She and the Remnants of Plants
By Anne Rhee
Exploring themes of mental illness specifically within the Asian-American immigrant community and isolation, She and the Remnants of Plants centers around a teenage girl’s relationship to plants and death.
The bulb of the green onion sprouted, slowly pushing its pale apple-green leaves out of the soil into the seven-year-old’s small fleshy hands.
Hands. She was taught to work with them from a young age. Plants had always surrounded her existence and permeated her memories. The Korean community had always been strangely obsessed with community gardens, pressed flowers in the Sunday Bibles. Memories swirling of her mother buying ten-dollar orchids wrapped in pink cellophane that would die weeks later, her grandparents’ terrace in Korea encircled with huge swamps of plants that would caress the laundry with their far-reaching leaves. The latter never seemed to die—they always stayed the same, healthy and swollen with life.
To grow a plant successfully, one must water them three times a week. She watched as the pale brown soil would turn dark with the moisture that her father told her was necessary for the plants to live; yet the labor that required her hands was not hard labor, but required extreme delicacy. She named her plants, slowly becoming engrossed with the slow pace at which they grew, until one day, as she had marked on her calendar as one of the watering days, came upon her plants beginning to shrivel, their once healthy veins crinkled like paper origami.
“Why do plants die, Dad?”
“Because they grow, and as they grow, they also age. Aging is what causes them to eventually die—the plants will soon become too withered to support their own bodies.”
After this one conversation with her father, Anne had become worried about what she, too, would have to go through by aging. She had read through books and texts about Alzheimer’s and ALS, different diseases that withered away at people’s bodies until their brains no longer retained their perfect shape and function. It was out of this childhood fear that grew an obsession that would eventually consume her life.
After the orchid died, she began to plot out decisions systematically. After school she’d sit in her bedroom, surrounded by notepads, all of the same size and color because she needed uniformity. Using one of her pens, each with a thickness of 0.38 inches and sharp needle-point tip as the box declared it to have, she would think and scribble down each part of her decision.
Mental-mapping, her brother would laughingly tease her, stressing the first word because in his eyes, she was mental—who else would go to such lengths to simply make a decision? Her parents would also laugh—they surely believed that the compulsive obsession with organization was just a phase. Mental health was never taken seriously in the Asian community, after all.
On the day of the annual yard sale, Anne had reached her breaking point—her passion for growing plants had been subsumed by her greater, obsessive tendencies.
One of her friends, Ruby, noticed the box of books first. The last time she had visited Anne, they lay on her desk, a thin veil of dust coating the covers; now they were laying in a cardboard box, mostly dust-free. She saw Anne walking up the stairs to her porch.
“Anne, are you sure about selling these?”
Anne turned around. There wasn’t a flicker of doubt, but Ruby noticed something else. She seemed dazed, almost as if she hadn’t been outside in a few months.
“I don’t really have a use for them anymore. Five dollars per book.”
Ruby, alarmed, and also a little worried decided to ask Anne’s parents what was happening. But upon asking, Anne’s mother just shrugged. “It’s just a phase—no need to worry. I’m sure she’s developing new interests that are replacing plants and botany.”
Her family had already gotten used to her lost passion for plants and its replacement: her obsessive planning. Soon after, her friends also became numb to Anne’s inaction. Little by little, they began to move on with their own lives, leaving Anne to her own devices. Her parents, who had considered bringing her to countless therapists in fear and hope that they would be able to diagnose some sort of curable problem that had a solution, ended up choosing to prioritize themselves with other matters and tasks.
No one bothered to ask Anne why she truly had become so obsessed with staying in this bubble of her own thoughts, interacting with people less and less, and refusing to be influenced by anyone. And the truth was, Anne would sometimes ask herself that question, too. The answers continued to remain unclear, confusing, shrouded in mystery. But what she did remember was what her father told her after that fateful day of her plant’s death:
“But don’t forget—even if plants die, their remains become the soil upon which a new garden will bloom.”
Given the themes of the final version of this short story, it’s ironic that my initial approach to writing this piece was with the purpose of creating a comedic tale about a girl who was obsessed with making lists. One of my favorite lines from my first draft is as follows: “She had somehow been able to quarantine herself into a state of solitude unachievable by even the monks of Tibet—she sat there unmoving, a conscious meditation of her own, deep in her own thoughts and prayers to the God of Obsessing Over Decisions and Decision-Making.” Another striking difference between the first and the last versions of this story is the difference in perspective—initially, the main character was referred solely as “she” and “her.” Now, she is a named individual.
The difference in these versions stems from the writing exercise that I did when revising my first draft: to substitute my name in for all the mentions of the main character herself. Focusing from a more first-person perspective caused me to discover hidden and more serious themes, eventually leading me to create a narrative exploring the reactions of first-generation immigrant communities to mental illness.
Anne Rhee is a writer based in NYC. She began writing poetry for fun three years ago and has recently started writing short stories and different multimedia pieces. She likes to focus on themes such as immigration, generational divides, and language. Her pieces have been published in the Girls Write Now Anthology and the Stuyvesant Spectator. She was also a recipient of two Bronze Honorable Mentions from the Scholastic Writing competition. In her free time, she likes to make Pinterest boards, lists, and listen to Ariana Grande.