Trace told us something weird. He was friends with the lady on the corner in the house next to the bank. He spent a lot of time talking with her about the history of Sweetditch, our town. No one else cared about the history of Sweetditch, except for Trace and this old lady. Trace knew the history because he collected newspapers. The old lady knew the history because she was old.
She really liked him. They’d talk about all the old tragedies and banalities of the town. The hardware store burned down four different times, which was a tragedy made banal through repetition. They talked about how someone took a shot at the mayor in the Halloween parade. Sweetditch is a town of 1700 residents.
One day he brought her mail in with him and found a letter of notice from the city. He asked her what it was about and she told him that the bank was complaining about her yard.
The yard wasn’t well-kept, but it contained only organic mess, grass going to seed. Trace asked her what they were going to do, and she said they were going to hire the city landscaping crew to deal with the lawn and bill it to her. Trace told her he could handle the yard and asked if she had any equipment. She said that maybe she did. Trace said he’d look around, and when he said that the old woman told him if he found anything in the attic to leave it there and not mess with it. She said, “Don’t even go up there.”
Then she died.
It turned out that she’d left the house to Trace. He was 20 years old when he inherited the house and its notices from the city. He didn’t move into the house immediately, so problems with the yard were easy to ignore. But then he stopped by to check the mail one day and found a letter marked “final notice” from the city. The notice included an itemized estimate of what the landscaping crew would cost him, and he began searching desperately for the tools to handle the yard.
The garage contained a number of greeting card display carousels and a desiccated squirrel husk. He went up into the attic.
He opened the door. The attic was empty, except for a weathered weed-eater. He grabbed the weedeater and went to work on the yard.
He barely noticed the work. The weedeater’s line did not wear out, nor did its fuel burn up. He started to wonder what kind of a weedeater this was. It had no identifying marks, brand, or even notes of instruction about flipping the switch to choke, then pressing the primer bubble slowly, and so on. In fact, as he thought about it, Trace couldn’t remember priming the machine or even pulling the cord to start it. He began to believe that he’d willed it on.
He’d done an impressive job. He looked at the trimming against the garden box, and did not find lash marks on the wood.
But there was a spot around one side of a tree that he’d missed somehow. A large clump of sow-thistle. He couldn’t believe he’d missed it. As he approached it, an enormous toad emerged from beneath it.
“Cut it down,” the toad said. We all laughed as Trace told this part.
“I will,” Trace said.
“Cut it down and I’ll give you a chunk of solid gold.”
The weedeater was going again. Trace cut down the weed. As the line slashed through the stalk, the toad’s head came flying off, hit Trace in the side of the head and startled him. He looked down at the toad’s body. He saw a gleam of gold. Actual gold. He pulled the gold from the body with some effort. He put the weedeater in the garage with the greeting card carousels, took the gold, cashed it, and then went and bought a lawn-mower.
The next week he mowed the lawn again. He finished with the mower and got the weedeater. He came around to the spot where he’d seen the toad. This time the sow-thistle was gone, and in its place was a huge clump of dandelions, knee-high and thick. The clump parted and a young goat came through.
“Cut it down,” the goat said, “and I’ll give you a handful of gold coins.”
Trace hesitated. But he didn’t know the goat. The weedeater started and he cut the dandelions down. The goat’s head came off, and stuck in the chest cavity Trace found the gold coins. He cashed the coins and went out and bought an electric hedge trimmer.
The next week, as he came to the same spot. This time he was shocked to find a tall tulip growing there.
From around the side of the tree stepped a beautiful girl.
“Cut it down,” she said, “and I’ll give you an entire sack of gold.”
Trace stared at the girl. He’s not a monster. He dropped the weedeater. He knew he was in love with the girl. He took her hand.
“And then I married her,” Trace said. He seemed to be finished with the story.
“So,” one of us said, “you’re married to her now. Where is she?”
Trace turned away, hands to his face.
He told us that while the tulip lived, she lived. At first he’d put one of those mini-greenhouses over the flower. A few days after he did, his wife developed an impressive glow. Trace began to worry about her, outside unprotected. One morning, while she was still drinking coffee and reading a book at the breakfast table he went outside and very carefully uprooted the flower. When he came inside, he found her floating slightly above the table still drinking coffee and reading. He scrambled for a pot, and once he had the flower replanted, and set on the kitchen sill, he stuck his head into the dining room and confirmed that she was seated again.
One morning though, as he walked around the yard, he felt the air change. He ran inside. He looked for the girl and found her still in bed. She was smaller, and had a sunken look. She woke and smiled.
The days grew colder and grayer, and the girl seemed to collapse into herself as brown spread over the flower. She asked him to move the pot into her room and by the bed. He did.
Finally, she’d grown so small that, when she asked him to, he picked her up and placed her in the pot. She touched the desiccated stalk of the flower with her hand. It shriveled and curled down, covering her. He said he still had the pot on the sill in his room.
None of us believed Trace, but none of us could deny that he deeply felt his story. We said we were sorry for his loss.
“She’ll be back,” he said.