The Basil Plant

It was just a basil plant.

Was.

But it was my basil plant.  I don’t know whose it is now, but it was mine until yesterday.

I bought it at a grocery store—an impulse buy.  How could I resist?  It was healthy and full—a rich, dark green—and oh, so fragrant.  And I was determined to keep it that way.

I fertilized and watered it in just the right quantities at just the right intervals.  I gave it full sun.  This plant would not, I resolved, wither and waste away like its predecessors; if cruelty to plants were punishable by law, I’d have hanged for it years ago.  I actually read the care instructions for a change.

 ***

My diligence paid off; the basil plant thrived.  I pinched back the leaves when appropriate, and it rewarded my efforts with abundant growth of its tasty leaves.

I never rushed my basil plant.  I never expected it to be on call twenty-four hours a day simply for my culinary gratification.  Rather, I chose to use it only on those occasions when it needed pruning, voluntarily endowing me with its bounty.  I would plan my menus according to its convenience—not mine.

We had a good relationship, my basil plant and I.  And we respected each other; I would not ask him to hand over pieces of his life for frivolous uses, and he willingly agreed to enhance my cooking.

And then, one day I noticed that my basil plant’s production had begun to decline.  Forced to come to terms with this new development, I had no choice but to grudgingly acknowledge that whatever was troubling my little friend must be a result of my neglect.  But I couldn’t fathom, even for a moment, what I might have been doing wrong.

My watering and feeding routine had not changed; he was still receiving a generous measure of rich, warm sunlight.

I was overcome by melancholy, pondering his wilted leaves and emaciated body.  It was a development progressing too slowly to be the result of a sudden shock or event—yet too quickly to be ignored.

I scoured every reference material I could find for an answer to our dilemma; I frantically researched a mountain of gardening books, hoping to find a cure for my little buddy’s gradual decline.

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There was only one thing left to do—a final effort I’d always hoped would never be necessary.  I would have to prune him back completely and allow him to start life anew—to rejuvenate himself instinctively—in his own way … and in his own time.

I had promised my basil plant that I would never ask him to surrender his life—submit to execution by Ginsu squad—in one sudden harvest for a batch of pesto; but surely this approach would seem to be just that to my poor little friend.

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So while there was still a glimmer of hope, I commenced the operation.  I clipped away at his limbs—arms—once gloriously draped with magnificently verdant foliage, reaching majestically skyward.  Not long before, he’d been a triumph of herbal accomplishment; and now, I’d reduced him to a bony skeleton of his former self.

It was a somber moment as I rinsed and chopped my old friend’s hands and fingers, destined for a pot of spaghetti sauce.  Suddenly, a wave of guilt swept over me.  Couldn’t I show some respect?  Did I have to be so callous, tossing aside all traces of mourning etiquette to use him for a recipe that very evening?  Yes, I decided; basil should be used immediately upon harvest to derive its freshest, fullest flavor.

He would have wanted it that way, I tell myself.

My tears splashed on the countertop as I placed the basil beside the chopped onions and waited for the olive oil to heat on the stove.

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***

I continued to care for my little friend—watering, feeding, and giving him God’s life-giving light.  I waited diligently—like a doctor tending a desperate patient—for some sign of healing.

But then, I began to worry that I still hadn’t done enough to ensure his full recovery.  If I were going to resurrect my wretched and despondent pal—and do it right—he must have a soil change.  That’s it!  New potting soil!  The type recommended by the gardening books!  And fertilizer!  The kind with high numbers in all three columns!  And a new clay pot—larger than the last—with more room for his feet.  Perhaps a new environment would aid his convalescence.

So I moved into a new house.

***

I placed the basil plant in the window box beneath my kitchen window.  Facing west, he received good exposure during the latter half of each day.

And then, one day I saw it—a new bud forming on my faithful friend.  A trace of green amidst the desolate, barren brown of his scraggly wooden frame.  There was still hope!  Just days after my first observation, I noticed more buds protruding from my hardy old pal, and I knew that my care had given him a new chance at life.

My basil plant stretched his neck skyward—pulling and tugging himself it seemed to me—almost out of his clay pot as he sought the full richness of the golden Florida sun.

My basil plant thrived once again.  It was just like the olden days as, together, we grew new leaves in the window box of our new home.

***

With unhappy times behind us, my basil plant and I set out on a new road of culinary delights.  He made a slow but triumphant recovery and was, in two months’ time, truly a sight to behold!

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***

But, alas!  Someone else in the neighborhood had admired my basil at least as much as I.

As I rounded the corner of my house yesterday, eager to greet my friend after a long day at work, the terror of a possibility that is consciously suppressed—and subconsciously denied—struck me dumb!  My stomach twisted into a knot, and as I hobbled on rubber knees to the window box, I was forced to accept the grim reality of my circumstances.  My basil plant was gone!

But who—in his or her Neanderthal mentality—would steal a basil plant?  I tried to remain calm.  Perhaps, as it did seem like an awfully ridiculous thing for someone to do, my basil plant had merely been moved to some other part of the yard by a prankster—a local teenager with no homework to do.

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Hidden in the bushes, maybe?

No.

Around the other corner of the house?

Losing hope now, no.

Look harder!  Maybe behind those hedges over there!

But I was fooling myself.  My basil plant had been abducted, and I could deny it no longer.

But who?  Why?

Possibilities began to fog my mind;  I envisioned a multitude of hypotheses. 

Was the thief a stoned-out punk who happened to stroll by, and mistaking my basil for a marijuana plant, decided to make it his own?

I could just see him—a sleazy, grimy specimen of a kid—in tattered blue jeans, a heavy metal T-shirt, torn, dirty sneakers, and the countenance of a convict.  I envisioned his greedy smirk—peering from behind greasy black hair that should have been combed in the other direction—toward the back of his head.

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I could see him stealthily creeping up to my window box—a quick glance to the left—and then to the right.  And then, unnoticed, grabbing my friend and rushing off into the anonymous side streets and back alleys of my new neighborhood.

Could it be that I was reported to the police by a suspicious—albeit botanically uneducated—neighbor?  It’s possible, I reason.  But alas, I’m simply trying too hard to rationalize this intrusion—this violation—upon my life.

Even a police officer unfamiliar with the appearance of a marijuana or coca plant would simply rip it out by the roots; he wouldn’t bother to take the entire pot, care instructions, and water collection tray.

And then, another possibility crossed my mind.  Perhaps a crazed Italian food fanatic happened by—and having had poor results with his or her own basil plant, saw this as a way to create that delicious dinner—that extra-special meal—that, until happening upon my robust specimen, had been too elusive.

I can see them now—a rotund Italian woman, fifty, maybe sixty years old, who looks as if she just stepped out of 1930s Brooklyn, and her son—out for an evening stroll.  She’s wearing a tawdry housedress, the garish flower print faded and worn from years hunched over a hot stove in a third-story tenement in a neighborhood where everyone—even herb thieves—is friendly and knows everyone else.

They come by my window box and she says—surprised but greedily—in a hushed, raspy voice, “Looka, Tony!  Thassa jussa what I needa!”  She glances quickly and furtively about for casual observers.  In a whisper she continues, “Now I canna maka that dinna yaw papa hazza been askin’ faw all these yeasa!”

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“But Mama,” the upstanding young son says—his jet black hair combed neatly to the sides and back—”that’s notta yaw planta!  You can’ta jussa take it!”

“Come on!” she prods, stealing up to the window box while Tony nervously scans the neighborhood.  “Yaw papa!  He’s a gonna be so proudamee!”

And then they’re gone.  And so is my basil plant.

***

I may never find out who stole my basil plant.  And then again, I may just spot it a few weeks from now—after the perpetrator feels comfortable that the heat is off—basking in the sunlight in a window box down the street.  Healthy perhaps—but lonely and dejected, nevertheless.

Indeed, it is my deepest hope that I’ll find my old friend, rescue him, and bring him home—this time to the security of an indoor location.

But I know the odds aren’t good—and he’s probably gone from me forever.  And I agonize day in and day out that I never bothered to put a collar on him.  And I can’t help but wonder if the thief will smoke him, cultivate and care for him as I did, or deliver him to a pesto fate in the food processor.

I imagine the thief is satisfied—content that he or she has pulled off the perfect heist.  But only I can ever know the joy of my basil plant’s sincere and steadfast friendship.

I think I’ll go for a walk around the neighborhood …

 The End

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The Greatest Challenge to Mankind Ever

“C’mon,” Charlie pleaded, “it’ll be so cool!  We’ll be the first people ever, in the history of civilization, to actually touch down on the deepest part of the entire ocean floor!”

 I could kill him—except that he’s already dead.

***

Charlie’s aspirations had always been just a little extreme.  Even as a kid, not satisfied with making only eight bucks a week tossing papers at front lawns, he got a job at the local supermarket, putting in twenty hours a week after school—stocking shelves, taking out the trash, and whatever.  Charlie’s goal was to be the store manager by the time he was nineteen.

And then last month, when he needed a thesis for his doctorate in geophysical oceanography, the screwball hatched the idea to explore the last frontier—the absolutely deepest part of any ocean anywhere in the world—the Challenger Deep in the Pacific’s Mariana Trench.

“It’s more than eleven thousand meters below sea level,” he said.  “That’s thirty-six thousand feet—seven miles deep!  The same distance down that airliners go up!”

I knew, from my work as a meteorological oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that Charlie’s figures were correct.  But I also knew that what he was proposing was impossible.  His analogy was not new to me, but I’d never heard it used as a sales pitch for an expedition before.  And for a moment, I actually found myself intrigued by the idea.  I considered the thrill of taking part in it.  On the other hand, it was crazy.  And Charlie was my friend; I had to talk him out of it—if I could.

“It presents the greatest challenge to mankind, ever,” he said.

One of us had to maintain a sense of reality, so I tried to reason with him; If I could convince Charlie his idea was mediocre, it would be the water on his fire.  I tried to downplay the ostensible brilliance of his plan by reminding him of earlier great achievements by even greater people, foolishly imagining he would suddenly see his idea as being a kind of pipe dream after all.  It was a feeble attempt at best.

“What about Edison?” I tried.  “Don’t forget that he …”

“An eccentric,” he responded.

“The Wright brothers,” I countered.

“Peons.  Bike mechanics.  Grease monkeys.”

“Landing men on the moon, and all the other technological advancements we’ve made with satellites and radar and …”

“Kid stuff,” he interrupted.

I was out of ideas.

Charlie grinned, brushed aside my poorly executed repudiation, and picked up where he’d left off.  “I’m going to do this … and I want you there with me.”  He paused for a moment.  And then, timing it just right for maximum effect, he went in for the kill.  “It’ll be good for your career,” he crooned.

At that point—having met my obligation as adversarial but caring friend—I not only resigned myself to cooperating with him but actually allowed myself to become excited about the prospect.  “Oh, what have I got to lose?” I blurted.  “When your number’s up … besides, how many people get to say they died in an implosion seven miles under?  Maybe they’ll put us on a postage stamp.”

Charlie grinned again and nodded in agreement.

Still, there were the logistics to consider, and I still had some doubts.  “Wait a minute,” I said, recalling the limits of even the world’s most advanced submersible.  “Shinkai can make it to only sixty-five hundred meters.  How are we going to get down there?”

“I’ve already made arrangements with a guy I know in structural engineering at MIT.  He’s been working on a submersible that can do it,” he explained.

“I’m listening,” I said, still a little pessimistic.

“This guy’s been working with someone over at Scripps in San Diego.  He’s come up with a hull design he insists will maintain integrity to depths of thirteen thousand meters!”

“Go on,” I prodded.

“It’s simple logic,” he explained.  “Shinkai can go to sixty-five hundred meters because its hull is … what, maybe a half-meter thick?  Well then, the BOSS can go to thirteen thousand because its hull is … I don’t know … thicker.  It’s about twenty feet long; it’s designed for 15,000 psi.”

“BOSS?”

“Beyond Oceanic Submersible Standards,” was his casual reply.

“Still, I have a funny feeling,” I protested.  “Exactly how thick is the hull?”  I didn’t really care; I just wanted to tick him off.

“I don’t know!” he shot back. “Look … they made the hull out of some carbon-fiber thing—with strong walls, okay?  Why do you think he’s at MIT?”

“Okay, so … is there any room left in there to breathe?” I probed.

“They asked Boeing the same thing when they proposed the 747,” he replied, becoming truly exasperated.

Another airplane analogy.  I started to doubt his choice of vocation.  “Maybe you should consider aviation technology,” I suggested dryly.

“Listen, I hear Branson is working on something—as we speak.  And Cameron too.  We’re running out of time if we’re going to be the first.  And I’m going down there—with or without you.  Are you in?”

I was resigned.  “When do we leave?”

***

Everything was going just fine until the storm hit.  Knuckle-nuts Charlie was so gung-ho on getting started, he disregarded the weather reports; he didn’t want to hear anything that would mess up his plans.  We were a thousand miles off the coast of Japan—almost at the Challenger Deep—when a major cold front not far from us slammed into a major warm front also not far from us.  And we’d found ourselves in some serious trouble.

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No one wanted to radio for assistance—they kept saying it would blow over.  What they really meant was the mission was too significant—too historic—to put off.  Out on deck, straining to be heard above the tearing wind and rain, I tried reasoning with Charlie—pleading with him—as he checked the submersible’s fastenings.  He pretended to consider my suggestions as he then scrutinized the crane and bulwark alignment.  Finally, he responded to my pleas.  Charlie shouted, “We’re almost there!  They won’t be able to come out in this weather for us anyway!” he rationalized.

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After two hours of holding off the inevitable, everything finally went over and under.  The storm’s ferocity was too much for the others, and out of a crew of sixteen, I, alone, have survived.  While everyone was arguing about what to do, I secured a life raft to my body and tossed it—and myself—into the pounding waves.  Even the submersible is gone now; the hatch was left open and it flooded as soon as it broke from its launch and hit the water.  Charlie’s BOSS made it to the bottom of the ocean, all right.

I was tossed about all night.

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When the storm finally abated and the swells calmed I was able to watch the fins circling.

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I’d searched the sky for hours, certain that a rescue team would arrive to pluck me from the world’s deepest water at any moment.  But the hours rolled out into days.  It gave me plenty of time to think.  I couldn’t believe it!  It was supposed to have been a history-making expedition—not a blasted survival test!

***

And so, here I am, still adrift in the open sea.  I’m thirsty.  I’m tired.  I’m hungry.  I’m really ticked off at Charlie.  My lips are cracked, and I can almost hear my sunburned skin crackle like angry parchment when I move.

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But this time … I really hear one!  I really do!  It’s a plane!  “Oh, thank You, Lord!”  I’m being rescued!

***

“Look!” the pilot called out as he banked left.  “It’s a raft!”  His copilot leaned over to see. 

“Finally!,” the copilot shouted, reaching for a first-aid kit.  “I hope he still has some food and water!”

The low-fuel alarm blared.  “I swear, Jack,” the pilot said as he lowered the flaps to prepare for a rough landing, “if we ever get out of this, I’ll never forget to stow the life raft again.”

 

The End

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