The City In Sand – The Greenhouse

As he passed down the corridor to the greenhouse, Kor mused how long the journey had grown. After his retirement, twenty years ago, he had practically skipped along the windowless, dry passageway. Since then his pace had slowed, and now, in his ninth decade, the journey from his room to the roof of his living complex had become an arduous, somewhat teetering slog. One of these days, he told himself, he would simply set up a cot in his greenhouse, an action like as not to mystify Dana. He grinned, somewhat spitefully. 

The door to the greenhouse was specially designed to trap moisture, sealant running the rim of the frame. Kor grunted as he applied the pressure of his body weight to the wheel of the door, smiled as it spun, the seal released, and the sound trickling water emanated inside. Light and color flooded the hallway, his bent figure casting a shadow. 

He stepped cautiously through, struck, as always, by the change of the atmosphere. The humidity, the sudden increase in temperature and brightness, the smell of growing and decaying matter were in stark contrast to the dark, even barren environs of the rest of the domicile.

The greenhouse was not large – at least, not when compared to the agriculture-scale facilities maintained by the city. A scant 10 meters square, the room was enclosed on three sides and on the vaulted ceiling with glass. The panes formed a hodge-podge assembly of different sizes, shapes, and tints, reflecting the number of places from which Kor had scavenged. A construction site here, a repair shop there, a shattered building down the street. The effect was not, Dana told him, not dissimilar to an ancient stain-glass window, crafted to evoke some unknown emotion for a forgotten people some eons ago. Kor left matters of history to her teachers, the Loremasters. The whole of his focus lay within these glass walls, and the living things that grew in the here and now. The window let light in and prevented humidity from escaping, and that suited his purpose.

As he passed through the room, Kor ran his fingers over the various plants he had grown here. He sometimes imagined they responded to his touch, arched to meet his fingers as he passed by. These specimens after all, were descended by generations from seeds he had grown and bred himself. He was, he imagined himself, like an elderly uncle to them, feeding and sheltering them, introducing them to their reproductive partners and settling their offspring, generation after generation. 

A chime rang, and Kor sighed. He crossed over to the wall panel, thumbed the panel to open the entrance to his building without bothering to check who stood outside. No doubt it was Dana making her scheduled visit. He had long since stopped trying to hurry through their daily check in, enduring the encounter with all the tired patience of a rose tended by an overly enthusiastic gardener. A brief period of eager pruning and prodding, and he would be left in peace.

Dana had been sent to him by the College, ostensibly to enrich her own studies. Kor suspected that the young scholar had other motives. In the weeks she had first appeared on his doorstep, the youth – a wiry young woman with hair pulled into a tight, practical ponytail – had never appeared to examine Kor’s vibrant domain. Her eyes flitted over the rows of flowers and vegetables as if they were people in a crowd, a busy collective without individuals. Her inquiry into Kor’s work had been perfunctory. Almost immediately, she had sought to extract him from his greenhouse and pull him to the senior center. As if he had any interest. 

Kor was bent over a bed of flowers when Dana entered, and, as usual, he did not turn round to greet her. Why should he? She was under no pretense that he enjoyed these sessions, mandatory as they were. He was always on the verge of demanding that they send students to bother someone less busy, but thus far he had resisted, fearing that it would elevate his profile, flag him for some even more thoughtful and onerous support. Better to endure the attentions of the young woman looking around him, and offer as little encouragement as possible, lest she extend her visit.

“Have you been following the news, Master Grower?” Dana asked, her voice cutting, as usual, through the soft music of his fountains. This time, Kor chose to pretend deafness. 

The silence stretched uncomfortably long. Dana stood, gazing politely and appreciatively at the flowers, and occasionally making a remark about them to which Kor responded with a grunt, or disinterested silence. Dana doggedly attempted to draw Kor into conversation. Kor just as stubbornly and far more successfully, refused. He kept his back toward her, and waited for her to give up and go away. Dana feared that today’s session would be a repeat of the last four weeks.

“Elders should not be isolated,” her advisor had said, peering at Dana from across his desk in the City University. “We can’t allow a lifetime of experience to be lost. We don’t have the luxury of supporting recluses.”

Dana had shifted uncomfortably in her chair.

“So I’m supposed to coax him out? Does he need to go on a lecture tour or something?”

“That would be excellent,” said her advisor, a lean man whose lips had not bent into a smile in all the years Dana had known him. “I would also accept him participating community forums, or even joining elder social hours. In short, I want him speaking with the community and giving something back. Now is not the time for a knowledgeable Grower to be disconnected from society.”

“Supposing he doesn’t want to come out?” asked Dana. “Supposing he’s happy staying where he’s been for the past twenty years?”

“Then you aren’t half as charming as you would  seem,” he replied. “And I can’t imagine a successful Loremaster who can’t get an old man to speak.

“Have you been following the news?” Dana asked Kor, looking over his shoulder as he tested the soil of a pot.

“No,” said Kor. He moved the instrument carefully, parting the leaves and plunging it into the soil at intervals along his rows of plans. 

“It’s crazy out there,” said Dana. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The protests have surrounded the City Hall and taken up the whole circle. They’re going round and round it and chanting demands. Folks are worried there’s going to be violence.”

“What protests?” said Kor, his eyes not leaving the soil test.

Dana paused, at first wondering whether the ancient Grower were playing a joke. If Kor cared to look at her, he would have realized that he was demonstrating ignorance of something that dominated her world. But Kor did not look at her, and her bafflement went unnoticed. Kor said nothing, and continued to prod and scoop soil into his instruments. The silence stretched on, and it seemed Dana would have to try another tactic, when he spoke again.

“Something about water rations?” He frowned. The test showed more phosphorus than he knew to be in the soil. He tested again.

“No, its…” Dana ran a finger gently along a flower, as if wondering how to explain the issue. How to explain to a recluse that outside his old, somewhat dingy tower, the world was working itself up into a fervor and might tear itself apart? She felt vaguely embarrassed. It felt almost rude to burst a bubble so pristinely unpunctured. 

“It’s the Fields,” she said, finally. “They’re drying up.” 

Perhaps for the first time, Kor looked up at Dana, fixed her with a gaze that was surprisingly penetrating. His eyes, somewhat crusted and bleary, now fixed upon her intently. 

“Drying up” he said.

“Yes. Well, failing somehow. Each yield is getting smaller. The Growers don’t know why.”

Kor kept looking at her. He continued to hold the soil testing device but it was motionless in his hand.

“It’s something to do with the plant generations.” Dana said. “They’re growing weaker, or something. I don’t totally understand it myself. The Growers are pumping fertilizer and, I don’t know, chemicals into the soil and the yield is just failing. They’re talking about burning the whole set and pulling seeds from the Archive, throwing out the soil and rebuilding from personal plots. Anyway that’s what the protests are about. A loss of a harvest…” she didn’t need to finish the sentence. She imagined that Kor had tasted enough of the emergency nutrient rations in his time to know how dire the resistance to them would be.

He grunted. “What else have they tried?”, he asked. “Have they…” and he rattled off a series of ecological and chemical procedures, and soil techniques which Dana didn’t recognize. Dana was perplexed. On the one hand, this was more engagement than she had received from the ancient Grower in all the time she had been visiting him. On the other, she had no idea how to answer his question. She was a student Loremaster, and not the least observant of her generation, but the complexities of agriculture, the delicate science exercised by the Growers that sustained the city were beyond her. Under the eye of this irascible man she felt less prepared than she had when questioned by any professor at the College. 

“I believe they’ve tried rotating the soil?” she ventured. 

Kor blinked and said nothing. The intensity of his gaze faded and he was a tired old man again, his attention gone from her, back to his craft. He returned to his instrument, which had never left his hand, and he shuffled slowly back down the row of plants without speaking again to her. Dana was left standing there between plants, thinking.

After another quarter of an hour without further interaction, her timepiece chimed, and she bowed out. Kor did not notice when she left.

Dana’s usual route to Kor’s tower was blocked by barricades. The protests, which had begun a week ago as a wave of angry and enthusiastic marches from place to place throughout the city had settled into a more stationary lull. People came and went from the City circle, but the count of total present never seemed to change. Music resounded off the city walls, speeches from members of guilds major and minor boomed across the audience. Lawkeepers looked on from atop buildings and on the front steps of the City Building. 

As she passed through the street Dana looked at the protestors coming and going. The gaunt faces were weathered, mouths a tight line across the face. Dana passed one woman perhaps a few years older than her treading to the circle. She looked tired and determined – uncertain of what would happen today but driven to the point of breaking to see it through.

Avoiding the crush, Dana circumvented the circle and passed down the avenue to Kor’s building. She thumbed the entry panel and waited through somehow exasperated silence until the door unlocked and she entered in. The drums and muffled din of speeches, still audible outside, became muted as the door sealed behind her. All was quiet. The humidity of the air was as much a shock to her as it had been the first day she had stepped inside. She as if she had stepped into a world totally separated from the one she and the rest of the city had been living in.

Strangely enough, inside Kor’s rooftop greenhouse the noise of the protests was still dimly audible, but Kor seemed not to notice. He paced back and forth between his plants, frowning and grunting within the green. For all Dana could tell he was still dressed in the same clothes from her last visit, and she wondered vaguely how many tunics the old Grower possessed. Perhaps he, like his plants, continued to age in his soil week after week. As before, he didn’t recognize that she had arrived. She hoped, after spending a week observing the Fields, she had what she needed to gain his attention.

Dana had requested to join a group of Growers as they rode out in a rover to the furthest plot. From there, the City seemed almost small, a dim, distant edifice. Here, the Grand Levee rose up in a ring at the outskirts, a bulwark against encroaching sands. The Growers spent the day inspecting endless rows of corn – an enormous crop destined to be converted into a staple (and refined to a fuel) for the hungry City. Dana had observed them – the orderly, almost mechanical efficiency with which they swept over the growing crop, their movements refined to a precise pattern that would be repeated endlessly in the Fields that surround the City.

“I’ve noticed something,” she said now to Kor. “And I thought you could tell me about it. You mix your plants together in a way I don’t see in the Fields. You’ve got these,” here she pointed to a line of tomato plants, “-mixed right in with these.” She indicated carrots that lay just under  the tomatoes, their orange  tops just emerging from the dark soil. “Don’t they, I don’t know, compete with each other?”

Silence from Kor, who at that moment was watering flowers in the next row. She looked from the tomatoes at his plants. Something seemed odd to her in a way that she couldn’t describe, until she suddenly realized. “Hang on, you’ve got two different types of plants together there too.” She pointed at a row of long, green vegetables paired with an orange blossom with broad leaves. “You’ve got zucchini mixed with…” she trailed off, not recognizing the flower.

“Nasturtiums.” Kor said. “They’re edible,” he said, after a pause.

Dana’s eyes swept around the room. Now that she knew what to look for, she realized a pattern that repeated itself around the room. She saw onions mingled with peppers, lettuce with strawberries, plants that she didn’t recognize intermingling with and growing on top of one another. Everything seemed to be joined to something else, a tangle of color and leaves, and heights that seemed almost chaotic when compared with the world outside. The Fields that surrounded the city were divided into bands of plants, each supporting only a single species.

“It’s called ‘companion planting’, said Kor. He continued to water the plants in front of him, but he spoke to Dana in whole sentences, with a voice that sounded like gravel. ‘The plants support each other as they grow. That one,” he said, pointing at a tall, leafy plant with broad leaves, “provides shade for its neighbor. They absorb different materials from the soil, as well. You have to be careful not to plant things that need too much of the same thing from the soil or you’ll end up sapping the life right out.”

“I’ve never seen this kind of planting before,” said Dana, pleased to hear so much out of the old man all at once.

“You wouldn’t.” He frowned, inspecting the underside of a leaf. “The City Fields are monoculture for a reason.”


Kor grunted an assent, his fingers delving between plant and soil. 

“Something like that. It’s more difficult to treat and harvest different sorts of plants with a single process. Split the crops up, order them carefully, and you can do the same thing over and over and over. Extract quickly, predictably. It’s a system that prioritizes efficiency.” His hands chopped downward in straight, orderly lines.

“So why do you grow your garden this way? How did you learn to do this?” Dana asked. 

“I’ve found… the plants are just healthier,” he said. “Look at this tomato.” He held up a ripe fruit, still attached to the branch, and indeed, Dana could see it was a beautiful fruit, round and unblemished, a deep, vibrant red in his palm. “I like the way they grow here, mixing together, each taking and giving their own measure back to the soil. 

“As for where I learned, well.” Kor shrugged. “Nowhere in particular. I wondered to myself what these plants looked like when they could grow out in the wild, before the ecosystem collapsed. I couldn’t see them growing in neat, orderly rows – isolated from each other like they do in the Fields. They probably grow in groups and clusters, on top of one another, vying with and supporting each other…”

The morning passed, and Kor continued to speak, telling Dana about the years of his retirement, of his experimentation inside the walls of his greenhouse. Dana continued to ask questions, pointing to tangle of plants here and there and listening to Kor explain the process he followed, his hopes for his garden, the successes that he was immensely proud of, although he had told no-one about them for years. Once his tongue had been loosened, Kor was a torrent of information, almost garrulous as he explained the quirks of the plants under his care. Dana learned which plants fought with each other, which blossomed together, which tangled and crossed each other as they competed for sunlight and his attention. She learned about how he reintroduced nutrients into the soil with composted materials – mixing dead plants and his own meals into dark, cakey substance, eschewing the chemical fertilizer used by the City. The shadows lengthened, and the greenhouse lights activated, throwing Kor’s weathered features into sharp relief as he guided Dana down the the green files.

As the weeks passed, Dana continued to see a change in the old Grower. She had felt as though the plants had been as much a companion for Kor as any person had been. Now, it as though she were being accepted into their company. Dana was even permitted to water the a row under Kor’s watchful eye. As much as she was able, Dana committed to memory the plants and processes Kor had exposed her to, but she felt the lack of a Grower’s training. Her education had been in dates and names and policies; the delicate balance of substances, the exchanges between plants, slipped quickly from her mind.

One day, at last, Dana gently began to pull the conversation around towards her goal of coaxing the old Grower out. She asked him whether he had ever written down the things he had learned in his garden over the years.”

“Oh, no, no.” He waved the idea away. “I’m nowhere near ready for that. Every season I learn something new, I’d have to start over again. Anyway, who has the time.”

“Well,” she ventured, “have you ever told someone?”

“I’ve told you.” Kor smiled.

“Besides me,” Dana said. “Someone who knows about Growing, I mean.”

“I don’t get out much.”

“Any old friends?” she asked. “Grower colleagues from when you were in the fields?”

“All dead.” He grasped a bucket of compost and moved off down a row.

“Family, perhaps?”

Kor did not respond. Dana followed Kor down the line, stepping gingerly passed greenery that extended out along the path. The sound of water mixed with the muffled drum beat of the streets below.

“You know, Kor,” she said, feeling that she was walking into dangerous territory but unable to stop, “there are plenty of people who would want to learn about what you’ve done here. Maybe you could share your work at a community gathering.”

“Not interested.” Kor had his back to her now, as he had for all the weeks prior. His entire body radiated his desire for her to be absent, a wish to be alone among his greenery. 

As she looked at him, Dana suddenly felt a frustration, buried these past weeks, welling up within her. Here was a man who had walled himself off from the City; worse, had walled the City off from him, him and his discoveries that had resulted in green vegetables and full, healthy fruit. And now he was pushing her onto the other side of that wall, using silence and a cold shoulder to pretend that she didn’t exist. Dana remembered the face of the gaunt woman she had passed on her way to his tower. There was a woman who didn’t have the luxury to be alone and independent. She strode up and wrested the shovel out of his hand spilling the bucket of compost in the process. Dana stood there, flecks of wet organic matter running down her tunic and Kor’s, compost at her feet. The smell of new soil wafted over them.

“What gives you the right?” she said, suddenly almost shouting at Kor. “Look at these plants! Do you realize people in the streets are starving? That the City’s crops are failing? How can you stay up here and not share what you’ve learned?”

Now Kor was recovering from his shock, and his face was drawn into fury. His eyes glinted as he wrested the shovel back from Dana. 

“I gave half a century to the City.”

“The Growers have never done anything like this.”

“They never will!” Kor stooped and started carefully gathering the spilled earth back into the bucket, his fingers seeking out every particle of the precious material. “The Growers are following the same process now as they did when I was an adept. The same damn thing. Always measuring and pushing for yield, pulling the plants apart and killing anything that strayed. They’ve sapped the soil with the same poison that’s killing the City. It isn’t an accident that things are the way they are, it’s a deliberate choice made every damn day, and I’m sick of it.”

“Decisions can change, Kor. Systems change.”

“Not these ones.” Kor sat on the floor, staring into his bucket of dark, stringy soil. Dana stood over him for a moment, then kneeled down next to him.

Kor didn’t look up at her. “You think I’ve never tried to share my thoughts? I tried for years. I made an appeal to the Director of Growers herself, decades ago. I told her that I thought we were killing ourselves with this practice, that we were killing the soil. I told her that we needed to change our methods, enrich the soil, plant  to support diversity and the mixing of species. And she shook her head at me and pointed her window to the City. ‘We’ve got millions to feed,’ she said, ‘We live on the razor’s edge of hunger, and you want me to throw out everything we know to let plants grow together, compete with each other, clog the machines we’ve built to gather. We’ve refined our process to perfection over decades, and you’re asking me to risk starvation.’ She threw me out, and I’ve never tried to change their minds again.” 

Kor looked around his greenhouse, drinking in the smells, and the green.

“I can control this,” he said. “I can change things inside my own walls. Why should I spend my years scrabbling to change an unchangeable system.”

Dana stood. “Kor, I may not know much about Growing, but I know history. The world didn’t used to be like this. Once humans lived outside of cities, they could walk outside under trees and not wear a  mask. Who knows, plants might have grown together just like this, mixed up and messy. It was a system all by itself. And somehow it changed. Today we live in a desert and struggle to keep enough water. Nobody knows for sure, but I think we brought this on ourselves, we chose this path, step by step. But that means that we can change things back. Even big systems can change. If we blasted this world by choice we can change it back again.”

Kor said nothing. He stared down into his bucket, immobile, inert.

Dana grabbed a tomato, the red fruit almost bursting. She pulled so hard the fruit was straining at the stem, and she shook it as Kor cried out, struggling to get to his feet.  “the fruit in the Fields  are half the size. The leaves are yellow. The families who eat it scarcely get enough nutrition to draw breath. People are scared and angry. Kor, you have to share this.”

Kor grabbed her hand, tried to release her grip. The motion snapped the stem, and the tomato fell out of Dana’s grasp. It struck the floor and burst. Dana and Kor looked down at the precious fruit, saw the splatter and the trickle of juice running out onto the floor. For a moment they both stood frozen, struck by the loss of so precious a thing.

“Get out.” Kor’s voice was quiet. He didn’t look at Dana, but stooped, picking up the fallen fruit with that delicacy Dana still found so unexpected in a rough hewn, craggy man.

Kor was still kneeling when he heard the sound of the greenhouse door slamming shut.

* * *

Dana did not come to Kor the next day, which suited him fine. She had raked over an old wound and Kor wanted time to heal. As he made his way from his room to the greenhouse, he found himself growing angry again. She had asked him to throw himself to be ground up in the gears of the City, to try, again, to arrest the Grower’s poisonous decline. Were his decades as a grower not service enough? Why was she asking him to spend his twilight years doing the impossible?

Kor’s anger lasted the whole morning and afternoon. He found himself grumbling and simulating imaginary conversations in his head in which he denounced Dana’s attitude and behavior. Only when the evening had come, and the moon shone distorted through the panes of the greenhouse glass did Kor’s mood begin to soften. Dana was, he reminded himself as he tromped back to his room, young. She had not yet learned what it meant to wear oneself out trying to shift an institution. He decided that when she returned, he would forgive her – and even consent to letting her record some of his processes, if she wished. That prospect cheered him up.

The next day, however, Dana still did not return, and Kor listened fretfully to the muted drums of the protests, now pounding monotonously, now thrumming to a fever pitch and falling silent. He wondered  if she had gotten caught up and swept away in the crowds, then realized that he did not know where she came from every day, or even where the protests were. He was distracted, and more than once he snapped a young plant under his care, cursing as did so.

When on the third day the door chime rang, Kor sprang to his feet and shuffled across the room. He thumbed the panel for entrance, and then moved turned back to one of his ongoing experiments. Today, he decided, he would show Dana his work with balancing organic materials – he thought he had found the ideal combination of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium needed to stimulate plant growth. The door opened behind him.

“Good morning, Master Grower,” said a voice, but it was unfamiliar to him. 

Kor turned, and he saw a young man gazing bemusedly around him at the greenery. He was dressed, like Dana had been, in the tunic of a student, the purple band of the Loremasters’ Guild across his shoulders. Noticing Kor’s gaze, he bowed. “I am Fal, of the College. I’ve been assigned to spend some time with you and learn about your craft.”

Kor felt a wave of confusion, anger, and loss wash over him. Dana had left. She had abandoned him. Had he really been so despicable? All he had wanted was to dedicate himself to his craft, to enjoy a respite after so many years of effort.

“Where is Dana?” he said at last. For a moment, Fal looked confused.

 “Do you mean the student who was here before me? I believe she requested another assignment. Maybe she just didn’t like plants?” Fal laughed, oblivious to the Grower. “I mean, I don’t understand them either. But it must be a pleasant hobby to pass retirement. Would you like to take a walk outside with me, elder?”

The sound wave generated by the explosion outside struck the greenhouse like slap. The panes of glass shook, and one, jarred by the impact, fell inwards and shattered. At first neither man realized what had happened, and listened to the reverberations off the city walls in confusion. Then, through the empty pane, they saw the smoke plume rising up over the tops of buildings. It appeared to originate from near the City center. 

Kor turned and went to the door. He ignored the questions, then protestations of Fal as he exited the greenhouse and limped down the hallway. He passed down the stairs to the ground level, and, turning the wheel, looked out into the street.

It was a mass of confusion. Some – perhaps emergency responders – were pushing their way toward the site of the explosion downtown. They had to fight against the flood of protesters and other pedestrians putting as much distance between themselves and the damage as possible. Faces were blank with terror. Those who could were piling into residential buildings or disappearing down alleys to pass to their own district.

For a moment, Kor’s instinct was to shut the door, return to his greenhouse before the sun shining through the shattered glass sapped the air of the humidity he had carefully gathered. He stood poised on the threshold of the door he had not left in twenty years. He stared out at the mass of moving people, all gaunt with hunger. Dana was in the crowd, he somehow knew, trying to gather sense from the chaos and apply what she knew to make things better. 

Into the mass Kor pushed himself. He was taken up by the crowd, jostled, mixed with the jumble of people pushing to their myriad destinations. For a moment Kor was overwhelmed, in the midst of more humanity than he had seen in decades, faces of young and old jostling past him in rapid succession. Then, remembering his purpose, Kor turned, not toward the explosion, but away. Amid the tumult Kor shuffled outwards, towards the city walls and the Fields, where the Growers worked.