The entrance to the Botanical Gardens was a mile from the ocean. The man who took Keith’s ticket was weather-beaten in his features, wide in his shoulders.
“The gardens close in an hour,” he said.
“No problem,” Keith said. He’d been on the road hours since Los Angeles and now he was in Mendocino. “I just wanted to take a walk, relax. Things have been happening in my life. Get a feeling of peace, you know?” He swiped a hand across his mouth. The peace he’d been seeking since leaving San Francisco at rush hour had been sought through a couple cans of beer. “Is there anything I should see?”
The ticket-taker paused in consideration. He seemed to be taking stock of Keith, whose eight hours on the road hadn’t helped the damage that the divorce, forty-one years, and job loss had done to his spirit, bruised in the same the way his eyes looked from exhaustion and lack of sleep. “Well, there’s a plant you might find helpful.”
“Helpful?” Keith chuckled. “How do I find it?”
“It finds you if it wants,” the man said.
It was an odd thing to say, but the ticket-taker in his guard’s uniform had the look of sincerity. “Where is it?” Keith asked.
“If you see it, it will be near the ocean,” the man said, and nodded as if to say, get going.
Keith passed through a nursery and a small garden of perennials. The serpentine trails of the gardens wound through and past clumps of rhododendrons, fuchsia, and ferns, which bordered on a small running brook. Soon, tall shore pines and Monterey cypress replaced the flowers and bushes, and the ocean’s sound grew louder. He didn’t find a plant that looked “helpful,” only fragrant patches of pine and rosemary. A woman passed, carrying her easel and palette back to the parking lot.
Keith pulled the flask from his pocket and took a sip. Rounding a bluff, he came to the ocean, a sharp escarpment that dropped to the rocks and tidepools below. He found a bench to sit on and drink. He was looking for solace. “It’s just a divorce,” friends had said. “You’ll get over it.”
Fat chance, Keith thought, and looking at the setting sun balanced on the ocean’s horizon didn’t bring calm, perspective, or anything of solace, only the hard truth of metaphor, the dying day and the arc of life, both fading. The thought hit him like a sucker punch and he got out of his seat, lurching down the trail, past the warning sign, and coming to a railed barrier that sealed him from the rocks below. He looked down at a narrow ledge that the high tide sprayed, licked at from below. Farther down, the waves splashed, sucked, retreated. He envisioned himself floating face-down, rolling with each swell and drifting back. No ceaseless struggle, only a sweet surrender to gravity. He had begun to turn from that seductive thought, turn from the knee-high railing, when the twisting of his left foot dislodged the shale it had rested on. His balance shifted forward, and without the alcohol in his system he might have been able to right himself, but he didn’t. He toppled over the railing and fell headfirst.
It was night when he woke, or came to consciousness. The rising tide had begun to breach the narrow ledge onto which he’d fallen. The sun had set but left an aurora in the western sky with just enough illumination for him to get his bearings. He rose, propping his torso on his arms, and the pain in his head changed from a distant drum to a full-out throb, clanging like a cowbell at dinner time. The water splashed him again, and on its retreat he was almost sucked down to the rocks below. Desperate, he lurched to his feet and managed, by scrambling to the thin end of the ledge, to jump and grab the bottom part of the last stake above and pull, yank, pinwheel, and otherwise lift himself to the path from which he had fallen.
Whereupon he collapsed again, lying now in darkness. His mood, however, despite the pain, the blood, and the soaked clothes, wasn’t bad. Maybe for the first time today, he was glad to be alive. What’s more, the sting of his wound (cleaned by salt water), the cold, and the lingering alcohol in his system gave him a clarity of thought, as if the junk in his brain had been tossed.
At last he rose and went up the trail by braille, touching the wall to his right, the ocean a dark mutter to his left, and ahead…what was that? It seemed like a light, a mini-aurora to replace the one that had disappeared from the sky. At the trailhead he stood beside the source of the light.
It was a plant, maybe the ugliest plant that Keith had ever seen. It looked more like a reptile’s tail, rising out of the earth and covered with small tendrils and curving as it rose. At the top, it ended in a fork-like shape that angled toward the ocean. Keith could only stare. It wasn’t just the way the plant rose from nothing, or the light it generated, it was a kind of assertion it made, its ungainly quality that gave the surrounding flora a domestic quality, a bourgeois quality, even.
Keith heard footsteps to his left.
“It’s not native to this region,” a man said. By the flashlight, Keith saw it was the guard who had taken his ticket, walking down the path and stopping.
Keith turned to the plant. He felt a warmth it generated, a healing heat that went beyond the receptors in his skin, but somehow penetrated below. He came closer. Its scent was unpleasant, a sickly-sweet chlorinated stink, and yet for one who had grown up around the swimming pools of southern California, there were associations of childhood, adolescence, a reminder of who he was.
“It only comes out briefly at night,” the guard said. “And doesn’t stay long. I saw it myself when I was at a low point in my life. I’m better now.”
Keith came close. He thought he detected a faint humming coming from the plant, a buzz like the gentle crackle of consciousness.
“What’s its name?”
“Nightshade,” the guard said. “That’s what I call it. Otherwise, it has no name.” Meanwhile, his flashlight swabbed a few yards of empty earth, bordered by the trail and the beginning of a grove of pines. It was where the plant had manifested.
And now un-manifested, beginning a slow fade into invisibility, it vanished.
Keith stood stunned. Later, he would wonder if he had hallucinated this incident, though its effect on him remained.
“You need to leave,” the guard said. He turned the flashlight to the trail and they headed back. The guard told how he used to like to walk at night, after the gardens closed. That’s when he saw the plant. It spoke to me, the guard said.
Keith didn’t follow his speech, which tended to be as rambling as the arabesque of paths they crossed. The plant hadn’t spoken to him, but he felt its presence inside him, its assertion in the darkness. It was still out there, he knew. Its message was its persistence in darkness. At least, that’s what it signified to Keith. It was a better metaphor than the sinking sun.
They reached the parking lot.
“Are you okay?” the guard asked.
“I’m fine,” Keith said. “I’ll find a motel and head back in the morning.”
Instead, Keith drove sober, and didn’t stop until San Luis Obispo.