Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Courtship — Crime and Punishment, A Quick Read

This is a short story I wrote several years ago.

The man had an incredible garden. He had immense talent, an immeasurable understanding of flowering plants. He had them growing up walls, through fences, out of windows, the likes of which no one had ever seen before nor will likely see again.

He was a large man, handsome in a kingly way. His voice was soft and his speech halting. Some took those qualities as a sign of humility, others caution and still others as a sign he had the profound patience to wait for the beauty of his own words to pass between his lips.

He was self-sufficient to a fault and capable of deep concentration, even in the most hysterical situations. While others argued or cried, he could calmly open his mail, rearrange his books, jot down a note or two about the care and feeding of some orchid or other, and always depart when he felt it time, no matter what time others considered it to be.

One Sunday afternoon, during a walk through the countryside, a habit that was his only sport and his only strenuous exercise, he did not turn back at the decrepit stone bridge as was his custom. Instead, he carefully made his way across it. He wasn't quite certain what it was that made him want to flirt with danger.

Perhaps it was the sun. It stood straight up in the sky and cast no shadows. Perhaps it was only that his life had become so predictable, easy. There were no challenges left. That had to be it. He allowed himself this small and admittedly childish prank. No one would see. No one would know. Besides, the increased palpitation in his heart felt exhilarating. He would have a brandy when he returned home. And he would nap comfortably.

Once on the other side, the man continued to walk. Just as he was about to turn to go back, he happened upon a scraggly garden. In that scraggly garden of insect bitten, disease ridden, barely blossoming flowers, he saw one plant that was extremely healthy.

But it was not just that this plant was healthy that the man could not take his eyes off it. It was because it was the most beautiful specimen of the plant he had ever seen. In fact, it was the only live specimen of the plant he had ever seen. It was the one plant that he could not grow, try as he had.

He first learned of this plant many years ago from a drawing in an ancient botany book. However, despite his wide travels and numerous inquiries, he had never come across it, never discovered a place where they grew. He bartered with a wizard once. For a few seeds. But he used them all in failed attempts to grow one.

And because of this singular failure in his otherwise most successful and fulfilling life, he valued this plant above all others. Until now, he had managed to hide the memory of its existence in the vast recesses of his mind. But its very presence before him in this squalid garden revived those horrendous feelings of failure.

He stood, now, on the outside of a dilapidated stone wall, gaping miserably at this incredible plant living defiantly in a garden of someone who obviously knew nothing about making flowers grow. He stood for several minutes debating with himself. Should he move on and forget what he had seen? Or should he knock upon the door that stood by the garden that contained this quite exotic object of his obsession.

Just as he decided to head back and drown his memory in brandy, then nap to convince himself it was only a dream, the door to the house opened and out of it came a rather haggard woman. She rushed, small pot in hand, directly to this symbol of fascination and regret.

At first, she did not notice him. She placed a reed into the curved pocket of the pot and by sucking upon it, pulled a liquid up into the reed. Then she placed the reed into the soil near the base of the plant and forced its contents down, into the earth. She did this several times, then quickly moved inside the house, returning again with another container and a soft cloth. He noticed she applied this new liquid to the leaves of the plant with great care.

When finally she noticed him, she nodded politely. Bringing herself to her feet slowly and with difficulty, she asked him how she might be of service.

"I am a man of considerable wealth and have, as well, a full appreciation of the art of horticulture. I have been admiring your plant at some distance for some time and am willing to purchase it from you at a price far greater than most could afford and most probably at a price far greater than even those who could, would be willing to pay."

"For this? You are most generous. No doubt you can see that money and I are not companions. Though sometimes I lament the fact, this plant is my life and it would be for something much more than money I would seek to take the place of what has become so much a part of me."

He paused for a moment and most would have surmised by the face he put on, he was deep in some extraordinarily painful and profound thought.

"I'm so embarrassed," he said finally as a mild blush, the color of a nearly ripe peach, came to his cheeks. "It is not the plant to which I have become so attracted. It is, I fear ... oh ... I am unable to continue. This is doubly embarrassing. For someone, like myself, from whom words so naturally flow to be struck speechless! Would you permit me to visit you tomorrow, for there is, indeed, something I feel I must tell you."

The frail woman nodded her agreement. He walked home more quickly than he had left it, going immediately to the library where he searched among his many books for the one book of love sonnets hidden among the scientific journals.

The next day he returned to the woman's garden and again found her there, toiling dutifully at the plant in question.

"Please be kind enough to indulge an old man his request. I promise to leave quickly if you wish it so, though in my departure I would carry with me a much greater burden than I bring to you now."

He recited the sonnet he had learned, taking great care that it sounded both elegant and spontaneous.

On his several following visits, his mellifluous voice captivated her. The sonnets, a new one each day, were quite beautiful; and while he carefully avoiding speaking to her directly, he spoke the words with eloquence. After each recitation, he would encourage her to continue to care for her plant.

He explained that it gave him great pleasure to watch her movements. He allowed her to believe what she chose. He despised lying, so he was careful always to tell the literal truth.

He watched how she bathed the plant, shielded it from the sun between the times of an hour before and an hour after the noon. He watched her stretch fine cloth over the plant to protect it from hard rains. He was amazed at how much time she spent nurturing this plant. Even when she was not caring for it directly, she was preparing the fine, dark liquid she would later inject into the soil and the milky white fluid she brushed upon each leaf.

He could not tell by examining the containers, by smelling, by tasting or by any other means, how these two liquids were made; but he was sure they were vital to the growing of the plant. And so, slyly and casually, he would ask her a question or two as she worked.

"What an interesting texture," he would say about an ingredient. "What is it, may I ask?"

And she would reply absently, "marrow from the bones of a freshly killed rabbit."

And on another day, he would ask, "what a wonderful fragrance, whatever in the world is it?"

So pleased with the company and flattered by the attention, she would reply without hesitation.

"It comes from virgin clover, picked on the first day of the no-moon, dried and then finely ground."

It did not occur to her what was happening until she had answered the very last question many days later.

"What is that? It is so delicately latticed and transparent. Is it a cobweb spun by fairies?"

"Oh, no, no, no," she giggled. "It is a web of a black widow spider. You know," she said, suddenly puzzled, "I do believe I have told you so much that you know as much about this plant as I."

The look of happiness upon the man's face at first delighted her. Then as sharp as a wasp's sting, she understood the reason for his constant attention.

The man, so pleased with himself and with his cleverness — for he was sure she would never have revealed so much if he had simply asked — did not notice the momentary look of hurt, followed by anger that crossed her face. Both expressions came and went so quickly, followed then by a broad smile, he was sure her deception of herself was complete.

"As a reward for being so constant a companion," she said, "I have just now decided to give you my plant. I am old and surely cannot care for it so very much longer. Would you be of such a mind as to accept my offering?"

"I feel I know you so well, I know you would not permit me to refuse. I promise to give it all the attention is possible to give," he said already thinking what a magnificent achievement the plant would be to his magnificent garden and how ownership and perhaps offspring would enhance his already splendid reputation. "I can assure you I will maintain its beauty if it is the last thing I do."

"I feel I know you so well," she said with the appearance of sweetness, "that I do believe that will be the case."

He had never worked so tirelessly. Obsession drove him beyond his normal endurance; though it was not long before other flowers in his garden began to show signs of neglect. Spending so much time preparing potions, hunting for just the right ingredients at the right time, guarding his new plant from the sun and the rain and from the coolness and from any other variation in weather, he did not notice how badly the remainder of his garden needed attention. And so jealous of his find, he would permit no one to help him for fear to others would discover the secrets of caring for this remarkable and nearly extinct plant.

As the years passed, the vegetation in his garden either died or grew so wild they uprooted the fine stone walls and crept through the mortar that held his home together.

One day, completely exhausted, the man, now very much older than he actually was and in very ill health, sat down in his garden and noticed a woman pause before the ramshackle gate to his property. She was just a silhouette against a soon-to-be crimson sky.

"Your flower has bloomed," she said. "It is so beautiful and so sad."

He turned immediately to the object of his obsession.

"So it has!” he exclaimed. "I was so busy caring for it, I hardly noticed. Isn't it the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?"

"Yes, it is."

"But tell me, why is it sad?"

"Because it blooms only once and the flower lasts only until sunset."

"Why it is nearly that now," the man said looking at the red light advancing across his devastated garden.

CAPTION: Van Gogh, Autumn Landscape.

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