That’s where the life is by Emily Harrison

‘The trick,’ she says, ‘is to loosen the roots. It helps with growth.’ 

I glance at the kid. He’s watching the display intently, a crease between his eyebrows.  

‘Loosening roots is good practice,’ she states, while her fingers tease the soil. From where I’m standing – me leaning against a wooden pillar, the kid with a front row seat – I can’t tell if the roots are coming apart. ‘You don’t want them too close together.’  

The garden centre began their displays as the seasons turned. Last weekend a man with sunburnt arms talked about biennials and dealing with the disappointment that they only bloom every other year. Today a woman, who is pretty in the way someone who spends their time with soil can be, is telling us about cultivating the growth of herbs.  

‘Sometimes you can use a secateur to get the tough roots loose,’ she says.  

The kid asks what a secateur is. Someone sat behind him nods as if they were about to ask too.  

‘A type of scissor,’ she replies. ‘Maybe like a plier for plants.’  

The kid isn’t mine, but he lives with me. His mum is mine, in a way. Or was. She has the knack for disappearing. 

‘For the ones that need cutting away with the secateur…’ she holds up the tangle of rosemary roots and snips, ‘it has to be gentle. Nothing too drastic. It’ll hurt the herb.’  

Someone has handed the kid a plant to inspect, in a sort of ‘pass the parcel and see for yourself’ type thing. He turns it over in his hands and pokes the roots. A jumble of soil drops into his lap. He looks up to me as I watch from the side lines. I smile – all lips and no teeth.  

The display wraps up not long after that. The woman mentions putting the herbs into well-watered soil, but really, it’s all in the roots. That’s where the life is.  

In the car on the way home the kid is quiet. I ask if he wants ice-cream, and he shrugs. I take a left a mile later, turning onto a track that leads to a local diary farm.  

‘Jes,’ he says, as I park. The gravel crunches beneath the tyres.  

‘What’s up?’ 

‘You think that’s why?’ 

His mum once told him the best ice-cream flavour was vanilla. All natural. Nothing to mess up the blend. As if the sweeteners added aren’t synthetic.  

‘What’s that, buddy?’ 

‘You think that’s why mum’s gone?’ He’s staring at himself in the wing mirror, eyes flicking between the crease in his forehead and his mouth. ‘You think we were too tangled up, like the roots. She had to go and cut herself free. To grow, or something.’  

The kid once asked me if his mum was like the birds migrating, or the trees that die back in the winter. He’s picked up her habit of equating everything to nature. She often said her heart resembled the sediment of a stone. How easy it could crumble. I often said it might be best if she just grew up.  

‘I think she wanted to leave, buddy,’ I say, because I can’t lie. ‘I think she was unhappy. Maybe there’s something natural in that. I don’t know. Maybe she couldn’t stay any longer.’  

We go inside and I order. After some coaxing he asks for three-scoops of vanilla in an ice-cream cone triple the size of his hands. He drops some on his crew neck on the way back to the car. Two sticky circles mark the material. I offer some of mine – chocolate-chip – but he tells me no. He can’t eat any other flavour. 

Emily has spent the past two years studying for a Creative Writing MA and now she’s not sure she has any creativity left. She has had work published with X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, Barren Magazine, STORGY Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, Litro, Tiny Molecules and Gone Lawn to name a few. She is a onetime Best Small Fictions nominee, which is pretty cool.