Sister Zoe, Meet the Gardener

A spirit from on high is poured out on us,
and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,
and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.
Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.

(Isaiah 32:15–16)

Sister Zoe longed for the taste of food over the tongue — the tang of garlic and salt, the creamy dreaminess of milk, the messy sweetness of an orange torn open with the teeth. Crunchy honey-roasted pecans. Popcorn, with real butter. A ripe peach. Pumpkin pie. Plums…sunshine and rainwater and a breath of air spun into bright flesh so sweet, the first bite made her shiver with delight.

This is what her tongue dreamed of as it lay uselessly in her dry mouth. Instead, the doctors nourished her evaporating body with clear liquids that dripped through tubes into her veins. They wouldn’t let her near food, for fear she would choke, which seemed ironic, since she was dying anyway.

But this is what her journey to death had become — a long, solitary march through the desert. She waited for visions to come to her: long-dead relatives, angels, maybe Jesus or Mary. She knew such things were not uncommon as souls passed over into the new country, for many of the dying had reported the lay of the land to her as she kept vigil by their beds. She felt it was childish of her to wish for a similar intrusion of the divine, but there it was. Here at the end, she was a child again.

She had no heavenly visions. But as wakefulness came and went like a gentle, wandering wind, she did have dreams.

For instance, she dreamed about the mischievous girl named Sulee, one of the many children she had taught during her years in the DRC. In this dream, the girl was lying in a pool of her own blood, stabbed through the gut with a machete. Sulee was not the only one to die in the violence that erupted around Matate village, but she was the one who haunted her long after she and the others had returned to Iowa. She had loved that girl; she had, she had. Her round face, her bright yellow scarf, the funny songs she sang to her baby brother.

Rows of dead laid out on the bare earth, but only when she saw the girl did Sister Zoe raise her hands to her face to smother sobs of grief.

She told Father Manion about the dream when he came to hold his own vigil at her bedside. He had been her student once, in the years before her retirement when she had taught high school algebra.

“Why do you think you’re dreaming about Sulee now, all these years later?” he asked.

“We didn’t bury her before she left,” Sister Zoe said, coughing deeply — her lungs kept filling with fluid despite all medical efforts to keep the floodwaters at bay. “We were in such a hurry to leave.”

The priest lowered his eyes, his head inclined patiently.

“And that night, I begged God for my life. Lord, I did not want to die.”

Her hands slid restlessly across the sheets, smoothing, smoothing.

“We were supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those people. But we ran away when they needed us the most. And why? To be safe? There is no such thing. Death nipped at our heels, so we ran. But death is only a dog, and anyone knows you don’t run from a dog. You stand your ground and you look it in the eye.”

“You didn’t want to leave,” the priest said.

“The mother provincial thought it would be prudent.” There was a hard edge to her words, even now. “In the long run.”

“Surely she didn’t want to be responsible for your deaths. The weight of responsibility — ”

Sister Zoe waved a hand dismissively. “We should have buried them ourselves.”

Her eyes were watery, but this was an old, old grief, too worn out for tears now. Father Manion reached across the bed and squeezed her hand, and for a long while they said nothing.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be sorry.”

“It’s this place — it’s got me down.”

The priest nodded and handed her a tissue. “So. Have you had any good dreams?”

She laughed. “Funny you should ask. I just had a dream about driving across the country with friends to see the ocean. We slept on the beach in March, in our winter coats.” She laughed again, thinking of how all the rest of the winter, sand kept spilling from the seams of her coat. “It was supposed to be my swan song. I had cancer. It was supposed to be terminal. So for spring break, the three of us got into a car and drove straight through from Minnesota to South Carolina to find the ocean. And that night, I begged God for my life. Lord, I did not want to die.”

“And?” Father Manion had crossed his arms, smiling.

“Well, the tumor disappeared. Poof. You know this story!” She had suddenly realized that he would have heard it before, when he was her student. The kids always wanted to hear it again, probably to avoid doing actual classwork.

He shrugged and laughed. “It’s a good story. And you were so grateful, you pursued the religious life. Because it’s the only true way to give your life to God.”

He was teasing her now — that was the point of telling the story to her students, to show them that their lives were a gift, waiting to be given.

“There are as many ways to give your life to God as there are people,” she said now, repeating the lines that always ended this story, “and the way is going to be beautiful, no matter what it looks like.”

Father Manion laughed again. “Yes, that’s what you said.”

“A little sentimental,” she said, folding her hands. She glanced out the window at a blue square of sky. “Or a lot. Eh. I was always a romantic.”

“The world has more than its fair share of realists. You made a good romantic.”

She looked at his face and smiled. “When I think of what an abundant life it’s been, it takes my breath away. My eyes have seen a million miracles. A million miracles. Like the stars over a calm sea on a moonless night.”

Later, her community and some other friends gathered around her bed, a hot beam of afternoon sun slanting through the window. When Father Manion began the anointing, they each placed a hand on her body in blessing, so that her body was covered with warm hands all over. Sister Maribeth stroked her hair gently as Father Manion pressed oil to her forehead, then her hands, then her feet.

“May the God of all consolation bless you in every way and grant you hope all the days of your life. Amen.

“May God restore you to health and grant you salvation. Amen.

“May God fill your heart with peace and lead you to eternal life. Amen.”

Then the sacrament was done.

“Sister,” Father Manion said quietly.

She started, waking to a circle of friendly faces, a few wet with tears.

“We’re finished. Did you drift off?” He sounded amused.

“I must have, a little.”

“We should let you rest.”

They filed out of the room, hugging her and whispering their goodbyes. Sister Pat lingered in the doorway.

“Is there anything you need?” she asked.

Sister Zoe considered this. “You know that bread you make, the good toasting kind? Bring me some of that. Soak it in two pats of butter. A little bowl of roasted carrots….” 

She trailed off. She had meant to make it a joke, a little humor to lighten the mood, but she was too tired to carry it off, and now she was just hungry.

Sister Pat smiled. “All right. I’ll see what I can do.”

She blew Sister Zoe a kiss and left her to sleep.

“I’m hungry,” she whispered conspiratorially, her eyes widening. “Let’s go find something good to eat.”

During the night, she slept long and deep, and had powerful dreams. She swam up to awareness only as someone’s hand rocked her dream-boat, pushing insistently at her shoulder.

“Wake up, wake up, wake up.”

Zoe’s eyes snapped open. It was a girl in a white nightgown with yellow butterflies printed all over. She had large brown eyes. The girl turned her face sideways to see Zoe better.

“Hello,” the girl said.

“Hello,” Zoe said, blinking several times. The clock on the wall said it was five in the morning. “What room did you escape from?”

The girl leaned forward, until her beautiful brown face was inches from Zoe’s. “I’m hungry,” she whispered conspiratorially, her eyes widening. “Let’s go find something good to eat.”

Zoe laughed. Didn’t they feed anyone around here?

“I can’t get you anything to eat. See, I’m stuck in bed. Go out in the hall and ask one of the nurses for a snack.”

The girl shook her head solemnly and began removing Zoe’s covers. “They don’t have the good stuff. We want real food, right?”

She took Zoe’s arm and peeled away the tape holding the IV line in place.

“Hey, don’t do that!”

The girl smiled brightly at her as she removed the needle and coiled up the line. “Why not? If you eat real food, you won’t need it.”

Zoe regarded the girl curiously for a moment. “It’s not my job to feed you, you know.”

The girl gave her a “get serious” look.

“Well,” Zoe sighed. “Maybe I can get something to eat myself while I’m at it.” She was suddenly hungry for strawberries in warm vanilla ice cream.

She swung her feet over the edge of the bed and was surprised at how well she felt. She breathed in deeply; no coughing. The girl took her by the hand and led her to the door.

The hallway was full of people — patients mostly, in bathrobes and flimsy blue hospital gowns. Nurses guided the people along with words of encouragement and direction: “No, ma’am, you don’t need discharge papers.” “Yes, Mr. Priske, go down the hall and to your left. Just follow everyone else.”

Zoe looked around in wonderment. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Is there a fire or something?”

“No, there’s no fire!” the girl laughed. She tugged Zoe into the hallway eagerly. “Everyone’s hungry, that’s all.”

They followed the general flow of the crowd toward the elevators. At the nursing station, the nurses were shutting down computers and abandoning their posts. The vending machines they passed were empty; candy bar wrappers were littered everywhere, trampled underfoot like autumn leaves.

Zoe and the girl squeezed into the elevator with some other patients.

The street was filled with more people than Zoe had ever seen in downtown Des Moines. It was like a stage onto which the entire cast of some bizarre play had come out for the final curtain call.

“Am I the only one around here who wants to know why we’re evacuating a perfectly good hospital in the middle of the night?” Zoe asked them.

“Food,” said a large, balding man wearing a red velvet robe and cow slippers. “I tell you, I own fourteen Shoney’s family restaurants in five states, so I know food, and this hospital food is the worst. They’ve had me on this no-fat, no-salt, no-nothing diet ever since my triple bypass heart surgery, and I mean, what’s the point? Why bother?” He shook his head as the elevator doors opened on the lobby, and they joined everyone else heading outside. “I’m starving, and so is everyone else in this place. I feel like I haven’t eaten in . . . in forty days, practically. Even the nurses are sick of the food!”

“Amen to that,” a passing nurse put in. “So when we heard about how everyone’s invited to this big party out in the country, we figured, why not? Sounds like the guy hosting this thing puts on quite a spread.”

They passed through the sliding glass doors at the hospital entrance and found themselves on the street, which was lit by the pink and gold colors of dawn.

“Looks like everyone had the same idea,” Zoe said in amazement.

The street was filled with more people than Zoe had ever seen in downtown Des Moines. It was like a stage onto which the entire cast of some bizarre play had come out for the final curtain call. There were businesspeople in suits, Laotian dancers, kindergartners holding hands in a line, inner-city kids passing a basketball around, veiled Iranian women, several hundred South African soldiers, lots of shoppers with empty shopping bags — even the governor of Iowa, who waved and shook hands with passers-by as if she were working a parade the day before elections.

The restaurateur folded his arms across his wide chest. “This is just great. I hope all the good stuff isn’t gone by the time we get there.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” the girl piped up. “He’s rich enough to feed everyone, with leftovers to spare.”

“Well, let’s get going,” the restaurant guy said, grunting and ambling into the crowd.

The girl tugged at her hand, but Zoe didn’t follow. “Wait; just wait,” she said. She was staring intently at the passing crowd. This mystery seemed familiar somehow, as if she should know what it was all about — but she didn’t, and that bothered her. She directed her gaze to the strange young girl. “What’s going on?”

“Come and see,” the girl replied with a smile. “You’re not afraid, are you?”

“No,” Zoe said, a little taken aback. She’d been afraid before in life, but she had never given in to fear — except for perhaps in Matate village.

“No,” she said again, “but I don’t even know where this thing is, or how to get there.”

“Yes you do.”

A man with a crooked nose and sad, baggy eyes approached them.

“Excuse me,” he said, waving his hand at Zoe. “Can you help me find the way to this party?” He was awkwardly carrying shopping bags from various department stores, all of them stuffed full of boxes. He shifted his load and added, “All this shopping made me pretty ravenous.”

“She knows the way,” the girl said, looking up at Zoe expectantly. “Don’t you?”

Zoe silently looked down at the girl for a moment. She looked back at the man and saw the hunger in his face. Something like understanding was dawning on her now, as she recognized the man’s hunger, and the girl’s simple joyfulness.

“Yes,” she finally told him, slowly. “I think I do. You can walk with us.”

“Thanks!” the man said, readjusting his bags. “But — these boxes — uh, could you help carry some?”

“What’s in them?” Zoe asked.

“Uh, clothes, mostly. Nothing that I can eat, which is what I really need.”

“Well, I think I can help you out,” Zoe said, noticing some of the underclad patients from the hospital. She winked at the girl, who covered her mouth and giggled.

They entered the motley parade behind a high school marching band. Zoe went through the man’s new clothes as they walked along, and gave them all away to anyone who needed them. With his load lightened, the man traveled much more easily. He seemed pleasantly surprised that he didn’t miss his baggage at all.

They walked east for a very long time, all the way out of the city. The girl skipped along, or chatted with different people. For a while the inmates of a maximum-security prison, still wearing their gray uniforms, took turns giving her rides on their shoulders so she could see above the crowd. Later, she and Zoe danced to the music of a passing mariachi band.

Zoe took in the faces of the people around her. She knew these people, and knew their hungers, from all those years of working in parishes and schools, and of course in Congo. She was happy to be traveling again, and happier still to be traveling with them. She was at home here on the road with friends.

Soon they were well into the countryside, where fields rolled out all around them, black and ready for planting. People began leaving the procession and making their way across the fields.

“Come on!” the girl said excitedly, jumping all around Zoe. “Let’s run!”

Zoe laughed at the suggestion, because running for fun was a child’s pastime, and she was no child — and she had on only hospital slippers, besides. But it had been a weird enough morning so far; who was to say she couldn’t run?

So she did; haltingly at first, and then with confidence, exhilarated at the sensation of a wind of her own making on her face. She chased the girl, weaving around people who cheered them on, until they came to the edge of a stream. There, she caught the squealing girl and scooped her up. She spun around and thought of dunking her in the water.

That’s when she saw the man; he was leaning against a large red pickup truck, smiling at them in the way that adults smile at children dancing. She stopped abruptly, breathing hard from running; she thought she knew him. He looked like a common farmer; he wore faded, dirty overalls and a floppy wide-brimmed hat, and he was unshaven. And yet his bearing was such that she thought he might be the owner of the place, the host of the party. He was looking at her with an amused but friendly smile. She carefully lowered the girl to the ground.

“Welcome to the party,” he said. “I’m glad you came.”

She approached him slowly, pushing loose strands of hair away from her face. The back of the red pickup truck was loaded with many large burlap sacks. His smiling eyes met hers. She felt her heart beating against her ribs.

“Help me feed these people,” he said, reaching into one of the sacks. She reached out her hands, and he filled them with seeds of many shapes and colors.

She reached out her hands, and he filled them with seeds of many shapes and colors.

Image: Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection.; Livingston’s Seed Store. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“I want to help, too,” the girl said, and Zoe poured some of the seeds into her hands. Others gathered seeds, too, and began drifting back through the crowd.

They gave the seeds to all the people, instructing them to find their own patch of good ground to till. Placing the seeds carefully in each outstretched hand reminded Zoe of distributing communion at church. She closed her eyes and saw them coming to her in a long line of beautiful faces.

“The body of Christ,” she said.

“Amen,” they said.

The girl gave seeds to some soldiers, who used the stocks of their guns to till the earth. Zoe handed a seed to a group of gray-suited businesswomen sitting cross-legged on the ground.

“I thought,” the woman who received the seed said dryly, looking down at it, “there was going to be food at this party. Gardening isn’t exactly what we had in mind.”

“Well, I guess this is a surprise party, then,” Zoe said, smiling.

The woman rolled her eyes. “Why do we get only one seed?”

“Tend to it with care, and sprinkle it with water from the stream,” Zoe said. “You might find you have more than you expected.”

When they were finished, Zoe lifted the girl onto her shoulders to see the milling crowd that spread out to every horizon.

“Wow,” the girl breathed. “Look at all the people.”

And they’re all hungry, Zoe thought, as hungry as I am after all that work. We’ve come too far to go home now, and there is no food anywhere to give them; just bare fields. She turned to find the gardener in the crowd. He was sitting on top of the pickup truck’s cab not far off, and he waved at her as she approached with the girl.

“Children, have you found anything to eat?” he called to them.

“Not a thing,” Zoe answered.

The man adjusted the brim of his hat and regarded her from under it, grinning a little.

“Zoe,” he said to her. “Turn around, and you will find something.”

His words raised the hairs on the nape of her neck.

Behind her, a great cry rose up from the crowd. She turned and saw not empty, muddy fields, but a garden, a garden that rose from the earth even as the people watched. Grasses and grains, vines and legumes, and every kind of tree that bears fruit grew up all around. Canopies of leaves spread out from trees as if to embrace the sky. Vines twisted and tumbled wildly around tree trunks, and squash and melons made low thunking noises as they plopped onto the ground. Boughs shook out the apples and oranges and pears gathering along them like roosting birds. Corn emerged with a green creaking noise, stands of wheat rustled and bent over heavy with grain, and flowers strew color everywhere. The emerging garden rumbled like an earthquake, and the people cheered and cheered — even the gray-suited businesswomen, who were dangling from high among the limbs of the tree that had sprung up from their tiny seed.

Zoe gasped and whirled around — everything was changed, even the people. Or maybe it was she who had changed, for now she saw the land not with her eyes but with the heart of her heart; and from that place, she saw everything transformed by love.

She saw the beautiful girl who had awakened her to all of this, and recognized her, very alive as she clapped and cheered and jumped up and down. Sulee winked at Zoe and began dancing joyfully; she reached under her nightgown and pulled out a long machete, which she twirled over her head like a majorette’s baton. She tossed the machete in an arc away from herself, chased after it by doing two cartwheels and a backflip, and caught the flashing knife as it fell into her mouth. People applauded and cheered as she removed it from her mouth and made a sweeping bow.

“Isn’t that a neat trick?” Sulee said, skipping over to Zoe and taking her hand.

“It’s an amazing trick,” Zoe exclaimed, picking up the girl and embracing her. “It’s all amazing.”

She turned to the gardener, and she recognized him, too; she knew him from the moment he had called her name. She smiled at him shyly, but she wasn’t afraid; she only felt warm and beautiful near him.

“This isn’t Iowa, is it?” she teased.

“No, ma’am,” he replied, laughing. “This is heaven. Come and eat.”

All around, the people gathered the harvest and shared it with one another, combining their simple gifts to make the best meal any of them had ever had. Zoe laughed with joy, and ate until she was satisfied.

This story first appeared in Waking Up Bees and Other Tricks of Love: Stories of Living Life’s Questions, a book I wrote on a contract-for-hire basis for Saint Mary’s Press, which owns the copyright. The version here contains significant revisions from the original, and is presented here with the permission of the copyright holder. You can purchase Waking Up Bees and Other Tricks of Love at the Saint Mary’s Press website.