by Jody Brady
I turned ten the year I became infatuated with plants.
I had run a fever one night, and I still wasn’t feeling well the next day, a cold, wet morning in early May. My mother had a full schedule of classes that day, and my grandmother had flown to California to visit my uncle Stephen. My father said he would stay home with me. My mother took Pete and Alice to school on her way to work. They hadn’t been gone an hour when my father got a phone call on his business line. He left me in the kitchen finishing my breakfast and ran to his office to get the call.
A few minutes later, he came to the kitchen door and stopped there. He leaned back and stared up at the ceiling.
“Kay-belle, I was just thinking. How would you like to help your Daddy today?”
I asked him how I could help.
“Daddy has someone who wants him to look at a house. Are you up for that?”
I nodded enthusiastically. Going somewhere alone with my father was a rare treat. When he headed out of our house, he usually took all of us—Pete, Alice and me—or none of us. I’d never been invited to go with him when he was doing something for work.
“Not too sick?” he asked me.
I shook my head.
“This will have to be our secret,” he said.
“What’s our secret?”
“That we’re going out to see the house, Kay-belle. We don’t want your mother worrying about you, right?”
My father had an old Jaguar. It was a beautiful car, pencil-thin and shiny with a sleek, silver cat on the hood. People turned their heads when he pulled his car into a space. It wasn’t just the car. It was him, too. My father was tall and thin but also muscular. He had wavy blonde hair he wore longer than other fathers. He dressed nicer than your average father, too. When other fathers went to work, they wore stiff, bulky suits in navy blue or black or dark brown; my father wore light-colored suits of tan or green or gray that moved with his body.
The day I was “home sick,” he opened the passenger door of the Jaguar and helped me with my seatbelt before closing the door for me. He climbed in, turned the key and pulled out onto the street. After a few blocks, he turned onto the highway to head out of the city, and I fell asleep soon after that. When I woke it was to the crunch of the car pulling onto a gravel driveway.
“Where are we?”
“Just outside of town, Princess. Isn’t this a pretty place?”
I rubbed my eyes and sat up. I was feeling hot and knew my fever was coming back. My father hadn’t given me the dose of Tylenol I was supposed to get at nine, but I didn’t say anything. He parked the car in front of a massive stone house. The stone was a dark brown, almost black, and the windows were shuttered. There was nothing “pretty” about the house, but I didn’t tell my father that, either.
“Whose house is this?”
“Well, that’s what Daddy is here to see about, Kay-belle.”
My father rang the bell, and a woman opened the door almost instantly, as though she had been standing there waiting for the bell to ring. She wore the highest heels I had ever seen, and her perfume was so strong I thought I might sneeze. She looked down at me with a look of pure horror.
“This is my daughter Kay,” my father said and put his hand on top of my shoulder. “She came along for the ride.”
I waited for my father to introduce the woman to me, the way he’d instructed us to, but he never told me her name.
“Mr. James is in the living room. You can’t bring her in,” she said, with a disdainful nod of her head in my direction.
“Kay’s just going to do some looking around for me,” my father said to the woman, then turned to me. “Kay-belle, could you walk around the house, then wait for me here? I want to know what you think of the yard.”
Something about the woman’s visceral distaste for me made me want to charge past her to the living room to disturb “Mr. James,” but as a 10-year-old smitten with my father, I simply nodded dutifully.
“I’ll wait for you here,” I said.
“Make sure you walk around the whole house so you can tell me what you see,” my father said as he rewarded me with one of his brilliant smiles. Then he turned his back on me to walk through the front door of the house. The woman looked straight at me as she pushed the door shut. It wasn’t until years later, when Pete told me about the business with the failed casino, that I realized that my father had likely been involved with other shady deals, and the day he got stuck bringing me along on a visit to “Mr. James” was one of them.
After sitting on the steps for a while, I tired of waiting. I set off to see if the back of the house was as dark and depressing as the front. I followed a flagstone path. Grass had grown over most of the path, leaving only a small circle clear in the center of each stone. The grass glistened, still wet from an early morning rain. I hopped from one paver to the next, trying to keep my feet dry.
Behind the house, the path led to a high brick wall, much of it coated with a spectrum of green moss—everything from a bright yellow-green on one section to a blackish-green running down the side of the wall lined by tall pine trees. I remember thinking I would have to give my father a negative report about what I’d seen. I walked to the center of the wall behind the house where a wooden gate interrupted the brick. I touched the gate and recoiled. The wood was slimy to the touch and it gave off a dank odor. I started to turn away, but curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to know what was behind the wall.
I’ve kept the image of what I saw with me all these years, though I couldn’t say now how much I’ve altered and embellished what I saw when I pushed on the gate and it swung open to reveal what looked like Paradise to me.
Every shade of green filled the space, but it was the flowers that took my breath away. Vines climbed the brick walls, spotted with pale lavender blossoms the size of saucers. A bed just inside the gate was so packed with tulips it appeared to be a carpet of red. Clusters of bright purple blooms burst from dark, glossy foliage under trees dotted with flat white flowers. Beyond it, spires of sky-blue blossoms towered over delicate, pale yellow flowers that looked like slippers.
Everywhere I looked I saw another wonder: feathery white plumes, furry green spirals, tiny purple flowers atop spindly stems, ball-sized white blooms of tightly packed petals splashed with red streaks. I walked down paths that crunched under my feet. Bending to touch the petals of a flower, I realized I was walking on shards of shells. At the far end of the garden, pink-blossomed trees reflected in a small black pool of water between round leaf saucers floating on the surface. I sat on a bench next to the pool and swept my eyes across the garden, taking in the splashes of pink and yellow, red and purple.
I had seen gardens in our neighborhood with their rows of small, sedate flowers planted in front of trim bushes. I had even been inside a greenhouse on a school field trip and seen orchids growing. Nothing I had seen in my ten years, though, prepared me for the richness, the verdant extravagance of that garden, an oasis of life walled off behind the forbidding stone house. I didn’t understand how the two could coexist.
I sat on the bench, my brain reeling, until I heard my father calling my name.
“Kay, time to go. Kaaaay?”
I got up and ran across the garden, slowing only to pull the gate shut. I ran through the grass and didn’t mind my sneakers were soaked through by the time I reached the front of the house. I ran to my father’s side, still panting, my forehead dripping with fevered sweat.
“In the car, kiddo. Pronto.”
He seemed in a hurry. I looked up to the house to see if the woman was watching, but the door was shut and none of the windows had been opened. My father opened my door and waved at me to get my attention. I got in, he shut the door and before I knew it, he’d started the car and driven away from the house.
I wanted to tell him about the garden but couldn’t find words to describe it. He never asked what I’d seen and never told me how his business had gone. I fell asleep before we got home, and I woke up as he was carrying me into the house.
“You’re on fire, Kay-belle.”
He carried me up the stairs to my room, pulled a nightgown out of one of my drawers and told me to change while he went to get water and my medicine. My damp clothes stuck to me, but I peeled them off and pulled the nightgown over my head. My father came back into the room and held his hand out with two white pills and one blue capsule in his palm. He put a hand on the back of my neck while I drank the water, and then he helped me lie down. He pulled the covers over me.
“I’m too hot,” I said.
“You’ll cool off,” he said. “Just go to sleep, Princess.”
He rubbed my back as I drifted back off to sleep, visions of lush green leaves and bursts of bright flowers swirling in my head.
I was home from school the next day, and my mother stayed with me. When she asked me what I’d done with my father the day before, I remembered him asking me to keep his secret. I shrugged my shoulders.
“Not much,” I said.
“Want to watch a movie with me?” my mother asked.
I nodded. She took my hand and led me to the second-floor sitting room where we had a television. She sat first and then pulled me in close beside her. I loved the smell of my mother, like laundry hung outside to dry. I leaned against her and watched the television picture pop on.
“Black Beauty” was the movie she’d found for us to watch. It was a movie I’d seen before and I found my attention drifting. I tried to picture the garden in my mind, to inventory everything I could remember.
When my father returned home and came to my room to see me, I asked if we could go back to the house.
“The house we went to yesterday. The house with the garden.”
“I don’t know what house you mean,” he said and reached down to tickle my stomach.
“We saw it yesterday.”
“We saw a lot of houses yesterday. The only house you’re going to see now is this house, this very house, until you get better.”
“I want to see the garden again,” I whined.
“What garden? You know, I think you’ve been dreaming, kiddo. Maybe it’s time for some more sweet dreams now, okay?”
He gave me a kiss and left the room. I didn’t mention the house to him again, or the garden, but I didn’t forget what I’d seen, as I’m sure he’d hoped I would. Instead, I saw that garden everywhere I looked. I saw a patch of ground and thought about what could grow there. I went to the library and checked out books about plants. I brought them to my grandmother’s bedroom, and we flipped through them together. She told me about the garden my grandfather had put in for her as a surprise one year for her birthday.
That fall, my father ran off with the woman across the street, leaving a string of angry “associates” and me behind. I came to understand my father was a man of many secrets—our visit to that house just one of them.
The spring after my father left, I surprised my mother by asking for a trowel and some flower seeds. She brought me to the nursery to pick them out, then she gave me a corner of the back yard to plant. No one was more surprised than I was when the plants emerged from the ground and thrived. Marigolds, snapdragons, zinnias and Shasta daisies. I mulched and weeded the patch, thinned the seedlings and watered them, as I waited patiently for their first blooms.
I imagined planting bigger gardens with flowering trees and lush green grasses like the gardens I saw pictured in books, and I dreamt about a sea of red tulips beside a black pool dotted with water lilies. My father never came back, but that garden never left.
As a long-time writer/editor, Jody Brady has written about NASA expeditions, free things to do in London, IV pumps, postage stamps and all sort of things from the technical to the absurd. Since completing an M.F.A., her stories have appeared in journals and anthologies and she is a past winner of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest. For the past few years, she’s kept busy founding the Round Hill Appalachian Trail Festival as well as designing and building a tiny house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. “Spring Fever” is an excerpt from Brady’s novel-in-progress, Bloom.