Told through a historic catalog of the plants that take root in the Roman Colosseum, The Weeds is the story of two women—one in 1854 and the other in 2018—fighting to survive in their own hostile ground. The excerpts below feature the 2018 narrator, a Mississippi graduate student intent on putting her past far behind her. As she seeks out the Colosseum’s species for an advisor who insists that stories and science are diametrically opposed, memories of her mother draw her inexorably homeward.
Rosa sempervirens, evergreen rose
ONLY ONE ROSE IN THIS COLOSSUS? After all that scrubbing in weeds, just a single white rose, once-blooming? It would be too ridiculous to admit a disappointment in an absence of love. That’s not what I came here for. I keep my eyes low, ankle-level, not just to better ID but because it only happens when eyes meet eyes, all the shit and the fire. Build the moat. Keep the water high.
My dead mother too had a non-romantic vision—one year in a physics master’s before my dad spotted her at a roller rink (this sounds like the fifties; it wasn’t the fifties), her body smoothing over the boards to Midnight Star and Rick James. I wish I’d asked her if it was worth it. For one summer I thought her soul had reincarnated itself in me, and my job was to chase everything she abandoned. Or that was my excuse for trying LSD and punching a guy in the side of his head when he pulled up my shirt on the dance floor. I don’t think it’s immature to say I saw where love goes, and I wanted to go further.
That’s what I need from my advisor: how to find a vocation without being a dick about it. He comes to watch me one afternoon to make sure I’m scooching just right.
“Don’t forget the Porta Libitinaria,” he shouts. The Gate of Death, where they carted out the corpses. Good for mosses. “Don’t forget the—”
“What do you do all day,” I shout back, “when I’m here looking?”
He circles around the broken seats to me. I’m crouching with a loupe in my hand. I’m not political, but I get a flash of what it means to be a woman in science.
“Interpretation is to data collection,” he says, “as a sermon is to prayer.”
I hiccup on my own bile.
The rose isn’t blooming now. On one cane is a nub that’s either a bud or a scar, and I take a pic and draw a sketch without color, just to make my hand move. Seventy years ago and a hundred and fifty years ago and a hundred and sixty-five years ago and two hundred years ago and three hundred and seventy-five years ago, men in aprons (I imagine them in canvas aprons, or maybe what I’m imagining are women) did what I’m doing: sat in dirt and counted carpels and drew bracts, all just to mark what exists—exactly what exists. Is that enough, to know six acres from root to anther and not a seedpod more? Not astrology or sex or the Antarctic or crime? That’s not fair. Of course one of those aproned men knew about crime.
G. molle, G. robertianum, G. rotundifolium, G. dissectum
HERE’S A BOTANY JOKE: HOW DO YOU tell a woman in her twenties from a woman in her thirties? The former has ten perfect stamens; the latter has five perfect stamens and five barren ones. Just kidding; that’s how you tell a Geranium from an Erodium.
Called herb Robert, red robin, stinking Bob, crow’s foot, death-come-quickly. All names I’d give my children, happily, darkly, names for them to outgrow.
My own dead mother grew red geraniums in baskets that hung from our windowsills. A neighbor who knew more than us called them false geraniums. Pelargonium, she said. “She can pelar-go-away,” my mother said. They were blooming when she brought me home from the hospital, and they were blooming when I stole one of her black dresses to wear to her funeral.
No one waters the boxes anymore; there are no women to tend them, no children to crush their curly leaves with bare hands for the scent, though there are probably still neighbors to split hairs. (When I learned in Structural Botany that both Geraniums and Pelargoniums nested in the Geraniaceae family, that our stuck-up neighbor had been wrong, I had to leave the class to burst into tears because it was too late to call my mother.)
This sounds like an after-school special, but I feel like knowledge is the pair of sneakers that helps me run past her death—as if new facts measure growth that measures distance from the disaster. After a breakup, aren’t you supposed to get a new hobby? It’s not actually about growing; it’s about changing yourself into someone your grief won’t recognize.
F. capreolata, F. officinalis, F. parviflora
ON STALKS, TWO-LIPPED FLOWERS—pink or white or pink-and-white, lipsticked, like dressed-up shrimp, or me at sixteen. I remember my father, wit’s end, pointing to me as I stomped out the door in smudge-eyed sexual rage: “If you leave this house now, you won’t leave it again!” But aren’t I here, in Rome, alone?
I lived in Jackson this past summer, kicking around the old house, working part-time making milkshakes. Finishing your first year of grad school should feel like a big f-ing deal, but my dead mother did it, and look where it got her. A homemaker, a library volunteer, an amateur naturalist. No, you have to get a PhD before you’re safe. I’m gunning for tenure, for Distinguished Professor, for Emerita, until there’s no one left to call me a fraud. No one left to take my gun.
Last night my advisor threw a dinner party for some expat academics, and I was there, and a bunch of men were there, and one woman working on microorganisms. Everyone was loud—even the woman—and when I found her in the kitchen making coffee, I asked, “Is this what you’ve always wanted to do?”
She glanced at the French press.
“No, I mean, be a professor. When you were a kid, were you like, ‘I want to be a professor.’”
She shook her head. Her hair was a big salt-and-pepper pouf. “I wanted to be an astronaut.” She saw I was unsatisfied. “I just did whatever felt like a grown-up step at the time—college, grad school.”
“Financing for a car.”
“Marriage. Like I was hoping to prove I deserved the space I took up. Prove to who? My mom? Jesus? But at some point I realized I was happy.”
“In your manufactured life.”
She pressed the plunger down, and the coffee moved in brown tides. “Well, I made it. As it turns out. Despite spending half my time feeling powerless.” She poured two cups. “Who’s your advisor?”
I told her.
“Yeah, you have to get past that,” she said.
Meaning what? Get over it? Push past him? Move on? Destroy? All I said was, pointing to the mugs, “You want me to take those out?”
“Oh,” she said, “they’re both for me.”
Fumitories pucker for a touch. Holding their mouths open as if grace could be slipped inside, forgiveness sucked and swallowed, a tongue the best touch of all. The first time I sat in a strange man’s lap, he squeezed me round the middle while my mother watched, laughing nervously, she and I both. I felt his fingers through my shirt, five nubby touches feeling at my ribs.
L. aphaca, L. sativa, L. pratensis, L. sylvestris
I’M NOT A KID OF FARMERS. I don’t tend to put things in my mouth that don’t come from fluorescently lit stores. (Though there was a tomato plant once, a balcony monster, whose fruit I plucked and fed to friends. I hate tomatoes; I planted it because some guy said it was easy to grow, and grow sounded like a word that could save.) So I have fairly limitless admiration for ancient peoples who experimented with putting random f-ing plants in their mouths. The grass pea, for instance, sporadically causes paralysis and emaciation of the butt. Those who should not eat the grass pea: most humans, cows, swine, horses, chickens, and pigeons. Those who can: some humans, certain Swiss cattle, all sheep. Poor people used to make bread out of Lathyrus flour, and their legs and arms went stiff until they tweaked the ratio of vetch to wheat in the flour, and then I guess they thawed, or else they let the frozen people die and tried again with the next batch. Is bread that irresistible? The Grand Duke of Württemberg forbade grass pea flour altogether in 1671. I like to picture him, Württemberg, fat and bewigged, the white from his powder falling on his shoulders, his quill in his mouth, staining his wooden teeth: “What shall we do about the plague of rigid limbs?” No one else is in the room but a maid who’s been sworn not to speak. Her own mother is lying in bed at home with a left arm stuck out, permanently right-angled. “I should not eat vetch, sire,” she whispers. He rewards her that night by taking her into his ocean of a bed, where she goes still and silent and thinks of the swine tipped over in their pens, the swine who cannot move, and the sheep who can.
My advisor brings a friend to the Colosseum; they tour the ruin while I crouch along its perimeter, sunscreen sweating into my eyes. The place has good acoustics.
“What’s she working toward?” the friend says in waterproof cargo pants. “Her thesis is taxonomical?”
“Her thesis? I doubt she’ll produce one.”
“Just an assistant?”
“The Tenzing to my Hillary,” my advisor laughs.
“Surely we think of Tenzing Norgay now as a mountaineer,” says the friend.
I scoot out of range, draw violent peaks on my notes, swear to buy cargo pants of my own, right after I defend my f-ing dissertation.
Torilis, hedge parsley
T. infesta, T. nodosa
ALSO KNOWN AS TALL SOCK-DESTROYER and short sock–destroyer. What’s the difference, the height of the plant or the height of the sock? And doesn’t the genus predate the invention of socks? What did they call Torilis in the Middle Ages? Stocking-bane?
It doesn’t matter, my advisor would say. They’re gone.
What does it take to survive in this world, as a woman, as a weed?
The temperatures are rising. I look for the missing parsleys in the shade, wondering if their last resort is to creep into the cool. Surely that’s how evolution works: a plant picks itself up and crawls to a more hospitable patch of dirt.
But that’s not how women work, I can hear my advisor say.
I haven’t heard from him yet; I’m still waiting to be damned. I dream about him in a bathrobe, saying women women low into a microphone, and I wake up in a stain of sweat.
Excerpted from The Weeds: A Novel by Katy Simpson Smith. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by Katy Simpson Smith. All rights reserved.