The Rake-maker's Garden
Pitch-pine for the shaft six foot long, ash for head and hoop, hammer in the sixteen teeth from silver birch and there you have your hay rake. And my father has a garden full of trees. Only small, copse-height, limbs lopped. At night they sigh like the amputees they are and bow their heads below the moon. In the noise and rage of the autumn storms they wail their discontent to the wind, fling decomposing body-parts to the ground in angry despair.
My father gets ill on the Sunday after we've come back from church. The Minister was at Ezekiel, telling us about salting babies, purging them of devils and sin. We make our way home along the lanes, Father shouting about how useless Ministers were the world over.
"Wedding and deading is all they're good for. Salt indeed! Been using it for years without his say-so. Stops the slugs and snails eating new growth. Keeps the deer from stripping the bark from the trees. You'll need to learn it, boy, and not from him, when we finally get you married off to that Tyndall girl. By Christ, she's taking some time to grow! Still, I was speaking to Coxie only yesterday, and he's agreed on next year. We've settled that I'll plant up the West Field with more trees, build a second work-shed on site for you and the girl."
He digs me in the kidneys with his stick. "Nice and cosy for the newly-weds and if you work hard, which by God I'll make sure you do, we'll soon be employing lads from the village to help out. Have a bonny little industry going. Think of the money, boy, and the Tyndall girl is fairly fine and growing in all the right places, and I'm sure Mother wouldn't mind me saying so."
He winks at Mother and slaps me across the head with his hat. Tiny scribbles of rake-wood get caught in my hair and a sprinkle of sawdust makes my eyes swim. We arrive home and take off our best clothes, drink tea, eat seed-cake and sugar-dumplings. By six o'clock, Father has swollen up like a radish in water. We have to take all his clothes off before buttons fly and the belt-buckle breaks. We can't get him up the stairs and he won't shut up moaning, so we lay him on the table between blanket and eiderdown. I think we left a dumpling under there. He's fair bursting with sweat and his veins rise purple, the skin straining and stretching to keep his insides in. By Tuesday morning he is dead and not a day too soon. He's been shouting the house down, stinking out every corner. We've had the windows open fit to freeze us and the place still smells. We get his coffin out of the work-shed and try to squash him in, but the timbers start to split before we've got him halfway. So we wrap him up in a three-sheet shroud, let the Minister do his mouthing, then lower him down quick as we can because the weight is making our elbows crack, and cover him over before he pops.
By Friday, I have cleared a space amongst the pines and chopped them up into stacks. Mother stands at the kitchen sink and weeps into the dishwater, her hands turning into prunes, her face the colour of bacon.
"Why oh why?" is all she can say whenever I go in, so I stay outside and sleep in the work-shed. I have burnt all the half-made rakes, snapped their staves, slashed their grinning hoops, broken their teeth.
By summer I have cleared a small glade of land, torn out every stubborn stump, dug up every clinging root. The soil has sunk and found a level; I bulk it up with sawdust and chips of wood (I have plenty) and cover it over with fermented dung and rotting leaves.
Mother still weeps at the window. I still sleep in the shed. It is cleared of wooden limbs and boiling-pots and buckets of nails. It is a nursery now of plants and cuttings and shrubs and flowers and bulbs.
In spring, I put in my garden a statue, a circular flowerbed her skirt. This I divide into four and further pleat each section into three. Every month shall have its chance and I plant as it will grow, a revolution slow and sure, a wave riding the movement of the earth. In January I have winter honeysuckle, eye-bright and fragrant; in February I have drops of snow amongst the white and yellow aconite; in March I have double-headed daffodils and primrose smiling at the watery sun; tulips burst their bulbs in April and stand as goblets for the dew.
My statue, a slender gnomon, tells me what is the time of day; my flowers whisper the season, speak to me the month. I gather the seeds and guard the fruit. Each year my wheel will get a little bigger as I move the border back, advancing further into the trees. The shadow of my statue will stretch her hand forth over the years. My work-shed will smell of new-sprung shoots and layering leaves. I have planted currants and figs, apples and raspberries. I have made a hedge out of box and bay, coaxed ivy up the hard bare walls.
My mother still weeps so I bake her a cake for her birthday. She takes longer than Father but doesn't swell up hardly at all and dies the following week. I put her in my father's coffin, the one we couldn't use, open his grave to drop her in. When we scrape up the earth we find he has quite disappeared, leaving only a scrap of ragged sheet and the gnarl of some green-mouldered bones.
I move back into the house and do not marry Mary Tyndall. The next year, I have roses climbing over the windows and hollyhocks singing to me in the sun. I keep one rake to scrape the leaves in autumn and fill the shed with apples and pears. The hideous lop-limbed trees which darkened my youth are gone. The wretched reek of knacker's glue will never be smelt again. Dad and Mam at last have left me on my own. Winter comes and I sit by the fire and smoke, play cards, drink plum shrub and burdock beer, pat the collie bitch who lies on my feet. Every spring I chop down more of the past, axe it into logs, make chairs and stools to sell at market, build the woodpile higher. Every year the garden grows and the light stretches farther into the wood-meadows. Every night I set a spill to the fire, turn my back to the grate, feel the last warmth of the sun through the window, watch its flame bleed from the hills. Every morning sees me and my tea and a stroll with dawn down the garden.
©2004 Clio Gray
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