It was just a basil plant.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Hidden in the bushes, maybe?
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.
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!”
“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 …