Only mystery allows us to live, only mystery. -- Federico Garcia Lorca
The eggplant bore its fruit first. Its violet, bell-shaped flowers swelled. Tiny globes shone black in the moonlight and glistened like oil in sunlight.
Then the tomato set fruit, lime-green at first, turning red, to be stained from the sepals downward with a color like indigo ink. When I cut into the first orange from the tree that filled the largest sun spot in the garden and severed the translucent membrane between its soft, plump segments, it wept red juice. Angeline tells me it is a blood orange.
I am here in this house of salmon-colored stucco because my mother’s sister, whom I never met, left the house and it’s overgrown, walled garden to her. And, with my mother’s passing, it came to me at a time when I had nowhere else to go—nowhere else to be. I had sold my parents’ home two years before when my mother entered the nursing home. My father had died nine years earlier, just before I graduated from college. On her last day in the emptied house, my mother wandered the rooms as though she had never seen them before.
“I want to go home now,” she said.
“I know, Mom.”
“You don’t know. You don’t know how to get there. You don’t know me.”
We were speaking in code, I thought. She, like a woman being held hostage, trying to send me a message that I, and not the kidnapper, would understand. And she was frustrated that I seemed oblivious to her struggle to reach me, to outsmart the malevolence that held her captive. Why couldn’t I understand what she was really trying to say?
In the eleven years since my father’s death, I have lived in five apartments, never unpacking all the boxes, some of them unopened since college. I have shared anonymous space—where I never hung pictures or draperies, never bought matching kitchen linens—with three boyfriends and one husband. None of those spaces, none of the rooms with views of light shafts or fire escapes or even trees greening in April were ever home. They were never going to be the small bungalow where my mother’s orange Fiesta dinnerware filled the shelves around the kitchen sink and my father’s oxblood polished wing-tips sat inside the narrow entry way.
My parents had met just days after my mother immigrated from Guatemala. She took a cleaning job in the small print shop my father owned with his brother. My father looked up one day and saw a slight woman with topaz skin and eyes the color of polished agates. I think that, like the Pantone fan decks of tiger-eye, macaroon, apricot, canary that brightened his shop, Deysi, my mother, brightened his world. In my memories of her, she is, like Guatemala, a spectrum of colors warmed by sun and risen out of volcanic soil.
My father was a man so calm and so in love with this quiet woman that I can recall overhearing just one conversation between them that seemed tense. I think I was eleven. They were talking about my mother’s older sister, my aunt Areli.
My father was insistent. “She must leave there immediately.”
My mother sighed. “She won’t. It was our parents’ house.”
“But you tell me she has heard the trucks at night, and the men in the garden next door.”
“She tells me that, but then she makes up explanations. That it’s just city workers repairing the water lines because it’s too hot to work during the day.”
Several times that year, I heard them making plans for my aunt’s arrival. But at the last minute, there would be a delay. My aunt couldn’t sell the house. She was ill. The weather would be too cold in New York in November. Then, one day I came home from school, and my mother was sitting in the living room. Even from the doorway, I could see the tears single-file down her cheeks in the late afternoon light. Aunt Areli had died in her bed the night before.
An old friend saw to the burial next to my grandparents in the moldering cemetery, closed up the house, and sent my mother three boxes that arrived looking as though they had been broken open and hastily resealed. There were sepia-toned photographs, their silver-plated frames missing, shawls of bright, woven ribbons of fiber, and pieces of flowered china, crushed like dry petals in the bottom of the battered boxes. There were some letters addressed to my mother written in a tiny, cramped script and a will that left my mother the house. That was all.
When my mother died, among the possessions left to me were my aunt’s boxes, just as they had arrived from Guatemala. I knew that the house in Santa Luciá, now abandoned for more than 15 years, was mine.
I sat with the boxes for three days as though I were keeping watch at a wake. They were stacked in a corner of the apartment’s living room. Before he left for work that morning, David gave me instructions.
“You need to go through those and get rid of the boxes, Nita.”
The night before he told me that I was like an immigrant in his life who never wanted to assimilate.
“You’ve still got boxes of your own you’ve never unpacked. Jesus Christ, you’ve been here over a year, and it’s like you’re going to be gone any day. You are so fucking alone, Nita. Where are you right now? Off in your head somewhere. You’re not interested in sex. You don’t really want to be here, do you?”
And I couldn’t argue with him. I bought the ticket to Santa Luciá the next day and told my boss at the graphic design company that I had a family emergency in Central America. I didn’t know when I’d be back.
Now, I sit under a yellow striped awning, greening with mold, and wonder about this inherited garden. Twisting vines and branches have slinked from under the shade to seek the sun and bear fruits that darken more each day under its vigilant orange eye. Even at the brightest moment of the day, the garden seems secretive, furtive. There’s so much I don’t know about the plants. How deep do their roots go? How long will they live? What tells a seed that might have been dormant for years to uncoil a tender secret upward into the soil?
Where does this stain, this dark color come from? Professor Roberto tells me it is anthocyanin, a chemical sunscreen a plant produces to protect its fruit from sun scald. He lives in the walled villa next to my aunt’s at the corner of Via del Diablo and Via de la Mujer. Angeline calls him Professor Roberto and quotes him as an authority on all things, vegetables, home remedies, astronomy, or more accurately, what dangers might befall her when Mars transits the sun. He is as casually erudite and elegant as I would expect El Diablo himself to be and the type of man I’ve found dangerously attractive in the past. Now, I’m intrigued but wary. I suspect he is a member of the previous military regime living under a stolen identity.
When I hired Angeline, she gestured toward the street signs, drew back her shoulders, and said, “Well, the devil better not be up to his tricks when this woman is around!”
If evil could be vanquished with brooms, buckets, and bleach, Diablo would tremble in Angeline’s presence. She attacks the patina of dirt and mold in my long abandoned, little house with the vigor of a crusader. My one fear is that my lungs have been as scoured by the caustic fumes of bleach as have the tiles of the shower. Once a dull, limed-over gray, they are now an iridescent cobalt.
Some humid evenings in the windowless bath, I step into the shower and feel I’ve discovered a subterranean stream in a cave carved of cool lapis. The water pressure is reluctant. It emerges in a silvered column of languid droplets from the brass head as though coming from far beneath the earth. Those evenings when the air is heavy with the scent of moldering vegetation and the heat embraces me like a needy lover, I lie on the shower floor and let the droplets strike me like a tympanum. First my breasts, my navel, then my thighs. I am played by the water, and my body thrums as though striking a harmonic chord.
In the morning, I lie still in the shadowed bedroom. Despite the French doors to the garden, only a furtive, greenish light pries it way into the room. I feel alone, yet watched, as though the garden were the watcher. From over the wall I can hear the Professor in his garden, the scrape of a wrought-iron chair along a stone patio, the clinking of a cup on a saucer.
He’s having morning coffee in the garden, I think. I believe I can smell the coffee, a strong, peat-like aroma, not unlike the earth beneath the sentinel copal tree along our shared wall.
This story was a finalist in the short fiction category at the San Francisco Writers Conference in 2015.
It was during the Perseid shower in August that they first began coming ashore. Random, dark-shouldered waves, running slowly on a sullen, windless afternoon. As they reached the shallow beach just north of the breakwater, they seemed to lift as if finding their footing on the shingle and rising like swimmers. These were not the long breakers of win-ter, but discrete waves driven without wind or rhythm.
Jared and Justin, Ellen Duvall’s boys, watched them from the upstairs window as Ellen harried them to dress for school.
“You have just five minutes to get down here to breakfast—or else!”
“Do you hear me?”
“Yeah, Mom. But have you seen the beach? It’s strange out there in the fog.”
Jared’s voice was muffled, as though fog had invaded the house. Ellen gave a quick glance out the living room bay. It was foggier than the past few days, but somehow she could see the beach distinctly.
The beach began just north of the town’s harbor. It was bordered by sentinel forests of hemlock, maple, and fir where the peninsula began its run north to Port des Morts, Death’s Door. Beyond the town’s small harbor, hundreds of sailors and fishermen had crossed the threshold of that door. And beneath the scrim of gray waters, their schooners, scows, and fish tugs lay dim and distorted—like memories.
Throughout the east side of town where most of the fishing families lived, the morning was much the same. Children being wakened, hurried through breakfast, and turned out the door, butter and toast crumbs still clinging to faces brushed with quick kisses as they headed to school.
Throughout the day, Ellen got little done. Unable to concentrate, she kept glancing out the window to the beach, waiting for something to change. She would go up to fetch the bed linens for washing, only to find herself downstairs in front of the window wonder-ing how she got there. She forgot the grocery list sitting on the kitchen counter, forgot to order firewood, forgot to call Annie LeClair about the PTA meeting.
She did remember to begin dinner. She had planned oven-baked chicken, but, de-cided to make potato soup instead, retrieving potatoes from the pantry and bacon and leeks from the refrigerator.
In the late afternoon, the soup was simmering. She was dusting the top of the piano, which she had dusted just the day before. In one hand she held her father’s photograph in its small silver plate frame with black velvet backing; in the other the dust rag. All the while, her gaze was directed out the window to the small crescent of beach where she would saw one or two women at the water’s edge.
Throughout the day, certain of the town’s women had felt compelled to leave their homes—bread baking, laundry unfolded, meals just served up hot on chipped earthenware, babies in the middle of a diaper change—to walk past the Coast Guard Life Saving Station, down the breakwater, and onto the beach. Each one silent, trying to discern the size, rhythm, and speed of a specific wave that had captured her solitary focus. And, as common during August, the small rocky beach was enveloped in a vortex of swirling fog. So, at first each woman’s imagination could have made of her wave any number of things—a barrel, a broken ship’s timber finally dislodged from one of the many wrecks that lay offshore, a fisherman’s float, a cedar stump, or any of the manner of flotsam that washes up on the beach on a given night.
A little after four o’clock, Ellen left the soup on the burner, stepped out the front door, and walked toward the beach and several women standing on the shingle. She squint-ed, focusing on a particular wave that rose slowly and then veered farther away from the breakwater, seemingly intent on coming ashore where Birch Street ended at the beach. Es-timating its landing site, she left the others and struggled over the loose cobbles. Some of the other women began to move toward other random waves.
Ellen stood, toes at water’s edge, mindless of its seep into her shoes. A man, tall and angular, rose out of the dark water. She recognized her father just as he appeared in the photo on the piano. Wrapping her shawl around him, she grasped his cold, callused hand and led him up Birch Street. They passed LeClair’s smoke house, ripe with the aroma of cedar, salmon, and chub, past Tippy’s bar, past Maggie Becker’s prim, white gate, to the house her father had built the year of the great storm.
He did not speak, but cold and ashen, settled onto the chair at the head of the scarred, oak dining table. She took the chair on his right and, leaning forward, covered his still cold hand with both of hers. His eyes fixed on the piano in the corner by the window and rose to the photograph resting in shadow. Then he turned to her and sighed, a breath of such relief and longing that Ellen felt it in her own throat.
She rose and touched his shoulder with the tips of her fingers. His heavy tweed jacket felt coarse and dry. Its abrasive fibers scratched at her memory. Was this the place he had always taken at the table? Resting one arm just so? Had he always started to say grace just as her mother settled into her chair?
Gazing at him all the way, she walked toward the kitchen where she ladled up a bowl of potato soup and returned to place it in front of him. The room was suffused with warmth and the aroma of the stout, earthy soup. The light, which had been fading in and out with the fog, flickered through the leaves of the mountain ash in the front yard and scin-tillated around the room. It danced and glinted. Ellen felt as though she were in a silent film run by a flickering projector. And like a projector, the light seemed to come from a source with the heat of a hundred candles. Her cheeks flushed. She felt the heat rising to her eyes, her forehead.
She noticed her father smiling now. His expression pulled her close, drawing her to his eyes, clear and steady, the color of the great lake on a stormy day, as her mother used to describe them—the deepest, deep blue, so dark that she could see herself reflected in the irises. All she could see was her father’s face. All she could feel was a warmth pulsing with the rhythm of the light that had invaded the room.
Suddenly, she felt drowsy with the warmth, dizzy with the light dancing around her father’s face.
She awoke to the slamming of the kitchen door.
The boys were home from school and were scavenging the kitchen.
“Just potato soup, Mom? Any cookies?” Jared stood at the dining room door. She could hear Justin opening the pantry.
She was sitting alone at the dining table, next to her a cold bowl of potato soup. Her shawl hung from the back of the chair at the head of the table. She gathered it into her hands, the pungent scent of the lake rising from it and filling the room. Wobbly, she rose to her feet and went to the piano. She held the small photo of a man standing on the deck of a fish tug and gently brushed a bit of dust from the glass with her shawl. She set it centered on the upright’s top where it caught the light.
“Did I ever tell you your grandfather’s favorite soup was potato soup? He was al-ways. . .”
“Mom, you always said you couldn’t remember anything about him ‘cuz he drowned when you were a baby.” Jared sounded adamant about this.
“Yes, I know, but I remember everything about him. I remember all the stories your grandmother told about him. Now I remember. . .”
* * *
Over the next year, there were many stories, remembrances of husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers, shared by women who had been on the beach that day. It had been August, during the Perseid, when the lake gave up the memories it had claimed.