Sara Smollett
April 23, 1999
Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville

Aphrodisiac Petunias



Call me Fishmeal. Some years ago ­ never mind how long precisely ­ having not even a flower bowl, and nothing particular to interest me on this planet, I thought I would travel about a little and see the universe. Whenever I find myself growing grim about elbow; whenever it is a wet, muddy April in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily eating pizza in cemeteries, and listening to goth music, whenever I feel the urge to throw sticky buns at people ­ in short, whenever I have a toothache and my liver is diseased ­ then, I account it high time to go out into the universe as soon as I can find my towel.

Now, when I go out in the universe, I go as a simple computer technician. I do not go as an officer, though they get paid more and get all the girls. I do not go as a programmer, though it is for them that I often fix computers. And I never go aboard as a passenger, as passengers pay obscenely large sums for the privilege of spending their honeymoon on Saturn. On a spaceship, I am being paid.

* * * * *

So it came to be that knowing very little about computers that with a more knowledgeable friend, I boarded the Peapod. My friend was a noble savage, a poetic postmodernist programmer, named Qlooquig. My poor savage friend was kept separate from the social circles of programmers because of his practices; he belonged to a perl cult. But it was from him that I learned his mantra, "There's more than one way to do it." And it was from him that I learned to always take the trash outside. And it was from him that I learned that "'tsall good except when it sucks." Qlooquig was a brilliant programmer, even if he did have trouble communicating with others.

My other shipmates constituted a varied crew. In addition to Qlooquig and myself, there were two others who shared sleeping quarters. These were two unsuccessful Danish writers by the names of Rosenipperscrantz and Guildenturkeystern. The two men were quite different, and yet I was always confusing them. They were almost inseparable, steering the ship together all morning and afternoon. This proved to be a wonderful arrangement, for one of the men was a dedicated worker in the afternoon, but incapable of working in the morning, while the other was a morning person who grew cranky after lunch. They had in their possession a black raven with an extremely limited vocabulary. The only phrase it knew was "I would prefer not," (and it didn't know how to spell it) and this it would squawk at the crew from its corner, perched atop a statue. This provided for many humorous moments, as it often responded to our captain's instructions with its loud, shrill preference. But I must also confess that it so grated our nerves that there were moments when we all felt the urge to put that damnable soul to eternal rest, so as to ensure that we would have to hear it never more. I had little dealings with the rest of the crew, though I do recall one young "lad" on our ship, who was actually a young girl, conceived of in sin by a Puritan mother.

* * * * *

It is our captain though, who deserves a more complete description. I had heard of Captain Mayfad long before I met him. Mayfad, like most good captains, was a Syrian hamster. Before I came into the petunia-hunting industry, I had not known any hamsters. But in petunia-hunting, one comes in contact with a great number of brilliant hamsters. Mayfad is perhaps the most brilliant hamster I have known, and certainly the most eccentric. I never saw him without the large silver ankh he wore around his neck. He was a mere three feet tall when standing on his hind legs, quite tall for a hamster of course, and his ankh was about nine inches long. It made for quite a sight to see him hobbling around with such heavy jewelry. I saw hobbling because he had leg problems. One of his legs had been eaten off by the most vicious of all bowls of petunias, Dopey-Hick. I later learned how obsessive, how monomaniacal Mayfad was, how deep-rooted (no pun intended, really) was his desire to destroy Dopey-Hick once and for all. This only made sense to me once I understood the history and importance of petunias and petunia-hunting.

* * * * *

It is some systematized exhibition of petunias that I would now fain put before you. Yet it is no easy task. The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed. Listen to what the best and latest authorities have laid down. "Petunias are a popular, reliable flowering ornamental plant for use in Nebraska," says Dale T. Lindgren, Extension Specialist in Horticulture. "The petunia has been, without a doubt, one of the most popular annual flowers ever to grace our gardens, porches and patios," says Grow America: A Newsletter for Home Gardeners.

History: Petunias first appeared, at least in Europe, in the 1800s, although their ancestors had been spotted as early as the mid-1700s in South America, specifically white-flowered Petunia axillaris and purple-flowered Petunia violacea. They were too lanky and small-flowered to be successful garden flowers, but they excited some breeders in Germany and England who experimented with cross breeding. Finally, after years of work, they produced larger, double, fringed, and more colorful flowers. These are the garden petunias (petunia x hybrida) we know today.1

Germination: Petunias are normally propagated from seeds. They are best sown indoors for four to six weeks before planting outdoors. They should be watered with a fine mist and excessive water should be drained. Optimal soil temperatures are between 70 and 80°F. The seedlings should be transplanted after two or three weeks and the plants should be kept at 65°F and fertilized every two weeks. When well-rooted, the plants should be moved outdoors. They should be planted outdoors on a cloudy day and the plants should be spaced about a foot apart from each other.2

Now the various species of petunias need some sort of popular comprehensive classification. The two general classes of petunias are Grandiflora and Multiflora. Grandiflora petunias have fewer, though larger, flowers. Some Grandifloras are suited for hanging-plants. Multiflora petunias have a more compact growth habit and have smaller but more numerous

blossoms. Multifloras generally withstand wind and hard rains better than the Grandiflora types. Both Grandiflora and Multiflora types may have single flowers, having one set of petals on each flower, or double with multiple sets of petals on each flower.3

I divide the folio of annuals into eleven books which I will merely outline here.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter I. (Wax Begonia). ­ This annual lives in partial sun or shade. Their coloring is white, pink, red, or rose.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter II. (Zinnia). ­ In one respect this is the most venerable of flowers, appearing in a variety of colors. Zinnias do best given lots of sunlight.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter III. (Melampodium). ­ Under this division, I reckon yellow flowers which need sun.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter IV. (Globe Amaranth). ­ This flower is often seen in white, pink, and purple, in areas with much sun.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter V. (Annual Vinca). ­ Of this annual, little is known but its name. I have seen them at a distance in white, pink, and rose under partial shade. Though no coward, this flower has never yet survived showing itself to full sunlight.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter VI. (Verbena). ­ Though this flower has furnished its multicolored bloom to many gardeners, it is not popularly classified among other sunny annuals.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter VII. (Sunflowers). ­ I give the popular gardener's names for all these flowers, for generally they are the best. Where any name happens to be vague or inexpressive, I shall say so. Sunflower is a vague name, for sun is the rule among flowers that need sunlight. These are found in almost all latitudes in yellow and white.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter VIII. (Impatiens). ­ Another instance of a curiously named annual, so named I suppose not because it is impatient with the shade in which it grows most happily. Impatiens have a very picturesque, rainbow-like look, being of a variety of colors.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter IX. (Marigold). ­ Of this flower little is precisely known to the Earthling, and nothing at all to the professed naturalist. From what I have seen of these at a distance, they appear to be yellow and orange and sun-loving.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter X. (Ageratum). ­ This gentleflower is famous for its blue color and lives in either the sun or in partial shade.

Book I. (Folio), Chapter XI. (Cosmos). ­ This is the common annual found almost all over the globe. It lives in the sun and comes in many colors.4

I now leave the annual system standing thus unfinished, even as the great building of Fisher was left with leaning beams.

* * * * *

But Dopey-Hick was a bowl of petunias unlike any others. Dopey-Hick came into existence many miles above the earth at the same time as a large sperm whale. The whale fell to the ground and died very quickly. Dopey-Hick fell to the ground and shattered just as quickly. According to legend, Dopey-Hick's dying words were "Oh no, not again." These four words have been much analyzed and debated by the leading literary and postmodern scholars and petunia-hunters. The bowl of petunias had no regrets, it was curiously resigned to its fate and not at all upset by its sudden demise (oh no). This can be best explained by the second part of its statement (not again). Dopey-Hick is used to death; Dopey-Hick has in fact transcended death entirely because Dopey-Hick is immortal. The simple bowl of petunias represents the cycle of life, death, and resurrection. No matter how many times Dopey-Hick dies, Dopey-Hick immediately comes back to life. But he comes back to life only to die again. For the literary scholars, Dopey-Hick is the true tragic hero. For petunia-hunters, Dopey-Hick is the ultimate quest, the one thing that needs to either be understood or destroyed in order to understand the universe.

Captain Mayfad felt this more strongly than many other petunia-hunters because in his youth, Dopey-Hick (who then had only fallen some sixty million times) fell on him, causing him great injury to his leg. The bowl of petunias quickly and miraculously recovered of course, but Mayfad never regained full use of his leg and was scarred for life. Full of shame for his inadequacies and fearing that he was inferior to a bowl of petunias, Mayfad vowed revenge and had been attempting to find Dopey-Hick ever since.

This I all learned later from Mayfad and others aboard the merry Peapod. After a month of petunia-hunting, my captain first spoke to us about Dopey-Hick. He allowed us one night to play drinking games, including our favorite spin-the-bottle and Star Wars games (every time you see a star, take a drink). Then he spoke to us frankly and eloquently about the meaning of life and his trauma caused by Dopey-Hick.

"It was that accursed bowl of petunias that razeed me; made a poor pegging rodent of me for ever and a day! Aye, aye! and I'll chase him round the Milky Way before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that bowl of petunias over all sides of the universe, till he shatters and remains dead forever. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other. Drink ye programmers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful spaceship ­ Death to Dopey-Hick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Dopey-Hick to his death!"

I was one of those men, caught up in this moment and Mayfad's plea. In that night of drinking, I, along with the other men, vowed revenge on Dopey-Hick. Nevertheless, we hunted a good many other petunias on that petunia-hunting exhibition, for prize petunias are in high demand and return great financial reward.

* * * * *

I remember one day after we had caught some petunias that one of the stranger men on the crew decided he wanted to drink some petunia juice. Petunia juice is a rare delicacy that has an acquired taste and is extremely difficult to properly prepare. Furthermore, most petunia-hunters dare not drink of this sacred blood. In this instance the poor cook was made to squeeze the juice out of some petunias, talking to them all the while. "I am sorry, poor tunias. I don't wants to kill you. I'se ordered to. I know some o' you has souls, dat you deserve more than to be squeezed to death."

Almost as exciting as the petunia-spottings, were the sightings of other ships. Near the end of our journey, we met an especially memorable ship.

"Ships, ahoy! Hast seen the mighty Bowl of Petunias?"

So cried Mayfad, once more hailing a ship showing all black. Ankh around neck, the old hamster was standing on the gravity-controlled back deck of his ship, his cane plainly revealed to the stranger captain, something of a depressed robot. He was silvery, with a well-lit smile, and he moved awkwardly about his especially sleek ship.

"Hast seen the Bowl of Petunias?"

"See you this?" and leaning back, he pointed to his left leg.

Mayfad boarded his ship and the other captain, Marvin, offered him a really strong cup of tea. Marvin was indeed a robot, one who did not want to discuss life. But from other members of his crew, including a man in a bathrobe who kept looking at his watch and another man who had turned into a penguin, we learned that all of the diodes down his left side had been damaged by the magnetic force field surrounding Dopey-Hick. We had a pleasant visit on their ship, but as we were leaving Marvin gave what I later came to think of as good advice. He said, "No more petunias for me; I've shattered him forty-two times, and that has satisfied me. There would be great glory in killing him, but he's best let alone." So Mayfad was obsessed, his desire to rid the universe of Dopey-Hick went beyond the bounds of sanity. But he was our captain, and we his crew, eager to kill the bowl of petunias and win fame, glory, and fortune.

* * * * *

Finally arrived that long-awaited moment when our captain cried, "There she blows! ­ There she blows! A lump like a flower-pot. It is Dopey-Hick!" Sure enough, there were white hyper-mice floating in a circle near the ship, a sure sign that a bowl of petunias was falling. Mayfad, furious with this tantalizing vicinity of his foe, which placed him all alive and helpless in the very floral arrangement that he hated; frenzied with all this, he seized the keyboard of his computer, and wildly tried to plot its coordinates. We attacked once with failure, and again with no more success. The bowl of petunias crashed down a third time, this time shattering into the side of our valiant Peapod. "Oh no, not again." Emergency lights flashed. The mice scampered around the deck.

We fought Dopey-Hick as best we could, bravely and valiantly until the very end. And when one day we met a dolphin who said nothing to us but "So long, and thanks for all the fish," we were not surprised. "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee." I was the lone survivor, picked up by grave diggers from another ship not too long after our ship sustained injury. They entertained me on our ride safely back to Earth, exclaiming, "Alas poor florist, I knew him petunia bowl," and "It's not a petunia, it's a pear." They told me of programmers and postmodernists, tragic heroes and Shakespearean heroines, and they taught me that I needn't understand petunias in order to understand myself. Since that day I have never left the ground, and I hope I never do.






Process notes:


I had great fun writing this piece, though it took me much longer than I anticipated. I started out knowing that I wanted to write a parody, but not having a good sense of the characters. I knew I wanted to include certain scenes (some of which I did not even include). I wanted to have a grave digger scene, a scene with the cook talking to the sharks, the Quarter-Deck chapter, a chapter in play format, A Squeeze of the Hand, and of course, Cetology. This was way too much for a short parody. First I thought I would modernize the text, and then I decided it would be more of a parody to set it in the future. The substitution of space ship for whaling ship was a natural one. At this point I recalled Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the character Marvin who has problems with "all of the diodes down his left side." It seemed that he could easily be a victim of the whale. Only, I didn't want them to be hunting a whale? What then should they hunt? Why, a bowl of petunias of course, was the obvious answer when I talked to Dave on the phone. In The Hitchhiker's Guide use of the Infinite Improbability Drive brings into existence a large sperm whale and a bowl of petunias. The whale tries to come to terms with itself and then dies, falling to the ground which it hopes will befriend it. The bowl of petunias shatters and utters the phrase "oh no, not again," and Adams tells us, if we understood why it said this, we would know more about the universe. And isn't that what understanding or destroying the White Whale is all about, that quest for knowledge and domination of the universe?

That taken care of, I still needed characters. I wanted to bring in a varied cast of characters representing other literary figures. I considered Hamlet and Ophelia, Iago, the Underground Man, Plato, and Freud. And I needed references to Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. The raven on board the ship is a cross between Bartelby and Poe's raven; the girl on the ship is something of a Twelfth Night version of Pearl; Rosenipperscrantz and Guildenturkeystern are a cross between Bartelby's scriveners and Shakespeare's (and Stoppard's) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Ishmael did not trouble me much, as he is not developed enough in Melville's text to give me much concern. But Queequeg and Ahab were more difficult. Talking it over with a few friends, Queequeg became a programmer, modeled after Larry Wall the inventor of the Perl programming language. Larry gave a lecture several months ago about postmodernism and perl from which I have liberally borrowed quotes. He also refers (tangentially) to Moby-Dick in his speech ( I pondered Ahab's character for several hours and am still not satisfied with him as a developed character. I considered Hamlet and Iago, Don Quixote and Hitler, even Mark Vecchio. None of them fit. From Iago, I moved onto hamsters (the connection being that Katherine has a stuffed cat named Iago and a stuffed hamster named Eliot.) I realized that hamsters were just funnier than people, and at this point I was working with the absurd. The ankh is, of course, a tribute to death (and Neil Gaiman's representation of her in The Sandman) and to my other exroommate. The title of the piece comes from the original name for the humor publication that Katherine, April, and I attempted to write; the petunias being a reference to Douglas Adams and the aphrodisiac part being a word that was screamed out on our hallway at about 3 A.M. one morning, roughly around the same time as we had finished our first layout.

The ending needs some work still despite this being the third ending I have proposed and I would like to add some scenes, but on the whole I am satisfied with this nonsensical story. It contains most of the reference I wanted it to, and I think it is in many ways an accurate parody of Melville's story and style (particularly the chapter on Petunology, which took quite a bit of research). It has met so far with positive responses, and I hope you enjoyed reading it.