The Escape of Cynodon lelandus
By Michael Blackburn
When Leland first began to merge into the ground, he didn’t know. He couldn’t remember if his transformation had been an inner, unnoticed growth, like the creep of brown moss over cracked stone, or if he had suddenly, in an ecstatic moment, morphed from nothing into the bitter grasses he had been lying in after dinner last night, stroking himself with torn and weeping clover as he watched his wife wash dishes through the kitchen’s bright, uncurtained window, her jerking movements like the fluttering dilations of a pupil beneath a strobe light.
He could only remember now that he had sat up after he had ejaculated into the wet ball of clover in his hands and had watched his wife step to the edge of the porch. She had swept her fingers along the top rung of the tulip-red rocker he had built years ago while she called for him above their children’s laughter; then, as he had remained as silent as the dark grass, she had retreated back into the light of their house, pulling her green apron over her head and wadding it into her hands. The rattle of the door’s locks behind her had been like the cracking of pecans on their roof in the fall, and afterwards there had been only the droning silence of the night, a breeze on his exposed skin, an ant crawling up his spine.
His family hadn’t understood why he had first cultivated a patch of his backyard last April. Over a 20 by 20 foot area near the compost heap, he had planted lumps of foxtail and big bluestems he had dug up outside of town and had hauled home in the backseat, their blades jutting from the rolled-down windows, of his green and mudcaked Ford. The grasses had withered and died back after their transplanting, but he had spent his afternoons resolute and on his knees among them, watering them, feeding them, whispering to them, and trimming away their burnt wounds.
His wife had, at first, sat outside with him in the shade as he tended the grass, but his refusal to look at her; his tireless, chubby scuttling on his fingers and toes to avoid damaging the blades; and his constant mumbled exhortations into the dirt had made her anxious, staring at him with her bottom lip pulled between her front teeth and her left sandaled foot shaking. Leland, she had said once as he had rubbed his cheek against the frayed tips of young shoots that were finally establishing themselves. Leland. He had curled a finger mottled with dirt at her in invitation, and she had folded up her orange lawn chair, let it fall, and had walked into their house.
By early May, the grasses had grown knee high, rustling even when the air was still, and Leland, who had been a conscientious math teacher at East Coleridge Junior High for two decades, had begun to sneak home earlier and earlier to sit among the blades of grass that traced their edges along his face.
For two weeks, he would emerge only to eat supper with quick, precise disinterest, ignoring his wife and children who leaned low over their plates and stared at him as they chewed. He would, as he sat at the table after dinner, his wife washing the dishes with as few clinks and rattles as possible, take calls from friends and colleagues who expressed their concern and warned him of the consequences of his absences from school. He would grunt softly and look through the French doors of his dining room, out through the screening of his porch, to the grass that swayed, purple and blue beneath the moon. He would, when he heard bedroom doors closing softly hours later, stand barefoot and sweaty in the kitchen, and stare at the refrigerator magnets his wife had collected over the years from zoos, amusement parks, museums. And when he could no longer fight sleep, he would shower, leaving rusty streaks of mud on the pale yellow tiles for his wife to sigh over in the morning, and slide into bed and squint into the shadows until their blocks of gray and black stretched and formed a bed of grass across the floor.
It was last night, when his wife, embarrassed by the unexpected arrival of her father and brothers, had neglected to order Leland in for supper, that he had, with the pleasure of an evacuating release, decided to remain in his grass permanently. It was then, after his in-laws had paused at the front door and sent to him, through his wife, in grave and suspicious voices, their hellos and best wishes, that he had masturbated with the clover he had picked from the edges of his square while he watched his wife alone in the kitchen, imagining holly sprouting from her small nipples, the lanugo on her cheeks turning into ivy that crawled up and across the trellis of her brow.
The next morning, she expected to find him in their bed as usual, clean but emanating the bitter and musty smell of dirt. Instead, as she held her purple coffee mug beneath her chin, she saw him through the kitchen window looking back at their house, at her, his eyes, like muddy mirrors of the rising sun, only just visible above the pale green and threaded tips of his grass.
Later that afternoon, while their mother whispered their father’s name on the phone, Leland’s children, a girl as solid as an old root breaking soil, and a boy with giant bee’s eyes behind his turtleshell glasses, came to his tall corner of the yard and stood, their arms hanging loose by their red shorts and pale legs, and looked down at him. Dad, the boy said. Dad, will you play with us?
Wait, the girl said, and ran and turned on the sprinkler, and she and her brother jumped with the clumsy ostentation of colts through the spraying water and fleeting rainbows, craning their heads to see if their father was watching. Look, Dad!
Is he looking?
But when he was only silent, and they could no longer ignore what they had begun to realize was his nakedness as white as grub worms between the threads of grass that had matted around him, they stood with furrowed brows and sweating hands, and hunched beneath the cold, hissing water until their mother shouted at them to come inside, where she told them, her fingers on their wet hair, what her mother had told her on the phone, that they should leave their father alone. And to one another in the dark of the hallway as they walked to their rooms, they added, leave him alone in case he pulls us in.
All afternoon, while she scrubbed the bathroom and washed the bed sheets and her husband’s clothes, Leland’s wife practiced what she would say to him, what she would do for him to coax him back inside. But, as she would later tell her mother, nothing she practiced seemed genuine or worthwhile. And Leland, she would say with a face like hardened wax, grew apart from us long before any of this.
Nevertheless, after admiring and brushing her hair, which Leland had often told her was like frost-rimed hay, she leaned against the chipped and flaking counter and watched him through the kitchen window, her large hands squeezing and relaxing in time with her breath. His sunburned and peeling forehead, his hair speckled with dust, his unblinking eyes were all of him she could see. She sighed. Okay. Okay. Then she flung the backdoor open and marched, at first, but then faltered and slowed into a shuffling creep toward the edge of his grass.
Leland, she said, standing to his side so she couldn’t see his eyes. Here, and she placed as though on the outside of a rusted, bloodied kennel a plate of what she believed was his favorite food: small pieces of cold fried chicken arranged around a jagged dollop of mayonnaise for dipping. She remained squatting, the tart smell of grass making her sneer, and she clasped her hands together and whispered into the green bars surrounding him, entwining him, Here. Leland, here.
He heard her, though he could no longer remember the significance of the name she was using. Why had he done this, she said, and why had he never spoken of any of this, of whatever this was? But the plaint and catch in her voice couldn’t hide the truth, he knew; that she had no real desire to understand, only for it to be erased, for him to rise up, put his glasses back on, play jigsaws with his children, pass out mimeographed instructions on the Cartesian coordinate system, stand beside her in church while she sang in a wavering and too-loud voice, make her cover her mouth with laughter during supper, and, periodically, when she permitted, to lie with her, their limbs straight and rigid afterwards, the darkness and silence smothering their distance and dissatisfaction.
He knew that, had he spoken of his need to her, she would only have responded with a murmured nod and a quick glance of motherly frustration at his funny ideas that she always pretended were, at once, above her understanding and beneath her interest. So how could he explain to her, either before the change began or, then, as it occurred before her eyes, as the grass grew so quickly, tangling in his eyelashes, the impulse that had driven him to the ground? Even if there was a word to capture the force of his need, a color to set before her eyes as an exhibit, a musical tone that, like a horn resounding over the sea, would capture his awed and mute desire and call to her own depths, what would it matter, and how would it fully penetrate what he knew was her decent and hard-working but limited sight? Would she abandon their children and enter the grass with him? Would she throw off what she knew and believed she wanted? If he told her when and how it had perhaps started, would she accept it? Would she, had she known from the beginning, had married him as he attempted a normal life, raised children with him, even as she knew some force would stretch and pull him away like a spiraling orchid root tasting the air? Or would she have shuddered as she would often do in their dim, wood-paneled bedroom when he would, in embarrassed hunger, hold her fingers in his own and run them down and up his body, his eyes closed like knots in bark, her nails like burrs, his skin like shredded leaves?
In his silence after she had offered him food, she had stood and walked in front of him, her toenails like shards of robin eggs in the patchy St. Augustine that had retreated from the square of wild grass he sat in. Leland!
When it had begun, he thought, possibly, was when he was eleven and, upon some deep impulse he had felt in the root of himself like hunger scratching its way through his limbs, he had stretched out in the tall grass and weeds beneath his grandfather’s diseased and tilting pecan tree. At first, he had believed it was just the warmth of the sun that had called him there, as it had before, but as he had closed his eyes in the sun’s glare, the pale strands of grass had tickled against his skin, folding into his ears like fine hair, twisting like entwined fingers above his face, and obscuring, then revealing, as he opened his eyes, blocks of striated sun that had blinded him, everything shifting from purple to red and back like bruised fallen fruit, then fading to grey before beginning again as he reopened his eyes, like the ritual of the grass itself through time and season. And with this had come the deep quiet of the ground that, he had realized, wasn’t an empty silence but was, for him who could hear, a smaller and more intimate version of the larger space to which he had felt no connection. Felt, he had thought, as a desiccated petal might, disconnected from its home and floating blind through an immeasurable void. But there, deep within the bed of grass at the foot of his grandfather’s tree, no calls from a gaping sky demanding prayers, but insects wrestling one another in the dirt; no footsteps hunting for him to bring him where he didn’t wish to be, but roots shifting of their own volition, finding further and greater purchase; no rough voices to name him and confine him, but the quiet jumble of alphabets of grass that formed no words.
In his joy, with his eyes squinted shut, he had shoved his khakis down to his knees, the shame he had thought he would feel absent, because there, in the dark folds of grass, only the oldest gods could penetrate, he knew, and they surrounded him, he had thought, sighing like wind through bare branches, their eyes, as they had watched him, like oozing berries, and they had bent the tall grasses over him in an embrace, teasing from him his semen which had hung, after he had arched upward, in thin webs from the tips of the grass, like spores to be spread beyond him.
Leland my God! Through the grass which leaned forward, swaying toward her, brushing against her callused toes that poked out over the edges of her sandals, his wife saw him: his chest sunken, his stomach swollen with gas, his penis engorged and caked in grey mud.
Leland. The afternoon seemed to her suddenly then as an eternal smear of green and brown, and as a net that was, bit by bit, tightening, biting into her skin. Leland. Leland.
The chicken will spoil. She winced at the stupidity of her words as the grass that had lingered over her toes pulled back and covered him again, and when he still said nothing to her, only watched her run her fingers like the red legs of crickets against the buttons of her wrinkled blue blouse, she turned and stalked back to their house, not looking back at him, but only wondering how long it might take him to die and how any of it would be explained to anyone.
Two days later, in the early morning, as birds chirruped and cocked their heads at him from nearby branches, through the shifting threads of his grass he watched his lanky and clean-shaven father-in-law stand on the edge of the porch steps and point their pastor toward him.
The pastor had come at the insistence of Leland’s wife and her mother, both of whom watched through the kitchen window like a double-headed twin, and he walked down towards Leland’s grass, stopped, rubbed his forehead over his wire-framed glasses, then wiped his hand on his ironed jeans. He glanced back at the house, then started again toward the grass, twisting a small black bible between his hands, its golden ribbon drooping like a wilted stem.
The grass now was as high as a standing spade, and it was only as it bent and swayed, sibilant one moment and reedy the next, that the pastor could see blotches of Leland. An eye like a swollen tick. A shoulder covered with stiff trichomes. A nostril stuffed with blackened clover.
Leland. The pastor cleared his throat and sat cross-legged, as far from the plate smeared with puckered, dry mayonnaise as he could. Brother. I’m not sure what to say to you. Can you hear me?
The grass was stiff and silent, and to the pastor, sitting like a child before it, it seemed to rear up like a dark forest, and he shifted his weight in its shadow. We need to get you out of there. For your sake, Leland. For your family’s sake. This is very trying for them. Your children.
But Leland could no longer remember his children, beyond the peculiar vibrations of their footfalls on the ground, or how to speak, and the pastor’s voice, as he sat for an hour reading the bible in a low monotone, his sweating fingers sticking to its pages, merged into the buzz of flies, until, finally, he shook his head, stood, and wiped his mouth and pulled hard at his bottom lip three times. I’m praying for you, Leland. We all are.
The pastor sneezed, apologized, and returned to the coolness of the house, and put his hands on the women’s lower backs while he muttered consolations, and on the shoulders of the men, who murmured with him beside the heavy, pulled curtains of the living room about the burdensome expense of hospitalizations, the exigencies of the family’s reputation, and the sternness of the living word. After coffee, the pastor parted from them with a quiet joke to Leland’s father-in-law, that he had heard once that plants react well to classical music and human voices.
That afternoon, over a dinner of roast and corn and potatoes which Leland’s wife had prepared without once glancing through the window at him, Leland’s father-in-law set his glass of cold milk down with slow precision, rubbed the condensation from his fingers, and, while peering at his uneaten corn, said, There’s nothing else to do.
Now look. We can’t afford a bunch of doctors. We can’t put him in some institution. And he’s not gonna stop this himself. It’s as simple as that. I’m sorry, honey, I am, but we have to cut that grass down. He’ll see what’s headed his way and come back to his senses. You’ve said as much yourself. It’s an eyesore, an embarrassment.
He picked up his glass again and rocked it side to side, bringing the milk just to the rim and back again. Look. It just isn’t right. What he’s doing. It’s up to us to do right, by him, but also by us. Also by us.
Hours later, as the grass snaked further up toward the setting sun, wrapping around Leland’s now slack and atrophied limbs, pushing deep into his mouth and anus and urethra, and circling in coils behind his eyes, the rumbling whine of a small rented tractor drowned out the oscillations of the cicadas and the hiss of the grass itself.
The women of his family grabbed Leland’s children, turned their backs, hurried as a knot into the kitchen, and talked in strident voices about coffee and cake, their children and their schoolwork. The men stood in a line on the porch, grim, silent, their hands wrist-deep in their pockets as they watched Leland’s father-in-law, shouting at Leland to get out of the way, with a straight back and a pinched face, steer the tractor toward the back corner of the yard, near the compost heap and the two blossoming spirea Leland had planted for his children on their first birthdays.
The grass, beneath the strong evening wind, folded to the ground before the tractor like slicked but unruly parted hair, but Leland was no longer there; he was spread now through the pale brittle roots of the grass throughout the yard, beneath the neighbors’ fences, across the street and into the fields of the nearby park, hidden in the scraggly tufts of blue weeds and primitive yellow blooms clinging around the feet of the pines; he was no longer trapped in a skin he had always tried to pull from him like a tight coat; a dry, frayed skin that beneath the heavy notched blades of the tractor was shredded with his grass, and blown in great pink gusts like dandelion fluff into the summer air.
His wife, turning to look through the kitchen window as the tractor’s engine sputtered and shrieked in the thick lumps of grass, and who had practiced and arrived at what she believed to be the correct number, sobbed twice, and then buried herself into her mother’s arms, burying her children into her own. The men, her brothers, walked slowly with shovels on their shoulders to Leland’s square and turned over the dirt, burying his thin, shattered red bones, scattered like a baby bird’s, in a swarm of flies and gnats and clots of semen that made them gag and blush. The father-in-law, stabbing his shovel into the dirt, spoke of dumping gasoline out, burning the whole yard, hell, sowing it with salt, too. But the other men, tired now, told him it was too dramatic, and, as they stared down at the shadows that moved with the wind across the ground, one said as he glanced back at the house, the sooner Leland’s forgotten the better.