By Andrew Battershill
Chapter 1: Invention
On April 14, 1916 a man named Robert Vegetable had an idea. Like most people Robert had ideas every day, but (also like most people) none of his previous ideas had been the most fundamental and essential notion to ever strike a human being. Ideas like: “If I don’t wear a belt today, maybe it won’t matter” were common to him. Up until that mid-April day, none of his ideas had resulted in anything more substantial than a loose pair of pants.
It hit him suddenly, and not all that forcefully. An idle notion as he gathered his sheep for the day. He kept poking at the idea, like an exposed pocket of gum, as he finished his chores for the day, retired to his house, kissed his sleeping wife just under her collarbone, and fell into a long, dreamless sleep.
An important piece of historical context: Robert was a member of a certain segment of the population: people who find, and remain with the love of their lives. A consuming sort of love that negates ambition and even the desire for other friends, external rewards carry almost no weight, except in serving and fuelling love. This particular species of adoration tends to resolve itself quickly, in a flameout, or for the luckiest, in a dire confluence of events that leaves the illusion that the relationship was sustainable intact, but make its continued existence impossible. Robert and his wife Poppy had this sort of love, and were fortunate enough to be in a set of circumstances that permitted its continuity. As a result they had few friends, not a lot of money, a somewhat distant and cold relationship with their children, and a happy day-to-day existence.
Until his idea, the most substantial work of Robert Vegetable’s life was simply a collection of deeply intimate moments. He was a committed farmer, a prairie boy work ethic having been bred into him, but he was a distracted and not particularly competent worker. Robert was often stressed by his work, but as he reached his thirties he began to enjoy even his inability to handle things. When pressures overwhelmed him he reminded himself that at the end of the day he could go home and put his head into Poppy’s lap and listen to her whisper in his ear. She had a particular way of whispering. She would put the very edges of her lips on his ear. And he would feel the lips move around the soft words that only he could hear, close his eyes and try to map the path of her fingers through his hair, a task which he never successfully completed.
Context thus settled, we arrive at an exceedingly difficult ontological question: How does one invent the vegetable? We know a great deal about vegetables now. They are facts to us, as simple and unquestionable as wood, or rock, or sand. How then, with no scientific equipment, and very limited botanical knowledge, does one bring vegetables to be? This question has never been answered. Robert Vegetable never once, in the whole of his sixty-eight year life, used the first person in writing. Occasionally he had to sign things that had “I”s attached to them, but the “I”s were typed and Robert simply agreed to them with his signature, he did not phrase them that way himself, nor would he have, had he been adequately lettered to do so.
Lacking a first person account, we are left with the opaque third person. According to his eldest son Reginald, Robert Vegetable entered his shed with an unusually determined looks on his face and came out just under twenty-four hours later with five potatoes and seven carrots. He had not had the forethought to bring a bag with him, and so Robert Vegetable carried humanities’ greatest invention in the front of his shirt, which he had pulled out to make a sort of basket, as one does.
After a day and a half’s emotional convalescence under Poppy’s whispered attention, Robert Vegetable was ready to test his invention. He fed the first potato to his dog Potato, who despite being carnivorous enjoyed Robert’s creation very much. Robert was so pleased that for the second time in the last four years (the last occurring after a friend’s wedding whereat Robert consumed hard liquor for one of the seven total times in his life) Robert rolled around and indulged Potato in a form of wrestling which humans often consider dogs to consider play. And for the first time since childhood Robert allowed a tongue not belonging to Poppy to touch his face without reprimand.
Still giddy, Robert dashed over to the stables to try out his other invention, the carrot, on his horse. So pure was his excitement that he forgot to report his progress to Poppy, who stood at the entrance to their house, smiling at Robert the way one might smile at an excitable child who has just split the atom. He rushed into the stable and Carrot, his horse, showed about as much life as it had since barely surviving a mild case of Glanders the previous spring.
And so, Robert (being unaware of the existence, let alone the particulars of the scientific method) decided that his invention worked, and decided to eat a carrot of his own. He sat in a small pile of hay eating the carrot while telling Carrot first that he would name this thing after him, and then about the silk scarf he had seen in a store window and had been planning to buy Poppy since his trip to Winnipeg last year.
Robert went inside and told Poppy all about his invention and how much the animals had enjoyed it. Poppy was proud of him and showed her pride first by hugging him and then by kissing his entire face, starting at the end of his chin and working in an upwards and clockwise direction.
Chapter 2: Patent
It was at this point that Robert’s head was forced to admit to Poppy’s lap that it had no idea what to do with these things that he (Robert’s whole body) had made. Poppy charted a completely original course through his hair and told him that she would go into town to use the library and figure it all out.
Poppy’s visit to the library (during which Robert looked after the kids, and oversaw the third eldest, Joseph, dropping a fire-poker on his left foot and sustaining a wound that he, at Robert’s behest, concealed from his mother forever) yielded the knowledge that she should make a trip to Saskatoon and get the patent papers, and then, once those were secured, he could undertake the wide dissemination of his product.
Upon returning from Saskatoon Poppy said hello to five of her nine children (the others were, as it turns out, torturing a small rodent in a nearby pasture), then hurried to the field, where Robert was planting his remaining potatoes. Robert did not see her coming; Poppy noticing this with delight stopped a few feet behind him, aggressively moistened her lips with her tongue, and then began a short run up, jumped and kissed him wetly behind the ear. Surprised, Robert turned around, forgetting the dirt on his hands, and ruined Poppy’s nicest dress, a fact that did not go unnoticed by her, but did go, happily, without reprimand.
They returned to the kitchen, and Poppy explained that her research on patents had led her to further research about the people who had received them. The news had been discouraging to their financial prospects, but in no way diminished the beauty and creativity of Robert’s invention.
Poppy removed her shoe and allowed Robert to rub her foot with his thumb as she explained that the greatest inventors had toiled in obscurity, and she saw Robert as being in this camp. To invent the vegetable was ahead of its day, it would not be understood on its own proper terms, as evidenced by her discussions with some of the patent clerks; also she believed herself to be pregnant.
The news of another child was so exciting to Robert that he forgot his own ambitions in favour of celebrating with Poppy. The celebration consisted primarily of sending the children to stay at the Jacobs’, drinking apple cider, and engaging an extended session of mutual oral sex.
Robert Vegetable only ever had sex with one person.
As with any such declaratory statement the preceding claim is both true and false, in not quite equal measure. It is true that, in the sense of sex as a means of procreation, or an act containing some verisimilitude with procreation (an old fashioned view), Robert only ever had sex with Poppy.
Robert and Poppy were eating mutton sandwiches in bed. Poppy had her legs crossed, and Robert was in a supine position, seeing what it was like to eat lying down (it felt weird in his throat). Poppy pulled out three of Robert’s leg hairs and gestured for him to sit up, in part because she was afraid he would choke and die, and in part because she had something to tell him.
She composed herself, stood, and put her sandwich on the nearest table, then she left the room (during which time Robert laid back down and took another bite of his sandwich) to fetch the patent forms she had secured, and to set up her pen. Robert sat up quickly as Poppy entered the room and spread out the papers with intense focus across the bed. She explained to Robert that they would, indeed, fill out the papers, even if people were not ready for Robert’s invention. Robert smiled at her and wrapped his index finger and thumb around her wrist. He told her that he was giving up on his invention. He should dedicate himself to supporting the family, especially with another on the way. Poppy pertly withdrew her hand and returned to the documents, stating that pragmatism had nothing to do with it, and that Robert would pursue his own creativity in his spare time, with no questions asked. She then explained to him that the qualifications were Novelty, Non-Obviousness, and Utility, and she argued that Robert had satisfied all of these requirements. Robert could not help but agree and signed the document in the places Poppy told him to, and described to her the working of his invention, for the purpose of elucidating the patent. As she wrote, the corner of her tongue hung out over her lip as a result of focus.
As with many inventions that have become commonplace, the vegetable actually has a longer name than the one we use now. As per Poppy’s suggestion the vegetable was patented as the Robert Vegetable, the reasoning being that the invention was as unique and interesting as the man who had invented it. She did not phrase it like that to Robert, rather she was interested in convincing him, and so she told him that if he did not specify which Vegetable had invented the vegetable then his ne’er do-well brother Jacob (who sold knives (and hate literature) door to door) would take credit for it. She chose usually to express the feeling that Robert was a unique, special, and (in a metaphysical sense) nutritious person non-verbally.
Robert was not convinced of her reasoning but he liked the idea, and so the invention was named. Although he had agreed to it rather than putting it forth independently, naming his invention after himself was still by a good margin the most selfish act of Robert Vegetable’s entire life.
The lives of the Vegetable family were not materially changed by their father’s invention, with the exception of better nutrition and dietary variety. He continued to invent vegetables in his time off. He invented so many that the line between what was a vegetable and what was not became blurred, and the definition became almost completely subjective. After ten years Robert told Poppy that he wished to renounce the patent, because he thought it wrong to consider ideas as property. Poppy was relieved, and vindicated (as she had not, in fact, sent the patent out) and reassured him she would get rid of it. She did not destroy the patent but rather hid it amongst her personal belongings, taking it out occasionally to read Robert’s description of his invention in her hand.
The Vegetables lived together happily until Poppy died in 1939 of a seizure, the causes of which remain unknown. Robert raised his children diligently, but without passion. He stopped eating and making vegetables, choosing to amuse himself with memory rather than creativity.
Robert lived unencumbered by the linear restrictions of days, months and years. The most limiting schedule he worked on was seasonal, although he worked precisely by that scale. He was not religious and kept no track of the days of the week, only sometimes being reminded when he went out for breakfast or to shop on a Sunday and found stores closed. Until he was forty-one years old he did not know how to read a watch, a skill Poppy taught him one afternoon out by the pond. She patiently conducted the lesson hidden behind the outhouse near the pond because Robert was afraid people would hear. She taught (and he learned) with one hand, her thumb rubbing gently against the web of his throughout. Then they lay flat on the grass and talked about airplanes.
After Poppy died Robert realized that he had forgotten how to tell time. He remembered the lesson; he remembered most of what was said, and what the clouds looked like, but not the substance of the lesson itself. He was too embarrassed to ask anyone else, and so he lived his remaining years free from the clock-face, reliant on the sun.
Andrew Battershill is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s MA in the field of Creative Writing, and a founding editor of Dragnet Magazine. He is very fond of animals and vegetables, mostly indifferent to minerals.