After his wife died in childbirth, the man raised his daughter up until the September she left for college. That October, the man sorted through all the things his daughter had bagged to throw out, and kept most of it, and sent her three care packages. In November he truly began to live alone.
November: the most beautiful month of the year in central California, beautiful because of the cool weather and the slanted light and the magenta-colored leaves on the liquid amber maples in the park across from the man’s house. The man used to supervise his daughter on the park’s climbing structure, but now, through his window, he watched the retirees practice tai chi in rough synchronicity, and the homeless people debate the park ranger, and the dogs collegially sniff each other’s butts. He watched for hours. Sometimes he became mesmerized by the gold-to-wine-colored leaves on the trees, their gentle breathing.
On weekdays, when he unlocked the door after work, the evening stretched out, all his. For dinner he ate what he wanted, sometimes steak or ribs, sometimes a three-egg omelet with ketchup.
After dinner the man drank beer and binge watched Friday Night Lights. In the season-one finale, we find out that the football coach and his hot wife have made a mistake, getting pregnant when their daughter is already grown, and then in the second season they end up with a gremlin-faced baby named Gracie Belle sporting a yellow mullet. The man wondered why they had chosen an infant so lacking in star appeal, but oddly it was around then that he began to long for a baby of his own—the chubby legs pincering his waist, the milk-sour smell of its head. And all the cute things they said when they began to talk. Accompanied by his beer, he now found himself watching YouTube videos of babies saying the darndest things. His favorite was a two-year-old trying to unbuckle her seat belt. Her father asked if she needed help, and the two-year-old yelled, Worry about yourself! Worry about yourself!
Finally, the man thought he might be getting malnourished from lack of vegetables, so the next Sunday he forced himself to go to the farmer’s market. He wandered the stalls, pondering over the largest tomato or zucchini or apple, then dropping them in his backpack. He came upon the last stall selling gourds and dried flowers and branches and dried grasses all ablaze in fall colors. On the far left of the front table, on a blue dish towel decorated with red foxes, lay a pile of shriveled roots. One was curved like a C. The top part of the root had two protrusions, almost like bulging eyes. And it actually had a green tendril, maybe a half inch long, growing up from its head.
The proprietor was busy helping a customer choose between a bouquet of glittering dried corn and a bouquet of cattails, but a young girl, her hair a perfectly circular Afro like the halos painted on saints, sat on a folding chair behind the back table, reading from a tablet.
The man said, Do you know what these roots are?
Barleycorn, said the girl, not glancing up. For chickens.
I don’t think these are barleycorns, the man said. They’re some kind of root or tuber. This one is sprouting.
The girl shrugged.
The man looked over to the owner of the stall for assistance, but he was still in conversation with the customer, who had now begun to cry, so the man said, How much are they?
The girl did not look up. Three dollars each.
That’s crazy, the man laughed. The owner was now embracing the weeping customer, so the man paid the high price, and secured the root in the front zippered pocket of his backpack.
Back home, he took a pot with a dead cactus out of his daughter’s room. He pulled out the cactus with an oven mitt to avoid the prickers, then buried the root just up to its eyes in the dry dirt. He watered it under the faucet. Then he put it on the windowsill above the sink. Why not?
When he got home from work on Monday, the little stem was at least a half inch taller, and there was a tiny furled leaf coming out of it. Down below and between the bulging brown eyes there was another lump—it looked almost like the top of a wide nose.
By the next weekend, a second tendril was curling out of its head, the first tiny leaf had opened, and a whole face had emerged, just the chin left in the dirt. A pug nose with no nostrils, but still.
It could not be denied that his so-called barleycorn was thriving. Only two weeks and its chin was out of the dirt, raised a little, the beige, freckled head tilted over to the right, almost as if it were resting its cheek on the ground. Three small new heart-shaped leaves had sprouted out of its head. He was sure, almost sure, he imagined telling his daughter.
The weeks went by and the barleycorn continued to emerge from the dirt, until one day the man noticed its head was filthy. He got a washcloth from the bathroom, wrung it out, and carefully began to clean the little face. When the warm cloth was over the barleycorn’s nose, it sneezed.
“Did you hear that?” the man said out loud.
The man pulled the cloth off. He was almost sure he had heard a tiny, brilliant sneeze. Nothing now, no movement. The man had an idea. He warmed some milk on the stove, dipped his pinky to make sure it was right. He dripped some into the soil.
The next morning his barleycorn had grown arms. Dirty, rootlet-covered, lumpy little arms like two carrots except beige, reaching out of the dirt, reaching up like, Hold me. Like, More milk, please. The man couldn’t stop smiling as he warmed milk for both himself and the barleycorn. He stood by the sink and they both ‘drank’ from the same mug.
A few mornings later, the man woke to remember that in the middle of the night he had heard mewling. He had stumbled out of bed, shuffled into the hall. A thin cry, like a kitten, from downstairs. In the moonlight over the sink, the barleycorn’s mouth was a little sienna-colored O, its potato eyes still closed, crying in its sleep. The man warmed milk, dripped it into the now open mouth. He whisper-sang to it, Bye Baby Bunting, Papa’s gone a hunting, to fetch a little rabbit skin… The crying trailed off.
Then it began to coo. The man leaned over the sink, his neck pressed against the cool faucet, and put his ear up to the pursed potato mouth. It was making those strange newborn baby sounds, little grunts and snuffles. The man felt moist, milky breath on his ear.
And then the very next day, his daughter came home for winter break brandishing a new tattoo on the side of her foot: I am corn. This seemed like a startling coincidence, but his daughter explained that it was an ironic comment on the overuse of corn products by GMOs. That night, after his daughter had dumped her clothes out of the suitcase onto the floor, she jumped on the couch and beckoned him in. As they cuddled together, his daughter scoffed at Friday Night Lights, and said they should watch a documentary on foie gras and the ethics of force feeding. The following day while the daughter lay on the couch playing on her computer, the man did her wash. The daughter called the father over and showed him the mansion she had built for them both in the game.
The man said, his heart quickening, I want to show you my plant. The daughter wouldn’t get up, so the father brought it over and put it on the coffee table.
Cute, the daughter said.
Do you think it looks like anything?
His daughter took another look, and said, Yeah, totally, and she pulled out her phone and showed her father a tree in which all the pears looked like laughing buddhas, and a fleeceflower that seemed to be a tuber shaped exactly like a grown woman, the man holding it by its roots, which looked exactly like long hair.
The barleycorn began to snuffle in its sleep then, and the man said to his daughter, But can you hear that?
Whoa, his daughter said, and played her father a translation of plants talking through transducers and amplifiers. It sounded like a robot purring. Then she played him the noise coming from the Rosetta comet, which sounded like a squirrel chattering.
That night the man cooked his daughter her favorite dinner, lasagna, and poured them both a glass of wine, but during dinner the fussing of the barleycorn made it hard to concentrate on his daughter’s discussion about whether she should take Sustainability Two or a philosophy course called Gods and Monsters. Are you listening? the daughter asked. The man doused the plant with milk and set it on the little table by the front door.
After dinner his daughter went out with her friends. The man dozed. Though he thought he heard crying in his sleep, he didn’t wake fully. The anxious dozing felt deeply familiar. At three a.m. he heard a crash downstairs and a scream and then laughter and whispering. His daughter was probably drunk or high, but now that she was home, the man could finally sleep deeply.
When he came downstairs the next morning there was a boy sprawled on the couch and a girl in the fetal position on the loveseat. In the entryway, a smear of dirt on the floor. The terracotta pot had been cracked in half and set back onto the little table next to the barleycorn, half-flattened by a shoe.
And even while the man carried the barleycorn out to the compost bucket and gently laid it over the leftovers from last night’s dinner, he noticed his sadness was oddly mixed with relief. As he put the green ventilated lid back on the bucket, he thought that maybe it was best that the cries of plants were generally not audible to human ears.
On the day before his daughter left to go back to college, the man walked with her in the park across the street. The daughter remembered that she used to swing there.
Remember how high you used to push me? she said.
And how long? the man answered.
They wandered the rows of now mostly bare maples, and the man wondered what would happen on season three of Friday Night Lights. His daughter squeezed his hand and said, I’m applying for an internship in Ghana for the summer. Maybe you can visit me there.
All the while the man kept hearing shuffling in the leaves off to the right, but he assumed it was a dog nosing the ground or perhaps a homeless person turning in his sleeping bag. He didn’t see the squat figure dressed in a jerkin of lasagna noodles, with bulgy eyes and a wide, freckled nose, with a bald, half-smashed-in head and stubby, tuberous legs with no feet. The one that whispered, or did not whisper, Hold me. More milk, please.