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43, by Cat Altman

by Cat Altman
  

There is a space in the sky that hovers between the dreamscape and the waking world where the sleepless are held captive when they’ve lost just enough sense to let go. Flying into Colorado at dawn, she watched pink clouds fill her window and felt them buoy the plane. A brochure had arrived in the mail with her unemployment check that day. Beneath a photograph of communal gardens and hiking trails were the words “Chautauqua Park.” Inside, rangers invited visitors to enjoy the solace of the Rockies in one of the park’s fifty cabins. She bought a ticket for a redeye and left Los Angeles without telling a soul.

He was the park’s gardener. The day Anna arrived, he was mowing the grass in front of her cabin.

“Moving in?” he asked.

“Yep. First day.”

“Welcome,” he said.

She threw her suitcase on the bed, filled her ice trays and opened all the blinds.

“Ready for my deep dark secret?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“I have the world’s blackest thumb.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Can’t keep dirt alive. So as far as any landscaping goes, you can just skip my place. It’s a waste of your efforts. Whatever you try, I’ll kill it.”

“You think so?”

“Know it.”

The gardener shrugged and lit an American Spirit.

From her porch she watched him in the herb garden, pulling weeds, his body bent in a bridge over the grass, his curls puffing beneath his wide brimmed hat. An hour never passed without someone approaching, fervently and alone. What did they talk about?

Spying on the garden was much more interesting than recovery.

In the morning, before even the flickers were awake, a blue-bonneted old woman with lipstick-greased cheeks picked her way through the herb garden, filling her basket with fennel. This was Anna’s cue to get up and wash her teacup. Only a household chore could counter the phantasmal effect of the old woman, which aggravated the voices collecting in the clouds overhead and intensified the pull of the sky at Anna’s shoulders.

But today Anna stayed still.

The gardener materialized from behind an ash tree. The old woman turned to him and whispered, her hands fluttering by his head like agitated moths. Then she turned back to the fennel and finished filling her basket; and the gardener turned on his hose. Had someone left to do the dishes, she might have thought the encounter never had happened at all.

Anna sat on the porch, letting the incident twist through her thoughts like a rope of steam, but she could get no reassurance that she was awake. She rocked in the chair with the heavy understanding that she had only one option—she would have to stalk her neighbor. She set her teacup down on the sill, yanked on her tennis shoes, and headed down the steps, careful to leave a twenty-pace gap. For an old person, the woman kept a pretty good clip, using the brick path between the dining hall and the amphitheater, then cutting past the rock fountain, bearing left at the iris garden and left again at the abandoned wasp’s nest. When she reached the meadow, she stopped to watch the children and dogs running across it, then wound around the trees and back up toward row after row of wooden bungalows. There was a hammock here and a lawn statue there, but for the most part, one cabin was indistinguishable from the next until an unmarked alley twisted its way to number 36.

There, morning glories blared in bursts of blue and sunflowers arched their backs, baring their throats to the sky. Dusty clusters of violet grapes nestled in the shade of the steps. The old woman turned up the walkway and Anna realized why people sought the gardener. He was cultivating their secrets, tending to the stories they could not bear and turning them into dreamscapes. Anna looked down at her hands, wondering over the little bits she’d already confided.

She took an alternate route home. Down Astor Avenue fiery peppers and snapdragons climbed the walls of 409. Behind Lupine Lane daylilies twirled like pinwheels. That night, as she steamed squash, Anna thought she heard a whispering outside her front door. She flipped on the porch light, and peered into her cabin’s window box. Tiny black orchids nodded back at her. She held a petal between her pointer and her thumb.

In the afternoons, she could see him watering through her south-facing window. In the early evenings he was bent over and pulling weeds on his hands and knees, his body doubled over in the easy humps of the number three. Lying on her couch with an ankle crossed over one knee and a bony wrist flung across her forehead, she felt so awkward and angular, so one step behind him, so much the number four.

“Hey,” she’d crack the window and shout, “Do you want to come over for some gazpacho tonight?”

“No, thank you. I think I’m going to watch some football and drink a lot of beer tonight.” He’d pause to let the wind ruffle his curls. “A lot of beer.”

He was a reluctant mystic. That’s the only reason she could tolerate him. In truth, she had come to more than tolerate him. She relied on him to guide her through the changing seasons; in Los Angeles there was no fall. Here it was fast approaching. He took her on long tours of the apple trees in the park. Yellow Delicious grew in front of number 300, and pale red Jonathons hung heavily along the trail beside number 23. Soon all she ate was apples. Her mouth puckered from the tang of their unripeness, her stomach gurgled as they turned. She drifted through her days in a haze of cigarette smoke spiced with cider and soft hints of licorice. Then the gardener took Anna to the plum orchards behind the bell tower.

She polished the skin with her palm and bit off the end. Inside the meat was green and tart.

“We had this kind in California.”

“Yes?”

“Yep.”

“You like them?”

“This is the kind of tree I tried to hang myself from.”

The words clattered from her mouth like marbles and stopped the gardener’s search for plums. He sat on his haunches, combing the leaves with his fingers.

“I never was good at knots,” she added, dumbly.

The gardener said nothing.

“I was just tired,” she went on. “And that tree was always out there, outside my window, whispering to me. I just wanted to crawl up in its limbs and lay down. I knew I could fall and fall and fall through those leaves. Each one was bigger than my face. I’d barely make a rustle; I’d barely be one of the whispers. And I’d never wake up. I’d just hang in the dream world forever. That’s what I wanted. More and more. I just wanted to hang, you know? Do you know what I mean?”

“Not really,” the gardener said, his eyes steady and waiting for her.

“I’ve been tired for a long time,” said Anna.

“Maybe the house was haunted,” said the gardener.

She laughed sharply. “None of my therapists have ever suggested that theory.”

“What do they say?”

“Be your own nurturing parent. Take Tylenol PM. Drink tea.”

The gardener shrugged and crushed dried leaves between his fingers.

“I think this orchard is haunted. I can feel something here, can’t you?”

They let the wet metallic something that had been slithering around their conversation settle into the forefront.

“Yes,” said Anna, “I don’t like it.”

“Let’s go.”

They crawled out from under the brambles, the gardener holding up a thorny branch for Anna. She straightened in the sunlight, picking leaves from her hair.

“What’s your name, anyway?” she asked. “I mean, am I just supposed to call you ‘the gardener?’”

“Nathan,” said the gardener.

“Nathan,” Anna repeated. In her mouth, the word sounded like a secret.

After that day in the orchard, Anna could sleep in her cabin. Each morning she padded across the nubby carpet and opened the kitchen drawer that contained her boxes of tea. She filled the kettle and inevitably as the water ran, she heard a rhythmic scrutch. The gardener was raking. Through the kitchen window, she watched him pull the teeth through long strands of grass into mounds soft as honeydew gobs. Stringy sweet potato vines had appeared in her window box and wound themselves around the black orchid heads in loopy slipknots any child could untie.

“Hey Secret Keeper,” she’d say each afternoon when he came to water the herb garden, bringing him the cup of black coffee he preferred to her herbal tea. “How are you?”

Leaning down to turn off the hose, Nathan would laugh and take the coffee cup.

“This fucking sucks,” he’d say, reaching into his pocket for his smokes.

They’d walk toward the flat rock beneath the flagpole to watch people collect their mail before the lodging office closed at five o’clock. It was quickly becoming a ritual until one day, it turned into something even more than that. On this pink-lit afternoon, a woman wearing a sunburst-colored sari dropped a manila envelope and when she crouched to pick it up she linked eyes first with Nathan, and then with Anna. Her pupils were dilated, her hands shaking, and her heart pounding so loudly, Anna could hear the woman’s secret beating into her skin.

Anna looked at the gardener sideways.

“Cut it out,” she said.

“Cut what out?”

“You’re talking to me through them.”

“I think you just feel rested.”

But Anna knew what she’d heard. One of the night voices, extracted and distilled.

Just as she was drifting off the murmurs had always begun. Faintly at first. Deep low voices in the back of the room that rushed at her as they grew. She could never make out what they said.

“How did you find rest?” Nathan asked.

“I counted to my favorite number and then I stopped and said it in my head over and over and over. I lived inside it like an unhaunted house until I fell asleep.”

She wound a blade of grass around her finger and tugged at it, remembering.

“Do you want to know my favorite number?”

“You don’t have to say it, Anna, for me to know.”

Anna and the gardener didn’t say much aloud. Most of their time was spent sitting together on the flat rock. She drank tea; he chain-smoked. In California, Anna felt like she was bumping around in muffled darkness. Now she was an insider, the throbbing pulse below an ear pressed up against the pillow. These daytime voices were decipherable, unless this was not daytime at all. Somehow Anna had entered a space in which she knew things. About the blue bonneted fennel picker, about the sad little boy who lived in 406, about the girl who worked in the ranger cottage. Maybe it was the gardener’s plants giving away their secrets. Maybe it was her own black orchids chattering from their window box at night. Nathan claimed he’d seen this power within Anna the moment she set foot in the park; he was convinced that the only thing that had ever stood between Anna and her magic was insomnia.

The deck of tarot cards materialized outside her kitchen window like a clue. A box of blue in the tall green grass. A month ago she would have dismissed the discovery as just the brand of New Age hokey that begged for a beer and a Vicodan, but the box of cards tapped Anna awake. Normally the gardener was on the other side of Anna’s shade in the morning, watering the apple tree, but he hadn’t been there; the box was dry, tucked in the V of two roots. She decided to search the park for Nathan. When she couldn’t find him, she slipped on her flip flops and flapped down the hill to his cabin.

The hose coiled in his deserted driveway was a betrayal. The safe space holding them together opened up like a splayed hand, their connection separating into conversations like little white stars of dandelion fluff. She supposed that was fine. She had come here for solitude. She had come here to heal. Anna was turning to leave when she saw it beside the front step: one orange poppy, out of season and quivering on the stem. The shell from which it popped lay in the dirt beside it. How could he sew enchanted gardens when all he had managed in his own yard was one lousy poppy? People don’t even grow poppies on purpose. They’re wild. Anna picked up the shell and turned for home.

She found him because of the fennel. When she noticed the long bushy sheathes feathering beside the wire benches, she realized her neighbor in the blue bonnet had been missing that morning, too. Anna walked over to the old woman’s cabin. White monkshood stood sentry along the walk and tea roses puffed their chests at Anna’s approach. Long stemmed daisies waved their leaves wildly and the sunflowers nodded. Nathan stood in front of the cabin, rake in hand.

She had thought this magic spark she felt existed only between them.

All around him, yellow cosmos heads began to bob like excited puppies. The postman was coming up the walk. The old woman cracked the door and tightened her bonnet strap. What was so different between Anna and this neighbor? A hat, greasy lipstick, thirty years and a basket of fennel?

“Stop it,” she muttered to herself.

Three huge sunflower heads turned to stare at her. So did the postman. More than his eyes, Anna felt the words inside the envelope he carried ticking into her skin like ink from typewriter keys.

“Good news coming,” she said to her neighbor with a nod.

The old woman shot the gardener a nervous glance. He watered on.

“Tea later?” Anna said to Nathan.

“On my cigarette break.”

She laid the Tarot cards out, following the manual that came with the deck. Steam rose from their two red teacups.

“You know, I feel a bit reluctant to do this,” he said.

“You think you feel reluctant,” she said, “I’m Catholic.”

“No, I mean because there is power here and I’m a bit afraid.”

“Of me?”

“Of what I’ll see.”

They looked over their cups at the spread of cards, still face down on the carpet. When the gardener turned to her she could smell the cigarettes and mud in his skin.

“I think you’re a witch,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m not a witch, Nathan”

“Maybe you don’t think so. Maybe you don’t know it yet.”

“You do?”

He shrugged and lifted the teacup to his lips.

She wasn’t comfortable with Tarot cards. She had to use the book to interpret their meaning, but reading the hand the gardener had dealt was easy. Journey cards, one after the other. Every card told him to leave the garden.

“Is there someplace in particular you’ve been wanting to go? Someone you’ve been wanting to see?”

The gardener smiled and shrugged.

“There’s a place in my mind.”

“Well the cards are saying jump, Nathan. The cards are saying to take the plunge.”

“You think?”

Anna nodded.

So he left. Within the month, the gardener packed his things and took a plane to someplace else. And a month after that, the resident in 603 broke his lease and Anna moved into a cabin higher up the hill. It was just as she’d imagined—hardwood floors, cathedral ceilings, lilac bushes that crept through the slats in the wood. But her last cottage had spoiled her. It was hard to go back to sleepless nights, to yet another haunted house. Being able to decipher the whispers didn’t make it any easier. Without Nathan, voices caught in the blades of her ceiling fan, secrets with no place to go.

She heard a familiar scraping against her door and slid in her socks across the kitchen floor to open it.

Outside was the boy from 406, banging at her screen, his face wet with tears. “Don’t tromp on the poppies,” she said.

“I’m not.”

The little boy pulled a smashed orange head from under his flashing heels.

“Do you want to hide here?” Anna asked.

He nodded and she went to the stove to take off the kettle while he took his shoes off.

“How are you, Anna?” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

Anna sighed.

“It sucks to be the secret keeper,” she said. “It fucking sucks.”

The boy smiled and she passed him the mug of tea.

“What,” said Anna.

“You said ‘fuck.’”

  

Cat Altman teaches writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her essays and fiction have appeared in a number of literary journals. She is currently working on a book about her experience living with the only fully ordained Therevada nun in Thailand.
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