The Painted Garden
Short Story by JA Sterling
Every day at the same time she would open the blue painted door, step over the threshold and walk towards her garden. This day the sun shone bright as she walked along the cement path, her cane marking the steps one by one.
She was always impeccably dressed in a starched white sundress and spotless gloves. Her hair was rolled into a soft bun and clipped with numerous bobby pins, old fashioned in style but comfortable to her needs. On top of her head, she wore, without exception, the same straw hat, aged with the years, bearing a faded yellow ribbon. The last touch was the misting of lilac, she always smelled like the first day of spring.
As she walked, she would envision where each seed, each bulb, each tiny new beginning of life would be placed. All were carefully drafted out in her mind according to the color scheme she was trying to achieve.
Finally, she stopped and sat in her favorite sun chair; the once bright azure blue lost the brilliant luster and was now pale robin egg hue. Still this was where she loved to sit as she sorted through the seeds and seedlings that she would arrange on the small table next to her.
Once the seeds were organized, she would begin. Starting at the front of the garden, that section closest to her where the whites and blues hues grew in such abundance. Though the flowers were each a pleasure to look at they were cold to her eyes; the plants that lacked the happiness of life.
It was there the blue hydrangeas shook their heads with a sad perseverance and blue pansies frowned in silence. In front of them white snowdrops drooped their heads, hiding tears for what could have been.
The white roses covered the eastern wall, though graceful in design bored the stigma of a body devoid of blood, death pallor. It was as if a veil of sadness, of despair had fallen upon this part of the garden.
She passed a white marble fountain where long ago spring water gushed forth from the dolphin’s mouth. Now only a dribble come out of the hole, Using the same motions, she would place a metal cup underneath the dolphin’s mouth to collect the drops of water as they plopped in, slowly laboriously filling the cup to half way mark. This is the water she used to nourish her garden; the cup was never full always half empty.
She sighed deep to herself, as she continued further in to her garden, there the hues changed to yellows and oranges. The symbols of first life, the sun rising each day, to give hope to the land. These were the faces of the marigolds and zinnias. They seemed happy and content in their lives, their roots though shallow took hold in the rocky soil. They had the perfect façade, the illusion that life was perfect. Behind the marigolds and zinnia were planted the flowers beckoning to be notice yet remained in the shadows.
It was also here in this part of the garden the birds came to sing to her, to raise her spirits, to comfort her. They drowned out the harsh words she could hear over the walls that enclosed her garden. Words of meanness, of hate, of anger; those words were always there, trying to break into her garden, trying to dismantle her solitude.
As she walked and worked she would stop to remove a dead plant, laying it gently in a basket with great reverence. For each dead plant was another hope, another dream crushed, destroyed. Another small life squashed from existence. Unfortunately, it was not uncommon to find these dead plants for the plants died quickly in this part of her garden, sometimes whole beds disappearing in a single day.
Yet she never gave up, she would return time and time again with fresh seeds, firm young plantings. With her hands she would turn up the soil, add manure to revitalize the depleted loam. Then carefully she planted the seed and nourished them with spring water. She could hear the parched dry soil soak up the water, gobbling up each tiny drop. She prayed carefully over each little seed, each hope. Alas in the end as they began to grow with vigor and show signs of independence they would die quickly on the stalks; their color whiter than the most brilliant white flower.
Behind this garden laid a rusted iron gate she had not been able to open. The key was just beyond her reach, high in an old dead apple tree. Inside she could just barely make out a garden, untended waiting for her to come, to see to their needs. Each day she would struggle to reach the key and each day she was pushed back. A serpent of immense strength and a taste for evil would from the darkness, forcing her to retreat.
Each day she would turn from that gate, tending to the hues she was allowed to grow. Over the years her hands grew rough from pulling the weeds that choked her garden. Her legs were weary from standing too long listening to the voices that came from the area outside her garden. Her shoulder muscles were knotted and twisted from carrying the heavy sacks of manure over the years as she tried desperately to make the ground fertile.
But this day was different, the apple tree stood in full bloom. The key was dangling on a pink silk ribbon, the brass gleaming in the sun. She barely had to reach for it, her heels never had to leave the ground as she grabbed the key; the cold metal filled her hand.
The gate, once rusted now stood gleaming white, adorned with a wild rose motif. She was shaking as she placed the key into the lock, the fit was perfect. She turned the key to hear the click as the gate unlocked and began to swing open. There in front of her stood a new garden, the sun was brighter than she had ever seen it, the greens were more vital, the sky a deep blue.
She walked bravely forward, through that gate, pout of the past that had constricted her, into the unknown landscape. Dahlia and tulips sprung up to greet her, symbolic of change, of a new path for her to take.
There she saw already planted the pinks and reds, those that filled her heart with promise of a new life, full of vitality and vigor; the red roses of love, the pink peonies of healing. She was alive, for the first time in many years she felt alive, no longer burdened, no longer held pensioner.
She stopped to listen to the breeze blowing; she heard no anger, no words of hate. She only heard the mummer of a million dreams opening to her.
Inhaling deeply, she felt her chest expand, her back straighten. One by one the flowers released their scent to her, scents she had long forgotten, scents that were hidden from her, their fragile scents forgotten in a harsh life.
She looked back through the gate seeing her garden differently now. The yellow and oranges were more vibrant, they were sending their roots deep into the soil and sending their shoots high into the sky. The black-eye-susan’s looked vaguely to the past as the sunflowers shot up to the sun, towering over all looked to the future.
She trailed back out of the garden, touching each petal, feeling the softness, the patterns of the faces, the sturdy stalks that held them erect. The faces of the flowers were happy, all intermingling, their shoots and runner growing out in all directions as the garden exploded with newness.
As she entered the first area of blues and whites, the sound of water reached her ears. The fountain was full, the water over flowing the scalloped edges, ran into the garden along the shallow trenches, feeding each plant. She took the metal cup in her hand and dipped it into the fountain. This time the cup was full. She tasted the spring water at first with her tip of tongue. The liquid was sweet like nectar a butterfly would seek out. She then took a big gulp; she felt her refresh, growing more alive and younger than she had felt in years. The gossamer veil of despair was evaporating.
She collapsed onto a concrete seat; tears formed in her eyes and started to fall down her worn face. She pulled out a hanky form her purse to dab her eyes; in doing so a piece of paper dropped onto the floor. Then she rose, straightened out her dress and started walking back to that blue door, this time she carried a smile, first time in 42 years, she felt she could now live life in happiness.
From the distant two men watched her. She passed them stopping to acknowledging them. She spoke but one sentence “Thank you for having this sanctuary.” She then continued her walk to the old familiar blue door.
“Do you think she is alright?” The one man inquired to the other. “She has been coming here for years, looking at that painting. She never spoke, no smiles, nothing but staring at that garden painting day after day for hours.”
The other man noticed the paper lying on the floor. He picked it up. A column from the newspaper, one of those columns you read just to see who was no longer with us. He then understood all those years why she came here, why she never smiled.
“Yes, I believe she will now be fine,” the docent for the museum answered.
“But we may not be seeing her here anymore.”