• Vol. 03
  • Chapter 04
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Mother-in-law’s tongue

I read somewhere that flattery's the food of fools. My flattery came in brown envelopes and contained solicitous inquiries of my health and home. My parents having died, I rented a small flat and worked in a library.

We carried on our inky friendship, Clement and I, for one year, exchanging grainy, sepia photographs. He informed me that his wife had 'hitched a wagon' and disappeared years ago. Eventually he invited me to work for him on his farm; enclosing directions and a few dollars.

My new employer stood on his porch near a rocking chair containing Ma Harris, his mother. Shyly, I approached them, shaking hands and smiling.

His voice was dust-dry. 'Welcome Abigail, I have prepared some refreshment, after your long journey.'

'Before eating, you would do well to change clothes, to wear something more serviceable for work.' Her voice was icy, quite commanding, for someone her age.

This set the pattern of my new life. Dusty work in the fields, household chores inside, with rare trips into the nearest town by pony and trap. Clem and I tried to establish a friendship, but he always deferred to Ma Harris. I realised the reason why his wife had hit the trail.


Mother-in-law’s tongue

His mother grumbled from morning to sundown. Mainly I took the brunt of her malicious tongue.

'Go help Clem in the barn. Can't you bake a decent sponge? Why haven't the sheets been mangled? It's time for my pills.'

A litany of complaints, mostly repetitive. She had no other interests, save the loud cheap radio and the porch plant, which she watered carefully. Clem defended her stoically by saying 'She's nigh on 85 and not in the best of health. Abigail, we must pull together.' Then he would grasp the pitchfork and trudge off to the field, whilst I followed him carrying armfuls of sacks.

He never invited me to share his bed, which surprised me. Maybe he figured that his mother would be even more caustic, or he may have thought that I would leave, too.

A nursery man came calling one day; a cheerful soul with a van packed with seeds, plants, tools and garden sundries. I persuaded Clem to purchase seeds and plants, so that I might have an occupation which didn't involve farm or housework. Ma Harris sneered. 'Take the money from her wages, it's just a way to avoid her duties.'

I was incensed, hearing this, but carried my wooden box around to the sunny side of the homestead. I dug and hoed, shifted stones and planted. making a living patch out of scrub.

Before he left the seed-man spoke to me. 'That plant on the porch is sansevieria-snake plant, or Mother-in-law's tongue!'


Mother-in-law’s tongue

Over time my flowers flourished, as did I, when Clem's mother died. We became closer; the snake plant died, too.

It was chopped into small pieces and buried.