Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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The Bride from the Garden

by Rodica Bretin

Translated into English by Mihaela Mudure

Cling-cling-dong. The sounds were bouncing against the walls, stirring up the dust and the silence. There was nobody home. Nobody... but the bell kept ringing, it made my temples vibrate. Why weren't they leaving, why weren't they leaving me alone? My hands grasped the armchair by themselves, forcing my body to get up. I reluctantly stepped through the penumbra which was like stale water. The hall, the balustrade I grasped while drawing a heavy breath. That stairway... At its end only empty chambers, where furniture and memories slept under white veils. It was ten years since I climbed it. The bedroom, the salon from downstairs were enough for me; upstairs Berta's sighs were still floating, her eternal incomprehensible muttering.

The door's hinges creaked for a long time and the fresh air from outside, the cold hit me. Beyond the threshold, in the rain, a woman. When she was about to say something, I shook my head--I didn't need anything. The woman searched through her pockets and handed me a wet envelope. It was my handwriting, the address of the Association. I had mailed the letter two months ago and completely forgot about it, but why were they sending me a woman? The stranger was waiting, she did not care about the streams of water that were soaking her hood, her anorak was replete with water. I stepped back and made a sign that she should enter.

In the salon, she took off her coat. She had a woolen sweater and cheap shoes worn out in certain spots, but she was young, so young... She got near the hearth and held her hands towards the fire--long fingers, not painted nails, which had turned yellow because of the sap and the humus. Maybe... I poured the hot tea struggling not to spill a drop. The stranger sat down on the sofa, her knees drawn up. She tried to hide the puddle that was growing beneath her boots. Realizing that I was watching her, she blushed and then she raised her calm, grey eyes. She was holding the cup in her palms and each time she drew her lips close to the greenish drink, her eyelids shivered as if she tasted it with all her body. The soil? The trees? She had always liked them. She had a flower shop and from time to time, she looked after other peoples' gardens--they were content at the Association... She talked without hesitation: what was needed, neither more, nor less. Outside the rain had almost ceased and the girl had emptied her cup. It was time for her to see the garden.

We didn't walk too far. The trail passed by a web of branches and thorns--the eglantine hadn't blossomed for a few years. Farther on, warped, twisted stems, apple trees whose bark was shedding like old skin, a maple without leaves, with branches that seemed to have swollen with arthritis. Everywhere only brushwood, must. Everything withered, shriveled, eaten by a hidden affliction, frozen and numb in a state that nothing could break. The garden was dying, bit-by-bit. Every year, every hour--like me. The Association had sent me one gardener after another. They would stay a day, a week and then they left shrugging their shoulders. The soil was to blame, arid, devoid of sap... The girl bent down and took some moist earth. Slush and dirt dripped through her fingers. She said nothing, only frowned, and walked among the stems that seemed to have been stained with rust, among the hollow trees like toothless mouths...

We returned together, she adapted her steps to mine. I wondered why she had such difficulty in finding her words when four words were enough. The garden was dead. I finally understood. In the hall, while shaking off the water from her hair, she asked me something. I didn't hear it. She repeated it and I looked at her bewildered. Did she want to try it? To what avail? I opened the door, mumbling a day at random. The girl nodded--yes, it was fine--and before I realized it, I was alone. I closed the door, locked the latch, and only then did I remember that strange name: Milena.

* * *

I bent them, twisted them, and the branches cracked as if some bones broke. The smoke from the pyre mounds wasn't rising towards the sky; it stayed above the garden, thickening the yellowish and viscous fog that the wind couldn't scatter. The wood caught fire quickly, but it didn't burn easily. Even if you sprinkled earth above it when leaving, the flames kept smoldering until the next day when I would fuel them again... An armful of brushwood, the last one. Its wrinkled bark got swollen, and then it burst and unveiled its fawn core. The firewood burned slowly and continued to reek the ripe mold that had filled the air for about a week now.

Coughing, I wiped my hands on my trousers--finally, I had finished. Without so many dead branches and brushwood, the garden seemed less wild... I immersed myself into the labyrinth of alleys that opened, wound, crossed, apparently without any reason and I chose the longest one, the only one without roundabouts and turns.

I walked beneath arched bowers, amidst freshly cut bushes. Yes, it was a beautiful garden. Nothing was missing, nothing abounded, and nothing was left at random. Everything had been done in a time when people still wanted to leave something behind them, when they could still understand the earth, and the thick walls, the tank dug in the rock, the bronze railings were to last another century, but the garden slept and the final efforts to awaken it had taken place two years ago, maybe three: rusty tools and crates with seeds had been forgotten near the kiosk, holes had been filled with cement. The old man? Someone from the Association? Whoever he was, he had given up easily, far too easily.

I snatched a leaf: thin, with small blood-red veins. It wasn't alive, neither was it all together dead. I had never seen anything like this, and for me it was enough to touch a tree, a flower and I knew what affected them. At the Association, the old gardeners said that this was a gift; and they said it with envy. To me it had only brought trouble. For my people it had been a tragedy: their girl to work the land? Grandfather had run away from his rocky, scorched-by-the-sun country in order to escape from the tyranny of the land, Father had toiled for hours, bent over other people's clocks and only dreamt about the day when I would come home with my doctoral scroll and robe, and I had left the university, I had left home. At the beginning, it was tough. Rented rooms, humiliation--who would trust a girl, to give her a small patch from the sacred green world?--but within four years I had the flower shop and everybody knew me at the Association... I went down on my knees near the fire, I took some ash: greasy, smelling sulfur and... what else? Could it be ash?

It was getting dark. A twilight with no breeze, no sounds. The smoke hadn't cleared and, when I arrived at the abandoned kiosk, the maple, the bushes were but shadows in the red night. I was later than usual. After throwing my gloves and my boots in a corner, after groping in the dark in order to put my shoes somewhere, a few moments later I started towards the house with windows like blind eyes. The soot had entered my skin, it made my hair sticky. I shook it off while walking and I hurried up.

The hall was deserted. As always, the old man hadn't waited for me. "See you tomorrow," I whispered--to the house, to the garden, to the massive door? Only the silence responded.

* * *

I opened my eyes. From the garden came a stream of noises--that girl again... For so many weeks, she hadn't been absent a day. She cut, dug, carried. Always moving, never in a hurry, without succeeding and without caring about this. She had enough time.

I waited for my numbness to leave. It took my body longer and longer time until it decided to obey me--as if during the night, the puppet I was had got disjointed and someone repaired it at dawn, and allowed it to continue struggling on life's thin tread... Itches: my blood started to flow again and my loins were racked with pain, my vision blurred. I took my shoes, grabbed the chair's back and there I was standing and grumbling because of the effort. The thick quilted robe--I was always freezing, no matter how much wood burned in the fireplace –, the scarf which I never left, not even in summer. My feet dragged on the floor, the right foot, the left foot, my hand searched for support, a piece of furniture cracked under the pressure. In the living room I sprawled myself in an armchair: the way stopped here and the respite got longer every time... In front of me was the paneled wall full of holes, a painting: a woman in a wedding dress, the man by her side watching her with shining eyes. How could I have believed then that all my impetuses, all my desires would disappear, that they would end in this helpless carrion? And how could I imagine that the blushing Berta would be only a sore wife, dissatisfied with me, with the world, always complaining about something with that voice drilling into my thoughts, into my temples? Until death took her and left me alone, old, useless...

I stood up. In the kitchen, I took out the ham, the eggs, and put some tea to brew. I wasn't hungry; I ate because I had to. Lately I had grown thin, I wrinkled like a mummy. One day I would lie in my bed, my eyes wide open and glassy. Who will know, who will remember me? I didn't have relatives, and my friends, my acquaintances--those who were not dead--were only mirrors in which I didn't like to look.

A long sizzle. I got up to take the bread from the machine, but it was too late: it had got black. I sighed and shrugged. Eating, reading, shaving--they were chores all of them. Why having such concerns? The smell of burnt bread filled the room and made me sick. I opened the window wide, the fresh air rushed inside and for a moment, I thought that. but no, the garden was dead, and I was only spying, waiting for Death to come from there, from among the scaly trees, to go up the stairs and take me by the hand.

* * *

I stopped to wipe the sweat that was flowing on my face, on my neck. I didn't understand. For weeks on end, I had tried forgetting anything else. I would go to the flower shop only for a few moments--the dawn, the twilight always found me here, trying to break the stubbornness of the garden, of the numb. It was as if I was sitting on a block of ice that was getting bigger instead of disappearing.

I sat on a stone, exhausted, and the silence fell around me: not an absence, but an intense silence, hostile, as in a beast's lair... The vegetal giant didn't want to wake up. Did it preserve in its dreams the old smells, the faces? Or only the whiff of not being? Beyond the walls, under the same sky, the green world prospered; here, nothing. Even the insects avoided the brown and still desert.

Holding my chin in the hands, I was looking at the creek crawling in its rocky bed. Through the troughs and pipes which were all over the garden, the water reached the farthest corners; but it was ferruginous, muddy, even though I had filled the holes everywhere and scraped the walls. Only in the tank had I not managed to look. That mound--clustered granite icicles--seemed like a wart grown on the earth's body, a tumor. It was from there that the red water came.

I took off my pants, my shirt, and my boots and took a bucket. On my way up I slipped a few times, scratched my knees, but only when I saw the slime in the tank I faltered, ready to go back. One minute, two... I stretched my leg, touched the sticky surface, then I threw the bucket inside. I felt the carrion stench while I was raising it towards me and I hastened to empty it over the mound's edge--the mud drained slowly, sputtering, and swirling. One bucket after another. I did my best not to take into account the stench, the numbness in my loins, the hair locks sticking on my cheek. Eventually, in the tank there was only the lye water dripping through the pipes. Almost all of them were clogged and thinking that I had to enter the brown whirlpool, I closed my eyes--God, this as well?...

I jumped and splattered slobbery drops. I inserted my hand into a metal opening and pulled out a tuft of grasses, some branches, gravel, mud, and grasses again. Another pipe and then another one, now the water gushed heavily, the tank filled, the water was getting clear--once, ten times, in the cold waves that went above my waist. I stopped only when the tank was stainless. Jumping outside, I didn't feel either fatigue, or the tremor that shook my bluish body. I violently took my undershirt off, tied my hair back and, while getting down the slippery slope, I raised my hands towards the sun--it was so nice to feel its blaze... Suddenly, I realized: I was almost naked. What if the old gentleman caught a glimpse of me? I burst out laughing. I was collecting my clothes from the ground, when a breeze startled the air and a rustle passed through the entangled trees. In the evening it was to rain--I had finished in time.

* * *

The sound of unfolding the paper. Big and bold titles I could read even without glasses. A train ran off the rails. Earthquakes, revolutions, other satellites on orbit. Financial scandals, crimes, some actress had divorced. People who cried, laughed, went insane. Page three: William Harris Jr. appointed Governor of the Bank of England. Harris... We had worked in the same office for a few years. He was ambitious, efficient; everybody said he would go far. He had. Page ten: the Seas of the South. Palm trees, garlands, hula dancers... I hadn't gone anywhere, ever. During the war I was to be sent to Canada--the treasury's gold was evacuated and I found myself on the lucky list... I refused. Some thought I was insane, others thought I was a hero. In fact, I could not accept the thought that during my absence some bomb... I had been born here and only in the garden was I truly happy.

I put the newspaper near the open envelopes: only bills, no letters. Nearby, the book forgotten there three days ago. I opened it and began reading, but I stopped after a few pages. Something was missing. Maybe the monotonous clink of the knitting needles. Maybe Berta's voice... In the evening, we would stay in the salon. She had a pile of yarn balls, I tried to read. Berta would twist the colored threads and carefully dissect our neighbors, friends, relatives; she would take them one by one and investigate their character, their weaknesses, and their sins. Then she would invite them to visit us, she would smile at them... Among angels, she would have been only one of many; with some many black sheep around she gained a halo, brightness. She truly believed that this was how I would be proud of her--but I understood it only later when she was but a ghost. Then I wanted her to shut up, to let me listen to the silence.

In fact, did I ever want anything? After high school--"Saint Jacob", one of the best--I was admitted to the Bank and five years passed like one day. Then the war came. Sirens, hundreds of people trampling while getting down into the bunkers. Camouflage, ration books, German submarines. Rommel, Singapore, the landing always delayed, but for those who had remained home, the war meant, first of all, the fright of the sky that had become the home of death. Father didn't live to see the victory--everything was too difficult to understand for him and the day when our forces took Dieppe only to be slaughtered on the beaches, he closed his eyes forever.

Soon after the war, mother found Berta: obedient, well educated, the niece of Mister Bolton, the pharmacist... Mother would talk; I would watch the cherry trees that had bloomed sooner that year. The engagement, the marriage was normal, as if they had been decided a long time ago. It was the same with what followed. I would go to the Bank--Berta would see me to the door, she would offer me her cheek to kiss. I came back--she would wait for me with warm food, the same quince jam, and the same words. My shirts were always clean, the parquet was glass-like, the glasses, the silverware were shining. The pantry was full, the milkman had lowered his price, we always had Cheshire cheese--good for the stomach, said Berta--and I would eat, though... We lived under the same roof; sometime we shared the same bed. She had her Thursday tea, the charity committees. I added series, rows of numbers. We had never been ill--trivial colds, maybe a toothache--and the children didn't come, but we didn't regret their absence--we had our little joys: anniversaries, a new tea set, the car. A lifetime when nothing had happened; as if we had only been watching it. For a moment, I looked for something worth remembering, but no matter how much I would search, however deep, however far, the only thing I could find was everyday routine. Dull, no shocks, no emotions. So many mornings and afternoons, so many nights, so many wasted years. For what?

I had been holding the book in my hands, looking out through the window. Suddenly I startled. On the branch pushing against the window some dots had appeared. They weren't there yesterday. They speckled the brown bark like... I got up so quickly that I grew dizzy. It was impossible! They couldn't be... A fire stake through my loins. More quickly. My fingers clutching the door handle--I pushed, pressed, but couldn't open the door. I don't know how I got outside, how I climbed down the stairs, how I got near the trunk. On the branches, a lot of puffy bundles, as big as a nail. The cherry tree had blossomed, and it was not the only one. The bay laurels, the eglantines, and down, at my feet some thin, almost transparent stalks had appeared from the ground. I struggled to bow, I held out my hand--and this was the moment when I caught sight of the girl coming. I froze on the spot. One of my hands was in the air, the other one ridiculously put on my waist, but Milena walked farther, she did not see me and she disappeared among the thickets. Soon I heard her voice. She was singing.

* * *

"Pale azure, and white, and pink / Rainbow petals". Who had written these words? A man who loved flowers, who would have understood me. On my knees, bent over seedlings, I was whispering these words to them while kneading in my hands the earth that had awoken to life. From time to time I would pull up some weed, although I almost felt sorry--it was alive as well... Grey. Four walls, beyond other four walls, similar to them. Through the window, I could see a smoked façade rising up to the sky. Up, a blue rectangle, cut out by the rooftops. Down, the paved courtyard, like a well, and all around, narrow roads, passages, dead-ends. A world where every seed went to waste, every plant suffocated: father's geraniums begging for every sunray, a blade of grass grown in the mud from a trough, a dandelion appeared between two grit stone tiles. A colorless, scentless world... When I was six years old, mother brought me, for the first time, to a park. It was the day when I was truly born. Hour-moments, too short for so many hues, smells, touches! I could not name them, but I felt they had always been mine and I theirs. I cried all the way home. I didn't want to come back to the dark burrow; I wanted to be among trees and flowers. Why didn't we stay there?...

Glen's face. From the threshold, Glen awkwardly offered me the bouquet. Six years had passed since then. Glen was not like the other boys. Less rash, less noisy--maybe because he had been raised in one of the villas surrounded by greenery and he already had what they were about to snatch from life. We would walk, read, talk--his voice, the way he pronounced my name, Mi-le-na, prolonging it as if the wind whispered it among the leaves--and it was a beautiful summer. Then school followed, the exams, the party... At first, I did like it. The old manor, the lights, the clicking of the glasses, the peals of laughter, the champagne, but it was too much, they would make me dizzy, they exhausted me--the pool's water, an unnatural azure, the noise of the music nobody was listening to... I withdrew farther and farther until I found myself alone in the garden. My shoes were too tight; I took them off and started wandering under the moon that made every leaf seem a silver drop... I got back late, when the party was almost over. I was walking as I was in a dream, still feeling in my nostrils the smell of the wet soil, the pollen and the resin. I stepped slowly on the terrace and everybody stared at me. I was holding my shoes in my hand, my dress had been stained by sap, and in my hair, I had blades of grass, leaves, and dust. Some peals of laughter, some accomplice smiles, but who cared about them? Glen was looking at my naked legs and when he looked up, his eyes blazed me with hate. He had thought... I ran away before the tears could blind me and from that moment onwards Glen was but a memory.

Bad. Good... What is the meaning of "good"? To do what the others expected of you? In nature, everything is good: the rain, the sun, the snow, and the wind--even the cold... I took the brush and carefully scraped the moss off a trunk, and then I caressed the rough bark in order to feel the green heart's beating beneath... Darkness. A knee touching mine, a hand gliding up my thigh. Furtive movements. Glances cast at the man dozing on the chair to the left, at the woman with a hat, from behind. Wet lips seeking for my lips, the kiss on the screen, the light that suddenly was on. Then walking on the by-streets, the touching in the alleys, on some bench, under the policeman's all-seeing eye. When we dance or when we were at the cinema, the boys always seemed equally rash to reach that tormented, pathetic intimacy. I would arrive home angry--it was the last time when. but mother's perpetual lamentations, father's grumbling would chase me away once more. Then aunt Reka's illness came, the weeks in the countryside, in Derby. My cousin looked like Glen--only that he wasn't shy at all. We would walk hours on end and he would show me the forest, the pastures, he talked and talked... Once, at sunset, the kisses, the touching became an embrace. He was breathing faster and faster and I let him get me on top of a hay stock and knead my body with an insistence that surprised me. He had me there. He was panting, he was tense and rash. Then he detached himself from me and he lay on his back. It was the first time since I met him that he had been silent. He had not thought that he would be my first one and didn't understand why I had given myself so easily. Did he wish I had resisted? Did the closeness between a boy and a girl have to be so false? So many words, concealments--why? It had only been a short pain which the chillness and the smell of the hay had numbed. The next day I left for home and since then I never saw cousin Tom anymore. I met other boys: faces, gestures that quickly turned into indifference. An evening, two, never more! Sometimes I submitted to their need, bored to death. The pain had vanished but nothing else replaced it. I only felt pity--for them, for me, but this last year the flower shop and the old man's garden hadn't left me any respite, and maybe it was better like this...

I started walking among the green thickets. The old man was in his place, on the chair under the cherry trees. Since the buds had opened, he got out daily. For four months, he hadn't believed...--but hadn't I doubted it myself? He didn't bother me; he watched me while working, he said nothing, only from time to time, he would bring his trembling fingers to his temples. What was he thinking about? When I passed by him, I met his gaze. His pale blue, watery eyes had gathered so much sadness that, without realizing it, I found myself smiling at him. At him, at the garden.

* * *

A leaf was floating lazily towards the earth; I held out my hand and it fell in my palm. Under the pale sky, the garden had blossomed into an orgy of colors--white, red, violet--that drowned into the crude, flashy green. Barefooted, with her pants rolled up, Milena was watering the ferns. She passed her hand through her hair and tousled it, and the memory suddenly burnt my thoughts, my chest... The soft hair locks, the frozen cheeks on which my fingers kept gliding: the foreign woman had clung to me, and in the darkness of the cellar, I could only see the white of her eyes, the fright. The shelter was full. From time to time, a flash lit ghost-like faces and one could hear some muffled crying, a cough, whispers, a prayer barely murmured. The moments dragged forever and became longer and longer. We were so many in the damp shelter, but each one was waiting by himself: a hundred hearts and the roaring. At the beginning, it was remote, then it grew and fell on our heads, the foreign woman stuck her nails into my flesh, the drive to run, to scream... The jolt, the walls cracked, the earth shook with them, the dust and the plaster fell as if they were some formidable snow. The smell of the grave. The girl dressed in uniform huddled, she made her body one with mine when the roar sounded again, closer. An explosion, a stifling cloud, her hot and hurried breathing... It was over. The short barking of the cannons and again the obsessive, maddening roar. The heat of the young body, the eyelids moving under my lips, the breasts in my hands that were wildly stirring them, the unrest in us and, suddenly, the howl of the sirens. We had survived. The people were stretching out of their numbness, dizzy, hesitating shadows getting out of hidden corners and staggering up the stairs. The girl stepped beside me and my blood was still boiling. In the street I turned to see her face: her too big eyes were asking, vowing, there was so much life in them that I became afraid. I took my fingers off her grasp and ran away, jostling and getting lost in the crowd. Life scared me; it had always been like this, even though I hadn't understood it until then. Then I pushed that hour into oblivion--why was it coming to disturb my rest now? And, together with it, the first night with Berta, the sheets, the curtains, her thick shirt, everything white, smelling starch, the tension of the woman who was to become my wife, a whisper--"how could you, how..."--and I, with the roar of failure in my temples, feeling guilty without really knowing why. Then, night after night, the same look, the same reproach, her migraines, the hours of silence interrupted by sighs, until I gave up, leaving the sanctuary-bedroom to her.

Milena washed her cheeks, her head with the cold gush, she shook and laughed. Normally, with no pretence, the way she experienced every moment, the way I couldn't. When I thought about this, it was too late. Life was losing its meaning, it had gotten pale. I was wandering through rooms, a stranger in my own house, while voices sounded from the living room--Berta's friends. Dry inside themselves, they looked as if they had never been sixteen years old. They seemed to have been born with those tasteless haircuts, thin lips, and the look that said the world wasn't as it should have been. Had they run--at least while dreaming--in the rain, had they drunk water from their hands cupped together, had they stepped barefooted on the grass? No. Nothing could touch them, animate them; they were figures, names, and nothing more.

Milena had knelt near a trough. She didn't see me, didn't feel it when I loosed her hair locks which smelled lime. I turned back and strode, driven by my old fright.

* * *

The old man received me as usual, but he avoided my eyes. Yes, I was late, and so what? Did he know that in the flower shop hardly any customer came, that most of my clients were buying from others?

In the kiosk was a suffocating heat, as in a greenhouse: such an afternoon had not occurred even in the summer lost in that late September. I took off my sweater, I stepped out of the cloth pipes of my trousers and I remained only in my undershirt and my sandals. The scissors, the box...--the gloves were nowhere to be found. I looked at the old man who was agitating them smiling, I got down and we started together, he was carrying my tools, I kept silent--a ritual, the same, sometimes a little bit too rigid. I liked the old man. He didn't resemble those for whom the garden was but vanity, like the out of fashion and expensive Rolls-Royces. No, he had understood that the green world did not mean powerlessness, but patience older then the Babylon, then the Pyramids, but now I wished fewer things linked us, I wished he were just someone, grumpy and hard to please.

The old man was cutting the tip of the bushes with surgical precision and for a while, only the sound of the scissors could be heard. His hands did not hesitate, they did not stop--his skin was all wrinkled, but the stains had disappeared and so had his trembling; and for some time the old man hadn't wheezed any longer, he no longer got tired, he stepped with confidence and without the walking stick he had forgotten home. He could have taken care of the garden by himself--anyway, there weren't many things to do. Then, why was I staying?

I had begun to take my gloves off when I realized that the sound of his scissors had also vanished. The old man was watching me shyly, suppliant. He didn't want me to leave, but he knew I couldn't stay. "Just another day, at least one," and the words died on my lips. Furious, I began to gather the little branches. Why couldn't I ever say "no"? Just a word, like a door slammed in the face of those who were always begging me--a day from my lifetime, a smile, a gesture, the woman in me. First my family and the boys from the neighborhood, then Glen, cousin Tom, the others, and now, him... He was eager to have me around. Sometimes, as if by chance, he would touch my arm or one of my hair locks, and I would let him do it. Didn't the earth and the sun accept us all, good or bad? But I was just a human being. I didn't want to belong to anybody and to everybody, to waste myself in vain.

I gave the box to the old man; he took it quickly and I could almost hear his sigh of relief. "See you tomorrow," I said as usual behind the figure that was getting farther and farther among the trees, but will I come tomorrow?...

It was getting dark and the wind was bringing the smell of autumn. Prolonged, frail, my shade was running before me; sometimes it stopped and got lost among the branches of the thicket, then it went on farther, huddled, and then stretched again. I left the road and took the path through the hedges--a labyrinth with no secrets which I could cross with my eyes shut--and I passed by the maple, when I stumbled. My foot was stuck, in vain did I struggle to pull it out; I bent to loose it up, but the tongs of the roots were holding it tight and a rustle made me jump. A viper was crawling towards me. It coiled around my other ankle: there was bark, wood, but it would still crawl, it grazed my skin... When I came back to my senses, I started running, but I fell down after just one step. I found myself digging, with my elbows and fists, traces into the earth? I clung to a shrub that fell, I clung to a rock. It went off, I moaned when something lashed my shoulders. Only the silence, the still moment, and the earth's quake responded to me; then, there was a prolonged laughter coming from the depths, and then, again, lashing, branches falling over me, raising me to the sky... I was gasping, hardly swallowing the air, and the screaming was rising inside me when a gnarled branch covered my mouth, and the sound that was still into my ribs' cage exploded into thousands of echoes that crashed against each other, ready to break me into pieces because of the fright and the pain.

* * *

Dawn. I got off the bed, opened the windows, and breathed deeply the smell of the fog and the damp wood: the first rime had come. For a moment, I stopped near the armchair, in the living room. Berta was staring at me and I smiled at her. I had stopped envying the one beside her for a long time. I looked at the young man from the picture leniently--he had been so inexperienced... If I met him now and if I told him to live his life as if they were a hundred lives, would he listen, would he understand?

In the refrigerator, the roast meat from last night, and the Holland cheese--Berta would have sighed in resignation--and some French pastry. I ate everything, to the last crumb, I quickly drank two glasses of beer, and as soon as the first ray of light appeared, I was in the garden.

Leaves, everywhere leaves in a rusty, rustling carpet. I could not gather them because the wind brought others. Day after day, I would rake, sweep, carry, but my strained back and arms were beneficial to me, they brought back to me some vigor I had thought exhausted forever. Another pile--what number was it? I straightened my back while counting the piles behind me, on the alley's curve. I put the rake away. I was ready and Milena was waiting for me, as she was yesterday, as she was every morning. For two months, I hadn't woken up with the thought-cry: What if she doesn't come today? Milena had remained with me forever.

A foot had disappeared into the ground up to the knee; the other passed over the trunk, it still had its sandal--a sole and three rotten straps. The entire body twisted, it rose like some ivy towards the entanglement of branches where his arms got lost. In certain spots, brown stalks had inlaid into the flesh that had grown there and covered the wood almost completely. Some rags still stained the skin that had become blue because of the rime. Milena was silent. Neither did she waste her words before, only sometimes would she sing, laugh with the carelessness of youth. Would she do it again? A branch had opened her jaws and was dropping its sap inside. I gathered the drop dripping on her chin: it was perfumed and as sweet as honey, and since the sky had become clear and it announced winter, that juice flowed denser, thicker. For the maple was watching.

Milena's eyes were spying every one of my movements, her eyelids were trembling. From her throat an inhumane growl came out, like that one from the middle of the night when I found her hanging from the tree that howled because of the stormy weather. Milena scratched the air with her fingers and the maple shattered and it shook her not yet fully grown body with all its might, with the fury that had been slumbering for years on end in numbness and carelessness. I watched the struggle of the tree in which life was finally bursting until late when the light of the flashlight dwindled. Then, night after night, I would come to see them: the girl still shy, like a bride, he exhausting her and himself carelessly. During the day, her grey eyes were seeking for mine with a silent supplication, the same. Why, Milena? Has anyone ever understood you better than us? Once I was afraid to receive Destiny's gift--now, after so many years, I didn't hesitate and here you will stay, Milena. Mine, his.

The sun was pouring its milky light on Earth, on the thickets, on the trunks. It didn't warm us up, but it was enough to chase away our sleep. The garden rustled, it whispered to me in a thousand voices what I hadn't known for such a long time, what still made me shiver. Thousands of thoughts--guilty, dirty?--made me dizzy. For thirty years, Berta had killed everything there where I did not think there was anything. Now I was feeling every breeze, I enjoyed every day, and this was because Milena had wanted it. It was late, but I had found her, and I and the garden were helping her to fulfill her destiny.

I looked at her quiet and pale face. It didn't fit with the string-like tension of the body from which I was extracting the sap of life; but neither Milena was the same girl who knocked at my door on a rainy spring afternoon. The buds from the tops of her breasts had swollen ready to burst; her body had gained curvatures and twitched at every startle of the tree, of the garden. Here, in the world she had always longed for, inside Milena, bit by bit, a woman was being born.


© 2016 Rodica Bretin

Bio: Rodica Bretin is a writer specialized in science-fiction, main-stream, history, and fantasy literature. Rodica lives in Brasov, Transylvania, Romania.

E-mail: Rodica Bretin

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