Invasive

What are these?” Judy asks. She bends way down, peers over the gold rims of her spectacles at something green beside the path. My eyes dash away from her, scan patch snow between silver trunks of beech and birch to find the dogs, team-digging for chipmunks by a stump. Clots of soil and rock are hitting leaf-duff in rhythmic spurts. They’ll be busy for awhile.

I crouch next to Judy for a closer look. Tiny white flowers, about a dozen in a bunch, a fairy bridal bouquet ascending from a rosette of heart-shaped leaves. Some smaller leaves wind in a spiral staircase up the flower-bearing stem. I hook my glasses into my sweater collar, get down on hands and knees, bring my good right eye in close: four petals, six stamens.

“Some mustardy thing.”

I need to bring the little flowers home to reference books and tea to extend my diagnosis beyond family resemblance, pin down a species name—but I won’t pick them if there are just a few. Unfolding my achy back and dampish knees, I put my glasses on, then look around. There are four. No, five. I know I’ve never seen them here; but still, those tooth-edged leaves do resonate—familiar shapes I cannot place. Judy has been walking dogs along these trails since before blueberry bogs succumbed to soccer fields. If she thinks these rosettes of saw-toothed hearts are new arrivals to these woods, then they are new. For now, I’ll have to leave them be.

The dogs dig deeper, taking turns at the same hole. Judy and I return to talk of flowers waking from their winter’s nap—this morning, the clump of bloodroot we transplanted from her yard to mine sent up first leaves, furled like umbrellas as they push from softening ground; soon it will be time to look for blue Hepatica.

Since we’ve started talking botany on daily walks, what I am planting in my garden has become a subject of earnest inquiry, as have my curtains, my cutlery, my compost pile, the health of my family in Germany, and anything I’ve ever cooked. Swept up in shared bouts of farmer’s market shopping, canning, and impromptu barbecues, I’ve stopped wondering how long teaching college biology can keep me happy on the northern edge of Appalachia, three thousand miles from home.

Today, the chipmunks’ burrow proves too deep for digging dogs. Judy and I pick up our pace, take the shortcut across the parking lot between the college football and baseball fields; Judy mustn’t be late for her doctor’s appointment.

“Call me when you get back,” I say.

Her symptoms, reported over many weeks, have puzzled me—evening chills and fevers that resolve by morning, a pain she describes as “a stitch in my side.”

“Or, I can tell you tomorrow,” Judy says.

■■■

The dogs have treed a squirrel. Two weeks have transformed fairy bridal bouquets into candelabras by our path. Like dollhouse-cucumbers, green fruits curve skyward from stems that have shot up knee-high. Two neat seams that split the oldest fruits signify siliques—another mustard hallmark.

Judy’s scans are back. “Diverticulitis,” the doctor said, a small pouch on the colon that swells and gets infected off and on, not too unusual in late middle-age. Some intravenous antibiotics should calm the ooze and swelling, clear things up. The squirrel jumps, catches another branch; dogs rage below to no avail. There’s a squirrel highway in this canopy, and each nodding twig asserts escape.

■■■

My dog’s high-pitched yelps, hot on a rabbit’s brushy tracks, lead me away from our familiar round of trails. Summer-green privet covers the mad zigzag of his dash and Judy cannot help me look. After four weeks of fevers and recurring pains her doctors, out of drugs to try, went radical; a surgery has clipped that oozing pouch—she should come home in just another week. I follow fading yelps and rustles down an unfamiliar trail, then stop to listen, scan for movement between oak and brush. I whistle, listen, whistle, wait.

Rangy green candelabras frame this path. Where fruits gape open, black seeds glint in single rows. Yet, at the apex of each shoot, more flower buds announce: These plants intend to go on blooming. Diminishing this fertile bunch by just one will do no harm—I pick a specimen to take it home to books and tea, then drop it as a cloud of garlic rises from bruised leaves. My nose knows before there are words or names: This is the smell of straying from a European woodland path, the taste of springtime omelets. Alliaria, a genus name reeking of onions. The truth of its relations to the Allium family, however, the leeks and garlics, onions and chives, lies not in genes or marriage, just in pungency.

Garlic mustard—a name to drop by Judy’s bed this afternoon; woodland news and speculations, a green gossip column to walk her mind away from drips of the IV. The doctors sent some tissues out for biopsy; no need to worry, just routine. The rabbit’s gone to ground, my dog is back, trailing broken brambles: prickles of blackberry, hooked thorns of multiflora rose.

■■■

Siliques on tall stems rustle, parched and ripe in their mid-summer tan. Seeds scatter as dogs fling themselves from the trail, traversing weeds to reach the brush. After a grouse? A turkey? From sprays of Rosa multiflora quivering in their wake, I turn to Judy, dumbly repeat words, like new vocabulary in a language class:

“Stage IIIB.”

Blood pounds in my ears.

“I’ll call you when I’ve looked it up.”

“Tell me tomorrow,” Judy says. “There’s nothing to decide today.”

Whatever the dogs scared up has flown; my lanky setter-mix returns, then Ivy, Judy’s terrier, short-legged in his wake. Flanks pump, pink tongues loll from wide-open jaws. They trail us, slowly, panting hard, as we extend a walk devoid of words, humid heat plastering our shirts against our backs.

An hour later, I lift my tea cup, realize it’s empty. I’ve been meaning to make more. An asterisk in Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide—means alien, correct? Correct: “The plant is not native to the area but has been brought in by one means or another.”

Newcomb’s and I have always got along.

“Brought in from where?”

Newcomb’s is silent on this point.

“Native to Europe,” The Flora of Pennsylvania says.

My nose was right: Garlic mustard smells of childhood romps.

“So, how did it get here?”

Google, ever solicitous, suggests the National Park Service for further inquiries. There, the Alien Plants Working Group speculates that settlers brought garlic mustard along with them for food or maybe medicine. A first record from 1868 pins it to Long Island, a rural get-away for summering city folks.

Brought here to work, then, and escaped. From fields and gardens seeds scattered to the woods—feral white flowers tracing the white man’s path across a continent, making themselves at home in patchy sunlight under disturbed deciduous canopies.

Now that it’s in our woods and free to run along cross-country trails, what will it do? On this point, the Alien Plants Working Group sounds definite: “Once introduced to an area, garlic mustard outcompetes native plants by aggressively monopolizing light, moisture, nutrients, soil and space.”

Aggressively monopolizing space.

I lift my cup. There is no tea. I put the cup down on the table, then my arms and head.

Google, infamous for side-tracked conversations, always makes me ask more questions than I opened the computer for. How did my fingers jump from mustards to Stage IIIB? The answer is forty-six percent. One in two people die within five years. Have the doctors really not told her this?

I lift my face. My eyes touch the phone, recoil, then seek safety on the computer screen. “A single plant can produce thousands of seeds, which scatter as much as several meters from the parent plant.” Scatter how far?

I get up, fill the kettle, then walk up and down the stairs. Scatter to kidneys, liver, spine?

Water and metal grumble, pop; the kettle heats. What was I wanting from upstairs? Another book?

I walk back down, plop back onto my chair. “Recognition of garlic mustard is critical. Several white-flowered native plants, including toothworts (Dentaria), sweet cicely (Osmorhiza claytonii), and early saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis), occur alongside garlic mustard and may be mistaken for it.”

To see garlic mustard, you must train your eye to find four petals, heart-shaped leaves, fruits splitting along two seams—the patterns that distinguish natives from invaders.

My teeth have peeled a strip of skin from my lower lip. The blood tastes metallic, familiar. I dab. That surgeon had no idea he was dealing with cancer when he sliced the diverticulum away from Judy’s gut. He said he saw nothing suspicious there at all.

The kettle whistles, I jump up, turn off the gas, sit back down. “Care must be taken to remove the plant with its entire root system because new plants can sprout from root fragments.” Next to the computer sits a Kleenex, with some dots of blood.

Recognition is critical. And now the surgeon says he “thinks” he’s “got it all.”

I pick up the phone.

“Go down to the university medical center,” I say. “Get in on their drug trial, if that’s the only way your insurance will let you go.”

Judy says Laura, her sister, has already told her this. I say: “I’m glad.” I say: “Please go.” 

I reach for my tea cup. There is nothing in it.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Judy says.

■■■

Snow devils dance across the soccer fields. My dog leaves impact craters as he bounds. Behind him, Judy’s terrier plows slow furrows, pushing snow. I turn around to Judy in my tracks: “You sure you want to do this?”

Her glasses fog below the thick brim of her hat. Her nose and cheeks are buried deep—under a knitted scarf, a ski mask covers her face. I’ve ordered the mask for her from REI; the slightest chill now turns her face bright-red. Her hands have started peeling, skin like translucent bark trailing from stems of river birch.

I’ve combed through reams of papers that the cancer study’s doctors dumped into her lap—a grimoire of “maybes” to expect, report, survive. They mixed three drugs, each with its own way of killing quick-dividing cells, in hopes of leaving no surviving metastatic clumps. Nobody knows how these three poisons interact. Any of them could kill skin cells, cause them to flake away in the course of icy weeks.

Muffled by too much scarf, Judy waves me on ahead, her gesture clumped by fur mittens over gloves. I tug down my hood across my forehead, turn into the wind. Across the field, the shelter of beech and oak seems far and vague; bare branches blur behind a wall of whirling snow.

■■■

The dogs are staring at a log: Chipmunks have woken from their torpid trance. Spring has pushed green rosettes through last year’s fallen leaves.

“I always thought I would live longer than Ivy,” Judy says.

Ivy has just turned five. Judy bends down, grasps a stem, yanks, sends soil flying.

“Maybe this one is really just a cyst,” I say. “They’re hollow; the radiologists can see that on the scans.”

Judy nods. Her gynecologist already told her this. She jerks up another tuft of greenery, a waft of garlic floats my way—here’s a woman who knows exactly what she’s after. I scan ahead: Leafy rosettes outline our path, renegade clumps of green scrambling into still-leafless brush.

“Just a cyst,” and yet the gynecologist wants to cut and look around. I bend and pull. More garlic scent. Yips by the log, a pounce, a brief, wild chase. The chipmunk scrambles up a beech, spits defiance at the dogs below.

■■■

A windowless examination room admits no autumn sunshine, negates the dance of glowing leaves outside. There’s three of us and three of them—too little space to sit and none to breathe. The surgeon’s cell phone rings; he apologizes, motions his two interns to trail him out the door. White paper, from a butcher’s roll, crinkles on grey vinyl as Judy shifts on the tabletop. I look at Laura. She slowly shakes her head. My head nods an agreement to her shake. They asked me along as “extra ears;” I try to refrain from being “extra mouth.” But on my own, at home, I could not stop myself from being “extra eyes,” could not rein in my fingers’ crazy chase down keyboard paths, hot on the trails of numbers, Latin words.

Twenty percent. One in five patients receiving “thermal intraperitoneal chemotherapy,” the fourteen syllables we’ve driven two hours to discuss, dies on the operating table. For the other four, life tends to go on two or three months longer than it would without. But—all these numbers come from patients close to death, where rampant tumors choke the body cavity. No one knows what happens if the cell clumps aren’t so big, the patient not so sick and weak. No one knows the risk of pouring hot poison into the belly of a woman who yanks a hundred mustard plants on two daily walks. That’s what “experimental” means, after all.

Months ago, the cyst that prompted yet another surgery was never found. But, in mid-procedure, the gynecologist called an oncologist to help: They cut a mass away from Judy’s bladder wall, excised some smaller lumps, biopsied anything suspicious. After six more months of chemotherapy her scans are clear. But they have always been. Judy’s tumors have a way of hiding in the brush.

This surgeon, too, has waved his hand at blurry scans: “Nothing to see,” he said, as though the winding trail of Judy’s colon were just a quiet woodland path. Nothing to see, and yet he wants to slice and search, pre-heated toxic cocktails within reach. Nothing to see, and yet we’re here, two hours away from woods and home, not breathing as we await re-entry of this doctor and his train. The Alien Plants Working Group keeps sounding in my ear: “Because the seeds of garlic mustard can remain viable in the soil for five years or more, effective management requires a long term commitment.”

“Laparoscopic doesn’t mean easy,” Laura says.

The surgeon, having stepped back in, agrees: “But it’s the only way to have a look.”

I am not breathing.

Laura’s face is white, Judy’s bright-red. The vinyl of the table still is grey.

“I’ll do it. For Ivy,” Judy says.

■■■

Spring three: green leaves along my path sprawl heart-shaped, long-stalked, tooth-edged—and already limp. On days when work runs longer than it should I always know when Judy’s walked ahead of me. Pulled and tossed on the trail’s tight-tamped dirt and rock, these plants will die, unable to re-sink their drying roots. My dog is staring at that same old log: One day this chipmunk’s scramble for the beech will be too slow. But not today. I tug a few rosettes, escapist renegades, a foot or two into the brush—a small addition to Judy’s trail of executees.

“You know you can’t get them all.” I felt I had to tell her this, one day.

“Did I ever show you my favorite cartoon?” she asked in return, her glasses twinkling, mustards dangling from her fist. I shook my head, so she explained: “There’s this little girl walking down a beach, tossing starfish back into the water. And then a man tells her that she can’t save them all. And she just picks up the next one, tosses it in, and says: ‘Betcha I saved this one’.”

I bend again. I pull. I toss. Lightning-speed rustle through twigs and weeds; my dog leaps at the beech’s smooth trunk. Furious chatter pelts from above.

■■■

“Do you think there are less of them?”

Judy scans white bouquets along the path. It’s spring again. Ivy sniffs, then squats to pee.

“Yes,” I say. “It sure seems that way.”

The Alien Plants Working Group has never left my head: “Regardless of the control method employed, annual monitoring is necessary for a period of at least five years to ensure that seed stores of garlic mustard have been exhausted.” Three years ago, the cap stayed on the heated poison pouch; the surgeon’s laparoscope found nothing.

“Minimally invasive” doesn’t mean “easy”—fifteen incisions slowly healed, scarring a belly like a battlefield. But Judy’s scans are clear.

We stop to wait for Ivy at the wavy edge of woodland shade. Judy steps off the trail. I watch her bend, and yank, and toss.

Catharina Coenen is a German immigrant to Northwestern Pennsylvania, where she teaches college biology. Her creative non-fiction essays are forthcoming in 5 x 5 and in The Avalon Literary Review.

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