The Gardener

ALICE SOON

Richard Landers stood by his rose bushes, whistling. He puttered about his overgrown lawn, thick and full of weeds while he surveyed his garden. A collection of flowers and shrubs lay before him misshapen and unruly, exposing a kingdom of vegetation ruled by neglect.  Bright fuchsia rose petals descended onto the grass like a strange pink blanket covering the backyard.

It seemed like years since he’d last been able to take care of his garden, but he had been forced to turn away from his beloved pastime when his wife had grown ill.  And it felt with each passing season, she had grown progressively worse, bit by bit, until Mrs. Landers was literally bed-ridden and could scarcely move.  Now he had turned into the primary caregiver.  Doctor and nurse and maid all rolled up into one.  Ah, but today it was different.

Today he could bask in the early June sunshine and feel the warmth gently kiss his wrinkled and porous skin; today he could revel among the worms and dirt and weeds, watch the white butterflies dance in their scattered, frenzied flight.  Today, he was a free man.

His stepson and daughter-in-law had driven up for their bi-monthly visit.  They’d clamoured noisily in the hallway of his small bungalow earlier that day, removing hats, jackets, shoes, exchanging pleasantries.  Since Mrs. Landers had taken ill, they usually tried to visit every other month, making the one and a half hour trip from Toronto to Trenton.  Even their presence stirred in the dim corridor, like a pebble being dropped into a motionless lake, swelling ripples finally igniting a sense of movement.

“How’s mom?” his stepson asked as he hung his taupe jacket in the closet.

“Oh, I suppose much of the same,” Mr. Landers replied, scratching his bulbous nose as his large feet dragged from the entranceway.

He led them to where his wife lay, still dressed in her bathrobe and bedroom slippers on the couch, staring blankly at the television.  “Frederick’s here to see you,” he announced loudly, as if she was the one who was deaf, not him.

There was no reply. Fred and his wife, Florence, approached the emaciated figure and cautiously kissed Mrs. Landers on the cheek.

“Comment ça va, belle-maman?” Florence asked as she sat in the lumpy armchair beside the sofa.  She spoke in French, although her mother-in-law preferred Italian.  But Florence did not know any Italian.

Though her voice was kind, Mr. Landers had perceived a swift look of revulsion spread across Florence’s face.  She had erased it immediately, but he could not blame her.  After all, Mrs. Landers looked more like a decomposing creature placed inside a crypt than an actual human being.  If Florence had ever wondered what her mother-in-law used to look like, she would’ve seen a vision of curly dark hair, generous hips and thin lips which disguised a wicked tongue used frequently over the years.  Now, her mother-in-law seemed to almost be an inanimate object, an entity that blended perfectly with the furniture.

“Have you been handling everything OK?” Fred asked as they moved away from the couch. His voice indicated concern, but his face remained without expression.

Mr. Landers nodded.   “The nurse said she would stop by next month for the regular check-up.  Your mother doesn’t like it much, but we need to make sure everything is still manageable for her at home.”

“I know, I wish she would just agree to let us take her to a nursing home.  It would be so much easier for you, less of a burden.  How’s her blood pressure been lately?”

“How’s the what now?” Mr. Landers cried as he adjusted his hearing aid.  Years of working as a mechanic at the Trenton air force base repairing loud engines had ruined his ears.

“Her BLOOD PRESSURE,” Fred repeated with decided emphasis and louder pitch.  “Has she been eating well and taking her proper medication?”

“Same as usual,” Mr. Landers replied, turning his gaze back to the women.

He watched as Florence slowly grasped his wife’s hand, swollen and twisted by arthritis as if it had been made of knotted tree roots.  It sounded as if his daughter-in-law was trying to ask her about the soap opera playing on the television, but his wife could barely see now from the diabetes. Most likely just spots of colour, flickering like inconsistent shadows in her once lively brown eyes.

“And what about during the night?” Fred continued.  “Does she still call for you very often or can she sleep the whole way through?”

Here, Mr. Landers paused, as if seeming to weigh his response.  “It comes and goes.  It depends on how she’s feeling.”

He tried to block the image of just the previous night, carrying his wife in his arms onto the portable toilet they’d recently set up in her bedroom. She seemed to like it when he clutched her thin body around him, like a helpless baby being put on and off the potty to relieve herself. Some nights it was every hour on the hour. Is this what they meant when they’d promised in sickness and in health?  Some kind of glorified washroom attendant?

“Listen Fred, I’d like to go out into the garden today, just for an hour or two.”  Mr. Landers rushed the words out, almost as if he felt guilty, and his stepson looked at him curiously.

“I’ve made her usual lunch.  See, right here on the counter.”  His oversized knuckles pointed to a blue bowl resting in the kitchen.  It was a glossy ceramic bowl they’d purchased on their honeymoon in Milan, her favourite bowl.  They’d managed to bring it with them from Europe after the war.

“It’s blended pieces of chicken and bread,” Mr. Landers explained.

He’d prepared it earlier with bits of French baguette.  The crusty aroma always reminded him of their favourite boulangerie while they lived in Paris, where his wife used to send him every week.  The bland mixture would not spike her blood sugar, even if it looked more like beige paste sitting in a bowl.

“She eats at twelve p.m. sharp.  If you wouldn’t mind feeding her the lunch while I go outside, that would be most appreciated.”

“No problem,” Fred said.

So now here he was, finally outside, a ruler among a country of rose bushes, climbing clematises, and giant Russian sunflowers.  A messy, prolific kingdom, but something of his own creation, nonetheless.  From his flimsy bucket hat, to his white tube socks pulled up to his massive calves, Mr. Landers looked like the eccentric king mingling amongst his eager subjects.  He took his pruning shears as he attempted to tame the intertwining rose bushes which had begun to overtake his fence.

While he whistled, he happened to gaze upon a mourning dove’s nest perched inside the water gutter.  It appeared as if there were two small eggs inside, but where was the mother?  He’d never noticed that before.  He knew mourning doves were known for abandoning their nest if they felt a predator was near.  Somehow, Mr. Landers didn’t like the idea of leaving the eggs exposed, just ripe for the picking from some hungry animal.  He stopped his pruning to fetch a small box and wrapped the eggs inside a used cloth.  Hobbling over to his shed, he thought perhaps he might have given the unborn babies a second chance.

Returning to his task, Mr. Landers began filling up his bucket with dead leaves, damaged stems, and shriveled blossoms, careful not to cut himself on the sharp thorns.  So engaged was he with this task that he grew oblivious to the shouting coming from his house.  Snip, snip, snip.  He continued to trim his bushes with laser precision.  There was something about the repetition of gardening which heightened his focus, made everything else fade away.  But a forceful crash jolted him from his concentration. He dropped his shears and staggered inside.  Someone, an alien voice was screaming.

“Non! C’est dégoûtant.  Je ne vais pas le manger.  Où est Richard?  Je veux Richard!”

When he appeared onto the scene, he saw his wife staring ferociously at their guests like a snarling pit bull, with the coffee table toppled over and the blue bowl shattered across the floor.  What looked like watery oatmeal with bits of chicken floating inside began to dribble down the carpet.

“I’m sorry,” Florence stammered.  “We were just trying to feed her lunch.  She took a few spoonfuls, but then refused to eat and got angry.”

He limped over to the sofa, with his wife ready to strike out at anyone who approached her.

“Marie,” he said quietly.  “C’est bien.  Ils essaient de vous aider.”

“Je ne mangerai pas!” she cried stubbornly.

She began to kick the leg of the overturned coffee table and thrashed her arms in protest.

“I think it’s better if you leave now,” Mr. Landers said, trying to control his wife’s flailing arms.

His lips twitched and quivered as he struggled to calm her down.  His bifocals got dislodged from his face as his wife inadvertently struck him.  Grabbing her by the wrists he pushed her arms forcefully against her chest, but she continued to resist vigorously until her bathrobe became loose, exposing the crevice of a flattened breast.

“You can leave now,” he repeated.

His stepson and daughter-in-law nodded mutely as they grabbed their coats and left the house.  For the next few hours, Mr. Landers spent the afternoon sweeping up shards of the broken ceramic bowl and cleaning the carpet of soggy food.  His wife had settled down and he managed to make her a new batch of blended chicken with bread, coaxing her patiently to eat with each mouthful.  He patted her arm after every obedient gulp.  There was no one else who could do it.

After the meal, she seemed happier and he watched her favourite television program along with her.  The images glared in his eyes and Mr. Landers did not even adjust his hearing aid to listen to the dialogue.  As dinner approached, he prepared himself a leftover piece of steak with a baked potato.  He ate alone at the dinner table with the sound of the knife and fork scraping the plate.

After some time, his wife finally fell asleep on the couch.  He carried her like an injured dog in his arms and placed her on the bed.  He observed her shallow breathing for a while before returning to his own room to read a book.

Finally, the evening was calm.  The house fell back to its sepulchral tones and the silent shadows spread onto the floor like a tomb for two.  But outside the pruning shears still lay abandoned on the grass, the weeds continued to populate, and the two lonely eggs began to disintegrate from evening chill.  A lush kingdom of disorder continued its never-ending cycle of decay and rejuvenation.  The day was over and the elderly couple lay soundless in their separate beds.  While his wife waited for death, Mr. Landers dreamed of his garden.

Originally from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Alice Soon’s family immigrated to Toronto where she received a business degree in marketing and strategic management.  Aside from writing and reading, she also enjoys musical theatre, opera, ballet, and the UFC.

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