Isabelle had three older brothers, a daddy and a mommy. Even so, that Thursday, no one came to pick her up when school was over.
Do not think for a moment that she would cry about that.
It was five o'clock. It was sunny. She walked home slowly, in her yellow overalls and blue sneakers, with her little schoolbag on her back. She was five and a half years old and she was in kindergarten.
All of a sudden, between two garbage cans, she discovered, there on the ground, on the sidewalk a pretty cactus about six inches tall. Its pot was broken. There was very little dirt left, and the roots were showing.
"That's sad," thought Isabelle. "It's too bad to let it die like that on the sidewalk."
She went closer to the cactus. She wanted to pick it up and take it home with her. How could she do that? She couldn't just grab it, because of the prickles. The pot was completely broken. Pick it up by the roots? They would break. Isabelle had an idea.
She undid the suspenders of her overalls, took off her T-shirt and spread it on the ground. With her foot, very carefully, she then pushed the cactus towards the middle of the T-shirt. After that, she reattached her suspenders. She carried the cactus in the hammock she'd made with her T-shirt and went home.
"Mommy, Mommy," she shouted. "Could you please plant this cactus in a small pot? I would really like to put it on the table."
"Where did you find this cactus?" asked Mommy.
"Between two trash cans, Mommy, on the sidewalk."
"You look through trash cans now?"
"No," Isabelle said in a huff, "I do not look through trash cans. It was on the ground and the pot it was in was broken. Look at this poor cactus, it's already half dried out."
"There are already so many things cluttering up the table," sighed Mommy. "Oh, okay, if you want, we'll give it a try."
They went down into the basement to find a little flower pot and some good soil for it. Mommy put on her big gloves for washing dishes so she didn't prick her fingers. She nestled the cactus into the soil in the pot and told her daughter:
"Well, now you just have to water it. Don't give it a lot at once, because a cactus doesn't like to have too much to drink. Then we'll see if you can save it."
"Okay, thanks, Mommy."
Isabelle proudly brought the cactus up to her room. She set it down on her desk. With a small cup, she brought water from the bathroom and she gently poured the water all around the cactus. When she was done, she looked at it. She thought it was very beautiful. Then she wanted to know if the prickles really pricked.
Slowly, she put her fingers on the prickles … so gently … only brushing her fingertips. "It's true! They poke!" she exclaimed.
Right then, her brother Benjamin (who was seven and a half) burst into the room. It was his room too. They shared it.
Startled, our friend's finger pushed into the cactus. Now she was stung by three sharp spikes that broke off and stuck into her index finger. She screamed. Mommy came to see what was going on.
"What's happening here?"
"I was petting the cactus and Benjamin came into the room like a monster. My finger got caught on the cactus and it hurts."
"If I can't even go into my own room …" Benjamin said under his breath.
Isabelle showed her mommy her index finger. The three cactus needles were buried deep. Mommy took her to the bathroom.
"This friendship with your cactus is starting off well!"
Mommy took her tweezers and gently removed the three needles. Then she put some disinfectant on her little girl's finger. Finally, she put a bandage on the finger to keep it clean.
"There you go. And now, do not go around touching or petting this cactus. If not, it's out of here. I'll throw it in the trash."
"Yes, Mommy," Isabelle answered.
She went out to play in the garden.
At suppertime, Isabelle's finger had really swollen up. It was warm and red. And it hurt. Isabelle could hardly bend it.
After supper, Mommy took her to the bathroom and put a little ointment where it hurt. But the ointment didn't do anything. Isabelle went to her room and looked at her cactus. Then she got into bed and tried to fall asleep.
She did not hear Benjamin when he went to bed half an hour after her. They had bunk beds and his was on top. He climbed the ladder up to his bed and fell asleep.
Isabelle woke up some time in the middle of the night. What time was it? She had no idea. She didn't have a watch. It was pitch black. Her finger hurt, a lot. It was even more swollen than before.
She got out of bed. She didn't want to wake Mommy or Daddy up. She went over to the window and looked at the stars for a minute. Then she went near the cactus.
"You really hurt me a lot, you know."
"I feel bad about it."
Isabelle looked all around her. Benjamin was sleeping. "Who said, ‘I feel bad about it?'" She looked over at the cactus.
"Did you say something?"
"Yes, it was me."
"That's impossible," said Isabelle under her breath. "A cactus is a plant and plants cannot talk."
"That's true," the cactus admitted. "Plants don't talk but, you see, you were pricked by my needles and in those three needles that got stuck in your finger, there was a little substance, a kind of sap. It's not poison — don't worry — but, because of it, now you understand when I talk to you. It's also what's making your finger swell up."
"So that's it!" exclaimed Isabelle. "I never knew that was possible. But still, it hurts a lot!"
"I didn't want to hurt you. You were the one who pushed into me so suddenly."
"Yes. It was because of Benjamin. He startled me. It made me jump ... You're a very pretty cactus."
"And you're a very pretty little girl," the cactus said back. "And, more than that, you are very kind. You saved me from dying on the sidewalk. But I am terribly sick. I am not sure that I will live that much longer. I wasn't watered enough where I lived before."
"That's sad," said Isabelle.
"If you want," said the cactus, "I can explain how you can make your finger better."
"I would like that," Isabelle answered. "What should I do?"
"It's easy. The cactuses in my family all contain nectar. You maybe know that in the US you can see very big ones in the desert. Some measure thirty feet high or more. In their trunks is a kind of juice, a quite thick and sweet nectar. Birds often come to dig a small hole to drink the nectar. Go get a knife that cuts well and cut the top of my trunk as if it were the top of a boiled egg."
"I do not want to do you harm," said Isabelle, worried.
"It will not hurt if you cut me. Plants do not suffer when you snip them."
"Oh yes, that's true," Isabelle remembered.
"Then, pour the nectar you see into a glass with some red, yellow and white."
"I don't get it," said Isabelle.
"It's easy. For the yellow, you can take an egg yolk. For the red, tomato juice, and for the white, add a little milk.
"Thank you so much," Isabelle said, excited. "I'm going to do it right now because it's aching."
"Hold on. Also take red ink and three small nails up with you."
"Good, I'll take care of it all."
Isabelle went down to the kitchen barefoot in her white nightgown with the small blue flowers. She did not turn on the light to avoid attracting the attention of her parents.
She picked out a glass and put it on the kitchen table. Then she opened the fridge and took out the milk carton. She poured some into the glass, then put the milk away.
"That'll do it for the white," she told herself.
She didn't see tomato juice, but there was ketchup. She dropped a little into the milk.
"That'll do it for the red."
The egg yolk was the last thing.
Have you ever tried to separate a yolk from an egg white? Not easy…
Isabelle took an egg and tapped it on the table. The yellow and white mixed together.
"Drat," thought Isabelle. "It's a mess!"
She took another egg. Remembering that Mommy broke the shell on the edge of a frying pan, our friend tried to imitate her. She knocked a bit hard on the edge and a mix of white and yellow ran down each side of the pan."
"I'm making it all mucky," sighed Isabelle. "Mommy will be mad."
She took a third egg in her hand. Just then, Mommy entered the kitchen and turned on the light.
"What are you doing in here at one o'clock in the morning, Isabelle?"
"It's for my finger, Mommy. My cactus explained to me what I've got to do to heal it. Can you put just the yellow in the glass? There's already some white."
"Milk with ketchup and egg yolk! That's a funny idea, Isabelle."
After helping, Mommy wiped the table, turned off the light, and went back to her room.
"Go! Isabelle. To bed."
Our friend went up five steps and stopped. Three things were missing. Do you remember what they were?
Isabelle found a good sharp knife in the kitchen. Then some red ink from Daddy's office.
Then there were the three nails. For this, our friend had to go down into the basement. She was very scared but did not dare to turn on the light in case Mommy noticed from upstairs. Each step of the wooden staircase creaked like a scary and nasty beast that wanted to eat her up.
Isabelle opened the drawer containing the box of nails and picked three shiny gold-coloured ones. Then she heard a terrible growling and thought she'd woken up a sleeping dragon. She ran up the steps and only stopped once she was up in the front entryway of the house. Then she listened again and realized that the growling was only the furnace starting up.
Isabelle went on back to her room, equipped with the glass containing the three colours, as well as the three objects, the knife, the red ink and the nails. She closed her door. Benjamin was sleeping.
Our friend sliced the top off the cactus, horizontally. She took it in its earthen pot and poured the nectar into the glass.
"Now, Isabelle," said the cactus, "you drink everything in the glass."
"It's going to be bad," Isabelle murmured.
"It's to heal your finger, little girl."
Isabelle took the glass in hand. She looked at it with disgust. She inhaled the smell.
"Yuck," said our friend.
"Be brave," said the cactus.
Isabelle drank the contents of the glass in one gulp. For a moment, she thought she was going to throw everything up, but she kept it down.
"Now, pour the red ink in the hollow of my trunk, where the nectar was."
Isabelle slowly poured the red ink without spilling.
"Very good," said the cactus. Now put my little cap back on and hold it in place with the three nails."
"Okay," said Isabelle.
Benjamin, who shared her room (he slept on the top bunk and she slept on the bottom bunk), turned around.
"Who are you talking to, Isabelle?"
"We never talk to nobody," Benjamin pointed out.
"I'm speaking to my cactus."
"You're talking to your cactus! Do you think plants can understand you?"
"You might be surprised!" smiled his little sister. "But now you'd better go back to sleep. It's two o'clock in the morning and tomorrow you've got school!"
"Yes, ‘Mother,'" answered Benjamin. "You'd better go to sleep too. You've got school tomorrow as well."
She stuck the three nails in, carefully.
"Goodbye, cactus," Isabelle whispered. "I really like you. You're my friend."
"Goodbye," the cactus murmured. "I like you too. You are very pretty. I especially like your two pigtails."
"They're not pigtails," said Isabelle. "They are braids."
"Ah, okay," said the cactus. "You know, I don't really know so much about little girls."
"Yes," smiled Isabelle.
"Now, I would like to tell you something before you go to sleep," said the cactus. "Because your finger will be healed tomorrow and we won't be able to talk to each other anymore."
"I'm listening," said Isabelle.
"I thank you for taking me to your room. I was going to stay on the sidewalk and die between two trash bags ... But I'm an old cactus. I will not live very much longer. I want to give you a present before I die."
"I do not want you to die," said Isabelle. "You are my friend."
"Thank you, but I'm still going to die soon. My roots are broken. I feel myself drying up. But before I die, I will give birth to two red flowers on my green skin. This will be my gift."
"I don't want you to die," Isabelle repeated.
"You will have a souvenir of me," promised the cactus. "Thank you for saving me from the street."
Isabelle went back to bed. She hugged her white stuffed rabbit in her arms and fell asleep watching her friend.
The next day, when she woke up, her finger did not hurt at all anymore. She approached the cactus:
"Hello little cactus."
But the cactus made no response. Or, in any case, Isabelle could hear nothing. She noticed two small buds. They had developed during the night.
Before going to school, she poured some water around her friend. And she did the same the following days.
Sad to say, one could see that the cactus was sick. It was drying up more and more. It became all grey. It even lost a few needles.
On the morning of the seventh day, the buds opened and became two blossoms, two very beautiful red cactus flowers.
"Oh it's so beautiful," exclaimed Isabelle. "Thank you for these two pretty flowers!"
In the days after, the flowers dried while staying very beautiful, very colourful. The cactus had completely dried up.
One day Mommy came into Isabelle's room.
"My darling, your cactus is dead. It is no longer worth it to give him a drink. We're going to have to throw it away."
"I do not want to throw my cactus in the garbage," said Isabelle.
"What are you going to do then?" asked Mommy.
"I'm going to bury him in the back of the garden."
Isabelle picked the two flowers. With Mommy's help, she attached them to the elastics for her braids.
Then Isabelle chose a pretty little box and laid her cactus inside. She added a few petals from yellow, blue, and white flowers, then she closed the box.
She dug a hole in the back of the garden, placed the box in it with the cactus inside and covered it with earth.
Sometimes Isabelle would water it after school.
One day Bertrand explained to her that the cactus was dead and that it would never grow again.
"I already know that," Isabelle answered. "It's like with Grandpa. He's dead and he will not come back."
The two cactus flowers hanging on our friend's br
aids stayed beautiful for a long time.
Thinking one day about her cactus, Isabelle dried two small tears that ran down her cheek. It was a souvenir of her once budding friendship, his gift to her.
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton