It was all beginning again whether she was ready or not. In March the rains came as they hadn’t come in years. Under a skeleton of a cedar elm that hadn’t leafed out yet, Cassie waited for her gardener to finish pulling weeds from the house’s front bed where the pomegranate bushes violent orange blooms would later yield their fruit.
Dan had told her he hated weeding, though he forgave every one, “Weeds give me my work.” And she wouldn’t gainsay him. There were just so many this spring, and most grew so deep, eating up the ground, consuming every inch of space, fighting against all the older thickly planted bushes and wildflowers sown that fall…in November two months before Silvie died.
One hand still holding the sharp-edged Japanese spade he preferred, he lifted his head and gave her an inquiring look.
“Oh, Dan, I never—” Cassie couldn’t finish her sentence. She hadn’t meant for him to cut the vine on the front wall so low. If she said so, his feelings would surely be hurt, and anyway it was done. Now in early March the thick stubby lower branches stood against the house’s white limestone wall like a scruffy fence going every which way. Five feet above them wall nails waited to hold the absent leafy vine, which wouldn’t cover the nails’ utilitarian ugliness for months.
Dan had assured her the vine would indeed grow back. Of course, it would but it would take forever. The wretched remains of the plant and the wildly spaced black wall nails would still be the first things guests would see when they walked in the front door.
“Couldn’t you pull the nails out?” She asked. Both of them, the gray-haired woman in her sixties and her gardener, half her age, a lean, tall man, generally unshaven, conferred in the yard by the door, Cassie complaining silently about Dan’s propensity to over prune and her own to worry too much about the way things looked. Vanity, she scolded herself. It was nothing but vanity. The sweet, woody smell of Mexican plum blossoms blew toward her. In January she’d been sick of the heavy sweetness of flowers, the ones florists brought from friends that someone massed in the living room. She’d never let them know how soon all those well-meant emblems of sympathy smelled of decay.
“Sure,” Dan agreed; “I could pull them out but they’d all have to be hammered back in later, and I wouldn’t want to weaken the stone’s masonry joints any more.”
Cassie nodded; “Right.” Later, if she wanted, she could have the damned vines uprooted by someone else before spring had its way with them. Since arthritis had attacked her, Dan’s help was a basic necessity, and he was a wonderful gardener. She’d placate all day rather than give him up. What she had trouble understanding was why he could prune a bush or a tree into a perfectly presentable shape—her small dormant trees were like pieces of sculpture—yet fail to see what a mess he’d created by the front door. There was another vine on the house’s back wall, one he’d cut back just as furiously. Oh, she shouldn’t care, shouldn’t care about either one but how could she stop caring?
The day he whacked the vines she’d seen him from a distance as she drove down their winding drive from the grocery too late to stop him. There he stood clipping away. Perhaps when he got started, he couldn’t stop. Was he angry at her for some obscure thing she’d said or done? Had he fought with his girl friend the night before? A mocking bird, perched on a budding Russian olive bush, flew as she let the back-door bang behind her and the two sacks of groceries, both of them heavier than she wanted to carry.
From the kitchen, she could see Dan moving toward a large spirea bush just ready to bloom in the west yard. It needed pruning badly. The season had burst upon them both early this year. He stuck his clippers in their leather holder on his side. The spirea would have to wait till it finished blooming. There was too much else to be done at the moment. The neighbor’s Lady Banksia roses lunging over the fence were about to strangle her salvia, but he needed to wait on them too. A little over-flowing at the edges should be allowed. She wasn’t about to ask him to cut down the mass of yellow blooms. It didn’t make sense right after planting the other rosebush somebody gave her in memory of her daughter… Sylvie. Dan had hardly known her at all. She wasn’t living at home, so he’d seen her only once or twice, their dark redhaired daughter, her neck bent, long hair sheltering her face, hiding a sorrow, which finally couldn’t be hidden.
He turned to the miniature white roses near the west porch, too near and too shaded for their own good. She’d agreed that those bushes should be replaced. He got a shovel from the garden room, another altogether to tidy area she’d designed, dug up the roses, and put them in his carryall. He was scheduled to work at the Lachers’ next.
Cassie, watching him from her library window, saw him stash the roses and pedal away at four, the carryall trailing behind his bike. At five-thirty Nancy Lacher called to thank her for the miniature roses. She might have done it anyway, but since Silvie’s death, their closest friends had become noticeably protective. Dear of them, so dear. Sometimes, for brief moments, she felt buoyed by invisible waves of care, then they ebbed once more and she was left on shore, a shell washed with her own salt tears.
“Dan’s already planted them on either side of our front walk.”
“I hope they do well there.”
And when she told her husband, Everitt, about Dan taking the roses and transplanting them, he smiled and said, “He doesn’t waste anything, does he?”
“That’s what Sylvie used to say.” The words jumped out of her mouth without her thinking. January, February, now March since Sylvie jumped from the top story of the parking lot of an office building downtown.
“Honey.” He put his arm round her. How could she still have tears left?
The following Tuesday Dan returned, “Would you look at this tree!” He pointed to a scraggly looking soapberry tree near some lavender he’d just dug in. “See?” He sliced into the tree’s trunk leaving a raw creamy white wound then crumbled the bark to bits in his large hand. Why did he have to hurt it more?
“Yes, well…. I’ll call the tree people. I expect they’ll be here soon.”
She had no such expectations. The arborists were as inclined to make their customers wait as did most of the men who dealt with nature. They were fond of the long view. According to them—Dan, the arborists, the mow and blow men, the man in charge of the sprinkler system—whatever was growing, grew in its own sweet time. They responded to those rhythms just as slowly.
“We could try some dormant oil late this fall.” Dan, apparently refusing to see the nandina bushes by his knees that needed trimming, waited.
“I don’t think it’ll cost much for the tree people to do something about it and I can’t stand looking at it in this state from now on.”
He would try to save her money in the strangest ways, taking other people’s plants, attempting to avoid the arborists.
From the west porch, still wearing the kimono she used for a robe, she pulled a loose string on the right sleeve through while watching Dan scratching his chin as he drifted down to the large pecan tree by the pool. He cut into the dark ground around the purple spiderwort. He had to get rid of every last one. They were great seeders, scattered by the slightest breeze or dumped by birds. What was that? A slightly irregular but continuing thud like a giant faulty heartbeat. Lifting her head, she tried to place the source of the noise but couldn’t. Still listening, she continued to watch Dan digging up the deeply rooted spiderwort. Maybe she was hearing a machine, some broken part of the swimming pool motor. Two squirrels skittered through the tree above. Not a squirrel noise. The thud was from something else, something she wasn’t used to.
She heard it again, turned and caught sight of a brilliant red cardinal throwing himself against one of the little high windows in their bedroom. Perched on a bare crepe myrtle branch about three feet behind the addled male, the dull colored female waited while he fell to the ground, got up looking stunned, and did it again. Cassie knew birds could see their reflections and slam into glass doors or windows in a futile attempt to drive an invader out of their territory, but she’d never seen it happen.
“Oh! He’ll break his neck!” She swooped out on the west porch. Both arms beating the air, she flapped her sleeves toward the crepe myrtle.
“Out!” She shouted; “Get out!” Tears ran down her cheeks. “Oh, why, why, why?” She murmured to herself and waved her arms again. Both cardinals flew.
“He’s going to kill himself. The sound— I can’t bear it!” She shouted to Dan.
While Cassie stood by the bush to keep the birds away, Dan went to the garage, returned carrying the extension ladder, and found her sitting on the porch steps by the crepe myrtle, her head on her knees, her shoulders shaking. She stood up rubbing both eyes with the heels of her hands.
“Those are strange curtains,” Everitt said when he came in from work that afternoon. He stared up at the dishtowels duct taped over the bedroom’s highest window.
Cassie, waiting at the doorway behind him, said, “Dan put them up. Nature’s invading. We had a cardinal throwing himself against the glass.”
“Yes,” said Everitt in a tone so quiet she knew he was also thinking of Sylvie.
“Don’t, she said; “It couldn’t be…we couldn’t….” Both of them had said there was nothing more they could have done for their daughter so often.
Now she could no longer remember the names of all the psychiatrists and their weak explanations for Sylvie’s inexplicable sadness, the dates of hospitalizations, or the kinds of medicine she had taken, and once she’d known them as well as she knew family birthdays, the color of her husband’s eyes, and the repetitive seasons of the year.
Carolyn Osborn lives and writes in Austin, TX. She has had stories published in The Missouri Review, Antioch Review and many other literary magazines.