Palo Alto Weekly 28th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Young Adult

Botany for Beginners

By Hannah Knowles

About Hannah Knowles

I live in San Jose but attend Castilleja School, where I'm an eleventh-grader. I love to write anything that's not poetry! I also enjoy working on my school newspaper, playing piano, and endlessly rereading all of my favorite books. To be honest, I'm not really sure where this particular story came from. When I was a kid, I went through this really bizarre phase of fascination with fungi, after researching a mushroom species for a class project. ... I returned to some of these memories of childhood fascination while writing the piece and went from there.


Judge's comments

What a wise and touching story. Thoughtfully narrated and perfectly pitched, "Botany for Beginners" transports its young narrator from the tidy rigors of science to the messy marvel of human life — and takes us along for the ride. Insightful and delightful!
— Tom Parker

On the day leading up to my sister's birth, I carried around a glossy paperback called Botany for Beginners. At the time I was ten years old and obsessed with plants. An orderly child, I loved the study of life, the way it fell into a beautiful tree of categories. The prokaryotes and the eukaryotes, the animal kingdom, the different families of mushrooms. Phylum. Species. Latin names like incantations.

A few months before in January our class had studied plant life. Up until then I had taken only as much interest in science as school demanded; I didn't care much for invertebrates or the rock cycle, and found our "physics" projects involving dominoes and a blow dryer stupid. But plants enchanted me.

Our teacher Ms. Holston was an avid collector of ferns, and she showed us a National Geographic article called "The Glory of Leaves." "If there is magic in the world," Ms. Holston read aloud with the classroom lights dimmed, "surely this is it: the descendants of tiny creatures in leaves, capable of ingesting the sun." The processes behind it were beyond our ten-year-old comprehension, and so Ms. Holston settled for a basic explanation: Sun went in. Sugar came out. This was the allure of photosynthesis—the transformation of sunlight into glucose, through some prehistoric alchemy I didn't understand.

There was one interruption during Ms. Holston's Plant Lesson. In the middle of her Read-Aloud, the door (which never shut properly after someone stuck bubble gum in the lock) lurched open in a breeze. For a few glorious seconds the dark classroom flooded with dizzy white daylight, and I saw the world around me as it was: a million billion pieces of light, bouncing around a giant pinball machine. But then the door swung shut and our little room seemed even smaller, even darker than before.


So there you have it. Plants. Determined to further my botanical education, I made my mother test me with Botany for Beginners as she lay swollen in bed.

"Alright," she said the day before my sister was born, flipping through shiny pages that somehow still smelled of decay. It took her a while to find something. "What does—No. Okay. What kind of tree will lose its leaves seasonally?"

"Deciduous," I said. Deciduous. Deciduous. Adults who witnessed my information-spouting often told my parents that I was a "very smart girl;" my mother said I had a head for facts, and my father called me obsessive.

"How many types of transport tissue are there in vascular plants?" my mother asked. We both knew the answer to this question, as she had asked it before.

"Two," I recited. "The xylem carries water, and the phloem carries plant food."

"Nutrients," my mother said. "It says here it carries the nutrients."

"Yeah," I said. "The plant food."

She looked up and sighed, rubbing her melon of a belly. "I ask the questions, I decide the answers."

I reached out to touch the belly, which stuck out from the blankets. It was hot as a fever. Her belly: a fruit so sweet it was splitting its skin. I imagined ancient people worshiping it the way they might worship the pointy-breasted fertility goddess that I once examined with fascination in an Egyptian museum.


I was still clutching Botany for Beginners that evening when my taut-faced father rushed my mother out the door, yelling into the phone, and I gathered just enough to know that things were happening— my baby sister was on her way. My parents had planned for a babysitter when the time came, but the time had come early; Anisha, the Indian girl next door, was out of town with her family, and my friend Lynn Castellanos' mom had to drive over from her errands at the grocery store to pick me up. Mrs. Castellanos let me ride shotgun on the way back to Lynn's house, having forgotten in the baby excitement that I wasn't allowed.

"So," she said as we drove. "Tomorrow you will be a big sister, yes?"

I nodded yes.

"I'm a little sister," she said. "I think big sisters have it hardest. Big brothers, too. Little sisters get off easy."

"One time," she told me, "I knocked my big sister over on my bike. She was wearing roller skates and I was just learning to pedal, and I crashed right into her. I felt terrible because she was bleeding, all over the sidewalk, but when my Papa came out— we were just outside the house— he told her she should have been taking better care of me, keeping an eye out. He asked her why she wasn't wearing knee pads."

Mrs. Castellanos watched the road as she spoke. "That's why you always wear your knee pads," she said.


Once, for a week in second grade, I thought a tapeworm was growing inside me. Lynn had told me that some people went on diets with them, that they were long stringy leaches that fed off the things you ate. She told me they started out your stomach and then curled up in your intestines when they needed more room.

I grew paranoid. At night I thought I could feel something slimy moving inside me. As I imagined the worm growing bigger, a quiet, gnawing terror nested itself in my chest, until at last one afternoon my mother found me in tears.

After I had explained myself, she stared, bewildered, then barked a quick laugh. Tapeworms didn't just grow inside of people, she told me. There was absolutely no reason one that I would have one and if there really was a tapeworm we would know it and who had told me about tapeworms anyways?

I remember, vividly: clinging to my mother in shame while she told Father Jeremy about the tapeworm incident, laughing again. It was Sunday. We were at church. When she finished, the Father couldn't stop laughing over the story—a big mustached laugh, haw haw haw. It made me think of a walrus, or of some strange uncle that I didn't have.

"A tapeworm!" he boomed, peering down at me. "That's the funniest thing I've heard all week." I remember him winking and then waving himself away.

Three years later, my mother's stomach began to balloon with my sister. I developed a habit of asking her sly questions when she least expected them, in the hopes of extracting new information about the baby.

"How do you know it's a girl?" I'd say at breakfast over my Frosted Flakes.

"Where did it come from?" I'd ask in the car after she picked me up from school. "How is it going to get out? Where will we put it?"

At one point, I asked her how exactly it was able to grow. How did it eat? How did it drink? Did it even have a mouth?

"I give the baby nutrients," my mother said, "through a tube. It's called an umbilical cord."

"So it's like phloem," I said. I was constantly doing this—making odd comparisons in order to gauge my mother's reactions. Usually she frowned and said, Well, sort of.

"Well, sort of," she said. "That's why I have to be careful about what I eat. Because whatever I eat, the baby eats too."

"Like a tapeworm," I said.

To my surprise, instead of giving her usual ambiguous answer, she thought for a few seconds and said "Yes, exactly."


In the car, Mrs. Castellanos glanced over at the book in my lap.

"Is that the new Harry Potter book?" she asked. "Lynn has been reading it, with Mr. Castellanos. They've been reading it together. The Half Blood Prince?"

I shook my head No and held up Botany for Beginners. "It's about plants," I said.

Mrs. Castellanos laughed with delight—"Ah, yes, I forgot that you are the young botanist"—but afterward I saw her scrutinizing me from the driver's seat.

"You're a sharp one, aren't you?" she said. Embarrassed, I did not reply, but somewhere inside me something aching and warm was blooming. A sharp one. A smart girl. A very smart girl.

"Tell me," she said suddenly. "What do plants need, besides sunlight and water? We have a potted plant that I keep by the window, because they told me it likes the warmth. I give it a bit of water every few days, not too little, not too much, I never drown it. But the plant doesn't do well. It always looks sick."

I waited, confused.

"I was wondering," she continued, "is there something else that I should be doing?"

I saw that she wasn't just humoring a child; she truly wanted to know. She asked me, "What do people usually do, to take care of a house plant?"

All of my botanical knowledge! All the beautiful, precise words I knew—xylem, phloem, chlorophyll, pteridophyte, the kind of words you want to hang up on a Christmas tree like origami—they were useless here, I realized.

How to take care of something? A simple question. I had no idea.

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