by Brett Salsbury

In the August forecast that morning, the weather channel indicated it would be extremely hot, the UV Index at 11. Alongside the temperature, they showed a small graphic of an orange-red sun floating directly behind a cactus. They even managed a murky haze emanating from the sun, as if it were a mirage. The addition of the cactus was the difference between extremely hot rather than simply very hot on the weather channel’s scale. And it did seem the cacti were enjoying the heat spat—sitting in the campus xeriscape garden, Yuyis noticed how full the barrel cacti looked, each of them in the midst of colorful blooms that circle their inner drums. The prickly pears were also doing well, and the cholla, and the foxtail, and even the cottontop. With the heat index approaching 115°, Yuyis relished the time away from her computer, away from the coolant-filled, artificial air. It felt human to breathe again. She sat underneath a slatted canopy that had been designed in reminiscence of a tree and its leaves, with tiny wisps of high noon streaking down onto her face and forehead.

Yuyis admired the campus garden more than anyone else, it seemed. She would sit there for her entire lunch break, along with any other breaks she might take. For the past several years, she’d worked inside the campus library researching, ordering, and shelving books. The plants were an appropriate complement to the books, she thought; each holding their own kind of information, their own kind of wisdom. The garden was a veritable oasis in the middle of the gentrified desert, buildings and over-watered lawns sprinkled throughout the neighborhood in a place that used to be simply high desert, a concept itself that felt so ironic to Yuyis. 

Sometimes Yuris walked around the garden in what she thought were random circles and pathways, but there were only a few areas to walk, so she would always end up traveling in the same directions unconsciously. The blue yucca stood straight upward, enjoying the highness of noon. Bushels of agave burst at the seams with proliferation, slowly marching offshoots around the 1.5 acres of gardenscape. There were bushes of jojoba, and also of creosote, sometimes prickly in their appearance but always steadfast in their growth, which Yuyis liked to measure, from time to time, as evidence and confirmation of development. She already knew growth was occurring, but was still at times worried because of the lack of rain, the constant drought which saddled their region. She wouldn’t be surprised if anyone thought it odd that she carried around a tape measure in her purse, visiting these plants as if they were her own children, checking in with them, measuring them, feeding them with an audience of attention. But she knew the plants loved her for it—she knew they appreciated this kindness.

In the August forecast that morning, the weather channel did not anticipate what Yuyis would discover near the edges of her garden on one of her steadfast walks. At the eastern wall, underneath the wooden trellis covered in Arizona Grape Ivy—its hardy leaves percolating and climbing—a particular agave had begun to send up a budding shoot. The agave was colored blue all around its spiky leaves, with strings of brown, outgrown leaves at the wayside. The heart of the plant was effusive in its insistence—steadily barreling upward for years, imperceptible to all but Yuyis, tape measure in tow, her eyes trained to identify subtle changes.

But this was a change she had not anticipated. This agave had been in the garden for over two decades, rising in the slowest tempest. This change indicated all the plant’s sugars had decided it was time to throw themselves upward, to catapult higher than ever before, and higher than it ever would again. This change meant the agave was dying. Yuyis, upon seeing the budding shoot, knew at once the next day she would see it flower and then the agave would be gone. Her heart felt a tug as if an entity was pulling at her arteries, wrenching the core of her from her body, causing her red blood cells to pool at each chamber in hopes of saving her from her own sadness. It was a mother’s worst nightmare. She was devastated. For the first time, one of her children was dying.

Yuyis knew drought tolerant plants are powerful teachers. The bulk of them build so slowly in time but are believers in the long haul—believers in incremental strength, in longevity achieved through slowness, through careful, measured discovery of the immediately surrounding world. Yuyis loved to read about caring for these types of plants. It was almost ironic how many printed materials there were about xeriscaping, for the main impetus of the life of these plants was to leave them be as they made their way through the world, only watering them a touch here and there knowing they would stabilize their own selves through time and happenstance. She listened to them closely, hearing their whispers and secrets of life, holding her ear to them in a playful manner as students, teachers, and administrators snuck through the garden on their way to class or work. Some looked at her, but mostly they ignored her, or didn’t even see her – the woman becoming a plant herself. To think that one of the plants might be dying, one of the original plants from the acreage’s history, was simply too much for her.

Yuyis cut her lunch break short and returned to work, where she began to search through her pages for answers—for what to do when one encountered an agave death shoot, despite already knowing what it meant, knowing she had read all of these books before, knowing that nothing could stop death in its tracks. Her desk acquired a pile of books that indicated she was once again reading about desert foliage. Her boss, Mrs. Fordham, often nosy about what her librarians spent their time researching, floated by and asked about the pile. Mrs. Fordham knew it was always Yuyis who read on this particular subject, who ordered far too many books on ecology and desertification—books that remained on the shelves for months and sometimes years without being checked out. 

“I think I’ve discovered a new niche subject that might interest some readers,” Yuyis lied, her hands holding an open book about global land degradation. 

Wasn’t it true that people enjoyed reading about death, even if it’s slow? Especially if it’s slow? Perhaps the idea of a dying plant capable of being roasted and brewed for tequilas and mezcals would entice readers further. She mentioned these thoughts to Mrs. Fordham, who was surprised to find herself nodding.  “Keep me updated,” Mrs. Fordham said, walking away, somehow satisfied by the concept.

She dug deeper into the subject, her subject, skimming through books with titles like “Aloes and Agaves,” “Remarkable Agaves and Cacti,” “The Cactus Primer,” and “The Secret Life of Plants,” all splayed out and originally designed to uncover all of the things one would need to know about particular plant species, and all of their special habits and enticements, their entrapments and their temptations. She often wondered why there weren’t more books like this about humans, or if there were, why they weren’t at least a little more interesting. One book noted how the phenomenon of the agave death shoot is like an invitation to a once-in-a-lifetime orgy; the shoot can grow up to twenty or thirty feet. It is the plant’s last-ditch effort to spread its pollen and seeds in one dramatic flurry by inviting all who consent to partake in the revelry. This increases the odds of further agave generations. Another book described how the phenomenon of the agave death shoot resembles other monocarpic plants—plants that bloom once in their lifetime and then immediately experience senescence, the signal of death, the onset of dying. Certain yuccas, and even bamboos, can sometimes take nearly a century to flower, patient as they are to reproduce, to delay children, to offset death with a long, filling their genes with hardy memories, ensuring their young bamboo will be even stronger. 

In the reading, Yuyis found a sentence that gave her some hope: “aging or senescence… can be delayed in these plants if flowers or young fruits are removed.” Perhaps she only needed to cut down the stalk shoot, to ceremoniously remove it so that the plant’s sugars could return to rest, could wait perhaps for another year, or at least another season, before bidding its world good tidings. She clung to this wish, even though she’d been reminded by other books that death cannot be avoided, that cutting a stalk would do nothing except ensure the death of the plant’s genetic line, severing this particular entity from the biosphere. But hope is as hope does.

Returning to the garden during another work break, Yuyis brought with her a pair of garden shears, another surprising ride-along of her purse, but for Yuyis, essential, just in case she needed them to maintain certain bushes or to steal little flowers. She knew nature didn’t need her, but she also figured there was still a certain kind of symbiosis they could achieve. Her human hand could shape these bushes in an aesthetically desirable way, could remove flowers that caused certain plants or cacti to become too top-heavy and to droop, could control the wildness that might cause unwanted attention from others who thought the growing was unseemly or overbearing. Yuyis only pruned when she felt she needed to, when she felt the garden needed it, but this was nearly daily during the warmer months, which was, of course, a majority of the year.

Yuyis reached the corner of the garden with the death shoot and she quickly noticed how much it had grown. Growth is so imperceptible that it cannot ever be witnessed, even at great speed, even with the energy of the blue agave throwing the entirety of itself and its past into this one, singular event, its last hurrah before permanent darkness. She finagled herself closer, stepping carefully around the plants surrounding the blue agave, including batches of desert lilies and Mojave-asters. Her sandaled feet crinkled dead leaves and ornamental basalt rocks. Steadying her breath, Yuyis became the same being as the agave, thinking on its terms rather than her own, holding her pair of garden shears close to the center and bottom of the death shoot as her hands moved to the rhythm of her breath. If it’s what the plant wants, she reasoned, the plant will allow it. For a moment, there wasn’t any movement at all from either Yuyis or the blue agave, and the plant debated the question, but then the wind had something to say: it appeared with a gentle maw, flowing through the garden with mercy and grace, reminding each denizen briefly of their existence. The feeling flooded around Yuyis and her eyes lingered for a mere second on the Joshua tree at the opposite corner of this end of the garden. She looked away but turned her gaze back, having seen one of the tree’s branches bending a little too far downward, its green, spindly leaves suddenly tipped with touches of cream at the ends. Yuyis felt the same tugs at her heart as she felt earlier, when she saw for the first time the blue agave death shoot, when she realized things won't always stay the same—that not everything in the xeriscape garden will outlive her. In the most banal manner, death had finally arrived in the desert.

Yuyis knew touching the tree would offer nothing to it—humans were not magical—but she touched the Joshua tree all the same. The crusted, white entrails of death gathered to dust in her fingerprints, the plant’s plight a blight on herself. Her mind recalled more of her reading, and she struggled to remember tidbits about a white sickness on desert plant life, what it could mean, whether it was contagious to others. It might be a mildew fungus, which was powdery and white, just like the crust on her beloved Joshua, but she couldn’t remember if the fungus could be caught by a fruiting tree. She especially hoped the disease wasn’t root rot, as it wasn’t very likely she could dig up this Joshua to rid the soil of the invader, not to mention, it probably would have already spread to its neighbor. Sickness only reveals itself to the outside world when it knows it will have a good chance of success. Yuyis noticed, too, that the Joshua tree had begun to wilt ever so slightly, the arm with the crust lower than it had been the day before. Yuyis confirmed this with her spool of measuring tape, discovering a half-inch difference, which was catastrophic movement for a tree that seemed frozen in time to any passersby, locked in a meditative, lifelong pose of prayer. It was then, more than ever, that she wished the tree's prayers—whatever they might be—would be answered, in addition to her own.

When she moved to this climate seven years ago, plucked from the wet humidity of Missouri, propagated by generations of the same prolific and virile seed, Yuyis was surprised to learn just how much could survive in such an extreme place without any human interference, without any help or attention. The realization should have been obvious; of course, wildness proliferates wherever it wants, and even in places where it has no business doing so, within cracks of pavement, within craggy boulders and not a speck of soil in sight. Yuyis took hold, too, even after the company for which she moved to Las Vegas went under after only two months, leaving her to flounder in an environment of drought, where the rain seemed to be as rare as a UFO sighting. 

Three months later, she found and maintained contact with a campus recruiter, who loved her consistent attendance and moxie so much she recommended Yuyis for a position at other departments, calling around to see if they had anything open at all for a young woman who will work harder than “a saguaro under a shade tree.” She was glad to have stuck it out through the frustrating edicts of her parents to move back home to Missouri. But she didn’t completely find her way or feel at home in her new job until she found her xeriscape garden. It was then she found what she was able to take care of.

Mrs. Fordham kept her busy with assignments, continually forgetting that Yuyis was a full-time employee and not one of her introductory library class students, but Yuyis knew there could be worse employers to work under. In truth, the work allowed her to read about subjects she’d always been curious about but never had the time to research, like the incremental magic of devil’s ivy and the particular brilliance of Bidens flowers. She got to know species upon species of plants, convincing Mrs. Fordham the books might encourage the university to develop its ecology department, or at the very least lead one of the environmental studies professors to teach more coursework on endemic species of the Mojave Desert. The deeper she researched, the more she loved her own particular life; with all of this knowledge, she created a library web page for other budding plant researchers, so they didn’t have to start from scratch like she had. 

Yuyis looked back and forth between the blue agave death shoot and the crusted ends of the hand of the Joshua tree. At least it isn’t more, she reasoned, the garden her own salvation, her own paradise. She said this to herself perhaps knowing deep down that something more serious was abound, that two plants dying in a garden that never sees death is not a coincidence to be trifled with, not just a gentle reminder from God. She said this to herself even as she looked in another corner, to a gaggle of organ-pipe cacti, which had a small, soft discoloration in the middle of one of its stalks. Her heart dropped. Two was a coincidence, but three was a pattern. She wondered if she might be next—if her jaunts to the garden during work hours had collectively altered her DNA, had also made her a drought-tolerant plant. It might make the blight more acceptable, she thought: if she could die with her children.

Mapping the diseases did not help, but Yuyis completed this step anyway because she was too stunned to realize what was occurring was downright Biblical, and might require a more inventive, perhaps more ancient solution. More disease arose, to her abundant sadness: gall on the oleander; verticillium wilt on many of the ornamental flowers, like the goldenrod, and the dahlia. She drew an outline of the garden, the pathways winding into several thousand feet despite the small acreage of the place, with slight changes in elevation to mirror what the place resembled before too much of humankind came to witness it. She drew the map when Mrs. Fordham had meetings, characterizing each plant on the diagram with its particular illness; on a corresponding map key, she indicated symptoms of the diseases, along with possible treatments for them, as impossible as they might be, with sheet upon sheet of footnotes to reference what she was able to find in her her books. Distracted by all of the new diseases and the incredulity of their variety, Yuyis was not able to cut the agave death shoot, mostly out of fear it might start some new chain reaction, one even quicker than what was already developing, one that might unleash one of the plagues or pop open a vein of one of the circles of Hell.

She returned to the xeriscape garden in the nighttime, something she only did when she needed a pick-me-up. This time, though, it was the garden that needed a pick-me-up. To her grave disappointment, there was more disease, new disease: the ivy that lined the trellises in disparate corners of the garden showed signs of significant leaf spotting. She shined a flashlight on it; the dependable ivy that offered so much shade to passersby and studiers was starting to curl around some of its edges as many of the leaves appeared spotted, likely from some sort of fungus. Had the ivy been dying earlier? So surrounded by imminent death, had she been careless not to see the life-reprieving ivy was wilting right above her, on her watch? Yuyis could no longer dawdle—the garden was expiring before her very eyes, clearly in reaction to some external force, in the midst of some global change making xeriscape gardens impossible. Perhaps there was a new hole in the ozone layer. Perhaps the warming of the globe made certain endemic species suddenly incompatible with certain environments, certain locales. Perhaps humankind, against its better judgment, had littered and ruined so much of the ecosystem that the earth could only fight back by making the planet unlivable, bit by bit, starting in little acres, tiny places of hope in the overall madness. Whatever the cause, Yuyis felt empowered to save the plants—to save herself, a confidence she hadn’t felt in years.

Plant by plant, Yuyis went to work, methodical as if in prayer. She pulled cotton swabs from a plastic bag and rubbed isopropyl alcohol on fungi and neem oil on mealybugs. She grabbed her shovel and meticulously unearthed the plants that seemed to be experiencing root rot, and cleaned them thoroughly, knocking the roots apart, also doing this act to the plants who had bound root systems and felt they had nowhere else to go in the immediate space around them. More agave death shoots sprouted from other specimens. Carefully, with precise and sharpened garden shears, Yuyis chopped away these death shoots despite the books’ advice, detaching the new growth, removing all evidence of suicide. She dislodged the soft portions of cacti that had evidence of bacterial necrosis. Though the leftover portions had large holes remaining in them, the places where bacteria hadn’t penetrated, she reasoned at least, despite its poor, unhealthy look, the cacti might survive. She found root-knot nematodes in the jojoba bushes and killed them with an insecticide (she would have used the method of soil solarization, but this process took weeks, and there was no telling how little time Yuyis had left). She felt like Superwoman, digging up so many plants in one evening, but it was surprisingly easy—as if she was meant to do it, as if she was the plants’ savior. She used a ladder to reach the trellis tops, clipping off the sun-spotted portions of ivy. She removed nearly half the ivy that covered the trellis. She knew this would completely change things in the daytime, would heat things up more, would remind all of the plants they were in the desert. But the work was worth it for what it would save.

The plants reminded her of how she saved herself, and this was a reminder of why she couldn’t do nothing, couldn’t let nature run the course it wanted. When her parents continued to ask her to abandon the library and come home, to save them the embarrassment of telling others “no, she’s not living in a casino” on a regular basis, she rebuked them, telling them this was what she needed, to be challenged in a way she never would be back home. When Yuyis found the garden, she was given an outlet for her abundance. It gave her to have someone to talk to. Plant life was sentient, even if it was in a completely different way than humankind. But she could learn to talk to them, to communicate with them and learn from them. She might have succeeded.

Finally, she reached the agave death shoot—the one she noticed first, the canary in the coal mine. It stunned her just how much it had grown—she couldn’t even reach the top of it when she climbed the ladder. The death shoot must have been twelve feet tall, perhaps even fifteen. With all of the work she had completed, she wondered if she needed to let this agave run its course—to make its own choices. It really is poetic, she thought—gathering all of the energy it could muster and throwing it into one final, beautiful performance. Like a ballerina retiring from the warmth and delicacy of the stage. Like a bird giving its last calls into the wind, knowing this will be its last chance for a life partner, for at least one more round of nesting, one more way of showing Mother Nature its virility, its essence.

She left the death shoot be. If she could save the rest of the garden, she could let at least this one agave run its course and rest in peace, cleaning it up afterward, perhaps burying it, returning it to the earth. She could let love fester and remember what this plant’s love had given her when she had run out of love herself.

Yuyis walked into a spectacle the next morning, campus reporters interviewing biology professors, the few students who cared about beauty, all fixated on what was left of the xeriscape garden. Even Mrs. Fordham was there, scratching her head as she stared at the agave death shoot, which had risen now to twenty feet in height, and was still growing. “I hate for you to see it like this, dear,” Mrs. Fordham said to her, knowing that Yuyis often took her lunch breaks in this garden in the heat that most other folks did all they could to avoid. It was shortly before 8 A.M., and the temperature was already above 90°. “Why are so many people here?” Yuyis asked. She looked closer at the work she did in the night, and saw it was a little messier than she’d realized. Clods of soil were left on the concrete pathways, cut stems and leaves were rolling about in the slight wind, but she was still proud of the work, hopeful it might make a difference. 

“Apparently, it’s not worth saving,” Mrs. Fordham said. “Someone has completely ruined the garden. Who would do such a thing?” 

Mrs. Fordham stood there, unfettered by the direct sunlight of the morning, adorned with long sleeves and pants along with a scarf and heavy purse. Yuyis noticed how authoritative she seemed—how she belonged there, out in the harshness and curiosity and accusations of the world.

For Yuyis, it seemed that the world, rather than thanking her for her trouble, had misunderstood it. She didn’t say much to Mrs. Fordham, unsure of how she could explain what she knew without outing herself as the culprit. How had this taken such a drastic turn? She had removed death, yet she was somehow still destined to be punished. Many of the students were taking photographs and videos, posting them on social media and sharing them, making the word of the event flow faster than water on compacted sand. Yuyis knew she would never be thanked for her service, but that didn’t matter. She had saved her garden, the jewel of the campus’ eye.

Unfortunately for Yuyis, once she returned to the garden for her morning pre-lunch break, finding most of the onlookers gone and preoccupied with some newer shock or crime, she found it was possible to love something too much. For death had returned: the death shoot, as anyone could see from nearly a mile away, had grown even more, even in just a few hours. She folded up her parasol and stepped underneath the shade of the ivy, craning to see how it was doing after she had trimmed it. The sun was also there, causing her to look elsewhere, to find evidence of betterment. She was sad to see more crusted white on the Joshua tree, this time on a new branch she hadn’t had the energy to remove under the cover of night. The leftover portions of jojoba bush were wilting, and the creosote bushes were doing the same, now smaller in stature, now disjointed in their lack of fullness, now not nearly as impressive as a drought-tolerant being. Apparently, they were not Yuyis-tolerant either. She pulled out a bottle of water and drenched the bushes in moisture. She didn’t dare water what was left of the cacti, for fear of them becoming more infected, even browner, but she stared at them—at their buds, which were no longer effusive. At their roundness, which was now more oblong. At their richness, which was now more muted. At the blue agave death shoot, drawing bats and birds and bugs, the tips of the shoot sprouted little flowers.

“You really shouldn’t water them,” a voice said from behind Yuyis. She turned to find a person in blue, the blueness eventually softening into an impossible blazer in the shining sun. Yuyis would never wear such a heavy thing out here. “I’m Jo,” the voice said, the voice of a blue body in a browning garden. “I’m the museum curator.” The museum was adjacent to the garden, which itself was also next to the library. They were neighbors. “I’ve seen you here before, walking through all the treasures. I used to do it myself all the time.”

“Used to?” Yuyis asked her.

“Used to,” Jo responded. “I find myself too busy nowadays to spend much time here, but I have seen you, all the time, from my window up there.” Jo pointed to the second-floor window of the museum, which also held a balcony overlooking the heft of the garden. “I figured the garden had a new caretaker now. It had been me for over a decade.” Yuyis wasn’t sure what to say. She also wondered if Jo knew it was Yuyis who had attempted to save the garden.

“I used to water the cacti until I killed one. It was a Bunny ears cactus. I only watered it once a month, but it was too much. I killed it. It was at that point I figured the garden would do just fine without me, so then I just walked in it, sat in it.”

“I love it so much,” Yuyis said. “It’s got a special quality, like it's divine.”

 “Life in the desert. Did you ever think you would survive here? Neither did the plants and look at them.” Jo paused for a moment, looking at them, realizing her words were no longer ringing true. “Of course, this is a rough spell.”

“This is all my fault,” Yuyis said. 

“I assure you, it isn’t.” Jo walked up to a pomegranate tree, the only one in the garden, now missing many of its branches due to Yuyis, due to root rot. “These plants were in the desert before us and they’ll be here long after us. The garden isn’t here for us. Maybe it used to be, in its beginning, when people planted it, but not anymore.”

Yuyis nodded, envisioning the garden becoming larger in the future, recovering from its imminent death, and the various diseases that had suddenly appeared. She hadn’t considered before now that perhaps the diseases appeared so the humans would go away. So the plants could be left to their own devices. So Yuyis would stop bothering them. Yuyis and Jo looked at the death shoot, which Yuyis could swear had grown even more in the few minutes the two of them had stood in the garden talking.

“We’ll probably never see another one like it in all our lives—in all the agave we’ll come to know,” Jo said. 

Yuyis looked at the death shoot and looked at Jo, who was not sweating in the heat. Her browline glistened ever so slightly, but there were no beads of sweat anywhere on her face, no hint of distress around any of her facial features. It was as if she was a creature of the desert herself, made of sand, accustomed to the oven-like quality of the air. Yuyis looked down at her own skin, at her hands, which were drenched in redness and mild despair. She had a long way to go, but she knew she was in some kind of home. She knew that eventually, even roots might begin to grow.