This story available on Oct 24, 2020

Urban Farming


Lizz Shepherd

Everyone has a favorite animal that speaks to them for some reason. Maybe they find it cute. Maybe they find it powerful or free or something else that they want to be.


I never thought much about people’s most feared animals until I met Mia.


I had just moved into my first house, and now I could start to feel settled and even start growing things the way I had always wanted. That’s one of the things that had always impressed me about Portland before I moved there. Everyone there grew something, even if they had very little land around their houses. They called it “urban farming,” and it didn’t have to be more than a few plants to give you a steady stream of something to eat.


Most of my neighbors were a few years older than me, and Mia was no exception. What drew me to her in those first few weeks were the years of experience she had with growing food in her yard. When I first saw her yard, I pictured her going out and picking all the organic produce she wanted with her meal. That was something I had dreamed about doing for years, and I relished the thought of being responsible for my own food and knowing just where it had come from.


After moving in, I found that virtually all of the houses in the neighborhood were growing what they could where they could. I planted a few flowering plants in the front flowerbed, but I wanted the rest of the space to be my garden.


Mia had corn growing near her mailbox, various vegetables in the back and a huge bed of strawberries just outside her garage. I’d been reading about growing food on small plots of land, but I was happy when Mia told me she was a certified master gardener and was willing to talk to me about how to make the most of the land I had.


Our houses were of similar size, but her yard was larger than mine. If I was going to grow food, I’d have to be very careful about how I used the land.


Mia and I sat around her kitchen one Saturday afternoon drinking bitter tea and making a map of what I would grow. I could grow at least five things in a decent quantity or grow more diverse items but in small amounts.


Thinking about the possibilities, I looked around her kitchen. A colorful butterfly hanging adorned one wall.


“Oh, what a pretty butterfly,” I told her. “I love butterflies. I’ve planted a few flowers out front. I hope they’ll attract them.”


Mia looked surprisingly ashen. She was staring blankly at me. I had no idea what to say or what I had already said that was so wrong. I concentrated on drinking my tea, looking down into its depths.


“I liked butterflies, too,” she said finally. “I don’t know if it’s a great idea to plant things around here that will attract insects, though. We get enough of them.”


“I haven’t noticed that many,” I said. “I’ve definitely noticed fewer bugs here in Portland proper than I did out in the sticks. And they seem bigger here for whatever reason. Maybe there is more pesticide use here in the city.”


“We definitely have them. Definitely,” she said, taking a long drink of her tea. “Obviously you can’t use pesticides in this neighborhood, but I’ve seen people use organic pesticides in very small amounts. I wouldn’t, though,” she said, shaking her head. “The neighborhood association frowns on that, and it just isn’t healthy.”


I nodded my head. We were a certified green neighborhood, and one of the covenants was no pesticide or herbicide use. I’d been reading gardening books since I put in an offer on my house, and I knew how nasty they could be.


“Well, if I do attract bugs, I hope they are just butterflies,” I said with a smile.


She looked a bit ashen again. “Better that than… dragonflies,” she said, turning her gaze from a faraway look to a direct stare at me. “Have you seen them?”


“Hmm, I don’t think so. I guess I don’t really pay much attention,” I said. “They don’t take bites out of what you grow, do they?”


She shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said quietly. I finished my tea and told her that I was going home to read up a little more about the plants I wanted to grow. I spent that afternoon, and many weekend afternoons, reading about gardening and what grows best in the soft, rich Oregon soil. I had high hopes about my organic venture. It would be good for the environment  and for me. Hell, all of the manual labor might even keep me in shape.


I was out planting one day and just after I had tilled a patch of ground, a dragonfly buzzed by. They could be slightly startling when they flew by so close and so quickly. I smiled to myself, remembering the conversation Mia and I had shared weeks earlier. I figured that dragonflies were a particular living thing that Mia just had a problem with. Everyone seemed to have one of those. Mine was spiders. I freaking hated spiders, and I still do. Nothing will change the way I see spiders. But winged insects? Yeah. I see them differently now.


When I got a patch of carrots in the ground, I was quite pleased with the way my carrot patch was growing. I would have an enormous crop of carrots, and they would make for great snacks and in stir fry. I was pondering planting even more in the tiny space when I heard Mia screaming from near her back door.


I dropped the spade in my hand and ran into her yard. I wondered if she’d been stung or had fallen. When I got to her back yard, she was quieter, but she was flailing around, waving her arms. Her eyes were wide, and her mouth drawn back. I put my hand on her shoulder.


“What’s wrong? Are you stung?”


She stopped waving her arms and looked at me, her breathing heavy. She looked like she was on the verge of tears.


“No! No. I’m fine. It’s just, you know, dragonflies,” she said, putting her hand on her chest as she tried to calm her breathing down. She wasn’t yet in the age range where you’d expect a heart attack could happen, so I figured she was probably suffering from a good scare from the bug she most hated. Why did everyone have one particular insect that they hated? I tried not to feel too harshly about her reaction. I had certainly screamed my fair share of times when I came upon a spider unexpectedly. Imagine if spiders could fly and actually dive-bomb you.


“It’s ok, I don’t see any,” I said, looking around.


And then I did see one, buzzing about 10 feet away. The thing about dragonflies is that you only ever really see their wings. They have such beautiful wings, and this one was hovering there with its wings looking pearlescent in the dim Oregon sunlight. There was no reason to tell her that one was still around, so I asked her if she wanted to go inside and sit down. I walked her in there, hoping she had something to drink other than her horrid tea.


I led her to a kitchen chair and poured her a glass of water. She drank it, trying not to look at me.


“I don’t know what came over me, Miranda. I’m sorry if I scared you,” she said after a moment. A polite smile let me know she was embarrassed and probably didn’t want to talk about the incident.


“Oh, it’s fine,” I said, as if my heart wasn’t still beating fast. “So, I got a flier about a beautification project. Are you involved with that?”


“Yes,” she said after another long drink. “The head of the HOA roped me into it after she got wind of my garden and the mentoring I’ve done around the neighborhood. We’re going to plant a pretty big flower garden at the entrance to the neighborhood.”


“Wow, with no herbicides? That sounds like an enormous amount of work,” I said, pouring myself a glass of water in the hopes that if I stayed busy, she wouldn’t ask me to help with it.


“It shouldn’t be so bad. After growing so much produce, flowers should be a snap,” she said, finally smiling for the most part. I drank my water down and excused myself. There was some yard work I wanted to get done before dark. On my way back across the yard, I saw that pearlescent shine in the air once or twice.


It was two weeks later, when my own garden was coming along quite nicely when I heard the screams coming from her side yard. I ran outside and saw Mia running across her yard, swatting her hands like mad. As I got closer, I could see how red her face was, and she had a few spots of blood on both arms.


“Mia! Mia! Are you ok? Did you get stung? What do you need?”


She looked at me for a couple of seconds and then collapsed into tears. She came closer to me and her head bowed as she sobbed. I grabbed her and hugged her for a moment before walking her inside.


“It’s ok Mia. Really, it’s ok. You don’t have to worry about this. Seriously. I am terrified of spiders. My mom has a thing about roaches. It’s nothing to worry about,” I said, leading her to one of her kitchen chairs. I turned to make her a glass of water or tea when she reached out and grabbed my arm and pulled me back to her.


“Those weren’t dragonflies,” she said simply, her face red and wet. A little snot was trailing down from one nostril.


“Ah, what? What was it that scared you?”


“They aren’t dragonflies,” she said again. I sat down in the chair next to her.


“Ok,” I said, “What was it that you saw?” Oh man, I thought, I seriously hope it wasn’t a snake. I knew there were tiny snakes out there, and they would be hard to see under your plants. I shivered just thinking about coming across a snake.


“I don’t think you’d understand. Or maybe you wouldn’t believe me.” she said, rubbing her wet face and looking a bit unhinged. Had her eyes always been this big?


“Mia, I’m a teacher, I’ve seen stranger stuff that you can imagine. Whatever it is that you saw, I’ll believe you. Trust me,” I said. I fully believed what I said in the moment I said it. I thought I’d seen some of the weirder behavior that humans had to offer. Anyone who has ever taught elementary school students probably thought the same. Bring it. Next to nine-year-old boys, how weird or disturbing could it be?


“They aren’t dragonflies,” she said. I waited a few seconds, and I was about to interject when she spoke again.


“They’re something else that I’ve made mad. I’ve made some enemies here. And they’re after me night and day now. I see them looking in my window at night. They even followed me to work one day and popped up in the bathroom.”


My eyes were probably as wide as hers at this point. I wondered whether she was having a breakdown. “Mia, flying bugs just fly around, they aren’t following you. Really, maybe you’re just spending too much time doing yard work. I know it can be a little addictive.”


“They aren’t bugs,” she said, looking down at her hands. “They’re fairies, Miranda. They are actual fairies, and they’re pissed,” she said, looking up at me for a reaction. I had none. My eyes still had to look like dinner plates, but I could think of nothing to say to a woman who had started to feel like a mother to me and who was having some type of breakdown.


She shook her head, obviously not getting the response she wanted. “Miranda, they’re after me. They’re everywhere. There are so many of them. I don’t know what to do,” she said, crying again. “I just don’t know what to do!”


“Do you maybe have a doctor I can call? Or maybe a family member?” I said, trying to sound calm and cheerful. Maybe there was a medication she needed?


“Don’t call my mother. She would never understand,” Mia said, still crying and beginning to scan the kitchen windows for her enemies. That’s when I stood up and started to search. She didn’t notice. She was intently staring at a tree that was just outside the back window.


I needed to find her phone or an address book of some kind. Maybe there would be medical paperwork in the house that would list a doctor that I could call. Now that I knew she had a mother living, I could call her and get her to fill me in on the procedure when Mia had a breakdown. There was nothing in the kitchen drawers, and she didn’t have a home office. There was no paperwork in the bedroom and none in the living room. I went out to the garage.


I’d been around the inside of her house before, but I realized as I stepped in that I had never been in the garage. It was messy like most garages. There was a thick brown tarp thrown over something large in the back corner. I looked on the shelves at the car washing items and flowerpots before I finally pondered the tarp. It was probably some lawn equipment, but it was impossible to tell. She had weighed down the edges of the tarp with concrete blocks. I couldn’t admit defeat, so I decided I had to look before I asked her again for the info.


I pulled two of the blocks away from the tarp and steeled myself to flip the tarp over. There would probably be spiders under it. I flipped the tarp quickly and practically leapt back just in case.


It wasn’t one thing she had been hiding under the tarp. It was several. There were steel barrels with pumps and hoses.  I went around them to read the labels.


“Oh my God,” I said out loud. These weren’t just pesticides and herbicides. These were some of the most heinous industrial chemicals currently in use. Major factory farms used these. Why would they be here?


All of the things I’d read about these chemicals came flooding into my mind.  Neurotoxins, birth defects, carcinogens, lowered IQ, depression, autism… the list of problems associated with chemicals like these had been exhaustive and frightening. No wonder she was losing it.


And her produce- no wonder it looked better than everyone else’s in the neighborhood. Her food was bigger, looked prettier and always, always grew well. She was dousing everything in industrial poisons and lying about it. Why? Did she need that attention so badly? I didn’t know how long she’d been using these, but it had obviously been long enough to affect her mentally. I would have to call someone in her family. If I had to wrestle her phone from her, I would.


I went back into the house, suddenly more angry than sympathetic.


“Give me your phone, Mia,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm.




“Give me your phone. Right now.”


She dug it from one pocket and handed it over, looking defeated.


I quickly saw that her mother was listed under her contacts, and I went to the bedroom to call her. I told her mother that her daughter had likely been poisoned and that her mental state had been deteriorating lately. Her breakdown that day should result in hospitalization.


Her mother said she’d be right over. I stayed with Mia. The white-haired woman with too much makeup and a handbag that I would never be able to afford came an hour later and thanked me for calling her. She was huddled with her daughter when I left, rubbing her hair and murmuring something to her.


I crossed her yard to my own, wondering whether I should report all of this to someone. At the very least, I should call the EPA or something. Using industrial chemicals, even storing them in those quantities in a residential area should be looked into. The HOA should probably know as well. We’d all have to wash our own produce a lot harder now. She might even come under some kind of criminal charges.


I pondered what to do for the next two days. I had decided to call the EPA, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make an enemy of my neighbor by calling the HOA quite yet. Mia’s mother had taken her off somewhere, and I didn’t know when she would be back. I figured that I should tend to her garden a little until she got back. I didn’t want to touch anything that she had growing, but I could at least water it all.


I unrolled the hose at the side of her house and walked it to the back where most of her plants were. I stood for a moment, looking over the garden and thinking about how much water it might need when I saw an opalescence at the edge of her yard, moving in. And then another. And then another. There were dragonflies on three sides of the garden now, staying still in midair. Waiting.


I dropped the hose and went across the yard and back to my house quickly, feeling a sting on my arm as I walked. When I got inside, I saw a little blood running from a tiny cut. Surely I scratched it on something. Surely I did.

Lizz Shepherd is a freelance writer living in Alabama.

Interview available on Oct 31, 2020

About the Author

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