by Craig Bernardini

Rotten by Tianhua Mao
Rotten by Tianhua Mao

The maniac would later claim he didn’t know what had happened, that he had no recollection of the events leading up to or directly following the tragedy, that he hadn’t heard the little girl’s cries, hadn’t felt anything but the usual resistance of the tough grass in that part of the garden against the blades of the mower, really it was more weed than grass, though he had mowed it all the same, faithfully every Saturday. He (the maniac) was just an ordinary community member, a little withdrawn maybe, a little distracted, but not to the point that anyone was concerned, after all lots of people were like that, especially in larger cities. He had seemed to enjoy watching the children run to and fro in the garden, would occasionally exchange pleasantries with them, and promise to bring them candy, although he never did, though not out of spite, he probably just forgot, and then the children were instructed not to ask. He would sometimes pat one or another of them on the head, a little clumsily, maybe, but not so as anyone would think, He doesn’t know his own strength, or, Why is he touching my child?

In the spring, when the students in the Earth Club at the local college had arranged with the rector to start the garden behind the church, he (the maniac) had been among the first community members to get involved, and he immediately became known for the diligence and evenness with which he cut the grass. This was particularly appreciated since it seemed to be a job no one else was willing to do, unlike planting seeds or picking tomatoes, or just lazing about in the shade by the church wall, as if the plants would grow by themselves, without even a modicum’s expenditure of sweat and … blood. In fact he seemed eager to mow the grass, would wait outside the wrought iron gate every Saturday morning for the students, to whom the rector had given a key. He would have stripped the tarp off the mower and begun to walk his even rows, reaper-like, before the students had hung the banner on the gate; and by the time the girls had returned from drawing their sidewalk-chalk advertisements, he would have finished the first pass, and would be standing in the corner admiring his handiwork, rocking on his heels with his hands clapsed before him, smoking, puffing without taking the cigarette out from between his lips. Then he would do it all over again, as a few of the families who lived on the street began to appear; and then he would pick the mower clean of the blades of grass and stems that had twisted themselves in bunches around its axle, and of the discarded bits of twine that had been used to tie the pepper plants; and then he would stow the mower back beneath the tarp, and bid everyone good-bye, sometimes with a formal handshake, and stub his cigarette out on the corner of one of the garden-boxes, and put the butt in his breast pocket. By then the sun would have crested the corner of the church; from the gate, the mowed rows shone like the tracks left by a mop.

He was amply praised for the evenness of his cut, he standing on his toes and puffing up like a rooster, praised with perhaps just a little selfishness on the part of the community members and students, since they had no intention of cutting the grass themselves, particularly since it was a push mower, part of the green ethos, and a donation. For who, no matter what their politics, would want to push a motorless mower across a wide expanse of grass on a Saturday morning, particularly when the grass didn’t even belong to them, but to a church with a dying congregation, not a member under sixty, the rector by far the youngest among them, every one of them born in this neighborhood, their grown children having moved away years before? A church with a hole in its roof, and a sagging veranda, broken shingles on its unswept patio and broken windows all along the garden-side wall, like the deadlights of a sunken cruise ship. A church that the students had turned to because the college periodically rented its hall for dances. For its part, the church seemed to see the garden as another such venture. The treasurer never used the word “garden,” he called it a “possible revenue stream,” and although it was unclear from the outset how the garden would raise funds, it remained the condition on which the church agreed to “loan” the land to the students of the college and community, the alternative plan being to turn the yard into a parking lot, which the treasurer, mincing between the garden-boxes suitcase in hand, made clear he preferred. The students, on the other hand, were of the idealistic save-the-earth type, the children of middle-class radicals. They believed planting flowers and vegetables in a neighborhood where none of them lived would help heal rifts and create community. In the meantime, no member of the congregation ever set foot in the garden, while the members of the community who supported the garden, if they were religious at all, patronized other churches, mostly in the neighborhoods from which they had recently moved. It was into the gap between these factions that the maniac, so to speak, nestled himself.

In the garden they grew tomatoes and a variety of peppers, some long and thin and crinkled like witches’ fingers, some round and plump like tiny red pumpkins, together with beets and lettuce and collard greens and radishes and carrots and two different kinds of cucumbers, one of which was spiny and round like a yellow sea-urchin, and which the children liked to pick, wading through the groundhugging vines like a surf and pulling the cucumbers up with excited shouts. There were different kinds of sunflowers, too, planted in pairs between the garden-boxes, monks with their cowls drawn up. For a first season, everyone agreed the yield was magnificent—everyone, at least, who patronized the garden, which, besides the students, amounted to a handful of families, most of whom lived on the adjoining street. It was the church, or rather the rector and treasurer, that magnified the garden’s failings: the sorry-looking yellow squash plants gnawed at the heart and root by a burrowing worm that the more experienced gardeners dug out with their knives and trowels and shook their heads at banefully; the tomatoes, which, although they fared far better than the squash, suffered a bottom rot that ground eggshells failed to remedy, and then were decimated by the local squirrel population. The squirrels delighted in leaving the half-eaten fruit in the middle of the lawn, where, if they were not retrieved early, they were mulched in the mower’s pass.

With every such incursion, every such failure, the proposed parking lot loomed larger in the students’ imaginations, although they still believed they could win over the church with idyllic scenes of toddlers watering and neighbors carrying home bags of fresh vegetables and babies on blankets spread out on the freshly-mowed grass, their mothers making raspberries on the babies’ bellies and eating strawberries until the sun had fallen behind the brownstones opposite the church and the rector had come to chide the students about the squash and fawn over the babies and remind everyone to lock the gate behind them. There were a few older children, some who came with their mothers, and some who came alone; and after being corralled into a little watering and a little weeding they would run back and forth playing their inscrutable games, disappearing now and again behind the corner of the church, though never out of reach of their mothers’ voices. Meanwhile the maniac went on pushing the mower over the stony grass, his second pass; and since it was a push-mower, although it did squeak and rattle a little, it didn’t make nearly the kind of noise a gas mower would have, fine for a late Saturday morning, nothing to be afraid of in terms of rousing the community’s ire, in fact quite the opposite, listening to it could be as relaxing as listening to a gentle rain, or to the squeak of a turning windlass on a rocking boat, a sound mothers could doze to while the children chattered away like birds in a hedge and the maniac hummed to himself, a sound like a very quiet motor.

Oh, they were told to be careful, but not in that way, not for that reason, the warning was meant to forestall an accident where one of the children ran into the mower, or even more, into the maniac, from disturbing the maniac about his work, which, they imagined, might upset him, might lead him to raise his voice, or even to come and have a word with them, that is, with the parents, in that soft funny quiet little accent of his, no, they’d rather not have to talk to him at all, better just that he showed up and performed his civic duty uninterrupted and went on home, wherever that was, everyone knew about where he lived but not exactly, he was praised from a distance, courted with a little small talk here and there to make his life palatable, to be made to feel appreciated, yes, that was sufficient, that was what made the gears turn and everybody get along, give him a pat on the back and call him a credit to the community, yes, why, they were performing a public service just as much as he.

The girl had last been seen by the fence along the terrace road, balancing on a rock with her hands held out to the iron rail, as if she would try to climb it, around the corner of the church and out of sight of the mothers and the students. The next thing anyone knew, the cherubic little redhead in the white dress was screaming under the blades of the push-mower, and the maniac, oblivious to her cries as much as to the jets of gore sloshing against his pantlegs, was running the mower back and forth upon her, and swearing. The other children stood frozen ten paces away. Before the maniac could be stopped, he had run over the girl completely, stumbling a little, and pushed the mower in staggering paces up to the gate, and almost into the stunned rector, whose gaze he did not meet before two male students, seniors, one an athlete, took him by either arm.

At the trial, the maniac claimed that he had not even heard the girl’s cries, would of course have stopped had he, but was convinced at the moment that he had merely hit what he referred to as “the tough patch.” He tried to explain what the grass was like in that part of the garden, less like grass than grown-together weeds. But he had gone back and forth over the girl’s body at least a dozen times; had he not felt that there was something else besides grass under the mower? The maniac explained again that it was weeds, not grass, grown-together weeds, that he had always had to go back and forth rather than straight through, that the mower would often flip up on its rollers, like when he hit a stone, that he simply had not been … paying attention. As for the truly horrific wounds the mower had inflicted—for the little girl had lived through the assault, although many would later say it would have been better had she died—the maniac’s lawyer felt compelled to explain the peculiar nature of the push-mower to the court. Its blades, he said, cut the grass with a ragged end. This was necessarily much better for the health of the lawn, but understandably much worse … for the girl. Who, rather than suffering the clean lacerations associated with the helicopter-like blades of a gas mower—which, the lawyer stressed, the horror of the girl’s present condition notwithstanding, would have killed her outright—exhibited wounds consistent with the push-mower’s slower, interlocking blades. It was something like catching a mouse in an eggbeater, said the lawyer, and immediately apologized. To make matters worse (he went on), his client (the maniac) had just painted the mower’s blades with a “sharpening compound” the previous weekend, which had enabled the blades to chop that much more easily through the girl’s soft, thin bones. In fact, just prior to the tragedy, the mothers had commented that they had never seen the lawn looking so nice. As a result, the girl looked more like she had been mauled by a wild animal than caught under a mower, a fact which must have prejudiced the jury, who could not help but equate the wild animal, not with the mower, but with the maniac.

The only witness who could could be dredged up to testify on the maniac’s behalf was a vagrant who used to sleep under the same tarp as the mower, and who said the maniac had brought him food on more than one occasion, and would let him leave the garden without alerting the rector, for whom the vagrant occasionally moved chairs and performed other minor labors at the church in exchange for a hot meal and short sermon about sloth. But this was already quite late in the trial, when the prosecutor had turned the blade-painting story into a cry of premeditation, and a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity had begun to seem increasingly unlikely—this despite the memorable bit of gothic theater where the maniac confessed that the sentence “I am making up her dying bed” had looped over and over in his head on that day as he mowed. When his lawyer, whispering, pressed him to clarify who the “her” in the sentence was, the maniac hung his head and said that he did not know.

So the insanity defense failed, and the maniac was executed, almost without delay, at least beyond that of a singularly lengthy and vehement speech delivered by the judge at sentencing, which underscored the law’s role in protecting the safety of children and the sanctity of community, particularly in the vicinity of a house of God, etc. As for the garden, it died a slower death. No one set foot there after the tragedy; the rector no longer came to open the gate, from which shreds of yellow police tape still flapped. Nor did the mothers appear, whether out of deference to the stricken family or sheer horror at the event itself. Community members unaffiliated with the garden or the church crossed the street rather than pass too close to the rock by the fence where the girl had last been seen standing. No one mowed the grass, of course, it was late in the season anyway, too late to bother, and besides, the mower had been confiscated for evidence, together with all the sharper garden implements.

The tomatoes were left to the squirrels, who still left them half-eaten in the grass, while the remainder of the summer’s considerable harvest ripened and rotted and dropped from the vines and the sunflowers hung their stubble-cut heads and wept their dried petals into grass that grew high and weedy around plots and boxes all but obscured. Only the students complained, and only the more intransigently idealistic among them held protests outside the gate, and a few even climbed the fence to gather the withering fruit from the dry weed-tangled vines, until the college, pressured by the rector, dissolved the club and punished the trespassers. The more cynical students claimed the incident had merely brought to a swift and decisive end a doomed project, one whose fate had been foreshadowed by the diseased squash. The garden, far from creating community, had exposed the vacuum at its heart for what it was, had given space for the worm to grow, for the rot to set in. This did not stop the trespassers from starting a rumor that the rector had put the maniac up to it, or the children from whispering that one particularly mean old woman in the congregation, whom they called The Witch, had cast a spell on him.

In time, the garden came to resemble many another abandoned lot around the city, a haven for colonies of vagrants, a place for thieves to toss the emptied wallets and purses of their trade into the tall grass.

The only member of the community who went back to the churchyard after the incident was the girl, although this was not until several years later. She would wheel her chair up to the fence—what remained of her legs were almost entirely useless for locomotion—and then use her one powerful arm to hoist herself up and over, the second, withered one serving as a sort of rudder, and then flop down into the tall grass on the other side, crawl hand-over-stump until she was out of sight of the passers-by, who, seeing her wheelchair parked across the street, might call out to her, tell her she shouldn’t be in there, that they were going to tell her mother, although they never did. She (the girl) would lie in the grass looking up at the sky, and sometimes she would fall asleep, dream about the accident, or whatever it had been, which she could not really remember, only a feeling like a tusk in her back, which she associated with a clip she had seen on the TV of a man thrown by a bull. She was so grotesquely misshapen that grownups averted their eyes and small children squealed and pointed. Even her voice was a croak, the emanation of a body grown from the seed of a wound. If the maniac had given the family anything, it was something against which to measure what the girl might have been, an image that became more fantastically ideal with each passing year, as her body grew yet more gnarled, and other girls her age began smoking cigarettes and showing themselves to boys in the recesses of the church walls.

In the meantime the church had pressed forward with its plan to turn the yard into a parking lot, a plan which, they said, would not only raise much-needed revenue for the church, which had grown only more dilapidated since the tragedy, but also help to heal an old wound, one still very much present in the community’s mind every time they passed the one-time garden, which, by virtue of its understandable neglect, had become a real eyesore. So it was that one day the fence beside the stone where the little girl had stood was uprooted, and the Caterpillars and steamshovels moved in with incredible swiftness to finish what the pushmower had not, crushing the girl into the dirt with their great chugging engines and lifting her corpse up in their shovels—the girl, whose empty wheelchair lay overturned beside the mangled fence, and whose cries could not be heard over the snorting motors of the earth-moving machines.

Craig Bernardini’s stories have appeared in BoothCimarron ReviewMemoriousWashington Square, and Zone 3. He teaches English at Hostos Community College, a City University of New York school in the Bronx, and blogs about music at Helldriver’s Pit Stop, on the CUNY Academic Commons.