THE PLANTER

Rachel Smith

Gardens grew differently up here Mila had discovered. Higher altitude perhaps, closer to the sun, more wind and rain. Somehow the plants knew though, that no matter how deep they sent their roots they would never be able to wind through soil and clay and gravel. Up here there were limits and rules.

The theory was that up on the 1000th floor the air was purer, above the metallic tasting smog that Mila could see out her bedroom window. Water was pumped from an aquifer deep underground, a pipe that edged its way up past carcasses of old construction and the basement hovels. On occasions when the power cut out it was pumped up by hand to ground level and then delivered, in a never ending relay of men from the bottom to the top. Mila thought the plants could tell, could taste the salty beads of their sweat. They grew faster, leaves shiny, fruit plump and ripe.

She had stretched her gardening expertise to get the job; slipped in a horticultural qualification and the few pots in her flat became a boutique organic garden. And no vertigo.

The first time she stepped onto the roof top Jun Jie was with her. Officially her assistant, Mila soon realised he could easily do the job himself – just didn’t want the responsibility that came with a dying crop. All she knew about him had come in a thin cardboard folder – Jun Jie, 27 years, 2 years employment. No floor level noted.

The 20 beds were spread across the roof top, the closest two metres from the edge. The edge itself was fenced in thickened glass, impregnated with UV protection on three sides and open on the other.

“There’s a laser that runs along here,” Jun Jie said, pointing around the buildings rim. “It’s designed to disintegrate – stop anything small from falling and injuring someone below.”

“Like a carrot?” Mila asked.

“Even a melon. Not a human though. Too heavy. So don’t get too close.”

Mila nodded. In her mind she built an electric fence half a metre in from the edge.

“Do you want to look? Like this.” He lay on the warm concrete and slid forwards on his belly towards the open side. “Come.”

Mila followed. Her breath began to falter as her fingertips curled around the concrete lip.

“Now just pull your face up.” Jun Jie hung his head over the edge, an up-wind pushing back his long dark fringe.

Her arms would not pull. Her eyes were shut. “Nope. I can’t.” She wormed backwards – half a metre, a metre – stood on wobbly legs and said nothing to his mocking grin.

***

This morning Mila arrived as the sun rose. She watched it slip between the buildings, skipping from shadow to shadow, falling on her face and her garden first.

Her grandfather had been a gardener. Ruler straight rows of carrots, broad beans and beetroot on his patio down on the 10th floor. She’d worked next to him, her nails filled with dirt and a head full of questions. It was why she got worms so often according to her grandmother. “There’s no other explanation for it...you don’t look dirty but...” The dirtiness was implied, a stain that bled through her organs, impossible to fully diagnose or remove, that somehow seemed to be paired with the fullness of her hips. Then all too quickly it had been her turn to move up.

On the day she turned 20, Mila was assigned a room in a single sex shared flat on the 103rd floor. She wasn’t surprised when her assigned skill set was of a practical nature. What she did with it was up to her – her resettlement period was over, the next round were coming into the flat and they all had to be out. Nobody cared where. Up or down, a bit of cash to get her started. The job had been more than a relief – it had meant not having to find her parents.

And her grandparents were proud. They didn’t come out and say it, but she was sure her grandmothers’ face pinkened when she told them she would be on the 512th floor if they needed to contact her. Grandfathers’ rough fingers had pinched at her cheek when she kissed him goodbye, promising she’d be back in a year when her two weeks of leave was due. Still five more months to go.

She walked between the beds, checking that the surprise storm in the night hadn’t left its mark. The wind had woken her, spinning around her room. It whipped through the tunnel that threaded down the buildings centre, a strangely designed well on the lower levels where all the bathrooms met. Rain had pinged on her windows and she knew it was too late to do anything but hope.

It had been Jun Jie’s suggestion to close the covers the night before. He had a feeling he’d said. Mila had looked at the cloudless day and watched the aluminium covers slide into place. UV lights were embedded in the framework, creating exactly even days and nights. The plants had been covered for over a month last year, when the 50 day storm lingered over the island. It was the longest anyone could remember and over half the crops had been lost.

She found only torn bok choi and a bundles of beans slumped in the corner. It was a timely reminder though. The monsoon was coming – wind and rain, and hail as big as rats.

On her belly Mila moved to the edge, pulled until her elbows bent and she felt the first breath of breeze on the top of her head. On the floors below people slept, ate, shat. 805th floor and nails were manicured with purple French tips, eyes hidden behind sunglasses. It was the shoes that gave it away though. Below 600 and the heels were smaller, functional footwear worn by someone who had a purpose in their day, someone who needed to walk somewhere, do something.

Mila put on white cotton gloves, hooked a cane basket over her arm and lined it with a soft cloth. She moved along the rows, reaching out for tomatoes the perfect shade of red. Snake beans of purple and green wound around her forearms. Her fingers were deep in the soil, cutting soft new buds of ginger, turmeric and galangal when Jun Jie arrived. He put on his gloves and joined her squatting beside the garden.

“Storm OK?” he asked

“Yep. Good call to cover up.” Mila scratched at her face with a dirty finger. “Big penthouse dinner party. They’re coming to collect it at 10.”

Jun Jie nodded. “What do they need?”

“Everything.”

He took the biggest tomato and the fattest bunch of grapes from her basket, placed them in front of the small shrine in the corner. His machete swung high, its blade catching the sunlight, and a hand of bananas fell. Words of prayer and song wound through the scent of incense that swept across the garden.

Five baskets stood in the shade by the lift when the door opened. Chef was large – fat hands with no knuckles. He moved over the baskets, clicking his approval, moving produce from one basket to the next.

“No bok choi.”

“Wind.” Mila watched as his hat moved in the breeze.

He called to Jun Jie, directed him to take two of the baskets, and picked up the third himself. The wind gusted, his fat fingers grasped at his hat and missed as it was plucked from his head. Jun Jie dropped the basket and ran to catch it. Mila watched, fascinated, as it filled and ballooned higher. She had been waiting for this moment for something to fly, to fall.

Jun Jie leapt, too close to the edge, but it was gone. The updraft sent it higher for a moment, and then it fell, not far, caught on invisible threads to burn and disintegrate.

Chef stood with his hand on his bare head, cursed at Mila, and left, calling Jun Jie behind him.

Alone Mila moved to the edge, curiousity pulling her closer than before. Breeze met her forehead and then her eyes were over. She gulped in the air that that pushed at her face. One strand of white cotton floated in the smell of burnt fabric.

***

That night she lay on her bed, naked, the fan spinning slowly above her. Her body was changing. Despite her best efforts her skin was slowly tanning. New bones were appearing at her hips and torso. Her arms were tighter, more toned, as were her legs. Her grandmother would be pleased.

She took two steps from bedroom to living room to bathroom, brushed her teeth in front of a wall in her living room that shimmered in shades of green – a forest of glossy pages torn from magazines and her own drawings that grew from the skirting up to the ceiling. If she looked straight ahead she could almost imagine it was so.

***

The sky was heavy, air dense with moisture that could not fall. Not yet anyway. Mila’s order of new storm covers, complete with air moisture activated vents, was due to arrive any day. She only hoped it would be in time.

At 8am the lift door pinged open. Chef stepped out, white and sweaty, a beaded moustache sliding down his face.

“You don’t have an order today,” said Mila.

“Exceptional circumstances,” he said.

“What do you need?” Mila slipped on her gloves. He pointed and she picked until the basket was full, and then two more.

“Done. Come.” He picked up a basket, leaving Mila to carry the two heaviest into the lift.

It was a quick trip down one floor. The door opened into a vestibule. “Leave them,” Chef said, pointing to the floor next to the internal doorway. “Go.”

Mila walked back into the lift, was sure she saw Jun Jie’s face appear in the open doorway as the doors slid shut.

***

When Jun Jie didn’t turn up that day Mila knew for sure. She transplanted delicate brassicas, the soil a perfect consistency of clay and sand. It smelt different from real earth, missing the feral odour that had stained her grandfather’s palms. She trimmed the passionfruit vine and lay down for a long lunch break in the shade of the banana tree. At the end of the day she opened the bee box, laid some sugar bait and welcomed them back home for the night as they appeared one by one. She hoped Jun Jie would be back tomorrow.

***

The fan spun and warm air moved, thickly as if the effort was almost too much. It wasn’t until the sound came for a second time that Mila recognised it as a knock at her door. She saw Jun Jie’s face in the peephole, undid a series of locks and opened up.

“Come in,” said Mila, locking the door behind him.

“Sorry – for not coming today.”

“It wasn’t busy.” She waited for him to say something more but instead he moved to the living room wall, reached out to run his fingers over the paper.

“I want to show you something. Come.”

***

Mila wasn’t sure why she said yes. She had never been out there at night. It had been explicitly detailed as a no go zone in her contract and she had never thought differently of it. Out here now though, she was back on her grandfathers’ patio, sowing seeds by the third full moon of the new year.

Jun Jie led her to the edge. This time Mila was not so afraid, something about the darkness and the rustle of leaves in the light breeze. She followed him around the base of a garden bed, felt her foot hit something before she fell forwards to land hard on the asphalt. It was a root, thick as her arm, growing out of the base of the bed to disappear over the edge into nothingness.

“Look,” said Jun Jie. She slid along to where he lay on his belly, pulled her head forward until only emptiness lay under her face. She squeezed her eyes shut, gulped at the air that spiralled up and up.

“Just breathe. Look.”

One eye at a time. And there it was. The root wound its way down the building, twisted with others even thicker, all woven into place by fine threads and hairs to cover the exterior surface. They were going home. Mila smiled at Jun Jie and together they lowered themselves over the edge to begin the long climb down.