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The Night Garden

By Michelle Reale

Today, Sister Gabriel told us there were many measures of a man.  She didn’t mention the measure of a woman, or a girl like me, but I wondered.  She told us that wealth seemed to matter most, but I knew that she didn’t agree by the way she wrinkled her nose when she said it, like she smelled something nasty. I don’t know much about men of wealth, not personally knowing any. Sister droned on about the honor of struggle and the fact that Jesus smiles on the meek and humble.  I suppose someone who doesn’t know me well might call me meek, but the humble part I’d gladly give up if I had something to brag about.  Which I don’t.  Not yet, anyway. 

Everyday at school I daydream.  I think of my dad and the work there will be to do in the garden when I get home.  First, I’ll have to put up with Mom’s nervous questions about my day, like what I do at school is a complete mystery to her.  “Fine, fine,” is all I’ll say. I know it hurts her, but most days I don’t really care.  The garden is all I really care about and it’s all Dad really cares about too. Winter is tough in my house.  In the summer, though, Dad will spend almost every spare moment there, even after a long day of work. And I am usually right beside him, hoping that he’ll let me step in and do something.  This, in fact has become a sort of goal, because there are two things that everyone should know about my dad’s garden:  Don’t add or take anything away without asking and, even then, don’t get your hopes up.  

Seems simple, but not to everyone, I guess.  For instance, my mom, as a new bride, committed the crime of cutting an armful of tulips for her prized crystal vase, the nicest wedding gift she and my father had received.  My mother still likes to tell the story of how my father walked into the kitchen after discovering the missing flowers.  “Susan, Susan, Susan, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”  My mother’s voice always starts sounding confused when she goes on to say that my father insisted that she didn’t need to kill the flowers to enjoy them.  All she needed to do was peek out over the porch, into the garden and look.  But, for once, I understand my mom and how she would want to possess those beautiful flowers, want to hold them, want to take them from my father who always seemed to be hoarding them for himself.   Sometimes, when my father gently scolds my mother over one thing or another, he’ll say her name in twins or triplets, and I know that my mom is remembering that time.  She told me once that she feels silly and small when my dad says her name over and over again like that.  Occasionally he will take that tone with me in the garden, but I am not as easily intimidated as my mother.

When Gilda Giordano, whom my mother wickedly calls “spinster” behind her back, takes her twice-daily promenade down North Main Street, she always makes it a point to stop at our house, # 205.   She stops partly for conversation with my father who is generally and surprisingly too polite to put her off, and partly to gaze at the small, but lush, green mini-carpet of grass and the small bed of flowers, the only one of its kind in the entire neighborhood.   Tulips, Periwinkle, pansies make an odd, but pleasing assortment, all the same.  Taking a deep whiff of the fresh peat moss that Dad has just lain down, Gilda asks, “I wonder who has the prettiest garden in Stenton?  I wonder!”  Gilda asks this every day; it’s a kind of question and compliment all in one.  Dad just laughs softly and leans on his ever-present shovel, a tool he doesn’t really need in a garden the size of ours, but that stays by his side regardless.  I see Dad turn around, taking in the whole of the small garden , attempting to see it with fresh eyes, just like Gilda seems to do everyday. 

“Honestly, Gus.  It looks better every year.  The tulips, though, are starting to looks kind of sad,” she says, jutting out her bottom lip in a pretend pout that makes me want to hit her with my Dad’s shovel. “Why are spring are flowers like that, Gus?”, she wonders out loud, not expecting an answer.

“Because they’re spring flowers, stupid,” I fairly spit at her, but she doesn’t hear.  Instead she has already moved on, walking slowly down the street, taking it all in.  Though she is a stupid woman my father still puffs with pride at her appreciation of his garden.   He eyes the drooping tulips then repeats tasks he has already done for the day, because there is not much left to do until they die.  Then he’ll grate the small row of dirt, mulching in the dead, limp petals of yellow, red and deep purple.

I’ll mourn the flowers when they’re gone.  I’ll feel sadness come out of nowhere, like a wet, heavy blanket once they start to lose their petals, like so many teeth dropping from old mouths.  The joy I feel when they come up through the dirt is equal to the sadness I feel when they die.  Dad told me that there is a cycle to life, that everything that lives dies.   I think about that a lot now, especially when I am in the garden.

While my dad and I can almost always be found outside, it is a rare and curious thing when my mother ventures out.  Although she could never be considered the outdoors type, since the unexpected birth of my sister, Belinda, she is even less so.   I look up when I hear the front screen door slam and see her step out onto the porch, looking uncomfortable and awkward, squinting at the sun and shading her eyes with her milk-colored blue-veined hands.  She waves and calls softly, “Robin!” with a shy smile, as though I am far, far away and not sitting on the concrete steps just a few feet away from her.  

I think I love Mom, but I’ve taught myself not to need her.  She is like a child herself sometimes, her worries and fears taking over her common sense.  She mumbles a bit of appreciation for what she sees in the garden, but both my Dad and I know she doesn’t really care anymore.  Missing in her eyes is the gleam I’ve come to recognize in the eyes of everyone else when they look at our garden.  She clutches baby Belinda on her hip and smoothes down rough patches of hair all over my baby sister’s big head.  With nervous affection my mother continuously touches the tufts of hair, though Belinda barely notices. 

Just like the tulips at their first sign of decline, Belinda sags away from my mother’s body.  But, unlike the tulips, there is nothing beautiful about her.  I gaze up at the two of them and feel a pang, like a slight punch in my belly, when I think of how I stomped on Belinda’s tiny pink feet when my mother laid her on her tummy on the living room floor and I was supposed to be watching her.   She can’t crawl, but she tries.  There are so many things she is supposed to do, but can’t.  She cried a choking sort of a cry, hoarse little gasping sounds, short and breathless.  I wiped big fat tears from her flat little face before my mother came back into the room.  When I look at Belinda now, I feel relief that she looks like she doesn’t remember.  I am going to try not to do that again.

My dad glances up at the porch, seeing Mom and Belinda, but not seeing them.  He bends down and begins to pick tiny strays of grass growing around the border of tulips. I can tell Mom wants me to go inside now, but she won’t ask.  She stopped asking for anything a long, long time ago.  I think she wants me to hold Belinda for a while, poor Belinda who just seems to be going along for the ride, every minute of every day.   Eventually, of course, I’ll go in.  Dad will hesitate, even when it is time for supper.  He acts like a child being told that playtime is over.  He acts like the flowers outside need him more than the people inside.  We all seem to need something desperately, but I haven’t figured out what that is yet.  Or else I have no words for it.  I’d like the chance to think about that in the night garden.

When I think of the life of the night garden—and I think about it a lot—I try to imagine how it would be without the constant picking and scraping and endless scrutinizing of my father.  My head hurts sometimes when I think of how things could grow healthy and strong with out too much care disguised as love.  I feel that love can harm, too, but I don’t feel like I’m in any immediate danger.  There are times, though, I wish I was. Mom, not one to put her foot down about anything, makes sure that I don’t spend time in the garden after dark.  I long to sit on the concrete steps in the warm evenings watching the end of my father’s cigarette glow in the dark, but Mom is as firm about this as she is weak about everything else: “Enough is enough is enough, Robin.”  Though I never feel as though I have enough of anything, I obey her. 

Thanks to heavy spring rains and warm but strong winds, we lost our tulips earlier than usual this year.  Mom clutches Belinda and watches from the window as Dad and I prepare the ground for their replacement, orangey marigolds.  These seem a somber flower to me. I touch one of them with my fingertips.  My nose twitches at the pungent peppery smell and I sneeze when I take in a longer and deeper sniff than I should.   Black pepper and dirt.  I was mad at my father for picking a loser of a flower.  Marigolds!  There are so many other kinds! 

“Robin, Robin, Robin,” he said, and just laughed.  At that moment he seemed mean and sarcastic.  I didn’t know where that voice was coming from.  I didn’t know where it was going. 

“Take for instance our idea of a flower,” he said, starting to sound like Sister droning on in the classroom.   “It should look pretty and smell nice, but there are flowers that eat insects. By looking so beautiful, bugs can’t resist landing on them.  They fly or crawl right into them and get eaten.   Some sting, some sprout fruit that can kill you.”  I suddenly became interested.   Then his voice dropped. 

“Sometimes Gods starts out with a good idea and then things just go wrong.”

Protesting the marigolds was making me tired and getting me nowhere.   Instead, I let Dad show me how to take the flowers out of their little egg-like crates and carefully break open their molded square bottoms in order to spread their delicate roots.   I hear heavy breathing and look up to see Gilda making her way down the street slowly, as if she were the bearer of bad news.

“Careful, Robin, if the roots are cramped, the flowers won’t survive.”   He repeated this several more times, though I was doing just fine on my own.

“What’s come over you, Gus?” Gilda guffaws.  “Retiring?  Grooming the girl to take over?” she asks, not used to seeing me do all that much but hang around the garden.  I feel my face burn.  She looks up and sees my mother at the window, statue-like, holding Belinda, Mom’s eyes unfocused and far away.  Without so much as a nod to either of them, she looks curiously at the flowers, then at Dad, who seems to be tired, wiping sweat from his forehead but leaving a drip at the end of his nose.  She shrugs, and moves on down the block.  I want to be finished before she turns around again.  Dad is irritable as we wash the trowel and spade with the hose.  The marigolds looked stoic and sedate in the garden, as though they know they don’t belong.  The air is still.  For a moment, I close my eyes and hold my breath.

***

By the end of the summer, Dad is cleaning up the dead and dying plants in the garden.  We will not be planting any fall flowers.  I’ll miss the ones that look like big heads of cabbage, because they make people laugh.  “Whimsical,” Gilda once called them, although, at the time, I didn’t know what that meant.  Dad offered no explanation and I surprised myself by not asking.   During the summer, someone snapped off the heads of all of our marigolds.  I didn’t mind.  They were a strange flower, like a bad idea gone wrong.   Dad chuckled, but without a smile, when he discovered the stems standing brave and strong without their heads.   I thought of his rule of not adding or taking anything away from the garden.  Someone had broken it.  It seems to me, there is a certain way things should be, but rarely are.

“A Marigold is a somber flower, isn’t it?” my mother asks no one in particular.  I look up at her wondering how long she was standing there on the porch.   She meets my gaze for the first time in a long time, like she hasn’t seen me in ages.  Belinda dangles from he waist.   Mom turns and walks back into the house, a long, suspended string of Belinda’s thick drool following.  Dad is in the house watching television.  I slip off my sneakers and socks and step slowly into the raked-out flower beds.  I dig my toes past the cool peat moss and into the dirt.  I close my eyes and feel my heart smile.  When I open my eyes I see Gilda coming down the street toward our house.  She walks by, for the fist time, without interest, with out a glance. For the very first time she passes without a word.

By day, Michelle Reale is the circulation manager of a university library.  At 5 o’clock she starts the coffeepot and works doggedly on her fiction. She is a freelance literary journalist and a professional book critic .  She loves her cats, books, jazz, and wine, in that order.

 

Top photo "Sunflower Series 4" courtesy of Daniel Kutner.
Bottom photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.

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