Illustration by Laura Chilson
[I am thrilled to share one of our stories from the latest issue of Greenwoman. Rebekah Shardy’s soulful fiction has previously appeared in Issue #4 (“Lady in Waiting”); in our latest issue she also shares her considerable knowledge on planting by the moon phases. The issue is available for order on our website or through Amazon.—Sandra Knauf]
“No appetite? Again?” The Nurse’s Aide with impossibly long purple nails heaved the bowed old woman’s wheelchair smack against the table. “You better eat those vegetables if you want to keep that girlish figure!”
That set off a gale of whoops and laughter from her friend across the room feeding a man strapped to his chair so he wouldn’t fall into a bowl of gray, pureed meat.
“It ain’t funny no more!” the churlish Aide focused her indignation on the woman who refused to look up, head hanging from her thick neck. “I’m getting sick of you wasting my time, Petty.”
“Petty? Did you say Petty?” the other CNA asked. “You mean PATTY?”
“No, Petty. Like Pedi-gree dogfood, or Pedi-cure, or pedi-phile.”
“That’s disgusting. What a disgusting name to give somebody.”
“Sssh. They tell me she’s a hospice patient. Be nice now.”
The old woman, who refused to talk or even acknowledge those that talked to and about her stared at her plate. Something that had once dreamed of being a tomato lay there in a coma of yellowed, hardening flesh, its rosy juices evaporated like the old woman’s last hopes.
It compelled memories from a time before days in the nursing home, before the struggle to forget the facts of her life, and the gardens that once nourished her.
* * *
She had always been too sensitive. As a girl, Emma was too shy to even look at a man, and was easily bruised by the most casual conversations. She remained single long after her siblings to end up living in her parents’ old, mustard-colored stucco house at the end of Avondale Street, a content recluse at 53.
She had her delights. Standing in the rain as she weeded her garden on a hot day, feeling the rise of goosebumps from the cold pinpricks fallen on bare arms and neck. She didn’t care what anyone thought as she lifted her head to taste it, the sweet-saltiness of sky and earth kissing.
Watching the paired swifts build their nests in her eaves was another joy that left her heart with inexplicable yearning. Picking scarlet raspberries, their plump soft bodies bursting in her mouth like laughter. Feeling a tentative ladybug make its intrepid way up her hairy arm to suddenly—rise! The suck and succor of new, tilled earth beneath her spreading toes, toes that instinctively kneaded the ground like a kitten does its mother for milk.
Her days seemed endless, simple and out of doors. Indoors, she read poetry and wrote a little, but rarely entertained visitors, unless you counted the cricket she allowed entrance in the frost of fall, or the caged finches she sang to at bedtime, and the one-eyed fox terrier that snored on her bed.
And then, like a summer storm, without warning, he came.
Eyes milky blue and hands too soft for a carpenter, dressed in an unfashionable yellow suit, but calm and steady enough to see her untamed, skittish soul, and love it.
He knew she was a gardener and instead of staid roses brought her bouquets of bushy tomato plants. She buried her face in their spicy leaves. When she looked up she was surprised to be greeted by a searching gaze of adoration.
“Mon petit chou . . .” he whispered in one blushing ear as they sat on her front porch swing at dusk.
“What does it mean?”
“My . . . little . . . cabbage.”
She never guessed she was capable of human passion, but it followed him into her life. They never married but once she found herself pregnant; a little boy she planned to give her father’s name. It was the sherry her lover brought that helped loosen her fright of conventional intimacy, the same Marsala she added to the stewed tomatoes they loved to slurp together with a dollop of sweet cream. He called them ‘drunken’ tomatoes—wonderful on crusty bread with lots of black pepper.
But time, which brought her pleasures unguessed, also ushered in sorrows unexpected. The child miscarried and the only man she ever loved died suddenly in an accident at the lumberyard where he sometimes searched for cast-offs. She did not live alone well anymore. Like the swifts, she wanted the safety and warmth of eaves to protect her little nest; something in her heart hissed that fall was coming.
She often thought it cruel when neighbors cut their trees in the bloom and boldness of summer, when every living thing was proud to be alive; it was in that season of abundant possibilities, 14 years after his death, that her home was taken from her.
She felt old for the first time in 73 years. Her limbs and back were too stiff and tired to garden anymore. Dark clouds of smoky wind-seeded fennel hovered ominously over the yard. Apples rotted where they fell. The berries became the birds.
“Come on, Miss Shumaker. You can’t stay here now. It’s not safe for you.”
A nosey neighbor had complained about the little stove fire she had while napping one day. The fire department reported their concern to Adult Protection when they saw the magnitude of decline in both woman and house.
“That’s not my name,” she told the social worker who’d come to remove her.
“Emma, then. Come along. I found you a lovely place. They’ll even cook your meals—wonderful, home-cooked food.”
She wouldn’t budge. “I told you: that’s not my name. And I’m not going either.”
“Well then, what is your name?”
Emma broke down. The sun was a starburst in a cloudless sky, and the wild sunflowers vibrated with bees on strong stalks, but she could not ignore the ruin of pale peony petals, scattered tear-like on the grass to die with her dearest memories.
“Mon Petit chou.”
All she could do was shout the truth until her cries silenced the jays in the trees and the sun covered its face in sudden clouds. “PETIT! PETIT! PETIT!”
“All right then,” the social worker said grimly as she took Emma’s arm firmly in hers. “Petty it is.”
* * *
She returned to the clatter of plastic dishes being collected from the dining room tables by young women who all seemed to live with bad men, no money, and too much make-up or attitude.
Pity them, her soul said. Keep yourself secret and safe.
It was just the two of them now. The girl with purple talons also had a tattoo of a broken heart to the side of one eye like a frozen tear. It was impossible to not stare at it as the girl pulled her wheelchair close so their faces were only inches away.
“Petty. Listen. I know you can hear me. You want to go to bed?”
From the corner of her eye, there was someone in the hallway, the bright figure of a man in a lemon-colored suit.
“I said: do you want to go to sleep?”
The man impatiently moved side to side, trying to catch her eye; in his arms a vivid bunch of green leaves. Could it be?
She shocked the young woman, raising her head, looking into her eyes, mouth opened. “Yes, darling,” she said, the words not intended for her. “I’m ready now.”
* * *
Rebekah Shardy, author of 98 Things A Woman Should Do in Her Lifetime, was nominated for Excellence in Arts for Poetry by the Pikes Peak Arts Council, and was awarded first place for short fiction by Authorfest of the Rockies. In 2007, she received the “Community Builder” award from the Colorado Springs Arts, Business and Education (ABE) Consortium for creating and presenting free creative writing workshops (THE MIGHTY MUSE WRITING PROJECT FOR WOMEN) to 300 survivors of domestic violence, addiction, and incarceration.