The Gardener of the Lane

via Daily Prompt: Blossom

“I saw a princess,” the little girl sings as she skips through the large silver gate, followed by her chuckling father. “I saw a princess!” She twirls and giggles, round cheeks glowing with excitement.

“Come on, honey,” her dad says, nodding to me, then reaching for her hand. I nod back, but he’s already looking away, moving towards the nearly-empty car park. The Lane had officially closed thirty minutes ago, but it always takes a while for stragglers to clear out. In this kind of place, people tend to take their time.

I smile, the girl’s voice still echoing in the stillness. Turning, I start through the gate, then pause. An old man is hobbling towards me, wiping his eyes with a blue handkerchief. “Sir,” I ask. “Are you all right?”

He smiles up at me, a teary grin, waving the handkerchief in the air. “Oh, son,” he replies. “I’m more than all right.” He takes my hand in his large, leathery one, and shakes it. “Thank you. Bless you, and thank you.” With a sniff, he explains, “I saw my Mary again.”

I smile, returning the handshake. “She’ll always be here. I’ll watch out for her.” He gives my hand a final pat, then continues his shuffled steps out of the Lane, raising a shaky hand for the last taxi still hanging around.

I shift my pack on my shoulder and step through the gateway. No matter how long I work here, every time I enter the garden, it’s always a bit of a shock. The wind is what gets you first, whispering to you as it passes. Calling, teasing. It swirls around me, hugging close like an old friend. Next to the gate is Today, the buds just barely peeping through the ground in every color imaginable. The farther you go down the Lane, the the taller the plants become, until off in the distance you see giant, multi-colored trees and massive bushes whose roots dig down unimaginably deep. I never have time to go out that far, but I always wonder. I hum as I take a step into Last Week, tiny blossoms only an inch or so tall on both sides of the dirt path, each petal a kaleidescope of swirling clouds. I force my eyes away from the darkest of the petals – there’s nothing I can do for them yet – and I continue on to where I’d stopped the night before, several years ago.

Flashing lights catch my eyes on both sides of the path, stems a moving rush of silver, light passing like cars on a highway. They push out of the ground, leading to roses, lilies, dandelions, and thousands more I can never hope to remember the names of. Each one tells it’s own story, and I consider stopping to look closer at a few of the pulsing white ones, but I have a job to do.

I reach Five Years Ago, and my eyes spot something in the distance. As tall as the saplings around it, but black on top, and blue on the bottom. Another straggler. I consider setting down my pack, but decide against it, somehow feeling that I’ll need it.

An ivy vine reaches out to caress my wrist and I gasp at the ice that immediately washes over my skin. The garden is replaced by soft while all around, small flakes falling, one tickling as it lands on my nose. I hear laughter behind me and whip around, suddenly caught in the chest by a ball of white that explodes as it hits me. I blink rapidly and the snowball fight fades. Lucky a good one caught me. I reach into my pocket and pull on my thick gloves so other vines, not all as icy sweet as the first, can’t reach me.

It takes me a good ten minutes to come withing speaking distance of the lone figure. He’s a young man standing by a dark, thunderstorm-purple rosebush. I pause, then sigh and steel myself. “Excuse me, young man,” I call, walking closer. “We’re closed now.”

He looks up, lips tight, brow furrowed in despair and my chest tightens. Loosening his fists, he shows me palms dotted with blood. “I-” he clears his throat. “I was trying to pull it.” Our eyes both move to the roses. The petals flutter in the breeze, but I try to not look too closely. I don’t want see what he so desperately wants to remove.

I shake my head. “You can’t pull it,” I tell him gently. “Those roots are,” I glance around for when we are. “Fifteen years deep.”

He takes a shaky breath. “Fifteen years. Yeah, I know.”

I touch his shoulder gently. “I can’t pull it. And I can’t cut off the blossoms. But I can trim it. I can make it smaller, less vivid.”

“You can do that?” He asks.

“Well,” I give him a gentle smile. “I’m the gardener, after all.” He nods, and I take out the shears, then poke around the rose bush. The flower in question dances, like it’s aware of what I’m about to do. I raise the shears to a leaf just below the blossom. As I cut, I can hear the young man’s sharp intake of breath. I continue, working slowly but deliberately, making sure I get all of the leaves. Next, I pull out a small knife, and I go to work on the thorns, shaving them off one by one. The young man’s relief is almost touchable. After a few minutes, I’m finished. I turn to him again, and there are tears gliding silently down his cheeks.

“Thank you,” he whispers.

Hesitantly, I reach out and pat him on the shoulder. “You’re welcome. Now, you head on home, okay?” He nods. “And next time you come, don’t come back to this one. I’ll look out for it. Find one of yours in a brighter shade. Those are the ones you want to remember.”

Wiping his cheeks, he takes a few steps towards the gate just barely visible in the distance, then pauses and turns back, waiting for me.

“Go on,” I tell him. “I have the rest of Memory Lane to work on.”

 

Inspired by a pair of prompts: What if memory lane were a real place? by Promptarium, and Blossom by The Daily Post.

 

 

 

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The Realization

I wrote this quite a while ago, after hearing a story about a man who died trying to save fellow soldiers. Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual story; the hero who gives his life for others during a war. But this particular news article, it made me wonder. What was the man thinking? What would have happened if he had lived?

 

“A flamingo.” Coffee nearly flies out of my nose and I cough, trying to prevent myself from choking on the liquid mixed with laughter.

“Any animal in the world, and you choose a bright pink bird?” I wipe my mouth and look with incredulity at the man next to me. Corporal Anderson Tyler is a bull of a man, with the arms of a gorilla, the sturdiness of an elephant, and the unwavering focus of a viper. He sits next to me, cutting pieces off of a chunk of wood. I can’t tell what it is yet, but I know it will soon come to life as all the others had.

“Yeah, but it’s like the most popular bird. It’s the bird all the humans copy and all the other birds want to be.”

I nod. “So you want to be the Homecoming King of aves.”

He chuckles at himself but shrugs. “I guess that’s a yes.” I laugh and sip at the rest of my coffee. We sit in a large tent, soldiers and corporals and lieutenants buzzing all around us. Many of them are discussing the new rumors of the enemy that had reached camp, or trying to gain the eye of the general who is newly in attendance, but Corporal Tyler and I prefer to hang back and watch until given orders.

I lean back in my seat, eyeing the new general. He doesn’t look like much, just a thin man with a thick beard, but the stories I’ve heard of him are anything but dismissible.

Something dark moves in the corner of my vision. I turn my head and look to the opening near me. A man appears, one I knew well. He is a native, a translator, and his name is Hamad Usain. I look down at his hand. He sees me watching and closes his eyes, then his hands make a quick movement and he tosses what he’d been holding into the tent. It rolls to a stop just ten feet in front of me.

One second. Shock registers. I’ve worked with Hamad for three years and had never seen this coming. I know the names of his three little girls. He knows the name of my mother and the story of my first day in kindergarten. He’s played baseball with Corporal Tyler and several of the other other men in the tent. He loves his country and his god and peace.

Two seconds. I find myself on my feet. Everyone is shouting now, backing away and turning around. My sergeant stands in front of the general, attempting to shield him. I consider throwing it, but we are surrounded on all sides by soldiers and tents, going on for several layers, far outside my capabilities of throwing, no matter how many times it has been suggested that I be the pitcher.

Three seconds. Suddenly, I’m not on my feet. I’m curled up on my side near the front of the tent, squeezing my body as tightly as possible around a ball barely the size of my fist. I imagine my abs, my stomach, my spine, see in my mind how they will be ripped apart in milliseconds and I hope that it will be enough.

Four seconds. I see my mother. I see my sister and her son, lifted onto the shoulders of my father. I see the girl I’d kissed just days before leaving the U.S. I see the faces of men, women, and children, covered in dirt and cloth and blood. I see the gun that never leaves my side. I see the dream I’ve had since preschool of swimming through the Great Barrier Reef. I see the class I’d taken after high school, the one I’d liked but hadn’t studied hard enough for. I see the things I had done instead of studying. I see my favorite bar and my favorite burger. I see the piece of wood Corporal Tyler had been cutting. I see the general. I see the U.S. flag hanging above him. I see my second grade teacher, the one who first taught me about the army. I see rain. I see the picture of Hamad’s daughters. And then I realize: I don’t want to die.

Five seconds. I squeeze my body even tighter, squeeze my eyelids closed until I see stars. And then it feels like my whole body is on fire and I think, This isn’t so bad. I had thought dying would hurt more.

And then I realize that the roaring in my ears isn’t death. It’s life. I hold my position, wondering why the grenade hasn’t gone off yet, wondering just how long I’ll have to wait to die. I don’t want to die. I swallow. I count to three. I slow my breath. This is impossible. I count to three again. This doesn’t happen. I count to ten and I almost laugh, realizing the magic of reaching the number. I hear voices, at first garbled and then clear. “You’re okay. You’re alive.” I open my eyes. And nothing is the same.