Monday, June 06, 2011
This is a draft for a short story I wrote some years ago. You might enjoy it at the peony time of the year. Or not, given that it's a bit O. Henryish.
The tulips were pushing up from the black soil. They looked like knives, Bruce thought. From his window he could see sharp green knives piercing the cold soil all over the front yard. The tulips were Rosie's. She had planted them last fall, pushing the bulbs into the soil one by one, leaning on her crutches.
There was a list somewhere. A list about the tulips, what they were called and what plants would rise up around them. Bruce knew that he should look for the list; Rosie had spent what little strength she had left to write lists about all her plants, lists about the tasks of gardening, even lists telling him what to anticipate, what to look for, how to enjoy the beauty of her garden. He wasn't ready to look for the lists yet.
The house was silent. Bruce took his breakfast dishes back into the kitchen and then climbed up the steep stairs to the top of the house. There he had his study, his lair as Rosie had called it. The walls were covered with bookshelves and the shelves with books he loved. This is where he had escaped family Thanksgiving parties and rowdy grand-children's visits. This was where he used to relax, put his feet up and lean back in his old armchair while listening to the faint sounds of pre-dinner clatter Rosie was making in the kitchen downstairs. All was well in the world.
Now, of course, nothing was well in his world. He took down a favorite volume about the Civil War and opened it randomly. The words were just words printed on the paper. He put the book back in its place and turned around. He could see the back yard from his high window. Green knives in the back, too. He turned on the television set and sat down for another day of existence.
Some weeks later he noticed the first buds on the tulips. Most of them were plain green but a group near the dining-room window sported buds which shimmered darkly through the green. Were they infected with something, Bruce wondered? Rosie would have known. Her lists might tell him. He should look them up. He spent the day vacuuming, doing laundry and buying groceries. At night he put on a cardigan and opened the door to Rosie's room, her study. It was cold and smelled stale. He turned on the light and saw the lists she had left him, neatly stacked on her desk. The top one was about tulips.
He sat down to read.
"The ones under the dining-room window are called 'Queens of the Night', Bruce. They are as black as tulips come."
That explained the color of their bulbs.
"They are beautiful. I planted them in the middle of yellow-leaved hostas for contrast. The hostas are probably not up yet."
Bruce couldn't remember about the hostas. It wasn't something he normally noticed. But he would check tomorrow.
"They are stern, these tulips, and sad. But they also have a flame of life in the middle, a kind of sexiness as the name suggests. Do you remember New Orleans, Bruce?"
He couldn't read any further that night.
The following weekend Bruce's son came to visit with his young family. The house was full of children's laughter and cheerful-sounding conversation. Bruce wanted to ask his son about the tulips but couldn't get the topic introduced. They spent the afternoon out, and Bruce came home tired. The sun was setting and its rays struck the now open black tulips with a malicious glee. Bruce glared at them. His anger was quite impartial; he was angry at the tulips, his son and Rosie. He was angry at the idea of gardening. Gardening was what Rosie did.
That night he couldn't sleep because of the heavy meal they had had in a noisy restaurant. He took the tulip notes to bed with him and continued reading.
"The ones in the back yard are lily-shaped tulips. Their petals are tipped. I always thought of them as butterflies trying to take off. The most beautiful ones near the fence are called 'Ballerinas'. You'll see why when they flower: They look just like dancers in their tutus standing on point."
'Ballerinas', Bruce mouthed. What did he have to do with 'Ballerinas'? Who invented these idiotic names in the first place?
"They should flower at the same time as the bleeding hearts behind them. The bleeding hearts should echo the pink in the tulips, or so I hope. Oh Bruce, I so wanted to see them together! I know that you don't care for such things but won't you watch out for them, for my sake?"
Bruce turned off the light and lay there, his eyes filling with tears of anger. How dare Rosie do this, play him like a violin? She always fought unfairly, and now he couldn't even point that out to her.
In a few days all the tulips were in flower. The garden looked deceptive, as if Rosie was still there to care for it. Bruce made notes of the heights of the different varieties and counted their blooms. He tried to appreciate the color harmonies and contrasts, but for this he had to take Rosie's list out and to study it sitting on the front steps. Neighbors passing by complimented him on the tulips. He didn't want to remind them that he hadn't planted any himself. Then he became worried about the upkeep the tulips might require. Surely Rosie used to do something to them every spring?
He looked up her list of garden tasks. It was written differently, it was businesslike with chores, tools and times listed in a table. This was Rosie, too, her cool, professional side. Still, Bruce read through the list twice seeking in vain for a more personal note. He was impressed by the sheer volume of physical labor needed for gardening. Rosie never asked for his help.
He began the following morning with the cleaning of the flowerbeds, raking and aerating the soil. He carted compost from the pile by wheelbarrowfuls and spread it across the beds. His shoulders ached and sweat trickled down his nose. The earth had a deep smell. He didn't know if the compost was spread to the right thickness and he wasn't sure if he hadn't removed something from the beds that was supposed to stay, but he slept well that night.
It rained in the morning. The rain pelted the windows and smeared the view through them with tears. The tulips stood up against the grayness like so many colored flags, like soldiers in gaudy uniforms, refusing to bend in the face of the inevitable. Bruce cracked the window open. The smell of wet earth and green leaves drifted in, mingling with the rain and the soreness in his muscles.
He suddenly missed Rosie so much that his body felt stretched thin, pulled infinitely long until it reached the borders of the realm of the dead, until he turned into an insistent throbbing of one desperate thought, this thought knocking on the sealed doors of the dead, asking for Rosie O'Leary. The pain was unbearable, not bearable, but he bore it anyway. After a few moments, or an eternity, it receded, and Bruce stood there looking out into the rain again. He hated being alive.
Later that day he moved all Rosie's lists up to his study and arranged them in an order that seemed logical. He took the top one, titled 'Late Spring-Early Summer' and sat down to read it in his armchair. The rain drummed on the roof. It was almost cozy in his den, warm and dry. He shuffled the papers in his lap and a faint whiff of Rosie's perfume touched his nose. It pierced him for a second.
"You are going to hate the weeding, Bruce. I always hated it. The weeds crop up so fast this time of the year and you can't let them win, that's how you are. That means an aching back, my dear. There is some liniment for that in the medicine cabinet. I am sorry for your pain, but the weeding will do you good."
Bruce grimaced at the thought and turned the page.
"My favorite moment of late spring was always the opening of the peonies. I never planted them, they came with the house, and I don't know what they are called. They have these small hard buds, like hands held in a tight fist against fear or anger, and ants crawl over them, seeking the sweetness in them. I could never decide if it looked like a horror film or the prelude to some erotica. The first spring when we moved to the house, remember, when the children were tiny?, I wanted to pull the peonies out because they gave me the shivers, but there was so much to do that I never got around to it. Now, of course, I am grateful for that, for the next stage is the opening of their buds and that is worth everything. They opened for us all those years, love. All those years we had together."
Bruce was crying now, his body releasing the sobs in tune with the rain on the roof. He stumbled up and leaned against the cold window panes, crying.
When the rain slowed down his tears also did and he was able to stand straighter again. He didn't really want to go back to the list but he wanted to know about the opening of the peonies.
"The buds break open when you're not looking. Perhaps they just can't take the stroking of the ants any more, or perhaps the mild night wind blows them open. Anyway, one morning when you go out there they are, these gigantic, blowsy, crushed flowers, like white-and-pink silk, straining to open even more towards the sun. It is so sensual, Bruce. You must touch them, put your senses in your fingertips and lips and touch them. And then you must inhale their scent. Hurry, for they won't last very long.
I miss your body, Bruce. Even in this hell of pain, with my body being pulled apart by the final crunching of death's teeth, I want you. I know that you can't want me now, I understand. But you will want me when I am dead and the peonies will help."
When Bruce went to bed that night the sheets felt like Rosie's hands on his chest. The air was heavier, moister, than usual, and as he drifted asleep he turned to Rosie's side of the bed trying to pull her into his embrace. He dreamt about naked flesh and sex and woke up half-guilty half-relieved.
The spring speeded up. The tulips stretched their petals wider and wider and then dropped them. Other flowers took their place. Bruce fertilized and weeded, staked and weeded, watered and weeded. His muscles ached and he couldn't get his nails clean. He now knew Rosie's early year lists by heart and had started reading her gardening books. He wasn't going to be a gardener; that was what Rosie did, but he wanted to do this one thing for her. When his daughter who lived in France called him he told her all about the garden. She seemed pleased.
Then the peonies opened. It was just like Rosie had written. Yesterday they were all holding their closed fists up to the sky, today they were bending down, heavy with blossoms both celestial and obscene. Bruce looked around to make sure that nobody was looking and then buried his face in them. They were scented with innocence and hope and the smell of love and frenzied couplings. They caressed his face, their silkiness a thousand remembered nights with Rosie. Bruce stood there, half-crouched, while his body filled with longing, grief and desire. That moment Rosie was there with him, one with him, and also saying goodbye to him.
He spent the whole day with the peonies, until a hunger made him so weak that he barely made it back into the house and to a gigantic supper. After supper he moved Rosie's gardening books up to his study and selected a volume to read. He wanted to buy something new for his garden. A rose bush, perhaps.