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Winter 1995, Volume 12.1

Fiction

 

Melissa Pritchard

The Erotic Life of Luther Burbank


Melissa Pritchard (M.F.A., Vermont College) is Assistant Professor in the creative writing program at Arizona State University. Her stories have been anthologized in
Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Best of the West, The Literary Ghost: Great Contemporary Ghost Stories, and have been cited numerous times in The Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories. She received the Flannery O'Connor Award for her first book, Spirit Seizures (University of Georgia Press, 1987). She is the author of two other books, Phoenix (Cane Hill P, 1991) and The Instinct for Bliss (Zoland Books, forthcoming).

I.

" Our life was one of complete happiness."

                          Emma L. Burbank
                                                 July 1895, Santa Rosa, California

A feckless, longarmed girl named Maudie Dollar roamed the trellised porch, her borrowed shoes pinching from a solid week's compliance to the demands, however genteelly couched, of Burbank's three women. Moving dreamily, with an occasional limp from her cramped, spotted shoes, she wanted proof he was on his way, not keeping Dr. Baily dismally poised over a cooling supper, not fatally late for his own (the grayed shin of beef, the boiled, salted potato, the famous Early Rose he had, at the age of twenty- four, coaxed from one miracle spore, a ruddy-jacketed, creamy-fleshed potato that had so spectacularly advanced his seedsman's reputation).

* * *

In time, Maudie loped into the green-striped dining room to pronounce her employer arrived. She had observed him, diminutive god of the vegetable kingdom, stooping along the oyster shell path in his wilted black suit and high-crowned straw hat, its narrow black band haloed with dirt from his experimental gardens. Emerging minister and spirit captain of his fruit trees and grape vines and roses, his rampant thousands of freak hybrids and reckless grafts, the green, easy profligacy of his seedlings, coming in as he always did, faded and spent, to a supper Maudie had slid with her speckled, rootlike arms before him, the food unimaginative but slightly, anyway, still warm.

* * *

The heavy green bottle of anise liqueur, Dr. Liberty Hyde Baily's gift, stood snubbed and unopened on the table with its damasked cloth the frail color of halved pear. The Dean of New York's Agricultural College had just been apprised of Mother Burbank's primmest and most public virtue. Her lips had not been near a drop of liquor in eighty-six years. Son Luther, and daughter, Emma, had likewise and with perhaps small choice in the matter, followed suit. Mother Burbank now sat with a dowager's remote complacency across from Dr. Baily while Emma Burbank, a spectre in her paling forties, sat to his left. Of Luther's wife, Liberty Baily knew nothing save the drama of her absence. She was upstairs, insisting, apparently as always, she would not attend supper without her husband. This occasioned Maudie Dollar's next duty, one carried out with inventive spirit, hollering up the polished oak stairs that somebody's husband was on the porch this minute even as she yelled, his world-famous hand, a hand intimate with thousands of fertile plants, on the doorhandle.

* * *

"This resembles precisely a brain, don't you agree, Dr. Baily?" Helen Coleman Burbank had opened the anise liqueur with a greedy aptitude and now balanced half of a walnut meat on her paint-smeared fingertip near the candle flame. She had been upstairs all afternoon, touching up yet another miniature oil portrait of herself. "The question persists—is it an intelligent brain or the brain of an idiot?"

As she stubbed the nut into her opened mouth, chewing voluptuously, Helen stared at her mother-in-law and said, "What do you think, Mother Burbank?"

"I think it is one of the walnuts from Luther's trees, simply that, a walnut, either from the Paradox or the Royal."

Helen stuck out a nut-smeared tongue, drained off her liqueur, narrowed her suggestive gaze at their visitor. "It was the brain of an idiot. In fact, I feel the stupider for having eaten it. Dr. Baily, do not eat a single one of these nuts, they will rob you of your considerable intelligence, an aspect seductive in any man. Luther, what did you do all day? Potter about in your weeds with your little battery of camel hair brushes? Breeding this with that? Your face is mottled with passion, remarkably like a map I once saw of the West Indies."

Olive Burbank leaned towards her son, brushing his thin hair, the color of grayed ivory, off his forehead while Luther continued implacably chewing, his gaze fixed on the flayed jacket of his dinner potato.

"My son, Dr. Baily, gave another of his garden tours this afternoon, his fourth this week. Hundreds of pilgrims besides yourself arrive on our property to see evidence of Luther's exceptional genius with plants. He is besieged, as anyone can see from the mountain of correspondence in the corner, with letters from all the nooks and crannies of the globe. A reserved man, my son nevertheless commands the world, modestly and without complaint."

"The Plant Wizard they call him," Helen went on, playing with the humpy shells of her walnuts, clicking them conjugally together.

"Maudie, bring us two coffees please." Mother Burbank slighted her daughter-in-law as she had done with mounting tenacity since the campaign to prevent her son's union with this Jezebel had failed. "Mr. Burbank is past his endurance, and Dr. Baily, who has travelled all this way from New York, must be exhausted as well."

"If Luther is tired, I can well speak for my husband, " Helen said over-sweetly. A woman maligned and unceasingly gossiped over in this rural town, Helen Coleman Burbank had been condemned as an adventuress of calculated design who, it was most recently rumoured, had blacked out both her husband's eyes after pointing a loaded rifle at him. Such tattle swarmed with gnat-like obstinance, and Helen Burbank treated both rumour and fact impartially, as pests, bothersome but easily swatted off.

"I can speak with both assurance and authority for my husband. I will even speak of that which he cannot, of that which is more certainly the truth about him."

Emma scraped back her chair. "I won't stand for this."

"You just did," Helen observed coolly. "Dr. Baily, my husband loves children in the extreme. He would like one of his own yet his capacity to generate a child is dim indeed. My husband," and so saying, Helen Burbank, flicked at one of the unbroken walnuts so it tumbled modestly in Luther's direction and dropped off the table edge, "it is challenging, is it not, to pollinate one's wife from the distance of a dismal cot above the barn, where you have slept now for the past two years? My justification for chasing off the plague of whey-faced children you invite onto our property, those humiliating phantom children, is to leave considerable latitude for you, dearest, to cross the lawn, come up to our bed and get a child of your own."

Emma fled upstairs, slamming all the doors, again and again, creating, as was her wont, Dr. Baily was told, a kind of thunderous sensation above their heads.

Unperturbed, Maudie Dollar slid a cup of strong coffee under Mr. Burbank's nose. As always, he appeared oblivious to this overheated mare's nest. Dr. Baily, on the other hand, wore a refined expression of shock tempered by the guilty pleasure of witnessing unpredicted domestic tumult. Maudie Dollar was immune, such squallings and tempests were commonplace, resistant to formal prayer and her own occasionally melodramatic threats to quit.

There ensued a prolonged interval of silence before the Plant Wizard spoke, his voice reedy and compelling, genderless.

"The Satsuma graft has taken. This morning I bit into so many of the plums on the different shoots, I have gotten quite a sour stomach."

II.

"I love everybody! I love everything! All thingsplants, animals and menare already in eternity traveling across the face of time, whence we know not, whither who is able to say. Do you think Christ or Mohammed, Confucius, Baal or even the Gods of ancient mythology are dead? Not so. Do you think Pericles, Marcus Aurelius, Moses, Shakespeare, Spinoza, Aristotle, Tolstoi, Franklin, Emerson are dead? No. For the little soul that cries aloud for continued personal existence for itself and its beloved there is no help. For the soul which knows itself no more as a unit, but as a partof the universal unity of which the beloved is also a part for that soul there is no death."

—from a speech given by Luther Burbank at
the First Congregational Church
San Francisco, 1925

"What man can explain why he lives, Dr. Baily?" Luther Burbank waved his hand to indicate the whole preposterously fruited, dusky blue orchard in which they sat. Neither could help regarding the figure of Emma, clad in an Hellenic sort of tunic, flittering up and down the immaculate rows, erratic as a moth and mainly ungraceful, though hypnotic due to her constancy of motion and subtle variation. Liberty Hyde Baily had noted through the entirety of his dinner (a pokey dish served in a volatile atmosphere, really, he would have preferred the reverse), how remarkably like her brother she was, deliberately so, as though he were some Ideal Pattern and her ambition to tailor herself to it. How devoted her behavior on his behalf, acting more the servant than the servant. She had even risen up from her chair at one point, leaned across the table to reposition the limp napkin about his neck, a thing he submitted to docilely, a tribute absorbed without fuss. One could, Baily mused, and to some degree found himself titillated by such notion, mistake the sister for the wife.

It was here, during the half-way point in his interview, Dr. Baily discovered himself in the discomfiting posture of interviewer turned confidant. Did the recent death of his own wife award him such mortal melancholy as to prompt the small, almost child-figured man beside him to unburden himself? To Dr. Baily's knowledge, the timid man beside him was a nearly mythic American hero, messianic in his claims and concept of himself—a Darwinist given over to hyperbolic conceits, scorned by botanists as something of a fraud, a man who, beginning with that enigmatical root, the potato, revived Eden on earth, promising a hybridized paradise in every back yard, purchasable through seed catalogue. This is what Baily knew. Even now, in the gold and violet striped dusk, they sat among tapestried rows of trees bearing neither one fruit or the other. Dozens of varieties of fruits weighed jubilant from every tree, a potently fragranced labyrinth of grafting… a sexual hodge-podge, and what was rejected, what would not succeed, would be, at Luther Burbank's command, destroyed. The sight of one hundred bonfires flaring colossally along the fenced perimeters of this world famous experimental nursery was not uncommon. A demigod's refuse. And now Liberty Baily understood something else, a thing which would lend a grace note of sympathy to a certain widely-read article he would publish. Luther Burbank, national icon, spiritually vain horticulturist, could not tend his own wife.

"How did you meet?" Baily asked because, frankly, he wondered.

"I had just spoken at the Fitchfield Fair in my hometown of Lunenberg, Massachusetts, and was taking the train back to Santa Rosa. A young widow from Denver sat beside me. I found myself, under her persistent examination, uncovering my dreams, philosophies, desires. I have since learned that dangerous women obscure their motives. Dr. Baily, I confess to you with the easy anguish of hindsight, Helen only wished to dig out of me how much of a fortune I had. The woman totted up the promising sums of myself, then coldly, with mathematical precision, set about procuring me. This is what I have come to believe, and it has greatly discouraged me."

"Did you care for her?"

"Dr. Baily, I have 'loved' as you say, twice, and both times been unseated. In the case of Helen, I married with the intent of no longer being a burden to either my sister or my mother, both of whom have taken care of me all my life. I had thought to attempt a family of my own. Now Helen keeps herself upstairs, painting and reading a great deal, sharpening her malice on the whetstone of books. She has become vindictive. I tell you, a man who has given over the whole of his life to the contemplation of and experimentation with fertile generations of plants, cannot hope to triumph over the fickle and constant violations of the human heart. I am, in this thing, dismally failed."

Neither of them heard, but just then Emma floated behind her brother and clapping her frail hands over his eyes, murmured in his ear. For a second time that evening, Liberty Baily had the troubling and distinct sense of being witness to something, to the suggestion that these two were sweethearts, chastely and filially bound. Observing this brother and sister in their darkening, Byzantine orchard, he felt an awkward sympathy for Burbank's wife (news of their bitter divorce would not much surprise him, nor the subsequent letter from Burbank himself, nearly incoherent in its condemnation of his mother and his sister as the triumphant agents of his marital failure). What part but that of termagant remained for a wife in this house? She could not rival the fanatic devotion of the sister nor challenge maternal sovereignty. It seemed to Baily that like bonfires flaring fitfully along the edges of this property, three women burned, endlessly, inextinguishably, inside one man's house. Did their sacrifice, a theater unobserved, offset the bright business of creation? Indifferent to what tribulation he left in his breeder's wake, Luther Burbank, it seemed to Dr. Baily, was a clever, unperturbed man. Distracted by their wretched quarrelling, the women overlooked its subject, leaving their little horticulturist quite amiably alone.

Years later, Baily would describe the impression made on him that July evening, seated in the Plant Wizard's field of oddities, an impression fading quickly, an ornate dream one is relieved, upon waking, to abandon.

III.

ON THE OCCULT NATURE OF MY SEXUAL PROCLIVITIES

                                                       —L.B.

They are out of their Sunday best, of course, Maudie and Eugene, ravelling like thick ginger roots in the fallow heat, their skin pale and damp as vinegar.

(I speak frankly now, safely settled, concealed behind the wall and its gap fashioned by me from which to regard with one straining eye, the coupling of healthy and vigorous stock. The male scion a brilliant and weekly insertion into the bluish cleft, so like an old-fashioned Josephine rose, a primal, imperiled mouth. I hold my own dwarfish scion in my hands, feel its tumid impulse, its wish to claim the narrow aperture and so grow wise.)

"Look." Maudie sets Eugene's work-swollen hand over her wide, dappled throat, on the goiter disfiguring its cool base. "It's better now. Last evening he held his hand over it, and I saw a raining of light behind my eyes, and my throat grew hot and congested. Eugene, it feels good now when I swallow."

"But Maudie, sweet." Eugene's voice is somber.

"What? What's wrong?"

"Feel." He takes her hand. "An awful swelling here. It's just happened. Do you think your old Mr. Burbank can heal that?"

She flops on him, thrashing like a hooked fish, chewing on his ear till he yelps.

"Shh. Someone might hear."

Then Maudie's long back, familiar to me now, speckled as a trout lily's, halves the only light in the room.

(This is most potent breeding, a curative stimulant to myself, so anxious in my own infrequent coupling, a compensating bliss by which I am timidly appeased. My modest size has advantage, I can fit myself cannily into the smallest portion of non-threatening space.)

"I've got to go." Maudie tosses on a hurly burly of clothes, sloppily re-plaiting her coppery hair. Eugene, his hands clasped behind his head, watches.

She bends to lace her borrowed shoes. "He's not like anybody else. There's no way to account for a person like that, he's placed apart by destiny, that's what I've come to think, Eugene."

"Well, just so the healer's hand keeps to your throat and that's the all of it, dear Maudie."

IV.

PARAMAHANSA YOGANANDA WALKS WITH LUTHER BURBANK

Paramahansa Yogananda has the eyes, Maudie thinks, as she serves their spiritualist visitor hot peppermint tea, of a cow's, humid and infinitely kind. When he looks at her, she feels a heavenly nostalgia pass over her heart, beyond any naked sweetness she has felt with Eugene. She will feel this each time he visits, each of the six times he walks with Luther through the bee-clamoring, convoluted gardens, his virginal silk turban an exotic milky bloom, like another of Luther Burbank's botanical wonders. She serves him, the tray light on her gravid belly, on the seeded child, as Yogananda talks freely of mystic conjunctions between the raising of plants and of humans, of the vibrations and powers of divine love. Love is discussed a great deal, its powers beyond romance or fertility, it is the love Maudie has heard in Luther Burbank's voice as he talks to each of his plants, inviting them never to be afraid. Training, breeding, selection, vibration of spirit, love, the conversation between them both simple and arcane. And Luther, as ever, in his one drab unseasonable suit, his black vest and starched shirt, determinedly unacquainted with his body, its concealed workings, its organic decline into first betrayal, then release.

V.

HOW TO JUDGE VEGETABLE NOVELTIES

In March of 1920 there was a parade. Luther had previously confided to a Dr. D. B. Anderson, his dentist, that there were said to be thirteen Christs and most probably he, Luther, was one. The parade did not acknowledge this, but still it was a festival and birthday pageant for the great artificial pollinator, the great mother of the Burbank potato, the stoneless prune, the walnut, the spineless cactus (debacle or no), the shasta daisy, the Paul Bunyan rhubarb and the chimerical blue rose. The vegetable promiscuity of the man continued to astonish the world, especially the women of Santa Rosa, the women of all the church groups and temperance leagues of America. Luther Burbank walked all his life on a leash of women, his hands never still, moving from plant to plant, spreading yellow pollen, he loves me he loves me not he loves me he loves me not the incessant hum that followed him all his green and provocatively fertile life. Improving over eight hundred fruits and flowers in fifty years, burning hundreds of thousands of hybrid seedlings, berry bushes, stock trees grafted with dozens of different hybrid fruits, in bonfires like the white volatile flarings of creation itself. He abetted the sexuality of plants, profligate in his erotic urge to perfection.

All hail to Luther Burbank
The wizard of the flowers
They know your magic wand
In your own native country
And ev'ry foreign land
All hail to Luther Burbank, all hail!

Composed for the birthday parade by the
egregious Ada Kyle Lynch

Costumed as flowers and fruits, as buds and blossoms, the children assembled for the "Burbank March," moving down the clay-hard streets of Santa Rosa, singing "All Hail". Four children, two boys and two girls, each outfitted as a rose, were selected to read Luther Burbank's life story. As they stepped forward to sing "Birthday Song," two other children, a Pear and a Peach Blossom, hoisted an unwieldy banner with a picture of Mr. B. at its center, bordered with an oversized red, frilly heart. Painted above the heart in plump green letters, the year of the Plant Wizard's birth. The pageant lasted exactly an hour and concluded with a strange Yell.

The children's beloved Santa Rosa seedsman would die, hiccoughing, in his bed during April, the cruellest month, 1926. Emma, with Maudie Dollar's help, would carry out his wish to be buried under a cedar of Lebanon near the house. He was seventy-seven years old, his Beloved Emma seventy-two.

VI.

SELF FERTILIZATION IN THE VEGETABLE KINGDOM

—L.B.
     after death
speaks

I embarked, when I was fifteen, on what was called in those days the "water cure," a kind of health fad. Each night I carried a heavy pail of water upstairs to my bedroom. By morning it would be frozen over, and I was obliged to break the ice with a stick of firewood. With this water, I would sponge bathe. During the time of this water cure, many times, I left wide my window, and snow drifted over my bed as I slept. I ate no meat and very little other food, rejoicing in this ardent regime until I was invincible, until my parents forbade me to go on with it, concerned as to my wasted physical being and diminished strength. Mortification of the flesh, they named it, and I, mocked by hunger, for such was my need, agreed. 

 

Declared as dead now, our flesh breaking casually into potent soil, Mother and I wait for our daughter and our sister, watch with proud, pale amusement as she whittles her solitary days and nights around our old home, composing a somewhat cluttered and sentimental book about me, beginning with the line, "Our life was one of complete happiness." OH FALSE SISTER! Our life was one of suppressed longing covered over by spirit adulation and psychic preoccupation, the lush choirings of garden.

We are not visible to Emma, I do not manifest as Mother did to me after her death, standing each night by the foot of my bed, haranguing memy health, my health, my health, they are praying for you, Luther, the women of this world, they worry you do not believe in God, they hear the word infidel and pray the harder and with misguided fervor. Tell them Luther you are God, you are Napoleon if you like, you are immortal, Son! Can anyone blame me, I would distract myself from the terrifying monotony of those nightly speeches by seeing what a dead person such as my mother might wear. Judging by what was half-glimpsed and half-imagined, some sort of plain pleated urn-like gown of a mauve lustre, with a garlanding of darkest green myrtle such as the Greeks wore, encircling her large, classically proportioned head.

 

I tell you it is a relieving and timeless thing, to wait for my sister. We fertilize ourselves after all, from pollen that drifts like snow everywhere, the invisible, atomic architecture of all. I wait inside Mother's humid and pervasive green dominion, for my Beloved, who waited for me when as a boy I would return cold and dirty from a day's excursion into the Eastern woodlands. I stand at the edge of this world and will take her hand when the time comes. Here there is no barrier to obtaining fruits of any size, form or flavor desired, none to producing plants and flowers of any form, color or fragrance; all that is needed is knowledge to guide our efforts, undeviating patience and a cultivated eye.

Of late, Emma has taken to wandering our bare, wintry orchard in a long muslin gown, sleepless and cold, her ice-thin hair fluttering, intent on searching among wet and dormant branches for someone huddled here, ripely hers.

Climb higher, sister, hook your arches around the damascened bark of this tree I once forged in tribute to your perfection, a bold and holy grafting, provision for rebirth, good breeding observed. Accept my hand, cool and formless as it is, into God's Paradise, that empyreal, wet but flaring region where all seeding, all manner of love's offspring, even we, Darling One, are allowed, welcomed and overwatched, belonging, neither high nor low, to that vast parade of Cherished and Celestial Stock.

 

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