The walls of the buildings on either side of the plot were papered with old ad posters that curled in strips, like wallpaper, or leaves. In the space between those walls, a series of garden beds rose from the ground in three neat rows, framed by wood mulch walking paths. At various corners around the bed frames sat planters–small pots, buckets, and boxes of all colors and materials, adding a confetti of celebration to the garden’s green growth.
A young woman kneeled beside a bed in the center of the second row, taking a trowel to the base of a plant that, judging from its yellow leaves, was exhausted and done. Ferrell leaned against the waist-high wood-plank fence between the garden and the sidewalk to watch.
The woman looked up. “Can I help you?”
“Just seeing how things are going for you. Is this a tough spot to grow in? I would think that it might be, especially now, what with the weather and all.”
The woman shrugged and pointed her trowel first at a spot above Ferrell’s head, then toward one of the buildings. “Got southern exposure, got access to city water. It’s actually pretty good. The right resources, you can make magic happen anywhere.”
Ferrell thought of his own workshop in his garden-level space below Hong’s Pho Too Long takeout on 71st. “Indeed. It’s a lovely garden.”
“Think small farm. I grow produce for the Wyckham Food Depository.”
“Really. That’s quite a hobby.”
“It’s a registered nonprofit.” The woman walked over and passed him a card from her pocket. “Ganymede Greens. Check out the site.”
Ferrel turned the card over. “Tell me, do you have any small animals on your farm? Because I feel like I might have stepped in something, big time.”
The woman smiled and offered her hand. “Ramahili Jones. Rama for short.”
“Walter Ferrell.” They shook.
“And what do you do, Mr. Ferrell?”
Ferrell sighed, smiled, and glanced up at the ad posters, feeling their fading colors far too close to his heart. “Right now, not much, sad to say. As of this morning, I scream at trees and ride the bus. I might not do that in the same order going forward.” He opened his palms and spread his fingers wide. “Normally I’m a wandmaker. And woodcarver. But the wands, that’s my calling.”
“Ah. A magic user.” Rama pursed her lips. “Not interested.”
“I would argue the magic uses me. It just needs the tools.” Now he held up his hands and wiggled his knobby fingers. “And what do you mean, ‘not interested’? I haven’t even mentioned luring anyone down any deep, dark, occult paths yet!”
“Not yet.” Rama raised one eyebrow and smirked. “And no offense meant. It’s just–I’m in the business of feeding people. It’s a lot more practical. Definitely less sparkly.”
“You’re taking care of people. I’d say that’s its own form of magic,” Ferrell said softly, letting his eyes shine.
They sat together on the top beam of the fence and stared out across Myrtle Avenue.
“It’s a little rough,” Rama told him. “I mean, I got lucky. Locked down a fixed rate for water at the beginning of the year, but still. Without the rain to help keep the plants all perky-looking, I feel like I’m chasing some kind of mirage in the desert or something, trying to keep them in good health.”
“My condolences,” said Ferrell. “It sounds difficult.”
“It’s great for the hot peppers, at least,” Rama continued.
Ferrell raised his eyebrows and grinned.
“You like them spicy, Mr. Ferrell?”
“You don’t get to my age without building up a little tolerance for trouble, Ms. Jones.”
“Well, then, by all means, please follow me,” Rama said, swinging her legs back over the fence.
She led him through the grid of garden beds, which gave Ferrell a glimpse at some of the challenges that Ganymede Greens faced. The plants were still producing, though they seemed to struggle; the broad zucchini leaves sagged like broken umbrellas, and the leaves of the basil and parsley curled inward as if they had tasted something sour. Even if he hadn’t been feeling the August heat himself, Ferrell probably would have had to take out his handkerchief and dab away sweat just as a result of looking at them.
“So nothing that magic can do to make this any better, huh?” Rama asked over her shoulder.
Ferrell shrugged. “I sold most of my best inventory hoping somebody could bring the Rain God back somehow, but…” He felt the air leaves him like helium from a popped balloon as he began to touch his thumbs to the finger on each hand, recalling the incomparable feeling of currents of magic completing their circuits around the tools he worked into being.
“Figures. Again, no offense, but from what little I know from all you magic people, depending on gods to be regular patrons isn’t the most practical business plan.”
Ferrell was about to debate the point before remembering that, just over an hour earlier, he had been arguing with the local park’s landscaping. Instead, he held quiet and watched with something between longing and jealousy as Rama crouched beside one bed and leaned toward her purpose. She reached into one of her pockets for a pair of collapsible pruning shears, lifted a plant’s leaves, and made a cut.
“Big Havana,” she said. The pepper she passed into Ferrell’s hand was about four inches long, thin, and a deep, glossy scarlet. Ferrell had never seen a demon’s tongue up close, but holding that pepper, he felt confident that he could describe one if someone ever asked. “It’s got a little kick. Not too much. Not for someone like you,” Rama said with a wink. Then she reached back into the row of plants and began snipping again, this time removing leaves that were yellowed and withered. “Don’t mind me. There’s just always something to do, you know?”
Ferrell barely heard her. He turned the pepper over in his hands, feeling its potential for nourishment, feeling the potential for the seeds inside it to grow. Reaching into his own pocket, he produced not pruning shears, but something that, for him, was sharper, more useful, and potentially more dangerous: a cotton pouch with spare materials. He let his fingertips dance around inside until they found items that satisfied them. A hazel twig. A grey pebble with a hole in its center. A long leather tie. Casting his gaze around him, he saw a slender green bamboo stake lying beside the next bed.
“May I? Apologies, thank you,” he murmured while Rama silently nodded, eyebrows raised. Then he started to work.
When he finished, he held up his handicraft. Nothing he had made before was quite like it. Only then did he realize that Rama had stopped her own work to watch him. “Is that….”
“Ms. Jones,” said Ferrell, “I am prepared to make you an offer to embark on an extraordinary new initiative.”
“Mr. Ferrell,” said Rama, “did you not hear the part about I grow for a food pantry?”
Ferrell leaned toward the spot where the bamboo stake once lay and plucked a dried bean pod from the ground. “Everything, even this, has potential. I could make something with it.”
“I know. I could make compost with it.”
“You spoke of nourishing people,” Ferrell said quietly. “Please. Help me nourish my purpose.”
He saw something in Rama’s eyes shift, as if he had cracked the code of her language. “Wait here,” she said, standing. She hurried toward a cart at the back of the lot and came back carrying a second trowel, a pair of large cotton gloves, a pen, and what turned out to be a liability waiver.
“You want a sense of purpose?” She handed the items to Ferrell. “Show me you’re serious. You do know how to tell the weeds from the crops, don’t you?”
Ferrell did, if by size, and there weren’t many of them. Rama managed a well-kept space despite the drought, with straw laid around the drip hoses and plants to keep the soil as cool and moist as possible. As Ferrell searched between the rows and beneath the bush beans for invaders, he felt that familiar slowing of time that occurred whenever he focused on a task. He let that focus direct him straight toward the few weeds to be found, sometimes digging into the soil with his fingers as well as the trowel. It wasn’t the same as laying a spiderweb core inside a branch of alder; his knees ached instead of his wrists, and the sweat came not from concentration but from the heat of August. Still.
When they had finished tending the bed, they sat on the wood chip mulch while Rama passed Ferrell her water bottle. “You can’t have all of it,” she informed him. “I’m not kidding when I talk about compost.”
“Who would joke about that? It wouldn’t all be good for me anyway. I’ll only take what you allow and what wants to be used. Will I have to dig for it every time?”
“I could always use the help, but no, you don’t have to,” Rama said. “You do have to give me thirty percent of each want sold.”
They locked gazes. Then, Ferrell nodded.
“How do you advertise?” Ramahili asked.
“People generally just find me.”
“Oh, no,” Rama said, taking out her phone. “Let me introduce you to a new kind of magic, Mr. Ferrell.”