The Good-Bye Garden (Part One)
Ryan Everett Felton
Five weeks after I swore an oath I’d never go back, I jumped a wild ass and kicked it in the haunches until it pointed its dripping snout toward home. I cursed and spat and told the beast it was a stupid, stubborn thing, but that from here on out – between the pair of us – I’d be the stupider, stubborner one. It brayed and kept moving, which I took to mean that the beast agreed to do the walking from here on out. That suited me fine. I might’ve grown up in the desert, but I never really took to it, nor it to me.
Slung across my back were my only possessions: a pair of sandals; a cloth to wrap around my head in the day and curl up under at night; and three waterskins – one full of water, the other two brimming with wine. One of the wine ones I grabbed now and took a pull. Fine, just fine. My cousin’s wife smashed the grapes with her own two feet and I never took a sip of the stuff without imagining those perfect little toes of hers, fleshy flawless grapes themselves. What a pretty thing she is.
“Damn it, Dashel,” I said to myself. “Don’t think, just drink.”
I was out of wine before I was even halfway to my childhood home. Thankfully the booze worked its magic long enough to get me the rest of the way. I only fell off the ass once, but it stopped and waited for me to hop back on. I think it liked me.
My Pop, though, he didn’t like me so much. Didn’t like my attitude, didn’t like my leaving, didn’t like my drinking. And he told me as much the second I set foot in his hut. The old mud-daub-and-straw, lopsided lean-to he used to drag me into for regular beatings, according to my regular misbehavings. I don’t know. Figure after nearly a millennia of child-rearing, he had to’ve been sick of kids, but I still don’t see how that excuses it.
“Your breath, son,” he said, slumped in the carved boulder he could barely lift himself out of anymore. “You smell like the grape fields. You’re soused.”
With a spiteful emphasis on my swaying, I approached him and kissed his forehead. “How ‘bout a, ‘Thank you, Dashel, for coming all this way when really you didn’t have to ever come see my miserable old keister ever ever again?’” I smiled watching him slouch. “Or is gratitude to anyone but The Boss too ‘new school’ for you, old man?”
“I’m only saying, when I was your age we didn’t have that stuff to rot our brains and our guts, and things were much better, if you ask me.” His beard nearly reached the dirt floor, and when he moved his mouth it really did.
“When you were my age?” I said and sat across from him, a small fire crackling between us. “What was that, about nine hundred years ago?”
He held up a creased palm. It was amazing – all those lines, those wrinkles. He really was as old as dirt. “Please, my son. I did not summon you here to fight.”
“Yeah,” I said, fishing in my robe ‘till I found my bundle of burning root. “I got your pigeon. What’s the ‘urgent matter,’ Father?” I stuck the stick in my mouth and leaned forward, dipping it into the flame, and sucked.
His mouth curled downward as he watched me smoke. “It’s about your brothers,” he said.
The smoke danced in a ring around my head. I pointed the sizzling root straight at him. “Which brothers?” I said.
He leaned forward, much as his brittle old spine would allow. “The firsts,” he said.
I ashed into the fire. I watched the flames dance, imagined how their reflection might look in my eye. I let the moment breathe a minute, then said, “Oh.”
I’d never met my eldest brothers. Being the baby of the family, the forgotten final straggler, I missed out on quite a bit. Still, at some point or another I’d run across all my other siblings – with such an age spread it made sense I’d be closer with some more than others – but Mom and Pop’s first two sons split long before my time. Nobody ever saw them again. I’m talking centuries ago, here. When it was just the four of them, in the beginning. It was easy, growing up, to think about them and speculate and get mad at them for leaving, for not being there. But the older I got the harder it became to blame them.
Basically, they got out while the getting was good.
“What about them?” I said.
The old man’s eyes sparkled. Was that excitement, or sadness? “My boy, my firstborn, my sire. He’s been spotted. And it would stand to reason, wouldn’t it, that he’d also know where his younger brother is?” He flashed his upper gums in a grotesque smile. Dad shouldn’t smile. Not anymore.
“Son number two always was your favorite, wasn’t he?” I said.
Pop fell back, supported by the slab of rock upon which he squatted. He looked up through the thatching of the hut, up at the stars. “I’m not here to debate,” he said. “You’re a hunter. You’ve a sharp eye and a precise ear, no matter your other… shortcomings.” He held out his hand, trembling. “Will you hunt for me? For your father?”
I sucked on the burning root, let the fumes build up in my lungs. Snakey tendrils of smog crept out of my nose. I always liked the look of that.
“I don’t like being called a ‘hunter,’ Father. I’d say I’m more of a seeker. Or a cleaner, a fixer.” I shrugged, wafted root-smoke from my line of sight. “Anyway. Okay. Where was he seen?”
A wrinkled hand went to his mouth. I’d just made his day.
Our obedience always did.
“He was spotted trading figs for dates,” Dad said. “In Nod.”
“Please tell me my precise ear misheard you,” I said. “Please tell me you’re not sending me to the damn land of damn Nod.”
Eyes closed, he said, “Yes. To the East.”
“Well, I’m breaking just about every promise I ever made to myself for you,” I said, grinding the remnants of the burnt-up root into the sand. “I looked right into the river, right in the eye of my own reflection, and said, ‘Dashel, you will never set foot in Nod again.’”
“But you will?”
Pinching the bridge of my nose, I nodded. “Yeah, all right. I’ll find the lousy bums. Gee, Pop, the things I do to please you.”
“Oh, bless you! Bless you!”
I could tell the strange spasms in his knees were the result of an attempt to stand. He gave up the effort pretty fast, which was just as well. I was in no mood to hug.
“Child, you have made this old man very happy,” he said. “Is there any way I can repay you?”
Pushing myself up, I looked left to right, up and down. It was a long shot, but I asked him anyway:
“You got any wine?”
I stopped off to see Ma before I headed out on my fool’s errand. She was always a peach, Ma – plucked right off the branch. But lately she’d gone a little loopy. Old age’ll do that to you.
I found her in her garden. Always in that garden, she was. Using a cracked, crumby urn she poured water on a bunch of overgrown weeds that didn’t need it. She did this on her hands and knees, muttering to herself. Just before I’d left she’d taken up this strange habit of mumbling to herself. Like her brain couldn’t stop.
A twiggy arch covered in ivy framed me. I bet I looked like a picture, standing there in the flora. “Hey, Ma,” I said.
“Shh,” she said, crawling around like a damn lynx or something. “Shush, shush, shush. You don’t know who’s listening. Never know, never know who’s listening.”
I shook my head. I hated to see her like this. “Ma, it’s me.”
She swooped her head up and over, long hair trailing, flowing like water. “Who’s that?” she said. “My Dashel? Is that my Dashel?”
Stepping in and crouching, I offered her a hand. “Yeah, Ma, it’s your Dashel.” She took my hand with bony fingers and I helped her up so we could embrace. Her long fingernails ran through my hair and beard. “Oh, my baby boy,” she said. “The last of my line, you came back. You came back.”
“Not for long,” I said.
“Back,” she said, chin resting on my shoulder, her breath in my ear. “Back, back, back. I want to go back. Back to home. To my real home. The only Home.” Her voice lowered, conspiratorially, hot and muggy on my cheek. “Back to Paaaar-a-diiiise.”
I swallowed, guided her back by the shoulders and took a look at her. My mother. The whites of her eyes were yellow. Everything on her, in fact – skin, nails, tongue – was looking a little ochre. It made me sick, just about. “Did Pop tell you why I’m here?”
She nodded, holding a finger upright to her lips. “Shh,” she said. “It’s a secret. And the viper, the viper, he’s always listening.”
And with that, she lunged back to the ground, plucking blades of grass and chucking them over her shoulder. “No good, no good,” she said with each one. What she was looking for, I have no clue.
Maybe I don’t wanna know.
“I’m going now, Ma,” I said.
“Thank you, Dashy.”
“I love you.”
She held up a sprig of grass to me. A ladybug was clinging to the tip. A little bud of red on a stalk of green. “I love you, too.”
The ladybug flew off. My eyes could only follow it so far, but I hoped it wasn’t headed for the desert. It wouldn’t last long out of the garden, away from the greenery.
TO BE CONTINUED.