Saturday Morning Short Story: The Atheist Gardener

April 21, 2012
It’s been an interesting week for me. I got an invitation to submit “The Pig Wife”, a historical fiction novel set in the 1850’s California Gold rush, from Fireship Publishing in England. Of course I wanted to finish up last minute polishing before I sent it, but needed to have a small broken bone removed from the ball of my foot on Tuesday. That knocked me flat for a couple of days, and to make matters worse both my son Daniel and his wife Lindsay graduated from BYU on Thursday and we missed it. Now the manuscript  will be ready to send on Monday and my foot is feeling better, and I console myself that we’ll celebrate the graduations next month when we go out for the birth of our granddaughter. No pain, no gain, I suppose. I hope you like this morning’s story. I still love comments, and I love followers even more! 
The Atheist Gardener
The wind finally died in the night. The crickets and cicadas formed a chorus and sang at her funeral. When the first red eyelids of day began to open, the birds realized that their nemesis was really gone and made no pretense of grieving. The Southerly had been a vicious, vindictive creature who shredded nests and flung the fledglings into thorn thickets.
Jane Willis smiled when she realized the wind had died. She also felt no pangs for the wicked Southerly for the way she had snatched her bed sheets from the line and carried them billowing into the dusty field. When the pins held the laundry tight, Southerly had sifted the silty soil over it until it was dirtier than before.
“At last!” Jane said as she surveyed the rows of thirsty plants in her vegetable garden. She stood an hour with a watering wand on her hose, bathing the dust from the vegetable plants as she gave them drink.
Her neighbor, Sandy, wandered up from the road where she had been collecting yesterday’s mail.
“Isn’t this peace glorious after four weeks of that howling wind?” Sandy asked, not expecting an answer. “It’s Providential.”
“If it was Providence that controlled the weather in Kansas, you’d have to credit Him with sending the wind, too.”
Sandy couldn’t argue with the logic. Jane was an atheist. Sandy didn’t understand how anyone that raised a garden and lived on the largess of the land could not believe in a higher power, but that was undeniably the case with Jane.
“All I know is that just last night I prayed for the wind to cease and when I got up this morning, I knew my prayer was answered.
“I suppose you’ll be angry with God when the horned tomato worms eat you plants again this year? That would be His doing, too?”
“Of course not. Just because God can control the elements, doesn’t mean He always does.”
“Why didn’t He stop the wind three weeks ago?”
“Because I only prayed for it last night. He doesn’t work miracles until we’re ready to notice them. What would be the point of answering prayers nobody has prayed? It would be like answering a phone that nobody called.”
Jane laughed: a throaty, condescending laugh. “I believe in energy. It comes from the sun and creates winds and currents and clouds and droughts. But you ask too much if you tell me to believe that the energy is sensible of what it causes and its effects on puny humans. If that energy is spirit, then perhaps I do believe in a higher power. Higher than me, anyway, but not higher than nature.”
Sandy wagged her head sorrowfully as she watched Jane retire to her back porch with her .22 rifle over her knees to watch for rabbits. Watering the garden often attracted them and Jane considered their soft, brown pelts and their sweet, stringy meat part of her annual harvest.
Sandy started back toward the road but turned back. “I can see how you would logic God out of existence. But whether you know He’s there or not doesn’t affect Him. Just like not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow doesn’t keep it from happening.” She hurried to cross the road without acknowledging her neighbor’s scoff.
Jane shot a fat cottontail and buried the guts between the oleanders. She hung out her wash and it hung straight down and the sun bleached out the stains that had collected. She brought it in before supper, burying her nose in the fresh air scent, relishing the sheer cleanness of it. When the laundry was folded, she went to the vegetable garden and harvested two each of sweet onions, tomatoes and summer squash. She sautéed it in a little butter and ate her baked her rabbit in homemade barbeque sauce. She wished she’d invited Sandy and her husband Joe to join her. Harvest season always made her want company. But Sandy might still be a little sore at her for explaining her pagan views. She would need a few days to develop a new strategy to convert her.
The next morning, Jane visited her garden to pick off any intrepid squash bugs or horned worms. She found a quaintly painted sign hung on the gate. “God is the Gardener,” it read. Jane laughed as she went to the house for a permanent marker.  She boldly crossed out ‘God’ and replaced it with ‘Jane.’
Sandy wept real tears when she saw it. Jane kindly offered her a freshly laundered handkerchief that smelled of summer air.
“I just know that someday, somehow, you’ll see or feel something that will let you believe in a loving, caring Heavenly Father.”
“Yeah, maybe when I get up one morning and find a brand new chicken coop with nice clean nesting boxes and an automatic feeder, I’ll believe. That one’s so rotten, it’s a wonder the wind didn’t knock it right down.”
A week later, when Jane got home from her monthly grocery shopping trip, a brand new chicken coop, painted white with red trim to match her house, sat where the rickety, rotten old one had been. She recognized Joe’s tractor tracts leading to it. The hens were already nesting in the clean, new boxes. Jane laughed until tears came to her eyes. When her groceries were put away, she baked a ring of pull-apart cinnamon bread with raisins and marched across the road.
Sandy received her with a hug. “I hope you’re a woman of your word.”
Jane laughed and invited them for dinner the next night.
But later that evening, Jane’s phone rang. It was Sandy. “I’m worried,” she said. “I was saying my prayers tonight and I prayed for you and for your gardens and then a bad feeling came to me. I think we should wrap your garden fence in shade cloth and put a ceiling over it too. We’re going to do ours.”
Jane laughed.
“I’m serious Jane. I know you haven’t got any practice in prayer, but I pay attention to what I think and feel when I pray.”
“I’m afraid you called the wrong number.” Jane laughed again and hung up.
Ten minutes later, Jane saw Sandy and Joe wrapping her garden fence in shade cloth and using clothes pins to fasten it over the top.
Jane went to her back porch and lifted her .22. “When I see varmints in my garden, I eat ‘em.”
“It won’t hurt to be safe, Jane. We already did ours. You ought to protect your flower garden, too.”
“I’ll take my chances.” There was nothing in the forecast. Sandy’s superstitions were beginning to impose on her, she thought. She listened for the doors across the street to close and then painstakingly  rolled the shade cloth as she removed it from her garden. She laid the rolls back in the shed under the bucketful of clothespins.
A hailstorm preceded the tornado. The tornado destroyed a two mile stretch of road between Jane and the town, crisscrossing it with sparking power lines. But it didn’t touch either Sandy’s or Jane’s property. The hail cut a broader swath, obliterating crops and damaging roofs.
Sandy found Jane, pale faced and silent, in the morning, sitting on her porch with her .22 on her knees, staring at the coleslaw that had been her garden. The hens clucked contentedly in their sturdy house.
“Oh no!” Sandy cried. “Why didn’t the shade cloth work for your garden? Ours is perfectly fine!”
Jane gestured toward the shed. “It don’t do much good rolled up in the shed.”
Sandy turned her wounded eyes to Jane. “You took it all down.”
Jane nodded.
Sandy blew out her breath in a long, slow puff. “Well, nobody’s going to town for a good, long while. Joe’s radio says that the tornado did a lot of damage there anyway, so there might not be any reason to go if we could. But don’t worry, we’ll have plenty to share.” She patted her friend lightly on the shoulder and turned to leave.
Genuine tears were in the eyes Jane raised to Sandy. She felt something. It was new and old at once. It had, perhaps, Jane thought, been there all along but buried too deep for her to find. She wanted Sandy to know, but it was hard to speak the words. But Sandy was retreating, her head and shoulders sagging.
“I’m not saying I quite believe in God.” Jane squeezed out the words. “I’m too vastly ignorant to come to any conclusion. But I feel my ignorance. I can’t see or touch or smell Him. But, I feel the space inside where there is only ignorance.”
Sandy listened, her face bleak.
Jane lowered her voice to a whisper. “But I can see and touch and hear you. Somehow today,” She gestured toward the ruined garden, “you feel like the gate to that space.”
“I’m not God, Jane. I’m just a frustrated, disappointed human being.”
Jane nodded, wishing for a vocabulary that explained it. “Then I think, perhaps,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “you have something in common with God.”
A tiny smile visited Sandy’s lips and quickly departed. She withdrew Jane’s freshly laundered handkerchief that smelled of summer air from her pocket and handed it to Jane. “You might be right this time.” Sandy said.

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