in white curling evaporation. He sipped and planned his day: prune a plum tree, check on master Jack, prune another plum tree, check on master Jack again, eat lunch, well I don’t need to make dinner since master Jack is already covered (ho! that was a good one), but I think I may actually do some cleaning first. And Alfred did do the cleaning first. It would leave him open to garden for a whole week.
So, he put master Jack’s laundry in the washing machine and cleaned his bathroom. Master Jack had left his room in such a mess, because of his excitement this morning. So, he tidied up his room as well. And as he did this, he thought about the years that he had been caring for master Jack. He thought about how Jack was just so full of wonder and excitement—his fascination with the rain, his collection of bird feathers. Once, last Easter, Jack told Alfred that he would be gone all weekend. He said that he would be going on a real Easter egg hunt. When he came back on Sunday night he had a small collection of bird eggs—blue robin eggs and speckled blue jay, mockingbird and quail eggs, and even a dark shelled nightingale’s egg. Monday morning he made an omelet for the both of them, and Jack pulverized the egg shells separately into powder, added water, and then painted a picture of the evening garden with the chalky colors. Alfred knew that this was why he had buried Jack in the ground right now, and why he felt so lonely. Alfred winced at the loneliness.
Alfred eventually made himself lunch, and when he had finished eating his lunch, he went outside under the afternoon blue sky to prune those plum trees. He went to the shed and checked master Jack’s vitals again. No changes. Everything was working perfectly. Alfred knew that the initial transplanting was always the hardest for the plant. He had no idea how it would work when transplanting a human. They had talked about it before, he and Jack. Once when he was driving master Jack up a mountain pass, just because it was autumn and he wanted to gather some leaves, Jack posed the question.
“What would it be like to be one of those trees?”
“I don’t know, sir. Cold. Perhaps it would feel like death.”
“You mean with winter coming?”
“I suppose so.”
“But what about that feeling of changing color? Do you think the tree ever wishes for a mirror.”
“Perhaps they see themselves in the others, sir. That is, if they have eyes.”
“I supposed you’re right on the death thing. I mean, hair changes grey right? But the funny thing is people have less color the closer they get to death, and why doesn’t our hair turn brighter like the trees’ do?”
“We’re not trees, sir.”
“Yes, but what would happen if I tried to be like a tree—or even a flower.”
“I suppose, then, that you would see what death looked like.”
“Or life, sir.”
And Jack just went back to staring out the window in silence to himself.
And Alfred, as he drove, thought about the next time he would see his mother. She was in a rest-home in another state. Master Jack was kind enough to let him visit often. The last time he was there she couldn’t remember him. He walked in and kissed her on the head. She was sitting in a wheelchair staring out the window in silence to herself. He sat next to her and held both of her hands. She started talking. She was always one to talk, and when she started there was no stopping her. You just let her talk. She said that there was a time when she was young. She said that there was a time when she got married. It was a small church, and her dress was white. She said that there was a time when she was a virgin, and then a sudden time when she wasn’t.
“That’s what happens after you get married. You stop being a virgin,” she said.
“Mother!” Alfred said patting her hands.
“And then you get pregnant. It’s like the Garden of Eden menstruated and everything was cast out and died. But now things get born. It’s like God took that Garden and put it in the woman. And every child that is born is a fruit, and we’ll find out whether it has good sense or not. Leo had sense, except when he bought that car. I told him not to. Like Nathan to David. Told him there’d be a baby soon, and there was. That boy, well, Leo named him Alfred, after Alfred the Great, because that’s what we wanted him to be.”
Alfred chuckled at that, and she just kept on talking.
“But he had already bought the car, and he sold the horses and carriage to do it, the fool. But, he was a lovely fool. Never lost that look in his eye. I always said he had eyebrows like a golden retriever—like Moses. It was a pity-brow. I couldn’t help but pity that brow. And he came home with that brow one day and told me and my mother that the car had broken down, and he didn’t know the first place how to fix it. And I told him that the baby was on his way, and thank the Lord that my mother was there, because that baby was coming. And I remember being calm as Isaac on the altar, and my mother boiling water and getting the towels and eventually Leo insisted on reading the Bible in the corner. He read from John, started at the beginning. Jesus was baptized and my water broke. And I started bleeding when he turned water into wine at the wedding. And by the time Nicodemus was asking about a man crawling back into his mother’s womb to be born again, well, that child had already crawled right out and screamed, until he latched onto my breast. And I just cried tears of joy. And the baby just lay there on my breast and suckled, while his father read more about Jesus teaching the woman at the well and talking about the waters of life. And I started laughing and said there was plenty of living waters tonight. And Leo looked at me and stopped reading the Bible as if it was the very thing that was keeping me and the child alive. And he looked at me with his Moses brow and said he was sorry about that car—sorry to God he was. And I told him he better fix that car because I wanted to take that child to church next month, and I wasn’t about to walk there. Well, he fixed that car eventually, and eventually I stopped being a virgin again. And well there’s not much more to say about that birth, except I still love those first four chapters of John every time I read them. Well, you wouldn’t happen to see my Bible, would you?” she said looking at Alfred with cloudy eyes.
Alfred looked at their pile of hands. Underneath her hands was her Bible. “It’s right here,” Alfred said.
“Ah, and where’s my glasses?”
Alfred knew that she could barely see, let alone read, but he lifted his own glasses off his nose and put them on the bridge of her own nose.
She turned opened the Bible and sat there staring at it in silence to herself.
Every autumn Alfred remembers that birth story, and it came to his mind that autumn when he took Jack up to the mountain. And he even remembered it now, as he thought about Jack under the soil, as he pruned those plum trees. And he realized that he never and would never have a wife like his mother. He would never have any children, like these branches would never have fruit. And he thought about his mother reading the Bible to him, that part about being connected to the vine. And he thought about how Jack may have been the only vine in his life. Otherwise he was just like those dying, pruned branches drying out on the ground.
He stood at the top of a ladder and snipped at the larger branches that grew straight up. The branches were brown, and he clipped right above the buds so the branch could still grow. He came down to the rest of the tree and snipped off all the smaller branches that grew inward and pinched some of the buds off. Everything needed to grow out—not up, not down, not in, only out. And Alfred wondered about Jack, wondering if he could he grow out of that hole. And for a moment he panicked, even if the life support warning signal was connected to the estate’s sound system. If anything went wrong Alfred would know, but he wouldn’t do anything if the signal went off, not for twenty minutes, at least. That was the deal.
Alfred finished the pruning for only one tree that day. He gathered the small branches and bundled them into faggots, to use for fires in the winter. He made himself some dinner, checked Jack’s vitals in the garden shed, emptied his catheter drainage bag and then went to bed.
The next morning Alfred was ready to work on the other plum trees. After making breakfast and doing the routine check on Jack, he grabbed the ladder and the shearers and headed out back to the second plum tree. The clouds in the sky looked heavy and gray, but the sun was still intermittently shining. At times, as he pruned, it would sprinkle, and Alfred thought about worrying about Jack. But just before lunch it started to downpour, and soaking Alfred did worry about master Jack. Getting the ladder in the shed and putting the shearers back in place, Alfred checked Jack’s vitals. His temperature had dropped a bit, but nothing drastic enough to set off the signal. Alfred made the regular notation on the clipboard and paced about as he did it. He looked at the shovel in the corner and considered grabbing it and digging Jack up, but he knew that it wouldn’t be a good idea.
Eventually Alfred put the clipboard down and went inside to put some dry clothes on and get some lunch. He decided to have some potato soup and bread. While the potato soup was on the stove, the warning signal went off. Alfred cringed and looked at his watch. There was a notification informing him that Jack’s temperature had dropped too low. But he still would have to wait twenty minutes. He looked out the kitchen window to the ground where Jack was buried. The signal continued to ring, and Alfred ate his potato soup and bread as he listened to its dull sound.
The sound grated on him, and he imagined himself running out to the shed and grabbing the shovel. He would run out to the hole in the middle of the sheets of rain. His hair would snake down his white forehead, and he would begin shoveling out loads of sopping wet black earth. And each time he would sink his shovel into the soil his gut would tense up with his teeth, and he would worry about sinking the shovel into Jack himself. Until finally he would unearth that human daffodil, until finally he uncovered that child and dragged him out barely living. Because the truth was, Alfred didn’t want Jack to die. He didn’t want him to die like his father had. He didn’t care if Jack would be upset. Life was more important than finding out what a daffodil experiences in the Spring.
And he remembered the conversation they had, before they even dug the hole.
“Alfred, you’re the only one I can trust,” Jack said.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t trust me to kill you,” Alfred said as he chopped parsley in the kitchen.
“We’ve been over this before. I’ve studied it out, interviewed doctors. I’ve gone over it again and again.” Jack was sitting crossed legged on the counter.
“Master Jack, you can’t expect me to bury you in a hole and just leave you there for a whole week,” he said scooping the parsley into the stew.
“You won’t. You can monitor me the whole time.”
“And I can monitor you just fine above ground.” Now he was cutting potatoes.
“Alfred. I’ve got more money than I can spend in a lifetime. What am I supposed to do with myself? Just die as a filthy rich bastard.”
“I don’t appreciate the language, master Jack.”
“But I am a bastard. I am illegitimate. You don’t know what it’s like to never know your mother, to have been the one to kill her while she was giving you life, to never have a woman who will hold you in her arms and bury you with kisses. No one knows anything about her.”
“And you think being buried in the ground will compensate? Sir.”
“Yes. Alfred... Mother nature is the closest thing I have had to a mother. Ever since I was a boy the sunshine was a kiss and my freckles were her lipstick. The wind was a whisper and everything else was a gift—the flowers, the bird eggs, the leaves in autumn. I would pretend the outdoors was just a big house that she would decorate. All I want is a hug from a mother who loves me. A real long hug. And being a daffodil will make me more of a son and less of a bastard.”
The word hung in the air as Alfred continued to cut the potatoes. He stopped cutting, set down the knife and let out a sigh. “Alright. But no dying.”
“So, you’ll do it?” Jack said with eyes like a little boy.
And as Alfred waited for the warning signal to stop, or for the twenty minutes to be over, he thought about the books and papers and reports that covered the study for weeks. He thought about Jack’s drysuit and installing the life support system in the shed. He thought about the pilot tests and digging the hole together and how they laughed like they actually were a father and son. And he thought about getting up and digging that child up. And he did get up from his bowl of potato soup.
With the signal still ringing out, he walked out to where Jack was buried and stood there like he would at his own child’s graveside as he shivered there in the rain, which was starting to lighten up.
“You have two more minutes master Jack, and then I am going into the shed and going to dig you up,” Alfred said. He could hear the faint warning signal in the air. And then it stopped. Alfred looked at his watch. His temperature had stabilized. “Alright then. I do hope you are enjoying your hug. But, I’d prefer not to be alarmed like that.” And he wiped the water off his face and then walked back inside.
The next morning Alfred got back to those plum trees. It was the third day of Jack as a daffodil, and he was beginning to break through the soil. Around him the other daffodils were doing likewise. Their long slender leaves were already reaching for the faint morning stars. And the head of the flower was just barely peeking up from the fingerish leaves, like a pearl in the palm of a hand. The back of Jack’s neck had broken the soil and some of his soil stained hair was also peeking out.
Now was the most difficult part of Jack as a daffodil—watching him stand out there in the garden like a statue and not saying a word to him. He was crouched like a child between the womb and the world—a week long birth. And Alfred considered reading the Bible the rest of the week like his father did when he was born. Alfred thought about how unsettling birth can be. There was the mother giving her water, blood and spirit at the feet of death to transplant a child from her own soil. Alfred thought about his own mother and his birth. He thought about how Jack never suckled, never was kiss, hugged or even scolded from his mother. He wondered if Jack ever felt scolded by mother nature.
Alfred continued to do the gardening. He had the lawn to fertilize and prepare, and he had plenty of flowers and herbs and shrubs that he wanted to get started on as soon as possible. Between checking on Jack and the gardening he was kept busy. When he came in for dinner, there were two messages on the answering machine.
“Hi, this is Carey at the The Olde Place rest-home, and I was calling for Alfred Boer. We wanted to let him know that his mother has been transferred to the hospital. We’ve enjoyed having her here, and we hope that things work out well for her. He should get a call from the Hospital as well. Thanks. Bye.”
Alfred played the second message. “I’m looking for a Mr. Alfred Boer. His mother is here at the hospital in the ICU. She’s been put on life support, and we offer our condolences. Also if he would call us back. We are just looking for someone who can speak in her behalf. If he could give us a call at 8-----------. Thanks.”
Alfred looked out the window. He couldn’t leave Jack there somewhere between hell and a mother’s womb. And he couldn’t just let his mother die alone. And he couldn’t hand over Jack’s life to someone else. But his mother’s life was in someone else’s hands. Yet it was different. She was involuntarily there, and couldn’t defend herself, and Jack was voluntarily there and could defend himself.
Alfred went out to the shed and paced in front of Jack’s life support monitor. He looked out the shed window at Jack’s blond hair and white neck sticking out of the soil. He closed his eyes and pretended that the soft electronic noises of the machine belonged to his mother’s ICU room. He opened his eyes and watched the heart rate bounce and the breathing indicator rise and fall. It was all very steady, and Alfred’s breathing and heart rate felt very unsteady. He looked at the big black hose that ran in through the window and placed his hand on it.
He imagined ripping the hose off the back of the machine himself, this time Jack coming out of the soil alive. He imagined walking out there and seeing the incredulous stare and the oxygen mask coming off and Jack would ask him what the matter was. And he would tell him that his mother was about to die, that she was dying, and that he didn’t care if Jack didn’t have a mother. He didn’t care if he never knew his mother. He didn’t care that he wouldn’t understand what it was like to let your mother die alone, not just the mother that gave birth to you, but the mother that he had known and talked with his whole life. He didn’t care that Jack never knew his mother enough to love her by not letting her die alone and afraid. And yet that feeling of loneliness and fear was the whole reason Jack was in the hole. It was the whole reason Alfred had let him crawl down there in a drysuit hooked up to life support. It was the whole reason Alfred had buried him in the first place.
Alfred took his hand off the big black hose and walked silently back to the house. He picked up the phone and called the hospital. “It’s alright. You can let her go,” he said.