Published on 2011/08/07

The Forcing House

Michael C. Keith

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow.

–– Edward Fitzgerald

In the small village of Dewsbury, England, the harsh winter of 1878 kept the ground frozen and snow-covered until early May. The lateness of the spring growing season had severely taxed the resources of Neville Laarman. His greenhouse was barren since the prolonged cold prevented him from producing the flowers necessary to support himself and his family. As soon as the weather broke, he hurriedly seeded his pots with fast growing Zinnias, Nasturtiums, Marigolds, Cosmos, and Alyssum, among a host of others.

In addition to the usual seeding, Neville buried the gametes he had purchased months earlier from an individual on his way to Leeds to give a lecture who claimed to be a noted botanist. The stranger boasted of developing an extraordinary blossom from a blend of Roridula, Heterophylia, Drosera, Cephalotus, Tonala, Konda, Chrysolepis, and Drosophyllum––flora totally unfamiliar to Neville, who knew his flowering plants better than most men.

Omorfi Gigantas Loulouthi––beautiful giant flower, to the uninitiated, sir. If that is difficult to remember, simply refer to it by its creator’s moniker, Maskelyne,” he said, with a courtly bow.

The well-dressed gentleman had a fine sketch of the bloom, whose large variegated petals featured several vibrant colors that appeared to rise from the paper. Although the cost of the packet containing the exotic admixture was exorbitant, Neville was confident his investment would be recouped manifold. Surely his customers would be as dazzled by the rare flower as he was, he thought.

But the expenditure had compounded the hardship caused by the protracted winter. His wife, Eliza, complained about the dwindling of provisions needed to feed their three children. The situation was made all the more dire due to the medical needs of their nine-year-old son, a dwarf named Joshua, whose deformed spine caused him constant pain and difficulties walking. Neville often carried his crippled child to the greenhouse to distract him from the hardships of his young existence. The boy’s mood invariably improved as he watched his father fill and seed the terracotta pots. They would sing, and occasionally Neville would hoist Joshua to his shoulders and dance a Slip jig until his son’s back pain required he be returned to his special chair.

“That was fun, father. Thank you,” Joshua would say gratefully, and his father could not look at him because of the tears in his eyes.

There was nothing Neville would not do or give to see his only son healthy and happy. It caused him unbearable sorrow to know that Joshua would live out what remained of his life so terribly afflicted.

* * *

Although the snow gradually melted, it remained unseasonably cold, and Neville knew his seedlings were in peril. In an attempt to insure their growth, he constructed a makeshift wood stove to keep the frigid air from killing the precious roots he prayed were forming in their containers. Before retiring for his short night’s sleep––usually no more than four hours––he filled the stove with enough logs to heat the nursery until his return the next morning.

Not long after Neville slipped into bed next to his wife and fell into a deep sleep, a hard Polar gust that had battered the area all winter long caused a tree limb to strike the greenhouse stove’s flue, which was vented through an opening in the glass roof. This caused the damper to come apart, showering embers on the pallet holding the pots with the special seeds purchased at so high a price. Soon the wood table caught fire.

Fate intervened, stirring Neville from a disturbing dream. He awoke with his heart pounding, fearing that something awful had happened and very quickly realizing that it had. Luckily, the fire had not spread far when he reached the greenhouse, and he was able to douse the flames with buckets of leftover snow.

Despite his relief that his business had not burned to the ground, he soon realized the costly Maskelynes had been a casualty of the blaze. All that remained in the charred pots was ash. Neville was deeply distressed as he mixed new soil with the slag of his failed venture and placed what common seeds remained in it. Although he had slept only a little that night, he knew he would not be able to go back to sleep. Thoughts of his bad fortune would prevent him from doing so. Instead, he cleaned the debris from the fire and fixed the stove’s flue. When the sun rose, he returned to the house for breakfast.

“Are you all right, Neville?” asked his wife, as he slumped into a kitchen chair.

He had not told Eliza about buying the Maskelyne seeds, because he knew she would raise valid objections. She would have been right, too, he thought, as he sipped his tea. We would be far better off now with the money.

“Just a little fire from the stove. Nothing of significance lost,” he replied, knowing he was lying, since something of potentially tremendous significance had, indeed, been lost.

“Go to bed for a while. You need rest or you will get sick,” urged Eliza, and Neville heeded her advice.

“Maybe for an hour,” he answered, rising wearily from his seat and leaving the kitchen.

* * *

The unsettling nightmare that had been interrupted by his sudden awakening hours before returned. In it, his family was being sent away from him on a train, which he was kept from boarding, despite his valiant attempts to do so. As the train began to depart for its unknown destination, he woke shaken.

“Only two hours, but perhaps you feel better, love?” asked Eliza as she entered the bedroom. “There’s porridge and sausage. Please eat before you go back out.”

“Yes, I’m hungry. Thank you,” answered Neville, taking his wife’s hand and gently kissing it.

Neville felt slightly better by the time he reached the greenhouse, but when his eyes landed on the pots that once held the promise of a brighter future, he stopped in his tracks. Rising before him were fully bloomed Zinnias, Marigolds, and Cosmos.

“Impossible!” he blurted, as he made a closer inspection of the startling growths.

Only hours earlier he had seeded those same pots, yet somehow the seedlings had grown to maturity in that brief time. He examined the pots carefully to ascertain if they were the same ones he had filled. They were. For a moment he feared he might be imagining things. He sat for several minutes staring at the miraculous flowers, and during that time, he thought he saw them growing even further. The Maskelyne. Could it be the ashes of the Maskelyne? wondered Neville, amazed by the possibility.

Two of the twelve pots that had contained the special seed had been left unfilled, and Neville collected their burnt contents, placing them in a leather pouch. To validate the apparent bizarre effect of the ash, he mixed some of it in the soil of another pot and placed Nasturtium seeds in it. He then set out to the market to purchase on credit a few food items requested by his wife. When he returned three hours later, gigantic red, yellow, and orange blossoms hung on long stems from the pot.

“Incredible,” he mumbled, clutching the pouch containing the miraculous compound. A thought then occurred to him. Could it do for his son what it did for the plants? Would it give him growth? In only a moment, he determined to ascertain the answer. He would mix the ash in Joshua’s food and hope the Maskelyne sediment would perform its magic on his stunted child. Neville felt it was worth any risk the enigmatic compound might pose if it brought relief to his child’s suffering.

Again, Neville decided against revealing his plan to his wife. She was a very sensible, if not overly cautious, woman, who would surely be against experimenting with their only son. He hoped his actions would not prove her right. Although he did feel some trepidation about his son ingesting the mysterious substance, he felt it was worth the risk if it resulted in a better life for his cherished offspring.

* * *

At the midday meal, Neville poured a small amount of the mixture in Joshua’s milk. After consuming a large bowl of cock-a-leekie, a special stew made by his wife, he returned to the greenhouse, and again noted the continued growth of the Nasturtiums. By then, their tendrils reached the ground, and the Zinnias, Cosmos, and Marigolds were twice the size they had been. He quickly informed his neighbors and townsfolk of his extraordinary flowers, and by nightfall, he had sold them to enthusiastic customers for an impressive sum. Encouraged by the results, he mixed the Maskelyne ash in a batch of soil and filled several more pots with seeds.

The next morning he rose well before dawn and dashed excitedly to the greenhouse. To his pleasure, a burst of vividly colored plants greeted him.

“Thank you, thank you,” he mumbled, his eyes cast upward.

Apparently the voluptuous petals had attracted rodents as well, because Neville noticed chomp marks on some. As the sun rose, he arranged a row of tables outside of the greenhouse on which to display his resplendent merchandise. As he stood staring admiringly at his wares, his wife shouted for him to come to the house. When he entered, he found Eliza weeping.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, and she responded by pointing in the direction of the kitchen.

When Neville entered the cookery, he found standing next to the sink a youngster who looked vaguely familiar to him.

“Who are . . .?” he sputtered, and then he realized it was Joshua. “Oh Lord, is it you?”

“Yes, father. Look how I have grown.”

Indeed, the boy stood at least a foot taller and completely erect.

“How can this be?” sobbed Eliza. “It is the work of God. A miracle!

“Yes, it is a miracle. A wonderful gift,” said Neville, embracing his son.

“No pain, father, and look how straight I stand,” said Joshua, with a broad smile.

* * *

In the days that followed, the Laarmans celebrated their exceptional fortune. Thanks to sales of the miracle flowers, their finances improved dramatically, and they were able to pay off their creditors and purchase much-needed goods for their household and children. Neville’s nursery had become the talk of Dewsbury and the surrounding areas, and the demand for his plants nearly exceeded his ability to produce them. Miraculously, the ashes seemed to regenerate themselves as his pouch never emptied. Everything was as good as he could possibly imagine.

Neville’s only growing concern was his son’s continuing growth spurts. By now he had exceeded the height of his mother and was closing in on his father’s height. What if he continues to grow unabated? wondered Neville, who had ceased putting the Maskelyne residue in Joshua’s food after two applications. Still, he was delighted that his son no longer suffered from his affliction and believed he would stop growing at a reasonable size.

“Father, I think I’ll soon be able to ride you on my shoulders,” remarked Joshua, as he worked along with his father in the greenhouse.

“That would be wonderful,” answered his father, secretly hoping it would never come to pass.

In the middle of the night, Neville was awakened by a noise coming from the greenhouse. The fire in the wood stove cast a faint glow, and he thought he detected a shadow. Was there someone in there trying to discover the reason his plants grew so robustly? he considered.

As he opened the greenhouse door, a loud squeal accosted him, and a table containing plants toppled over.

“Who’s there? Get out of there!” threatened Neville, as he moved forward cautiously.

Another strident squeal filled the air, and then a large object appeared at the far end of the greenhouse.

“God!” screamed Neville, and then he was attacked, his head torn from his body.

In the moonlight, the dark contours of the mammoth rats could be seen scurrying from the greenhouse toward the sleeping village.


Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir and three short story collections.