Somehow, she’d gotten separated from the others on the tour, wandered off through the sprawling remains of the 17th Century sugar plantation until the mid-day sun and a woozy rush of vertigo demanded that she find water and shade — immediately! She staggered across a parched field of stubble, remnants of last season’s cane crop, toward the only source of shade she could see — the jungle.
Unconcerned about getting lost, being bitten, stung or eaten by one of those nasty tropical creatures the ship’s Tour Director was always blathering on about, she pushed through a stand of giant ferns and plunged in. The fronds closed behind her like a heavy velvet stage curtain and she disappeared.
When her eyes adjusted to the muted light on the other side of the curtain, she found herself in a large clearing. Smoke from a small, smouldering fire spiralled up through blades of light cutting through the treetops, trees so high she had to crane her neck back to see the uppermost branches spread out like a vaulted cathedral ceiling. Fast approaching footsteps drew her gaze back to ground level in time to see a tall black man burst through the thick plume of smoke, eyes locked on hers.
Wispy trails of smudge streamed off his shoulders, swirled in his wake and hung in the humid air. A phantom she thought; only ghosts make such spectacularly theatrical entrances. A small, rapidly dwindling part of her knew that she wasn’t thinking clearly, probably hallucinating and definitely in trouble. Her vision slipped in and out of focus, her legs began to wobble and the ground turned to jelly.
He caught her before she collapsed, put one hand on her elbow, the other on the small of her back, and helped her sit down on a low wooden stump. Good manners compelled her to thank the man for his timely arrival, but her throat felt like sandpaper and she barely had enough strength to breathe. Next thing she knew he was holding a cup of water to her lips, both of her hands wrapped around his. And she drank. Slowly at first. Just one sip. And another. Blessed relief.
Gently, the stranger urged her to take ahold of the cup. Calloused fingers scraped the tender underside of her wrist — a working man’s hands she thought. The odour of smoke clinging to him brought her father to mind; a real outdoorsman he was, camping and canoeing every summer, watching the stars drift by while the campfire burned. Every jacket and sweater he owned smelled like pine gum and woodsmoke.
Another sip. Cool liquid swirled around her tongue and trickled down her throat. Vaguely, she remembered the Tour Director warning passengers to never, under any circumstances, drink anything that didn’t come from a bottle or can, but it was too late for that and she was too thirsty to care.
The man dipped a rag in a pail of water on the ground beside the stump, squeezed out the excess and cupped it on the back of her neck. Instantly, her burning glow began to cool, the drums pounding in her temples softened, her breathing relaxed, and her pulse dropped from a dangerous gallop to a safer tempo.
While she drank, he fanned her with a scrap of tree bark, watching closely until her eyes lost their glazed emptiness. “You’re a life saver,” she whispered looking up at him. Sunlight limned his temple, nose and cheekbone casting the other half of his face in shadow. Dreadlocks bundled in a large, floppy black tam embroidered with a red, gold and green stripe.
Feeling that the immediate danger had passed, she began to look around, take in her surroundings. The air was thick with the raspy hum of a billion insects, peppered with shrill bird calls and howling monkeys. Far off, buried in the din, music — a lazy, boom-chicka, boom-chicka rhythm coming from a battered radio hanging on the upright post of a bamboo fence — Is this love, is this love, is this love that I’m feeling? Pools of light dotted the red soil tamped smooth with a thousand footprints.
Swaths of pink impatiens carpeted the forest floor surrounding bushes dotted yellow, green and orange with lemons, limes and tangerines. Tamarind pods dangled from one tree, mangoes from the next. And green — everywhere green, emerald, olive, mint, jade, grass and apple — more shades of green than she could ever name.
“My name’s Florence,” she said. “Florrie.”
“Nestor,” he answered.
She waved a limp hand across the scene. “Is this all yours?”
No reply. Satisfied that the danger of sunstroke had passed, he took the bucket of water in one hand, her arm in the other, and led her into his garden. Slowly, they wandered from vine to bush to tree, Nestor examining each plant carefully, watering and pruning, flicking away unwanted insects, feeding choice scraps of fruit to the parrots.
They stopped beneath a thatched awning lashed to four bamboo poles where a dozen clumps of plants hung by their roots to dry. “Every plant has a reason,” he said, stripping a handful of leaves off one branch; “Some food. Some medicine. Some chase away bad luck.” Rolling the leaves between his palms, he raised them to his face, closed his eyes and inhaled. He held his hands out to Florrie. “For positivity,” he said.
Without hesitation, she drew the vapours deep into her lungs. They smelled tart, faintly sweet, and left her feeling refreshed and slightly buoyant.
On they went through Nestor’s seemingly endless garden. Everywhere she looked there was another fruit tree, more berry bushes, flowering vines, orchids and clouds of bougainvillea blossoms. Such abundance! Magical. Hypnotic. Several times she felt that she must certainly be dreaming. There was more air in their conversation than dialogue, as if he had only so many words to last a lifetime, each one to be chosen precisely and used sparingly.
Sometime later, ten minutes or two hours she wasn’t quite sure, they came to a spring bubbling up through a cluster of rocks. They crouched down, drank cool water from cupped hands. Dragonflies hovered over the small pool, wings iridescent in the scattered rays of sunlight. A diamond-speckled snake slid over the rocks and flicked its tongue into the pool, looked briefly at Florrie, drank again, and slipped away.
“We all be put here by Nature,” he told her; “We all be Nature. Y’understan me?”
She did. She really did. For the first time Florrie could recall she felt completely calm, and safe, suffused with a cool light, intimately connected to something vast and indescribable. Ever since she was a girl, she’d held on to a cliché image of paradise as being all white, soft and fluffy and quiet, only now realizing that it was actually green and alive. All nature was talking to her if she could only understand what it was saying. “Do you live here, Nestor?”
“I live here.” He tapped his temple with one thin finger; “I wake up and live.”
Such an odd response. From any other man, Florrie would have taken the comment as a feeble attempt at being clever, or some new-age mumbo-jumbo, but not today, not him. Vultures would be picking at her carcass right now if not for Nestor. And who was she? A middle-aged widow with a large bank account, an outside suite on a luxury cruise liner, and not enough sense to wear a hat or stay out of the sun at noon.
It was long past dark by the time Florrie returned to the cruise ship. The Tour Director was frantic, about to call the police, security, or both. Everyone crowded in on her, all wanting to know what happened. Did she get lost? Mugged? Kidnapped? Are you hurt? Should we call the nurse? You really should be more careful. Their concern was touching, overwhelming, and more than a little embarrassing being treated like a child at her age. “I’m fine,” she said. “Rather thirsty, though.”
With that, eight of them took the elevator up to the bar on the top deck. Over iced drinks, they listened to Florrie’s tale about the mysterious gardener until the novelty passed and the conversation turned to the stock market, household renovations, duty-free jewellery and which cruises were next on their schedules. The gap between life on-board the cruise ship and Nestor’s garden was a chasm wider than a canyon.
Passengers on a mechanical bubble cruising from one exotic island to the next, stopping long enough for passengers to buy trinkets, mail home a postcard or two, and take a few photos of the locals in their native colours, utterly indifferent to the natural world that makes life possible.
Florrie called for a toast. Only when everyone had turned to face her did she realize that she had no notion of what to say, no deep insights or clever wordplay to rouse the spirits, make the occasion memorable. Over the shoulders of her fellow travelling companions, past the cruise terminal, the flashing neon fringe of bars, clubs, and tourist-trap souvenir shops clinging to the shoreline, black hills wrapped around the bay.
An orange glow from the rising moon silhouetted palm trees on the ridge. Between the harbour and the moonlit crest a thousand tiny lights shone in the dark, one of which may have been Nestor’s. What was he doing tonight, she wondered. Did he have a wife? A family? How would he describe her to his friends? Another damn tourist? Crazy white woman. Would he remember her at all? Finally, with Nestor in mind, she raised her glass and said, “Wake up and live.”
They cheered, drained their glasses, ordered another round and the discussion moved from drinks to dinner. Would it be sushi tonight? Italian? Or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at St. George’s Olde English Pub on Deck Four? Later on they could take in the magic show, a concert, or try their luck in the casino — so many choices.
Florrie claimed she wasn’t hungry, said goodnight, went to bed early, slept deeply and woke before dawn with an urgent need to see Nestor once more before they sailed — to say goodbye properly, to thank him again for his kindness, tell him how much she enjoyed their afternoon, maybe exchange addresses so they could write once in a while; although she doubted Nestor was the letter-writing type.
But when she arrived at the old sugar plantation, the garden was gone. There was no clearing, no smouldering fire, no music, no Nestor, just an impenetrable tangle of vegetation and billions of ravenous mosquitos.
It made no sense.
Yes, it had been a scorching hot day, and yes, she was dangerously close to fainting; but she distinctly remembered leaving the old sugar mill, walking past the tiny stone huts where the slaves once lived, up the hill, and into the jungle — distinctly. She questioned everyone on site — groundskeepers, security, maintenance staff, the cook, several guides in period costume… no one knew of any such garden. People don’t live in the bush, they said, too many snakes.
In the decades ahead, Nestor often visited Florrie’s thoughts; a sweet memory tinged with regret, a smile with a tear. In ways she couldn’t explain, losing her husband was easier to accept. At least they’d had 35 years together. Bless his heart. But losing someone so unique, so special without having time to get to know them — that hurt.
On the last night of Florrie’s ninety-two-year adventure on earth, when a lifetime of places and faces passed through her mind, as the last grains of sand fell through her hourglass, Nestor returned — bursting through a pillar of smoke, flames at his feet, tendrils of smudge swirling in his wake, chestnut-brown eyes locked on hers, arms reaching out, beckoning her to join him.
“Wake up and live.”
Colin Thornton studied drawing and painting in college, played music for a few decades while he built a career in advertising. Today, his paints are dry, drums on a shelf, marimba locked in its case and his advertising days over, so he writes short stories.