Erna is sitting in her wheelchair on the sunporch of Homestead Manor while Charmaine braids her hair.
“‘You see, Erna,’ he told me as he stepped back from the crate, ‘it’s not everyone has lions in his garden.’ ‘His garden?’ I said to myself. I’m telling you, Charmaine, from the minute he threw the excelsior off those snarling heads, Mason fought me at every turn. I mean, for a long time he’d been like a zombie at home. Mind at the office, I thought. Ouch, Charmaine! I did what I pleased, and he never noticed unless I pointed out something like the hyacinths under the daphne. But after those lions were out of their box, Mason came to. Where’d I get this, he’d want to know. Why’d I put something here or take it from there? My peace. What? Place? No, Charmaine. Today I say my garden was my peace.
“Two acres on a hill topped with oaks, a step across the city line. Grapevines curling near the bittersweet. May apples blossoming in the spring. And birds. Yes. In bare winter I’d see a nest in every tree. In summer I’d sometimes slip outside when it was still dark and wait at the corner of the porch. I’ve never heard anything so hushed—expectant—you know. The breeze would rise up a little, then fall back with the hint of light. I’d wait till I could see my right hand clearly, then lift it, just a bit, like this. The air would fill with song. I felt like Eve.
“When Orrie was still in high school, I could count on Mason arriving at six. But after Orrie left for the East and those lions were delivered, he started coming at five, at four. He even came at noon a few times, but I wouldn’t look up at him when he did that. He was howling my territory. That’s what I said, Charmaine. Prowling.
“And then he attacked. I can still hear the snarl of the backhoe coming up the drive. Mason ran it straight down the old roadbed Orrie helped me line with walls of rock from the quarry. We heaved those limestone blocks and set in ivy above them while telling stories about the folks who’d rumbled by in their covered wagons, pulling their cows behind. By our time it was grown over, of course, but you could still see the wheel ruts. Those should be saved, you know. Well, because—because they’re evidence, Charmaine. And there was Mason, hoeing up the roadbed, laying pipe to the lions on the bank of the deep hole he’d torn through the violets by the end of the wall. Now, I tell you, that was something I couldn’t forgive. How’d he know about such a thing as a backhoe? He spent all his time with numbers down at the bank.
“You’re right, it was Mason’s land too. But he’d never claimed it. I made it mine. I’d wanted that hilltop since I first noticed it way off in the distance from my father’s office when I was sixteen. From that high and far, it looked like the Promised Land, green and glowing at the end of day. I was careful not to talk about it much. Let it grow on Mason. One day he came home with the deed. I nearly loved him then. I’d thought he was the one who’d get it for me.
“Mason was ten years older, you see. Yes, ten. Not twelve, Charmaine. I should know. Our fathers worked together and he’d always been around, staring at me. Wary. I played the flirt with others and ignored him. He was such a serious person—lean and tight, already a manager. The more I ignored, the more he watched. To be honest, Charmaine, I liked his staring, yet until I saw that hill and knew it was the place for me, I didn’t think of him as a lifetime prospect. But then it came to me that if the hill was to be mine, Mason could help me get it.
“He liked my hair, Charmaine. Auburn it was then. So I was careful, when he was around, to sit where the light would catch it and then look up with a smile when I felt his eyes on me. Little by little I drew him in. We married when I was twenty. I never told anyone what I thought. Yes, maybe you. But I never told anyone else—not even my sister, Hortense. You remember. She stopped by a month ago. The twenty-third? All right, closer to the thirtieth. Anyway, I really did think, now he has what he’s wanted, and soon he’ll give me my heart’s desire, and that will be that.
“But there are many hours, Charmaine. He was always wanting me to listen. ‘Just hear that!’ he’d exclaim when he played music, or ‘Isn’t that interesting? Don’t you agree?’ he’d look over after he’d read me something he’d found in a book. Always wrenching me out of my own thoughts, forcing me to pay attention to his. I wanted to be out where it was quiet, and when he came outside with me, he drove me wild with fussy questions. ‘Why’d you put the lilies here—and facing this way and just so deep and cover them exactly this way?’ he’d want to know. And ask me the same questions later and say I’d said something else before. I couldn’t explain lilies to him, but I knew what they liked.
“How civilly we yanked and prodded each other nearly raw! And neither would yield. Even if Orrie hadn’t been born, I don’t think we’d have ended it. Too obstinate. And then there was Orrie. He was such a soothing child. The years he was home, sometimes we were almost—a family.
“At least until Orrie left, the land didn’t matter to Mason. I ask you, how can land not matter? Remember that poem? You know—where we go to meet all the kings and queens who ever lived? They’re all in the earth, you see. And we’ll be with them. Everyone who ever lived. I like that. Mason hadn’t thought that way at all. He lived on the surface. He stayed with his numbers and books and music like a bird on a wire, unaware of the messages hurtling through the curl of his feet.
“Live and let live, you say. Before I lived with my alternative, I thought that too, Charmaine.
“Orrie knew how to join in. He’d watch what Mason or I was doing, see a part of it he could do, and just step in, the way a jumper watches the twirl of the rope and slips in to the center. I could do that with him too. See a space and step in. Mason never could. It was force with him. You don’t understand what? Why we didn’t talk about it?
“Don’t talk to me about talking, Charmaine. There’s too much of that now. Mrs. Hartley even tells me when she moves her bowels. She does too, and you know it, Charmaine. As if she has to tell me! How could I not know? She looks so satisfied when she hobbles out after. Transfixed on her bowels. What a thing to come to! That’s not funny, Charmaine. Your turn will come.
“Where was I? Yes. You think I should have said what I felt. Well, Mason didn’t say what he’d been doing—studying! After the lions were uncrated, he pulled out a big, yellow envelope and slapped it down in front of me on the table. ‘I’ve been researching,’ he said, ‘and making plans.’
“The next day a truck delivered a load of gravel for the bottom of the hole he’d dug. Before noon the pipe was connected, and by evening enough water had gushed out the lions’ mouths to make a dark pool. Well, Charmaine, it looked dark to me. When it was full, Mason turned down the valve so the water dribbled—day and night it drooled out of the mouths of those lions. Wherever I was in the garden, I could hear the noise it made. Even in the house I was pursued. I’m telling you, Charmaine, that water was not a comfortable sound.
“Then Mason decided to plant an apple orchard, starting at the top of the hill and marching south. I told him that would mean cutting down most of the oaks, and he said, ‘Yes, Erna, it will.’ I told him to wait, that it would drive the birds away, that orchards were best put on a north slope, that summer was not a time for planting trees. But he tapped his plans and said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do, Erna, starting tomorrow.’
“In the morning two workmen knocked on the door, and for the three weeks of Mason’s vacation, there was nothing but noise—the growl of the power saws, the crashing tear when the oaks fell, and the backhoe rending the hill. The birds disappeared. I couldn’t look. I tied a thick scarf over my ears, but I could still hear the noise.
“Mason was true to his plans. By the end of his vacation, the orchard was planted. But I had a scheme of my own. I waited till fall and while he was working at the bank, I picked up a basket, stuck a trowel in my pocket, and went out to gather acorns. It took time—arthritis was already stiffening my joints—but I filled that basket full and dragged it out to the orchard. Around every sapling and in between, I dug small holes, put an acorn in each, and covered them very neatly. You couldn’t tell where they were or where I’d been either because I smoothed over my footprints when I backed up the hill—every row. The next spring I went out and pulled weeds, only those that might smother the oaks. They’d get a good start before Mason could tell they weren’t weeds.
“I knew those fruit trees would wither, Charmaine. They’d be fooled by the sun shining so friendly in January’s false spring and burst into flower. In a day or maybe less, a storm would come to wrench away their bloom, and during summer dry spells they’d use all their resources just to endure. They couldn’t grow in that location. Mason hadn’t learned anything about orchards from his study; he’d just decided to settle our account.
“You want to know about ruin, Charmaine? Listen to me. With no leaf filter to cool them, my daphne and vines and trillium—everything—blanched from the sun. They lost their vigor and faded away. Several birds did return. Out of habit, I suppose.
“Mason staked and fertilized and watered his trees, but most were dead in two years’ time, and he was gone in another. He left for the bank one morning, and they told me he slumped at his desk. He had never apologized. You’re right, Charmaine. Neither had I. He did leave me some money in trust, enough to live in an apartment but not enough to stay on the hill. And I didn’t want to anymore. It was no good offering it to Orrie either. He wasn’t coming back.
“Before I left, I planned to take a hammer and smash the lions, but then I decided to leave them be. I would turn off the water and let nature take its course with them. When the oaks grew tall to shade the hill again, the ivy would return. It has a way of coming back, you know. It wouldn’t be many years before the lions were covered, and the place would be the way it was before I came.
“Yes, I’ll be all right, Charmaine. But don’t wheel me back just yet. If you don’t mind, I’ll stay here on the porch for a while.”
Photo: public domain, provenance unknown