Short story by Sara Gabriella
Emily raised her freckled face to the sun in joyful worship. Wisps of reddish brown hair tickled her skin as the breeze blew through the spring air. To eight-year-old Emily this matrix of robust life and ancient artifacts was the most wondrous place in the world. This massive, lush yard sprinkled with enormous stone statues, fountains, and carvings that had come to reside in the Valeria family garden from cultures and times distant and exotic was a world of its own.
Father collected these eclectic pieces throughout his extensive travels to far way lands. Father was a professor, which to Emily meant he was the only adult she knew that was still in school all day like her.
She had no idea how these massive pieces traveled across oceans, over mountain ranges, and through thick jungles to get to her garden, but she awoke every day thirsting to spend time with them. To her father they were a source of pride…a first-rate collection befitting a well-traveled, sophisticated, and educated man. To Emily, they were her most intimate friends and confidantes.
Her favorite was an imposing 20 foot stone Buddha originating from a small village in Bali. Emily loved to imagine a young girl like her, helping to carve the drooping eyelids, the swirls atop his head, the full bottom lip, and the long, slender fingers folded in his lap. What did this mountainside village so alive with sacred artistry look like a thousand years ago? She was sure of one thing, that a little girl had loved her Buddha then, as dearly as Emily loved him now.
Short, nimble, full of energy and light, Emily was an imaginative girl with a generous heart and an inability to stay indoors on spring days. She never did understand how her brother, Logan, could shun the fragrant air and lounge for hours in his stale room; lost in a book. After an endless winter imprisoned in the house, Emily could hardly wait to burst outside, free at last, at the first sign of spring. Logan was just like Father that way, enamored with words the way she was enchanted with colorful caterpillars that lived in the tomatoes and doing somersaults in the soft grass. Poor Father, he would probably never love her the way he had loved Logan. Logan, sitting forward in his chair, listening to Father go on and on about some such theory or philosophy.
Emily used to try her hardest to quell her antsy hands and feet and concentrate on what Father was saying. Especially right after Logan passed. She could feel how Father ached because he missed him. But she just couldn’t will herself to stay with Father’s words. Her mind, like her hands and feet, couldn’t settle in one place for long. She thought about that word, “passed”. All the grown-ups always talked about Logan “passing on”. Now she was saying it. It was more like passing through. He had passed through their family, passed through their lives. Staying for a while, making them a complete and content family, and then passing through to whatever came next on his journey.
Emily often wondered where Logan was. Mother believed in the heaven her Church told her about. Father believed in the nothingness his Science taught him. Emily, however, was still undecided. Wherever Logan was, Emily didn’t think it resembled happy clouds or empty space. Maybe it was somewhere deep under the water, like Atlantis. Logan would be happy in a hidden, underwater world full of treasure and adventure. He had once read a book about Atlantis. He was so engrossed he wouldn’t stop reading when Mother called him for lunch. Mother fought with him for a while, scolded him to put the book down or he wouldn’t get his give him his tomato soup and tuna sandwich. Unfazed, he sat at the table, not giving his plate a second glance, devouring his story. As Emily reached for a bite of his sandwich, he shrugged, declaring he was smack in the middle of the good part. When he finally reached for his bitten sandwich, he held in with one hand, holding his book with the other.
A passing lizard jolted Emily out of her thoughts. She bolted after it. Times like these, she was lucky to have a mind that fluttered from thought to thought, like a butterfly from one flower to the next.
It was going to be a bad day. Emily felt sorry for her mother. Father had his academic books and classical music to escape into. Emily had her expansive garden and rampant imagination. Mother had no refuge. She would drift away when waxing the hardwood on the floors, or dusting the tops of the curtains, but she could never really escape her ever present grief. She was not skilled in using her own mind to travel, not like Emily and Father. Emily wondered if her mother envied their ability to let slip in and out of their immediate surroundings like space travelers through a wormhole. Mother’s sorrow was fixed in her gut, unwavering, never granting her a moment of peace.
Each morning when Emily awoke she would smell the air to ascertain how her day would progress. If it was a good day, the smell of pancakes, or eggs and ham, or her favorite, cinnamon topped French toast, would waft teasingly into her nose and arouse her tummy. When she woke up, like today, to the smell of stale air it meant Mother had not risen early from bed, opened the windows, and started breakfast. Mother would probably not come out at all today. Emily leaped out of bed and headed to the kitchen to pour a bowl of cereal with milk.
Emily hurriedly drained her bowl. The sun was already shining and since Mother was having a bad day, she could run outside without first bothering to wash her face or brush her teeth. She put on her shoes and, just as she reached for the doorknob, a thought flashed. She should go in and check on Mother. Maybe if she brought mother some blueberries with yogurt she would take a few bites. Mother would probably refuse the food; she didn’t usually eat on bad days. Emily decided on a compromise, she’d go out in the yard for a little while, and then come back and try to tempt mother to eat, the same way mother did to her when Emily was sick and needed to keep up her strength.
Oh shoot! It was almost lunch time; Emily had lost track of time. A pang of guilt pierced her gut. She would water the garden, that would make Mother happy. That way when she went in to check on Mother she would have something nice to tell her. On a good day her mother would be over the moon if Emily watered the garden without being asked three times, or ordered as a punishment.
She skipped over to the wooden shed that housed the hose. By the time Emily had watered the entire garden, the 15 feet bamboo, the shrubs, the roses, the bougainvilleas, the potted plants that lined the brick wall, all the tress, the little herb garden, the sunflowers-she was soaking wet. Emily was a thoughtful girl, but not very careful. In fact, she had left spilled milk all over the counter from breakfast and was now dragging in dirt as she walked into her room to shed her sagging pajamas. She grabbed the first thing in her bureau…a striped cotton t-shirt and a pair of lavender Capri pants.
Emily traipsed into the kitchen to fix her mother some yogurt and fruit. Opening the door, she peered toward the bed where she knew she’d find her mother laying down, hair unbrushed, still in her nightgown. “Good morning, Mother…uh, afternoon, I guess”. Mother turned as Emily sat gently on the bed. “Sorry, not feeling so well”.
Emily coaxed her mother to eat. Her mother almost managed a smile when she told Emily to put it on the end table, that she would eat it in a little bit. Emily wondered how her Mother could lie in the same position, all day long. How did she battle the boredom? There was no book on the night stand to read, no TV. What did her mother think about all day? “Be a good girl and make sure to wash up before your father comes home, will you?”
Hearing the squeak of the steps that lead up to the front door she jumped off her mother’s bed, where she was brushing her mother’s hair and telling her all about the sow bug races she had orchestrated in the garden that morning. “Father’s here!” Emily enjoyed helping her Father carry his leather briefcase, swollen with books, periodicals and papers. Unlike Logan—who had to be coaxed out of a book, or persuaded to leave the television, to say hello to Father when he came home—Emily was a lightning bolt. Father would rub her head tenderly and commend her on what a big help she was. When Father, bent over like the elm in the garden, elbows swimming in a pool of papers, would look up and see Emily with a cup of tea, and when she would remember, a slice of lemon to go with it, he would extol what a thoughtful girl his Emily was.
Even though Logan and Father were like two sides of a coin, Logan never chased a word of praise or tender touch from Father the way Emily did. He got what he needed during those long talks they always shared. When Father tried to talk with Emily in the same way, his words would send Emily’s eyes wandering around the room. Invariably, the same words sparked fire in Logan’s eyes. Emily wondered who Father talked to now about all his ideas. Where they just whirling around in his head with no way to come out now that Logan was gone? At least Emily was still here, and if she couldn’t sit and discuss the world with Father, at least she could bring him tea and lemon as he worked tirelessly, hunched over his desk.
Imparting knowledge was serious business to her father. Emily envied her Father’s students. He was devoted to developing their minds; what he taught them was sacred to him. Emily yearned for him to show her the same devotion. She tried to remember the last time Father had played with her, not sat her down for an instruction on the composition of classical music-that was last night-but played tag, or rode bikes. After a few seconds, she gave up on searching her memory.
Tucked in her bed, clutching her plush spotted terrier (despite persistent pleading her parents would not allow her a real dog), Emily strained to hear the muffled protests drifting down the hall and into her dark room. Mother and Father rarely raised their voices, and never argued in front of Emily, or any company, for that matter. This strange occurrence intrigued Emily. Ever since Logan was gone, an unstated tension grew between her parents. Like the critters that lived in their hidden world, underneath the colorful, fragrant flowers and dignified trees of the garden it was seemingly invisible. But on closer examination, life pulsed vibrantly underneath the seemingly serene veneer. Underneath the façade of the status quo between Mother and Father, Emily sensed an unrecognized force dwelling. She sat up straight in bed. This was the first solid evidence of the malignancy festering between them since Logan’s sudden death.
Their door opened and Emily laid back down. When her Father peeked in on her, he was certain she was asleep. Emily lay there with eyes closed, wondering what was happening to what was left of her family.
Emily arose, the strained midnight dispute a faded thought. It smelled like a good day. Ah, yes, better than good! She breathed in the sweet sugar-cinnamon aroma of French toast as it permeated the air. Then she heard a sound that ejected her from bed in a single motion. A familiar voice stabbed the air with its shrill tone. Why had no one warned her they were expecting a visitor? Those muffled protests in the night must have lead to this unpleasant imposition. Maybe if she had made a mightier effort to make Mother get out of bed they wouldn’t have had to bring in domineering Aunt Elena.
Emily wanted to kick herself with all her strength. She could have stayed in more, instead of disappearing for hours into her exotic outdoor playground. She should have spent more time trying to help Mother with the chores she neglected when she wasn’t feeling well. Emily kneaded the avocado pit lodged in her stomach. It expanded. She felt it hard and menacing. What she didn’t know, was that pit was called guilt. What she did know, was that nothing was the same since Logan was no longer around. And she hated surprises. Unexpected happenings once thrilled Emily, but not after the morbid, unforeseen surprise that descended upon Logan with callous haste and ferocity.
Emily descended upon her father and pummeled him with protesting questions. Why was Aunt Elena here? When was she leaving for her own home? What would she be doing during her stay? “Relax, darling. Your aunt Elena is here for a visit. Your mother could use a little help getting back, uh, into a regular routine, is all. She could use some…support. She’s, well… we’ve all been through a rather tough time, and your Aunt Elena is here to help.” her father instructed her.
“I could help Mother. You could tell me what to do, and I could help. I’ll do more chores. I’ll help Mother more, and you too, I promise”, Emily pleaded with abandon. “I thought you would be happy to see your aunt. You usually enjoy family get-togethers, everyone milling about.”, her father seemed confused. “You know it would hurt your Aunt Elena’s feelings dreadfully if she knew you were so eager to see her leave. I’m rather surprised at you Emily. She just arrived, for Goodness Sake”, her Father was flexing his stern voice, one he rarely used at home, usually reserved to halt wayward conversations in his classes. “Sorry, Father. Surely I’m happy to see Aunt Elena”, Emily offered insincerely. “I’ll go and see if she needs any help in the kitchen”. Emily loathed disappointing her Father. He was so easy to please. He smiled and patted her on the head in satisfaction. She inhaled deeply and followed the scent of cinnamon and brown sugar.
“Hi, Aunt Elena”, Emily perched on her tip toes to give her mother’s tall, ruddy sister a kiss. For sisters, they did not bear much of a resemblance thought Emily. Her mother was softly curved at the hips and on the backside, with the same brownish pecks on her nose that Emily had, dotted over cinnamon colored, smooth skin. Tall, slender Aunt Elena reached an inch or two short of 6 feet and had cheeks perpetually flushed a rosy hue. “Good Morning, Dear,” Aunt Elena touched Emily’s back as she leaned in so her only niece could land a hello kiss on her check. Emily registered the pity in her Aunt’s touch. While Aunt Elena wasn’t her favorite aunt, Emily liked her well enough. It was more the intrusion that Emily resented.
Mother hadn’t been feeling too well and on the way to the bathroom late one night she had seen Father crying in the dim light of his desk lamp, slumped over student exams. Emily envisioned the delicate surface tension which kept wayward leaves afloat atop the puddles in the garden after a long rain. Only the lightest leaves and insects could float, anything heavier would break through the invisible layer and sink. Emily’s feared that the tiniest disruption at this moment would break the delicate barrier sustaining her family from submersion… and drown them all.
Aunt Elena placed a warm plate in on the table for Emily. “When did you get here?” Emily asked before taking a bite. “Bright and early”, Aunt Elena responded without looking at Emily, engrossed in taking inventory of what she would need to replenish at the market. “Mother hasn’t felt so well, she usually does the shopping every week.”
Being a fiercely loyal daughter, Emily felt inclined to defend her Mother’s recent neglect of the household. “Just tryin’ to help, Darlin,’” Aunt Elena chirped; her demeanor as rosy as her cheeks. “Does mom know you’re here yet?” “Sure she does.” Aunt Elena stopped straightening up the kitchen and sat down next to Emily. Her aunt paused, choosing her phrasing carefully, “I can’t imagine how your Mother must feel…or any of you. Must be hard to walk around this house, bumping into memories all day,” she paused a beat, “Your parents are doing the best they can to try and adjust to a life after…um…without Logan. And my God in Heaven Above, the way you’re holding up is nothing short of a miracle.” Emily interrupted, “We’re doin just fine. Thanks for breakfast.” Emily picked up her empty plate and started toward the sink, “I’m gonna check on Mother now, see if she might want some breakfast too.”
“Emily, wait a sec, Sweetheart. Sit…please.” She nodded her head to the empty seat. A chill traveled the length of Emily’s spine. “Your parents and I decided that it would be a good thing if you came back with me to the farm for the rest of the summer.” The shock froze her legs and tongue. “You’ll have a fabulous time. You can ride the horses, swim in the pond…” A moment later sensation returned to her legs. Dashing out the door, taking the crumbling stone steps 3 at a time, she hit the bottom running.
It poured down rain in the garden of life and stone. The pressure of the rain against her skin brought her back into consciousness. Emily imagined the rain pounding down was feeding her roots, as it did the plants and trees; quenching her thirst and giving her life.
Water showered down in thick waves, rinsing away suppressed grief and anxiety buried deep beyond awareness. Emily plopped on the shiny, wet ground and gazed up at the imposing 20 foot Buddha. Rain streamed down the ancient face of the sacred statue, pouring from the downcast eyelids. The Buddha cried tears Emily could not access. Through his tears she experienced a vicarious catharsis so complete she hugged her beloved Buddha for hours, and let his tears cry the pain and grief she was desperate to surrender.