Peopled by whores, tricksters, gamblers, do-gooders, liars, and fools, and with allusions to the coded language of flowers, Whorticulture is about prostitution in its myriad forms.
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As a girl waits for the return of her disappeared father, the story of four migrant women unravels. In antebellum America: a daydreamer from the country gets an unexpected education on the Mississippi river; a storekeeper falls in love with a thief amid the chaos of Gold Rush San Francisco; a fugitive quadroon re-invents herself in a New York brothel; and a young bride is trapped on a Louisiana sugar plantation. Though they do not know it, their lives are inextricably linked by the men they encounter.
Daisy, Blue Lupine, Cherry Blossom, Lilac, Ivy
I am born Katharine Mae Jarrett and raised in a small settlement in Indiana’s Delaware County. I am of cornfields and vague skies, of coffee rivers and creeks that jump with fish. Prairie is a place of dusty, broke-down wagons and patient, hairy-armed men licking their spittledy lips as they chew tobacco. Rolling into West Main Street, travelers will see a boarding house, a blacksmith, and the Jarretts’ hardware store. My father Caleb is a handsome man with thick whiskers. A God-fearing man who came here one summer with nothing but three shirts, a pair of shoes, a Bible, and thirteen cents. My mother Susan Amelia White Jarrett is admired for her milky skin and fierce temper. The Whites own the grist mill where Caleb took employment till he earned enough to build himself a home from logs and ask for Susan Amelia’s hand. She married him to escape her parents and has worn her dissatisfaction ever since like a favorite piece of clothing she should have grown out of.
I am the youngest of five and the only girl. The others have hair slick and black as oil, but mine is brick-dust red. My childhood is marked by the twine-and-twig-stuffed pockets of my brothers then by the clamor of their fist fights. When Levi first carves his name on a hickory tree, Ma gives him an extra corn cake. When Nathan and Jonas set fire to a neighbor’s barn by mistake, Pa thrashes them hard with his belt till their skin swells red weals. But when Walt breaks his leg trying to jump a fence on a runaway horse, Pa whittles him a walking stick to lean on. I am tough; scrubbed rosy and pie-eyed. I go to school, learn to read and write and to add up numbers on my grimy fingers.
I grow quickly.
“I swear she’s gonna be over six feet tall,” Ma says, yet my body does not seem to belong to me.
Plates slip through my hands when I set the table and land, smack, in two cracked pieces on the floor; furniture throws itself into my kneecaps; bruises – blue and purple as the sky on a summer’s night – bloom on my shins and ankles. Ma tries to teach me to darn and cut cloth then to pin and hem but my stitching is loose and crooked. Every day I name clouds (rush, reed, creek, pine) and have to be reminded to quit daydreaming and do chores.
Three months shy of my seventeenth birthday, in the spring of 1844, Ma announces, “Your uncle Meredith’s coming to visit. We may not be blood-related, but we’re all the family he has now.”
I was too young to remember when Susan Amelia’s sister died. As Leah was giving birth, the baby perished inside her. The doctor tried delivering the corpse but it was lodged tight as an unripe nut in its shell so he was forced to decapitate it first. They interred it in a tiny coffin and prayed for its tiny soul. A week later, an infection took hold of Leah and despite the bag of wriggling insects they hung round her neck, she succumbed. Meredith Chandler was ravaged with grief for two years. Eventually, he moved away, back to Ohio, sent word once in a while asking after us, but no-one expected to see him again.
“What’s he coming here for, Ma?” Jonas asks, squinting.