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The Night Garden
She had taken to going down into the garden at night because the days were too hot, the light blinding. July had been unbearable. The geraniums were scorched, their flowers black, their leaves withered and etched with the palm prints of death. The big trees languished pale and thirsty. The sky blared with white heat day after day.
The house was a large three-level structure with a wide deck a floor above the ground. She and her husband used the deck, first to eat dinner, then to watch the sunset, and on into the evening when the stars came out.
Victor would bring his small Sony out and watch it, its mass-media message disturbing the silence of the night. Wherever he went, mass media went with him, magazines, newspapers, TV, radio. There was always the noise of the outside world around him. He disturbed the silence the moment he came home, by turning on the TV on the kitchen counter. He seemed to have a thirst for news.
What news is he always searching for? Anna asked herself. What is he waiting to hear? The news always seemed the same to her. Always an earthquake, a flood, a fire somewhere. There was always a war. What was he looking for?
One evening she slid open the vast glass door to the deck, walked past him sitting in the darkness listening to his TV, and plunged down the deep wooden steps, like one falling, into the darkness of the garden.
At the very bottom of the property stood a solitary streetlamp. It illuminated the garden with an unearthly blue light. The pine trees seemed much larger than in daylight, their blue arms cast swaying indigo shadows. The cottonwoods, wilted in the heat of day, seemed immense in the cool swimming air.
It seemed like a perfect time to water the vegetable garden. She set up the oscillator and on bare feet walked back through the cool grass, up the dark slope, under cage of the deck jutting out overhead, and came to the wall where she turned on the faucet.
The water sprang to life like a fountain in paradise. Between the black trunks of the trees the moving curtain of water was lit by the streetlamp. She sat down on a bench, transfixed. The light spun immense rainbow webs between the trees which stood in a 4th dimension. The big dark house seemed far away and the trees loomed up clear and huge from the blue ground, the moving fountain of water, like light under the sea.
Now every night she no longer sat on the deck listening to the electronic words of strangers, but descended, instead, into the garden.
If she were an Indian on peyote, she knew, this night landscape would open its soul to her. The trees would speak. Flowers would be lit from within. Shadows would turn into animals. Everything would be an omen. The hidden world was there but she couldn’t reach it, couldn’t shift her awareness to it, much as she tried. Was it really possible, she wondered, to attain that state of awareness through meditation, yoga, vegetables? She doubted it. But she knew the hidden world was filled with glowing symbols.
Now she was a wife and mother, in suburbia with its shopping malls, swimming pools, carpools, supermarkets, birthday parties, schoolbus mornings. She looked at the black trunks of the trees, none straight, all flowing, stark against the white spray of water. She thought about the distance she had put between herself and Victor. He probably didn’t understand the meaning of her search. He mistook it as a rejection of some kind. Why was she sitting down there instead with him on the deck? She was wearing a black T-shirt and he couldn’t see her. She was performing a disappearance act. She vanished completely among the trees. In his mind he could conjure up her white face and arms, her hair choppy as an act of vengeance. “To fit better into suburbia,” she’d said. The length of her hair didn’t matter to him. Or that she’d traded her embroidered clothes for black silk. Her external changes hadn’t bothered him in 20 years. What bothered him now was the disappearance of her soul. Where was she tonight? He couldn’t tell, but knew it was far from him. What possessed her to spend her time down there away from him? He searched through his mind for some transgression. Had he said or done something to cause this? But he felt innocent. He always blamed these distances on what he believed to be her homesickness for the past. He took it as a sign that she was unhappy with the present, i.e. the life he had created for her. She was a romantic, that was it. Illusions, all illusions, he thought angrily. Why was she always thinking that she could do or be something else? There was absolutely nothing wrong with their lives.
“Anna,” he finally said when she mounted the stairs. “Are you alright?”
He would have liked to ask her many questions, but it wasn’t in his character to pry. Leery of feelings, he didn’t pry even into his own. He felt that something was wrong but couldn’t put his finger on it. But he really didn’t want to know. He just wanted to be assured that it had nothing to do with him.
“What’s the purpose of life?” she finally asked.
Oh no, he thought, not that again. He said nothing but waited for more.
“I was watching an ant climb the tree next to me and got to thinking that ants probably don’t wonder about their purpose in life. They just go about being ants. They’re completely programmed. An ant doesn’t ask ‘Why am I here?’ An ant knows his purpose is in his anthood. He is here to be an ant. Nothing more. And being an ant is such an involvement in his colony he can’t even imagine his life has any independent purpose of its own. If an ant’s purpose is fulfilled by his anthood, is human purpose fulfilled by humanhood? Is that all we have to be, just human?”
“Humans have more options,” he said. “An ant can only be one thing. But we can choose different lifestyles.”
She understood his fear that she was questioning her lifestyle, which had been largely created by him, they were living in his world. But she wasn’t wondering if she would be happier in another lifestyle, as he imagined, as he always interpreted her silent moods.
“No,” she said, her white arms shining like ivory tusks in the moonlight, “these options are superficial. Any self we could choose to be would be equally fictitious. What I mean is, What is humanhood? How does one fulfill one’s humanhood? She was herself surprised by the unusual word.
“Don’t you mean humanity?”
“Humanity isn’t the right word. Humanity is showing kindness to children and animals, having pity on the poor, sorrow at death, joy at birth, etc. etc., all the emotions that humans have experienced from time immemorial, all going nowhere, a cycle that never ends because we never learn anything. But what is humanhood? What is our position to the cosmos? Why are we witnessing it?”
Oh, man, he thought, what does she want? He tried to divine within her abstract speech some factual discontent.
“What are we here to do?” she continued. “What’s the point of being here?” She said this with anger, as if the universe were playing a trick on her. Her hair glowed under the moon and her white arms lay disembodied on her black t-shirt like the lost broken arms of Venus de Milo. Her head, too, seemed to float in space like a piece of marble in a museum case. With her bare marble foot she touched his leg in reassurance. He said nothing.
“I’m afraid,” she said.
“I’m afraid of something happening to us. Everyone we know has either died, divorced, moved away or gone crazy.”
It was true. Anna’s brother and Victor’s sister had both gotten divorced. Their best friends had separated a few weeks before. Another had gone crazy and had to be institutionalized. Victor’s father had died. Anna’s was losing his mind. All around them things seemed to be sinking into chaos. On a Saturday night they couldn’t even find one other couple to join them.
That must be it, Victor decided. He felt relieved to know she was distressed about other people’s marriages, not their own.
“I’m afraid,” she said, “that something might happen to us.”
“You mean, why are we getting off so easy?”
“Yes, exactly. I’d like to believe I’ve already paid my dues, but probably everyone can say that. I’ve paid my dues, I gave at the office.”
Victor laughed. This was not a serious problem after all. It would pass. She must be having pre-menstrual blues. Who can understand women? Why even try? She’s a woman and the best thing for him to do is stick to his manhood before he got dragged into the quicksand of emotions. Someone has to stand firm. He would stand firm and wait it out. It would pass.
“Disaster,” she said, “can take so many different forms.”
Two of her friends had been diagnosed, one with leukemia, the other with stomach cancer. The second’s ashes had already been scattered to the wind.
“So you’re waiting for something to happen,” he said, discouraged. These blues were deeper than he thought. These blues were beginning to make him blue as he himself began to question the meaning of existence. What was it all worth, if it all came down to nothing? There did seem to be a run of negativity striking people around them. But why dwell on such dismal things?
“We’re ok,” he said. “We’re healthy. We’ll make new friends. It’s just age. We’ve gotten to the age where the people we know are going to die, divorce or go crazy. These things were always happening. You just don’t notice them when you’re young.”
He was right. They were in their 40s. By that age you’re bound to have seen a few things. But in their own home everything was stable. The house was built on a rock. The marriage was calm. The children were growing. Anna stroked Victor’s arm, in the dark, under the stars.
“I’m afraid,” she said, “of myself, that I’ll wake up some morning with some insane idea of running off, something beyond my control grabbing and hurling me into some idiotic predicament like Adam’s.”
Adam had recently left his wife to move in with one of his employees, a woman with six children. They thought he’d lost his mind.
“I’m afraid of doing something like that, of being seized by some delusion to invent another identity.”
Victor knew she was capable of anything. He knew she aspired to do great things, though he couldn’t understand what doing great things meant, in light of mortality.
Sitting in the garden under the trees, she waited for great truths to descend and flood her mind with comprehension. She wanted to see beyond reality, but what would reality do to her while she wasn’t watching? She might wake up some morning and find herself divorced or insane, in some strange house, in a strange city, with a stranger. She was afraid of herself. She needed to be vigilant, to guard her life, her marriage, her children, her home, her dog, her dishes, her dust.
Victor said nothing. Her distance made her even more desirable. She had always been distant, he realized, in one way or another. She seemed to have secret rooms that were larger than the one they shared and called their marriage. With her pale face and cropped hair, she looked like Joan of Arc. There was another seized by madness! Women! Who could comprehend them? As silent as the Sphinx, she sat on the deck which jutted out like a cliff over an abyss. They lit no lamps, to keep the moths away. But she, like some gigantic luminous moth herself, sat before him.
She was facing him but looked past him to the white peonies floating in the gloom below.
As they went upstairs to bed, Victor wondered what had gotten into her. The next morning while shaving Victor happened to glance over to Anna’s sink. There, on the porcelain ledge, sat a large piece of glycerin soap like a chunk of amber with the word PURPOSE carved into it. On the other side, on a square white bottle with a blue label, stood the same word. He picked it up. Johnson & Johnson. He owned some of its stock. But now he didn’t know whether to buy more, or sell it.
It was a summer full moon, the second that month. Later she recalled that she had been outside a church fundraiser and it had become unbearably hot inside. She had gone out onto the lawn for a breath of air. A heavy-set bearded fellow standing there said: “This is the closest the moon’s been to earth in 238 years.” “Really?” Amy looked at the moon again. Earlier, it had risen, like a red molten sun, into the night sky. Now it stood higher, white. She’d gone back inside to watch the women clear the meal while a magician in street clothes, with a green canary and a few scarves, did simple tricks for the children, and she gave the moon’s proximity to earth no further thought.
It was two or three days before the scene was evoked again by a phone call.
“Hello? Oh, hi Flo. How’re things going?”
“Fine with me, but I wanted to let you know that Julia’s dad died suddenly and she’s gone to Texas.”
“Died? He was just here, Easter, I think. I talked to him in the driveway. He looked fine.”
“Well, it was sudden.”
“How can that be? What did he die of?”
“Don’t know. She didn’t say. Anyway, I thought you’d want to know.”
“What about the kids? Who’s taking care of them?”
“Her in-laws came in.”
“Let me know if I can be of any help.”
She put down the receiver and stared into thin air for a few minutes. Julia’s mother had died of cancer fifteen years ago. Her father had lived alone, in his reportedly disheveled house, ever since.
Amy had briefly chatted with him on his last visit. To this suburban enclave no one ever came except relatives for the holidays and so she had met several of the parents of her neighbors. In some ways, she was friendlier with the parents than the neighbors themselves, particularly in the case of Julia, whose father Edwin was a simple man, or perhaps he knew all the arias of Scarlatti, but he presented himself as a laborer.
Julia, on the other hand, was quickly going places. Her husband had recently become a judge and they were on their way to a much more exclusive neighborhood. They had joined the newest country club in town and their children no longer played with the kids on the street.
Both Flo and Amy had withdrawn from her. In her heart and social life, Julia was already gone.
Amy went to the supermarket and studied the floral department. She wanted white lilies but there were none. She settled on a miniature rose bush, with tiny red roses blooming on it. She also bought a small Chinese ceramic pot to put it in. It looked very pretty, like bonsai.
Then she walked across the street with it in her hands like an offering and rang the doorbell.
It was opened by Julia’s mother-in-law, a pleasant woman, of farm stock, from the great plains and sunflower lands.
“I’ve brought some flowers for Julia. I’m so sorry to hear her father died.”
“Yes, it’s a shame. We’ve come to help with the children. She won’t be back till Sunday.” Her steel-haired husband stuck his head out of the kitchen. He had the face of a patrician on the tall lean body of a pioneer.
“How did it happen? What did he die of?”
She shrugged her shoulders, palms up. “Just died.”
“Just like that? Had he been sick? Was it a heart attack or a stroke?”
Amy hated to press further. “Well, please give these flowers to Julia with my condolences. If I can be of any help, please let me know.”
On Friday Flo called again.
“He committed suicide,” she said.
“Oh my God. How do you know?”
“Julia called me. She’s told everyone, even the children. She decided to go with the truth.
“Oh God, how did he do it?”
“Nobody knows. No note. Nothing.”
“Is she back yet?”
“Nope. She wants to close up the house, sell it, fold the whole show.”
“Jeez.” Amy shook her head. What was the world coming to that 75-year old men, who were still functional and no one was bothering, hung themselves?
“There was something about a woman,” Flo said.
Even before hearing the rest of it, Amy knew he’d done it on the night of the full moon.
A week later Flo called and insisted Amy come over for a cup of tea. She walked up the street marveling at how so many flowers, invisible all winter, could suddenly appear.
She mounted the steps to the porch and let herself in.
At the kitchen counter sat Julia, devastated as by a hurricane.
“I’m so sorry,” said Amy, embracing and holding her. They had only exchanged three sentences in the last year and Amy had assumed Julia now had other friends. She was surprised to be here, at this break-down.
“I’m so sorry,” she said again. “It’s a terrible burden. I don’t envy you carrying it. God, you can carry a thing like this your whole life. It’s got to be the worst feeling.”
“I feel so guilty,” Julia cried.
“Everyone does, probably. Even if you know you didn’t cause it, you still think there must have been something you could have done or said to avert it, even a phone call, a good talk that morning. I’m sure guilt is part of it for everyone.”
“But I AM guilty. It’s all my fault!”
“How could it be your fault?” Amy asked incredulously.
Julia continued miserably. “He’d gotten involved with a much younger woman. I mean, she was MY age. I thought she was taking advantage of him. He bought her things and gave her money. She was just using him. I tried to tell him, but he wouldn’t listen. I’d already bought a plane ticket for next week to go there and take charge of his finances. He’d already given her $23,000!”
“Really? He must have really liked her.”
“He said he loved her. He was furious with me because I objected to the whole thing. He was mad and depressed. He’d been drinking. The psychologist said that’s why the antidepressants weren’t working. He’d been drinking heavily that day. It happened on the night of the full moon.”
Flo, pouring tea, said, “I once knew a nurse who worked at Belleview who said that on nights of the full moon there was heavy traffic in the emergency room. Three times as many people would go crazy or have terrible accidents.”
Amy thought back to the full moon. The old tree in front of the meeting house was so big she’d had to swim out of its inky shade and tilt her head to see it. There it was, like a spotlight. What was it that mild-mannered fellow had said - that it was closer than it had been in 200+ years? He’d claimed to be some kind of scientist. She wished she’d paid better attention.
She remembered clearly, though, that the members of the congregation had struck her as marvelously happy and simple. The women were, without make-up, beautiful. The men looked solid, squarely rooted. The children horsed around, ran and giggled with flashing eyes. They were all so happy!
Suddenly the sound in the room came back on. Julia was still talking! Amy was amazed Julia had so much to say. If it had been her father, she would have swallowed it and never told a soul the truth.
“I tried to tell him she was a con-artist, taking advantage of him and his loneliness, but he wouldn’t listen. She came over and did things for him, straightened the house, did the laundry and shopping and he said that since I didn’t need anything, he wanted to spend it on her, because she made him happy. He was upset that I objected. I didn’t care about the money. I was just trying to protect him!”
“Listen,” said Flo, “I’ve got to run down to the school and drop off some supplies for art appreciation, but let’s not break up our little talk just yet, why don’t you all come with me.”
They got up and moved through an obstacle course of chairs. The light was blinding when they stepped outside. They’d forgotten whether it was day or night. They piled into the van and drove through a river of heavy traffic, sunlight glaring off the metal. The noise, the heat and million movements made Amy dizzy. The whole world was a swirl of flashing lights, reflected infinitely. Why had she come along? She should have said good-bye and gone home. There was really nothing anyone could do.
But now she was trapped in this sheet-metal cage in the school parking lot with Julia, who could not stop talking. She was talking a blue streak, as if the whole thing could be cleared up with words. She was repeating the same things over and over. It occurred to Amy that Julia would continue like a broken record until someone broke her arm.
“You’re going to have to get to the bottom of this,” Amy said, desperate to halt this spinning wheel, if only for her own sake because she couldn’t breathe and was getting a migraine.
“All I wanted was for him to see that he was being taken.”
“How do you know she was taking him?”
“She was a professional.”
“Is that a fact?”
“I had her checked out by a private eye. She’s done the same thing to two or three other men. Took them for all they had.”
“It’s a wonder you couldn’t convince him, if it was all so evident.”
“He refused to listen.”
There was a long pause. Flo returned, got into the van and they reentered the silver river of traffic.
“He was furious with me. He felt I was denying him his one last love. He said she was the first person he’d cared for since mom died and he couldn’t understand why I wanted to ruin it for him. I was going to handle his money, whatever was left of it, for HIS sake, HE might need it some day, I told him and he was angry.”
“So you think he killed himself out of anger?”
“He was angry.”
“You think he did this to get back at you? To hurt you?”
“It looks that way.”
“You don’t want to carry THAT the rest of your life,” Amy said.
“But what can I do?”
“Well, you’d better get busy looking for a way out. Something like this can poison your life, how are you going to live? You can’t let this spoil your days and nights.”
“I don’t see any way out.”
“For one thing, if what you say is true, that the woman was a professional, then eventually she would have gotten to the bottom of his money. He wasn’t a rich man. It would have lasted what—a few months? And then she would have left him for greener pastures and he would have realized that she had deceived him. Disappointed, he might have killed himself anyway. The outcome might have been the same.”
“You know, someone else said that,” Flo said. “There must be something in it.”
They drove home in silence. At least, thought Amy, she’s gotten to the end of words.
Flo invited them both in, but she’d had enough and walked home through the green landscape of summer. It seemed cooler now, and she could breathe. She dropped down onto a couch on her porch and gazed into the lush arms of the trees. Do people kill themselves out of anger? She didn’t think so. Out of anger Edwin would have married the woman, if only out of spite.
She sat there for a long time, sinking a long plumb-line into a deep well, deep down. She sat there an hour. Out of anger, he would have married the woman, she decided. It’s more likely people kill themselves out of disappointment, or when they can’t live with the truth. He must have allowed himself to see what he had known deep down ALL ALONG and had refused to recognize. With the help of a few drinks and the full moon he had opened that door within himself, where the truth stood naked.
Amy jumped and ran to the phone. She dialed Julia’s number.
“I know why he killed himself…”
“He saw the truth,” Julia answered.
“Then you know!”
“It’s only one of so many possibilities. I’ve thought of them all. I’ll never know for sure.”
“Listen, people don’t kill themselves out of anger. Out of anger he would have married her. He would have done what he wanted. He must have seen the truth and couldn’t live with it.”
“But why would he see it now, when he refused to see it before?”
“He saw it all along, but denied it. He let himself see it that night, and didn’t want to live with the truth, that she had never really loved him.”
There was a long silence.
“You know,” Julia said, “that crossed my mind, but I wouldn’t let myself believe it. It seemed too easy. Too easy a way out.”
In the long silence that followed they both knew she’d better take it.
От издателя: Book Description In the first in a new series of brief biographies, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd brilliantly evokes...